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CHAPTER THIRTEEN: SURPRISE, SURPRISE

The weaker, more fragile sex are often accused of being shallow because the first thing they’re attracted to in a woman is her physical beauty (I’ve heard some cynics argue that it’s more likely to be her willingness), while women are more interested in a man’s character. But they’re after the same thing. What a man is looking for, although he probably doesn’t realize it, is good reproductive health, in whatever arbitrary terms his culture defines it. A woman looks for traits in a man that assure her he’ll be a good provider and defender to herself and her children.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Next Monday,” Wilson exclaimed a bit breathlessly, “the factory ships will start lowering sections of the atmospheric canopy onto the surface, wrapping them around Ceres. I’ll be with the first welding crew—Arleigh and Lindsay showed me how, and I’ve been practicing for days.”

His sister asked, “That’s why you’ve got bandages on both thumbs?” The vehicle swayed a little as he stood beside them, hanging onto an overhead support. Llyra suspected that meant Ceres had its share of mascons, like Pallas, and wondered how high the gravity measured above them.

She and Jasmeen were sitting in the first row of seats in what had only recently been the cargo hold of the gamera they’d boarded, in a windowless prefabricated passenger section meant to be dropped into that part of the utility vehicle and connected with life support and power. A scattering of overhead 3DTV screens showed what the pilots were seeing. About half the seats were occupied by former passengers from the Beautiful Dreamer. Llyra spotted elderly Mr. Fulton sitting somewhere in the middle and waved to him. The old man smiled and waved back.

Wilson had greeted the girls and his mother as they’d stepped over the threshhold, through both airlocks, and into the vehicle, which bounced alarmingly on its spindly uprights as it was boarded. For a while, the noise of passengers chattering while they found seats was intolerable, although it died down as the machine fired thrusters, retracted its legs, and began moving. Wilson made a mental note to talk to his father about acoustic spray for all of the insert’s hard surfaces.

Adam would ask Ingrid—Miss Andersson—to fill out requisition and work orders, and then Wilson would probably be assigned to do the job.

If Ardith had been disappointed that her husband wasn’t aboard the gamera to meet them, she hadn’t shown it. Her daughter had been disappointed but hadn’t said anything, either. She trusted her father and knew he must have a good reason for waiting to greet them until they’d gotten to the dome. Wilson was a pretty good substitute. If anything, her brother was even more handsome than when she’d last seen him.

He’d hugged his mother energetically (she was up forward at the moment, visiting with her husband’s brothers, Llyra’s uncles, for the first time in a long while, as they piloted the machine) and his sister, as well, as if he hadn’t seen them for years. It hadn’t quite amounted yet to six months. He’d awkwardly shaken hands with Llyra’s coach, as well. Unlike Arleigh, Wilson wasn’t wearing an envirosuit, but ordinary running shoes, faded bluejeans, and a brilliant scarlet t-shirt with the Ceres Terraformation Project’s logo printed on it in yellow.

Slanting from his left hip to his right thigh, he also wore a wide leather pistol belt with his long-barrelled .270 Herron StaggerCyl riding in an open-topped holster—tied down to his leg just above the knee—and a pair of twelve-shot loaders high on the other side.

“How long will all this lowering and welding take?” Jasmeen asked politely. Her coach’s homeworld, her student knew, had been terraformed by an extremely different method that hadn’t involved wrapping the planet in a gigantic plastic bag. On such a scale, even her father probably couldn’t do it, Llyra thought.

Wilson looked at his feet and swallowed. “Uh, they say it’ll take about two years. That’s with full crews working in shifts around the clock.”

Llyra observed that her brother was a bit flushed following this conversational effort, mostly on the sides of his neck beneath his jawline. She’d noticed earlier that he’d kept his contact with Jasmeen as brief as possible, withdrawing his fingers as if he’d just plunged them into boiling water. And he couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes.

She wondered if Jasmeen had noticed it, too. The younger of the girls knew exactly what it meant. It meant Wilson had just realized for the first time that Jasmeen was pretty. They’d known each other more than three standard years (the actual years of Mars and Pallas were much longr), but Wilson had only been fourteen and Jasmeen sixteen when they’d met, an unbridgeable gap at those ages. They’d spent most of the time that followed living on different worlds, growing up. In Wilson’s mind, noticing that Jasmeen was pretty probably constituted disloyalty to (what was her name?) that insipid girl on the SolarNet he thought he was in love with and wanted to marry.

Llyra sighed inwardly. The truth was that it wasn’t too early for Wilson to start entertaining feelings like that, whoever they happened to center on. Young men and women tended to marry much earlier than, say, Earthsiders, out here on what somebody had once called “the final frontier”. (Llyra and her brother had been brought up to think of it as merely the beginning of an endless frontier.) The general custom—in a place and time where there were far more customs than laws, and they were much more stringently enforced, by Mother Nature (or “Auntie Evolution”, as Llyra like to think of it) herself—was that they married for life, and they had the biggest families they could manage.

Even with today’s technology, taming a wilderness was a labor- intensive undertaking.

Somehow, she couldn’t see that creature … that Amorie Samson— that was her name—as anybody’s frontier wife and mother, for all that she had supposedly been born to a hardy asteroid-hunting family somewhere down Sunward. The holograms Emerson had sent home to Pallas made the girl look pampered and … well, useless, in some way Llyra couldn’t quite define, as if she were the asteroid-hunter family’s pet Persian kitten, rather than a daughter expected to pull her own full weight.

Yes, the girl had a pretty face, a very pretty face. But it was a smooth, featureless kind of pretty that wouldn’t last long, despite the anti-aging advances that medical science had made in the decades since her great-grandfather Emerson had underwritten the invention of full-body tissue regeneration. It certainly wasn’t like her mother’s ageless beauty. Young men still sent frankly speculative glances in Ardith’s direction wherever she went. Llyra had seen it, herself, and it gave her mixed feelings. Her grandmother Julie still looked like a young girl in her twenties.

Jasmeen, she thought, possessed that same kind of beauty. It began with stronger features than Amorie’s miniature ones, but most of it seemed to come from what was inside her and inexorably wrote itself on the outside, more clearly every year. Llyra loved her older brother and wished he’d wake up and take a look at what he was getting into.

Jasmeen had continued asking Wilson questions about the process of terraformation. The boy hadn’t exactly stumbled through the answers, but Llyra could tell that he was extremely uncomfortable. She was about to join the conversation to take some of the pressure off him, when a man she recognized from the BeeDee approached the three of them.

He stopped short, as if he didn’t know whom to address, then saw the revolver Wilson carried, which he eyed with visible wariness. This was the weapon, he knew, with which the boy had killed five “murderous saboteurs”—his editors back home preferred the phrase “selfless environmental activists”—and spoiled the hopes on Ceres of Null Delta Em, perhaps forever. “Mr. Ngu,” he began. “I’m Tim Lipton of New Angeles Online. Do you think it would be all right to ask you and your sister a few questions, now?”

New Angeles was one of the makeshift cities that had risen slowly out of the smoking rubble that California’s “Big One” had made of what was sometimes called “Lost Angeles”. Despite being about as far west in West America as a geographic location could be, the new city’s people and institutions generally reflected the opinions and values of East America.

Wilson opened his mouth, but Jasmeen asked, “What do you mean, ‘now’?”

“Er, uh … ” the newsman cleared his throat nervously. “Well—Miss Khalidov, isn’t it, Jasmeen Khalidov? I only meant that we were all warned not to bother your party aboard the ship, but now that we’re on Ceres, a number of us … well, I’m the one who got the short straw.”

Releasing his hold on the overhead stanchion, Wilson leaned toward the correspondent. “You were warned? Who exactly was it that warned you?”

“Well, it’s just … just … that the captain—Captain Quigley—told us that if we ‘bothered’ any member of the Ngu family while we were aboard his vessel, that he’d … he’d ‘space’ the offending individual. That man has absolutely no conception of freedom of the press.”

The two young women were as surprised as Wilson, but tried to sit still, stoically restraining an urge to burst out laughing. Llyra glanced at Jasmeen. No Martian had any reason to love the Earthside media, who, during the long, deadly battle they’d fought for Martian independence—a necessity for survival on that planet—had acted like nothing more than a pack of jackals, howling and yapping for blood.

Wilson allowed himself a grin. “Sounds like he has a pretty good idea about the individual right to privacy, though. Now look here, Mister … ”

The reporter gulped, but stood his ground. “Lipton, New Angeles Online.”

“Mister Lipton. My dad—Adam Ngu, Chief Engineer and Director of the Ceres Terraformation Project —has a press conference scheduled for a little while after we get back to the construction dome. I won’t offer to space you or anything, but I’d prefer that you news people all left my mother and sister and Miss Khalidov alone. That okay with you?”

The reporter eyed Wilson’s revolver again. “Very well, Mr. Ngu. Thanks.”

The man turned and went back to the other media people seated at the rear of the passenger insert. But to Llyra, he didn’t sound very grateful.

******

Adam was waiting in the airlock tunnel when the gamera fitted out for passenger transport arrived. Unfortunately, the little elevator that connected the vehicle with the tunnel could only hold a few people at a time, and the machine had nearly emptied itself before its airtight door cycled for the dozenth time and he finally saw his family.

“Daddy!” Llyra shouted when she saw him and came running at him. He’d thought he was prepared for how much she had grown in six months, but he wasn’t, nor for the unchildlike firmness of her arm muscles. Most people didn’t expect skating to produce strong arms, but one’s arms were what controlled one’s bodily attitude and added power to one’s jumps.

“Baby! It’s so good to see you! Why did you three get off last?” She had her skate bag with her. Good. He had a little surprise for her, and it was something that he’d secretly asked Ardith to make sure of.

Llyra backed up a little and reached up to straighten a strand of her father’s thinning hair. “Mother thought it would give us Ngus some privacy.”

“What a good idea!” And so it had. The rest of the passengers had hustled themselves off to the dome, and the Ngus—and Jasmeen—had the tunnel to themselves. Abruptly he realized what was about to happen. His heart began to race and the muscles in his legs turned to water.

He shook it off the best he could.

Jasmeen had changed, too, Adam observed. Not in size or anything else that could be measured, but where there had been a pretty and precocious little girl, there now stood an exotically beautiful young woman. As the father of a daughter himself, he was sure it made her parents proud—and nervous. Jasmeen approached him a bit diffidently and thrust out a hand.

How very Martian, he thought.

“Is good to see you again, Dr. Ngu.”

He seized the hand, bundling her into his arms. “Since when have I been ‘Doctor” to you, Jasmeen Khalidov? I’ve known you all your life, and your folks a long time before that. They changed my diapers and I changed yours—or I might have, anyway. Now you’re changing Llyra’s—don’t tell her I said that. You and your folks are family, young woman.”

Still held within the circle of his arms, Jasmeen tried to look down at her shoes and murmured, “Please, Adam, you make my eyes to leak.”

Adam laughed, gave her a final squeeze, and let her go. “Later on, I want to hear all about your folks, Jasmeen, how they are, what they’re doing, and Llyra’s skating. But I have to make other eyes leak first, if I can.”

She laughed. “Including your own, I see. I think I’ll go to dome, now.” There was a little space between her upper two front teeth that had made her look cute as a little girl. Now it made her look sexy, and he experienced a moment of pity for the hordes of boys doomed to fall for her.

“I’ll go with her!” Llyra exclaimed. “Wilson promised to show us around and find us the best room in the dormitory.” She looked back toward the lift at her brother and gave him some not very subtle signals that he should come, too, so their parents could have a rare private moment to themselves. To Wilson’s credit, he took the hint. The three of them gathered up hand baggage and were off down the tunnel.

Suddenly they were alone, she where the lift had left, he ten feet away.

“I, er … ” Adam felt weak and flushed all over, and other things were –

“Me, too!” Ardith exclaimed, grinning at him through her tears. She rushed to him and threw herself into his arms, squeezing him as hard as she could around the waist, trying to bury her face in his shoulder. Her eyes shut tightly. As Adam always did, he discovered he’d forgotten how beautiful Ardith was, how warm and soft against his body, and the way that she smelled. He crushed her to him and could actually feel her heartbeat in his own chest, through what they were wearing.

After a few moments, he lifted her chin and kissed her deeply and passionately. As she always had, she returned his kiss with equal passion. The same thrill went through him that had been there the first time he kissed her, when she was sixteen, on her parents’ back verendah overlooking Lake Selous. That first time, they hadn’t gotten caught.

When they broke for oxygen, Adam started to speak.

“Shhh!” Ardith’s cheeks were wet and her eyes were still full of tears. Adam’s own face was wet, as well, but he couldn’t tell if it was from her tears or his own. All he really knew at the moment was that he adored this magical creature in his arms with all his heart and all his soul, and had been helpless for what seemed all of his life to do anything else. “Maybe,” she whispered, “if we don’t say anything … ”

Adam nodded, understanding perfectly, and kissed her again. He knew how this would end, eventually, tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that, exactly as it had always ended, and always would.

But just now, he didn’t care.

******

” … in an effort that makes the construction of the Pyramids in ancient Egypt or China’s Great Wall appear almost trivial, many more engineering operations like these will follow before people can come to live on Ceres and create a new future for themselves and their children … ”

The area behind the decorative pool—now full and sparkling, with a little fountain at each end—where Honey Graham had asked that two man-sized planter-urns be rearranged to form a sort of stage, also had a nine foot high back wall, made of the same smoothly finished concrete as the pool and the planters, fabricated from local materials and colored an extremely pale blue, to work well with 3DTV cameras.

Standing at that wall for the moment, Ingrid Andersson, the Chief Engineer’s assistant, was delivering a little lecture on the Ceres Terraformation Project, to provide background for the media people who had come here to report on Wilson’s Ngu’s award ceremony, planned for tomorrow.

Earlier this morning, Ingrid had recruited some office help to bring out an old 3DTV flexscreen she’d found in a storage room, unroll it, and let it adhere itself to the wall. It was somewhat obsolete—only six feet high by eight wide, with a ten-foot diagonal, and it was a clumsy quarter of an inch thick, but it was wholly adequate for her purposes.

She pointed to a floating diagram of the asteroid. “As you can see, this half represents Ceres before the terraformation process. The surface is bleak, airless, and cold. It looks like nighttime perpetually, although the sun can be seen when you’re at the right place.”

She could see that several of the media people wanted to ask her questions already. She knew what most of those questions would be like. She prepared answers for at least one e-mail interview a day for her boss. He would look her answers over, make corrections if needed or okay what he’d originally taught her to say, and she’d send it away.

“This half shows what it’ll be like a year or two after the new atmospheric canopy is put into place, about four years from now. The sun shines, supplemented by a pair of orbiting aluminized plastic mirrors, three miles wide. Under the canopy, the daytime sky is a brilliant blue. Sometimes there are clouds and it rains. Lakes and rivers everywhere moderate the temperature and humidity. It’s warm. Green things grow—although trees are still only saplings at this point.”

Off to one side, hidden from the reporters behind a big stack of construction materials, Ingrid could see Adam and his wife Ardith, standing with their son Wilson, who looked extremely nervous. And who could blame him? He was a very nice young man, very polite and as smart as his father. Very handsome, too. She was grateful that he’d never developed a crush on her. His uncles, Arleigh and Lindsay, were there, too. One of the girls with them, the younger one, must be their daughter Llyra. The older one, maybe three or four years younger than Ingrid, had to be the girl’s Chechen skating coach, Jasmeen Khalidov.

Together, they made a fine-looking family group, she admitted to herself.

Damn it.

“Miss … ?”

“Andersson,” she replied, blinking. The questioner was a middle- aged man, obviously Pallatian from his dress and the rake of the pistol on his belt. “Ingrid Andersson, with two esses. You have a question?”

“Yes, I do, Miss Andersson. Marvin Challopy, representing KCUF, the oldest news multimedium on Pallas, and still the most connected with.”

“Yes, Mr. Challopy, now that you’ve finished the commercial, your question?” Everyone laughed, including the middle-aged Pallatian correspondent.

Then: “My question. Once the atmospheric canopy is in place around Ceres, will this asteroid experience the same colorful and beautiful sunrises and sunsets that make Pallas the best place to visit in the System?”

There was twice as much laughter this time. Ingrid laughed, too, and smiled. She was recorded doing it by a dozen 3DTV cameras that, for the proverbial fifteen minutes, would make her the Solar System’s most desirable pinup girl.

“Mr. Challopy, we just don’t know. Believe it or not, nobody knows why the canopy on Pallas does what it does, although generations of scientists have tried to find out and failed. I guess that we’ll just have to build the thing and find out.”

There was general laughter again, and applause. Most of these people weren’t used to hearing a straight truth—like “I don’t know”—from members of whatever government ruled them or from corporate spokesmen.

“And now,” Ingrid told them, “I’d like to introduce my boss, who will have some remarks of his own to make. Possibly he can give you a better answer to that question than I just did, although I doubt it very much.”

More laughter.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, Chief Engineer and Director of the Curringer Corporation’s Ceres Terraformation Project, Dr. Adam Ngu.”

Ardith squeezed his hand in encouragment, and Adam stepped from the shadows, onto the little makeshift stage. “I’m afraid I don’t have a better answer for you about the canopy than Ingrid did. I can’t wait to find out, myself.”

Everybody laughed.

“However this is not the day,” Adam told them, “this is not the time, to consider technicalities like that, but to turn our attention to a young man who will stand in this place tomorrow morning, after his family’s had a chance to visit with him, to receive the highest tribute his employer, the Curringer Corporation, can offer him, as a token of appreciation for what he did for them and all of us last week.”

He could feel tears welling up again—that made twice in one day!

“I know you’re anxious to meet him.” Adam grinned, “He’s anxious to get it over with. I want to add that it makes me inexpressably proud to be the father of such a young man. Please welcome Wilson Ngu.”

Wilson stepped out, grateful that his father remained at his side. Now it began to sound like a genuine press conference, as each of the correspondents shouted for Wilson’s attention all at the same time. To Wilson, it was like facing an onrushing tidal wave (an experience he’d never had, but could imagine—it probably felt like holding a press conference).

“Mr. Ngu! Mr. Ngu!” He wondered how you got them to shut up, and which one to call on first. He wished he was back outside, planting transponders.

Adam raised a hand. “Miss Graham.”

“Honey Graham,” she introduced herself. “Wilson, tell me, how does it feel, at the tender age of seventeen, to have shot five human beings to death?” She nodded toward the weapon he still wore on his thigh.

Before Wilson could speak, his father, who had seen this sort of thing coming days ago, spoke instead. “If Wilson will please excuse me, I’ll ask you one, first, Miss Graham. You’re from Earth, aren’t you?”

“Why, you know I am, Dr. Ngu,” she replied warily. “Why do you ask?”

“Because anyone from any of the Settled Worlds—even in the news media—would have asked, ‘How does it feel to have saved the lives of 2400 people aboard the factory ship Percival Lowell?’ That’s why.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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