CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: RECOGNITION
Social scientists have determined that, far more than religion, race, nationality, or sex, people tend to identify with one another on the basis of what they do for a living. A West American plumber tends to identify with an Azerbaijani plumber more than he does with his own countrymen who are not plumbers.
That certainly agrees with my experience, and I think it explains perfectly why politicians, who derive their income from legalized plunder, are inclined to go soft and squishy when it comes to dealing with muggers, rapists, thieves, and murderers.
—The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu
“I know you!” the young asteroid hunter suddenly said between clenched teeth. His heart was pounding. The short hair stood straight up on the back of his neck. “I know that voice! You’re the Space Viper!”
Wilson leaned across the dining table and glared at the individual who had just been introduced to him as “Swede Vargas”. It was all he could do to refrain from drawing his great grandfather’s .45 magnum, hanging on his hip. In the crystal clarity that sometimes comes with large amounts of adrenaline suddenly surging through the bloodstream, he noticed that his three friends appeared to be having the identical problem.
They all froze in place—they’d heard the story—as had the bartender, who heard all kinds of stories. Vargas’ hands stayed on the table. To Wilson’s surprise, the man threw his head back and laughed again.
“You mean it wasn’t my initials that gave me away?” He indicated a big, shiny, silver trophy buckle he was wearing, an oval of engraved and polished silver with elaborate gold decorations. First associated with rodeo cowboys on the mother planet, buckles just like it were also popular with long haul truckers on Earth and Mars, and asteroid hunters.
Vargas’ buckle bore the large initials S.V. “To tell the absolute truth, kid, I found it in a recycle bin here at the spaceport, ten or twelve years ago. Don’t know why it got thrown away, but it seemed like a waste to let it get melted down, so I decided then and there to change my name, thinking it might just change my luck, as well. Now sometimes I’m known to my adoring meteor hunting public as ‘Skylark Valentine’, or ‘Smedley Veritas’.”
“Or Sid Vicious.” Wilson laid his right hand on the big, coarsely checkered rectangular ivory grip panel of the .45 Grizzly autopistol. “Mister, I don’t give a roach’s rectum if you want to call yourself ‘Susannah Vusannah’. You’re still a rock pirate, and we’ve got you. Now you’re going to pay up for everything you’ve done! Scotty, call a magistrate—”
“Not necessary, love” said the bartender, matter-of-factly. He took the toothpick out of his mouth. In the background, on the 3DTV, a band was playing “Jack Was Every Inch A Spacer”, about an asteroid hunter who bored a hole halfway through an asteroid with his fist, so he could reach in and turn it inside-out. “I’m a magistrate, but I prefer plain old ‘judge’. What’s this fellow here supposed to have done?”
“Why, he—” Wilson began, then stopped abruptly, thinking and remembering as hard as he could. “Well, he ordered me out of what he claimed was his hunting territory and demanded I give him a rock I’d found.”
“And what were you after doing then,” asked the bartender.
“Only what I’d been taught to do. I reminded him that nobody is obliged to recognize anybody’s claim to a hunting territory and he should shove off. I waggled an empty particle gun mount at him—” He glared at the Swede. “I have the gun installed now—and then he went away.”
“He went away, is it?” The bartender raised his eyebrows. “It sounds more like hazing than piracy. Was he actually after doing anything?”
Wilson closed his eyes, thought about it again, sighed, and shook his head. “No, I guess he wasn’t—say, do I call you ‘Your Honor’ now? Like I said, all he did was try to lay claim to the region of space I was hunting in, and demand that I turn loose of the rock I was intercepting.”
“Call me Wally,” the bartender said. “And did you?”
“Did I … ?”
“Turn loose of the rock.”
“That he did not!” Vargas turned and grinned up at the bartending judge. “The kid ran me off at the point of a particle cannon that he didn’t even have yet! Balls of brass, this one, I tell you! When I heard his friends here out at the repair yard mention him by name, I knew I had to meet him and buy him a drink. He’ll do. He’ll definitely do!”
The judge nodded. “Then I order you to apologize, and that’ll end it.”
“Not likely,” Vargas replied. “I didn’t to anything wrong.”
“He has a point, there,” the judge agreed. “Any ideas from you, love?”
He looked to Wilson. “I suppose he could buy me that drink.”
The judge said, “Hows about you buy all of these lads a drink, then?”
“Done!” Vargas answered. “One for you as well. Your honor. In fact, bring me the tab for the meal. This adventure’s been worth that much.”
Marko leaned across a corner of the table until he and the black man were nose to nose. “Okay, now, Ess Vee, why not tell us your real name?”
The man closed his eyes and even shuddered a little. “Believe me, you’d change your name, as well, if you found yourself in my place, I guarantee—”
“What’s your name!”
“Othniel James Simpson. The original was a remote ancestor of mine.”
The four young men at the table blinked at one another.
“What,” asked the bartender, “is so bad about that?”
“Attention all Marsbound passengers for the City of Newark. That’s all Marsbound passengers for the City of Newark. Your shuttle craft to the Marsbound City of Newark will begin boarding in twenty minutes.”
The Armstrong City spaceport seemed unusually crowded today, Llyra thought, although she didn’t have very many other visits to compare it with. Through an endless series of heavy glass windows along the great concourse, she and her family watched shuttlecraft and interplanetary vessels in various stages of preparation for wherever they happened to be going. There were also several small herds, it seemed, of ground- bound tenders, both wheeled and tracked, that reminded her of vacuum- breathing dinosaurs, as well as individuals walking around in numbered envirosuits.
The announcement repeated itself twice before it went on to inform them, “Passengers for the City of Newark, as well as all other ships of East American registry, are reminded that neither smoking nor the carrying of personal weapons of any kind is permitted aboard the City of Newark or any other vessel of East American registry. All tobacco, marijuana, cloves, kinnikinnick, or other forms of smoking substances, lighters, box or book matches, pipes, cigarette or cigar holders—firearms, offensive lasers, tasers, swords, clubs, knives, or any other object intended for violent purposes must be left here in the spaceport, checked with the ship’s purser, or secured in the baggage hold.”
The recorded voice repeated itself twice again, and then began to announce the comings and goings, and the rules and regulations, with regard to other ships here today. These announcements were generally a great deal shorter. Imitating the announcer, Llyra proclaimed, “Please bend over. This will be a service of the Department of Redundancy Department.”
Her brother laughed. Jasmeen and Julie grinned, although they were all sad to be here at the Armstrong spaceport today, seeing Wilson and Llyra’s grandmother off for nobody knew how long. She had explained to them that in the past year, she had finished her business here in the Moon. The Conchita and Desmondo theme park would be completed in two years, on schedule—excavation had begun already in a suburb near the Heinlein—with only a few minor alterations insisted upon by the author.
Contrary to certain shrill demands and violent threats made by the East American government’s representatives, not a single politician or bureaucrat would be portrayed within the park with any sympathy of any kind. On the other hand, there would be a big discount for government employees and their families, and free admission for those who could prove they had resigned.
“I can’t describe how much fun it was, seeing their statist faces collapse when I told them that,” said Julie. “They actually thought they could just come up here and order us around. There isn’t anything more laughably pathetic than an authoritarian politico without any authority.”
Jasmeen grinned and said, “This I wish I had seen.”
“You would have loved it, dear,” Julie told her, laughing. “This whole trip has been an absolute delight! I got to give an award and a family heirloom to my favorite grandson—glad to see you wearing it; Emerson would be pleased—and watch him get himself established in the asteroid hunting trade. Then my favorite granddaughter takes two firsts and a second in open competition at an ice rink where she couldn’t even walk a little less than a year ago. Medals, medals, medals!”
“Grandma—” Llyra began. She knew that she couldn’t persuade Julie not to go back to Mars, but she couldn’t keep herself from trying.
Her grandmother was going on. “But now I need to go back home and complete my new novel about Conchita and Desmondo, lost once again in the land of the Wimpersnits and Oogies, before deadline.” Llyra had read somewhere that millions copies of Julie’s latest book, Conchita and the Brain Eaters had already been pre-ordered, even though it was actually a thinly-veiled exposure of public school psychological counsellors—the kind who travel from school to school following some disaster or another. It had been banned already, sight unseen, in East America, a kind of advertising, Julie said, good for even more sales everywhere else.
“But why do you have to go through all this East American security garbage, Grandma Julie?” Wilson wanted to know. “Turn your gun over to the purser? Leave it in the baggage hold? It’ll be just like flying home stark naked.” He blushed when he realized what he’d said. Julie brought that out in him. “Why not borrow the William Wilde Curringer again? She’s a whole bunch faster than this so-called spaceliner, anyway—”
“Beautiful Billie? Well, that would be very nice, dear,” Julie agreed. “The trouble, though, is that Sherry’s taken Billie way, way upsystem, ostensibly for an inspection tour of the new O’Neill habitat construction in orbit around Jupiter. I suspect his real interest is following up some fresh rumor about the disappearance of the Fifth Force. Somehow, they all seem to find their way to his doorstep one way or another.”
“Another one of those?” Jasmeen shook her head and muttered. The unexplained disappearance of that famous exploratory vessel, bound for the Cometary Halo carrying Llyra’s two most famous great grandparents, Emerson and Rosalie Frazier Ngu, and nine hundred other Pallatians, remained the meat of tabloid journalism even after all these years. It had hung over the Ngu family like a dark cloud for most of Llyra’s life.
Down at the far end of the concourse, they could see and hear a vendor offering various kinds of ammunition considered acceptable by non-East American transport companies for space travel, which meant bullets, among other things, that could be lethal to an aggressor without damaging the spacecraft. The East Americans must have hated that.
“In any case,” Julie continued, “although they’re not advertising it, except for the Fifth Force, this will be the longest voyage ever undertaken by a vehicle with a human crew. Sherry and his ship won’t be back for at least six months. By then, his maintenence people will be foaming at the mouth to tear her apart, looking for micropunctures and radiation damage. As much as I’d like to, my darlings, I can’t stay here in the Moon any longer. I write more comfortably at home on Mars.”
Wilson was concerned. “But they’re gonna make you go through that metal detector over there, Grandma, wave wands at you, maybe even take you somewhere and make you undress, or worse! I’ve heard that there’s worse!”
The spaceport management itself refused to search passengrs or disarm them, so the East American spacelines had to do it here, in their own boarding area. The employees of other companies often made fun of them, goose stepping past and making rude-sounding remarks in mock German.
“And it’s dangerous!” Llyra put her two cents’ worth in. “The only ships or aircraft that ever get taken by criminals or terrorists are the ones where the passengers have been disarmed.” They all knew that was why most spacelines encouraged their passengers to travel well armed, and even offered them a discount for doing so under certain circumstances.
Julie smiled, nodded and put a hand on each of her grandchildren’s shoulders. “I’m deeply moved that you care, both of you, I really am. They’ve backed off a little on so-called security since they began to have more competition. I understand that the Fritz Marshall company will begin serving the Earth/Luna to Mars route sometime after the first of the year, and that will almost certainly end these barbaric practices, altogether.”
“But Grandma—” Llyra began.
“In the meantime, I have a connection or two, and I’ll be home soon enough.” She began to gather up her hand baggage and a couple of magazines.
Jasmeen interrupted, “We stay one more year ourselves, Then go home.”
Julie nodded. “You’re the coach, coach. You know I trust your judgement in these metters. I mean to tell your folks how well you’re doing here. You just let me know whatever you need.” By now she was standing and had bent to embrace Jasmeen and give her a kiss on the cheek.
“Home? To Pallas?” Llyra was completely bewildered. She wondered what she’d done wrong—or failed to do—to deserve being sent home.
“Home—to Mars, where we can see your Grandmama again. Where my mother will cook good Chechen food for us and make us eat it until we creosote. And where you, my little, will skate in a third gee—twice what you skate in now. Is necessary next step to finally skating on Earth.”
“Home,” Llyra repeated, “to Mars.”
Her coach nodded. “To Mars.”
“Just look at that, will you!” The man with the blond moustache and thinning hair was almost quivering, but with what—excitement, rage, bloodlust—his business colleague couldn’t guess, and didn’t know.
And she didn’t like not knowing.
From where they both stood in the security line for The City of Newark, he indicated the nearby passenger lounge with a subtle nod, rather than by pointing. “All four of the monsters together! Just one little—”
It was hot and Krystal Sweet felt sweaty. Fresh, clean clothing she’d put on this morning now felt damp and dirty. The official wand- wielders seemed especially slow today, she thought, a dimwitted pair of unpleasant, unattractive, overweight women from the East American Projects, wearing shabby uniforms that were too tight for them and—she could smell it even this far back down the line—should have been thoroughly cleaned several months ago. She supposed that she shouldn’t complain, though. These minimum-wage genetic rejects were doing her work for her, after all, making sure that the victims chosen for her by her employers would be absolutely helpless when the time came.
She stopped the man beside her with a look. She knew him as “Brian Downs”. It was true enough, what he’d just said. She could see the murderous Wilson Ngu and his little sister, plus that weird grandmother of theirs, looking half a century younger than she ought to, and the girl’s coach, travelling companion, and who knew what else, all of them sitting together on the black leather, chrome-plated steel furniture, absorbed in some kind of conversation.
But even where she came from—west central New York state—especially in public places like this spaceport concourse, the walls really did have ears—although they were electronic ones—and they were connected with powerful security computers that listened hard and patiently for certain key words that could trigger a person’s instant arrest.
Words like “grenade”.
“Er, little device,” Brian went on, knowing exactly what she was thinking about. He was from Philadelphia, the cradle of East American tyranny. “And then we’d only have the mother and the father to contend with!”
Krystal lifted her eyebrows and tilted her head in a manner saying that she didn’t disagree with him. He’d been told how much she hated Julie Segovia Ngu. Any East American with a sense of political decency did.
A few positions ahead of them in the line, a fat, nasty little boy wearing shorts and a striped shirt suddenly discovered that the door to the small steel cage he was carrying was open, and that whatever had been in the cage was gone. It could have been a hamster, a gerbil, or a guinea pig—or a rat. The child set up a wail that bordered on the ultrasonic, giving her a headache, and people started looking at their feet. If it was a rat, she hoped someone would stomp on it. She hated rats. Her early training in Central America had been more or less paved with rats, some almost big enough to throw a saddle on and ride.
“But we’d have to leave the System to avoid their revenge,” she told Brian, abandoning caution for a moment—or simply avoiding key words. “Look, partner, this is hard, even for me, sometimes, but while the Ngus are our enemies, they are not the cause, nor are they the mission. In fact, annoying them unnecessarily could greatly endanger the mission.” It was a very difficult thing for someone in her trade to learn and remember; it made the difference between professional and amateur.
He grinned. “Well, then, how about just doing the grandmother on this trip? We could easily make it look like an innocent, if tragic, mishap. She may not be a little old lady, exactly, but accidents do happen, and I would guess that a spaceship must be full of potential hazards.”
By this time, somebody else’s disgusting offspring had started to cry, a little baby. Herded together as they were in the security line, nobody could move to get away from vile, noisy children or take the repulsive little things away. One or more of them had started to smell bad, too. She hoped that they and their parents would still be on Mars a year from now, when she would be—better not think about that now, though.
Krystal closed her eyes, running a weary hand through her short, pale blond hair. Her head hurt more than ever and her clothes had begun to feel sticky, hanging on her. “Let me tell you something. That person over there just happens to be the toughest of all the Ngus! And the best trained, a Special Ops Marine! I know your resume, Brian, your background in the martial arts. It’s very impressive. But I promise, you wouldn’t survive a physical encounter with her for twenty seconds!”
“Hold it down, Krys—I mean, Amelia.” He, too, belived that there might be microphones to throw off. “Your voice, I mean. You’re starting to spit a little when you talk. People are starting to look at us funny. Let me get this straight: you’re telling me that little woman—”
She breathed in and let it out again. “I know that it’s hard to believe, just looking at her. I certainly wish I had her waistline. But fifty years ago on Mars, she was assigned to a U.N. military unit sent out there to put down a colonial rebellion. Not just one of the grunts, mind you, but an officer who’d worked her way up through the ranks.”
“What? You must be kidding me. I didn’t know you could still do that.”
The woman shook her head. “You can’t, Brian. This was fifty years ago.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember. Fifty years.” She wasn’t sure he believed it.
“Good,” said the pale-haired blond. “Understand, she’s hard—so damned hard, as someone said once, that you can rollerskate on her. But she fell for Billy Ngu, and became a traitor. There are stories about what she did after she turned her coat that would curl your hair.”
He nodded. “So that would mean the tabloids are right, that she’s nearly—”
“In her mid-seventies, at least,” said the woman bitterly. “Taking up space and using up precious resources that Nature intended for the next three generations! And there’s no reason to think that she won’t keep on defying Nature for another thousand years! And using her as the pretty pinup example, before you know it, everybody’ll be doing it!”
“Calm down, er, Amelia! I didn’t know this was so important to you. Maybe we ought to seize the opportunity of this trip to put an end—”
She smiled and closed her eyes. The feeling deep inside her was warm and comforting. “I wish we could, partner. I dearly wish we could.”
Her companion tugged at her sleeve. The Ngu party were standing up, embracing the pretty grandmother one by one. Even the girl’s paid companion was included in the family hug-fest. One of the pale blond woman’s first professional assignments had been to serve as personal assistant—meaning secretary and maid—to a wealthy old woman in Wichita, while the old woman’s favorite niece was being kidnapped for ransom by a group of colleagues. Somehow, the operation had gone sour on their end, and she’d wound up garroting her former employer with a lamp cord. She hated the way that rich people often tried to pretend that their servants were their equals. It was as unnatural as it was disgusting.
Now Julie Ngu was being accompanied by a pair of smarter-looking, better-uniformed security stooges—men, of course—to a VIP lounge where she would neither have to stand in line or have her person searched.
“Now that,” Brian told her, “I find annoying.”
“Don’t worry, partner,” said the pale-haired woman, grinning and nodding with satisfaction. “It’s a good thing. Look around you. Sure you resent the abuse of power and privilege—and so does everyone else.”
The tall, skinny Pallatian pilot stood in the airlock atrium of the Guzman Brothers’ Used Spacecraft offices, waiting for an answer and wishing he’d made an appointment. On the other hand, after dozens of hours of fairly high acceleration getting here—time being money, after all—it felt good to relax for even a little while in zero gee.
It was a vice, he understood. Bad for the musculature and bones, as well as for the immune system. But it felt just like heaven to him, and he could never understand why other people didn’t seem to care for it.
Funny, nobody seemed to be home, although the open sign was on. Helmet under his arm, politely, he reached a space-gloved hand up to thumb the doorbell once again, but a large, dark face with villainous eyes and a huge hooked nose appeared in the viewing screen before he could.
“Aha!” said the face. “A customer! I suppose we are still open for doing business for a little while. What can I do you out of today, customer?”
“Lafcadio Guzman?” the pilot asked. The man had been described to him.
The man replied, “Who else in heaven’s name would I be, if I had a choice?”
“I don’t know about that, sir. I’m R.G. Edd, representing the Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy Museum in Curringer, on Pallas. You know, the asteroid? I’m also captain of the Pallatian towing vessel Little Toot. See her right over there? I’m also the crew. I’m here to make sure that you got paid properly, and to pick up the Drake-Tealy object for the museum.” The truth was, he was dreading the long lonely haul back to Pallas and he hoped the guy would ask him in for a bag of coffee.
The big oval airlock door swung open, and Edd was greeted by a strange looking individual. The man’s head, shoulders, and torso appeared to be normal-sized, if not a little oversized. His arms looked extremely powerful. But his legs were those of a child. Some kind of accident to the spine, he supposed. The man reminded Edd of pictures he’d seen of the famous French artist Henri de Tolouse- Loutrec.
“Come in, come in, Captain Edd! Yes, yes, I am Lafcadio Guzman, himself! The very self! And I seem to be saying everything twice! Twice! And yes, yes, I received the museum’s ridiculously generous payment! You know I had to call the bank and make sure that a zero hadn’t been added by accident! You must excuse me, Captain, I am about to go on vacation for the first time since around the year you were born! I think I’m going to buy myself some new legs—and perhaps a brother!”
Edd had known some pretty odd people in his life, so he simply filed Lafcadio Guzman away with the rest of them. Everywhere he looked, shoes, socks, shirts, pants, and underwear floated through the air. Happily, the pair of shorts that lighted on his ear seemed to be clean.
Guzman offered him a baggie of champagne, imported all the way from Paris, France. It pained the pilot to turn the fellow down, just as it pained him to come all the way, almost to Earth, only to turn around and head straight back to Pallas. Somehow, he thought, you’d expect a museum to take a longer view of things. But that was what he was being paid extremely well to do. He took more frequent vacations than this fellow, here, so it would all come out in the wash eventually.
“Well, Mr. Guzman,” he told his host, “I sure hope that you enjoy your vacation. It looks to me like you’re off to a pretty good start. For me, it’s blasting straight back to Pallas, to the tune of something like twenty years’ worth of digitally enhanced recordings of Gunsmoke.”
Guzman’s eyebrows went up. “Gunsmoke? In full color and false three dee?”
Edd nodded enthusiastically. It was true, you never knew where you were going to find another fan. Nobody on Pallas seemed to understood it. “You bet, pal—you can see the smoke from Marshall Dillon’s Peacemaker come right out of the 3DTV and into your face. And Miss Kitty—”
“Oh, I can imagine it perfectly! Festus and Doc! And the young Burt Reynolds! Oh, I thank you so much! I believe I will look immediately into making a purchase of my own. A very good day to you, Mr. Edd. Can you find that accursed rock by yourself? It looks just like a big, dirty old potato, but it sprouts all of the expected knobs and excrescences of any small Drake-Tealy Objet Drat. Do you need me to—”
“No, no, Mr. Guzman. I already found it, thanks. I’ve thrown two layers of brand new chainlink around it, and we’re all saddled up and ready to ride. You take care of yourself, now, okay? Keep your powder dry.” Edd stepped back over the threshhold into the building’s airlock.
“Okay!” Guzman swung the airlock door. “Thanks again! Happy trails!”
That was Roy Rogers, not Gunsmoke, but Edd grinned and waved all the same. He turned, entered his own airlock, closed the outer door, closed the inner door, and climbed into his control seat. Separating his ship from Guzman’s building, he thrust back toward the gigantic Drake-Tealy Object and let a loop in the cable that held the chainlink bag closed slip over a bollard at the rear of his ship. The vessel had originally been designed as a space tug, servicing both of the polar spaceports on Pallas, but ships were more nimble now, and didn’t need help.
Edd planned to use a couple of miles of line so that he could get out of the way in case of some kind of accident. As the slack began to tighten, given the known mass and acceleration of his ship, strain gauges on the line gave him the mass of the Object within a few ounces.
Funny … how could that be? This damned thing weighed as much as any chunk of sky-iron ten times its size. He could get it back to Pallas, all right, but someone was going to have to meet him after turnover with extra reaction mass—and maybe a spare spaceship or two.
So be it. He entered values in the navigation and acceleration computer and hit the ENTER button. The computer thought about it for a couple of nanoseconds, then changed the ship’s heading slightly and fired all five of the vessel’s huge fusion engines. But Edd felt no acceleration.
Not at first, anyway.
Instead, his powerful little towing ship slowly began to travel backwards. He knew this was the case because his pilot’s seat and the control console in front of it slewed around in their gimbals, and he was plastered into the big chair by acceleration. By the time he got himself oriented, the meter in the chair-arm read three point one-four gees, and, Pallas born and bred, he could hardly breathe or lift a finger.
“Controls to voice!” he wheezed.
“Controls to voice, aye,” the ship responded.
Reluctantly, he cut his engines and watched helplessly in a viewscreen as L-Four and the Moon began to dwindle visibly in the distance.
“Broadcast the following on all frequencies: ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is the Pallatian towing vessel Little Toot. I am … um, under attack by an unknown object and being towed backward at multiple gees!’ Add our heading and acceleration and repeat till I say otherwise!”
“Broadcast distress call, aye,” said Little Toot.
He was headed back upsystem, where this damned thing had come from.
In a big hurry.
Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith
lneil (at) netzero (dot) com