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9: Extorted Treasure

ELUL 29, 5820
0947 ZULU

I love looking at the Moon.

When I'm on Earth, I can't see any of the artificial structures up there. Sometimes I can pick out Gambart Crater -- that's pretty easy; it's big -- and usually, unless it's almost full, I can see the glittering halo of satellites circling the Moon like a crown, or a shattered ring. But I can still imagine that it's an untouched surface, a refuge from humanity and all our various vices and stupidity.

The truth is, these days the Moon is every bit as crowded as the Earth, and Lunar orbital space even more so. There's a lot more junk accumulated around Earth, so any extra incoming traffic gets shunted into Lunar orbit while waiting for planetfall clearance.

Marvin got us clear of the battle between Gilgamesh and the Tories, but Gary didn't have enough fuel in its one remaining tank to maneuver us into Lunar orbit. He radioed ahead to request a tug to guide us into port. Things just got worse from there.

None of us had wanted to go back into our Tanks after our encounter with the Tories, and Peter didn't ask us to. But there wasn't a whole lot to do while waiting for our crippled loneboat to reach Luna. Lynn, Randall, Erika, and I ended up in the cargo hold, running useless tests on the artifact, while Peter and Marvin stayed in the cockpit.

Rickford Group is part of the Technologies section of U.N.I.A., but our classification is a matter of philosophy. For most practical purposes, linguistics has more in common with anthropology than other sciences; its end products are not manufactured artifacts, though their effects often permeate an entire culture. Some people call the study of language a "soft" science to denigrate it, but if you've spent any time at all in the field, you know it's incredibly complex in how it interacts with the whole of human experience. It only seems soft because experts tend to do a lot of hand-waving when explaining it to laymen, doing their best to simplify things that sometimes can't be reduced to a sound bite for the newsnets.

I sometimes wonder if Lenara Rickford put together a team of misfits on purpose. Each of us started our professional lives in another field, a different career, and only later got called to U.N.I.A. Peter used to be a schoolteacher. Erika was a software engineer -- and a man, but that's another story. Lynn was an astrophysicist; Randall was a chemist. I used to be a cop. We all have perspectives developed outside of research and academia. Did Lenara simply want different points of view to contrast with her own? Or did she know that we'd all bring more to the table than any fresh-faced grad students she could get for free from University of Luna?

"Still reflecting at one hundred percent," Lynn said.

"Confirmed," Randall said. "Nothing coming out the back."

We had set up three workstations in a semicircle around the artifact, which was secured to the deck with two layers of elastic cargo webbing. While cutting the sphere out of the asteroid, we had discovered that it was completely frictionless as well. It is unbelievably difficult to maneuver something you can't actually hold on to. Marvin and Erika and I had wrapped the sphere in two layers of cargo webbing and towed it into the hold that way.

Erika had attached a particle emitter and two sensors directly to the surface of the sphere. Well, "attached" isn't the right word, because nothing would stick to that surface; she had lashed the instruments to support poles and jammed them up against the sphere, holding them in place with a complicated arrangement of struts and electrical tape. Randall and Lynn had helped while I moved what remained of our original cargo out of the way. Randall had enough presence of mind, even during the battle, to not throw out all our portable computer equipment. Maybe it was just his never-destroy-anything packrat scientist's instinct; maybe he guessed we'd need it for something like this little exercise in futility.

Lynn's workstation was monitoring the sensor taped next to the emitter, which would show how much of the radiation was being reflected off the sphere. Randall's workstation, directly opposite Erika's, was fed by a sensor on the far side of the sphere, which would tell him if any of the same radiation was making it through the artifact. I stood behind Erika and mostly just made sure she wasn't making any typos every time she reprogrammed the emitter for a new burst at a different frequency.

"Are we really sure we should be doing this right now?" I asked again. "We have no idea what this thing is. It could be an explosive device triggered by a specific radiation pulse. We're basically playing Russian roulette here."

"So," Erika said, not looking at me, "you're saying we should wait until we reach Paperless, and potentially blow up all of U.N.I.A. instead of just one loneboat?"

"I'm saying we don't know what the hell we're doing," I said. "Seriously. You don't think it's a good idea ask some experts about this thing before poking it?"

"I think you're asking the wrong person," Lynn said. "She whacked it with a stick before we even brought it inside, remember?"

I grumbled and looked at Randall. He shrugged and said, "I just want my name on the paper when we publish. This is huge! An artifact from an advanced alien civilization? Come on, Natty, aren't you even a little bit excited?"

"Maybe you could ask your boyfriend for advice," Erika said.


"Leonard McBride," she said, smiling. I punched her in the arm. "Ow."

"Wait a minute," Randall said. "You think this is a Frog artifact?"

Erika and Lynn did their best not to laugh out loud. I sighed and said, "Randall, how many different advanced alien races do you think have visited our solar system?"

"We need to contact them!" Randall said. "McBride's organization -- the Liberty Alliance, or whatever it's called. They might have information that would help us understand this!" He waved at the artifact.

"This is a featureless, frictionless, perfectly reflective mirror ball," I said. "How exactly are some people who may have had an alien corpse in their hospital for less than a day supposed to help us do anything with this?"

"Scientists share information," Randall said. "More data means better research for everyone."

"We don't have any data," I said. "Not yet. We need to know what we're dealing with before we start telling people about it."

"We don't need to control this information. It's better if more people know about it sooner," Randall said. "This isn't some kind of secret police investigation."

I bristled at that. I'm not sure if it was because the argument targeted me so specifically, or because I knew he was right, or because it brought back a lot of painful memories.

"Randall," Lynn said quietly, "you should stop talking now."

I felt Erika's hand gripping my thigh and said, "Will you two calm down? I'm not some jicking dog you have to restrain. I'm not going to bite him."

"Remember when you broke Marvin's nose?" Erika said.

"Or when you put your hand through that office window?" Lynn said.

"Let me rephrase that," I said. "If I go after this green apple, you don't want to be in my way."

"Please," Erika hissed, "not in front of the alien artifact."

That broke the tension a little, but I was still glaring at Randall, and he was still challenging me with those big, round, innocent eyes. I started wondering why he was the only one actually arguing with me. Lynn and Erika didn't agree with me, obviously, but they were just getting out of the way, not confronting me. Was I really that stubborn? When had they given up trying to engage me in any intelligent debate?

I took a deep breath and counted to ten. Just as I opened my mouth to say something, the comm panel on the wall lit up with Marvin's face.

"We're being boarded," he said. "L.O.T.C. wants to see our credentials in person."

He disappeared before I could say, "What credentials?"

The Lunar Orbital Traffic Control tug which docked with Gary Indiana had a three-man crew. The pilot remained on board while the captain and first mate, both wearing full body armor and carrying heavy stunners, cautiously stepped out of the airlock and into our crew compartment.

"Is this everyone on board?" the captain asked. He knew, of course. The tug had scanned us before docking, and he and his first mate had checked our atmosphere for toxins before cycling the airlock. Piracy was rare this close to Luna, but not unheard of.

"Yes, sir," Peter said. He held out a small plastic card. The tug captain took the card and slipped it into a reader slot on his wrist-mounted 'puter.

I shouldn't have been surprised that Lenara had furnished Peter with a complete set of fake I.D.'s for all of us. U.N.I.A. is nothing if not paranoid, and their actuaries love to prepare contingency plans and failsafe options. Othello hadn't expected us to actually meet anyone during our journey, but he knew it was a possibility. I suspect our department has two or three cover identities prepared for each of us at any given time anyway, just as a matter of principle. We do work for an intelligence agency, after all.

The tug captain's wrist 'puter beeped, and I saw symbols and text lit up in reverse on his goggles. He turned from Peter to look at the rest of us, bobbing in a ragged line across the length of the compartment.

"Which one of you is Randall Upoff?" he asked.

My heart just about jumped into my throat. Peter must have handed over the wrong manifest card. My first reflex was to go into defensive mode, calculating in my head how fast and how far I'd have to move to disarm our opponents or at least put them off guard long enough for everyone else to scatter. Of course, that depending on the rest of my party knowing what I was going to do.

I looked over to Peter for a signal to coordinate us. He waited until my eyes met his, then looked down toward his feet. I followed his gaze and saw his hand at his waist, palm flat and horizontal. Stand down.

I gave him a brief, momentary frown. What's going on?

Peter bent his elbow slightly, then straightened his arm again, as if patting something down with his palm. Repeat, stand down. It was almost the sign language gesture for "dog."

I thought back to my near-outburst in the cargo bay and forced myself to relax. I shot Peter one final look before turning back to see what the tug captain was doing. You'd better be right.

While Peter and I carried on our non-verbal exchange, Randall had been explaining to the tug captain that it was just that one time in college, he hadn't ever done it again since then, and he didn't even like it anyway, what with all that smoke and nasty residue.

"Calm down," the tug captain said, interrupting Randall. "I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't care. Our records show that you have a moving violation, logged last year over Kepler, and you haven't paid the fine."

Randall frowned. "Kepler?"

"I've got your name on the rental contract for an ultralight laser sail vessel," the tug captain said. "First of May, Canepa Outfitters. Is any of this ringing a bell?"

"Oh!" Randall's face lit up. "That! No, see, that wasn't me. It was my friend, Jeff. We got him the sailing lesson as a birthday present --"

"Listen very carefully to what I'm going to say," the tug captain said. "I don't care. It's your name on the contract, you accepted liability for whoever was operating that craft." He tapped some buttons on his wrist 'puter. "The fine's already overdue, so there's going to be an additional penalty."

"But I was never notified!" Randall said.

The tug captain read off a street address in Oceanus Procellarum. "That's not your current address?"

"That's the vacation property we were all staying in," Randall said. "The guy who rented us the ultralight said he wanted a local address --"

"Not my problem," the tug captain said. "I've sent another notification to your current address. Assuming the one on here is up to date?" He popped the manifest card out of his 'puter and held it up.

"Should be," Randall said, glancing at Peter.

The tug captain handed the card back to Peter, then said to Randall, "Pay the fine within twenty-eight days and you won't have any more problems. We only prosecute after three moving violations, but we can suspend your license after two. Stay clean and this one disappears from your record nine months after you pay the fine. Got it?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Randall said.

"Just doing my job," the tug captain said. He nodded at his first mate, then turned back to Peter. "Everything looks to be in order up here, Mr. Harvey. We'll just do a quick cargo inspection, and then we'll be out of your hair."

"Peter," Marvin and I said at the same time.

"Not a problem, Captain," Peter said, holding up a hand toward Marvin and me. He fixed us with a stare and repeated, "Not a problem. Erika, would you show these men into the hold, please?"

I was sure Peter had a plan, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it was. When the tug docked, Erika, Lynn, Randall, and I had left the artifact and all our scanning equipment set up in the cargo bay. Had Peter surreptitiously signaled Erika to disguise or conceal the artifact while we were all waiting here to be inspected? Was Erika going to stun the two men or knock them out after she got them into the hold? How was that any better than subduing them up here, in the crew compartment?

Peter kept his hand raised, palm facing out, as if holding us back with the power of that gesture. It might not have worked for another man, but he made it work for him. Peter could make a lot of things work that shouldn't have.

We watched Erika lead the men from the tug down into the cargo hold. As soon as they had disappeared through the hatch, Marvin and I pushed ourselves off the nearest fixed surface and flew over to Peter.

"You bad boy," I heard Lynn saying to Randall behind me. I didn't hear what he said in reply, because I was focused on Marvin and ready to grab his arm if he tried to throw a punch.

"I'll seal the hatch," Marvin said, almost whispering. "We can't force the tug to undock, but we can make it very uncomfortable --"

"No," Peter said. "We're going to let them finish their inspection."

Marvin blinked and stared. "And how is Erika going to explain that -- thing?" he asked, his voice so tight I thought something might break.

"I'm hoping she'll tell the truth," Peter said, as if they were discussing the weather.

"You gave the Captain the wrong manifest card," I said.

Peter looked at me. His expression was unreadable. "Looks that way."

"That's one hell of a mistake," I said. "Still. Those cards do tend to look very similar."

"And I've been under a lot of stress lately," Peter said. I saw the barest hint of a twinkle in his eyes.

"Oh, Lenara's not going to be happy," Marvin said, dragging a hand across his face. "Jick, Othello isn't going to be happy."

"We completed our mission," Peter said. "We found what we were looking for, and we brought it back to Luna."

"That's your story?"

"And I'm sticking to it."

They glared at each other for a moment. I thought about cracking a joke or making some kind of snide remark, but Marvin was working so hard on maintaining his obstinate, contrary mood, I didn't feel right breaking it for him.

Besides, we'd all have plenty of time to laugh about this later -- on the vid if we were lucky, in prison if we weren't.

"We're with you, Peter," I said. "Aren't we, Marvin?"

Marvin laughed and shook his head. "Sure. Yeah. I've always preferred hanging together to hanging separately. It's so much more convivial."

Peter patted him on the shoulder. "Good man."

We heard shouting from the cargo bay. The tug captain's radio crackled. I couldn't quite make out what he was saying, but I could hazard a pretty good guess.

"Well," Lynn said from the other side of the compartment, "there goes the neighborhood."

The secret things belong to the Lord our G-d, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever...



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Last modified: 19 Aug 2009