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CHAPTER EIGHT: THE WILD BLACK YONDER

As I dictate these words, Pallas and Mars are the only
Settled Worlds, not counting Earth, and there aren’t that
many other places to go yet. But a day will come when
dwellers in the Asteroid Belt will travel from world to
little world as easily and casually as West Americans now
travel from city to city by bus or in their own cars. That
sort of freedom of movement comes very close, I think, to
being the definition of freedom itself.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Rather disappointing in her external appearance (at least as far
as Llyra was concerned), the Fritz Marshall Space Lines’ Beautiful
Dreamer
turned out to be a cylinder a hundred feet in diameter and a
hundred fifty-one feet long, the same proportions as a traditional
tomato soup can.

Andy Warhol would be so proud, she thought.

However, before the boarding attendant would let them pass (and as
soon as he’d managed to quiet down the lady from New Jersey) he had a
lecture he had to deliver. Along with a handful of other passengers in
the portable anteroom at the end of the boarding tube, just outside
the spaceship’s main airlock door, Llyra, Ardith, and Jasmeen gave him
their polite attention.

The floor of the little room, its ceiling, and its walls were
stark white, as longstanding tradition required. Four features broke
the solid white: a window on either side, showing the crater floor,
ring mountains, and a black, starry sky; a metal airlock door
belonging to the spaceship, rather than to the anteroom, and a large
digital clock counting minutes until liftoff. Just now, a little over
an hour remained.

There was also a transparent plastic lectern to the right of the
airlock door, where the boarding attendant stood. As the young man
began speaking, a three-dimensional cross section of the spaceship,
colorful but partially transparent, formed in the air at his left
elbow. As he discussed them, he pointed to various features of it with
a finger.

“Although it reads like it was translated from the original
Sumerian into twenty-second century English, I’m sure you’ve read the
brochure that they gave you up front,” he opened to polite laughter.
“But the Fritz Marshall Space Lines requires me to introduce you
formally to the FMSL Beautiful Dreamer, latest and greatest of the
fabulous Fritz Marshall fleet, and to explain a little bit about the
journey you’re about to make.”

He turned to the diagram floating beside him. “‘BeeDee‘, as we
affectionately call her, is based on what was originally a design for
asteroid mining. However, as is often the case in such circumstances,
Fritz Marshall eventually discovered that it was far more profitable
to provide transportation to asteroid miners, than to mine asteroids,
himself.

“This is, in fact, exactly the same process by which the Strauss
brothers’ canvas trousers entered our culture three hundred years ago,
during the California Gold Rush, and have remained with us ever
since.”

The attendant pointed to the lowest part of the diagram. “As you
can see, BeeDee is a cylinder, divided into eight levels, or decks.
The bottom or aftmost deck houses the last word—at least so far—

in hybrid fusion reactors: the Brown Systems 1.21 gigawatt catalytic
Tokamak, along with the three massive Leland-Mazda ion-rocket engines
it drives, and a few other engineering utilities peculiar to space
travel.”

Waving his hand up and down the middle of diagram, the young man
told them, “Note the central axisway stretching the full length of the
ship, with its spiral escalator wrapped around the service core. The
next three decks above the reactor room are intended for cargo of
every possible kind. These days, of course, we haul a lot more of
that, here and there, than passengers—although the company fondly
anticipates that this will change once Ceres is terraformed and ready
to be settled.”

He grinned. “Now you’re really going to like this, folks. On the
next deck, that’s the fifth level, the Fritz Marshall company proudly
offers a recreational-sized swimming pool—the only swimming pool
aboard a spacecraft in the entire Solar System—and also a fully
equipped weight room, convenient centrifuge, and spa with both sauna
and hot tub.”

Seeing a certain look on Jasmeen’s face, Llyra arched her eyebrows
innocently and refrained from asking if the pool could be frozen over.
“What do you mean by ‘recreational-sized’?” asked another prospective
passenger.

The boarding attendant grinned again, sheepishly, and adjusted the
lapels of his blazer. “And here I was hoping that phrase would slide
right past you. It means ‘not very big’, I’m afraid, as might be
expected of the only swimming pool aboard a spacecraft in the entire
Solar System.”

“I was going to ask you about that,” Llyra couldn’t help herself.
Her mother scowled. “Wasn’t there a swimming pool aboard the explorer
ship Fifth Force?” She should know; her great grandfather Emerson,
her great grandmother Rosalie, and a great many of their friends had
taken that ship decades ago, out to the fabled Cometary Halo, halfway
to the stars.

Fifth Force theoretically crossed Pluto’s orbit long ago,” the
attendant replied a bit stiffly. “She isn’t technically in the Solar
System any more. Our pool is about forty feet by twenty feet by five
feet deep. That’s four thousand cubic feet of water, or about sixteen
thousand gallons. That comes to sixty-four thousand quarts, or a
hundred twenty-eight thousand pints. Do you remember ‘a pint’s a pound
the System round’? The water in our pool masses out at sixty-four
tons.”

“All of which have to be lifted, handled correctly at turnover,
and braked,” Llyra suggested.

The attendant brightened toward her. “That’s absolutely right,
young lady, all of which have to be lifted, handled at turnover, and
braked.”

“Excuse me, officer,” said the lady from New Jersey. “What’s with
this turnover business you keep talking about? I tried to read about
it in that brochure you mentioned, but I couldn’t make heads or tails
of it.”

“Well, you see, Madam—”

She almost wailed. “It sounds extremely dangerous—do we have to
do it?”

The boarding attendant cleared his throat and waited to make sure
she was through. “Yes, indeed, you must, Madam, if you want to arrive
at your destination, instead of shooting out of the Solar System
toward the stars.”

He waited for an interruption, but none was forthcoming. “You see,
Madam—everybody—you’ll be leaving Pallas, accelerating at the
same rate as this asteroid’s average surface gravity, a twentieth of a
gee.”

“Average surface gravity?” the New Jersey woman asked. “I thought
that gravity—”

“Varies,” he interrupted her this time, “from point to point on
any planet’s surface, even that of Earth, believe it or not. But it
tends to be especially noticable out here on small worlds like Pallas
and Ceres.”

“He is not just whistling ‘Dixie’.” Jasmeen whispered to Llyra.

“But to get back to your question,” said the boarding attendant,
who now had a diagram of the Solar System floating beside him. “Your
ship could keep going at a twentieth of a gee, gaining speed until it
gradually approaches—but never reaches—the speed of light.
Please don’t ask me about that, folks, because it’s a whole different
lecture.

“Instead, when you’re halfway there, the ship will flip over, its
engines still running, and begin slowing itself—it’ll feel just
like it did before; you won’t be able to tell any difference—until
you arrive at Ceres.”

The lady from New Jersey was insistent. “But what about this
flipping over? Will we have to wear seatbelts, or tie ourselves into
our beds?”

He gave her a manly chuckle. “No, Madam, you won’t feel that,
either. The captain and the ship’s computer know how to use the
attitude thrusters to turn it over very subtly and gradually. If
you’re having cocktails, you won’t spill a drop—unless you’ve had
too many, of course.”

Llyra raised a hand and spoke without being acknowledged. “Isn’t
it a little more complicated than that? What about the difference in
Pallas’ orbital inclination and Ceres’? What about the difference in
their gravities?”

The attendant nodded. “Right again, Miss. The actual acceleration
of the ship will increase gradually until you’re feeling the tenth
gravity of Ceres, rather than the twentieth of Pallas. The actual
moment of turnover will be determined, in part, by the fact that,
while Pallas travels in the same plane as almost everything else in
the Solar System, Ceres’ orbit cuts through that plane, rising above
and below it. Its ‘angle of inclination’, as they say, is about twenty
degrees.

“Happy now?” He winked at her.

She grinned. “Happy now,”, she told him.

“Okay, then, back to BeeDee. The two levels above the recreation
deck consist of a series of large, comfortable wedge-shaped staterooms
located around the central well and escalator. Our staterooms offer
every modern amenity, including real showers, automassage beds, almost
limitless 3DTV and music libraries, and high speed SolarNet access. In
addition, they are capable, in an emergency, of serving as independent
lifesaving pods.”

In the holographic simulation, Llyra and her fellow passengers
watched dozens of pie-piece shapes—each with a single bite taken
out of the small end to make room for the central well—floating
around the abandoned and forlorn skeleton of a stricken ship. She
wondered if the cargo holds could be ejected, as well.

The boarding attendant went on. “At the moment, because there
aren’t very many of you, we’re using most of the lower passenger deck
for package mail and light cargo. The topmost or eighth deck—that
is, the deck furthest forward—features a spacious passenger lounge,
including a full service wet bar, and an automated kitchenette. A
series of floor-to-ceiling windows wraps around the deck’s entire
circumference, affording a scenic view unrivalled by any luxury hotel
—with the possible exception of the Marriot Everest and the proposed
Mons Olympus Hilton.

“At its center stands a slightly elevated control deck, capped by
a transparent dome, and visible from all over the lounge area. All
Fritz Marshall Spaces Lines passengers are encouraged to visit and
observe the captain and his bridge crew navigate and operate the ship.
There will be champagne cocktails offered to celebrate liftoff and
midcourse turnover.”

With these words, the boarding attendant dramatically threw open a
large oval-shaped door in the wall behind him. The passenger tube from
the Fritz Marshall offices in the crater wall attached to the vessel
at the level of the recreation deck. A transparent-walled companionway
between the weight room, with all of its machines and mirrors, and the
swimming pool, led them to the central well and its spiral escalator.
Llyra and the other passengers found their luggage already in their
staterooms, and were free to repair directly to the lounge deck if
they wished.

Jasmeen and Ardith insisted that Llyra take a nap, first.

******

Soft chimes sounded, followed by a gentle recorded female voice
saying, “Twenty minutes remain until liftoff. Twenty minutes remain
until liftoff.”

“I believe,” said Ardith, “I will have a baggie of champagne.”

She was speaking to a crisply-dressed female attendant who had
just offered her a flexible plastic cylinder with a self-sealing top.
The attendant wore dark slacks and a brass-buttoned blue blazer, just
like the boarding attendant, with her long, dark hair neatly tucked up
into a French braid, just as his had been. Pallatians were familiar
with containers like this, which were useful in carrying liquids and
preventing messes not only in space (the lounge attendant had assured
them that they would never feel less than one twentieth of a standard
gravity, even at turnover, halfway to Ceres) but on Pallas itself,
where one twentieth of a gee usually wasn’t quite enough to make
drinks behave themselves.

“What I don’t understand,” Ardith went on, “is how this company
plans to make any money.” Llyra knew that it was more than simple
curiosity with her; the Ngus were major stockholders in Fritz
Marshall Space Lines. “This is a beautiful room, and our suite below
isn’t a bit less wonderful.”

The three of them were on the lounge or common deck at the very
top of the Beautiful Dreamer. The deck had a circular floorplan
almost a hundred feet in diameter, centered around a pilots’ flight
deck standing in the center of the room and elevated five feet above
the main deck. Through its transparent doors and windows, passengers
could watch the flight crew handle the ship and be invited, a couple
at a time, to come up, look around, and even try out the captain’s
chair. Just now, captain and crew were going through the pre-flight
checklist.

“It’s our ‘Hidden Efficiency’ plan, Ma’am,” another attendant told
her with a proprietary grin. He was a young man in his early thirties,
with thinning, carroty-colored hair cut very short, and round, shiny
cheeks. He, too, wore dark slacks, a white, long-sleeved shirt, and a
black necktie. But, instead of a blue blazer, he wore a red plaid
vest. His accent was southern East American. “I’m glad you-all’re
enjoyin’ it.”

The soft chimes sounded again, and the voice said, “Seventeen
minutes remain until liftoff.”

“Hidden Efficiency plan?” Ardith gestured with her baggie and her
eyes, asking Jasmeen and her daughter if they might like a container
of champagne. Jasmeen nodded enthusiastically and accepted a baggie
from the attendant. Llyra, only now beginning to awaken fully from her
nap, mouthed no thanks, and took another sip of her favorite drink,
Koffie Kola.

Wrapped most of the way around the base of the control deck—

interrupted only by the forward, or upper terminus of the spiral
escalator—was the kitchenette and bar the boarding attendant had
spoken of. There were facilities in the staterooms for preparing
simple meals, as well, although Llyra had been too sleepy to inspect
them closly.

The lounge attendant slipped his tray beneath his arm and squatted
beside the comfortable leather-covered sofa Ardith relaxed in. “Yes,
Ma’am. Fritz Marshall company policy is that nothing is ever done that
will diminish or spoil our passengers’ experience with us. Think about
it—is this your first trip into space? I thought as much. How about
your daughters—oh, I see, her first trip, her tutor’s second. My
point is, this is something that each of you will remember for the
rest of your lives. And we want it to be a happy memory, one that you
associate with us.”

“I understand,” said Ardith. “But the Hidden Efficiency … ”

“It’s simply this: if we have to save money, it must always be
done somewhere else in the operation, where the payin’ customers’ll
never notice it.”

“So you might cut corners,” Llyra suggested archly, “where safety
measures are concerned?”

“Or perhaps on maintenance?” Jasmeen asked, like Llyra, appearing
to be innocent. Sometimes, Ardith thought, they really do seem like
sisters.

“Absolutely not, Miss. Havin’ one of our spaceships blow up at
liftoff or crash into another ship or something would sort of be the
ultimate way of diminishin’ or spoilin’ our passengers’ experience,
wouldn’t it? And, of course, they’d tend to notice it—for a few
seconds, at least.”

Jasmeen smiled. “So how do you reduce overhead?”

They heard the chimes again, the voice said, “Ten minutes remain
until liftoff.”

The attendant sighed, “I guess we’d look for bargains in deuterium
or reaction mass, or peanuts an’ champagne. The way they always talk
about in company briefin’s, is by cuttin’ salaries and benefits—but
only from the top down. Nobody who serves in-ship as attendants or
crew, nobody who gets his hands dirty in the wrench barn, has ever
taken a cut. But it’s said Fritz Marshall himself worked for nothin’
through a couple years in the beginnin’.”

“Well,” Ardith replied, “I suppose that represents some kind of
progress.” She turned to her young companions. “You see, the so-called
Sagebrush Rebellion, the agonizingly slow-but-steady 21st century
revolution against the United States government—that ended with
West America separating itself from East America—was also a revolt
against a handful of giant corporations that had come to believe they
owned the country and everybody in it. There are still states in West
America where holding a Master of Business Administration degree is
illegal—or at least considered suspicious, like being caught
carrying lock-picks.”

The attendant chuckled. “Makes sense. Whenever a company hires an
MBA, it’s a sure sign they’re lookin’ for ways t’give their customers
the least possible goods an’ services in exchange for the highest
possible prices.”

“Regrettably,” Jasmeen sipped at her champagne, “revolution is
incomplete. Problem is not solved everywhere, even today. My father
worked for short time in factory making … electric tooth washing
machines.”

Ardith blinked. “In Russia?”

“In Newark,” Jasmeen replied. “When factory is owned and operated
by original inventor of tooth washing machine, quality is such that
they have less than two percent return of faulty merchandise from
customers. This goes on for years and years. Then inventor sells
company so he can retire to Florida beach, and factory is taken over
by engineer.”

“A man with a mind so narrow,” the attendant was grinning as he
quoted the old saw, “that he can look through a keyhole with both
eyes.”

Jasmeen asked, “Are you not engineer, Mrs. Ngu?”

The attendant paled slightly. The chimes sounded again, and the
voice said, “Six minutes remain until liftoff.”

“No, Jasmeen, dear,” said Ardith. “I’m a scientist. Llyra’s father
is an engineer.” She tilted her head back, emptied her baggie, and
took another.

Jasmeen went on. “Engineer at tooth machine factory is also Master
of Business Administration, therefore perfectly able to put whole head
through keyhole.”

Everybody laughed.

“One day, out of blue,” Jasmeen went on, “recombinant MBA-engineer
hybrid calculates that Quality Control Department—where my father
Mohammed happens to work—costs tooth machine company too much.
Engineer eliminates entire department, saying this will save company
millions.”

“Uh-oh,” Ardith and the attendant muttered at the same time.

“You are both way ahead of me,” Jasmeen told them. “Merchandise
returns promptly shoot up to fifty percent. Engineer claims this is
still cheaper than running Quality Control Department and therefore
acceptable. Trouble is that tooth machine company soon acquires
reputation for selling trash to wholesalers, retailers, and public.
Engineer’s short-term gain is erased by long-term loss. Company fires
engineer, asks my father to restart Quality Control Department, but by
that time, he and Beliita my mother are in training, committed to IASA
Mars program.”

The attendant nodded. “Introducin’ ‘em to an altogether different
kind of quality control problem. I know—I had an uncle and an aunt
who died on Mars.”

They heard the chimes again, sounding a little more urgent. The
voice said, “Thirty seconds remain until liftoff. Thirty seconds.
Please be seated.”

“Their name?” Jasmeen asked, genuinely interested.

“Sanchez—Fourth Expedition.”

She nodded. “Mine is Khalidov, Seventh Expedition, rescued by—”

“The infamous Ngu brothers,” he supplied, then looked to Ardith
and then to Llyra. “Your grandfather, young lady?” he asked the
younger female.

Llyra stood up and stretched, then sat again as the deck beneath
her feet began vibrating. “That’s right, William Ngu—and my great
uncle Brody.”

As Llyra and her companions watched out the enormous windows of
her eighth deck, Beautiful Dreamer began to rise above the baked and
frozen soil of Port Peary, as quietly and gently as an elevator in a
luxury hotel. In seconds—almost without discernable acceleration—

the ship reached, then surpassed, the level of the mountaintops about
the polar crater.

In the center of the deck, a few feet above the level of the
lounge, the flight crew, consisting of the captain and two assistants,
chattered at one another in technicalese, as they manipulated their
keyboards. Llyra’s heart beat so hard in her chest that it hurt. She
was going to see her father and her brother! She was going to see
another world!

They were on their way to Ceres!

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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