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CHAPTER TWELVE: THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE

There are those who wish to kill us out of their hatred for us, or because we have something they want. There are others who end up killing us out of what they imagine is their regard for us. The assassin-fan who murders his beloved idol comes to mind, as well as many a mother or father.

Admittedly, there is a great deal of love in my life—my husband, my children, the surrogate parents who raised me —but in most circumstances, I would rather trust the profit motive than the vagaries of what others call love.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Ardith inspected the little stateroom one last time.

There wasn’t much to inspect. She’d had it to herself while Llyra and Jasmeen had shared the adjoining cabin, and she’d never really unpacked. One double bed, just the way it was at home. After a long while, she’d finally gotten used to sleeping in the middle. Otherwise, these quarters were about as plain, she thought, as they could get without resembling a cell in a convent, or a medium security prison somewhere.

That was pretty much the way she liked her own bedroom.

The girls had hurried through their breakfast so they could watch the landing from the passenger lounge. Then they’d bustled excitedly down to the recreation deck to await arrival of several rocket-powered hovercraft—gamera they were called, for some obscure reason—that would carry them, along with the rest of Beautiful Dreamer‘s passengers, to the Ceres Terraformation Project’s construction headquarters.

That phrase “the girls” had suddenly struck Ardith a bit oddly, this morning, although she employed it quite often—at least in her own mind—to indicate her daughter Llyra and her daughter’s tutor, Jasmeen.

It seemed the natural thing to do. There were times when it felt exactly as if she had two daughters. And she would have been as proud to have Jasmeen as her daughter as she was with her own daughter, Llyra. Jasmeen was a very fine young woman, honest, intelligent, and hard working. The standards that governed her personal behavior (and which served as an example to Ardith’s daughter) were of the highest order.

At other times it felt as if Jasmeen were Llyra’s mother. Ardith knew she had laid a great deal of the burden of raising Llyra on the older girl’s shoulders. She often felt bad about it, but what could she do?

What else could she do?

Not for the first time, Ardith reflected that Jasmeen seemed to be remarkably wise and patient for all that she was merely nineteen years old—fewer than eighteen months older than her son, Wilson. Possibly that came from being born and growing up on what was surely the most harsh and least forgiving frontier that humanity had ever attempted to conquer.

Or maybe it simply came from having Mohammed and Beliita Khalidov—two old and valued friends of Adam’s father William, from his days on Mars—as her parents. Ardith recognized that she, herself, hadn’t been anywhere near that mature at nineteen—that was just about the time that she’d met and married Adam—although there were moments when she missed all of the energetic passions of her youth, however painful they had felt at times. It seemed like the only thing she ever felt these days was worry—with occasional flashes of inexplicable anger.

It was that anger, she knew, that had pushed the only man she’d ever loved away from her—hundreds of millions of miles away from her, in fact—and constantly kept the son and daughter she adored with all her heart and all her soul at arm’s length. She felt that she would give anything to know why she did it, why, after only a day or two of blissful reunion and renewal with her husband, she would let herself become infuriated by some casual remark that Adam thought was innocent.

Ardith had come from a very warm, close, loving family, herself, so it wasn’t that. Just now, thinking of her younger, more innocent self, of half a lifetime ago, she’d felt an overwhelming wave of … what?

Longing?

But for what?

What had she lost along the way, sometime after she was nineteen, that she still longed for now, even though she didn’t know what it was?

On the other hand, maybe knowing wouldn’t be enough. Sometimes the truth doesn’t set us free, but only makes our captivity that much more unbearable. Exhaling sharply, she tried to shake off all this useless prying and poking, all this unproductive pseudo-psychological scab- lifting, and forced herself to concentrate on practical matters at hand.

For some reason, she’d left her osmium wristwatch, the one Adam had given her when Wilson was born, on her desk back at the lab in Curringer. It seemed like too much bother to consult her computer—although it was only half the size of Wilson’s, and she wore it on a pin in her lapel, like a nurse’s watch. Unlike several of her younger colleagues, who looked forward to a day, not long frm now, when it would be possible, she couldn’t bear the idea of getting a cerebral implant. True, it would place a computer several times more powerful than this one in direct contact with her brain. She’d never need to look at a watch or a calendar, or consult a map for directions or a dictionary, again.

She’d always be connected to the SolarNet wherever she went.

But Ardith’s was one of the “first families” on Pallas, after all; from her earliest years, she’d been taught the ways of governments too well. As long as even one of the things continued to exist, anywhere, it was too dangerous to wear an implant, which could become an open door to whatever some two-bit Napoleon wanted to do to one’s mind. The very thought made her shudder as if she’d found a garden slug in her salad.

So this morning she’d borrowed her daughter’s TimeStamp (a recent high-tech Martian import) which was the last thing left sitting on the bedside table. She would drop it in her bag after using it and give it back.

She’d never played with one of these devices before, although the technology was very interesting, and she had always been curious about it. It was perfectly cylindrical, an inch and a half in diameter, and about three inches long. The flat top bore an image of what the stamp was all about—trust her Llyra to have selected the simplest pattern she could, an old-fashioned analog sweep-second clock dial without a date or any other information.

Ardith lifted the object from the table and took the cap off the bottom. It looked to her like an ordinary rubber stamp, with purple ink—again, typical of her daughter. She placed the working end on the back of her hand and pushed, firmly, just the way she’d seen her daughter do a hundred times. When she lifted the object from her hand, the purple clock image had been transferred to her skin. Amused and amazed, she watched the second hand rotate around the face for a little while, then put the cap back on and tucked the device in her large handbag.

Fun with nanobots.

The microscopic machines would stay on her hand, racing across her skin, telling her the time—oh, dear, Curringer time, and the Pallas length of day—until they wore off molecule by molecule, or she washed them off on purpose. Technology was her business, but it surprised even her, sometimes.

Technology was her family’s whole—suddenly, Ardith noticed an emotion lurking inside herself that she’d been avoiding. Her entire family—Llyra, Wilson, Adam and his brothers, and yes, her “other daughter” Jasmeen—were about to be together for the first time in a long, long while, and she couldn’t feel anything. Well, not quite anything—the thought of seeing Adam again filled her with abject terror.

What was wrong with her?

Yet Adam was a good man—the very best of men, in fact—and the truth was that she had been his since the day they’d met on a museum tour, when she was only five years old and he was twelve. (He hadn’t really known that she existed for another decade.) Just the thought of him right now filled her full of fire and made her want to—no, no, this was not the time for that! She realized now that she’d been dawdling in the stateroom, putting off the ride to the construction dome for some reason.

She wondered if Adam had driven out to meet her and the girls.

What would it mean if he hadn’t?

******

Despite the ship’s gradual acceleration to match the gravity of Ceres, it was tiring, standing in line in the corridor that bisected the recreation deck, waiting for the shuttles, or whatever they were, that would take them to the only inhabited spot on this asteroid so far.

With any luck, it was the only one there ever would be.

“Oh, excuse me, sir!” said the middle-aged woman ahead of him, overweight, unattractive and a Pallatian, to judge from her own poor adjustment to the doubled gravity. “I didn’t mean to step on your foot.”

He lifted his hat. “I didn’t even feel it, my dear. Think nothing of it.” The gravity helped him maintain his imposture of a tired old man—although he didn’t need it. Most of the time he felt that way anyway.

For a while, he was “Robert Fulton” once again, although when the time came—if it was possible—he was prepared to change his name, his age, his height, his weight, his race, even his apparent sex, if need be, and to disappear forever, never to be heard of again by anyone, especially those accustomed to hiring him to do their dirty work.

This one assignment, and he would retire, All he wanted was to gaze at the sculpture and paintings he’d collected over the years, drink the wonderful Lunar greenhouse Merlot he favored, listen to Mozart, and tend the swordtails and black mollies he’d always wanted to raise.

“Something to drink, sir?” One of the attendants was passing along the corridor, offering the passengers small plastic baggies on a tray. “We have a little wine, a little whiskey, some apple juice, and some water.”

He took a small container of apple juice and sipped at it as he waited with the rest of the passengers. They’d been told it would take the machines from the dome fifteen minutes to reach them, and another five to couple up to the ship. Luggage transfer would take another ten.

Luggage.

If he couldn’t get cleanly away before the end, if his operation consumed him, too, it was something he could accept. He’d arranged for his possessions—safely stored in an ancient missile silo in Wyoming that he’d purchased and remodeled—to be passed on to someone who would appreciate them. That person didn’t even know him, wasn’t even aware that he existed, and would be extremely surprised when contacted by his lawyer. But the precious legacy, he knew, would be accepted and cherished, if not because it had been his, then for what it was, in itself.

The daughter he’d unwittingly helped to conceive in a moment of weakness twenty years ago, would have something of her father, after all.

What a night that had been. He’d been undercover, in white tie and tails like the fabled British spy, attending an enormous cocktail party in Denver. His assignment had been to ferret out the “secret leaders” of Sagebrush Rebellion II—that had stopped western states from sending representatives to Washington—and kill them, one by one.

The trouble was that, despite the fondly-cherished beliefs of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and others like them, those leaders didn’t exist. Sagebrush Rebellion II was the spontanous effort of hundreds of thousands of men and women in the American west who wanted nothing more to do with the government in the east—a government capable of committing any atrocity, including sending an assassin to kill their leaders.

If only they’d had any.

He’d met a pretty girl there, a sort of West American counterspy, who’d known all about him and had almost—but not quite—convinced him to change sides. Afterward, he had never regretted letting her live.

He opened his eyes wide and took a deep breath, shaking off his reverie and returning to the present. Now, all the usual precautions were called for, and perhaps a little more. These were circumstances—it felt to him like last day of school—in which one could grow careless. He’d hurried to leave the ship with the other passengers, then held back so he wouldn’t be first. Always stay concealed in plain sight, inconspicuous in the middle, that was the key to survival in his trade. Always remain as average as possible, the average of the average.

“Excuse me, sir, would you mind?” He turned to the passengers behind him, a young couple who looked like they might be on their honeymoon—although why they would come to Ceres was beyond him. The young man held out a tiny camera and asked if he would take their picture.

“I’d be happy to,” he replied, finding them in the viewfield floating above the camera and pressing the release. He took three pictures and handed the camera back. “Not vacationing on Ceres, are you?”

The young woman grinned and shook her head. “Not really. We just got married, and we both have jobs here. I’m with the canopy welding crew, and Hamish, here, is a microbiologist assigned to atmosphere generation.”

He nodded amiably, but was very nearly sick to his stomach. This sweet young couple were the enemy. He felt his head swim with utter revulsion.

The deck’s ceiling was so low it made him feel claustrophobic, creating room, no doubt, for the centrifuge over their heads. Through one transparent wall of the corridor they occupied, he could see the swimming pool—what a ridiculous waste of resources!—covered now with a big sheet of plastic, as was the hot tub standing beside it. He turned to look through the transparent wall on the other side of the corridor, where a dozen exercise machines stood motionless and silent, as they had been for most of the trip. Not many athletes in this lot, apparently.

Except, of course, for the ice skaters.

It had pained him deeply to let somebody else handle the single item of luggage he’d brought with him, his special shiny brown plastic suitcase that, despite his best efforts, still smelled a little funny. (“Luggage”—he thought about the word for the first time: that which one lugs.) Not only was it dangerous, it was undemocratic. People shouldn’t have to be one another’s servants—this he had believed all of his life—they should all be servants, in equality, to a benevolant State, instead.

Nor should they be permitted to go running away to the Asteroid Belt or other places like it, where their proper leaders couldn’t reach them, living any way that happened to come into their heads, and fomenting rebellion on Mars, among other places, opposing duly constituted government authority. Martian colonists had murdered his father, who had been a part of a United Nations military detachment sent to bring them back into line. It had been his lifelong dream to make them pay for it. If he had to do it here on Ceres, then that’s the way it would be.

He reached into his left inside jacket pocket to feel the worn, folded scrap of blue and white synthetic he always carried next to his heart. It was a lightweight, low-volume flag, shipped into low orbit by the tens of thousands and returned for sale or presentation on Earth.

His had been given to his mother the day they’d informed her that her husband was dead, and that his body couldn’t be recovered—another score he needed to settle with these self-made aliens. All during the memorial service, his mother had soaked it with her tears. He valued it as much for that as any purely ceremonial connection it had to his father.

He would have it with him when whatever happened happened.

******

“Here they come! I see them!” Llyra exclaimed redundantly. Her face was pressed against the plastic porthole in the outer airlock door.

The little airlock was unlit, so she could see outside better. Captain Gunther Quigley stood behind her, almost filling the rest of the closet-sized chamber, the inner door of which was open onto the well lit corridor behind him. He was not a native Pallatian, this short, heavyset individual of about sixty years’ age. He had a florid face, thinning red hair featuring more than a few silver strands, a big curly red beard and sideburns, and a cheek-appling, eye-crinkling smile, like the Santa Clauses in Coca-Cola ads. Llyra had liked him the first time she saw him.

“How far away are they now?” someone behind her shouted from the corridor.

“How many of them are there?” asked someone else.

By the powers vested in him by the Fritz Marshall Space Lines, the captain had informed the passengers lined up in the recreation deck, he was appointing the youngest person onboard the Beautiful Dreamer Official Lookout while they were waiting for the gamera to arrive. This was necessary because the only view of the outside, on this deck, was through a nine-inch disk of transparent plastic. This exit hadn’t originally been intended to be used as an airlock, he said, except in emergencies.

“They’re just over the horizon,” Llyra said, “Can’t tell how many yet.”

“Can you hear them, dear?” asked the woman from New Jersey. The girl bit her tongue and refrained from making the remark she felt was deserved. It was nothing but hard vacuum outside, and completely soundless. Didn’t the socialist schools teach people anything in East America?

Llyra answered politely, “No, ma’am, I can’t hear them.” Somebody laughed.

This ship had originally been intended to ply a Pallas-Luna route, she knew, but had been reassigned to Ceres before she’d actually been finished. Llyra had been told that there were larger, far more useful airlocks on each of the lower cargo decks. Passengers had always been meant to embark and disembark from decks higher up, through extendable tubes like the one they’d come aboard through at Port Peary. Changing circumstances had forced changes in design and use.

The whole youngest passenger production had impressed Llyra as more than a little childish. She hadn’t complained, because (as the captain knew perfectly well), she happened to be the youngest, and she wanted to see the gamera when they got here. She didn’t mind at all being the first person to do so. Of course her view of the surrounding “countryside” would actually have beeen a lot better from the forward passenger lounge, and better yet from the bridge, a few feet higher than the lounge. It was equipped with radar, lidar, and several different kinds of light amplification equipment.

And here they came, now, three, four, five, six sets of brilliant white headlights, exactly like cars on a highway—only this highway was twenty feet above the rugged airless surface of an asteroid, and she could see the blue-orange jets of the tiny rocket engines that kept the machines aloft—and, incidentally, were the source of the vehicle’s name.

“There are six gamera, I think,” she shouted back into the corridor. “Five are holding back while one is coming right up to the door!”

“That’s our cue, young lady,” the captain stage-whispered. “For safety’s sake, we’ll back off now and close the inner door, just in case.” He touched her shoulder with just the right amount of polite pressure.

The chances were better than even, she thought, that he’d arranged for her to be at the porthole, not because she was the youngest, but because she came from the richest, most important family on Pallas, and was the daughter of the Ceres Terraformation Project’s chief engineer. She hated making calculations like that, but had been taught by both parents to be careful and observant. It was often hard to tell who your real friends were.

Llyra nodded reluctantly and let herself be shown away from the porthole. She’d wanted to see if the smaller craft would hover on its jets as it linked to the ship and was being boarded, or if there was some other arrangement. Now she’d just have to ask someone. Llyra was the kind of person who would much rather see than ask, any day of the week.

“Well, I suppose they could hover,” Captain Quigley told her, once she’d asked. He nodded a little, then shook his head. It was a comical gesture and she decided she’d give him the benefit of the doubt. “But I think it would engender unnecessary risk, and use a lot of fuel. No my dear, they have all had landing jacks attached to the undersides of their hulls, those criss-cross scissory things, if you know what I’m talking about, that will bring them up to just the level they need to be on. But first, they’ll have to turn around and back up to the door.”

Llyra and Captain Quigley had moved a few feet away from the outer door at this point. The corridor, crammed with people, seemed hot and stuffy to the girl. A male attendant who had squeezed down the narrow passageway, past all of the increasingly impatient passengers, helped the captain swing the inner door shut and lock it securely. The instrument panel above the door indicated there was still air in the lock.

“And now,” Captain Quigley said with some sort of satisfaction, “if we have a little fender-bender, we won’t lose even a molecule of air.”

“Fender-bender?” the girl asked. “Isn’t a fender a fireplace thing?”

Quigley grinned. “It’s a turn of phrase my maternal grandfather favored. He migrated to Pallas from California, after the Big One. Maybe it’s something to do with that. I’m not certain what it means, myself.”

Maybe the woman from New Jersey knew. She had opened her mouth to speak, when suddenly, everyone began to hear—and worse yet, to feel—a long series of loud, dull thumping noises, coming from outside the airlock. Given what the captain had said about “fender benders”, it was a little unnerving. Before anyone could tell Llyra that she couldn’t do it, she pressed her face against the porthole in the inner airlock door, just in time to see the outer door pop and swing away. The instrument panel above the door still showed nothing but green lights.

Beyond it, she could just make out the inside of another airlock, presumably the gamera‘s. Standing just inside it, lifting a heavily booted foot over the coaming of both airlocks into the larger craft, was a very large man wearing an envirosuit. He inspected an electronic instrument of some kind held in his hand—checking the air, Llyra thought.

Then, clipping the object to his already crowded equipment belt, the man reached up with both gloved hands, gave his helmet a twist, lifted it off his shaggy head, and reached to open the inner airlock door.

“Hagrid!” Llyra threw herself into her Uncle Arleigh’s arms.

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