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CHAPTER FOURTEEN: MADNESS AT MIDNIGHT

There’s a big difference between keeping the peace, which is something folks do pretty well themselves, and enforcing the law, which is another thing altogether. Throughout most of West America—which seems to have learned the lesson— municipal police forces have been outlawed. The sheriff’s job, when he arrives, inevitably after the fact, is to make sure it was the badguy who got shot. That was the Pallatian custom to begin with, and Pallas has prospered accordingly.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

The individual who sometimes called himself Robert Fulton peered about in a darkness that resulted as much from the fact that most of the area lights in the big construction dome had been turned off, as from the fact that the sun shone presently on the uninhabited side of Ceres.

A day would come, he was aware, when the towns here would never be this empty, when there were a hundred times as many workers on Ceres as there were now. That was their expectation, at least. His hope was to thwart their expectation, and they had been helpful enough—because they had dormitory rooms to spare at the moment—to give him one to himself on the ground floor, the closest room they had to the front entrance.

He believed that nobody had seen him leave the building with his big, brown, shiny suitcase dangling from one hand. He believed that nobody had seen him cross what would someday be a street and enter the little plaza with its decorative pool and stage area, the latter set off by a pair of concrete planter urns the height of a big man and about the same number of feet in diameter. The miniature fountains were still, now, the surface of the water was as smooth as glass.

For some reason, there were now four big black corrugated hoses of some kind snaking into the water at the closest thing the pool had to corners, from somewhere out of the light. They had nothing to do with him.

It was good to be out of his disguise, if only for a little while. No one would see him here, so it wouldn’t matter. And it was much more comfortable.

During the press conference in which he’d pretended to be the Pallas stringer for Boston Magazine, he’d finally had his inspiration. He knew, now, how he would go about fulfilling his commission to Null Delta Em. On closer inspection, after the conference had broken up (in confusion, because that idiot network newswoman didn’t know how to control an interview), he’d observed that the flowering plants growing out of the tops of the urns were actually bedded in metal pans no more than eight inches deep, designed to be set into the tops of the urns and stay there. The rest of the urns’ interiors were empty, filled only with air.

A man could hide in there.

Or hide a suitcase.

Reaching the top of the urn wasn’t as difficult as he’d originally anticipated. This morning’s inspection had taught him that people here were careless, leaving items like tools and ladders around wherever they’d last used them or planned to use them again. That was probably a function of everybody knowing everybody else. Likewise, they didn’t think twice about a stranger examining how something worked or had been built. The lighter gravity (lighter than Earth’s, anyway) helped, too, although working for almost a year on Pallas had weakened him horribly.

He’d want a wheelchair or crutches for a while, and a lot of serious physical therapy, once he got back to Earth.

Although it was a long reach from the stepladder to the top of the almost spherical urn, thanks also to the gravity, it was easy to pull the planter out of the top. He climbed back down and set it to one side. Opening the suitcase—his small computer was already in place and had started counting down the hours—he removed a small tool kit. Closing the case, he took a spool of synthetic cord from the tool kit and tied each end of a length of it to a couple of spots on the suitcase.

Back up the ladder again, he had a bad moment when he thought the suitcase was too large to fit into the urn. Then, to his relief, it let itself be pushed through the short neck of the urn, into the space below. He lowered it with the cord, careful that the bottom of the suitcase was oriented away from the little stage, toward where he understood the 3DTV reporters would be all standing, especially Honey Graham.

There was a titanium plate lining the bottom of the suitcase that would shape the explosion when it occurred tomorrow. It wouldn’t save the reporters, only delay the explosion’s wavefront reaching and killing them until their cameras had recorded the violent deaths of young Wilson Ngu and his family. Everyone on Earth—including most of East America, watching the ceremony illegally—would see their bodies shredded to bloody pulp, and then watch it again and again, probably in slow motion, as the media beat the story to death.

The giant concrete pot would tamp the explosion—he planned to seal the planter pan in place with a tube of adhesive from his tool kit—and provide several hundred pounds of shrapnel to be thrown around at several thousand feet per second, killing everyone and obliterating everything within its reach. It was more than possible that the explosion would breach the dome itself. Meanwhile, if all went well, he would be well away from the cataclysm when it happened—by what he’d afterward call “sheer good luck”—strolling casually down an airlock tunnel, exploring the facilities that served the gamera.

Satisfied that the suitcase was where he wanted it, he climbed back down the ladder and carefully applied adhesive from the tube around the rim of the metal planter pan. This wouldn’t keep the explosion from hurling it upward at several times the speed of sound, possibly out through the top of the dome. It would delay it happening for just a microsecond or two, while the concrete shrapnel did its job.

Carefully holding the planter pan by an unglued portion of its bottom edge, he awkwardly climbed back up the stepladder and dropped it into place, gratified to see a fine “bead” of adhesive press out from underneath, evenly all around the rim. The glue would set in seconds.

He was about to climb back down the ladder, when he heard a voice.

“Hello, Mr. Fulton,” said Llyra. She was dressed in her pajamas with a lightweight bathrobe worn over them. “So you can’t sleep, either?”

******

“Oh, pardon me,” Llyra said, squinting in the twilight. Although there was a superficial resemblance, this man was twenty years younger than the old man on the ship. “You’re not Mr. Fulton—or are you? Were you wearing an old man disguise, back aboard the Beautiful Dreamer?”

“How do you know I’m not wearing a young man disguise now, my dear?” he asked her, winking broadly. She’d caught him at the top of the ladder. He used her momentary confusion now to climb carefully to the ground. Once clear of the stepladder, he began to approach her slowly, thinking the same kinds of thoughts that a cobra might think as it stalked a bird it held helplessly fascinated with its slitted gaze.

He spoke slowly, too, very softly, so she had to strain to listen. “I enjoy wearing disguises, don’t you … Llyra, isn’t it? Miss Llyra Ngu, daughter of Adam and Ardith Ngu, granddaughter of William Wilde and Julie Segovia Ngu, and great granddaughter of Emerson Ngu? A long, distinguished line, isn’t it, my dear? Who says these things aren’t genetic?”

She said nothing, but watched with ever-widening eyes as he took another slow-motion step toward her. As he passed by the spot where he’d left his little tool kit lying on the ground, he stooped and caught the reel of cord in his left hand. He’d discovered many uses for the stuff, and this wouldn’t be the first time it had helped him eliminate a potential problem like this one. He didn’t know how much the little girl had seen, but at this point in the operation, he couldn’t afford to take a chance. Environmental justice must have its day.

She would have died tomorrow, in any case.

Too bad she wasn’t her mother. Or her coach. Too bad there wasn’t time …

Now he held the reel in his left hand and let it spin in his grasp as he pulled out a three-foot length of the cord with his other hand. Continuing to maneuver slowly toward the girl, he surprised her by extending the free end of the cord to her. “Maybe you could help me, though … ”

Not taken in, she took a step backward and slid a hand into her dressing gown pocket. “Whoever you really are, I think you’d better stop.”

“Stop what, Llyra? Just what is it that you think I’m doing?” He took another step forward and wound some of the cord around his right hand.

“I said stop, Mr. Fulton, and I meant it!” Llyra took another step backwards and pulled a small black and silver automatic pistol from her pocket.

He lunged at her hoping to catch her off guard—

For an eternal instant, Llyra was strangely conscious of minutiae. She pulled the trigger and felt it creep backward. She felt the sear break. She felt the weapon’s internal striker fall and strike the primer of the cartridge in the chamber. As the gun went off, she felt its polymer frame flex in her hand, absorbing recoil. She also felt the recoil insert at the back of the grip compress its springs. She saw four bright jets of blue-pink flame blossom from the recoil ports in the muzzle brake.

Oddly, she never heard the blast or felt the recoil itself.

He’d rushed her, and she never had time to properly acquire the sights. Instead, with perfect clarity, in frozen time, she saw the brilliant flash of her gunshot reflected on the flat, almost polished rear surface of her cupro-nickel bullet as it entered his leg, and watched his left knee come apart in a gory explosion as the bullet destroyed it.

As he collapsed, time—or at least Llyra’s perception of it—somehow returned to normal. There seemed to be vast gouts and loops of thick scarlet blood everywhere. The very air smelled of it, as much as it smelled of expended firearms propellant. Her would-be assailant lay twisted on the concrete-covered ground at her feet, writhing and screaming.

“Well,” she heard herself ask, “what did you expect when you tried to attack a defenseless little girl? You’re in the Settled Worlds, now!”

******

The noise of Llyra’s shot and the man’s screaming began to attract attention. The first people she saw, coming from the administrative building where he kept an apartment, were her father and her mother, both wearing robes over nightclothes and looking a bit sleepy and confused.

Each had a weapon in hand. Adam carried the ten millimeter magnum his grandfather—her great grandfather—had given him. Ardith’s was a compact, powerful laser pistol, imported from Mars. They were a comforting sight. She looked down at her own gun and put it in her pocket.

“What’s going on here?” Adam demanded when he was close enough. He didn’t ask why his daughter happened to be up at this hour. He knew her habits well and often had the same difficulty sleeping that she did.

“It’s bad enough to be shot by a snip of girl!” the man who called himself Robert Fulton complained. He lay on his side, now, with both hands wrapped around his ruined knee, blood seeping from between his fingers. “Why do I have to listen to the murderous little brat gloat on it?”

Neither Llyra nor Ardith saw the warning look that Adam gave the man, but he shut up abruptly. Ardith had given him an identical look of her own.

Llyra appealed to her father. “I didn’t mean to gloat, Daddy, honest. I don’t even know why I said that to him.” She repeated what she’d said, as best as she could recall it. Ardith came to her side an put a warm arm around her shoulders. Just then, she and Llyra saw a very concerned-looking Jasmeen emerge from the dormitory and approach them. She, too, was armed, but shoved her pistol in a hip pocket of her jeans when she decided that the situation had already been taken care of.

As she came closer, she asked Llyra, “Are you all right, my little?” Llyra nodded as bravely as she could and snuggled closer to Ardith.

Jasmeen turned and knelt on the other side of Fulton, offering to help Adam. Suddenly Ingrid was there, too. Except for Jasmeen, who’d pulled her clothes on, everybody was wearing a bathrobe or something like it. Ingrid’s was a silky floral print and looked just like a kimono.

“That’s all right, Sweetheart,” Adam told his daughter. He’d taken off his robe, folded it, and put part of it under Fulton’s knee, using the other half of it to apply pressure to the bleeding wound, a job he gladly turned over to Jasmeen and Ingrid. He stood up. “People tend to do and say funny things in emergencies. You can never predict what it’ll be. In case you’re concerned, this guy’s going to be all right—more or less. He’ll wear an artificial kneecap for the rest of his life.”

Fulton groaned and began to whimper, his hands and face covered with a mixture of blood and tears. By now it became apparent to all those standing close by that the man had also wet himself—and worse.

“I’m not concerned, Daddy” Llyra said it over the noise the man was making. “I meant to kill him, the way you and Mother taught me. I just didn’t have time. Now he’s going to be a bother and an expense to everybody.”

A medical team had arrived in a tiny open truck and began tending the man’s injury, preparatory to putting him on a stretcher. Jasmeen and Ingrid had gotten to their feet. Adam instructed his people to treat Fulton like the apprehended criminal he was, as much as an injured patient. He had also made a couple of calls on his personal phone.

A small crowd had begun to gather, composed of Ceres Project personnel and people who’d come here with Llyra, Jasmeen, and Ardith from Pallas. Some of them were slowly beginning to act like media reporters.

He turned to his daughter where she stood beside her mother and put a hand on each of their shoulders. “Don’t worry about that for even a minute, Sweetie. I think this may be one of those occasions where somebody like him will prove to be more useful to us alive than dead.”

Llyra looked around them, and then whispered. “If it turns out that I’ve done a good thing, I don’t want anything made of it, Daddy. Tomorrow is Wilson’s day, and I don’t want to interfere with it in any way. If I’m in trouble, I’ll take my medicine—just not tomorrow, okay?”

Adam looked down at his daughter, speechlessly proud of her behavior. He looked at Ardith, too, and shared one of those better moments parents sometimes have between them. Then he took a breath. “Okay, Baby, you’ve got it. You’re not in any trouble, and you’re not going to be. We’ll find out everything about why this thing happened, eventually, but in the meantime, I’ll say I shot him if you want me to.”

“Yes,” she said with relief, “I want you to. But Daddy, one more thing—”

He put a finger to his lips. “Not now, Kiddo, here comes Honey Graham.”

“But Daddy,” she pointed in the direction of the big planter, where the stepladder still stood, mutely accusing Fulton, although of what, she wasn’t quite sure. His toolkit still lay nearby. “What about—”

“Let’s get this over with and then we’ll all have something hot and soothing to drink. As you say, we have a big day tomorrow,” he winked at Ardith. “And I need whatever sleep your mother will let me get.”

Llyra was scandalized. “Oh, Daddy!”

******

Morning came all too soon for Llyra.

She looked around the little plaza with its decorative pool and fountains—and the pair of ominous-looking concrete planters—trying to decide what was different about it today. She looked over at Jasmeen who had somehow guessed the truth about the shooting and had sat beside Llyra’s bed, holding her hand, until the younger girl had fallen asleep.

She would have told Jasmeen anyway, later today. You can’t keep something like that from someone you trust as much as you must trust your coach. As much as she trusted Jasmeen. Now the older girl wouldn’t leave her student’s side—her folks were busy helping poor Wilson prepare for the ordeal to come, a task that she was more than content to leave to them—and Llyra took a great deal of comfort from it. For some reason, though, Jasmeen had brought their skate bags with her.

Everything seemed to be in exactly the same position as it had been the night before. That couldn’t be what was troubling her—although “troubling” was perhaps too strong a word. Somebody had taken the stepladder away, picked up Fulton’s kit of tools, and cleaned up the blood.

In one respect, she didn’t know what was happening and didn’t know what to do. She’d tried and tried last night to tell her father about the planter she’d caught Fulton fooling around with, but he wouldn’t listen. It was exactly like one of those nightmares she had sometimes, where nobody paid attention and nothing worked. Only this was really happening.

He’d told her not to worry, Baby, but to drink her cocoa. Now that she was thirteen, she hated being called Baby, but she didn’t press the point. She’d once promised him, when she was about four, that she’d always be his baby. She’d tried later and he’d patted her on the head—actually patted her on the head!—and told her to go to bed and sleep tight.

She supposed she had to trust him. Feeling as she did about her father, it wasn’t terribly difficult, but she couldn’t help being anxious anyway. It had made her feel very good to see him and her mother together that way last night. She’d seen it before, of course, and it had never lasted. But they loved each other and she wanted there to be hope for them. It was something else she couldn’t help feeling.

Now, as a crowd began to gather, she noticed four big black hoses, pleated like an accordion, entering the decorative pool at different points around its edge, and wondered if they’d been here last night. She’d been sort busy then, she told herself, and couldn’t remember now.

The two little fountains were running again. That was nice. She’d always enjoyed fountains, although these made the air feel a little chilly. She wondered what time it was and started to look, when she suddenly saw what was different: there was a big institutional clock hanging on the wall behind the planters and the stage area. It might be the one that normally hung in the project cafeteria. There were also microphones at the front of the stage and amplifiers off to each side.

The time was twenty-five minutes before noon.

Finally, things began happening. Her father’s personal assistant, the pretty Asian lady with the Scandanavian name—Ingrid; she’d helped Jasmeen last night—came and got them where they stood on the far side of the pool, away from the stage area. It had started to fill up with media people anyway. She took them around the pool to one side of the stage, asked them to stay there, and bustled off on some other errand.

Llyra turned to Jasmeen. “Don’t you think she looks at my father funny?”

“Ingrid Andersson?” Jasmeen answered, adding, “-san?”

“Yeah,” Llyra nodded. “I’m not sure I like the way she looks at my father.”

Jasmeen laughed. “Your father is hero, my little. Your father builds whole world here. Also, he is very handsome man. I myself would look at him ‘funny’, if I didn’t know how very much he loves your mother. Only thing that love like that leaves room for is you and Wilson.”

Llyra sighed. “You’re very wise, Jasmeen.”

Jasmeen shrugged, “Just observant. And as I told you, I read ladies’ magazine in dentist office.”

Just then her mother and father, dressed as if they were going to church, entered from the other side of the stage, with Wilson. He looked odd, Llyra thought, scrubbed and dressed like a grownup. (Come to think of it, he was grown up, she supposed.) So, to her complete amazement, did her uncles, Arleigh and Lindsay, who were supporting a limping, bandaged—and very unhappy-looking—Robert Fulton between them. The injured man was pale and sweaty, but he didn’t appear to be in too much pain. Sombody had found a set of clean clothes for him. What he did look was desperate, though. She thought about the planter again.

The clock on the wall said it was five minutes to noon.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Adam said into the microphone. He had to say it again, however. Centuries of electronic progress had failed to eliminate the high-pitched squealing of feedback in public address systems. He had a strong voice, and could have done without the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he persisted. “We’re here today to honor an exemplary and heroic employee of the Curringer Corporation—an individual, I’m happy to say, who just happens to be my son.” There was a little polite laughter and a murmur in the gathered crowd. Wilson looked down at his feet, but his sister could see the color in his face.

“But first—” Adam went on. Oh, no, she thought. Is Daddy going to break the promise he’d made her last night? Her heart began to beat rapidly. Jasmeen noticed that something was wrong, shifted the skate bag to her other shoulder, took her hand, and gave it an encouraging squeeze.

“—a word about what happened last night.” Now the murmur became a low rumble. Adam put his hand up to silence them. “Please! Let’s get this done and go on to happier things, all right?” The rumble died down.

“I know that there are a lot of rumors going around this morning, but I’m about to tell you what really happened. This … this man—” He indicated Fulton, who was beginning to look increasingly nervous. “This man was caught last night, attempting to commit an act so evil that it almost defies description. He was shot, which put a stop to his activities, and he stands here now so that you—and everybody in the Solar System—can see for themselves the sort of creature he is.”

At least half of the cameras present swung around to focus on Fulton. The clock said one minute to noon, and the sweep hand was moving fast.

“Stop it right now!” Fulton screamed. “We’ve got to get away from here!” He was jerking around frantically between Arleigh and Lindsay, and his wound had reopened. A trickle of blood began to run down his left leg onto his shoe. Llyra wondered if he was going to wet himself again.

Adam turned and looked at him. “Why do we have to get away from here?”

“Because—”

Suddenly, but from outside somewhere, there came the rumble—all of it conveyed through the asteroid’s substance—of a far distant explosion.

Fulton collapsed, unconscious.

“Because,” Adam finished for him, “Last night this man—whom we believe to be an assassin and saboteur for the Null Delta Em wing of the so-called Mass Movement—concealed a powerful bomb in that planter right there. It would have killed everyone in this place a few seconds ago.

“It was designed to spare you media people for much less than a heartbeat, so your cameras could send pictures of the atrocity back to Earth.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com