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CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: BEER AND SYMPATHY

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: BEER AND SYMPATHY

One good reason to get rid of politics is the traps that politicians are always setting for one another. Ordinary people get ensnared in them and it ruins their lives. In the 17th century your career could be ended if you backed the wrong semicolon in some verse in the Book of Common Prayer. Nobody really cared, it was just another way to discredit your opponent.

Lately, gene-sorting scandals have been the ruin of many an East American politician. It’s what stem cells and cloning were back in the 21st century, or abortion or philandering in the 20th. It’s not illegal, it’s just expensive and elitist. If they can afford the pricetag, they’ll suffer a brief bout of “self-improvement flu”, after which they’ll be handsomer or taller, and their kids will never go bald, catch a cold, or get cancer.

But there’s another price. If they’re unlucky enough to get caught by the predatory media (who happen to be hooked on the stuff themselves), they lose the proles—the beer and Prozac vote—and have to use their acquired charms to sell used cars.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Everything tasting all right, honey?”

The waitress was a tall, good-looking strawberry blonde, with long hair and freckles across the bridge of her turned-up nose. The skirt of her peach-colored outfit was only about a quarter of an inch longer than it absolutely had to be, and the rest of it did nothing to conceal her other ample assets. She also wore a handkerchief-sized apron.

Naturally, when she asked the question, Wilson’s mouth was full. Waitresses and dentists. He’d chosen the open-faced hot Martian-raised turkey sandwich with homemade bread, sage dressing, mashed potatoes, and a dark brown gravy that seemed to be the signature of this eatery, which for some peculiar reason, referred to itself as “Deep Space Little America”. Later, he’d promised himself, there would be lemon meringue pie.

The dining room was all right, nothing special, a maze of booths with little windows, or partitions above the backs, made of wood-framed pebbled glass. The ceiling was high, with a dozen slow- moving fans. The light was just right. The floor was a polished synthetic.

Wilson grinned back at the waitress and nodded satisfaction. Someday, he reflected, a horde of microscopic robots would be mining the insides of his cardio-pulmonory vessels for their accumulated hydrogenated lipids. But here and now, he had his lunch before him, and was already looking forward to dinner: a whole twelve ounces of t-bone beefsteak, medium rare, a crispy-jacketed steaming baked potato with everything on it but sour cream (which he detested), stir-fried asparagus, and a tall, cold margarita on the rocks with salt on the rim.

Just now he’d settled for a Coke, also on the rocks. At “tea” he’d treat himself to red beer—Negra Modelo and V8—tortilla chips and guacamole.

None of it made him exactly happy—for a moment he’d considered asking if the waitress had anything else for sale (she was quite acceptably pretty and had those long, long legs), but only for moment—it dulled the pain, especially the tequila, which was all he felt he had a right to expect. He was determined to go on living his life just as he had before he’d met Fallon, having learned—from Fallon herself—that you never know when or where you’ll find your heart’s desire.

Again.

He wasn’t sure he’d ever get over Fallon’s death, not the way he’d gotten over Amorie’s … odd behavior. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. There had been some satisfaction seeing her killer’s face come apart around a bullet which had expanded to the diameter of a two-ounce gold coin, but less than he’d anticipated, and it was fading away.

The worst of it, the hardest part to live with, was that he wasn’t sure whether he’d loved her. It was pretty clear that she’d loved him. Apparently she’d stopped taking contraceptives pretty early in their relationship—one reason Terry O’Driscoll had more or less adopted him as a son—but he knew her well enough to understand she wasn’t trying to trap him. She’d simply loved him and wanted to have his child.

Which still struck him as utterly amazing.

He’d chosen this particular place to eat in because, relative to all the others, it was quiet, the only one he knew of in the station that didn’t have a row of slot machines—or a full-blown casino—at the back of the room. He didn’t disapprove of gambling—someone had once referred to it as “the thrill of bad mathematics”—although he never gambled himself, considering it a waste of time and money. He did dislike the noise it generated, with its interminable bells and sirens.

Holbrook Station was famous all over the System because it circled the Sun in Earth’s orbit, 180 degrees ahead of (or behind) the mother planet. Hidden by the Sun’s mass and glare, it was the most isolated spot imaginable that didn’t lay outside the orbit of Pluto. Depending on the constantly-changing positions of the other Settled Worlds, it was very popular with asteroid hunters who’d worked their way around this far or simply seemed to need a different set of walls, every now and again, than the ones they’d been stuck between for weeks or months.

The station consisted of two thick disks, joined at their hubs like a set of dumbbells, rotating at the right speed to produce one sixth gee at the outermost level. Each of the ten or twelve floors above that level had less apparent gravity until, nearest the hub, one could feel no gravity at all.

The hub itself—a core that went through both disks—didn’t rotate. A docking ring of steel, titanium, and carbon fiber, held in place by a dozen spokes of the same material, was attached to the hub where it passed from one disk to the other. One was free to enter the station the expensive way, by docking for a metered time at one end, or more cheaply, by mooring at the docking ring, which was stationary, relative to the station—the apparent gravity there was zero gee—and riding one of its many elevator pods up the nearest spoke to the hub.

Here on the outermost level, Wilson could look down through a large window in the restaurant’s floor, and see Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend every time the station completed a rotation and started another. She was moored by the rings and bollards she used to tow asteroids, and what he saw was her stern and the huge orifices of her engines.

What Wilson thought of as the upper half of Holbrook Station had been given over to restaurants, bars, dance halls, all kinds of shops—exactly the same kinds of enterprises that could be found at the LaGrange points or any self-respecting tourist trap in Arizona or New Mexico—and to other necessities of life, as well, like showers, luxurious baths, barbershops, and massage parlors that actually performed massages. It also offered several long rows of 3DTV phones that depended on a pair of relay satellites, also in Earth’s orbit, but a quarter of the way around the sun, to communicate with the Earth/Moon system and whatever else happened to be out of reach at the moment.

He’d already inspected the swimming pool, a cluster of hot tubs, saunas, and the inevitable centrifuge full of brides and young matrons from the outer worlds, hoping to conceive and to avoid miscarriage. He’d also found a handball court, a tennis court, and a shooting range with its own gunsmith. He badly needed practice, he felt, with both his Herron StaggerCyl .270 and his great grandfather’s .45 Magnum Grizzly. Llyra—she and Jasmeen should be starting for Mars right about now—would be disappointed to learn that they had no ice-skating rink here.

He’d been happy to find a well-equipped gymnasium and weight room. His muscles had long ago adapted from the one tenth gravity of Ceres to the one sixth of the Moon. He’d recently started using the engines aboard Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend to work his way up, a few digits at a time, from the Moon’s point one, six, six, six, et cetera, to the point three, three, three of Mars. He thought it might make a nice surprise for his little sister and her coach if he showed up on Mars, at some point, able to get around on his own, without mechanical assistance.

There was a fuel desk, the main reason for the station’s existence to begin with, where asteroid hunters and other travelers paid for reaction mass and other things to keep their catalytic fusion powerplants sizzling.

Most importantly, there were extensive ship repair facilities here. Wilson believed that one of his engines had a hairline crack in its rocket nozzle liner, which had already reduced that engine’s power by eleven percent and would eventually cause a catastrophic failure in the field. That was the main reason he’d come here. They actually had a pressurized facility large enough to accomodate Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend. This was good because, as expensive as hangar time could be, paying a mechanic suit-time was ruinous.

There was a water desk, as well, half a dozen movie theaters, a multifaith chapel with facilities for weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs, offices representing banks from all over the Solar System, the law firm of Mercot, Flambingo, Creasing, and Plavnivs, and several establishments dedicated to the needs and comfort of lonely travelling men.

These establishments also made housecalls, to the rooms in the lower cylinder—actually an enormous hotel with a twenty-bed infirmary and a fully equipped operating theater—or to ships docked at the ring. The infirmary specialized in the diseases of insufficient gravity: deteriorating skeletons and muscles, ailing immune systems.

Holbrook Station offered at last fifty places to eat, ranging from many standup counters and familiar fast food joints like Zeefo’s or Ali Wanna, to a genuine five-star restaurant that required its customers to wear a necktie, a formal pistol belt, and other suitable attire. It served fresh vegetables it grew in a greenhouse, and lobster, which it raised in a tank.

Abruptly, it wasn’t as quiet in the restaurant as it had been. An indeterminate number of noisy voices erupted behind him—somehow, Wilson thought, it seemed a bit too early in the day for that sort of thing—he peered around the back of his booth to see what was going on.

“There he is!” said one of the three young men coming toward him. It was his old friend Mikey Mitzvah with his round face, short blond hair, and spectacles. With him were Marko Fang, the tattooed warrior with a scalp lock, and Sean Ian Scott, otherwise known to everyone as Scotty.

“What the hell are you three doing way out here?” Wilson asked. “Are you aware you’re making enough racket for a dozen guys your size?”

“Hot turkey sandwich and a Coca-Cola!?” Marko said, flinging himself into the booth opposite Wilson. “Looks like it’s lunchtime for Mr. Ngu. We’re eight hours out of synch. It’s way after suppertime for us.”

The other two were right behind him. Mikey sat by Marko. Scotty said, “Shove it on over, Sport,” adjusted his kilt for sitting, and slid in beside Wilson, who hated being trapped on the inside of a booth. Nevertheless, he moved over, taking his plate and drink with him.

The waitress materialized almost immediately. “What can I do for you gents?” she asked, expecting—and receiving—the usual round of fresh answers. She’d noticed the original customer at this table looking at her legs and her breasts (who wouldn’t, considering what she had to wear) but at least he’d been a little shy and perfectly polite about it.

“They’ve just arrived from the depths of interplanetary space and it’s past their bedtime,” Wilson told her. “Perhaps warm milk all around?” The intended witticism only made matters worse, and embarrassed Wilson thoroughly.

When the waitress had departed with their orders, Scotty leaned toward the center of the table. “Did I hear you ask us what we’re doing out here, Wilson? Because I’ll tell you, if you can keep it to yourself.”

Wilson leaned into the center of the table, nose to nose with Scotty. Mikey and Marko followed his example. “Okay.” He sat back again.

Mikey complained, “The wise guy! Always the wise guy! Tell him, Marko!”

That individual looked around cautiously and lowered his voice until Wilson could barely hear. “We think we’ve found the Diamond Rogue.”

Wilson shook his head. “That’s a hunter’s myth. My mother—”

“Is an expert on asteroids,” Scotty finished for him. “And a very nice, very pretty lady, if you don’t mind me saying so. I’ve met her, and I know. And yet you yourself found a giant—”

“Garnet. The size of a basketball. My grandma used to tell me the Diamond Rogue is bigger than a house—or a castle. In Transylvania. So is this object that you think you’ve found an aggregate, or one huge, gigantic diamond? And exactly how big is it? Bigger than a breadbox?”

“Bigger than one ship can haul. Bigger than three ships. That’s why—”

More noise issued from the other end of the restaurant, and four young men, talking loudly and walking a bit uncertainly made their way toward Wilson’s table. The four newcomers were dressed much like Wilson and his friends and were similarly armed. They walked with what people who didn’t hunt asteroids for a living called a “spaceman’s swagger”.

“This is a hunter’s bar!” The obvious leader spoke up. He was the shortest of the lot and the most in need of a shower and a shave. He breathed alcoholically on Wilson. “Whadda you think you’re doing here, Pinky?”

“I’m having my dinner, formerly in peace.” Wilson didn’t appear to look up. He knew that the expression “pinky”, among hunters, meant an inexperienced beginner. He also remembered this little man, who’d taken spacemanship courses at the same time he had, downsystem, in the Moon. “Look around, Shorty. This isn’t a bar, it’s a restaurant, Deep Space Little America, and the only asteroid hunters here are at this table.”

Which could be taken as an insult or not, as the little man preferred.

Starting to anger, Shorty said, “You’re no hunter, rich boy! Prove it!”

Wilson pointed to the window in the floor, where Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend was coming around again. “There’s my ship, Shorty. And you know perfectly well that I’ve been doing this exactly as long as you have.”

Shorty snarled, “You didn’t earn that ship, Pinky, you bought it!”

“Way I heard it, you inherited yours. I bought mine with money I earned.” In some locales—what was left of southern California, for instance—”inherit” was a euphemism for killing somebody and taking their property.

“Oh, that’s right.” He got his friends’ attention with his elbows. “I saw it on 3DTV. Look out boys, we’ve got the Cereal Killer among us!”

Later, Wilson didn’t remember how he’d managed to scramble over Scotty. All he knew was that, before he realized what he’d done, he was standing in the aisle between tables with an extremely sore right hand. The fellow who’d insulted him was lying on the floor ten feet away, where he’d fetched up against another booth, following a long skid.

Almost immediately, one of Shorty’s pals, the one Wilson thought of as “Boils” rounded on him, his arm cocked back, telegraphing a punch. He never got to make it, however, as Marko seized his elbow from behind, spun him around, and punched him hard in the solar plexus. Boils sank to his knees, pitched over, and made retching noises.

While Boils was preoccupied vomiting on the floor, another of the four thugs, the one Wilson thought of as “Fatty”, jumped up onto the seat of the booth, and from there, dived on Marko. Unfortunately for him, Marko moved at the last moment, and Mikey helped by grabbing Fatty’s foot. He landed hard on Boils, making a worse mess than before.

The last of the four, whom Wilson thought of as “Beanpole” was tall and lanky, even for someone born in the lower gravity of the Settled Worlds, but there was nothing wrong with his muscles. He reached across the table, grabbed Mikey by his shirtfront, and hauled him out onto the floor, where he began hitting him in the stomach and face. Mikey, who seemed impervious, returned punch for punch, face and stomach.

Having nothing better to do at the moment—although by now, there was plenty of fighting all around him—Wilson stomped on one of Beanpole’s feet, as hard as he could. Beanpole raised his head and bellowed. Mikey kicked him in the crotch, and he let go and grabbed himself between the legs. Mikey delivered a good solid punch and Wilson heard Beanpole’s nose break with a satisfyingly cartilagenous crunch.

By now, Shorty had gotten to his feet and jumped back into the fray. He’d picked a fiberglass tray off another table and was about to brain Marko with it, but Marko ducked out of the way and tripped him. The tray-slinger struck Wilson at waist-height and both of them went down.

“Sorry ’bout that,” Marko said, punching Boils, who had gotten up again.

“‘Sokay,” Wilson flipped the serving tray up into Shorty’s face. He scrambled to his feet and kicked Shorty in the jaw before the thug could get up again. Beanpole was down and staying down, thanks to the pain between his legs and his broken, bleeding nose. Boils, decisively punched by Marko, and Fatty, who’d never recovered from his crash landing on Boils, were out of it, as well. It appeared the fight was over.

It was then that Wilson realized that Scotty had spent the entire time sitting in the corner of the booth, sipping his tea, watching the fight.

Scotty looked up at him and grinned. “Some do the work, while others are—”

They all heard a clacking they recognized and looked up. There, at the end of the aisle, was the waitress, in her hands, a heavy laser- augmented particle beam projector with a pitted .90 caliber emitter orifice.

Swinging it up at them, she asked, “Okay, who wants to get cut in half first?”

******

The business card read:

John F. Crenicichla
(Pronounced “krenny KICK la”)
Consultant
Hotel Nelson Mandela, Johannesburg, S.A.
e-mail: thefish@liaison.com
telePHONE: 0-010-456-7392

The man who handed it to the uniformed hostess as he stepped through the shuttle’s inner airlock door was crisply dressed in an expensively understated blue suit of the latest cut. Well groomed and manicured, he appeared to be in his middle thirties (he was actually a decade older than that) and most women in his experience found his boyish grin irresistable.

As usual, East American Spacelines had set up a sort of boarding office in the airlock of the shuttle that had brought him and a couple of dozen other passengers to the place where the company’s City of Newark flagship stood in stationary orbit about the Moon. Boarding a big passenger vessel like this one was a lengthy process and would require many shuttle visits from several destinations. Beyond the outer airlock door, he could see into the open airlock of the larger ship.

Crenicichla believed in travelling light. Today he carried with him only a small African buffalo leather briefcase containing his East American travel papers (it was the last country on Earth that still required anything resembling a passport) and his personal computer, a flat, platinum- titanium alloy square from Sony, perhaps a quarter of an inch thick and three inches on a side, with rounded corners and edges. He had checked in with one additional bag, very small and also of African buffalo leather, containing a change of clothing and various personal items.

“I find the card saves a lot of trouble with pronunciation,” he explained.

The hostess nodded, gave him the obligatory welcoming smile, and immediately shifted her attention to the next passenger coming through the airlock door from the shuttle. Crenicichla was prepared to give her excellent marks on her performance. She had seen him on several occasions, most of them at recent Null Delta Em tactical briefings, but no casual observer would ever suspect it. She was another of Krystal’s Sweet’s proteges, a young woman he knew by her cell-name, Donna.

Just this side of the shuttle’s outer airlock door, a small folding desk had been set up for another young woman, whose nametag declared her to be “Denise”. Sitting at the front edge of the desktop before her, a tastefully-engraved strip of gold, an inch wide, six or seven inches long, and at least an eighth of an inch thick, attached with small gold nails to what was in Lunar orbit, an even rarer and expensive strip of dark-grained hardwood, identified her as “Purser’s Assistant”.

“Welcome aboard East American Spacelines’ flagship, the City of Newark, sir,” this young woman said, scarcely looking up at him, but eyeing his meager luggage as if she expected to see a tag hanging from it declaring “No animals were injured or killed during the production of this briefcase”. The majority of East Americans were no longer accustomed to seeing animal products openly displayed. “Is there anything you’d care to have locked in the purser’s safe? Money? Valuables?”

“Just my vest—it’s made from real gorilla chest.” Her eyes grew wide and the color went out of her face. “I’m only kidding! No thank you, dear, nothing at all.” He smiled down at her (she was another of Krystal’s people and like all of them, remarkably good at what she did) and stepped aboard the vast cylinder that was the City of Newark.

Something about that solid gold name plaque lingered in his mind. In an earlier era, it would have been made of engraved brass, or even of the kind of plastic that was one color, usually black, on the surface, but another color, usually white, when writing had been cut into it with a special routing machine. Here at a LaGrange point, high above the Earth, a plaque of laser-cut wood would have constituted conspicuous consumption all by itself. That gold plaque was a symptom, he knew, of everything that was wrong with today’s Solar System-wide economy.

For all of the alarmist rhetoric spouted daily by that hapless idiot Anna Wertham Savage and her so-called Mass Movement—not to mention Paul Leugner’s Null Delta Em—concerning the mythological environmental dangers of importing objects and materials from other worlds, the concerns of both organizations’ ultimate sponsors were far different, far more specific and practical. The more gold that was produced by collecting operations in the Asteroid Belt, for example, the less valuable the gold already mined on Earth became. Exactly the same was true of silver, platinum, iridium, palladium, rhodium, and other precious commodities. Handfuls of diamonds were being found out there, as well, and DeBeers, among others, were desperate to keep them offplanet.

Economists called it the “Law of Marginal Utility”, although it was actually more of an observation about human psychology. The more there is of anything—tennis shoes, comic books, pistol ammunition—the less any individual unit of it is worth. If iron were scarce and palladium abundant, the two metals would swap positions on the scale of value. It had actually happened, on occasion, with gold and platinum.

Reflexively, unconsciously, Crenicichla reached up and touched a spot on his expensively tailored shirt that covered a series of small but curious scars midway between collar bone and nipple, where he had once been in the habit of attaching the symbol of his membership in the most secretive fraternal organization in the world—a precious metal pin featuring a death’s head—to his naked chest whenever he went swimming or did anything else without his clothing on. Although it had nothing to do with the reasons he valued it, the metal in the pin was now worth half as much as it had been when he was a Junior at Yale.

Someday, if individuals continued to be permitted to live and work in space, it might very well be worth nothing at all. And so might be the accumulated fortunes of his sponsors. A nickel-iron asteroid a mile in diameter, he recalled someone saying (and there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them), contained more gold—merely as a trace element—than had ever been mined on Earth in ten thousand years of human history.

The idea made him shudder. In many ways, his life so far had been a lucky one. Born into abysmal poverty in a working-class slum of New Bedford, he had supplemented what little the public schools had taught him with a course of study designed by his mother—a public school teacher, until she had been fired for teaching more than just what was required by the official Massachusetts state curriculum. He had won a scholarship to Yale, and in time, attracted the attention of a certain fraternity.

Once he had endured the initiation rituals, they had taken him in and treated him as if he were one of their own, a scion of ancient and unspeakable wealth and power. They had seen to his mother, forcing the educational system to reinstate her with back pay and benefits, making her final years lavish. Now a wealthy man himself, he had sworn many oaths as a part of his initiation, but had privately vowed, as well, to protect the interests of his adopted class, with his very life, if necessary.

After all, they had given it to him.

Some of the flight crew had ventured off the flight deck to greet the latest flock of passengers as they stepped aboard the spaceship. The couple ahead of him were obvious newlyweds, giggling and snuggling, off on a Martian honeymoon. Watching them, he was grateful that they would be dead in two weeks, and not contributing to the human gene pool.

The elderly couple behind him was almost as bad. All they could talk about was returning to the Moon for another set of DeGrey regeneration therapies as soon as possible. Apparently, they were in their nineties, and she hadn’t been able to walk for the last twenty years, but had now abandoned her wheelchair. In time, they would come to look and sound just like the couple ahead of him. It was unnatural and disgusting, another abomination that, once they had sufficient political and military power, he and his sponsors would put a stop to.

Except, of course for him and his sponsors.

Captain Alan West was a physically enormous individual, both wide and tall, middle-aged, but without a single gray strand on his head. West shook Crenicichla’s hand and welcomed him aboard in an accent that seemed to the younger man to be half Texan and half big-city Jewish. NDE intel said he was from someplace called “Chugwater” in the West American state of Wyoming.

The Captain’s second was younger, shorter, slimmer, but completely gray. The tan-line slanting across his forehead said he liked to be outdoors when he wasn’t helping to drive a spaceship between the Moon and Mars, probably riding a horse with a sixgun on his hip and a rope in his hand. That hand was rough with calluses when he reached out for Crenicichla’s.

The flight engineer (a position entirely as redundant as a fireman on a three hundred mile per hour electric bullet train, but required by the East American unions) was a pretty blonde, leaning more to the voluptuous than the slender or athletic. Like the others, she, too, shook Crenicichla’s hand and smiled at him. This would be Minde, he understood, another of Krystal’s oddly-assorted collection of female henchpersons.

Glancing at the boarding pass someone had handed him, he noted his stateroom number, 4-3, but, not enjoying Krystal’s advantage of having already travelled on this ship, had to consult with a big interactive chart mounted on the bulkhead once he’d exited City of Newark‘s airlock.

Like all large deep space passenger vessels, East America’s City of Newark was nothing more than an enormous, flat-ended cylinder, divided into a number of decks built around a service core that housed two or three elevators, numerous cable runs, plumbing for various gases and liquids, and an emergency staircase. The basic design, he knew, had been stolen from shipbuilders working for Pallas’ Fritz Marshall Spacelines.

On most of the decks, running around the outside of the service core, there was a circular corridor lined with the numbered doors of passenger compartments. The higher within the structure of the ship—which also meant the further forward—the fewer compartment doors there were, and the larger and more luxurious the compartments behind them. No one ever commented on this peculiarity aboard a passenger liner belonging to what was supposed to be a classless society. In history’s last “classless” society, the highly pampered passengers, those possessed of the most power and greatest wealth, had been called nomenklatura.

Crenicichla was unapologetically grateful that he qualified for such a title. The airlock he’d come aboard by let out on the lowest of the passenger decks. While he waited for an elevator, he noticed that the facilities were nominally clean and sanitary—eight bunks to a “stateroom”, two rooms to a bathroom—but that they were dismal and depressing. An earlier culture had called it “steerage”.

Other decks served other purposes. Toward the bottom of the entire stack—aft, as the crew called it, but forward of the engineering spaces—there were a great many cargo storage decks, one of them all of three storeys tall for the transportation of heavy equipment, building materials, and vehicles. There was a kennel deck, dedicated to housing pets and livestock, and a gymnasium—although it had no swimming pool.

All the way forward, almost at the top of the stack, there was a big hotel-style restaurant and bar, and forward of that, accessible by a fancy spiral staircase of wrought iron, a comfortable observation lounge.

The flight deck, or control room, or bridge (the brochures and the crew used the expressions interchangeably) was walled off with a thick, circular, bulletproof transparency. It stood in the center of the observation lounge, but the only access to it was by a secured elevator from the service core.

Crenicichla’s ticket was for Deck Four, the second most comfortable and expensive passenger accommodation aboard the ship. If he hadn’t acquired it so late in the game—having been abruptly ordered by his sponsors to do so—he’d have demanded Deck Three. Years ago, he had very carefully arranged for his undercover identity to be wealthy, accustomed only to the very best. This not only gave him open entry to any social level he desired, but served to gather all the most decorative and compliant women. His undercover identity also required that he attract a lot of women.

In the two weeks he had before the real action began and he had to abandon the City of Newark along with the Null Delta Em people he was supposedly watching over, he had plans to enjoy this excursion thoroughly.

Passenger Deck Four, the boarding pass specified, Stateroom Number Three. Crenicichla opened the gasketed door—right, he recalled, these wedge-shaped cabins could detach from the service core, becoming lifeboats if it was required of them—and went inside, closing it behind him and double-locking it. He looked around the small room very carefully, making certain no one was waiting to ambush him. Although it looked a great deal like any hotel room, there were no big windows on the curved outer wall, only a porthole, covered by a small, silly curtain.

Crenicichla set his briefcase on the small writing table and extracted his computer. He called up the virtual keyboard and display screen, and activated a security program. It would detect hidden cameras and listening devices, rendering useless those he chose to leave in place.

In the bathroom, he looked inside the medicine cabinet and found a screw holding it to the wall. The paint in the screw’s slot had been slightly chipped and he could see bare metal. That was a mistake somebody should probably be gigged for. Extracting a ten dollar coin from his pocket, he turned the screw. The entire cabinet swung away from the bulkhead on hidden hinges. Inside the compartment he found behind it, was a large manila envelope, sealed with a common bronze office clasp.

This was a principal reason he’d acted to defeat any surveillance devices that might be in the compartment. Inside the envelope, which he laid on the vanity counter, was a special pistol, the most recent weapon to be issued to the East American and United Nations military. It held cartridges in a magazine and shot copper-jacketed lead bullets like most handguns still did, even in this century, but each of them had been treated with an extremely fast-acting neurotoxin, released only by the energy of the bullet’s impact, and would also be charged, on its trip through the barrel, with three hundred thousand volts of electricity.

Deal with that, Wilson Ngu, Crenicichla muttered to himself, surprised at the vehemence of his feelings concerning the bloodthirsty boy from Ceres. On the other hand, the Environmental Defense Brigade had been his own pet idea—he mourned its several fatalities; many of them had been friends, and only hoped the survivors wouldn’t identify him as their mentor—a fine and noble idea that the wealthy young gunslinger had erased from the board before it had even gotten started.

He put the pistol back in its envelope, closed it with its bronze fastener, and stowed the package away again behind the cabinet. He wouldn’t be needing it yet, not for two weeks. But it certainly was a convenience, he thought, having so many people in so many sensitive positions.

About now, Krystal’s operatives should be finding their weapons, too—those who had just come aboard. The others—copilot, purser’s assistant, and hostess—were the folks who’d stashed these deadly toys here to begin with, proving once again that you can’t prevent crime, you can only move it, in this case from the passengers to the crew.

Someone knocked on the door. The small screen on its inside showed the face of Denise, the Purser’s Assistant. She shouldn’t be here like this.

He swung the door aside and opened his mouth to reprimand her.

“Good day, Mr. … Krennykickla.” She studied a clipboard in her hand intently. “I hope I pronounced that right. We’re letting all of the higher deck passengers know that it’s only a few minutes before departure.”

She was good. “Thank you, Miss. Do I have to do anything special?”

“No sir. For a moment, you’ll just feel a little like you’re in an elevator. We’ll start at a sixth of a gee and accelerate gradually to a third of a gee at Turnover—that’s the same as Mars’ gravity—and remain at that rate of acceleration until we arrive at Mars’ orbit.”

He nodded. “Well, thanks again, Miss—Denise. Do you require a tip?

“Oh, no, sir. East American Spacelines’ tariffs strictly forbid it.” She turned a little, as if to take her leave, and fluttered her eyelashes.

“I see.” He slipped her a hundred dollar bill exactly as he would have been expected to by anybody watching. “Very well, then, thank you again.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He closed the door, got a flask from the one small piece of check- through luggage he’d discovered waiting for him in the stateroom, and poured himself a healthy drink. The ship’s 3DTV system followed East American “broadcsast standards”, which meant that there was virtually nothing on worth watching, but he found a soccer game, reclined on the bed, drank his drink, and eventually took a nap, missing the thrill of takeoff.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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