Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Trill and the Beanstalk
Artwork by I-Wei Huang
Trill and the Beanstalk
    by Edmund R. Schubert

Captain Jack Trilling leaned his shoulder against the floor-to-ceiling window that separated the base's observation deck from the black, white, and gray chroma of the lunar landscape. The tip of his nose was less than three centimeters from the window. He was not, however, looking at the moon's surface, or even at the stars which called to him from the perpetual night sky. Instead, his brown eyes were focused on the reflection of the man moving behind him.

"Do that and you're a dead man, Vishti," he said.

Vishti paused, piece in hand, and clucked his tongue. "Trill, Trill, Trill . . . You've had a long run at the top, but this time you are going down."

With that, he placed his queen on king's pawn four.

Trill needed only a fraction of a second to study the chessboard's reflection. This game was going exactly as he played it in his head twelve moves ago.

"Bishop captures Queen," Trill said.

Vishti's dark eyes darted from the board to Trill and back again. He was clearly pleased.

Perfect. That meant Vishti would study the pieces just long enough to convince himself Trill was falling into his trap. Trill felt a fragment of a smile begin to form at one corner of his mouth. He immediately brought it under control.

With a shrug and a shake of his head, Vishti moved Trill's bishop for him, capturing the queen. Then he moved his rook.

"I can not believe you fell for my sacrificial queen gambit," the Indian programmer said, "In fairness, I should tell you that mate is now inevitable. Two moves and it's done."

"You're right, my friend, except it's not two moves. Only one."

Trill stood, turned his back on the lunar panorama, and walked to the table.

"Vishti," Trill said, "you get better every time we play. But today isn't the day you beat me."

He moved his knight. Trill found that people often overlooked knights late in the game. "Checkmate."

Vishti brought one hand to his face, placed a fingertip on the end of his nose, and tried to comprehend what had just happened. Now Trill allowed himself to smile. It was never hard to see -- once the pieces were all in position. But Trill always kept the Indian programmer off balance with a series of feints designed to keep him from seeing the real plan until it was too late.

Vishti pinched his lips together. "Someday someone is going to beat you and I pray that I am there to see it."

Trill shrugged with his eyebrows. "Just between you and me, I'm looking forward to that day, too. Probably more than you are."

"You wish to lose?"

"I wish to get better. No disrespect, but you're the only one who'll play me anymore and beating you five times a week isn't making me any better. And playing the computer just isn't the same. I want a real person."

"You are saying that losing is good . . .?"

"I'm saying it depends on your priorities." Trill rubbed his hands together. "And my priority right now is getting into space. I've been trapped on the moon's surface for far too long, so pay up."

"Do you really think the colonel will permit this?" Vishti asked. "I can not imagine him allowing us to trade duty assignments."

Trill didn't care what Colonel Kirtley thought. At first he had hoped it might be different here on the moon, but in the end it turned out like all the rest of his assignments. When Colonel Kirtley had learned Trill's aunt was also the 52nd and current President of the United States, his attitude toward him immediately changed. Kirtley wasn't vindictive about it -- Trill wasn't even sure the colonel was conscious of it -- but the change was undeniable. Like nearly every commanding officer before, Kirtley assumed that Trill's relationship to the President was the only reason he had gotten this post. That he had to have pulled strings, called favors, and used his aunt, Madam-President, to get his way. Which pissed Trill off. He was his own man. He succeeded or failed on his own merits.

Not once in all the years since Aunt Chelsea had first been elected had Trill played that card. He had even hoped she wouldn't be re-elected back in 2048. He had voted for her, of course -- but secretly he had hoped she would lose. Trill's relationship to the president usually proved out to be more of a liability than an advantage. Commanders either took punitive attitudes and gave him crap jobs, or did what Kirtley did and "balanced the scales." Made him work twice as hard for half the credit. Trill understood it was only human nature, but that didn't make it suck any less.

And he wasn't asking for much; all he wanted was his turn running the lunar elevator up to meet the shuttle. To swim in a sea of stars was the whole reason he became an astronaut -- and Kirtley kept taking that away from him.

"I'm an astronaut, dammit," he heard himself say, "not the bloody Maytag man." Trill hadn't intended to say it out loud, but he had reached his limit. "I didn't sign up for a year up here so I could spend it fixing broken-down ore carriers that aren't even carrying anything."

"You are the chief engineer, are you not?" Vishti countered.

"Emphasis on the word 'chief.' Look, I don't mind pulling my own weight, but he sends me out every time there's a problem."

"As desperate as we are to beat the Chinese to Mars, we need to ensure the equipment will work properly before we fly it out there, don't we? And who better to determine that than the chief engineer?"

Trill walked back to the window, allowing himself to actually look outside this time. He wasn't going to let Vishti get under his skin. Vishti was probably convinced he was merely telling unpleasant but necessary truths.

Trill closed his eyes and took a deep breath. No, he thought, Vishti's just jerking my chain. Friends do that. And Vishti was as good a friend as Trill had among the dozen astronauts stationed on the American moon-base. He was just needling him and Trill knew it.

A new reflection moved across the window. Trill steeled himself.

"Captain Trilling," Kirtley announced. "Time to suit up; you've got work to do. Computer's showing a breakdown near the maintenance dome."

Vishti rose to his feet, saying, "I shall attend to it, Colonel."

Kirtley pivoted in Vishti's direction -- a difficult maneuver in 1/6 Earth gravity and one Trill imagined Kirtley must have practiced repeatedly to get just right. He clasped his hands behind his back and snapped, "At what point did my senior programmer change his name?"

Vishti shrugged. "It's just that Trill and I had this bet . . ."

"You're gambling?" Kirtley said, brow furrowing. He pivoted again and glared at Trill. "On my base?"

"A friendly wager," Vishti said soothingly. "We do it all the time."

Kirtley didn't so much a blink. "I asked you a question, Trilling. Are you gambling on my base?"

Vishti took a step in their direction. "It was just --"

Trill knew Kirtley had made up his mind. There was only one thing to do.

He snapped to attention. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

"Sorry, sir?" Kirtley repeated. "You think that covers it?"

"No, sir."

Kirtley rose up on his toes and got in Trill's face. The man had missed his calling; he was a natural-born drill sergeant.

"Damn right, 'no, sir,'" Kirtley barked. "You'll suit up and get those ore carriers taken care of. And when you get back here, you'll strip down the lunar elevator's control mechanism and rebuild it. And if it takes you more than two hours to rebuild, you'll do it again. And again. Until you can do it in the allotted time."

"Yes, sir!"

Trill saluted, and held the salute, until Kirtley returned it. He knew it was hard to argue with someone who said little more than "yes, sir," and "no, sir."

As Kirtley made his way out of the observation deck, Vishti stared at Trill. Trill knew what Vishti wanted to say -- and appreciated the sentiments behind it. But it changed nothing.

The programmer said it anyway. "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. What is rebuilding the elevator's controls going to accomplish?"

Trill shook his head, watching Kirtley's form as it disappeared down the hallway. "Besides putting me in the middle of the place I most want to be, knowing he'll never let me go there when it matters? Not much." Trill's eyes defied Vishti to tell him he was wrong. But in his mind he was picturing himself laying his king down on the board. Resigning. "This operation is under military jurisdiction for a reason. And as close as we are to war with the Chinese, this is no time to be second-guessing a superior officer. I've got my orders. And I'll carry them out."


The Earth was full and blue and very far away. Around it, the stars gleamed brilliantly. They were brighter than Trill could have ever imagined before coming to the moon.

He ran his small repair craft over the edge of the crater, watching the lunar dust fly in low-gravity slow motion. Getting sent out here was far from the worst thing he could think of. Trill just wished he had a chance to be more of an astronaut. He wanted to be out in space so bad that it --

He killed the thought even as it took form. Navigating the moon's surface is more than 99.999999% of people would ever get to do, he thought to himself. Stop being a baby.

Trill pulled the repair craft up to the stalled-out train of ore carriers. The Indo-American coalition was testing them on the moon before using the lunar elevator to launch them to Mars. The ore carriers ran on the same basic maglev principles as the lunar elevator, albeit another version -- a version that broke down a lot more often. Trill questioned whether he could, in good conscience, recommend sending this equipment out to the asteroid belt.

Good God, he thought, what a bureaucratic nightmare that would be. If I didn't give this gear a good review, several companies -- hell, several governments -- would really get their panties in a wad.

That thought brought a grin on Trill's face. A big one.

Pulling on his helmet and gloves, Trill climbed out of his small craft and half walked/ half bounded toward the cable the ore carriers followed. What he saw when he arrived stunned him. In six months on the moon, he had seen just about every kind of mechanical failure imaginable. Looking down at the electronic mess he found today, he knew he was witness to something new to the lunar surface: sabotage.

His black, white, and gray surroundings suddenly took on a much more sinister hue.

"Base?" Trill whispered into the microphone in his helmet. "Trill to base . . ."

There was no reply.

"Armstrong Base," Trill repeated. His clenched jaw barely moved. "I have a situation. Please respond."

"Captain Thrilling," came a voice from the Com-center. "What's the scoop, big guy?"

Blacky McGee. Trill and Blacky had shipped up on the same transport six months ago. A nice enough fellow, but the man didn't seem to know when it was time to screw around and when it was time to be serious.

"Listen," began Trill, "there's --"


At the very edge of his peripheral vision Trill caught sight of something moving. Something that didn't belong.

"Hold on," he said, sinking into a crouch.

Edging closer to the ore carriers, Trill crept alongside the row. Stopping at the third car -- the point where he had seen movement -- he eased himself up the side and over the top. And found himself staring down the barrel of an odd-looking pistol.

Trill's stomach felt like someone had just dropped a black hole into it. What he found himself thinking, however, was, Hnnnh, somebody actually modified a gun so the trigger design would work with a space-suit glove. Who in the world would . . .

Eyes traveling up the arm of the small man holding the gun, Trill quickly found his answer. The gunman was wearing a Chinese space-suit.

Two years ago, the Indo-American coalition had built a lunar elevator at one of the Lagrange Roots -- a point on the moon that passed directly below the L1 and L2 Lagrange Points, where the orbital and gravitational forces between the Earth and moon balanced out. Now India and America shared a 60,000-kilometer long carbon-nanotube tether, or "beanstalk" as the men at Armstrong Base called it. It was ideal for launches through L1 toward Earth. Once that was built, they assumed that the Chinese would fade from the new space race the same way the Russians had when America landed the first men on the moon. They were as mistaken as Aristotle when he insisted that Earth was the center of the universe.

Because the Chinese went ahead and committed the time, money, and people, to build their own elevator on the dark side of the moon. Rumor had it that the project had cost them twenty-four lives (a rumor the Chinese government vehemently denied), along with the billions of yen they openly acknowledged. And the Chinese had made their tether 70,000 km. long, enabling them to launch through L2 while facing Mars and the asteroid belt, which turned out to be the real prize in this new space race. Because whoever got to Mars first, controlled the easiest access point to the crystalline treasure recently discovered in the asteroid belt -- a previously unknown mineral which could be used to manufacture computer chips that operated 4,000 times faster than anything previously known to man.

So what had started out as a minor space race between the Chinese and the Americans -- nothing more than a pissing war between modern-day empires -- had turned into something far more serious. Trillions of dollars and entire nation's economies were at stake.

"Trilling!" barked a voice.

Trill jumped, then immediately realized the booming voice was coming from inside his spacesuit's helmet. Colonel Kirtley.

Despite Trill's sudden movement, the Chinese astronaut did not fire. He didn't even flinch.

"Trilling," Kirtley repeated. "What the devil is going on out there?"

The Chinese astronaut waggled his gun, then brought one finger to where his lips were behind the mirrored visor, in the universal signal for silence. Then he punched a button below the keypad and activated a small screen built into the arm of his suit. It displayed a message that read: Mr. Trilling, I need to talk to you privately.

Trill looked at the gun and wondered how much choice he had in the matter.

Then it hit him. The note was addressed directly to him.

Mr. Trilling . . .

How in the world could the Chinese know who he was?

"Sorry about that, Colonel," Trill said into his helmet microphone. "This is going to take a little longer than usual. Just wanted to give you a heads up."

"Blacky said you had a 'situation.' Said it sounded like something was wrong. Is there?"

The saboteur gestured at Trill with his pistol. Obviously the man could hear and understand their transmissions.

"No, sir," Trill said. "Everything's fine."

The Chinese astronaut gestured again, directing Trill to walk towards the maintenance dome.

Trill complied, and when the two astronauts rounded the near side, they arrived at a gigantic vehicle, almost half the size of the dome. Trill stopped in his tracks. He looked from the vehicle to the gun-toting saboteur and back to the vehicle.

Was he being kidnapped? Damn. Then again, he was the president's nephew.

He curled his fingers, making his hands into angry hammers. About to hurl himself at his captor, Trill envisioned the Chinese man's message again. Mr. Trilling, I want to talk.

Talk, the message said. Privately.

What in hell was going on here? Trill didn't know; but the more he thought about it, the less it felt like a kidnapping. Whoever had written that note had covered everything. It said so much with so few words -- if you scratched beneath the surface. Besides, Trill knew that hurling himself wildly about wasn't going to get answers, it was going to get him hurt or killed.

Control yourself, he thought, then control the situation.

Nevertheless, Trill's heart raced as he followed the Chinese astronaut into the craft's airlock.

Once they were both inside and the hatch was sealed, the light on the autocycler switched from red to green. The Chinese astronaut removed his helmet, freeing a cascade of long, silky black hair.

The saboteur, Trill suddenly saw, was a woman. She flipped her hair back over her shoulder and locked onto Trill with her eyes. Even with his helmet on, Trill knew it had to be obvious he was staring.

"What's the matter, Mr. Trilling?" the woman said in barely accented English. "Your country has female astronauts, too."

Trill closed his eyes. I'm an American, he said silently to himself. She's Chinese, and I'm an American.

An American man who had been on the moon for half a year, with ten sweaty, hairy men and a gang shower. It had been six months since Trill had seen a woman.

He closed his gaping mouth and snapped off his helmet.

Pulling off her right glove, the woman extended her hand. "My name is Wing Fei."

Trill shook her hand. He moved very slowly.

"It's okay, Mr. Trilling, you can speak freely here. This vehicle's insulation has the effect of dampening electronic signals. Without an external antenna, no one can pick up a signal from your radio."

Trill's hand drifted unconsciously to his ear, tugging on the lobe.

"Trill," he said absently. "Everybody calls me Trill."

Wing began pulling off her spacesuit, stripping down to a black body suit. As he watched, he wondered how, even with the bulky suit, he had ever thought she was a man. He had to work very hard to keep from staring at her breasts and legs. She was a beautiful woman.

How much had that beauty hindered her, Trill wondered, and how much had she used it to advance her career?

Trill jerked his head to one side. Snap out of it, fool. You can't afford to let yourself be distracted. Get control of yourself.

Striking the traditional at-ease stance, he said, "More than twenty minutes went by from the time the ore carriers shut down until the time I found you. You could have easily gotten away -- if sabotage was your only intention. Your little stunt was designed to lure me out."

Wing sat on a small bench and crossed her slender legs, applauding lightly as if Trill had just made a thirty-foot putt.

"Splendid deductive reasoning, Mr. Trilling."

Trill's expression hardened. "This is about my aunt, isn't it?"

Wing placed a hand between her breasts and a doe-eyed expression on her face. "What ever do you mean?"

Trill had little patience with people who played games. He unclasped his hands and took an aggressive step forward.

Wing leaned to her left and rested her hand near the pistol.

That brought Trill to a halt. "Look," he said. "I came here quietly, peacefully, because you invited me. Now tell me what the hell you want or I'm out of here, gun be damned."

The change in Wing's face was subtle but unmistakable. She believed him. Good. He wasn't sure he believed it, but it had seemed like the right thing to say.

"All right, Mr. Trilling," Wing replied. She rose to her feet and took a step toward him. "This has nothing to do with your aunt. I need your help."

Trill softened a little. That was not what he had expected. "What's the problem?"

"I'm the chief engineer at our station, and our elevator's maglev propulsion system has been malfunctioning for weeks. If I don't get it fixed by tomorrow, they're going to send me home in disgrace. I'll probably be cut from the space program. I need help fixing our elevator."

"Why would I help you? You're the competition. The enemy."

Wing looked at the wall, then at the door to the airlock. Then down at the floor.

"Mr. Trilling," she said, "my salary as an astronaut supports thirty-four relatives in the Hunan Province. If I lose this job, those people will starve to death. I would do anything to prevent that from happening. She ran her eyes up and down his body. "Anything."

Trill studied Wing. Thirty-four relatives? Trill knew enough about China's economic situation to believe that one government salary could support that many farmers and factory workers. He sighed.

"So let me get this straight. You sabotaged our maglev cable and ore carriers, figuring whoever came out to repair it would be your best bet for help with your beanstalk?"

Wing nodded, mostly with her eyes. Dark brown eyes. Begging for help.

Trill shrugged and sighed again. "Look, I feel sorry for you and your predicament, so I won't report this encounter. But you know I can't help you. Our countries are a hair's breadth from war."

Wing softened her voice, as if someone might overhear. She half-whispered, "I know. That's why I have to sneak you in. It's as important for me to keep this a secret as for you."

Trill's voice remained well above her conspiratorial level. "Which part of no are you not understanding? If your people find me anywhere on your base station, let alone sniffing around your beanstalk, they're going to shoot me on sight and then mail my corpse to the White House. No. No freaking way. No, no, no, no."

A nanosecond later a thought hit Trill.

"And even if -- and that's a damn big if -- but even if I manage to avoid your people, what in the world would I tell my people when I get back? I can't go missing for twelve hours and then just say to the base commander, 'Gee, I knew I should have made that left at Albuquerque . . .'"

Wing smiled. "No, you're going to tell your nice Colonel Kirtley that you found a way to infiltrate our base and study first-hand not only our elevator, but our entire layout. And it will be true. That's got 'hero' written all over it. They'll probably even fly you home and give you a parade through New York City."

She paused to let that picture settle in. Then she added, "The top level of New York City . . ."

This time Trill could not prevent himself from smiling. The hell with taking control of some minor situation in an over-sized cruiser. He was going home a hero. And no one -- no one -- could claim that it was because of his aunt.

"You're sure you can get me in without getting caught?" he asked.

With those words came a stab of guilt. Wing had tried to appeal to his better nature, but thirty-four human lives hadn't been enough motivation for him.

But personal gain? That had moved him. The realization ate at him.


Trill would never have believed Wing's cumbersome-looking vehicle could have moved at the speeds it did, but it turned out to be more rocket-sled than cruiser, and they arrived at the Chinese base station in just under three hours.

The extreme vibrations of the rocket sled reminded Trill of the old days, before carbon-nanotubes had made space elevators possible. Back then people went into space with chemical booster rockets. It hadn't been that long ago that Trill made his first flight into space on just such a vehicle. That was the first time the stars had been transformed from twinkling pinpricks of light into a multifaceted explosion of brilliance. That day Trill had felt as if he could reach out and snatch up a handful of stars, and his longing to do so had been intense. It was why he became an astronaut: that sense of wonder and awe. Now that sense of wonder had been reduced to little more than a memory.

As they neared the Chinese base, Wing's vehicle locked onto a homing beacon and they were automatically guided the rest of the way in.

"Stay in the back of the craft," Wing told Trill as she brought the ship into a docking bay. "I'll clear the way, then come back for you."


Forty minutes later Wing was nowhere to be seen and Trill's madly churning stomach had nothing to do with hunger.

Where in the name of Hare Krishna had that woman gotten to? It occurred to Trill that her sad, sad story might have been a ruse to get him to come along quietly. But he didn't believe that. If the Chinese were going take him hostage, they would have done so before now. Long before.

No, even when Wing had stuck a gun in his face, Trill had never really felt threatened. He wasn't sure what she was up to, but it never felt malevolent.

Sitting in the back of Wing's rocket-sled, Trill wondered again where Wing was. He wasn't thinking about her breasts and legs anymore, like he had been when he first saw her in her black body suit. At this point, he would have been thrilled to see a shoulder blade. A big toe. Anything. Because the longer Wing was gone, the more likely Trill was to leave the cruiser and start exploring, and that could only lead to trouble. Fifteen minutes later, his patience was spent and his head was out the door. Idiot, he thought. But it didn't stop him.

He was instantly greeted by a recording of Vishti's voice emanating from within his helmet.

"Captain Jack Trilling," Vishti's voice repeated over and over. "Come in. Please respond. Captain Jack Trilling. Come in. Please respond."

For the signal to reach Trill here, they must have been running it through all eight of the satellites the U.S. had orbiting the moon. Not good. He had counted on having more time before they realized he was gone.

Trill backed against a wall, wishing for somewhere to hide and transmit. Inside Wing's craft, the insulation cut his signal off; outside he was exposed. If anyone should hear his voice and come investigate . . .

Trill put Wing's vehicle between himself and what appeared to be the corridor leading to the rest of the station. He whispered harshly, "Come in, Armstrong Base. This is Trill. Vishti? Blacky? Whoever's on duty. Somebody talk to me."

"Trilling!" came the instant reply. "Where in blazes are you?"

It was Kirtley.

"I'm inside the Chinese base station, colonel," Trill said, prepared to tell the version of events he and Wing had concocted during the flight over.

"I was afraid of that," Kirtley interrupted. "Something about your demeanor during your last transmission was just odd, so I sent Blacky and Neru out to check up on you. When they reported that the ore carriers had been sabotaged and you were gone, I figured the Chinese had snatched you." Kirtley's voice hardened when he said, "Have they tortured you? Because I swear I'll make them pay. Nobody steals one of my men and gets away with it."

"Colonel, no; you've got it wrong. I snuck in."

There was a long pause as Colonel Kirtley processed this new information. Trill pictured a cartoon version of Kirtley's eyeballs falling out of his head and rolling around the floor.

Finally Kirtley said, "How'd you manage that?"

"Stowed away on the saboteur's rocket sled," Trill replied, glad he and Wing had rehearsed this story. "No one knows I'm here. If the crew is operating on Peking-time, most of them should be asleep for a couple more hours. I'll poke around, see what I can learn, then steal a rocket sled and fly home."

Trill looked at the front end of the craft he was hiding behind and hoped that he could fly one of these things if it came to that. He and Wing had discussed a lot of things during the flight here; how Trill was going to get home had not been one of them.

In a calculating tone, Kirtley said, "Negative."

Trill's eyebrows drew together. Excuse me, he wanted to say. Kirtley never gave him the chance.

"You are to proceed directly to their beanstalk and take it out of commission."

"Excuse me?" Trill heard himself blurt.

"We've been getting intelligence reports that suggest the Chinese are only weeks away from launching another beanstalk to Mars. If that's true, we're screwed. That makes you the perfect man in the perfect place at the perfect time."

"How do you figure?" Trill demanded. This was lunacy. What evil spirit had possessed his commander?

"All those times I had you strip down and rebuild our elevator controls? You know these systems inside-out; who better to remove that one key piece that will disable the entire system, yet take the Chinese months to identify? They'll never suspect a thing."

"Impossible," Trill protested. "They'll catch me."

"Let me put this in terms that your tiny mind can grasp," Kirtley said. "You can either put that thing out of commission and come home a hero, or you can die trying. Frankly I don't care which. But if you come back here and their elevator is still functioning, I'm going to drop a bomb on their station -- and it's going to be duct-taped to your ass. The Chinese government will not claim Mars. Do I make myself clear?"

Trill heard footsteps.

"Abundantly," he whispered.

It's probably just Wing, Trill told himself. Nothing to worry about. Just the same, he shut his eyes and willed himself invisible.

"Abundantlyyyyy . . .?" Kirtley repeated, looking for the military equivalent of the magic word.

Trill could actually hear Kirtley drumming his fingers on a desk, thousands of kilometers away, waiting for Trill to say, "Abundantly, sir."

"Trill?" a female voice called.

Wing. That solved half his problem.

But if Kirtley heard her voice - hell, any voice - calling his name while he was inside the Chinese station, Trill was going to end up with a bomb taped to his ass no matter what else happened. He reached into his helmet and snapped his radio off.

"Trill?" a puzzled Wing repeated a moment later.

He stepped out from behind the craft.

She was still wearing that damn black body suit. Breasts? Legs? Trill snorted. She had spoiled that for him. Now when he looked at all he could see her was thirty-four dead Chinese farmers. It was irrelevant whether the Chinese government executed them or just left them to starve when Wing's salary disappeared. They would die.

Trill weighed that against the death of his own career if he disobeyed Kirtley's order. He had worked his whole life to become an astronaut.

Dammit, why had she told him about those people? This would be easy if he didn't know about them.

"Trill?" Wing called again, penetrating his fog.

He looked at her, a stranger, really. Only slightly less unfamiliar than her thirty-four relatives back on Earth. He thought about Colonel Kirtley, and forced himself to smile.

"Right here," he said.

An answering smile crept across her face. She stood there for a moment, staring at him like she was wrestling with some idea that kept turning itself inside out. Finally she said, "Sorry to be gone so long. You ready?"

Trill climbed to his feet. "Take me to that elevator."

Wing left the bay. Trill followed.

"Damn!" he cried just as he crossed the threshold.

Wing froze. "What?"

"I talked. Dammit, what was I thinking? I talked to my colonel on the radio. If your people are monitoring our radio transmissions, they'll know I'm here."

"Not a problem," Wing replied. "I drugged the officer who's supposed to be listening. Dropped a sedative in his coffee. Then I had to take care of one more problem in the elevator's control room. That's why I was gone so long." After a moment, Wing added, "Why did you contact your base?"

"They were looking for me," Trill said. "Radioing." He omitted the details of that conversation, adding simply, "They think I snuck in on my own, so you're going to need to be quiet when I turn my radio back on."

Wing shrugged. Again, it was not the reaction Trill had expected. She was so hard to read. He turned his radio back on.

Of course, the moment he did, Kirtley was right there, barking in his helmet again. Trill cut him off, trying his best to sound sincere. "Yes, sir, I hear you," he said. "I must have passed through a shielded portion of the station and lost your signal for a minute. I heard your order though, and am proceeding in that direction. Be aware that it may be necessary for me to maintain extended periods of silence. There are crewmen and scientists everywhere."

Trill felt a little bit guilty. Wing wouldn't be leading him past security if she knew what he was planning.

Three minutes later, they walked into the control room of the elevator. Trill was stunned to find the room desolate. Whether the elevator was running or not, the U.S. station always had someone on duty. Then he noticed the three unconscious men on the floor.

Trill looked at Wing, who opened her hands, palms to the ceiling, as if to say, What else could I do?

The control room looked through a gigantic window into the bay where the elevator rested on a low pedestal. Trill snorted as he contemplated the millimeter wide carbon-nanotube tether that ran through the center of the elevator and off into space. It looked exactly like the U.S. model, except it was five or six times the size of the one Trill was used to working with.

Empty pallets lay everywhere. It looked as though huge quantities of material had been loaded into the elevator.

"Holy crap," he said out loud before he could catch himself.

"What?" Kirtley's voice said in Trill's helmet. Wing looked at Trill questioningly.

"That's the biggest damn elevator I've ever seen," Trill answered them both.

It looked as if it had been loaded with everything the Chinese owned. As if in preparation for a long . . .

. . . trip.

Trill froze.

Why would the Chinese have an elevator car that big, fully loaded, if the propulsion system wasn't functioning properly? Quite simply: they wouldn't. This elevator, loaded to the gills, had been prepared to run its cargo to the end of its tether and then loaded onto a Chinese spacecraft headed for Mars.

Trill's hands clenched into fists. Deep down he had suspected Wing wasn't telling the truth. But still, he had not been prepared for this.

Suddenly Trill felt not merely justified, but righteous about his decision to betray her and sabotage the Chinese elevator. His odds of escaping from the Chinese base were slim, but he was going to inflict major damage before they caught him.

He looked around the control room. A lot of delicate electronics winked back at him.

"Colonel Kirtley," Trill said coldly, "you were right about them launching an elevator soon. Only it's not weeks away. It's days away. At most."

He cast his eyes around the room, looking for the implement with which he could inflict maximum damage. Trill was sure that if he destroyed the control room, it would be a long time before that Chinese elevator went anywhere.

He was so focused on that task that he was only vaguely aware of Kirtley's voice in his helmet, ordering him to destroy everything Trill could get his hands on.

Hands . . .

Trill realized he already had the ideal implement of destruction in his hands -- his helmet. It was large, heavy, had a convenient handle, and was already right there in his hand, waiting to be swung like a giant sack of rocks. He stepped toward the nearest computer bank and raised it high.

A Chinese man appeared in the control room's doorway, shouting something as he raised his pistol. Trill spoke no Chinese, but the man's meaning was clear enough.

Before Trill could move, though, a shot ruptured the silence. Trill twitched, but it was the Chinese man who fell with a blood-soaked chest. Trill turned to face the source of the shot. Wing stood there, gun in hand. Then she lowered it.

"You really don't want to do that," she said, eyes drifting up to the helmet held by Trill's still raised hand. "Not if you and I are going to have a chance of getting to Mars."

That triggered a fresh barrage of shouts from within Trill's helmet. Kirtley was on a rampage.

Trill threw his helmet aside. He couldn't think with Kirtley yammering like that, much less comprehend what was going on.

What was happening? He had no idea, but whatever it was, it was happening fast. Too fast. And every time he turned around, Wing changed the rules.

Wing slid past Trill, pushed her dead comrade out of the way, and closed a heavy sliding steel door. She punched a series of buttons on the door's control panel, closing every other door that led into the launch bay and the control room, then fired twice into the door's control panel. It spit blue sparks in dismay. Then it, too, died.

"That won't keep them out for long," Wing said as the sound of stampeding feet came to the door. Voices shouted. Angry voices. More than once, Trill thought he heard Wing's name.

Next came an eruption of small arms fire. Though the bullets couldn't penetrate the door, Trill reflexively dropped his helmet and flattened himself against the wall.

"What the hell is going on?" he shouted over the nearly continuous gunfire.

Wing was about to shout her reply when the gunfire ceased.

"They've gone for better tools," she said. "They'll need an acetylene torch to breach these doors, but I'm hoping they won't realize that right away. Either way, we haven't got much time."

"Much time for what?" Trill shouted as if the bullets were still flying.

"Look," Wing said, placing her hand on his forearm. "I've got --"

Trill shoved her hand away. "NO! Play that game with someone else. I want to know what's going on and I want to know now!"

Wing snarled back, "You think I have time for games? If they get through that door and we're still here, I'm as dead as you are. Now shut up for one minute and listen."

Trill nodded. Wing spoke.

"I knew from listening to your radio transmissions that you're the engineer Kirtley always sent out on repair jobs. And you were right the first time; I didn't want you because of the maglev propulsion, I wanted you because you're the president's nephew --"

"Damn it; I knew it --"

Wing clamped her tiny hand over Trill's mouth. "You're listening, remember?"

Trill glared at her, but held his tongue.

"Look, we both know that that there's no such thing as second place in this space race. There's not enough ice on Mars to support two bases for any length of time. And we both know it's a very real possibility that both our governments would consider military options if they didn't get there first. Those asteroid crystals are going to set one country's economy light years ahead of the other's.

"But that's not what the world needs. Space is too important to turn into another battleground. That's why it's up to us to force our governments in another direction."

Wing paused to make sure Trill was following her logic. She said, "That's why I want you and I -- one Chinese and one American -- have to take this elevator to Mars together. Then no single government can claim the planet. They'll have to come to some kind of agreement. And the fact that you're the president's nephew is a major key to pulling this off; she's going to work ten times harder because you're the one up there."

Trill couldn't believe what he was hearing. It was insane. He said, "And you're sure that this is the answer? So sure you're willing to bet your life on it?"

Wing's eyes burned. "My life -- and thirty-four others."

That was not what Trill wanted to hear. He looked over his shoulder at the loaded elevator.

"It'll never work," he said. "It takes almost four days just for the elevator to get to the shuttle. Once your people get into the control room, they'll just shut it down and bring us back."

"I've rigged the elevator so that once it's launched, it can only be controlled from inside the elevator."

"There's still the crew of the shuttle to deal with."

Wing shook her head no. "If we build up enough speed, we can actually use the tether as a launching devise and whip this elevator all the way to Mars. We'd get there in a fraction of the time. I proposed it to our government, but no one would listen to me. I even know how we can land so that we --"

"You've got an answer for everything, don't you." Trill's voice ran rich with a sarcasm born out of desperation.

A shower of sparks appeared at the door. The Chinese had gone straight for the acetylene torch after all.

Wing said, "Except how to pull this off without your help. I could do it myself, physically -- I could push every button and pull every lever. But I need an American to come with me. You have to trust me, and you have to do it now."

Trill didn't move. Wing edged closer to him.

"Imagine it's ninety years ago," she said, "It's 1960 and you're inside a missile silo during the height of the Cold War. Radar shows incoming ICBMs and your commanding officer is screaming for you to launch a counter attack.

"But your instincts tell you not to launch those missiles. That it's a false alarm. There's been no build-up of troops, no saber-rattling, no reason at all to believe you're being attacked. So who do you trust? The guy screaming in your ear?" She cast her eyes to Trill's helmet where Kirtley's ranting continued unabated. Then she held out her hand. "Or that tiny voice whispering to your soul . . ."

"You've lied to me at every turn," Trill said. "How do I know you're not lying again?"

"Would you have come with me otherwise?"

Trill punched the wall. "That's not the point, dammit! How do I know you're not lying now?"

Wing reached out to him, fingers stretched to their limit. "You don't. How can you possibly believe a crazy-woman who wants to save humanity from itself?"

The acetylene torch had almost cut through the door. Trill looked at Wing's hand, hanging in the air like the questions she was asking.

He pointed at the elevator car. "Are there enough supplies in there for us to survive until our governments come arrest us?"

Wing shrugged. "Maybe." She looked him in the eye. "Maybe not. Either way, the results will be the same. The Chinese and the Americans will have arrived on Mars together. Both will have a valid claim."

Trill paused to assess the big picture. It was simple, really. He would fly to Mars -- and piss off a lot of bureaucrats. It was as noble as it was suicidal. What more could he ask for? He took Wing's hand and followed her to the elevator.

Once inside, Wing pushed the button that released the magnetic clamps and the massive elevator began accelerating up the tether.

Trill leaned his forehead against one of the viewports. As he watched the receding Chinese base he shook his head and smiled. If only Vishti could have been here to see it. Wing had outplayed him at every turn, using a series of feints and misdirections to keep him off balance. Now that the pieces were in position, it wasn't hard to see. Not at all.

She was good. Very good.

God, he hoped there was a chess set on board.

  Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by