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Denzil Towns keeps a scrapbook about Paradise. It's a pretty scrappy scrapbook: a couple of spotty tourist brochures, a few newspaper stories, one hologram. Not a full story. Just a few things to help him come to terms with his visit.
Paradise doesn't have much of a history. Somebody saw the planet from a distance, a beautiful, glowing body hanging in the sky, and gave it its name. Somebody else flew for hour upon hour over the endless greenish grey of the unspoiled forests and gasped at its sheer immensity. A scrub fanatic landed, raved over the subtle nuances of the plant life, and gave it a Galactic Heritage listing. In the vast orange scar beside the bay on the Southern Ocean, some other bodies sat and fumed.
So did Denzil, as he sheltered beside a toilet block in the middle of a clearing, peering into the scrub in the failing light, listening to the slurp, slurp of the carnivorous plants.
He'd been warned about it. Careless tourists, wandering into the forest, getting lost, getting eaten. At breakfast, as he'd munched on his overpriced stale roll and stirred his even more overpriced lukewarm cup of coffee, they'd talked about the possibility.
"You can't blame the plants," Paul had said, gazing malevolently at the tinned fruit, reconstituted dried milk and reshelled eggs. "It's probably the only fresh food they get."
The package had been advertised as inclusive of meals. Two meals, it turned out: the one you didn't feel like when you first arrived, and the one you didn't want just before you left, because they'd feed you on the flight. The rest you paid for. And sure, the hotel room was air-conditioned: with a coin in the slot meter that only accepted tokens sold one at a time from a counter that was usually closed. The swimming pool worked the same way. Or would have, if anyone had ventured to break the crust of crimson slime.
He'd had a choice of hotel, he'd thought, when he'd booked: Angel Pavement, Galactic Paradise, Paradise Itself, Seventh Heaven, Tall Trees. Slightly different facilities, slightly different rates. And when he'd arrived, and waited endlessly for the only bus that went to his hotel, there they all were, in a ring, like the eighth circle of Hell, identical boxes of orange stone, differing only in the lengths of their signs. He'd felt lost then, peering around the circle of sameness in the half-light, trying to find the right sign; and he felt lost later, after he'd checked in, as he lugged a suitcase down a warren of corridors with numbered rooms that started a new sequence just as he thought he'd got to his.
But he wasn't lost now. He was left. He'd said to the driver, "Wait for me" as he went into the toilet block. When he came out, the bus was gone.
Good riddance, perhaps. It had been a shit of a day: the shittiest in a line of shitty days. Five rivers, four rocks, six clearings, ten ant hills, and scrub after endless scrub, all the same grey-green on bare purply-red earth. The endless drumming on the roof as plant after plant had a try. Streams of sweat in the stinking heat, and cool clear rivers with massive sting-rays basking on their banks, eyeing off prospective swimmers. Jakob, the driver, a balding lump of pure anger, glaring and spitting at the two girls who failed to make a hundred- metre scramble up a forty- five degree slope in ten point three seconds; at the woman who couldn't down her can of squash in under one gulp as he revved the engine, demanding that she get on; at the fools who ordered hot food at lunchtime, paid for it, and never got to eat it; at everybody as they trooped on and off the bus as he counted loudly to twenty- two. And then he left them sitting for forty- five minutes in the bus, with the air conditioning off, as he gossiped with a mate in a passing bus on an empty stretch of road.
It was getting cooler now. The signpost was boldly lettered and freshly painted - ANGEL, 10 km. Walking distance to town. The road was clear, under the overhanging trees. All he had to do was start walking. He'd get at least two hundred metres, maybe three. Then slurp.
Just as well the bus had been out of sight. He might have chased it.
He remembered something someone had said as they'd got on the bus after lunch. The guy with the tattoo of mating brontosauruses. He didn't know his name. He hadn't talked to anybody much. They were a boring lot. He should have gone with Megan and Paul to the ray reef, but he'd gone there yesterday, and let's face it, once you've seen a four kilometre circle of living rays stacked a hundred high to make a breakwater, you've seen a four kilometre circle of living rays stacked a hundred high to make a breakwater. No doubt the rays got a kick out of it, or they wouldn't do it, but it wasn't exactly spectator sport. It certainly wasn't worth a second trip, even though the driver had only been surly, not shitty.
Anyway, the brontosaurus guy had said "These buggers can't count. There's twenty three of us," as Jakob counted them on, but his girlfriend, who had a matching tattoo of a tyrannosaurus with flowers in its mouth, had said "Maybe they start counting at zero here."
Denzil pulled out his ticket and looked at it. The driver had checked it, but hadn't taken the top copy. Serve them right if he tried to cash it in.
Maybe that was the plot. Maybe they'd meant to leave him. But why? He hadn't done anything. He hadn't even complained, not like the fat lady who whinged continuously about not being allowed to bring her poodle to a Galactic Park.
He wondered what creepy crawlies came out in the night, when the trees had gone to sleep. He thought about panic, but didn't see any point. He sat and watched the orange sun go down behind the trees.
There was the growl of an engine, the half-hearted thump of sleepy trees, a scrunching of gravel. A van labelled Seventh Heaven Hotel hurtled into the clearing and skidded to a halt. Denzil frowned. The hotel as saviour. It wasn't in character. They'd probably come to sell him a top-price noodle.
Megan jumped down from the driver's seat, dark hair flying. Paul waved nonchalantly from the passenger seat.
"Welcome to the 10 K Comfort Station," Denzil said, relieved. "Pleased you could make it."
"Driver pissed off without me. Deliberately."
"That's what we thought. But the Rangers wouldn't listen."
"How'd you get the vehicle?"
"Pinched it. They'd only hire us an open one."
"Then we're under arrest when we get back?"
"Thrown to the trees, probably."
Paul moved across to the middle, his knees under his chin, as Denzil and Megan scrambled in on each side.
Denzil had met Paul and Megan in the hotel bar, on his fourth night there. Sipping an overpriced, imported beer that he'd waited an hour to get and then watched the barman water in front of him, he'd scowled at the girl at the next table and got a grin back.
"You're not getting special treatment," she said, lifting a glass full of an oily red liquid. "Where I come from, this is the market leader -- as a shampoo. Come and join us."
Her companion rearranged his legs to make room.
He'd seen her before, of course. Slim, dark, animated. The girl who knows everybody and talks to everybody. He even knew her name -- Megan -- because he'd overheard someone use it. This time it was his turn. What should he say?
She said the obvious thing, but made it sound special. "How are you liking it?"
He grunted incoherently, trying to phrase a diplomatic answer.
She grinned. "You think this is a rotten, boring place? Totally overrated."
He nodded. "How did you guess?"
"You're falling for the sales pitch," she said.
She stood up. "I want to show you something".
They went out of the back of the hotel, and down a narrow path. The twin moons cast a blue-grey light with strange, forked shadows. Megan watched the ground beside the path, then knelt down in front of a plant. It was only small, ten centimetres high perhaps, but its gaping mouth and long hanging tongue were scary, even in sleep.
Megan pointed at the base of the plant. The earth around it rippled and sank, then rippled again. The plant fell sideways, the tongue making one feeble lash.
Megan dug into the dirt with her gloved hands, and lifted out a small animal, a bit like a hamster, with large luminous eyes. It held a bulbous root, almost as large as itself, between its front paws, and looked reproachful.
"Even carnivorous plants have their blind spots," she said.
She put the animal back in the hole, and spread some earth over it. It wriggled its backside, and vanished.
She brushed her hands, and stood up. There was a light in her eyes. "That's only a part of it," she said. "There are thirty four million species of carnivorous plant on this planet." She began to point to other plants, close by, similar but different, even in the grey-blue light. "The soil's not rich enough, so the animals supply the extra. But to protect themselves, they hide. Underground. Or they come out at night. The big ones, like the rays, have plant-proof hides."
"So why do they rock us around in buses at a hundred kilometres an hour, so it's just mile after mile of boring scrub?"
Megan laughed. "Tourists like to seem to be doing something, not just wandering aimlessly in a few square metres of selected forest. And they say that they're protecting the environment by keeping tourists out of sensitive areas."
"And you say?"
"That it wouldn't be too hard to show people these things if they went about it the right way."
So after that, why go thundering off at 100 K through yet another lot of grey-green scrub? Because you'd already paid to, Denzil supposed. It was included in the price for the trip. Compulsorily. And because there was nothing else to do. He'd found that out a couple of days in, in his first scrub avoidance attempt. Once the last bus had gone, the hotel was like a tomb. Except for the cleaners. If you tried to stay in your room, they harassed you out with thumps and bangs and heads around the door every five minutes. No lunch, either. Just appalled surprise that you weren't eating it off an anthill, a hundred kilometres away.
In the headlights, on the way back to the hotel, they saw dark shapes slithering across the road.
"Sting rays?" Denzil asked.
"One kind," Megan said.
The Rangers were waiting for them when they arrived, huge in plant-proof khaki plastic, with the hotel manager, small and indignant, three paces behind. As they climbed down, Megan glanced towards the hotel. A trickle of guests began to saunter nonchalantly down the stairway, hands in pockets, looking for a bit of excitement. To Denzil, it looked prearranged.
"Is this your vehicle?" the Rangers asked Paul.
He shook his head. "We borrowed it. You wouldn't come, remember."
They shook their heads. "No, we don't remember. Did you have the owner's permission?"
"No. Who is the owner?"
The Hotel Manager stepped forward, chin upraised. "I am. And I offered to hire you a suitable vehicle."
"In which we would have been killed."
"That's what you say."
Megan gave him a perfunctory smile. "Your vehicle's in one piece," she said. Her tone carried authority. A very different Megan from any that Denzil had seen before.
She handed him two coins. "This will pay for the fuel."
The Manager hesitated, greed and authority in combat.
Megan pressed on. "And may I remind you that we have rescued a guest who was left stranded by a driver who cannot count. Not the first time this has happened, from what we hear."
She paused. Everything was still, even the plants.
"Shall we leave it at that?" she said.
She glanced around the ring of guests, with a look that said "Down, Boy!". They looked disappointed.
The manager followed her look, looked at the Rangers, who ignored him, then decided on retreat. The Rangers looked at Megan, and then at Paul. They said "Don't do it again."
The three of themhad a Council of War in Denzil's room. Denzil sat hunched on the bed, a writing pad on his knees, feeling sick inside as he tried to write down what had happened. Paul's legs stretched across the room. Megan curled up in the armchair. Occasionally, they prompted him when he got stuck. When he had finished, he signed it and Paul witnessed it. Megan took it to her room, "to put it in a safe place".
By the time that Megan returned, Denzil had decided that it was his turn to ask some questions.
“What’s going on here?” he asked Megan.
“What do you know about this place?”, Megan asked.
“Nothing”, Denzil said, “I’m just a tourist.”
“First, Megan said. “There was already some settlement and a bit of farming and mining when the place was listed. That’s why there’s people here.
“The resort developers said ‘Great. Cheap labour. We can use them.’.
“When the resort was finished, the developer sold each of the hotels -- and the space port -– to a different financial institution or investment fund. What they want is a decent income stream, preferably some capital gain but definitely no capital loss, and no hassles.
“The staff are all locals, and the wages are minuscule.”
Paul leaned forward. “You saw yesterday when that guy said the waiter had given him the wrong drink.”
Denzil nodded. ”The waiter turned white.”
“That could have cost him a week’s wages.”
“So why do they do it?
“No option. They’re not allowed to farm.”
“They never had any success anyway,” Megan said.
“So that’s why they’re taking it out on the tourists?” Denzil said.
“We think so,” Megan said.
“What about the Rangers?” Denzil asked.
“They’re just the local cops,” Megan said. “Paid at local rates. They got some training, early on, but that’s it. They don’t exactly have the welfare of carnivorous trees or tourists at heart.”
Dinner was a silent affair. Packet soup, frozen rissoles, dehydrated potato, freeze-dried beans. Prompter service than usual, which Megan accepted as their due.
"What did you mean, I wasn't the first?" Denzil asked.
"Just that," Megan said. "But you are the first that's been able to tell the story."
"Will they try again?"
"Not if I can help it." She picked up her bag. "We're going into town."
The Hotels on Paradise are quarantined, six kilometres from town on the other side of the landing ground. The only transport for tourists is a bus that operates on the sit- around –and- hope -it -comes principle. This time it appeared within minutes. Megan smiled at the driver and slipped him a coin.
The main street of Angel is no different from the main street of any town of three thousand, light years from anywhere. Two supermarkets, a hardware shop, a takeaway ray and chip shop, an Altairian restaurant, a dentist, the posh pub and the rough pub, and battered old cars with tree-proof roofs angle-parked in rows along either side.
Down the only cross street was the third pub, the one they were looking for. The sign said Angel Arms. The dinner menu said Chicken Wings.
They pushed open the door which said Bar and went in. One or two heads turned, and then silence fell. Megan jerked her head towards a hole in the crowd filled by a balding head, and they moved towards it.
They were intercepted by one of the other drivers. He held out his hand. "Ray," he said. "No hard feelings. It was just a joke."
"A pretty lethal one," Paul said.
"Jokes often are."
"We want to see the boss," Megan said.
"You want Martha," he said. "Over there." He jerked his head towards a large woman surging through the crowd towards them. "She's the Union rep."
Martha towered over Megan, her immense bulk blotting out the men behind her. Her voice was loud and harsh. "What do you want?"
"We know about the strandings," Megan said.
"We want you to tell us why. It's not for sport, is it?"
"That's our business."
Megan nodded towards Denzil. "We've got the evidence. This is a strandee."
Martha laughed derisively. "What do you intend to do with it?"
Denzil wasn't sure whether the "it" meant him or the evidence. Either way, it didn't seem important any more.
Megan didn't seem to think so. Her tone was polite but firm. "That's up to you," she said. "We want to know, what you think bumping off tourists is going to achieve."
"If they've got half a brain, they'll stop coming."
"They haven't so far."
"They will when they hear."
"How are they going to hear? There's nothing in the news on any other planet that I've heard of. The travel agents won't tell. If they did, they'd promote the danger as that bit of extra spice. You'll have to bump some of them off."
Martha snorted. "We never see them. Flying over, maybe, on a seventy-three planet sampler. Who wants to see scrub and sting rays?"
"What will you do if there are no tourists?"
Martha bared a set of brown teeth. "Get on with what we came here to do. Make the place fit for people to live in, not sting rays. We're not scared of a bit of hard work."
"The Heritage listing is stunting our progress," a man said from behind her. "We need to clear land. Harvest the sting rays for shark's fin soup. Extract minerals. Maybe, grow something. Perhaps."
"So you want some bad publicity?" Megan said.
"I'd prefer to have our case put properly," Martha said. "But as second best, yes."
“I can get your story out,” Megan offered. “But I’m going to need more than a few dead tourists. I’ll want a real threat of insurrection, riot or pillage if nothing is done.”
Megan jerked a thumb at a vacant table in the corner. “Let’s talk,” she said.
Denzil watched as heads bobbed, arms waved and snarls turned into smiles. Martha nodded, and they shook hands. Megan stood up.
The crowd parted as Megan, Paul and Denzil made for the door.
Outside, Paul wiped his brow, and panted a little. "We could at least have got a drink," he said.
Megan shook her head. "Too risky," she said.
Back in the hotel, Megan kicked her shoes across her room, extracted the recording chip from her bra, and reached into her suitcase for a flask. "The real thing," she said, as she passed it around.
She flopped on the bed. "They're a pack of fools," she said.
"Seems an okay strategy to me," Denzil said. "If they drive the tourists off, then what's to stop them doing their own thing?."
"You don't get rid of a Galactic Heritage listing that easily," Megan said. She looked at Paul, passing a secret message. "But it certainly creates interesting possibilities."
The following morning, Megan and Paul were gone.
Denzil didn't enjoy the next three days, but he survived them. So did all the other tourists. But at the landing ground, he got one last fright.
As they were checking his ticket, the booking clerk paused. "There seems to be some mistake ..." he said.
"Don't tell me you still can't count," Denzil started to say, but had barely reached the "Don't" when a supervisor whispered "Not that one."
The clerk flushed, and hammered frenetically at a keyboard before handing Denzil a boarding pass. As Denzil turned, he saw Jakob and Ray, grinning at him from behind a barrier. He raised his hand, the shaking converting it into a wave.
Two months later, passing the Travel Agent, he noticed that the images of Paradise had disappeared, to be replaced by Club Pleiades holograms of a nearly naked young female and an equally young male with a bulge in his bathers sharing a surfboard, and an identical Mountains of Morn display with what looked like the same couple, the rays of a rising double star replacing the surfboard.
That was when he started the scrapbook.
The next year, he played safe, and holidayed in the tourist slum on Black Beach, where the surf bobbed with raw sewage and the hotel swimming pool was sparkling clean, and the natives harassed him continuously to buy overpriced bargains that were still a tenth of the price they were at home. And in the swimming pool he met a totally naked female, and ceased forever interstellar travel, because they could no longer afford it.
So the scrapbook consists of chance fragments. Part of an article entitled KILLING TIME IN PARADISE by Paul Pannanogloupas, syndicated by a galactic agency about the time the images at the travel agent disappeared. Another headed COMPENSATION CLAIMS FOR KILLER PLANET PASS 378 billion. His partner (now clothed) had thought he ought to apply, but he'd said "Why bother?. If they hadn't treated us like that, I might have gone back the year after, and then where would we have been?" An advertisement, coinciding with the relaunch of Paradise as a tourist destination:
IT MAY NOT BE
BUT IT'S THE MOST MARVELLOUS PLACE IN THE GALAXY
· Walk the jungle on covered ways, safe from the Slurp of carnivorous plants.
· See the native animals from underground tunnels.
· Enjoy a swim in select, ray-free lagoons.
· Visit the deserted ruins of Angel, home of the first settlers, where the villainous Drivers preyed on passing visitors.
· ·Savour, a vast, unspoiled
Part of a hard copy of article no 3682 on Interstellar Refugees, extracted with great difficulty from baby's mouth:
... Former inhabitants of the Galactic Heritage listed planet Paradise, the Drivers, were deported eon masse by the Galactic Parks and Wildlife Authority for premeditated sabotage of the ecological balance between tourism and habitat so vital to the maintenance of a Galactic Park. Still to find a permanent home, the quaint religion practiced by the Drivers, centring around the Evil God Progresswhose symbols are the Scraper, the Bulldozer and the Open Cut, has led to their rejection to date by 5,896,428 planets and 7 asteroids...
And a hologram, copied from a women's magazine:
Megan Plant, the Galactic Parks and Wildlife Authority's brown-eyed entrepreneur, will be in Paradise today as she begins her honeymoon at her company's latest exclusive resort ...
Megan, in a wedding dress. The groom, somebody Denzil had never seen before. Flanked by two of the drivers: Jakob, with a wolfish grin, and Ray, both in executive suits. The background, the skyline of a big city planet.
Denzil is still looking for one thing to complete the scrapbook. A heavy philosophical treatise on When is a Narrow Escape from Death not a Narrow Escape from Death, or, even better, a deep and meaningful psychological assessment of Is It Worse to Have Had a Narrow Escape from Death, or Not to Know Whether You Have Had a Narrow Escape from Death. His partner has suggested a Trauma Counsellor, but the only one available is too busy down at the refugee camp, counselling three thousand Drivers over their lost Paradise.
Copyright © D.W. Walker, 2003
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