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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: MEET THE PRESS, PART ONE

I don’t know what it is about the mass media. Throughout history—certainly throughout my lifetime—in every possible social, political, and economic condition, they are enthusiastically hated, loathed, and despised by absolutely everyone. And for good reason. Almost without exception, they are corrupt, lazy, incompetent, vulgar, and dullwittedly arrogant swine—who happen to think they’re not doing their job unless everybody hates, loathes, and despises them.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Five, four, three…” the floor director counted the last beats silently.

On the monitors, there had just been a cheerful commercial for a dogfood containing microscopic nanobots similar to those that kept spacesuit faceplates clean. They would lay dormant within the pet’s system all its life. When it died, they immediately went to work converting the animal from the inside, into a permanent taxidermic display.

Aside from the fact that it sounded sad and disgusting (although he’d never been much for pets and wasn’t absolutely certain), Wilson was sure that he’d done business with individuals who had done that to themselves.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to another edition of Where Are They Now?“, originating from the studios of the Okohverik Beamcasting Company, here in beautiful downtown Armstrong City.”

The speaker was a slender young man in a three-piece gray double- breasted suit at least a century and a half out of date. He had chosen a wide, tastefully patterned necktie in subdued colors. His hair was cut short, oiled slightly, and parted neatly in the middle. He wore small, round, rimless spectacles and spoke with an English accent he hoped would disguise the fact he’d been born and raised in Purdue, Indiana.

In front of him, invisible to his 3DTV audience, stood an oddly lifelike three-legged robot about five feet tall, that shifted from side to side, backed away, or approached closely at the behest of the show’s director sitting in his glass booth overhead, at the back. It could also swivel and tilt its mantis-like head—consisting mostly of two enormous 3DTV camera “eyes”—and sometimes looked as if it might be peering hungrily at the guest, or even the host of the program.

Two more just like it wandered the studio floor, peering at other things.

“Our guest tonight…” The young host stood at stage right, a bulky and antiquated microphone in one hand, and in the other, a thick sheaf of papers that he referred to as conspicuously as possible from time to time. Now he swept the hand full of the papers back and to his left, where, in a typical 3DTV studio talk show setting backdropped by a glorious Jovian sunrise (photographed early in the 21st century by an unmanned probe and projected on the studio wall), another young man sat nervously, his hands folded in his lap, in another glass booth, in an odd chair that looked a little like a giant black plastic martini glass.

“…can’t hear us yet, in his soundproofed booth,” the host told his audience. In addition to whoever might be seeing the program at home, there was also a studio audience every afternoon, consisting of three or four dozen individuals who had not been selected for their manners, their grooming, their intelligence, or their beauty. One of the other cameras occasionally panned across the crowd, with merciful brevity.

The host reflected that it was remarkably difficult finding people like these in the Moon—where one had to be reasonably bright to get here in the first place, or at least arrange to have been born to reasonably bright parents—and a desperate 3DTV search for their unsavory kind went on continually. Luckily, finding them was not his department—but God help us if they ever form a union!

He pretended to consult his papers. “This young fellow enjoyed notoriety about a year ago, when he gunned down five environmentalist demonstrators on the faraway asteroid Ceres, where his father, as the director of terraformation and construction there, not only exonerated him for what he did, but also arranged for him to receive a solid gold medal and an immense cash reward from the Curringer Corporation, which the five bullet-riddled demonstrators had apparently been protesting against.”

“A little while after that, still on Ceres…” He whisked the top paper to the back of the stack in his hand and appeared to read from the next sheet. In reality, nothing at all was written on it; the program’s directors and producers had found that many people tend to believe anything if it’s written down, and this was one way of taking advantage of that tendency. “…he was involved in yet another ugly incident, so far not explained satisfactorily, in which there was an explosion near the one settlement, and a tourist, come to witness the controversial terraformation for himself, was shot in the knee and crippled.”

The audience had begun to grumble ominously among themselves. They were about ready. He looked back and raised a hand. “Daphne, if you will…”

An exceptionally well-shaped young woman, blindingly blond and attired in what might have been a bathing suit—if there had been more of it—materialized from somewhere backstage and stationed herself decoratively to on side of the door of the glass isolation booth.

The 3DTV host took a deep breath and loudly announced, “Ladies and gentlemen—and Daphne, Where Are They Now? is delighted to present you with that infamous space frontier gunfighter, Wilson ‘Willie the Kid’ Ngu!”

Daphne opened the door. Wilson stumbled out of the booth, past the voluptuous and almost naked young woman (who seemed to be wearing too much perfume, possibly in compensation for the fact that she wasn’t wearing much of anything else) toward the program’s host and the 3DTV program that he’d been watching but so far had been unable to hear. All Wilson could hear now were the barnyard noises of the studio audience, laughing, applauding, cheering, whistling, and, oddly enough booing.

Somebody shouted, “Murderer!” Suddenly, Wilson knew what this was all about. He’d had some misgivings about accepting this invitation, arranged for by the Curringer Foundation, to be on 3DTV in the first place. It certainly wouldn’t have any effect on his business, one way or another, and he was really sorry that he’d brought Fallon with him. The host led him to another martini glass chair and sat in one himself.

“Wilson Ngu,” the host intoned as the audience was threatened to temporary silence by a couple of thick-necked individuals, unseen by the 3DTV cameras, who could have been bouncers in one of the tougher spaceport bars. “Grandson of Billy Ngu, instigator of the Martian Rebellion, and great grandson of Emerson Ngu, armsmaker and industrial giant.”

“That’s right,” Wilson replied, undaunted. He leaned forward, into the face of the startled host. “Also great grandson of Rosalie Frazier Ngu, the notorious xenoarcheologist, and grandson of Julie Segovia Ngu, the infamous writer of children’s books. Also, my dad is an engineer, terraforming Ceres, my mom is a mad scientist, and my baby sister is…” He lowered his voice to an ominous whisper, “…an ice skater!. We’re a dangerous breed, all right, the nefarious Ngus of Pallas!”

Wilson had had to raise his voice a couple of times to keep from being interrupted. By the time he finished, the host looked exactly like he’d just sat on a potted cactus, Wilson thought. The “hanging audience” that had been carefully arranged for him seemed strangely quiet, as if they were waiting for something to happen that they could understand.

“Erm, um…” said the host. Nobody had warned him about this guy, or he might have prepared himself with a bulletproof vest, or at least some tranquilizers. “We’ll be right back after this important message—or messages—from one of our sponsors. Any of our sponsors!.”

Wilson looked toward the side of the studio where non-audience guests were seated. Fallon was beaming at him, and he grinned right back.

Maybe now she’d tell him her middle name.

******

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Solar System and of the human race. I’m Lotus Morimura, of Japanese I: A Magazine of Asian Individualism.”

There followed a burst of 3DTV shapes and colors that morphed into words, exploded in the viewer’s face, and then morphed into different words.

“Tonight it’s my pleasure and honor to introduce you to one of the most amazing people,” Lotus declared, “and one of the most amazing stories, I’ve ever heard. I’m sitting rinkside at the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Memorial Ice Arena in Armstrong, the biggest city in the Moon, with Llyra Ayn Ngu, a young athlete whom local sportswriters have begun calling ‘the fourth or fifth best figure skater in the Moon.”

Llyra hoped she wasn’t blushing; that would be too humiliating. Sitting with the beautiful and stylish correspondent on the lowest level of the Heinlein bleachers, close enough to touch the glass, she also tried not to squirm uncomfortably. At the same time that her feet were beginning to freeze, the 3DTV lights were extremely hot and blinding. Lotus, apparently accustomed to the lights, was wearing a well-tailored black coat with a real fur collar and seemed quite at home.

Nobody was on the ice. High above them in the bleachers, sat half of the girls she knew at the rink, and all of the boys (both of them), plus their coaches and a smattering of parents. Among them were Kelly Tran, Danita Lopez, and the East American ambassador’s daughter Janna Kolditz, the girl she’d overheard on her first day here, whispering behind her back about “colonial trash”. There was an old song Llyra vaguely recalled…how did it go? Oh, yeah: “How do you like me now?”

“Good evening, Llyra,” Lotus said with a big 3DTV smile. Llyra and Jasmeen had once watched an old 2D movie together in which one of the characters cynically described a Hollywood starlet’s process of being able to smile without involving—and therefore wrinkling—the flesh around the eyes. That was exactly what Lotus was doing now. “Thank you for being with us and for agreeing to answer a few questions for our ‘readers’.”

That was the conceit, here, that this program was an old-fasioned “dead tree” magazine, being read by the individuals who were watching it.

Llyra could go along with a gag. She smiled back, more genuinely, because she didn’t know how to do it any other way. “Thank you for asking, Lotus.” She felt pretty good, all things considered. She knew she looked all right. Jasmeen had brushed her hair until it shone like fine gold wire, and then had helped her pick out the white satiny competition dress—with its tiny decorative beads of real gold—that she had worn for the last event she’d skated in. She might not be quite as glamorous as Lotus Morimura, but she’d taken a first in the event.

“Llyra, we’ve all seen the Curringer Corporation advertisements on 3DTV that show you skating so spectacularly on Ceres. They’re really quite breathtaking, with jumps and spins. It almost looks like you can fly—”

Llyra laughed. “On Ceres, where the gravity is one tenth of that of the Moon, you almost can fly. You could do it, too, with a little practice.”

“You don’t say—” Lotus blinked, momentarily taken aback, her eyes glazed, seeing a realm of possibilities she’d never considered before. With what amounted to a moral effort, she regained control of the interview and with it, her own composure. At twenty-nine, she thought, she was much too old to start something like ice skating, anyway.

She pressed on: “Most people know by now that you came here from your native Pallas, second largest of the Belt asteroids, which has only one twentieth of a gee, to the Moon, with its one sixth of a gee. That’s over three times the pull of gravity you were born and raised in, Llyra. Isn’t it dangerous? How can you force yourself to do it?”

Lotus paused and looked encouragingly at Llyra who nodded and said, “If you have to force yourself, you shouldn’t be doing it. You should be doing something else, instead, something you burn to be doing. It’s three and a third times, as a matter of fact, although I did skate that little bit you mentioned on Ceres at one tenth. And I admit I had some practice home on Pallas over a mascon near the South Pole.”

“I see,” Lotus nodded. Maybe she was doing what she was meant to do, after all. Aside from doing interviews like this, with badguys, goodguys, and rare, sweet kids like Llyra, there was very little in life she cared about. She turned back toward the double-lensed camera strapped to her assistant’s head, and to her viewers. “Mascons are places where the local gravity is greater, owing to deposits of denser minerals.”

Then she turned to Llyra. “But for all practical purposes, here in the Moon, only a little more than a year ago, you were a cripple—to use a very old-fashioned ugly word—or you could say, ‘gravitically challenged’. In any case, you and your coach Jasmeen Khalidov had only just graduated from wheelchairs to walkers when the two of you hobbled down here to the Heinlein and signed up as members of the ice skating club.”

Jasmeen was sitting several levels above them in the bleachers, having grimly vowed not to interfere with the interview or jog Llyra’s elbow.

Meanwhile, Lotus had already interviewed Shirlene Hofstaedter, the local Figure Skating Association representative, a very nice lady who was long-accustomed to dealing with the media—and therefore sort of a boring subject. Next, Lotus planned to interview that pretty young Martian coach of Llyra’s, who would be less polished and considerably more interesting. Let her say three words in that sexy accent, and Lotus’s male audience, the fifteen to eighty-five segment, would adore her.

“That’s right, Lotus.” Llyra said. For an instant, Lotus couldn’t remember the question. Llyra had begun to relax a little. “Wheelchairs to walkers. I sort of had to start all over, at the Beginner level, although at home I was a Ladies’ Intermediate and about to test for Novice.”

Lotus nodded, understanding. When this interview was aired, there would be a sidebar chart showing the different levels of achievement in figure skating. “And yet, since you began competing, you’ve never failed to take third, second, or even sometimes first place in all the events you’ve entered, is that right?” She smiled, more genuinely this time.

Llyra cast her eyes down modestly, an unconscious gesture Lotus was absolutely certain she’d learned from her coach. “I’ve had a couple of fourths, to be perfectly truthful, but basically you’re right.”

Having established the important underlying facts, Lotus now asked one of the meatier questions that she’d been working up to all along. “So then, Llyra Ayn Ngu, how would you account for this marvelous phenomenon?”

Llyra blinked. “What phenomenon—oh, I guess I see what you mean. I…I just decide what I want to do, and I try it, over and over and over again, until I can do it. My family taught me that, and my coach, of course. They’re the kind of people who never give up, either.”

“Would you say,” Lotus asked her, getting to the heart of this session,”that such a trait is generally characteristic of people in Pallas?”

On Pallas. We live on Pallas,” Llyra corrected. “Pretty much, yeah.” Images formed in her mind, of her great grandfather Emerson and her grandfather William. She thought of her father and brother, too, and her uncles, who could be very silly, or formidable when they were angered.

Lotus nodded again. She’d done her homework and was also thinking about the legendary figures of Pallatian history. Maybe she should interview the brother. “So what’s next, Llyra, where do you go from here?”

“Nowhere, not for a while, anyway. I’ll finish the competition season and then resume testing. I also plan to try out for a part in the Lunar Figure Skating Association’s annual ice show, Winter Wonders. In about a year, I guess, it’s on to Mars, and one third gee.”

******

“Good morning, sleepyheads! This here is Ebo Ebbs of KCUF 3DTV and radio. I’m here at the Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy museum to have a talk with Dr. Ardith Zachrenko Ngu, the System’s foremost authority on asteroid physics and chemistry. Good morning, Dr. Ngu, and how are you today?”

Ebbs was a tall, thin individual, supposedly descended from some African warrior race, but like many people on Pallas whose ancestry was thoroughly mixed, appeared to be as white as the person he addressed.

“I’m just fine, thank you, Ebo, considering the hour.”

Ardith ran a hand through her dark, wavy hair. It was pretty early in the morning for her, too—like all her family, she was basically a night person—and disorienting to be doing business on somebody else’s territory, the museum rather than her lab or office across the street. Instead, they stood at the rail in front of a glassed-in display of some of the largest Drake-Tealy Objects—none larger than a canteloupe—to be discovered, until the Object found at Lafcadio Guzman’s.

“This morning’s program,” Ebbs told his audience. “was originally scheduled to concern itself something quite remarkable, wasn’t it, Dr. Ngu?”

Ardith found the lights mounted at the corners of Ebbs’s camera glasses a bit distracting. She was of a mind to ask him to turn them off. There was plenty of available light in here for modern 3DTV equipement.

“Yes it was, Ebo.” She indicated an odd spherical object on an old-fashioned brass and oak stand beside her. “As you know, my son Wilson is an asteroid hunter, downsystem. Following up on information he purchased from the Larsen Farside Observatory, he found the thing you see here, which he was kind enough to send to his mother as a present.”

“And it isn’t even Mother’s Day. He must be a good boy.” Ebbs mugged for the benefit of a second pair of lenses standing atop a counter full of meteors in the middle of the hall. “What, exactly, is it?”

“Wilson is far more than a good boy, he’s a fine young man. I’m loaning what he sent me to the Drake-Tealy Museum. As you can see, it’s just a little bit bigger than a basketball, as transparent as glass, and a very pretty shade of red. It’s the largest garnet ever discovered.”

“A garnet! That’s certainly impressive, Dr. Ngu—although it’s a little large for a pendant and there’s only one, so earrings are out of the question. And ordinarily, I’d have a whole bunch of interesting and intelligent questions to ask you about it, too. But today, it’s going to have to take a back seat to something even more remarkable, right?”

Even so, Ebbs removed his camera glasses and passed them behind the garnet so that his other camera could see the light coming through it.

“As hard as that is to imagine.” Ardith replied, “Yes.”

Ebbs took a deep breath. This was very bad video, he thought, with little or no visual action, but a hell of a news story, and he was the first to report it. On the other hand, Ardith Ngu was easy on the eyes and sure to hold his male viewers’ attention. He hoped she was a good story teller. “Could you describe for our audience exactly what has happened?”

She smiled—it was like the explosion of a nova, he thought. “Probably not exactly, Ebo. We’re going to be a long while sorting it out. But the bare facts are these. Last year, Julie Segovia Ngu, the famous children’s author, and my mother-in-law, persuaded the Drake-Tealy Museum to purchase a genuine Drake-Tealy Object—also the largest ever discovered, about the size of an average suburban house—from a dealer at L-Four. Also, she put up a good deal of the asking price, herself.”

Ardith wasn’t certain that Julie wanted that told, but it would be a public embarrassment to the cheapskates who comprised the rest of the museum’s board of directors, and that couldn’t be all bad, could it?

If Ebbs wasn’t fascinated, he was faking it well. “And then what happened?”

Ardith cleared her throat. “Mostly for administrative reasons, it took until this year before anything could be done about physically claiming the object and bringing it upsystem to Pallas. Our intention was to leave it in orbit for scientific study and tourist excursions. Part of the delay was obtaining clear title to a suitable orbital slot.”

“I see.” The interviewer nodded. “And then what?”

Ardith said, “You know R.G. Edd, I’m sure. Everybody does, here on Pallas. Mostly he’s our local commercial ionopter pilot. But he used to fly one of the extremely powerful tugs that helped space liners and freighters touch down safely at Port Peary and Port Admundsen. When engine and guidance technology advanced and rendered the space tugs obsolete, the company retired the tugs, and R.G. became an ionopter pilot.”

“But what does that have to do with—?”

“When he heard of our prize Drake-Tealy Object,” Ardith replied, “R.G. volunteered to reactivate one of the tugs—that took a little while, too—and fly it downsystem, collect the rock, and bring it home. He left early last week and wasn’t due to return until late next week.”

“Wasn’t? Past tense? What happened to him?”

If it bleeds it leads, she thought.

But what she said was, “I wish R.G. were here to describe what happened to us, himself. He got down to L-Four all right, got the paperwork all sorted out, attached his towing cables to the object, and…”

“And…?”

“And as soon as he started his engines, the Drake-Tealy Object began towing him, backwards, accelerating to a velocity we’re still not certain we’ve calculated correctly. He should have been killed by the acceleration, but he wasn’t. Instead, he arrived in the correct parking orbit around Pallas appoximately two hours after he left L-Four.”

Ebbs swallowed. “But that would be—”

She nodded. “That would be about fifty million miles an hour,” she said. “Or roughly fourteen thousand miles per second—or almost twelve hundred times the velocity of any natural body in the Solar System.”

Ebbs whistled—to the annoyance of the sound man in the KCUF studio across town. “But then Drake-Tealy Objects aren’t natural, are they?”

Ardith smiled. Demonstrating that extremely controversial fact, of course, had been the greatest scientific accomplishment of her famous grandmother-in-law, Rosalie Frazier Ngu. She said as much to the interviewer.

“You’re right, of course. But what happened to R.G. Edd? Why can’t he be with us today? Was he injured in some way, or perhaps mentally traumatized?

Ardith shook her head. “R.G. promptly detached himself from the Drake-Tealy Object, landed his tug at Port Peary, drove himself home to Curley’s Gulch, and took his own ionopter to a cabin he has out in the weyers somewhere. He called to report what had happened and ended by saying that he plans to hide under his bed for the next couple of months.”

“I can’t say I blame him,” said the correspondent.

Ardith said, “Neither can I.”

******

There wasn’t any point in trying to be sneaky.

This location had been selected after an exhaustive statistical analysis had shown that it was the least-visited location on Ceres. Or so the woman code-named “Harriet Beecher” had been told, anyway. There was no air, naturally, so she couldn’t be heard. There was nobody else around from here to the horizon, so she couldn’t be seen. There were no surveillance cameras to be seen anywhere, because this wasn’t East America.

Harriet could look in any direction for miles and see nothing but herself and a bizarre, nightmarish landscape, somewhat Moonlike, but completely draped, from horizon to horizon, in what amounted to a colossal slipcover of tough, transparent plastic, waiting to be inflated by an injection of microbes genetically engineered for the purpose. The first would fill the envelope with nitrogen, methane, and ammonia.

If she couldn’t stop it.

Just now, it was as if her grandmother had been turned loose with a whole world for her living room. Every last stick of furniture the old lady had owned had been covered with plastic. It had been a huge pleasure, watching her grandmother’s face as she was suffocated with it. The old lady had had the gall to claim that she didn’t have any money to give her only granddaughter when she was strung out and hurting.

Harriet had no illusions about what might happen to her after she did this job for Null Delta Em. She’d been plucked from a solitary prison cell in Darkest Connecticut—having brutally murdered three fellow inmates her first month inside—and cleansed of every trace of the stultifying behavior modification drugs that had kept her physically helpless, devoid of any will to escape, for the last seven years.

What a rush it had been to have all those good old deliciously wicked feelings come pouring back into her skull! It was exactly like the feeling of relief that comes with a long-anticipated sneeze, only it went on and on sort of like a perpetual orgasm. And now she had an opportunity to slaughter hundreds with one push of a button, and possibly end an historic social movement—humanity’s long climb to the stars—that her employers believed was misguided and harmful to mankind.

She had no idea where they’d gotten their little spaceship. It was fast and powerful, yet luxuriously appointed, like a yacht. On the way here from Earth orbit she’d had one elegant meal after another. Then they’d lowered her from synchronous orbit on several hundred miles of synthetic line, in a spaceship’s emergency escape pod—sort of a spherical airtight sleeping bag with its own oxygen supply and small, crinkly plastic windows to peek through. The flashing lights had been removed.

Already wearing her envirosuit with the helmet off, she’d slept easily through the ride to the surface and had to be awakened by her employers using wires in the cable to preserve radio silence. Apparently they were anxious about being spotted and wanted to move to a less-conspicuous orbit as soon as possible.

She’d put her helmet on and run through the suit’s checklist, then flipped a safety cover and pulled a toggle that released the line. She didn’t know if they’d reel it in or let it drift. It didn’t matter. In theory, the individuals she was working for would pick her up as soon as her task here was done. In practice, of course, she had her doubts. But the amount of money they’d already paid her, let alone what she’d been promised she’d receive afterward, made it well worth taking the risk.

Meanwhile, she could afford to be fatalistic. She couldn’t go back to Earth, that was certain, and she didn’t think that she could stand it out here. Pallas sounded sort of nice, but given her predelictions, and the fact that everybody she saw was armed, she wouldn’t last a week.

Opening a double set of airtight zippers wasn’t fun. Once she was free of the pod, she assembled the fifty-foot poles that would be her ticket off this rock. They had fifteen feet of line strung between them, part of a loop connecting to a reel of line on the back of her suit. When she gave the signal—again in theory—the ship that had brought her would swoop down, hook the loop, and drag her up into the sky, to be reeled in, desuited, paid off, and set down wherever she wished.

The Moon might do. Miles of dark tunnels, millions of potential victims.

This plastic the Ceres Terraformation Project used for making the atmospheric canopy was creepy stuff, Harriet thought. Not quite half an inch thick, most bullets wouldn’t go through it. Even if one managed to, any hole it made would heal shut in less than thirty seconds.

Which was why her employers had been compelled to resort to the peculiar means she was about to put to work for them. From a zippered pocket on the right thigh of her envirosuit, she extracted a hollow metal cylinder about seven inches long and a little over two inches in diameter.

In the pocket across her chest, she found a base plate, square, eight inches on a side and a quarter of an inch thick, into which she screwed one end of the cylinder. From the pocket on her other thigh, she took another cylinder, three inches in diameter and about the same height.

The second cylinder contained a very special catalyst it had taken Null Delta Em or the Mass Movement or somebody fifty years to develop. It had originally been intended for use on the Pallatian environmental canopy, and might well be put to that noble purpose if it worked here. The second cylinder then screwed sideways into the top of the first cylinder.

From a pocket on the left arm of her suit, she obtained a tube of very special glue, which she spread carefully on the underside of the square baseplate, and over an area of the canopy plastic of about the same size. Counting to thirty, she placed the baseplate and cylinders on the plastic, gave them a moment, then tugged hard to make sure they stuck. An old song about wild horses went through her mind and she laughed.

At the top of the first cylinder, she flipped a safety cover over to expose a large red pushbutton. When it was pushed, two things would begin to happen. First, the catalyst from the second cylinder would travel down the length of the the first cylinder at extremely high pressure.

Second, the glue would be ignited. It was more than merely glue. As it burned, it would carry the catalyst with it into the substance of the canopy plastic itself. There would be a cataclysmic local explosion, and before long, a ring of fire would sweep outward from the center, to consume the plastic canopy material.

Within a day, there would be no canopy at all left on Ceres, only a thin scattering of fine, gray ash, and everybody on this little world would be dead or waiting to die in stuffy confines of their envirosuits.

Harriet would be somewhere else entirely, of course, with a much more attractive name, relaxing on some hot, sunny, sandy beach or by a blue pool somewhere, sunbathing—even if it had to be the piped-in light of a Lunar resort—and drinking margaritas, pina coladas, or zombies. She had three minutes to escape after she pushed the button. She wouldn’t press it until she could actually see her rescuers on the way.

“Mommy,” she told her suit radio, “this is baby. Come and get me, please.”

Seeing running lights low on the horizon before she expected it, she prepared herself for the jerk of the rescue cable, and pushed the button—

—and didn’t live long enough to know there was no three minute delay. She and the ship now directly overhead were consumed, vaporized by the explosion, as an ominous fiery ring spread outward from its center.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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