jump to navigation

Chapter Seven: Between the Piers

While it’s undeniably true that not everyone who benefits
from public works (so-called) on Pallas helps to pay for them,
if those of us who do stopped to worry about “free riders”,
nothing would ever get done and we’d all be squatting in our own
dung in a cave somewhere.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

If Pallas had been the Earth, Curringer would have been right in
the middle of the north temperate zone, like Brussels, or Peoria. The
trip to the asteroid’s north pole by ionopter took slightly less than
two hours, during which Ardith and Jasmeen gave a small part of their
attention to an old movie, and Llyra, having sworn she wasn’t tired,
slept.

It was here, around the mile-high, mountainous circumference of an
impact crater ten miles in diameter, that Pallas’s vast atmospheric
envelope—and the mighty spun-steel cables that held it in
place—dipped down to touch the asteroid’s surface. (At the equator,
they stood a full two miles above it.) Here they came to an end, anchored
by hundreds of colossal stainless steel columns set more than a mile
deep—the most massive monolithic steel fabrications, R.G. Edd,
their ionopter pilot, proudly told his passengers, ever to have been
manufactured.

Outside the north polar crater, inside the atmospheric envelope,
it was warm. Rain fell, and occasional snow. Wind blew, and green
things grew. Little children laughed and played. Inside the crater,
outside the envelope, there was hard vacuum and temperatures that
varied from two hundred degrees below zero to two hundred above,
depending on whether the thermometer in question stood in shadow or in
sunlight.

The two vastly-differing realms were separated at the lowest level
by the circular mountain range, through which dozens of tunnels—
with mammoth doors to seal the air in every couple of miles—had
been bored.

As the ionopter approached the little town of Curley’s
Gulch—white houses, picket fences, and a tall church steeple (Our Lady
of Discord, as it happened, Reformed)—nestled in the lower folds of
the rim range, Jasmeen nudged Llyra awake and the two of them strained
to see everything at once. Through the curved plastic windows in the
roof of the ionopter, they could actually see the atmospheric
envelope, held down by cables as big around as Llyra was. They could
actually see the individual twisted strands of which they were
composed. As the cables curved toward the waiting mountain peaks
re-engineered to receive them, the aircraft was forced to fly lower
and lower.

At one point, the ionopter actually flew close enough to the “roof
of the world” for its passengers to see repairs being made to it from
the outside. The “smart” plastic that W.W. Curringer had invented for
terraforming Pallas was remarkably durable and self-healing, but a
continuous bombardment by micro- and not-so-micrometeorites, and the
steady solar ultraviolet baking it was subjected to, eventually took
their toll.

Outside, dozens of skilled workmen in rocket-powered envirosuits
were struggling to position an enormous replacement patch under one of
the great cables—Edd informed them he had done that sort of work
himself, when he was a younger man, and that the patch they worked
with was the size of two football fields, side by side—employing
jacks of some kind to create sufficient space between the cable and
the canopy.

The patch had been lowered from an orbiting factory ship—one of
the older, smaller fleet that had been employed to terraform this
world three generations ago—and would be hand-welded in place using
sonic “torches”.

The continuous growling of the ionopter’s propulsive screens made
unassisted conversation almost impossible. “Once the edges have healed
seamlessly to the original canopy,” Ed informed them over the cabin
intercom, “the section it replaces will be carefully cut away from
underneath, by workmen using flying belts inside the envelope. Getting
it down to the ground gently is an art in itself. The worn out section
will then be cut up, taken outside, and recycled up in one of the
factory ships, where it will eventually serve as replacement material
elsewhere.”

“Is like gigantic cataract operation.” Sitting beside Llyra on a
passenger seat, Jasmeen had an approving expression on her face. “Only
much more economical! This is almost Martian!”

The pilot laughed. “Well, Miss, somebody once said—it mighta
been me—that Curringer wanted to be called ‘Every Part of the
Buffalo Bill’.”

“And who pays for all this work?” Jasmeen asked. “Is no such thing
as free lunch.”

Ardith, seated on the other side of Llyra, leaned forward and
across her daughter so that she could see Jasmeen. “Why, the Curringer
Corporation does, dear. Every single individual who is born on Pallas
is a stockholder—as is anyone who pays to immigrate here and signs
on to the Stein Covenant. The Curringer Corporation makes money from
exports and from patents, and that’s what keeps a roof over all our
heads.”

“Isn’t that socialism?” Jasmeen asked. “Is called ‘Social Credit
System’.”

Ardith sighed. “I see why you’d say that, but it’s not socialism
at all. For most of us, it’s an inheritance from our parents and
grandparents and great grandparents who risked and toiled and lived
and died to have something to pass on to us. No one is asked to
contribute involuntarily, and if they receive something they didn’t
earn and don’t deserve, they’ll lose it soon enough to somebody
smarter.”

“Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves,” Edd offered, “in only a single
generation. That’s progress!”

Jasmeen nodded. Things were different on Mars. For one thing, its
atmosphere, however artificial, was the product of purely biological
processes that required no maintenance. She knew generally that Ardith
headed up an important laboratory on Pallas, experimenting constantly
with newer and better means of asteroid capture, handling, and
utilization. “So you are source,” she said, “of Curringer Corporation
patents?”

Ardith smiled. “Absolutely. Some of them, anyway. The Curringer
Corporation pays me very well, and I also receive a share of the
royalties.”

Jasmeen looked at Ardith carefully, calculating. “On Mars we are
not tolerating royalties—on Mars we are having only glorious
revolution!”

Ardith frowned, blinked, and shook her head.

“She’s pulling your leg, Mother!” Llyra laughed and punched her
coach gently on the shoulder. “Jasmeen, you are the silliest person I
know!”

Jasmeen shrugged. “This is only because you are not knowing my
father. But I graciously accept compliment anyway. Is good to be
appreciated.”

The pilot laughed.

The ionopter flew directly over the town at just above treetop
altitude. Llyra and her companions could see the upturned faces of
people peering into the sun to see the aircraft. At the very foot of
the crater rim mountains, it set down amidst blowing leaves and dust
on a paved circular landing pad, and the roar of the ionic screens
overhead died abruptly.

Now they could see a huge hangar door cut into the mountainside.
It looked dark inside, and they couldn’t see very far. Two men wearing
coveralls marked “Curley’s Gulch Air Services” ran out, pulling light
cables behind them, and affixed them to the ionopter’s landing gear.
The cables taughtened and began to pull the flying machine into the
vast hangar.

The interior, it developed, was perfectly well-lighted. It was
only by contrast with the sunlight outside that it seemed dim. More
figures in coveralls swarmed around the ionopter, attending to its
needs, while others wheeled a short staircase to the side of the
aircraft. As Llyra, her mother, and Jasmeen descended, an open car
drove up, the same “Curley’s Gulch Air Services” emblazoned on its
side. Its driver got out and opened a back door. A member of the
maintenance crew brought their luggage on a cart, and this was placed
at the front of the long floor of the back seat, directly behind the
driver’s seat.

Marvelling a little, the three passengers climbed into the car. To
Llyra, the vehicled looked quite a lot like a 21st century Earthside
luxury machine with the top down, but its red rubber tires seemed
foreign to the design and were enormous, five feet in diameter—they
stuck up above the top edge of the car—treadless, and they looked
relatively soft.

“It’s a 2039 Raleigh convertible, refitted for Pallas.” The driver
stood by his own door and grinned at them. “It’ll be a twenty mile
ride from here to the Marshall spaceport offices, ladies, and I can’t
manage over about forty miles per hour through these tunnels, so
you’ll have time for a short nap. I can promise you that the ride will
be smooth, and I’ll point out features of interest—unless you don’t
want me to.”

“Oh, please do,” Jasmeen asked, beating Llyra by a fraction of a
second. “I took very different route from spaceport when I came here
from Mars.”

“Here we go, then!” the driver exclaimed. The car surged forward
smoothly—it appeared to Llyra to be electric—as windshields
along the back edge of the driver’s seat, and on either side of the
rear seat automatically rose a foot or so to keep the three of them
from being blown on uncomfortably by the car’s passage through the
tunnel.

The route turned out to be less … subpallatian, Llyra decided to
call it, less troglodytic, than she’d expected. In many sections of
the tunnel, which was at least forty feet high, and wide enough for
at least four of these vehicles to pass each other safely, well-lit
and interesting shopfronts presented themselves. Streets branched off
from the tunnel, down which she briefly glimpsed even more shopfronts.
The sight of several restaurants reminded her that she’d never gotten
more than peanuts and a Coke for lunch.

About six miles along the tunnel, the neighborhoods became
residential, with broad sidewalks, and apartment complexes carved out
of native stone. People strolled and walked dogs. Businesss were tiny
here, the sort of thing you’d want around the corner, where you could
buy a pack of cigarettes, a box of cartridges, or a carton of milk.
Small trees stood at intervals in holes cut in the sidewalk—Llyra
wondered if the holes were planters or the trees were rooted in the
substance of the asteroid itself—basking in the glow of bright
lights set in the ceiling.

Ten miles along, halfway through the tunnel, the driver slowed to
point out an enormous metallic construction, buried in the wall to
their right, that resembled, more than anything else, a great fuel or
water tank that seemed to begin at some level far below the street and
continue upward through the tunnel’s ceiling. There wasn’t a seam or
rivet visible. Llyra knew that she must looking at one of the great
piers that anchored the thousand-mile cables that held the atmospheric
envelope of Pallas in place. Judging from the portion she could see,
she guessed that the diameter of the thing must be at least a hundred
feet.

“That’s just about right, young lady” the driver commended her.
“And yes, it’s as hollow as a drum, but its wall thickness is around
ten feet. Massive. Like I said earlier, this thing would be the
largest single piece of machined chromium steel in the history of
mankind and the Solar System, if there weren’t three hundred and
fifty-nine others just like it, set one degree apart around the crater
rim.”

The cross-street here, the driver explained, Carville Avenue, was
the only one where the naked piers could be seen. It was ninety-four
miles long, buried ten miles from the crater under its ring mountain,
but stretching around its entire circumference. It had been named for
the engineer who had designed the incredible structures. Llyra played
with the calculator built into her lapel phone. “So what’s inside the
hollow?”

The driver laughed. “Argon-foamed titanium. That’s one of many new
substances that can only be manufactured in the absence of gravity,
and a major reason we Pallatians are so wealthy, compared to the rest
of humanity. The stuff weighs practically nothing, but it’s stiff as
it can be, and keeps the piers from deforming—as if that was likely
to happen.”

The open car picked up speed again and moved on. The neighborhood
past the pier was no longer residential. It didn’t quite appear to be
industrial, but was dominated by office businesses that served
industry in various ways. Like any properly schooled Pallatian, Llyra
knew that her homeworld had gradually become heavily industrialized
since it had been founded as a high-tech hunter-gatherer economy, but
that most of the manufacturing was done safely, well outside the
atmospheric envelope in the polar craters, and on the moon of Pallas,
Pallas B.

At last the driver announced that the odometer read twenty miles.
They had came to a broad semicircular turnout. A sign on an island
planter in its middle declared it to be the Solar System headquarters
of:

FRITZ MARSHALL SPACEWAYS

ESTABLISHED 2050

The driver swung the Raleigh convertible into the turnout. Above
three or four steps cut from reddish stone, and a narrow landing, the
entire semicircle was lined with tall glass windows. A revolving door
stood in the center, but several coveralled individuals took Llyra’s
bags, along with those of her mother and Jasmeen, through an ordinary
glass door at one side. The driver shook hands with each of them in
turn, and accepted a tip from Ardith. The platinum coins clinked as
they hit his palm.

Llyra couldn’t believe that he actually bowed. “Thank you very
much, ma’am. I hope you’ll ride with me again, perhaps on your return
from Ceres. It’s always a pleasure to serve one of the Founding
Families.”

Mildly irritated as she always was by such remarks—the Ngus
hadn’t really been First anyway, simply among the noisiest—Ardith
muttered something polite, and the three of them climbed the steps and
went through the revolving door, the first Llyra or Jasmeen had ever
seen.

Inside stood a curve-fronted counter, dominated by an enormous oil
portrait of the company’s founder, Fritz Marshall, hanging on the wall
behind it. A brass plaque at the bottom of the frame proclaimed that
it was “a gift from the grateful people of Mars”. From behind the
counter, a pleasant-looking young woman in a company blazer greeted
them warmly.

“The Ngu party? Your transport is ready for you, anytime you wish
to depart. There are only about a dozen other passengers, all bound
for Ceres, like you.”

“Where do we go?” Llyra asked somewhat absently. Through a big
floor-to-ceiling window, she could watch the floor of the polar
crater, studded as far as she could see with spaceships of various
sizes and shapes. The light was harsh, even through tinted glass, and
the shadows were coal black, with edges as sharp as a razor. The ship
nearest the window was a simple cylinder, its top end bristling with
antennae, connected with the crater wall by a large translucent
plastic tube.

“Through that door there, Miss,” the receptionist answered, “which
will lead you to that tubewalk outside, which is connected with the
ship. I envy you a little: you’ll be travelling aboard the FMSL
Beautiful Dreamer
one of our lines’ newest and most comfortable
vessels.”

They thanked the young woman and walked to the door, down a short,
tidy corridor, and out through a series of mechanical fittings that
connected the tube with the offices in the crater wall. Llyra had half
expected the tube to have a round floor, and to bounce and sway as
they made their way along it, but none of that turned out to be the
case.

It might as well have been made of stone. Llyra wondered how it
was done.

As they approached the end of the tube that was attached to the
ship, however, their forward progress was obstructed by an overweight
middle-aged woman wearing a garish floral-patterned pants suit. She
was speaking and gesturing impatiently to a young man in a Fritz
Marshall company blazer, standing behind a portable podium marked
“Boarding Attendant”. A middle-aged man standing beside her with a
camera on a strap around his neck said nothing, but appeared to be
embarrassed.

“What do you mean you recognize us and we don’t need tickets?” she
exclaimed. “Young man, I insist, at the very least, that we all be
searched!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but if I did that, I’d probably lose my job for
molesting the paying customers. It’s against company policy and
Pallatian custom. It’s the grossest possible violation of individual
sovereignty.”

“But—” She appealed to the man standing beside her, probably
her long-suffering husband, Llyra decided. He rolled his eyes and
looked away.

The young man went on. “Besides, ma’am, anybody who took a job
that required it would have to be some kind of pervert, wouldn’t they?
I mean, groping people’s little old grandmothers for a living, all day
long?”

“But what,” she almost screamed it, “if I were carrying a
concealed weapon—or a bomb?”

He shrugged. “Well, I wouldn’t be too happy about the bomb, ma’am.
But you can make a bomb these days that resembles an arm or a leg, and
has no giveaway chemical or electronic emanations. Hire yourself an
amputee to carry it—and boom! You can’t do much about that, can
you? On the other hand, if you were a Pallatian—you’re from Earth,
aren’t you?”

“We’re from Bricktown, New Jersey, United States of America, the
Earth.”

“I see. East Americans. Well, if you were a Pallatian, ma’am, I’d
be surprised if you weren’t carrying a personal weapon of some kind,
a firearm or a laser or a plasma pistol. It’s an important tradition
on this asteroid—just as it is on Mars and will be on Ceres. It’s
considered socially benficial, a civic duty, and an indispensible
source of the individual liberty we all enjoy.”

The woman looked to her husband again, but was offered little
help. “B-but what if somebody with one of those guns took over your
little spaceship?”

Tried to take over our little spaceship, you mean,” the young
man corrected her. “Ma’am, the guy could consider himself damned lucky
if the other passengers filled him full of holes before they spaced
him.”

Her eyes grew big and round. “Spaced him?” Her husband, perhaps
entertaining a long-held personal fantasy, attempted to suppress a
grin.

“Sure, ma’am. Put him out the airlock—the door, I mean—
without benefit of spacesuit. Not the pleasantest way to die, take my
word for it.”

The woman shuddered visibly. “What a violent place this is!”

He shook his head. “We practically never have any criminal
violence out here in the Belt, ma’am. The cost is simply too high.
What’s the annual rate of murder, mugging, and rape where you come
from?”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

Comments»

no comments yet - be the first?