Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Chapter 9. Of the Skobar, and a Trip Outside the Ship

I spent that night in a room very like the one I shared with Lily in segment 20. In the morning, I had a call from Ramael of the Seraphim. “Please meet us outside the hotel’s main entrance,” he said.

I found there two Seraphim – slightly shorter and darker skinned than Michael and Gabriel, and their robes were pink. Ramael and Hazael, they introduced themselves as, in extremely good English.

There was a Seraphimobile parked not far away. They led me to it. When I got in, it was just like the one Michael had picked me up in. “Is this the same ’mobile I was in before?” I asked. “Yes,” said Hazael.

“But why do you have it here in segment 24,” I asked, “rather than Michael and Gabriel keeping it in segment 20?”

“It is needed more in this segment,” said Hazael.

Ramael suddenly said, “Sit back.” I obeyed, only just in time. Ramael was a much more active – I might almost say violent – pilot than Michael had been. For 30 seconds or so, it was like a fairground ride, bouncing, twisting and hammering me back or down into my seat.

When we landed, I could still see the hotel entrance, no more than half a kilometre away. “Why did we fly this short distance?” I asked. “Why didn’t we walk? Didn’t we unnecessarily use energy? Didn’t we pollute the atmosphere?”

“O-ha,” said Hazael. “I can answer your questions. One, you enjoyed it, didn’t you? Wasn’t it more fun than walking would have been?” I nodded enthusiastically. “So,” he continued, “flying rather than walking was a benefit to you. More fun for us, too.

“Two, we had anyway to bring the Seraphimobile here, to take the Skobar for their regular trip outside the ship. It’s for their health – they need doses of particular kinds of rays, which aren’t available inside the ship. You, Neil, can benefit from these rays too, so we will take you out there as well. Compared with the whole flight, bringing you here from the hotel costs hardly anything.

“Three,” continued Hazael, “walking uses more energy than flying the same distance – work it out. And four, it isn’t flying that pollutes the atmosphere, but lying.”

I smiled, for Hazael had only confirmed my own views.

Just then, three Skobar came out of the building by which we had stopped. They were light brown, and about a metre long; sometimes moving on all fours, sometimes standing on their hind legs. If you can see in your mind’s eye a cross between a lizard, a dachsund and a meercat, then you have seen the appearance of the likeness of the Skobar.

“These three,” Hazael said to me, “are the Lady Ydeniz, a professor, and two of her students, Cabal and Olgal.”

The first Skobar to come aboard had a light blue frill around her neck. Hazael introduced her to me. “Please meet the Lady Ydeniz, Mathematician, of the Skobar.”

“I greet you, Ydeniz,” I said. I pronounced the name as Hazael had; the Y like “ee” and with the stress on it, and the Z as in Spanish, a soft voiced “th.” “I am Neil of the Humans of Sol-3.”

“What is lur trade?” asked the Lady Ydeniz. Like Lohman of the Avor’I, she seemed to have a speech impediment – what should have been a “y” sound came out as a soft “l.”

I was fazed. I hadn’t before met a species who used their job descriptions as part of their names. “My trade,” I said at length, “is software – the building of non-sentient, semi-intelligent systems which are useful to us Humans. But, when I was young, I, like you, was trained in mathematics.”

Before Ydeniz could reply, Ramael said, “To your seats, please.” I, the Lady and her two companions obeyed. The Lady took a seat in the front row, and I took my usual position in the second, with Cabal and Olgal across the aisle from me.

We took off. A short journey to a kind of lock, in which we were lowered outside the ship. Then – we were in open space. I could see the ship, and the many lights on it, which stood out against the dull grey hull. And I could see the stars. It was – well, imagine a clear Earthly night with a full view of the Milky Way, then make that a 360 degree view and clearer than you’ve ever seen. And make most of the stars on one side red, and most on the other side blue.

We spent about half an hour out there, with Ramael at the controls taking us in lazy curves, in figures-of-eight and loops, sometimes slowing, sometimes racing forwards. It was a three-dimensional sports-car ride, and the Skobar seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. Then we went back to, and through, the lock, and a minute later I was back beside the building where we had picked up the Skobar.

As the Skobar trooped out of the Seraphimobile, Hazael said to me, “The Skobar live slower than you or us. Their day is more than twice as long as yours. They will not be ready to meet you for ten revolutions or so.”

“In the mean time, do you want breakfast?” asked Ramael. I was hungry, so I could utter only one word. “Please.”

Hazael, chuckling, produced a box-shaped hamper. “Fortnum and Mason,” it said on the side. But under this was a picture of two dark blue robed Seraphim.

“No, this food has never touched Earth,” said Ramael, seeing my confusion. “But we Seraphim are always on the lookout for good marketing ploys. And, if we borrow from species not yet in the Galactic fold, who loses? In fact, our friends who produce this food have formally changed their names to Fortnum and Mason.”

I pursed my lips. “We humans are already honoured in the Galaxy, but we do not know it,” I said.

“Quite,” said Ramael. “But, after your present project, you will receive your due honours,” added Hazael.

“One thing I find unexpected,” I said. “Why did you two learn English? I can understand why Michael and Gabriel learned it, but I can’t see why you needed to.”

“We didn’t need to,” said Hazael. “But we saw a decent chance that more Seraphim would be needed in the later stages of your project. So, we went on the same English course as Michael and Gabriel. To be fair, we didn’t expect an opportunity to use it as early as this.”

“I see,” I said. “Yes, knowing English would put you in what we call ‘pole position’ for an assignment.”

“Exactly,” said Hazael. “Besides, we Seraphim learn new languages easily.”

But talk did nothing for my hunger. So, I fell to the repast. Every time I had had Seraphim food before, it was really hotel food. Prepared to the style of the Seraphim, it is true; but not truly ethnic. But this was different. Not only was it food made by Seraphim for Seraphim. But it was of the very highest quality.

The tea – heated on a tiny stove, which came as part of the package – wasn’t bad, either. Unfortunately, there was no wine.

* * *

At length, the Skobar were ready to receive me. I stepped into their building with Hazael, and stopped. The place was almost completely dark. “They used, long ago, to be a burrowing species,” whispered Hazael to me.

My eyes gradually adjusted, and I saw first the light blue frill around the Lady Ydeniz’s neck. Then, I saw the three Skobar, on couches on three sides of a square. Last, I saw the seat set for me on the fourth side. Both Cabal and Olgal had their muzzles pointing towards my place.

I sat. Hazael left the room. “Our greetings were interrupted,” I said to the Lady Ydeniz. “You didn’t have time to tell me of your trade. Please tell me of the mathematics you have done.”

“Among the Skobar, I first proved the Simultanelity Thelorem,” said the Lady. “That there is a set – indeed, an uncountable infinity of sets – of events which are all at the same time, regardless of where the observer may be. That effect is loosed in the drives of ships like this.”

“On the planet I come from,” I replied, “a man called Einstein seems to have proved that nothing can exceed the speed of light. I know that’s wrong, of course – otherwise I wouldn’t be on this ship.”

“Lu see well,” said the Lady, without apparent irony. “But did lur Einstein include conshusness in his equazhuns? Did he know the fifth-power law of conshus invenshun? Did he know why time flows?”

“No,” I admitted. “Mathematicians where I come from have tried to include consciousness in their ideas, but they haven’t succeeded.”

“Well, they should try harder,” said the Lady.

“Dear Lady,” I said a little later, “I have come here to talk to you, because my species is next to use the camp on Perinent, which you Skobar used to haul yourselves up to Junior Galactic status. I wish to know how you did that, and to adapt the knowledge to our own case.”

“Cabal, Olgal,” said the Lady in a Margaret Thatcher tone, “do lu have anything to say to our guest before we move on?”

The male, Cabal, shook his head, but the female Olgal said, diffidently, “Welcome, Nil. It is good to meet another speshes who study mathematics too.”

The Lady seemed to frown, but I nodded and smiled at Olgal. I knew from my Pedia studies that Skobar society was hierarchical, almost feudal. But I hadn’t realized it went so far as not to allow students to speak until their professor gave them permission. If the Skobar can become Junior Galactic despite this, I thought, it should be a breeze for us humans.

“Right,” I said to the Lady. “Please tell me about what you experienced in the run-up to going Galactic.”

“At first,” she said after a pause, “it seemed rather strange. On Skobar, we had many kings and princes, a floo qeens and princesses, some good, some bad. Suddenly, some of the worst of them, without warning, disapplared.” “Was that good?” I asked.

“Les and no,” the Lady answered. “In some places, better kings or princes took over. In others, there was vilent chalos. But then, where there was political vilence, the instigators of that vilence, too, disapplared. Then we received messages, that the bad kings and princes, and the makers of vilence, had been taken for punishment. And we saw images of some of them being punished.

“At the same time, or a little before, some ordinary, good, successful Skobar disapplared too. But this was different. Many left messages like, ‘I’ve been taken across the Galaxy for training in how to liberate all good Skobar. Watch out for my return.’

“Cabal,” said the Lady, “lu were with my colleague Professor Franzell, when he was taken. Please tell what lu saw.”

Cabal said, “Suddenly, I heard a clinking sound, and the Professor, who was upright, seemed to fall. Then he was not there any more.”

The Lady said, “When Professor Franzell came back, he had changed. He could lead Skobar. He went into government, and he is now president of our Loonited Qeendom of Daliman and Shepoë. He has replaced the old régime, the stloopid old qeen with her evil courtlers, with a Galactic style government, which aims to treat every individlal, over the long term, as he or she treats others.”

We talked for a while more, but eventually, “Thank you,” I said to the Lady. “That was very helpful to me. Do either of you” – looking at Cabal and Olgal – “want to say more?”

Cabal grimaced, but Olgal said, “With lur permission, Lady.” The Lady looked sick. “I give it,” she said in a tone almost below hearing.

Olgal said, “The Seraphim have told me that there are vacancies in lur Team to go to Perinent. Will lu take me? As a Skobar, I have been through what lur race will soon go through. And as a Galactic, I want to help bring a nloo speshes into the Galaxy.”

The Lady said, formally, “Olgal, lu have forsworn my protecshun, and attached lurself to Nil as lur master. I need two witnesses to lur oath.”

“Come, Ramael and Hazael,” I called out. They appeared in the brilliantly lit doorway.

“Olgal,” I said, after a deep breath, “I regret that I cannot accept you as a member of my Team. I do not even know whether I have the authority to do so. But I already see practical reasons – different food, different day lengths, for example – why, unplanned, it would not work for you to come with us humans to Perinent.

“That said, I thank you for your application, Olgal, and I hope that, when we humans have become Junior Galactics, you will be invited to Earth to help our mathematicians learn about consciousness.”

Olgal looked distraught. The Lady Ydeniz looked worse – she regurgitated her last meal. “Olgal,” she ground out, “lu have forsaken me, but Nil does not accept lur felalty. Lu are an outcast Skobar.”

“It is my turn to speak,” said Hazael, loudly. Then, to Olgal, “Olgal, in view of your achievements so far in your life, and your obvious enthusiasm for the Galaxy, I offer you full Galactic citizenship, independent of the status of your species, the Skobar.”

“I accept,” said Olgal, smiling as if with relief.

We left the building, where Cabal seemed to be trying to comfort the Lady. The Seraphimobile was only a few steps outside.

Olgal came with us to the hotel. The four of us had drinks in the bar. I said to Olgal, “I am sorry I had to reject you for my Team.” She only smiled. But Hazael said, “Neil, you did what was right. And so, you gave us the opportunity to give Olgal her chance.”

And then to Olgal, “Olgal, you now have freedom to pursue whatever career you want. But I – we – know someone who is looking for an intelligent assistant like you. He is an Avor’I,” – intake of breath from Olgal – “and he works for the Company for Galactic Advancement, and he only recently left this ship.”

“His name is Lohman,” I said, stressing the Scottish style “ch.” “I have already met him. He’s one of the good guys.”

Ramael and Hazael laughed. “Neil knows much,” said Hazael. “Not yet enough,” I replied.

* * *

Next day, I embarked on the train journey back to segment 20. When I got off the train, the same birdlike guard gave me a smirk and a left-handed salute. And Michael and Lily met me beyond the exit.

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