Moshué motioned to those seated at the front, and, as one, they rose and formed a line at the steps of the platform. Madseu’re rose and took his place in line with his wife. He proudly clutched the plexiglass display that contained the gleaming coin, and watched as the first person crossed the stage to present his gift to the Big L. It was Willheim, and he stammered as he held out his gift. Madsue’re could not see what the gift was from where he stood, but could see it was not an especially large object which had been given.
“B-b-b-Big L, I w-w-w,” he began, then gave up and thrust the object in his hands out toward the Big L, who took it with an understanding smile. As the Big L examined what he’d been given, a look of surprise leaped across his face.
“What is this? Why, here are two where one had been given! As Ahab said to Starbuck, ‘Thou art but too good a fellow.’” The Big L took Willheim’s hand and pressed the objects back into it.
“No, sir,” Willheim replied earnestly, “it is I who should thank you. As all of us should do, for the new life you have brought us!” As Willheim turned to leave the stage, a look of startled surprise came over him as the realization hit that the words he had just spoken had been not halting, but free and easy.
Madeu’re watched as each person in line returned their gifts to the Big L, multiplied in quantities, twice, three times, some as much as ten times the quantity they had been given away. Each gift was received with gratitude and returned to the giver with thanks and kind words.
Finally Madseu’re stood at the edge of the stage, and he watched as Alyana met with the big L, and as she motioned for the droids to bring up her library of books onto the platform to present to the Big L. The gasps of the crowd echoed through the arena as the several droids made their way forward and the piles of carefully packaged literature was placed at the Big L’s feet.
The Big L himself seemed almost at a loss for words, but after a moment, his lips parted in a smile. His eyes glistened wetly as he spoke.
“This gift is yours to have, and more. Our scripture speaks of the doubloon, which offered by Ahab to his men, was taken back again by him; but there was an older scripture than this, that spoke, not of giving and taking again, but of the rewards to be given for such a return as you have brought. ‘Whosoever is faithful in little is faithful also in much,’ it said, and surely your faithful stewardship of my gift to you will not go unrewarded. This library of books you bring today is but a small portion of what the collection I own, and it is that collection that I give into your charge, to serve as the chief caretaker of the library of Terranova.”
Alyana tried to move her lips to offer thanks for the honor that had been bestowed on her, but could do nothing but stand speechless as tears flowed down her face. The Big L placed one arm gently around her shoulder, and wiped her tears away with his free hand as he led her to the steps. There she paused to finally breathe in, and spoke. “This is more honor than I ever expected to receive. It will be my greatest joy to accept this appointment.” As the Big L nodded solemnly, Alyana turned to go with a smile full of joy on her face as she returned to her seat.
Now Madseu’re felt a chill of shame wash over him. He looked down at the coin that he held. Its gleaming suddenly seemed to dim. No longer did it seem to him the brightest object he had ever seen, but appeared tarnished and worn by time and abuse. Little blemished his eyes had long since tricked themselves into overlooking seemed now to stand out more glaringly than any bright part of the coin.
He knew what was going to come, and a sense of dread struck him, as if a lifetime of regret had been stored up then dumped onto his heart all at once. How proud he had been of that coin, and of his decision to keep it just as it was, to display it in all its imperfection, when he might have multiplied its worth by careful trading in the intervening years since he had been given it by the Big L. Had he honestly believed that such a treatment of this gift entrusted to him would be received by the Big L with praise?
Words from the Scripture came into his mind and taunted him for his assumptiveness: “‘How wondrous familiar is a fool’ Ahab muttered.” And how foolish Madseu’re felt now. He could not bring himself to approach the steps, to face the judging eyes of the crowds observing this ceremony.
“Madseu’re Disvone'ray,” it was Big L’s voice, calling him by name. “What have you done with the gift I commended to you?”
Hesitantly he ascended the steps to face the consequences of what seemed to him now to be a lifetime of folly. What had he been thinking of? Surely he had never doubted that the Big L would return? Had he not seen this question coming from beginning? Yes, of course I had, he told himself desperately. I don’t have to lose face now! I’ve done exactly what was required of me!
His pride returning somewhat, Madseu’re held out the coin in its display case. “H-here is the- the coin you… gave me.” He struggled to force the words together into cohesive thoughts. “S-see, I have kept it… e-e-exactly as you…g-gave it to me. I have not traded it away- or-or…or g-gambled one in hopes of gaining two. Who-who am I to- to risk what… wh-what belongs to another?”
Both hands gripped the fiberglass display case tightly so he wouldn’t fumble it the same way he had struggled with the words just spoken. The gift was received in silence. As the Big L accepted the coin, Madseu’re relaxed his grip and drew back his hands, revealing two sweaty palm-prints on the clean, reflecting glass.
The trepidation he had felt before returned in a fresh wave, and when he finally was able to raise his eyes to meet the Big L’s gaze, his heart broke. For streaming from the kind, loving eyes that looked piercingly into his own, were tears. The Big L wept silently, and with each tear that fell, Madseu’re felt as though a drop of acid were burning at his heart. How had he hoped to justify himself to the man who had given everything he had, his very life included, for the sake of even the most selfish of men, Madseu’re included? He had returned bitter refuse for life-giving water.
The Big L spoke, sadly, but with unshaken love still present in his voice. “This coin was of a nominal value, a mere token in comparison with the true wealth that you might have accumulated from it. I spoke before of an older scripture, older than the one we know, a scripture that rewarded faithful maintenance of small gifts with the entrusting of greater gifts. That scripture has also a pronouncement for those who deal selfishly with the gifts given to them. It was written there, ‘If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?’”
Madseu’re’s heart shrank at each word, but he stood awaiting the judgement he knew he deserved.
The Big L continued. “Since the time I left you, it is true, you have risen from your low position among your peers, and made yourself a leader among men. Once you were a cook for a single station, and you rose to a position of authority over your fellow men. But in this simple bequest of mine, you fell short. There is still a place for you in our new home; not as great as it might have been, but a place befitting what faithfulness you showed. Around the orbit of Terranova is a belt of asteroids, rich in metals and ore. There will be mining operations there that will require the services of a cook, and it is there that you will be assigned.”
As Madseu’re listened to this pronouncement, he might have easily been angered at this. Sent to work in the asteroid mines as cook to common laborers? For a man of his present position, this was a substantial demotion. But any sense of resentment was gone. In the face of the shameful pride he had displayed, this was not punishment but grace. He knew that if he had gotten a just reward for his action, he might have been placed in an even lower position.
He knew now that all he had heard about the Big L was true. When Tarwhal had related his own experiences, his assessment had been right. Here was no hard taskmaster, but a loving leader. Were his demands so much? To give a gift and expect it to be used? Where was the harshness in that? Madseu’re could hold no ill will for such a leader, but only give his full measure of devotion. He smiled as he took his seat by Alyana. Yes, this was his just reward.
The last seats filled quickly and the colossal lunar stadium overflowed with anticipation. The elders all sat in a row lining the back of the stage at the center of this mass of humanity, and when the Chief Elder rose and walked ceremoniously into the beam of light at the center of the stage, a sudden hush fell across the crowd in waves as they held their collective breaths to hear what he would say.
Moshué was a great, broad-chested man with long flowing silver hair that fell to his shoulders from around a glistening bald pate. Inhaling dramatically, he made several valiant but failed attempts to clear his throat and just as the sound of the low rumbles made their way to the upper balconies, Moshué began to speak.
"One hundred and twenty years ago, Man turned the cradle of life into the death bed of millions." The tone of his voice was that of a man who loved giving speeches. He seemed to think that everyone else loved the sound of his voice just as much as he did, and so he lingered over every syllable and crisply enunciated each phrase in his deep baritone. "The planet that had nurtured life for eons was in 7 days reduced to a toxic death trap." The tones of his excited oratory began to rise in a dramatic crescendo. "And from the midst of the chaos and confusion that followed in the wake of her destruction, arose a leader who showed the way of escape from death. He sustained us for 90 years, and then, just as quickly as he had appeared, he was gone. He promised to return one day and show us the way to a new world." By now Moshué was shouting, unnecessarily, as in the perfect acoustics of the great stadium, his voice could be clearly heard all the way in the highest balconies. "Now, after 25 years in the far reaches of the galaxy, he has returned!!! It is with highest honor that I give you... the Big L!!!"
From the shadows of an unlit entrance, the Big L walked forward to the center of the stage. He did not take proud, quick steps, but humbly took the spot where Moshué has just stepped away for him. The applause and cheers were deafening, but with a gentle raise of his hand, the Big L silenced the thousands who surrounded him.
He spoke softly, with a sure smile, and an easy tone. "My friend the chief elder, it seems, would paint me as a god..." Again the crowds cheered, and again he raised his hand to silence them. "He would paint me as a god, but what I did, I did for love, not glory. Not for the love I might receive, for that love can come and go like a moon in the night sky. I did what I did, simply for that love which was in my own heart. I love my people, and you are all, 'my people.' My father said truly, that love unlived is lost. If I love and do not act that love out then my love is dead. My deeds, great or small, have been what I felt were those a man ought to do, who has true love in his heart. My children, a new home, a new world awaits you,”
At this a roar erupted from the crowd, and the Big L once more calmed the crowds with a wave of his hands. “I do not seek your praise for this. It is only what I felt was my duty to my people." His hand went up again, but this time even he could not silence the thunderous, grateful outpouring.
Finally the applause died down, and the Big L spoke again, but this time he cast his eyes not out to the cheering balconies, but down to the rows around the foot of the stage.“There are several people here with us tonight,” his countenance was thoughtful as he spoke. “Several people to whom so long ago I entrusted all my possessions. In an exchange of good faith, as they trusted their futures in my hands, I asked that they take what was mine and care for it in my absence, that when I returned I might see it had been put to use and multiplied just as their trust in me has been fulfilled. So then, my dear friends, as I have now brought you the hope of a new world and a bright future, have you the gifts I gave you? Where are the gifts I placed in your care?”
Encircling the base of the dome were a great number of ports at which ships were docking and undocking as their human passengers disembarked and entered the monumental colonial sanctuary of life that stood alone among the mountains and craters of the moon's surface. Far above the dome, a line of spacecraft stretched beyond the point of visibility by the human eye, extending all the way to the cloudy gray planet that glowed so dimly in the starry sky next to the flaming sun that blazed fiercely still farther out in space.
The procession of ships circled that globe several times over, all with the same destination, this massive assembly humanity coming together for the single most significant moment in their history since they had been forced to leave the now-lethal atmosphere of their home world in the wake of planet-wide war and destruction.
The Ship that held Madseu're and Alyana was finally reaching the ports that led into the safety of the dome. The docking arm sealed tight around the doors of the vessel and they disembarked, identity cards ready in hand, while their worker bots quickly unloaded several boxes of important luggage after them.
Tall, sleek android guardians stood at every entrance to the main Coliseum like great metallic mastiffs, looming menacingly above the heads of the steady stream of people who were rapidly filling the seats of the clear-domed amphitheater. Madseu're approached the nearest gateway with slight intimidation, extending a hand with his identity card.
The android looked the card over through coldly glassy orbs that protruded where, had he been a human, his eyes would have been. "You have special invitation?" he bleeped in a guttural tone.
Shortly after the exuberant message from their son, Alyana and Madseu're had received official summons to attend the welcoming ceremony for The Big L, and to be prepared to give an account for the gifts they had been given those 20 years ago. Madseu're turned to his wife now, asking with a look if she had the invitations still on her. Alyana reached into the bag that was slung over her shoulder, and removed the papers and placed them into the waiting mechanical hand.
The android scanned the invitations and turned with a motion for them to follow. He led them through the gates and down, down to the seats that encircled the foot of the stage. This section at the bottom of the towering lunar amphitheater was reserved for the former crew of station RK237. High overhead buzzed a mass of humanity to many to count, quickly filling the 5 levels of balcony stands that rose toward the skies.
As Madseu're and Alyana made their way down the row to the seats that corresponded with the numbers listed on their invitations, they were met by a short, smiling man who extended his hands warmly to shake theirs. He had a round belly that stood right out in front of him, and around his head was a ring of red hair, trimmed with streaks of silver by the ears. "Madseu're Disvone'ray!" he greeted excitedly. "It's b-b-been a l-long time! You remember me?" When Madseu're's hesitated, the man reintroduced himself. "It's me- W-Willheim!"
Madseu're's eyes widened in surprise. "Willheim? The nervous kid who used to run messaged around the station for the Big L?! I can't believe it! You've changed!" a smile came over him and he motioned to the protruding stomach. "You've grown too!"
"Oh, it looks as though we've both done well! This is your wife?" Willheim turned to look at the woman who stood at Madseu're's side. "Wait! Alyana! Is th-that you? You are even m-more l-l-lovely now th-than when you first c-c-came to the st-station!"
"Why, thank you, Willheim, it's good of you to say so," She smiled gratefully. "How have you been all these years?"
"Wonderful, w-wonderful," he responded cheerily. "I run the m-mining operations in the asteroid fields, it's b-b-been q-q-qu-very p-profitable for me, too, I d-dare say. The past twenty years have b-been g-good."
"Yes, and now, the Big L is finally come back!" Alyana replied, "I can hardly wait to learn what he has found on his journey!"
Those years showed their passing in his reflection. A rueful hand slid over his now-hairless pate. As soon as his hairline had ceased receding and had begun full-fledged retreat, he had taken to trimming the halo of hair that remained. Still, full head of hair or no, he decided, the intervening years had been good. In that time he had prospered; he was no longer a cook on space station RK237, but now lived on his own private ship- a vessel newly constructed from materials purchased from a new company that worked extracting resources from the dangerous territories of the asteroid fields.
With one last look in the mirror, Madseu're left the bathroom and made his way to the living quarters of the ship. He paused a moment in the doorway of the inviting chambers. His wife Alyana was nestled in the corner of their newly fabricated couch, a blanket pulled over her legs where they were tucked up close. She was quietly engaged in examining a priceless old book she had recently acquired. Collecting these rarities had been her pastime for twenty years; her gift from the Big L had been a particularly well-preserved anthology of poetry, and through years of shrewd trading with passing rarity dealers, she had built an impressive library from that one book.
As Madseu're entered the room, Alyana looked up at him, her eyes smiling gently as she tucked a stray hair back behind her ear. The pretty, gray strands that streaked her black hair only made her more beautiful to Madseu're. He came around behind her, and with a kiss by her ear, he whispered, "Ardan should be messaging soon, dear."
"Yes, I was just waiting for him to call," she said, returning the kiss and adding a gentle embrace with her free hand.
She moved her feet aside as Madseu're sat by her, and after settling in, he brought Alyana's legs back up across his lap.
Madseu're cast a glance at the chronometer to see the time. His son should be checking in at any moment now. Madseu're and Alyana had raised two children; their son Ardan was now studying in the Academy of Interplanetary Aeronautics, and their daughter Marele, who was 17, had just finished her primary education.
"Message incoming," Announced the personable voice simulation of telecommunication computer. "Coming online now."
A projection flickered on the wall opposite where the old married couple sat together; it flickered, and slowly came into focus. A young man, fit and well-groomed, smiled at them from across the thousands of miles of space that separated them.
"Hi, mom, hi dad!" he exclaimed happily. "You'll never guess what happened today!"
"You finally decided which one of those girls you're going to marry?" Madeu're deadpanned.
"Ha, no," Ardan laughed. "Not even close. Mom?"
Alyana shrugged. "Tell us, son!"
"I just found out something REALLY BIG!" Ardan insisted.
"And?" Madseu're asked.
"It's really BIG," Ardan repeated. "That's a hint- can you guess yet?" Now he was visibly hopping with excitement.
"Er, no, not exactly," Madseu're said with a curious move of his eyebrow. "Just tell us the big news!"
"Well, Pop, you know how I got that job in the communications department, the same one Uncle Tarwhal had when he was in the Academy?"
"Sure, go on," Madeu're slipped an arm discreetly behind his wife's waist and gave a squeeze.
"Well, today something really big came through. We picked up a radio signal from deep space; it was weak, but it came through, and guess what!"
"Afraid we're not very good at guessing just now," Alyana said to her son, while she poked a surreptitious finger into Madseu're's ribs.
The next words from Ardan’s lips brought his parents to full attention. "Mom, Pop, the message was from the Big L! He's finally returning from the mission to Terra Secunda! He'll be arriving in less than a month!"
Madseu’re needed but a moment to realize he already knew the answer to the question. “Yes,” he said to himself, as well as to the old man who sat across from him in the tattered old couch.
Tarwhal’s sharp black eyes squinted as he leaned forward intently. “And…?” he let the question linger, then trail off unspoken. “I supposed it isn’t my place to ask that,” he said finally, placing his head back again into the well-worn cushions.
“To the contrary,” Madseu’re apologetically asserted. “If I were to tell anyone, it would be you. You are the closest thing I have to a living relative…”He rose from the stiff metal chair. “However, right now I’d better head to the kitchen and prepare breakfast. I’ve got five hundred mouths to feed, and the last thing I need is for one of those rusty old droids putting salt into some officer’s coffee instead of sugar or causing some worse catastrophe…” He paused with his hand on the door handle, unsure how to end the conversation and go. “Thank you for your help, Tarwhal.”
“No, thank you, Maddy,” Tarwhal said as he rose slowly. “Come see me again some time. An old man grows lonely- memories alone make poor company.”
“Sure,” Madseu’re shrugged, turning again to the door.
“I mean it, Madseu’re,” the old man insisted with a grateful squeeze of his hand on Madseu’re’s shoulder. “When you’re old and all your friends depart, you start to feel like a survivivor. It’s a guilty feeling; every survivor feels the loss of those he survives. Your father was my closest friend, and spending time with you is like seeing him again.” He searched Madseu’re’s face, and their eyes locked. “Come see me again, anytime, you’re always more than welcome.”
Madseu’re nodded, and broke off with a smile. “Yes, I promise, Uncle Tarwhal.” His hand twisted the knob, but instead of gently opening, the door swung wide and hit him square in the forehead, knocking him to the floor.
In the doorway stood Alyana Maryala. She stood awkwardly a moment, and, seeing Madseu’re on the floor, laughed at first, and then bent to see if he was okay. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying to hide her smile. “I wasn’t expecting you there.”
Tarwhal laughed too. “Madseu’re, I’d like you to meet my replacement: this is Alyana Maryala. Alyana, this…”
Madseu’re waved him off with the hand that was not busy holding his head. “I know, I know,” he groaned, “We met already, last night.”
“That’s right,” she echoed, and smiling to Madseu’re, “though I wasn’t expecting you to come see me so soon after our first date…”
Madseu’re furrowed his brows in confusion, then relaxed them as he finally made sense of her words through his daze. He laughed ruefully. “Yes, I’d say it was nice to bump into you again, but, OW!”
Alyana laughed and turned to Tarwhal. “I was just coming to ask if you could give me a hand. I’m not familiar with these older stations- I thought you could help me get oriented.”
Madseu’re stood with some help, and interjected, “I’d like some help getting oriented too…” He gave them a quick wave and turned to go.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to drive you away,” Alyana apologized.
“No, no, I was just heading down to get breakfast ready for the crew.” He assured her.
“We’ll be seeing each other again then,” she said.
He looked into her eyes briefly, and she met his gaze with a smile. “Yes,” he said at last, “I hope we do.”
A thoughtful smile peeked out from the corners of the old man's mouth, and his lips played with the words before saying them. "That," he said, "is a very large question."
Madseu're leaned forward expectantly until at last Tarwhal D'Hriver gave in and began to speak.
"I recall a time long ago, in troubled times, amid the chaos and the aftermath of the Global Exodus when humanity first realized- or, I should say, finally remembered - that they needed a savior. . There was little or no order; without a central guiding force, the drifting, aimless bodies that orbited the globe had turned on one another, the strong preying on the weak. Piracy was as constant danger as was simple lack of communication and coordination. When we would encounter a wrecked ship we could never know if the flotsam and jetsam from the smashed vessels was from a collisions of ships whose orbits had intersected one another, or if the wreckage was the result of an attack by one of the thousands of petty war-lords who dominated the airspace, leading small packs of ships in raids on the defenseless drifters that made up the remainder of the population. It was in the midst of this madness that I was born and raised.
"While I was still a child that one man stepped out from the fray to lead and unite us all and eventually eliminate these warlords and bring a sense of stability to life. This was the Big L. He organized and coordinated the scattered resources that remained. Stations were constructed or expanded from parts of old ships. Special greenhousing stations were created where the plants that had been saved could be used to produce food that could be rationed and distributed.
"By the time I turned 18, plans had already begun for the exploration of space and the search for a new home for humanity. I was entered in an academy that had been formed for the training of new pilots, where I met your father Angeu're. We shared a room and quickly became close friends." The old man sighed deeply as he recalled the now-distant memories. "How young and naive we were- what dreams we had! Each training mission we took to the moon or to our neighboring planets we imagined we were discovering the New World; every time we looked at the stars it was with a hope that one day we would be chosen for the mission that would lead us to that distant, as-yet undiscovered planet. As we crossed the uninhabitable red planet with her towering stony mountains that rose against the pink skies, I always tried to picture in my mind what it must have been like to walk the surface of our old home when she still had green hills, blue skies, and golden valleys filled with grain growing freely and swaying in the breeze. I then would look up to the stars again and wonder what beauties the new world would hold?"
"And the Big L?" Madseu're asked, "How did you meet him?"
"Oh, yes," Tarwhal said, "I nearly forgot why I was telling this story. Of course- he was not directly involved with the training in our academy, but he had helped start it, and sat on the board as chair. What was he like? He was fair, kind, intelligent- the kind of man people wanted to lead them- he never manipulated with impassioned speeches or bullied people into obedience. We followed him because we wanted to. Yes, he had rules he expected to be followed. Yes, he had standards he expected to be met. But he did not rule with an iron fist- he led by example, and people obeyed out of love. This is not to say that the Big L did not exact punishment. He was fair, but just. If you did not do what was expected of you, even if it seem like a little thing to you..."
Tarwhal stopped. "Let me tell it another way. Do you wonder why, after being in the Academy, I spent my lifetime as a mechanic on this station, and not as a pilot exploring space? It is not because I wished it- in fact, it is the result of my first meeting with the Big L. I would rather have died than give up dreams of exploration, but because I was young and foolish, I lost that chance.
"In academy, in addition to our studies, each of us had an assigned job at the academy's base station. These roles were unrelated to our studies, and mostly menial tasks. When not on a mission or in classes, I was a Sub-Message Filter, which meant that I worked in the communications department. The job was a dull one, and seemed unimportant; simply, my job was to scan incoming messages to the station's faculty and crew- eliminating those messages that were not relevant, and sending important ones along to the Arch-message filter for final approval to be delivered. It was while working this drudge of a job that I encountered a message that indicated that the Big L was arriving for an inspection of the Academy. The Arch-Filter, after reviewing the message asked me if I would personally greet the Big L upon his arrival.
"I was, of course, eager for the task, but as I waited for his arrival in the docking bay, I fell asleep, and when the Big L arrived, he was greeted only by a mechanic who happened to be working there on another ship. As a result of my lack of responsibility, I was demoted to the mechanic's position."
The old man's clenched fists trembled. “I recall how angry I was. The Big L afterwards met with me personally to discuss the punishment with me, but instead of humbly accepting the discipline I had received, I cursed the man. How dare he give me such a low position? I felt as Captain Ahab had when in the scriptures he said, 'I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.' But rather than respond in anger himself, the Big L had sadly told me that he could not allow me to continue to study at the academy.
"This crushed me. I couldn't believe my dreams had been snatched away by what I thought was so small a thing. But after I had time to reflect on the matter, what hurt more than anything was the realization that my punishment was just." Tarwhal's shaking hand wiped an escaped tear from his wrinkled cheek. "Years later, I know that what he did was right. I was brash and prideful, qualities that could easily jeopardize such an important mission as we were training for. What kind of man is the Big L? He is a just man. But beyond that, he is merciful. He could have punished me more harshly and been right to do so, but seeing my eventual remorse, he allowed me to stay at the academy as a mechanic, and years later he even offered me a position training new students in the academy.
"I declined the offer, indicating that it would be too hard to spend my life training others for a job I could never be allowed to do. He acknowledged my feelings, and though he remained firm in his decision that I would not be allowed to fly again, he took me in as a friend- a father, rather - and when he stepped down to become captain of this station, he asked me to come with him and be the head mechanic, which I gladly did."
There was a long pause after the old man finished his story. Madseu're was lost in thought, and Tarwhal was lost in memory. At last Tarwhal broke the silence, quietly inquiring, "So then, has my story been helpful to you? Have you decided what are you going to do with your gift from the Big L?"
Madseu're approached with easy footsteps that went unheard under the thrumming beat of RK237's mechanical heart. The old man continued his careful, pensive brushstrokes until, catching sight of Madseu're with a startled sideways glance, he turned to great him. "MADDY BOY, IS THAT REALLY YOU?" he shouted smilingly, barely audible amid the clamor. He quickly set the brush down on the nearby glass pane that served as his palette. Reaching out to greet Madseu're warmly, he wrapped his thin arms as far around the head cook's wide form as he could extend them. "IT'S GOOD TO SEE YOU!"
"YOU TOO," Madseu're shouted into the man's ear while crooking one arm stiffly around the old man in reply. "IS THERE A QUIETER PLACE WE CAN TALK?"
Releasing his hearty embrace, the old man nodded vigorously as if a gentler shake of the head might not have been heard. He motioned to the paintings around him. "HELP ME TAKE THESE OUT!"
They collected the canvases, and the old man led the way through a small door that had been hidden by the shadow of a large column that was part of the ship's skeleton. Inside was a cramped, dimly-lit room whose walls were covered with circuits, breaker boxes, dials and display panels. The old man's belongings lay all about the room; clothing hung from the huge switches, books and papers lay spread over the scratched metal table at the room's center, and over the back of the torn couch in the corner was thrown a pile of dirty blankets and gray sheets. Not an inviting space, but at least it was quiet.
"Where shall I put these, Uncle Tarwhal?" Madseu're asked the old man, raising the canvases in each hand.
"Set them on the floor, against the wall there," Tarwhal said, pushing aside some empty boxes with his foot to make room for the paintings. "I'll go get the easels- be back in one moment." The old man emptied his own hands and stepped out into the rumbling din.
Madseu're nodded, and as the door closed, he looked over the row of canvases where they lined the wall. From the old man's practiced brush had come fanciful images of fantastic, beautiful worlds. Madseu're had seen the photographs taken by expeditions to the other planets and moons of the system, but these landscapes were different- blue skies dominated the images, and below, great white-capped mountain ranges, skirted by forests of towering trees that parted for grand, flowing streams of water that splashed over rocks and emptied into the magic pools of cool, dark lakes. He had never seen a picture of the old world- no one had- but the legends that had been passes down to him told of a green world where the plant life grew to unbelievable size, not like the small topiary gardens that were kept in the space stations to help maintain oxygen levels and provide fresh food for their crews, but gigantic, impressive structures that stretched overhead- formidable, awe-inducing, living structures. The skies of the other planets were many colors, but all dead tones- the deadly red and orange skies of the two nearest planets were made of gases that could not support life. The outer worlds and moons of the solar system were all too cold, and the inner planets too blisteringly, scorchingly hot for man to survive. But these paintings imaginatively portrayed the old man's vision of how the homeland might have looked before the ravaged of man's wars betrayed their mother world and turned her to the dead gray rock that now turned beneath them.
The door behind Madseu're opened and closed, and he turned as the old man set the folded easels in the corner by the door. "These painting are wonderful, Uncle T," Madseu're praised, "Why did you never try to become part of the art community instead of living your whole life as a mechanic on this station?"
"Artists make poor friends." the old man said. "They have strong inclination to disagree with one another's point of view on art. If one is better than you, he despises your work as amateurish and ignores you completely, and if he is worse, he despises you out of jealousy for your talent and ignores you completely so he can continue to tell himself his work has value." He sighed in a mock-dramatic fashion, posing with the back of one hand thrown against his forehead. "No, the only dependable friend is a machine."
Madseu're laughed, and the old man broke his pose and smiled too.
"So, what brings you way up here?" Tarwhal inquired with an examining squint of his left eye. "It's been a long time since you came to see me- what is the occasion?" Tarwhal pushed aside some bare pillows to make a spot on the couch and, looking at Madseu're all the while, was seated.
Madseu're knew that anything less than the honest truth would be detected by the aging man's still-keen perception. Tarwhal D'Hriver was not really an uncle to Madseu're, but a long-time family friend since before Madseu're had been born. He was the same age that Madseu're's own father would have been had he still been living, but unlike The Big L, he showed ever minute of his age, and, being skyborn, was fated to age quicker and die sooner.
Taking the chair at the table, Madseu're drew in a quick breath and threw out the question abruptly. "I want to know more about the Big L."
"Ah," the old man smiled knowingly. "This is about his gift, isn't it," He lay back on the couch. "What do you want to know?"
As Madseu're sat on the end of his bed, the words The Big L had spoken the night before played over in his head. He looked down and turned the coin over in his palm, fingering with his thumb. This was no mere scrap of metal, no trinket, no bauble. This was a symbol, an icon; what it stood for was far more valuable than its economic worth. What he did with it now was not a decision to be made lightly. With the Big L already reaching the outer reached of the solar system and speeding toward a destination many light-years away, Madseu're might reasonably do whatever he desired with this rare, valuable coin. After all, how likely would he be to see the Big L again? What assurance had he that the Big L would ever return again to reclaim his possessions? Could not one assume that he had gone forever, headed for a new world without a thought for those he left behind? The things he left with the men and women on this station were surely just the things that would be of no use on that distant planet to which his ship now sped. In this case, Madseu're might best spend the coin, and be done with it, be rid of the thing, and exchange it for something he could use.
On the other hand, he thought, what reason had he to doubt the word of a man who had already done so much for the mass of humanity who clung to life now only due to his actions? Surely a man of such noble actions would stand by his word; no act of his gave precedent for one to doubt his promises. When his closest confidants, assistants, and crewmen trusted him so fully, how could anyone else fail to believe when he said he would return that his return was a certainty?
Madseu're recalled how at the conclusion of the Big L's farewell address last night, one of those sitting by his side rose and with tearful protest begged him to stay:
"I plead with you, sir, as in the Scriptures, Starbuck, the disciple of Ahab, did beg his lord: 'Oh, my captain, my captain!- noble heart- go not- go not!- see, it's a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!'"
The Big L had but to place a hand on his shoulder and look him in the eyes to reassure the man that his departure was not forever. From where he sat, Madseu're had seen the look of assurance in the man's eyes as he returned to his seat, and even now, he realized that he knew the Big L would be back again someday; he was certain of it. So the question then was how best to keep this gift until that awaited return.
Madseu're had never known the Big L intimately; he knew him more as an icon, an idea, and never as a person- a touchstone, a symbol, but as an individual, he was an enigma to Madseu're. What kind of man was the Big L? Who was he, really? Yes, his actions had made him a hero, a legend even, but what motivated those acts of nobility? Was his soul a noble one? Were his actions motivated from a noble heart? Surely no man could be as good as the Big L appeared. Madseu're decided that before he did anything with the coin he would have to find out more about the man called the Big L.
This was the man known only as "The Big L," the man who more than 90 years ago had saved the human race from total annihilation at their own hands. This was the man to whom every living being that now orbited the planet owed their lives and gladly gave their allegiance. He casually placed a hand in his pocket, and, turning to the serving robot that stood waiting with the eternal patience one would expect of a machine, gave a nod to proceed with the serving of the meal. As the robot disappeared into the kitchen to bring out the rest of the serving droids, The Big L made his way to the seat that had been reserved for him, at the table where his council of leaders stood at attention, waiting for him to sit.
As he took the seat, the Big L slowly looked around the hushed room. After a moment, he laughed engagingly. "Please, as you were! I forbid you to be so morose!" he proclaimed, "This is feast, not a funeral!" The deathly silence broke then, and the room once more was alive with gaiety and laughter, and people happily engaging in lively conversation.
Madseu're however, kept an eye on the door from which the robot servers would be shortly entering with food and drink. A procession of droids came forth with all the pomp that the occasion could demand of them. Mechanical head held high, and steaming covered dishes held over these by delicate mechanical hands.
First the Big L and his entourage were served, and as these began to elegantly set upon their food, the robots came around to the rest of the tables that filled the starlit hall. Madseu're anxiously waited his turn, concerned to see how the food had turned out after he had left the kitchen. With a tentative stab of the fork, he took a bite. Not overcooked, at any rate, he thought as his teeth sank into the morsel. He chewed his mouthful for a few moments. Salty, he decided, a bit too salty. Not enough to ruin the meal, but it was definitely time to recalibrate some of the kitchen droids.
As the serving robots were bringing out the desserts, the Big L stood and calmly motioned the room to silence until all eyes were once more fixed on him. He said nothing for a moment, and from where he sat, Madseu’re could almost have sworn he saw tears winking in his eyes, barely held back even by the willpower of the leader of men known as the Big L. Taking a breath, the Big L spoke, softly, but in that silent hall, not an ear in the room could miss what he said.
“My,” he began, “My dear, dear friends; brothers; sisters; companions in exile; from your forebears you already know that for 92 years, in our ships, stations, and assorted satellites, we have circled a dying world- a world that was once our home- the only home we could ever have wanted. Through greed, hatred, fear, anger, evils all of our own design, our world was destroyed in seven dark days of unthinkably violent destruction. We have lingered within the pull of her gravity, searching the heavens desperately to find a new world that we might call home. Now, after three generations of searching, our telescopes and probes have found a possibility. The only thing that remains now is for a manned mission to explore this distant globe and to assess its potential as our new frontier home. The crew has been chosen, and I am to lead this mission.”
As the room began to stir in reaction to this announcement, the Big L raised a great hand to calm the crowd. “Do not be troubled. I go to prepare a place for you. You may doubt, or you may be anxious for yourselves when I leave, but be assured, I do not go forever. I shall return. I would as soon part from you as from my own children. But go I must, so in my absence, I leave you in the most capable hands I can find. A Council of Elders has been appointed to make decisions, settle disputes, and so forth.” He stopped. “But you probably wonder now, what assurance you have of my return. By now, each of you will have received a token, some possession of mine. I have divided everything I have among the crew of this station, to hold and look after while I am gone. You hold in your hands all of my corporeal wealth. Keep it well, and you will be rewarded upon my return. I leave in 12 hours on a ship, bound for the distant planet Terra Secunda. Until we meet again, remember me as I will remember you; my family, my children.”
"Excuse me," a voice at his ear said softly.
Madseu're looked up, startled out of his thoughts. Ah, it was only the girl seated by him at the table, the engineer Alyana Maryala.
"Er, yes, " he said, "was there something you wanted?" He spread thumb and forefinger across his lip, nervously smoothing his moustache.
"I just wondered," she began, then stopped. "no, you'll think it a silly question..."
"No, no," he replied with an eager smile, as he allowed his eyes to look her over. She was not unattractive, he thought to himself, in fact, quite a pretty young lady.
"Well, actually not so much a question, just wondered if you could tell me some things."
"I could sure try," he offered, sitting up in the chair as he tried to suck in his stomach. After a moment, he gave the effort up and exhaled with a soft snorting laugh to himself. He knew he must have looked foolish, with his chest puffed full of air and his shoulders raised to his ears, but he habitually did that when he was around attractive women. He knew he was overweight, but he desperately hoped someone would look beyond his girth and see the man under all the layers, someone who needed affection just as much as anyone else. "What was it you were wondering?" he asked finally.
"You know I'm pretty new to the station," Alyana began. He nodded, and she continued, "But you've been here quite a while, right? So I just thought maybe you could tell be something about this 'Big L' guy. Who is he exactly? Why is he called 'the Big L'? What's his real name? What is this farewell banquet about, where is he going?"
Madseu’re was silent a moment. What did anyone know about the Big L? He had been around since Madseu're was too young to remember, but his past remained as mysterious as ever.
"I don't know that i can tell you much more than you already know, but I'll tell what i can," he said at last, sitting back in the chair, and placing his hands on the edge of the table.
Alyana leaned forward with interest. Sancarl and Willheim, who had been listening idly from their places both leaned in as well.
"To his real name and past, i know nothing. He has been commander of the station since before anyone here was born. My father, Angeu're, once told me how the Big L arrived when he- my father, that is, not the Big L- when he was only a small boy himself. It was only just after the Seven Day War had ended and all humanity had retreated from the planet in whatever ships and vessels they could get hold of. All was chaos, madness, disorder. If the Big L had not stepped up from the chaos and emerged as a benevolent leader to organize them all, then we would have died in a few years, and none of us would be sitting here now talking about it. As I say, no one knows where he came from, what country, or who he was; he just appeared one day and set about organizing the fleets of planetary refugees into groups based on their skills, education, and resources, and sending them to stations that could become self-contained, self-sustaining communities. As soon as things began to become more calm and organized, he stepped down and took a position as leader of one station especially, this very ship we sit in now."
Sancarl spoke then from Madeu're's other side. "So old, then, is he? I would have thought him in his early fifties, not nearly as old as you say!"
Madseu're turned to his assistant. "Yes, it seems that before society collapsed, health care and innoculations had reached a high point. Nearly every disease had become treatable, some had even been thought destroyed entirely. Life expectancy was longer than ever. Then the War came and changed everything."
"So what about this farewell?" Alyana put in. "Is he retiring finally? he seems very fit, for one so old..."
Madseu're shrugged, and his lips parted to protest his ignorance of the meaning of the banquet, but suddenly Willheim, the message runner, spoke up.
"No, it's..." His youthful voice cracked at first, then he cleared his throat and began again. "I'm not really allowed to tell you what it IS for, but i assure you, he is definitely NOT retiring- that man is stronger than any of us- built like a machine, he is!"
But the eyes of those around him were not focused on him, for just as he finished speaking, everyone in the room full of people had turned their heads toward the sliding doors at the entrance of the Great Hall. There he was himself, large as life- The Big L.
With a few last adjustments of the cummerbund around his ample waistline, and a final tug on the bow tie around his neck, Madsue're left his quarters, and, after entering the digital combination sequence on the small touch-screen panel outside to lock his door, he headed for the Grand Hall.
Station RK237 was classified as a "Carousel Station" due to its circular shape, and the rotating motion that gave it an artificial gravity by use of centrifugal force. there were 10 levels in the station, which radiated out, arranged in such a manner that when one stood in any of these levels, their feet would point toward the outside of the station, and their heads pointed toward the center of the station. The 3 innermost levels housed the engines and machinery that kept the ship alive, the 3 central levels were the quarters for crew and passengers, and the outer 4 levels were where all commerce, scientific work, etc. took place.
Madseu're made his way down several flights of stairs, and, passing through the automated sliding doors, entered the Grand Hall. The Grand Hall was on the outermost level, a long, palacial hall with a gently curving floor with thick glass panes through which one could look out and see the stars, the sun, and the gray, dying planet below. The hall was quickly filling with men and women in their finest clothes and uniforms. Many were gathered around tables and whispering in hushed tones, and a feeling of anxious expectation hung heavily in the air. Madseu’re found his way to the place where he was to be seated. To the left of him sat his assistant cook, Sancarl, across from him was Willheim, the runner, and on his right was one of the station’s engineers, a woman named Alyana Maryala. Madseu’re didn’t know her as well as some of the others in the room, he had only seen her occasionally around the ship, and at meals, with the rest of the crew and passengers. She was new to the ship, transferred from the Academic Station to replace a crew member that had become too old to do his work efficiently.
Madseu're nodded a greeting to Sancarl, granted a glance of acknowledgement to Willheim, then sat with his eyes down at his plate, waiting for the arrival of the Big L, so the meal could begin.
As the door slid closed behind him, Madseu're sat on the end of his bed in the privacy of his quarters. He turned the envelope over, and into his open hand dropped a single shining coin. Madseu're gently turned it over and over between finger and thumb, examining it. Yes, it WAS! A real coin, made of precious metal, possibly even gold!
On one side of the small coin was what looked like a mansion, with a statue at the center, seated between two rows of pillars. Over this image was some text that was scarcely legible from the years of handling and abuse; the text beneath that, though readable, was written in an ancient tongue, and he had no was no way to translate it: E Pluribum Unum. Under the image was inscribed in larger letters, "One Cent," a currency that no longer held meaning. On the opposite side of the coin was a bearded man in profile; behind him the word "liberty" barely able to be read, and by his lapel, an indistinct date. Over his head was the thing that struck Madseu're as being most unusual about the coin, the expression "In God We Trust." It surely was a mis-struck coin, he decided. It probably was intended to read "In Gold We Trust."
He was amazed; awestruck; dumbfounded; a million trite expressions came to mind to describe his loss for words. He had only ever seen a coin like this once, and that was as a child on a trip to a museum where a glittering silver dollar had winked at him from behind a glass case in one of the historical archive vessels that orbited on a separate path from the rest of the stations.
A coin like the one he now held, Madsue're Disvone'ray realized, was worth a fortune!
He remembered the lessons his teachers had taught about how long ago coins had been used as a way to purchase items, reward workers, and repay debts before all finance had been digitized. All currency had been recalled, and ordered to be destroyed. But when computers world-wide had crashed in what became known as the Sunspot Stock Crash, the ones who thrived were the private sects and prudent collectors who had chosed to stow their money rather than exchange it for digital wealth.
Madseu're recalled where the legendary hero Ahab had been quoted in a verse from the Scriptures, "He who raises me a white whale shall have this gold ounce, my boys!"***
Historians were unsure what a whale was, as no one had ever seen a living one. Most conjectured that it was a large furry mammal that ate cockroaches, based on archeological expeditions that had been made to the planet's surface, in which they had uncovered remains of creatures the size of an infant human, with collars and small boxes of sand they were given to bury their waste. The only animals other than humans who had survived the Seven-Day War that followed the Sunspot Crash had been roaches. Then the conclusion that followed was that Ahab, had been a captain of a space station, and frustrated by the surge in cockroach population, he had cried out desperately that he would offer a gold coin, which symbolized great wealth, if someone could find a living whale to devour the bugs.
Madseu're held the coin for a moment before getting up to hide it in a safe place. This object was worth a great deal! He checked the envelope again, but there was no note of explanation enclosed. Why had the Big L given it to him, who was merely the head cook for Station RK237? He didn't really even know him all that well! Perhaps he would get answers from the Big L himself, this evening at the farewell banquet being held in honor of the Big L.
*** Note: Historians generally agreed that the Scriptures, most of which had, sadly, been partially lost during the Great Burnings of the Puritan-Pagan Age, were authored by a German prophet named Herr Mel Villemann, based on information gleaned from a torn cover of a printed copy of the Scriptures, which read:
A glint of something precious sparkled from within the envelope, and, in startled surprise, Madseu're closed it again and looked about to see if the contents of the envelope had been seen by anyone else. Satisfied that no one here knew what he had in his posession, he placed the envelope carefully in his shirt under his apron, in a hidden pocket.
"Sancarl," he said then, motioning to a cook who was working busily nearby, "come here, please."
Sancarl looked up from the funnel into which he was measuring ingredients to be cooked in one of the miriad of convection heating machines. "yes, Mr. Disvone'ray?" he answered respectfully, stepping toward Madseu're.
"Sancarl, do you think you can take over for me without any bungling?" Madseu're asked his Chief Assistant.
"Well, sure, I..." he answered, but was cut off as Madseu're continued.
"This an important occasion, our farewell banquet for the Big L..."
"Surely, but where..."
"I have some pressing business I need to take care of before the meal starts, and I'd like to go to my quarters to change out of these clothes and into my suit before i can take my seat in the dining hall with the others."
Madeu're pointed his finger, reminding Sancarl, "Now, remember, some of these robots are getting old, and tend to become a bit cantankerous..."
Here a smile crackled across Sancarl's face as he laughed, "Some of us who aren't robots are getting old and cranky too!"
"Yes," Madseu're responded, his finger returning to its habitual curl of his moustache, " but remember what the philosopher Sal'maan Azamoff T'flaim has said-
Grease for his joints he requires;
When man does the same,
Coin to grease his palms he desires!"
"It best be so." Madseu're said, and was about to continue to give instructions to the assisant, but he was far too eager to inspect the gift from the Big L closer, so instead he nodded and turned to leave. "carry on."
Turning to see who had addressed him, he nearly knocked over the quiet supplicant with his fat elbow.
"s-sorry, mister d-Dis..d-dis..," the small young man apologized as he shakily ran his hand over his mussed red hair.
"Well? WELL?" Madseu're demanded impatiently. "You have questions? Out with it then, I don't have time to waste, we need to have the food prepared by 17:00!"
"fr-from the b- the- the big L," With a trembling hand the young man opened his grey leather jacket and reaching the other hand into an inside pocket, withdrew a small envelope, and handed it into Madseu're's fat, eager fingers.
"Thank you, Willheim," Madseu're waved off the young man brusquely.
He held the envelope out as far as his stubby arm's-length could, and examined it. It was made of a fine, beet-red colored vellum paper, and written in fine script on the front was his name.
eagerly, he turned the envelope over and tore at the seal with fumbling, greedy hands. Some of the cooks near him stopped what they were doing to peer over his shoulders and see what was inside the envelope.
"What is that you've got, Mr. Disvone'ray?"
"Oh, from the big L?"
"What could be inside?"
Madseu're paused, his hands dropping angrily to his sides as he turned on those around him. "Back to your work! If it concerns you, I'll let you know! Back to your tasks! We have a banquet to prepare!"
There was one millisecond of silence. The elbow joint on one of the older robots creaked, then suddenly the activity in the room leapt anew to a fresh flurry of such intensity, that idle eyes scarcely dared to cast even the briefest of glances from their work toward Madseu're.
Satisfied that there would be no further interuptions or distractions, he returned his attention to the mysterious envelope. What possible message could the big L have to communicate to him? Surely the banquet being prepared was not being demanded sooner? Madseu're cautiously pried his thumb into the opening of the envelope and lifted the flap to peer inside at the contents.
Tarwhal D’Hriver sat back in his chair and stared at the message screen. He was tired of his job as a Sub-Message Filter. He longed for his first promotion in the orbiting planet station. Why should Akral Mas’Hrhal have a better job than him? Tarwhal had worked just as hard as he had, and still, his only occupation was gophering for HomeBase Headquarters.
“Down.” He said to the computer, indicating that the current message could not be passed up the chain to the Arch-Message Filter. The screen flashed, and the message was deleted. After a second flash, the next message was on the screen.
Tarwhal suddenly sat up, and took his feet off the highly polished chrome panels of the control board. A message from HomeBase! This could be big! Everything looked official and in order, so with the word “Up,” he sent the message on to Akral.
Within 10 minutes a bell rang, and a window flashed on the screen, indicating that he had a call waiting. “Teleview up.” He said, giving permission for the caller to speak with him. Suddenly Akral Mas’Hrhal’s pudgy face filled the screen. The Arch-Message Filter was, as usual, wearing his irritatingly benevolent smile. “What do you want, Akral?” Tarwhal sighed, carelessly disrespectful.
“Tarwhal, I have a job for you to do.”
“What now? Is the Excremental Waste Energy machine malfunctioning again?”
“No, nothing like that...”
“The Big L is coming tonight.”
Tarwhal stopped and leaned forward. “Do you know why?”
“He’s coming because he’s decided it’s time to review for promotions, and even a couple of transfers to HomeBase!”
“What’s that got to do with me?’ Tarwhal said. “I never even get considered.”
“Come on, Tarwhal! You know the Big L isn’t like that! Everyone in the station is going to be considered.”
“Okay, so what do you want me to do?”
“Stay up and wait for his arrival at the Picar Bay.”
“When is he coming?”
“The message just says it’s tonight...”
“And why do I have to greet Him?”
“Because I need someone responsible.”
“Why can’t you do it?”
“Well,” The fat man’s face grew sober. “I’m afraid I haven’t really given you a chance lately. The message said that the person who was given the job of greeting His arrival would receive special attention when being reviewed for promotion. I figure this is a way to pay you back for your hard work.”
“So, then, I just have to wait for His arrival and be prepared to give Him a formal greeting?”
“Yes, but be sure you don’t fall asleep - we don’t know what time He’s coming.”
“No problem. Thanks.”
The screen flashed and Akral was gone. “Shut down.” Tarwhal commanded, and the computer screen dimmed to a dark gray, then blacked out. Tarwhal walked down the hall to the Core, which connected all the sections of the station. Once inside, he spoke to the Core computer. “Picar Bay.” The core rotated to the proper hole that led to the Picar Bay.
When he finally exited the Core, he followed the brightly lit tunnel that quickly opened to the giant metallic cavern with great plastic windows and immense- but light- aluminum doors -- the landing bay for Picars. He looked around him at the large number of Picar spacecraft that lined the floors on either side of the landing strip. He heard the loud hum of power equipment that he knew to be Dis’Rhal Benraeli, the station mechanic and electrician. Dis’Rhal was the only man in the station of lower position of authority than Tarwhal himself. Dis’Rhal was a faithful, hardworking man, with years of experience and expertise. He was happy to be a mere mechanic.
Tarwhal went over to where Dis’Rhal was working. “How’s it going?’ Dis’Rhal greeted him with his big gap-toothed grin. He didn’t earn enough pay to have dental work done regularly, but his smile was pleasant and always fresh beneath his scruffy black mustache. “What brings you down here today, Tarwbal?”
Tarwhal explained that the Big L was coming, and why he was here. Dis’Rhal smiled cheerfully, and shook his balding head. “I don’t mind if I don’t get a promotion. I’ve been doing this job for nearly 40 years, and I’m content to keep on. It will be exciting enough just to be able to see the Big L again. He’s about the best person I’ve ever known. He doesn’t get wrapped up in himself: He’s always thinking about those who work for Him.”
Tarwhal walked a ways off to a seat and sat in it. He watched Dis’Rhal working cheerfully on the Picar, whistling, and occasionally wiping his hands on his greasy uniform. He thought to himself after a while, “I really am a bit tired. I can chance just a little nap. I’m sure Dis’Rhal will wake me if the Big L comes in his Picar spacecraft.”
In only a few moments he was asleep. He woke a little later, and he rubbed his eyes. Looking around, he saw that Dis’Rhal had left. He must have finished his work and gone to bed. Tarwhal saw that the tools were lying on the floor, and made a note to himself to reprimand Dis’Rhal about his messiness.
Looking at his watch, Tarwhal saw he had slept for 15 minutes. He decided he would not go back to sleep because there was no one to wake him should the Big L come. He gazed at the stars for a while, then got up and wandered about, cleaning up Dis’RIiaI’s tools and putting them away. He stayed there until the sun peeped around the edge of the planet below. Where was the Big L? Had he decided to delay his visit? Probably.
Tarwhal returned to the Core and commanded the computer to direct him to the Arch-Message Filter’s cubicle. He burst angrily through the door and shouted, “What kind of joke was that? The Big L never came...” Tarwhal stopped suddenly, and stared at the man behind the desk. It was not the rotund Akral Mas’Hrhal, but Dis’Rhal Benraeli who sat behind the desk. No longer did he wear his greasy class Delta uniform, but a crisp, clean uniform bearing the insignia of Arch-Message Filter. “Where is Akral?” Tarwhal demanded. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry, Tarwhal,” Dis’Rhal said appeasingly, “But you missed the arrival of the Big L. He came while you were sleeping and parked the Picar among the others. I didn’t want to disturb you, so I greeted him myself:”
“But what about Akral?”
“When the Big L heard of Akral’s generosity, He gave Mr. Mas’Hrhal a transfer to HomeBase Headquarters. He gave me Akral’s position.”
“He gave it to YOU?” Tarwhal shouted. “Why not ME?”
“I asked Him that myself.” Dis’Rhal said, pulling at his black mustache. “He said you would be given MY position, because you were given a small task, and failed to accomplish it. You only disobeyed a little bit, but that was all it took. You were to await the coming of the Big L, and you fell asleep. You weren’t ready. I was ready.”