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The Mortician General

This story was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 1997, and reprinted in the August 2014 issue.

I gripped the arm of my acceleration couch again and remembered exactly why I hated spaceflight. I joined the Office of Calendar Compliance rather than the Scouts exactly to avoid spaceflight, so just what was I doing in a clapped-out free trader plunging groundwards way too fast for (my) comfort? Sure, the crew called it “landing”; this was not my idea of “landing”, which was a nice gentle descent under contragrav at a controlled, preferably glacial, rate, not a headlong unpowered dive in what was basically a round-cornered brick. I imagined Councilor Guulik sitting in the empty couch across the room and quietly chanted “I’m going to kill you, Guulik,” over and over. The mantra helped. I tried to think about my new posting to occupy my mind. I must have read the briefing papers at least a hundred times, well there wasn’t a lot else to do on a hundred-and-twenty-year-old free trader in jumpspace. Amadam A was hardly anybody’s idea of a plum posting, a primitive backwater that applied for integration a year and a half ago. Home to three million farmers and other assorted rustics. Main export, Beric Corn Starch. Cultural background, Vilani with a strong Solomani influence. Average temperature, nine degrees Celsius, the briefing papers droned on with more mind-numbing details. No, Amadam A was definitely not a plum posting and here I was heading for Amadan A downport, a D-class starport inside the crater of an extinct volcano. Who the hell builds a starport inside a volcano? Sure, they say it’s extinct, but that just means nobody’s seen it go bang. Maybe thinking about the posting wasn’t such a bright idea after all.

I tried to just let my mind slip away. I though of Sharik back on Khuir; it would be dozens of weeks, minimum, before I’d see her again. I missed her so much. I remembered the quiet evenings we spent reading Siduni together, the walks under the light of Geriir’s watchful eye, the dinner at Aldaran’s. I should have proposed then but her father turned up and I chickened out. The braking rockets fired and I cursed whoever had designed my harness. Even with all the padding and straps it felt like slamming into a plascrete wall backwards. I tried to picture Guulik tied to the ship’s landing gear and gripped the couch’s arm even tighter. I felt the spine-crushing jolt as we touched down and the secondary braking rockets cut in. It requires at least one and a half kilometers for a Lone Wanderer-class to come to a complete halt and the crater runway was a little under two kilometers long. It appeared that the crew was well aware of this fact. I tried to come up with the most diplomatic way to inform Guulik that travel on ships built during the Long Night might not be in her staff’s best interests.

Little by little the ship slowed and eventually came to a halt. The astrogator came by to help me out of my harness. I tried to get out of the couch and my legs promptly gave way under me, much to the astrogator’s apparent amusement. “Amadan A is a fairly heavy landing at the best of times; you might want to wait a minute or two for your legs to catch you up.” His slender Suerrat form disappeared from the lounge, leaving me to my own devices. I again attempted to stand, and again fell unceremoniously on my behind. I decided to heed the astrogator’s advice. I waited until the feeling had returned to my legs and tried again, this time succeeding. I walked gingerly to my stateroom to gather my belongings. Fortunately, the cases had remained in the restraints this time, and not spread their contents across the room as they had on Guud. I picked up my cases, paused briefly to check my make up in the mirror—I looked a mess—and made my way to the airlock.

Amadan A downport truly deserved its D-class rating. It was little more than a long hard dirt runway, a couple of blast bays, a fuel pumping station and a few buildings; I wondered why they pumped the water all the way out here? Why not just build the starport by the water? Curious; still, I’d leave that for the faceless functionaries who were bound to follow me to figure out; it’d keep them happy for quite a while, I guess. I could see three other starships docked in the blast bays. Busy; it must be the harvest time. They were exactly the same type of tramps I’d seen at all the other backwater starports out here in the Gashda; crewed by an odd assortment of misfits and eccentrics, their paint stained by the fires of countless reentries, held together by a mixture of good luck and skilled engineers.

There was a reception committee waiting for me: two men dressed in long yellow robes with tall black cylindrical hats. This, according to the Scout service briefing papers, was the local formal dress.

“Welcomed, be I Gamil Ranson, Mortician General of Amadan A and be this Second Mortician Formadilik. Your stay brings health and wiseness for us.” I’d read the papers on Amadan A’s language, a fusion of Stellar Slavic and High Vilani; I’d been studying it for the last three months. I’d been chosen for this post mainly because of my skill in linguistics, apparently the OCC didn’t have too many speakers of Stellar Slavic on staff.

The language was obviously formal, I paused a moment to frame my reply correctly. “Greetings, Gamil Ranson, Mortician General of Amadan A, be I Kyal La Manga, Liaison to Amadan A for the Office of Calendar Compliance. It brings great gladness being here.” They looked puzzled for a few seconds, obviously I hadn’t got it quite right. Gamil spoke again. “Care you to come this way, Kyal La Manga, Liaison to Amadan A for the Office of Calendar Compliance. We have ready maked quarters for you in Gora.”

We walked the short distance from the blast bays to what passed for the starport arrival terminal. I’d charitably describe it as ‘unimposing’; a simple wooden-walled building with a customs post, a handful of food and souvenir stands; and a rather bored-looking local enforcer. The only sign that I was outside the Imperium was the lack of the ubiquitous office of the Bureau of Starship Safety, Health and Transit Standards. Still, if all went well it would not be long before they arrived along with the Starport Authority to set up the inevitable extraterritoriality boundary fence. Funny, I felt a strange pang of regret at that thought, the death of Amadan A's blissful ignorance. The price of progress, I suppose.

On the other side of the terminal was a platform with a very crude train waiting. Formadilik gestured towards the train “Please embarking be Kyal La Manga, Liaison to Amadan A for the Office of Calendar Compliance; the train of ours to move to Gora soon. Your other from ship belongings to be brought after.” Strange, he was still using the formal dialect; a most unusual variation in the language; maybe they regarded my arrival as a bigger thing than I’d imagined; who could tell? Finding out was not my job; I was just there to get their weights and measures into line, or as the OCC manual put it, ‘assist in the establishment of programs to facilitate the adoption of Imperial standards in regards to units of measure and record’. Yep, these poor saps didn’t know what was about to hit them. Guulik would have made some smart comment about my romantic Solomani notions, but somehow, sometimes, I just wondered about the value of all this; oh for the sense of certainty of a Vilani.

The train had just one carriage and we were the only passengers; it was beginning to look a lot like they did see me as more important than I saw myself. There was a meal waiting in the carriage, I wasn't too sure about the wisdom of eating so soon after the landing but I knew enough about Vilani culture to know that failing to do so would be an insult. So I sat and ate and felt sick in secret.

At first we said little; my hosts seemed a little unsure of how to relate to me. I decided to take a chance and drop into the informal dialect. “So Gamil Ranson, why be you Mortician General?”

“Why, because the Talent I have.” He obviously was more than a little taken aback by my question, I wondered if I had overstepped the mark with it.

I tried to cover any faux pas. “I mean no offense; on my world we have not a Mortician General.”

“But how then you ensure the departed have indeed passed for eternity?” Formadilik seemed most agitated at this revelation. “Calm yourself, Formadilik, will find you many different ways of ensuring that when you travel beyond our World. Remember you well that.” There was more in Gamil’s voice than that of a superior, an edge of concern.

I wondered at the precise nature of the relationship between Gamil and Formadilik. I decided to inquire as to the nature of the position of Mortician General. “So, I may be assuming that your primary job be with those who have died?”

“That be the duty first, but many others have been added. During the Time of Tears, the Morticians came to deal with the Other Worlds. Now my time is most spent in the mundane of dealing with of Other Worlds Material.”

I paused a moment to think. “So, responsible be you for off-world contact?”

“Yes, all Other Worlds our responsibility be.” For the first time I noticed the very slight inflection on the word world. We weren’t quite talking about the same thing—almost, but not quite.

I pondered the possible significance of that; it probably wasn’t too important, but it was interesting. “What be the Other Worlds you deal with?” I adopted his inflection on the word.

Gamil actually looked quite pleased at this question. “Formadilik, care you to answer this?” He replied with a strange glint in his eye. It was far more a command than a request.

Formadilik paused and cleared his throat. “It be the duty of the Morticians to deal with all Worlds Other from ours, both Material and Immaterial. Since the Time of Tears have us but little dealings with Worlds Material until now; but have us great dealings with Worlds Immaterial.”

I was intrigued; there seemed a lot more to these concepts than the simple words revealed. “Please be telling more of these Worlds Immaterial, they be not a concept I be familiar with.”

“They be not Worlds that the untried can reach, but they be the worlds that lie within us all. They be the places most deep within us, those places that makes us ourselves. That there are many Worlds Immaterial was revealed to us by the Prime Mortician Eneri during the Time of Tears. Showed he us that sometimes one reached these Worlds without passing over to them eternally. Our duty first be to ensure that those passed are dead by attempting to enter their Worlds Immaterial. If they be dead, their Worlds Immaterial will have passed with them.”

This was most certainly interesting; I seemed to have stumbled upon something which all the previous surveys had missed—how had they missed this? They had mentioned that the culture seemed obsessed with death, but not this. This was not an obsession with death; it appeared to be something quite different. I had to know more about this. “Be this a skill of great training and discipline of thoughts?”

“But yes. Entering the Worlds Immaterial of a person be needing the most disciplined of thoughts and the highest of moral character.”

“Why the highest of moral character?”

Formadilik looked a little puzzled. “The Worlds Immaterial be where the most intimate thoughts dwell; they are what makes each themselves be.”

My, how the Scouts had missed a gem; a few heads might roll over this. Perhaps the Scouts should include a few more linguists in their contact teams. “Please to tell me Formadilik, can you enter the Worlds Immaterial of those who do not appeared to be passed?”

I really did not need to look to gauge both Gamil's and Formadilik’s reaction. I’d guessed I would be overstepping the bounds of decorum. But I had to know. Gamil and Formadilik sat stunned for what seemed like an eon; hanging between outrage and sheer disbelief. I just hoped that outrage would lose. Finally Gamil stirred to a reply. “Possible it would be, but exceptional reasons of the most high order would have to be also. Why being you ask this?”

“We know this skill, but name it elsewise and it be most rare still. It be named telepathy in the Imperium.” I sat back, Gamil and Formadilik appeared to be content with just letting the conversation die. Well maybe content wasn’t the right word. From the looks I was getting, I was glad neither was armed.

I’d have to report this, of course; the world would have to resurveyed, integration would be delayed; yes, heads would probably roll over this. Countless bureaucrats would spend months crawling in and out and over and under Amadan A’s culture to see if anything else had been missed. Apparently, the Imperium would fall apart if those gray men and women didn’t have absolutely everything about each and every member world on file somewhere. I smiled at the thought of Guulik under that mass of paperwork; problem is, she'd probably enjoy it. Oh well, it meant Amadan A would be spared progress for a while longer; perhaps there was some good in that at least.