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I was late and I knew it. The trouble is, you can't run on the moon.
The shuttle from the Nueva Venezuela space station had been delayed, some minor problem with the baggage being transferred from Earthside, so now I was hurrying along the underground corridor from the landing pad, all alone. The party had started more than an hour ago.
They had warned me not to try to run, even with the weighted boots that I had rented at the landing port. But like a fool I tried to anyway and sort of hip-hopped crazily and bumped into the corridor wall, scraping my nose rather painfully. After that I shuffled along in the manner that the tourist-guide video had shown. It felt stupid, but bouncing off the walls was worse.
Not that I really wanted to go to my father's inane party or be on the Moon at all. None of this was my idea.
Two big human-form robots guarded the door at the end of the corridor. And I mean big, two meters tall and almost as wide across the torso. The gleaming metal door was sealed shut, of course. You couldn't crash my father's party; he'd never stand for that.
"Your name, please," said the robot on my left. Its voice was deep and rough, my father's idea of what a bouncer should sound like, I suppose.
"Van Humphries," I said, as slowly and clearly as I could enunciate.
The robot hesitated only a fraction of a second before saying, "Voice print identification is verified. You may enter, Mr. Van Humphries."
Both robots pivoted around and the door slid open. The noise hit me like a power hammer: thumping atonal music blasting away against wildly over-amped screeching from some androgynous singer wailing the latest pop hit.
The chamber was huge, immense, and jammed wall-to-wall with partygoers, hundreds of men and women, a thou-sand or more, I guessed, drinking, shouting, smoking, their faces contorted with grimaces of forced raucous laughter. The noise was like a solid wall pounding against me; I had to physically force myself to step past the robots and into the mammoth chamber.
Everyone was in party attire: brazenly bright colors with plenty of spangles and glitter and electronic blinkies. And lots of bare flesh showing, of course. I felt like a missionary in my chocolate-brown velour pullover and tan micromesh slacks.
A long electronic window swept the length of the cavern's side wall, alternately proclaiming "happy one hundredth birthday!" and showing clips from pornographic videos.
I might have known Father would pick a bordello as the site for his party. Hell Crater, named after the Jesuit astronomer Maximilian J. Hell. The gaming and porn industries had turned the area into the Moon's sin capital, a complete cornucopia of illicit pleasures dug below the dusty floor of the crater, some six hundred klicks south of Selene City. Poor old Father Hell must be spinning in his crypt.
"Hi there, stranger!" said a brassy, buxom redhead in an emerald-green costume so skimpy it must have been spray-painted onto her. She waggled a vial of some grayish-looking powder in my general direction, exhorting, "Join the fun!"
Fun. The place looked like Dante's Inferno. There was nowhere to sit except for a few couches along the walls, and they were already filled with writhing tangles of naked bodies. Everyone else was on their feet, packed in shoulder to shoulder, dancing or swaying and surging like the waves of some multihued, gabbling, aimless human sea.
High up near the smoothed rock ceiling a pair of acrobats in sequined harlequin costumes were walking a tightrope strung across the chamber. A set of spotlights made then-costumes gutter. On Earth, performing that high up would have been dangerous; here on the Moon they could still break their necks if they fell--or more likely break the necks of die people they fell upon. The place was so tightly packed it would've been impossible for them to hit the floor.
"C'mon," the redhead urged again, pawing at the sleeve of my pullover. She giggled and said, "Don't be so twangy!"
"Where is Martin Humphries?" I had to shout to be heard over the din of the party.
She blinked her emerald-tinted eyes. "Hump? The birthday boy?" Turning uncertainly toward the crowd and waving her hand vaguely, she yelled back, "The old humper's around here someplace. It's his party, y'know."
"The old humper is my father," I told her, enjoying the sudden look of astonishment on her face as I brushed past her.
It was a real struggle to work my way through the crowd. Strangers, all of them. I didn't know anyone there, I was certain of that. None of my friends would be caught dead at a scene like this. As I pushed and elbowed my way through the jam-packed chamber, I wondered if my father knew any of these people. He probably rented them for the occasion. The redhead certainly looked the type.
He knows I can't take crowds, and yet he forced me to come here. Typical of my loving father. I tried to shut out the noise, the reek of perfume and tobacco and drugs, and the slimy sweat of too many bodies pressed too close together. It was making me weak in the knees, twisting my stomach into knots.
I can't deal with this kind of thing. It's too much. I felt as if I would collapse if there weren't so many bodies crowded around me. I was starting to get dizzy, my vision blurring.
I had to stop in the midst of the mob and squeeze my eyes shut. It was a struggle to breathe. I had taken my regular enzyme shot just before the transfer rocket had landed, yet I felt as if I needed another one, and quickly.
I opened my eyes and surveyed the jostling, noisy, sweaty throng again, searching for the nearest exit. And then I saw him. Through the tangle of weaving, gesticulating partygoers I spotted my father, sitting up on a dais at the far end of the cavern like some ancient Roman emperor surveying an orgy. He was even clad in a flowing robe of crimson, with two beautifully supple young women at his sandalled feet.
My father. One hundred years old this day. Martin Humphries didn't look any more than forty; his hair was still dark, his face firm and almost unlined. But his eyes--his eyes were hard, knowing; they glittered with corrupt pleasure at the scene being played out before him. He had used every rejuvenation therapy he could get his hands on, even illegal ones such as nanomachines. He wanted to stay young and vigorous forever. I thought he probably would. He always got what he wanted. But one look into his eyes and it was easy to believe that he was a hundred years old.
He saw me shouldering through the strident, surging crowd and for a moment those cold gray eyes of his locked onto mine. Then he turned away from me with an impatient frown clouding his handsome, artificially youthful face.
You insisted that I come to this carnival, I said to him silently. So, like it or not, here I am.
He paid no attention to me as I toiled to reach him. I was gasping now, my lungs burning. I needed a shot of my medication but I had left it back at my hotel suite. When at last I reached the foot of his dais I slumped against the softly pliable fabric draped over the platform, struggling to catch my breath. Then I realized that the strident din of the party had dropped to a buzzing, muted whisper.
"Sound dampers," my father said, glancing down at me with his old disdainful smirk. "Don't look so stupid."
There were no steps up the platform and I felt too weak and giddy to try to haul myself up beside him.
He made a shooing motion and the two young women jumped nimbly from the platform, eagerly joining the crowd. I realized that they were just teenagers.
"Want one?" my father asked, with a leering grin. "You can have 'em both, all you have to do is ask."
I didn't bother to shake my head. I just clung to the side of his platform, trying to bring my breathing under control.
"For Christ's sake, Runt, stop that damned panting! You look like a beached flounder."
I pulled in a deep breath, then stood as straight as I could manage. "And it's lovely to see you, too, Father."
"Aren't you enjoying my party?"
"You know better."
"Then what'd you come for, Runt?"
"Your lawyer said you'd cut off my stipend if I didn't attend your party."
"Your allowance," he sneered.
"I earn that money."
"By playing at being a scientist. Now your brother, there was a real scientist."
Yes, but Alex is dead. It had happened three years ago, but the memory of that day still scalded me inside.
All my life my father had mocked and belittled me. Alex was his favorite, his firstborn, Father's pride and joy. Alex was being groomed to take over Humphries Space Systems, if and when Father ever decided to retire. Alex was everything that I'm not: tall, athletic, quick and handsome, brilliantly intelligent, outgoing, charming and witty. I'm on the small side, I've been sickly from birth, I'm told that I tend to be withdrawn, introspective. My mother died giving birth to me and my father never let me forget that.
I had loved Alex. I truly had. I had admired him tremendously. Ever since I could remember, Alex had protected me against Father's sneers and cutting words. "It's all right, little brother, don't cry," he would tell me. "I won't let him hurt you."
Over the years I learned from Alex a love for exploration, for seeing new vistas, new worlds. But while Alex actually went out on missions to Mars and the Jovian moons, I had to stay cocooned at home, too frail to venture outward. I flew an armchair, not a spacecraft. My excitement came from streams of computer data and virtual reality simulations. Once I walked with Alex on the red sands of Mars, linked by an interactive VR system. It was the best afternoon of my life.
Then Alex was killed on his expedition to Venus, he and all his crew. And Father hated me for being alive. I left his house for good and bought a home on Majorca, a place all my own, far from his dismissive sarcasm. As if to mock me, Father moved to Selene City. Later I found out that he'd gone to the Moon so he could take nanotherapies to keep himself young and fit. Nanomachines were outlawed on Earth, of course.
It was clear that Father went for rejuvenation treatments because he had no intention of retiring now. With Alex dead, Father would never leave Humphries Space Systems to me. He would stay in command and keep me exiled.
So Father lived some four hundred thousand kilometers away, playing his chosen role of interplanetary tycoon, megabillionaire, hell-raising, womanizing, ruthless, corrupt giant of industry. I was perfectly content with that. I lived quietly on Majorca, comfortable with a household staff that took excellent care of me. Some of my servants were human; most were robots. Friends came to visit often enough. I could flit over to Paris or New York or wherever for theater or a concert. I spent my days studying the new data about the stars and planets that were constantly streaming back from our space explorers.
Until one of my friends repeated a rumor she had heard: My brother's spacecraft had been sabotaged. His death was not an accident; it was murder. The very next day, my father summoned me to his moronic birthday party on the Moon, under the threat of cutting off my stipend if I didn't show up.
Looking up at his youthfully taut face again, I asked my father, "Why did you insist that I come here?"
He smiled down sardonically at me. "Aren't you enjoying the party?"
"Are you?" I countered.
Father made a sound that might have been a suppressed laugh. Then he said, "I have an announcement to make. I wanted you to be on hand to hear it directly from my lips."
I felt puzzled. An announcement? Was he going to retire, after all? What of it; he would never allow me to run the corporation. Nor did I want to, actually.
He touched a stud set into the left armrest of his chair and the stupefying noise of the party blasted against my ears hard enough to crack my skull. Then he touched the other armrest. The music stopped in mid-beat. The tightrope-walking acrobats winked out like a light snapped off. A holographic image, I realized.
The crowd fell silent and still. They all turned toward the dais, like a sullen horde of party-dressed schoolchildren forced to listen to their principal.
"I'm delighted that you could come to my party," Father began, his low, modulated voice amplified and echoing across the crowded chamber. "Are we having fun yet?"
On that cue they all cheered, clapped, whistled, and yelled lustily.
Father raised both hands and they all fell silent again.
"I have an announcement to make, something that you hardworking representatives of the news media out there will find particularly worthwhile, I think."
Half a dozen camera-carrying balloons were already hovering a few meters from the dais, like glittering Christmas ornaments floating buoyantly. Now several more drifted out of the farther reaches of the chamber to focus on my father.
"As you know," he went on, "my beloved son Alexander was killed three years ago while attempting to explore the planet Venus."
A collective sigh swept through the throng.
"Somewhere on the surface of that hellhole of a world his spacecraft lies, with his remains inside it. In that terrible heat and pressure, the corrosive atmosphere must be slowly destroying the last mortal remains of my boy."
Somewhere a woman broke into soft sobbing.
"I want to offer an inducement to someone who is bold enough, tough enough, to go to Venus and reach its surface and bring back what's left of my son to me." They all seemed to stand up straighter, their eyes widened. An inducement?
My father hesitated for a dramatic moment, then said in a much stronger voice, "I offer a prize of ten billion international dollars to whoever can reach my dead son's body and return his remains to me."
They gasped. For several seconds no one spoke. Then the chamber filled with excited chatter. Ten billion dollars! Reach the surface of Venus! A prize often billion dollars to recover Alex Humphries's body!
I felt just as stunned as any of the others. More, perhaps, because I knew better than most of those costumed free loaders what an impossible challenge my father had just offered.
Father touched the stud on his chair arm and the babble of the crowd immediately was cut down to a muted buzz again.
"Very nice," I said to him. "You'll be named Father of the Year."
He gazed disdainfully down at me. "You don't think I mean it?"
"I think you know that no one in his right mind is going to try to reach the surface of Venus. Alex himself only planned to coast through the cloud decks."
"So you think I'm a fraud."
"I think you're making a public relations gesture, nothing more."
He shrugged as if it didn't matter.
I was seething. He was sitting up there and getting all this publicity. "You want to look like a grieving father," I shouted at him, "making the whole world think you care about Alex, offering a prize that you know no one will claim."
"Oh, someone will try for it, I'm certain." He smiled coldly down at me. 'ten billion dollars is a lot of incentive."
"I'm not so sure," I said.
"But I am. In fact, I'm going to deposit the whole sum in an escrow account where no one can touch it except the eventual prize winner."
"The entire ten billion?"
"The whole sum," he repeated. Then, leaning slightly toward me, he added, "To raise that much cash I'm going to have to cut a few corners here and there."
"Really? How much have you spent on this party?"
He waved a hand as if that didn't matter. "One of the corners I'm cutting is your allowance."
"It's finished, Runt. You'll be twenty-five years old next month. Your allowance ends on your birthday."
Just like that, I was penniless.
Copyright ©; 2000 By Ben Bova