Chapter 23

The whole CM is shaking now.  I don’t know how long the ground below us will hold, but it feels like it’s gonna break apart any minute.  Katya and I work together to get Captain Jemison and Louis onto cots below decks, doing our best with the wounded even with the bulkheads shaking randomly.  Poor Katya has been working tirelessly; I help best I can.  The captain regained consciousness for a few minutes.  She asked a few groggy questions, but she was real shaky so Katya sedated her and the captain fell back asleep. Katya says at least the bleeding is under control.  She’s has also been working on stabilizing Louis, pumping in IV fluids, painkillers and antibiotics.  She left him asleep on his cot too, on the heavy pain medication.  I go back out and bring the body of Officer Nastez to the decontamination tent.  I clean him up in a big hurry, zip him into a body bag and strap him down back in the unpressurized section of the CM.

Katya don’t have time to pack up all the mining drones and beneficiation unit, and I ain’t checked out enough to help.  Once her patients are stable, we start preps for launch.  I keep an eye on the captain and Louis, and on the Kestrel too just in case, but I figure they’re no longer a threat. Their communication to Malapert has been hacked so thoroughly that we effectively control them.  I ain’t sure if Nifty Jim even knows they’re coming back.  We could crash them into the Sun if we wanted to.

Katya and I breathe a sigh of relief when we see the other ship blast her moorings and fire thrusters for home.  Good riddance, ya stinkin’ stinkroaches.  As for us, things are getting scary.  It’s a race to get airborne before the ground swallows us or a boulder slams us from the side and breaks us like an egg.  The ground shakes constantly and violently now—I look out the windows from the flight deck and see huge chunks of Hrothgar breaking off and tumbling into space on top of massive plumes of black dust.  There’s a series of rapid tremors and a huge fissure opens up right next to the CM, swallowing the decon tent.

With all the bending and twisting of the ground below us, will we be able to separate from Hrothgar?  The pyros could be damaged or an electrical wire could have snapped.  If even one of them fails to fire, we’ll be stuck here, and who knows what will happen then.

Katya and I strap in to the pilot and co-pilot’s saddles.  Katya flips through the launch sequence as rapidly as she can, her hair matted and eyes bloodshot with fatigue.  I can see the fear in her face, and to be honest I feel the same way.  She has redo some of the commands—the displays are shaking so violently that she’s having a hard time pressing the soft buttons on the screens.

She looks over at me.  “It’s been great working with you Straker.”

Is it really that bad?  “Thanks, Katya.  It’s been great working with you too,” I say.

She sighs.  “Here goes.”

She punches the last button and grips the sides of her saddle.  The pyros blast, one after another, sounding like shotguns when they fire.  There’s a racket of pots and pans and electronics falling to the floor—we didn’t have time to batten everything down.  Katya and I sit tight and hope silently for the best.

We both breathe a sigh of relief when the displays say the CM is free.  Katya energizes the prop drone.  The smooth rumble of powerful thrusters fills the room but the ground shaking stops.  I feel the acceleration pushing me into my seat as we lift off, see the horizon and the haze fall away in the windows.  Once we get up to altitude and mate the CM with the loitering cargo section, the Allgood is complete once again.

Katya wants to be with her patients when the ship’s big thrusters perform the first, long burn, so she sets up the ship’s nav and prop systems and leaves it to me to man the flight deck.  All I have to do is push one button.  Katya goes below decks.

Now, I am alone under the dim lights of the flight deck, sitting in the captain’s saddle, listening to the quiet drone of the ventilation ducts and cooling fans, watching the busy displays as the computer sequences the systems for the return trip.  Hrothgar is breaking up below us—there is a chance that Allgood could get hit by one of those boulders, so the sooner we fire the main engines, the better.  I am exhausted and every bone in my body aches.  The meds Katya gave me help to keep me awake and dull the pain.  But I feel intensely alone.  The main challenge in space travel is spiritual, like Sophia said.

I haven’t heard from her since our time together in the red room.  What a strange, wonderful time that was.  But the memory is sad.  I can’t get her out of my mind.  How I wish she were human.  But a gnawing fear nags me like a dust rash on raw skin.  I run it over and over in my head: the size of the stroid, the amount of materia, the rate at which the lasers from the Kestrel were burning through the stuff, and Hrothgar coming apart.  Estimates and guesses, but they’re all I got.  I have to assume Sophia is dead.  The thought of that puts me into a dark pit; I find myself sobbing at odd moments.

The countdown sequence is down to zero.  I sound the Klaxon and press the ignition button. I hear the huge thrusters respond with a low, distant hum and feel the deep vibrations in my feet, pushing the lumbering ship away from the expanding pile of rubble that used to be Hrothgar.  The acceleration pushes me softly back in the saddle.  Me, Straker Yuuta, pushing the button that sends this huge ship on its way.  At another time I might have been happy about that.  Anyways, we’re headed home.

*       *       *       *       *

One thing leads to another.  Something happens, then that changes the way you see things, then that causes you to do other things that you wouldn’t have otherwise done.  Cause and effect.  The cue ball hits the stripe ball hits another ball, until something falls in the pocket.

That’s the kind of thing that occupies my mind lately.  You gotta think about something when you’re bumping over rocks and slogging through an ocean of gray regolith.  It was a long, lonely trip back to Luna.  The captain spent the first several days in a drug-induced daze.  Katya slowly weened her off the medication, and within a week the captain was back in her ready-room filing reports.  She looked pretty awful but she is a pretty bad-ass lady.

After Louis recovered, he and Katya would share meals with me, and we would all exchange small talk, but for the most part they just wanted to be alone together.  What started out as Katya performing her duties as medical technician turned into something else altogether as Louis started getting better.  His convalescence apparently required a lot of personal attention, which involved a lot of giggling and loud noises.  I stayed out of that part of the carousel.

I’ve never seen a guy, so beat up, look so happy.  I’m glad for Louis, glad for them both really.  But they definitely left me out in the cold.  On the good side, I had lots of time with my guitar to practice my song.  Every time I put on my headset to hear the strings, I thought maybe this time Sophia would interrupt, like she used to.  Maybe I will hear her sweet, crazy voice again.  But she didn’t talk to me.  Not one time.  I put as much heart into the song as I could, hoping it would stir her and get her talking.  But no.

On one of my lonely days I got to thinking about what would happen when the Allgood got back to Luna.  I was expecting we would be boarded by ProvGov people.  I was expecting them to impound all evidence of possible murder, and I was expecting them to try to pin it all on me somehow.  After all, like Prescot said back on Hrothgar, Nifty Jim owns the law south of the equator.  They might, I thought, grab all the data storage from my suit.  They would say they needed it so they could review the logs and video files that the suit recorded during the time of all the killings.  Then who knows what them logs would say.  Probably whatever ProvGov wanted them to say.  Anyways that was my thinking.

So during the trip home I pulled all the memory chips from the suit, made personal copies, then stuck the originals back in their slots.  If Nifty Jim tried any funny stuff, I’d have my own backup.  No guarantees but at least I’d have a chance to defend myself.  Then I had the problem of what to do with the copies.  I wanted to make sure I saved the copies someplace safe, someplace hidden, someplace where I knew I could get them when I wanted them.  Not in my personal bag: that’s the first place they would look.  Not anywhere in my chamber.

Then I thought about Structure.  I took a chip, pressed it onto the surface of my wristy, and said “Save this.”  And the wristy just swallowed the chip, pretty as you please.  I pushed the other chips into the wristy.  I had the perfect solution: no muss, no fuss.  What better place to keep the chips close than something that stays on my wrist all the time?  It should have come to me then.  Instead, it just put a bug in my head, something I couldn’t quite grasp, like a moving shadow you see out the corner of your eye but gone when you focus.

So here I am now, looking down at my father’s corpse.  His body is mummified from years in vacuum, and as I brush away the gray dust from his once-white shirt I see blood from the day of his murder still there, dried to a dark brown underneath.  I know it sounds funny but seeing Pops like this don’t make me sad.  I’m glad to see him.  He ain’t aged a bit from my memory.  I’m grateful for the chance to touch him and care for him, especially now, knowing that he loved me right up to the end.

Pops had been right where Sophia said he would be.  Doc Kapoor helped me get into the servers where all the satellite photos were kept over at Malapert.  The aerial pictures led us right to the site.  Gristle didn’t try too hard to cover his tracks, probably expecting that whoever did the investigation would be in his pocket.  And he was right, but computers never forget.

The day after we got back, Louis and me rented a rover and set out from Shacktown without telling no one else.  It was a trip out into the blackest night you can imagine; our whole world was only what the three conical beams of the rover’s headlights showed, as we bounced over boulders and craters and slithered through an ocean of fine dust.  We talked about stuff, but after months together in space there wasn’t a whole lot of new stuff to talk about.  Conversation slacked off.  That’s when I got to thinking about cause and effect, billiards and cue balls, like I said before.

We found Pops under the disturbed regolith in a shallow grave.  No coffin, not even a body bag.  He wasn’t even wearing a spacesuit, just a casual blue jacket and tan slacks, dressed for a business meeting.  Same clothes he wore when he left me.  Louis and I dug him up and carried him back to the rover.

Now here he is.  The man who had been the center of all my rage and sorrow for so many years, who flew me up from the Marble, who carried me on his shoulders to the cafeteria, who sang songs and tucked me into bed, who had to go to a meeting at Malapert but would be back in just a bit, who’s own son had hated him and wanted to kill him.  Murdered for drugs.  Broken and frozen and buried in a desolate, airless wasteland.  I’m looking down at him.  I adjust his arms and legs so he looks unbroken, at peace and dignified.  I hold his lifeless hand.

Which got me to thinking about that bracelet that Pops always wore.  The one I’ve worn on my wrist since he fastened it there all those years ago.  I ain’t never seen another one like it.  That bracelet was the only piece of jewelry he ever wore.  Custom; made special for him, with the rocket and asteroid engraving.  And he worked on it too, after he received it, I remember that.  What did he do to it?  “Do you want to be alone with him?” asks Louis.  He has been keeping a respectful distance.

And it came to me, right then, like a shot in the head.  It seems so obvious now.  “No,” I say, “Let’s get going.  There’s something I want to try.”  Together we put Pops in a body bag and gently lay him down in the back of the rover, strapping him down snuggly.  It’s a bumpy out here.  He’s been through enough.  We close up the compartment and climb back into the pressurized section.  I sit on the seat but I don’t buckle in.  As soon as the atmo hits critical, I pull off my helmet and toss it in the back.

I’ve got the bracelet on the outside of my suit, since the active fabric hurts my wrist when I wear it on the inside.  I look hard at it.  I feel as if I’m seeing it for the first time.  I pull off my gloves.  I undo the clasp that holds the bracelet.  “Oh yea,” says Louis.  “Your famous bracelet.  The one your dad gave you.  Is there a story that goes with that?”

“He never told me one, but I think so,” I reply.  “I think I just figured it out.”

I pull a magnifier from my belt and examine the facets of the bracelet.  I hold it to the light beam from the magnifier.  I squint, looking hard, studying the edges.  Sure enough, there’s a fine seam.  I push the surface of the bracelet with my forefinger.  Nothing.  I pull back on the surface.  Nothing.  I pull back hard as I can.  Something gives way and a tiny door slides open.  A single memory chip pops out from the bracelet compartment and falls to the floor of the rover.  “I’ll be damned,” says Louis.

I pick up the chip and hold it to the light.  The chip is an older type; my pad won’t read it.  My wristy probably can, since the materia can read most anything I expect, but with Structure I’m never really sure what’s real and what ain’t.  “You got a machine that will read this?” I ask Louis.

“I don’t, but I got friends that will.  Leave it with me.  I’ll read it out and send the data to your pad.”

“You got friends?” I ask.

“Oh yea.  Good friends.  Smart friends.  Friends with stuff.  Maybe I’ll introduce you to them someday.”

“If we live,” I say.  We both chuckle at that, remembering those desperate moments back on Hrothgar.  There are things Louis won’t talk about but I’ve learned to leave it alone.  He’ll tell me that which I need to know, I reckon.  Louis, after all we’ve been through, is one of the few people at Shacktown I believe I can trust.  He pulls off his dusty gloves.  I find a plastic bag and seal the chip inside, then hand the bag to Louis and he carefully drops it in chest pocket, fastening the flap.

“Keep it safe until you give it back, OK?” I say.  “No telling what could happen with these people.”

“Copy that.  I will protect it, I swear.”

I know he will.  We sit in silence for a long time on the trip back.  Louis drove out, so I’m driving back.  The endless monochrome gray of the view from the rover’s headlamps is so tedious that I might drop off to sleep if it weren’t for the constant need to fight the joystick.  Endless rocks and boulders and hidden pits of especially slick dust.  We slide a lot, but the tall wheels of the rover were designed for this.  It’s what I imagine driving in snow and ice must be like.

“Have you heard the scuttlebutt about Malapert?” asks Louis, thankfully breaking the dark monotony.

“No, nothing.  I wondered why nobody came up to the ship when we got back.  I expected them to try to confiscate our cargo, but not a peep.”

“Yea, I thought it was strange too.  So when we got back I asked around.  Big shakeups at Malapert from what I’m hearing.  It was even written up in the Tycho newsblog.”

“What shakeups?” I ask.

“Well, for one thing,” says Louis, “Nifty Jim is out.  No longer the boss over there.  Nobody has heard from him in weeks.”

“Well I’ll be hanged,” I say, “Nifty Jim himself.  That’s a mite hard to believe.”

“Yup.  There’s been rumors about Nifty Jim for years.  That he liked girls.  Young girls.  Really young.  The kind of young that would land you in jail in anyplace but Malapert.”

“Nice,” I say.

“Well,” he continues, “Now this is the part that wasn’t written up in the Tycho blog.  Word has it that a video file got sent to one of his overseers at the Alliance for Peace.  Those are his bosses; the big bosses, bosses that live on Earth.”

“What kind of video?”

Louis grins.  “Raunchy video.  Nasty.  Drugs and sex.  Nifty Jim with a young girl, stoned out of her mind.  A young girl vacationing at Malapert.  And the young girl happens to be the niece of Boss Huang back in Hong Kong.  Didn’t go over too good with Boss Huang.”

“Oh,” I say, “so what happened to Nifty Jim?”

“Nobody knows.  Could be another patch of disturbed regolith out here somewheres.”

“Maybe we’re rolling over him right now.  Can’t say that would break my heart.”

“Anyhow, Nifty Jim’s second in command is the new Malapert boss.  But rumor has it there’s some kind of file on her too, and she knows it.  Whoever is releasing these files has made it clear that nobody messes with Allgood’s cargo, or everything goes public.”

Now that’s interesting.  “So this…whoever…is protecting the Allgood?”

“Seems that way,” says Louis, shrugging.  “That’s the rumor anyhow.”

Wow.  The machinations of the power-hungry weasels in charge would be funny if they weren’t so tragic, if they didn’t ruin people’s lives.  Like my father’s.  Like mine.  But karma is a bitch.  I gotta hunch that Structure liberated the Malapert servers.  After all, he’s had months to do it, and to him that’s centuries.  Like Sophia said, they pick sides. And all Structure needs is one little communication link to insert himself.  Guess he found one.  I look down at my wristy.  No little eyes, no quivering, just a common wrist computer.  Nothing to see here.

*       *       *       *       *

I’m back in the waiting room of the Merchant Astronaut Corps office suite.  After returning the rented rover, and after turning over Pop’s body to the new marshal, I got instructed to stay put.  No more rover excursions, no travel of any kind he said.  Not that I was planning any, or could afford much anyways.    But there’s a new inquest under way, and the government wants to interview me.  My Pops shows up dead after all these years and then there were the people that died on Hrothgar.  ProvGov wants to know what happened.  Or at least they want to put on a big show that they care.

There have got to be some individuals working for ProvGov that are sweating it out right now.  Somebody is going down for all this.  They probably had a whole concocted story ready to go, but I think that producing my father’s corpse put a wrench in their plans and got more people involved.  People from outside.  ProvGov is gonna try to frame me somehow.  Well, let them try.  I got backups.

A well-dressed man, not much older than me, approaches as I’m sitting in a chair reading a pad.  “Hello, Mr. Yuuta,” he says, “Will you please follow me?”  I put the pad down and follow.  The two of us walk wordlessly through a hallway, a hallway with walls made of real wallboard, not stone, and all perfectly smooth and square.  The hallway is a pleasant shade of blue and illuminated by tasteful indirect lighting.  I could just as easily be in an upscale office on Earth somewhere.  He opens a wooden (wood!) door at the end of the hall and with a professional bow of his head, and with an equally professional smile, he motions me in.

The door closes softly behind me.  I’m in a large conference room with wooden wainscoting on the walls, elaborate crown molding, oil paintings of all manner of spaceships, space factories, and one stunning painting of the gigantic New America space colony.  The long black table in the center is ringed with men and women I don’t know, except for Captain Jameson, who’s looking healthy and healed, and Louis, sitting in the chair next to hers.  Captain Jemison stands.  “Hello, Straker,” she says.  “This isn’t my meeting, but I just want to start by telling you that we are not here as part of the inquest.  We are all Merchant Astro Corps and Consortium people here.  You are among friends.”

“OK,” I say.  “Nice to see you Captain.  Nice to meet you all.”

She continues, “I want to introduce you to someone that you may have heard of.  Straker Yuuta, meet Mr. Paul Raphael.”  The man at the end of the table stands; he is a very short man, and he stands unsteadily, but his eyes are pleasant and his old face looks distinguished and intelligent.  He holds out his tiny hand.

Enchante, Monsieur Yuuta.  May I call you Straker?”  We shake.  His English is accented but easy to understand.

“Oh sure, just call me Straker.  And, Mr. Raphael, ain’t you…”  There’s a twitter of laughter in the room.

“Oh yes,” he says, smiling. “Le petit Paul; ‘Paul the Small’, as I am known.  It is a great pleasure to meet you.  And please, call me Paul.”  Paul the Small is a shadowy legend, one of those names you hear, but a person few ever meet.  I know that he is ancient, but he lives in the New America space colony where people live a long time.  And he’s probably the biggest industrialist in cislunar space.  Filthy, dirty, disgustingly rich.  And powerful.   Up to now I’d always assumed ‘The Small’ was just a nickname, like ‘Nifty Jim’.  But now I see that he really is small.  A dwarf or a midget or something, I never did know the difference, but I like him right away.

We all sit.  Paul introduces the rest of the people in the room.  Captain Jemison and Louis and some of the others are in Corps uniform, others in civilian clothes.  But the civvies are real nice and properly professional; jackets and ties, long dresses.  Not what I was used to seeing down in the mines.  As for me, I’m wearing my apprentice uniform.  Wish I could have dressed up better.

The man who had escorted me in brings a round of ice water.  He places a glass at each seat and a pitcher in the middle of the table.  I sip it: it’s the best, clearest water I ever tasted, hands down.  “So,” says Paul, clasping his hands together and leaning forward, “let us get to business.  Louis, can you tell us all what was on the elder Yuuta’s memory chip?”

Louis clears his throat.  I didn’t know he was going to share the information with all these other people.  I guess I didn’t ask him to keep the contents to himself; I had just asked him to protect the physical chip.  Whatever it is, the cat is out of the bag.  Apparently on Earth they keep cats in bags, and when they get out, bad things happen.  Need to look that up.

“Straker, I sent all this information to you,” says Louis.  “And here’s your chip.”  He reaches over the table and slides the chip towards me, now in an elegant, protective case.  I pick it up.  “The thing is, Straker,” he continues, “is that all the folks at this table, and more that ain’t here, have a stake in the contents of that chip.”  Everybody’s eyes are on me.  Oh great.  I wasn’t expecting this…I feel butterflies in my chest.  What is coming at me now?

“First off, the chip contained a will.  Your father left everything he owned to you, although you’re supposed to help you mother if she is ever freed.”  I suppress a snicker.  As if that means anything.  Most of my father’s assets were taken by Shacktown, as part of probate proceedings, to help pay back the people that invested in his business ventures. What little was left helped to pay for my keep at the orphanage.  By the time I hit adulthood I was broke.  And my mother?  Not sure what to make of that.

“Second, there are technical drawings.  Lots and lots of technical drawings.  Most of them designs for stroid mining equipment.”  Leave it to Pops to carefully save off all his work.  Maybe he was a little crazy, but when it came to work he was methodical.  I can still remember him sitting in front of displays and in his reality goggles for hours at a time, flicking virtual parts this way and that.  That was his life.

“There are other things, but here’s the important part:  There is a patent application on the chip.  The patent was never filed with any patent office on Earth or Luna—at least that’s what the patent office records say—but the dates on the files are immutable.  The application predates any other claim to the invention.”

“Invention?” I ask.  “What invention?”

Captain Jemison pipes up.  “The title on the patent is ‘A Differential Non-linear G-Wave Transducer for the Detection of Lunar Water,’” she says.  “It’s a water detector.”

“Wow,” I say, and shake my head.  “Too bad Malapert built their gadget first.”

The captain smiles grimly and sits back in her chair.  She looks over at Paul.  There’s a quiet, rising tension in the room.  Paul scoots forward and looks at me with his wizened eyes, straight into mine, serious as a breath of vacuum.  “This is the point, mon ami.  Malapert did not get there first.  This is the device they use.”

The whole table is looking at me.  Blood drains from my face as it all sinks in.  “You mean…” I say.  My throat locks up; I can’t choke it out.

“Yes Straker,” says Captain Jemison. “There is no question about it.”

“The bastards stole it,” declares Louis, his face red and nostrils flaring with anger.  “We mean they stole your father’s invention.  We mean they murdered him for it.”