Big Head Press


L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 546, November 29, 2009

"How times change."

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CERES, Chapter Thirty-Seven: Convergence
by L. Neil Smith
lneil@netzero.com

Special to the Libertarian Enterprise

[Ceres is being published weekly at http://www.bigheadpress.com/lneilsmith/?page_id=53) we decided to give TLE readers a preview of the current chapter (going up Sunday evening—Editor]


Principles are not meant for times or circumstances when abiding by them is easy. They're for when it's hard. They're not meant to be thrown over in an emergency, or suspended "for the duration", but to be honored no matter how dangerous or difficult it gets.

Otherwise, what the hell good are they?

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu


"And so I hopped up on the back of the wagon and said, 'It's technical!"

The Captain's table erupted with laughter, and many of the guests applauded, including that awful Mrs. Erskine, who had finally had her invitation.

Captain West made pushing motions with his hands indicating his humility, but nobody believed him. The man was a great storyteller, and he had polished it to a fine art over many years of mastering shiploads of often-difficult passengers whom his crew privately called "beasts".

"Now," said the Captain, "since they're just about to serve us a spectacular dessert, who will enjoy a little of this hundred-year-old East Texas brandy with me?" He took Llyra's glass. "You can't learn if you don't have a chance to learn, can you? Then again I've forgotten that you're a Pallatian." He poured and then reached for Jasmeen's glass.

There were no liquor laws, nor much of any other kind, on Pallas. Llyra didn't really like the stuff (she'd tried it first at home with her mother three or four years ago) but she sipped at it to be polite to the Captain—as spectacular in his own way as any dessert—whom she and Llyra had come to adore. She was interested, speaking strictly scientifically, in the way the brandy seemed to crawl all over her tongue.

"Mrs. Erskine?" Across the table from Llyra, the woman handed the Captain her glass and even managed a smile. When he had finished with serving the ladies, he announced, the men would all have to fend for themselves.

Llyra was seated next to the Captain, on his right—again—and well aware of the honor it represented. The first night, he'd told her how he missed his family back in Wyoming, and pulled out a long plastic wallet insert, with dozens of hologramss of his wife and three children.

Seated between Llyra and Jasmeen was that nice old man they'd met on the Solarium Deck a few days ago. He was almost tall enough, she'd informed him, to be a native Pallatian. He'd just smiled warmly and told her he was originally from Tucson, Arizona, out in western West America.

Although these days, for the most part, he lived and worked in the Moon.

"Then why do you go to Mars?" Jasmeen had asked him. "If is not too—"

"It's not 'too' anything, dear Miss Khalidov," he'd told Llyra's coach. "I welcome the question, especially from one as beautiful and gracious as you happen to be. Since I was just a little boy, you see, I always wanted to see Mars—especially a Martian baseball game. I had been a Diamondbacks fan back in Tucson. Nobody plays baseball in the Moon, I don't know why. But you know how it is, Im sure: somehow I never managed to get around to making this particular excursion before now."

"Diamondbacks?" Jasmeen blinked. "I have never seen baseball game, even at home on Mars. Is diamondback not some kind of poisonous big snake?"

The Captain, who'd been listening to the conversation, laughed. "Big snake totem. I was a Colorado Rockies fan, myself, when I was a kid, until the team moved to Juneau and became the Malamutes. I never quite got over that one—baseball on ice. I'm told they have a dome there, built exactly like the one on Pallas and the one they're building on Ceres."

"Is not dome on Pallas, is sky. Rockies. More totemism?" asked Jasmeen, winking at him. "You are not saying mountain range moved to Alaska."

"Yes," he said, enjoying her banter, "I am not saying that." A uniformed crew member appeared at his elbow with a folded scrap of a note. "Excuse me, ladies, it appears that I have to make a happy announcement."

West stood up at the table, resplendent in his white captain's dinner jacket, and tapped his water goblet with a spoon. "Ladies and gentlemen, while you may not notice it when it happens—in fact I sincerely hope you don't notice it—I'm told we are just about to initiate Turnover, since we're now halfway to our destination. From that point on, we will be decelerating until we reach our berthing on Deimos."

There was polite applause and chatter. Captains of passenger liners apparently took pride in smooth turnovers. It was a good thing to take pride in, thought Llyra. This one should be even better than the one aboard Beautiful Dreamer what seemed to her like so long ago.

"Now fill your glasses," said the Captain, "and make sure we don't spill—"

As if on cue, masked, black-clad figures appeared in each of the doorways to the dining room, two at the elevators, one on the spiral stairs to the forward lounge, one at the entrance to the kitchen. The intruders were armed with a variety of bullet and directed energy weapons.

A young woman strode forward among the tables, submachinegun on her hip, pale hair streaming. She was not masked, but was also wearing black.

"Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Krystal Sweet. I represent Null Delta Em, an organization I'm sure you've all heard of. I'll be taking over from the good Captain for the rest of this voyage, but if you all behave like good little hostages, I'll be delighted to let him live. I may need him anyway, to drive this big tin can exactly where I want it."

She took another step forward. "However, just to convince you that NDE means business—" She shifted to one side, seized a middle-aged man at one of the tables by his collar, and quickly dragged him off his chair toward the center of the room. When he reached inside his jacket for something, she stepped on his arm. Everyone could hear it break.

Without another word or wasted motion, she shot him through the temple, spraying the people at the tables to her left with blood and brains.

Some of them screamed until she waved her submachinegun in their direction. "Now don't you nice folks get all upset," she told them. "That wasn't one of your fellow passenger, that was only one of the drunken bums—I mean, so-called 'Space Marshals'—that this vile corporation has spared absolutely no expense at all to hire for your protection."

Stooping slightly, while remaining alert, Krystal went through the dead man's jacket, extracting a bulky automatic pistol of some kind. "We know that there are three other individuals like this aboard. They will, of course, be turning themselves and their weapons over to us in the next three minutes, or I'll just have to pick somebody else to kill."

Two bulky men stood in different parts of the room, opening their jackets with their left hands to reveal their issued weapons. A woman also stood and held her purse up. Krystal nodded to her people, who disarmed the Space Marshals and shoved them back into their chairs contemptuously.

"Very nice," said Krystal. "Now I'm going forward to the flight deck while my friends keep you company. If the good Captain will join me ... ?"

******

"You're from Earth," the young man said. It was a statement, not a question. His pale blond hair was cut short, in what was once called a "flat-top". He wore a beautifully tailored dark gray suit, a matching turtleneck, expensive black leather shoes, and tight black leather gloves.

The young man stood over him. Leugner, sitting, answered, "Yes, why—?"

"How recently?" asked the young man, folding his arms in front of him.

Leugner shook his head. "How recently? Why do you ... well, I guess—"

For the first time, the young man showed emotion. His face screwed up in anger. "How recently, you useless parasitic cretin? Answer the question! Answer it now!" He balled up a fist in front of Leugner's face.

"Six weeks! Six weeks! What the hell is this all about?" Leugner sat back in the straight-backed chair they had shoved him into. He wasn't used to being treated this way. Was the young man from some government?

In the beginning, he had thought he was being arrested, although by whom, he had no idea. All the policemen in the Moon were privately employed, and were required by one of the few laws that existed here to wear uniforms on duty at all times. This was something else, very bad.

They hadn't threatened, injured, or even handcuffed him. Four young men had collected him from his hotel room. All of them were dressed exactly the same way and might as well have been brothers—quadruplets. Only one of them had spoken. None of them had shown him a weapon.

So far.

He'd been brought, in a big, black, unmarked Frontenac hovercraft, to an empty storefront near an industrial park just off Grissom Drive. The "For Rent" sign in the window had been thick with dusty cobwebs. He'd been taken into the back where four more young gray-clad men, or possibly six, searched him thoroughly—although they hadn't taken anything from him except the small pocket pistol he was required by his sponsors to carry at all times, probably, he had reasoned, to commit suicide with. He loathed all guns and resented having to carry this one.

Guns were for minions to carry.

By turns, the eight or ten young men had fingerprinted him, toeprinted him, and photographed his face and both retinas. His identification—East American, of course—had been minutely examined.

The young man nodded. "Six weeks. Not too bad. Almost certainly you'll be able to survive what's in store for you. You're going for a long ride, in a private spaceship, accelerating at one full standard gravity."

Leugner bit back an impulse to echo his captor. How ironic, that he'd put Krystal Sweet through something like this recently. He hadn't liked doing it to her. He liked and respected her. He was the only one he knew who didn't fear her. In a different life, who knew what they might have been together? However, he liked having it done to him even less.

He was angry. "Do you have any idea who I am?" he asked the young man.

"Decidedly. You're the chief executive officer of Null Delta Em, a terrorist, and a murderer. For what it's worth, we happen to represent the people who pay your salary and tell you what to do. They say that you're going for a ride—" The young man hitched the sleeve of his gray jacket back to look at his wristwatch. "—in about twenty-three minutes."

Leugner sagged. "Can you at least tell me where?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I can," the young man nodded. "You're going to rendezvous with the East American Spacelines' vessel City of Newark, in midflight to Mars. By the time we get there, it will have been taken over by your people—at least in theory. Their recent record isn't good. As this is the most important and spectacular act ever taken by NDE, it was decided that you should be there to claim responsibility."

Leugner gulped. "'Me'?"

The young man nodded again. "All of us here will be going along to make absolutely sure that everything happens the way it's supposed to. As I said, their recent record. After their mission is complete, we'll give you and all your people a ride back home. Take your gun. Let's go."

Leugner examined his pistol to make certain it was still loaded and operational, earning him a small grunt of approval from the young man. He made a cyinical bet with himself about him and his people actually being rescued.

"You'll lose," said the young man, as if he could read Leugner's mind. "You're already worth considerable to NDE and its sponsors. After this, you and yours will be celebrities, like Carlos the Jackal or Yasser Arafat or Suheiro Gwenji or Henri McNabb, too valuable to freind and foe alike to waste."

Leugner could hardly disagreee with that. What his people were about to do dwarfed every terrorist act in human history—put together. This time, the identical young men in gray escorted him out with dignity. There seemed to be at least a dozen of them, maybe more. Waiting for them in the street was a pale gray Clinton town car, the notorious American president's unmistakable profile incised into the hood ornament.

Two of the young men sat in front, three in back, one of them on a right-hand jumpseat. The seats were comfortable and Leugner had plenty of room. The big gray hovercraft was followed by another just like it, as it made a U-turn and headed straight for the spaceport. Leugner started to ask the young man another question, but received an answer first.

"You've been checked out of your hotel and your belongings packed. Some are in the back and will come with us. The rest are in storage. You'll be fine for the trip, which won't last that long. You'll be required to wear some special clothes once you join your people aboard ship."

"Special?"

Another nod. "So you'll look like a space pirate or a terrorist or whatever."

"Special." Leugner considered the word, turning it over with his tongue. "No eye-patch or shoulder parrot or anything like that, I trust."

The young man kept a solemn face. "No parrot or eyepatch. Here we are."

They had arrived, by a steeply descending underground highway, at the big parking garage of the Arthur C. Clark Grand Concourse and the private end of the spaceport. Two of the gray-suited young men took his meager luggage from the back of the first Clinton. All of them—he thought there might even be more than a dozen—entered the concourse and took the first elevator on the left. At the surface, several hundred feet above the concourse, they entered an airlock—the spaceport's—stepped through it into another airlock—the spaceship's—and they were suddenly aboard the vessel that would be taking them all halfway to Mars.

It was more like a small airliner on Earth, Leugner thought, than any spaceship, with a dozen rows of seats behind a closed crew-cabin door. Through the window he could see a section of streamlined delta wing. In the rear, where they had entered, he saw mountains of gear in tough-looking black boxes, piled up and tied down. The logo stencilled on the boxes looked very familiar to anyone born and raised in East America.

"WRCH?" he demanded. "You guys are a fucking 3DTV camera crew?"

The young man shrugged. "Did we ever say or imply we were anything else?"

******

He was incredulous. "Don't tell me that nobody briefed you about my being here. Well, that's just typical of this damn outfit, isn't it?"

Johnnie Crenicichla shook his head ruefully as he stubbed out a cigarette and lit another—Gallatins he'd bought in Armstrong City, at just one tenth of the overtaxed price they went for back in East America. He'd been awakened by pounding on his cabin door and realized at once what was happening. Luckily, Krystal Sweet had decided to join the stateroom-to-stateroom search for passengers who hadn't come to dinner, so he'd avoided an unpleasant interlude with her underlings, who had no reason to know that he was in overall charge of this operation.

He'd napped through the initial phases of the hijacking. Now he went to the bathroom, closed the door, used it for the purpose it was built for, then removed the package from behind the medicine cabinet, carefully reclosing the door to the hidden compartment. He didn't know why he did that, considering the fate that had been planned for this ship. It was just a silly, unwonted tidiness that was a part of his character.

Opening the door again, he opened the manila envelope, removed the pistol there and tucked it into his waistband, and took out one more item before he threw the envelope away. It was a high capacity memory stick.

"You need to get this to the command deck as soon as you can," he told Krystal. "Did anybody bother to tell you why you've hijacked this vessel?"

Krystal shook her head. "No, sir, they didn't. I saw ... well, you probably know who I saw, just two days before departure. He reviewed my plans without much comment, handed me a data packet with names and pictures of everybody I'd be dealing with, told me to be as ruthless as necessary—he didn't really need to tell me that—and take over the ship immediately before Turnover. I mean the very minute before Turnover."

"And so here we are," Crenicichla nodded. "Surely they told you that this was to be the most spectacular stunt that NDE has ever undertaken?"

She shook her head. "I sort of gathered that, though."

He held out the memory stick. "Let's take this to the bridge. Give it to your person there, the flight engineer, and have her enter the data on it into the navigational system. We've got a three-hour window to get it done right, and we've already used up forty-five minutes of that."

Krystal's brow wrinkled. "Sir, if I may—"

He smiled. "Ordinarily, I'd tell you that you don't need to know. Once we've got things set up here the way we like, we'll be picked up by another ship, taken off and back to the Moon where we can enjoy the fireworks."

"But ... "

"But, seeing as how you've done so much for us, and will again in the future, I think it's only right to tell you and let you enjoy the anticipation."

Krystal grinned widely. She loved it. Then, nodding toward the memory stick, said, "Sir, shouldn't we be getting that up to the bridge?"

"Right. Just a moment." He reached for his off-white silk jacket where he'd draped it over a chair, turned it inside out so that it was now a black windbreaker, and put it on. From a pocket, he extracted a scrap of fabric. It was a black mesh bag, which he pulled over his head.

"I will need to preserve my anonymity for afterward. In a way, I'm standing in for ... well, you probably know who, who should be showing up in a couple of hours. He'll be making the public statement for the cause."

Krystal raised her eyebrows.

"Let's go," he told her. Entering the hallway, they nodded to the guard Krystal had been doing her rounds with. She instructed him—it was Brazos—to carry on. The doorway to the service core was directly across from Crenicichla's stateroom door, one reason he'd accepted this cabin. They entered the elevator and she started to punch the button for the dining room, which was as high as this car went.

Supposedly.

He pushed several buttons, and the system bonged its acceptance of the code. "This," he told her, "will take us straight to the command deck." He exhaled. It was very odd, seeing and talking through the mesh bag. "Krystal, the reason this is such an important mission is that we're going to rearrange the Solar System just a little bit today."

"Sir?" Her eyes were wide, and for a moment she looked just like a small child talking to Santa Claus. He hadn't noticed before, but she wasn't at all bad looking, even cute, if you could overlook the machinegun.

"That's right, Krystal. We're going to prevent our brave Captain and his valiant crew from turning this great luxurious obscenity of a spaceship around, and keep it accelerating toward Mars, instead." He held up the memory stick. "It's all right here. Actually, it'll be accelerating toward one of the Martian moons, Phobos, and not just aiming at the moon itself, you see, but for a specific spot on that moon."

"And ... ?"

"And when this ship hits it, there will be a titanic explosion which will slow the moon in orbit, and drop it, if we've done our homework right, into Valles Marineris, the warmest, most oxygen-rich, densely-populated region on all of the formerly Red Planet.

"Barsoom go boom!"

Krystal laughed, transparently anxious to hear more. He guessed that she was becoming sexually aroused by the plan as he revealed it. That was exactly why Null Delta Em's sponsors hired people like her. Briefly, he contemplated taking advantage of the opportunity, but decided it would be too much like taking a scorpion into his bed. The elevator car stopped, but he pressed a button to keep its door from opening.

"It won't really matter where it hits, though, because wherever it hits, it will kill every living thing on Mars, including all of that goddamned yellow fungus. Together, we will put an end for all time to human efforts to colonize other worlds because, if a small handful of terrorists—assisted by the United States Government and the United Nations—can destroy a world, it's clearly much too dangerous to colonize."

She laughed and clapped her hands. "Oh, I like it! I like it!"

He grinned and nodded. "I knew you would."

******

"I don't think these stanchions that we repaired can take another tenth of a gee, Commodore." The voice over the radio was strained, in part because the lungs behind it were experiencing eleven tenths of a gee. "I can feel them wobbling hard where they were reattached to the hull."

Shorty had been referring to Wilson as "Commodore" ever since they'd cobbled together this little fleet of eight asteroid hunting vessels and pointed them up- and cross-system to rescue the City of Newark, at as high a rate of acceleration as they—and their owners—could tolerate. Marko had argued that technically it was only a task force, not a fleet, and that Wilson only rated being called "Admiral".

Scotty had argued that an admiral ranked higher than a commodore, who was only a regular captain, after all, in charge of more than one vessel.

Asked for his opinion, Mikey—who had once been in the Navy—had only deigned to transmit snoring noises to the rest of the "fleet".

Shorty's three companions hadn't had much to say, so far, although they'd helped with Shorty's repairs enthusiastically enough. They'd accepted Wilson's leadership immediately, without question, and he was trying to get to know each of them better now. This not a particularly easy task (he finally understood) by means of the electronic media. He wished he'd anticipated that when he'd first met Amorie Samson on the SolarNet.

Shorty, it turned out, was one Manuel Echeverria Gavilando, born and bred in "Lost Angeles", a portion of West America's largest city that remained in overgrown ruins today, more than a century after the devastating earthquake that everybody still called "The Big One" had killed twenty million Californians and paralyzed the American economy for more than a generation, precipitating the East-West political divide.

Shorty had scrimped and saved, he'd told Wilson (much likelier burgled and mugged, Wilson suspected) to earn passage to the Moon, and had been hired afterward by an asteroid hunting corporation that had supplied him with a ship, taking nine tenths of whatever he found with her.

In the Moon, lacking certain customary legal powers and immunities traditionally granted to it by nation states like East America. the corporation Shorty worked for had soon gone bankrupt. Manuel—who appeared to like being called Shorty—had whisked his little ship off to the faraway Asteroid Belt before anybody came looking for her, renaming her La Diabla, and claiming to anyone who would listen that he'd long since paid for her by using her for what she'd been built for.

Wilson wondered where Shorty had sent the checks. He had decided that he could work with him—but it would be necessary to keep an eye on him, as well. As someone famous had once put it, "Trust—but verify."

"Beanpole" had turned out to be a musician, of all things, and kept an acoustic guitar aboard his little ship, Lady of Spain, the same way Wilson did. He was a more experienced player, however, and had a sweet, clear tenor voice. His real name was Casey McCarthy, he'd told Wilson and his friends, from Joe Batt's Arm on Pallas. By the time they'd reattached Shorty's engine, he'd begun teaching Wilson elementary harmony—it was an eerie thing to sing chords, Wilson thought—and started singing traditional Pallatian Newfy songs with him.

The real surprise was "Boils", a self-confessed former seminary student from the mysterious Shadow Monastery atop Mars' Olympus Mons, and, as he called himself, an avid philosophy buff. His real name, he told them with a verifying hand over his heart, was Merton Kwembly, and he delighted in arguing about absolutely anything, interminably, taking whatever side pleased him at the moment. However he refused to say a word about what went on in the Shadow Monastery. Wilson would dearly like to have known where the brothers got their oxygen at that altitude.

"Fatty", on the other hand, or Pimble S. Pharch, as he called himself, would need close watching. Originally a native of West America, he was unkempt, slovenly, and so grotesquely obese that he'd had to have a pair of envirosuits cut and remade into a single suit that fit him. He also had the most evil eyes Wilson had ever seen. He talked slowly, deliberately, provocatively, slitting those evil eyes to watch for the other person's reactions to what he said, probing for any sign of weakness.

In the end, Wilson had called a conference with his three original friends aboard Mighty Mouse's Girlfriend, before they'd begun their rescue mission. Despite the urgency of what lay before them, they had to make plans and preparations. The repairs had only taken them eight hours, in all. As the work had progressed, he'd tried hard not to think about his little sister and what might be happening to her in the cold, cruel depths of interplanetary space. He tried not the think about Jasmeen, as well, for many of the same reasons and perhaps one or two more.

Most of the talk now involved what to do if any of the pirates—Fatty being the likeliest in everyone's opinion—tried to betray them.

"Even his buddies are afraid of him," Marko had advised Wilson. "Just keep that big particle beamer pointed at him. He'll be a good boy."

And that was exactly what Wilson had done, arranging his little fleet—or task force—so that the gesture didn't look quite as threatening as it was, but in a way that Fatty would still get the message. As Marko had predicted, he'd been a good boy, at least so far.

It was a good thing. Following the big black whatever-it-was, their heading and velocity had been almost perfectly wrong for the task of intercepting the hijacked spaceliner, ninety degrees away in the inappropriate direction, headed sharply south of the plane of the ecliptic.

They'd begun by cutting material from the asteroid they were chasing to use as reaction mass, grinding it up, filling their tanks to capacity, then stowing more raw material in steel baskets on the outsides of their ships. They had not run into any diamonds—which would have jammed or damaged their grinders—and had started calling their bizarre high-velocity discovery the "unusually carbonaceous chondrite".

Nonetheless, they marked its location and course before abandoning it and accelerating in a corrective direction, at one third of a gee, something they were all accustomed to and could tolerate. Each of them went over his ship carefully, making certain nothing was amiss, and then they added a tenth of a gee and checked their ships all over again.

They repeated this routine until they were at ten percent higher than one full gee, and the colonials among them began to have trouble breathing, let alone moving about their ships. Wilson suspected that the former Earthers were having problems, too, but wouldn't admit it. In any case, it was also very dangerous, since a fall from the pilot's chair to the deck, forty feet below, would almost certainly prove fatal.

Turnover, Wilson thought, was going to be interesting.

******

"Mr. Leugner?"

He stirred uncomfortably, opened his eyes, and looked up at the young man standing over him, realizing there wasn't any way to tell if it was the same young man that he'd been dealing with, or one of the others.

Maybe they were clones. Of course Null Delta Em and organizations allied with it were opposed to cloning, or any other form of genetic manipulation. It was another of science's excesses that threatened to artificially prolong human life, and was therefore a threat to the natural balance. But, he supposed, using technology like that to wage war against technology in general was probably a morally acceptable hypocrisy.

Probably.

"Why aren't we accelerating?" he asked. "Are we preparing for Turnover already?" One of the reasons he'd decided to sleep most of the way was that the seats on this spacecraft faced forward, which meant that when it was underway, it was like lying on one's back on a shelf.

In his experience, only prison transports and military troop carriers were built that way. Thank somebody there had been a urinal "relief tube" built into the left arm of his chair. The aisle between the rows of seats was built like a ladder, but he didn't want to risk killing himself climbing up and down on the thing, even to go to the bathroom.

Another reason he'd slept was that there seemed to be something wrong with the 3DTV system. The screen on the back of the seat ahead of him worked well enough, but all it would show were reruns of the immensely popular situation comedy Happy Dog, about a politically correct family owned by its pet, rather than the other—evil—way around.

It made Leugner bilious.

He simply adored the exciting shoot-em-ups of his youth, and kept a secret collection of them carefully hidden in his home. It was just thrilling to watch legendary heroes like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Geronimo and Osceola driving European intruders from their native land. Sadly, even that kind of violence had fallen out of style on 3DTV.

In East America, anyway.

"We aren't accelerating any more, sir, because we've arrived at our destination. We never underwent Turnover, because for the entire transit, we were catching up with the E.A.S. City of Newark, which has continued to accelerate since the moment it was taken by your operatives."

Leugner nodded, unlatched his seatbelt, and started to get up. The young man took his arm firmly, before he could crack his head on the ceiling.

"Zero gravity, Sir," said the young man. "Now if you'll allow me to assist you, aft of this section, we have a change of clothing for you, more appropriate weaponry, and you'll have ample time to look over the script that's been provided for you while we dock with the liner."

"Script?" Leugner shook his head, feeling a little dizzy. He'd never cared for zero gravity, although most people he knew thought it was lark—until they began throwing up. There was a cover over the aisle ladder now, and handholds on the top of every seatback. He relied on them, as much as on the young man, to keep his feet in place.

"Yes, sir. It's the feeling of your sponsors that this operation has to conclude perfectly. The script was written by an associate of yours, using the latest Packard-Dell hypercomputer, with the aid of several dozen opinion polls and focus panels. The good ladies and gentlemen of the Solar System will hear only what they want to hear, nothing that will tend to upset them. It's a masterpiece, if you ask me."

They passed through the bulkhead into the boarding area where he'd seen all the media travelling gear. The containers had been rearranged now, and the equipment distributed among the gray-clad young men. Across one of the big black boxes, someone had laid out his new clothing.

Maybe they were personal valet clones. The idea was horribly attractive.

What they had chosen for him to wear was classic. It began with a pair of soft black high-top running shoes like the ones he'd worn taking firearms instruction in Mexico. He'd always liked those shoes, which looked surprisingly dressy. Maybe he could take these with him afterward. The black stockings were knee-length and woven to aid circulation.

He guessed he'd keep his underwear. None had been provided. He was always very careful to cut the tags out in case he got hit by a bus or something.

The trousers were black bush-wear, with a bewildering number and variety of pockets. For some reason, each of them had been fitted with a block of foam rubber to make it look full. Maybe some focus panel had decided that would make him appear more dangerous and sinister. The belt he recognized. It was what his firearms instructors in Mexico had worn, black nylon with a peculiar V-ring buckle. This one had a number of different pouches on it, also stuffed with blocks of foam rubber.

A black cable-knit turtleneck completed the ensemble, along with black skin-tight leather gloves, and a black Balaclava that could be worn as a watchcap, or rolled down as a traditional terrorist's ski-mask.

Leugner changed in the head, emerging to find the gray clad young man waiting for him, an exotic and intimidating weapon in his outstretched hands. It was of black plastic and metal, with a front handgrip.

"You look good, Mr. Leugner. I especially like your shoes. Take this. It's the latest, a cartridge arm, but a .14 caliber ultrahyper- velocity piece that does just a little over five thousand feet per second and generates just a little over a ton of kinetic energy at the muzzle."

"Five thousand ... " Leugner accepted the weapon. "Er, thank you—I think." As he had been trained to do, he looked for the right button and ejected the long, curved magazine from underneath the gun. "But there aren't any bullets in this thing! What am I supposed to do with—"

"Say 'cartridge', Mr. Leugner, not 'bullet'. Otherwise you sound like an idiot. You're supposed to smile, sir, and look pretty for the camera. Just deliver your little speech. And don't worry, you've got plenty of well-armed personnel around you for protection. You might as well give me that little pistol of yours. We'll keep safe it for you until—"

"Absolutely not!" Instead, he handed the young man a block of foam rubber. "I'm supposed to be in charge of this operation. I've decided that I'm keeping it in one of the many pockets you have thoughtfully provided. While we're' at it, you can hand me one of those big knives over there."

"Anything you say, sir," the young man nodded, surprising Leugner with his sudden mildness. Leugner had no idea what he'd do with an edged combat weapon if he were called upon to use it, but it looked splendidly menacing, went with his outfit, and the concept of having his demand fulfilled and putting an underling back in his place was important. "I think we'd better go now, sir, if we want to stay on schedule."

Leugner put the sling over his neck, to carry the weapon across his chest. At the young man's suggestion, he rolled the Balaclava down to make the right impression when he took it off in front of the camera.

He attached the knife scabbard to his belt and took a breath. "I'm ready."


[To read the whole story (so far) go to http://www.bigheadpress.com/lneilsmith/?page_id=53) and enjoy!—Editor]


Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of more than 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at lneilsmith.org.

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas is currently running as a free weekly serial at www.bigheadpress.com/lneilsmith/?page_id=53

Neil is presently at work on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Where We Stand: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis with his daughter, Rylla.

See stunning full-color graphic-novelizations of The Probability Broach and Roswell, Texas which feature the art of Scott Bieser at www.BigHeadPress.com Dead-tree versions may be had through the publisher, or at www.Amazon.com where you will also find Phoenix Pick editions of some of Neil's earlier novels. Links to Neil's books at Amazon.com are on his website


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