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CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: THE DIAMOND ROGUE

We’ve all heard it said that people who’ve been married for a long time tend to look like one another. I can’t really testify to that, but I do believe that people who are going to be married for a long time tend to think like one another from the beginning. That’s why they fall in love in the first place, and that’s what makes it work.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Would you care for a little more of this cocoa?” Adam asked.

A breeze off Lake Selous stirred, bringing more leaves down from the trees. Pallas was having an Autumn, courtesy of Weather Control, and it would be enjoyable. The breeze was warm. An efficiently quiet machine the size of a small suitcase traveled between the lake and the house, cutting the grass and converting the orange and yellow leaves it found to a fine powder.

Ardith replied, “No, thank you, dear, I’m about cocoaed out.” As he put the Thermos down, she snuggled into the red plaid blanket he’d covered her with when she’d sat down on the recliner, so that only her dark eyes showed. She felt better now, but she was still weak from moment to moment, and got chilled easily. “But I don’t want to go back indoors just yet.” She glared back toward the house. “My phone’s in there, and more reports from my lab people that nothing has changed up there.”

She used her eyes to indicate the giant Drake-Tealy object orbiting Pallas.

A few yards away, a fat red squirrel scampered over the backs of a pair of ship-lapped rowboats that had been pulled out of the lake and turned over. Birds sang in the kind of sunshine peculiar to Fall, and an occasional whitecap on the lake showed it was breezy out there, too.

Their lives were here, Adam thought. Not far off, screened by a row of trees, lay the final resting places of most of the Ngu family, excepting Emerson and Rosalie, who had disappeared, and their son Bill, his own father, of whom there had been nothing left to bury. Rosalie had had her mother, Gretchen Singh Altman, reburied here, as well. Adam had played among the markers as a child, and so had Ardith. Now his brother Lindsay was here, too. It was hard to believe it, sometimes, let alone endure it.

Sitting in an upright chair beside his wife, Adam nodded. “Mine, too. I’m grateful Arleigh was willing to oversee repairs to the atmospheric envelope for a while. I need time to think. And breathe. And keep you company. Whatever else has happened between us, I owe you that, and I want it, too. You’re still by far the most interesting person I ever met.”

On the lake, a small squadron of mallard ducks made an impressive amphibious landing and immediately began bobbing for food until, in their very midst, a huge fish jumped into the air, scattering the flock. Beneath the edge of her blanket, Ardith smiled. “That’s about the nicest compliment I’ve ever received.” She sighed and tilted her head over to rest it on his arm where it lay on the arm of his chair. “Why the hell can’t we get along for more than about three days, my love?”

He shook his head. “My darling Ardith, if I knew that … ”

“You could die a happy man?” she asked, mischief in her eyes.

He looked at her. She was also the most beautiful woman he’d ever known, but for some reason she never seemed to like to hear it. “Yes, I believe I could. Whenever we are getting along, well, I carry the happiness of that around with me for months afterward. Sometimes for years.”

“Me, too.” Against a feeling that her heart was about to stop beating, she took a determined breath. “Adam, we have to do something about this. And no, I don’t know what. We’ve been married for twenty years and we’ve spent, I guess, about ten percent of that whole time actually living together. I don’t want to do it that way anymore, do you?”

He didn’t want to, and said so, hoping all of this wasn’t leading up to a divorce. If it did, he wasn’t sure he would want to go on living.

“For what it’s worth,” she added, “I think the whole thing’s my fault.”

He blinked, his train of thought derailed. “What makes you think that?”

Ardith took another deep breath. “I believe it was that visit that your mother paid me in the hospital that got me started thinking about it. You know, I’ve had a lot of time lately, in the hospital at first, and then resting here at home, to examine every aspect of it in fine detail.”

“That doesn’t sound particularly healthy. I’ve never much cared for—”

“Sooner or later, Adam, sooner or later, as I begin to feel closer to you, some little nastiness inside me starts to exercise its evil influence. It makes me willfully misinterpret the most innocent thing you say. It makes me feel angry at you and everything else in sight. I’m ashamed to say I feel the same thing when I’m close to our kids. Whenever I find myself getting close, then this core of rage takes over.”

“My mother the marriage counsellor.” He sat silently for a moment. Then: “Rage?”

“Yes, rage. That’s what I said, and … and who the hell are you to—damn it! It started up again, all by itself. You see what I mean, don’t you? This must seem perfectly insane to you. In all honesty, Adam, I can’t understand why you’ve stayed married to me so long.”

“Because, my very dear, of that first time I kissed you on your parents’ second floor deck.” He nodded in the general direction of the Zacharenko house, the next residence north along the Lake Selous shore. It was dark, empty, and locked up at present; its owners were upsystem at the Jupiter habitat. “Since then, I never really looked at another—”

“Really?” she grinned. “Not even your sexy little Asian office assistant?”

“Ingrid?” Adam shrugged and looked perplexed. “You think of Ingrid Andersson as sexy? Hmmm … Well, I suppose you could look at her that way if you really worked at it. She’s kind of young, though, don’t you think?”

She laughed. “The other woman usually is, Adam.”

“But that’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you. Since you were seventeen, there hasn’t ever been another woman for me. Sometimes I’ve wished—”

“I’ll bet you have.”

His hands were up: “Not fair, my dear, not fair. You set that one up, yourself.”

“Most first wives do,” she replied. “Okay, how about before I was seventeen?”

“What? Well, you’ve got me there. Sarah, this blond in my Spanish class—”

“Adam Ngu, you were home-schooled, just like me, you complete, utter, and total fraud! In fact, we learned Spanish together, you and I, from our neighbor old Mrs. Gonzales.” She punched his shoulder, hard.

“Well you know what they say, ‘Spanish is a loving tongue’.”

“You keep your tongue out of it—at least until we’re back in the house.” Then she reddened at what she’d said to him, and fell silent.

Adam slipped out of his chair and knelt beside hers, so he could hold her in his arms. She put her hand on his cheek and he kissed her fingertips. Her recent illness was one of the most frightening things he’d ever experienced; the thought of losing her was unbearable. “I guess I shouldn’t admit it, but your first time was my first time, as well.”

“Our first Spanish lesson?”

“No, you know what I mean—in the boat house over there.”

She blushed again, into his shoulder. “Hey, I knew that.”

“Did you also know,” he asked her, “that in all those years—twenty-two of them—we’ve never had a vacation together? Not even a honeymoon?”

She crinkled her forehead. “That’s right. They’d just brought in a whole load of Drake-Tealy Objects loaded with beryllium, and you were working on the refit of Marshall’s Lady of Spain for the Jupiter route.”

“What would you think about taking a vacation together? The canopy fix will take months, and even if you have a giant Drake-Tealy Object alive and pulsing in orbit, nobody’s demanding that you go back right away.”

“Thanks a lot! It’s nice to feel indispensable … Where would we go?”

“How about Mars? Llyra will be there pretty soon, and—although I can’t believe it when I’m saying it—we haven’t seen her in two years. Our beautiful little girl, and we haven’t seen her in two years.”

Ardith considered it. “Or Jasmeen, for that matter. But we’d be helpless there, Adam, in a third of a standard gee, almost seven times what we were born to and grew up in. We’d be wheelchair bound at the very least. And if both of us were invalids, who would take care of us?”

Adam answered, tentatively, “My mother?”

This time when she hit him, he said, “Ow!”

******

“I never would have stumbled across it,” Marko told them as they left the security office, following the fight in the restaurant, “if it hadn’t been for that frigging short circuit in Mina‘s command console.”

He looked at each of his three friends expectantly. Wilson refrained from repeating what Marko had just told them, but neither Mikey nor Scotty could resist: “A short circuit in your command console?”

“Is there an echo in here?” Marko laughed. “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened, all right. For some reason all my communications were going out at radar frequencies, while my radar was trying to operate on comm frequencies. People must have thought that First Contact had finally happened.”

“That’s what you get for drinking soda pop while you’re at the con. Sooner or later, you’re gonna squirt a baggie in your keyboard, and—”

“Thanks, Mikey, shut up. Anyway, this Big Black Rock happened to be passing—close enough to singe my frigging hair—but it doesn’t seem to absorb comm frequencies quite as well as it does radar. Thanks to the radio-absorptive quality of its surface, it was impossible to peer into the interior, determine whether it was an aggregate of some kind, a solid, or just a gigantic overcooked marshmallow. I watched it with my lidar, too, and let my computer plot its line of flight. Then I unsnarled my wiring and skedaddled back here to Holbrook to enlist some help.”

“Guess it’s a good thing Mikey and Scotty were handy,” Wilson observed. Holbrook was a very popular place in this half of the Solar System. In fact, it was the only place, until you got to the orbit of Mars.

“No such a thing,” said Marko, shaking his head. They reached an elevator, got in, and Wilson pushed some buttons. They were headed for their rented quarters and a decent night’s rest in the other half of the station. Wilson hadn’t been up that long, himself, but he could always catch up on his reading, his correspondence, or watch a movie. Once again, he was tempted to purchase some female companionship, but he didn’t know how, and it had always struck him as a little shabby and demeaning, although whether to him or to the lady or both, he wasn’t prepared to contemplate.

In any case, at present, they were taking an elevator “upstairs” to the hub. There, they would take another car—travelling at right angles to the first, and in zero gravity—to the residential half of Holbrook Station. And finally, another elevator would carry them down to whatever floor they’d been assigned. Wilson had chosen one third gee.

The brief voyage gave them all a chance to talk.

“Matter of fact, I was downsystem, mooching around the junkyards at L-Three, looking for spare parts,” Mikey told him with a straight face. “Poor Albuquerque Gal had a catastrophically failed flux capacitor that was gradually fractionating her dilithium crystals, and seriously decalibrating the matter-antimatter ratio in my portside interociter.”

“At one point twenty-one jigawatts?” Marko inquired, deliberately mispronouncing it.

“Ah, the classics endure forever,” Scotty observed. “As for me, Nessie and I were in the middle of the Belt, checking out rumors of gold on Vesta. Guess what: there’s no gold on, in, or around that dumb chunk of granite. If this expedition doesn’t turn out to be something wonderfully decent, I’m seriously out of pocket for reaction mass and consumables.”

The real surprise,” Marko told Wilson, generating a hurt sort of tone, “was finding you sitting in that eatery, complacently munching a hot turkey sandwich instead of coming out treasure hunting with your old friends who have absolutely nothing but your best interests at heart.”

The elevator reach the top of its shaft. A recorded voice reminded them that they were in a microgravity section of the station. The door opened.

Wilson slapped his backside. “Just checking that my wallet’s still there.”

Marko gave him an evil laugh. They floated out.

As he grabbed a nylon handstrap—there were several of them, color coded, and running in different directions along the corridor—Mikey shook his head. “No, the surprise was we didn’t get fined or jailed for that fight. Happily, Shorty and his pals are well known troublemakers and Security just assumed that they’d started it.”

Wilson protested, “But they did start it!”

“No, Wilson, ” Marko replied. “All that guy Shorty did was insult you verbally. ‘Sticks and stones’ and all that. You threw the first punch.”

Wilson thought about it. “You’re right. I guess I did.”

They reached the door to the hub-length elevator. As the panel slid open, Scotty raised his eyebrows. “Think we should have told them?”

As they swung up and into the car, Marko, Mikey, and Wilson laughed.

******

At my advanced age, Julie lectured herself, you’d think that I wouldn’t get so excited. That was the problem with modern science keeping the juices flowing, she had found. Although she reasoned and acted, in most respects, like the seventy-eight year-old grandmother she happened to be, she often experienced the emotional roller coaster ups and downs of the twenty-three year-old child-woman she physically resembled.

Ah, well, she thought, my only granddaughter is finally coming to see me, here in my home, on the adopted native planet that I love. If that didn’t constitute something for a little old lady—or a twenty-three year-old child-woman—to get all excited about, she didn’t know what did.

At the moment, Julie stood in her favorite room, the uppermost cupola of her famous Victorian fantasy house—like most of the older homes on Mars, it was capable, in an emergency, of being sealed off and pressurized in only a few seconds—looking out through curved glass windows, over a vast prairie covered in yellow plant-life, the alien fungus that had made it possible for people to live and breathe on Mars.

Take a deep breath, Julie, someone extremely important to her had told her once, and inhale a dream. That someone had been Billy Ngu, only a few days after she’d deserted the United States Marine Corps.

Inhale a dream. The dreamers had eventually become her sisters-in-law, Mirella and Teal Ngu, scientists who had developed that stuff out there, starting with a not quite microscopic lifeform that they had discovered among the airless, frozen, rocky crags of Ceres itself—long before anyone had thought of terraforming it—and later, on many other asteroids, as well. The Belt had turned out to be crawling with it.

It was amazing how persistent life had proven itself to be, Julie reflected. The organism growing out there on the Martian prairie had been flourishing, thanks to a photosynthetic process (highly unusual in a fungus) leaching minerals and absorbing infinitessimal amounts of water from the cabonaceous chondritic soil. In a hard vacuum and at nearly Absolute Zero, the stuff had grown very slowly, but it had grown.

She ran a finger along a dusty window sill. Llyra would be here in only two weeks. Better get somebody in to clean. It was clearly beyond the capabilities of her little old house robots. There were better machines now, she knew. Sometimes it was difficult to remember to keep up with the latest technology when the next-to-latest seemed to serve adequately.

Julie wondered if her granddaughter would want a room to herself, possibly this room, at the very peak of the house, or would prefer to share a room with her coach—Jasmeen, a very pretty name for a very pretty and accomplished young woman—as she had in the Moon. Julie’s own teenage years had been so very different from Llyra’s—basically bringing herself up in the dirty, cutthroat metropolitan jungle that was Newark (ironically, the name of the interplanetary liner that was bringing Llyra to her)—that she couldn’t anticipate the girl’s wishes.

Calm down, set it aside, wait.

Think about something else.

The most important feature of the yellow photosynthetic fungus was that it generated and stored great volumes of oxygen in its branching tubules as a defense against spacegoing bacteria and virus that no one had even suspected the existence of before the macaroni plant itself had been discovered. On Mars, in an environment that it may well have considered lushly tropical—had it been capable of considering anything at all—at a hundred thousand times its original size, and growing at a rate that had astonished even its creators, the peculiar organism soon became the very breath of life for a planet that had been violently stripped of its atmosphere roughly four billion years ago.

Evidence of that violence remained. It was the lowest, coldest spot on Mars.

Out across the prairie, Julie could just make out the highway that ran between Bradbury and Coprates City. She ordered the windows to magnify the view. Truck-trains of seven or eight trailers, double-wide and double-tall, blurred by at five or six hundred miles an hour, carrying goods from city to city, where an airless wasteland had existed only two generations earlier. Just as they once had on Earth, truckers dressed their own way, told their own stories, sang their own songs.

Billy and Brody Ngu had brought their sisters’ improved fungus to Mars as a part of their effort to rescue the seventh U.S./U.N. expedition, where it ultimately came to be known variously as “oxymold” “happygrass”, “tubeweed”, “kudzuroni”, and “Shmoogunk”. Most of those who called themselves Martians simply called it “macaroni plant” because, by the time the Ngu sisters had finished with it, it was the size, and shape—arranged in branching networks—of that favorite childrens’ food. Bright yellow chlorophyll gave it its cheesy color.

It could also be pressed for the water it contained, boiled, pan-fried, baked, or eaten raw in an emergency—or woven into a pair of boots.

The Red Planet soon became the Yellow Planet, infuriating Earth’s environmentalists, and prompting the launch of a punitive military mission of which Julie—as a young officer of Marines—had been a part.

Until she’d witnessed at first hand the savage slaughter, the barbaric cruelty of which the joint U.N./U.S, punitive mission was capable, under the direct orders of the Secretary General and the President.

Until she’d fallen in love with Billy Ngu.

Sometimes, Julie had noticed last year, she could see Billy looking back at her when she gazed deeply into her granddaughter’s eyes.

Two weeks.

******

This blasted rock was fast, thought Wilson, relative to the Sun’s center, which was used out here as the theoretical stationary reference point. Its orbit, a flattened loop that lay mostly outside the System at a forty-five degree angle to the ecliptic, was just …
strange.

What Wilson said, though, was “But I don’t have that much chainlink!”

“Neither do any of us, Wilson,” came Mikey’s harried-sounding reply over the intership communication system. Apparently Marko and Scotty were having similar shiphandling problems, both with equipment and the rock’s remarkable velocity, about forty miles per second. It had come from somewhere outside the Solar System, perhaps. “You’ve got the most powerful engines of the three of us, my fine feathered fiend. Just see if you can’t snag a little bitty corner of the goddamn thing, okay?”

Wilson protested. “It’s a round goddamn thing, Mikey! It doesn’t have any corners!” Nevertheless, he decided to give the idea a try. Perhaps if he dragged his steel mesh net over the target—provided he could catch up and match velocities with it—it would find some kind of a snag that he hadn’t seen on instruments or with his naked eye.

Not entirely trusting his computer in these unusual circumstances, Wilson laid in a course correction that he’d calculated in his head, and punched the ENTER button. As his trio of powerful engines burst fully into life, kicking him back in his seat, and the stars reeled around Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, he couldn’t quite resist shouting “Yee-haw!

“I’ll see that ‘Yee-haw!’”, exclaimed Scotty, making a similar course correction, “and raise you a ‘Yippie-kiyo!’” Mikey and Marko immediately followed them. Four nuclear fusion-powered raptors stooped on what Wilson enjoyed thinking of as a poor, innocent, helpless asteroid.

It seemed to grow ominously as he drew nearer.

This was the first time Wilson had followed a lead that hadn’t been given to him—or more accurately, sold to him—by the Moon’s Larsen Farside Observatory. At the beginning of the undertaking, he’d been full of trepidation about that. Somehow, knowing that the famous Lunar observatory was operated by Jasmeen’s comical Chechen uncles had become important. The two had become a kind of surrogate family to him.

But the information that had been supplied by his three hunting pals had certainly proven accurate. He didn’t know whether this was the legendary Diamond Rogue or not, but it was one weird hunk of space junk.

As he reclined in his pilot’s chair pushing buttons, suspended within the big plastic bubble that constituted the nose of Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, the stars slewed dizzily around him and his little ship once more, until his outboard floodlights fell across the rock.

And there it was in all of its lack of glory, less than half a mile away now, and just as he’d observed to his three friends, the asteroid was an almost perfect, almost featureless sphere. It was, of course, rather larger than most of the objects that might ordinarily interest the average asteroid hunter—unless, of course, they happened to be on an attractively bounty-paying collision course with Earth or one of the Settled Worlds. It was roughly the size of a fifteen-or twenty-story downtown office building back on Earth, not anywhere near large enough for its own gravity to have pulled it into that spherical shape.

There was some physical law about that, although at the moment he couldn’t remember it. He only knew that some other force or forces must have shaped it. Was it possible that it was some kind of alien artifact?

Another giant Drake-Tealy object?

Now that the floodlights of all four ships shone across it, he could see that it was the darkest object he’d ever come across in space (except for those objects that he hadn’t seen at all, he joked with himself, because they were so dark). Asteroids tended not to reflect much light in any case. Carbonaceous chondrites were a dark grayish-brown, about the color and texture, as everybody out here always enjoyed putting it, of a slightly overdone chocolate chip cookie.

By comparison, this bizarre object was an utter, pitch black, the color of freshly-poured asphalt. Many of the moons of the gas giants upsystem, beyond the Belt—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—were very nearly this dark. Maybe this thing had originally come from Out There somewhere. That might account for its extreme velocity. The hunters had to keep their floodlights on it constantly or risk losing it. Even then it was pretty difficult to see, which meant that it must be covered with, and probably contained, an awful lot of relatively pure carbon.

Carbon, of course, is uncooked diamonds.

But Wilson realized he was getting ahead of himself. Who could tell what this big black object was before they actually brought it in and cut it up? (Briefly, he imagined a crisply-faceted and highly polished diamond the size of a twenty-story office building.) Why, it might be nothing more than a gigantic lump of anthracite intended for the Christmas stocking of a naughty—and extremely large—little boy.

Another item that made it … well, the term was “anomalous” … was that radar didn’t seem to work on it. It appeared to absorb the wavelengths most often employed by human beings for finding things in space.

Sometimes hunters’ vessels disappeared for no discernable reason. Wilson wondered how many of these things he’d come close to hitting, himself.

******

The letters embossed into the card read:

Will you please do me the honor of gracing my table with your presence at dinner this evening?
Alan R. West, Captain
City of Newark
East American Spacelines

“For second time?” From the bathroom, or “head” as the crew called it, Jasmeen entered the small but cozy cabin she shared with Llyra, elbows in the air, trying to do something with her hair. Neither of them had anything resembling dinner clothing, but they were making do with what they had. The fact they were young and beautiful helped a lot.

The fact that they didn’t really know it helped even more.

“Apparently,” Llyra answered. She was wearing a colorful summer dress with spaghetti straps and had borrowed a big, sheer scarf from her coach for her shoulders. With her hair up, and earrings, Jasmeen thought Llyra looked at least eighteen, three years older than she was.

“I overheard that unpleasant woman,” she told Jasmeen, “you know, that Mrs. Erskine down the hall, complaining to somebody in the sauna that she and her family hadn’t been invited to dine at the Captain’s Table yet. I think she believes that there are rules that he has to follow.”

Jasmeen chuckled. “If I were Captain, would invite her to eat in spacious, comfortable airlock, with outer door open for splendid view.” Six years older than Llyra, she had brought the “little black dress” she took everywhere, along with a pair of black pumps good for all occasions. She had lent her student a pair of stockings, but could do nothing for her in the shoe department, since the girl’s feet were larger.

Llyra laughed, imagining the waiter and the wine steward wearing envirosuits. She picked up the impossibly tiny purse she’d bought in the gift shop the first time, four days ago, that she and Jasmeen had been invited to the Captain’s Table. Jasmeen gave up on her hair, took the black, sequinned bag that went with her dress, and a black mesh wrap.

Opening the stateroom door to the circular hallway outside, she held it for Jasmeen, closed it behind them, checked to assure herself it was locked, and headed for one of the elevators in the utility core. There were several people from this deck waiting for it to arrive.

Upstairs—”forward” as the crew called it—they found the dining room on Deck Two, entered, and went directly to the Captain’s Table. He wasn’t there yet. He was often late and sometimes had to leave his own table early in order to deal with some problem in shiphandling. Not wanting to sit down at the moment—Jasmeen’s dress hadn’t really been meant for sitting, and could be uncomfortable even at one sixth of a gee—Jasmeen and Llyra went to a small bar in the corner.

“And what can I do for you ladies?” the bartender asked with a cheerful politeness. “And how old is the young lady in the flowered dress?”

Jasmeen shook her head. She’d heard of this East American nonsense from her folks. You had to be eighteen or twenty-one or thirty-five or something to purchase alcoholic beverages. These days, most of the rest of the Earth left that up to a child’s parents. On Mars—and she knew it was this way on Pallas, too—young people could buy and drink anything, from the first moment they could shoot straight.

“My friend is eighteen last December. Me, I am old lady. I am twenty-one.”

“And you have an honest face,” replied the bartender. “So what can I—”

“We will both have strawberry daquiri,” Jasmeen said. “Keep little umbrella.”

“Right. Two strawberry dacks coming up! That’ll be two hundred neobucks.”

******

“Maybe we oughta call you ‘Spider’,” Marko observed to Wilson as they crawled across the face of a net made of all the chainlink the four young asteroid hunters possessed. “Since this was your bright idea and all.”

It was hard work—oxygen and water intensive—and the nanobot scrubbers that kept his faceplate clear were working just as hard as he was.

It had been a simple matter—at least in theory—to take four pieces of the material, squares of steel mesh a quarter of a mile on a side, and fasten them together at their edges into a square half a mile on a side, using thumb-sized clamps originally intended to repair the stuff. They felt lucky to have enough of the clamps, but the truth was that they tended to accumulate the same way wire coathangers will in one’s closet over a year or two, while other things—at one time in history it had been beer can openers—similarly tended to evaporate.

The steel mesh squares had come from each of their little ships as standard equipment of the trade. The four hunters had left their vessels, now falling along the same course as their unusual find and slightly ahead of it, to erect their screen in front of it. Wilson had insisted on overlapping the pieces of chainlink at least a yard deep, and using every clamp they had, to make it into a single, larger piece.

He and Marko had accomplished that much, while Mikey and Scotty had started at the center of each square and woven steel and titanium cable through the mesh, toward the outside corner, with another mile or so of cable floating free. These they would attach to each of their ships.

“That,” Marko announced, “was my last clamp. What now, glorious leader?”

“That’s ‘Imperious Leader’, and don’t you forget it,” Wilson told him. “You just can’t see my bright red eyeball flicking from side to side inside this helmet. The next thing we do, once our colleagues are through with their half of the chores, is hook the four cables to our ships.”

That, Wilson knew, would only be the beginnning of the grueling, horribly gradual process of slowing the mysterious rock down. He’d already run the calculations. It would require two and a half months of steady, gentle deceleration to get it down to the right velocity and course to bring them all—eventually—back to the Earth/Moon System.

If he recalled correctly, the East American spaceliner City of Newark would be at Turnover pretty soon. which meant that he wouldn’t be greeting his little sister when she arrived on Mars, as he’d planned.

Oh, well, he’d been taught all his life, by his parents and his uncles, and his grandmother, that doing the job came first. He hoped that this rock would turn out to be worth something. The scans looked primising, but they hadn’t had a chance to set foot on it yet and find out for sure. He looked forward to doing that, once it was no longer decelerating.

“I’m all done, here,” Scotty told his friends. He sounded as if he were exhausted. Suit work is hard work. “I’ll take this cable back to Nessie.”

Mikey said, “Me, too. I’ll take the cable opposite his, to keep this giant window screen in one place. You guys, too: we need to get this done pretty quickly, because I’m running out of air and delta vee.”

Wilson looked back to the center of the net, a quarter of a mile away, where all four pieces met. Floating on a short tether, a large bag of spaceworthy material was rigged out with flashing lights. “It’s nothing to worry about, Mikey. We’ve got extra food, air, water, and fuel here. After everybody’s safely aboard their ships, I’ll take it in.”

“In the immortal words of Carlin Himself,” intoned Scotty, “‘Spare air is fair’.”

“That’s ‘Spare hair‘,” Mikey corrected him. “I’ve got my end and am heading back to Albuquerque Gal. Once we’ve started decelerating, I’m for a long shower—suits make me itch—and about twelve hours’ sleep.”

“Sounds like a plan, to me,” Marko observed. “I’m the highest in the alphabet. I guess I’ll take the first watch. Mikey, you’ll be next.”

“Now isn’t that sweet?” said a fifth voice that Wilson didn’t recognize at first. “And here we all are, just in time to tuck you in!”

It appeared they’d been caught flat-footed, outside of their respective ships, and utterly helpless. There was no way to see what direction the voice was coming from, but they found out soon enough when a bright yellow laser beam lashed past them to impact on the surface of the asteroid. The huge puff of smoke it made quickly dissipated.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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