The Vacuum-Tight Suitcase
Excerpts from The Vacuum-Tight Suitcase by K. Joan Durrell
For the rugged tourist, who wants a taste of godforsaken wilderness, I can recommend Outback. That's the unsettled parts. I don't know who I'd recommend the settled areas to -- no one I like, certainly.
Outback is a oneface world. Furthermore, almost all the land on the sunward side lies close to the subsolar point, and thus is very hot, a desert. The largest mass is the continent of Centralia, usually just called The Mainland. Parts of its coast and a few islands form the most habitable territories. They make for good camping and exploring, if you are the rugged sort, and if you stay away from the cities and plantations.
Being a prison colony, Outback has a sharp caste system. At the bottom rung are the prisoners in the public and industrial labor pools, especially the ones for unskilled labor. Next come the strawbosses and trustees. Then there is a large gap in the hierarchy, above which are the ex-cons, people who finished their sentences but decided to stay or (usually) couldn't manage to leave. After another large jump, we come to the freemen, regular folks who just live there because they were born there, or because they wanted to be colonists and this was the cheapest ride. Above them, or partly overlapping their range, are the plutocrats and bureaucrats, the ones who control the slave labor of the prisoners.
I am happy to say there is a chronic labor shortage on Outback. It makes one feel that the other planets are not too hasty in sending criminals there. But it also makes one feel that the criminals they do send must be a pretty bad lot. And there are more than the usual number of them about.
Whether or not the prisoners deserve the treatment they get on Outback, the practice of giving treatment itself produces a callous, arrogant attitude in the plutocrats and bureaucrats mentioned above, especially the ones lower down on the totem pole, the ones in immediate command of the prisoners.
Steer clear of Backpacker cops and civil servants. If they give you trouble, remind them Who You Are -- i.e. not a convict. You don't really have a clear position in their pecking order, but if you peck at the buggers, they'll effectively give you a higher position. While you're at it, look up the number for your planet's embassy; they're all very aggressive about protecting their citizens on Outback.
The upper classes, should you chance to meet any, have pleasanter dispositions. But this is often the old velvet glove over the iron hand. And they do not want to talk about convicts. The convicts are referred to by the anonymous name of Labor.
The best thing about Backpacker society is that the lower-level freemen do not take any guff from the upper-level freemen, unless they are of the upwardly-mobile bootlicker type. If the lofties give grief to the mids or proles, they get it back in spades. The free children of ex-cons have a reputation for being particularly touchy.
The most amiable feature of Backpacker culture is their aeronautics. Centralia sits under a big convection cell, producing strong, steady winds toward the subsolar point. And the desert is full of thermal updrafts. The Backpackers have exploited this and produced a full and inventive range of kites, hang-gliders, glider-chutes, glider-planes, lighter-than-air- craft, and ornithopters.
I think, though, that a hunger for escape, even on the part of the freemen, partly inspired all this flying. Also, being what they are, the Backpackers have adapted each of these aerial sports to dueling and combat. Kite dueling is rather fun to watch, but I could do without this "refinement" on the sport.
It seems odd to see so many pale skins under that moveless, blazing sun. But the sun is a furnace red and puts out very little ultraviolet. You'll never get a tan on Outback. Even dark-skinned people grow a little paler. But you won't get a burn, either.
This, plus the warm ocean water, make the coasts of Outback delightful swimming places. The sponge-reefs are as beautiful as their coral counterparts on Earth, full of quaint beasties and fish. The fish lack back and belly fins, but they make up for this by having any number of side fins, from none to twenty-four. They share the rule of the seas with the "crabs," creatures with mollusk-like shells and crab-like legs and feelers.
The fishes' flexible architecture carries over to the land-dwelling descendents. Land vertebrates on Outback have varying numbers of limbs, though the limbs have no toes or fingers, only claws sometimes. The small-fry, the equivalents of frogs and lizards and mice, vary the most. They may have up to seven pairs of legs.
Some are scaly, most are bare, but none have fur or feathers. In fact, none are even warm-blooded. Since the temperature is constant in every environment, none of them need to be. (I suppose creatures in the colder, darker regions could make use of warm blood, but there's very little land area fitting that description. Most of the day-night boundary runs across ocean -- ocean usually topped with ice pack.)
Some bird analogs have wings formed from several pairs of webbed legs, so that they resemble bats more than birds. Another group flies on four pterodactyline wings.
The larger animals usually have fewer legs. The largest land animal on Outback is the Backpacker "camel." It is lumpy, long-necked, blunt-nosed, and gangling, like a Terran camel, but its hide is wrinkled brown leather and it stalks through the desert plains on six pad-footed legs. It weighs as much, I suppose, as one and a half Terran camels.
The most appealing Backpacker animal is the septurse, or seven-legged bear. It has three on one side and four on the other. No one knows why, though there are some theories, of course.
I find Backpacker plants at least as interesting as the beasts, because they are part and parcel with the local insectiles. Each bug belongs to the same species as a plant, and vice versa. It's called alternation of generations, and exists on Earth, though not in such a radical form.
The bugs don't lay eggs; they lay seeds, which sprout into plants. The plants then produce more bugs, which go out, mate, and lay more seeds. Even a lot of the sea weed follows this pattern, going back to a microscopic, photosynthetic marine worm with alternating sexual and asexual generations.
The most prominent land plants are succulents, cactus-like things in a wide variety of shapes and in any color but red or white. They produce pods out of which hatch bugs resembling spiders with beetle wings. The various species of spider beetles prey on each other, or eat plants other than their own kind, and engage in all the usual ecology, find mates, then lay their seeds (not eggs) in propitious places, and so on around.
There are lots of variations on the theme. For instance, there are the Eatme Crabs -- mobile "fruit" containing seeds designed to pass through a predator's digestive tract. Once they're mature, they go out looking for something like a septurse and *try* to get eaten.
Some plants have "smart pollen" in the form of mites that hitch rides on "pollinators" (bug-phases of other species). This way, they get to visit other plants and cross-breed with the mites living there. The pollinators are attracted by the chance to eat spare mites, or, in more advanced species of mite-bearers, the chance to drink droplets of mite-made honeydew.
The Hive Cactus is a living wasp nest. Well, spider-beetle nest. It grows in a branching arrangement of round, orange and yellow segments. These are hollow and grow papery combs inside, very like wasp nests. In the brood combs, the cactus grows its own "wasps" -- a population of spider beetles divided into castes like Earthly social insects -- queens, drones, workers, and "guards," who go with the queen when she leaves the nest to lay seeds for future cacti.
The Dragon Plant is a cactus that grows in sprawling, branching loops over the ground. The main trunk is half a meter or so thick, and the side trunks twist and rear in a way that could suggest draconian legs and heads to the imaginative. The surface is plated with horny scales, laid down in layers of various brilliant colors, depending on the exact species. These are the source of the dragon-scale cameos Outback exports. Dragon Plants produce finger-long black bugs with stout, pinching mandibles, who resent people that break scales off their home-and-parent. ...
Many bugs lack digestive tracts. They live only to mate, lay egg-seeds, and die.
Some plants have done away with the sexual insectile phase and just reproduce by runners. Others produce seeds from near-vestigial parthenogenic females that never leave the mother plant. And some plants keep the bug phase enclosed in their seed pods, producing seeds by totally inbred populations of bugs.
Contrariwise, there are bugs that have nearly dropped the plant phase. The plant is a bluish, photosynthetic layer on the outside of the egg -- not seed -- which hatches a new bug.
There are plants with "flowers" that are really leks for mating displays. A female sits in each flower and chooses from the males who come from other plants and do mating dances. Some of these plants have the females still attached. She doesn't break free until she's gravid and goes off to plant her seeds.
I think Outback may have more than its fair share of legends and rumors. Many are about convicts who escaped their labor camps and either:
There are also a number of traditional ghost stories, some of them related to (a) above.
There is also the Desert Strider, the supposed native sapient Backpacker. Early descriptions only tell of tall figures in the distance (probably mirages). Details accumulated. In 2322, Rari O'Hare produced the movie "Dust Pirate," a Gwendolyn Maxwell adventure that either captured or created the most complete and canonical picture of a Strider. Ever since then, a Desert Strider is supposed to be three meters high, rail thin, bipedal but with four claw-tipped arms. It has a face like a camel, but as wrinkled as a bloodhound's. It goes swathed in white robes, striding through towns or ranches, entirely ignoring people and their works, set on its own mysterious errands. It is probably a cross between a Backpacker camel, an Arab, and an expression of freedom.
When the other colony worlds formally seceded from United Earth in 2370, there was hardly any UE left to leave. This put the governor of Outback in an awkward position. Outback, unlike the other colonies, was not a sovereign state in any sense, but the property of the United Earth government, now defunct. The governor, Eugene Monbleau, signed one of the general withdrawl proclamations, and so quietly declared independence. However, nothing changed in the day-to-day affairs of Outback.
In 2378, the Hundred Cities of Man formed and claimed to be the successor to United Earth. It also claimed ownership of Outback and sent a psi lord, Dao-long Ki, there with a small fleet of gunships. Monbleau turned Outback over to Ki after a little bluster. The other colony worlds shrugged their shoulders; Outback had always belonged to Earth, hadn't it?
The Backpackers themselves, however, made their displeasure known by street demonstrations and publications demanding independence. Ki put these down with such vigor and venom that a numerous and devoted underground sprang up instantly. Soon, it was learning psychic talents as fast as possible. The underground fought Ki in steadily decaying cities for five years, while noncombatants, freeman and convict alike, vanished into the hills.
In 2383, the Alliance forces arrived to oust Ki and liberate Outback. For the next ten years, Outback lived under a patchwork of anarchy and martial law, until, in 2393, the Free Colonies reinstated the old Outback government as a sovereign state, with Abdul Hardas -- most senior surviving official of the old regime -- as governor.
The new government was not strong or popular. In 2404, Gen. Chantal Hamel led a military coup and made herself dictator of Outback. That was not popular either, especially with the convicts who had worked with the underground during the Psi War and had been rewarded by being pardoned. Hamel was an old-fashioned, iron-fisted Outback military aristocrat, and retracted all the pardons.
It is not surprising that, three years later, in 2407, Hamel was shot in a counter-coup by the Democratic Junta. The Junta established its own police force to keep a minimum of order, then called for a constitutional convention. Nine years of oratory, demonstrations, riots, and media blitz later, in 2416, Outback adopted a relatively normal parliamentary democracy with Daria Morales as its first elected prime minister.
By this time, the old convict labor pool had dried up. The few remaining convicts were offered emigration packages as their sentences ran out -- the Excon Exodus, it was called. Each excon was given a ticket to the planet of his choice and money equivalent to 18 months minimum wages. The trick was to find a planet that would take you:
Earth, on the whole, did not want the excons back. (Most were Earth-born.)
Kun Lun was very picky about the excons it accepted; some criminal categories (mostly the violent ones) were excluded entirely, others easily accepted.
Philippia was much less picky; many went there.
The nationalist enclaves of Hellene were allowed to accept excons separately; many found niches there.
Aurelius refused all excons, period.
Adonis, on the other hand, was predictably lenient, and then did a nice little business selling Adonian passports to excons, making it much easier for them to move on to other unsuspecting colonies.
All the other colonies fell between Earth and Kun Lun in their reactions.
Soon, the Outback prisons were not much fuller than those of any other world. The convict-labor-based aristocracy was left to fade away and grumble about the good old days, following a classic pattern.
In 2485, a massive economic depression hit Outback, the fruit of decreasing workforce and increasing centralization. The government forbade further emigration.
In 2492, the Outback government was toppled in a reasonably bloodless coup. The new regime, operating under much the same constitution, imported android labor and invited off-planet business in. The human population resumed dropping through emigration.
In 2528, famine struck Outback, the first instance of such a thing in Terran space since the Psi War. The government was overthrown again and the next regime offered to return to United Earth in return for supplies and economic aid. UE accepted.
©1984, 1994, 2005 Earl Wajenberg. All Rights Reserved.