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CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE: CONFRONTATIONS

PART THREE: ONE-THIRD GEE

Although we are unique in our species’ ability to foresee and even to forestall cataclysmic occurrences like the Permian-Triassic and Cretaceous-Tertiary Events, we face unique, unprecedented hazards, as well. The power to divert an asteroid or comet from its collision course with Earth is the power to divert an asteroid or comet onto a collision course with Earth.

There are plenty of individuals and groups, disappointed that the end of the world didn’t arrive on schedule, who would be perfectly satisfied to make up for nature’s shortcomings. And there are plenty of governments who have noticed that falling rocks smaller and slower than the P-T and K-T objects are capable of erasing limited portions of the Earth—an enemy country, for example—with none of the unpleasant side-effects of nuclear weapons.

Before we can approach the problem of preventing natural celestial disasters, we must first solve the perhaps greater problem that such a capability represents.

—Dr. Evgeny Zacharenko
Addressing the Ashland Event Commission
Of the Solar Geological Society
Curringer, Pallas, August 9, 2095

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE: CONFRONTATIONS

Some human beings seem to love competition, especially when it’s somebody else—their children, for example—who has to do the competing. I love a good hockey game, myself, and Martian baseball is a thing of beauty. On the other hand, I don’t know what it is about some of the members of our species who feel compelled to take every pleasant, impromptou activity, like sliding along a freshly-frozen body of water, and turn it into a life-and-death, bloody, cutthroat battle in order to “justify” it.

I’m not talking about hockey, here, of course, but figure skating.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Here it is!” shouted Llyra.

Every sheet of glass in the lobby of the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Memorial Ice Arena—they were many and large—seemed to be covered with pieces of self-adhering typing paper. But they only adhered at the top—each time someone opened a door to the street or the cavernous rink below, they all flapped and fluttered in the breeze like so many flags.

Jasmeen answered, “Where is? I do not see!”

The place positively thundered with the presence of hundreds of young girls, from the age of four to the age of about nineteen, attired in flesh-colored tights, brightly-hued, highly stylized, traditional dresses with short skirts and plenty of sequins and glitter, standing in skates that made them look taller and even longer-legged than they were. The air was charged with the odors of hairspray, makeup, and perspired adrenaline.

Llyra was no different in many of these respects. Her hair was done up in a classic ponytail, slicked down with aerosol plastic, well garnished with fine gold glitter (buns and short haircuts were also acceptable). She wore an expensively tailored dress her grandmother had sent her, of fuscia crushed velvet with spaghetti straps over her shoulders and a short, sheer skirt of paisley that complimented the bodice.

Like every girl there, she had put on enough makeup that morning, as her father had once observed, for the entire road company of The Mikado

Here and there, outnumbered at least a hundred to one and looking very self-conscious, were little boys in tight pants and baggy-sleeved shirts. They were tougher than they looked, willing to put up with constant teasing and bullying from non-skating boys, in order to skate.

Jasmeen wore her customary “official” coach’s coat, long, black, almost ice-length. The only difference between hers and those of other coaches here today was that the other coaches wore quilted synthetics, fake furs, or heavy cloth, the only fur-bearing animals in the Moon being sheep and long-haired dogs. Jasmeen wore genuine Pallatian sable she’d paid for herself out of her first several paydays from the Ngus.

Some of these young athletes were about to skate, and were focused tightly on whatever it is inside a person that allows them to compete with others. Everywhere, signs had been posted: “NO FLOOR JUMPS”, and everywhere, just as many heads bumped by the ceiling because their owners had ignored the signs. Still, they had to warm up and get in some last-minute practice somehow. There was talk of building a high- ceilinged jump room.

Others here had already skated and were waiting for results, waiting to be photographed with their competitors, waiting to go home or back to their hotel. Many of them were red-faced and sobbing, having done less well than they—or their parents and coaches—had expected. In some, it was a reflexive, preemptive reaction, in order to avoid being scolded ar yelled at.

The all-important results were what was printed in neat columns on the pieces of paper sticking to the glass. Each consisted of the place, date, and name of the event, the group if there were more than a dozen or so skaters in the same competitive category, the skater’s name, her placement within her group, and her “ordinals”—the place given her by each of the six automated judges that had watched her skate. Sometimes these numbers varied, owing to the different angle each judge saw her from, but disagreements like this were fairly unusual.

“Junior Ladies’ Final Round!” Llyra was so excited that she could hardly control herself, but didn’t want to shout her results to a roomful of girls who hadn’t done as well as she had. Jasmeen caught up in a heartbeat. “First Place!” Llyra seized Jasmeen’s arm and squeezed it.

“Oh, my little,” said Jasmeen. “Just look at the ordinals!”

All six robotic judges had given Llyra first place, just they had for her Long Program and her Short Program that had preceded it. Being the only figure skater on Pallas, Llyra had often wondered why, when the judges were completely cybernetic, the results were posted in such an old-fashioned manner. Shirleen Hofstaedter, of the Lunar Figure Skating Association, had explained that this 200-year-old touch was one of the things that had first made automated judging acceptable to skaters.

She remembered—partly because it hadn’t been that long ago—the day she’d passed her Junior Ladies’ test, which had qualified her to compete at that level in this competition. It had been a general testing day, every testing skater and her coach horribly tense. The whole rink had been steeped in a mood to make this competition seem festive.

Jasmeen had been with her every step of the way, of course, watching her as she warmed up, offering final advice on the fine points of technique, reminding her, as every coach must remind her students,”Smile!” The judges were actually programmed to watch for that.

It was a strange, strange world, she thought, and growing stranger daily.

She’d been well coached and had practiced hard, getting through the test with an ease that had made her feel unsettled and suspicious of herself. Some skaters were called back to reskate a portion of their test. Llyra was not, which could either mean she’d skated well or very badly.

They’d found a little niche just off the lobby by the snack bar in which to sit and wait. Jasmeen had gotten out her PDA and begun working this week’s Syrtis Major Times crossword puzzle, the only reason she subscribed. As with the old-fashioned posted scores, a real human being would come out in a little while to tell them how Llyra had fared.

The real human being, Mrs. Hofstaedter, as it turned out, had informed them that Llyra had passed brilliantly. “Although I must confess, I never held out much hope for either of you, that first week you were here.”

Llyra had laughed and let Mrs. Hofstaedter buy her a celebratory Coke.

Jasmeen had immediately pressed ENTER on her PDA, electronically sending Llyra’s entry form for the competition upstairs to Mrs. Hofstaedter’s office, a full three minutes before the deadline, six whole weeks before the event today, which Llyra had won with flying colors.

Now, standing at the windows, Jasmeen caught Llyra’s eye. “My little, you have just won tenth competition in Moon. You know what means?”

Still stunned at her results and filled with joy, Llyra shook her head, a smart-alecky remark about Disneyland dying unuttered on her lips.

“Means our work here is done,” Jasmeen grinned. “Is time to move on.”

“To Mars?” Llyra’s heart raced. One-third gee! Twice that of the Moon.

“To Mars!”

******

“Step over here for security inspection!” The woman’s voice was sharp.

Not sure exactly what she’d heard, Llyra asked, “What did you say, ma’am?”

“Be quick about it, and save your sexist remarks!” the woman ordered. “We have a schedule to keep!”

Llyra made a point of looking behind her. They were early, and there was nobody in line with her but her coach. Llyra had never seen a balding woman before. This specimen had greasy, thinning, gray hair through which the girl could see more shiny scalp than she cared to. The woman was repulsively fat in a way few Pallatians ever were. She also had a better moustache than her brother Wilson would likely ever grow.

The brim of the military-style cap the woman wore unmilitarily on the back of her head was covered with smudgy fingerprints and gold decorations her grandmother had once told her real soldiers called “scrambled eggs”. The woman’s medium blue uniform shirt had epaulets, with braided gold and navy blue cords hanging from them almost to her waist. And although the shift had just begun—Llyra and Jasmeen had watched the “changing of the guard” as the earlier crew clocked out and the new one clocked in—the armpits of her shirt were already salt- and sweat-stained from the previous day’s work, and she smelled sour.

As the girls complied, they passed between a pair of chromed metal contrivances of about Llyra’s height, a head taller than Jasmeen. An alarm sounded. The security woman and the slight, anemic-looking man who shared her shift, rushed around the rostrum they had been waiting behind.

“Drop your baggage,” the woman screamed at them, spraying droplets of saliva at them. “Hold your arms out at shoulder height—do it now!”

She ran an electronic object down Llyra’s body until it beeped loudly. “What’s this?” she demanded, reaching for the edge of the light coat the girl had decided to travel in. Llyra backed up half a step.

She dropped her arms and turned to face to woman squarely. “Not that you have any right to ask me, but that’s my personal defense weapon.”

“Come here, Missy, you’re going to be adding to our collection!” The woman reached for her again. Llyra noticed she had garlic and alcohol on her breath. The girl backed up another step. Before the woman could advance, Jasmeen, smaller than either one, stood between them.

“Let her alone, cow!” Jasmeen told her.

The woman turned on her heel, faster than Llyra would have expected. “I guess that qualifies you for some special attention, too, dearie!”

She laid a fat hand on Jasmeen’s shoulder. Llyra just had time to notice that her fingernails were dirty. Then there was an explosion of motion, and when it was over, in less than a second, the woman lay on the floor, her huge breasts squashed out sideways by her weight. One arm was on the floor, the other stretched straight upward behind her, being twisted about half a turn farther than Llyra would have thought possible.

Jasmeen’s foot was on her neck and the side of her head.

Llyra bent nearly double to look the woman in the face. “Jasmeen, I think you’re right. She does look just like a cow.” The woman’s eyes were bulging with surprise and terror, as if she were about to be branded.

“You shouldn’t have touched her, you know,” Llyra said to the woman.”She’s Martian. They like being touched even less than they like being yelled at and ordered around. They probably like being disarmed less.”

Llyra looked up. It appeared they were surrounded by the entire East American garrison in the Moon, guns drawn, shock rods held high. Most of them wore spacelines livery in as shabby condition as the woman’s.

One of them was brandishing a clipboard.

“Go ahead, stupids, do what you have to do,” said Jasmeen grimly, shifting the foot on the woman’s neck a little and pulling harder on her arm. Something popped. Something else crackled faintly. The woman groaned and whimpered. “Your colleague will be dead before I hit floor.”

“And maybe three or four of you,” Llyra added, drawing the ten millimeter pistol she hadn’t wanted to show them, “will be joining her.”

“Hold on! Hold on! One side! One side! Make way! Make way!” The strong tenor voice came from the rear of the crowd, which opened up to allow a short, plump man with curly white hair and copper eyebrows to pass through them. “Everybody stand down now, before somebody gets hurt!”

At his back were half a dozen spaceport security guards, in neat, simple gray uniforms—they wore no helmets or body armor—without a sweat-stain or a thread of lint among them. Each was armed with a .50 caliber semiautomatic pistol and carried a short, fully automatic Remington shotgun with tandem magazine tubes.

“Er, somebody else gets hurt, that is.” As he drew even with the dramatic tableaux that Llyra, Jasmeen, and the unwilling security woman seemed to have struck, he clearly suppressed a delighted grin, demanding in the sternest voice he could, “Just what’s going on here, Ermintrude?”

The woman mumbled something into the carpet.

Llyra reholstered her pistol. Jasmeen didn’t let go of her captive. “They wanted to search us. Take our weapons. This one laid hand on me.”

“And you are … ” He had a suspicion, already.

“Jasmeen Mohammedova Khalidov.”

He nodded. “And you, young lady—no, no, let me guess. You would be Llyra Ayn Ngu, Wilson’s sister and Adam’s little girl. I might have known it—in fact I did know it! I’m Terry O’Driscoll. I run this place, despite what this scurvy lot thinks. Let’s go someplace we can talk.”

Jasmeen released the woman who remained where she was, a liquid stain soaking into the carpet under her hips. O’Driscoll turned to one of his security staff, issued instructions, and then led the girls away.

“We have time,” he told them. “Do you like cappucinos?”

******

“Attention! United States’ Vessel City of Newark, now boarding on Concourse A-5. United States’ Vessel City of Newark, now boarding on Concourse A-5. Passengers must display their tickets and some valid form of photographic identification, or they will not be permitted aboard.”

The pre-recorded message repeated itself in a pleasant, if brisk voice, using Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, and … he guessed it must be Urdu. If some traveller who spoke Inuit, Serbo-Croation, or Finnish had been included on the passenger manifest, the spaceline’s computer would have duly noted it, and that language would have been used, as well. It might be fun persuading them to do it in old, dead Cornish sometime.

The individual who thought of himself as “The Fastest Gun in the Moon” hadn’t joined the security inspection line just yet. He never had any trouble, but he preferred spacelines that didn’t require it. The City of Newark was a large vessel, an enormous cylinder of some eighty decks. It was usually a 24-hour task to get everybody ticketed, searched, boarded, and nicely settled in for their four-week ride to Mars.

He’d approved of the plan he’d overheard Llyra and Jasmeen making, to board the spaceship as early as possible, get comfortable in their stateroom—his own was right next door—catch up on their e-mail, watch a movie, order a light supper, and go to bed. It made his job a great deal easier, and in such an enormous ship as this one was, even if it was East American, there would be plenty to see and do tomorrow.

It had always been his habit to hang back in lines like this for as long as he possibly could, in part, until the minimum-wage slugs whose livelihood consisted solely of violating the rights and lives and persons of other individuals were physically worn out—most of them were grossly overweight—mentally exhausted (which never took terribly long), and inclined to make the most entertaining kinds of mistakes.

Today, however, the slugs had made their entertaining mistake a little early, messing with Jasmeen and Llyra. He’d had to duck into the nearest men’s room, locking a stall door behind him, in order to avoid rolling all over the concourse floor, convulsing helplessly, unable to breathe right, and with tears of laughter pouring from his eyes.

His ribs still ached and would probably bother him all the way to Mars.

Sometimes life could be truly worth living, if only for the sake of the comedy that happened along the way. For the rest of his, he would treasure the golden memory of that slovenly pig’s face squashed sideways into the indoor-outdoor carpeting under Jasmeen’s delicate foot. Or of young Llyra, holding off an entire horde of armed, uniformed bullies with her little pistol. What a pair they’d turned out to be!

He was extremly grateful that the spaceport manager—the father of Wilson’s lost love (how tangled life can get, sometimes)—had arrived just in time, before he, himself, was left with no choice but to interfere. He had a little item with him this morning that electrically fired beryllium copper needles—short bits of hair-fine wire a quarter of an inch long—coated in curare. The magazine held three hundred rounds.

The effect was transitory, but it would probably have ended his usefulness to his current employer, which would have been too bad. He’d found that he was enjoying this job more than any other in recent memory. It was pleasant to know that those you had been hired to defend—even little girls—were more than capable of defending themselves.

He used the bathroom for its intended purpose, tidied himself up, and peeked out on the concourse. The line of boarding passengers to be violated was back in place, each of its occupants quiet, passive, and sheep-like, just the way the official spacelines of the East American government preferred them. He could even make out the overhead music system playing an upbeat, bouncy version of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”.

It was too bad nobody within the borders of East America knew the words any more. They, and others like them, had been big a part of his home schooling in English Literature where he’d grown up, in Tucson, West America. His mother had almost worshipped the mid-twentieth century poets.

Emerging from the men’s room, he glanced around cautiously, just in case someone was watching him. There were advantages, he supposed, to being as tall as he was, six foot six, but he was far too old for basketball, now, and it could be a real liability, sometimes, in what he always privately thought of as the SVS—”spy versus spy”—business.

He caught sight of the two girls—Llyra and Jasmeen—sitting in the coffee bar across the concourse with the spaceport manager. It had always struck him as odd, having coffee to calm down, although people in the nineteenth century had similarly regarded alcohol as a stimulant.

None of them were laughing it up, but it was clear the girls were in no trouble. Their lives and O’Driscoll’s had been touched, and somehow braided together by the same senseless tragedy, the brutal—and apparently accidental—murder of O’Driscoll’s only daughter and, if his sources were to be trusted, the mother of Wilson’s unborn child.

The Fastest Gun in the Moon deeply regretted what had happened to Fallon, for personal reasons of his own. The responsibility had been his, after all, to protect Wilson’s life, and, by extension, Fallon’s life, as well. All the more so if she were carrying Wilson’s baby, although apparently even Fallon hadn’t known it. And to think she’d been taking Wilson to meet her father for the first time. But even the Fastest Gun in the Moon couldn’t be in two places at once.

He’d spoken with his employer within an hour of the shooting—someone needed to get busy inventing a faster-than-light communication system; he knew that it was at least theoretically possible—and his employer had agreed. Perhaps there should have been a second bodyguard. But it was doubtful much could have been done, even if he’d been there, himself. The only thing now was to watch over the two girls.

And there was good reason to do so. Looking the other way, he saw Krystal Sweet and some new companion or henchman or whatever at the back end of the security line, exactly as he’d thought he might. They probably had some other people around here, too. He’d have made this trip with the girls anyway—Wilson was big enough to take care of himself safe in his little ship—but now he was certain that he’d be needed.

He’d quietly looked into this smelly business of Krystal and Downs going to Mars but staying with the City of Newark and coming right back. Maybe nobody else knew what they had been doing, but the Fastest Gun in the Moon did. Fact was, he’d called in an anonymous bomb threat the next day to make sure that they hadn’t left any little surprises behind.

******

The waitress put their drinks down, accepted their thanks, and left.

“Ah, there’s no help for it, I’m greatly afraid,” Terry told Llyra and Jasmeen with a deep, Celtic sigh. He folded up his phone, having just made several calls with it, and put it in his pocket. “You’ll be having to surrender your personal weapons for the duration of your passage to Mars. I don’t envy you ladies at all, I don’t. Two long weeks of having to depend upon idiots and drunkards for your physical wellbeing.”

“That doesn’t seem right,” Llyra objected. “How can they get away with—”

“They’re a private corporation—at least they are in theory. In plain, despicable truth, they’re a wholly-owned subsidiary of the East American government—and as such, they have the power, if not the right, to make their own rules.”

The three of them were sitting on high stools at a tall table in one of the many bars, restaurants, and coffee shops set conveniently around the perimeter of the main concourse. Llyra and Jasmeen were having mochas (it was Llyra’s favorite), Terry’s was an Irish coffee. He seldom drank on duty but felt the East Americans had driven him to it.

“You mean if corporation made rule, ‘fly naked’, would have to fly naked?” It was Jasmeen protesting, while Llyra watched and listened. “I have heard from parents about horrible East American crime rate. One person in, well, one gets robbed or worse at least once in life. What if East American criminal aboard ship attempts to rob us—or worse?”

O’Driscoll laughed. “It appears to me that he’ll be having his arm wrenched out of its socket for him, and his face stepped on. It’d be that humiliating for a would-be rapist. The spaceline management folks will argue, of course, that you’ve no need for self-defense, since they maintain a large and well-trained security staff aboard to defend you.”

“Like large and well-trained security pigs over there?” Jasmeen tossed her head back toward the boarding area they’d just left. “They can’t fight. Weapons handling is to laugh. Smell like hockey players at end of losing season. Would it hurt them sometime to do some drycleaning?”

Terry laughed. “The hockey players or the security people? More importantly, where the blazes did you learn to fight like that, young lady?”

“On Mars from parents and friends of parents. Old revolutionaries who didn’t want kids ever to be threatened by government ‘security’ bullies.”

“The trouble is,” he nodded, “they don’t think of themselves as security people, or even law enforcement officers. They think of themselves—”

“As military,” Jasmeen supplied. “They think of themselves as military.”

“You’re quite correct, my dear, and even worse, they’re garrison troops, suffering all of the same deficiencies as garrison troops everywhere.”

“They’d actually like much better to think of themselves as occupying forces,” Llyra observed suddenly. “Wouldn’t they, Mr. O’Driscoll?”

Terry was surprised. Llyra and Fallon would have gotten along well. “Well. whatever they may be or want to be, and however they may smell—”

“Or want to smell!” the girls giggled together.

“I’m afraid that we’re stuck with them as long as East America maintains the only passenger service to Mars. I still don’t understand exactly how that happened. I’m not sure anybody does. But just between the three of us, I don’t believe that their monopoly is going to last them too much longer, not if your grandmother, young lady … ” He nodded at Llyra. ” … and the Curringer Corporation’s Sheridan Sinclair have their way.”

Llyra immediately sat up. “Mr. Sinclair is back? Then maybe we could—”

Jasmeen nodded her head. She’d had the same idea, herself.

“I’m afraid not, Miss Ngu. The silly fellow’s still out there among the flying mountains, somewhere, counting asteroids, taking their pictures, and giving them all cute little alphanumerical names. The grand plan, at least as I understand it, is to keep on doing exactly that until they’re finally relieved by the lovely vessel Rosalie Frazier, which only now just left the Earth-Moon complex, headed upsystem.”

Jasmeen nodded. “Yes, we heard of that. So we are having no choice in this matter? Must use Soviet spaceline from hell or stay here in Moon?”

O’Driscoll chuckled sympathetically. “Yes, Miss Khalidov, but I may be able to make it a little less burdensome.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Flight Control, this is Terry O’Driscoll. Oh, hello, Gertie. Thank you, m’dear, we all miss her already. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the thought. Would you please raise Captain Alan West for me, aboard the City of Newark? Thank you, Gertie.”

He waited for a moment, then: “Al you old space pirate! It’s me, Terry O’Driscoll. Have you started your checklist yet, or are you still making improper suggestions to the stewardesses? … What do you mean that they’re all male on this route? What kind of a politically correct way is that to run a spaceline, anyway? You have my extremest sympathies.”

Llyra looked a question at Jasmeen. Jasmeen shrugged.

“Look, Al I need a big favor from you. Could you come down to Boarding Lounge C in a minute? I know it’s a royal pain in the sitter, but it could turn out to be important. And be sure to bring your navigation case with you.”

He hung up, and instantly punched in another number. “Michelle? Crank up your press release program and get ready to send e-mail to every 3DTV outlet in the Moon. Headline it ‘Born and Raised at 1/20 Gravity, Pallatian Skater Defeats Luna’s Best, Now Sets Sights on Mars’.”

He went on to dictate four or five paragraphs, in proper inverted pyramid style, then hung up and turned back to the girls. “That should guarantee a crowded, noisy boarding area for the dashing Captain Alan West to escort you through. He’s not an East American, you understand, he’s from Chugwater, Wyoming, or something like that. I went down there one time to go antelope hunting with him and had to do all my shooting from a damn wheelchair!”

“So why does antelope hunting friend work for East Uglies?” asked Jasmeen.

“East America has a critical shortage of competent pilots, so he flies for the pay. He’s one of the goodguys, I promise, Miss Khalidov. He’ll take care of your unmentionables himself, until you get to Mars.”

******

“Next!”

The line today seemed extremely long and slow-moving.

When they were roughly halfway to the East American security inspection point, the phone on Krystal’s hip began vibrating. That disturbed her. In the first place, she didn’t care for the sensation, not at all. And more importantly, very few individuals had her number—in fact it didn’t officially exist—and all of them had been very severely cautioned never to use it unless there was some kind of emergency.

They pushed their carry-on luggage a few steps further along the line.

She gave her new associate the briefest of glances. Unlike this fellow’s late, unlamented predecessor, Brian Downs, “Brazos” Jeffries was nothing if not totally level-headed. Even better, he was perfectly willing to follow her lead in the field, without any argument. He was an excellent shot, well-trained in knife fighting, as well as unarmed combat.

He was also a handsome devil—she thought he was cute, anyway—tall and dark in a whitebread sort of way. He looked a little younger than his personnel jacket said he was, well-scrubbed, short-haired, clean-shaven, and tidy without being obsessive about it. Krystal thought he might have passed as a graduate student in accounting or theology.

She, herself, was in a kind of disguise this morning. You could never tell what security cameras might have picked up that day Brian had flown off the handle. She had abandoned the one-piece pants suit or faded Levis she preferred, for a long, colorful “broomstick” skirt, an off-white, homespun top with lace trim, thick-soled sandals, and large-framed glasses she felt made her look like a bug.

She carried a purse that had been woven or braided by hand out of Yeti hair or something. Her long brown wig had been put up into dozens of tiny braids when wet, allowed to dry, then combed out to produce a striking wavy appearance. She even wore a scent that mimicked that of marijuana smoke.

Reluctantly, although there was no indication who was calling—in her line of work, there wouldn’t be—she answered her telephone, assuming the ultra-pleasant tone and demeanor that went so well with her name, and never failed to strike absolute, mind-numbing terror in the hearts, both of her enemies and of those with whom she chose to work.

“Hello … This is she … Oh, it’s you! How very pleasant to be speaking with you in this way—so unexpectedly, I mean … ” She listened intently. “Oh, you don’t say! Well I must confess, that’s certainly very interesting. I was annoyed, at first, that you’d rung me now, but it was mercy, believe me. Thank you very much for calling, dear.”

She pushed buttons, put her phone in her purse, and turned to Brazos. They were only a few paces from the spaceline’s security inspection station. “Well gosh. You’ll never guess who that was,” she said.

He blinked. He didn’t get the saccharine act. It made him nervous. He’d been told it usually preceded an act of bloody violence. “Who was it?”

“It was our Jocelyn.” she said, pretending to be excited by the news.

Brazos nodded. He was the new guy here, and was only beginning to know these people. Jocelyn was the short, brown Asian woman (Krystal had said she was Vietnamese) who would be boarding City of Newark, too, in due course. Presently she was only a few paces away, keeping a watchful eye on their backs, as well as on the Ngu girl and her Martian companion.

“Jocelyn tells me,” Krystal said, “that an old friend of ours is here at this very spaceport, this very morning, watching us—no, no, don’t look back!—and that he might even possibly be planning to board this very ship with us. Let me tell you, that could turn out to be a pretty darn interesting development.” She suddenly felt a strong craving for a cigarette. “I swear, I just don’t understand how a guy can do all the lurking around that he manages, when he’s so gosh darn tall.”

Brazos grinned. In a twinkling, he became a totally different individual, a natural, instinctive predator, utterly without qualm or compunction. His eyes were like those of a shark, uncaring, cold, and voracious. Krystal adored that in a man. He said, “Would you like me to—”

“No, no, no. Wait’ll we’re underway, sweetie. We’ll have all of our toys then, and a much freer hand than we have now—that’s for sure. For the time being, let’s just do our darnedest to look and act like ordinary tourists, honeymooners, even. We’ll get on board the pretty spaceship as if we didn’t have a care in the Known Galaxy, and let our friends Jocelyn, Donna, Denise and Minde all do what they do best.”

Although she liked having someone like Brazos around, Krystal much preferred working with other women. They were always so thorough and attentive to detail. Donna and Denise and Minde were already aboard, filling posts that would stun the media and the government, once the facts were allowed to come out. Just as no one can stop an assassin if he’s prepared to die with his victim, Krystal thought, no one can stop hijackers if they’re willing to spend enough money. It made her proud that this was already the most expensive op she’d ever been involved with.

She winked. “Thanks for the thought, though.”

Brazos raised his eyebrows, obviously fighting the urge to peer around. Krystal noticed that he looked like a young graduate student again.

He asked her, “So who is this tall guy, anyway?”

“That’s right,” she observed. “I tend to forget that you’re new around here. Well, sweetie, we don’t even know his real name. He has nine or ten aliases. He’s sort of an odd kind of a stealth bodyguard. I can’t begin to guess how expensive he must be. More than I could afford.”

“A stealth bodyguard?”

She nodded. “In more ways than one. The kind of soft, pampered rich folk he protects often don’t even know that he exists, since he’s usually been hired by some interested third party. In this case, the smart money is saying that it’s either Adam Ngu, the little girl’s father, or Julie Segovia Ngu, her grandmother. Nobody’s quite sure which, but I can promise you, the man is going to be a great deal of trouble.”

You’d damn well better believe I will, Miss Sweet, mused the remarkably tall individual who thought of himself as the Fastest Gun in the Moon. He’d been listening to everything via a tiny microphone and transmitter he’d planted on Krystal’s purse. You may count on it!

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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