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On the dark side of the moon, six missile silos stand in silence. Today, they will be taken over by corporate interests. Tomorrow, they will be activated. HC: Ace.
Impressive in the hardware department, though with disappointingly stereotyped characters—and yet the generous padding, with reportage both real and imaginary, can't disguise the paucity of plot . . . or that Steele's real purpose is more propaganda than entertainment.
2/15/95 1834 EST
Satellite beach, Florida, is a small town on Cape Canaveral, located on Route A1A at the doorstep of Patrick Air Force Base. Once a tiny fishing village whose original name is long forgotten, it received its more glorious nomenclature with the beginning of the Space Age and the arrival of the Air Force. Even so, it's still little more than a wide spot in the road: a handful of residential neighborhoods and retiree trailer camps, some strip malls, the inevitable fast-food restaurants. One has to drive north to Cocoa Beach or south to Melbourne before finding much more on the highway than a line of motels built for visiting servicemen.
The night was cool—64 degrees, chilly by Floridian standards even at this time of year—but compared to the harsh Massachusetts winter he left behind two days ago, the man in Room 176 of the Satellite Beach Holiday Inn thinks it's a balmy summer evening. He had wanted to leave his motel room door open to allow in the sea breeze and the dull sound of the Atlantic surf from across the highway, but the plainclothes security escort the company had assigned to him wouldn't hear of it. Just normal precautions, the private dick whom he had taken to thinking of as Mister Mom had said as he gently closed the door. I'd rather keep it shut, sir, if you don't mind ...
Yes, he minded. In fact, he minded just about everything right now. This motel, purposely selected because it was out of the way and unlikely to be found by reporters covering tomorrow's launch. Having Mister Mom for a roommate on his last night on Earth for the next ten days, when he'd just as soon be left alone until morning. And the job itself—Jesus, why hadn't the Germans picked someone else instead of him? Someone who really wanted to go to the Moon?
But if anyone had asked what the single most irritating thing in his life was right now, the one thing that irked him the most in a universe seemingly determined to make life insufferable, he would have replied that his pizza was late.
It had been almost a half-hour now since Mister Mom—whose real name, almost forgotten by now in his disdain, was Mike Momphrey—had used his cellular phone to call some no-name pizzeria just down A1A and place an order for a 12-inch pizza. A half-hour ago, for Christ's sake ... in Boston, it would have been delivered ten minutes ago, and not just because it came from Domino's. It was this kind of lousy service that drove him straight up the wall. No wonder the country was going down the toilet; twenty miles from the place where rockets are launched into space, and you can't get pizza delivered before it's cold.
Of course, he realized upon further reflection, if the country wasn't heading down the tubes, he wouldn't be killing time before he boarded a ferry rocket almost as old as he was. Pizza and the American space program: they were much the same thing these days, when you stopped to think about it....
He didn't want to think about it. He tried to shut it out of his head as he hunched over his Tandy/IBM, set up on a table at the far end of the room and wired into the room phone's dataport. Meanwhile, his jacket off and cast aside to expose the black leather shoulder-holster strapped across his shirt, Mister Mom lay on the single bed near the door watching the ATS Evening News on TV. The volume was turned down low, but the man at the computer could still hear the anchorman's droning voice ...
American forces in Sarajevo reported heavy casualties today due to mortar assaults upon the city airport. Five Marines were killed and six were wounded when a convoy was attacked at dawn. U.S. Navy warplanes from the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk bombed suspected Serbian strongholds in the hills west of the city and claimed to have inflicted considerable damage, according to Pentagon spokesmen, but ...
Nothing new. This foul little undeclared war had been going on for almost four years now, and the nightly body count had long since assumed the innocuousness of football scores. He shook his head as he concentrated on keeping up his end of the real-time conversation. About ten minutes ago he had signed onto Le Matrix, and his girlfriend was on-line right now. Her cyberspace presence was the only thing keeping him from going completely apeshit.
R U nervous? Mr. Grid had just asked. Her question appeared as a short line of type next to her screen name.
Fuck, yes, I'm nervous! he typed. Using obscenities was a TOS offense on Le Matrix, but they were in a private room where no one else could hear them, and Mr. Grid had long since become used to his salty language. Wouldn't you be?
In Los Angeles, entertainer and civil rights activist Michael Jackson led two thousand marchers through the city's South Central neighborhood, in a peaceful demonstration against alleged assaults against black residents by L.A. police officers. At the same time, across town in Hollywood, Jackson's common-law wife Brooke Shields held a press conference in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in which she turned down last week's Oscar nomination for Best Actress as a protest against what she called American apartheid ...
Why nervous? I'd LOVE to go to the Moon!:) she responds.
He scowls. He hates it when she uses smiley-faces. How many times has he told her that he considers cute on-screen emotons to be the last resort of the illiterate? Sure, she's trying to cheer him up, but still ...
A spokesman for Bob Dole told reporters today that the former President saw no wrongdoing in recent disclosures that he had accepted sizable contributions from European-owned companies during his 1992 reelection campaign. Mr. Dole, present in Wichita this morning for the dedication ceremonies of his presidential library, refused to answer questions from reporters ...
Good, he types. Then you can go ... I'll stay here.
Mr. Grid's response: LOL! U sure are cranky tonight. What's your problem?
Pizza is late, Thor200 replies, his fingers flying across the keyboard. Ordered it 30 mins. ago. Getting pissed off.
He sighs, smiling despite himself. She knows him all too well. Sometimes he wonders, if he were to ever walk into a room where she was sitting, whether she would recognize him immediately. How many visual clues has he revealed about himself during the last eighteen months of their relationship? His age? His wire-rim glasses? The slight paunch around his middle, due in part to an addiction to one particular kind of pizza?
How did you possibly guess? he says.
King Charles arrived today in Washington, D.C., where he was warmly greeted at the White House by President Clinton. While the two men sat down to discuss the proposed Anglo-American Free Trade Agreement, Hillary Rodham Clinton escorted Princess Diana on a tour of the Library of Congress, where the Magna Carta is currently on display ...
There's many things I know about you, m'lord. All your particular likes and dislikes.
He raises an eyebrow. Indeed, she does; although they might not recognize one another if they were in the same room together, he was aware of precisely how she would respond in the darkened bedroom of his ancestral manor, beneath silk sheets with a fire crackling in the hearth nearby. He knows the touch of her hands, the taste of her lips, the athletic muscles of her body ...
A TV commercial interrupts this train of thought: a harried housewife with a throbbing headache, screaming for fast fast relief. He glances at Mister Mom; the security man intently watches this bit of Madison Avenue insipidity, apparently checking out the actress's boobs. To each his own, even if it's banal beyond belief....
Another time, Countess, he types reluctantly. When I conclude my business tomorrow eve, mayhap the Duke can come visit milady's chalet.
A short pause, then another line appears on the screen: The Countess would be most honored by his presence. Perhaps his visit to the far north provinces will prove ... inspirational.
He smiles and is about to reply in kind when there's a knock upon the door. Finally! He immediately scoots back his chair, then remembers his manners. BRB ... pizza man's here.
"I'll get it," Mister Mom says, already on his feet and walking toward the door, pulling on his jacket to hide the shoulder holster. "Who's there?" he calls out, his hand on the doorknob.
A muffled reply comes from the other side of the door. The security man slides the window curtain aside an inch to peer outside; satisfied, he unlatches the lock and opens the door. The college-age kid standing on the walkway outside the room cradles a red thermal pizza bag in his arms; in the parking lot behind him is an old Honda Civic, its hazard lights flashing against the darkness.
The kid glances at the order slip taped to the top of the bag. "Mr. Smith? Large cheese pizza, pepperoni and olives?"
"That's it, yeah." Mister Mom digs his left hand into his jacket pocket, pulls out a small roll of bills.
"That'll be ten-seventy-five, sir." The delivery boy reaches into the bag and carefully withdraws a brown cardboard box; as Mike peels off a ten and three ones and holds it out to him, the kid simultaneously thrusts the box into his hands.
A line of type appears on the screen: Pizza? Mmmm ... cut me a slice, will you?
Caught off-guard, Mister Mom tries to balance the box and at the same time keep the money from falling to the floor. "Oh, and I've got a coupon here, too," the kid says as his right hand disappears into the bag. The security man is still attempting to juggle pizza and cash when the kid pulls his hand out of the bag once more.
It is a weird sound—thufft! thufft! like tiny fists punching through a thick pillow—that makes him look up from the computer screen, just in time to see his bodyguard stagger back from the door. For an instant he thinks Mister Mom has simply tripped over something, but then the cardboard box slips out of his hands and topples to the floor, pizza spilling sloppily across the burnt-orange carpet as Mike Momphrey falls against the dresser, his hands clutching at a large red stain spreading across his chest, colliding with a heavy brass table lamp and knocking it over as he ...
He doesn't get to see the rest. In the next instant, two men rush through the door before he has more than a fleeting impulse to run into the bathroom and lock the door. The men have wool ski masks pulled over their faces: this is the only impression he has of them before they tackle him and crush him face-down against the floor, knocking the breath out of his lungs.
He gasps, unable to shout, as he feels the carpet burn against his face. His arms are savagely yanked behind his back; his glasses are dislodged, leaving his vision blurred and obscured.
He hears a thin plastic rip; then a length of duct tape is wrapped tightly around his wrists, lashing them together. Before he can scream for help, gloved hands wrench his jaws open and a wadded linen napkin is shoved into his mouth.
In blind panic now, tears streaming down his face, he begins to flail his legs in an absurd attempt to crawl to safety. For an instant he remembers, in a crystalline moment of panic-induced recollection, the time Eddie Patterson beat him up in the playground back in third grade for calling him some stupid name—if only because this moment of utter physical helplessness so closely resembles that one ... except that when Eddie Patterson whaled the daylights out of him, two dozen kids had been standing around, screaming their lungs out until the teachers arrived to pull Eddie off him.
This assault, on the other hand, is totally silent. No one says anything; everything being done to him is as methodical as it is violent. Under other circumstances, he might have actually admired their professionalism and efficiency. The only voice he hears is that of the TV news anchor, resuming his teleprompted monologue now that the commercials ...
Final countdown is underway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for what may be the last manned American mission to the Moon. Roxanne Leiterman reports from Cape Canaveral ...
Someone kneels against his back, pinning him to the floor. He feels a hand tear open his right shirt sleeve. Twisting his head around, he catches a glimpse of the delivery kid kicking aside the remains of the pizza as he eases the door shut behind him, being careful not to slam it. Efficient ...
Last-minute preparations are being made for the launch of the NASA space ferry Constellation. A routine monthly flight to the Wheel, like so many others that have gone before it, except that it will begin the closure of a significant chapter in space history ...
He feels an instant of wet coolness against his bare biceps, then a sharp pain as the tip of a syringe needle stabs into his arm. He shouts against the cloth lozenge stuck in his mouth and almost gags.
Four days from now, the U.S.S. Conestoga, the last remaining moonship in the American space fleet, will depart from Space Station One to ...
"Turn it off," someone says.
The TV is switched off. He begins to feel lightheaded, almost giddy. In another moment, he doesn't care very much, for his universe is full of masked men with guns, and the only person who could have possibly helped him is wrapped up in bloody bedsheets and being hauled out the door.
No tip for the pizza kid, no sir ...
One of his assailants bends down to gently lift his head from the carpet and shine a penlight in his eyes. "He's down for the count," he says, his voice muffled by the ski mask.
"Get that thing out of his mouth before he suffocates," someone else says. The cloth is tugged out of his jaws, leaving his mouth dry and sore. He tries to speak, but the words just can't make their way from his brain to his tongue.
"Water," he manages to whisper after a few moments of considerable mental effort. His request is ignored.
"All clear on the street."
"Okay, let's get him out of here before—"
"Problem." This voice comes from somewhere above him. "He's got someone on-line right now ... they're waiting for an answer."
"Shit." A long pause. "Okay, no problem. The new guy can take care of it. He's coming in right now. Get the bag over his head."
Mr. Grid, he thinks, although thinking is very hard to do just now. The Countess is waiting for him. Strangely enough, this is a comforting notion; she appears in his mind's eye as a pale goddess surrounded by a nimbus of soft light, her arms reaching out to hold him against her bosom, casting aside all evil and making the bad men go away.
Someone kneels beside him, lifts his head once again. In the last instant before a loose cotton bag closes around his face, he sees the motel room open once more ...
And he watches himself walk into the room.
Then all is darkness and thick silence, and he falls asleep.
He waited until the team was gone, then quickly checked the room. They had done a good job, all things considered; the snatch had taken less than three minutes, and aside from the table lamp and the trampled remains of the pizza, there were no apparent signs of struggle. No bloodstain on the carpet; that was important. The murdered bodyguard had been wrapped up in bedsheets and spirited away before he could make too much of a mess.
A second man walked into the motel room. He had been standing outside, lingering in the shadows until the snatch team was gone and he was certain that the area was secure. He held the dead man's wallet in his left hand; all he had to do was to substitute his carefully prepared identification card and driver's license for the ones contained in the billfold.
The delivery boy from the pizza place down A1A had already called in sick from a nearby pay phone. He was so sick, in fact, that his vital signs had all flatlined, but that shouldn't bother the gators who would soon be discovering his corpse in an Indian River orange grove.
No one else had seen or heard anything.
The only loose end was a line of type on the screen of a laptop computer.
Hey, what's taking so long?
He walked over to the table and gazed down at the computer.
U pig ... you're leaving nothing for me!!
Excerpted from The Tranquillity Alternative by Allen Steele. Copyright © 1996 Allen M. Steele. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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