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CHAPTER SIXTEEN: DOWNSYSTEM

Sigmund Freud said it (or so the story goes): “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. So who was it who rushed to the unsupported conclusion that the so-called Venus of Willendorf—and many other objects like it that have been found—are “fertility symbols” or objects of worship? Feminists even like to cite them as evidence of some ancient, benevolent Goddess-religion, long since replaced by vile male-oriented beliefs.

Doesn’t it make more sense—and strain credulity less—to suggest they were a caveman’s version of Playboy, passed from hand to hand around the campfire after the women and children had gone to bed, to be fondled and chuckled over licentiously?

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Is it practical, Jasmeen?” asked Julie. “Can it be done?”

With Llyra, they occupied a comfortable corner booth in the Ceres Terraformation Project cafeteria, which had been hastily refurbished for the benefit of the visiting media. The fresh colors were bright, the fixtures were shiny, the food was all right, and the media were gone—which suited everybody absolutely perfectly. There was even a big old Rock-o-la jukebox, anachronistically playing 21st century tunes.

Llyra had just skated on the frozen pool for the third time in as many days—for the first time today without Honey Graham and the others there to fuss over her. The pool was tiny, compared to the rink back home, but she had it to herself, except for Jasmeen, and it was fun. And of course it was something that her father had done just for her.

She wished his secretary didn’t look at him that way. It made her nervous. She’d meant to talk with Wilson about that, but he’d been busy.

Now, over a vanilla milkshake almost as big as she was, and a big plate of French fries smothered in homemade ketchup, Llyra had just confessed to her grandmother Julie her ambition to skate, someday, on Earth.

“Ngu family doctors say not,” Jasmeen answered. “Will injure or kill self, they say. Me, I don’t know, but nothing worthwhile is without serious risk.”

“I agree with you completely.” Julie wrinkled her pretty nose. “In the end, doctors are just like lawyers,” she said. “They’re always ready to tell you what can’t be done—what you can’t do. They don’t remember that this isn’t what you hired them for. What would you girls say if I were to consult the people I pay to keep me young, inside and out?”

Llyra looked at her beautiful grandmother, who didn’t yet look thirty, and her eyes grew large. “I’d say thanks, Grandma Julie! How soon—”

“Well, there’s just a small hitch, Sweetheart. They’re down in the Moon. Your great grandfather, my father-in-law, is often credited with having invented the cellular regeneration process, just as he invented so many other things, firearms, vehicles, personal fliers. But this one improvement he paid to have done, and the DeGrey Foundation, the outfit that finally succeeded—”

“It’s in the Moon?” Llyra was growing excited. “But that’s where I need to go next, anyway, Grandma Julie! My native asteroid Pallas at one twentieth of a gee, Ceres at one tenth—although I had a little bit of that on Pallas, you know! And then the Moon, at one sixth of a gee!”

“Mars after that,” added Jasmeen, looking almost as happy as her student.

Julie considered it. “Your brother Wilson needs to go downsystem, because that’s the best place to buy a ship, at one of the Lagrange points. Your father asked me to go along and help him with that. I’m a pretty good bargainer. I don’t know if your father’s doing the right thing, not holding Wilson to his labor contract here on Ceres. I don’t know if I would—the poor boy certainly has the fever.”

“Yeah,” Llyra said grimly, “and not just for a hunter ship, or even the Diamond Rogue! ‘Ooh, Willie!’” she cooed in falsetto. “‘I can hardly wait to see my little Willie!’”

For some reason, Jasmeen colored, but said nothing. She wondered if Llyra knew what willie was a euphemism for. They didn’t discuss it much.

“I need to go downsystem to sign papers and break ground on the new Wimpersnits and Oogies theme park,” Julie said, trying hard not to laugh at her granddaughter’s imitation of her brother’s girlfriend. “Of course I could do all that electronically, but I’d rather not. I really want to hear all the squawking from East America close up and personal.”

Jasmeen laughed and clapped her hands, exactly like Llyra did sometimes.

Llyra needed to go to the Moon as her next step upward in gravity. That was all she could focus on. She knew it could mean months, maybe years, of suffering and pain, even injury and death. Nevertheless, she waited breathlessly for the next thing her grandmother was about to say.

“I’ll take you and your brother and you, too, Jasmeen, with me in the Curringer Foundation ship. Sherrie Sinclair owes me a favor or two, so we’ll draw on the available credit. What do you say, figure skater?”

“I … I … ” She began to fight back tears.

“Look, just between you and me and your little Russian coach, here—” She winked at Jasmeen, whose parents were old friends of hers.

“Chechen,” Llyra corrected her reflexively.

“Whatever—I started out half Puerto Rican, myself, and half Irish. Now I don’t know what I am, and I don’t care, because I’ve always known who I am. Anyway, you should be aware, my dear, that your kindly little old grandmother knows exactly how that Null Delta Em filth Fulton got himself shot—your father never could lie worth a damn to me—and how the shooter didn’t want to claim credit for it because she didn’t want to spoil her big brother Wilson’s award ceremony.”

“Well, I … uh … ” Now it was Llyra’s turn to blush. Jasmeen hadn’t heard the whole story—she’d taken time to get dressed and hadn’t caught up yet—but had deduced all of the most important facts. It never occurred to her that much of Llyra’s character was her doing.

“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me,” Julie said, “But for that reason, and not just because you’re my cute little granddaughter and I love you to pieces—with your father’s approval—I’m going to pay the bills while you train, and compete, on the Moon. If you like, sweetheart, you may think of it as your four hundred ounces of platinum.”

******

“Absolutely not!” Ardith shouted, the most furious expression on her face that Julie had ever seen—and she’d seen some of her best, she thought.

For lack of any better place to gather privately, the Ngu family occupied a comfortable room in Adam’s office complex that he used for staff meetings, for dealing with the representatives of the Curringer Corporation and Foundation, and for confronting (his choice of words) the media. It was very clean—for being situated in the middle of a construction site—and surprisingly spacious, given the amount of room available under the dome, offering them a long conference table made of polished Cerean olivine, and twelve almost luxurious chairs. Between virtual windows on all four walls showing how Ceres would look once it was terraformed, there was a coffee maker and a generous wet bar.

On his feet, pacing back and forth as if to make a poorer target, Adam spread both of his hands helplessly at waist level. “But I thought—”

Ardith whirled on him, the violent motion adding emphasis to her outraged words and tone. “It was you who put them up to this, wasn’t it?”

Adam’s eyes widened like a rodent suddenly aware a raptor was descending. Here it was at last, what he’d expected all along. What it seemed to be about didn’t matter at all.

“Well,” she demanded, “wasn’t it?”

“No, Ardith, my dear,” Julie answered before her eldest son dug his grave any deeper. It was remarkable, sometimes, what an efficient spade the human tongue made. She was sitting at the head of the table and had used both the coffee maker and the wet bar to make herself a mug of Irish coffee. Too bad there wasn’t any whipped cream for the top of the mug. “It was just little old me, your nosy, interfering mother-in-law. And for what it’s worth, my dear, I’d love it if you’d come downsystem with us, too. We haven’t had a real chance to visit in ages.”

Ardith was seated halfway down the table, which she’d had made in her lab as a gift to Adam when he’d accepted this assignment, a lovely thing fashioned from the most useless kind of asteroid material. Something from nothing; she liked to think it was her speciality. She turned very slowly, looked her mother-in-law straight in the eye, and said, “No thank you, Julie, dear. Some of us still have real work to do.”

Sitting directly across from Ardith, Llyra gasped audibly. She’d never heard her mother fight with her grandmother before now, or even imagined that such a thing was possible. At the end of the long table, in the chair nearest the door, she watched her uncle Arleigh look down intently at his heavy work shoes and put a hand across his forehead, covering his eyes. His brother, her other uncle Lindsay, had apparently discovered something fascinating to examine up in the corner, near the ceiling. At Llyra’s side, Jasmeen moved her chair a bit closer to her student’s and, in a very unMartian way took the younger girl’s hand in both of hers.

She’ll definitely do, Julie thought. She approved of this young woman. And when she told them, once she got back to Mars, her parents Mohammed and Beliita would be proud of the way she’d grown in the last three years. It had cost them a great deal, emotionally, to send their only child to faraway Pallas, even to the home of longtime family friends.

As the author of two dozen popular children’s books, Julie had been accused of not doing anything real for a living before, of spending her life behind a computer display instead of in the real world, even of corrupting the minds of babies with reactionary fantasies, but never by a member of her own family. She decided it was better not to say anything for the moment. She had a theory that Ardith was insane—at least temporarily—at times like this, and would later regret what she’d said, not only to her mother-in-law, but to everybody else in the room.

Poor Adam, he loves Ardith so. And Ardith loves Adam. Julie could see it clearly, if nobody else here could. But Lennon and McCartney were wrong: love is not all you need. Most times you need more than love. Sometimes you need a lot more. Linda could have used a cure for cancer. John could have used a bulletproof vest. Yoko could have used a .45. Ardith could use a little perspective. If she wasn’t careful that overheated little assistant of Adam’s was going to snatch her man right away.

That was easy to see clearly, too.

******

Alone at last, Wilson didn’t waste another minute. Keeping the Grizzly, he handed his heavy gold medal and his Bank of Pallas deposit receipt over to Ingrid’s—Miss Andersson’s—safekeeping (in a real safe) and almost ran back to his dormitory room. Inside, with the door locked, his computer found his SolarNet account for him in record time.

Not being the most introspective of human beings himself (Wilson liked to think of himself as a man of action), he didn’t like to contemplate what had just happened—what always seemed to happen—between his mother and his father. It had taken him a long, hard time to realize that their life was not his life, and that as sad (or dumb) as theirs might be in many respects, he had to put it to one side, and try to live his own. It was the only thing he had to power to do, really.

He did know that he loved them both and refused to choose between them. He was pretty sure his younger sister Llyra had made the same decision.

At last, his account began delivering the mail he wanted most to see. There she was, his Amorie, more beautiful, if such a thing was possible, than he’d ever seen her. “Hi, Willie!” her recording said, “I couldn’t wait to tell you that we all saw you on 3DTV! My whole family! You’re so handsome, it was just thrilling! You’re a real hero, Willie!”

He’d always hated being called Willie, but Amorie’s teeth were white and perfect, her lips moist and full. Her soft brown eyes were big and bright. She had the cutest upturned nose. He loved the way her little ears peeked out of her hair. And the graceful curve of her shoulders, her delicate collarbones—he shook his head to keep it from spinning and began what would be his reply, bit by bit, to her message.

She would receive it only forty-five minutes after he sent it.

“Well,” he said into his computer. “I didn’t think much about what I did out there, you know, I just did it. People were going to die if I didn’t. I’m glad it worked, but anybody else would have done the same.”

“I bet I know,” Amorie’s message went on, “what you’re planning to do with all that platinum and gold they gave you! Cash those receipts in, melt that gold down. I wanted to tell you that they’ve just upped the E.L.E. bounty by almost seventy-five percent for the diversion or destruction of rocks headed toward Earth or any other Settled World—and the hunter gets to keep the rock, regardless of its composition! Hurry downsystem, Willie, hurry! And we can talk about it all in real time!”

Wilson knew from sad experience that Amorie didn’t have a clue who “they” were, who paid the bounty on Earth-threatening asteroids and meteoroids. She must be a hell of a pilot—or whatever she did for her family—if she didn’t follow the business details of her family trade any better than that. He’d have to do it all for himself. She never talked much about what she did, really, only about what he did, and what they’d both do provided they ever managed to get together physically.

She had a hell of an imagination that way. Good thing modern e-mail was private.

As best he could under the circumstances, he replied to that bit of her message before he ran the rest of what she’d sent him. He could see she’d been in her own quarters, a tiny one-bunk cabin aboard her family’s asteroid hunter ship. She’d decorated it with filmy, floaty, sheer stuff, mostly the color of Earth’s skies. They usually ran their vessel at a tenth of a gee, and the hangings rippled in the air like water.

“I have to sign off, now, my hero, but before I do, I think we know each other well enough by now to get to know each other a little better.” With those words, she opened her clothes—he hadn’t even noticed before this what she was wearing—more blue filmy stuff—and backed away from the video pickup so he could see all of her at once.

He nearly fell off his chair. Her breasts were fuller, firmer than he’d imagined, her belly flat, her—He wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight.

Again.

******

Ingrid Andersson sat at her desk with her forehead in her hands, about half a micron away, she realized, from tears or from maniacal laughter.

Why had these things started happening to her? She couldn’t help how she felt about Adam, or that she’d overheard Ardith’s outburst. It had been extremely noisy and the doors and walls were thin on this world. And, as Adam—Dr. Ngu—had said out in the plaza, today was not a holiday. They had fallen behind and there was work to catch up on.

Important work. Vital work. She had no choice, being here, in the next room, where she was forced to hear her boss’s wife’s lunatic bellowing.

As she began to calm down, Ingrid found herself mystified all over again. It was true, her boss had a beautiful young daughter and a handsome, courageous son to think about. But the children were both very nearly grown up, certainly least by Pallatian standards. So why did he put up with that screaming, hysterical bitch—there, she’d finally said it (or at least thought it)—when he didn’t have to any more?

Ingrid couldn’t bring herself quite far enough to imagine exactly what kind of consort—partner—mate—she might be to Adam, or even compare herself in any way to Ardith. But she’d been brought up by both of her parents to believe that a woman must try as hard as she could to be a perfect companion to a man, in any way he wanted her to be.

She could do that.

It was a very old-fashioned ideal, she knew, some might even say sexist or downright backward. But had any notion for organizing human society that had come afterward, ever produced any greater happiness for men or women? All sorts of other ideas and images suddenly cascaded into her mind. Ingrid swallowed hard, undid the top button of her blouse, and turned her desk fan up another notch. At her best, Ardith Ngu was nothing but a cold-blooded scientist. What could a woman like that possibly know about sex—er, passion?

Suddenly Adam stood beside her desk. “Please—Oh, I’m so sorry, Ingrid, I didn’t mean to startle you when you were lost in thought. I get that way, too, sometimes, in case you haven’t noticed. Please find Mrs. Ngu’s—that is, my mother’s—hopper pilot, will you? He’s probably out in the gamera tunnels hanging around with the off-duty crews. They have a kind of a pub down there. Tell him that she won’t be returning to Pallas with him and Manager Blumenfeld, but that Mrs. Ngu—my wife—will.”

That shook Ingrid completely out of her unhappy (if stimulating) reverie. She tried being properly guilty about it, but the feeling simply wasn’t there. Instead, a sense of even greater warmth pervaded her body, making her head spin and her hands shake. Adam’s wife was going away again! So were his mother, his daughter, and even his son. For a while—a very long while, perhaps—she would have him all to herself!

Hope had bloomed again for Ingrid.

******

But what Adam was thinking in that moment would have disappointed her.

Perhaps, he mused resignedly, with everyone he loved heading out for Pallas or the Moon within the next few hours, he was about to have something of a break from the soap opera that his life had somehow become when he wasn’t looking. It was possible that he could get back to living the safer, saner life of the mind. While the transponder planting crews were catching up, maybe he could get in some journal reading.

Ardith would eventually discover the present he’d found her and realize all over again that he loved her. Things would slowly get better.

His in-laws, Ardith’s parents, had been deeply involved with the Jupiter habitat project for years. He was fairly familiar with its modified O’Neill design. Five miles long, two hundred fifty million tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night, it would combine some of the best opportunities for scientific research in history with a wonderful luxury hotel featuring the most spectacular scenery in the Solar System.

But he wanted to know all about the Martian dome Sheridan Sinclair had mentioned. Hellas Planitia was one of the lowest places on the Red Planet, with the densest air, but it was also one of the coldest. Before Mars had acquired a breathable atmosphere, frost used to gather in it—frost made of carbon dioxide. Maybe an atmospheric dome on an already terraformed planet made a little more sense than he’d first believed.

Idly, he wondered what that perfume was that Ingrid was wearing.

******

Well, she’d done it.

She’d finally done it.

Ardith threw what few things she’d taken out, back into her only suitcase. She wanted to be out of this room before Adam came back to it. She wished she could be gone from this asteroid sooner than was likely. She felt grateful she didn’t have to wait for the regularly scheduled passenger liner. Three long weeks. That would have been unbearable.

Yes, she’d finally driven her entire family, practically everyone she’d ever loved, away from her—all at the same time! There ought to be some kind of category for it in the Guinness book of records. Adam would stay here on Ceres because it was his job, a job he loved, and because it kept him safely millions of miles away from her insane rages.

Here was a little handful of underthings that needed washing. She decided they could wait. She stuffed them in her suitcase and forgot them.

Wilson, her one and only living son, was travelling downsystem, to Earth’s Moon, to buy himself a spaceship, to find himself a new life like all young men must eventually do or remain children, and no doubt to claim himself another kind of prize, as well. He was a hero, after all, very handsome and well-poised. It surprised his mother mildly that the idea of her son having a romance didn’t scandalize or dismay her the way it should. Instead, she hoped sincerely that he was better rewarded with regard to that part of his life than his poor father had been.

What was this? A fist-sized gray velvet bag she didn’t recognize, tucked into the inside pocket of her suitcase with her jewelry and accessories.

And Llyra, her lovely and amazingly talented baby daughter, was going downsystem, as well. The half dozen developmental physiologists she’d quietly consulted without Llyra’s knowledge had warned her that, at the very best, it would take no less than two years of intensive training before she could hope to be competitive against athletes who had grown up at one sixth of a gee. At worst, Llyra could destroy her beautiful little body and wind up crippled for life. And her abject failure of a mother wouldn’t be there to help and comfort her if it happened.

Instead, having disgraced and embarrassed herself for no reason at all—and for the last goddamned time, she swore grimly to herself—she was tucking her tail between her legs, and heading home to Pallas, a prospect that offered her no comfort at all. Her parents were long gone—they would be among the first to live in the completed Jupiter orbital habitat.

Inside the bag, she found six rough transparent stones the size of her thumb. She knew at once what they were: asteroidal diamonds, clots of kerogen trapped in the centers of only the largest carbonaceous chondrites, crushed and heated for billions of years until they became pure, allotropic carbon. These were about eight carats each, and were accompanied by a strip a flimsy plastic certifying that their purchase by Dr. Adam Ngu from the Curringer Corporation’s deep boring teams at the poles—where they were placing the cable piers—was legal and proper.

The monetary figure had been blacked out.

Adam’s contract permitted him to do things like this occasionally. Without a politically powerful cartel to inflate their value by making them artificially scarce, the uncut stones were worth, at the most, a tenth of one percent of what they might have been on Earth a hundred years ago. But they were still valuable and very beautiful, a gift of love.

On the back, a handwritten note: My darling Ardith, Adam. She sat on the unmade bed, put her face in her hands, sobbing helplessly. How was it possible that a man like this one could waste his love on her?

She would go home, then, and do her science—it was the only damn thing she’d ever been any good at—pushing back the barriers of the unknown and all that nonsense. If the day should come that Adam asked her for a divorce, then she would acquiesce quietly, no matter how much it hurt, as a sort of penance. She couldn’t kid herself that it would never happen. She hadn’t missed the way that Ingrid, that little Asian secretary of his, looked at him. If not her, then it would be somebody else.

Eventually.

Aside from her professional colleagues, Ardith would remain all by herself in that big dark house on Pallas, possibly for the rest of her life.

And the Zacharenkos were notoriously long-lived.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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