L. Neil Smith's THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 894, October 16, 2016
ARES: A Sneak Peek
by L. Neil Smith
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
“Don't touch those coprolites, Desmondo!” shouted
Conchita. “You don't know where they've been!”
—Conchita y Desmondo in the Land of Wimpersnits and Oogies
The Battle of the Rubble Pile, as it came to be known forever afterward, like many another famous battle, was over in only a few minutes. Somehow Reuben Jackson and Billy Ngu had anticipated Colonel Atherton-Nye's clever “strategy” and out-pincered her. The Marines left their weapons where they’d dropped them and the Martians let them lay—it wasn’t as if they were going to be damaged by the rain.
The big man Julie had noticed turned out to be William, eldest son of the industrialist Emerson Ngu himself. He appeared to be somewhere in his mid-twenties. She didn’t get it straight until a long time afterward, whether his middle name was Wilde or Curringer (it was both, as it turned out), but apparently he’d been named after the infamous plastics billionaire who had illegally founded the human settlement on Pallas, the “capital” of which, the little town of Curringer, half bars and half whorehouses in the beginning, was named after him, too.
The big man had simply introduced himself to Julie as “Billy”, adding that he was a Pallatian and a civilian. As the defeated Marines were “marched” off to the colonists’ encampment (it’s hard to actually march in a spacesuit) inside the cavernous mouth of the giant lava tube—chiefly to get medical attention for their wounded; of which there were six, bullet holes in their environmental suits neatly taped over by their adversaries, and, sadly, fourteen dead, who would be buried more or less where they had fallen, to one side of the hill of debris where they’d lost their lives —he simply strolled along beside her asking her questions.
It didn’t feel at all to Julie like the kind of interrogation she had been trained in Boot Camp and OCS to resist. Handsome sandy- haired, crewcut Billy Ngu asked her what her name was, but neither her rank—which was clearly painted on the rigid shoulder-yoke of her environmental suit, anyway—nor her serial number or function. He was extremely curious about her enormous knife—no move had been made to take it away from her, but she prudently left it in the Kydex/fiberglass replacement scabbard she’d had made for it, hanging at her side.
He showed her his own edged weapon, calling it a kukri. He said it was the traditional household and everyday working knife of Nepal (he had a theory the design had been introduced by Alexander the Great, although this one had been made in India, from a cast-off truck-bumper—which was also traditional—and was the official sidearm of the famous Gurkha warriors, feared and legendary fighting-men of the former British Empire. The formidable blade was leaf-shaped, very wide, and at least a quarter of an inch thick, about a foot long, and bent forward at a forty-five degree angle, halfway along its length. It was very highly polished, but clearly showed the marks and ripples of hand-forging. From the way it had easily sliced through her company-mate’s suit, she could guess how sharp it was. She didn’t quite reach out to touch it, and he didn’t quite offer.
Billy seemed utterly fascinated that her weapon was a genuine antique, owned by a family of former slaves defending the South, that had actually been involved, somehow, in what he alternately referred to as “the historic War Between the American States” and “the Second American War of Independence”. Half of her Marine company were Southerners, so she understood the references and was not in the least offended by them. From his own accent and body- language, she would have guessed that he was a Midwestern American, himself rather than an exotic Asteroider. She suddenly caught herself wishing that she could see his hands, took it as a warning, shut up, and let him talk, replying monosyllabically, only when it seemed absolutely necessary.
The colonial “settlement”, when they got there, consisted of two dozen outsized plastic “pup-tents” blown up like translucent balloons, and half-buried in the sand, fifty yards inside the giant, yawning cave-entrance formed by the ancient lava tube. Powerful floodights had been strung at intervals along the underside of the cave roof. A little further back in the cave, a somewhat larger structure, consisting of a big clear plastic cube, perhaps twenty-five by twenty-five feet, duct-taped together at its corners, was where they took the wounded.
Alerted by radio, a doctor and her medical volunteers were waiting.
Julie found herself a round-topped rock the right size, jutting up from the cave floor, and sat down wearily, wondering what was going to happen to her and her fellow Marines now. Thirty of them had survived the bizarre Battle of the Rubble Pile unwounded. They hunkered together now, on the ginger-colored sand, almost unguarded (the key word being “almost”), still unable to believe how easily they’d been taken by an inferior force of raw civilian amateurs armed no better than they were. Only a few minutes went by before expedition leader Reuben Jackson emerged from one of the translucent tents with Billy Ngu—Colonel Atherton-Nye trailed behind them, a grim look visible through her helmet-face; the woman would never get her full-colonel’s eagles now—and approached the subdued group of which Julie was a part. She noticed immediately that the antique .455 caliber Webley revolver that the Colonel had worn at her spacesuit hip was gone.
“Okay,” said Reuben, addressing the group, “here’s what’s gonna happen. What you see around you here, is all there is, I’m afraid. It’s everything we have. None of us came here to fight a war or take prisoners; we came to get away from all that. We can’t afford to keep you folks, as POWs or even as guests, Just like us, you’re stuck down here on this planet, probably for life. So we’re gonna top off your oxygen bottles—see our little fusion reactor over there? A gift from our new friends from Pallas, who are also stuck here forever—we’ll give you all a hot meal, a few in the tents at a time. You’ll have to sleep in your suits. Sorry about that. Then, tomorrow morning—after breakfast, and more oxygen—we’ll escort those of you who can still walk back to your landing-site.” He nodded at Colonel Atherton-Nye in acknowledgement.“We understand that your four landers are readily convertible into habitats. We’ll try to co-exist, then, but we’ll hold onto your weapons until we see how that works out. It’s not as if you need them to hunt big game on the lone prairie.”
“And if you’re still wondering how this happened to you,” Reuben added, “Anthropologists say that defenders on their own territory have a two-to-one advantage. Also, I used to be a member of the First Air Commando Group.”
Apparently, Jackson’s “defenders” had suffered no losses in the battle of any kind, except for some expended ammunition. Nor was it by any means the worst night that Julie had ever spent. Snug inside her suit, cushioned by one-third gee, she slept like a baby—but then, she always slept like a baby. She could tell that the meals the colonists generously shared with their defeated enemy had stretched them to their very limit. These were hardly the heinous refusnik villains that had been described to her and her comrades in so many pre-mission briefings. Mostly, they seemed to her like hard-working couples, proud of what they’d accomplished so far, and eager to show it off.
The balloon-tent that Julie had eaten dinner in belonged to a Mohammed and Beliita Khalidov, both Chechens, and from a Muslim background, but dedicated scientists and not religious in the least, who had fled, they told her, from Neoimperialistic Russian oppressors and fanatics among their own people, as well. Pretty, dark-eyed Beliita served Julie tea from a shiny new samovar she said the Pallatians had brought her. She was proud and happy to be with her husband Mohammed and free. It didn’t matter much to her if it was on Mars or in Oklahoma. She did miss Paris, she confessed. Beliita may have been the most rational person Julie had ever met, and the young Marine automatically liked her, very much. If these people were going to be their neighbors for the foreseeable future, Julie was determined to be the best neighbor she could be.
Breakfast Julie shared with Dean and Tam Deutsch, a friendly, cheerful, outgoing couple whose long-term goal, once the basics of survival on this planet had been dealt with, was to establish the first restaurant on Mars. They were leaning heavily toward Basque cuisine, they admitted. They had been drafted from their university positions by the East American government to come along, Julie learned, by Congressional decree, as official expedition historians—every bit as useful as the bicycles the mission had been saddled with—but they were very handy with tools, they said, and enthusiastic campers who were experts in all things having to do with “living rough”.
Somehow, the couple managed to offer her scrambled eggs and French toast with maple syrup. Bacon and sausage had been strictly forbidden by the politically-correct NASA committee in charge of avoiding any possible offense to various religious groups. (The colonists were damned lucky, Tam told her, that they weren’t condemned to vegetarian or vegan diets—she greatly looked forward to activating the pigs that the Pallatians had brought fertilized ova for.) Interestingly, there were no practicing Muslims among the forty- seven colonists, and the Jewish colonists were more than willing and able to look out for their own religious dietary observances.
At last, laden down with a generously packed lunch and plenty of extra water, their oxygen bottles topped off once again, and more bottles carried behind them on little improvised sand-sleds, the Marines were ready to begin the ten kilometer trek back to their landing site. They’d left a skeleton crew behind, who had been contacted and told to prepare for their arrival. Julie looked forward to getting out of her environmental suit.
The Pallatians had agreed to come along. Julie had met Billy Ngu and couldn’t seem to stop thinking about him. It annoyed the hell out of her, she thought. She was free, now, she argued with herself, and didn’t need any entanglements in her life—especially with one of the presumed enemy. He was very nice to look at, though. And he had a nice voice.
Julie also met Billy’s beautiful sister, Mirella, who had immediately noticed Julie’s reluctant interest in her older brother, but had commendably said nothing. She’d been named, she told Julie, for the famous ethicist and novelist Mirelle Stein, author of the infamous Stein Covenant, which was the founding document of what they all four grandly called “Pallatian civilization”. Stein had been like a grandmother to Mirella’s father.
Julie met “little” Teal (they all called her that), brilliant and heartbreakingly cute, named for Raymond Louis Drake- Tealy, a paleontologist and writer as famous as Stein, who had been married to Stein, and who had discovered what were believed to be billion year-old alien artifacts among the Asteroids.
And Julie met young Brody Ngu, a quiet, pensive, perhaps even brooding young man who disturbed her somehow, named for Aloysius Brody, a frontier judge notorious for conducting court in a Curringer bar.
Billy told her that, if they ever got back off this planet, he planned to become an asteroid hunter. He was already a capable pilot, he claimed, who had gotten his brother and sisters across space and down safely to the surface of Mars in the first place.
Any metallic asteroid a kilometer in diameter, he informed her, mostly composed of nickel and iron, contained, as a “trace element”, more gold than had ever been mined and refined in human history, along with proportionate amounts of silver, platinum, iridium, rhodium, and other rare and valuable metals. It had been the iridiun in the Matterhorn-sized rock that had fallen on the Yucatan coast, sixty-five million years ago, that had given away the solution to the great dinosaur whodunit. Thirty percent of the asteroids circling the Sun, he said, were the metallic kind.
A few scientists even believed that there were diamonds out there, too, “some as big as your head”, as the old English saying about coconuts went, contained in a different kind of asteroid he called “carbonaceous chondrites”.
Mirella intrigued her, The elder Ngu sister was fully a head taller than Julie, maybe more, with a model’s straight, slightly uptilted nose and prominent cheekbones. It was impossible to tell beneath her suit, but she appeared to have long legs. Nonetheless, the young woman was all about botany. Not only had she discovered the Cerean organism that seemed to be at the center of the conflict between Mars and Earth, she had selected and adapted other crops for the Martians to grow in the future, attempting to predict, as she did, what could be done with the worn-out iron-heavy Martian soil. Julie believed that she had been cursed with a “black thumb”, herself, and could kill houseplants with a single glance, but she was more than willing to learn from Mirella, if that became possible.
It took a great deal of energy to converse with Teal. She was younger, but even taller than her sister and at least twice as active. Younger people tended to grow taller every generation on Pallas, possibly owing to the mild gravity, which was only one twentieth of that of Earth. Still, her siblings all called her “little Teal”. Yet she could not be dismissed as the mere teenager that she seemed. She was the ingenius geneticist who had manipulated the Cerean organism’s innermost workings, turning the macaroni plant into something useful.
And somehow extremely threatening to the bosses, back on Earth.
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