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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: HELPING HANDS

Economists tell us that the “price” of an object and its “value” have very little or nothing to do with one another. “Value” is entirely subjective—economic value, anyway—while “price” reflects whatever a buyer is willing to give up to get the object in question, and whatever the seller is willing to accept to give it up. Both are governed by the Law of Marginal Utility, which is actually a law of psychology, rather than economics. For government to attempt to dictate a “fair price” betrays complete misunderstanding of the entire process.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Well, ladies,” said the medical man. “Here’s the way things stand.”

Dr. “Wink” Jeffries sat in a swivelling desk chair in his office, which also served as his consulting room, one hand on the tidy green blotter on the desktop before him, the other on his knee. His hair and beard were closely trimmed. His casual shirt (nobody wore a necktie on the Moon) and dark slacks looked like they’d just been pressed.

A tall, solidly-built man, originally from Earth, Llyra guessed, and from various artifacts scattered around the room, an avid hockey player.

Llyra and Jasmeen sat comfortably, even if it happened to be in a pair of matching wheelchairs, on the oppossite side of Jeffries’ desk. Jasmeen’s grandmother Julie sat between them in a more conventional chair. Jeffries appeared to be in his early thirties, but in this day and age—and at this facility in particular—looks could be decieving. Julie herself was more than evidence enough of that. She appeared to be somewhere in her mid-twenties, but Llyra knew she was at last half a century older than that. Dr. Jeffries might be even older than Mr. Sinclair.

The fifth individual in the room had been introduced to them as “Bass” Williams, also a doctor, specializing in therapies devised for gravity-related illnesses. Williams was a big man, not nearly as tidy as Jeffries, but more comfortable, somehow, at least six feet six inches tall, Llyra estimated, broad-shouldered, with long blond hair tied up in a warrior’s braid. He looked about the same age as Jeffries, she thought.

Jeffries had explained that he, himself, was a general practitioner, but that he was also Chief Administrator of the Emerson Ngu/Aubrey de Grey Life Extension Institute, a research facility originally endowed by Julie’s famous father-in-law. This was the place that kept her looking so young, but apparently it had developed some other specialities, as well.

Williams spoke. His voice was deep, but smooth and soothing. “The gravitic shock you arrived with is a mysterious phenomenon, not well understood, even by us. It seems to affect about seven percent of the folks who come to the Moon. Fortunately, it’s transient and it never recurs. Once you’re over it, you’re over it for good, which makes us think it may be viral in origin, although we’ve never found any single pathogen associated with it, nor any of the appropriate antibodies, either.”

“And you’ve looked, I presume,” Julie said.

“Yes, Mrs. Ngu, we’ve looked.”

“In any case,” Jeffries addressed Llyra and Jasmeen, “you both seem to have recovered very nicely after forty-eight hours of therapy and rest. Now I’m afraid you have a much steeper climb ahead of you: getting accustomed to three times the amount of gravity you’re used to.”

“But Doctor, I—” Jasmeen began. She leaned forward in her wheelchair.

He put up a hand. “Yes, Miss Khalidov, you were born and grew up on Mars, which has twice the gravity of the Moon. But you’ve spent the last—” He consulted the handheld before him. “The last three years on Pallas, which puts you in roughly the same boat as Miss Ngu, I regret.”

“Somehow,” Jasmeen protested, “that doesn’t seem—”

“Fair?” Williams asked with raised eyebrows. His voice was gentle, but his words were not. “There’s no such thing as fair, Miss Khalidov, certainly not in this universe. And as a Martian, you should be the last person I need to remind of that. There isn’t even such a thing as linearity or proportion, where biology is concerned. Miss Ngu, here, might get her G-legs before you do, and you might never get them at all.”

Llyra gulped. Jasmeen nodded gravely.

“However,” Williams added, “the statistics are on your side. We’ve treated a good many cases similar to yours, if not exactly the same. Both of you must receive a battery of drug treatments, of course, to stimulate your bone and muscle growth. Your diet will be designed to support that effort. You’ll both undergo extensive physical therapy before you can walk unassisted on the Moon. At best, you can expect to be outpatients at the Ngu/DeGrey Institute for between six months and a year.”

Llyra gasped. “Six months to—”

“A year?” Jasmeen finished for her.

“It’ll be an interesting experiment,” Jeffries agreed. “Ironically enough, the course of therapy Dr. Williams plans to follow will be nearly identical to the one we prescribe for Moon dwellers visiting Earth.”

Llyra glanced at her grandmother, who had volunteered to pay for all of this sure-to-be-expensive attention. Almost as if reading her granddaughter’s mind, Julie reached over, placed a warm hand atop Llyra’s, and squeezed. Then she gave Jasmeen an encouraging nod and a smile.

“And ice skating?” Llyra asked. “It’s what this is about, after all.”

Jeffries looked to his associate, who shrugged, then back at Llyra. “Anything like that is risky, of course—like practically anything else worthwhile.” He raised a hand, drawing their attention to several photographs on the wall. In them, Llyra saw the doctor, accompanied by a pair of young girls about her own age. Some were obviously hunting pictures, of everything from grouse to grizzly bear. Llyra recognized an antique Ruger Number One single-shot rifle in Jeffries’ hands; her father had one just like it, chambered for the immortal .375 Holland and Holland. Others were fishing pictures: huge salmon and strings of trout.

The settings looked familiar, somehow.

“Yes, these were all taken on Pallas, your homeworld, Miss Ngu. The place is a sportsman’s paradise. Those are my daughters, Fae and Rae. They’re willing to accept the risks of hunting for the various pleasures it offers. You should go ahead, I think, and do whatever ice skating you can, as you can. You’ll become more capable every day, and relearning everything you know that way will ultimately be good for your art. I’m sure Miss Khalidov will help you stay safe and healthy.”

Jasmeen nodded. “Was my job before we are ever coming to Moon.”

“Will you do me a personal favor, Miss Khalidov?” Williams asked abruptly.

Jasmeen blinked, and answered, “Almost certainly, doctor. What is favor?”

He grinned, “Please say ‘moose and squirrel’, just once.”

“Okay, moose and squirrel—what is so funny about moose and squirrel?”

Williams and Jeffries were laughing uncontrollably. Julie rolled her eyes. “It’s a joke a century and a half old, Jasmeen, dear. Don’t take it personally. They do the same thing to every Russian who comes in here.”

Jasmeen frowned. “But I am not—”

“I know. You’re Chechen. And they take turns being Fronkensteen and Eye-gor. But they’re good doctors, judging from the bills they send me.”

Llyra sighed. This was going to be a very long year.

******

Wilson had overheard somebody back at the ACC spaceport call it a “pukemobile”.

It was a downsystem version of the jumpbuggy, considerably more luxurious than he was accustomed to, electrically launched from the Lunar surface to save reaction mass, capable of reaching Lunar orbit and beyond, to Lagrange Points One, Two, Four and Five. Point Three, about 186 million miles away on the other side of the Sun, was well beyond the little ship’s range, mostly for reasons having to do with life-support.

This was largely an excursion vessel. It didn’t even have a name, just a number, its pilot a young college girl home for “summer” vacation. On a world without seasons, summer could be whenever you needed it to be.

Several dozen passengers sat in folding seats with their backs to the cylindrical wall of the ship. They could see out through windows over the heads of the passengers opposite them. At the moment, there wasn’t much to see. They were breaking orbit and the Moon was behind them, the Earth out of sight—the spaceport boasted a spectacular “Earth-viewing” room on one of its concourses, but Wilson hadn’t bothered with it—and their destination was still too small to be seen.

Stars are what Wilson saw, instead. Some of them may have been planets or even asteroids.

In the seat to his right sat his grandmother, the men aboard the ship giving her the eye, as always. She ignored it and went on reading something out of her pocket computer. Wilson was tempted to hold her hand and really give the other guys something to think about. But he couldn’t do it. All adults are supposed to be the same age, but she was his grandma. She’d burped him and changed his diaper too many times.

As the little craft drew closer to its destination, Wilson learned why it was called a pukemobile. He’d been enjoying the relief from the Moon’s one-sixth gravity. But as the craft’s pilot made adjustments to its course and speed, interspersed with longer or shorter periods of coasting at zero gee, some of the passengers became uncomfortable, and one of them pitched his breakfast at the deckplates in front of him. The odor of half-digested bacon and maple syrup was unmistakable and revolting.

Another passenger became violently sick, probably from the smell, and then another. A damned good thing, Wilson thought, that the deck was perforated like a collander and made of stainless steel. There seemed to be a light, constant air suction through the deckplates, as well.

Through it all, Wilson easily retained control of himself. It wasn’t motion or the lack of gravity that threatened to get to him, anyway, but the noxious smell, and that went away as the self-cleaning deckplates—the floor was darkened for a few seconds by millions of not-quite-microscopic nanobots—and the ventilation system went to work.

Obviously, they were prepared for this sort of thing.

Outside, an enormous object of indistinct shape loomed toward them overhead, casting its shadow across them. It looked like someone had started with a core—maybe a used booster or a fuel tank—and then built onto it, bit by bit, adding whatever they felt was necessary at the time. Come back next year, the whole thing would look altogether different.

The little ship gave a last, dizzying tumble and there was a loud clank as its airlock fastened itself to someone else’s airlock. Wilson noticed they were in freefall. After a few more thumps and clanks, a heavy trapdoor in the floor swung upward and a young man popped his head through the opening, looked around, sniffed, and wrinkled his nose.

“Geez, Clarice.” he shouted forward to the pilot. “That’s gotta be at least three, maybe four spews this time. You gotta go easier with the lead foot.”

Wilson wished somebody would throw up on him.

******

It was a field of rubble, only a few hundred feet thick from top to bottom, but floating in that plane of space as far as the eye could see in any direction, each and every particle of it artificial, man-made, and man-abandoned, replaced by what would someday be better rubble.

At an average distance from each other of a hundred yards, Wilson saw a couple of old NASA shuttles and several ancient Soyuz craft from a time before Earth governments finally gave up on interplanetary enterprise and abandoned it to the private sector. Julie pointed out half a dozen Rutan spaceships of various vintages, and, in a forlorn corner by itself, for some inexplicable reason, a 1936 Ford pickup truck.

The premises, fenced off by radar and laser beams, belonged to the Guzman Brothers’ Used Spacecraft Emporium, the longest-established private business here at Lagrange Point Four. Their pilot had docked and let them off at what was known as L4 Little America, a combination fuel station, rest stop, and hotel that offered showers and long range communications to what they called “travellers and truckers”, as well as outfitters, shops, restaurants, several theaters, and a gambling casino.

The Guzman Brothers’ headquarters turned out to be an enormous inflated doughnut-shape, perhaps a quarter mile in diameter, at the end of a long, pressurized, cable trolley ride into the middle of an endless expanse of scrap metal and broken dreams. On their arrival, Wilson and Julie were ushered inside by its proprietor, Lafcadio Guzman.

“Welcome, friends! Welcome to Guzman Brothers! What may I show—Julie? Julie Segovia? Julie Segovia Ngu? My day is made! My whole week! What brings you to this dusty and forgotten corner of the Solar System?”

Julie smiled and let Wilson describe his needs while Lafcadio pretended to make notes. What the guy really wanted, thought Wilson, was simply to stare at his grandmother. He was a big man from the waist up, with a gigantic belly and a prodigious beak of a nose. A ring of curly gray hair above his ears encircled a shiny dome of a head.

On the way here, Julie had explained to Wilson that she’d known Lafcadio for most of their lives. He didn’t have a brother, but came originally from a long line of antique furniture dealers in her own native Newark, New Jersey—which was a wonderful place to be from, she’d always told her children and grandchildren—and that, since coming here to Lagrange Point Four, he’d never entered a gravity field again.

The way his tiny legs hung beneath his body, Wilson could easily believe the stories. He never seemed to stand or sit, just hover in mid-air, thinking up deals and making keystrokes with his handheld computer.

******

The salesbot wafted a hand grandly. “Here y’go young feller,” it said in Lafcadio Guzman’s voice “A mere three hundred forty platinum. Just for you and your lovely grandmother, I’ll throw in a square klick chainlink.”

The ship floated above them, a short, fat cylinder that came to a rounded point at the bow, which was made, almost entirely, of windows. It was pretty, freshly painted to all appearances, and sported three manipulation arms longer than itself on the portside, starboard, and along the top of the ship. They were folded aftward just now, and stuck out a little beyond the quadruple fusion burners. Beneath the ship was fastened the “toolbox”, containing everything necessary to seize and manipulate small asteroids, and prepare them for shipment to a factory vessel or processing site.

One of these tools, common chainlink fencing, was used to maintain control over loose aggregates of rock. It wasn’t all that expensive, Wilson knew, and a square kilometer of the stuff wasn’t enough to cover any profitable find. He looked to his grandmother, who shook her head.

“Cotton candy,” she told him and the salesbot, “meant for wealthy tourists who want to play at asteroid hunting—play and nothing more, looking for the Lost Cambodian or the Diamond Rogue. This tin can wouldn’t last a dozen real hunting trips. Let’s look at something else.”

The robot couldn’t look dejected. Its smile was painted on, along with its red pants, white belt and shoes, buttoned-down pinstriped shirt, and an antique tie that matched its pants. It wore painted suspenders, and a pencil was tucked behind its artificial ear. Why people picked the mid-twentieth century to represent the epitomy of salesmanship, Wilson didn’t know. It was like some restaurants he’d encountered on the Moon, whose employess affected eighteenth century attire. There were several, and all of them claimed to offer French cuisine.

“Look out!” he shouted reflexively, as another machine, identical to the one the three of them occupied, equipped with its own salesbot, flashed past them, heading straight for the pretty red airlock of the pretty red and white vessel. Wilson bet that it was pretty inside, too.

At the moment, they were riding in a “sky-raft”, a saucer-shaped platform covered with something like a very large Bell jar. They both stood, their feet slid into in stirrups, holding onto a chest-high circular rail, and looking out and up, as the tiny craft was guided by the real salesman, Lafcadio Guzman, who had safely remained back in his office, looking out through the salesbot’s big blue eyes, and giving them his pitch through its speakers. He’d explained that this was his busy season, and he could assist several groups of customers this way, which reduced his overhead, and therefore the price of his goods.

Yeah, right, thought Wilson.

Another silly-looking sky-raft buzzed by them, full of young kids in dark pants, white shirts, and blue, star-spangled neckerchiefs that identified them as Space Scouts. A mechanical salesman identical to this one was with them. They were probably looking for a rental for a camping trip. It reminded Wilson that the craft were self-guided to a high degree. No matter what they were remotely commanded to do, they wouldn’t hit each other or approach other objects here at a velocity that could damage them or their passengers.

“And what, may I ask, is that?” Julie pointed to a floating object approximately the size of a small house, roughly spherical, very dark in color, with large projections all over its surface in the shape of rectangular solids: hexagons, cylinders, pyramids, even a piece that appeared threaded like a giant screw. The whole thing looked like a big steel weldment—perhaps a work of abstract art—covered with rust and hardened mud.

“Oh, that. It’s a damned Drake-Tealy Object. The biggest in the system, in fact.” Even through the medium of the salesbot, Lafcadio seemed almost embarrassed by what should be considered a spectacular possession.

“Biggest by a substantial margin, if it’s true,” she replied. “I don’t think anybody’s ever seen a Drake-Tealy object larger than your fist.”

“It’s all the same material,” the proprietor sounded almost as if he were in tears. “The same spectral signature, the same ratio of isotopes, the same age, every damn thing the same as the little ones. Only nobody believes it, no university, no museum, even after they’ve conducted their own inspection. I think they just don’t wanna believe it.”

“Like they didn’t want to believe in Drake-Tealy objects at all in the first place,” Wilson suggested. “Until my great grandmother Rosalie—”

“I know the story, son,” Lafcadio interrupted. “Knew your great grandmother—Julie’s mother-in-law—too. She was a very great lady. What hurts is what I paid for it, to a miner who dragged it back from the orbit of Pluto. I thought it was worth at least a thousand platinum.”

“How about that little ship right over there, Lafcadio?” Julie asked the salesbot, apparently changing the subject. “The little rock hunter you’ve got tucked in between those two nasty old kerogen processors?”

“Er … ” the salesbot replied, after considerable thought, adding, “Uhhh … ”

“Didn’t want us to see her, did you? She does need a lot of work, which you were planning to do yourself so you could triple the price afterward?”

“Quadruple,” the robot replied sulkily. “Damn it, Julie Ngu, I don’t know why I always let you do this to me, every single damn time. Yeah, you’re right. I’d planned to fix her up, myself, but what the hell. You want to look her over? She’s older’n the hills and twice as dusty.”

Julie laughed. “Save the countrified observations, Lafcadio. We’re both from the same block of Darkest Newark, learned the way of the bombed-out parking lot forest, bathed in the River of the Hydrant and Lake Stormgutter. And do show us the little ship over there, if you please.”

Nobody would have accused her of looking like much, Julie thought. Whatever colors she’d originally been painted, she was now a patchwork of matte metallic grays, browns, and reds the color of dried blood. Relentless decades of exposure to micrometeorite bombardment had given her an eggshell finish, the patina of neglect. Even her windows were frosted.

Julie calculated that the little ship was about the same age she was.

In shape, she had about the same proportions as an old-fashioned pistol cartridge—say, .45 Automatic Colt Pistol. About two thirds of that, the cylindrical cartridge case behind the bullet, consisted of engines. There were three of these, ancient and enormous catalytic fusion burners that, even at rest, appeared to be bulging with power. Each of the engines was tucked neatly into its own deep recess along the hull, although, as their sky-raft swung around the little vessel, they inspected heavy machinery built into the stern that could extend each engine outward several meters, providing extra leverage in the turns.

Engines very much like these had brought people to Pallas three generations ago.

As they approached the bullet-shaped bow, mostly constructed of once-transparent materials, they saw two manipulation arms, of which there were two, folded back in long grooves between engines. Along the underside, or “chin” of the command section, lay the “toolbox” containing various lasers, masers, and chainlink dispensers. This was where Wilson would put his particle cannon—if he could ever afford one.

“It’s an old General Systems Procyon, isn’t it?” Julie asked the salesbot in sudden recognition. “About a Mark IV, I’d guess. She’s been modified so much she’s almost unrecognizable.” Julie noted with approval that all of the vessel’s antennae, reception and transmission dishes, passive and active sensors, even handholds, had been mounted flush with the surface, an absolute necessity in denser areas of the Belt.

“An oldie but a goodie,” the salesbot replied. “The DC-3 of space, in her time!”

Lafcadio’s alter ego indicated the little ship’s finer points. She had what long-haul hunters called a “coffee grinder”, for example, to convert otherwise worthless bits of rock (as well as valuable ones in an emergency) to reaction mass. The ship’s manipulation arms could be rigged and charged to sweep spaceborn particles (one or two per cubic meter) into the engines, supplementing whatever reaction mass she carried.

The main airlock, appropriately enough, was on the portside of the ship. The sky-raft gave a nauseating little flip to match the docking machinery on its underside with the asteroid hunter’s. The handrail became a footrail as Wilson and Julie climbed up into the larger craft. The salesbot’s head separated from its torso and followed its customers on puffs of air.

The pilot’s seat was a flimsy, skeletal affair sitting on the end of a gracefully curved beam in the nose of the ship, surrounded on all sides but the back by glass. Wilson saw right away that the comm system needed updating. It consisted of nothing but audio and typo—no real video—and the sensor readouts were all flatscreens, limited to 2D. How they’d found and captured rocks with this stuff he couldn’t guess.

On the other hand, there were two big bunks aft of the control area, a dining table, and excellent sanitary facilities, including a shower that drew water from carbonaceous chondrites processed in the coffee grinder. Although the mechanical life support systems were more than adquate, the high circular wall of the living area was an airponics garden, at present brown and brittle, that modified and moisturized the air, and offered the hunter welcome items like big, red, beefsteak tomatoes.

There was also a closet-sized gymnasium with good, if very old equipment.

“I’m going to call her Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend,” Wilson declared.

“What?” Julie blinked. It was as if the boy just come to life, she thought. She knew that look, all too well. It was a good thing. A very good thing. This little vessel wasn’t the Ball 500 Asteroid Scout she knew her grandson had dreamed of owning, or the Mitsubishi Rockhound 9000L he often talked about. But somewhere in the last five minutes, he’d stopped seeing this ancient, beat-up workhorse as she was, and had begun seeing her as he would make her. Her late husband Billy used to have that look a lot, maybe even once or twice—given her rough start on the mean New Jersey streets—about her. “Why not just call her Minnie?”

“Not Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend, Grandma, Mighty Mouse’s girlfriend. I don’t know what her name was. I don’t know if she even had a name. But he rescued her from being sacrificed to a volcano god one time. When I was little, I thought she was the cutest, sexiest thing I ever saw. I especially liked the way her little ears stuck out through her hair. I’ve tended to rate girls on a ‘Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend Scale” ever since.”

Now that explains a lot, Julie thought, remembering the holograms he’d shown her of Amorie Samson. That one probably rated a Ten—maybe even an Eleven or a Twelve—on the Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend Scale.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com