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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: SAVE THE SKY

There is more than one kind of courage. One is the physical willingness, despite great fear, to leap into the jaws of death. The other is to maintain a difficult—sometimes unpopular—effort for years or even decades, despite loneliness, privation, or public derision. Of the two, the latter is less easy, but more likely to produce lasting results.

It is also, by far, the rarer.

When those who have earned great wealth legitimately, by demonstrating that latter kind of courage, are criticized or attacked, it is usually by those who lack it altogether.
The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

The fastest gun in the Moon wasn’t in the Moon at this particular moment.

At this particular moment, he had concealed himself in a kitchen cupboard he had folded his entire length into, onboard “L-Sex”. He had held the position, knees pressed against his ears, breathing shallowly since there was no room to breathe deeply, for slightly more than two hours.

That was nothing, of course. As a young Special Forces sergeant in East America’s ill-fated war in easternmost Siberia, twenty years ago, he’d been captured by a mixed force of Chinese, Koreans, and Russian mercenaries, taken to a small camp on the Manchurian border, forced into smaller boxes than this, and kept there for days, or even weeks. They hadn’t bothered to interrogate him. He didn’t possess any valuable information, and they had known it. They had simply wanted to see him suffer.

When the P.O.W. camp was overrun by his own side’s mercenaries, he had been made to walk back three hundred kilometers to his old unit. In the hospital, his superiors had debriefed him around the clock for weeks, employing drugs and electronic “stimulation” to make absolutely sure he was telling them the whole truth concerning what he’d been put through.

The day of his discharge, he’d robbed a company armory and deserted. Alone, laden with weapons, he’d retraced the three hundred klicks to the ruins of the camp, then another hundred to where they’d relocated. The raid that had delivered him into the hands of what he’d ceased to think of as his own side had not been successful in any other respect. On returning, he’d killed every one of his former tormentors, mostly with his bare hands.

Following that, he’d walked out, living off the country, until he reached India, three years later, where he established a new identity—he’d had no money to begin with, but he was very good at certain high-paying tasks—and let his old self remain listed as Missing In Action.

He doubted by then that anybody cared.

But that was then and this was now. Hearing both ships break with the station and depart, he pushed the cupboard open with an elbow, and began unfolding his long legs above the kitchen countertop. As soon as he could, he used a personal phone (not his own) to call the computer he’d left aboard his own rental vessel, and ordered it to come get him. As he waited for ship and circulation to return, he reached back into the cupboard for an item he’d left there, and placed another call.

“Oh. It’s you,” said the voice at the other end. Please wait for one minute while I take this somewhere where we can talk privately.”

The man sitting on the kitchen countertop heard the other man get out of a spring-loaded desk chair, open a door, and close it again. Pretty clearly, he’d locked himself in the bathroom.

“Very well. What have you got?”

“Switch on your video,” the man in the kitchen replied.

“This is necessary?’

“If you want to see it.” He held it before the pickup. “East American fragmentation grenade. Depleted uranium. Would have blown the place to bits, where it was, on the fusion reactor. I came because I knew one of your subjects was coming soon, found it, defanged it, got it off the reactor just in time. A pair of horny young grad students got here just before your subject did and almost interrupted me.”

“Any idea who is responsible?”

“The individual who planted it I didn’t recognize. With the disposable push unit I attached to it, the body will probably burn up in the sun, given a decade or so. I only have suspicions about the client. It’s typical of the work and style of Null Delta Em.”

******

“What do you mean, it just didn’t go off?”

Anna Wertham Savage, world-acclaimed author of the bestselling book Massquake! (now in its fifty-seventh printing), and leader of the Mass Movement, wasn’t having one of her better days. In fact, it was by far the worst day she could remember since that young criminal Wilson Ngu had single-handedly wiped out Null Delta Em’s valiant Environmental Defense Brigade, and been given a medal and money for it.

Come to think of it, the same people were here now who were here then. P.E. “Honest Paul” Luegner, leader of Null Delta Em, occupied the sofa this time, and Johnnie “the Fish” Crenicichla, a go-between who worked for both organizations, sat in the most comfortable chair. Aside from that, the only other difference was that the portrait on the wall above her desk was that of the eternally blessed Paul Erlich, instead of Rachael Carson, who had recently fallen out of political fashion.

Savage had not thrown Carson’s framed portrait away, however, but stored it in a closet. Day to day changes in the acceptibility of historic personalities were unpredictable. Sometimes it seemed that some people were far more politically active after they were dead than before.

“That’s right, Annie,” Luegner told her. He’d just returned from a rare visit to the Moon on the very Null Delta Em business they were discussing now. “The damn thing should have been several thousand tons of rapidly-dispersing metallic confetti by now, floating around in an unnatural and decaying orbit. Instead, it’s still the very picture of technological health. We have no idea why, or of what happened to our operative.”

“It’s so difficult to get good help these days.” Crenicichla looked unhappy. “Meanwhile we’re standing out in public with our flies open, and we have no effective counter-statement to what’s happening on Ceres, later on this week.” This pair of idiots had it easy, he thought. They didn’t have to report upstairs to “You-Know-Who”, the powerful and faceless men and women who were the real controllers of everything that happened, both politically and economically, in East America.

He’d just come from the paneled boardroom of the ancient Boston Bank where they met—he still felt as if he’d been chewed on—and he was expected back there this afternoon, presumably for more of the same.

In despair, Savage gazed out the office window at her beloved City of Five Colleges. In a world that often sped by at a blurring speed, this refuge from cupidity and avarice never changed, except for the better. It couldn’t change, because change was against the law. The Amherst board of governors had recently managed to push the legal limit on visible technology backward, from the originally voted-on 2000, to 1950. All over town, construction scaffolds across the faces of buildings were helping to eradicate another fifty years of false progress. Streets were being scoured for automobiles of inappropriate vintage, and this time, there was a dress code to compel compliance with.

Perhaps in that spirit, she wouldn’t own a 3DTV set and almost never read a newspaper or magazine, so she was often behind the times. Now she braced herself for another set of outrages. “I’m not supposed to know about things like this observatory business. And I don’t know what’s going on on Ceres. I’ve been too busy recording lectures for distribution.”

“And hiding out in this toy town of yours.” Luegner rolled his eyes. “Honestly, Annie, I don’t see how you can hope to change the world without keeping updated on what it is and what it’s turning into.”

Indignantly, Savage retorted, “I know perfectly well what the world is, Paul—I do travel, you know, on the lecture circuit—and I also know all too well what it’s turning into, thanks to nothing but greed.”

More and more—perhaps because of forty-odd lectures she gave every year, mostly in North America and Europe, but all around the globe, and despite the studied cynicism of these two men and others like them—the threat of worldwide gravitic catastrophe was real to her.

“The danger looms larger,” she would tell them, “with every ship that lands on the planet, bearing cargo from the Moon, from Mars, and especially from the Asteroid Belt. And now, despite my warnings, despite the ill-considered but understandable threats from Null Delta Em to destroy them before they can be completed, there is talk of building so-called ‘space elevators’ in equatorial South America and Africa, so that even more life-threatening alien mass can be imported from outer space.”

Of course they wouldn’t listen to her in South America and Africa, where she had never been invited to speak, and where projects like the space elevator offered false promises of ending centuries of poverty among the masses. Increasingly, in her mind’s eye—in her dreams, as well—she saw the Earth’s crust slow, relative to the motion of the core. She saw it slip and crumble, worldwide, so that in a single day, a single hour, humanity and all of its works were shattered and ground to dust, ending six thousand years of history, of Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt, and Rome, of Michaelangelo and Mozart, in flame and smoke and horror.

Annie!

“What?” She blinked. “Oh, sorry. Woolgathering, I’m afraid.”

“Where did you go?” Luegner asked her, looking concerned. “For a moment, there, I thought you’d had a stroke. We were about to discuss Adam Ngu. He and his company are about to do something significant on Ceres.”

She nodded. “I’ve been concentrating hardest on space elevators for the past few weeks, Paul, and I haven’t been paying much attention to Ceres. Anyway, there’s never very much in the news now about the asteroids—”

“Because,” Crenicichla broke in, “we arrange it that way. There’s plenty happening out there all right. What Paul is talking about, on Ceres, they’ve got their plastic envelope down on the surface, welded together, and tested for leaks. Before they start stringing the steel cable to hold it down, they’ll hold a big ceremony, and inject the first generation of tailored microbes into the soil. It’ll generate a poisonous reducing atmosphere at about the same rate that they string the cables.”

Luegner nodded. “They’re going to throw a party at the end of the week to celebrate this stage of completion. We’d hoped destroying Larsen Farside’s orbiting observatory would throw cold water on their enthusiasm. Now we’ve got a missing agent, his weapon—and possibly his fingerprints—in the hands of the enemy, and a party about to start.”

“I told you I’m not supposed to know about these things, Paul!”

“It isn’t pretty,” Crenicichla agreed. “That’s the plain truth. I could probably use a large dose of credible deniability, myself. The reason I asked you to meet me here today, all three of us, that is—although ordinarily, we’re never even supposed to be together, let alone seen together—is that something extraordinary has happened, something absolutely unprecedented.” He reached into his stylish (for Amherst) two-toned 1950s sportcoat and extracted two folded sheets of paper.

He handed one to Savage. the other to Leugner, then held up one of his own. “Careful,” he warned them. “That’s flash paper, tissue soaked with a nitrate and dried. There’s another chemical on one corner. All you do is stomp it, or put it on a hard surface and strike it with something. It bursts into flame and burns so quick it’s like it wasn’t there.”

“So what’s so remarkable about this?” Leugner asked. “I seems to outline a basic Null Delta Em mission—albeit a rather ambitious one.”

“And why am I being told about it in advance?” Savage wanted to know.

“It’s remarkable because it won’t happen for about eighteen months—it’s partly dependent on Adam Ngu’s schedule—but instead of letting us pick our target as we usually do, and decide how to take it, this mission has been planned in detail by the folks who pay our salaries.”

“And I—” Savage began.

“You’re being told about it, Annie, because the Mass Movement will make a case against Ngu and his cohorts for us, from now until the big moment. This will be an exceptionally violent and bloody action; we’ll want at least a fraction of the voting public to believe it was justified.”

Leugner peered at his sheet of paper and whistled. “Violent and bloody hardly describes it! They’re looking to change the course of history!”

“That’s the idea, Paul. As you see, Ngu’ll hold another ceremony the day the last cable is in place and he injects the second designer microbe to kill off the first and begin generating a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. A few hours before that happens—we’re still considering the timing—Null Delta Em will strike, stealing Ngu’s thunder, demonstrating the danger of travelling, working, living, and building in space. The primary team has already been selected and has started training.”

“That’s enough!” Savage exclaimed. “I don’t want to know any more! I don’t want to know what I already know! I’ll concentrate on Ngu and the terraformation of Ceres if I’m ordered to—although the space elevators are a far worse threat and there’s the danger of simply publicizing Ngu and his efforts—but I demand not to be told any more!”

“Okay … ” Crenicichla rose and put on the straw fedora that went with his jacket, pleated slacks, and two-tone shoes. “We all have our orders. Read ‘em and burn ‘em. Paul, why don’t you come with me? We have some items to discuss, and I can show my ‘brand new’ Kaiser Henry J.”

******

Contract ice.

This morning—it happened to be Christmas morning—they were alone, not just on this sheet, but in the entire six-sheet facility, a vast cavern that always reminded Llyra of the salt mines she’d seen in photographs taken on the Earth. The music coming over the Heinlein’s public address system was from Trinward’s haunting Lost Fifth Force suite.

Wearing her long, black, heavy coat that nearly touched the ice—a tradition with skating coaches; underneath she might easily have been wearing sweats, an evening gown, or daylight fluorescent hotpants and a matching halter top—Jasmeen stood at the rink gate nearest the main lobby doors, watching Llyra and making movies with her pocket computer.

Llyra sped diagonally across the ice, from one rounded corner the other, until, almost at the boards, as the powerful music swelled to one of its many crescendos, she suddenly leaped upward, six, eight, ten, twelve feet above the ice, turning in the air once, twice, three times, then three and a half, and landing smoothly, trailing leg at full extension, light as a feather, without any impact noise, skating backwards.

For both of them, it was a wonderful moment, and fully appropriate to a holiday they were celebrating by doing the work they loved best. After a long, dry season, it was Llyra’s first successful triple Axel—in the Moon. It had once been estimated—back in the century of a fifty-state America—that a double Axel cost a skater’s parents ten thousand dollars, and the skater herself perhaps as many as a thousand falls.

Llyra’s first triple Axel had happened on Pallas, at the Brody, a long time before she had met Jasmeen, when she was an athletically precocious six years old. This morning she’d done it in three and one third times the gravity she’d grown up in, after at least a thousand unsuccessful attempts, and “only” six months of nearly superhuman effort.

“Ta-da!” she sang as she skated back to her Chechen coach with a great big grin. Jasmeen was grinning, too, and there were tears in her eyes, as well. She grabbed Llyra when she arrived and hugged her until she squeaked. They both took a big drink of water from plastic bottles they’d brought with them, then decided to give the triple Axel another try. It was important, because it was the doorway to the quadruple jumps.

“I have often wondered what it means, this ‘ta-da’.”

“It means, ‘Lookie what I did!’”

It was equally important because there was a new and urgent reason for Llyra to perform well and get along quickly to higher levels. She and Jasmeen had seen “the” commercial for the first time on 3DTV last night—Llyra’s commercial—the commercial that Sheridan Sinclair, Chairman of the Board of the Curringer Foundation had promised to make (or threatened, it didn’t make very much difference) and her father had provided recordings for, of his daughter skating her heart out on Ceres.

That day, on that little artificial pond under the construction dome, she’d done a quintuple Axel without really thinking about it very much. She’d done a heart-stopping, breath-taking double backflip, too. Merry Christmas, Llyra, now you’re really going to look like an idiot.

The recording was being used by the Curringer Foundation to pique interest in investment—as well as future tourism and homesteading—on that little world. The small Pallatian advertising agency that Sinclair and her father had hired had even sent her a check for her performance. According to SFSA rules, she had to spend the money on skating expenses, or lose her amateur status where competition was concerned.

Her father had called her all the way from Pallas to wish her a Merry Christmas and tell her about the ad campaign. Thirty minutes’ worth of transmission lag made real conversation impossible of course. He was there on business, but was calling from Ngu House. Llyra could see her mother in the background, not looking particularly unhappy about it. As far as Llyra was concerned, that was Christmas present enough.

“So be sure not to miss it tonight, baby,” he’d said. “We’ll be running it a lot over the holidays. They’ve also hired an artist, and you’re about to become the logo for the entire Ceres Terraformation Project.” His words had given her an undefinably odd feeling in her stomach.

Today—the morning after, as it were—the whole thing still didn’t seem real, although she’d recorded the commercial and watched it at least a dozen times last night. She’d been able to skate much better at Ceres’ one tenth of a standard gravity, of course, than she could at Luna’s one sixth, but most people wouldn’t understand that, and would want to see her equal the performance that they’d seen on 3DTV.

No pressure there, no pressure at all.

The next try, Llyra took off too late, slammed into the boards in the middle of her second turn, and fell onto her side from six feet in the air. She lay there on the ice for just a moment, “appreciating” her bruises (from the inside, of course—no professional athlete ever rubbed an injury in public) and trying to catch the breath that had been blasted out of her. Jasmeen skated up to her and took her hand.

“Are you going to live, my little?” she asked Llyra, hauling her up.

“Yeah,” Llyra said, on her feet again, “but I promise not to enjoy it.”

They both laughed.

Llyra shook herself and headed for the other corner to try the jump again.

******

Wilson said, “Download successful, Larsen Farside. Thank you very much.”

A pleasant female voice replied, “You’re welcome, Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend—I just love the name of your ship!—we’ll send you our bill.”

Actually, she had already; it had been embedded in the downloaded data now streaming past his eyes on the control console. Exclusives were very expensive. If this hunt didn’t go well, his partner would be unhappy.

On the other hand, he caught himself wondering idly what the girl at the Larsen Farside end of the conversation was like. Pretty? Funny? Nice? Maybe it was a sign that he was finally getting over Amorie. He hadn’t heard from her since that last time on the ‘com. Her family’s ship Esmerelda had left Lunar space and was headed upsystem shortly afterward.

She might even be married by now.

Taking a last lovely bite of his handmade gourmet ham and cheese sandwich (one thing Julie wouldn’t let him scrimp on was food), and a last gulp of his Coke before letting them both float in their plastic baggies at the ends of their tethers—too short to interfere with the controls—Wilson attacked the keys before him, converting what Larsen Farside had just sent him into something his own navigational computer could use. He supposed he could have automated the process, but then he wouldn’t have known the data a fraction as well as he did by the time he’d finished their manual entry. His dad had taught him that.

Satisfied, he struck a virtual key relabeled “ANY”.

Seemingly all by herself, Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend suddenly slewed downward and sideways some forty-three degrees, fifty-seven minutes, driven by a single engine and her attitude thrusters. There came a surge of acceleration as she came into the correct alignment and her other two engines cut in. She and her owner were off, in a blaze of fusion-heated reaction mass, after their first exclusive quarry.

The targeted object had been described as dark-colored and potato- shaped. That was an astronomer’s idea of a joke, of course. The same description applied to ninety-nine percent of all the asteroids and meteoroids and other space junk ever found. It was roughly forty feet along its longest axis, almost purely metallic, and unusually rich in palladium. It was estimated to be a monolith, rather than a loose aggregate, which meant that it would be much easier to capture and control.

Extra points, as well, because it was headed straight for the middle of L-Two, a sector of otherwise empty space that was occupied by some two hundred artificial habitations and fifty times that many people. For bounty purposes, L-Two was considered one of the Settled Worlds. This asteroid was no Diamond Rogue, but by every criterion meaningful to hunters, it was a find.

With a whoop, Wilson pursued his quarry, radar and lidar alive and singing to him from different portions of the musical scale. Unlike sonar, the actual returns occurred at the speed of light. They were only being simulated with sonar-like noises, rather like the false colors that are often useful in scientific photography. The return times kept getting shorter and shorter, until they froze and became a solid, disharmonious chord. He could see the target, now, through the curved plastic wall in front of him. Throwing switches, he armed the cable gun under the ship’s “chin” and prepared to throw a loop on his first rock.

“What the hell kind of a name is Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, anyway?” The harsh male voice came to him abruptly over his general address radio system. Unlike the encrypted female signal from Larsen Farside, it did not sound at all pleasant, and indeed, it wasn’t meant to.

“That all depends, I suppose,” Wilson replied evenly, stepping up his oxygen partial pressure. He wondered whether the guy was reading his transponder or could actually see him. “Who the hell wants to know?”

Space Viper, out of Port Plato—the guy whose hunting territory you’re trespassing in, newbie! Let go of that rock, and make contrails!”

That was stupid. You only saw contrails in an atmosphere. And to his knowledge, there was no Port Plato—probably no Space Viper, either.

Wilson had been warned about this, during the hundreds of hours of classes he’d suffered through at the insistence of his grandmother and her insurance underwriter. (His certificate of completion sat in a frame, fastened to the wall near the edge of the dome.) Several portside bullies—including a couple he’d gone to shiphandling school with—had already tried to warn him not to hunt “their” territories, until somebody had told them who Emerson was and what he’d done on Ceres.

His great grandfather Emerson’s .45 Magnum Grizzly automatic pistol, hanging low on his right hip, had probably been persuasive, as well.

His grandmother told him that these people would probably have been muggers, politicians, or union bosses, back on Earth, in New Jersey.

Now Wilson laughed. “You know there’s no such thing as personal territory out here, Space Viper—and where’d you get a name like that, anyway, a bubble gum machine?—according to the Asteroid and Meteoroid Hunters’ and Miners’ Concurrance of 2097. I’ve got it right here, and could read you the relevant paragraphs, but why don’t you just fribble off, instead? Unless you want to be formally accused of piracy.”

A snarl: “Yeah? And just who’s gonna survive this to do that, Girlfriend?”

“I am,” said Wilson. Fingers flying on the keyboard, he rolled his ship to bring her dorsal surface to bear on the intruder, rotated a big item of equipment, and raised it until it pointed at the other vessel. “You sort of forgot the Mighty Mouse part, Viper. I’ve got a brand new Coprates Electric ninety gigawatt particle cannon here, in a spiffy universal swivel mount, trained on your front windows right now.”

Wilson flipped the red switch cover up and backward, and threw the arming toggle. An entire section of the control panel that had been dark before, now lit up like Armstrong’s Eagle Avenue on a Saturday night.

It was impressive, considering that the particle cannon was on backorder and wouldn’t be installed until late next week at the very earliest. All he had pointed at his adversary was the expensive swivel mounting.

He laughed. “What do you say, Viper, assuming that’s your real name?”

Without another word, the ship that called itself Space Viper veered off and disappeared in a bright blast of fusion-heated reaction mass.

This is fun, thought Emerson, reaching for his ham and cheese sandwich.

******

The two men emerged from the freight elevator and stepped into the grimy alley behind the office building occupied, in part by the Mass Movement.

One of them immediately reached into a jacket pocket and extracted a package of cigarettes that would have cost him twenty East American dollars had he bought it in Amherst or anywhere in Massachussetts. He had bought in Wyoming, where it had cost about one percent of that amount.

“Careful, Paul,” the second man warned the first. “It’s illegal to be seen smoking in public in this town. There are cameras and mikes everywhere.”

Pulling the cellophane wrapper off, Leugner put it in his pocket and tapped the bottom of the pack until a single cigarette emerged. “Except for where people pay for them not to be, like this alley, for instance?”

Johnnie Crenicichla nodded. “Yeah, for instance. You get what we needed?”

Luegner held up his politically correct 1950s vintage Zippo lighter. “Got it in spades. If this operation goes all right, it’ll be bigger than September 11, 2001, or what happened to Denver. If it goes smoothly, then we’ll never need the stuff I recorded up there this morning.”

Crenicichla laughed. “And if it doesn’t, then, morally outraged at the crime your underlings committed without your knowledge consent, you’ll resign from NDE. The recording, properly edited, will deprive Annie of credible deniability, and hang the crime on her. When she’s out of the picture, you’ll reluctantly take over and head the Mass Movement.”

“Pretty damned slick,” Luegner agreed. “Except for one tiny little thing. Give me the recording you made, Johnnie, while I was making mine.”

“Paul!” Crenicichla pretended to wide-eyed, open-mouthed surprise astonishment, but not particularly well, Luegner thought. It was what came of not spending enough time around coeds, testing the extreme limits of their gullibility, “What in God’s name can you be talking about?”

Luegner drew a politically correct 1950s vintage .45 auto from inside his coat and thumbed the hammer back. He always carried a round in the chamber. “Come on, Johnnie, I know our bosses all too well. Do it, unless you’d like to give the city’s gunfire location system a test.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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