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The Astoundingly True Tale of José Fabuloso

This chapter originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue.

Chapter 5

Van Cove was busy enough to warrant its own orbital station. It was at a favorable confluence of routes that made for a good amount of transshipment without much interaction (or profit sharing) with the local planet-bound natives.

The José Fabuloso made port without violating too many traffic rules. Speedy near misses seemed to be the norm here. They were more noted on the dockside, as a more than normal number of dockhands appeared for a small ship with no cargo. “I’m guessing they don’t see a Narcissus that often,” mused O’Riley, watching the external monitors. “It should be good for a few drinks.”

“This is much bigger than Port Newark”, said Squirrel, looking at the station map. “I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere so large.”

“I’ve seen bigger,” said the old man.

“This is the biggest port we’ve been at in a while,” said M’Elise, “and the biggest one we’re likely to hit for another while. It would be nice to spend some time here, but the docking fees would bankrupt a dwarf and I’d like to keep the pace we’ve set.”

“You wouldn’t be thinking that the news front from the Port Newark terrorist attack has a few bits devoted to us personally?” asked O’Riley.

“Better safe than sorry”, said M’Elise. “The more light years between us and there the better. Sorry, Squirrel.”

Squirrel raised her hands. “No issue with me. I needed a change. The place was a dump.”

“Ah,” said the old man. “Reminds me of where I grew up.”

“So I’ve hit the local ad agencies already”, said M’Elise. “I pegged our price 11% higher than the most expensive charter ship in dock, so the extravagant spenders should notice. In the meantime we all have errands to run dockside.

“Keep your eyes out. This is a freeport so almost anything goes. If you find low mass exotics for a good price, let me know. That could be our bonus. We’re meeting up later at square seven to go uniform shopping. That should give you guys enough time to pick up some supplies.” She handed lists to José, O’Riley, and the old man. “Remember: most of this stuff is for our paying passengers. So no sampling! Questions?”

“What am I doing?” asked Squirrel.

“We are going to get your papers”, said M’Elise, matter of factly. “Not every port is a free port and we’re going to need documentation for you sooner or later.”

The three men stood in the supply shop looking mournful. José and O’Riley were looking into a glass case full of liquor. The old man stood nearby examining a shelf full of laxatives.

“All the saints in a six-pack,” swore O’Riley. “Check the list again.”

“No alcohol,” said José from memory. “Not even Solar Corona.”

“I’m not sure that counts as alcohol,” said O’Riley. José brightened up. “But it still isn’t on the list,” he cautioned.

A shop steward pointedly buffed the glass where their breath had steamed it.

“Can I help you with anything?” O’Riley started to open his mouth. “No samples.” He closed it again.

“Just looking,” said José.

“Perhaps you can look from further away? We do have other customers. Ones who are actually buying things.” They took the hint and backed off.

“Now, if you can distract that vulture,” said O’Riley, “there’s a stunt I learned in Kindergarten on Dundrum…”

“Won’t work” said the old man.

“How’d ya even know what I was thinking?” asked O’Riley, indignant.

“The old left hand, right hand, two person con, excuse me there, ooops, what a loose pair of overalls I have on shtick?” asked the old man with a knowing look.

O’Riley pouted. “Maybe.”

“Yeah, I learned that in kindergarten as well” the old man said triumphantly.

“You grew up in a state-run crèche too?” asked O’Riley sarcastically.

“You don’t want to know where I grew up, kiddo.” He tapped the bottom of one of the laxative boxes on the shelf. “I guess they didn’t have product tags in your crèche? Or you might know them as screamers. Real convenient. You just walk out, and they debit your credit chit automatically.”

“What if you don’t have a credit chit?” asked José.

“They scream.”

They slowly made their way around the warehouse collecting small parcels of luxury goods. M’Elise had made an exacting list which removed any leeway of even bargain hunting. José delighted in boring, but well defined, tasks and did most of the work. O’Riley pushed the cart and gossiped with the old man.

“One thing about the state crèches is that they were great equalizers” O’Riley reminisced. “It didn’t matter what section you were born to, everyone got the same education.”

“So petty thievery and charlatan skills were on everyone’s course?” the old man asked sarcastically.

“Ah, well now, that was different. I opted out of most things and got special education.”

“You mean you kept escaping this paradise of a crèche, got caught, and put with the juvenile delinquents?”

“Well, I wasn’t a fully contributing member of society. They tried to make me right.”

“By incarcerating you with those older and wiser in their criminal ways?” The old man looked O’Riley up and down. “It seems to have worked so well.”

“I do good in my own way,” said O’Riley defensively.

“We all do, we all do.”

After a lengthy conversation heavily laced with dialect M’Elise came away a few silver talents fewer and a piece of paper richer. The long limbed brown man, carefully folded on the pavement waved goodbye to her. Squirrel trotted up from where she had been window shopping. “Sorry!” she said breathlessly. “His dialect was too thick. It was giving me a headache.” M’Elise grunted in agreement. “He mostly seemed to be trying to sell you a husband.”

M’Elise snorted derisively. “Moral misappropriation. The confederacy adsorbs these worlds, ready or not, plonks transit stations in orbit and basically ignores them.”

“It’s sad they feel they have to sell off family members to make a living.”

M’Elise turned on her. “It wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t a market for them,” she snarled. “Useless people who feel they can rise from the ashes of the family they destroyed (though they swear it wasn’t their fault) with a bright shiny new mail-order spouse and freshly minted kids whose sales literature stresses how compliant and subservient they will be. Only to find out that things end up just as screwed up, and they’re only getting screwed for their money and citizenship.”

“You’re taking this a bit personally,” said Squirrel dispassionately.

M’Elise glared at her, and then shifted her gaze past her to glare at the wall. She took a few deep breaths. “You don’t know the half of it” she said quietly. Then she started down the corridor once more.

“We all have our skeletons in the closet,” Squirrel said under her breath. M’Elise looked at her sidelong, but didn’t comment further.

She stopped in the government district and peered at the office legend in multiple languages. “I think this is it. Citizenship office. Let’s get you done.”

“This is nuts! What makes you think we can get away with this?”

“They’re civil servants,” said M'Elise, like it explained everything.

“But I don’t even look remotely like a native. Why would they even consider giving me citizenship?”

“Look. It’s like this,” explained M’Elise. “The civil service acts upon laws passed by government. The government passes laws written by politicians. Politicians worked out ages ago that there is no such thing as objective truth. They don’t even bother anymore to try to convince each other that their way is the ‘right’ way.”

“So whoever has the marginal majority plasma drives their own laws through, right?” said Squirrel.

“Not quite. The bureaucracy is convoluted enough that spiteful underdogs can undermine due course by filibuster, frivolous motions, or other forms of guerrilla process at any turn.”

“But then nothing would ever get done!”

“Exactly!” said M’Elise to Squirrel’s consternation. “Since you can’t convince your opponents of your way of thinking and you can’t stop them from dragging your proposals down a gravity well you have to compromise.”

“So you get legislation that represents a balance between the different views,” said Squirrel.

M’Elise laughed long and hard. “Not a chance. To balance, they would not only have to see each other’s views they would have to acknowledge some merit to them. They don’t have the time to spare from their boondoggles.

“Let me use an example. So my junta wants to paint the starport, green but your junta wants it yellow. I have a billion reasons why I think green is better (mostly to do with who manufactures the green paint and what campaign contributions they make) and you have a billion reasons why green would be the worst decision since anal thermometers. Both of us rail on in public about what idiots the others are.

“Do we do something sensible like paint it grey? No. We privately agree to pass a law that starports are to be painted green except for the toilets and kitchens, which will be painted yellow, for some bogus reason like hygiene.

“And so it happens and we start painting our starports in these colors, even on worlds where the starlight is of a different wavelength that fails to distinguish between the two or amongst populations with congenital color blindness.”

“But what does this have to do with trying to get me an identity card?”

“Since politicians don’t believe in objective truth, the laws they pass make no objective sense. They do not reflect reality. Instead, for the civil service whose lives are built around them they define reality.

“Somewhere inside of each civil servant is a soul that once understood that painting docks green and toilets yellow is bloody stupid. But the ones who don’t go crazy from enforcing the idiotic survive by swaddling their reason in layers and layers of conformance until their entire world view is described entirely by the frame of reference defined by the regulations. Reality has no part.”

“That’s nuts!” objected Squirrel.

“Which is why this will work,” said M’Elise confidently.

Twenty minutes later Squirrel stood staring unbelieving at her Van Cove passport. “I can’t believe they thought I was a native!”

“Of course they did. You had a signed affidavit from a chief attesting you were a member of his tribe, two paycheck stubs from José Fabuloso Mercantile, someone with a valid Confed ID to attest to your identity, and the 20 talent processing fee. That’s what the law says is required to be a native, therefore you are. Nothing to do with reality.”

Squirrel blinked several times. “I look like a stunned animal,” she said of the picture.

“Yes. That’s about right.” M’Elise glanced at the picture on her own ident. “I look like I’m drooling. Kind of a tradition. It’s the only pleasure they get out of life.” She slipped it back in her pocket. “Let’s go see what trouble the boys have gotten into.”

to be continued…