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13.

The ESA spacecraft Harissopulo was a fifteenth generation Eurotype Star Freighter weighing some 44,780 tons. Powered by a plasma rocket engine making up over a quarter of that weight, it wasn’t a fast ship, or a particularly maneuverable one. By comparison, the two American battleships Lexington and Bermuda used against the Moon during the Independence weighted around the same, but boasted sixteen plasma pulse engines and were much more maneuverable. The Harissopulo did have an array of neon gas thrusters for guiding it down while landing, but the plasma engine would have to be engaged for the majority of the decent to keep it from falling from the sky like a 45,000 ton meteor.

Another problem that made landing difficult was the gravity differences between the Moon, the spaceship, and Tranquility City. The Moon’s gravitational field was more or less constant depending on what part you were flying over, but the spaceship and space-city had their own “gravity” due to the G-diffusers located in the floor plating of the spaceship and Tranquility City’s own docking bay.

To land safely, first the G-diffusers in the docking bay had to be cycled down. If they were shut off instantly the dock would break apart. Then the spacecraft had to cycle down its G-diffusers so that it could land on the Moon. Then the docking bay’s diffusers had to be cycled up, slowly so that the ship wouldn’t be squashed like a tin can.

Additionally, the magnetic field protecting the docking bay from radiation and cosmic rays had to be shut off to keep from affecting the plasma engines.

It was a full six hours before the ship finished landing once the docking sequences began. The ship took it slowly, minor adjustments with the thrusters kept it nearly stationary as it lowered centimeter by centimeter into the large circular docking bay.

The ship wasn’t pretty. It was a box with a conical tip. Unlike the American battleships it had no paint, windows, or anything else “fancy”. The only decorations were European Space Agency decals and the name of the ship in sharp black over the nose.

The Europeans liked to get their money’s worth with each launch and the ship would not only be carrying the forensic scientist but also cargo and supplies. The supplies were around seven tons of “Moon Eggs” and other refrigeratables including flash frozen steaks, flash frozen fish, and flash frozen whole chicken.

The cargo also included screws, bolts, blocks of metal to be turned into machine parts in the factory and several books on law for Sarah.

This would have been a routine delivery. Except that when the ship finally settled in the bay and the airlock was closed and the mag-fields turned back on and the G-diffusers properly calibrated, the docking crew weren’t the only ones to head out to the spacecraft.

Kilmar, John, and Sarah were waiting to meet the crew. The ship didn’t have a ramp like in a sci-fi movie, but it did have a massive slab-like disc that unsealed with a pop like a soda can as it rolled aside.

The captain of the ship was the first out, a beefy man with a thick French accent, he surveyed the waiting officials.

“Full greeting today. I like it,” he said. “Captain Learde.”

Kilmar shook his hand.

“Mas Kilmar, president,” Kilmar said. “This is my vice-president, John Vada, and my Public Relations Officer, Sarah Yelm.”

“It is a pleasure,” Learde said. “The rest of my crew is readying for,” he paused thinking and then said, “cargo dispensement.”

“Fine, fine,” Kilmar said. “We hear you have a doctor for us.”

“Yes!” Learde said. “He is with us a large bit much.”

The three Selenites exchanged amused glances then looked expectantly toward the hatch where as if by some magic cue the doctor appeared.

He was a short, compact man dressed in jeans and a Associazione Calcio Milan t-shirt that looked out of place on the Moon with the ship crew wearing Euro-space flight jackets and everybody else lunar jumpsuits. His dark skin glowed in the LED lights, and his eyes were quick and bright.

“Dr. Alwahiduddin?” Sarah asked.

Badr is fine,” the doctor said. “Did I catch the names okay? Mas Kilmar, John Vada, Sarah Yelm?”

His accent was a curious mix of North African and French with some unstable British English thrown in. He over-enunciated each word, so that while perfectly clear, the accent was even more apparent.

“Yes,” John said. “That’s right.”

“Good!” Badr said. “I am so excited to be here. It has been a life long dream of mine to take a moonwalk and to see the American rovers.”

“I think that could be arranged,” Sarah said with a sideways glance at John. “We’ll get you settled in first.”

“And I must stress,” John said, nearly cutting Sarah off. “We do have a serious problem we need some help with.”

“Of course,” said Badr, still smiling. His nature was light and he smiled a lot. “I try to keep happy. With a job like mine! You understand.”

“Of course,” Kilmar repeated, a slight smile on his face. “Doctor, this way…. And captain, thanks for your efforts.”

Captain Learde gave the president a kurt nod. “A pleasure.”

The four left the dock bay to its work and headed out toward the habitation modules.

The captain walked off and his crew, glad to stretch their legs, went to various parts of Tranquility City. Some went to the cafeteria for an early supper, others went to Armstrong Park for some sightseeing. These were not sailors; hardened men who swore a lot, but Europe’s best. Outstanding military and scientific personnel of high caliber. They were polite, civil, in good humor, and where their English failed, their manners took over.

The Lunar citizens loved it when a spaceship visited and often gave impromptu tours of the city if they found out there was a new crewmember who had never been to the Moon before.

So, today, the crew found themselves a little dejected when the carnival atmosphere was a little heavy, and the citizens reluctant to mingle. The strain of the last few days had worn them out.

One of the crew was glad for the absence of people as she made her way to the habitation modules, checking information kiosks every so often to bring up a map to where she wanted to go.

Busty, blonde, beautiful even in her unflattering Euro-space jacket. Her left arm was bionic, her right eye artificial too. Both easy to miss if they weren’t being specifically looked for. In her natural arm, she carried a brightly wrapped package with a festive red bow.

She walked alone, counting the residences until she got to one labeled 64. She knocked.

The door swung inward. Essica Jenners’s flat brown eyes met the two electric blue ones.

“Trouble, Lauren?” Essica asked.

“Slow dock,” the blonde said. “We had some trouble with a few thrusters.”

Essica snorted and pushed the door wider.

Her apartment was littered with electronic junk. Circuit boards, old transistors, fuses, and wiring made up most of it, but there was a good amount of bio-batteries, screwdrivers, pulse pods, a few lunar console interfaces and a zero-G digger; a device incapable of functioning near the city’s G-diffusers lay in a corner. A narrow path had been cleared to a table near the kitchen. There were no chairs except for two metal crates provided for that purpose and the table was bare, an island of order, except for a thin computer tower. there was no screen: It was holographic. Essica didn’t appear to own a bed.

“You live like this?” Lauren asked. She didn’t say this with distain, but with a detached curiosity.

“I live,” Essica said, shrugging. “Sit down.”

Lauren set the present down on the table and then perched on one of the metal crates pretzel style.

“Is that it?” Essica pointed to the present that so prettily sat with its pretty bow.

“Yes,” Lauren said. “I tried wrapping it myself, but eventually had to go to a bookstore and had them do it. Is that okay?”

“This is terribly ostentatious. Nobody questioned you about it?”

The blonde smiled. “They are trusting people, your selenites.”

Essica returned the smile and tore away the wrapping paper. A featureless black cube was uncovered.

“What is it?” the European asked.

“Ha!” Essica said. “You didn’t try to scan it?”

“I did in fact. Mag-scans, ultrasound, Q-A-P period imaging. It doesn’t scan. I tried opening it too.”

Essica laughed. She threw her head back and let her humor rock her thin frame.

“How’d you try opening it?” she said when the last laugh had passed.

“Cut it, weld it. Talk to it. Does it have a password?”

“Of course,” Essica said. “Here watch.”

She tapped the cube quickly with her thumb. A thin golden seam appeared, traveling from top to bottom, from side to side, splitting the cube into quarters. The cube remained closed, but a thin electronic voice said:

“Who are you?”

And Essica said, “I am number eighteen. That’s EX VE Triple I to you. When my greatest friend covers me, I am bloody; a red eye, an egg that’s often yellowed yolk, silver cheese-- Aye! But I’m never sad-- that’s to say seldom blue. I’m punctual to a fault; my period is monthly, my path predictable-- be I marked man or woman so, and so marked they’ll hold some street corner bathed in my blood and say, ‘My love, my love, my love. Not into the setting sun, not its opposite. Toward their cousin she goes. That eye, that egg, that marble containing my beating heart, and the ocean’s too.’”

The cube cracked with minuscule thunder. It vaporized. Burned itself up in golden lines.

A bottle of scotch sat on the table. Expensive scotch, the kind found in vaults, not on shelves.

“That’s a password?” Lauren said. “I would have never gotten it!”

“The longer and weirder the better,” Essica said, examining the bottle as if for defects. “I was going to have it just be ‘amen’ because nobody here would have ever thought of that word, but then I realized people from Earth would be handling this thing, so I went with a riddle.”

“What’s the answer?”

“Don’t know,” Essica said, standing up and carefully making her way to the kitchen, bottle cradled like a baby in her hands.

She stashed it in a cupboard.

Lauren raised an eyebrow. Her artificial eye glowed a slight blue in the dim light.

“You’re not going to open it?” Lauren asked.

“No. If I did, the city’s computer would alert Operations to it instantly. Sealed oxygen environment, G-diffusion. Makes for a large bang followed by decompression. They don’t want liquor around.”

“Ah,” Lauren said, nodding. “And you want it for--?”

“It’s expensive.”

“Yes. And my payment?”

“Here,” Essica said, removing something from the cupboard then tossing it to the European.

Lauren caught it with her bionic arm. A small whitish/gray rock lay in her palm.

“To think,” Lauren breathed, “this will pay off my debts.”

“Your debts, house, and your own spaceship, I dare say,” Essica said flatly.

“This rock… will it set off the city computer?”

“Don’t worry,” Essica said, she had pulled a small machine from the cupboard. It came alive in her hand, sprouted legs, and began to walk spider-like up her arm, tiny electric blue eyes looking left and right. Essica poked at it playfully and the thing chirped. “I’ll give the computer a hiccup. Five minutes. If your rock’s not on the ship by then, you’ll be paying your debts from a prison.”

“I can’t have your fancy box?”

“One time use, I’m afraid, and I don’t have another.”

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