Authors: Frederik Pohl
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Colonies, #General, #Fiction
"I don't know if I'll go. I've been thinking of going out to a colony."
colony? No more asteroid mining?" (He'd talked about that a year earlier; I had been sort of pleased that he'd decided to follow in his father's footsteps as an asteroid miner—even though his father had quit the Belt before he was born.)
"I think I want to be part of making something," he said, sounding uncomfortable about discussing that sort of thing with his father.
"But there's a good chance they'll cancel the colonies."
"No, it doesn't look that way. I don't know if you follow the debates, friend Barry—" I didn't, not very closely, anyway. "But they say the Tax and Budget hearings are leaning toward keeping the colonies going."
"Well," I said, "that'll make Captain Garold Tscharka happy," and then I had to explain that by telling him how I'd just been servicing a genuine interstellar colony ship, and what it was like. So for a good five minutes or more he sounded really interested in what his father was up to. That's a big plus, you know. One of the hard parts of talking to your sixteen-year-old son no more than two or three times a year is discovering subjects he likes to talk about.
So we had a pleasant chat, and when I finally let him go to finish dressing for his guests I felt pretty good. Even a divorced and detached father likes to think there's still something between him and his one and only son . . . but you wouldn't understand about that, either, would you?
I don't think I've given you any idea of how comfortable our life was on the Lederman antimatter-factory colony on the Moon. Oh, it's a little worrisome, too, of course; you never really forget that you're living in the blast area of what might someday turn out to be the biggest explosion the human race has ever seen. But the colony had churches and theaters and sporting arenas—it was astonishing to watch a basketball game in lunar gravity!—and restaurants like Danny's where I was going to meet Alma. We had everything anybody might want there, just about—as long as you didn't mind living underground.
See, we didn't live on the surface. That's not real safe. Then, when they began excavating space for living quarters, they took advantage of the fact that once, a long time ago, the Moon had had real volcanoes.
The lunar volcanoes weren't the violently explosive kind you find on some planets, like Krakatoa or Vesuvius; they were the kind that gently ooze lava over long periods of time, like Earth's volcanoes in the Hawaiian islands. And when lava flows that way, the outsides of the flowing lava river cool before the insides, so you have a sort of pipe of solidified rock on the outside, while still-molten lava is flowing inside. When the flow stops and the lava runs out, what's left is a kind of immense, empty tube.
Then those tubes get covered over with new flows from later eruptions—or, in the case of the lunar craters, by the splash of material the asteroids push out of their way when they make the craters. That impact destroys all the near-surface lava tubes in the vicinity, but the deep-down ones survive, like lengths of tunnel abandoned way underground. So the people who designed the colony simply lined them to keep the air in and built connecting passages, and, voila!, there's your underground city.
Danny's is a big, noisy place, and at first I had trouble finding where Alma was sitting, though I didn't doubt that she would be waiting there for me.
Indeed she was, but the bad part was that she wasn't waiting alone. Rannulf Enderman was sitting at the table with her.
Rannulf Enderman was a man of about my age, and also about my size and build, or maybe just a trifle bigger. (Well, I guess we have another of those little obstacles to understanding here. You don't care about height, because yours changes so. We do care. I was 190 centimeters tall, and I liked being that way; it was an annoyance that my predecessor in Alma's affections had been just a centimeter or two taller than that.)
The fact that we looked a little bit alike didn't make us friends. We were, in fact, pretty unfriendly rivals, and what we were rivals about was Alma Vendette. Technically there should have been no rivalry, because Rannulf was history—or should have been. Alma had told me herself that they had broken up before I met her.
It bothered me very much that she didn't always treat him like history.
As I approached Rannulf looked up at me with an expression I didn't recognize: pleased with himself, a little pensive. "Hello, Barry," he said. "Nice to see you again."
I didn't think it was nice at all, but I took a grip on my feelings—the doctors kept telling me it would be prudent to do that. I said, "Hello, Rannulf," in as nearly friendly a tone as I could manage, and bent down to kiss Alma.
Alma kissed me back, but she didn't prolong it. She had something else on her mind, and as soon as her lips were free I found out what it was. "Barry, Rannulf's gone out of his mind," she said.
"Haven't," Rannulf said, looking defensive.
"You have so. Talk sense to him, Barry, please. Tell him not to be an idiot."
I sat down next to her, gazing at Rannulf. He didn't appear to be any more idiotic than usual. "What's he done?"
"He's going to volunteer to go to Pava."
I will say for me that I did not show my pleasure at the news. I felt it, though. I just said, "Are you sure anybody at all is going there?"
"Didn't you hear? They got their reprieve, so they're going to leave with a full complement of colonists, as soon as they can get the ship ready. What do you think of that? Imagine Rannulf throwing away a career on the Moon to go and live on a farm."
What I thought of Rannulf's new-formed plan was that it was the best news I'd had all day. I also thought that it was a grandstand play to get Alma's sympathy—which is to say, to get Alma back. It was the oldest trick in the book, and just what I would have expected from Rannulf. "Honey," the soldier on embarkation leave tells the girl, "don't let us waste this moment, because I may be dead in a few days," and so she falls into his arms. Or, actually, his bed. I could see very clearly the gears revolving in Rannulf s head. I wished that Alma could.
"I think," I said judiciously, "that Rannulf's the only person with the right to decide what he does with his life."
"Thank you, Barry," he said. The words were friendly, but the look he gave me wasn't. "I knew you'd understand that it's what I have to do. Excuse me for a minute?"
He got up and left us, another nice thing from an unlikely source. I explained it to Alma. "He doesn't like seeing me kiss you," I said, watching him thread his way between the noisy tables.
Alma frowned at me. "Don't be silly, Barry. He just has to go to the bathroom, and don't change the subject."
"Well, what he does isn't up to me, is it?"
"Don't you think you have a responsibility to keep a friend from doing something stupid?"
"Rannulf isn't my friend."
"He's my friend, Barry."
I didn't answer that. I caught sight of a waitress in the distance and stood up to wave at her. When she gave me the kind of look that meant she'd get to me sooner or later, so relax, I did. I sat down again.
"You're looking beautiful as always," I told Alma. "What do you want to do about dinner?"
"Well, nothing. Rannulf ordered a sandwich he decided he didn't want, so I ate it. I was hungry. Barry? Don't you think he's making a mistake?"
I thought for a moment. I wasn't really thinking about whether Rannulf Enderman was making a mistake, I was thinking about Alma.
I had been thinking seriously about Alma for some time, in fact. She wasn't the first woman I'd dated in all those years on the Moon, but she was the first one in connection with whom the word "marriage" had begun to come up in my thoughts. I had not forgotten what life with Gina had been like, before everything went sour. I'd liked being married, and, now that I'd got out of the habit of waking up every morning and wondering if I were going to be crazy that day, I was beginning to think about trying it again. I had had enough of short-term lovers. I wanted something, well, permanent. I was even pretty sure that the one I wanted that permanent arrangement with was Alma Vendette—always assuming that Rannulf was really history.
But then there was the problem of children.
Matthew had not inherited the bad genes that had made me a loop; we'd checked that out as soon as the doctors diagnosed me. But that was just good luck. The genes were still there; and if Alma decided she wanted a husband who could give her a child, which I was pretty sure she might, I didn't think I qualified.
"Well?" said Alma, reminding me that she had asked me a question; but luck was with me, the waitress came up at that moment and I didn't have to answer it.
"Take a drink order for me, will you?" I said to the waitress.
She gave me an annoyed look. "I've already got your drink," she said, and put down something lime-colored with a parasol in it.
I shook my head. "Wrong. That's for the other guy," I told her; the drink looked like something Rannulf would have ordered. "What I want is whiskey and water, two centimeters of each."
I wasn't really surprised at the mistake. I had long ago discovered that strangers thought Rannulf looked a little like me; Alma seemed to go for the tall, skinny kind with rat-colored hair. When I had the waitress straightened out I thought of a subject that didn't concern Rannulf Enderman, so I told Alma about my call to Matthew.
"You're changing the subject," she said accusingly.
She let me change it, though. I had known she would, because one of the subjects Alma was always willing to talk about was my son Matthew.
You don't have to say anything, I know I'm telling you more than you really want to know.
I can't help it. I don't know any other way to try to get it all clear and I have to get it all clear. For both our sakes. I have to make you understand what we're like—all of us, me and Captain Tscharka and all the rest of us who were involved.
There's another thing, too. What I hope most of all is that, if I can make you understand, I'll understand it all better myself.
I wish I could tell you even more about us. I wish I could show you the whole picture of my life, of all the details of all our human lives, of who all the people were who were in Danny's that day. The couple at the next table, pretty drunk and getting drunker, gazing into each other's eyes, whispering into each other's ears, unable to keep their hands off each other; the waitress, fretfully punching out her drink tabs by the cashier station because she'd got something screwed up and couldn't figure out where the mistake was; the fourteen or fifteen Muslims sitting together in the smoking section of the bar, who didn't drink but made up for it in hashish, and the way they all together jumped to their feet at prayer time, putting down their little rugs so they could kneel toward Mecca. (Of course, Mecca wasn't exactly to the "east" on the Moon, but they all had their little wrist computers to tell them where on the Earth's surface Mecca would be at any given moment.) I wish I could explain to you why we all drank or doped; for that matter, I wish I could make you understand why that drunken couple found their fumbling explorations of each other so compelling—and why I found being with Alma so—because I know that you don't do anything like that, either.
I don't think you understand physical sexual attraction at all, you see, any more than you understand the joys of intoxication, or the force of religious belief. Some things that matter mightily to us don't matter to you at all. And that's a pity, because then you can't understand why I did some of the things I did—or, especially, why Rannulf did what he did—without realizing that the way Alma looked mattered to me quite a lot. She was quite a beautiful woman, tall and fair with a long and graceful neck and a rounded but slim body—she looked the way a Moon maiden was supposed to look, although she'd been born and grew up in west Texas until she got tired of the floods. I frequently thought that I loved Alma, and not just for her physique. She was smart, too. I suppose that that part might make sense to you, since I know you respect intelligence. But I would be a liar if I said that her undeniable intelligence was the main attraction for me.
Human beings very often behave in the rational, sensible ways dictated by their intelligence; but the rational behaviors that our reason would direct are quite often countermanded by the nonrational yearnings of our bodies. You don't have to approve of that. You just have to accept the fact that it's true. Otherwise you can't make any sense of us at all.
Alma listened carefully to every word I had to say about what Matthew said and how Matthew looked, and how I felt about talking to Matthew, filing it all away. I knew why. I had no doubt that in her private thoughts Alma had been considering the possibility of marriage and children with me as much as I had with her. If we'd never spoken about it, it was because we both still had reservations we didn't want to discuss. When she had stored it all, she changed the subject back.
"The question is," she said, "are we going to let Rannulf throw his life away because of some romantic notion about me?"
"Is that why he's doing it?" But that was the wrong tack to take; her face clouded. "Well," I said, "it isn't up to me to stop him. Besides, that's not throwing his life away exactly, is it? I mean, Pava's about the best extrasolar colony, because it's got the best star. And a lot of people volunteer for the colonies. It's exciting. I even feel a little bit that way myself; if things were the other way around with us I might be the one who gallantly disappears into the sunset."
"You wouldn't. Besides, you aren't supposed to. Because of your health," Alma said. I didn't think it was kind of her to remind me of that, although it was certainly more or less true. That was one of the reasons I'd had to give up my career flying a spotter ship, tagging high-value asteroids for the big smelters in the Belt. I wasn't even supposed to go on any long interplanetary trips, because the doctors didn't want me to get too far from the big medical facilities on the Earth or the Moon.