ELUL 19, 5820
APARTMENT #371, HAMMARSKJOLD HALL, PAPERLESS, LUNA
I love my parents.
They called me on the night we left Paperless. I had stayed late at Headquarters to make sure all of Tarago Group knew which end of a gun was which, and didn't get home until nearly 2200 Zulu.
My apartment was bare, just as it had been when I first moved in, four weeks ago. U.N.I.A.'s Earth-Luna rotation policy is hell for the human sense of place, but it's necessary to keep our bodies from weakening -- early Lunar colonists suffered from muscle atrophy, bone decalcification, and low blood pressure, among other problems. It still takes me a day or two to fully re-adjust to walking upright in Earth's gravity.
I had packed away everything -- there wasn't much -- in a single suitcase. I left the Albert Einstein poster pinned upside-down on the living room wall. It would be gone after the security sweep, but maybe the cleaning crew would get a kick out of it.
The only other thing on the wall was the comm panel, blinking red and orange. I pressed the SUMMARY key. There was one message, color vid, and the sender address indicated my parents' home in Manhattan.
I stood there for a while, staring at the screen until I could pick out the flickering of individual pixels. I knew I didn't want to play the message just then -- my mother is an incurable worrywart, and my father has a tendency to drone on and on in a stream of consciousness that may or may not make any sense. I knew they'd ask me if I had spoken to Sarah recently, if she was coming home for the High Holy Days. I'm sure that's what they said.
I didn't want to think about Sarah, but contemplating my desire to avoid the thought had given it an opening to tap-dance into the center of my mind. And so I stood there, sparing a few moments to wonder about my older sister and whether she was still alive, somewhere in the Torus, dodging U.N.S.F. patrols and smuggling radioactive ores and making bombs and generally leading her own little revolution. Or was it her own private rebellion?
I hit another button to download the message into my hand 'puter, grabbed my suitcase, and left the apartment to see an empty, gray night sky overhead.
The dome covering Paperless is a transparent, stratified wall, including layers of molded steel-crystal, elastic isopolymers, and a colorless solution in which trillions of genetically engineered "canary bacteria" live.
When alive, the bacteria are transparent to visible light. If the cosmic radiation hitting the dome exceeds human tolerances, the bacteria die, and their corpses glow bright red. I've seen photos of the dome during the solar storms in the twenties, and it looked ghastly, as if the sky itself was bleeding.
That doesn't happen very often. But every day, the canary bacteria in the dome are flushed out by a spectrum-opaque cleaning solution, then replaced by a new batch of critters. This procedure serves two purposes: recycle the bacteria population, preventing mutations or other forms of tampering, and hide everything inside Paperless from outside view for about an hour. Spy satellites are getting cheaper all the time, and there are still plenty of non-United nations on Earth.
The daily "gray hour" is chosen pseudo-randomly, usually by computer. This Tuesday, Othello had simply decreed it to start at 2157 Zulu, so nobody outside Paperless could watch as Rickford Group assembled at Headquarters, did a final equipment check, found the subway station, and boarded a small charter train with no other passengers.
"Be good," Lenara said, waving to us from the platform, flanked by two bodyguards in plainclothes. The doors closed. She backed away from the tracks, then turned around with a start. Six more bodyguards had flooded the empty station. All eight guards cleared the room, then drifted to the corners, leaving Lenara by herself in the middle of the platform.
I saw him first, and some old police instinct made me stand. Lynn turned to the window and said, "Jick."
Othello walked forward, stopped next to Lenara and said something inaudible to her. He placed both hands on his walking stick, turned, nodded at us. His eyes shone like silver. The lights inside our car flickered to life as the train lurched forward into the darkness, and then I was looking at my own reflection.
"I don't believe it."
"I supposed we should consider ourselves blessed," Peter said with a nervous smile.
"That was Othello! A jicking Name! My G-d!"
"Sit down, Randall."
As I watched everyone else reacting to our send-off, Yeshayahu echoed in my head:
"Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you."
Half an hour later, we debarked at the western edge of Gambart Crater, the very end of the subway line. A U.N.I.A. security detail met us there with a freight van and drove us to Jaspersen Spaceport, swerving through a maze of service tunnels. Lynn complained of motion sickness. Fortunately, she was sitting next to Randall, and he graciously offered his shoulder for her to lean on.
At 2326 Zulu, the van pulled up inside Launching Bay G9, next to three identical vehicles. Rickford Group, now wearing Virgin Astro work jumpers -- I'm sure Lenara chose this particular spaceline as a joke -- filed out into the crowd of workers and began loading crates onto the cargo shuttle Hermes 549.
Earlier that afternoon, the security cameras in the launching bay had "malfunctioned" and been off-line for exactly twenty-five minutes. During that time, a U.N.I.A. security team had loaded the Nomad-class loneboat Gary Indiana into Hermes' main cargo bay. The six security officers had then spent the next seven hours inside Hermes, mooring down Gary and double-checking all of the critical systems on both vessels.
Now, a minute after each member of Rickford Group entered Hermes and left the view of the cameras, a security officer of similar height and build walked out of the shuttle. My doppelgänger winked at me as she passed, humming "Whistle While You Work".
"We're missing a dwarf," Peter said as he climbed up the ladder to Gary's airlock door.
Randall frowned at Peter, looked at me. "What's he talking about?"
"Just get in the boat."
Randall loved the trip from Luna for the same reason that I hated it: the Tank. He couldn't stop chattering about it as we stowed our baggage. Erika actually listened. Lynn pretended to listen.
Like all robot cargo ships, Hermes had been designed to travel at high acceleration. Most spaceliners flew at one gravity for human comfort, but at that rate it could take five or six days just to get from Earth to Mars. Unmanned vessels moved much faster. Hermes had to travel at its normal acceleration to avoid suspicion, but a constant four gravities would kill a human crew within minutes.
About a decade ago, U.N.I.A. had studied ways to protect the human body from various hostile conditions, and had developed a series of protective devices called B.E.D.s -- "Biological Effect Dampers". The official name for the Tank is B.E.D.(S.H.A.P.E.): "Biological Effect Damper (Sustained High Acceleration or Pressure Environment)".
Most people just call it "the Tank".
More than anything, the Tank resembles a large, transparent casket, filled with several liters of pink water and one masochistic human being. The liquid is a synthetic compound. Randall told us all about that, too.
"Perfluorooctyl bromide, generically known as perflubron," he said, a bit too happily. "Created almost a century ago. Keeps your insides from deflating, since gravity and pressure don't affect liquids. And it acts as a surfactant to promote gas exchange inside the lungs without drowning the alveoli --"
I tapped him on the shoulder. "Randall? See my eyes?"
"My eyes are glazing over."
Nobody enjoys travelling in the Tank, except for a few weirdos like Randall. I think the intubation is the worst part. Usually a person is only intubated when her respiratory system is failing, which means she's probably unconscious already. The laryngoscope is self-guided and auto-deploying, but the procedure still requires an injection of muscle relaxant -- right in the base of the neck -- to minimize the gag reflex. I had to distract Erika while Peter speared her with the hypodermic.
"Hey, isn't this one of those new gas-permeable hollows?"
"Where? -- Ack!"
Next came the scanning pads, radio-receiver earplugs, and I.V. tubes, and then I got what felt like warm water pumped down my throat and into my lungs. Finally, the I.V.s in my arms fed me sedatives to put me to sleep. The computer would wake us when we had reached our destination and normal gravity had been restored.
So there I was, floating in the Tank, my body being invaded by strange medical equipment, sleep-juice sogging up my brain, and I got to thinking:
Othello was sending us under the tightest security on the fastest ship he could safely use. And even though this mission had a low official priority, he had gotten two large spacecraft refitted and assigned nearly forty field agents to support Rickford Group. Hell, he'd even come to the subway station to bid us farewell.
Operation Indiana was more important to him than any Torie War. He wanted us to succeed, against the Director's expectations, against our own doubts and fears and inexperience. He believed we would succeed.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our G-d is marching on!
I woke from a bizarre dream -- involving Othello, a talking penguin, and the Lincoln Memorial -- to see a uniformed U.N.S.F. officer standing over me. Everything looked pink. I was still in the Tank.
"Hello, ma'am. Lieutenant Choe, Galen Station." His voice came through my earplugs. "Don't try to move yet -- your body is still warming up. I'm going to finish reviving your companions now, and I'll come back to you in a few minutes."
He switched off my audio circuit, and I watched through a pink curtain as he went back down the line, checking on the wake-up sequence for each of the five other Tanks. He didn't really need to be here, since everything had been automated anyway, but studies had found it was reassuring for sleepers to wake up to a live person.
It all felt rather anticlimactic. After going to so much trouble, I had expected something more impressive than the same old boring loneboat interior. Maybe even some congratulations for surviving the ordeal.
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, When I awoke and found the dawn was gray...
Randall was already peeling off his wetsuit when Choe pulled Lynn out of her Tank. She grimaced at me before coughing up her breathing tube and a lungful of pink fluid into a waste bucket.
As Choe opened Peter's Tank, Lynn came over to me and plugged into my audio. "Have I ever told you how much I hate the Tank?"
I blinked once for "yes". It's difficult to nod when you're completely waterlogged and haven't moved for twenty hours.
"Medicinal Purposes, one hour. I'm going to go help Randall dry off."
I gurgled an affirmative reply as she stumbled off, shivering. I wondered what Randall would do if she asked him to share some body heat.
The U.N. had named Galen Station in honor of an ancient Greek physician who had pioneered the medical science of anatomy. Apparently, nobody had noticed the irony of naming a combat hospital after the first man in recorded history to perform autopsies.
Or maybe they had. After all, the station's bar and nightclub was called "Medicinal Purposes". Barely an hour out of the Tank, Lynn dragged all of us down there, promising to buy the first round.
Medicinal Purposes is located along Galen's inside equator. The station, a hollowed-out spherical asteroid two miles across, rotates to simulate gravity, with the spacecraft docking facilities lined up on the spin axis and connected by elevator tubes to the habitat shell. The interior wall of the shell is striped with windows, so most everybody gets a spectacular view of all the stuff floating inside Galen.
We rode an elevator to the grav ring, dressed in civvies to blend in with the masses. It probably wouldn't have mattered. All sorts of people stopped at Galen: soldiers, privateers, merchants, tourists. The U.N.S.F. Treaty guaranteed safe harbor and passage to anybody who passed the security check. It looked as if all the nations of Earth and most of the colonies in the Torus had been compressed into that thin slice of Galen's shell, and were being constantly mixed and mingled -- like bacteria in solution. A heterogeneous suspension of humanity.
Peter charmed most of the crowds into clearing a path for us as Randall stared upward, mouth hanging open, watching spacecraft and untethered astros dance above us. I pulled, and Lynn pushed, to keep him moving and avoiding obstacles. Erika and Marvin chattered and jabbed at a hand 'puter, no doubt excited at the prospect of maneuvering a loneboat through an interplanetary dust cloud.
We streamed right past the lines outside Medicinal Purposes' front entrance, where a clump of bouncers was trying to decide who should be allowed into the club and in what order. Spacers waved thirty-six-hour passes while tourists yammered about paid privileges, and others hid credit vouchers in their palms and shook a lot of hands. Lynn directed Peter to a service door, which he unlocked with his U.N.I.A. badge and held open for the rest of us. We stepped into a white corridor where every sound echoed endlessly.
"Hello!" Lynn hooted, walking backwards and winking at Randall.
"Oyasumi nasai!" Marvin yelled after checking his watch.
They continued to shout greetings in different languages, including one I didn't recognize and which Marvin claimed was called "Klingon".
"Most popular artificial language in existence," he declared.
"And the most ridiculous," Erika retorted.
"Quiet, you'll wake the Oompa Loompas," Peter said as we approached a pair of security guards in front of a blank white door.
Randall asked, "What's he talking about?"
"Just show your badge."
The taller of the two guards scanned our badges and eyes and waved us through the door. Inside, we met another uniform and gave up our weapons -- one of the few exceptions to U.N.I.A.'s current policy. Only half the cops in a cop bar need to be armed for the place to be safe.
"Busy night?" Peter asked the uniform.
"It's always night in outer space."
It felt good to leave my gun behind, and it was easier to push through the crowds without a hunk of metal jutting from my side. I counted two gropes, three invitations to dance, and one marriage proposal before we got to our second-floor table overlooking the dance floor. The table was, as always, round.
"This is exactly my idea of fun," Marvin shouted over the din as he fell into his chair.
"Don't start with me," Lynn said, wagging a finger. "Randall! What's your poison?"
Randall looked at me for a moment. He was taking this "partner" thing a little too seriously. "Vodka martini."
Lynn punched that into the dumbwaiter, then pointed at me. "Can you drink? Any of those Jewish holidays going on today?"
"Not until next Friday, you ignorant shiksa," I said. She knew perfectly well; she just liked to tease me. "Whiskey sour. Make it a double."
"That's my girl." Lynn elbowed Marvin. "And you, you whiny palefaced mongrel?"
Randall had a confused, but-she's-not-even-drunk-yet look on his face. I leaned over and spoke into his ear: "Getting there is half the fun."
He grinned and nodded. At least he was a fast learner.
Forty-five minutes later, I was staring sleepily at the remains of two pizzas and a platoon-sized plate of tortilla chips. The trip from Luna had really messed with my metabolism. Lynn was somewhere on the dance floor, no doubt breaking hearts left and right. Peter and Randall were starting to run out of jazz musicians to toast.
Erika had stopped imbibing after two drinks, but had failed to inhibit Marvin. He was now playing with his navigation program and falling all over her as she tried to pull the 'puter from his hands.
"Are those two, uh, y'know?" Randall asked.
"Not a chance," I said. "Marvin's been married for three years, and Erika used to be a man."
Randall chuckled, then doubled over as laughter consumed him, eventually falling against my shoulder. I made a face at Peter, and he shrugged.
When Randall had sat up again, Peter raised his glass and cried, "To Joliet Jake!"
Randall frowned at me. "What's he talking --"
"Just finish your drink."
He nodded and gulped, then tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, since we're giving away deep dark secrets, how about telling me how the hell you got your name?"
"My name? Eves?" I said.
"No, no, no." He waved his hand. "Natalie. How in the world did you end up with a name like Natalie?"
"What's so strange about 'Natalie'?" Peter asked.
"She's Jewish!" Randall cried, pointing an accusing finger at me, his speech changing tempo with every word. "Pretty jicking Orthodox, too. Didn't want bacon on the pizza. Speaks Yiddish. Hell, I'll bet she's even circumcised."
I bit my tongue and slapped a hand over my mouth. I wanted to hear the end of this drunken tirade.
"But 'Natalie' means 'Christmas child'. And, as we all know, Christmas is a Christian holiday that no self-respecting Jew would ever be caught dead celebrating."
"He's got you there," Peter gasped between giggles.
"Damn right! It's very very strange." Randall turned back to me and leaned forward, eyes narrowed. "So you wanna explain that, partner?"
After the urge to burst out laughing had passed, I said, "Fair enough. Long story, though.
"The day my mother was born, her father -- my grandfather -- got into a ground car accident while driving to the hospital. Nearly killed him. The doctor who operated on him not only saved his life, but found out where his wife had delivered the baby and got him set up with a two-way vid so he could see his newborn daughter."
"That's beautiful," Marvin said. His head was propped up on his right hand, and Erika had folded her arms.
"What --" Randall began to ask.
"He's sitting on the computer." Erika stared at me. "Just tell the story."
"Well," I continued, "my grandparents were so grateful, they named their daughter -- my mother -- after that doctor. Jennifer. So there's a family tradition of not always choosing traditional Hebrew names for the children.
"Later, when my father converted to Judaism to marry my mother, she figured she owed him something genealogical in return. My older sister had to be named Sarah, after my grandmother, so they compromised and named me after my mother's favorite author, who happened to have a name that my father liked."
"Wow," Marvin said. Erika tried to push him over and failed.
"So what about your middle name?" I asked Randall. "Why 'President'?"
He blinked twice and said, "Zaire."
Suddenly, Lynn appeared behind Peter and grabbed his shoulders, shaking violently. "This is jicking unbelievable! Leonard McBride is downstairs and he's chewing out a G-ddamn U.N.S.F. Captain!"
Copyright © 1997 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.