Chapter 24

Here I sit, in this elegant room with all these fine people, my hands folded on the desk, and I can’t speak.  I am outside myself, as if watching this whole thing on a video.  But I ain’t gonna rage.  Not here, not in front of these people.  I will not.

Paul puts his wrinkled hand on my arm.  “I know this is a lot to take in, Straker.  But there is no mistake here, your father did his homework.  These files are incorruptible.  They are solid evidence in a civil court.  You own the majority stake in this patent.  These people in this room, including me, and others, we are your partners.”

I am shell shocked.  I am speechless.   A man at the other end of the table fortunately breaks the silence.  “But enforcing the patent is another matter.”

“True,” replies Paul, “but there are interests here that go beyond the southern hemisphere.  There are investors in New America—I am one of them—and investors back on Earth.  ProvGov won’t be able to keep a lid on this. Not even the AFP.  It’s too big.”

“We’ll fly up lawyers from the Marble,” says a woman to my left.  “From the free states.  Honest lawyers, or at least ones that work for us, not them.”

“We’ll need publicity,” interjects another woman.  “Lots of it.  System-wide.  What a nice human interest story about a boy and his deceased father.  The media will eat it up.  It will go viral.  No way to keep this quiet.”

The meeting goes on for at least an hour.  Ideas are bantered back and forth about how and when to bring suit; it’s all stuff I know nothing about.  But I soon get over my shock and join in to the conversation, contributing ideas of my own.  They all listen when I talk.  Not used to that—but you know, I kinda like it.  Eventually we schedule another meeting and adjourn.

Paul rises to walk me out and I notice he has motorized braces on his legs.  Decades in weightlessness have taken their toll on the man’s skeleton.  Louis stays close to him, holding out his elbow for Paul to steady himself.  As we come to the hallway, Paul puts his free hand on my shoulder.  We stop for the moment.  He, Louis, and I are alone.  “How are you dealing with all this?” Paul asks.

“It’s funny,” I say.  “In the last couple months, it’s like I’m getting to know my father for the first time.  Do you think we can win?”

Absolument,” Paul replies, “we will win.  It may take years but we will win.  And Shacktown will be saved from bankruptcy.  Thanks to your father.  Thanks to you.”

Praise.  Another thing I ain’t used to.  “What…what will Malapert do?” I stutter.

“They can be devious and they can be violent,” replies Paul.  “But at some point the people of Malapert will realize that your father’s investors own their town, and then they will turn.  They will become our allies.  But between now and then, keep your wits about you.  It will get worse when they realize how much trouble they’re in.”

“I’ll watch out, thanks.  Wish I could fight as good as Louis,” I say, looking at him.

“Yes,” says Paul, his voice low. “About that…you may have noticed that our friend Louis is not what he appears to be.”

“You mean, he’s not just a Spaceman Apprentice?” I ask, knowing the answer.

Paul lifts his furry eyebrows.  “Straker, there is a trouble coming.  It’s been coming for a long time; starting when the Alliance took over the Cedar Seastead when you were a child.  The Cislunar Consortium is a threat to them.  There is a struggle for power, and for great wealth.  It is generally kept out of the newblogs, but the conflict is real, nonetheless.”

“Really?  Is it that bad?”

“You saw the Kestrel,” says Louis.  “It wasn’t built for peace, was it?”

“No,” I say.

“I wish I were wrong,” says Paul.  “But I’m not.  I am not the only one who sees this.  There have been…aggressive incidents.  Your friend Louis is part of our response—he is a soldier.  We have one on every mining ship now.  We’re trying not to provoke the Alliance, so it has not been made public knowledge.  After the events on Hrothgar, we’ll be increasing our defenses further.”

Well, whaddya know.  “So is this what you might tell me someday if we live?” I ask Louis.

“Yup, that’s it.  It’s a secret.  You can keep a secret, can’t you Yuuta?”

I smile at him, then drop the smile.  This is serious.  I nod.  “Yes.  I can keep a secret.”

“Good,” says Paul.  There is much that is not what it seems, my young friend.  But our world is changing and lives are at stake.  If you are interested, we will bring you in.  You could be a great asset to us, and we to you.  Think about it.”

“I’ll think about it,” I say. “But honestly, I just wonder about all this.”

“What do you mean?” asks Paul.

“All this struggle.  People dying over iron ore, dying over dust.  Struggling just to have water to drink.  I just…sometimes it seems pointless to me.”

Paul looks up at me straight in the eyes, as a much taller man might.  “Ah,” he says, “that is where you are wrong, mon ami.  We don’t fight for iron or nickel or platinum or palladium.  Not even for water.  We fight for Mozart and Aristotle and rock and roll and for children yet to be born—for humanity itself, in all its chaotic glory.  We fight for the love of these things.  Because Earth will not be there for us forever.  Do you understand, Straker?”

Funny but…I do understand.  It’s Cosmism: the belief that the survival of mankind is everybody’s responsibility.  A lot of people in Shacktown hold to that idea, which is why they came here in the first place.  It’s nice to hear it coming from Paul.  I nod.

“Good,” says Paul.  “One more thing.  We know that your mother is alive and still prisoner of the AFP.  She is in fair health but can’t communicate.  We are working on that.”

“Really?  My ma?”

“This is also part of the secret.  We have people inside the facility.  People watching, planning.”

Another shock.  I feel chills in my arms and back.  The thought that I might see her again one day…it’s exhilarating.

“So when you’re thinking about if you want to join us,” continues Paul, “you might factor that in.”  He pats me on the shoulder.  “That’s enough for now.  We’ll talk again soon.”

We resume walking together and pass through the suite’s main doors.  Paul has a shuttle to catch back to New America and Louis is going with him.  I’m headed back to my dorm in the other direction.  We all shake hands.

While Paul’s small but firm hand still grips mine, he lifts one eyebrow in question.  “By the way, Straker, I couldn’t help but notice your wrist instrument.”

“Um, what about it?” I ask.

“Well, I am an engineer by trade.  I’ve never seen a wristy quite like yours.  It’s larger than what I’m used to seeing.  Is it an older model?”

“Oh yes,” I say.  “Very old.  You have no idea.”

Paul lets my hand go and nods.  “That’s what I thought.  Say the word and I’ll get you another one—latest model, one that isn’t even sold yet.”

“Thanks,” I say, “but I’ll stick with this one for now.  I’m kinda used to it.”

“I understand,” he says, waving as he turns to leave.  “Let me know if you change your mind.  Au revoir.” With that and a wave, he hobbles down the hallway towards the corridors and the hanger, steadied by Louis.  I walk towards my dorm, slowly, lost in thought.  I got a strong feeling that I shouldn’t tell nobody about the materia and Structure.  Especially Paul, the famous impresario.  He might find out how it works and I think we as a people ain’t ready for that.  Besides, like I told him, I can keep a secret.

*       *       *       *       *

I pull up a barstool and sit.  I position my guitar to play.  The stage seemed small from the floor, but it seems mighty big now that I’m up here.  It’s amateur night at the Blisters & Blood and Old Tanner said I could play.  I am determined to sing this song for people; maybe I’ll make a fool of myself but this song is gonna get sung, no matter what.  I’m trying to think positive.

I pull the mic up on its stand.  It smells of whiskey.  The woman who sang before me was short but played harmolin real good.  It’s intimidating to follow somebody that’s mastered all that electronic stuff.  All I’ve got is my voice, my guitar, and my song.  Our song, actually, since she helped to write it.  So I’m a little nervous—real nervous, to be truthsome—but I’m gonna sing it anyways.  I got to.  I owe it to her.

The lights up on the ceiling are pointed right at my eyes and they are real bright.  I can barely see the audience.  But I was just out in there myself so I know there’s a few dozen people: people eating supper, people drinking socially, people drinking as therapy.  People meeting friends.  People hoping for lovers. Regulars who almost live here.  Some of them will listen if I’m worth listening to.

The noise level is pretty high, what with all the people talking and the clattering of plates and glasses and the hard rocky walls, but the sound system will take care of that.  It’s all part of the show I figure.  I lean forward to the mic.

“Hello,” I say, and the speakers erupt in high-pitched squeal.  I put my hand up to my eyes to shield them from the lights and spy the soundman at the back of the room.  He makes an adjustment; the speakers go quiet, he gives me the thumbs up.

“Hello,” I say again, this time without the feedback.  “This is a song for a lady I once knew.  She was kinda odd but always real kindly to me.  I’m kinda odd too so we got to be good friends.”  That last part brings a little laughter.  I’m no longer the scum of the city.  Word has gotten out.  “We wrote the song together,” I continue.  “I think it’s fitting that I sing this to you.”

This is it.  I close my eyes to hear the song in my head before I start.  Don’t go too fast, I’m saying to myself.  My hands are trembling.  My fingers feel the familiar strings and steady out a little.  Then they start to move, fingers and strings, together.

And I sing.  After the first few bars I forget about the audience and the barstool and the lights and the sound system, and just sing.  I see her in my mind.  Even though I know she was an alien, someone with a strange history I can’t even imagine, I see her face.  She didn’t really look like that beautiful woman, I know, but I believe her human beauty was just a tool she used to reach me.  And why does it matter anyways?  In the end, whether we’re made of metal or red goop or carbon or dust, it’s our minds and hearts that define us.  So I sing.

When I’m done I get some applause.  That’s pretty good—maybe I’ll do this again sometime.  As the emcee announces the next act, I walk off the stage, my guitar gripped in my hand.  I walk down the two steps towards the main floor of the bar and see someone is waiting there for me, but I’m not quite out of the lights yet.  I shield my eyes and duck out of the glare.  Then I recognize her face.  “Hello, Missus Doctor,” I say.  I ain’t seen her or her husband since I got back, in fact they been kinda reclusive lately from what I hear.  I been too in the busy myself to go find them.

“Young Straker,” says Venecia Kapoor, and she hugs me.  “I enjoyed your song.  I had no idea you were such an accomplished musician.”

“I kinda kept it to myself until tonight.  It’s real good seeing you.  How are things with you and Mister Doctor?”

“Well, good, very good.  But there is something I need to tell you.”  She drops her smile and looks to her side, then turns back to me and says in a conspiratorial voice, just loud enough for me to hear over the racket: “Straker, there have been…developments.  We would like to talk to you about them.  Can you spare a moment?”

“We?” I ask.

“Oh yes, Mister Doctor is outside the door in the tunnel.  Can you come out and talk?”

“Of course,” I say, “But I have to make a quick stop first.  I’ll meet your there.”

Missus Doctor nods and heads for the door.  I maneuver through the tables, stopping a few times on the way to thank people who give me compliments on the song.  One guy asks me about the lady I wrote it with.  I dance around that question and make a mental note to make up a cover story in case I’m asked again.  Anyways, I feel like a celebrity.  I stop at my own table, where Macy is sharing a zoo coloring book with her brother Mason.  “I really like the guitar,” says Macy, as she lays down her short purple crayon next to the communal crayon pile.  “Will you teach me?”

“Me too!” interjects Mason as he concentrates on filling Sheila the Sheep’s cartoon body with yellow, staying perfectly within the lines.

“Oh sure,” I say.  “I’ll teach the both of you.”

The Home thinks highly enough of me now that they let me take the twins out on an excursion.  Things are going to be different between me and these two.  I’m gonna work harder at being a big brother to them.  No reason they gotta have the same crappy childhood that I had—some things need to get better in these gray caves.  It’s up to me I reckon.  “I have to go talk with Mister and Missus Doctor outside,” I say.  “Will you be OK here for a minute?”

“Yea,” says Mason, his eyes glued to his artwork.

“I’ll stay right here,” says Macy.  “And I’ll make sure Mason stays here too.”

Mason looks at Macy and sticks out his tongue.  Macy returns the gesture.  “Good, thanks,” I say.   And for that, I reach into my pocket and pull out a couple of peppermints I got at a kiosk in Corr C, right next to where I got the coloring book and crayons.  “Stroid candy,” I say, and hand a piece to each of them.

“Yay,” they say in unison.  The candy is unwrapped and in each mouth within a millisecond.  I tousle Mason’s hair and give Macy a squeeze on the shoulder.  Then I weave my way through the tables and the chairs and the people and head out to meet with the Kapoors.

As I open the door, I see Mister Doctor standing behind a wheelchair with a sheepish grin on his face.  In the wheelchair sits Alia, their daughter.  It’s the first time I’ve seen her in person since I got back.  Her hair is very short and she’s in a pleasant green dress.  She’s gained weight too.  She’s sitting up—I didn’t know she could do that anymore.  Her eyes are wide open, although her head isn’t quite steady.  She’s looking at me with intense interest.  I am stunned.  She seems so different.

“Hi Doc.  Good to see you.”  I walk over to Mister Doctor.  He shakes my hand and hugs me.  We exchange pleasantries and I thank him for his help during the Allgood’s voyage.  Then I look down again at Alia.  “Dang, Alia looks better than I’ve seen her since school,” I say.

“Yes, yes, thank you,” say Mister Doctor, nodding energetically.  “It’s really quite an amazing story, quite amazing…we heard your song, and it was very nice, but…we didn’t want to discuss Alia in there, with all those people.”  His eyes scan up and down the tunnel for anyone who might be listening but nobody is near us.  Funny, it ain’t like either Doctor Kapoor to be secretive, but I reckon they have their reasons.

“Oh, sure,” I say.  “So what happened?  Did you have a breakthrough?”

“To be honest,” he says, “I’m not sure about all of it.  And really, I don’t think all of it was…entirely legal.”

“Legal?”

“We used the city’s servers to store files,” he whispers.

“Wait, why did you do that?”

“Because there was so much!  I think that when your foreign ship—your strange visitor—hacked our computers, something was left behind after the system was restored.  And weeks later, while you were mining the asteroid, for some reason it opened a channel.  On its own!”

“And it sent files and kept sending them and sending them,” says Missus Doctor in a hushed tone.  “So we did a little hacking of our own.  Once the laboratory servers were full, we used the city computers.  We needed the storage.  But that’s not the incredible part.”

“It was what the files contained,” says Mister Doctor.

“What was in the files,” adds Missus Doctor.

“We had to think about it for a long time,” says Mister Doctor.  He looks at his wife, then down at Alia.  “But we decided to do it.”

“Her brain was gone, Straker,” says Missus Doctor.  “They were going to make us pull the plug.  They wanted us to let her die.  She was a drain on resources, they said.”

“I’m confused,” I say.  “Lots of files, pull the plug?  I mean, I knew she was real sick, but what do files got to do with it?”

“That’s the fantastic part,” says Mister Doctor, his eyes wide, his tone hushed.  He looks up and down the tunnel again but there is still nobody around.  “Yes, it was fantastic.  There was one file…one small file, all by itself, apart from the others.  It was a list of instructions.  They were written in plain English.  The rest of the files were…”

“A mystery,” say Missus Doctor.

“Yes, a mystery,” agrees Mister Doctor.

“And they came in while we were on the stroid?” I ask.  They both nod.  As bizarre as it sounds, it’s starting to make sense to me.  I think back to Hrothgar, with Nifty Jim’s goons burning the materia, the clouds of smoke, the destruction…and that single beam of energy, high up, aimed towards Luna…

“First,” continues Mister Doctor, his hands moving zealously as he speaks, “it had me build a machine.  A special machine, a robotic machine—I didn’t understand it, but it was very fine, very precise.  I had some parts made at the Shacktown print shop, but the more critical ones built over in Tycho and shipped in.  That was part of the instructions—not to let any single shop see the entire design.  Even then, at the print shop they asked what all the crazy parts were for; I said it was for a medical experiment, they believed me because I’ve never lied to them before and I feel bad, really bad about that but it was almost true…and oh, it cost a fortune.”

“Oh my yes,” agrees Missus Doctor.  “It cost us a fortune.”

“And the parts all came together just as the instructions said they would,” continues Mister Doctor.  “We gathered up the other items the instructions called for: bulk steel, acids, other chemicals.  We took the materials and the machine back to the clinic—we timed it so there wouldn’t be many people in the tunnels when we moved it—we plugged the machine in, and when it started up, oh my goodness.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  That machine began moving, and it built other machines, all by itself, right before our eyes!  It was incredible!”

“Like nothing we have ever seen,” says Missus Doctor. “A machine building machines—like giving birth.  Very strange stuff.”

“Very strange,” agrees Mister Doctor, nodding.

“Wow,” I say.  “Then what?”

“We followed the instructions,” continued Missus Doctor.  “We brought Alia into the clinic…she was comatose, my poor baby, so we didn’t anesthetize her.  We shaved her head and disinfected her and just laid her on a gurney with her life support equipment and placed her next to the machines.  Then we watched…”

“We just watched.  We both cried a lot.  It was hard,” says Mister Doctor, shaking his head.

Missus Doctor continues breathlessly, “And a thousand…no, a million tiny probes came from the machines and entered her skull.  From her eyes up, we couldn’t even see the skin of her head, the probes were so dense.  She lay there for a long time, hooked to the machines.”

“Tiny probes,” says Mister Doctor.  “Finer than threads they were.  We waited.  At the end of it, almost two full cycles, the probes dropped off of her.  They just dropped off, all at once.  Like magic.  And they decomposed—they started to right away.  The machines burned themselves up.  We evacuated the clinic.   And when we went back to consult the instructions, we found that all the files had disappeared from all the servers.”

Missus Doctor nods.  “They just disappeared.  Poof, like that,” she says, with a flick of her fingers.

“And she opened her eyes!” exclaims Mister Doctor.

“She opened them,” says Missus Doctor, her eyes welling up.  “She was conscious!”

I shake my head in disbelief.  But I do believe.  I glance behind Mister Doctor at Alia.  She’s still looking up at me, her eyes fixed in concentration in spite of her wobbling.  She seems to be listening to the story.  She’s watching to see how I react.  “So did it cure her?” I ask.

“I’m not sure…she is certainly much better,” says Missus Doctor, sniffing and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.  “She started out unable to move, but I could tell she was conscious; her brain showed normal activity on the medical machines and I could see her eyes moving, tracking us as we moved around her.  She quickly improved, getting better every cycle, and now here she is.”

“It’s fantastic!” says Mister Doctor.

“She can make sounds but cannot speak,” continues Missus Doctor.  “She can move her arms but can’t feed herself, she can’t walk but she can sit up and she’s getting better by leaps and bounds.  Every day is a new miracle.”

Well.  I step over to the wheelchair and squat down to look Alia in the eyes.  I take her hand.  Her eyes hold my eyes; I feel her trembling hand gently squeeze mine.  Her lips move—she is trying to speak, but can’t.  A tear spills from her right eye and meanders down her cheek, leaving a shiny trace of her frustration.  I reach over and touch her cheek, catching the tear with my finger.  She does not flinch.  I rub the tear between my thumb and finger.  I come close and whisper to her.  “I believe your life will be better now.”

She breaks into a wide smile.

“Oh my God!” exclaims Missus Doctor.  The doctor’s hand goes to cover her mouth as her eyes shine with emotion.  She goes to the other side of the wheelchair, kneels down and hugs her daughter.

I feel restless movement on my wrist.  I look down just in time to see the wristy turn red.   The materia leaps over onto Alia’s wrist with a thump.  It wraps around her wrist like a red snake.  The red snake swiftly turns into an elegant silver wristy that any woman would envy.  Alia’s eyes are wide with delight.  She strokes the wristy and makes cooing noises, her smile broader than ever.

“My God, what is that!” exclaims Mister Doctor.  His wife is taken aback too, looking at the wristy, then at me, horrified.

“It’s OK,” I say.  “Really, it’s OK.  Trust me.  You’ve seen other strange things; now accept this too.”

“But what is it?” asks Missus Doctor.  “Don’t we need to remove it?”

“No, no!  It’s…a long story.  I’ll tell you all about it.  But for now, just know that this—this wristy—won’t do your daughter no harm.  Just the opposite; it will help her.  It will help her a bunch.”

The Kapoors exchange worried glances.  Mister Doctor sighs and shakes his head, eyes crinkled and eyebrows arched in doubtful wonder.

So here we are, standing in the corr, the doctors and me and the daughter with the living putty on her wrist.  I reckon things are working out like they should.  Seeing the sparkle in the eyes of this poor girl just brought it all home.  To treasure the nice things and keep the bad stuff at bay.  To see the best in people, even when they’re a little weird.  That goes double if you’re the weird one.  But Missus Doctor looks vexed.  She is afraid for her little girl.  “Is there anything else you can tell us?” she asks.

I shrug.  “She may want to be called Sophia,” I say.