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       Surfeit, p.1

           Alan Dean Foster
 
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Surfeit


  Foster, Alan Dean - Commonwealth 08 - Humanx - SURFEIT(SS) (v1.0) Jacked

  Surfeit

  by

  Alan Dean Foster

  Copyright 1982 by Thyranx, Inc.: first appeared in Speculations.

  For many years I lived near the Santa Monica Pier, in greater Los Angeles. The Santa Monica Pier is the one you've seen in dozens of movies and television shows, the one with the old merry-go-round built on its shoreside end. (Remember it from the movie The Sting?)

  Below the pier young men and women fake hara-kiri every day by surfing between the barnacle-encrusted pilings. This is called shooting the gap or shooting the pier. It goes on every day and you have to be nuts to try it.

  Less daring, I rode the waves well clear of the dangerous pilings. Now I live in Arizona, where the big waves are more than scarce. But the memories linger, of salt on your lips and 'sand under your wetsuit, of the stormy days when the Big Ones would come rolling in all the way from Japan and only the skilled and/ or foolhardy would chance the angry water. And as with all memories of early pleasures, sometimes those waves rise a little higher with each retelling...

  ***

  The Monster was all mouth and no body, and you would hear it before you could see it.

  Joao Acorizal knew of it without having to employ sight or sound. He knew of it through story and legends, which are far more descriptive than simple senses could be. He'd studied the history of the Monster, its whims and habits, colors and moods.

  From the time he'd been a boy on Thalia Major and had first heard of the Monsters of Dis he knew someday he would confront and do battle with them. It was preordained.

  His parents and friends had listened to his somber daydreaming and had laughed at him. If by some chance he one day managed to raise enough money to travel to far Dis he would cower fearfully before the Monster, too weak to confront it. One or two friends had actually seen tapes of the Monster and assured Joao it was too much for any man of Thalia to handle. Better to forget it and aim for the attainable.

  Kirsi had been his wife for twenty years and hadn't been able to make him forget the dream.

  She spoke as she paced the floor of their living room, her sandals clacking intermittently on the floor as she alternately crossed thick throw rugs and smooth ter-ratone tiles.

  "I fail to understand you, Joao." She was waving her hands at him, as full of animated little gestures as the noisy macaques which roamed the trees in the garden behind the house. "You've worked hard all your life. So have I." She stopped, indicated the tastefully furnished, comfortable room.

  "We'll never be rich, you and I, but we'll never go begging either. We've a good life. We've two fine children who are just old enough now to realize that their father is crazy. Everything we've worked for, all that we've built up together, you want to throw away to satisfy a childhood infatuation." She shook her head pityingly, her long black hair swirling against the back of the white print dress. "Husband of my life, I don't understand you."

  Joao sighed and looked away from her, out the broad window which overlooked the beach. The sun was rising over the Atlantic. Tranquil waves broke like eggs against the sand. Thalia's sun, slightly yellower and smaller than Sol, turned the water to topaz. Thalia Minor, the twin world, was out of sight, hiding on the other side of the globe.

  "We have more than enough money. The trip will not inconvenience us save for a little while."

  "Money? You think I give a damn about money?" She came up behind him, locked her arms possessively around his waist, and leaned her head on his back. Her warmth sent a shiver through him, as it had on that first night twenty years ago.

  "Money is nothing, husband. You are everything." She turned him around and gazed hard into his face, searching, trying to find the key to whatever drove him so she could somehow pull it from his mind and cast it into the sea. "I do not want you dead, Joao."

  He smiled, though she couldn't see it. "Neither do I, Kirsi."

  She pulled away sharply. "Then why are you in such a hurry to throw life aside? God knows you're no antique, but you're not a professional athlete either."

  He turned and bent to kiss her gently. She made a fuss of flinching. "And that, my love, is precisely why I must go to Dis now, before it is too late..."

  Conversation and Kirsi seemed so far away now. He was on Dis at last, and soon he would confront the Monster and its relatives. For thirty years he'd dreamed of the challenge to come. Thirty years of practice, thirty years of honing his skills, thirty years of dreaming, about to become reality.

  That is, if he could muster one day's worth of great courage.

  His eyes tried to penetrate the salt mist as he and his companion challengers made their way across the damp, barren rocks. A few low scrubs clung tenaciously to the surface. Sea crustaceans crawled fitfully from crack to crevice.

  There were twenty-four competitors in the group. Eighteen men and six women, ranging in age from eighteen to forty-two. Joao was grateful he was not the oldest. Only second oldest.

  But not in spirit, he told himself firmly, and not in heart.

  Salt spray drifted foglike around them. The raucous complaining of seabirds mixed with the sibilant hissing of ichthyorniths filled the moist air of morning.

  The walk was a ritual part of the contest. No spectators were allowed to join the competitors on the walk, no judges or media reporters. The first confrontation with the Monster would be made by the entire group. Then they would return to the assembly and departure station to make final preparations for their individual, intimate meetings.

  Conversation was by way of whispered shouts; whispers out of respect for their opponent, shouts so they could be heard above the periodic roars of the Monster. They were now very near the end of the peninsula, and the bellowing from up ahead shook the solid granite, sending a subtle warning tremor through the contestants' bare feet. They could not see the Monster yet, but it was hissing at them through the rock.

  "First time?"

  "What?" Joao wiped spray drip from his forehead and eyes and looked to the source of the query.

  "I asked if it was your first time." The man who spoke was very short and extremely muscular. It was not the well-defined muscularity of the body builder but the squat, thick build of the truly strong. He had bright blue eyes and his hair was cut bristle short, a blond brush that gave him a falsely belligerent look. His swim briefs were blue and red checks in front, solid red behind.

  "Yes." Joao stepped over a dull mustard-colored crab-thing armed with quadruple pincers. It flinched back but did not flee from him. "Is it that obvious?"

  "Not really. But if you've been through it before you can tell." They walked on.

  "How many times for you?" Joao asked curiously.

  "This'll be my third." The man grinned. "It's hard, since the contest is held only every three years. Would be my fourth, but I broke my leg the last time."

  "You don't have to warn me. I've read about this every year for the last thirty."

  The man laughed. "I didn't break it during the contest. Two days before time I slipped on my front porch and snap, that was it for the next three years. Spent the whole contest watching."

  Joao managed to laugh with him. They walked on silently for several minutes. The sea mist thickened, was partly countered by the rise of a stiff breeze. The rest of the contestants kept pace nearby.

  "Name's Janwin." The man put out a hand. Joao shook it. It was not wrinkled as he expected but smooth. The grasp was firm, controlled. "I'm local."

  "Joao Acorizal, from Thalia Major. I'm a builder, mostly private homes."

  "Circulatory surgeon, Dis Central Hospital Complex. Pleased to meet you. The important thing is to have confidence in yourself. Be alert, keep an eye on your path and the other alert for
the predators. Don't be afraid to use your balpole, and if you're going over or under, use your rockets and get the hell out. Everyone does. Risk taking impresses the judges, but points don't mean a damn to dead pulp.

  "You get three chances during the contest but only one life. There's nothing to be ashamed about if you bail out. My first contest there were only fifteen rides out of forty-five attempts, and no completes. I've never had a complete ride and seen damn few." He went quiet, studied Joao professionally. Ahead of them they could hear the rock-shattering groan of the Monster, very near now.

  "You've got good legs, real good. Any tears or pulls in the past six months? This isn't something you go into if you're even slightly damaged."

  Joao shook his head. "I know that. I've done thirty years of homework and as much practice for this day. I've never been in better shape."

  "That's what your mind tells you. Well, I ought to shut up. I'm no fledgling either. Experience counts for a lot." He looked ahead. "Almost to the Point. I'm sure you've seen tapes of it. It's a little different in person, up close. Remember, watch out for predators and try to relax."

  "That sounds like a contradiction, but I'll try. Thanks for the advice." He added impulsively, "If I don't win, I hope you do."

  Janwin shrugged. "I've never placed higher than seventh. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that I'm still here. With all my parts. Keep that in mind when you're out there and tempted to push your luck a little. All the points in the world won't make up for the loss of an arm or an eye." He looked a little uncertain, finally asked, "You have a family?" Joao nodded. "Are they here?"

  "No. I wouldn't let them come."

  The surgeon nodded approvingly. "Good. If anything happens I'll see that the details are properly taken care of. You can do the same for me, though I have friends here."

  "Agreed!" Joao had to scream it out because they were at the slight rise at the end of the promontory that marked the tip of the narrow peninsula.

  Then they were slowing, everyone crowding unconsciously close together, and he could see the Monster.

  High overhead, hanging like dark eyes in a pale blue sky misted with sea spray, were Cerberus, Charon, and Pluto, three of the four large moons that circle the planet Dis. Grouped together like that they occupied much of the morning sky. Dis's sun was just above the horizon, below the moons. The three satellites were also rising, their perambulating orbits bringing them into alignment in this manner only once every three years. Soon the sun would be behind them, and for a while daylight would touch land in surreal confusion.

  Below was the Monster they helped to raise.

  The wave was larger than any Joao had ever seen, but he expected that. He studied it calmly, analytically, and did not shake. The wave lifted heavenward, still far out at sea. White foam like broken teeth began to appear on its crest. It surged hungrily toward the high promontory. It started to break.

  The curl appeared, began to retreat steadily southward, and the roar came to those who watched. It was a roar that stirred the blood and primeval thoughts. All the dark dreams of childhood, all the terror of drowning and smothering under a great weight, were wrapped up in that single monstrous, relentless wave.

  And still it rose as it broke to the south, an immense gray-green blanket suffocating the horizon, the thunder of its sharp curl wiping out all other sounds. From the safety of the salt-swept point the contestants watched the curl and wave as it fled away from them, ducking only when the trailing backside of the wave smashed its green hammerhead against the rock to drench them all.

  Out at sea, visible through the mist, making good use of the peculiar slope of the seabottom, Dis's lighter gravity, and the tidal confluence of the sun and three fat moons, the next Monster was growing.

  The contestants stood, chattering loudly in order to be heard, all eyes appraising the water.

  "About eighty feet," said Janwin thoughtfully. "Normal runs fifty, storm-drive pulses sixty to seventy. We only get these really big ones when the three moons line up every three years and add their pull to everything else. It should be an interesting couple of days."

  Three contestants withdrew on the way back to the assembly area. No one taunted or chided them. The inmates have no right to make fun of the sane. The judges calmly marked the dropouts off the list.

  Assistants were available to help in preparation. Acorizal turned their eager faces away. He'd lived with his board for five years. He'd broken it in, broken it for real, had repaired it lovingly with his own hands. He knew every inch of it, every contortion in the grain. He needed no help. But he made sure to work alongside the helpful Janwin and watched him make ready so that he could ask questions.

  Once one of the contest supervisors approached the surgeon, whispered something to him before moving on to the next contestant. Janwin had listened, nodded, then ambled over to where Acorizal was checking the release pulls on his backpack and making certain the solid fuel boosters were clean and full.

  "Weather report just in. Scattered clouds, winds five to ten out of the southwest. That shouldn't affect balance or crests. There's a tropical cyclonic storm weaving around out there. We shouldn't get any bad winds, but you know what that'll do to the swells. On top of everything else." There was a twinkle in his eye.

  "I've never had a chance to ride a hundred-footer. If a proper swell comes in on us, get out of my way."

  "I'll race you for it," Acorizal replied with a grin. Janwin moved away and the builder turned back to readying himself. He dismissed the thought of a hundred-foot wave. It could no more be comprehended than the distance between two stars, or the gulf that was the number billion. It was a physical abstract only, one without counterpart in reality. For himself he wished only an uncomplicated wave. That, and to survive.

  His board was formed of honeycomb tripoxy resins. It was fifteen feet long by four wide and light enough for one man to carry. Twin shark-fin stabilizers protruded downward from the front third of the board, another pair from near the blunt stern. Above the stern were twin air stabilizers joined by an adjustable airfoil.

  Studs set into the upper surface of the board were connected to thin duralloy control wires running to the four stabilizers and the airfoil. You could not touch the studs with your hands, only with your feet.

  He picked up his balpole. It was made of the same material as the board except for the twin spiked knobs that ballooned from either end. The pole could be used for balancing or for fighting off any carnivores who might frequent the turbulence of a great wave. Several such were indigenous to Dis. No energy weapons or devices of any kind were permitted save for the tiny solid-fuel backpacks.

  The pack was your life. A rider who was thrown or who lost control of a wave had several options. You could dive into the body of the wave and hope to swim out through the backside. You could shrink into a fetal ball and hope to ride the wave out. Or you could fire your pack with either of two releasing shoulder pulls and soar above the wave, to drop freely behind it into the water. Whenever possible, it was best to use the pack.

  He checked his wet suit for leaks. Pressure or impact of a certain degree would automatically cause the heavy rubberized suit to inflate, hopefully to send a helpless rider bobbing to the surface. The suit would also protect against bruises and scrapes. It would not always save your life. Joao pulled the hood over his head, wiggled his toes. Only his face was exposed. His suit was bright orange with red striping.

  A hand tapped him on the shoulder. Janwin was there, not smiling now. His face beamed from a suit hood of electric orange. "Ready? Time to go."

  Acorizal nodded, hefted his board. There was nothing more to be done but to do it.

  Another rider backed out as they were boarding the skimmers. Acorizal watched her, sitting forlornly on her board, as the skimmer he was in lifted. He waved understandingly, but she did not wave back. The Monster had beaten her already, as it had beaten several others. There was no shame in that.

  Acorizal had not even thought
of withdrawing. Not yet, anyway. At least he was going to get wet.

  The skimmer rose, turning in formation with two others. Cheering was continuous from the assembled spectators who'd gathered to watch the contestants prepare. Tridee pickups turned smoothly to follow the skimmers as they hummed westward.

  Acorizal wondered if tonight, incredibly far away, Kirsi and the children would be watching. Kirsi had told him prior to his departure that under no circumstances would she watch the broadcast or allow the children to, but he wasn't so sure.

  Picking up speed, the skimmers left the staging area. Soon the cliffs that fringed the western coast of Dis's largest continent fell away below. Lines of color marked the places on the cliffs where the spectators were strung out like opaque glass beads.

  A wave was passing below. Its aspect was very different when viewed from high overhead instead of face on. The white crest reminded him not of teeth now but of lace lining the flowing, rippling hem of a woman's skirt. The lace drew a smooth line southward as the curl broke steadily toward distant Scratch Bay. Acorizal watched until the curl faded from sight.

  Soon the skimmers' engines also began to fade and the little craft dropped surfaceward. Out here on the broad open ocean the waves were merely cocoons from which the Monsters would hatch. The Monster now had a back as well as a face, and the skimmers set down on its undulating spine. Engines raced as the craft settled into the water. Riders and boards dropped over the sides, to pepper the dark green surface.

  Acorizal felt stronger the instant he tumbled in. He floated easily, his board attached to his ankle by a breakaway cord. He ducked his head and swam beneath it. The water was chilly out over the deeps. It shocked his eyes open and dissolved the cobwebs of uncertainty in his brain.

  All around him, riders were mounting their boards. The brightly hued wet suits looked like confetti scattered across the water.

  Acorizal felt something lift him, heave him skyward. He went up, up, along with his board and companions, ten, twenty feet, only to be gently lowered again. A wave had just passed beneath them, full of power and incipient threat.

 
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