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CHAPTER NINE: THE MONKEY IN THE WRENCH

All of the new worlds likely to be settled by humanity in
the near future have a considerably lower gravity than Earth:
Pallas has five percent of Earth’s gravity, Ceres has ten.
Earth’s Moon has about seventeen percent, and Mars has about
thirty. That fact—and its consequences—may turn out to
be the most important in human history … or at least human
evolution.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Not quite wide awake yet, Jasmeen took a deep breath and released
it, uncertain but fearful of what she was about to confront. The young
woman pushed a lighted plastic button on the panel before her, let the
stainless steel door slide shut, and felt her weight surge slightly as
the compartment began to rise.

The ship’s centrifuge facility, strictly speaking, constituted an
unnumbered deck unto itself, squeezed in between the deck with the
swimming pool and sauna, and the lower, or aftmost deck of passenger
accommodations, presently uninhabited and given over to cargo. The
machine could be entered only when it wasn’t running, by means of this
small lift from the recreation deck.

Her weight grew lighter on her feet, the door slid open again
almost immediately, and, as she stepped through, shut itself again.
Without being told, the lift descended to the deck below, leaving an
empty space behind her. She looked across the disk-shaped centrifuge
deck, interrupted only at the hub, where the escalator and service
core passed through it, to a clutter of various benches, chairs, and
exercise equipment, all of it bolted securely to the curved wall on
her right.

From within one of the cagelike weight machines, a familiar voice
spoke to her. “You’ll have to reorient yourself ninety degrees as
quickly as you can. The new floor will be the carpeted surface to your
right. Lie down on one of those couches ahead of you, strap in, and,
once the centrifuge has begun spinning, you’ll find yourself standing
on the new floor.”

Jasmeen answered. “Llyra, what are you doing down here in middle
of night? I woke up just now and you were gone. If your mother knew,
she’d be—”

“My mother, Jasmeen. She’d be my mother.” Jasmeen saw movement
ahead of her as Llyra climbed out of the exercise machine holding a
remote control device in one hand. The girl pressed a button. They
both heard relays thud, and a low, powerful hum began to fill the
space they occupied.

Llyra said, “No room to jump in here. I want to do some floor
exercises and some of these machines. Let’s try the gravity of Ceres,
first, okay? One tenth Earth normal, twice the gravity of Pallas.
Better get into these couches, though.” The girl quickly followed her
own advice.

“Very well,” the older female said. “But afterward we shall have
some talk.” Lying down and strapping herself onto the couch, Jasmeen
placed the soles of her feet in contact with the carpeted wall. This
shouldn’t be much of an ordeal, she reflected. Llyra had experienced
this much gravity at those mascons on Pallas she liked to skate over,
and it was only a third of the gravity she herself had been born to,
on Mars.

The noise grew quieter as it grew more complex. Jasmeen had read
the brochure by now and knew there were counterweights in the ceiling,
spinning in the opposite direction as the centrifuge to keep it from
altering the ship’s attitude and course. She also knew that, although
facilities like this had been built wherever humanity settled among
the asteroids, and the moons of the major planets—not to mention
several dozen space stations between here and the Sun—and had once
been thought vital to the survival of the species in space, it was now
known there was no need for them. They continued to be built and used
nonetheless. Beautiful Dreamer might be the first spaceship (since

Fifth Force) to boast of a swimming pool; it was by no means the
only one to have a centrifuge.

Apparently thinking similar thoughts, Llyra told her, “You know my
mother spent hours and days and weeks in one of these things, just to
have my brother. The theory was that human ova can’t descend through
the Fallopian tubes without more gravity than we have out here in the
asteroids.”

“I know theory,” Jasmeen answered, thinking that her young student
knew altogether too much, sometimes, for a thirteen-year-old. Oh well,
she had been very much the same, herself, only six years ago, and it
didn’t seem to have done her any harm. “Theory is interesting, but
completely—”

“Wrong,” Llyra finished. “Because it turns out the Fallopian tubes
are lined with ciliated cells, just like the bronchial tubes, and they
whisk the egg along to the uterus whether there’s any gravity or not.
Poor Mother.”

Jasmeen had never heard Llyra talk this way. “Poor Mother? Why
poor Mother?”

Llyra responded with a humorless little laugh. “Isn’t that silly—no
pun intended? Silly-ated. All those hours, days, and weeks spent
working out in a giant rock tumbler—or just sitting in it knitting
booties—and there wasn’t any need. By the time my folks decided to
have me, they knew the scientific truth and they didn’t bother with a
centrifuge.”

“I see,” Jasmeen nodded. “Although many would-be mothers still do.
It has become superstition?”

“Well, you can’t blame them, I guess” Llyra said. “Not with the
rate of miscarriages we have out here. We’re like Quito, Ecuador or
Leadville, Colorado—only worse. Mother doesn’t know that I know she
had four of them—spontaneous abortions—between my brother and
me. My father told me. She’d die of embarrassment if she knew. I think
a lot of women still believe this might be a way to prevent it, and
would do anything.”

Jasmeen thought she heard an odd quality in Llyra’s voice, but,
lying in these couches the way they were, couldn’t see her face. “Sad
thing,” she said, “is that only time and evolution can do that. And
science, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” Llyra agreed. By now the noise of the centrifuge had
steadied, their weight was on their feet, and what had been the wall
now felt like a carpeted floor. “Tell you what, don’t unstrap—let’s
skip Cerean gravity and head straight for the Moon—one sixth of a
gee.”

******

The stateroom’s shape was difficult to get used to, its current
occupant reflected. One end was very narrow, its short wall occupied
only by an oval door to the circular hallway and the spiral escalator
outside. He’d avoided coming here for as long as he could, sitting,
instead, in the passenger lounge, listening carefully to the others
talking.

The wall opposite was a good deal wider, nearly sixteen feet, the
room’s occupant had calculated, and slightly curved, as it was a part
of the ship’s circumference. A pair of twin beds were set against that
wall, with a porthole between them over an item of bedside furniture
offering three drawers and a reading lamp screwed to its surface. At
the foot of each bed sat another small chest of drawers, along with a
chair that could be moved only if a small lever at the end of each leg
was thrown first.

On the counter-clockwise wall, another oval door led to a bathroom
shared with the occupants of the room to the right. How many
passengers tripped over that high, submarine-style threshhold when
they got up in the middle of the night, he wondered. A door in the
left, or clockwise wall opened into a surprisingly roomy closet. The
passenger was mildly curious about the arrangement in the room to the
left, where the closet would be where this room’s righthand bed was.

There wasn’t much to see out the porthole, a twelve-inch disk of
thick glass or plastic set in a heavy frame. It looked a bit odd here,
lacking the traditional latch and hinges that would grace a seagoing
window back on Earth. (The passenger had once stuffed a dead human
body through such a porthole.) This one was on the “night” side of the
ship; all that could be seen through it was an ocean of small
pinpoints of light. Some of them must be asteroids and planets, the
passenger realized, but there was no way he could tell one from
another.

If this stateroom had been on the sunward side of the the ship, he
knew, even this far from the Solar System’s primary, the transparency
would have darkened itself until he couldn’t see the stars. To anyone
who was even mildly claustrophobic, as he happened to be, the idea was
unthinkable.

Back inside, almost any portion of the walls on either side of the
stateroom could be programmed to perform as a 3DTV screen, tapping
into the ship’s supply of entertainment, or even realtime broadcasts
from Earth, the Moon, Mars, and Pallas. At the moment, the walls were
blank. The passenger had little use—and a great deal of contempt—
for most of what was broadcast. The human race badly needed a wakeup
call before disaster of unprecedented proportions became unavoidable
back on the Mother Planet, and they weren’t getting it from the mass
media.

No matter, he would provide such a wakeup call, himself. It was
his duty, for which he was remarkably well paid, but it was also his
pleasure.

He focused his attention on the stateroom’s righthand bed, where
his suitcase still lay as the attendants had placed it, unopened. It
was large, brown, and shiny, a stylish reproduction of the ancient
classic Samsonite. Even if it had been inspected before boarding—

which local practices stupidly forbade—there was nothing in it or
about it that might have given him away as an “asset” of Null Delta
Em, not even the personal sidearm most of the idiots out here
couldn’t seem to live without.

As important as it was for him to fit in, he could never bring
himself to carry a gun. He’d used guns, of course, to accomplish
certain tasks, then thrown them away as far and as soon as he could.
The fools out here all thought they were Daniel Boone or somebody, he
supposed. It was just like travelling west of the Mississippi, only
worse. He’d hated every minute he’d been forced to live in Curringer
on Pallas, working at an office job provided by his real employers
back on Earth. He’d managed to acquire a lot of money during that
time, however, and invest it in the system he was helping to destroy.
He enjoyed the irony. When this job was over, he was headed back home
for good.

Opening the suitcase, he removed most of its contents—shirts,
socks, and underwear—and carefully distributed them among the three
drawers in the bedside table. The inside of the suitcase smelled a
little funny, he thought, but that was the only indication that it
wasn’t exactly what it was supposed to be, and that could be taken
care of simply by sprinkling a little cologne into the lining, which
he did now.

The heavily-coded message sent from East America (anyone else who
saw it would think it was merely birthday greetings from an aunt,
which, in a way, it was) had given him a location—the Curringer
Corporation’s construction dome on Ceres—a date and time that
coincided with an event that was already the subject of excited talk
everywhere among the Settled Worlds except for certain portions of the
planet of humanity’s birth, and a two-digit number, eighty-six, that
told him the sort of operation he was supposed to conduct: messy, with
a maximum number of casualties.

His assignment was to teach these frontier throwbacks a lesson
that they wouldn’t soon forget, that the price for defying Nature was
too high to pay. His personal pleasure would be to make a murderous
shambles of the award ceremony they were holding in young Wilson Ngu’s
honor, for having murdered five brave activists for environmental
sanity.

His electronic credentials had arrived the same day in a separate
e-mail packet. They were necessary because, in violent disregard for
decent, humane, and progressive United Nations policies going back
more than a century and a half, the asteroid Ceres had been seized as
private property (just as Pallas had been before it) and was being
administered as such. As an environmentalist and someone who knew that
all property is theft, that irked him deeply, but he was here to put a
stop to it.

The upcoming gala, then, represented a rare opportunity to travel
to Ceres, see what they were doing there, and possibly do something
about it, without many questions being asked. He was now a bonafide
stringer for Boston Magazine, practically the only openly socialist
“dead tree” publication left in North America, and one of the Mass
Movement’s staunchest editorial supporters—accompanied by his
reservation for Ceres aboard the F.M.S.L. Beautiful Dreamer and a
reasonably handsome letter of credit drawn on a Pallas bank. He was
grateful he hadn’t had to pay for the ship passage himself. A double
stateroom like this one was expensive enough, even with a roommate—

which he could have afforded only if he’d killed him later—to share
the cost. Some of the accommodations even had bunk beds to help spread
the expense.

Once the deed had been done—whatever it turned out to be; that
much had been left completely up to him, and he had just the method
he’d been looking forward to trying—he’d been informed that getting
away, off of Ceres, back to Pallas, and wherever after that, would be
his own concern. He’d already made arrangements about that, of course,
although he wasn’t absolutely certain how well those arrangements
would hold, following the catastrophe he was planning for these damned
cowboys.

He also had a backup plan.

And a plan to back that up.

Long-acquired habit made him want to take his personal computer
from his jacket pocket, plug it into the inside of the suitcase, and
submit the resulting combination to a battery of tests. Yet another
ancient habit restrained him. He’d inspected this room thoroughly when
he came aboard. There appeared to be no cameras or other spy devices
trained on this little space. And if there had been, and the local
passengers had discovered them, most likely they’d have spaced the
crew and taken the ship back to Pallas to lynch the company’s other
employees.

But you could never be too careful about things like that. The
Fritz Marshall space lines—or the vile Curringer Corporation—
might risk a hidden camera here and there to protect its ill-gotten
property. They would certainly be doing a lot more things like that
once he was through with them on Ceres. But meanwhile, you were dead a
long time, and in prison, he knew from painful experience, even
longer.

He closed the suitcase, patted it like an old familiar pet, and
put it away where it belonged, in the closet. He put the clothes he
hadn’t placed in the drawers on hangers and hung them up, partially
concealing the suitcase.

Only then did he turn on the 3DTV, filling the lonely little cabin
with color and sound. Onscreen, a gray cartoon cat chased a brown
cartoon mouse in zero gravity. It was late, long past time to see
about getting something to eat. An impossibly compact kitchenette
adjoined the bath, but its cupboard and tiny refrigeration unit were
empty.

He wondered what was available that he could bring back from the
passenger lounge.

******

“My mother and father love each other,” Llyra said abruptly, her
tone argumentative.

The statement struck Jasmeen as an awkward and uncomfortable one
for two reasons. To begin with, they had been talking about something
else alogether as they jogged along the three-hundred fourteen foot
circumference of the Beautiful Dreamer‘s centrifuge chamber at
one-sixth of a standard Earth gravity—the gravity of Earth’s
Moon—winding every foot of their way between the facility’s exercise
machines. Jasmeen, whose native planet Mars had twice the gravity of
Earth’s Moon, had been dismayed at how easily she’d become accustomed
to far less. After only half an hour of light exercise, her calves and
the backs of her thighs had begun to ache and threatened to knot up
painfully.

Llyra stopped jogging and turned to face Jasmeen. Silence hung in
the air between them. They could hear and feel the faint rumble of the
centrifuge.

As a second generation Martian, the older girl was unused to naked
declarations regarding one’s feelings. Her own people back home were
so tight-lipped about their inner processes that the Earthers, mostly
East Americans, had contemptuously declared the Red Planet “Marsboro
Country”. For their part, the Martians had taken to heart what had
been intended as an insult, and had gone far beyond merely glorying in
it.

At the age of four, Jasmeen’s father had proudly taken her to the
original seventh-colony landing site to see a fifty-foot sculpture of
what purported to be an authentic West American cowboy, complete with
faded jeans beneath sheepskin chaps, a brightly-colored plaid shirt, a
huge clashing kerchief, and an outlandish hundred-gallon hat raised
high above the cowboy’s head in one gloved hand. His other hand held a
coil of rope supposedly made of braided horsehair. The Martians had
added a low-slung cartridge-studded pistol belt, a big ivory-handled
sixgun—something no Earthside advertising agency had ever had the
stomach for—and a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from his lower lip,
emitting real smoke.

For some reason, people said the cowboy’s name was Woody.

She and her people were stoics, having perfectly adapted
themselves to harsh colonial conditions. Still, Jasmeen thought, it
was her duty, as Llyra’s friend as well as her coach, to respond
sympathetically, to try to understand her. The trouble was, in this
particular context, she didn’t have the faintest idea how. Luckily,
this time, Llyra made it unnecessary by going on.

“I know they love each other, Jasmeen,” she insisted. “I can see
it on their faces—in their eyes—every time they’re back together
again. My brother is there, too. We all have a big, fancy dinner, then
they disappear together for twenty-four hours and when they reappear
it’s like a party around our house for another day or two. But sooner
or later, Mother starts yelling for some reason or another, it doesn’t
seem to matter why, and Daddy stops saying anything at all. It always
happens the same way. Sooner or later Mother locks herself in the
bedroom, and Daddy goes back to Ceres.”

The younger girl sat sideways on the plastic-upholstered seat of
one of the exercise devices, ignoring the machinery. Were those tears
Jasmeen saw in Llyra’s eyes? That was another thing Martians simply
didn’t do, and it was difficult to see it as anything but a sign of
fatal weakness. A part of Jasmeen wanted to go to Llyra and hold her,
comfort her.

The Martian part restrained her.

It was all true, though. Jasmeen had seen—and lived through—
the cycle Llyra was describing several times over the years she’d
worked for them. She’d never quite understood it, herself. Her own
mother and father, Mohammed and Beliita, were very similar to Adam and
Ardith in more than one respect: they were both professionals, both
academics, both intellectuals, she supposed. And they surely must have
had their differences. But they had never yelled at one another in her
memory, and they had never spent a single night apart, since they’d
been married, even at IASA’s Siberian training facility.

Someday, when she found the right someone or the right someone
found her, Jasmeen was grimly determined—especially since she’d
come to know the Ngus so well—that it was going to be like that
with them. They would be two halves of a single life, two breaths of a
single soul.

Otherwise, she thought, what was the point in falling in love and
getting married?

Now, overcoming the Martian part, she sat as close as she could to
Llyra, on a chromium-plated steel crossbar near the padded seat. (A
sixth of a gee made that sort of thing a good deal more comfortable
than it might otherwise have been, she noted incongruously.) Reaching
carefully through the machinery, she put an arm across the girl’s
shoulders.

“You cannot live another person’s life for them,” she told Llyra.
“Not even those you love most. Is hard, but when you hurt for them,
you must say to yourself, ‘Not my life, not my life, not my life, not
my life, not my life’. Five times, just like that. Will make you feel
better.”

“Is that a Chechen thing?” Llyra asked through the tears now
streaking her cheeks.

“No, is thing I read in ladies’ magazine at dentist’s office.”
They both laughed.

“But I can’t do that, Jasmeen, I just can’t say, ‘Not my life’
like that.”

Jasmeen shrugged. “I said is hard. I didn’t say is easy.”

But Llyra was continuing, more to herself than to Jasmeen. “It’s
like … it’s … oh, I don’t know. Somehow it feels like it’s my
fault, them not getting along. Somehow it feels like I caused it. I
don’t know how.”

Jasmeen sighed. “I hate to tell you, little one, but is not always
about you.”

Llyra cracked a smile. “Okay, maybe it’s because I feel there must
be something I could do, but I haven’t done it because I don’t know
what it is.”

Jasmeen said nothing. She knew something important was coming. She
left the bar and knelt beside her student, putting both arms around
her.

“I am going to fix it, you know,” Llyra insisted. “I’m going to
go from world to world, if I have to, and you’re going with me. From
Pallas to Ceres, from Ceres to Earth’s Moon, from the Moon to Mars,
skating on each and every world until it feels just like my own. And
then I’m going to skate on Earth, in the biggest, most important ice
rink there is, in the biggest, most important competition they have.
And I’m going to win that competition, Jasmeen, so my mother and daddy
will—”

She’d begun weeping again; her shoulders shook within Jasmeen’s
comforting arms.

“So they’ll what, my little? Is magnificent plan, I agree. Is very
dangerous plan. But what can even that do to make those two act like
grownups?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Jasmeen!” Llyra cried. “They’ll just have to,
don’t you see? They’ll just have to!” The girl’s shoulders slumped.
She bent her head to her chest and sobbed for half an hour in her
teacher’s arms.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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