Read Me the Story:
The cabin ComWeb chimed softly.
“Attention, Travelers. Inger Chevron, the Inger Lines’ newest liner in the ultra-luxury “Heraldic” series, has achieved final orbit around Plena Revene, home of Holiday Safari World’s Plena Leisure Parks. Disembarkation for Plena Leisure Park resorts will begin in one hour. Disembarking travelers may meet your resort shuttles in the bay indicated on your personalized Traveler’s Itinerary. Inger Lines wishes you an enjoyable stay and looks forward to carrying you on your return journey.”
The chimes and honeyed tones of the announcement produced a wave of activity. Passengers who’d ignored the downtransit announcement some hours back began hastily to pack belongings, activate luggage tags, tip their Personal Stewards (this was encouraged in the Traveler’s Tips provided by the Inger Lines at embarkation— amounts and methods were gently hinted,) assemble hand-carried belongings, and hurry to make their way to the shuttle bays. More experienced (or prepared) travelers ordered a final cocktail, exchanged comservice codes with new acquaintances, and/or used the opulently-appointed ’fresher facilities a final time, and made a more relaxed progress to the shuttle deck.
Tsangmen Shuli was one of those who’d waited to the last minute to pack— but she had very little to assemble. Standard-class travelers were allowed one stored and one cabin luggage item, and no more than three and a half kilos of mass to hand-carry. She’d debated paying for an additional stored luggage item, as she expected to be on Plena Revene much longer than the tenday holiday package she was booked for, but decided to travel light, instead. No sense raising eyebrows— or suspicions.
With an infinitesimal adjustment to the ships’ gravmag generators (barely noticeable to the passengers,) the Chevron opened its massive shuttle deck bay gate, ready for the half-dozen atmosphere-to-orbit craft that were already lifting, perfectly coordinated, from the various Resort Centers.
Shuli found the queue forming to board the shuttle to the Oceans and Islands Center, Plena Parks’ premier attraction in the modest price range. She was booked for a popular standard holiday package, the “Floating Islands” resort targeted to family, convention, and leisure-oriented customers. It provided a variety of beach and boat options that focused on tours, food, and leisure services rather than adventure or athletic recreation. It was just the kind of thing Shuli would have carefully avoided, had she not been following her new employers’ instructions: Blend in.
The queue moved slowly, as each passenger had to have a retina print taken, and various documentation verified. And of course every third or fourth person had misfiled their Itinerary, or put it on a comgle which had then been relegated to an inaccessible pocket or luggage compartment.
There was a short hissing sound, a modest rumble, and then the hatch for the shuttle boarding opened, and the queue began to move a little faster.
An older couple she’d exchanged pleasantries with a few times aboard the Chevron waved at Shuli and indicated a seat in their row; she smiled back and joined them. He’d managed some kind of food processing unit for a branch of the Hoyval Multifoods consortium, but retired on employee shares; she was a voice recorder for some media company. They were celebrating an anniversary with a two-tenday “Outer Islands” package that included snorkeling and floatsailing and a “private cabanienda” with a view of the Rainbow Lagoon.
Shuli’d admired the brochure they’d shown her, and told them she’d recently Certified in Advanced Level Archaeobotany (true,) and was combining a certification present holiday from her parents (a lie, they were both dead and she was older than she looked) with a chance to observe Holiday Safari Worlds’ terraform littoral bioengineering achievements (half-truth, she’d probably see some of that but it wasn’t what she was here for.) They’d shared a couple of meals, and Shuli had taught the she-half of the couple to play Scratch in the Chevron’s Casino, with moderate success. As shipboard acquaintances, they fit nicely into her profile and helped her blend in.
The shuttle filled with no more than the predictable number of hitches- people with oversized hand-carries, parties wanting to rearrange already-occupied seating so they could sit together, nervous travelers with urgent queries for the staff about shuttle safety (excellent) and journey time (1.3 standard hours to the Palmwinds shuttleport.) But eventually everyone was strapped in, and another hiss, and a rumble, and the hatch was closed. A slight gravitic hiccup—a sensation like a very short bounce in a fast-rising elevator—and the shuttle was free of the liner’s gravmag distortion.
The transition to the shuttle’s pseudograv generator was seamless. Shuli felt herself getting light—about one-third standard gee, she estimated. Just enough to keep everyone’s breakfast in place. A few more barely-noticeable bumps as the shuttle’s directional adjustments were laid in, and a momentary sense of increased gee as the pilot applied just enough thrust to drop them into Plena Revene’s gravity well.
“Welcome, Adventurers!” a hologram of an attractive couple in exotic, colorful beach gear appeared on the overhead presentation stage at the front of the shuttle compartment. They were smiling and waving.
“Plena Leisure Parks is happy to welcome you to the Oceans and Islands Experience! Your shuttle will arrive at Palmwinds port in approximately one point three standard hours, and surface transit and docents, couriers, and sherpas will meet you at the port after you complete entrance formalities.” The male hologram was cheery, matter of fact.
“May I suggest that if you haven’t yet reviewed the Basic Complete Disclosure presentation, and filed your Liability Waiver, you use the journey time to do so? This will expedite your entrance processing. This shuttle is linked to the Plena Leisure Parks ComWeb system, and you may view the presentation on your individual presentation stage by touching the blue button on your armrest.” The female hologram was warmly confiding.
Shuli had dutifully viewed all of the recommended Complete Disclosure presentations for her holiday package, and filed her Liability Waivers from aboard the Chevron. She’d found them quite funny, actually. The idea that anyone signing up for a safari holiday wouldn’t realize that yes, they’d be exposed to potentially hazardous terrains, non-standard biological entities, and even “random and potentially uncomfortable extremes of environmental conditions,” was baffling. What did they expect? It was all legal stuff, of course—required by Hub Mercantile Conventions for the covering of HSW’s butt.
The holograms rambled on about the entertainment channels available during the shuttle journey, then wished everyone an “Amazing Adventure!” and vanished.
She managed to lose the friendly older couple during the entrance formalities, by heading off to a ComWeb kiosk while they queued up for entry processing. By the time they’d boarded the floatbus with the Rainbow Lagoon logo, Shuli was in line for the Floating Islands resort check-in, blending nicely near-but-not-with a large group of conventioneers.
The Floating Islands resort offered a choice of floatbus transport: A short transit directly from the port, more or less at surface level (about fifteen minutes’ ride) or the 90-minute “glassbottom floatbus tour” that circled the Oceans and Islands complex and provided a “True bird’s-eye view of this marvel of terraform engineering and environmental design!” Shuli opted for the tour.
She’d known it would be impressive—she’d spent a lot of time studying the HSW tri-dees and even some of the technical reports about how their resorts were designed and constructed. They really did push the envelope of bioeme design and habitat construction, combing Life Banks for usable specimen material and employing the most advanced habitat control technology. They put it all together to re-create an incredible variety of intricate, complex environments on a vast scale. Everything from re-creations of imagined Old Terra, to “Colonial Altair,” “Galania before humanity,” and fantastic hybrids of imagination and reality that involved every conceivable combination of (reasonably safe) “natural” conditions and life forms.
But actually seeing it unroll beneath you… They’d flown over one end of Oceana Plena, nearly 3 million square kilometers of saltwater habitat teeming with terraform life. They’d seen a herd of large cetaceans, the guide had called them “narwhales,” breaching and milling around a massive tour ship. Islands clustered around brilliantly colored, jewel-like lagoons, ringed with outer bastions of rock formations like twisted bridges and fountains, gleaming in the brilliant light. Beyond that a chain of larger islands, with cliffs and mountains—one nearly five thousand meters high!
They’d overflown the main shoreline—majestic pale cliffs at the north end and a rugged, rocky coastline that merged into a classic littoral zone. Then a river delta and marshes, and beyond that, coves, bays, and sandy beaches merging into a peninsula and another chain of islands, this one including a small, perfectly-simulated (but not tectonically active, the guide assured them,) volcano!
And the vegetation. Everywhere, the vegetation. Specimens Shuli had seen only in stasis labs and arcodishes and holorecs. Hectares of mixed marsh grasses, sedges, reeds… SEAweeds washing in with the waves. Islands full of tropical specimens, flowers, fruit, palms. An incredible variety; she hadn’t even tried to keep count of the categories, much less individual species.
She had been told to wait until the third day of her stay—and then sign up for the “Insider’s Tour” of the Parks Management complex. At a certain point in the tour, she was to ask a certain question of the guide.
Sometime after that, her new job would begin.
As the floatbus made a wide, curving approach to the Floating Islands Resort and began to descend in front of the rambling Golden Jasmine Inn, she reflected that the next two days might seem very long indeed.