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Mom stands up, eyes distant — probably telling Saturn to warm his engine and open the garage doors. "I say so, punkin. Go get your shoes on, now. I'll pick you up on my way back from work, and I've got a treat for you; we're going to check out a new church together this evening." Mom smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes: Amber has already figured out she's going through the motions in order to give her the simulated middle-American upbringing she believes Amber desperately needs before she runs head first into the future. She doesn't like the churches any more than her daughter does, but arguing won't work. "You be a good little girl, now, all right?"
* * *
The imam is at prayer in a gyrostabilized mosque.
His mosque is not very big, and it has a congregation of one: He prays on his own every seventeen thousand two hundred and eighty seconds. He also webcasts the call to prayer, but there are no other believers in trans-Jovian space to answer the summons. Between prayers, he splits his attention between the exigencies of life support and scholarship. A student both of the Hadith and of knowledge-based systems, Sadeq collaborates in a project with other scholars who are building a revised concordance of all the known isnads, to provide a basis for exploring the body of Islamic jurisprudence from a new perspective — one they'll need sorely if the looked-for breakthroughs in communication with aliens emerge. Their goal is to answer the vexatious questions that bedevil Islam in the age of accelerated consciousness; and as their representative in orbit around Jupiter, these questions fall most heavily on Sadeq's shoulders.
Sadeq is a slightly built man, with close-cropped black hair and a perpetually tired expression: Unlike the orphanage crew he has a ship to himself. The ship started out as an Iranian knock off of a Shenzhou-B capsule, with a Chinese type 921 space-station module tacked onto its tail; but the clunky, 1960s look-alike — a glittering aluminum dragonfly mating with a Coke can — has a weirdly contoured M2P2 pod strapped to its nose. The M2P2 pod is a plasma sail, built in orbit by one of Daewoo's wake shield facilities. It dragged Sadeq and his cramped space station out to Jupiter in just four months, surfing on the solar breeze. His presence may be a triumph for the umma, but he feels acutely alone out here: When he turns his compact observatory's mirrors in the direction of the Sanger, he is struck by its size and purposeful appearance. Sanger's superior size speaks of the efficiency of the Western financial instruments, semiautonomous investment trusts with variable business-cycle accounting protocols that make possible the development of commercial space exploration. The Prophet, peace be unto him, may have condemned usury; but it might well have given him pause to see these engines of capital formation demonstrate their power above the Great Red Spot.
After finishing his prayers, Sadeq spends a couple of precious extra minutes on his mat. He finds meditation comes hard in this environment: Kneel in silence, and you become aware of the hum of ventilation fans, the smell of old socks and sweat, the metallic taste of ozone from the Elektron oxygen generators. It is hard to approach God in this third hand spaceship, a hand-me-down from arrogant Russia to ambitious China, and finally to the religious trustees of Qom, who have better uses for it than any of the heathen states imagine. They've pushed it far, this little toy space station; but who's to say if it is God's intention for humans to live here, in orbit around this swollen alien giant of a planet?
Sadeq shakes his head; he rolls his mat up and stows it beside the solitary porthole with a quiet sigh. A stab of homesickness wrenches at him, for his childhood in hot, dusty Yazd and his many years as a student in Qom: He steadies himself by looking round, searching the station that is now as familiar to him as the fourth-floor concrete apartment his parents — a car factory worker and his wife — raised him in. The interior of the station is the size of a school bus, every surface cluttered with storage areas, instrument consoles, and layers of exposed pipes. A couple of globules of antifreeze jiggle like stranded jellyfish near a heat exchanger that has been giving him grief. Sadeq kicks off in search of the squeeze bottle he keeps for this purpose, then gathers up his roll of tools and instructs one of his agents to find him the relevant part of the maintenance log: it's time to fix the leaky joint for good.
An hour or so of serious plumbing and he will eat freeze-dried lamb stew, with a paste of lentils and boiled rice, and a bulb of strong tea to wash it down, then sit down to review his next fly-by maneuvering sequence. Perhaps, God willing, there will be no further system alerts and he'll be able to spend an hour or two on his research between evening and final prayers. Maybe the day after tomorrow there'll even be time to relax for a couple of hours, to watch one of the old movies that he finds so fascinating for their insights into alien cultures: Apollo Thirteen, perhaps. It isn't easy, being the crew aboard a long-duration space mission. It's even harder for Sadeq, up here alone with nobody to talk to, for the communications lag to earth is more than half an hour each way — and as far as he knows, he's the only believer within half a billion kilometers.
* * *
Amber dials a number in Paris and waits until someone answers the phone. She knows the strange woman on the phone's tiny screen: Mom calls her "your father's fancy bitch" with a peculiar tight smile. (The one time Amber asked what a fancy bitch was, Mom slapped her — not hard, just a warning.) "Is Daddy there?" she asks.
The strange woman looks slightly bemused. (Her hair is blonde, like Mom's, but the color clearly came out of a bleach bottle, and it's cut really short, and her skin is dark.) "Oui. Ah, yes." She smiles tentatively. "I am sorry, it is a disposable phone you are using? You want to talk to 'im?"
It comes out in a rush: "I want to see him." Amber clutches the phone like a lifesaver: It's a cheap disposable cereal-packet item, and the cardboard is already softening in her sweaty grip. "Momma won't let me, Auntie 'Nette —"
"Hush." Annette, who has lived with Amber's father for more than twice as long as her mother, smiles. "You are sure that telephone, your mother does not know of it?"
Amber looks around. She's the only child in the restroom because it isn't break time, and she told teacher she had to go 'right now': "I'm sure, P20 confidence factor greater than 0.9." Her Bayesian head tells her that she can't reason accurately about this because Momma has never caught her with an illicit phone before, but what the hell. It can't get Dad into trouble if he doesn't know, can it?
"Very good." Annette glances aside. "Manny, I have a surprise call for you."
Daddy appears on screen. She can see all of his face, and he looks younger than last time: he must have stopped using those clunky old glasses. "Hi — Amber! Where are you? Does your mother know you're calling me?" He looks slightly worried.
"No," she says confidently, "the phone came in a box of Grahams."
"Phew. Listen, sweet, you must remember never, ever to call me where your mom may find out. Otherwise, she'll get her lawyers to come after me with thumbscrews and hot pincers, because she'll say I made you call me. And not even Uncle Gianni will be able to sort that out. Understand?"
"Yes, Daddy." She sighs. "Even though that's not true, I know. Don't you want to know why I called?"
"Um." For a moment, he looks taken aback. Then he nods, thoughtfully. Amber likes Daddy because he takes her seriously most times when she talks to him. It's a phreaking nuisance having to borrow her classmate's phones or tunnel past Mom's pit-bull firewall, but Dad doesn't assume that she can't know anything just because she's only a kid. "Go ahead. There's something you need to get off your chest? How've things been, anyway?"
She's going to have to be brief: The disposaphone comes prepaid, the international tariff it's using is lousy, and the break bell is going to ring any minute. "I want out, Daddy. I mean it. Mom's getting loopier every week – she's dragging me round all these churches now, and yesterday, she threw a fit over me talking to my terminal. She wants me to see the school shrink, I mean, what for? I can't do what she wants – I'm not her little girl! Every time I tunnel out, she tries to put a content-bot on me, and it's making my head hurt — I can't even think straight anymore!" To her surprise, Amber feels tears starting. "Get me out of here!"
The view of her father shakes, pans round to show her Tante Annette looking worried. "You know, your father, he cannot do anything? The divorce lawyers, they will tie him up."
Amber sniffs. "Can you help?" she asks.
"I'll see what I can do," her father's fancy bitch promises as the break bell rings.
* * *
An instrument package peels away from the Sanger's claim jumper drone and drops toward the potato-shaped rock, fifty kilometers below. Jupiter hangs huge and gibbous in the background, impressionist wallpaper for a mad cosmologist: Pierre bites his lower lip as he concentrates on steering it.
Amber, wearing a black sleeping sack, hovers over his head like a giant bat, enjoying her freedom for a shift. She looks down on Pierre's bowl-cut hair, wiry arms gripping either side of the viewing table, and wonders what to have him do next. A slave for a day is an interesting experience: Life aboard the Sanger is busy enough that nobody gets much slack time (at least not until the big habitats have been assembled and the high-bandwidth dish is pointing back at Earth). They're unrolling everything to a hugely intricate plan generated by the backers' critical path team, and there isn't much room for idling: The expedition relies on shamelessly exploiting child labor — they're lighter on the life-support consumables than adults — working the kids twelve hour days to assemble a toe hold on the shore of the future. (When they're older and their options vest fully, they'll all be rich, but that hasn't stopped the outraged herdnews propaganda chorus from sounding off back home.) For Amber, the chance to let somebody else work for her is novel, and she's trying to make every minute count.
"Hey, slave," she calls idly; "how you doing?"
Pierre sniffs. "It's going okay." He refuses to glance up at her, Amber notices. He's thirteen. Isn't he supposed to be obsessed with girls by that age? She notices his quiet, intense focus, runs a stealthy probe along his outer boundary; he shows no sign of noticing it, but it bounces off, unable to chink his mental armor. "Got cruise speed," he says, taciturn, as two tonnes of metal, ceramics and diamond-phase weirdness hurtle toward the surface of Barney at three hundred kilometers per hour. "Stop shoving me, there's a three-second lag, and I don't want to get into a feedback control loop with it."
"I'll shove if I want, slave." She sticks her tongue out at him.
"And if you make me drop it?" he asks. Looking up at her, his face serious — "Are we supposed to be doing this?"
"You cover your ass, and I'll cover mine," she says, then turns bright red. "You know what I mean."
"I do, do I?" Pierre grins widely, then turns back to the console: "Aww, that's no fun. And you want to tune whatever bit-bucket you've given control of your speech centers to – they're putting out way too much double entendre, somebody might mistake you for a grown-up."
"You stick to your business, and I'll stick to mine," she says, emphatically. "And you can start by telling me what's happening."
"Nothing." He leans back and crosses his arms, grimacing at the screen. "It's going to drift for five hundred seconds, now, then there's the midcourse correction and a deceleration burn before touch down. And then it's going to be an hour while it unwraps itself and starts unwinding the cable spool. What do you want, minute noodles with that?"
"Uh-huh." Amber spreads her bat wings and lies back in mid air, staring at the window, feeling rich and idle as Pierre works his way through her day shift. "Wake me when there's something interesting to see." Maybe she should have had him feed her peeled grapes or give her a foot massage, something more traditionally hedonistic; but right now, just knowing he's her own little piece of alienated labor is doing good things for her self-esteem. Looking at those tense arms, the curve of his neck, she thinks maybe there's something to this whispering and giggling he really fancies you stuff the older girls go in for —
The window rings like a gong, and Pierre coughs. "You've got mail," he says drily. "You want me to read it for you?"
"What the —" A message is flooding across the screen, right-to-left snaky script like the stuff on her corporate instrument (now lodged safely in a deposit box in Zurich). It takes her a while to load in a grammar agent that can handle Arabic, and another minute for her to take in the meaning of the message. When she does, she starts swearing, loudly and continuously.
"You bitch, Mom, why'd you have to go and do a thing like that?"
* * *
The corporate instrument arrived in a huge FedEx box addressed to Amber: It happened on her birthday while Mom was at work, and she remembers it as if it was only an hour ago.
She remembers reaching up and scraping her thumb over the deliveryman's clipboard, the rough feel of the microsequencers sampling her DNA. She drags the package inside. When she pulls the tab on the box, it unpacks itself automatically, regurgitating a compact 3D printer, half a ream of paper printed in old-fashioned dumb ink, and a small calico cat with a large @-symbol on its flank. The cat hops out of the box, stretches, shakes its head, and glares at her. "You're Amber?" it mrowls. It actually makes real cat noises, but the meaning is clear — it's able to talk directly to her linguistic competence interface.
"Yeah," she says, shyly. "Are you from Tante 'Nette?"
"No, I'm from the fucking tooth fairy." It leans over and head-butts her knee, strops the scent glands between its ears all over her skirt. "Listen, you got any tuna in the kitchen?"
"Mom doesn't believe in seafood," says Amber. "It's all foreign-farmed muck these days, she says. It's my birthday today, did I tell you?"
"Happy fucking birthday, then." The cat yawns, convincingly realistic. "Here's your dad's present. Bastard put me in hibernation and sent me along to show you how to work it. You take my advice, you'll trash the fucker. No good will come of it."
Amber interrupts the cat's grumbling by clapping her hands gleefully; "So what is it?" she demands: "A new invention? Some kind of weird sex toy from Amsterdam? A gun, so I can shoot Pastor Wallace?"
"Naah." The cat yawns, yet again, and curls up on the floor next to the 3D printer. "It's some kinda dodgy business model to get you out of hock to your mom. Better be careful, though — he says its legality is narrowly scoped jurisdiction-wise. Your Mom might be able to undermine it if she learns about how it works."
"Wow. Like, how totally cool." In truth, Amber is delighted because it
|Dedication to my Father, who understands all this so much better than I. acknowledgements||II. a love Story, and a Dedication page 4|
|Dedication To Jim Baen, my mentor, my publisher and my friend. Just trying to pay forward. Acknowledgements||Primitive Love and Love-Stories|
|Dedication||Starting point: The Dedication of a Messenger|
|Dedication to my husband, James, for feedback and help above and beyond the call of duty, and to Katie for her patience in sharing her Mom||Acknowledgements|