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CHAPTER FIFTEEN: GRANDPA MARRIED A MARTIAN

It’s possible that the expression I hate most in the English language is “passed away”, which is what people say when someone’s life ends. It is bland and supine—and therefore an insult to anybody whose life was none of those things.

My eldest son breathed his last trying to stop three hundred megatons of iron-rich magnesium silicate—olivine, a common stony asteroid—set in motion by an idiot amateur, from colliding with and crushing another asteroid where a family had built their home and a farm. He succeeded only because he let it crush his little spaceship, instead. His heroic act was so ordinary among Pallatians nobody thought it unusual, although, as I say, it annoys me to hear that he “passed away”. Billy Ngu did not pass away, he was crushed to a paste and he died.

Nobody ever “passes away” heroically. Far better to say honestly (if still euphemistically) he “bought the farm”, “croaked”, or even “kicked the bucket” (I often wonder about the origin of that one), or simply that, like my son Bill, he died well.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Hortense Blumenfeld was manager—not captain—of the factory ship Percival Lowell. In this day and age, the inviolable custom aboard commercial space vessels (sea vessels, too, for that matter) was to avoid imitating military hierarchies in any manner. It was a custom Hortense approved of highly and was reflected in her attire, a plain, Navy blue (oh, well, she thought, nothing’s perfect) pants suit.

And sensible shoes.

Following some generous introductory remarks by her employer of fifteen years, Adam Ngu, she stepped the center of the little stage, a medium-sized Manila-colored plastic envelope in her short-fingered hands. The crowd quieted down, and she began to speak. She was a blunt-headed, solidly-constructed individual, her voice surprisingly high and breathy, almost as if a man were speaking in falsetto. In fact, she was a widow, and the grandmother, so far, of fourteen children.

“In the control center (not the bridge, she thought to herself) of my factory ship, Percival Lowell, fastened to the bulkhead with the intention that it never be removed, is an inch-thick golden rectangle, about a foot on a side, commonly known as a commissioning plaque. It names the vessel herself, her original owners, as well as the company that constructed her, the architect who designed her, the location where she was built, and her first home port, Earth’s Lagrange Point Five. She was meant to build space elevators to equatorial points on Earth, but as you know, thanks to ecoterrorist threats, that has yet to happen.”

She closed her eyes, an almost raptured expression on her face. “I can see that plaque from my chair in the control center, and it never fails to thrill me, through and through, to be manager of such a fine vessel and have some part in creating a newer, better world here on Ceres.”

Now she opened her eyes again and looked squarely at her audience. “The fact though, is that a week ago last Wednesday—shortly after the event we’ve gathered here to acknowledge—and, if I may say so, celebrate—that plaque was taken down, and another datum added to it: ‘This vessel was saved, with 2417 crew and managers, on July 14, 2131, by the fearless, brilliant, and heroic action of Wilson Ngu of Pallas’.”

She was forced to stop as most of those she spoke to applauded. It was just as well. She was surprised to discover that her eyes were moist. “In addition, an eighth of an inch of gold was removed from the obverse of the plaque before it was restored to the bulkhead, and used to cast a perfect miniature, right down to and including, the final inscription.”

Hortense opened the flap of her plastic envelope and reached into it, pulling out a large, square gold medallion on a broad blue satin ribbon. She beckoned to Wilson to join her at the center of attention. “Over the days to come, those who are hostile to our efforts out here will doubtless claim that Wilson is being rewarded, not for what he has accomplished, but for who he is. This medal, I assure everybody here, is the merest token of the deep and genuine respect, affection, and gratitude that all of us aboard the Percival Lowell—not to mention our families—feel toward our brave young friend here, Wilson Ngu.”

Dropping the envelope to the concrete, she reached over Wilson’s head, draped the ribbon around his neck, and gave him a peck on the cheek. This gesture, from a Martian, was nothing short of astonishing. The applause grew riotous, and Hortense couldn’t speak for several minutes.

“For the most part…” she began, then had to wait and start again. “For the most part, ladies and gentlmen—overlooking members of the media from Earth and Earth’s Moon—the folks gathered here today come from three Settled Worlds that didn’t even exist, as such, a hundred and fifty years ago. Those three worlds are Pallas, from which Wilson and his family hail, Mars, which is the place of my own birth and that of several others here—by the way, your parents asked me to tell you hello, Jasmeen—and a brand new shiny Settled World, Ceres, being created even as I speak. So it was not merely my crew and vessel that Wilson saved, but the hopes and dreams of everybody on those Settled Worlds, as well as their futures and their children’s futures.”

She took his hand to shake it. “As inadequate as it may sound, Wilson, thank you.”

******

“As the senior member of the Ngu family living and present today, I have come here from Mars to speak to my grandson on behalf of his family.”

The voice was that of a slender, willowy female with enormous blue eyes, long, straight, dark auburn hair, perfect teeth, fair skin, a turned up nose, and freckles. One couldn’t look closely enough at Julie Segovia Ngu to see that she wasn’t the pretty, vivacious young girl in her twenties she appeared to be, but, thanks to twenty-second century science and force of will, a phenomenally well-preserved woman in her seventies.

Julie also happened to be Adam’s mother, Llyra’s grandmother, and Ardith’s mother-in-law. A wholesomely elfin creature whom the media had dubbed “the First Immortal”, rumor had it she wore a large diamond in her navel, which nobody but her late husband had ever seen or ever would. “I take great personal pleasure in this,” Julie explained. “You see, I was originally born on Earth, in darkest East America, and was among hundreds abandoned on Mars by that government when our mission there failed. “What made me different from most of the folks who call themselves Martians, was that I was an officer with a military expedition sent to put down a rebellion among civilian colonists who had come to the realization that they were never going to be rescued, but would be allowed to die, instead, unless they went their own way with regard to certain matters that included receiving assistance from Pallatians to achieve a massive, lifesaving, illegal alteration to the Martian environment.”

It did not strike Julie as odd that everybody laughed, well aware of the consternation caused on Earth by the “macaroni plant” developed by two of Emerson Ngu’s daughters and spread on Mars by two of his sons. Almost by itself it had transformed Mars into a decent place to live.

“As you know,” she grinned, warming hearts all over the Solar System, “I eventually married the dashing young leader of our bold Pallatian rescuers, William Wilde Ngu, and returned ecstatically with him to Pallas, where I raised a family with him and wrote something like two dozen children’s books—so far—which, I’ve been informed, have been appreciated by three generations everywhere but East America, where, having been written by a vile defector, and being of a decidedly seditious character…” Here again, everybody laughed. “…they are strictly forbidden.”

The books concerned the adventures of a little girl, Conchita, her friend, Desmondo, and her pet arachnicat, Ploogle, in a strange land of “Wimpersnits” and “Oogies”. They were thinly-disguised tales of neopuritans and safetyists (the Wimpersnits) and their gleefully brutal enforcers, the Oogies. They were credited with (or blamed for) the collapse of countless parliamentary governments, and for starting at least three revolutions. The books had been translated into a hundred languages, and read aloud for transmission into East America so many times that the government had learned to weather it like a bad winter.

When her husband William had died heroically a decade ago, Julie had returned to Mars, to construct a fabulous fantasy home and write even more seditious books about Conchita and Desmondo, having agreed to license a “Wimpersnits and Oogies” theme park in a big dome on Earth’s Moon, over the hysterical objections of the East American government.

Julie beckoned, and Ardith handed her a scuffed briefcase-sized box of African buffalo leather she’d brought with her from the Red Planet. If anybody noticed that Ardith looked ten years older than her mother-in-law, nobody said anything—although it puzzled Ingrid Andersson. She was never going to let herself look older than she was today.

“From our family to you, Wilson, an object that once belonged to a member of the Pallas terraforming crew, a strong man who died young and never knew that he was Rosalie Frazier’s grandfather, Horatio Singh. It passed from his widow, Henrietta Singh, to your great grandfather, who gave it to his son—my husband William—for his courageous acts on Mars. I hope your father won’t mind if it skips a generation. I’d love to call it the Conchita and Desmondo Award for Moral Courage, but if it has a name attached to it, it can be no other than that of Emerson Ngu.”

She handed the leather box to a mystified-looking Wilson, who opened it up and nearly staggered with surprise. Inside was a mighty weapon as fabulous as the family sword of any famous European knight or Japanese samurai. It was the very .45 Magnum caliber, ivory-handled Grizzly “Win Mag” that Emerson Ngu had relied on all his adult life on Pallas. Wilson had been told many tales about it. Some of them may even have been true.

“Carry it and use it, Wilson,” his pretty young grandmother told him. “It was never meant to be locked in a museum to gather dust and be gawked at.”

******

“If you’ll look overhead in about a minute, you’ll see a small, powerful, constant-boost vessel formally registered on Earth’s Moon as the C.C.S. William Wilde Curringer and, following ancient usage, known affectionately by her crew and others familiar with her as Billie.”

The individual making these remarks was a plump, middle-aged man, dressed in an expensive Earthside business suit of the current style (although he’d told his hosts earlier that he hadn’t set foot on the Mother Planet for more than thirty years): soft gray trousers, a mid- thigh-length jacket without lapels or visible pockets, and a ball cap fashioned of the same material, that he’d taken off before starting to speak. He had lots of white hair, a big white moustache, a piercing, blue-eyed, majesterial gaze, and the kind of nose often referred to as “aquiline”. He reminded Wilson of somebody, but he couldn’t remember who.

The visitor had been introduced to the family and well-wishers gathered in the little plaza as Sheridan Sinclair, Chairman of the Board of the Curringer Foundation, an organization distinct from, but closely connected with the Curringer Corporation. The latter had terraformed Pallas generations ago, was now in the process of having Ceres terraformed, and was undertaking several other massive civil engineering works, including an O’Neill-type habitat miles long that would orbit Jupiter, and a dozen interlinked “space elevators” to serve Mars and a Solar System grown dependent on its technological marvels. They were even talking now about putting a dome over Hellas Planitia. There was a low buzz of appreciation. Most Curringer Corporation employees here had benefitted, at one time or another, from their founder’s agreement with a Biblical philosophy that it never pays to bind the mouths of the cattle that tread the grain—a philosophy that most large corporations seemed to have to learn the hard way, over and over again.

“As I observed earlier,” he said, “while the Curringer Corporation directs all the work (and makes all the profit), it’s the Foundation’s job to make sure that the people doing the work don’t get overlooked or forgotten. This often requires spending some of that profit, just as Wild Bill Curringer intended, his attitude being, ‘What the hell else is it for?’”

“Here she comes now!” Sinclair pointed up through the transparent canopy overhead, as excited and enthusiastic as a little child. He didn’t know it, but that was the reason he had this job. “See? I asked the captain to blink her running lights at us as she passes above the dome.”

As the spaceship orbited out of sight, he grew more serious. “Over the same period of time that many of you were travelling here from Pallas at between a tenth and a twentieth of a standard Earth gravity, we headed here from the Moon. We began at a sixth of a gee and worked our way up to a full gravity—an acceleration at which we continued through turnover, until we arrived here at Ceres. As a consequence, I believe that we have set a new Solar record for Earth-to-Ceres transit time.”

He placed a hand behind one hip. “Not to mention for bruises and contusions.”

Amidst polite laughter, Sinclair turned from his audience, which consisted mostly of Ceres Project employees, media people, and an unseen audience of hundreds of millions all over the Solar System, to those he shared the stage area with: young Wilson Ngu and his family (including Jasmeen Khalidov), and Hortense Blumenfeld, manager—not captain—of the factory ship Percival Lowell, who had arrived here with Julie Segovia Ngu in the latter’s private hopper.

“I’m sure you’ll all agree with me that it’s a very good thing to set new records, and an even better thing to undertake vast scientific and engineering enterprises that astonish our entire species, delight us personally, and promise, ultimately, to alter the course of human history. However it’s equally important to assure ourselves that those who do these things for us come to no harm at the hands of others who, for numberless and unhealthy reasons of their own, envy and resent them.”

Sinclair went on to describe in some detail what Wilson had done—making it sound like a 3DTV action-adventure episode in the process—at dire risk of his own life, and surviving a damaged envirosuit, bravely and single-handedly killing five armed, desperate criminal saboteurs and capturing seven more, while saving the lives of more than two thousand people. By now, everyone had heard the story—it was a good one—but if there was a time to tell it again, this was it.

Wilson looked up and across the decorative pool at the crowd of media people recording what was being said and done here. He wondered how much of it would be seen and heard back on Earth, especially in East America, where the Mass Movement and Null Delta Em were often looked on—especially by the popular media– as rascally antiheroes locked in mortal combat with nasty, exploitive capitalists, unconcerned with the future health and habitability of the planet of mankind’s birth.

Wilson wanted very much to be a capitalist himself (he had his reasons, nasty or otherwise), and “exploit” the Solar System. The more crimes Null Delta Em committed out here—everybody everywhere knew that they were working for the Mass Movement, but for some reason, most people pretended not to know—the less he gave a stony pebble about what happened to the Earth. He’d learned the hard way and at an early age that all the logic and scientific evidence in the universe are impotent to persuade people to give up their irrationally held opinions.

Take the media people, here. They’d been shown several x-rays of Robert Fulton’s deadly suitcase bomb, and even apparently understood the callous use that he’d intended to make of them. For the moment, at least, they seemed to be taking a different view of things than their colleagues Earthside usually did. But Wilson doubted that the lesson would last very long. It appeared to him that media people had the memory and attention span of the little green spitty aphids in his mother’s rose garden.

But Sinclair was continuing. “As most of you on this world are aware, metallic asteroids, which comprise some thirty percent of the Asteroid Belt, contain not only nickel and iron, but great amounts of gold, silver, platinum, chromium, palladium, iridium, and several other precious substances. Carbonaceous chondrites, which for reasons that are still mysterious comprise about seventy percent, offer us water, for our survival, and a material much like petroleum, called kerogen.”

He produced a large plastic envelope sporting the company’s logo. “Having conferred at length with all of the directors of the Curringer Foundation—a somewhat formidable task, believe me, distributed all throughout the Solar System as they are inclined to be—we have come to the unanimous conclusion that it is altogether fitting and proper to reward this valiant young man with a small measure of the treasure that he and so many others like him have helped our species amass—I employ that word ‘amass’ advisedly, and sincerely hope that you are listening, Anna Wertham Savage—over the generations they have been out here.”

He gestured to Wilson to approach. “I am given to understand, in fact, that Mr. Ngu aspires to become a hunter of asteroids, himself, a worthy ambition that requires a considerable investment of capital. Therefore in recognition of his heroic acts in defense of the Ceres Terraformation Project, as well as of the independent factory vessel Percival Lowell and the members of her crew, we are honored to offer him the sum of four hundred platinum ounces, to help him achieve his dream.”

Sinclair opened the plastic envelope and slid a hand inside it. Wilson’s already dazzled mind reeled. A brand new asteroid hunting vessel, fully equipped, would cost him almost twice that amount. He knew because he had stacks of magazines and catalogs on the subject, and thousands of files and site locations in his personal computer. But a perfectly sound and lavishly-appointed—even luxurious—used spacecraft would leave him enough money to run on for at least six months. Four hundred platinum ounces! He was rich!

Wilson suddenly remembered who Sinclair reminded him of—the actor Frank Morgan in the twentieth century classic, The Wizard of Oz. A brain, a heart, courage, Kansas, and maybe a 2125 Mitsubishi Rockhound 9000L.

He turned to his parents, but he had no idea what to say to them. His father was obviously fighting back tears, but his mother—even more shockingly—was beaming at him (although he thought he saw a bit of the same concern in her face that she’d shown when he was six years old and had gotten his first flying belt as a birthday present). His sister was jumping up and down, clapping her hands joyfully, while their grandmother Julie apparently had to fight the impulse to join her. Jasmeen seemed to have an unusual, evaluative expression on her lovely face.

It made him nervous.

It was only then that he noticed the way everyone in the little plaza seemed to be applauding him, even some of the media people. Quite naturally, his own hometown multimedia station KCUF loved him. They’d thrown a party for him—as they did for every other adolescent in town on such a day—when he’d killed his first big game animal, in his case a huge muley buck that had fed the family for weeks. Its antlers still graced his mother’s formal dining room, at least according to Llyra, and venison spaghetti was still his special favorite.

Second only to venison sausage for breakfast.

But now he wouldn’t be able to walk down the streets of Curringer any more without all kinds of people wanting to greet and talk to him. Mr. Sinclair put a big arm around his shoulder and presented him with a giant green plastic card, an official deposit receipt, he said, from the Miner’s Bank of Pallas, for four hundred ounces of platinum, 999 fine.

Four hundred ounces!

In a few days—weeks at most—he’d be master of his own ship! And who knew what could happen—maybe he’d find the Diamond Rogue!

******

Sheridan Sinclair stepped backward, taking Wilson along with him, deferring to the Chief Engineer of the Ceres Terraformation Project, who raised both his hands, asking for silence and attention from the gathering. “Before we all go our separate ways this morning—this is not a holiday, and I’d remind you that we’re now behind schedule, placing survey transponders—I have one more happy item to attend to. Our guests may have noticed these four big hoses attached to those pieces of equipment over there, trailing across the plaza to what would be the corners of our little kidney-shaped decorative pool—if kidneys had corners.”

There was general polite laughter. The machines that Adam referred to were the size of fifty-five gallon oil drums on wheels. They had been running quietly all this time, half hidden behind the concrete wall. Some of the media people had complained about having to step over the hoses. Honey Graham had twisted her decorative ankle on one of them last evening—Arleigh had taken care of her and gotten her to the medics– but was here this morning looking like a professional newsie.

“Our construction personnel here know what these devices are,” Adam continued. “Although they may wonder why they’re being used like this today. I confess that it might be seen as a minor misappropriation of company resources, but we’ll enter it in the books under ‘Advance Publicity’.”

And if the directors of the Curringer Corporation didn’t like that, he thought, they could go find themselves another boy. This was by far the most challenging, difficult, annoying—and satisfying—project he’d ever undertaken. But the notion of returning to Pallas with Ardith was becoming more attractive to him with every hour that passed. It was too early to tell, but maybe they were finally growing up.

“Ordinarily, when we’re faced with drifts of dust or aggregations of loose rubble here on Ceres—or silt and mud on some other planet—and the blueprints call for putting a hole through the stuff, a hole that isn’t going to collapse on us while we’re working in it, we’ll saturate the area first with some kind of liquid, usually water, if it isn’t already wet, pull a cover over it so the liquid won’t evaporate or sublimate, and freeze it solid with machines like these, so the whole mess can be dug, cut, or drilled, just like ordinary rock or soil.” He turned to his wife, an expert in the field he was about to make reference to. “More or less the same process is commonly used before a loosely-aggregated asteroid or meteoroid can be deflected in one piece from a potentially lethal course and safely collected if it has value. We’ve been considering giving Ceres its own moon that way, like Pallas has.”

Llyra had always believed that her daddy could have hung the Moon. She suddenly realized why it had felt so cold beside the little pool last evening. It hadn’t anything to do with the fountains—which had just been turned off, in any case. She also knew suddenly why Jasmeen had brought her skate bag with her. It had been a family conspiracy.

“The sides of this decorative pool were designed with an outward slant,” Adam observed, “so that freezing—and expanding—the water within it couldn’t damage them. With four powerful heat pumps steadily removing energy from the pool, I calculate that it should freeze to a depth of about eighteen inches in just another five minutes, which is long enough for anybody who happens to have brought a pair of ice skates with them to lace them up and do a little preliminary stretching.”

There was a burst of applause and delighted laughter. The media began swapping lenses on their equipment and making what adjustments they could for the harsh backlight that always made ice photography difficult.

Jasmeen obeyed without further prompting, sitting down at the edge of the pool and disposing of her shoes. She opened her bag and pulled out a well-worn pair of lavender suede S.P. Teris, with MK “Outland” blades designed for low gravity. Jasmeen had always preferred skating barefoot inside her boots. Llyra chose to wear stockings. The younger girl’s heart began beating rapidly. She was about to skate on another world!

And she loved skating with Jasmeen.

A little layer of fog began forming six inches above the surface of what had now become ice. “Do I have any takers?” her father asked, unnecessarily.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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