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Pock‘s World

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Meanwhile, at the other side of the Galaxy. . . This is my first Science Fiction book since Hero! twenty years ago. It is almost a sequel, in that I have re-used some themes. But I used them in different ways and made a very different book. (And science has changed in those years, which is always a problem.) Pock‘s World, long settled by humankind, is accused of being infected by humanoid aliens. It has been quarantined and may have to be sterilized. Five people are chosen to go there and examine the evidence: saintly but ruthless Father Andre; Ratty Turnsole, muckraking reporter ripe for romance; ambitious politician Athena Fimble; manipulative bureaucrat Millie Backet; and shady billionaire Linn Lazuline. They all have their own agendas and some of them carry grudges. Pock‘s World surprises them all. Nothing is what they expect. Quickly entangled in love, politics, religion, and deceit, they discover that the clock is already ticking and the fate of humanity itself is at stake. [The cover art for Pock‘s World was created by my friend and neighbor, Doug Levitt. He is a very successful artist, but this was his first book cover, and my first chance to work with an artist on such a project. I think he did a stupendous job, and hope you agree.]

Review

" Very well-written plot and characters, the tale is a page-turner, as the potential for the death of an entire planet and its inhabitants looms large. The story should appeal to a wide range of readers, not just fans of science fiction. Highly Recommended. " - CM Magazine

" The publisher calls Pock’s World ‘a classic science fiction adventure,’ & why not: when you’re looking for a good adventure, Dave Duncan is a sure thing. Mostly in fantasy, but he can certainly do SF as well, & Pock’s World is a good example of his sly & fast paced plotting, his ability to construct intriguingly different worlds, & his knack for quick & entertaining characterization & dialogue." - Doug Barbour in http://eclecticruckus.wordpress.com/

" The moral and ethical questions posed are important. The story moves along as events unfold and races to an exciting conclusion." - SFRevu

"What an excellent read! This book is fast paced and gripping. It is set in a well thought out world with interesting and complex characters in a challenging situation. I recommend it to everyone who likes good, well presented and interesting science fiction." - Albedo One

Sample Chapter

Ratty Turnsole had spent an indeterminate time cognizing, sleeping, and cursing Brother Andre when he was awakened by a hot sexual dream turning into an incoming call. He had not known his system could be overridden like that. The caller wore a businessman‘s tunic and looked as if he might enjoy wrestling bears.

Without opening his eyes, Ratty said, Who‘re you and what the hell are you doing in my head?

--Sulcus Immit, Vice-President, STARS, Inc. ‘Morning, Friend Turnsole. Am I interrupting anything important?

I don‘t know you. How long had he been in orgy mode? He was ravenous and light-headed.

--You know me as much as you need to. I have a hot tip for you.

Fully awake now, Ratty diverted the optical implant in his left lateral geniculate nucleus to scan his oeuvre file and confirm that he had never based a story on a STARS lead. STARS, Inc.‘s releases were the dullest in the universe, all about entanglement links broken or restored, or about probes due to reach their objective in a few centuries. STARS leaks were non-existent. This must be a hoax. One of Ratty‘s pack was having a little fun with the boss. He directed both mind‘s eyes on the caller again.

I‘ll call you back.

--Sulcus. S-U-L-C-U-S.

It‘s on your tunic. I can read. Ratty broke the connection and sat up with a groan. Fortunately the simulation that callers saw was based on Brain archives; only facial expressions were current.

Use public channel. Call Vice-President Sulcus at STARS.

If Sulcus was willing to be called back, he must be genuine. Amazingly, the call was accepted at once, and there was Superman again, looking meaner than ever. He was real.

--Ready now?

Ready.

--Not for attribution, two-hour embargo?

Agreed, as long as this is exclusive.

--It is. Ayne Sector STARS, Inc. has quarantined Pock‘s World and is considering sterilization.

Not since the afternoon eleven years back when the loveliest girl he knew had introduced a precocious adolescent to open-mouth kissing had Ratty Turnsole been so at a loss for words. After a moment he whispered, "Jesus!" He never bothered with foreign planets, because the Ayne public knew nothing about them except what they saw on stupid cog-dramas, so nobody cared what happened there, only here at home. But Pock‘s World was no isolated mining asteroid. It had a culture, didn‘t it? Cities? What was its population? This could be the biggest story to break in his lifetime.

He queried, Cuckoos?

--What else? GM freaks. We‘re allowing a fact-finding mission in, to view the evidence and publish. Do you want to be included?

Stupid question, Sulcus.

--It may be dangerous. There could be riots.

Ratty sent an image of a male STARS employee engaged in a perversion.

--We‘ll have a car pick you up in fifteen minutes.

You know where I am?

--Stupid question, Turnsole.

Wait!

Too late. The face had gone, leaving only the sneer behind.

Ratty hurtled off the bed.

###


Ratty Turnsole was a professional reporter, the world‘s best brain-to-brain communicator. No matter what the news--an election, a gory crime, a natural disaster--citizens accessing the Brain to find out what it meant usually began by cognizing RATTY. Smiling, confident, Ratty would present eyewitness memories of the event, spliced in with world authorities explaining it and himself interpreting the tricky bits without ever talking down to his audience. Reassured by his explanation and the sense of being well informed, billions of Ayne folk would go back to beach or bed or aromatherapy, or whatever else held their current fancy. Direct cognition was the most efficient communication ever devised.

He employed a dozen human assistants and the best equipment money could buy. His head held a dozen implants, which was twice the safe limit, and several of his were too experimental even to be banned yet. All his waking perceptions were routinely stored in the Ayne Brain, and his ability to collect a week‘s jumbled images cognized by a team of observers and turn them into a coherent narrative was positively eerie, even if he said so himself, but the real secret of his success was skill with people. None of his helpers could come close to Ratty at seeing through a lie, debunking a phony, or breaking a hostile witness. He also had an infallible nose for news. No one could turn cute into sordid or vice versa better than he could.

Although Catholics were a minority of the Ayne population, for many days the world story had been the death of Pope Maggie and the ensuing conclave. Ratty and his pack had come close to scoring a stunning triumph, because the unexpected stampede to elect Brother Andre had been a direct result of his cog-doc, The Saint of Annatto. Ratty had been holding it in the can for release as soon as the old crone croaked. He had come within six votes of electing a pope! Indeed, he had almost won the consolation prize of bringing Cardinal Favela‘s candidacy crashing down in heaps of exposed hypocrisy. He would have done so had the cardinals dithered for just one more ballot. A very close near-miss! Weep me an ocean. He was young and resilient; there would be other scoops.

He had been working nonstop for days, using his K47G8 implant to suppress the diurnal rhythm of his suprachiasmatic nucleus. He would have preferred to retire to one of his coastal villas to party with a close friend, but the sad truth was that the celebrated Ratty Turnsole had no close friend at the moment. Success brought more work, more work more helpers, more helpers a higher payroll to meet.... Over the last couple of years the ebullient Ratty had become a workaholic. Only temporarily, of course, but at the moment he had no time to enjoy the good things he owned, and he had even less time to make friends. Rose had withered; Robyn had flown; Patience had tired of waiting. All that remained of his sex life these days was playback in seven senses--sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, motion, and excitement. The experience was completely convincing and could even be customized by amplifying selected brain areas, but it lacked the spontaneity of the real thing.

So, why not a jaunt off-world? At worst he had earned a vacation and a chance to mix it up with some girls.

First stop was the house medic. It grumbled about dehydration, low blood sugar and drug residues, but then it dispensed a liter of purple liquid and instructions to report back in an hour. Ratty drank the former and ignored the latter. While he was showering, he called the pack and told Jake to break the story in 110 minutes and carry it in his absence. Clean again, clad in a smart lemon-and-scarlet tunic and gold sandals, he was on his roof with three minutes to spare. STARS would appreciate punctuality.

Ratty owned six--or was it seven?--cars, but none as large and comfortable as the fancy military-style vehicle that swooped out of the sky to blow dust in his eyes. It had room for ten or more on its circular bench and it was more than--whoosh!--nippy in takeoff. He watched his hideaway vanish into the forest as the car hurtled upward and headed out over the strait.

The inside of the door bore STARS‘s insignia of a human hand clutching a five-pointed star, and the name, S.T.A.R.S. That was odd. He queried the Brain.

Explain origin of the acronym, STARS, as in STARS, Inc.

--Stellar Transport and Research Section.

Section of what, fergawdsake?

--That information not on file. Earliest reference in archives is dated standard 17,747.

Ratty made a note to check out STARS‘s origin for a possible story. The portable recorder he had brought was the best that credit could buy, a coin-sized disk on a ribbon, boasting a two-petabyte capacity, which should easily hold all his perceptions for a long-month. Leaving it turned off, he hung it around his neck and tucked in inside his tunic. He must do some research before he lost contact with the Brain.

Report on Jibba

Audio only: --Jacob Jibba the poet, or Jibba the planet, or Jibba--

The planet.

Optic: a plumpish woman behind a desk. Her hair style and prim costume suggested she had been memorized at least three hundred years ago. Her accent was bizarre and her appearance so vague that he could not even tell whether she was smiling.

--Jibba received its first settlers in 19,556, from New Flote, an outlying world of the Avens sector. It quickly established an industrial base and in 20,345 dispatched the first linking probes to other promising worlds, including Solidago and Haven. Technically Jibba was not the first planet of the Ayne sector to be settled, an honor that belongs to Pock‘s World, but Pock‘s was not regarded as part of the Ayne sector until after the loss of contact with Malacostraca. Jibba ranked 8.4 on the Motmot Terrestrial Scale, with its principal--

Cut! He must refine his question. He was starving. Car?

No answer. Surprise twisted through anger to worry. He had never known a car to refuse a query before. That would be all right if this junket were just his pack playing tricks on him, but STARS was answerable to no one, and Ratty Turnsole had made a galaxy of enemies during his career. Was he about to be vanished? The lake country going by beneath him suggested he was not heading to Shadoof Landing.

He went back to his research.

Report on sterilization of Jibba.

The same woman, still wearing the flowery gown, still vague --In 29,174 a colony of synthetic hominins was detected on the smaller continent. STARS immediately clamped a quarantine on the planet, and local authorities hastened to wipe out the infection, whose members became known as the "Soldier Ants." Although the nest was small, later that year it became evident that some juveniles had escaped. Determined to block any chance of the pseudo-species spreading off-world, STARS sterilized the planet by asteroid diversion. Subsequent surveys have confirmed the absence of eukaryotic life forms.

Ratty whispered, "Christ!" How many poor bastards died, then?

--Population at sterilization was estimated at 3,350,452,778 homo sapiens and between twenty-four and forty-three Soldier Ants.

Report on origin of term Diallelon Abomination.

This time the authority was, unsurprisingly, a Catholic priest, elderly, smugly infallible, and probably thousands of years dead. He sat at a desk and lectured.

--Jules, or Julius, Diallelon was a philosopher of probably the third millennium. Nothing is known of his personal life. He is remembered only for his suggestion that science should be used to improve the human germline to produce supermen. The Church declared this teaching heretical. Efforts have been made from time to time to put his idea into practice. The results are known as Diallelon abominations and are widely regarded as non-human. Most secular jurisdictions deny such abominations rights of citizenship, and the Church--

Cut!

Before he could ask any more questions, he realized that the car was landing and that bulging eyesore was the dome of St. Peter‘s. That made sense. Obviously STARS would like clerical authority for an act of geocide, and the Catholic Church was the largest denomination in the sector, with a hierarchal structure that most sects lacked. A rabbi or mullah picked at random would carry no weight, but a cardinal might. And hadn‘t the Church supported geocide before?

Report Catholic Church‘s attitude to the sterilization of Jibba.

The ghost appeared again. --Pope Benedict LII declared the Soldier Ants an abomination and proclaimed a crusade against them. When Jibba was sterilized, he expressed regret but issued a plenary indulgence to all who had participated.

Yuck!

The car settled gently in St. Peter‘s Square and spoke.

--There will be a fifteen-minute delay here.

I need something to eat.

--There are vendors.

The voice sounded like the one that had wakened him. Ratty cognized the Brain and confirmed the match. Predictably, the Brain claimed it lacked files on STARS personnel and thus could not confirm the speaker‘s identity.

He told the car to open the canopy and summon the nearest snack cart. Plastic cups of beer and roasted reis roe in a bun were the sort of diet he thought he had left behind years ago, but he ordered three of each, and they tasted better than his normal five-star cuisine.

With the door closed again, he could enjoy watching the tourists without having to endure his usual celebrity stares. On Ayne it took a sharp eye to distinguish twenties from forties and even sixties, but interdiction was down to seventy-two years and a few days now, and natural decay came rapidly after that. An unusual percentage of the crowd in the square were decrepits--boning up for their finals, no doubt. Even the youngest women were too modestly garbed or his taste, but he admired the bright-colored lads with the pikes and their ability to wear such absurd garments without showing embarrassment. He had no desire to visit St. Peter‘s itself. He had been there before, and all the carved rock, gilt, and colored glass in the world did not impress him. Its great age merely showed that mankind never learned anything.

The canopy lifted, and he blinked out at his second surprise of the day, a gangling, pole-thin old man in a brown robe and hood--the villain himself, Brother Andre! Although Ratty had never personally set eyes on the man before, he had set Jake‘s eyes and Mako‘s eyes on him. Barefoot, the future saint stepped into the car and sat opposite Ratty. The canopy closed, and the car rushed upward at a speed that gave Ratty pangs of jealousy.

Andre‘s face was a brown ruin, wrinkled and weathered, although the famous eyes were as blue and piercing as the legends said. He reached across, pulling his lips back to reveal an incomplete set of teeth. "I am Brother Andre. I assume we are to be fellow travelers. . .?"

He did not know Ratty! Before Ratty could recover from shock number three, he had accepted the hand, rough as coral. He spoke his name and at last saw recognition.

"The muckraker?"

"I prefer ‘reporter.‘ You never access cog-news?"

The friar shook his head. "The days are far too short already. I hear you reported a deal of nonsense about me recently."

"I damned nearly made you pope!"

"Well, I forgive you."

"Forgive me for failing?"

"Forgive you for trying."

And that was the famous smile? Yes, it was a good one.

Oh! "I would have succeeded if only you had accepted my calls or granted Mako an interview."

"I was busy that day."

"Scrubbing floors, Mako said."

Wrinkles deepened in a smile. "Also cleaning bed pans."

The cardinals had dithered through a dozen ballots before holding their noses and electing Favela. By the time Ratty had decided to go ahead without Brother Andre‘s testimony, he had been too late to deflate that nasty little hypocrite.

The car banked.

"Of course," Brother Andre added benevolently, "while your efforts were misguided, they brought the mission much publicity, and for that I am grateful."

His smile displayed amusement and confidence. Would anything ever rattle Brother Andre? This was the man the old pope had reputedly called, "A silken hand in a titanium glove." A cardinal had explained, "If you need help, he will give you everything he has. If you don‘t, then he expects you to give him everything you have."

"I have a religious question for you, Brother."

"Ask, and I will do the best I can." His pose of humility hid galactic arrogance.

"My views on religion were set when I was nine. We were on a family picnic--my parents, baby sister, me. A sudden rain squall sent us all running for shelter. I reached the car first. I turned around just in time to see a lightning bolt strike them. I ran back, of course. My father was obviously dead. My mother was still twitching, but they had been holding hands and were welded together. My sister had been fried. The Brain detected the deaths, but the aid it sent arrived too late. I was inherited by grandparents, who saw me as an undeserved burden. They leased a nanbot and more or less told it to keep me out of sight until I was adult and knew how to behave. How can I be expected to worship a god who does such things?"

"By faith, Brother. If you believe in a god, you must trust him." The friar raised a callused hand to block comment. "I know that is not an adequate answer. If you truly wish private religious instruction, I shall happily spare you as much time as possible on our journey. We can study the Book of Job together, but I admit that you may not understand the Lord‘s motives until He explains them to you himself, as I am sure He will."

About to ask when that would be, Ratty guessed the answer and switched to a safer and more useful topic.

"Who else will be traveling with us to Pock‘s?"

"I would prefer not to discuss our journey until we lift off, if you don‘t mind."

Even if Ratty did mind, obviously. Meaning the friar knew no more than he did. The old man would never admit that, because the Church must not confess to ignorance or accept that STARS was pulling its strings just as it pulled every string in the galaxy.

"Since we have time on our hands at the moment," Brother Andre conceded , "I shall be happy to answer your questions on other matters."

"Very kind of you, Brother." It was too late to prevent Cardinal Favela becoming pope, but confirmation might be useful some other time. This was all being recorded for the pack. "Do you go to Guacharo often?"

"No."

"It‘s close to Annatto, I understand."

Andre shrugged. Emaciated though he was, his shoulders were broad. "About a two-day walk over the hills."

Oh yes, there was that. Conspicuous humility was an especially odious sort of pride. "You are not walking now."

"Papal orders overrule the rule of my order." Eyes twinkling, Andre waited with insufferable patience for the next question.

"I understand that the hospital at Guacharo is run by your mission."

"No. It is staffed by Capuchins but remains independent of Annatto." Why did he not ask why Ratty was asking about Guacharo?

"You visited Guacharo last year, around midsummer?"

"No."

Ratty‘s most expensive and experimental implant, the VERIT45, integrated visual and auditory input to determine if a speaker was lying. So far Brother Andre had not raised a twitch from it. Balked, Ratty tried another tack.

"The new pope is the same age as you?"

"Within a few days." Still no sign of curiosity or any indication that the old man wondered where the questions were leading.

"Your Church supports the population limitation laws?"

"Some of them, including the interdict law." Andre‘s eyes were bright. "I had hoped you wanted to discuss the work of the mission, Friend Turnsole, not just dabble in gossip.

Ah! Age had not dulled the old man‘s wits after all. Good. Ratty enjoyed a tussle.

"What gossip did you have in mind, Brother?"

"I do not repeat slander. If you care to dirty your mouth with it, then I will refute any statements I know to be false. Where possible, I will confirm what I know to be true."

You cannot like him, one archbishop had said, but you must admire his honesty and fear his example.

"Several witnesses told me," Ratty said, "that Cardinal Favela underwent heart surgery in Guacharo hospital last year, and that you spoke with him there. He was past interdict age then, of course. It is no secret that the rich and powerful can find ways around the interdict laws, but for a senior cleric to do so would be a major hypocrisy as well as a crime." That was the news that would have sunk Favela‘s candidacy.

Andre seemed unconcerned. "My information is that he underwent no surgery and received no medication. He experienced a dizzy spell brought on by overwork and was granted some bed rest and nursing care. Those are not forbidden, Ratty. Nor are painkillers, but so far as I know he did not need any. I spoke with him, but only by cognition, from Annatto. I offered my best wishes and my prayers. Your informants may be conflating a brief trip I made to Guacharo in the spring. I toured the wards on that occasion." The eyes glittered. "You were thinking, perhaps, that the untruths you mentioned would have thrown the conclave into disarray? Not so. The rumor was already going around. Several cardinals cognized me to ask whether there was anything to the tale, and I gave them the truth as I knew it. Besides, surgery leaves traces--records in the Brain and scars on the patient. The calumny could easily have been discredited by unbuttoning a shirt."

"And did Cardinal Favela bare his breast for the cardinals?"

"I cannot say, because I was not there."

Still not a tweet from the GBA4445. Ratty reluctantly concluded that he had found a witness who would never lie.

Ratty did, though. "I am grateful to you for correcting me."

Judging by Andre‘s grim expression, he was undeceived. "You worry, I suppose, that our new pope seeks to bury his guilty secret by silencing those who knew of it?--me, who doubtless helped stitch up his incision, and you, who threaten to unmask his perfidy. Obviously he has called in some favor from STARS and arranged for us both to die in an unfortunate interstellar accident."

Ratty had not gotten quite that far yet. With a twinge of alarm, he said, "If you think that, then why are you going?"

"I don‘t think that." The friar smiled "I am going because the Holy Father told me to. You must have made many more enemies than he in your career, Brother Ratty. Does STARS have cause to hate you?"

"Yes."

"Then you have even less chance of returning than I do. Besides, in the line of work you have attributed to me, Friend Turnsole, martyrdom is usually regarded as an upward career move. Not in yours, though. Are you still determined to accompany us?"

"Try and stop me!"

"I should not dream of it," Andre said, and a wonderfully warm smile spread over his age-wracked features. "I look forward to your company. Let us agree to be good foes and fence with the buttons on our rapiers. I am sure your counsel will be valuable."

Feeling strangely out-maneuvered by that smile, Ratty wondered what Jake and the pack were making of all this. "Do you suppose the team will produce a unanimous report?"

"On, no." The friar sighed. "I do not even know what it is expected to produce. I am afraid it is not expected to produce anything."