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CHAPTER TEN: TURNOVER

Whether a political or philosophical undertaking happens
to be for good or for evil, it’s eventually done in, not by
its mortal enemies, but by the “moderates” and “gradualists”
within its own ranks. Ideologically speaking, swimming
upstream, against the current, for any length of time, is
morally exhausting. Most individuals simply aren’t up to it.
Sooner or later, they begin to look for excuses to drop out
of the struggle and head for quieter waters, comfortably
going nowhere.

The trouble is, in order to feel right about it, they
need everybody else to do it, too.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

They could tell immediately that the old gentleman was from East
America, specifically from the state of Massachussetts, and almost
certainly from the legendarily silly Amherst area, which had led the
state (and, to their enormous disappointment, nobody, anywhere else in
the System) in what the West American media had described as the “new
Amishness”.

Their reasoning went like this: dismayed at what everyone else saw
as progress, the Amish, along with Hutterites, Mennonites, and similar
religious groups, had attempted to stop time—or the world, so they
could get off—somewhere around the middle of the ninteenth century.
Later groups, most of them religious as well, and suffering what would
later be called “future shock”, had attempted to stop time at other
points. In Amherst, where the dominant religion was Gaianism—Mother
Earth worship—they’d voted to stop time in the last year of the
twentieth.

“Would you young ladies mind if I joined you?” the old gentleman
asked them politely, hooking his cane over one forearm and doffing his
hat.

This close up, thought Ardith, it was impossible to mistake the
the old gentleman for anything but an Amherstian—and probably a
college professor—in his college-professorly oatmeal-colored,
elbow-patched tweed jacket, his blue, self-consciously proletarian
denim work shirt, and his faded blue denim trousers—permanently
pressed with a sharp crease. He also wore a bow tie, and on his head,
a round floppy object that another generation had called a “boonie
hat”, but which had been popular among academics and fishermen long
before that.

“Not at all,” Ardith replied. She was something of an academic
herself, of course, although she hoped it wasn’t that obvious. She was
inclined toward bluejeans and sweaters when she was working in her
lab, but tended to shift to skirts or dresses when out in public.
“Please sit down.”

Both of the girls nodded cordial agreement with her. Curringer was
a small town—all of Pallas put together amounted to little more
than a small town—and they didn’t get a chance to see new faces
very often.

Ardith sat comfortably on a deeply-cushioned leather-covered sofa
with Jasmeen sitting at the other end. Llyra occupied an identical
item of furniture opposite them. Between the two sofas stood a
glass-topped coffee table. The lights had been lowered so that the
passengers could enjoy the starry view outside. Classical music played
softly throughout the room—Ardith had recognized Lennon and
McCartney’s “Yesterday” and something she thought might be called “I
Hope You Don’t Mind”.

The three of them had left the comfortable privacy of their suite
and come up to the passenger lounge to have drinks and a snack before
the girls went down for a swim in the ship’s “recreation-sized” pool,
and Ardith returned to her cabin to work on her current scientific
paper. They were pleasantly surprised to discover that in just a few
minutes, when Turnover officially began, the drinks would be “on the
house”.

They’d forgotten about Turnover.

Jasmeen observed, “They say they’re bringing champagne in a minute
or two. And in glasses, not baggies!”

Llyra added, “To demonstrate that they can turn the ship over
without spilling a drop! With their attitude controls they could do it
all in a few seconds—and glue everything and everybody in here to
the walls—but they say they’re going to take a gentle couple of
hours.”

“That means the engines will be pushing us sideways,” her mother
observed, leading the witness a little. “Won’t that put us off our
course?”

“Not when they’ve allowed for it from the very beginning,” Llyra
laughed.

“Very good, young lady,” the old man laughed with her. Back home
on Pallas, Ardith thought, he might easily have been over a hundred
years old. Coming from the Mother Planet, as she was certain he did,
it was likelier he was only in his mid-seventies and possibly younger
than that. Gravity is harmful to human beings and other living things,
she misquoted deliberately. “I came up here to see it. Say, isn’t that
spiral escalator something? I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Somewhat stiffly, and with the aid of his cane, the old man sat down
beside Llyra.

Ardith nodded. “It’s certainly something. My daughter, here,” she
indicated Llyra, “has been riding it up and down all morning, trying
to figure out where the stairsteps go at the top and bottom of the
ride.”

“I think they must slide over sideways and go back the other way,”
said the girl. “I was going to mark one with bubble gum and follow it,
but—”

“But I would not let her,” Jasmeen finished. “Cruel monster that I
am.”

Both girls laughed.

“Ah, science,” the old man said. “What’ll they think of next? Oh,
excuse me. I failed to introduce myself.” He leaned across the table
and offered a hand to Ardith, then to Jasmeen, and finally to Llyra at
the other end of the sofa. “I’m Robert Fulton, the stringer, on
Pallas, for several Earthside publications, mostly East American. I’m
being sent out here by Boston Magazine to cover the award ceremony
on Ceres.”

Ardith vaguely remembered seeing or hearing the man’s name before,
but the champagne arrrived, Llyra wanted some, and there were other
things to think about.

The sun and stars had slowly begun to swirl around the ship.

******

“Robert Fulton” was the working persona he most enjoyed adopting,
in part because the original, historic Robert Fulton had been among
the first to use technology to exploit and pollute the natural world.
The little old man, at least twenty years older in appearance than his
actual age, was the very picture of harmlessness, and tended to put
individuals at their ease—just before he garroted, stabbed, shot,
or poisoned them to death.

At the moment, as he watched the three females prattle without
really listening to them, the younger man inside Robert Fulton was
considering a radical change in the orders Null Delta Em had issued
him. There might be an enormous advantage in just doing the job right
here and now, to the family of the young “hero” on Ceres, and of the
Terraformation Project’s Director and Chief Engineer. True, he himself
would die. But in a sense, dying in the proper cause was everything he
had ever lived for, and he had been fully prepared to do it for a long
time.

Liver-spotted hands resting on the head of his cane, he leaned
back and closed his eyes momentarily. The gesture was more genuine
than feigned. Sometimes he felt as old as Robert Fulton was supposed
to be. In a great many ways, he had begun to grow a bit tired of life
lately, and putting an end to it now might actually represent
something of a relief.

“Sir?” came a voice. He opened his eyes and looked up at a young
woman holding a tray full of traditional glasses of champagne. The Ngu
women and their servant were already opening their own. “Would you
care for a free glass of champagne to help celebrate Turnover?”

He smiled and shook his head, but inwardly, preoccupied with his
thoughts, he shuddered, as the saying went, as if someone had walked
over his grave. He wasn’t afraid of dying for himself, he knew, not
really. More than anything, what he feared was that, as all groups
must, sooner or later, Null Delta Em would someday decide to try and
“mainstream” itself, to try and soften its ideological edges for the
sake of public relations—and above all, for purposes of fundraising
—and begin to lose track of the reasons it had been created. He’d
seen exactly the same thing happen again and again to dozens of other
organizations.

At least if he were to destroy this spaceship and her passengers
—including himself—he wouldn’t have to watch that happen to Null
Delta Em. He was finding a great deal of comfort, somehow, in that
idea.

“Mr. Fulton … ?”

He sat up and blinked. Apparently, he’d dozed off—a bad sign.
Back in the world outside his thoughts, the cocktail waitress had
moved along at last, and Ardith Ngu was introducing herself, her young
daughter, and her daughter’s coach. The foolish woman needn’t have
bothered, of course, although she had no way of knowing it. He’d done
his homework thoroughly, as he always did when he had a contract like
this one.

The woman herself, he was aware, spent most of her time locked in
a sinister Frankenstein’s laboratory in Curringer, not far from the
very offices where he sat every day and pretended to work, learning to
extract more and more vile profit from a sky full of lovely, celestial
objects that had gone untouched for so many ages before Man, pristine,
and pure.

She was a wellspring, a veritable fountainhead, of evil. She was
the mother of the teenage murderer whose blood-drenched acts these
frontier savages were about to advertise across the entire Solar
System on 3DTV. She was the consort of the destroyer who had started
to plunder and wreck the asteroid Ceres exactly as Pallas had been
wrenched from the breast of Nature and exploited for mere human use a
century ago.

Gaia alone knew what unnatural, greed-driven, materialistic, and
inhumane purposes this creature was preparing her poor little daughter
for, under the innocent-appearing guise of figure skating. The young
coach, too, was irredeemably corrupt, a child of murderous Chechen
rebels who became renegade Martian colonists. A child of violent
anti-social refusniks. A child of defectors. A child of traitors. That
alone should be enough to predict that nothing good could come from
any of these three. Best to pinch their tawdry lives off now, before
they could foster any more abominations.

It had sickened him to touch the foul hand of Ardith Zacharenko
Ngu. At the same time, it had sent a perverse shock of desire through
his body. Like most supremely evil things, he had discovered in his
life, she was very beautiful. But his ultimate objective had required
the hated contact.

That was another reason, perhaps, to fulfill his commission right
now and be done with it. He would no longer suffer the need to resist
the distractions and temptations that a perverse universe presented
him with. He’d always much preferred working in Moslem countries,
where they kept their women decently under cover. All modern women
were whores, displaying themselves with utter abandon. If only there
were some way, before he struck, to taste what this one blatantly
offered to all comers.

For that matter, the young Chechen coach, with her slender waist,
her narrow hips, and those remarkable breasts of hers would do very
nicely.

Or even the woman’s little daughter.

Reason number three occurred to him just as he was imagining what
each one of these females must look like underneath the shamefully
skimpy clothing that they wore: the young “hero” and his father would
be left behind by the deed, shaken by its unexpected suddenness,
stunned by its ferocity, stopped by its finality, and possibly ruined
for life.

The lesson would be learned by others, and it would never be
forgotten.

******

“She doesn’t deserve him!”

The girl wailed angrily, then looked around, a little chagrined.
She was safely in the privacy of a bedroom suite that, because she
happened to be personal assistant to the project’s Chief Engineer, she
didn’t have to share with anyone else. But these dormitory walls had
been shipped here under circumstances in which every ounce and every
square inch came at an enormous premium, and they were notoriously
thin.

“Ingrid Andersson,” said a voice, “I’ve heard you say that at
least ten times in the last hour, and that many times a day for the
past two years. And it may even be true as far as it goes—I’m
certainly no judge of matters like that. But hollering isn’t what
makes it true, dear. Even if it was, what can you do? The man has been
married for twenty years, however unhappily, and he has two beautiful
children. You want to ruin their lives, just because you have an itch
in your breeches?”

The voice Ingrid was hearing was her own, issuing from the audio
pads of a Purse-O-Nal Systems Interactive Diary she’d been using for a
decade, ever since she’d turned fifteen. Sitting open on her little
desk, it was designed to destroy itself if anyone else attempted to
tamper with it. Buying the device with money she had earned herself
had been a major turning-point in her life. Its voice and outlook had
matured with hers, as they were programmed to do, although sometimes,
she admitted, it seemed like the AI itself was maturing faster than
she was.

“A what in my what?” Ingrid’s tone was outraged. How could it
possibly be so crude, if it based itself on her personality and
vocabulary?

The device chuckled. “You heard me. Finally got your attention,
didn’t I?”

Ingrid shook her head, otherwise ignoring the remark. “If I could
only get him to look at me! I’m prettier than she is, at least I
think I am, and I’m younger. I have a better shape, and a sweeter
voice. I could even give him more children—another whole family!
That’s important to Pallatians, isn’t it? You know I dream about that
sometimes.”

“You don’t know for a fact that you could give the man children,
Ingrid,” the diary replied evenly. “I know you’re aware that the rate
of spontaneous abortion is high enough among native Pallatians, and
Martians, and Mooners, let alone recent transplants from Earth like
you.”

She huffed at it. “You’re not supposed to say ‘Mooners’. It
implies—”

“I know what it implies, Ingrid. And if I’d been programmed with a
sense of humor, I’d think it was funny. For what it’s worth, those who
live on the Moon do. But very well, let’s make it the politically
correct ‘Lunarians’. In either case, you know I’m right about the
miscarriage—”

“I think maybe I should set your argument levels lower,” she told
the device abruptly. The diary looked a little like a laptop computer
of a century ago, except that it was much smaller and offered the user
no keyboard, at least at the moment. The full color three dimensional
screen served Ingrid mostly as a non-reversing mirror. “How would you
like that?”

“You could do that, and I admit, I wouldn’t like it a bit,” said
the diary, its mouth moving with the words it spoke. “But it wouldn’t
change the truth, now, would it?” Its tone was a little smug. It often
sounded that way when it knew she was coming around to its way of
thinking.

“No, no, it wouldn’t.” A tear slid from the corner of one eye,
down her cheek, followed closely by another. “I just wish she wasn’t
coming here, that’s all. She belongs back on Pallas. Why does she have
to come here and—”

“When you’ve had him all to yourself? It hasn’t done you a lot of
good, though, has it? And you know perfectly well why she has to come
here, Ingrid. It isn’t even necessarily to see him, is it? It’s to see
her son—and his, of course—rewarded for saving lives at the risk
of his own.”

A forlorn Ingrid looked at the only face her diary had been
programmed to present. The eyes—which were usually extraordinarily
beautiful, were red now, swollen with anguish. “Why do you always have
to be so cruel?”

“Who set my parameters, Ingrid? Wasn’t it you? Didn’t you want me
to serve as your reality check—because you deplored the way your
mother always evaded the facts of reality and your father let her get
away with it?”

She nodded. “Yes, yes, it’s true. I know it’s true.” Her father
Thor (his mother had called him Takeshi) was plenty capable of evading
the facts of reality, himself. He was a born crackpot of both the bow
tie and the propellor beanie varieties, who had changed his ancient
family name to Andersson because of a theory he had about the Vikings
having discovered Japan. Despite centuries of anthropological evidence
to the contrary, he even believed that the Ainu were the Vikings’
descendents.

She wondered why he cared. The whole family had lived in
Connecticut for six generations.

“Sometimes that hurts you, I know,” said the diary with a more
conciliatory tone of voice. “Believe me, if I were capable of feeling
anything, I’d be happy to feel sorry for you, Ingrid, honestly I
would. You know you’re not just important to me, you know, you’re all
that’s important to me.”

Ingrid sniffed back her tears. “What a nice thing to say … ”

But it went on: “So let me ask you: this is a construction site,
where men outnumber women a hundred to one. Why don’t you look around
for somebody who isn’t married? Somebody who isn’t way too old for
you?”

The diary had hit a nerve, a very tender nerve. “Wait a minute! He
isn’t too—”

“He’s nineteen years older than you are, Ingrid. Admittedly,
that’s not as bad as it once was, when people only lived to be
seventy-five or so. But you should find someone who’s just starting
out, like you—”

“So we could make all our life-altering mistakes together, like
the blind leading the blind? Now who’s sounding like my mother?” She
shook her head. “Why don’t I find somebody else? Because I love him,
that’s why, and nobody else! Human beings don’t choose to love the
people we love!”

The diary asked, “So who does, Ingrid? Who chooses who it is you
come to love?”

Ingrid took an annoyed breath. “Okay, that’s enough. Shut yourself
off.” She resisted a temptation she often felt, to throw it across the
room.

“You’re the boss,” it acknowledged. “And it’s your funeral, too,
sweetie.”

******

The elderly-looking individual who occasionally introduced himself
as Robert Fulton had returned to his stateroom on the passenger deck
below and aft, without waiting for Turnover to be completed, or even
for the escalator to move him at its own speed. He’d hurried straight
to the closet, had his empty, odd-smelling suitcase open, his personal
palm-sized computer locked into place within it, the paired wire leads
attached and timer counting down, before a terrible thought occurred
to him.

Done this way, it will only make people Systemwide, even back on
Earth who were not ordinarily sympathetic to colonials, share the
sorrow of the grieving husband and son, of the bereaved father and
brother. Photographs of the martyred females would bring fools to
tears everywhere.

Far better to obliterate them all at the same time, and their
little Martian rebel bitch with them. They would be transformed into
abstracts, a few among hundreds, possibly thousands of casualties,
difficult to visualize, impossible to mourn. The Mass Movement’s
supporters in the media would work the facts around and blame the
victims, rather than Null Delta Em, making the lesson clear: this was
a spoiled, ruthless, obscenely wealthy family, used to destroying
whole worlds for profit. Instead of sainthood, the message would be,
“This is the price for exploiting one’s fellow man and going against
Nature.

“Go no further.

“Better yet, retreat.”

For a long, timeless while, maybe ten minutes, maybe two hours, he
sat motionless and limp on the carpeted floor inside the closet, next
to his empty suitcase, shaken to the core of his being by what he’d
almost done, trembling like the old man he appeared to be. His chest
ached with the beating of his heart, and his stomach was a mass of
knots.

True, he was prepared to die, but it wasn’t an easy thing to bring
oneself to. To approach the brink, peer over it into the abyss, then
back off again, postponing it for another day, was draining, to say
the least.

What a colossal mistake he’d almost made—and almost certainly
for reasons that were purely personal, purely selfish! So what if he
was tired of his life? Did that mean he was relieved of the duties it
demanded of him? So what if looking at Ardith Ngu or Jasmeen Khalidov
made him salivate like Pavlov’s dog? Did that mean that he could use
this mission merely as an excuse to obliterate the temptations that
beset him?

A thoughtless act like that could have set the Mass Movement back
a century! Just look at what those idiotic amateurs on Ceres had
accomplished—for the Movement’s enemies—by trying to blow up
that factory ship!

He’d already switched the timer off. When his hands were steady
again, and he could breathe deeply without pain, he carefully detached
the leads between the inside of the suitcase and his computer, removed
the computer and put it back in his pocket, closed and relocked the
odd-smelling suitcase, left the closet, and closed the door behind
him.

He prepared to go upstairs again, It was time for a drink.

Maybe for several.

And then he would wait until they got to Ceres, where he would
make his point in spades, and maybe live to retire comfortably and
tell the tale afterward.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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