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CHAPTER ELEVEN: NO GOOD DEED …

The hardest lesson to learn in economics is that money is “only” a medium of communication. The information it conveys is formally known as “price”, and what it tells us is how much to make or how much to do if we reasonably expect to get paid for it. The trouble with governments (public transportation is a good example of this phenomenon) is that, when the data all say “zero”, they interpret it as an indication to make or do more.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Four men sat around the dinner table, one of them tall and thin, one heavyset, two roughly medium-sized. They ate, they drank, and, thanks to a remarkably efficient air filtration system, two of them smoked.

All four were named Ngu.

The tall, thin one stubbed his cigarette out in the disposable dinner plate he’d just finished with, and said, “You know they’re bound to make a big fuss over you, boy. How many lives did you save aboard the Percival Lowell? Twenty-four, twenty-five hundred? You’re a genuine larger-than-life hero! There’s no way you can get out of it, now.”

The younger of the medium-sized men replied, “I don’t see why not, Uncle Lindsay. You know I didn’t do anything that anybody at this table, anybody in this camp, or anybody back home on Pallas wouldn’t have done.” He took a long draw on his chocolate milkshake. He’d been offered a share of the Jameson’s Irish whiskey that the others were drinking, but he didn’t like it.

The heavyset man, Wilson’s Uncle Arleigh, nodded. “Absolutely right, Wilson, absolutely right. But you see back on Earth, where these corporate ninnyhammers come from, everybody’s as scared as a rabbit, of every known phenomenon. Those rare few who aren’t scared get jailed if they even think about defending themselves or anybody else. So you’re a rare phenomenon to them and you should enjoy it while you can.”

“‘Uncle’, he calls me.” Lindsay observed, almost to himself, and as if he hadn’t heard what Arleigh had said. He looked at the other two men, as if soliciting witnesses. He lit another cigarette. “After all these years, the boy finally calls me ‘Uncle’. But I trust you’ll note that it’s only when he’s trying to wheedle his way out of his chores.”

“‘Chores!’” Both Arleigh and Wilson had said it at the same time, but it was Arleigh who went on. “Chores! You call starring in an award ceremony to be broadcast live on 3DTV, clear across the Solar System to every Settled World ‘chores’? You call being handed a substantial—if so far unspecified—monetary reward ‘chores’? You call being brought to the attention of every good-looking female in the Known Galaxy ‘chores’?”

Wilson muttered something.

“What was that, boy?” Lindsay demanded. “Speak up!”

“I said they won’t broadcast it on Earth,” he answered. “And don’t call me ‘boy’.”

Arleigh laughed.

“Oh, puh-shaw,” Lindsay said. “They will, too. And sorry about the ‘boy’ thing, kid.” He inhaled cigarette smoke and exhaled. The smoke and the odor, driven on a stream of friendly ions, disappeared almost instantly.

Adam, who had been sitting quietly, smoking his pipe, said, “No, he’s probably right, Lindsay. They’ll give it ‘selective coverage’. Even overlooking the Mass Movement and Null Delta Em, we’re not all that popular on Earth, just now, not even in West America. The good citizens have been told that they’re subsidizing us out here, and that we’re draining away their wealth. The truth, of course, is that they’re being drained by their own governments, and that the wealth has mostly flowed the other way, from us to Earth, for the past half century.”

Not overlooking the Mass Movement and Null Delta Em,” Lindsay insisted, “it’s even worse. Thanks to them, we Pallatians get blamed for every tremor, tidal wave, and volcano that burps or hiccups down there.”

“Don’t forget tsunamis,” said Wilson.

“Not to mention cows not laying eggs and chickens giving sour milk.” Arleigh laughed again. “And they’re gonna like us even less when they find out what happens when you import so much gold that it becomes as precious as lead.”

All four men laughed this time.

Adam said, “I guess that none of them were taught early in life, like we all were, about what happened when the Spanish conquerors of the—”

“Don’t say it!” Wilson glared at his father, then grinned.

“Okay, I won’t. Of the Americas.” He leaned toward his brothers in mock confidence. “Understand that Wilson, here, was scandalized at an early age, when he found out they’d had the temerity to call it the ‘New World’.”

“Yeah,” said Wilson. “But the universe got its revenge on them. The poor simpletons shipped home so much stolen Aztec and Inca gold that it destroyed Spain as a world power for the next six hundred years.”

Lindsay nodded. “Yeah, and it’s gonna happen again. No matter what they claim to the contrary, Earth governments still reckon the worth of their trash-paper currencies and phony electronic credit in terms of gold. There’s a disaster coming, but they don’t want to hear about it.”

“Or the fact,” Arleigh said, “that folks out here on the other Settled Worlds divide their investments among a number of valuable commodities—”

“Of which gold is only one,” Lindsay finished.

“And not even the foremost among them,” said Wilson.

“No,” Adam agreed with his brothers and his son. “I’m a bit behind on the market, but I believe that, at the moment, palladium is the hot commodity.”

“Maybe they’ll give you a great, big pile of palladium,” Lindsay ventured.

Arleigh jumped in before Wilson could say anything. “Oh, the young man doesn’t care about money, Lindsay, nor—even if I contradict myself—about every good-looking female in the Known Galaxy. He only cares about one, and he’s afraid that she won’t get to see him on 3DTV.’

Blushing furiously, Wilson kept his eyes on the table. “Keep it up, Arleigh.”

“I will, Nephew—until you call me ‘Uncle’.”

******

“No, no, no!” Honey Graham, of the Interplanetary Interactive Information Service, consulted hand-written notes on a piece of typing paper folded twice. A potentially important news story was finally breaking for her out here—a story that had everything, badguys, goodguys, conspiracies, politics, sabotage, gun battles (well, one gun battle, anyway), dead bodies, prisoners, and a real, live, handsome young hero with a famous name—and she was the only reporter within a hundred million miles of it. “Don’t put it over there, put it over here!”

There was a little muttering from her reluctant helpers. It was the third time she’d asked them to move the object in question from where she’d just had them leave it, to somewhere else, a matter of inches. But it had to be right, she told herself. Everything had to be just right.

This was where she’d been told the award ceremony would be held, on the exact spot where human beings had first touched down on Ceres, where they’d first set foot. The Pallatians had somehow lost track of the analogous location on Pallas years ago. All they had was the exact spot where William Wilde Curringer had crashed his little airplane and died. They were grimly determined not to let that kind of history be lost here.

She looked up through the transparent dome, high overhead, to the stars. They’d created this little ceremonial spot before they’d even started a single building. Even now, most of the small city she saw around her still consisted of the empty frameworks of uncompleted structures. But this miniature memorial only needed a few finishing touches.

Of course there was always a distinct possibility that the network wouldn’t run her story, back on Earth. News from outer space wasn’t particularly popular with East America’s political leaders, especially when it made the people out here or the worlds they’d built look good. It made the taxpayers restive, reluctant to go on doing what they were told, reluctant to go on giving up whatever the State required them to give up, reluctant to go on sending their sons and daughters to serve and die in the military. Hope, she knew, was the most dangerous phenomenon in politics.

Nevertheless the Wilson Ngu versus Null Delta Em story would be very popular everyplace else in the System. And before it was spiked back home, it was bound to be seen by somebody in the upper IIIS hierarchy who could do her some good—assuming, of course, that she could ever get this handful of clumsy idiot workmen to do their part correctly.

“All right,” she said at last. “I guess that’ll have to do. Now, can we move the other one?” Three of the half dozen workmen she’d been assigned by the Chief Engineer’s office—”stolen” from a rough and untidy-looking crew of welders who were sitting around, seemingly with nothing to do—struggled with another of the enormous concrete vase-shaped planters, walking it along the edge opposite from where she stood, of a large, stepped recess, also fabricated from concrete. The workmen insisted on calling it the “see-ment pond”, with emphasis on the “see”.

For some reason, they thought it was funny.

“Another foot closer, please.” She peered through the reticles of her Sony QDH-616G SuperMedia spectacles, trying to delineate a sort of informal stage that would help her frame the shots she was planning. She had begun to wish she had a real cameraman with her; she could use a little more face-time, associated with this story, for the sake of her career. The big planters were empty now, but she’d been told there was a ship with a cargo of flowering vegetation due in sometime today. That same ship was bringing the hero’s pretty mother and irresistable little sister from Pallas.

This story has everything, she thought again, unable to restrain her glee.

Two of the other men had begun filling the stepped recess with water, beginning carefully because there wasn’t much gravity on Ceres to hold it down. When they were finished in a couple of hours, this would be a kidney-shaped decorative pool roughly sixty feet by thirty. There should have been a flag, of course, maybe on a little island in the middle of the pool. And there would have been, at home. But Pallatians were notoriously anarchistic, and their world didn’t have a flag.

Nor would this one, if they had their way.

No wonder these poor men were stuck out here at the bitter end of nowhere. Just look at them! Every single one of them was carrying a handgun on his hip, just like in the wild, wild west, which meant it must be a dangerous, crime-ridden place in which to try to live and work. Their clothing and hands were filthy. And they didn’t seem to care whether they were pleasing her or not—she wasn’t accustomed to that.

Maybe living and working in outer space had done something to their –

“Miss Graham?” Who said “Miss” anymore? Honey turned to see the Chief Engineer’s personal assistant, Ingrid Andersson. (How did such an obviously Japanese girl come to have a name like she did? Was that another story worth following up? Maybe a human interest sidebar?). She was coming from the direction of her boss’s office. The boss himself, Dr. Ngu, had been in conference when Honey had gone to see him earlier, but he’d thoughtfully left instructions to grant her “every courtesy”.

“Yes, Ms. Andersson?” The reporter emphasized the politically correct title. The girl was beautiful, Honey admitted to herself, with a smooth, clear, golden complection, great big almond eyes—almost black, a good, straight nose, a wonderful little chin, and ripe, full lips, the lower one very European, the upper one very Asian. Her hair was long, glossy black with reddish highlights, tied up just now in a ponytail.

She’s far too sensual for network news, of course, Honey thought, where one’s basic female attractions had to be balanced with a certain degree of studied, non-threatening sexlessness. We mustn’t offend the female audience—who do most of the shopping—while attempting to interest the males.

Momentarily, Honey allowed herself to speculate about this lovely, exotic creature and her obviously lonely boss. There were rumors about him and his wife on Pallas—then she shook it off. She wasn’t here for that kind of story, she reminded herself. Not yet, at least. She noticed, abruptly, that even this highly decorative specimen carried a small, deadly-looking pistol tucked tightly against the curve of her tiny waist.

Ingrid said, “You asked me to let you know when the Beautiful Dreamer came in.”

Honey brightened. “Why, yes, dear, I did, thank you. Is it here?” She realized that was she almost through here at the see-ment pond, anyway. Thank God.

She’s in orbit,” Ingrid replied, emphasizing the politically incorrect pronoun. “Since there’s no atmospheric envelope on Ceres yet, and nobody to meet her at the poles, she’ll land near here—just far enough away to avoid unpleasant accidents to the dome. We’re sending our fleet of gamera out to bring the passengers and cargo here.”

“Oh, yes,” said Honey. “That peculiar vehicle I rode in with the Ngu brothers. And … ?”

“Anyway, Dr. Ngu asked me to ask you if you wanted to go meet the ship.”

Honey’s heart leapt. This was just getting better and better! The mother and the sister! More tear-jerking exclusives! “Would I ev—I mean, that would be very satisfactory, Ms. Andersson. Thank you for asking.”

The Asian girl smiled. “That’s quite all right, Miss Graham. And please call me Ingrid.”

******

Ardith is here!

To his tremendous surprise and annoyance, Adam discovered that he was nervous. His palms were damp. He tended to forget about this phenomenon between … visits.

Ardith is here!

He had showered, shaved, brushed his teeth, and used deodorant. Briefly, he’d considered using aftershave or cologne, but had rejected the idea. For at least the dozenth time, he ran a comb through his thinning, sandy-colored hair, feeling like a schoolboy on his first date.

Ardith is here!

Unconsciously, he paced the few square feet his private quarters permitted, waiting to be told that the gamera were back from the Beautful Dreamer, wondering if he should have gone to meet the ship, himself. No, no, he had to be here, as Chief Engineer, to stay on top of things.

Once again he took a step and a half to the mirror and inspected his shirt, his pants, his shoes, his gunbelt, his socks. His jacket hung over a chair, waiting to be put on. He was a credit, he thought, sartorially speaking, to the engineering profession and to manhood in general. But inside, he was a mess.

Ardith is here!

How odd, remarked the part of him that stood outside and made remarks. He’d been married to this woman almost twenty years. In many ways, he knew her much better than he knew himself. He’d fathered two children with her—six, if you counted the four that tragically hadn’t made it. After all that time, all of that joy and all of that pain, she was still everything to him, everything he’d ever wanted or needed. She was more than just the love of his life, she was love itself. And life.

The hell of it was she wasn’t even here on Ceres to see him, but to stand with him beside their son in his moment of glory and supreme embarrassment.

******

Wilson sat in a straightbacked chair at a little two-legged desk fastened to the wall between two sets of bunk beds, in the room he’d been assigned by his father’s assistant, in one of the workmen’s dormitories. The facilities were spartan, but warm, well ventilated, cheerfully decorated, and very clean, thanks to microscopic armies of nanobots.

He’d been informed that these were only temporary accommodations, intended for transients, visitors, and Curringer Corporation employees who hadn’t yet found a permanent billet here at project headquarters. Since no permanent billets had even been built on Ceres yet, everybody lived in the dormitories, including the Chief Engineer and everyone working for him.

But Adam had assured his son that he wouldn’t be bothered here. Nobody else would be assigned to this room and he was free to enjoy his privacy as long as it lasted. His young life was about to be turned upside-down, but for now, he would have all the privacy he needed or desired.

Just now, privacy was exactly what Wilson desired most. From the change pocket in his bush jeans, he pulled his personal computer, a JCN OmniBorg, a device roughly the size and shape of an old-fashioned pocket watch, complete with a lanyard that attached to one of his belt loops. To be sure, there were much smaller computers available, but his mother, who had given him the powerful device a year or so ago on his birthday, believed that anything smaller was too likely to get lost.

Unclipping the computer from his jeans and placing it flat on the desktop before him—where it would draw power by induction—he pressed a tiny recessed button in one edge, and a viewing area, two feet square, nearly thirty-four inches in diagnonal, sprang into being above it. Wilson’s idle screen display was a commercial hologram, set against a starry background, of a Ball 500 Asteroid Scout, one of the little fusion-ion rock hunting ships he dreamed of owning, and maybe of capturing the Diamond Rogue or some other legendary treasure with when he wasn’t occupied dreaming about something—or somebody—else. As usual, the hologram caused him to sigh resignedly. Even a used Ball 300 was far beyond his means, and likeliest to stay that way.

He only hoped the somebody he dreamed of having wasn’t equally unobtainable.

Between him and the tiny computer, the image of a control board flowed out across the tabletop. He usually preferred writing to dictating.

“SolarNet,” he told the computer, which promptly opened his ‘com program and opted, as it was instructed to do, for e-mail. To his utter astonishment, he had more than three thousand messages, the vast majority of which were from people he didn’t know, congratulating him for having saved the Percival Lowell and being properly recogized for it. The system told him he had another twenty thousand messages waiting that couldn’t be downloaded until he’d dealt with the first batch.

Twenty thousand?

On the other hand, at least half were from individuals who wanted to sell him something, or simply to beg him for money. And there were dozens of offers of marriage or some other intimate arrangement, not all of them from females. Some of them even included holograms of the senders, most—big mistake—without benefit of clothing.

A few were from sympathizers of the Mass Movement and Null Delta Em, accusing him of helping spoil whole worlds, and even of being a murderer.

One or two of those contained death threats.

He glanced at the .270 Herron StaggerCyl with which he’d earned all of this dubious attention, lying on the table beside the computer. He took considerable comfort in it, but found himself thinking that maybe he ought to get something a little bigger and a lot more powerful for indoors, where people didn’t wear envirosuits that could be punctured.

It occurred to him that he didn’t even have an indoor pistol belt and holster for the Herron yet. He’d been carrying it in a pocket of his envirosuit. Maybe he should get a belt with two holsters, one for the Herron and one for whatever larger-caliber gun he found. “Two-gun Ngu,” they’d call him, and he’d never be able to show his face in public again.

With a few keystrokes and verbal commands, Wilson persuaded the computer to set aside any e-mail he’d received in the past 24 hours from first-time correspondents. That seemed to take care of the bulk of it. If his father was willing, maybe he could ask Ingrid—Miss Anderson, he corrected himself—to help him answer it. In most cases, he didn’t have any idea what to say to these people who’d written to him. Besides being extremely decorative (his heart may have belonged to another, Wilson told himself, but he wasn’t blind—or dead), Ingrid was very efficient and struck him as having a lot of class.

But, remembering the other his heart belonged to, he searched the short remaining message queue for the only bit of correspondence he really wanted to see.

And there it was:

SUBJECT: YOU MAKE ME PROUD

SENDER: AMORIE SAMSON

There were earlier messages from her. This one had been sent only an hour ago. He opened it and it unfolded to reveal a holorecording of her, and a paragraph of text, which was a written record of what she was saying now:

“Willie! I just heard of what’s going on there on Ceres, and what you did! I’m having a hard time not bragging about you to everybody I know!”

He hated being called Willie, but could never seem to talk Amorie out of it, and was reluctantly willing to make an exception in her case. He gazed at her hologram with an expression he knew his uncles would have made fun of. It was just that looking at her made him feel so … so …

Amorie had absolutely the sweetest face he’d ever seen, framed in fine, astonishingly waist-length light brown hair dancing with honey-colored highlights. Her cheekbones were pronounced and high, her nose almost straight, with a slight upward curve that made her look even younger than the sixteen standard years he knew her to be. She had a subtle dimple in her chin, and the kind of complection that had once been described as “peaches and cream”, along with great big brown eyes, white, even teeth, and warm, moist, full lips he wished more than anything he could—

What was that she’d just said? He scrolled back to the place where he’d become distracted and lost track. ” … tried to persuade my folks to head for Ceres, but we’ve just come on an unexpected cluster of irons, and couldn’t have made it in time. My folks said to be sure to tell you you’re welcome to come stay and visit with us any time you can.”

Now Amorie leaned into the 3D camera built into her computer, so he almost felt he could touch those lips. He could also see far enough into the top of her blouse that, even in a room by himself, he blushed. “And Willie,” she almost whispered it. “If you want, you can stay in my quarters, with me.”

Wilson groaned. He wouldn’t be sleeping much tonight.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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