Day 28. 102 pages, 44,690 words.
“You don’t seem to be taking us down over water, or desert, or any other sort of wilderness area.”
“You are, in fact, entering into a landing pattern quite close to – indeed, almost directly above – what looks like a fairly large human habitat.”
“They’re called cities, Mass. Just like on a Worldship. This one is called Vanjing, formerly a satellite city of Sprawling Adelbairn, on the continent of Gundabaal, known semi-affectionately by dominant local power – the Zealant Empire – as The Underbowl. Formerly known as the realm of Old Meganesia, formerly known as Oceaaña, formerly known as the Dai’Gaji Territories … well. You get the idea.”
“I’m not accusing you of being ignorant of the city, if that’s what you’re worried about…”
“You may be interested to learn that Vanjing became a big population centre back when it was famed as the birthplace and home of the Pinian Disciples. Or their human incarnations, at least. Or some friends of theirs. It’s complicated.”
“Okay,” Massington said, realising that Mer was not going to be deterred by the usual complaints and pleading. “And the Pinian Disciples were…?”
“That’s even more complicated.”
“Well, they were religious icons, if the human comms and intercepted transmissions were anything to go by,” Massington said, “but I was hoping you might have something more in-depth than that.”
“I’m afraid ‘that’s even more complicated’ will have to do,” Mer apologised.
“So, about Vanjing.”
“Oh, yes. Well, they don’t have any integrated technology pointed at the sky that I can’t edit the Right Sock out of in real-time, if it comes to that. So our … orbital insertion and descent went unseen.”
“How about the naked eye? How are you at editing that? I only ask because we’re getting really close to the surface now and I doubt human aircraft look like this, and I doubt any of the inhabitants of Vanjing have missed the fact that an alien fleet just arrived in the neighbourhood so most of them will be looking up and waiting for something unusual to turn up.”
“Funnily enough, just over one percent of the local population have electronic vision-enhancing and entertainment implants that I can access quite easily, meaning that I can actually edit what they see with their naked eyes. Essentially.”
“That’s brilliant. What about the other just-under-ninety-nine percent?”
“Well, you’d probably be surprised by how little they are looking up,” Mer said. “Surprised and a little distressed. Humans who look up rather than at each other tend to be dismissed as childish dreamers, and as a consequence have been mostly bred out of the gene pool and trained by their parents and society … but all that aside, nobody will be looking twice at us, because … there.”
Massington looked at the object swelling in the rear-facing console viewer. “What is that?”
“It’s an advertising blimp,” Mer replied. “Gas-filled, controlled from land-based guidance stations, and designed to illuminate with assorted messages. They’ve been out-of-date for a while and a lot of them are unregistered and unclaimed by any human agencies, so they just cruise around on automated patterns. Sometimes one gets repurposed and towed around by a private aircraft, which is exactly what looks like is happening to this one.”
“What are we advertising?”
“We’re promising a free trip to the Novo Strayya for the first five hundred people to send a ‘greetings to the aliens’ message from their private comm devices to the recipient tagged on the balloon,” Mer said happily. “If the vehicle towing it looks a bit alien-spaceshippy, it only lends credibility to the promotion.”
“I assume you control the recipient station.”
“It’s an old centre, and I can take over it if I need to,” Mer replied, “but it’s easier to bounce back a ‘sorry, all our nodes are currently locked out due to high traffic’ message. But there have only been three hits on the recipient so far,” it paused. “Four,” it paused again. “And only one of them was actually a non-hostile greeting message.”
“And what’s the Novo Strayya?” Massington asked, still looking at the cheerfully-rolling blimp with its angular human text glowing on its flanks.
“A mobile artificial island off the coast,” Mer said. “Vacation spot for humans with … hmm, well that’s also difficult to explain, but … you’ve studied primitive economics, concepts of wealth and influence, fabricated and socially-reinforced physical currency?”
“Right,” Massington nodded, “humans exchange labour for material tokens, and because they perform labour they don’t want to perform, they need to divide intensive labour and leisure time. And this island requires visitors to provide large quantities of tokens, which means it is off-limits to all but the most wealthy, who in turn are the most respected because they have what the others aspire to – specifically, wealth.”
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Mer approved.
“They really use tokens?” Massington chuckled.
“Nothing inherently wrong with physical currency as a means of universally agreeing upon the worth of things and formalising the exchange of goods and services,” Mer said mildly, “as long as it is consistent, fair, and attached to a rational social system of value and contribution.”
“I’m guessing the currency that lets some humans take vacations on Novo Strayya doesn’t meet that description.”
“You’re catching on.”
Massington chuckled again. “I thought those old transmissions were made up,” he marvelled, as the Right Sock – and her attendant balloon – descended in a lazy spiral toward Vanjing. They seemed to be heading for the rooftop of a large, low-slung building. It looked like a storage facility.
“Some are,” Mer answered, “and a lot of the currency is virtual these days. But every group has their own variations. Sometimes they have wars over them. Sometimes one type of tokens suddenly loses value due to its dependence of various factors, and all the humans in that region starve.”
“Welcome to Earth.”