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Oberon Prospero McElhaney stumbled slightly as he emerged from Government House, clutching convulsively at the buff envelope in his hand. It contained his orders for his first assignment as a regular member of the Federation Special Services.
This was the last thing he wanted. He had hated his last assignment when he was snatched from his quiet life as a clerk on an outpost mining planet, filling out forms and filing same. Granted, he saved a monumental advancement in spaceship technology from a meglomaniac, but that wasn't entirely his fault. Now his neat and orderly life was at the whims of bureaucracy and totally disrupted, perhaps forever.
Or perhaps not.
Signaling a passing heli, he gave the address of the apartment he had been assigned during his stay at District Central and settled back to mumble quietly to himself about the vicissitudes of life in the modern galaxy.
Stepping through the door of his apartment he was shocked to hear a familiar voice, one that reminded him of an old family retainer with the sense of humor of a Gila monster. He spun about to find the source, then realized a missing ingredient to the search. "Would you mind," he said to the room at large, "turning on the lights?"
Blinking into the sudden glare, he saw the source of the voice, a computer console surrounded by enough peripherals to stock his own electronics shop. Its gleaming surface made identification instant. It was his old computer from his outpost planet, the one whose help did little to ease his job, or his mind. "What," he asked, "are you doing here?"
In response the computer spat out a buff envelope suspiciously like the one Obie held in his own hand. Picking it up he saw that the outside was printed just like his own; they had drafted his computer the way they had drafted him. The only question was "Why?"
"Apparently," the computer intoned, "they felt that the assistance I provided you in the Sterling-Quincannon affair was of such a caliber that you should retain my services for future endeavors."
"Of course," Obie sighed. "Well, what are your orders?"
"Merely to assist you in the carrying out of yours."
"What, my I ask, are yours?"
"I haven't looked yet."
"May I suggest you do so?"
"You may not."
"All right, don't sulk." Obie looked at his envelope with the kind regard he reserved for unsavory souvenirs deposited by diarrhetic birds, then tore it open. "I looked at them."
"Would your orders not be easier to read if you opened the envelope on one end or the other, rather than in the middle?"
"You do it your way, I'll do it mine."
"I believe that's what got you into trouble the last time."
Obie read his orders, then read them again to see if they made the same lack of sense a second time. They did.
"Well?" the computer asked.
"They want me," Obie said, his feeling for the bureaucratic mind dripping from every word, "to stop a war."
"I didn't know wars were allowed."
"They aren't, idiot. That's why they want me to stop it." Obie read the orders a third time; they hadn't changed. "Yes, they want me to stop a war. I can't even stop bad breath. How am I supposed to do it?"
"A good gargle can do wonders."
"I meant," Obie grated, "the war."
"Oh. A good gargle would not, I fear, prove efficacious."
"Thank you for that prime piece of information."
"Not at all."
Obie decided that as long as he had to do the job, he might as well do it. "Tell me what there is to know about Otzriar."
"Otzriar is the planet with the war we have to stop," Obie screamed quietly. "Tell me about it."
The computer examined its memory banks, found the number to access the central information repository, sucked it dry about Otzriar, and signalled readiness to report.
"So report," Obie snarled.
"Otzriar, a planet circling a spectral class G-5 star at a mean radius of 131,296,783.4672 kilometers, nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere, diameter 11,435.7856 kilometers--"
"Never mind all that. Tell me something I can understand."
"You won't weight as much, you'll get a better tan, and you can breathe."
"Fine. Sounds like this is going to be a pleasure trip."
"I doubt it," the computer opined, but only to itself.
From orbit the planet looked very peaceful. It also looked very dry, what little water there was very smooth and the land very bumpy. Obie couldn't see the large valley where his assignment would be based, but that didn't worry him. What did was the fact that eventually he was going to have to enter it and try to fulfill his assignment.
Obie turned to his computer, now mounted in a smooth spheroid on wheels. "You're sure these two headmen, Otzriurggle and Otzriafffh, are willing to talk to me?"
"Those are not names, they are titles, and of course not."
"Fine. What are you sure of?"
"That they are nasty, dirty after their own fashions, and in charge."
"That's your problem."
"Anything to help."
Obie growled quietly for a moment, then said, " You'd better give me some details about what they're like down there."
"The governments of the planet below are, basically, theocracies. Both seem based on the proportion of water to land, and both have major rituals that involve getting as dirty as possible, one bathing in dust and the other in mud. And both loathe the other's form of worship, considering it blasphemous."
"It is my function."
Obie returned to the port and his contemplation of the orb below. Finally he said, "I suppose I'd better get down there."
"I suppose you had."
"How will you dress?"
Obie looked down at his semi-dress coverall. "I suppose like this." The computer didn't reply. "I take it you don't approve."
"You're the one in charge, not I."
"I would appreciate your input."
"Of course. According to departmental regulations . . . "
"What departmental regulations?"
"The ones you haven't read."
"I haven't belonged to the department long enough to read any regulations," Obie complained.
"Thus my presense to help you over this rocky road of adjustment. To continue: any operative meeting the indigenous inhabitants of a planet should conform to the cultural mores in terms of dress, ornamentation, and deportment."
"Of course. I should of thought of that myself. What does it mean?"
"It means you have to look like the natives insofar as it is possible."
"All right. What do the natives look like?"
"Please observe." The computer executed a quarter-turn and projected a hologram into the center of the room. A silence with the consistency of taffy stretched across several minutes. Obie finally gurgled, "Surely you jest."
"I am not programmed for humor."
"You want me to look like a two meter, 135 kilo, tailless, scaly, definitely carnivorous, and unmistakably male reptiloid?"
"Not I. It is a departmental directive."
"How, may I ask, am I to accomplish this feat of transformation?"
"Well, you do have certain features in common: you are the same height, bipedal, tailless, and male..."
"Not that male!"
"...and can use make-up and costuming for the rest."
"What about that picket fence in its mouth?"
"The department doesn't require absolute verisimilitude, merely a reasonable facsimile. As long as you eat meat the requirements will be met."
"Fine. I always wanted scurvy and rickets. They're a fine matched set."
"The assignment shouldn't take that long. Besides, the extra room in the costume you need to make up the difference between your 80 kilos and the requisite 135 can be filled with food or equipment or whatever you deem advisable."
"What I deem advisable," Obie sighed, "is for someone else to do this." He shuddered another glance at the holo then waved to have it turned off. "Let's get this over with. Make me a costume and whatever else I need while I try to make an appointment with one of these high mucky-mucks."
"A truer word was never spoken," the computer sotto voced.
"In the beginning [Why, Obie wondered, did they all begin that way], the people lived in the joy of Otz' benevolence in a green and verdant land. They filled the mountains and valleys, all of Otzriar their garden of delight.
"But," Otzriafffh continued, "the swirling eye of Otz looked down upon his world and waxed wroth with his people and their indolent ways, and said, 'Let there be a dryness throughout the land, and let them suffer the lack.' And the people suffered the lack of water, and came down from the mountains, and did come unto this valley, wherein they did settle and thrive, devoting their lives and beings to the worship of Otz, bathing themselves in the dust in penance for deserving His divine wrath."
Obie, realizing suddenly that the story was over, stopped nodding, sat up, and nodded. "I see," he temporized, and made a valiant attempt to not scratch at a poorly packed food packet prickling against his abdomen. He failed.
"An itch?" asked Otzriafffh.
"Loose scales," Obie blurted.
"Loose scales?" asked Otzriafffh.
"Yes," Obie temporized. "Molting, I'm afraid."
"Ahh. Most of us must cope with the itching," Otzriafffh expounded. "A further penance we must serve to the glory of Otz."
"Indeed?" grated Obie.
"Indeed," assured Otzriafffh.
"My glerm," Otzriafffh continued, "I am pleased to see one of the young take an interest in the historical basis of our conflict with the blasphemous miscreants who insist upon infesting the rightful and righteous land of the true believer, the dustful and proper property of our Lord, Otz, Who has decreed that we live in dry and die in dry and worship Him in dry. Those across the valley that waste and abuse His bounty, obscenely using His wonder to carry out their debased and blasphemous rituals, should be wiped from the face of His world. We are pleased to see the young come to learn of our holy war."
"Yes," Obie smiled.
"May the aridity of our Lord be upon you," Otzriafffh closed the audience.
"Thank you, Your Dryness," Obie sneezed, then, bowing, he turned in a cloud of dust, and left the audience chamber, puffs choking every step as he walked out.
"In the beginning [here we go again, Obie groaned], the people lived in the joy of Otz' benevolence in a green and verdant land. They filled the mountains and valleys, all of Otzriar their garden of delight.
"But," Otzriurggle continued, "the swirling eye of Otz looked down upon His world and waxed wroth with his people and their indolent ways, and said, 'Let there be a dryness throughout the land, and let them suffer the lack.' And the people suffered the lack of water, and came down from the mountains, and did come unto this valley, wherein Otz bestowed the sign of his forgiveness by providing the blessing of water. Here the people did settle and thrive, devoting their lives and beings to the worship of Otz, bathing themselves in the mud of his benevolent gift of water."
Obie smiled, then remembered and pressed the button that would allow his mask to assume the grimace deemed appropriate for a show of pleased gratitude. "Thank you, Your Dampness, for your gracious enlightenment of this poor and ignorant fool."
"It is nothing," Otzriurggle burbled through his layer of sticky mud.
"That's what I thought," Obie mumbled to himself. "I shall take no more of your valuable time, your Dampness," he continued aloud. "Thank you once again." Obie heaved his bulky costume out of the mudpool in which he had heard yet again the story of Otz, and squelched out of the temple, clots of mud falling by the wayside. Once in the open he chinned the radio switch. "Computer, get me out of here," he whispered. "And have a hose at the air lock."
"All right," Obie told the computer once he was divested of his costume and comparatively clean, "that's the story they both tell about the source of their rituals. What does it mean without its theological overtones?"
"While you have been lazing about below," the computer replied, ignoring Obie's growl, "I have been doing some research on some cosmological incidents. The stories you received fit in well with what I have discovered.
"As you can see, the planet's surface is extremely mountainous. In the past the surface consisted of basically one continent, one major sea, and a multitude of islands and lakes.
"In addition, this planet was in a different orbit. However, approximately 5,000 standard years ago a small black hole drifted close enough to pull the planet into an orbit slightly closer to the primary, thus raising the mean temperature sufficiently to evaporate most of the surface water, leaving it suspended in the atmosphere as water vapor."
"It did seem a touch muggy."
"100% humidity has that effect."
"Yes. Well, make a change on the suit: take out the food and put in air conditioning. If I'm going to lose weight I'd rather do it through dieting than dying."
"Programmed. May I continue?"
"Very well. All these planetary problems occurred during the religion forming period of the natives' culture. The black hole and its accompanying nimbus of dust and gas falling into it would, I am sure, be the source of their image of the swirling eye of Otz. One segment of the culture came to the conclusion that their god, Otz, was punishing them and thus they had to serve penance by depriving themselves of water and bathing in dust. The other segment of the culture chose to believe that Otz punished them and then forgave them by leaving some water, and they therefore, in celebration of their god's mercy, bathe in the mud that was left them.
"The natives followed the retreating water down the mountainsides until they finally reached the drying seabed which is slightly slanted, wet on one side and dry on the other. That is the valley in which the population now resides.
"Many of the natives perished during this period but now the population has grown sufficiently to cause crowding between the two groups. The drys are fighting for an expansion of the dust, the wets for an expansion of the mud, both for the sake of their religious rites. This, then, is the cause of the war."
"Which I have to stop," Obie moaned.
"Which you have to stop," the computer agreed smugly.
Obie stood before the 3-D mirror and fingered his mousy brown hair. "That mask adhesive," he muttered to the computer, "is making my hair fall out even faster than it used to, and I don't have that much left to lose."
"Have you determined how to stop the impending war?" the computer asked with absolutely no concern for Obie's thinning hair.
Obie turned and glared at the computer. "No."
"Ah," the computer intoned. "Progress."
Obie returned to the mirror. "If there was such a thing as progress, there would be a cure for baldness." With a last glance at several strands between his fingertips, and a closer one at the flakes of dandruff clinging to them, he left the 'fresher and went to the main room.
"What we need to do," he said to himself, ordering his thoughts, "is to get the two sides to accept a compromise, or eliminate the causes they are fighting for."
"The brilliant mind of the trained agent comes through again."
Obie scrowled. "And what's your analysis, O great helpmate in my time of tribulation?"
The computer paused, an event Obie found not only momentous but immensely gratifying. Finally it said, "Have you a plan?"
Obie smiled in satisfaction. "Many spring immediately to mind," he pontificated. The computer mumbled, "I'm sure," but Obie didn't notice. "However," he went on, "I believe the best would be to reason with them, to appeal to their better natures."
"Assuming they have better natures."
"That goes without saying, so shut up."
"Oh, great Otzriafffh, even greater Otz would wish that his creation, the people of Otzriar, live in peace and brotherhood."
"Where do you get this?" Otzriafffh queried querulously, batting at the dust his words had raised and thus totally obscuring his view of Obie.
"Do not the holy writings state that all should live under Otz' benevolent eye?"
Otzriafffh paused in his unconscious scratching and blinked blearily through the haze. "Indeed, young one, you may have a point. All should live as one under Otz." A gleam worked its way around the obscuring dust veil over his eyes. "And they will, they will! All shall be one. As soon as we wipe from the face of Otzriar those blasphemous miscreants on the other side of the valley, all shall be peace and harmony. After all, we all agree on this side; it's only those cretins that are disturbing Otz' tranquility. Without them there would be no disagreement.
"My glerm," Otzriafffh enthused, clapping Obie on the shoulder and innocently sinking three inch talons into the costume, "you've convinced me. No more skirmishing and simple shows of Righteousness Pushed Too Far," he continued, simply showing gleaming fangs. "No, from now on it's cheek by jowl, hand to hand, fang and talon all out to-the-finish Holy War!"
Obie, overcome by emotion, or halitosis from Otzriafffh's final blast in his face, reacted with aplomb to this as usual reverse interpretation of his diplomacy: uttering a heartfelt "Arrgghh" he fainted.
"Ah," said Otzriafffh, "it's heartwarming indeed to see and hear such enthusiasm for our righteous cause, although," he mused, bending over Obie's supine form, "keeling over from righteous zeal and ecstasy may be considered, by some, as a trifle excessive and a touch dangerous in the line of battle."
A low moan of ecstasy, indistinguishable from one of anguish, was Obie's only response.
"But you don't understand," Obie angsted at Otzriurggle, who had sunk to his eyeballs in the mud as he contemplated with gleeful blubs the extinction of his cross-valley rivals. "The idea," Obie continued, "is not escalating the war, but to make peace."
Otzriurggle rose to putative chin level and glazed at Obie with jaundiced innocence. "What could be more peaceful than a dead enemy?"
"A friendly enemy."
"Contradiction in terms," Otzriurggle flumpffed as he sank again.
"But if he's alive he could be a friend!"
"Nothing friendlier than a dead enemy."
"Nothing more useless, either."
"Nonsense. A dead enemy provides more living space, less disagreement, and a high grade fertilizer.
"I knew you would agree," Otzriurggle beamed in response to Obie's low growl.
"Not only do they not have better natures, but this dandruff is getting worse," Obie grumbled pensively. "I wonder if you can comb it?"
"Not only am I unequipped for such tonsorial efforts," the computer responded pedantically, "but the efficacy of such an endeavor is of doubtful merit."
Obie turned and glared. "That was a sarcastic remark in the form of a rhetorical question, not a request for assistance nor for a feasibility study."
"Sarcasm ill becomes you."
"Dents in your external housing ill become you."
"May one assume," the computer asked reasonably, "that your pacification program has not developed to your satisfaction?"
"My pacification program has them arming to the teeth."
"A formidable vision, indeed."
Obie bent to wash the dandruff from his hands, watching the flakes gather the water around them like snowballs. "If only I could come up with something less lethal than they have in mind."
"What have you in mind?"
"Your pickups need cleaning."
"So does the sink."
"I have nothing in mind," Obie responded, swishing water around the basin. "Nothing at -- all -- "
"Ah," the computer recognized the symptoms, "the pause that represses."
"You've thought of something to keep this war down to an acceptable level."
"May one know what you have?"
"No. And dig up everything you have about ancient weapons that throw things."
"Any things. But make them large."
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Richard F. Taflinger.
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