View Full Version : Mote In God's Eye, The - Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

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06-07-2007, 08:07 PM
Chapter 3 - Dinner Party

MacArthur accelerated away from New Chicago at one standard gravity. All over the ship crewmen worked to change over from the down-is-outboard orientation of orbit when spin furnished the gravity to the up-is-forward of powered flight. Unlike merchant ships, which often coast long distances from inner planets to the Alderson Jump points, warships usually accelerate continuously.
Two days out from New Chicago, Blaine held a dinner party.
The crew brought out linens and candelabra, heavy silver plate and etched crystal, products of skilled craftsmen on half a dozen worlds; a treasure trove belonging, not to Blaine, but to MacArthur herself. The furniture was all in place, taken from its spin position around the outer bulkheads and remounted on the after bulkheads-except for the big spin table, which was recessed into what was now the cylindrical wardroom wail.
That curved dining table had bothered Sally Fowler. She had seen it two days ago, when MacArthur was still under spin and the outer bulkhead was a deck, likewise curved. Now Blaine noted her moment of relief as she entered via the stairwell.
He remarked its absence in Bury, who was affable, very much at ease, and clearly enjoying himself. He had spent time in space, Blaine decided. Possibly more time than Rod.
It was Blaine's first opportunity to meet the passengers formally. As he sat in his place at the head of the table, watching the stewards in spotless dress white bring in the first course, Blaine suppressed a smile. MacArthur had everything except food.
"I'm much afraid the dinner's not up to the furnishings," he told Sally. "But we'll see what we find." Kelley and the stewards had conferred with the chief petty officer cook all afternoon, but Rod didn't expect much.
There was plenty to eat, of course. Ship's fodder: bioplast, yeast steaks, New Washington corn plant; but Blaine had had no chance to lay in cabin stores for himself on New Chicago, and his own supplies had been destroyed in the battle with the rebel planetary defenses. Captain Cziller had of course removed his own personal goods. He'd also managed to take the leading cook and the number-three turret gunner who'd served as captain's cook.
The first dish was brought in, an enormous platter with a heavy cover that looked like beaten gold. Golden dragons chased each other around the perimeter, while the good fortune hexagrams of the I Ching floated benignly above them. Fashioned on Xanadu, the dish and cover were worth the price of one of MacArthur's gigs. Gunner Kelley stood behind Blaine, imperious in dress whites and scarlet sash, the perfect major-domo. It was difficult to recognize him as the man who could make new recruits faint from his chewing out, the sergeant who had led MacArthur's Marines in battle against the Union Guard. Kelley lifted the cover with a practiced flourish.
"Magnificent!" Sally exclaimed. If she was only being polite, she carried it off well, and Kelley beamed. A pastry replica of MacArthur and the black-domed fortress she had fought, every detail sculpted more carefully than an art treasure in the Imperial Palace, lay revealed on the platter. The other dishes were the same, so that if they hid yeast cake and other drab fare, the effect was of a banquet. Rod managed to forget his concern and enjoy the dinner.
"And what will you be doing now, my lady?" Sinclair asked. "Hae you been to New Scotland before?"
"No, I was supposed to be traveling professionally, Commander Sinclair. It wouldn't be flattering to your homeland for me to have visited there, would it?" She smiled, but there were light-years of blank space behind her eyes.
"And why would nae we be flattered from a visit by you? There's nae place in the Empire that would no think itself honored."
"Thank you-but I'm an anthropologist specializing in primitive cultures. New Scotland is hardly that," she assured him. The accent sparked professional interest. Do they really talk that way in New Scotland? The man sounds like something from a pre-Empire novel. But she thought that very carefully, not looking at Sinclair as she did. She could sense the engineer's desperate pride.
"Well said," Bury applauded. "I seem to have met a number of anthropologists lately. Is it a new specialty?"
"Yes. Pity there weren't more of us earlier. We've destroyed all that was good in so many places we've taken into the Empire. We hope never to make those mistakes again."
"I suppose it must be something of a shock," said Blaine, "to be brought into the Empire, like it or not, without warning-even if there weren't any other problems. Perhaps you should have stayed on New Chicago. Captain Cziller said he was having trouble governing the place."
"I couldn't." She looked moodily down at her plate, then glanced up with a forced smile. "Our first rule is that we must be sympathetic toward the people we study. And I hate that place," she added with venomous sincerity. The emotion felt good. Even hatred was better than emptiness.
"Aye," Sinclair agreed. "Anyone would, being kept in prison camp for months."
"Worse than that, Commander. Dorothy disappeared. She was the girl I came with. She just vanished." There was a long silence, and Sally was embarrassed. "Please, don't let me spoil our party."
Blaine was searching for something to say when Whitbread gave him his opportunity. At first Blaine saw only that the junior midshipman was doing something under the edge of the table-but what? Tugging at the tablecloth, testing its tensile strength. And earlier he'd been looking at the crystal. "Yes, Mr. Whitbread," Rod said. "It's very strong."
Whitbread looked up, flushing, but Blaine didn't intend to embarrass the boy. "Tablecloth, silverware, plates, platters, crystal, all have to be fairly durable," he told the company at large. "Mere glassware wouldn't last the first battle. Our crystal is something else. It was cut from the windscreen of a wrecked First Empire reentry vehicle. Or go I was told. It's certain we can't make such materials any longer. The linen isn't really linen, either; it's an artificial fiber, also First Empire. The covers on the platter are crystal-iron electroplated onto beaten gold."
"It was the crystal I noticed first," Whitbread said diffidently.
"So did I, some years ago." Blaine smiled at the middies. They were officers, but they were also teen-age boys, and Rod could remember his days in the gunroom. More courses were brought, to meet with shoptalk scaled down for laymen, as Kelley orchestrated the dinner. Finally the table was clear except for coffee and wines.
"Mr. Vice," Blaine said formally.
Whitbread, junior to Staley by three weeks, raised his glass. "Captain, my lady. His Imperial Majesty." The officers lifted their glasses to their sovereign, as Navy men had done for two thousand years.
"You'll let me show you around my homeland," Sinclair asked anxiously.
"Certainly. Thank you, but I don't know how long we'll be there." Sally looked expectantly to Blaine.
"Nor I. We're to put in for a refit, and how long that takes is up to the Yard."
"Well, if it's not too long, I'll stay with you. Tell me, Commander, is there much traffic from New Scotland to the Capital?"
"More than from most worlds this side of the Coal Sack, though that's nae saying a lot. Few ships with decent facilities for carrying passengers. Perhaps Mr. Bury can say more; his liners put into New Scotland."
"But, as you say, not to carry passengers. Our business is to disrupt interstellar trade, you know." Bury saw quizzical looks. He continued, "Imperial Autonetics is the business of transporting robotic factories. Whenever we can make something on a planet cheaper than others can ship it in, we set up plants. Our main competition's the merchant carriers."
Bury poured himself another glass of wine, carefully selecting one that Blaine had said was in short supply. (It must be a good one; otherwise the scarcity wouldn't have bothered the Captain.) "That's why I was on New Chicago when the rebellion broke out."
Nods of acceptance from Sinclair and Sally Fowler; Blaine with his posture too still and face too blank; Whitbread nudging Staley-Wait'll I tell you-gave Bury most of what he wanted to know. Suspicions, but nothing confirmed, nothing official. "You have a fascinating vocation," he told Sally before the silence could stretch. "Tell us more, won't you? Have you seen many primitive worlds?"
"None at all," she said ruefully. "I know about them only from books. We would have gone on to visit Harlequin, but the rebellion -- " She stopped.
"I was on Makassar once," said Blaine.
She brightened instantly. "There was a whole chapter on that one. Very primitive, wasn't it?"
"It still is. There wasn't a big colony there to begin with. The whole industrial complex was smashed down to bedrock in the Secession Wars, and nobody visited the place for four hundred years. They had an Iron Age culture by the time we got there. Swords. Mail armor. Wooden seagoing sailing ships."
"But what were the people like?" Sally asked eagerly. "How did they live?"
Rod shrugged, embarrassed. "I was only there a few days. Hardly time enough to get the feel of a world. Years ago, when I was Staley's age. I remember mostly looking for a good tavern." After all, he wanted to add, I'm not an anthropologist.
The conversation drifted on. Rod felt tired, and looked for a polite opportunity to bring the dinner to a close. The others seemed rooted to their seats.
"Ye study cultural evolution," Sinclair was saying earnestly, "and perhaps that's wise. But could we nae have physical evolution as well? The First Empire was verra large and sparsely spread, with room enough for almost anything. May we no find somewhere, off in some neglected corner of the old Empire, a planet full o' supermen?"
Both midshipmen looked suddenly alert. Bury asked,
"What would physical evolution of humans bring, my lady?"
"They used to teach us that evolution of intelligent beings wasn't possible," she said. "Societies protect their weaker members. Civilizations tend to make wheel chairs and spectacles and hearing aids as soon as they have the tools for them. When a society makes war, the men generally have to pass a fitness test before they're allowed to risk their lives. I suppose it helps win the war." She smiled. "But it leaves precious little room for the survival of the fittest."
"But suppose," Whitbread suggested, "suppose a culture were knocked even further back than Makassar? All the way to complete savagery: clubs and fire. There'd be evolution then, wouldn't there?"
Three glasses of wine had overcome Sally's black mood, and she was eager to talk of professional matters. Her uncle often told her she talked too much for a lady, and she tried to watch herself, but wine always did it to her- wine and a ready audience. It felt good, after weeks of nothingness.
"Certainly," she said. "Until a society evolved. You'd have natural selection until enough humans got together to protect each other from the environment. But it isn't long enough. Mr. Whitbread, there is a world where they practice ritual infanticide. The elders examine children and kill the ones who don't conform to their standards of perfection. It's not evolution, exactly, but you might get some results that way-except that it hasn't been long enough."
"People breed horses. And dogs," Rod observed.
"Yes. But they haven't got a new species. Ever. And societies can't keep constant rules long enough to make any real changes in the human race. Come again in a million years- Of course there were the deliberate attempts to breed supermen. Like Sauron System."
Sinclair grunted. "Those beasties," he spat. "'Twas they started the Secession Wars and nearly killed the lot o' us." He stopped suddenly as Midshipman Whitbread cleared his throat.

Sally jumped into the lull. "That's another system I can't be sympathetic with. Although they're Empire loyalists now. She looked around. Everyone had a strange look, and Sinclair was trying to hide his face behind a tilted wineglass. Midshipman Horst Staley's angular face might have been carved from stone. "What's the matter?" she asked.
There was a long silence. Finally Whitbread spoke. "Mr. Staley is from Sauron System, my lady."
"I-I'm sorry," Sally blurted. "I guess I really put my foot in it, didn't I? Really, Mr. Staley, I'm...
"If my young gentlemen can't take that much pressure, I don't need them in my ship," Rod said. "And you weren't the only one to put your foot in it." He looked significantly at Sinclair. "We don't judge men by what their home worlds did hundreds of years ago." Damn. That sounds stilted. "You were saying about evolution?"
"It-it ought to be pretty well closed off for an intelligent species," she said. "Species evolve to meet the environment. An intelligent species changes the environment to suit itself. As soon as a species becomes intelligent, it should stop evolving."
"A pity we don't have any others for comparison," Bury said easily. "Only a few fancied ones." He told a long story about an improbably intelligent octopoid meeting a centaur, and everyone laughed. "Well, Captain, it was a fine dinner," Bury ended.
"Yes." Rod stood and offered Sally his arm, and the others scrambled to their feet. She was quiet again as he escorted her through the corridor to her cabin, and only polite as they parted. Rod went back to the bridge. More repairs had to be recorded into the ship's brain.