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A surprising number of people want to know why, in my “old age”, I have decided to go off exploring aboard the Fifth Force with my husband and our friends. Well, first, because my husband is going and there’s no face I’d rather see on the pillow next to mine when I wake up in the morning than his. And second, because I’m not dead yet, and there’s the sheer adventure of the thing. And third, because I don’t relish ending up a dotty old woman, sitting home alone, nursing my resentments and regrets.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

One of the men was her father’s brother, Ali Khalidov.

The other was her mother’s brother, Saladin Uzhakhov.

Together, the two Chechens took up so much space in the tiny living room of the modest apartment Jasmeen shared with Llyra, that it made her feel claustrophobic, like being in a coin-operated SolarNet booth.

“What is an uncle to do, Jasmeen? You never call!” Ali wailed. He appeared to be on the verge of tears, an alarming condition for an individual of his distinguished middle years and rather substantial proportions, especially one who wore a patch over one eye. “You never write!”

With a sudden feeling that she was about to sink beneath the weight of unexpected and unwanted family obligations, Jasmeen began, “But I … ”

The distress must have shown on her face, because Ali suddenly pointed at her and grinned, while Saladin burst out in uproarious laughter. “You got her, Ali! You got her good!” Saladin was taller than Ali, and would have weighed at least three hundred pounds on Earth.

“You owe me,” Ali said, wiping tears from his eye. “one ounce silver.”

“You two are just plain no good!” Llyra scolded them, although she was laughing, too. Jasmeen had warned her, in a general way, that her uncles were a pair of incorrigible jokers, a trait that they shared in common with Jasmeen’s father, Mohammed. They both remained unmarried, an ongoing source of scandal to her mother, Beliita. Jasmeen said she didn’t think they were gay. Llyra had warmed to them instantly. She loved her parents and her brother, but in her family everyone was so serious.

These men, who, according to Jasmeen’s mother, had worked together for years at some important scientific facility in another city in the Moon, had called their niece the day after she and Llyra had arrived in Armstrong. They had then given the two girls some time to settle in.

“Now here we are back, my little sunflower seed, to take you on Lunar excursion!” Although he was the smaller of the pair, Ali was a big, noisy man, much given to sudden, sweeping gestures that told the girls (if they had thought of it) that his living room was much larger than theirs.

“What sort of excursion?” Jasmeen asked to know. Secretly proud to do it without a walker, she’d gone to the kitchenette as the teapot on the cooktop began shrilling. She poured hot water through a strainer containing the darkest leaves she could find—tea wasn’t grown here and was remarkably expensive—into tall thin-walled glasses in platinum holders made to appear woven, like baskets, a precious gift from her mother, one of the few frivolous things she’d brought with her from Pallas.

Seeing her struggle with the task, Saladin came to her rescue, offering the girl his arm, and taking the laden tray to the coffee table.

“I hear from your mother on Mars that both poor, brave girls are having plenty of trouble adapting themselves to Moon’s gravity,” he told her. “Call up environmental services before bedtime tonight. Order ten percent increase in partial pressure of oxygen for next ten days.”

Jasmeen was surprised. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“It will help,” her uncle said. “Also,—although I don’t like to admit it—borscht, very hot, lots of strong beef broth and sour cream.”

“Yugh!” Ali exclaimed. “Is no good eating that Russian swill!”

“High protein Russian swill,” countered Saladin. “Besides, I happen to like beets.”

Ali ignored him, “Now where was I—ah, excursion!” He waited until Jasmeen was seated once again and tea had been poured, heavily sugared, and thick cream added. (Cows were grown on the Moon, and milk products were relatively cheap.) “Excursion to posterior of Moon—or ass-end of universe, depending on who says it! Graduate students are unappreciative lot. But—to marvelous System-famous Larsen Farside Observatory, where distinguished uncles poke and squeeze cold and ungenerous universe for valuable astronomical information, which they then sell to asteroid hunters and others like them at extortionate price!”

He winked his one good eye.

Llyra nodded in sudden recognition. “My brother told me about that!” she said. “I’d just forgotten about it. He’s training right now to be an asteroid hunter—he’s going to find the Diamoned Rogue—and rebuilding a little ship he bought. So you’re the people who detect and report on incoming asteroids. Wilson never said anything about the information coming from Jasmeen’s relatives.”

“Jasmeen’s relatives plus staff numbering just under two hundred,” Saladin admitted modestly. “Figure includes unappreciative graduate students. Most are to be found at Larsen Farside, some administrative personnel work here in Armstrong, a few—one or two from time to time—”

Ali seemed to give him a warning look and shook his had almost microscopically.

“—at mostly automated observatory in Lagrange position on opposite side of Earth. Humorists call it ‘L-Sex’, but is actually L-Three. Larsen Farside boasts largest and most powerful radio telescope array in Solar System. Also it has largest, most powerful optical telescope. Other location has radio and optical telescope, one half million miles away, for parallax—we see in three dee!”

“Speak for yourself,” the one-eyed Ali grumbled. “Sounds too much like 3DTV commercial. Never and nonetheless, you will come see what we see?”

“Oh, yes!” Llyra exclaimed. “Oh, can we please do it, Jasmeen, please? Our contract doesn’t begin until next week, so our time is free.”

Jasmeen nodded, excited herself, at the prospect of a trip around the Moon. “I think so—but we should consult DeGrey clinic and tell your grandmother.”

Ali gave a massive shrug. “She is invited. Also asteroid hunter brother.”

Jasmeen raised her eyebrows at Llyra, making her laugh out loud, and conveying her suspicion that her bachelor uncles had been looking forward to an excuse to meet the beautiful and famous Julie Segovia Ngu.

And what red-blooded human male wouldn’t?


The colorful 3D moving posters outside the entrance proclaimed that it was Kirk Thatcher night at “The Edge of Etiquette”, the most popular and up-to-date nightclub in Armstrong, and therefore, in the Moon.

Inside, the place was huge and dark, although there were points and pools of light everywhere, at the tables, on the ceiling (hung with artificial stalagtites, since, without ground water, the real thing didn’t grow here), at the bandstand, and among the dancers, themselves.

The young hostess escorting them to their table was half a head taller than Wilson, pale as a corpse—which she was made up to resemble—and so emaciated that she appeared to be a victim of some infamous twentieth century government atrocity. Her glossy black hair was cropped so short that it looked painted on her scalp. A pair of contact lenses made her eyes look like they were fashioned from dull aluminum; they brought the cruel artworks of Simon Benson and Robert Bishop to mind. Her narrow little face was pierced for metal bars and hoops more times than he was able to count in the two or three minutes she was with them.

“Tonight,” she told them, having to shout at them over the raucous music, “we’re happying ourselves over the hundredth annivert of the Thatcher glomphing the Nobel Peace Prize, whatever the herbert that was—”

And whoever “the” Thatcher was, Wilson thought. There were lots of old-fashioned 2D “flatties” of the man up on giant screens all over the otherwise dark and cavernous room. For some reason, most of them showed him with his hair cut and shaped into an impressive orange crest, and many of the pictures seemed to have been taken within five minutes of one another, aboard some variety of antiquated public conveyance.

“Yeah,” the girl yelled when Wilson asked about it. “The Punk on the Bus. Boom. Box. Until that pointy-eared bathrobe came a-vulckin’ around, anyway. He’s the patron saint of punk—part of the Trinity: Johnny, Sid, and Kirk. You know this whole-in-the-wall’s labed for his clatch.”

Holding his arm firmly, Wilson’s companion asked, “What for his what?”

“His clatch, courtney. His orch, orfah. His band, beverly. This deepdive is named for it. Where are you in from, anyway, the Ultima Asteroids?”

“Next best,” Wilson told her, giving his date a glance. “Asteroid hunter.”

“Oh.” On this world, unprotected by an atmosphere, hunters were respected.

The girl’s lower lip was pierced twice for small rings, halfway between the center and the corners of her mouth, and there was a shiny metal stud protruding from her flesh below the center of the lip. When she spoke, Wilson saw at least two shiny bits where her tongue was pierced.

A similar bauble adorned one side of her nose. The nasal septum was pierced, as well, for a larger ring hanging beneath her nostrils and touching her upper lip. One of her eyebrows had been pierced, and her ears were laden with so much jewelry, set in so many holes, that Wilson wondered why they didn’t simply fold forward and collapse on themselves.

It wasn’t until later that he remembered her tattoos.

“So what’s this band that’s playing right now?” Wilson’s companion had to shout. He still couldn’t believe that Amorie was actually here, beside him. She was vastly more beautiful in person—and so much tinier—than speaking with her and seeing her over the SolarNet for the past year had ever prepared him for. And her fragance was … intoxicating.

“Only the wazziest neopunk orch in the whole wide warren,” their hostess beamed proprietarily. “It’s our house clatch, don’t you know, Spotty Wankers. And they’re playing Thatcher’s superwazziest noise ever!”

The lyrics seemed to consist mostly of “I hate you, and I berate you”! The bizarre thing, Wilson thought, was that, despite her slang and the hardware in her mouth, he’d understood every word she’d said, more or less. He’d seen earlier signs that the Moon’s popular culture was currently in the throes of a revival of some of the ugliest music ever produced in the twentieth century. Listening to it made his head throb and his teeth ache. He expected his ears to start bleeding any second.

They arrived and sat at a table in the second tier along one wall, overlooking the dance floor. Just now, it looked like a great place to get killed. People, young men, mostly, were smashing their chests into one another, or diving headlong off the stage, expecting the crowd to catch them. Sometimes the crowd actually did. Other times—well it looked to him like there was a good chance of being trampled to death. The hostess told them that someone would be along to take their drink orders.

Wilson had arrived in some pain already. Both of his hands ached from the overhaul he was giving the “coffee grinder” aboard Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend. It was an item of heavy machinery that pulverized useless stony meteorites and other rubble, reducing them to fine dry powder that could be heated to plasma temperatures by the vessel’s fusion engines and flung out as reaction mass. Wilson’s knuckles stung where he’d barked them on the sharp corners and hard edges of the device. But the overhaul needed doing if his ship were ever to fly again.

As it was, he’d have to expend some of his precious and dwindling cash for his first hopper full of reaction mass, before he could gather and store more in open space, since whatever reserves Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend might once have contained had been bled off long since to feed some other lucky vessel in Guzman’s fabulous floating junkyard.

“I hope you don’t mind coming here, Willie darling.” Amorie leaned forward, over the table, toward him, trying to keep her voice low. The dress she wore was a filmy, insubstantial thing. The back was open to well below her waist, although the skirt brushed the floor behind her.
But then rose … well, almost too high in front, and when she leaned forward like she did now, he could see all the way down to her navel. He could also see plainly that she wasn’t wearing anything like a brassiere.

That garment had fallen out of fashion in the lower-gravity worlds.

“Wha—what?” Wilson felt himslf blush deeply. Amorie had caught his eye and she knew exactly where he’d been looking. His mother and sister were both extraordinarily modest at home, and this was the first time he’d ever seen anything remotely like a naked breast in person. He couldn’t quite see Amorie’s nipples, but it was a close thing.

She grinned and refrained from sitting up again. Instead, she glanced down at herself and told him, “I sincerely hope you like what you see, my darling Willie. It’s for you. It’s all for you. I made and wore this dress especially so that you could see some of what you’re getting.”

“I—errm, ah!” Wilson had to clear his throat and start again. Every muscle in his body tingled painfully. There was fire in his veins. He refused to think about what was going on between his legs. And as if by some lovely magic, the obnoxious cacaphony of the band had somehow been transformed into a tender ballad. “I thought your people—”

She nodded. “‘The first meeting in the flesh must be in a public place,’ she quoted with exaggerated solemnity. “Believe me, darling Willie, I’d much rather have put on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and visited that little ship you’re so proud of. They come off as easily and quickly as any evening dress does. I chose this place because the tourist guides all warned that it was extremely noisy. That way, I figured, we could have at least a little privacy in the middle of the crowd.”

“I—errm, ah!” Hopelessly lost in the mist of her eyes and the scent of her body, this time Wilson couldn’t even think of what to say.

“Later on,” she told him huskily, “we can dance.”


The gigantic billboard, five hundred feet tall, at least three times as wide as that, and bright enough to be seen for fifty miles, proclaimed:





“That is only about hour and quarter,” Ali observed from behind the big wheel of his brand new pride and joy, a 2031 Rasputin Electric MoonMaster. He added, “Now that they’ve put new surface on highway.” The process of long haul driving on the Moon, he’d explained earlier to his passengers, was about ninety-five percent automated, but from time to time, the road below or the vehicle itself signalled for his attention.

At this velocity, Llyra thought, somewhere between six and seven hundred miles an hour, the condition of the highway was very largely academic. They’d trundled along at much lower speeds through several of the underground traffic tunnels of Armstrong, when Ali and Saladin had picked them up at their apartment. And they would need a modicum of off-road capability on the dirt roads of the frontier town where they were headed.

Anywhere above a hundred miles an hour on this highway, however, and magnetic levitation kicked in. The monster vehicle’s dozen tires hadn’t touched the ground since shortly after they’d left Armstrong behind, and they wouldn’t support the vehicle again until they’d arrived at their destination, the System-famous Larsen Far Side Observatory.

Saladin was in the kitchenette at the opposite end of the machine, just now, trying to get the ancient family samovar to work. Llyra didn’t know what was wrong with the thing. Generating a cloud of colloquial Chechen epithets that no mullah would ever have approved of, he gave up and put a Pyrex container of water in the microwave, instead.

Sitting at the dining table in the MoonMaster’s well-upholstered, comfortable lounge between Jasmeen and her grandmother, Llyra wished that her brother were here with them, today. But he was a big boy, now. And he was a busy boy, as well, going to the zoo or something with that Amorie creature. It seemed that he only had eyes for her, these days, and she only had eyes for him, apparently. It was both boring and disgusting. They couldn’t keep their hands—or much of anything else—off of each another. Llyra shuddered to imagine what it might be like to have Amorie Samson around all the time, as her sister-in-law.

As if she knew exactly what Llyra was thinking, Jasmeen turned and grinned at her in sympathy. Julie seemed telepathic this morning, as well.

“You know what we used to say in the Marines, honey,” she asked, “when one of our guys had gone missing and we were afraid he’d been captured?”

Llyra found she was almost in tears, “No, Grandma, what did you say?”

“They can kill him but they can’t eat him, it’s against the Geneva Convention.”

Jasmeen laughed, “I would not be too sure of that!” and then shut up suddenly and blushed. It had sounded more genteel in her head. Most of Julie’s military career, she knew, had been wasted on Mars, in a doomed attempt to suppress a colonial rebellion by Jasmeen’s parents, among others. “But you are correct, is also what we Martians used to say.”

She and Julie laughed while Llyra looked confused. She’d been vaguely aware that Julie had once been an officially sworn enemy to the Ngus and Khalidovs. She knew very few of the details because they made her uncomfortable. Her grandmother had always been a special, magical spirit to her, her occasional visits to Pallas reason enough to declare a holiday. She knew her grandfather William had won Julie’s heart. That part seemed romantic and somehow made her feel sort of breathless.

Just imagine, Llyra thought, what it must be like, getting swept off your feet by your mortal enemy, an individual who’d been trying to kill you—and whom you’d been trying to kill—only a little while before. Just imagine. Billy Ngu must have been a pretty persuasive guy.

For the first time in a long while, the highway began to curve, and the MoonMaster, only a yard above its surface, curved with it, its passengers and everything else inside it banking, so that it looked and felt to them as if it were the surface of the Moon that had tilted. For a while, they could actually sense the speed of the thing—about the same as the speed of sound on Earth. Here, of course, the speed of sound was zero.

As the road straightened, they crossed an abyss—a deep crater, Llyra thought, rather than some mere crack or chasm—and for a long moment, the highway resembled nothing more than a flimsy, unsupported ribbon casually flung from peak to peak across the crater floor miles below.

She looked at a display, set in the headliner behind the driver’s seat. Like most of the timepieces on public view in the Moon, it was a “terminator clock”, the round face behind the analog hands (which kept Greenwich Mean Time everywhere on the Earth’s satellite) representing the surface of the Moon, with the observer always at its center. A Lunar Positioning System kept track of the observer’s location, a few major features of the Moon’s surface, and the terminator—the hard line between a day that lasted two weeks, and a night that did the same. There was a clock exactly like this one—only much bigger—opposite the “Zamboni end”, in each of the rinks at the Heinlein Center.

It was dark, just now, where they were headed, which was a good thing for astronomers, she guessed. Jasmeen’s uncles had spent the observatory’s daylight hours as they were accustomed to doing, in Armstrong, minding some business and catching up on any recreational opportunities they might have missed out on over the past couple of weeks.

Looking at the men, Llyra didn’t want to think about what that implied.


As he pushed his way out through the swinging slatted doors, he wondered once again how he always seemed to get into messes like this one.

He’d been told, when he came downstairs from his rented room this morning, into the saloon that served the place for a lobby, that he’d had too much whiskey the previous evening, and gotten into a noisy argument of some kind with the notorious Sanddune Sandy Malloy, known far and wide throughout the southwest as the Alamosa Kid. Of course he had no memory of it, but apparently wiser, cooler (and far more sober) heads had prevailed, and the consummation politely deferred until noon today.

High noon, somebody had said, laughing.

At present, his own head ached, his guts were cramped, his hands shook, and his vision was blurry—it was the worst hangover he’d ever had. That was why, in addition to the .45 caliber 1858 Remington revolver he wore on his right hip—taken from a Union officer he’d killed during the War for Southern Independence, he’d later paid the factory two dollars to convert it to cartridge use—he carried a Winchester’s lever action saddle carbine chambered for the same pistol caliber.

He also wore hand-lasted Lucchese boots from El Paso, Texas, a pair of huge-rowelled Mexican spurs, what the catalog called a “pearl- gray” Stetson hat with rolled brim and Montana peak, a bib-fronted shirt, horse leather vest, a huge red paisley bandana, and over his tan canvas trousers, a pair of heavy leather chaps. He probably didn’t need those today, but he felt more comfortable with them than without them.

Outside, it was so bright that it hurt his teeth. He glanced back into the dim interior of the saloon. The Regulator clock over the bar said it was exactly five minutes of noon. And there was that craven dog Sandy now, across the furrowed street, at the end of the block on the boardwalk in front of the general store, just one step away from the corner of the building where he could take cover once the shooting commenced.

The air was hot and still. It smelled of dust and horses. High overhead a pair of buzzards circled as if they knew what was about to happen.

He pulled a rolling paper and a pouch of tobacco from his shirt pocket, rolled himself a cigarette one-handed, put it in his mouth, struck a match on his belt buckle and lit it, savoring that first good taste.

Another figure stood at the other end of the street in front of the livery stable, another on the roof of the drygoods store, and yet another sat in an open window of a room in the hotel over Delmonico’s. They hadn’t told him he would have to face not only Sanddune Sandy, but his brothers, Durango Dave, Gunnison Gus, and Montrose Monty. Each of them was known, in his respective social circles, as the Alamosa Kid.

Sandy drew and snapped a quick shot off at him. Too quick: it hit the narrow lathe-turned column holding up the balcony over the saloon and threw off splinters and whitewash. Horses tethered at the hitching post tossed their heads in protest. He even thought he heard a woman scream.

Having anticipated Sandy’s next move, he lifted his levergun, leaned its receiver against the battle-scarred column, and put a bullet precisely between where the man had stood and the sheltering corner of the general store. In effect, Sandy walked right into a 255-grain flat-nosed slug going 1000 feet per second, and went down hard with it, skidding off the end of the wooden sidewalk and over three or four steps into the street until only his mule-ears could be seen.

Times like these, the smell of blackpowder smoke was like a tonic to him. Without waiting, he shot the figure standing on the roof—he didn’t know if it was Dave or Gus; the boys were twins and nobody could tell them apart, not even their mother—and the one lurking in the window. The latter ducked or collapsed back into the room, but the former pitched frontwards over the edge of the roof, hit the porch covering over the boardwalk, and rolled off into the street onto his face.

Even as he wheeled around the column to confront the man in front of the livery stable, he knew he would be too late. It was Monty, who fired both barrels of a shotgun he hadn’t seen—thinking Monty only had a sixgun, he’d taken care of the other brothers first. It was a long reach, even for a 10-guage, about seventy-five yards, and when half a dozen of the pellets struck him in the leg, they only felt like bee-stings and failed to penetrate the tough, seasoned leather of his chaps.

Theodora Gibson, the handsome proprietress of the hotel over Delmonico’s, with whom he’d spent many a pleasanter moment than this, leaned out the window to tell him that Gus was dead. Nodding, he raised his rifle and fired twice. So much for Montrose Monty Malloy, most alliterative of the four notorious Malloy brothers of Alamosa, Colorado.

He hadn’t even drawn his revolver. He took another draw on his cigarette.

Holding the Winchester in his left hand again, he reached to his belt buckle with his right and turned it over. The scene faded, along with his artificial hangover symptoms, and he was in his comfortable hotel room in Leinster City. He pulled the flimsy VR helmet from his face, disconnected it from the computer on his bedside table, rolled it up, and put it in a drawer. He swung his legs over, stepped into his loafers, took his sportscoat from the chair, and pocketed the computer.

He lifted his pistol, a Syrtis Systems coherent plasma gun—or CPG—from the bedside table, holstered it, and stepped into the corridor.

The fastest gun on the Moon was ready for work.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com


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