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CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: CONSULTATIONS

Religious people often maintain that a proof of their god’s existence is the marvelous way the world and all of its wonders are perfectly suited to us. What a miracle! Of course they refuse to understand that it is we—through four thousand million years of evolution—who are suited to the world, not the other way around.

If we had evolved—because environmental circumstances compelled it—to belly-squat on fourteen fat legs, in a ten gee field, breathing sulfur dioxide and excreting sulfuric acid, eyeless and blind in the Stygian darkness, but sensing the area around us through long, sensitive bristles on our paddle-shaped tails, they would still be burbling about how miraculous it all is, when it would only be another example of evolution-by-natural selection at work.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Her eyes opened. The first thing she saw was her mother-in-law’s face.

“Morning, sleepy-head,” Julie smiled down at her. “How do you feel?”

The place, Julie observed with a certain proprietary approval—she and her late husband had paid for a good deal of it—was bright and cheery, much more like a bedroom at home than what it really was. For the most part, medical equipment, supplies and appliances, had been kept out of sight. A high, wide window looked out across Lake Selous.

It was one of those bright, cloudless, mercilessly sunny days, with a little white chop. As usual there were lavishly colored sails far out on the water. People on flying belts hovered overhead. Girls in bikinis were waterskiing. It reminded Julie of how much she missed fishing.

Ardith said, “It isn’t morning, and I’ve been awake several times already. You know how the bastards don’t like to let you sleep in the hospital.” Her voice was little more than a croak, and her eyes were dark and sunken. Julie had never seen her looking so ill and old and tired.

But she laughed. “They’re worried about you, dear, that’s all. You’re the Great Lady of Pallas, and they don’t want to lose you. But they tell me you’re not eating, and you’re refusing the drugs they’ve prescribed.”

“‘Great Lady of Pallas’ my fat freckled—they want me to take happy drugs, Julie, or at least anti-unhappy drugs. And they summoned you all the way from Mars … ” Ardith interrupted herself with a kind of sigh. Inside, she felt ancient, and all used up. “To help them nag me?”

Julie shook her head. “I came all the way from Mars for the most selfish of purposes, to be with as much of my family as I can. Just now, you’re it, kiddo, until Ad and Arleigh get here for the—you know. I’m usually satisfied to be something of a solitary individual, as you know, but I didn’t think that I could bear being alone with this … ”

“You’ve lost your son, your child.” Ardith paused for a breath. “I’ve often wondered—morbidly, I guess—what that might be like. It isn’t right. Our kids are supposed to bury us, not the other way around.”

Julie nodded, her breath going in and coming out heavily. In a sense, Ardith had been through this four times already. Goddamn it all, she thought, I am a Martian! I’ve defeated whole planets, both Earth and Mars. No matter how hard this gets, it is not going to break me. “And you’ve lost a brother-in-law—an individual you liked and respected.”

“That’s—”

“But what you can’t live with,” Julie told her, “what I came to talk to you about, is the sheer joy—the unspeakable ecstasy—you feel that it wasn’t your husband. A kind of survivor’s remorse at one remove.”

“Julie!” Ardith struggled to sit up—and failed.

The older woman—who appeared at least ten years younger than her daughter-in-law, but in fact was twice as old—reached out to pat Ardith’s hand where it lay weak and helpless on the hospital coverlet.

The fact was, she’d never had a daughter, and she couldn’t have loved this young woman any more—Ardith was thirty-eight years old—if she had happened to be her own. Adam had chosen well despite the couple’s many later difficulties. And it was never, ever too late for love.

“It’s true, sweetheart, and I’ve got to make you see it. I’m certain he didn’t want to die, but do you think Lindsay would want you to destroy yourself this way because you’re glad that Adam is still alive?”

Ardith sniffed back tears. “N-n-no.” Now she felt about four years old—a dizzying descent from the hundred and four she’d felt only a few minutes earlier. Despite her own energy and apparent youth, Julie Ngu had that effect on other people. She’d been born to be somebody’s grandmother.

Ardith was grateful that Julie was here for Llyra and Wilson. Both of her own grandmothers had died when, under a new “scorched earth” policy, the East American Drug Enforcement Authority had bombed and razed an entire town in Connecticut because one resident, it had been alleged, was observed by an informer manufacturing the illegal drug nicotine. It was the main reason her parents had decided to come to Pallas.

Julie said, “They tell me that when they found you unconscious on your laboratory floor, you were in pretty bad condition, suffering from mild malnutrition, severe dehydration, physical exhaustion, and shock, that last probably from the incomplete news you’d seen on 3DTV.”

Ardith shrugged and shook her head. There was little she could say. She couldn’t remember any part of it after she’d switched on the pulverizer. She hoped somebody had remembered to switch it off. She wondered briefly why the hospital administration had seen fit to give Julie all that information about her—and then realized exactly why. Here and now, her mother-in-law was her nearest—if not next—of kin.

Julie nodded at the devices either side at the head of the bed—twin intravenous saline drips, one going into to each of Ardith’s arms—that were practically the only medical equipment visible in the room.

“Not to mention a light dose of radiation poisoning. They’re saying that your Drake-Tealy Object is doing some very peculiar things.”

“Peculiar things?” Ardith was shocked at how uninterested she was.

“Yes, it’s begun to pulse. Your people say it’s emitting energy on all known wavelengths: heat, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, radio, X-rays, alpha, beta, gamma, and anything else I forgot. The energies involved are very low and don’t endanger Pallas. Most likely it was that old spacesuit that nearly got you killed. Two hours’ backbreaking labor wihout water? I tracked it down, dear, and had it burned.”

Ardith grinned. “Unlike my son and husband, I’ve never owned or even worn a proper envirosuit. But with a Drake-Tealy Object the size of a house doing odd things, I guess I’d better invest in one, hadn’t I?”

“Then let the Drake-Tealy Museum pick up the tab, dear,” Julie told her. “In fact I’d like to have you appointed Associate Curator, if I may, and put that damned thing out there totally in your hands. There’s something important about it, I appreciate that much, at least. I take it that the jaw you just dropped onto the bed indicates ‘yes’?”

“It certainly does, Julie!” There it came, the old energy. Not only did she feel like a kid again, Ardith suddenly felt exactly as if it were Christmas. And in a way, it was. She’d just been given—in an academic sense—what might well turn out to be the most important archaeological artifact ever found in human history. “When can I start?”

“Well, you’d better get healthy, first. Look, I understand your not wanting to take the mood elevators and anxiety suppressors they want you to. I wouldn’t take them, myself. All they do is postpone what you eventually have to work through, anyway, and make it harder later.”

Ardith said, “It’s amazing how much alike we think.”

“Yes, well, there’s a reason for that most wives don’t want to hear.”

She shrugged. “They remind their husbands of their mothers?”

“Ardith, I’d like you to take the vitamins they have for you, and the medicines specifically for the physical illness you’re suffering. I’ll instruct them myself, if you like, to leave out the doubleplus goodthink pills. If they mess with us, the way they will sometimes, I’ll take the wing of this place that Billy and I paid for back to Mars!”

Ardith actually laughed, and there was a bit of color now in her cheeks. Now for the hard part, the principle reason she’d come all the way from Mars, and why the hospital staff were all grateful to her for coming.

“I hate like hell to bring it up, but did you hear about Wilson’s girl?” Julie worried that this could be the last straw for Ardith, the evil icing on her birthday cake, the rotting cherry atop the sundae, the …

“He messaged me yesterday on my personal phone. He doesn’t know where I am, and I don’t want him to. I can’t believe what’s happened, but when I get out of here, Null Delta Em and the Mass Movement will be—”

Julie burst into laughter, herself. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m very sorry for my only grandson. It’s a horrible way to grow up. Like any red-blooded 19-year old, up to this point, all he really wanted—or even thought about much—was to get laid. But at least he has the suicidal decency to believe he has to be love with the girl who does it for him. He may outgrow that in time, but something in me hopes he doesn’t.”

Ardith said, “But—”

“But I’m as proud as I can be,” Julie went on, “to be a member of this family—your family, dear Ardith. An indestructible, resilient family that we both married into to begin with, but in which neither of us was ever particularly content to be mere ornaments on a family tree.”

Ardith did manage to sit up this time. “I feel brokenhearted for Wilson, too, and I wish I knew how to help him. He was all over us, all the time, about that Amorie creature, ‘Amorie this’ and ‘Amorie that’. I realized Fallon O’Driscoll might really be the one, when he hardly ever said a word about her. But Julie, we’re about to have something else in common. Poor Fallon was pregnant. I’m going to be a grandmother!”

“Boy or girl?” Julie asked automatically.

Ardith replied, “It’s going to be a little girl. They—he and Fallon’s father, Terence O’Driscoll—have decided they’ll call her Tieve.”

It also made Julie a great grandmother, of course, but she’d been mentally and emotionally prepared for that for a long time. As long as she managed to stay young, everything could be fun. Someday she would try to talk her Ardith into DeGrey regenerative therapy. To let such beauty, both on the inside and the outside, fade away, would border on the criminal.

“Tieve Ngu. No stranger than Julie Ngu. Shall we break out the champagne?”

Ardith sighed. “Guess we’d better make it Jell-O. I actually feel hungry! Pulsing on all wavelengths, you say? Why would it want to do that?”

******

“Strange,” Adam told his brother Arleigh. “Here we are, headed back to Pallas to bury our brother, and all I can think about are my kids.”

The gravelly hiss, like frying bacon, of the ship’s constant boost fusion drive permeated its structure, but by now, they were used to it. Adam pulled his pipe out of his jacket pocket, opened the little screen that prevented it from spilling coals in zero gee, and filled it.

“Not so strange,” Arleigh replied. He opened a red plastic box of dark brown cigarettes, oval in cross section, and slipped one into a holder.

The brothers sat on jumpseats locked into the deck either side of a long metal cannister that had been manufactured yesterday by one of the construction shops under the Ceres dome. It was painted a smooth, lustrous metallic charcoal gray, with a red double racing stripe along its upper surface. Ingrid, whose idea the racing stripe had been, was forward, giving the brothers some privacy, occupying the righthand seat, learning what she could about conning a jumpbuggy from the pilot. She’d told them ten minutes ago they were twenty minutes from turnover.

“What do you mean, ‘not so strange’?” Adam asked his brother. He closed the screen, found his lighter, and put flame to the pipe tobacco.

Arleigh lit his cigarette and said, “Plenty of folks, when they stare death in the face, feel an urgent need to have sex, afterward. It’s supposed to be a confirmation—more like a reassertion, I guess—that they’re still alive. I think this is the same thing, really. Kids are what sex is all about, after all, theoretically. Lindsay dies, you want a confirmation that life is going on somewhere, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” He wondered if Arleigh could be right. First, last, and always, he was an engineer. Psychology—except for whatever it took to run a major engineering project—had never been his long suit.

The younger brother exhaled smoke, which was immediately drawn into the purification system. “That’s all. I’ve never had any kids, myself—at least none that I know of. Guess I was afraid to, when you come down to it. I had a professor in college who talked about having kids as ‘giving hostages to history’, and it kind of stuck with me.”

“What a cheerful notion.” Adam drew on his pipe and thought about it, then said, “You know, Arleigh, when the kids were younger—I seem to recall that Wilson was about fifteen and Llyra about eleven—I used to be pretty concerned about the two of them, having to grow up out on Pallas in a little one stop-sign frontier municipality like Curringer.”

“Some folks go out of their way to bring their kids up in a small town, rather than some big city,” Arleigh said. “We grew up that way, Ad, when Curringer was even smaller. Fishing, hunting, swimming and boating and diving in Lake Selous. Doesn’t seem to have done us much harm.”

Arleigh immediately began twitching and making distorted, hideous faces, his tongue hanging out. It was an old joke between them, and he’d done it out of sheer reflex. Adam didn’t laugh this time—it was a joke they’d shared with Lindsay—or even grin, so his brother stopped.

Lights began blinking on a panel set in the bulkhead between the flight deck and where they sat. Having assured themselves that the coffin was properly secured, both brothers fastened their four point seatbelts.

Adam nodded. “It was about that time that Llyra came to me, very diffidently, mind you—I don’t know if she had the same talk with her mother; we were starting to have real problems then—to reveal certain spectacular ambitions of her own which, given her character, I decided to take very seriously. Remember, she was only eleven years old.”

“The ice skating thing,” Arleigh said, inhaling smoke. “Most grownups I know have have considerably less resolve than your daughter does.”

Adam shook his head. He’d forgotten his pipe and it had gone out. Now he relit it. “Not just the ice skating thing. She’d been doing that on her own at the Brody ever since she was about four. Her mother used to take her there a couple times a week. No, I mean the ice skating on Earth thing. She meant not only to skate on Earth, but do something important there, win a big competition or something like that.”

Arleigh shook his head. “In twenty times the gravity she was used to. That’s a pretty tall order, even for her, and a damned dangerous one.”

“That’s it, exactly: bones, growth-plates, internal organs. I immediately started looking around for somebody to help her—or maybe talk some sense into her. That’s when I heard that my dad’s old friends from the Mars rebellion, Mohammed and Beliita Khalidov, had a daughter only a few years older than Llyra, who was also a figure skater.”

The lights on the panel changed. Turnover would be coming quickly now.

“So that’s how that happened,” Arleigh said. “I always sort of wondered. Uncle Brody used to talk about the Khalidovs. She’s a nice kid.”

“She’s a very nice kid,” Adam nodded enthusiastically. “Jasmeen’s been absolutely perfect, as a teacher and as a companion, and I knew better than to interfere any further than I had, even when it turned out that Jasmeen thought Llyra could actually do it. But I’ve been worried ever since, that Llyra might destroy herself, physically or mentally, pursuing something that isn’t really any part of her fondest dreams.”

Arleigh raised his eyebrows. “This is news to me. What do you mean?”

He sighed. “I mean that for some perverse reason, kids often feel responsible when things go wrong in a marriage. They think maybe they can repair the damage. It hurts me deeply to think that my little girl might be doing herself harm in an effort to fix something she didn’t break.”

A buzzer sounded. They braced themselves for a turnover they never really felt. They didn’t learn until later that Ingrid had been at the controls.

Adam unfastened his seatbelt and stood up. He had to relight his pipe again. “I think it’s time for an adult beverage. You want beer or tequila?”

“Most definitely,” Arleigh said, standing up and stretching, “tequila.”

******

“But Mom, Wilson promises he can get us there on time in his own ship.” She wasn’t used to hearing Llyra whining at her through her nose.

Ardith shook her head. This was insane. Two burials in the family—well, almost in the family—within a day of one another. Lindsay and … what was her name? Oh, no! Why couldn’t she—Fallon! That was it, Fallon! Her baby son’s lost love had been named Fallon. Fallon Tieve.

Something made her want to throw her computer at the wall and then hide under the bed. She didn’t know how much more of this she could take.

Then she noticed Julie, sitting in the shadows in a corner of the room, in a straight-backed chair pushed against the wall, crocheting something ugly and grotesque out of coarse blue yarn the color of a robin’s egg. She seemed to be scrutinizing every move Ardith made, every word she said. She also seemed to be pulsing on all known wavelengths.

Her Martian mother-in-law still insisted on coming here to the hospital to visit her, as she had every single day since her poor, poor daughter-in-law had collapsed in the laboratory. Ardith wasn’t certain, from moment to moment, whether that was such a good thing or not.

Probably not.

True, she felt much better physically, now, but she also still felt like screaming, throwing things, and tearing her hair in double handfuls. What a splendid picture that would make for Adam to compare with that gorgeous, picture-perfect, predatory Japanese assistant of his!

What the hell was her name again?

What was her name?

Through the window, she could just make out the planet Earth, where all three of her children lived in the Moon now, so far, far away.

“Sweetheart,” she told her daughter, trying to control a pathetic, teary quaver in her voice. “You tell your brother for me to take care of his responsibilities down there on the Moon. I know that he’s got to be feeling terrible about what happened to … to … But if he’s going to keep the baby, there are preparations to make. I’ve read that the reclamation process leaves them with all kinds of deficits. I want you and Jasmeen to stay down there with him and help him, will you, please?”

It was so strange to think of Wilson being pregnant.

Llyra apparently thought it over, and then said, “Where are you, Mom? You’re not at home, are you? That doesn’t look like anywhere in the house to me. Are you somewhere else? Where are you? Where are you, Mom?”

“Where are you, Mom?” demanded Wilson.

“Where are you, Mom?” demanded Jasmeen.

Julie woke with a heart-wrenching snap, breathing hard, sweating. She looked around the room. The blinds were drawn, so she had no idea what time it was. Nobody else was there in the room with her at the moment.

Her personal computer, about the size and shape of a man’s pocket watch or a compact makeup case, lay quiet and unused on the bedside table.

She knew she’d been dreaming. Transmission lag to the Earth-Moon system was almost an hour now. She couldn’t have been talking to Llyra. She realized that, at some level, she felt that Julie was … what? Spying on her? Violating her privacy or her need for personal space?

She didn’t know, exactly, but the whole thing made her feel horribly guilty. To be truthful, she’d always felt closer to her mother-in-law than to her own mother—who in any case was with her father at the moment, in a half-built O’Neill habitat, orbiting the planet Jupiter. That seemed more like a dream than reality, but it was real enough. What was the transmission lag to Jupiter, a couple of centuries?

Come to think of it, if she squinted just right, she could just make Jupiter out, as well as its four Galilean moons, and a big red Budweiser sign on the habitat. She could also hear her mother saying the fateful words she’d sworn she’d never say to her own kids: “You never write!”

No, that was the dream again. She must have dozed off for a moment.

Fundamentally, Ardith was beginning to realize, everything made her feel guilty. She would remain in this damned hospital bed—at least mentally—fighting off the implacable purveyors of happy medicines, until she could find some way to deal with that and other things.

Something was very wrong with her, of that much she was aware, something that had caused her to ruin what would otherwise have been her idyllic marriage to Adam. Nobody knew that she’d tried psychiatric therapy a couple of times after Adam had had enough and gone to Ceres, but it hadn’t helped. She’d found that she couldn’t take advice about her life from individuals she perceived as less intelligent than she was.

She felt guilty about that, too.

Julie, whom she saw as at least an equal, might be of some help, but Ardith didn’t know how to ask her—didn’t even know how to begin.

Oh my god, she thought. I dreamed that Wilson was pregnant!

******

Krystal had been sitting on the cold metal bench for at least an hour. It was hard to tell, exactly. She’d been blindfolded before they brought her here, and in any case, she was pretty sure the room was dark. It was quiet and cold. The only reason she couldn’t hear her own heart beating was that it was drowned out by the chattering of her teeth.

Maybe she’d made a mistake this morning, calling an emergency number that had been tattooed upside-down and backwards on the inside of her eyelid, so she could flip the eyelid inside-out (you acquired a knack for it after a while) and read it in the bathroom mirror—provided you had magnifying spectacles and a source of ultraviolet light.

“Haircut,” she’d told the public payphone in a Tibetan restaurant they’d chosen because very few people, aside from Tibetans, liked Tibetan food, and none of the regulars spoke English. “This is Two Bits. Please let Shave know I’m red hot and want to come in from the cold.”

“Understood,” answered an electronically distorted voice. “Stay there.” The connection had clicked in Krystal’s ear. She bought a cup of some horrible tasting tea, sat down at a table in a corner, and waited.

They’d taken all of four minutes to come to her, three men in a late model ElectroLux with deeply smoked back windows. One of the men got out of the car, stepped halfway into the restaurant, looked around, and signalled for her to follow him. She abandoned the tea gratefully.

The instant she got into the car, they were on her, the one who’d fetched her from the restaurant and another, binding her hands behind her back with a plastic cable tie, shoving a black cloth bag over her head.

“What the hell do you people think you’re—”

She felt a sharp explosion of pain in her temple and saw little purple sparks before her eyes. “Keep that noise up and I’ll smash your head into a bag of chunky red paste. Nobody will complain and you won’t be missed.”

She nodded, afraid to say anything. While the man in front drove, the two in back with her went over her methodically and without regard to her dignity. They were wordless, swift, and thorough. They didn’t really hurt her and they didn’t bother her sexually. They found and took her phone, her PDA, her main weapon, her backup, and her backup’s backup. They found and took all four of the knives she kept handy on her person.

They found all of the normal things, as well, credit cards, keys, cosmetics, tissues. They took her shoes, hurting her a little as they did.

They didn’t find—better not to think about that right now. At some point the car stopped. Her captors pulled her out of it and into some building, to a fast elevator that went down and down, seemingly endlessly, until it came to a stop, a hundred floors, she guessed, below street level in Armstrong. She didn’t know anything in the Moon had ever been dug this deep. It made her wonder who she really worked for.

Now, after two hours of sitting on a hard metal bench in the cold, she heard a door unlatch, a metal door, she thought, and swing open. At least two men came toward her and stopped immediately in front of her.

One of then said, “You didn’t tie her ankles.” It was not a question.

“No reason to,” said the other man. “Where’s she gonna go?”

“Tie her ankles now, and get out of here.”

“Okay, okay!” The leader’s instructions were duly followed and in only an instant, she was even more uncomfortable than she’d been before.

“Krystal Sweet?” the man demanded. Now it began.

“Of the Sour Lake, Texas Sweets,” she replied, mustering all of her courage and trying to remain chipper. The back of a gloved hand smashing into the side of her face rocked her until her head hit the wall.

“I’d advise humility,” said the voice. “You’re here because your underling made several stupid mistakes for no apparent reason. We want to see if you’ve been irredeemably contaminated, or if you can be salvaged.”

“Then shoot me now, Jackoff! I’ll be damned if I’ll be threatened by some pussy who has to tie me up to hit me, and hired me to do his wetwork in the first place so he wouldn’t get his own precious pinkies soiled. Gimme that last cigarette, now, Dickless. I happen to like Birminghams.”

There was a long pause, during which Krystal expected to be shot, or at least stricken again, every second. Nothing like that happened. The metal door opened and swung shut again. There was something to be said, she thought to herself, for being badder than the rest of the badguys.

They came back for her in only a few moments, and when they did, they cut the wire-enforced plastic strips binding her ankles and her arms. They stood her up. The door swung open, and this time they took her through it into another room with carpet on the floor and decent heating.

They sat her in a leather-upholstered chair and left her. The room was silent, except for an old, familiar noise she hadn’t heard for years.

“You may remove your blindfold now, Krystal.” It was an old, familiar voice she hadn’t heard in weeks, that of P.E. “Honest Paul” Luegner, the leader of Null Delta Em and her boss for the past several years. She loosened the drawstring, skinned the bag off, and ran a hand through her short, pale blond hair. “We have a mess to straighten out.”

“And you’ve decided not to make me pay for it. That’s very good, Paul, because it wasn’t my fault—I don’t have any idea why it happened—and I was going to make it really expensive for you to blame it on me.”

Luegner nodded. “I’ll bet you would have, at that. My men are all terrified of you, you know, not just because you’re skilled and tough, but because you’re intelligent. You’re going to pay for what happened at the spaceport in a way though, Krystal, because it happened on your watch.”

“That’s acceptable,” she said, noticing her purse and all her personal possessions were laid out on Luegner’s antique walnut desk. Wood. The whole room was panelled with the stuff. It must have cost a king’s ransom—probably a real king’s ransom—to bring it all up from Earth.

There was the source of the noise, a real fire, burning in a real fireplace. Burning wood.

“For now, Krystal, I just want you to tell me what you think happened with Brian Downs. Why did he snap like that? The sonofabitch probably set the movement back fifty years, gunning down a pregnant girl, the way he did. The spaceport manager’s daughter, of all things! And, of course, we’ll have the goddamned Ngu family to contend with—again.”

Krystal shook her head ruefully. “I warned Brian about that very thing, Paul. I didn’t know him well, aside from his personnel jacket. I met him about a week before we went to Mars aboard the City of Newark.”

“And … ?”

“And, well, he complained about the assignment every inch of the way.”

“What did he complain about, specifically?”

“The fact that we had to stay with the ship for an immediate turnaround, and wouldn’t be taking a shuttle down to enjoy Mars like tourists.”

“I see, Still, it doesn’t sound like much to go on a killing spree over.”

“No, it doesn’t, does it? Do you have anything warming to drink? I’m still freezing to death. In the end, Brian was making Marxist noises, sort of, about the movement’s ‘fatcats’—that’s you, Paul—being able to go anywhere they want, do anything they want on the company expense account.”

“I’ve never been to Mars,” Leugner went to a sideboard and poured them eack a generous drink. As he handed Krystal’s glass to her, he said, “Jameson’s. Twenty-five years old. Say, those plastic binders really cut into your wrists, didn’t they? I’m almost sorry about that, but I had to determine that I was dealing with the Krystal Sweet I remembered.”

“Meaning … what?”

He reached into an antique wardrobe cabinet behind his desk and pulled out a light rug or small blanket, which he put over her lap. “Meaning if you hadn’t given my man such a hard time out there, daring him to go ahead and shoot you and all, I probably would have had you executed.”

“It’s nice to know I’m appreciated. But we were talking about Brian.”

“So we were. Do you know specifically what set him off?

“Well, he always had a sort of a special jones for Wilson Ngu and his family. Seeing him at the spaceport after two weeks confinement aboard ship—which he somehow twisted around to blame on the Ngu boy—that’s what seemed to make him … have a psychotic break, flip out, whatever.”

“So he was trying to shoot Wilson, rather than the O’Driscoll girl?”

“Yes, he was. Although if he’d realized that she was his girl and was carrying his child, he might well have chosen her as a primary target.”

“Well, it’s an incredible mess, that’s what it is, and there’s no time at present to clean it up. We won’t claim credit directly, but we’ll have Anna Savage denounce us as angrily as she can. In the meantime, it would have been nice to have two of you familiar with that ship, but you’ll just have to make do with the crew you’ve picked.”

“They’re all good people, Paul. They’ll do.”

“That’s what we thought about Brian Downs, isn’t it? Still, we have no choice. You have to be back on that ship, your crew in place, by—”

He named a date that made her gasp. “That soon?”

Leugner nodded. “Or it’ll be completely pointless. You have to teach them a lesson, Krystal. You have to make them all see the truth.”

“Count on me, Paul. Trust me. I’m a good teacher.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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