There are lots of ways to adapt to a new environment. . . .
Drew Zeigler was finally alone.
People, people, everywhere. That had been his life for so long he’d forgotten what alone was like. First Earth, then the spaceport, then the shuttle. People whose presence made his skin itch, like the emergency suit he’d been forced to wear for the last ten days.
The suit never let him forget what would happen should the shuttle hit a century-old chunk of space debris. The vision of the suit exploding from beneath his clothes like the swelling chest of Superman was a reminder he always needed to keep track of the nearest air tube, so he could plug in before it ran out. A mental itch to go with the physical.
The people were a different type of itch, one that made him feel not as though he were about to explode, but always on the brink of collapse. So many. Always there, always strangers. Everyone else was gone, always would be if he’d done things right. If nobody found the childhood friends who knew he’d once dreamed of space. If . . . too many ifs. Better just to keep his distance, hyper-vigilant for unknown faces in an unknown crowd.
It was impossible. But it had to be done. And it wasn’t impossible. It was like running the 5,000 meters, back in college, before life launched the collapse that had landed him here, alone. Running—at least at the level that paid your tuition—isn’t something you just do, like a kid on a playground. Relax the arms. Lower the shoulders. Don’t try too hard or you’ll wind up working against yourself. You get that so drilled into you that you can’t run without self-monitoring. It was how you became good. No . . . how you went from good to the best you could be. A small difference, but significant.
Now that he’d landed, he could at least get rid of one of the itches. From now on it was his decision when to wear the emergency suit, and in most of Luna C there wasn’t much more risk of being caught in a blowout than of dying of botulism from a plasti-sealed meal. On the periphery . . . well, that was his choice. Itch and be safe, or don’t itch and maybe die. Here, a man could make his own choices.
But the people-itch? Could he let that go, too?
I am Drew Zeigler. This is who I am, who I always will be. I am Drew Zeigler, and this is a new life.
After ten days of Velcro gloves and slippers, Drew had been looking forward to the pleasure of weight. But the Luna C grab plates felt peculiar, as though the simulated gravity was pulling him down through the center of his bones rather than weighting his body more evenly. Not to mention that you were under Earth-normal grav only when actually touching a plate. It felt like the Velcro slippers, only more so.
Customs was a formality. Nobody who’d not been pre-cleared made it aboard a shuttle. Still, getting through was a relief. I am Drew Zeigler, he told himself again. I am on the Moon and I am a new man.
The grab plates were for tourists. The locals avoided them. A macho thing, Drew had figured when he first heard about it. Like not carrying an umbrella in Seattle or never complaining about cold in Minnesota. Or maybe their muscles had simply atrophied to the point where full Earth gee was uncomfortable.
The guidebooks warned that walking the plates was a skill and cautioned against trying to move too quickly. Each had its own term for what could happen if you missed a plate. Ceiling bait was the most colorful although Ping-Pong also got the idea across. He’d wondered why they didn’t just convert the plates to strips, or plate the entire corridor. Then he looked up the power requirements. Yowsa, as his no-longer-gramps used to say. It said something about the Moon’s power economy that there were any of the things at all.
In the spaceport, in fact, there were three aisles of them, marching down one side of the corridor. One was too close for his natural gait, another too far apart. The third was just right. He was on the Yellow Brick Road to the city of the Three Bears.
He couldn’t remember what happened to Goldilocks, but suddenly he felt an overwhelming need to act like a Loonie. He angled off the plates, stepped into native lunar grav . . . and launched the next step straight upward. Happily, he didn’t bounce off the ceiling, though he did float for what seemed like forever, windmilling like an ice skater on a badly launched triple axel.
Everyone noticed, though most were polite enough to pretend they didn’t. He might as well have painted newby across his forehead. When he finally came down, the next stride was more bounce than step and now he was indeed the off-balance skater, moments from crashing. He lunged for the nearest grab plate . . . only to regret it as the force yanked him into itself with a jerk.
Not exactly his most inconspicuous moment.
Collecting himself, he fiddled with the strap of his duffel bag while watching his fellow passengers. Some had been met by guides. Tourists, on short-term visas. Technically, that was him too, but it wasn’t who he needed to be. Others had been met with hugs, kisses. As they headed into the corridor, their strides were low—a slow-rhythmed, shuffling glide.
One of the early astronauts, he’d read, had been a cross-country skier who claimed skiing taught the best motion for low-gee. Since most tourists didn’t come from Norway, it wasn’t anything the guidebooks had latched onto. “Use the grab plates,” was all they’d said. “You’ll find them everywhere you need to go.” But Drew didn’t want to be a tourist, so he studied what the Loonies did. Cock the knee, dip low, then push backward, making sure the force drove you forward, not up. It worked on the grab plates, too, he discovered, though you needed to take three at a time. In fact, with the extra traction, leaping the plates should be the fastest means of locomotion. But nobody was doing it. “Don’t run,” was advice all the books agreed on.
Still, for a few glorious paces, he couldn’t resist, zipping by everyone in the corridor, Terran or Loonie. Back home, life was a cocoon of don’t-dos, but the Loonies really didn’t care if you broke an ankle, so long as you could pay the bill. Which, unfortunately, he couldn’t. The joy faded, and he slowed to a walk, alternating between practicing his Loonie glide and Terran plate-walk. He wasn’t sure which he’d need, but he wanted to have both down pat.
Other than the gravity, the shuttleport might as well have been on Earth. A terminal full of uncomfortable-looking seats and a corridor leading to the real world. Underground, of course. Everything here was underground except the domes and some of the trains.
The nearest dome was a transit hub, a full klick away. From there, you could catch the rail to Luna C’s central domes. But for the moment, there was only the corridor. No carts or moving walkways. If you couldn’t walk a klick, you weren’t fit enough to ride the shuttle anyway.
Everything was purely utilitarian. Airport ordinaire à la neglect. Winnemucca, Nevada, not Heathrow or O’Hare.
The transit hub was more of the same, as was the train. Only the fare was out of the ordinary: thirty-five credits—the first dent in finances never designed for this adventure. Drew would have preferred to walk, but the spaceport was a dozen klicks from the rest of Luna C. Nothing like living in a vacuum to make you leery of things falling out of the sky.
But the dome his thirty-five-credit train ride eventually spilled him into—that was a different matter. It was as though he’d stumbled from Winnemucca into Universal City or the Mall of the Arctic. Or maybe Las Vegas. He was at the edge of a plaza, several hundred meters across, limned by storefronts and cafes with the jingling of slot machines beckoning from the center. Many tourists never made it farther than this dome, though why people would travel so far to lose their money here rather than on Earth, he’d never understood . . . until he looked up.
The guidebooks had given him facts. Now the Skyview pulled at his vision the same way the grab plates pulled at his feet.
Windows were rare on Luna C. The transparent nanoweave that made large ones possible wasn’t cheap. But the city planners had decided that if they were going to do it, they were going to do it right. And the Skyview was the rightest of the right.
Beginning just behind the shops, the windows—there were four of them—blossomed like tulip petals, spreading wide, then returning to an apex two hundred meters above. It was like being inside a giant puffball—with windows.
On the shuttle there was always one set of windows pointed toward Earth, another shuttered against the Sun. From here, only klicks from the Moon’s south pole, the Sun was never visible. Nor was the Earth. Outside was permanent shadow, colder than the nitrogen snows of Pluto. Inside was light, warmth, food, and frenetic fun. Above was endless night, the stars hard, diamond-bright, and oddly renewing.
Drew wasn’t sure he had a soul. But the view, more than anything else, told him the past was a memory. Earth was gone, the life ahead new.
If he would be allowed to live it.
He ducked into a kiosk and bought a download, then treated himself to a sandwich and the cheapest beer available. There were too many people here—not as tightly packed as on the shuttle, but still too many—and as he scanned the want ads, he found himself looking for exits.
Always know your lines of escape; that rule had become so engrained it was like monitoring his running form in college. It was something you automatically did, like old Wild Bill Hickock’s rule of never sitting with his back to a door because if you do, they’ll wind up naming aces and eights for you as the dead-man’s hand. Only in Drew’s case, it would be ham-and-provolone on rye. And how the hell do you keep your back to the wall in a damn dome, where corridors, storefronts, and storebacks spilled in all directions like goddamn tentacles?
He forced himself to take a deep breath and close his eyes, imagining he was back in college, an hour from the start of a big race, high on adrenaline that would do no good until needed. Slow your breathing, hear your pulse, take control and feel your heart rate reduce—that was the trick.
When he did open his eyes again, it was to look upward, at the stars. Earth was gone. The life ahead was new.
If he would allow himself to live it.
In theory, he had four weeks to find a job before his visa expired. In practice, he was going to need one sooner than that.
He studied the download, trying to ignore the activity swirling around him. He didn’t know this place well enough to spot a threat, anyway. The job listings weren’t laden with options, but there were glimmers. Would retail pay enough for provisional residency? What about a temp agency? Could that lead to something permanent soon enough? And what the hell was a sun harvester?
Too late to find out today. What he needed now was a safe place to sleep. Preferably cheap.
The Overway to Central was clearly marked, as were the routes to a half-dozen other domes. Anyplace would be cheaper than here, and the trains weren’t the only way around. Most of the central domes were only a klick or two apart, separated by underground passages, some of which would have grab plates. Even the richest tourists didn’t always take the train.
Maybe one of the tentacles that had so frightened him before would offer a hidey-hole for a quick nap. Maybe he could grab a snooze on one of the benches beneath the Skyview.
He chewed the last of his sandwich, looking for a recycler for the wrapper. It was still too early for sleep. Better to do some exploring. He’d once been an athlete. He could walk.
Artemis Razo was drinking coffee, watching vids of the afternoon shuttle spitting out its occupants.
Most were tourists: rich, young, and trying to don that been-there/done-that look that said being here was no big deal. Although there were always a few who hadn’t believed the warnings about synth-gee or thought they were too tough for spacesick meds. Part of being young and rich, he supposed, especially if you were male. Once he’d been full of young testosterone, but that was a long time ago and it had gone elsewhere, along with a lot of other things.
One idiot was trying to run the plates. Raz had seen that before, too. Maybe this one wouldn’t wind up in an emergency room. He should care, but that too had gone with the years. The guy had the right to break his bones if that was what he wanted.
But there were always a few who were different. Rich and young, yes, but trouble in Luna C’s more permissive clubs. Low gee and alcohol were a poor combination for the uninitiated. If you threw in a world where most people worked hard and blew steam even harder—well, it sometimes gave Raz more reasons than he wished for wanting to blow steam himself at shift’s end.
Then there were the dreamers, hoping to find places on the Moon before their visas expired. Raz had seen these a thousand times, too. Even in the low-quality vid, you could sometimes see it in their eyes. They wanted this place too much—enough that not getting it would crush them. Twenty years before, that had been him, though in his case it had been getting the dream that had crushed him. Still, for years he’d been sympathetic to other wannabes. But that too was long ago.
This one’s name was Fidel Franko. Son of a strip-mall mogul from Philadelphia. A lot of F sounds there. Why do parents do that to their kids, he wondered, then flicked off the image.
Unless they had jobs lined up in advance, most wannabes failed. He couldn’t let himself care. Better to just wish the guy luck in a vague sort of way—about as personal as how, as a child in South Jersey, he’d wished well to the frogs that every spring insisted on trying to hop across the highway. Some made it. Most didn’t. That’s the way it was, always would be. Every spring, the frogs would hop. Statistically, not a good bet, but enough would make it to ensure there were always more frogs.
* * *
The last Raz had heard, Jenn was still in Perth. That’s where she’d gone when her visa ran out, taking his unborn baby with her. They’d not known she was pregnant until they got here, and for her, pregnancy and low-gee were an even worse mix than low-gee and alcohol. Nobody would hire her, throwing up all the time.
He’d thought that once he got established, he could bring her and the child back up. But Loonie immigration was a lot less permissive than its clubs. Had he and Jenn been married when they left Earth, it might have been possible. As it was, she’d had the same one-time shot as anyone else. It was a game of chance with much bigger stakes than any in the casinos, and she’d lost. She could come as a tourist as often as she wanted, but there were no second chances on immigration. Raz could have gone back and joined her once he’d figured that out. But he hadn’t. And in a dark recess of his mind, he wondered if he’d have done the same even if he’d known from the start.
His com buzzed.
“I’m on site, boss,” came the hoarse voice of Officer McHaddon.
McHaddon’s natural tone was a soft tenor—an embarrassment to an increasingly paunchy man who thought it undercut his authority. For the past three loons, McHaddon had been trying to intensify his tone. Overcompensation? Raz wasn’t about to ask. All he knew was it didn’t have the desired effect. The man now sounded like perpetual laryngitis.
How long had McHaddon been on the force? At least since Jenn’s final disappearance, when she told him it was better if his daughter thought her father dead than unreachably distant, and he’d realized no amount of guilt would ever return him to Earth.
McHaddon’s voice was unusually raspy. Maybe he’d been up all night. “The plates are still there,” he said, “but we’ve got about ten meters of corridor in Luna gee, right off the Skyview. Looks like somebody crowbarred the plates up, snapped the wires, and put ’em back. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt. Just a few bruises, plus some folks threatening to sue you, me, the city, whatever. You want for me to call City Services?”
“I already did.” Raz sighed. “Sounds like kids. Use your discretion.”
Sometimes the worst thing you could do to a juvenile was throw the book at him. Raz had always wished he could thank the cop who’d remembered that when he was sixteen and set him on the path that got him away from his mother and her boyfriends and eventually to a fresh start. Except . . . the fresh start had come at such a price. Why hadn’t he and Jenn been more careful? What would have happened had he gone back? A lifetime of resentment? Or just a different lifetime? Damn that wannabe. Raz might not want to care anymore, but even the effort of not-caring stirred up memories.
Luckily he’d put McHaddon on voice only. Or maybe it wasn’t luck. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been feeling this way more and more often of late. Not the type of thing you want your subordinates to see.
He reached again for his coffee. There were days when he might as well mainline the stuff the way his mother and her boyfriends did the crackerjack. “But if it’s some drunk tourist, I want him out of my domes.” The coffee was cold. He drank it anyway. “Even if you have to put him in an emergency suit and roll him out an airlock.”
“Got it, boss.”
“Emergency suit optional.”
McHaddon’s laugh forgot to sound tough. “We all know you’re the baddest of badasses.”
Despite himself, Raz smiled. “Someday, someone’s going to push me too far. Just wait.”
Another laugh. “Whatever you say.”
That was the trouble with the Moon. Everyone knew you too well. Or thought they did. Nobody knew about the crackerjack. Or Jenn.
The security vid was still playing. Raz reached for the off button, just as a cough at his office door announced he wasn’t alone.
Caeli Booker was leaning against the doorframe as if she owned it. Which, on occasions, it almost seemed she did. Tall, with frizzy red hair, green eyes, and a pale, oval face flirting on the border between pleasant and pretty, she was an imposing enough figure she usually got what she wanted—and a frequent enough visitor that none of his subordinates was going to challenge her.
With a twitch of Earther-strong shoulders she shoved herself upright, walked in, and settled into the visitor’s chair. “You ever miss an offloading?”
He wasn’t sure if she’d detected his mood but she always brightened his day. “Not when you’re flying. Gotta keep you out of trouble.”
“Or in it?”
The green eyes sparkled and Raz had to fight to hold back his own smile. “I’ve never done that.”
“Those seeds were a controlled substance!”
“If you’re a flower pot. They weren’t opium poppies for God’s sake!” When she smiled her face definitely kicked over the border into pretty.
“And probably allergenic as hell.” The seeds were how they’d met. “The council would have had my ass if the Vantage Vista had been stupid enough to plant them. You finally going to tell me how you got them through?”
The grin was pure wolf. “Gal’s gotta have her secrets.”
Then the smile slipped, revealing a trace of something that lasted just long enough for him to realize she might have other secrets. Like him and Jenn. Him and the baby—Lily, who would never know him. In space, everyone had something. Some talked. Most didn’t.
Then the deeper glimpse was gone as quickly as it had come. Caeli glanced over her shoulder, leaned in conspiratorially. “Oh, hell. I just walked through with them. Called ’em baking supplies. You know, for muffins.”
Raz knew more than he wanted about hiding from deeper truths. Light conversation was safer. Flirting better yet. “That’s a damn lot of muffins!”
“And who the hell thinks flowers are toxic waste? Though I guess I wouldn’t have planted ’em on my shuttle. Had a damn cigarette smoker a couple of runs ago. And I have no idea how she got those through customs.”
“So, how long you up for?”
“Twenty-five days, can you believe it? Nearly a whole loon of sleep and R’n’R. But first, I wanted to tell you I think you’ve got a gwipp.”
“Gwipp. G-W-I-P-P. Government Witness in Personal Protection.”
“You made that up.”
“Yeah. Sounds good, though, doesn’t it?” She leaned close, for real this time. “I’m trusting you, okay? If I’m right, I wasn’t supposed to figure it out.”
“Got it.” His tone startled him. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know her story. “What can you tell me?”
“Not much, specifically. I’ve got a friend at the other end. Someone in Immigration who has been known to . . . imbibe. She told me that putting together the passenger list was odd. Said they weren’t allowed to do more than standard checks.” She cocked her head, looking for words. “Usually they pick a few passengers at random and work like hell to dig up skeletons.”
Lily. Everyone had them. Immigration might not care, but nobody wanted them found.
“Anyway, she told me the order seemed to come from very high up. Said she’d never seen anything like it. A gwipp’s the only thing I can think of.”
“Any idea who?”
“Nope. Those folks don’t just get a new past, right? They get plastic surgery, bodywork. I bet they can make a twenty-year-old look fifty. I wish they could do it vice versa.”
“You’re nowhere close to fifty.”
She laughed. “How do you know? Maybe I’m not really me and I’m a hundred-year-old crone from . . . where is it they live practically forever? Moldavia?”
“Yeah, with the legs of”—he tried to think of the latest vid phenom, but came up blank. At first, he’d ignored them all because they reminded him of Jenn. Then he was out of the habit.
She leaned back, crossing said legs for his inspection.
They’d played this type of game before but suddenly he was uncomfortable. “Maybe it was the Lebdekov assassination.”
“No way!” Caeli uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, the debater returning. “Whoever that was is long gone or dead! More likely some refugee from the mob crackdown in Philadelphia.”
That was interesting. Could it be that easy? McHaddon would probably have the grab-plate vandals within the hour. Would the Feds leave such an obvious trail?
Meanwhile, Caeli needed her rest. “Thanks,” he said. “You’re the best.”
She leaned forward again, but instead of a peck on the cheek, deposited the barest touch right on the lips. “Be good to yourself,” she said. Then, before he could react, she turned to go, auburn mane blazing in a halo of backlight.
Be sure to read
the exciting conclusion
in this month's issue,
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Copyright © 2012 Richard A. Lovett & William Gleason