CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: PREPARATION
The United States of America began to disintegrate as a political unity almost the minute that the average citizen came to see clearly that, no matter who he voted for, no matter who got elected, he—the average citizen—was screwed.
If you’ll pardon the expression.
When even the tame mass media began referring to the two major political alternatives as a single entity—the “Boot On Your Neck Party”—it was, in the language of the times, all over. What was left of the original United States became known, whether it wanted to be or not, as “East America”, and something altogether new, “West America”—which refused to dignify a federal government and national legislature grown irredeemably corrupt by sending representatives to it—was born.
—The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu
Wilson fired the high frequency tactical laser again.
The beam was invisible, very nearly into the X-ray wavelengths, but he could see—under telescopic magnification, of course; the rock was actually too far away to observe the effect directly—a little jet of vapor where the laser struck. Hot particles and gases burst from the surface of the meteoroid, opposing the direction in which it was presently tumbling, gently bringing its rotation to a halt.
It felt a lot like he was pushing against the rock with the laser itself.
At the same time that the hot vapors slowed the meteoroid, sensors on Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend‘s hull analyzed them, giving Wilson a better idea what his catch was made of than he had gotten from the observatory.
The call had come from Larsen Farside earlier that “morning”: “Captain Wilson Ngu,” the figure on the screen had greeted him. You are next in line for non-exclusive information. Do you accept this opportunity?”
“Sure, Doc,” Wilson answered. It was one of Jasmeen’s scientist uncles. He could never keep them straight. This was the big fat one. Funny the way his silly Chechen accent sounded sexy when his sister’s coach was using it. “How come you’re doing your own calling this morning?”
Jasmeen’s uncle shrugged. “Is maid’s day off. Here comes data feed. It looks like carbonaceous chondrite about hundred feet on long axis.”
“And shaped about like a potato. Gotcha, Larsen Farside, and thank you.”
“Do not thank, Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, just pay bill on time, please.”
“We always do, Larsen Farside, we always do. Talk to you later!” The stars whirled around him as the little ship changed its heading at the commands he punched into her keyboard. Wilson, pressed deeply into his acceleration chair in a way he always found exhilirating, was off with a mighty whoop and a rapidly dispersing cloud of used reaction mass.
It would be ninety-three minutes before he caught up with the rock. He called up the latest episode of his favorite 3DTV program, Hong Lee, Secret Agent that his computer had recorded and saved for him. It concerned a private operative, working for a famous Bulgarian philanthropist, against one of the last unfree countries in the world—the United States of (East) America. This week it was about Hong Lee trying to save some precious artifacts from the Whiskey Rebellion, before they could be destroyed by authoritarians desperate to rewrite history.
The proximity alarm rang just as the program ended (it originated in the Moon where programs running an hour and a half were popular at the moment) and the ship’s computer began analyzing the target’s several different motions. It was headed downsystem at the leisurely pace of six miles per second, rotating roughly around its longest axis while tumbling end over end. It was also precessing slightly as it tumbled.
First he stopped the precession with a series of well-timed, well- placed laser blasts. From the incandescent vapor, the system informed him that the rock (at least this section of it) consisted almost purely of carbonaceous chondrite: magnesium silicate with touch of iron, eleven percent water, and five percent kerogen. An ordinary rock it was, but a good one. It was the very stuff that made life in space possible.
More use of the laser put an end to the tumbling, and finally, to the rock’s rotation. It appeared now to hang motionless in space a hundred yards from Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, although both it and the ship were speeding through space, toward the Sun, at twenty-two thousand miles per hour. Happily, the Sun was many millions of miles away.
Now came the hard part. Sidescan radar and other sensor systems told Wilson that his target was solid enough simply to attach himself to it and haul it off. He had enough reaction mass to get it turned and headed toward L-Five, where it ought to fetch a pretty price, oil and water being almost as valuable as palladium and iridium. He would begin to run low on reaction mass about two thirds of the way there, but the olivine the rock was mostly made of would help him make the stretch.
As soon as the course was laid in and the correction properly made, he stood the engines down and coasted, then climbed into one of his envirosuits. He pocketed his Herron twelve-shot revolver, and made his way out through an aft airlock. Attaching a safety line to a ring located near the door, he pushed off aftward until he came to the tow cable attachment. Laboriously relocating his safety line to a connection near one engine, he took a pick-axe from a handy tool box, and pulled himself along the cable until he reached the rock, turned, and set foot upon it.
Sophisticated “smart” microfibers on his bootsoles kept his feet on ground that no human being had ever stood upon before or likely ever would again. Thinking about The Little Prince, he walked around the miniature world he’d captured, looking for a good place to dig. He wouldn’t have been at all surprised, he told himself, to see a couple of tiny volcanoes that needed dusting, or a cruel rose under a bell jar.
At last he found a place he thought would do. He sank his pick into it, set the light in the end of its handle blinking, and returned to Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, where he extracted what looked like a four-inch fire hose from a locker nestled between two engines. Making his way back to the place he’d left his pick, he set its business end on the ground—it looked like the mouth of an extremely toothy monster—and flipped a switch. Immediately, coarsely ground rock began to be whisked to the ship through a moving spiral within the hose.
All around him, the stars were bright and cold and absolutely motionless. He had one of those moments of realization—too rare in a person’s life—that this was what he had always wanted to do, the only thing he had ever wanted to do, and that he was almost perfectly happy.
The fastest gun in the Moon lay on the walk just outside the Last Branch Saloon and Gambling Emporium, bleeding on the weathered boards from he didn’t know how many wounds. He’d lost count around four. He couldn’t recall anything in his life that had ever hurt quite this much. Maybe he should have backed off a bit on the virtual sensations menu.
He’d been gut-shot, simple as that, shot through the abdomen with a pair of heavy .45 Schofield army-style revolvers, by a pale blond young woman who now stood over him, straddling him, both of her huge top-break, seven and a half inch barrelled sixguns, pointed at his face.
He could even see thin wisps of smoke trailing upward from their muzzles, crenelated by especially deep rifling intended for soft lead bullets. Why wasn’t she using a .41 rimfire derringer or, say. a .32-20? He should never have let the program choose the weapons for her.
The young woman wore a pale gray bib-front shirt of unbleached cotton with fancy hand-carved buttons, one corner of the bib turned down, sleeves rolled to her elbows, a homemade vest and breeches of fringed, rust-colored deerskin, and a pair of round-toed Justin boots with steeply canted riding heels. Her flat-crowned brown Stetson with its rattlenake-skin band, rattles included, was thrown back onto her shoulderblades, hanging there on a braided horsehair cord around her neck. He’d thought from the start that the hat and band were a nice touch.
He’d added them, himself. He’d always been a big Barbara Stanwyck fan. There was also that hotheaded little girl who shot John Wayne in Eldorado.
Her real name, he knew—the name of the individual this part of the program was based on—was Krystal Sweet. She was a hired gun—and a big star in the underworld of terror and political assassination—who worked for what remained of the left on Earth, mostly for Null Delta Em, performing especially messy or violent tasks for which the organization’s wealthy upper-class leaders and its mostly middle-class rank and file activists considered themselves too fastidious. In turn, she often employed the same half dozen ruthless thugs to back her play.
If she’d been placed in charge of that rocket attack on Ceres, he thought, twenty-five hundred people would be dead, including Wilson Ngu.
Referring to a three-inch thick dossier on the woman supplied by his own employer, plus research, realtime and online, that he’d done on his own, he’d programmed this simulated version of Krystal Sweet to be very good at what she did—otherwise practice sessions like this wouldn’t mean anything—but he hadn’t realized exactly how good she was.
Somehow, she’d managed to sneak up, plaster herself to the wall, and catch him flatfooted as he came out through the swinging saloon doors. They’d never be quite the same, either. They were as full of holes and had as many broken slats as he did. Both sixguns blazing, she’d shot him to pieces without a word, the way it really ought to be done. No dramatic fleering or gloating for Krystal Sweet until the job was done. He’d never gotten a chance to draw his cartridge-converted Remington.
His lever action Winchester lay unfired beside him, as useless as he was. His left arm didn’t seem to be working, and Krystal Sweet was standing on his right, grinning down on him, as if she knew that the only way he could get out of this mess was by twisting his belt buckle upside-down. It worried him, sometimes, that the characters in virtual reality might someday discover who and what and where they actually were. It appeared to him that she had three shots left in each of her big Schofield revolvers, but she wouldn’t use them now. She’d want to enjoy this. If she finished him—and perhaps she knew that, too—he’d simply wake up uninjured in his hotel, a sadder but wiser virtual gunslinger.
Vultures began to circle overhead, a strange sight in the middle of even a small city like this one. He couldn’t recall programming them in.
“Aaron!” The voice belonged to his old friend and parttime lover, Theodora Gibson, who kept the Swank Hotel—and a highly select line of talented and expensive professional ladies—across the street over Delmonico’s. He went by many names, here and in reality. She knew him as Aaron Salt. Lying on his back as he was, he couldn’t see her, but he could hear the woman running to him in her high-button suede boots, across the street of rutted, sun-baked mud, up onto the boardwalk, finally kneeling by his side in a flurry of petticoats and perfume.
Krystal Sweet, somewhat more sparingly constructed, and possibly resenting it, made a sour face, kept her foot firmly planted on his good arm, nevertheless let Theodora put her face close to his. Tears were streaming from Theodora’s eyes. Her ample chest pressed softly against his, and felt good. “What has this hussy done to you, my dear Aaron?”
Happy that he’d programmed several failsafe mechanisms into the system, he whispered a single word in her ear. “Parachute.” Without a word of her own, or any waste motion at all, Theodora reached back and turned his belt buckle upside-down. The world began to shimmer out of existence.
The virtual Krystal Sweet barely had an instant to squawk in angry protest.
The fastest gun in the Moon awoke in his comfortable hotel room at the LeFevre Arms in Armstrong City, still in a considerable amount of pain. The strongest virtual sensations, he was aware, had a tendency to linger for a while afterward. He was badly shaken and thoroughly soaked with sweat, conditions no real mission had ever left him in. He reached to the left side of his belly where he’d been shot. The area was smooth, unblemished, but surprisingly tender to the slighhtest touch.
It was just possible that he was getting too old for this shit, he thought.
The computer finished the braking sequence and shut the engines off. Wilson floated free at his control panel for the first time in a more than a week of continuous and relatively heavy acceleration. He tucked his flatpick into the strings on the peghead above the nut, pushed his guitar into an overhead net he’d rigged for it, and spoke aloud.
“Acme, this is Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend requesting offloading instructions.”
The space here was fairly crowded, as usual. As Wilson spoke, an automated vehicle of some kind passed within a few yards of his bow, taking a fragment of metallic asteroid somewhere in its sinister- looking claws. To aftward, a flock of self-powered tools, mostly lasers and mechanical drills and saws, made their robotic way in the opposite direction. He could see other many vessels above and below him.
The response came almost immediately. “Well ahoy there, Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend! We were beginning to wonder if we were ever going to see the Barefoot Bard again. Still torturing that poor guitar of yours?”
The pleasant female voice was officially that of the Acme Assay and Purchase Company, located (with about a thousand other businesses) here at Lagrange Point Five. Unofficially, the voice belonged to a pretty girl named Fallon (he didn’t know her last name—yet), the redhead Wilson had done business with at Acme once before. He could see her now, through a magnifying portion of his ship’s navigation dome, seated behind her own console, at a big window overlooking the company “yards”. She was about a mile away but he planned on getting closer.
“Just put the guitar away. I managed an F-sharp diminished seventh today. ‘We were wondering’, did I hear you say?” The young asteroid hunter replied playfully, “I’ve been back here at least dozen times since we first met, Fallon. Take a look at my account, which I’m sure you have up on your screen right now. But you never seemed to be around.”
She laughed. “A dozen times, is it? That desperate to see me, were you? Maybe I should send you a copy of my duty card.” In fact, this sort of hit-or-miss thing was an all too common occurrence with individuals living and working in space, who created their own time of the day, and whose working schedules tended to overlap in awkward, different ways. The unvarnished truth, however, was that he had been disappointed.
He hoped she had been, too.
All around him, Wilson realized again, as he always did when he first arrived here, there were about twice as many stars in the heavens as nature intended. Most were in colors that no ancient astronomer would ever have recognized. Some were blinking on and off, pulsing or scintillating unnaturally. One looked—if you peered at it and squinted—just like a full martini glass, rendered in neon. It was the sign, nearly ten miles away, of the Happy Hour Bar and Grill.
A tiny autocourier zipped past overhead, uncomfortably close.
“Not desperate at all, Acme, just inordinately successful.” Wilson pretended to yawn and buffed his fingernails on his shirt. He knew she could see him perfectly, which was why his feet were in Reebok deck slippers, this time, and not up on the control console. “I found a garnet the size of a beachball two weeks ago. I only have a great big, lowly carbonaceous chondrite for you today, though. Absolutely average in olivine, kerogen, and water content, I’m afraid. In short, it’s a cow.”
It was a rock hunter’s term for an unromantic find that would be “milked” of its lifegiving liquids and then ground up and consumed as reaction mass. Such objects were also known, sometimes, as CCs or “see-sees”.
The hundred-foot captive was ahead of Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend now, as it had been ever since turnover, halfway to L-Five. Once he’d brought it to a dead stop, here inside the yard, he’d employed a touch of the lateral thrusters to turn his little spaceship around and the ventral thrusters so that he could look over the view-obstructing rock and see Fallon. He hadn’t disconnected his towing cables from it yet—although they were completely slack, and wouldn’t until he was paid.
“Nothing wrong with an occasional cow,” the young woman told him. “We need air and water and plastics and lubricants. You can’t breathe palladium or iridium no matter how much we like them or how pretty they are.”
She paused as she became busy at her keyboard. “There—I’ve got your cargo all neatly scanned and logged, Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend—you’ll have to explain that name to me someday—they’ll do a full assay later today, check for precious inclusions and Drake-Tealy Objects, and adjust your account. I can credit you now or cut you a check. By the way, not to be too forward, but my shift ends in twenty minutes.”
“Pretty good timing on my part, then, wouldn’t you say?” Wilson chuckled pleasantly. The fact was that he’d wrangled a cybercopy of the girl’s work schedule weeks ago from another Acme employee who owed him a favor, and then wrestled with his own computer for a day and a half to produce this “purely coincidental”—and, according to an almost annoyed-seeming Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, totally less than optimally efficient—result. “I prefer bullion, by the way, platinum or gold. Give me half an hour to get a shower. What kind of food do you like?”
“Beachball sized garnets and platinum bullion, is it?” Fallon laughed. Wilson discovered that he liked the sound of her laughter. “And for a cow, at that. Let’s make it seafood and steak. I know a place.”
“Seafood and steak,” he nodded. “Where do you want me to meet you?”
“So what troubles you, my little? Was worst practice we have in weeks.” Llyra had fallen several times on jumps she had long since mastered. Her tan hose and the back of her skirt were covered with “snow”. Their blades, freshly sharp, made “ripping” noises on the ice that most, hockey players and figure skaters alike, find extremely pleasurable.
In theory, Jasmeen and Llyra were cooling down from a strenuous morning’s work, just skating around the perimeter of the rink, the younger of the two closest to the boards. In practice, this often turned out to be the most vigorous portion of their daily workout. They lived for the movement of their bodies in a way few others understood.
Nobody else was on the ice at the moment, although there was a scattering of individuals sitting in the bleachers, and a handful of skaters standing at each of the gates, conversing. The computer- operated Zamboni was scheduled to make “new ice” sometime within the next few minutes. Meanwhile, the public address was playing the stirring second movement of the “Rings of Saturn” by Sir Winston Lennon.
“It’s nothing, really.” Llyra shook her head. They reached the rounded corner of the rink and began a gentle turn to the right. “I was just having a little trouble concentrating.” As if to prove her point, she stumbled on a toepick, and came close to taking a tumble. Instead, like a beginner, she steadied herself on the boards with her left hand, quickly regaining her balance and the steady rhythm of her stroking. Her dignity, on the other hand, would be a little slower returning.
Sheepishly, she glanced at her coach. “Everybody falls.” Over the years, Jasmeen had told her that at least a hundred thousand times. And it was perfectly true, of course, especially for jumpers like Llyra. Supposedly it wasn’t so bad for skaters on light gravity worlds like Pallas, and Ceres, and the Moon—it only felt that way, she thought. She still had the same mass here, and the ice was just as hard.
Jasmeen, however, said, “Define ‘nothing, really’.” They kept skating, making a second turn into the other straight side of the rink. The announcer’s compartment and other hockey facilities were here.
Llyra took a deep breath. “Well, at least I hope it’s nothing. I can’t reach Daddy, Jasmeen. Every time I send him a message—even on his personal phone—it’s answered perfectly on the lagtime by that Ingrid secretary thing of his, and she says he’s unavailable and will get back to me as soon as possible. One time she even had her pajamas on!”
Jasmeen nodded sympathetically, perhaps a little disappointed, but hardly surprised. She loved Adam and Ardith but had long since given up trying to figure them out. “And you are thinking that maybe he and Ingrid—”
“No!” Llyra shouted; it echoed around the rink. “I won’t think that!”
“Thank you, Scarlett O’Hara.” Jasmeen made a hockey stop, touching Llyra on the arm so they would stop together. They were standing just outside the empty home team penalty box. “Tell me, then, Scarlett, when Ingrid secretary thing was in her pajamas, what was her hair like?”
A voice over the PA said it was time for everybody to clear the ice.
“What?” Llyra scowled for a moment, trying as hard as she could to recall something that she’d really much rather have forgotten. “Blue satin pajamas, I remember those, the shirt part completely unbuttoned. I think that her hair was up in great big light green plastic curlers. You know, Jasmeen, that’s something else I can’t figure out. Ingrid wears her hair perfectly straight. What does she want curlers for, anyway?”
Jasmeen laughed. “I do not know, my little, but I guarantee she wasn’t sleeping with your father. At least she wasn’t that particular evening.” She pushed off and began skating again, but Llyra stopped her.
Llyra blinked. “How do you know that?”
For the second time, the PA system warned everybody to get off the ice immediately. The voice was obviously recorded, and they ignored it.
“Remember women’s magazines in dentist’s office? ‘Men’s Ten Worst Turn-Offs’. Number three is hair in curlers in bed. Other nine best forgotten. I sometimes think wives do this so they do not have to have sex.”
Llyra blinked. She’d never heard of such a thing before now. Sex was not the problem between her mother and father. Everything else was.
“Is probably not the case with Ingrid secretary thing,” Jasmeen grinned.
Llyra laughed, although there were still tears in her eyes. “You are right, of course, as usual.” She turned and gave her coach a hug. Martian to the core, Jasmeen reflexively glanced around to see if there was anyone watching them. She caught herself at it, and forced herself to relax a bit. “What ever would I do without you, Jasmeen Khalidov?”
Jasmeen blinked back a decidedly unMartian tear or two of her own. “Whatever it is I would do without you, my little. My life would be much less happy, also much sadder—but it would oddly have fewer tears.”
This time when she took off, Llyra had some difficulty catching up with her. They skated hard until the Zamboni stood in its own gate, its AI angrily honking the horn at them, and they had to get off the ice.
It was always a beautiful day in the “Parque”.
That was what the builders, inhabitants, and visitors to Acme’s recreational facility at L-Five chose to call it. It was a disk, or flat cylinder about two hundred yards across and two dozen feet deep, covered with a dome made of a plastic designed to scatter sunlight exactly the way the atmospheres of Earth and Mars did, producing a brilliant blue sky. There wasn’t quite enough volume to form clouds, the way they formed on Pallas or even sometimes inside the largest buildings on Earth, but the plastic could be programmed to imitate them.
Now and again, fine nozzles set in the handrail of a decorative elevated walkway above the Parque would create a brief, gentle shower of rain. Visitors who didn’t care to get wet heeded a warning peal of thunder that was always provided under darkening skies, and climbed one of several staircases, roughly wrought of meteoric iron, to watch for a while. There were tables distributed along the mezzanine, and various entrepreneurs to offer tea, coffee, soft drinks, cocktails, and other refreshments.
Other times, people enjoyed numerous fountains scattered across the Parque, followed a small, meandering stream, or sat beside the tiny lake it fed. There were fiery-golden Chinese carp in the water, and a handful of mallard ducks, the males with their shiny green heads.
The illusion of Earth was marred a trifle by the way the stars passed overhead. Wilson could just make out the cables, painted flat black, each as big around as his waist, that stretched from the rim of the Parque structure to a common point overhead, about a mile from where he stood. Its apex was connected with another, leading to another clutch of cables, fanning out to support a more conventional building housing Acme’s administrative offices and a hotel. Whirling around, opposite one another at just the speed to produce a Lunar one-sixth gee, the two facilitis served a non-spinning complex at the juncture of the cables, where Fallon’s office was located. There were also hotel rooms in the center for those who preferred sleeping without gravity.
“I love this place,” said Fallon. She and Wilson were on the walkway—the total circuit was a little over a third of a mile—not to avoid the rain, which wasn’t scheduled for another half hour, but to give Wilson a better view of the Parque. They had just finished one of the best meals either of them had ever had, at a place called Canyon Avenue, located on the other side of the hub. “It reminds me of home.”
Up close, she was a lot of fun to look at, he thought. She had enormous blue eyes, almost like a cartoon character, and a wonderfully shaped face. Where Amorie had been all softly rounded curves, Wilson could see Fallon’s bone structure through her skin. Her cheeks dominated the shape of her face. Her nose turned up rather like his sister’s.
“You’re from the Earth, then?” he asked. Somehow he was a little disappointed. He guessed that what he was feeling might be called bigotry.
She said, “Oh, no. I’m from Pallas, Wilson, just like you are.”
“No kidding!” He stopped walking and turned to face her. She was very pretty, he found himself deciding all over again, and best of all (at the moment) her eyebrows were copper-colored. It would have taken a year, he thought, to count all of her freckles—just the ones on her face, he meant. She kept her hair, which matched her eyebrows, pulled back in a ponytail that reached down to below her shoulder blades.
She had worn a dress, sort of an odd choice for a low-gravity environment, he thought, but he liked it. It was blue and matched her eyes.
He added, “I just realized that I don’t even know your last name.” She smelled nice, and he was suddenly glad that he’d taken the time to shower.
“O’Driscoll,” she told him. “Fallon O’Driscoll of the Corner Brook O’Driscolls. My family runs a logging, lumbermill, and lumber company there. If you’re a gentlemen, I may even tell you my middle name, sometime.”
Fallon thrust out a hand. He shook it, but didn’t let it go afterward.
“Corner Brook … ” he mused. “That’s deep in the weyers, halfway around Pallas, down on the equator. The whole area is a huge evergreen forest, but I suppose you know that. I shot my first mule deer there, near Corner Brook, on a hunting trip with my two uncles, Lindsay and Arleigh.”
“With that?” She indicated the big Grizzly in the holster low on his hip. “That’d spin even a big muley buck rack over teakettle, wouldn’t it?” He should have known she was Pallatian by the way she wore her own autopistol, in a canted high-ride, just behind her right hip.
He shook his head. “This belonged to my great grandfather. I’ve only had it for a year,” he told her. “Corner Brook. I remember that I was ten years old, more or less, and I used my dad’s ten millimeter magnum.”
She grinned. “That’s just around the time that I killed my first muley, myself,” she told him delightedly. “You know, Wilson, sometimes I miss home so much that it aches—I mean physically. You know the feeling?”
“Not so much, to be honest. I never really wanted to be anything but a rock hunter, and it doesn’t matter much where I happen to do that. Also, I have family here, my sister, and, until recently, my grandmother.”
Her brow furrowed. “Oh, I’m sorry. When did she pass away?”
He laughed. “She’ll outlive all of us. She went back to Mars to write children’s books. I don’t like to brag, but she’s Julie Segovia Ngu.”
“You don’t like to brag must be the understatement of the century, Wilson. You may not know my family or anyone else in Corner Brook, but they know the Ngu family, from your great grandfather Emerson and your great grandmother Rosalie, through William and Brody who saved the seventh Martian expedition, right down to the young gunman of Ceres, who singlehandedly—”
He put a gentle finger to her lips. “I don’t want to do this, Fallon.”
She nodded and looked him in the eye. “I won’t mention it again, I promise. I just wanted you to know that I knew—except about your grandmother. I never made that connection. I think it’s really neat. I grew up on the Conchita and Desmondo books, and learned to read from them.”
He laughed, “So did I.” The resumed their walk, still holding hands.
Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith
lneil (at) netzero (dot) com