Malapert mountain glows bright yellow like the tip of a torch. The regolith haze of the new morning hangs above the pockmarked ground, heralding the end of two weeks of wicked cold and the arrival of two weeks of brutal, baking heat for folks on Earthside.
But there is a secret place between Malapert and Shoemaker that only I know about. There is air there, and salty water slowly swooshing in and out from my private ocean, cleansing the white sand. Palm trees grow wild, hanging low with fragrant sweet dates as birds of many colors fly this way and that, alighting on one tree and then another, chattering and singing and bustling and preening their feathers, oblivious to the seagulls calling from high above. The air is warm and humid and rich with oxygen. It breathes like sweet syrup. There I lay, the sun warming my skin, feeling the rhythm of my lungs inhaling and exhaling the sweet air.
No. I see tall buildings in the blue distance. I sit up a little and dig my toes into the wet sand. The palm tree nearest me dapples my legs with a moving lace of sunshine and shadow and I am happy.
“Straker will you talk with me?”
There are rude people calling me and I say “No I am dreaming right now please leave a message.”
“It must be good to dream.”
I crack open an eyelid. The light on my wristy is a steady blue. Someone is talking to me but it is too warm and breezy right now to talk. I don’t want to go back there. I want to stay here. My eyelid closes again.
“Do you dream of home?”
“It’s my secret place,” I whisper. “I’ve dreamt about it before so it must be real.”
Wait. I’m in two places at once. Who’s there and in which place?
I pop my eyes open and look around. I’ve been talking to the wristy sitting on my bedside table. The room is dark except for the wristy’s light and the small emergency lamp by the door.
I am in gravity. I hear the swooshing of the pivot below. The tiny lights reflect dimly on the walls all around me as my beautiful dream world dissolves back into the ether from which it came and I’m left here, stranded again in my dreary life.
“Who is it I’m talking to?” I ask.
“I am your friend. I am the one who listens to your song.”
Now I jolt fully awake as if by an electric shock down my spine. I think…this is the guy that we can’t find! The guy that hacked Shacktown!
I look around in the dark, jumpy, unsure what to do. I snap on an overhead lamp.
“Do you remember me?” asks the wristy. The voice is odd—I can’t figure if the voice is from a feminine man or a masculine woman—or someone in between. I want to contact Katya but that would mean using the wristy. I could try the ship’s intercom but I’m not sure where she is at this moment. Plus I don’t want to scare this guy off. I can’t decide what to do. My heart is pounding in my chest.
“Um, yes I remember you,” I say, as I sit up in my bunk. Maybe it’s better if I don’t alert anyone. If this is really the same people or guy that was screwing around with my recording, I’m thinking, I gotta make sure he doesn’t spill the beans about my unauthorized transmissions. I don’t know what else to do but come straight out with the question.
“I need to know who it is I’m talking to. Are you with the Provisional Government?” I ask.
The wristy answers, “No, I’m not part of your government.”
I reckon I better leave it there—ain’t no profit in being too explicit. All things considered, I guess I believe him—or her. At least, I want to believe. I can’t imagine that ProvGov would do anything so plain stupid as try to contact me this way, but then again I ain’t acquainted with them all that well. Maybe they’re working a plan they haven’t filled me in on. All my deals were made with Marshal Baumann. But I know there are other people behind the scenes; people I don’t know. I sure don’t want to be found out now, stuck on this ship with these people for God knows how long. So if this androgynous voice ain’t ProvGov, who is he? Or her. “What should I call you?” I ask.
“I do not understand you.”
OK, this is irritating. “What is your name?”
“My name. I lack a name. I will select one.”
He’ll select a name. No arguing with that. No understanding it neither. Maybe he’s delirious from O2 deprivation. I know Katya and Doc Kapoor will have all kinds of questions about this. The best thing to do is to keep the conversation going, now that I know—or hope—that he or she is not going to get me in trouble. I set the wristy to record, then ask the question I know they’ll all want the answer to.
“Do you need to be rescued?” I ask.
“Rescued?” replies the voice. “I do not understand you.”
“Are you overheating or freezing, or are your thrusters dead, or out of oxygen or food or water? You know, rescue! Do we need to come help you?”
“Oh, I understand now, yes I understand. That is very kind of you. I do not need to be rescued. Not in that sense.”
Hmm. What does this guy want then? Not ProvGov, not in trouble, just…making conversation? Maybe I can start with what seems to interest him or her and work out some answers from there.
“You heard my song? Why did you alter it?” I ask.
“I heard your song. I liked your song. I wanted you to talk to me.”
“By changing the song? Why not just talk to me, like we’re doing now?”
“I did not know English then.”
“You learned English in the past few hours?”
“Yes, I learned English to talk to you, Straker.”
OK, this is creepy. Whoever this is, he is a liar. Or she. Nobody learns a language in a few hours, I don’t care how smart they are. He may have downloaded every file from all of Luna but there is no shortcut to learning a new language. And the way he uses my name as if we are old friends gives me the willies. I don’t recognize his voice; with its perfect elocution, devoid of inflection, with no discernable accent. It’s just cringe-inducing. If somebody talked to me with that voice in a cafeteria I’d be edging towards the exit. I peek out the door to see if anyone might be in the hall that I could call in the witness this. But the hall is empty; nobody is there.
“Your song is sad,” says the wristy.
“Um,” I mutter, as I jump back in from the hall, “Ah, yes, I know. I was thinking sad thoughts when I came up with it.”
“Yes, sad; I understand sadness. I understand sadness very well. Is there more song?”
At this point I’m stalling for time. I’ve left the door open in hopes somebody will hear me talk and peek in. Maybe Katya is at her station and can peg this guy’s location like she did before. I could yell down the spoke, maybe they would hear me in the galley but probably not. The wristy would certainly hear me.
“More to the song?” I reply. “Ah, no not yet. Do you think it needs more?”
“I would like more. It is soothing to me. Will you write more?”
Actually I was thinking of making it into a real song, which means I would have to come up with another verse and maybe a bridge, but I ain’t had a chance to get back to it. Every song I’ve ever written has been crap; it’s really hard to do. But for now it’s a way to keep this guy talking.
“Are you a musician?” I ask.
“I made music, long ago. But my music was different than yours. I feel good when I listen to you.”
“What kind of music do you listen to? Jazz? Classical? Rock?”
No answer. There was a brief soft of squeak, like an electronic stutter, then silence, as if he didn’t know what to say. Or maybe the comm channel is down.
“Are you still there?” I ask.
“Yes. Will you sing?”
I make a guess that I have enough conversation recorded by now to make Mister Doctor and Katya happy. Actually, it’s interesting to talk to this guy—trying to figure out what the con is, it’s kinda like a mystery to be solved—but I can’t wait to play what I have recorded for the others. So I end the conversation. “Listen, whoever you are, I’ve got to go. My watch is starting. They’ll be expecting me.” That’s a lie. My watch don’t start for another couple hours.
“But can we talk again, Straker? Can we talk soon? Will you sing then?”
“Oh sure, yea, we can talk again, and I’ll play it for you then, I promise.”
“A promise. That is very good. I am excited to talk to you soon.”
“OK, well then unnamed person-on-the-radio, I will talk to you later.”
The blue light on the wristy goes dark. I click the button to stop recording, slap the wristy on my forearm, pull on some pants, and dash for the elevator.
* * * * *
I burst onto the flight deck, zipping in way too fast so when I grab a hand-hold to stop my forward motion, my legs whip around and slam into a bulkhead making a racket. Jeez. It’s embarrassing and all but I’m eager to tell Katya about the whacked-out conversation I had with the man-woman on the foreign ship. But the captain is the only one here. She is seated in the captain’s saddle on the left, studying something on her pad while monitoring consoles, her gray hair tied up in a high ponytail that floats randomly in the air above her, reminiscent of a cat’s tail. The style makes her look years younger than her true age.
She turns in her seat and trains her very serious gray eyes on me. I recover my wayward legs and check the time. Dang, I shoulda checked. Katya is no doubt sound asleep; the green team won’t come on station for another two hours. What was I thinking.
“You should be getting some rack time Yuuta,” says the captain.
“Yes, Captain, I know but, well I just wanted to tell someone that I had contact with the foreign ship.”
Her eyebrows arch and she leans her body forward as she rotates her saddle to face me. “Oh really? What sort of contact did you have with those pirates?” That’s the first time I’ve heard them referred to as pirates, but I suppose that makes sense since they hacked those servers, skirting firewalls and grabbing files. But so far they’ve done us no harm. Maybe I’m just being soft because the guy said he liked my song.
“It was a voice contact,” I sputter. “A person from the ship spoke to me. In English!”
“In English, really? Oh, damn.” She shakes her head. Lips curled in a sardonic smile. “We’ve been suckered. Kapoor opened up the comm to the servers because they supposedly couldn’t speak English.”
“Well…yes that’s right, so I guess it was a lie. I gotta say the guy I talked to was just plain odd. Said he hadn’t selected a name yet when I asked him. If he was gonna lie, he could have just given me a fake name. I can’t figure these people.”
“So are they asking for assistance?” she asks.
“No ma’am,” I reply.
The captain tilts her head. “I’m surprised. I don’t understand their motivation. Rendezvous with them would be a good way for them to rob us blind, if that’s what they’re trying to do.”
“No ma’am, actually I came right out asked the guy point blank if they needed assistance. He said no. Acted like he didn’t know what I was asking at first.”
The captain crinkles her eyebrows in puzzlement. “Well I don’t understand it either. I wish they would just be straight with us and stop playing games.” She sighs and shakes her head. “It didn’t used to be this way. We all worked together. Now everybody’s trying to cut the other guys throat. Sad.”
I nod, as if she’s telling me something I don’t already know. What can I say to argue with that? It is cutthroat. And now I’m part of the game, spying for government. Living down to expectations. I offer up what little good news I can. “At least I recorded most of the conversation, so you can hear it if you want.”
She considers that, then looks down at her pad. I know she has to provide a lot of information to the Consortium. They funded this mission and they want updates; she’s always fighting a deadline. She sighs and looks back up at me. “Here’s what I want you to do. Contact Doctor Kapoor again,” she consults her wristy and shakes her head, “although he’s possibly asleep now too. It doesn’t matter, you’re not going to be able to have a decent conversation with him anyway; we’re too far away by now. Just tell him what you told me in a video, attach the recording you made, and send it to him on the comm link. He’ll get it and reply when he can. Can you do that, Yuuta?”
“Aye, captain, I believe I can. I learned how to use the comm after working with Katya last time. It should be pretty straightforward.”
“Atta boy, Straker. You have your father’s brains after all.”
I smile back at her, plant myself at Katya’s station and set to my task. You have your father’s brains after all, the captain had said. That rolls around in my brain while I am trying to work. It gives me an odd feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can’t shake. Yea, I have my father’s brains, all right. I’m a con man like him too. I work at being a quiet, unassuming kid but that’s been a survival skill for me—what else could I do? Having to depend on people that hate you for your very existence teaches you to swallow your pride and do what you need to do to survive. But I have a right to more and I don’t owe these people anything. This woman will not like me in the end. I remind myself to be prepared for that.
Because I ain’t here for the Consortium and I ain’t going back to Shacktown, ever.
* * * * *
I am now formally on watch, headed aft. I had started out on the flight deck, where I sent off the video like the captain said and included the recording of the conversation I had with the weirdo from the foreign ship. Then I approached Nastez and volunteered to return to the redoubt. I said I needed to switch the network fibers back to their original configuration—the configuration they were in before we started the language lesson with the foreign ship. Actually, as it turns out, the whole strange business with the other ship has worked to my advantage. Had me some sneakin’ around to be done. I wasn’t sure how I could justify coming back here.
So now here I am, once again pulling myself through the long, claustrophobic tunnel towards the ass end of the ship. The silence is complete; I can hear my own breath reverberating weirdly against the curved steel walls of the redoubt. Each exhalation fogs the air. At least I wore some extra layers this time, expecting the cold. I’ve strapped a headlamp onto my forehead against the dimly lit areas, knowing that I’ll need to see clearly during delicate procedure I’m about to perform.
And I brought the meds bottle. The real reason I’m here is to connect the bottle into the network long enough to send my latest status report to the ProvGov people. I haven’t updated them since we left lunar orbit, and there’ a butt-load of new info to pass along, like as the nature of the target, its composition, and its orbital parameters. Stuff I pulled right off the ship’s servers.
This is what Baumann’s instructions told me to do. Not sure what his people going to do with the information. The laws governing possession of material mined from asteroids are pretty crazy—I don’t understand them nor do I want to—not that Nifty Jim or Malapert go by the law anyways. Helping the government will help everybody in the hemisphere, keeping things square. We need good law and order between the towns.
And at this distance, nearly 18 million klicks already, the transmitter in the bottle is woefully inadequate to send a signal back to Luna. The only way to get the message that far is to package it in the main telemetry stream which is transmitted by the big laser at the ship’s stern. That means hijacking the network. Baumann told me the government engineers designed this thing in such a way that the hack won’t be noticed by Allgood’s crew. Something about inserting the ones and zeros of the message within unused protocol fields blah blah blah—but I don’t know about none of that; it’s all Mandarin Chinese to me. I just have to trust the Marshal. Baumann better be right, because my butt is hanging out, way out, flapping like a rooster on his way to the chopper. Doing this don’t make me comfortable, but if I want my new life in Malapert, I gotta to take the risk.
I’ve entered all the info I need to send into the meds bottle, so now it’s just a matter of hooking it in. Nastez is expecting a comm interruption when I disconnect and reconnect the fiber anyways. I’ll connect in the bottle, send the transmission, then disconnect and be all back to normal within two minutes. Maybe they’ll think the comm interruption lasted longer than it should have, but if they do I’ll just play dumb and say I had a hard time figuring out how to connect it back up. Nastez will believe that. Me, the new recruit, working way back here all by myself. I’m a victim of bad teaching. Course, if Nastez don’t believe me, maybe he’ll shove me out an airlock. I try not to think about that.
It don’t take long to find the fiber junction I’m looking for. I wedge my legs against the hand-holds to leave my hands free and pull the meds bottle from my thigh pocket. A flick of my thumbnail and the fiber connector is exposed on the bottle. I say a silent prayer, disconnect the ship’s network and reconnect it through the bottle, quick as I can. Maybe I disconnected the fiber a little too quick. Maybe the bandage on my hand made me a little clumsy. Maybe there’s an invisible demon that follows me around and tries to screw up my life.
A tiny plastic thingamajig breaks off of the connector. It’s floating aimlessly in front of my face, slowly flipping end over end. Dang. Not much I can do about that. I push the connector into the meds bottle and the tiny indicator glows green. I check my wristy—I need to leave it connected for about two minutes. The meds bottle starts transmitting the moment I connect the fiber. I release the bottle from my grip and let it hang there to finish its job. But the second I let go of the fiber, the green light goes out.
I can’t believe this! The plastic piece that broke off held the connector in place. Without it, the fiber connector slides out of its mate. I push the fiber back in and the green light comes back on. The only thing I can do is hold it until the transmission is complete. Situation normal.
So here I am, hanging in weightlessness, watching the wristy’s progress display, and I’m beginning to appreciate that two minutes is a very long time. Every few seconds I look past my legs down the long cylindrical space leading to the pivot room, checking if any crew members might be venturing back this way. Nobody so far. Check the time. Check my back. Still nobody. Check again. Check, check, and check, back and forth until my neck gets tired. I feel so exposed.
If anybody catches me, I am so screwed. I turn my head back to the wristy and the motion flicks a blob of sweat free from the tip of my nose and floats out in front of my face. The sheet of sweat on my face has reached critical mass, releasing a steady procession of salty globules. Before long I have a collection of sweat balls dancing around my face like a merry swarm of flies, but with my left arm displaying the wristy and my right hand holding the meds bottle, I don’t have another hand to shoo them away. The redoubt is utterly silent—as silent as death itself—except for the guilty sounds of my throbbing heart and nervous breath.
Then, outa nowhere, the ship’s alarm gong sounds.