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CHAPTER FORTY-THREE: OF FREE WILL AND CHOICES

You can discover everything you need to know, about a people or their culture, simply from their attitude toward torture. Any group or nation with a policy that encourages—or even tolerates—torture is worse than any evil it claims to be fighting.

The ends do not justify the means. The means help to insure that the ends are just.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Okay,” Wilson started. “Why?”

“How about none of your fucking beeswax, you half-slant son of a chink?”

“That’s one-eighth slant, Fatty, and great grandson. I think it’s important for people who fly spaceships to get the numbers and names right, don’t you agree?” It was the first time in Wilson’s life that anyone had ever referred to his racial background that way. He knew it was supposed to be painfully insulting. Pharch had already used the nastiest words for Asians that Wilson had heard of. But it only seemed pathetic.

With the Captain and what remained of his bridge crew, they were gathered in the battered dining room of the City of Newark, most of Wilson’s gang still wearing parts of their suits, weapons of various kinds slanted across their hips, on their thighs, or carried in chest harnesses. They looked like gladiators, and maybe that was what they were.

On the screen, and in real life, they were the cowboys of the twenty-second century.

For the most part, the place had been cleaned up—the Captain had ordered it done, even at the cost of losing evidence—and the broken furniture and table furnishings ground up for reaction mass. There were dark, ugly stains in the carpet, however, that would never come out, no matter who the spacelines bought their nanotechnology from.

With the exception of his weapons, which had been taken from him by Swede Vargas, Fatty was no different from the rest. They’d also taken his helmet, his gloves, and his boots, but none of them had been willing to go further than that. “The man smells bad enough,” Mikey had observed accurately, “with most of his blubber still sealed in his suit!”

Pharch had been duct-taped securely into a straight-backed chair with arms, taken from one of the staterooms. The chair had been attached to the red brick base of the wrought-iron spiral staircase leading up to the lounge. Most of the observers stood by the walls or sat on the floor. Wilson paced a little in the open space between that they’d left for him.

“Don’t call me ‘Fatty’!” the prisoner screamed. It was difficult not to, Wilson thought, looking at the man wearing pieces of at least two suits, cut and retailored to contain what he had let himself become.

“You’d rather I called you ‘Pimble’? I think I’d rather be called ‘Fatty’. But I asked you a question, Pharch. You’re going to give me a real answer. Why did you sabotage this vessel? What did you stand to gain?”

“Or what? You’ll talk me to death? I know your kind, Chinaman. You want people to believe it’s your ethics, or some damn high-falutin’ thing, but you’re just too spineless, too gutless to go for what you want.”

“We don’t have any more time for this,” Wilson spat impatiently. That wasn’t quite true. At the moment the passenger liner was being decelerated by six of the seven asteroid hunting vessels on remote control. Casey’s was being used as a shuttle between all of them and the larger ship, while Pharch’s and the Space Viper were being towed.

Wilson glanced over at the Captain, who nodded majesterially, then at Scotty and Shorty. “Leave him in the chair, boys. Take him to the airlock.”

There was a collective gasp from the liner crew as the two moved to comply, Shorty drawing a huge curved knife on his way across the room.

“Bullshit!” yelled Fatty. “You’re bluffing!”

Together, as he continued to abuse them verbally, questioning their manhood and ancestry, they wrenched Fatty free of the stairs, tilted his chair back and dragged him to the elevator. It wasn’t hard at one-third gee. Wilson, Mikey, and Marko crammed themselves into the car. The room emptied itself as everyone else joined them, some of them taking the elevator from the kitchen.

As the elevator cycled closed, Fatty screamed, “You don’t have the nads!” He was still screaming when the doors opened on the airlock deck. Wilson pressed buttons that opened the inner door. Shorty and Scotty dragged Fatty, in his chair, into the center of the garage-like chamber.

Here, too, the Captain had ordered the bloodstains cleaned up. The cleaners had enjoyed more luck with the stainless steel and titanium floor.

While everyone watched him from the semicircular atrium between the airlock and the elevators, Wilson strode to Fatty with an electronic object in his hand, which he duct-taped to the front of the man’s suit. He pressed a button on it, and a small green light came on.

“This is a walkie-talkie, Pimble,” he said. “As long as there’s air in this room, you can communicate with me. You’ll have about three minutes, which I’m sure will seem like three hours to you. Then it’ll be too late. We’ll pitch your dead body out, have your ship fumigated and rechristened—where’d you get that Lilac Waffle, anyway?—and be done with you. The Captain has okayed this and he’s the law out here.”

Pharch sneered up into Wilson’s face. “I still say you don’t have the—”

“Have it your way.” Wilson turned on his heel, walked to the inner door.

“You don’t have the nads!” Pharch shouted at his back. The door closed and Pharch sat alone in the middle of the room. He tried to see if they were watching him through the porthole in the inner door, but it was bright in here and light reflected from the glass in the porthole.

“You don’t have the nads,” he said quietly, almost to himself.

Suddenly, there were klaxons sounding, so loud it hurt his teeth, and big red and yellow lights swirling and flashing. He began to reconsider.

With a huge thump, the gaskets at the bottom of the outer airlock door unsealed, and a great rushing noise could be heard. The air was being spilled out into space. It grew colder almost instantly, and the noise of the klaxons grew less and less. There could be no question. They—or rather Wilson Ngu—was going to do it. He was going to die.

“All right! All right!” he screamed. “I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you!”

For a long, unendurable moment, it seemed as if he had waited too long, and nobody had heard him. As miserable as his life was, as it had always been, he didn’t want it to be over with. He tried his best not to whimper. He tried harder not to let his sphincters release. He failed in both of those efforts. He knew that he had been reduced to something less than human. The worst was that he knew that he deserved it.

He was torn from his dying contemplations by another loud slamming noise. The outer door had fallen again and locked. The rushing sound was gone, as were the klaxons and the flashing lights. It began to feel warm again.

The inner door opened and Wilson strode toward him. “Okay, Pimble, talk.”

******

Krystal gradually awakened for the half-dozenth time so far tonight.

Although it was very nice to have a mind again—drugs had never interested her much; she considered them obscene—she was having some trouble making hers up. Somehow, she and Johnnie had gotten clear of the absolute catastrophe that the City of Newark operation had become.

She lay beside him now in the darkness of their rented room. A place like this on Earth or the Moon would smell bad, and they’d be unable to avoid hearing their neighbors arguing, watching 3DTV, having sex. But it was quiet here, and clean. She’d awakened several times as the drug wore off, sweating hard, thirsty as a camel, scarcely daring to reach up and touch the heavy bandages covering her nearly fatal injuries.

On the table at her side of the bed, she found a self-cooling container full of sweet electrolyte replacement, she sipped through a straw. Johnnie had added ice, even though it wasn’t needed. He was so sweet. She loved ice. He’d told the doctor he wanted to buy her a new eye.

She hoped it would be the same color as the original.

She’d been told that she’d rescued both of them from the wreckage of the stolen yacht. It was true, she had extremely unfocused memories of being tied down, of chewing her way free—was that why her gums were so sore?—of struggling through a long tunnel that writhed and bucked and tossed her from side to side like some angry living thing, and finally of smacking somebody on the head with a frying pan, of all things.

Oh yes, and kissing Johnnie in the airlock. He’d said she was his girl.

Or something like that, anyway.

However the last thing she remembered clearly was looking into the angry eyes—and the automatic pistol muzzle—of Jasmeen Khalidov, fresh out of ammo herself, and unable to reload in the awkward position she was in. Then came the unbearably bright flash, the roar, the pain. If it was the last thing Krystal did, Jasmeen was going to die as slowly as possible.

Johnnie had been sleeping in a chair. She saw how uncomfortable he was and insisted that he sleep on the bed with her. He was a man of honor, she knew, and she wouldn’t really have minded much if he weren’t. Across the room, the 3DTV was playing with the sound turned down almost all the way. The captions were on and she’d awakened to an old movie about soldiers with little capes on their hats, fighting guys in dresses in the desert.

What was that all about?

By now, they’d both seen the horrible news that the passenger liner City of Newark had been snatched from extinction by a heroic squadron of asteroid hunters, led by that nasty little capitalist killer, Wilson Ngu. In a few days it would reach Phobos in a different way than Null Delta Em had meant, and, except for the shouting, the celebration, and the self-congratulatory media coverage, that would be that.

It was going to be very painful—but irresistable—to watch. As far as they knew, she and Johnnie—and of course that horrible old woman in Amherst, Massachussetts—were the movement’s only surviving leaders. For some reason she hated that old woman as much as she did Jasmeen.

She’d never realized that before.

Of course on a personal note, it was nice for her and Johnnie that all life on Mars would not be annihilated. For some reason she had yet to fathom, he had come to love her. Of his sincerity, she was totally convinced, both by his manner and his deeds on her behalf. He was very chivalrous, and she was reasonably certain that she could come to love him, as well. Mars was a good place for new beginning. They were young. He could grow a beard, she could dye her hair, and they could start a macaroni farm and populate it with a dozen kids. She thought that might be very good.

Or it might be just like the family farm life she’d escaped from back on Earth.

On the other hand. there was Jasmeen, Wilson that nasty killer of a capitalist dog, his show-off sister, their smug, destructive parents, and that witch of a grandmother—where did she get off staying in her twenties for half a century?—all of them sitting around in some expensive restaurant probably this very minute, surrounded by servants and fawning reporters, gobbling lobster farmed on Mars, with imported caviar and truffles, swilling champagne, laughing at her and Johnnie and all the brave martyrs of the Mass Movement and Null Delta Em.

A small flame began to glow within her breast. Would it be right to run away and start a new life and do nothing about all that? Would they even have a right to a new life if they didn’t try to even the score?

She looked over at the man sleeping so soundly, so sweetly beside her. Should they start a new life together, or finish the old one off properly?

What would Johnnie think?

******

“It was Null Delta Em,” Fatty began.

Wilson pulled a folding metal chair up and sat down for the first time in hours. The cavernous passenger airlock was warm once again, and seemed almost festive, compared to the way it had seemed when his prisoner had been alone in here with the outer door slowly opening. It was festive compared with the dining room, the way it looked at the moment.

Someone had brought folding tables, as well, and coffee urns, and heated frozen pastries from the kitchen. Almost all of the liner’s crew was here now, as they deserved to be, and some of the passengers, too. Most of the East Americans had declined the invitation with a shudder.

Wilson had cut the tape holding Pharch’s hands to the chair (his torso and legs were still secured) and given him food and something to drink.

“It was Null Delta Em,” Wilson repeated. The room was as silent as if no one else were in it. “Tell me exactly what you mean by that, Pharch.”

“I couldn’t stand it. I stumbled in here, into this lock, when I thought everybody else was gone, looking for a way to get back to my ship and away from this place.”

“Desertion?” Shorty shouted at him.

“Hey, asshole, I didn’t volunteer to be in anybody’s goddamned army. I was coerced, if you’ll remember, and you all just assumed I was going along. But I had as much right to leave here as you had to stay.”

“You were making restitution for an act of attemped piracy,” Wilson said. “But never mind that, you’re right, you weren’t in any army. None of that is important now. How did you end up working for NDE?”

Fatty took a huge bite of a danish, an enormous gulp of heavily sugared coffee, swallowed, and sighed. “I checked the security recorder. The last two survivors—I didn’t know it at the time—had come down here to board their escape vehicle. He was carrying her, and she looked to be in pretty bad shape.”

“So you did what?”

“Hey, I tried to do my duty and apprehend them—I sent them a text message ordering them to come back.”

That statement brought sounds of disbelief from his listeners, along with several loud, obscene comments calling his veracity into doubt.

Wilson held up a hand. “An encrypted text message. So what happened?”

“He offered me money—a whole lot of money—if I let them go.”

“And even more if you would sabotage the liner behind them?”

Pharch held his chin up. “So what if he did? It was one side or another in a war. I had a chance to choose which side I’d be on, is all.”

“Who’s ‘he’?”

“I don’t know. A very neat, tidy kind of guy, from the recordings, dark, wearing a white suit—or what had been a white suit, anyway. I don’t know who he was. She was a platinum blond with a bad head wound and a ruined eye.”

Wilson nodded. “Krystal Sweet. What happened then?”

“He e-mailed me the code for Pallatian warehouse certificates for five hundred ounces of gold, and said there’d be another five hundred waiting for me when he heard that the charges had gone off. I had to supply my own explosives.”

“So you traded the lives of three hundred innocent people, lives you had no conceivable right to trade, for five hundred measly ounces of gold and the possibly empty promise of five hundred more? What was the idea? Wasn’t this spaceship headed for a big show on Phobos and Mars?”

“That was the idea,” Fatty replied. “Knocking out the engines would ensure there was no easy way to alter the course to Phobos. They didn’t count on you guys—on us—and I sure wasn’t gonna tell him. I just called my ship to the small lock, planted the charges, and got away as fast as I could.”

Wilson looked at Swede. He could tell the man was thinking, “But not quite fast enough,” but he didn’t say it, and Swede rose in his estimation.

Wilson took a deep breath, dreading what was coming next—nobody else knew what was about to happen—but also looking forward to how he would feel afterward, no matter how it ended. He needed to cleanse himself. He didn’t want his parents or his sister or his grandmother—or Jasmeen—to think of him as they were probably thinking of him now.

“All right, Pharch, I believe you. And I’m also in your debt—your moral debt, I mean. My family doesn’t believe in torturing people.”

Shorty rushed to his side. “What’re you talking about, Commodore? You didn’t—”

“Sure, I did. He thought that if he didn’t talk, I’d let him die as slowly and painfully as it’s possible to die, short of an operating theater. It’s a moral debt I can’t live with—that I refuse to live with.”

Suddenly Llyra and Jasmeen were in the atrium, fighting to get in. Reluctant to injure their leader’s sister, the hunters let the girls in.

“Wilson Ngu! What do you think you are doing?” Jasmeen seemed more upset than Llyra, probably because Llyra understood and would do the same.

He took Jasmeen gently, by the upper arms. It was the first time he’d ever touched her, except by accident, or a chaste little peck on the cheek every New Year’s Eve, and he was surprised by the firmness of her muscles—and the feeling of electricity that tingled through him.

“I’m trying to repair a damage that I’ve done. My sister will explain.”

She looked down at Pharch with contempt on her face. “But he is just—”

“A human being with rights,” Wilson finished. “Rights that I have violated. But even forgetting that, Jasmeen, there’s a hole inside me for having done it, and I have to repair that, if I want to go on living.”

She nodded. “I understand,” she told him, looking up through long, dark lashes, tears trembling on her lower eyelids. “Is perfectly Martian.” She put her hands up on his forearms. “Please to go on living.”

Wilson could only nod and, reluctantly, let her go. He cut the duct tape holding Fatty to the chair. “Stand him up.” There was a fine line, he knew, between doing what he believed right, and appearing to aggrandize himself at the expense of someone’s life.

Never mind that maybe the life needed expending.

After what had happened, what now seemed like a lifetime ago on Ceres, and what had happened at the spaceport in the Moon—both events recorded for the entire Solar System to see—he didn’t want to be remembered, no matter how it came out, for what he was about to do. Planning ahead, he’d asked the Captain to make sure no surveilance cameras were running.

West had refused, saying that neither of them owned history.

Casey and Merton now stood either side of Pharch, almost holding him up. The man knew that he was probably about to die, and he seemed to be having trouble controlling his fear. Yet who knew, the young asteroid hunter thought, in Pharch’s position, what he himself would do? It never occurred to Wilson that he was constitutionally incapable—too honest, decent, principled—to ever find himself in Pharch’s position.

“I want all the duct tape taken off him,” Wilson told his two new friends. “Every scrap, even when it doesn’t seem like it’ll make a difference. I don’t want anyone saying later he was restrained in any way.”

Wilson’s wishes were law at the moment. He wasn’t sure he liked that. He had, however, even asked the Swede to give the man back his boots. Pharch was well rested. He’d been fed and had something to drink. His suit was taking care of any other necessities he may have had.

Wilson heard himself say, “Give the man his gun.”

A shudder went through the people crowded into the airlock and the atrium behind it. Nobody wanted Pharch to have his gun back except for Wilson. Pharch’s former partners in piracy finally drew their own weapons as Scotty handed Pharch’s long-barrelled particle beamer to him.

In addition to the airlock door, there was a big window, into which Wilson’s sister and her coach had forced their way. Now Llyra had her eyes shut—he knew her; she’d open them before the shooting started—and very unMartian tears were streaming down Jasmeen’s face.

“Keep that down at your side until you’re given the word,” said Scotty.

“How do I know it’s even loaded?” Pharch demanded. Clearly, he wanted to inspect the gun. “Or that you haven’t sabotaged it in some way?”

Scotty drew his own weapon and held it out, butt forward. “Take mine.”

“Thanks—I will!” Pharch reached out for Scotty’s weapon. Scotty didn’t let go of it until he had Pharch’s weapon firmly in hand in exchange.

“Okay, Pharch, here’s how it’s going to be.” Wilson reached to the chest pocket of his suit, grasped the Herron StaggerCyl .270 REN, and tossed it to Marko. His great grandfather’s Grizzly swung at his right thigh. “I want this to be beyond fair. You’ll have your gun in your hand. I’ll have mine in its holster, with the safety-strap fastened down. The Captain agrees that if you kill me, you’ll fly away a free man.”

“Now why do I have trouble believing—”

“Shorty’s going to do the counting. He’ll count down from three, say ‘Fire!’ and count back up to three. You can shoot any time after the word ‘fire’, but after the second ‘three’, the duel’s over, No one can fire.”

“What if nobody fires?”

“Unlikely, but given the occasion, we’ll just start over. You ready?”

“I—”

“Shorty?”

“One—!”

“Wait, wait!” Pharch exclaimed. “I won’t play! Something’s fishy here! Something’s rotten! I won’t let you salve your conscience for torturing—!”

“Fine.” Wilson said abruptly, and turned on his heel as if to walk away. Pharch swiftly raised his weapon, levelled it on Wilson’s back, and—

Wilson kept turning on his heel, thumbing off the safety strap, wiping the safety with his thumb, and got a shot off before Pharch could. The man’s arms flung wide and his back arched as he was thrown against the stainless wall behind him. For just an instant, Wilson could see the wall through the hole his slug had torn through the man.

Pharch slid to the floor and it was over.

******

“Things are going to start changing around here,” Julie explained patiently to the girl in the grease-stained food service uniform. Her nametag, cluttered with colorful but irrelevent stickers, said “Amee”. “If you truly want to keep your job, you’ll have to start changing, too.”

The girl was close to tears. She wiped a dirty hand across her eyes, smearing them with kitchen grime and mascara. “But ma’am, I don’t—”

Julie said, “I know you don’t, dear. You’re East American, aren’t you?” The woman looked around at the daunting task that lay before her.

“Yes, ma’am, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The judge said if I came out here—”

Julie shook her head. “This is Mars, dear, or as close as you can get without actually being there. We don’t care why you came. Many of us came out here for similar reasons. I did. You might think about being a Martian.”

The girl nodded dully. “Yes, ma’am, I—”

“To begin with, I’m not ma’am, I’m Mrs. Ngu. Or maybe even Julie. Now I want you to throw every bit of this so-called food away, as quickly as you can. Clean the air filters and then set that system on full. Take everything the food was in—the coffee maker, too—and run it through the dishwasher, twice, on the high medical sanitizing setting.”

“Yes, ma’am—Mrs.—Julie.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll find you some help if I have to go down to the loading floor. While the kitchen is disassembled, scrub every square inch of it with soap and disinfectant. Scrub and mop this floor, as well. I’ll get somebody to work on those nasty tables and chairs and railings.”

Seemingly content to have something specific to do, Amee hurried off into the kitchen area. Julie strode over to the table where Adam and Ardith were sitting. She had her computer open, going over the radiation being generated by the Drake-Tealy Object orbiting Pallas, and the signals coming from the Cometary Halo. From time to time, she received long-delayed messages from Sinclair, aboard the Billie, as well.

Adam sat close beside her, looking over her shoulder. His mother hadn’t seen him happier since thirty seconds before she’d caught the pair of them in the boat house—twenty-one or twenty-two years ago—and pretended that she hadn’t seen them doing anything untoward.

She always thought of it as an extra birthday present she’d given him.

Adam looked up. “Anything we can do, Mom?” He knew that she had asserted proprietorship of the place so she could receive Llyra and Jasmeen in a manner she felt proper. Honey Graham had taken Mohammed and Beliita to a meeting room. He wished her a lot of luck. He’d often watched Mohammed lead reporters in four-cornered circles, telling them nothing, learning everything they knew, and sending them home confused but happy.

To avoid the reporter’s badgering and prying, Manzel had found a dirty baseball cap to put over his bandage, drifted back, away from the Khalidovs, and was scrubbing away as if he had been a janitor all his life. From time to time, he turned around, looked at Adam, and grinned.

Julie shook her head, indicating her daughter-in-law. “She’s doing science,” she told her son. “Take care of her while she does it and we’ll clean around you. I’m going down to the cargo floor to see if anybody wants more money than East American is paying them.”

She went back the way they’d come, retraced her steps, almost to the airlock where her rented shuttle was docked, and then followed a tape line on the floor until she finally reached the cargo handling area. It was extremely noisy, with large metal objects bashing into one another, and machinery of various kinds straining to move heavy containers. Not surprisingly, it was cleaner here than on the passenger level.

“Lady!” someone shouted. “This is a hardhat area, not a scenic route!”

She looked up to see a thickset individual in bluejeans, a plaid flannel shirt, and a yellow titanium hardhat. He was on a level a few feet above her, operating one of the noisy loading machines. He had five o’clock shadow that was very nearly blue, and was smoking a big cigar.

“Then give me a hardhat, if you’ve got a spare!” she shouted back. “I’m Julie Segovia Ngu and as of just about an hour ago, you work for me!”

The man blinked, stopped his noisy machine—she saw a union pin attached to one of his suspenders—and started to dispose of his half-smoked cigar.

“Don’t waste that!” she told him. “It costs too much to ship them out here.” It wouldn’t forever—there would be tobacco farms on Mars next year.

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Ngu?”

“Julie. I’ve got a load of catered food coming up from Maxwell’s, and I need some volunteers to help me overhaul the restaurant and kitchen. I’ll pay half again whatever they’re paying you now to help me.”

“The cargo will get delayed … Julie.”

“An hour to help me, another hour to share the meal. What do you say?”

He started climbing down from his machine. “Hey, boys!” he shouted into a comm button attached to his other suspender. “Come and meet the new boss-lady! We got ourselves a special assignment!”

Julie grinned and led a dozen men and women back with her to the slidewalk. When she got to the restaurant area, it already looked and smelled a great deal better. Adam and Ardith had moved to a table that had apparently been cleaned. She turned to the man with the yellow hardhat. “That’s Amee, over there. Ask her what she needs for you to do.”

The man nodded. Julie was happy to see that Amee had already recruited a couple of helpers on her own. Two slender blondes, one in braids, one in pigtails, wearing greasy aprons over their everyday clothes, were scrubbing and mopping industriously at the filthy tiled floor.

Then a shock went through her.

“Llyra! Jasmeen!” The two girls stood, put down their sponge and mop, peeled off their aprons, and ran to her, both of them throwing their arms around her. Adam and Ardith both got up from the table, laughing.

Wilson peeked from behind a huge refrigerator. “Can I come out, now?”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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