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CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR: THE HOUSE THAT NGU BUILT

Most individuals simply can’t abide the notion of blind evolution. They desperately want to believe that there’s a Great Plan, even if—judging by the evidence with which a cruel universe presents us every day—it’s a Demented and Evil Plan. They refuse to understand that, if there is no Plan, then human beings are free to subdue the universe, and to make of themselves whatever they desire.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Ali Khalidov peered into the monitor intently, even going as far as lifting the patch over his right eye. “Why do we not go and join them?”

“Yes,” Lafcadio Guzman agreed with Jasmeen’s uncle. “Did you hear her say she’s having food flown up from Maxwell’s? I’ve never been to Mars and yet I’ve heard of Maxwell’s!” His lovely wife Eladia was many things, he thought, most of them very nice, but she was not a cook. He stroked the head of his pet seal Roger contemplatively. The animal looked up at him with huge, warm, trusting eyes and made a low, growly noise.

“Will join them presently,” said Jasmeen’s other uncle, Saladin Uzhakhov. “But just now is for nuclear family. Kerosene family later. See how closely Llyra sits to both her parents? Wilson sits close to his father. Jasmeen sits next to Ardith who has arm around her shoulders. Splendid, lovely Julie orchestrates demolition of kitchen with assistance of Khalidov’s tame assassin.”

“Anti-assassin,” Ali insisted. “Manzel is anti-assassin. Is very different. One is ethical, one is unethical. Is good at what he does, too. Would break his Texas heart if he knew that we know all about him.”

“Arizona,” Saladin shook his massive head. “Tuscon, Arizona. Is our business to know things, Ali,” he informed his colleague. “And we are very good at what we do, too. Is this not so, Lafcadio? But we will not stoop so low to break good man’s southwest American heart, no.”

“Looks like somebody tried to break his head,” Lafcadio observed.

“Yes,” Saladin replied. “My second laboratory assistant Wu Yiing Abernathy has cousin who is physician on Mars. She asked her cousin for advice concerning tall, thin male patient from Moon who will not cooperate with bureacratic data-gathering. Yiing struggles with nosy records on SolarNet for two hours, to no avail, then tells dcotor to give it up. Doctor says she thinks she will, anyway was only fish wound.”

“That’s flesh wound,” Ali corrected his friend with a disgusted expression. He rolled his eyes, then went back to scrutinizing the monitor. Not many people knew—and even fewer would have believed—that the man wore an eyepatch only to guarantee his night vision for the telescope.

“Flesh wound,” Saladin tried the words on for size. “Flesh wound. Flesh wound. Very good, flesh wound. Makes more sense that way.”

Deimos barely had enough gravity to hold itself together, let alone anything else, and that not very well. The ship was moored to the rock beneath her, as well as the airlock. Sitting in the pilot’s seat—the flight deck was separated from the rest of the interior by bead curtains kept in place by magnets in their ends—Lafcadio drank red wine from a baggie. The scientists had hot chocolate, augmented with vodka.

All three were aboard Lafcadio’s ship, the Gay Deceiver, which had powerful engines and was heavily armed, but looked like a pile of junkyard debris on the outside. Inside, the ship was furnished like a luxury hotel. They had tapped into the Deimos facility’s rudimentary security system. The fact they were watching meant that Julie didn’t know about the cameras yet. If she had, she would have torn them out, herself.

There were dozens, if not hundreds, of cameras. Together, they’d watched Julie hire a dozen men and women from the loading floor. What a pity, they all thought, that there was no sound. They’d watched Llyra and Wilson’s tearful reunion with their parents while Julie was still downstairs. They’d watched the tender—but silly—way she and her companion, Saladin and Ali’s niece, Jasmeen, had chosen to greet her grandmother.

They were two families of jokers, the Ngus and the Khalidovs. The universe would probably implode, Lafcadio thought, if they should ever interbreed.

The scientists and the used spaceship salesman were also watching—on another cluster of 3DTV screens—the development of certain events occurring in orbit around Ceres, and from somewhere beyond the orbit of the Pluto-Charon System. That was the real reason—both Lafcadio and Ali suspected it—that Saladin wanted to stay put for a while longer.

According to Sheridan Sinclair, aboard the Curringer Corporation’s far-ranging yacht, the William Wilde Curringer, the unexplained energies were coming from a Drake-Tealy Object 500 miles in diameter, nearly the size of the third largest asteroid, Vesta. The pulse rates were definitely converging and should be synchronized in another day. Sinclair was keeping Billie at least a thousand miles away from the Object.

“Sinclair,” Ali observed, “looks like little man in Monopoly.”

Saladin chuckled. “Yes, he does.”

“Dr. Ngu’s watching the same thing you guys are!” said Lafcadio.

Cameras on the opposite side of the mezzanine-like structure had caught it. Ardith’s virtual screen was displaying the same images, from Ceres and the Cometary Halo, that were on the screens here in the ship: a string of colorful bar graphs, indicating frequencies all the way across the electromagnetic spectrum, displaying strange pulses of energy. Saladin had determined there were gravity pulses happening, as well.

“Should we communicate with her?” Ali asked his partner. “Should be unobtrusive enough. We know things she does not know. Perhaps she knows—”

“All right, all right, I get it!” Saladin was occupied with what was on the screen before him—pulses in energies he hadn’t known existed.

“Touchy, today?” asked Ali. “Did we get up on wrong side bed?”

Saladin gave a great sigh of exasperation. “Go ahead and contact her, then—only leave lag time, as if we were still back home, in Moon.”

Lafcadio asked, “But why?”, then ducked the man’s powerful glare.

“Who knows?” said Saladin. “In addition to touchy, I am also today sneaky.”

“Hungry, too” Ali suggested. “Here comes caterer’s shuttle.”

******

“I’d rather have stayed in town,” Adam told Ardith as she unpacked their luggage and put their clothes away in closets and drawers. He’d have helped, but they were both in wheelchairs, and the clash of wheels would have been awkward. The house seemed to be built of closets. Julie had designed it.

It had been a good many years since Adam had visited his mother on Mars. The woman might have told him, he thought, when he’d mentioned hiring a sandskipper, that there was no further need for sandskippers, at least not here. A straight, beautiful, six-lane highway, paved with tough, black plastic, stretched past her house between Coprates City and Bradbury, entirely paid for by the trucking companies whose giant freighters blasted along its length, bringing food and other things from the spaceport in the city to the towns far out on the macaroni prairie.

The paving plastic, derived from macaroni plant, had many other uses, and was just one of many things that the big freighters were reloaded with—the System’s highest-tech industrial and consumer goods were another—when they roared back to the city and its tiny spaceport.

“You don’t want to stay here,” Ardith observed, not looking up from the bed where she was refolding what she took from their luggage, “because you’re embarrassed to make love to me in your mother’s house.”

“That’s not it at all,” he replied. Actually it was, at least in part, but he didn’t want to admit it. It might not even be possible for them in this planet’s gravity field. “I just don’t know if the place is defensible.”

Ardith chuckled. “Oh, it’s defensible, all right, my darling, if Julie designed it. Are you kidding? A Marine who fought a revolution and then managed to survive all the looting and murdering that followed?”

“I concede your point. We had our troubles with Earth, too, but nothing like that. The house I was raised in, the house my grandfather built, was a lot of wonderful things, but it was not defensible. It did have lots of nice little nooks and crannies to hide and play in, though.”

“I remember that,” she said. “And a boathouse.”

“Ah, yes. And a boathouse.” Suddenly he realized, if everything went the way he hoped it would, he’d never live in the house on Pallas again. Neither would Ardith. Some other Ngus would. Ardith had brought up the subject of moving her lab to Ceres once the terraformation process was complete. That was for the future. They had other problems now.

There was a gentle knock on the door. “Come,” they both said. The door slid into the casement. Llyra stood outside—impossibly tall and grown-up looking—on the hall carpet of a balcony looking out over the great room. Mounted on the ceiling-high stonework above what Adam had always thought of as his mother’s “walk-in fireplace” (it burned macaroni plant, compressed into logs) was the head of a southern greater kudu his father had killed on Pallas. Through the balcony railing, Adam could see the tips of its corkscrew horns from where he sat.

He still remembered how that animal had tasted.

“Grandma says to tell you she’s ready to go,” Llyra informed them. Adam could see that she wasn’t comfortable in this amount of gravity, but she was handling it without any artificial support. Of course she and Jasmeen had had the voyage here, at one-third gee. She came into the room and sat on the bed so she could be at the same level they were.

Ardith took her hand. Llyra looked startled for an instant. Her mother had never been very physical with her, but Llyra understood that things were starting to change—that her mother was struggling to change them. It was the very kind of struggle Llyra had been brought up to admire.

“I still don’t know,” Ardith said, “about taking you and Jasmeen with us. It could be very dangerous.” She looked over, appealing to Adam.

Llyra protested, “But that’s the point, Mom, isn’t it? We’re the tastiest bait. Wilson stopped them from hurting the factory ship. I shot that man in the knee. They might not bite, if we aren’t there. Especially the woman that Jasmeen shot. I’d be pretty pissed off, myself.”

“Please son’t say ‘pissed’, dear.” It was a reflex. Llyra giggled.

Risking what might once have touched off an explosion, Adam agreed with his daughter. “I don’t like it much, either, but I’m afraid she’s right.”

Ardith sighed—things were different, both her husband and her daughter realized—and nodded reluctant agreement. “Make sure you have—”

“My gun? It’s right here, Mom. Jasmeen is armed, and I imagine you two—”

Ardith laughed. “Your father is better-armed than I’ve ever seen him!” He grinned and showed her the ten millimeter magnum he wore cross-draw at his waist, along with a pair of forty-five caliber weapons that had belonged to his father. Julie had insisted on his having them. He had tucked them away in the arm compartments of his wheelchair.

“Will not help much with thrown bomb.” The door was still open. Jasmeen stepped into the room. “I come to help with chair if you permit.” It was oddly humiliating to think of this tiny, slender young woman helping him with his wheelchair, but that was what his daughter was here for, too, he realized. When it was over, this afternoon, he’d get himself a walker.

“That’s what Wilson and some of his friends will be watching for. Yes, you may help us, Jasmeen, thank you. You remember what this was like.”

On Moon, yes. Was embarrassment—but not so much as Gurney!”

With Jasmeen pushing Adam, and Llyra pushing her mother—who said she hated leaving such a mess behind: clothing folded neatly on a bed—they went to an elevator that took them to the ground floor. Llyra and Jasmeen were delighted to be staying on the third or fourth floor (there was any number of half-levels, and Adam could never keep track) in what Julie called “the cupola”, the highest room of the house.

Wilson was standing beside his grandmother in the entrance to the great room, near the front door. The house was an amazing construction of red-gray field stone—one could tell it was native Martian, because there was no lichen on it and never had been—and what appeared to be wood. Adam suspected it came from the same place as the fireplace logs.

The front door itself boasted an enormous, colorful window made of stained glass, depicting her two literary protagonists Conchita and Desmondo, and their pet arachnicat, Ploogle, slaying a gigantic gray dragon. Adam loved that picture. It was the cover—stained glass and all—of an infamous book in which his mother had taken on organized religion.

His son looked even more grown up than his daughrer, Adam thought. It wasn’t a matter of size—Wilson had been full grown three years ago, back on Ceres—so much as the set of his face and the way he carried himself. He’d been through a lot in those three years, Adam realized.

Wilson was dressed well, for a hunter, in a dark, collarless shirt, trousers tightened in the Martian way at the ankles, and a sportcoat that came halfway to his knees. It was thrown back on the right to expose the big, low-slung .45 Magnum that had belonged to his great grandfather. On the other side, high on the waist, he wore his twelve-shot revolver.

From the front hallway, Adam could see into his mother’s front parlor, where the 3DTV had been left on, and where the bait was being cast.

” … Old Survivor Stadium where later today, as special guests of a local semi-professional team, the Coprates City Warlords, many of the survivors of the recent, horrifying takeover of the East American Spacelines’ City of Newark will relax and enjoy a day of sunshine, hotdogs, local beer, and exciting baseball as only Martians can play it.”

The camera zoomed past the correspondent to a section of the bleachers that had been cheerfully decked out in bunting of Martian orange—the original color of the planet before the macaroni plant arrived. Banners waved, and signs proclaimed it “Survival Day At Old Survivor.”

“We’ll stay with the story and have some interviews later this afternoon. Honey Graham, Interplanetary Interactive Information Service.”

******

“It’s a trap, of course,” said Crenicichla.

He was looking out the window, down into Old Survivor Stadium. A moment before, he’d been watching Honey Graham on 3DTV. He could see her still, if he peered hard enough—or used the field glasses from their survival kits—standing on the pitcher’s mound, facing right field.

“Of course it’s a trap,” Krystal answered him calmly. At the moment, she was cleaning their weapons as well as she could, given that she had no specialized supplies or tools. “She used to be on our team like all of the media, but she’s becoming a tad unreliable, isn’t she?”

“A tad and a half,” Crenicichla answered her. “It’s what comes of spending too much time with the Ngu family. You know we could still just disappear, Krystal. They’re starting to stock some of the local running water with trout. I have enough money to last us a long, long time.”

She nodded. “I know. I used to go fishing for bass in a lake where I lived. It sounds tempting. You go fishing. I’m going down there.” She nodded at the window and the stadium. “I won’t blame you, honest, honey.”

Crenicichla turned, quickly strode across the little room, and took the woman—his woman, he realized—by both shoulders where she sat working at the little correspondence table. He bent so that his face was beside hers. “Don’t you dare say anything like that to me, ever again! Wherever you go, Krystal Sweet, I go! No matter where it happens to be, or what happens as a consequence!”

She grinned. “I was kind of hoping you’d say that, darling.” She ran a hand through his hair, then placed the slide of a disassembled autopistol back on the frame, slid it all the way to the rear, let it lock, then released it into battery. She loaded the gun. “You know the same goes for me, Johnnie, though I never thought I’d hear myself say it.”

He nodded, stepped back, and took a deep breath. He was a man capable of intense loyalty, he knew, but for the first time in his life, he found himself transferring it. “The ballgame doesn’t start for a couple of hours. Let’s get something to eat—and then go get married.”

Holstering her weapon, she giggled. “How romantic! I’ll wear my formal sunglasses.”

******

In the plaza, the statue of the Old Survivor stood four times larger than life. It was made of coarsely-brushed stainless steel. If someday it rained a hundred inches a year in Coprates, it would never tarnish. Pigeons stayed off—years of research had been dedicated to that—because they didn’t like the texture of the metal under their feet.

From a cobbled sidewalk across a downtown street, Julie looked up at the faceplate where his eyes should have been visible. She had known this man as well as anyone had. He had saved her life on several occasions, as well as those of countless other people in a colony struggling to stay alive.

She could see him now, in her mind’s eye, sitting with them around the electric furnace in the dimly-lit common hut, his pale blue eyes twinkling in the glow of the heating elements. His seamed face was framed in an untidy mass of gray and yellow hair and a prickly-looking beard.

Nobody knew who the Old Survivor was, not even the Old Survivor, himself. He’d come to Mars with one of six expeditions preceding the one that Julie had followed as part of a military contingent sometimes called the seventh and a half. He couldn’t recall which had brought him. His envirosuit was a patchwork of suits from all six. If the seventh hadn’t made it, his suit would have wound up with salvaged pieces of theirs.

She could hear him, even now, telling stories in a raspy brogue that made it seem as if he’d been with every one of the expeditions, in turn. He’d spoken of individual acts of heroism and sacrifice that had raised the hair on the back of her neck, and of cruelties and stupidities that defied reason.

Nobody knew his name. At the base of the statue. a plaque read, “THE OLD SURVIVOR” and under that, “John Carter, Jeddak of Jeddaks”. Sometimes that was who he thought he was. He’d worn nothing under his suit and carried the enormous, curved-tipped sword she saw replicated here today.

She could see him now, sitting with them around the furnace in borrowed clothing the others had insisted that he wear. When he left, they found it neatly folded in the airlock, where his sword stood when he visited.

Nobody knew where he came from or where he went. It was believed he’d found a cave somewhere in Candor Chasma. He must have somehow sealed it, warmed it, filled it with oxygen. One day he’d simply shown up at the seventh’s landing site bearing a few items of technology as gifts. Later he’d disappeared, to reappear whenever he thought he might be needed.

She could see him now, trying the same kindness on the military encampment, several miles away. The civilians called it “Derbyville” for the color and shape of its inflated domes. The sentries had nearly killed him before she stopped them. He had never come back to Derbyville.

Nobody had ever found the Old Survivor’s cave. At first, there was no time or energy to spare shadowing him to it, even if it could have been done, during the early days of Martian settlement. Today it was the Holy Grail of Martian archaeology and history. One day he’d simply disappeared, never to return. Sooner or later, it was assumed that he was dead.

Julie remembered it all. She shut the limousine door, instructed the car to return in two and a half hours, turned, and followed the rest of her family into Maxwell’s, the best restaurant in the Solar System.

Looking more like a hockey player than a System-famous chef, Maxwell himself greeted her at the door with a glass of high desert wine. He’d promised her family the best duck they’d ever eaten—and to initiate them into the mysteries of salad dressing made with truffle oil, worth more on Mars, ounce-for-ounce, than the purest palladium.

******

“Okay,” said Honey. “Let’s have one with everybody waving at the camera!” It was a sunny day in Coprates City. Orange banners and bunting flew in the soft, warm breeze of a typical Valles Marineris summer.

She didn’t have to shout to be heard. Except for those she was photographing, and attendants preparing the grass, the stadium was empty. The members of the Ngu family sat together in the three middle levels of the first tier. Llyra and Wilson sat together, roughly in the center, flanked by Adam and Ardith on Llyra’s side, and Jasmeen on Wilson’s. Above them sat Julie, the Khalidovs, and Jasmeen’s scientist uncles, Mohammed and Ali. All of them were wearing Warlord baseball caps emblazoned with the Old Suvivor’s sword.

Never had there been a greater assemblage of rented wheelchairs, walkers, and canes among a group of essentially healthy individuals, most of whom, coming from the Moon or the asteroids, were simply not accustomed to the one-third gravity of Mars. Whoever had said it was right: more than any other force, gravity would shape the future social history of the species Homo sapiens.

On two rows of seats beneath them, sat Wilson’s hunting friends, Scotty, Marko, Mikey, Shorty, Casey, and Merton with their own walking aids. All had declined to give Honey their last names. Shorty didn’t want to be photographed at all. One of them, she understood, was missing because Wilson had killed him in a duel aboard the passenger liner. What she wouldn’t have given to see—and air!—that video. But the Captain had forbidden it. Busy boy, Wilson. He was soon to become a full-time single father.

Surrounded by asteroid hunters, Lafcadio Guzman grinned and banged the little Japanese plastic noisemaking tube he’d been given on the next seat below him.

It was great news footage, Honey thought, and an even greater story. Just too bad the whole thing was as phoney as a three ruble note.

“They can’t really jump to their feet, but how about one where they raise their arms and shout as if someone has just hit a home run?”

It was Aaron Manzel, standing beside her, who made the suggestion—another great story she couldn’t tell. More than anyone except the vessel’s captain, he’d saved the lives of three hundred passengers. But he didn’t want anyone to know about it and wouldn’t tolerate being photographed.

She passed Manzel’s idea on, took the pictures, and sent them to the wireless address specified. She was folding her headset camera and mike when Adam arrived at her side.

“Thank you, Miss Graham,” he told her, lifting a hand to shake hers.

She didn’t know what to say. In terms a professional journalist understands, she had sold out to this man and his family. She could continue her career only because nobody important in her circles knew what she had done to participate in the news, rather than simply record and comment on it. The trouble was that she knew.

She had worse problems. “I guess you’re welcome, Dr. Ngu. I hope I never have to do anything like this again, for as long as I live.”

“You’re saving lives,” he told her. His wife Ardith was beside him now, along with his son Wilson, and the two girls, Llyra and Jasmeen, whom Honey had thought of as Adam’s daughters since she’d met them on Ceres. “But you’re packing up. Aren’t you going to stay and watch the game?”

“Whichever game you happen to mean, Dr. Ngu,” she replied. “No, I promised Arleigh I’d get back to Ceres as soon as possible. He says he misses me. And do you know what? I miss him, too. Now how the hell did that happen?”

Adam and his family laughed. “I’ll see you back there in a few days. I can’t really thank you enough, Honey, I owe you a very big one.”

“Yes,” she said. “And I plan to collect.”

******

“We don’ need no stinkin’ tickets!” Krystal laughed. And she was right. When they’d gotten married in the storefront wedding parlor next door to the Chinese restaurant they’d had lunch in, they’d been given a week’s worth of complimentary passes to the Old Survivor stadium.

Johnnie grinned at her. “No, all we need is these!” He flipped his jacket open to reveal, for just an instant, the autopistol he was carrying.

They stood at the entrance of a tunnel that led to the first tier of the stadium’s left field seats. They’d seen that Honey woman on 3DTV, interviewing the Ngu family and others who had just arrived on Mars after their harrowing journey. They had been invited here today by the Coprates Warlords. Behind them had flapped an enormous banner, hanging from the second tier railing, proclaiming “City of Newark Survivors’ Day”.

Krystal had a big smile on her face. Wearing sunglasses, no one would know she’d been hurt. “All you need is love—and a big enough weapon!”

Through the dark tunnel, they could see the right field seats, jammed with spectators yelling their heads off, even though the teams were only warming up. From time to time, the name of one of the local heroes would be announced, he’d strike a pose, throw a ball, or swing a bat, and they’d go crazy. Johnnie tried to remember the name of the visiting team, but couldn’t. He was too nervous, and he didn’t really care.

A huge 3DTV screen over on the other side filled itself with portraits and statistics that changed constantly. Crenicichla had always believed that baseball was a game invented for the benefit of accountants.

At the sides at the opposite end of the tunnel, he could see big orange banners waving in the breeze, part of the decorations he’d seen on 3DTV, honoring the survivors. Their orange color was an insult and a perversion. It was the original color of the planet Mars before it had been contaminated and despoiled by the vile fungus covering it now.

“Do you want this tunnel,” Krystal asked him now, “or should I take it?”

“No, I’ll take it,” he told her, feeling his heart race, his knees shake.

“It’s the right thing to do, you know.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. He took her in his arms and kissed her properly, just as he had in the marriage parlor. She was right. Others before yourself.

“I know. Let’s do it.” He released her, turned, and started down the tunnel. He watched her walk to the next tunnel on his left and disappear into it. He looked at the crowd on the other side of the stadium, enjoying themselves so thoroughly their cheers and stomping made the stadium rattle. The giant 3DTV screen over right field, which had been showing someone at bat, was suddenly filled with colorful three-domensional static.

He ignored it.

Unconsciously counting his steps, he came close to the end and finished his count. He took a deep breath, stepped out into the stadium and drew his gun, holding it in both hands as he swung left, taking the muzzle where he knew that it would find the key members of the abominable Ngu family.

He saw Krystal doing the same at the next tunnel mouth, but swinging right, a few dozen yards away. Only there was nobody between them. The seats were completely empty.

The giant screen behind him suddenly showed the image of a young Asian man a little older than Wilson. Beside him was a curly-haired brunette of about the same age, holding a baby in her arms. They looked strangely familiar.

“What the hell?” Crenicichla demanded of nobody in particular, until Krystal yelled to look at the right field seats and the rest of the stadium. What he saw gave him the feel of icy fingertips up his spine.

The entire stadium was empty. All the noise and shouting he’d been hearing were recorded, the spectators only a image being projected onto a huge translucent curtain hanging down from the tier of seats above. Only the flags and bunting flapping in the breeze around him, and the image on the giant screen behind were real. Everything else was—

“It’s a fake!” Krystal screamed.

The young man on the screen grinned. “Hello, people of the Solar System. I apologize for breaking into whatever you were watching. I’m Emerson Ngu, captain of the interstellar exploration ship, Fifth Force. This is my lovely wife Rosalie Frazier Ngu beside me, and our youngest son, Harrison, in her arms. We and our friends have been on a very long trip, and have returned now to tell you all about it.”

Crenicichla rushed toward his new wife to comfort her. She rushed toward him. They met in the middle of the section, beside the bottom rail.

“Oh, Johnnie, what are we going to do?”

“You’re going to drop your weapons and put your hands on your heads,” said a commanding voice. It was the Captain of the goddamned City of Newark, pointing a pistol at them. He came out of the tunnel—there must have been a janitor’s room or something he’d been hiding in—and stepped into the seating section, ten or twelve rows above them.

Unaware that nobody—at least in the Old Survivor Stadium—was paying attention, Emerson went on. “There’s a gigantic Drake-Tealy Object in the Cometary Halo, about as far from Pluto as Pluto is from the Sun. When we approached it too closely, it seemed to open out into a doughnut shape, and pulled us right in. When we saw the stars again, we were in a different Solar System, with not one but two lovely, livable worlds circling a warm, cheerful yellow star a lot like our own.”

“Do what he said—drop your weapons!”

Wilson Ngu had followed the Captain and now stood beside him. Others emerged from the tunnel Krystal had entered by. Together Johnnie and Krystal saw the entire Ngu family, except for the brother on Ceres, come out and stand on the same level as the Captain. Some of them were in wheelchairs. All of them were armed.

“Lose the weapons now,” Wilson said, and live. Otherwise, you’ll die.”

“We’ve spent the last decade and a half exploring those worlds,” said Emerson, “while our physicists struggled to get us back home. There’s a giant Drake-Tealy Object there, too, and they think, somehow, its the same one that took us there.”

Krystal looked at her husband. “I’ll get the two girls, you get the mother and the son. Then we’ll go for the grandmother and whoever else.”

Emerson said, “We’re back, now—having left eight hundred folks on those two worlds—to invite more people to join us, to come and settle the new worlds.”

“On the count of three!”

They raised their guns and fired. The other side seemed slow to react—perhaps they were distracted by the return of the Fifth Force—but none of them fell. The one Krystal referred to as “the mother” pulled the trigger. Crenicichla watched a bullet take Krystal in the throat, just where her collarbones came together. As she fell backwards, over the rail, Ardith’s second shot took her in the solar plexus.

Krystal flipped over the rail and fell fifty feet onto the top of a concrete dugout. There was a lot of blood. Crenicichla screamed and charged the Ngu family above him, leaping across the tops of the seats, firing as rapidly as he could at Ardith and Julie. He could see his bullets striking the seatbacks around them, chipping off bits, then the unnaturally young Ngu grandmother folded and fell, holding her belly.

Adam, Wilson, Llyra, and Jasmeen pulled their triggers at the same time. Crenicichla saw the flashes, but never heard the noise of the gunshots.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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