CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: THE EGRESS
It has long been observed that, in some sense, a true individualist should be a “citizen” of every country, a free spirit without borders, at home wherever he happens to find himself.
It’s even more important to be a “citizen” of every age, the inheritor and beneficiary of every human experience, past present.
The first step in that direction is never to believe anything anyone in authority—politician, bureaucrat, most especially school teacher on the public payroll—has to tell you about history. Compared to any of them, a used car salesman is paragon of integrity and verisimilitude.
—The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu
“Ali, this is another fine mess you have gotten us into!”
Despite the circumstances, Llyra, Jasmeen, and Julie burst into laughter, as Ali and Saladin stared at them in perplexed annoyance. Apparently neither of the men had ever seen or heard of Laurel and Hardy. They’d been among Julie’s favorites, however, growing up in an otherwise unpleasant and dangerous environment. She’d passed them on to her granddaughter, who had shared them with her mentor and best friend.
What they were all staring at, through the small, circular windows of a simple vehicle—little more than an inexpensive asteroid-hopper clumsily retrofitted to withstand the strains one sixth of a gee put on her, rather than the one tenth she had originally been built for—was Larsen Farside’s remote orbital telescope facility, mostly automated as the two scientists had told their guests, in roughly the same orbit as the Moon, but on the opposite side of the Earth, in a position affectionately called “L-Sex”.
There was no such Lagrange point, of course. This was actually L-Three, where gravitic forces almost balanced out, as they did at the other Lagrange points, and objects tended to stay put more or less by themselves. A small amount of fuel—”delta-V” Saladin called it, although strictly, that was an archaic Space Agency expression that simply meant a change in motion—had to be expended from time to time to keep the robot observatory in its proper place. People—graduate students for the most part—came here from time to time for various kinds of maintenance.
At the controls of the little spaceraft, apparently as usual, Ali let his fingers skitter over the pilot’s keyboard, bringing the little ship to a dead stop, relative to the space station. “Here we are, friends, at L-Sex, so-called, other eyeball of Larsen Farside Observatory.”
“Other eyeball?” Jasmeen asked her uncle, winking at Llyra. “How important is other eyeball when you are all the time squinting at sky like this?’ She made an eyepiece out of her fist and peered through it.
“How many one-eyed outfielders are in Solar Baseball League? Same number as one-eyed goalies?” Ali held his thumb and forefinger up, about three inches apart. “Average distance between adult human eyes. Very small in scheme of things, very large in human survival. Two eyes tell brain how far off next limb to swing to is. Helps locate prey, avoid leap of predator.”
Llyra spoke up. “I get it. Having telescopes both on the Moon and here widens that distance from three inches to half a million miles, helping you to accurately locate objects that are very far away.”
“And that are both predator and prey,” offered Jasmeen.
Julie gave her an interested look.
“In old days, Earthbound astronomers used Mother Earth for both eyeballs,” Ali told them. “Take picture in December, another in July. One hundred eighty-six million miles distance. Accurate, but takes six months.”
“Yes,” Saladin agreed. “In asteroid-hunting business, six days may be too long, or even six hours. Not so much because of danger—we detect dangerous asteroid average of nine years, two months before collision—but because valued customers are not wanting stale information.”
Ali turned to his partner and their passengers. “But we are having acute case of burglars precisely at present moment, do you not agree, Saladin?”
“I have never seen cute burglars before, Ali.”
The observatory was roughly T-shaped, where the upright of the T was a squat canister the size of a small apartment building—Llyra and her friends could see light in several rows of windows—housing research facilities, operating systems and machinery, and temporary quarters.
Across one end of the cylinder lay an open construction at least five hundred yards long, looking rather like a radio transmitter tower, except that it didn’t taper. At one end was a radio dish like those that filled the area around the Moon-based facility itself. At the other, was a less familiar, and much more complicated-looking object.
Llyra thought she knew what it was.
“What is there to burgle?’ asked Saladin. “We are having nothing, I tell you, nothing. Some spare parts for both telescopes, nothing else.”
“Air,” said Ali. “Water. Rations. Toilet paper.”
“Oogh!” Saladin complained, for the most part, to himself. “Have you ever actually tried to go to bathroom here? Not enough gravity, even, to hold you down. Is quite an ord—oops, pardon me ladies!”
Two of the “ladies” burst into laughter. Julie grinned. She had endured vastly worse hardships than trying to make a zero-gee toilet work.
Out the window, at the end of the cannister farthest from the the telescopes, a small spaceship not unlike their own had attached itself.
“Thousands of ounces platinum we spend to build this facility and has only one airlock? This tin can we are flying here has two airlocks!”
“We did not build facility, remember? We purchased from East American Space Agency. And why are we ever needing second airlock, Saladin? People are coming here only every few weeks for repair and refueling.”
Saladin stole a sideways glance at his female guests. “And one other thing.’
“Oh, well, then, yes. For one other thing. Must never forget one other thing. But in any event, my friend, we are never needing second airlock.”
“Until today,” murmured Saladin.
“Until today,” Ali conceded.
“What’s the ‘one other thing’?” asked Llyra.
This time, it was Julie who burst out laughing. The men looked at her in dismay. “Go right gentlemen, ahead, tell her. I want to see you try.”
Saladin sighed, wrinkled up his face, unwrinkled it, and sighed again. “Is L-Sex Club,” he said, obviously hoping that it would be enough.
“L-Sex Club?” Jasmeen asked her uncle, pretending innocently not to understand what he’d meant. “What sort of club is L-Sex Club, anyway?”
“L-Sex Club,” the scientist had begun turning red, either fom consternation or from embarrassment, “Is kind of club your parents hope you do not join for at least twenty more years, young lady.”
She let her eyes grow big. “You mean when I’m thirty-nine?”
“Possibly never,” suggested her other uncle, trying to come to Saladin’s rescue. “Have you thoroughly considered career in Catholic church?”
Jasmeen laughed. “But uncle, we are Moslems!
“At least,” he said, “by ancestory.”
Wilson lay on his back in the pilot’s chair of his little ship, staring at the center of the instrument cluster before him. He’d been about to leave, after a hard day’s work refitting the life support system, and had given the ‘com number yet another try, almost on a whim.
Valerie Samson frowned at him, although he didn’t know why. Again he wondered what he’d done wrong. Finally, her daughter came to the screen.
“Amorie,” he demanded. It was probably natural that he didn’t give her a chance to speak first. It was a bad way to start and he realized it about two seconds too late. “Why wouldn’t you answer my messages or calls?”
She seemed confused, and more than a little bit annoyed, exactly like her mother. He’d thought that he’d behaved properly aboard the Esmerelda, at least in accordance with their customs. So why did both females look at him as if he were something they’d found by turning over a rock? “I’m answering your call now, Willie. What do you want?”
“What do I—” He blinked, speechless. What was going on? The gunfight on Ceres, even that strange business with the Null Delta Em bomber, had been easier to get through, and less disorienting. Aware that something life-alteringly terrible had happened, or was about to happen, or was happening now, he had an odd metallic taste in his mouth. “Amorie, tell me what’s wrong! I thought that we—especially after—”
Amorie nodded as if she’d come to a sudden enlightenment. “Why, there’s nothing wrong, Willie, nothing at all. We each did what was in us to do. We each did what we had to do. And now it’s finished. Now we’re done.”
“Done? What do you—?” Wilson’s scalp tingled, along with the back of his neck. For the first time in his life his palms were sweaty.
Amorie looked just as beautiful and desirable as she ever did. But she also seemed exasperated. “Didn’t you have a good time with me, Willie? Didn’t I give you a night that you’ll remember the rest your life?”
There wasn’t any other way that he could answer that one honestly. “Yes, Amorie, you did. For the rest of my life. But I thought … I wanted … ”
She nodded. God, she had long eyelashes. “But you wanted more, Willie, didn’t you? I think I understand—and I’m more flattered by it than you’ll ever know. You wanted more nights like the one we had, certainly—although I don’t know how we’d survive it. You wanted to be with me forever. You wanted to get married and maybe even have a family …
“Yes, Amorie, that’s just what I thought. That’s just what I wanted.”
She took in a, long, deep breath and let it out. Behind her, he could see her mother and some of the others preparing dinner again. “And I believe you, my darling Willie. But you see, the trouble is that I can’t have a family. I’m not physically capable. I can’t do much of anything, really, except what I do. Do you want to know what I do?”
“Amorie, please don’t—” He was afraid of what she would say.
“Oh, Willie, that wasn’t very nice!” She laughed a bit ruefully. “It isn’t what you think, dear. You see, my people have done very well for themselves over the past century. We’re very successful, we’re very rich. We own a fleet of hunters. But there was a cost. Radiation, the genetic isolation I told you about. We were about ten years away from extinction until a great grandmother of mine thought this system out.”
“This system?” Now he was even more afraid.
She tipped her head to one side a little, a gesture he’d always found extremely appealing. “I have no mathematical aptitude, Willie dear, no mechanical or engineering potential. My reflexes are too slow to pilot a ship. There’s absolutely nothing I can do to justify the food I eat, or the oxygen I breathe, or the bed I occupy, or the room I take up. If my family had known about me ahead of time—before I was born, or even shortly afterward—I’d have been exposed to the Void.”
He’d heard this kind of thing about some hunters. “I—”
“You didn’t see most of my family, Willie. Most of them stayed in their quarters the night you were here, like they always do on nights like that. You only saw the ones who can hide their infirmities under their clothing—or who can pass for normal like I do because their problems are all on the inside, and they can go out in public in the daylight.”
“Let me finish, Willie darling, please. Because it turned out that I did have something going for me, after all. I was—I am—the prettiest girl ever born into the Samson family. And that’s worth something, as it happens. It’s worth quite a lot. Strong, intelligent, brave young men like me, you see. They like me very much. They like me well enough—just as you did, Willie—to give me a wonderful gift.”
“A gift?” By now, Wilson thought he knew what was coming, and he was beginning to get a terrible, twisted feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“It’s a miraculous gift, believe me, Willie. They give me all of their strength, all of their intelligence, and all of their bravery. And because I can’t make any practical use of it myself, I share it out among my sisters and my cousins and my aunts. Willie, you gave me enough of your strength, your intelligence, and your bravery for a dozen healthy girls! I don’t know of any adequate way to thank you, really, except to say that I enjoyed it, too. Most times, you know, I don’t.”
Why couldn’t he just die, and disappear, right now? He said, “Most times … ”
“Yes, Willie, most times. Most times they’re big, ugly, sweaty young men—more of them hunters, than anythng else—who may have excellent genetic profiles, but they have no awareness at all that the person in bed with them is a real live human being. Sometimes it can even be dangerous. But it’s always worth it. Always. Every child you saw aboard the Esmerelda at dinner that night was mine, Willie. That is, in order to create them, I brought good, new, fresh DNA to my family.”
There were tears in Amorie’s eyes, now. He’d never seen that before. And they were tears of happiness. This was the strangest, saddest thing he’d ever heard of, and he didn’t know what to say to her.
She smiled. “My mom is the statistician. She says, even though I can’t have childen myself, in my own way I’ll be the mother—and in only one generation, Willie—of whole new healthy, happy family of Samsons!”
“So you have it all planned out, in advance?”
She nodded. “And when I’m too old to do it any more, I won’t feel like I have to jump out of an airlock. I’ll have earned my retirement. I’ll be surrounded by people who won’t have to hide whenever company comes. People who possess all of the strengths and talents that I lack, myself. People I made, who wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for me.”
Wilson said nothing. There wasn’t anything to say.
Amorie said, “I’m telling you this, Willie, so you’ll understand, and maybe so you won’t feel quite so … well, hurt. And because you’re the only one who ever tried to call me back the next day, or wanted to know why. You can’t know how much I appreciate it that you care.”
“Go live your life, my dear, sweet, darling Willie. Fix your ship up and have good luck with her. I’m getting married myself, next month—it’s an arranged family thing. Find the Diamond Rogue. Find a girl you can love and make a family of your own with her. And maybe … maybe think of me now and again.”
Llyra stepped through the airlock built into the nose of Ali and Saladin’s little hopper, into the airlock built into the stern of the strange shuttle that had docked with the observatory station called “L-Sex”. The interior of the latter was clean, featureless, and impersonal, almost sterile, as if it were not somebody’s private property.
She was following Ali and her grandmother, Julie. Jasmeen was right behind her, and Saladin took up the rear. The two men had their guns out this time. Once inside the station, they had argued, they would know in what directions—and at what objects—it was safe to shoot.
Jasmeen, Llyra and Julie (Julie somewhat uncharacterisically, her granddaughter thought, probably serving as an example to the girls) had grudgingly agreed not to draw theirs unless they were in imminent danger.
Having secured the gasketed doors they’d come in by, it was now safe for them to open the airlock door that would lead into the station.
“Will be unfortunately noisy operation,” Ali observed. “Anyone in station will know that there is company coming and have time to be ready.’
He put his hand on the heavy metal wheel, believing that it would be quieter than using the machinery that ordinarily turned it. Before he could apply any pressure, however, there was the sound of a big electric motor, and then, slowly at first, the wheel began moving by itself.
As the door swung aside, two young individuals were there to greet them.
“So is you two, Saladin told them. “I was wondering why I did not see you two poking sticks and cheerleadering down in Culversac end of Spider.”
The boy’s hair was touseled, and so was the girl’s, although it might have been the lack of gravity. They were of opposite sexes, but they were dressed almost identically, in jeans and running shoes. He wore a plaid, cotton shortsleeved shirt with a single pocket. She wore a little white top of some kind with a bit of lace around the collar. Over that, she wore an oversized flannel shirt—probably his—as a jacket.
Llyra noticed immediately that it had been buttoned crookedly, one button out of synch, as her father put it. It had been fastened in haste.
“What are you doing here?” Saladin demanded. “Why did you not sign selves in for coming here on roster board in administrative office? Where did you get ship out there, fastened like lampfish to single airlock?”
Ali interjected himself, “Lamprey, Saladin. Is lamprey. But yes, where? We had to crawl through it like … like … through-crawling things.”
The boy spoke up while the girl tried surreptitiously to rebutton her shirt. “We didn’t sign the roster board because we weren’t at Larsen Farside. We were in Armstrong City, Dr. Khalidov. It’s our day off.”
“Yes,” said the girl, having succeeded with her jacket. “We just happened to check the website for this place—you know how it goes—and discovered that there was something was wrong here—very wrong.”
Nodding enthusiastically, the boy agreed, “That’s right. The navigation values for the optical telescope and the radio telescope didn’t match, and both of them disagreed with the values at Larsen Farside.”
“So we rented a commercial hopper from Avis,” said the girl, “flew here, and found that the station was three hundred feet off its proper location.”
Her companion said, “We fired up the thrusters and fixed that.”
“We were … um … that is, we had just begun recalibrating the navs on both of the telescopes,” she told them, “when you folks got here.”
Saladin nodded, “All because you happened to check website on day off.”
“And not because,” added Ali, “you wanted to see if shore is transparent—”
Both miscreants, along with Llyra, Jasmeen, and Julie said, “What?”
“I think he means if coast was clear.” Saladin suggested.
“Yes,” Ali replied, “See if coast is clear for to join L-Sex Club.”
The girl blushed deeply. The boy stood by her with an arm around her.
“Good for you!” Julie whispered to them. “You think that rental out there has enough reaction mass to reach L-Four?”
“Hi, there, kiddo! I didn’t know what time it is for you, so I stopped off at Brother Mel’s Zero Gee Pit Barbecue when I got back to L-Four just now and got you some breakfast, lunch, dinner, or whatever.”
Wilson looked up from his work. His eyes, Julie noticed, were red-rimmed with what looked to her like unshed tears. She”d always had an uneasy feeling about that Samson girl, although it hadn’t been her place to say so, and probably wouldn’t have done any good if it had. Unshed tears, in her opinion, caused even worse heart trouble and probably cancer. Sometimes—not often—it was easier being a woman.
He said, “Thanks, Julie. I’m not sure I’m very hungry right now. I’ve got the reefer working finally, though, You could put it in there.
“Not on your life, Captain my Captain. I got you two giant pulled pork sandwiches on onion buns with extra sauce—Sweet Carolina—skinny French fries, cole slaw, and a couple of those jalapeno dill pickles they have. Refrigeration constitutes sandwich abuse, a serious crime in these parts. They need to be eaten pronto, as we say in Newark.”
“Western Newark.” Wilson straightened up slowly. He’d been squatting beside this access port for hours, wrestling with the stubborn devices inside, and despite the lack of gravity, his knees and back were stiff and painful.
“Okay,” he told his grandmother. “I give. What have we got to drink?”"
“The only thing fit to drink with hot food—ginger beer!”
The kicked themselves up into the piloting dome of Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend to watch the stars and the traffic around L-Four as they ate. Julie never tired of watching different types and models of ship going by. She’d have had one of her own if she could have thought of any good reason to. She knew she didn’t have the temperament to hunt asteroids.
As they ate, she watched her grandson, too. She wanted him to talk about what had happened—she had a couple of good guesses—and start getting it out of his system. She believed he wanted to talk, too, but she wouldn’t press it. She’d lived with Billy Ngu a long time, and thought that Wilson was more like him than anyone else in the family.
At last, Wilson took a big swallow from his second baggie of ginger beer, and said, “Wow! That stuff is hotter than the barbecue sauce!”
“Good, isn’t it?”
“Sure is! Do we have another baggie?”
“In the ‘fridge, Honey, I bought plenty. Bring me one, too, will you?”
When he had kicked his way back to the pilot’s seat and velcoed himself in, he said, “It didn’t go well, Grandma.” Unlike his little sister, he seldom called her that when he wasn’t hurt in some way.
“No?” she answered neutrally, pretending to pay attention to her pickle. ‘You mean your visit with your friend aboard the asteroid hunter?”
“Her name is Amorie Samson, aboard her family’s the Esmerelda. Actually, the visit itself went … very well. I can’t tell you how well.”
“Literally, I imagine. So why are you all down and out, then?”
Slowly, keeping his eyes on his shoes, Wilson began telling his grandmother about the two terrible days he’d suffered through after his visit to the Esmerelda, about not being able to reach Amorie—with whom he had communicated every day, sometimes several times a day, for more than a year—and then about their final, surreal conversation.
They didn’t speak for a long while. The situation was much worse than Julie had imagined. “So what are you planning to do now?” she asked.
Wilson turned and looked at Julie. It was one of those rare moments in his life when he realized all over again how strange it must be to be seeking grandmotherly comfort and advice from a beautiful young woman who appeared outwardly only a year or two older than he did.
“I’m thinking maybe I should finish overhauling and refitting Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, and sell her for three times what I paid for her, as Lafcadio was planning to do, and go back to work on Ceres.”
“Where you belong?” Julie asked, arching her eyebrows.
He met her gaze. “Something like that, sure. If Dad will have me.”
“Why shouldn’t he?” he asked. “You think your father’s likely to be angry or ashamed of you because you got your heart broken?”
He sat up. “Wow! You know, somewhere down deep inside, that’s exactly what I was thinking.”
“I knew you were. Remind me sometime to tell you some stories about him when he was your age. He was the king of broken hearts, himself.”
Wilson grinned ruefully and shook his head. “Sometimes I think he still is.”
She nodded. “Me, too.”
Julie put an arm around her grandson’s big shoulder. “Look here, Honey, you can’t throw your whole dream away because one corner of it turned sour. I’m going to tell you something that you won’t believe right now. But I solemnly promise you that a day will come when you finally realize that this was the best thing that ever happened to you.”
Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith
lneil (at) netzero (dot) com