The Vacuum-Tight Suitcase
Excerpts from The Vaccuum-Tight Suitcase, by K. Joan Durrell:
Margaron has a booming tourist industry, specializing in sea-side and under-sea resorts. (Indeed, you can hardly build a resort anywhere else on Margaron, or a tool shed for that matter.) But it wasn't settled for that reason. "Margaron" is the Greek word for "pearl," and the planet Margaron was settled because of pearl culture. Oysters do very well in its ocean.
There is only one ocean on Margaron, covering the whole planet, except for a few islands. Among many other results, this planetary ocean produces uniform mild climate from pole to pole. The gravity is a tad high, but you'll get used to it quickly if you're in reasonable health.
. . .
To see the essential Margaron, take a small boat out on the open sea and just drift awhile. The sky is pale, like an English sky, but with a distinct shade of turquoise in it. It is lit by twin red dwarves, Garnet and Ruby, circling each other every few hours in their private patch of white sky. You can stare straight at them, huge, fat egg-shapes in two slightly different shades of furnace red.
Below and around, the sea is a deep teal. Where Earth's sea glitters in the sharp, gold-white sunlight, Margaron's shimmers in soft, diffuse, double sunshine, in two shades of scarlet. The light is bright, but all the shadows are soft and double.
Once the suns set, you can spot the little moons strung along the celestial equator. They are all too small to show any disc, but they shine steadily, and the inner ones move as you watch them. Their names are Empress, Peregrina, Pellegrina, Regent, Arco, Sprat -- oyster names.
. . .
Margaron was settled by Cleo Ruzinsky, Teodor Godin, Catherine Whitney, and Sasha Ho, business partners and owners of the Margaron Charter Co. Ms. Ruzinsky is a research aquaculturist and former member of the Maggio expedition that mapped Margaron, where she served as marine xenobiologist; Mr. Godin is a commercial aquaculturist; Ms. Whitney is a marine engineer; Mr. Ho is a cultural ethologist in neo-dolphin studies.
They bought the planet from United Earth (in effect -- they own the company that bought the charter) because Ms. Ruzinsky discovered that Margaronic plankton stimulates nacre production in Terran oysters. Add some dissolved oyster-vitamins and the mollusks thrive, making cultured pearls the founding industry of the planet.
Nowadays, the planet also boasts secondary industries in mother-of-pearl, oyster meat, transgenic pearl culture, native aquaculture products, and, as I said, tourism. The locals support themselves on fishing and aquaculture, and import more machinery and metal than is usual for independent colonies. The Big Four are still major figures, and fabulously wealthy, but were long ago required by their charter to drop their monopoly on the planet's economy.
The locals are mostly human, but about a third of the population is neo-dolphin, working in the aquaculture and tourism industries. The aquaculturists generally work with teams of eo-dolphins.
The tourism industry features resorts on ships and islets, water-sports (with neo-dolphin life guards), and eco-tours. There are five massive island resorts -- the Pearl Crown, the Margorie, the Lemuria, the Hodad, and the Aquarius. There are three big resort liners -- the "Iris," the "Blue Pearl," and the "Coraline." They're all expensive and luxurious, and have different things to recommend them, but while you're inside them, you might as well be in any big hotel.
I recommend a B&B, which is very likely to be shoreside, or a rental yacht, which is a B&B afloat. That way, you will get the most contact with the people and the planet.
. . .
The charter mandated a parliamentary democracy, standard UE model. This is vigorously run by the settlers, mostly by comm net. There is a prime minister's office and plans for a hall of parliament, but it's been decades and they haven't got around to building it. Instead, government is a perpetual squabble by net, punctuated by votes and referenda. The constitutional list of rights is long. The current prime minister is a dolphin, and naturally doesn't spend a lot of time in the office.
. . .
Settlers came from many Terran cultures, but the two biggest groups were English and Polynesian. Later, there was a wave of Zenner neo-humans. From the start, there was also a neo-dolphin culture, working in partnership with the various marine industries. If you've ever been curious about neo-dolphins, this is a great place to get a close look at their way of life.
Neo-dolphins look like bottlenose dolphins, in shape, but are white with black patches on the face, fins, and flukes, giving them the appearance of aquatic Siamese cats. Their natural social unit, the pod, consists of a handful of couples, plus a roughly equal number of tame eo-dolphins. The "couples," of course, are not spouses, but the same-sex life-long friendships that feature so prominently in any movies or novels involving neo-'fins. Sometimes, they are pairs of brothers or sisters. Sometimes, they are triples.
Pods rove nomadically over a large territory. Being modern, civilized folk, they travel with two or three boats on autopilot, specially designed for neo-'fins. These carry the underwater equivalents of media desks, first aid kits, and whatever else the pod wants to tote around with it. Most pod members wear comm links on collars, and virtually every adult knows the special command dialect for commanding robot "hand squids."
Historical Note: Since psionics came in, neo-dolphins have learned telekinesis in vast numbers. Those who haven't can now control modern hand-squids or strap-on arms via telepatch mechanical telepathic interface.
Early on, Pearl Bay was the only town on Margaron. All the other big islands were claimed by individual families and made into plantations, growing staple crops, for the domestic market, and various Margaronic luxuries, for export. These have now been partially displaced by fishing villages.
Almost all social activity is down at the shore, on Margaron. There are a few islands that are big enough to get inland on. It's very, very quiet in there.
. . .
The main native tourist attraction on Margaron is the marine life, so here goes:
The ocean of Margaron is much more fertile than Earth's oceans. The water composition is the same, but Earth has no good way of connecting the fertilizing minerals on the bottom with the sunlight on the top. Margaron does.
Several varieties of planktonic algae migrate regularly from top to bottom. They sun themselves for a few days at the top, then pop their microscopic gas bubbles and sink to the bottom, where they soak up minerals. Then they generate more gas bubbles and float up again.
As a result, there is a constant traffic of microscopic food floating up and down through the ocean, and much more total food than in Earth's ocean. That means more fish and other critters visible to the naked eye.
Some weeds grow cork-like floats to help them stay at the surface. There, they can release their pollen into the air, so it blows farther and encounters fewer predators than spores released in water. The cork-weeds form large mats that eventually become floating islands of cork, with plants and animals living on them. These mats can reach a kilometer in width and form floating island-chains. They look like crazy-quilts from the air, since the vegetation comes in many different colors -- about every hue but yellow or white.
From closer up, they are dense gardens of multicolor plants. On a big berg on a calm day, you cannot tell the difference between the corkberg and an island. There are no insects on Margaron, but the plants swarm with local analogs of crab and shrimp that have learned to breathe air; many are very colorful. The corkbergs are habitats for all the main varieties of air-breather.
Naturally, there are loads of fish. You will meet several kinds at dinner. Unless they are fried or filleted, you may notice some difference from Earthly fish. Too many eyes, for a start. Margaronic fish have two clusters of little, bead-like eyes. Each eye has a fixed focus and direction, and isn't much good; they must add up in the brain to a more comprehensive image.
Their fins don't have rays in them, as do fins on most Terran fish. Instead, they are more like miniature seal-flippers. There are usually plenty of them.
The last big difference is the lack of gills. Instead, these fish suck water in the mouth and breath it out through a row of tiny holes along the side, about where a Terran fish has a lateral line.
Some are naked. Some have a thin coat of foam, like natural foam-rubber. Most of the coated fish are warm-blooded. Down in the abyssal plain, where it's very cold, most of the fish are warm-blooded and foam-coated.
Warm or cold, foamy or smooth, they vary as much in size and shape as Terran fish. The ones living near reefs, mats, and corkbergs are often very colorful, like reef fish on Earth. Some are whale-sized, and there are always rumors of sea-monsters. You can't discount these entirely; the planet is nowhere near fully explored.
One of the famous wildlife tourist attractions is the "glass sharks." Of course, they are not true sharks. They aren't even Margaronic fish. They are a kind of invertebrate filter feeder, analogous to a Terran salp, only much bigger. They do look like a transparent shark with no eyes and a perpetually open mouth. There are no teeth, and there's a large rear vent to let the water pass through easily. They can reach eight meters in length and do not seem to notice tourists riding on them or playing in their orifices.
These critters look something like hermit crabs, and like them are amphibious, but the spiral shell is their own, not borrowed. If they get grabbed by the shell, they can break out and leave it behind, then grow a new one. The predator doesn't usually keep the shell, so you can find lots of cast-off crab shells along the beaches. Most are gray or white, but some species are very colorful. All are compact, smooth, and rounded, and range in size from pea to walnut.
There are creatures that look roughly like squid and octopi, but they are, in fact, vertebrates. Or, at least, they have bones, if not backbones. Inside the body is a bony shell, rather like a skull, protecting the internal organs. This case has flexible seams, so the whole creature has some give. The tentacles have bones and joints in them like fingers. Scientists call them dactylopods; everyone else calls them finger squids.
The commonest sort are two to five centimeters long, milkily translucent, shaped like flattened tear-drops, swimming by fluttering a pair lof long tentacles tipped with fins. They have six more for shoving food into a little round mouth with four teeth. The tentacles circle the mouth and the eyes flank the tentacles, just like on a Terran squid. Like a squid, they don't have a well-defined front. Mostly, they move mouth-first, but can dart off backward. Unlike a squid, they don't produce ink or have a siphon.
The first sort you are likely to meet is a land-dwelling form about ten centimeters wide, with ten finger-like tentacles of the same length. It is round, leathery, and brown, and the tentacles end in wide pads, which help it climb around in trees. They are called tree squids, of course. Some people keep tame ones, and a few are trying to domesticate them. They appear to have rather squirrely intelligence.
There are many other variations -- aquatic, terrestrial, and amphibious; from ones with knuckled tentacles to ones with tentacles with so many bones, they look boneless; tentacles with pads, flippers, claws, or nothing; as few as four tentacles or as many as twenty; in white, yellow, various shades of brown, and black; plain, patched, spotted, striped, etc.; from pea-sized to car-sized and maybe bigger. They are, you see, an entire class, or maybe phylum. They don't seem to have any close connection to the fish.
One showy breed is black on top, white on the bottom, like a penguin, and about the same size. They move in large flocks, or schools, catching small prey with six claw-tipped fingers, swimming quickly in either direction with two flexible flippers mounted on noticable shoulders. They have wine-red catlike eyes on short, thick stalks, and come out on beaches and corkbergs to mate and lay eggs. The colonists call them penquids.
The *very* showiest example is the tiger squid. It's built very like a penquid, but is 2.5 to 3 meters long, with a streamlined, torpedo shape, and stripes. The stripes and the predatory nature are what give it the name "tiger," of course, but the markings are black and white, and much more swirly than a tiger's. They are meant, it seems, to disguise the animal against the background of rippling water.
On the Beach
You can find lots of curious things on the sand, or tangled in the weeds at the edge of a corkberg.
You might find "shore pearls." These are objects the size and shape of ping-pong balls, shiny and white, with a slight irridescence. Actually, they're egg shells of a common, eel-like fish. They can litter the beach in some numbers, when there's been a big spawning, followed by some rough waves. Then various small predators suck the contents out of the fresh eggs (or collectors pierce and drain them). You find trinkets made from these in every gift shop, and some claim they were the source of the planet's name, before ever it was made into a pearl farm.
Sometimes, you find "sea flutes." These are hollow tubes of a horny substance, tinted and translucent or transparent. They vary in size from the length of your finger on down, and often have little holes on the sides. They are the shells of certain salp-like " coelenteroids," little relatives of the Glass Shark.
"Sea cups" are made of the same stuff as sea flutes and are the cap-like shells of the local jellyfish, relatives of the salps. Most are about the size acorn caps, or smaller, but a few rare and valuable ones (like the beautiful, pink and purple "sea grail") are as big as your head.
There are starfish on the beach, too. Margaronic starfish have a mouth and an eye at the tip of each arm, and sometimes come in double-decker forms, like one regular starfish on top of another. They have snail-like sheets of muscle, not the tube-feet of their Terran counterparts, and their skins are velvety, not raspy. Some are amphibious, and wander far inland.
Once in a while, you find lumps of "sea amber" -- clear, orange or yellow, glassy stuff, light-weight, with a plasticky feel. No one knows what it is, or what creature produces it. It floats on the surface and washes up. It, too, is made into trinkets for the gift shops.
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.