Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 472, June 15, 2008

"Double or triple the price of gas, and that will
lock people down far more effectively than will
concentration camps and secret police."

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Ares: A Sneak Peek—Part Two
by L. Neil Smith

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise

Chapter One: Julie Segovia

"One thing you can always be sure of, Desmondo," said Conchita, "people will rise—or fall—to meet your expectations of them."
Conchita and Desmondo in the Land of Wimpersnits and Oogies

Julie waited in the dark at the top of the stairs, surprised that her heart wasn't pounding harder than it was. In a few minutes she was going to do something that couldn't be undone—something that needed to be done, nonetheless—and she'd always avoided that whenever she could.

It hadn't been easy, breaking the hallway plasma bulb inside its titanium cage and bulletproof polymer cylinder, but Julie had lived in spaces exactly like this all her life, very little more than storage facilities for the faceless masses whose only function in society was to keep voting the same morons, lunatics, and criminals—and their vile offspring—into office. This was Julie's turf, and she'd been determined. Two thirds of the plasma bulbs in this building had already been broken in the same way, almost certainly for similar reasons.

No part of this would be easy. The man was fifty-nine years old, knew every dirty trick there was, weighed two and a half times what she did, was a foot taller, and had a longer reach. She was seventeen, five feet four, and only weighed a hundred pounds. She had to have every advantage she could muster. It had to be done right the first time.

Julie considered herself fortunate that the elevators in this particular high-rise hovel hadn't worked from the first day its inmates had been violently swept off the streets and forced to move in. The President of East America and his hundred-car entourage had been paying an official visit to Newark that week. It wouldn't do at all for him—or for the 3DTV cameras of five national networks—to be forced to look upon the grimy hordes of ragged, hungry, desperate citizens who normally occupied the city streets, as his convoy drove through.

She glanced at the long row of battered steel doors she had just passed by. People made their own worlds behind these doors, inside these apartments. They had to. Outside, it smelled of urine, feces, and vomit, with an unmistakeable overtone of alcohol and narcotics. It smelled of rats, as well, an odor that seemed downright homely and wholesome, compared to the acrid tang that cockroaches left in the air.

There had been a government program, shortly before Julie was born. Microscopic machines, designed to reproduce themselves and kill rats and cockroaches, had been created by scientists and engineers employed by the state and funded by the federal government. When the first batch—meant for rats—was released (given what government projects are), they left the rats alone, and killed every cat in the city.

The cockroach half of the program had been shut down immediately, and everyone associated with it shipped off to the South Jersey labor farms.

Nobody ever asked what happened to those in the rat program.

She took a deep, calming breath. Four flights of steep concrete steps ought to slow him down, even if he weren't an overweight, beer- gutted, middle-aged former mafiya enforcer, enjoying his retirement by running a string of girls he'd been given as a gift—like a gold watch—for his many years of ruthless, brutal service to the local dons.

Her sister had been one of those girls.

Julie tried to remain focused on the task at hand, but her mind kept drifting back to the sight of Millicente, lying like a smashed doll in the crowded, noisy indigent ward at Garden State Memorial, smiling up, still trying to be the wise, calm, brave older sibling, even though she couldn't speak above a whisper and there wasn't a long bone in her body he hadn't broken, along with half a dozen ribs, her sternum, jaw, skull, and even her pelvis where he'd stomped her as she lay unconscious and helpless on the floor of the apartment at Julie's back.

Millicente wasn't even certain what she'd done to anger him. She told Julie that it might have something to do with the fact that, at the advanced age of twenty-six, she was more than a little past her prime, and therefore expected to perform services—and to service individuals—in ways that hadn't been required of her when she was younger and prettier. Her internal injuries might kill her yet, they'd said. At least that kept her safe from organ harvesters operating here under the noses—possibly with the permission—of the Garden State administration.

Julie heard the man well before she saw him. She'd met him twice, at Millicente's place when she was visiting and he'd tried to recruit her into his business. The first time had been two years ago, when she was fifteen. She could picture him now, huffing up the stairs, pausing now and again to let his heart slow. He was a huge man, with dark hair in oily curls and an enormous moustache, born of Balkan refugees who'd pushed the Italians and Haitiians and everybody else out of the market and taken over in the first few months they were here. He'd been big before he'd grown fat and had gigantic hands, each the size of both of hers.

Every now and again he'd used Millicente himself, when she was younger, and he never finished with her until she was sobbing and bloodied. Julie wondered how she'd stood it all these years, then she realized all over again that it had been for her—Julie's—sake, so that her younger sister wouldn't have to do the same things to survive. So that she could spend a few hours at the library every week, learning what she could about the world beyond Newark, New Jersey.

Beyond the borders of East America.

And here he was at last, pausing on the landing below, exactly as she'd expected, breathing raggedly. It was pretty funny, she thought, that even the rekitry couldn't get the elevators running in these places. It served too many interests to have people forced to use the stairs.

She stepped back into the shadows she'd created so arduously, and waited for her prey to come to her, slowly climbing one treacherous, crumbling step at a time. The steel strips originally used to line the edges of the steps had long since been torn away and ground into knives, pry-bars, and other useful tools. For the building's tenants, it made coming home each night a lot like climbing a mountain path. She'd always thought Millicente lucky only to live on the fourth floor.

The instant he put a foot on the top step, she stood in front of him. Without wasting a word or an instant, she pushed his wall of a chest hard, with the heels of both hands. He reeked of garlic, vodka, and tobacco smoke. Making an animal noise, he began to pitch over backward, snatching at her wrists. She squirmed free and somehow her right hand ended up on the grip of a large burner he carried in a shoulder holster under his left armpit. For an adrenaline-attenuated moment they were frozen in space and time. Then the weapon slipped free of its holster and he tumbled backward, over and over, down the stairs.

Julie ran down after him. He'd settled on his back in a corner with his head propped against the wall at an odd angle, as if he were sitting up in bed, reading. He looked up at her as she stood over him, tried to grab at her ankle, but he was slow and feeble. She stepped back.

She'd expected him to be dead, or paralyzed.

Glancing at the weapon in her hand—it was a heavy CZ plasma pistol, chrome-plated like a mirror, with checkered, reddish grips of some exotic hardwood—she raised it and centered the sights on his chest.

"I hope you can hear me, you son of a bitch. This is for my sister Millicente." Meeting the man's eyes, which had suddenly widened with a realization that he was about to die, she pressed the trigger. A fireball leapt from the weapon. In an instant, she could see through a fist-sized hole in his chest to the scorched concrete floor beneath him.

She knelt, wiped the grip of the burner on the tail of his expensive silk jacket, and, using the coattail, laid it in his right hand. His coat had swept back. She could see his billfold in an inside pocket. Using the same care she had with the burner, she examined its contents.

He had over eighteen thousand dollars in illegal West American currency.

For a moment she considered it, if only for Millicente's sake, for the decent care that it could buy her in that snakepit of a hospital. There was no East American currency, as such. The government wanted an electronic record of every transaction. So people who desired privacy, anonymity, used West American money. One of her best-paying jobs was to mule the stuff all over Newark to consumers from distributors. It was unlawful, in theory, but worked all the same. You could even pay fines with it—your were encouraged to, in fact—and it traded one lone West American gold certificate to over a thousand East American e-bucks.

Then she shrugged. The next person who came along would take it if she didn't. She pulled out the thick roll and threw the billfold back.

She'd be long gone by morning, anyway.

Ares, one of three planned sequels to L. Neil Smith's Prometheus Award-winning 1993 novel Pallas, continues the saga of Emerson Ngu's pioneer family and concerns the terrafomation and settlement of the planet Mars. It will be followed by Ceres and Beautiful Dreamer, a "rational fantasy".


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