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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: THE ESMERALDA

Someday we will have the means to reach the stars in a reasonable amount of time. We will eventually meet people who will think surprisingly like us, but who probably won’t resemble us at all. When they refer to the language of our planet, they will mean English. When they refer to its cuisine, they will mean Chinese.

Make mine kung pao—extra spicy!

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Ali Khalidov’s 2131 Rasputin Electric Moonmaster carried Llyra and her companions into the 14-day Lunar night before she fully realized it.

Abruptly, Saladin leaned toward Llyra, “We are soon to be arriving at what has aptly been called ‘back of beyond’. We are coming here in first place because of something that happened down on Earth in winter of 2089. Is something everybody on Earth knows about. You are not of Earth, little one, not for three generations. Do you know what is happening?”

Julie had started to say something to the physicist, but held her tongue, instead, and waited. Saladin’s question had been addressed to Llyra, anyway. Although Ali’s big vehicle had just taken them across the terminator, the sky didn’t look particularly different—they weren’t all that much accustomed to looking directly at the sun in any case—but the territory around them now, except for a ridge or mount with a crest or peak still standing in sunlight for a while, was lit only by the pale blue glow of Earth. And even that was just about to set.

“Everybody in the Solar System knows about that, Dr. Uzhakhov,” Llyra replied. “On December 5th, 2089, an asteroid hit the Earth near the city of Ashland, in Ohio, which was a province of the Old United States. It killed about fifteen million people, and made a new Great Lake.”

Saladin nodded. “Very good, young Miss Llyra Ngu. Is obvious you are having excellent tutor. Hunter Lake is large, but only great by courtesy. And most people are killed when impact triggered New Madrid earthquake fault.” He sighed. “Was not even real asteroid, technically speaking.”

Jasmeen grinned, hoping no one else could see it. She looked down at her feet and shook her head. She’d always thought her uncles were funny, even (maybe even especially) when they didn’t mean to be. When they’d picked her and Llyra up this “morning” Ali hadn’t been wearing his eyepatch, and seemed to have a perfectly good eye where it had been.

“Is artificial,” he told them before she or Llyra had a chance to ask. “Also very versatile. Works in low light, works in darkness, acts as microscope, telescope—quite handy for astronomer—but gives me headache. When I do not need, I do not use. Use today for driving MoonMaster.”

Now, still at the wheel, Ali told them over his right shoulder, “Was comet nucleus. Great big ball of slushy ice just like you buy in plastic cup at neighborhood convenience store—if you like ammonia flavor.”

Llyra and Jasmeen both said, “Eww!” simultaneously, while Julie laughed.

“Yes, is very funny thing,” Saladin went on. “Killed fish off for years.”

“Not funny, ‘Ha-ha’,” Ali interrupted. “funny ‘sheesh’.”

“Funny sheesh,” Saladin agreed. “Before Ashland Event, everybody knows celestial object—metallic asteroid—wiped out dinosaurs and most of their contemporaries sixty-five million years ago. Some even knew about earlier rock that came one hundred forty million years before, wiping out many more species, making empty place on Earth for dinosaurs.”

“Presence of iridium in Cretaceous-Tertiary soil boundary layer gave game away,” Jasmeen said. “Scientists named Alvarez discovered it.”

Llyra volunteered, “Luis and Walter Alvarez. They were father and son scientists. And there’s evidence of several more impact events just like those two, changing the Earth’s geological and biological history.”

Saladin beamed at them both. “Yes, lovely scholars, gold forehead stars all around. Some even knew that Earth was millions of years overdue, statistically speaking, for new Extinction Level Event. But Ashland Event was not one such. Was minuscule compared to K-T and P-T events.”

Llyra sputtered, “Minuscule? But it killed millions and millions of—”

“Ah, but Ashland Object is actually saving many, many more lives, in final analysis, than it is taking—and please do not look at me that way, Jasmeena Khalidova. Is most unbecoming in niece who is properly respectful toward elders. Ashland frightened human species into doing something that simply knowing about great risk could never accomplish.”

“And what was that?” Saladin’s improperly respectful niece asked him. She knew perfectly well what, but wanted to hear him tell the story.

“Curringer Corporation and others,” he replied, “organized private system of detection and defense we operate here today. Nobody wanted government—any government—involved in system, because power to deflect asteroid away from Earth is power to deflect it toward Earth.”

Ali nodded. “Nobody trusted random nutball chimpanzee-brained president not to do exactly that if he began to feel his power threatened.”

“In 2103,” Saladin continued, “private system paid off bigtime when metallic asteroid ten miles in diameter was detected two years travel time in advance and was deflected by asteroid hunters from collision course with Earth, probably saving every living thing on planet.”

Llyra nodded. “I knew about that, too.”

“Ali and me … ” Saladin began.

She said, “I know, Dr. Uzhakhov, you and Dr. Khalidov were the detectives.”

“And,” his niece told him, “is ‘Ali and I’.”

******

Sometimes Wilson wished he didn’t have a nose—or a sense of smell.

This place Amorie had brought him to was filled with cloying odors that reminded him of a visit he’d reluctantly paid about three years ago, a visit he’d almost completely forgotten until it was triggered somehow by his olfactory memory, to meet Jasmeen’s great grandmother Anna.

The odors in the old lady’s room at the nursing home hadn’t been particularly unpleasant, he recalled, just … strange, somehow, and, well, sort of smothery. Anna Khalidov had once been a very large woman, apparently. Now she had great draperies of pale, wrinkled, liver-spotty flesh hanging off her knobby skeleton, and breasts the size of watermelons, located, more or less, at the same level as her navel.

At the time, Wilson thought that Jasmeen’s great grandmother was the most eloquent argument he’d ever witnessed for dying young—and possibly for never marrying. A part of the horror lay in visualizing his sister’s lovely coach—being in love with somebody else had never blinded Wilson to Jasmeen’s beauty—turning out just like that herself someday. The Khalidov family had brought the old lady up from Argentina, where a great many of their relatives had fled Russian persecution, to Pallas, believing the lower gravity might be good for her. Upon arrival, she’d taken to her bed, and had refused to get up again.

As far as he knew, she was still there.

It was obvious that people had been living aboard this ship that Amorie called home for several generations, old people like Jasmeen’s great grandmother, little babies in diapers, and everybody in between. Amorie probably didn’t even notice the smell, but Wilson couldn’t get it out of his mind, and it threatened to spoil everything for both of them.

The Asteroid Hunter Esmeralda, Amorie had explained on the way here in the hired shuttle, had been old before a systematic program to prevent Extinction Level Events had ever been adopted by a frightened humanity. She’d made her living then as she still did, plying the ways of the Solar System, collecting rocks—meteoroids and asteroids of various sizes and compositions—wherever she could find them and chase them down, stripping out whatever valuable materials they might contain, and consuming the remainder as reaction mass. She had once discovered a great green diamond, and the Samsons had changed her name accordingly.

This part of the ship was built more or less like his own, only on a grander scale. Overhead, under an enormous transparent dome, a huge control arc or panel was attended by half a dozen seats, all empty at present, even though the ship was maintaining an almost imperceptible acceleration to hold people and things down. He and Amorie had come aboard through a portside airlock aft of the base of the dome, and half-climbed, half-slid down something that was a mix of staircase and ladder.

The wall of the cylinder aft of the dome, exactly like that of his own ship, had been given over to lush airponic plantings that provided fruit, oxygen, and humidity. Its brilliant flowers were intended more simply to make the ship as pleasant a place as possible. The floor of the cylinder, forty feet aft of the dome, was a big common room where family members could prepare and eat meals, visit, watch 3DTV, and relax.

But the Esmeralda still smelled funny to him, as the homes of strangers often do. Maybe it was what they ate. Maybe it was the plants. Maybe there were some of those tropical flowers hidden in the foliage that attracted pollinating insects by smelling like rotting bodies.

A woman stood waiting for them at the bottom of the ladder. She looked about forty, had fairly short, curly, carrot-colored hair, and wore a mid-sleeved shipsuit, and an old-fashioned kitchen apron over that.

Amorie stepped off the ladder onto the floor, gave the woman a hug and a peck on the cheek and said, “This is my mother, Willie, Valerie Samson.”

He stepped onto the floor, reached, and took her hand. “Hello, Mrs. Samson.”

Amorie gave him an odd look. “Mama, this is my Willie I told you about.”

Looking a little bit tired, like everybody’s mother, and a maybe little too warm from cooking, Amorie’s mother reached up and brushed a stray amber lock out of her eyes. Wilson could see that Valerie had been every bit as good to look at as Amorie, when she was younger. She was still quite pretty now, although not nearly as pretty as his own mother.

Valerie wiped her hands on her apron, seized him by the upper arm and squeezed hard. “He’s a fine, sturdy boy, baby girl. And handsome, too!” Her accent seemed familiar. To Wilson: “I hope y’likes boiled cabbage.”

She’d pronounced it “biled”.

“Er, ah … ” Wilson replied, not really knowing what he should say. Was that what he’d been smelling? He’d eat anything set before him, but the fact was, he heartily disliked cabbage in nearly all of its forms except cole slaw, and he didn’t care for anything boiled, except eggs.

Valerie laughed at his honest, downcast face. “Gotcha! That sorry, love, I couldn’t resist. I hates boiled cabbage, meself, though I was after bein’ raised on the stuff. We’ll not be havin’ any of it today. We’ll start with a nice lobster bisque. We farm the fat rascals ourselves, y’know!”

“I’ll show you the breeding pond, if you like, Willie darling,” Amorie chirped. It’s forward of the main reactor, to use its waste heat.”

“Show him after supper, love,” her mother said. “If you’re still inclined. Pipe all hands to knife and fork stations. We’re ready t’eat.”

******

To the uninformed eye, Llyra thought, the system-famous Larsen Farside Observatory appeared considerably less impressive than she’d expected, a real disappointment, although she’d never have said so to her hosts. Undoubtedly, it was because most of it had either been constructed underground (as were most things on—or “in”—the Moon), was too far away to see, or was too big to be taken in all at once.

A good example of the last category was the radio telescope array that Larsen Farside commanded, the largest in the system, according to Ali and Saladin. Through the overhead windows of Ali’s MoonMaster, as he drove it toward what he called the “front gate” of the sprawling facility, Llyra, Jasmeen, and Julie could make out at least half a dozen gigantic parabolic dishes, looking like opened flowers of some kind on stalks towering a hundred fifty feet over everything beneath them.

At this particular point on the Lunar surface, at this particular date and time, except for what looked to Llyra and her companions like about a billion stars, there was little or no light coming to them from the sky. Streetlights everywhere made the little frontier town, such as it was, appear much as it would in daylight—something that would never have been tolerated at any optical observatory located within Earth’s atmosphere, and therefore subject to light “pollution”. The modest observatory back home, Llyra knew, lay in orbit about Pallas.

A dozen or more big-tired all-terrain vehicles, not one of them as grand as Ali’s MoonMaster, were scattered around the facility, but all that could be seen of the buildings here was the same sort of thing to be seen ordinarily on city rooftops: vents, heat exchangers, antennas, several pairs of cameras that provided the inhabitants below with 3DTV views of what was going on outside their underground retreat. Llyra had looked through these cameras herself, via the SolarNet, from Armstrong.

“But this is only smallest fraction of first row of radiotelescope array,” Saladin informed them all proprietarily, indicating the huge receptors that seemed to march toward the horizon. “Dishes are each one hundred feet across, half of mile apart, distributed approximately over two thousand square miles. Is equivalent to single parabolic dish, er … well at least size of your own moon, young lady, Pallas B.”

In fact, Llyra had no idea how large Pallas B was, although she’d seen the little satellite almost every day of her life (it was nearly as visible in the daytime as at night) and had even been there once, on an educational excursion. She did notice that the so-called “front gate” they were approaching stood more or less in the center of all of the visible manmade features in this place (except, of course, for the radio telescope array) and resembled, at least to her, an outsized submarine periscope sticking up incongruously out of the dry Lunar dust.

As the MoonMaster approached it, some part of the thing turned and began lowering until its end came level with the vehicle’s portside boarding hatch, which had its own tiny airlock. The observatory’s “front gate” latched onto that, allowed them entry, and after a fast elevator ride downward, of perhaps sixty or eighty feet, they found themselves standing in a much more spacious airlock, waiting for the surface-side door to close snugly before the inside door could be opened.

“Welcome, ladies, to what local inhabitants call ‘The Spider’,” Saladin shook his giant, shaggy head. “Is asterix-shaped network of tunnels underlying entire facility, allowing delivery of water, power, and scientists from one point to another. Also used—excessively, I might add—for storage. We are first going to LFO administrative offices, very sad to say, to discover what has been irretrievably fouled up in our absence—absences? Tell me, my young scholarly neice Jasmeen, are two people having singular or plural absence in English?”

“Singular, I think,” she replied. “Absence, like water, cannot be counted.

Julie and Llyra gave the Chechen girl a nod of encouragement and approval. One subject that Jasmeen did not tutor her young pupil in was English. In fact, most of the time, it worked the other way around.

On the other side of the airlock door, they found one leg of the Spider, featuring the ends of a pair of broad, horizontal, rubberized moving “slidewalks”, one of them coming toward them at a brisk walking pace, the other going away. Overhead were pipes and cables. The spaces either side were filled with cartons, boxes, and barrels. Saladin and Ali stepped onto the slidewalk and beckoned to their three female guests.

“Is absolute necessity, I am afraid,” Ali explained when the three females had joined him and his partner on the walkway. “In community consisting entirely of intellectual types, wandering about with noses buried in books or other documents, or thinking deep thoughts like Dorothy’s Scarecrow, they are otherwise walking straight into one another.”

******

What Saladin had referred to as the administrative offices at the Larsen Farside Observatory didn’t look very much like offices, at all, Llyra thought. They looked much more like the historic mission control center at NASA in Houston, or the equivalent at Curringer Corporation headquarters in Johannesburg—both facilities were now museums. They consisted of a series of very large 3DTV screens running around three walls of a room the size of a big theater, and curved rows of computer monitors, manned by several dozen individuals wearing headsets. A few also wore VR helmets like she had tried aboard the William Wilde Curringer.

Above it all hung a ten-foot recreation of an old black-and-white newspaper cartoon. Several big fat scientists in white lab coats were delightedly abandoning their equation-filled blackboards so they could run out to meet the ice cream truck. The artist’s signature read “Gary Larsen”.

Saladin and Ali stood with their guests at the rear, on a sort of low mezzanine separated from everything else by an air curtain, so they could talk without disturbing the people working. “Is here we correlate information from radio array, optical telescope—which we are to be showing you directly—and orbiting station on other side of Earth, which is giving us our half million miles of parallax,” Ali told them.

Saladin added, “First two rows keep track of different sectors of Solar System, in plane of ecliptic, where planets, moons, and Belt asteroids are found. Next two rows observe above and below ecliptic, where most dangerous planet-killers live. Last two rows track mostly man-made objects: probes, private vessels, space liners, and rock pirates.”

“Rock pirates?” Llyra and Jasmeen both asked at once.

“Yes, pirates,” Julie repeated. “They spend most of their time hanging, as quietly as they can, at some likely location in space, waiting for a legitimate asteroid hunter to find the rock he’s looking for—they can tell by the various signals he generates or gets back from the target. Then they close in and take it away from him at gunpoint.”

“Or missile-point,” offered Saladin.

“Or laser-point. Pirates are spending some of their time looking for unclaimed asteroids, themselves. Disguise also helps to reduce overhead.”

“Pirates,” Jasmeen mused. “At home we are for some time having hooligani and brigandi stopping travelers and robbing them in desert shortly after terraformation made such villainy possible. It appeared most were leftovers from military expedition sent by East American government to put down unruly colonists. No offense, Grandma Julie.”

“None taken, dear. We had to shoot a few of our own bad dogs after it was clear that Earth had abandoned us and discipline broke down in our unit. They never could get used to the idea that a heavily armed civilian population tended to make, er, hooliganism and brigandage unprofitable.”

She turned to the two scientists. “So tell me what keeps space pirates operating out here? Wilson and I just ordered a big particle cannon for his little ship, specifically to help deal with pirates. I should think that the same principle, of an armed populace, would apply.”

Saladin nodded. “Applies fine when hunter is unbusy and can see pirates coming. You see, Mrs. Ngu, we are offering three varieties of information here at Larsen Farside—rather, three levels of billing. Least expensive data is from general survey of objects we are finding. Is offered in coded broadcasts to all subscribers, at low standard fee. Most expensive is specific information in unique codes, requested by only one purchaser. Information on rock pirates we give away free. We try to make earliest warnings possible. Pirates do not like LFO terribly.”

Everybody laughed.

“One tried to kill us once,” said Ali. Somewhere along their path, he had removed his artificial eye and replaced it with the patch, in a manner analogous, Jasmeen thought, to changing into bedroom slippers when one came home from work. “Rock pirate tried to drop big one on observatory. It was carbonaceous chondrite, holding much water. We destroyed with terajoule ranging laser we use for pinpointing objects in Asteroid Belt, one hundred fifty million miles away. Instantly converted water to steam, generating explosion that left no fragment larger than last joint of little finger. Was very spectacular light show.”

Saladin said, “We are then turning ranging laser on rock pirate: Kaboom!

“And who is telling story?” Ali demanded. He shook his head and frowned. “Anyway, is coming no sound at all in vacuum.”

“Be that way,” Saladin shrugged. “Was certainly kaboom at their end!”

Ali laughed and slapped his partner on the back. “Very well, then, Kaboom!

******

In the end, dinner had been wonderful.

Wilson had never had lobster before now. There was very little saltwater anywhere on Pallas, and not a single fish farm that he knew of. After disposing of three broiled tails and a considerable quantity of drawn butter, with a baked potato on the side and a salad that must have come from the garden wall behind him, he knew that he must have it again as soon as possible. He wasn’t prepared to say whether it was better than sex, but if sex was better than this, he might not survive it.

“I think we’ll wait a little for the dessert,” declared Amorie’s mother Valerie. That’ll give the gentlemen a chance for a nice smoke, while the daughter and I tidy up the table a bit. Grandma, you stay put.”

It appeared that Grandma—the old lady was actually Valerie’s great grandmother—was ready for a nice smoke, as well. She stuffed dark tobacco into a short clay pipe, almost black with age and use, while continuing to give Wilson the same evaluative look she d given him all through the meal. One of the “gentlemen” struck and held a match.

“An’ where was it ye said ye was born, then, darlin’?” she asked Wilson as she drew the flame into her pipe and got it burning to her liking. It smelled all right, he decided, maybe a little bit like dark chocolate. Her accent was the same as Valerie’s, only much harder to follow. She had a face all sucked into itself, Wilson thought, like a dried up apple. He guessed that she must be well over a hundred years old.

“Ngu House,” he told her for what he was certain must be the fourth time since he’d met her only an hour ago. “In Curringer, on Pallas.”

“I met Wild Bill Curringer once,” the old lady said, but then fell silent.

The “gentlemen” in question, sitting around the table with the women, were two of Amorie’s brothers, both older than she was, three of Amorie’s uncles—two were her father’s brothers and one was her mother’s—and Amorie’s maternal grandfather. With the uncles came their wives, three of Amorie’s aunts. Half a dozen small children—Wilson never did find out whose kids they were—had been given their own table. The men smoked pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. Wilson had declined.

Now the grandfather reached into a cabinet under the big table and pulled out a gigantic accordion, covered with mother-of-pearl and chromium.

“Ah,” said an uncle, grinning. “So that’s the way of it, is it?” He reached up to an overhead cupboard and extracted a violin—although it was likelier to be used as a fiddle, thought Wilson, who knew the difference. Another uncle fetched an Irish bouzouki and another a five-string banjo. “Survive this,” Amorie’s fiddle-playing uncle told him, “ye’re fit t’survive anything. The Star in E-flat, if ye please, gentlemen!”

There was a brief musical introduction—it was enough to raise the hair on the back of Wilson’s neck; he had never heard live acoustic music performed this close before—a charming, haunting waltz, then Amorie’s grandfather began singing in a surprisingly clear, sweet tenor:

          ”Ye ladies and ye gentlemen, I pray y’lend an ear,
          While I locate the residence of a lovely charmer fair.
          The curling of her yellow locks first stole me heart away,
          And her place of habitation is down in Logy Bay.

          ”‘Twas on a summer’s evening, this little place I found.
          I met her aged father, who did me sore confound.
          Saying, “If you address my daughter, I’ll send her far away.
          And she never will return again, while you’re in Logy Bay.”

The bouzouki and banjo had joined in by now, with Amorie’s uncles singing harmony. Wilson wondered what kind of music this was. He’d never hard anything like it. Maybe it was Amorie’s revenge for the nightclub. She seemed to know all the words, and as she helped her mother clear the dishes, sang along with them. Her voice was clearly untrained, but as pure and sweet as her grandfather’s, and an octave higher.

The men nodded to one another and stopped singing as Amorie continued.

          ”How could you be so cruel as to part me from my love?
          Her tender heart beats in her breast as constant as a dove.
          Oh Venus was no fairer, nor the lovely month of May.
          May heaven above shower down its love, on the Star of Logy Bay”

Then they all joined in again.

          ”‘Twas on the very next morning he went to St. John’s town,
          And engaged for her a passage in a vessel outward bound.
          He robbed me of my heart’s delight, and sent her far away,
          And he left me here downhearted for the Star of Logy Bay

          ”Oh now I’ll go a-roaming, I can no longer stay.
          I’ll search the wide world over in every country.
          I’ll search in vain through France and Spain, likewise Americay
          ’Till at last I sight my heart’s delight, the Star of Logy Bay.”

Finally, Amorie’s grandfather finished the tale:

          ”Now to conclude and finish, the truth to you I’ll tell.
          Between Torbay and Outer Cove, ’tis there my love did dwell.
          The finest girl e’er graced our isle, so every one did say.
          May heaven above shower down its love, on the Star of Logy Bay.”

Everyone laughed and clapped, even those who’d performed. Amorie’s mother wiped her hands on her apron. She looked at her daughter and at Wilson and said, with a neutral expression, “Now I think it’s time for bed.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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