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Protocol

fiction by michael werneburg

The captain watched the wealthy passengers swimming in the flawless blue lake. The passengers and crew of the Sparkling Wit were the only multi-cellular organisms on the planet. They'd showered and scrubbed and had emptied the bowels and bladders for the honor of this little dip. And when the crew would dump enough chlorine into the water to kill the whole lake. It usually took twenty minutes.

With no plants on the planet the rivers were very rough and erosion was fierce, so the water was a bit turbid but no more so than seawater and the turbidity gave the lake a lovely color. The lifeless lake was calm and shallow and warm, aquamarine and perfect.

Most of the non-engineering staff were currently preparing a lavish meal. The captain noticed that this excluded the latest hire, Rodney. The kid was twenty-two years old and sustained a perfect blend of earnest and clueless. He was puttering around the bow of the ship apparently peering into the water. Maybe Tabitha had tired of his being underfoot and had sent him away. The captain pinged the kid. "You see something?"

"I think I saw-" he said with a cough, "something dow' there." he sounded a bit woozy.

"It's a trick of the light. You see an optical effect, looking into turbid water with the sun behind you."

"Oh."

"Is this the first time you've seen such water?"

"Yeah. I mean I grew up on Tiirth-" but again he coughed. "This is basically the first time I've been out-doors."

I reeled at that thought—his first time out-doors was because someone didn't want him messing up the china. A diversity hire from a disadvantaged background, perhaps. "Remember to breath through your nose. There's only 4% oxygen on this world. You've got that oxygen cannister on your back and tubes feeding into your nose for a reason."

"Right! Thanks," the kid replied.

"You'll get the hang of it," the captain told him. But the captain wondered. "But come in off the deck before the clients complain that you're watching them."

"Sure, will do."

The captain kept an eye on the swiming passengers. There would be no shark attacks here but someone could always start drowning. Or do something to upset the biology of the lake, and wouldn't that be a mess. The far end of the lake was shallow and muddy and would be a perfect breeding ground if they left anything behind.

It wouldn't do to contaminate this pristine young planet with multi-cellular life. Its barren landscapes and its inviting lakes like warm swimming pools had a certain serenity and attracted a clientelle that wanted no complications. Visiting a strange planet was usually very dangerous—an insect bit could prove fatal to an alien visitor. And the captain had long since gotten over the thrill of tangling with therapods no matter how popular dino worlds were with the tourists. It was frankly annoying how frequently therapods evolved on a planet, it was like finding sharks or ferns—every single life-bearing planet had them. No, this nameless planet wasn't a top draw for interplanetary tourism, but it was a steady draw and the captain's employers did well adding a stop like this to their planet-hopping cruises.

The kid sauntered in and the captain sent him to help set up the table. Still watching the tourists, he could hear Tabitha correcting whatever the kid was doing. The lad frustrated her but every new hire took a bit of time to adjust. It was maybe his first job, after all.

The captain scanned the shoreline. He was looking for therapods or maybe some mammalian quadruped. He knew the planet was lifeless but he couldn't help himself. He went up to the bridge, returned the pilot's greeting, and watched the sonar sweep the lake. The instrument was easily sensitive enough to not only spot fish but identify them. Normally it would pick up countless fish in a lake like this, a kilometer long and a third that wide. They'd chosen this rather small lake in part because the cruise director liked the way that it would highlight the ship given its similar dimensions at 200 meters long and thirty meter wide. It had six decks plus engineering, and fully half of her length was used by the passengers. With her transparent hulls and observation blisters that could open in a compatible atmosphere, she really was a gorgeous little craft. A bit delicate perhaps, they'd certainly been re-routed a number of times over the years due to atmospheric conditions, conflict, or events in deep space. But grand anyway. As a limited-capacity luxury cruiser, Sparkling Wit was the pride of Flawless, the cruise line. It was currently parked about 1.5 meters above the gently rippled water. A wide hatch was open and a floating platform had been lowered to the water. Satisfied that

Then the tourists were in, and everyone was handing over their breathing apparati and their cannisters. The cannisters would be refilled and everyhing scrubbed. "It's so nice to know you're not going to be nibbled at by a fish!" one wealthy lady told him.

He nodded his assent, and when she asked he said that yes he'd join their table for lunch. He knew those at the table would ask about special activities for the afternoon. He watched young Rodney fidgeting with the chlorine hose indecisively, but let the lad sort himself out. He reached out to the cruise director. "Hi, Emma. Are you thinking of more out-doors activities this afternoon?"

"Certainly. We've got a trek planned for the basalt ridge about twenty kilometers from here, and we're sending thirty windsurfers to the sand dunes in the big river delta."

"And we've got that large party out on the dune buggies for another night?"

"Yes, we're getting a lot of positive reviews turning up on the 'net."

"Fantastic. Well done! A lifeless world is a paradise for people who want to mess up a sand dune," he commented. "No conern for fragile ecosystems, no trees to run into, no sacred grounds or forgotten landmines or private property or anything else to get in their way."

"You sound like one of them!"

The captain nodded and regarded the planet's lone moon. That moon didn't exactly dominate the sky but he knew it was far larger than any moon usually found on such a planet small enough for people to visit. That moon was why this world's day was so very long.

"What about dinner? Anything special?"

"I was going to ask you about that. I was wondering if we could take the ship to that volcano that's been erupting. It's quite a stable lava flow, we can stay up wind and have a bit of a show from fairly close."

He pulled up a map of the region on his ocular heads-up display. Inspecting the site, he shared the map with her and asked, "That's the one to the north about five hundred kilometers from here?"

He saw her cursor appear and confirm the site he was looking at. "Okay," he told her, "I'll ask Francis to set up a course after your hikers and windsurfers are back. I'll have Anantha monitor the river for flooding. You know how quickly a flood can come up when there's no greenery to soak up water or generate soil."

"I've been asked to join a table for lunch. Do we have any golfers aboard who aren't already on other activities today? I might suggest a round of golf at a spot I know." He could picture the endless gravel dunes along the coast at a site he knew. There was a lovely string of wave-sculpted islets just off the shore.

"I'm on it," she said, and a moment later had a profile together. The lunch table now included a foursome for golf.


Two days later, the captain was running the ship's complement through the pre-launch checklist. The engineer had raised a warning that the sewage cistern was giving a false reading of nearly empty. It was enough to delay departure. When it still wasn't resolved half an hour later, the captain became concerned and went to the maintenance deck. It wasn't a huge ship—there were no more than two hundred people aboard—and the trip didn't take long. But when he got there his mood wasn't great. He emerged from the ladder saying, "We've got a lot of people lying in their berths waiting for launch. What's happening?" But when he saw their faces he knew something was really wrong. "What is it?"

The chief engineer told him, "The kid flushed the cistern, captain."

"But I didn't, I promise you!" Rodney said.

The captain's mind went back over the past few days. Then he remembered the kid struggling with the chlorine hose. "Chief, please give me a reading from the chlorine tank."

Rodney stared at the captain in surprise when the chief engineer did just that. "100%," he told him. As the captain knew he would.

"Perhaps you were working with the sewage output when you meant to chlorinate after the swimmers."

"Oh, no," the lad said.

"Did you see anything cloudy in the water?"

"Oh! Yeah, I did. But then I remembered what you told me."

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rand()m quote

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.

—Henry Ellis