by Patrick O'Sullivan
Winner of the 2013 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Competition for best forward-looking original science fiction story.
September 15, 2021
The astronaut gripped Ernesto's wrist. "Look, kid, you want to put the phone down and look around?" He had to shout to be heard over the helicopter's deafening noise. "This is a once in a lifetime experience."
Ernesto adjusted the gain on his aviation headset. "Yes sir." He reluctantly pocketed his cloudnode and leaned back in the plush leather seat. He peered out the helicopter's window at the broad, open ocean off the coast of Ecuador. They'd passed over the shrouded mass of the Galápagos an hour before. Now the ocean looked the same as it had ten minutes earlier, and ten minutes before that: wet, choppy, and indistinguishable from the ocean he could see any day at home in San Diego. It was a wild and memorable experience meeting an astronaut, but that was yesterday. When the astronaut had to shout over the helicopter's thumping rotors it reminded Ernesto not of Captain Weber, a real American hero, but of Ernesto's dad after half a bottle of Captain Morgan.
Shouting and astronauting did not go together. Ernesto would write a blog post on that topic later tonight. He would also mention that too much dollar-store after-shave and astronauting didn't go together either, at least not in the confined cabin of a trillionaire's ramjet helicopter. Ernesto was mortified at his mistake, but man enough to admit the truth for once: that he was more enthusiastic than experienced when it came to both astronauting and shaving.
cosmicgrrl wouldn't have made such an egregious error. She would have consulted an expert. She had once messaged ernesto2003 that admitting ignorance was a virtue, not a weakness. That exposing oneself was the first step to understanding. Then she'd ruined everything by making a joke about his screen name. That was nearly four years ago and Ernesto's face still burned whenever he thought about her message.
Last month, when cosmicgrrl discovered that ernesto2003 had won the Lamplighter Prize for Best Amateur Space Blog, she'd been shocked, shocked, shocked. Ernesto was convinced he'd admitted to cosmicgrrl that Blogespacial! was his creation. Even if he hadn't boasted so baldly, it said 'moderador' under his screen name in all his posts. Did she think he was just some high school slacker with nothing but time on his hands? Or because he wasn't a NASA engineer like her, he had all day to pontificate on some else's blog?
The astronaut shouted. "Something bugging you, kid?"
Yeah, there was. Ernesto had blown all he'd saved waiting tables on a worldwide data plan and he wanted to use it. "No, sir," Ernesto said.
The problem with virtual keyboards was that you had to look at them to type. Ernesto could touch type sixty words a minute on an old-school keyboard, in the dark, with the covers pulled over his head. He couldn't input a word here without insulting the astronaut and Mr. James Lamplighter, whose generous award had funded Blogespacial! for as long as Ernesto cared to continue posting, and who had invited Ernesto to witness the launch of Lamplighter's latest satellite. The launch would take place from a floating platform positioned on the equator, somewhere up ahead. Ernesto clutched his cloudnode powerlessly and gazed out at the broad, empty ocean.
One wave looked just like another.
In pictures Lamplighter seemed bigger, more imposing. He was the richest man on Earth, and when the newsblogs ran posts with his photo they were inevitably shot from below, as if Lamplighter was a rocket set to blast off and the photographer a mere mortal like Ernesto, so much extra payload crowding the launching pad.
Ernesto's voice quivered when he said, "Pleased to meet you, sir,” but he looked Lamplighter in the eye and managed to shake hands without sweating all over the man's manicured nails.
"Call me Jim," Lamplighter said. His voice was an average voice, his eyes average eyes, neither blue, nor green, nor brown. He was in his late fifties and dressed in a white guayabera shirt, jeans, and sandals. Ernesto might have waited on Lamplighter's a thousand times at Casa Suarez without noticing him, if not for one thing. Lamplighter quivered with energy, like Hidalgo, Mr. Calderón's golden retriever, after Ernesto had thrown the ball but still had a grip on Hidalgo's collar.
The astronaut had passed Ernesto off to Lamplighter on the command vessel's helipad. The helicopter had circled the launch vessel so that Ernesto could photograph from above and up close. It was a letdown. The platform was huge, a converted North Sea oil rig, but there was no launch vehicle in sight. Ernesto wanted to ask the astronaut what was up, but didn't fancy shouting at a real American hero over a helicopter's thumping racket. Instead Ernesto took shot after shot, camera clicking in bracketing exposures, more shots of an empty launch deck than he felt necessary, but his activity seemed to please the astronaut, and Ernesto had no end to image storage on his cloudnode.
The command vessel was big but not huge, like a cruise ship, but empty. Lamplighter said the ship's crew of forty was on board, but the people involved in the launch numbered only eight, including Captain Weber, who was acting as a technical advisor.
Ernesto asked how many people were on the launch platform and Lamplighter told him only the ship's twelve person crew. No technical staff yet. There'd been a change of plans.
Mr. Lamplighter asked if Ernesto would like to get the personal interview over with. As part of the Lamplighter Prize Ernesto had won the right to an exclusive interview with the richest man on Earth. Mr. Lamplighter said things would get hectic later and now was as good a time as any. Ernesto must have looked worried because Mr. Lamplighter asked if he was feeling okay.
Ernesto pasted a confident grin on his face. "Never better, sir."
It was a good thing that Mr. Lamplighter was paying for Blogespacial!'s bandwidth fees going forward, because an interview with Mr. Lamplighter was like gold, and traffic to Ernesto's site would explode. It wouldn't just be regulars like cosmicgrrl and lucky_yellow_dragon, and cornelius_simeon, and vikenti_123 who would argue back and forth on Blogespacial!. Many people were interested in Mr. Lamplighter for all sorts of reasons, but most had nothing to do with his space projects.
"Tell you what," Lamplighter said. "Why don't you get your kit settled, and get freshened up, and meet me on the fantail?"
"I don't know what a fantail is," Ernesto said. "Let alone where it is."
Lamplighter grinned. "You're the real deal, aren't you, ernesto2003?"
Ernesto started to look at his feet before he forced himself to meet Mr. Lamplighter's gaze. "Sir?"
"Many young men would have said, 'Sure,’ and then wandered around for half an hour in ignorance, wasting their time. And mine."
"Maybe they'd already know what a fantail was, and where it was." cosmicgrrl certainly would. Her family had a boat. A yacht. Until today the closest Ernesto had ever gotten to a boat was on Sundays, when he helped his mom load the minivan with fresh dorado from the fish market.
"Tell you what." Lamplighter subtly tapped the cloudnode implanted behind his right ear, an Hermés Executive II, certifiably uncrackable, nearly invisible, and more costly than the helicopter Ernesto had arrived in. "I'll squirt you my id addy. Ring me when you're ready."
Ernesto stared at the cloudnode in his hands. On its display was the address of the richest man on Earth. The temporal cloud address of the richest man on Earth. This was unreal. He flicked to his friendnet glyph. There was a message waiting, one from cosmicgrrl.
Well? What's it like?
Ernesto typed madly. Exciting. I've met him, and he's calm, just like you. There's been a delay in the launch, but he doesn't seem perturbed. Very collected, like sending a payload into orbit is an everyday occurrence. Like it's normal. Ernesto pressed the send glyph and waited.
He didn't have to wait long. Wouldn't that be fantastic? If it was?
Ernesto stared at the display projection and contemplated the implications. I'm not so sure. Maybe then no one would view my blog. Not if space missions were normal.
The satellite time lag was minimal. I would.
No, she wouldn't. Not if she realized just how close she'd cut when she'd joked about his screen name. He'd never replied to her message. 2003? Is that your birth year or something?
Like cosmicgrrl would even look at him twice. Ernesto Suarez, heir to the great Suarez restaurant fortune. Ernesto went into the tiny ship's bathroom and splashed water on his face. He stared at the boy in the mirror. He was about as far from a great American hero as they came.
His fingers worked the keyboard projection. Got to go. Can't keep the big man waiting. He hammered the send glyph and went to search his suitcase for a shirt that didn't reek of astro-shave.
It turned out the fantail was the rear of the command vessel. The stern.
Mr. Lamplighter leaned against the rail. He looked like a king, or a god. "I imagine you have some prepared questions."
The command vessel was underway. An apparent wind blew from behind Ernesto, battling the cross-breeze that had begun to whip up whitecaps on the dark waves of the Pacific. The deck vibrated and water churned, pale and foam-flecked, salty spray thrown up by massive, unseen propellers far below. Ernesto's hands shook. This was so bizarre. He, Ernesto Suarez, was on the deck of a wet-launch command vessel, chatting with the richest man on Earth. Chatting like they were buddies.
Ernesto's voice quivered but didn't crack. "A couple, sir."
"Here's the agreement. For every question, you ask I get to ask one. If you ask a boneheaded question, I get to ask a boneheaded question. Anything I say gets reported word for word. Anything you say gets reported word for word."
Ernesto shifted his feet. He'd interviewed many NASA, CNSA, and ROSCOSMOS experts for his blog. "Verbatim transcriptions can be boring, sir. People tend to wander, and... um... do that a lot."
"I don't. And you won't. Those are my requirements. Take them or leave them."
"I'll take them, sir."
"Then shoot, ernesto2003."
"Yes, sir." Ernesto flicked the recording app on his cloudnode alive. He'd scoured the cloud for every interview of James Lamplighter in existence. He'd never interviewed anyone but scientists and engineers and they couldn't stop talking once Ernesto got them started on the subjects his friends cared about. With Lamplighter he didn't know where to begin. Lamplighter was a money man, not a scientist, and notoriously secretive. Plus, it wouldn't just be Blogespacial! regulars reading this interview. Millions would read Ernesto's words simply because the subject was James Lamplighter.
Ernesto decided to begin where every other interviewer began. "What's it feel like to be the richest man on Earth?"
"It feels like dirt. And that's a boneheaded question. I was born the tenth richest man on Earth. When I die I'll still be the richest man on Earth. And that will feel like dirt squared." Lamplighter glared at Ernesto. "My turn. What's it feel like to be born a nothing?"
Ernesto felt his face burn. "What?"
"You heard me."
"I'm not a nothing."
"Then prove it. Next question."
"You want me to post... That? Without editing?"
"I don't want it. I demand it. Now next question, son."
"I'm not your son."
"That's not a question."
Ernesto was so angry he couldn't see straight. He knew he was that angry because the idea that he couldn't see straight was a cliché, and Ernesto hated clichés with a passion. "You're the richest man on Earth. You can have anything you want."
"And you were born a nothing. And you can't. That's still not a question. Is this all you've brought, ernesto2003? Because I have a score of questions, and you're going to answer every single one."
Ernesto rubbed his forehead. His guts churned. "Why are you doing this?"
"Now that's a question, and it's not a boneheaded one. Do you want to film this?"
"Because no one's ever asked me that question. It's good copy."
"No, I don't want to film this."
"Fair enough," Lamplighter said. "I imagine, in your mind, 'Why are you doing this' pertains to why I am beating up on an seventeen year old kid, whose parents aren't even legal residents, and who would be entering college next year if he could scrape together the coin, but instead is wasting his talents waiting tables at the family restaurant, which will one day be his, and which he will hate with all the passion in the world because it isn't what he wants. He will hate it, not because he couldn't imagine better for himself, but because he can.
"Now, in my mind, your question, 'Why are you doing this', pertains, not merely to this conversation and your precious feelings, but to everything I've brought you here to witness, and everything I've done in my life up to this moment. Do you, perhaps, see a difference in these two questions, and in the nature of our perspectives?"
Ernesto's face burned. He glanced down at the recorder in his hand. He could switch it off and go home. He didn't have to do this. He didn't like it when his dad got angry, and he didn't like it when he got angry. Anger made him stupid, and maybe he wasn't much, but he wasn't stupid. Ernesto took a deep breath and looked Lamplighter in the eye. "I see it."
"Well, I don't. They are faces of the same coin. So I will give you the same answer to both questions. I'm 'doing this' because I want to. And because I can."
"What? That's your excuse?"
"You don't get a follow-up. And for the record, that was an explanation, not an excuse."
"My deck, my rules. Now I get a question."
Ernesto tore his gaze away from Lamplighter. He glanced out to sea, where the wind had begun to whip the white-capped waves higher. Ernesto could feel his nostrils flare as he sucked in great gulps of salt air. Lamplighter would probably ask if Ernesto had any socks without holes in them, or what it feels like when your parents can't make a mortgage payment. "Go ahead."
Lamplighter leaned against the rail, stretching his legs. His gaze never left Ernesto's face. "What, ernesto2003, do you want more than anything in the world?"
"You heard me."
Ernesto couldn't speak the truth. Not in a thousand years could he speak the truth. Not without messaging cosmicgrrl first. In private. "I haven't given that as much thought as it deserves."
"Give it some." Lamplighter lounged against the fantail railing. He crossed his tanned ankles and pursed his lips, examining Ernesto like some unidentifiable stain discovered lurking on his freshly-pressed tablecloth. "While we wait, maybe you'd like to ask the obvious follow-up question."
Maybe, right after Ernesto finished stuffing his fist up Lamplighter's posh aristocratic nose. Some things never changed, no matter how much you wanted them to. Ernesto took three deep breaths and counted to ten. "Umm... What do you want more than anything in the world?"
Lamplighter grinned like an imbecile. "I thought you'd never ask. I have given this as much thought as it deserves. I've thought about it every night since I learned to read, and since I learned to think for myself. I wish to be the richest man--"
"But you already are!"
"Hear me out, son."
"I'm not your son."
"You think not?"
"I wouldn't want to be."
"I don't blame you for feeling that way. It changes nothing. Now stow it, and let me say what I want to say. For the record."
Ernesto jammed his cloudnode in Lamplighter's face so the microphone wouldn't miss the man's gloating words, and so that later he could transcribe every arrogant, elitist inflection of Lamplighter's boarding-school voice. "Go on."
"You'll laugh, ernesto2003."
"I promise you, Mr. Lamplighter, I find none of this amusing."
"I wish to be the richest man on Mars."
Ernesto snorted. "What?"
"You heard me. And you laughed."
"I heard you laugh, son."
"No, the other thing. Being the richest man on Mars. That's impossible."
"That doesn't stop me from wanting it."
"But you can't have that." Even the richest man on Earth couldn't have that. No one could.
Lamplighter's gaze locked with Ernesto's. It was like when Ernesto was eight and crouching in his aunt Vera's basement the day before Christmas, peering into the firebox of the furnace and trying to figure out why the house didn't burn down. For an instant, Ernesto felt that the fire saw him watching, and all it was waiting for was for Ernesto to turn his back and run.
"Are you a writer, ernesto2003?"
"Trying to be."
"Then surely someone, sometime, has told you how writing is like eating an elephant. That there's only one way to do it."
"One bite at a time."
"One small bite for a man is still too much for mankind to swallow. At least too much for mankind's politicians and their hidebound masters."
Lamplighter's gaze shifted from Ernesto to the sky, tracking something that probably wasn't invisible to Lamplighter's augmented eyesight but was far too small for Ernesto's naked eye to see, watching it soaring, up, up, and away.
"Too much until now."
The viewfinder of Ernesto's camera had grown very steady. Very still. He realized he'd been holding his breath. Shouting and astronauting didn't go together. He needed to be cool as mission control. Cool as cosmicgrrl. Ernesto took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"How do you intend to get to Mars?"
"I'm following your plan, ernesto2003. With slight modifications to the budget."
"You'd do me a great favor if you'd stop shouting after every question I ask."
"That was a statement that I shouted after."
"So it was. Let's try this again. Are you sure you don't want to film this?"
Ernesto felt his face twist into an imbecilic grin. "That's a boneheaded question."
"Then get your gear. And meet me in the assembly bay."
"I will, sir. Umm..."
"Ring me when you're ready."
"I will, sir." Right after he messaged cosmicgrrl.
Safe in his stateroom, Ernesto tried to keep from hyperventilating. You are not going to believe this. Ernesto messaged cosmicgrrl everything he'd learned: that Lamplighter intended to go to Mars using a plan cosmicgrrl and Ernesto's other friends had worked out on Blogespacial!.
cosmicgrrl's reply was nearly instantaneous. I am shocked, shocked, shocked. Tell me more.
Later. When I know more. First, Ernesto had to do something he'd been putting off. There were a pair of elephants stomping around on his guts now, and if he wanted a good night's sleep ever again he couldn't ignore either one. His pulse raced as he typed rapidly, pressing the send glyph before he lost his courage. Do you ever get out to San Diego?
It cost a small fortune, but Ernesto's international data plan was worth every penny. cosmicgrrl's reply rocketed back instantly. All the time. Why do you ask?
Ernesto's palms wept sweat. His cloudnode squirted from his fingers. He scooped it up off the pristine bedspread and took the coward's way out. Tell you later. Gotta go.
The camera rattled in Ernesto's hands. It had image stabilization, but that wasn't enough. A multi-stage lift vehicle filled the command ship's assembly bay. Three engineers were stripping the payload. Captain Weber and a lady engineer were working on another payload package in a distant corner of the shipboard high bay. Sodium light bathed every inch in uncompromising detail. It took Ernesto a minute to adjust the camera's white balance before he was satisfied with the results. Ernesto panned the camera the length of the bay. He wished it could capture everything, not just the way shadows fell across titanium and steel, but the scents: machine oil, ozone and hot metal, salt air and copper, and the sweat of honest work; scents so thick he could taste them—sights, and sounds, and smells that if distilled and condensed could fuel his imagination for a thousand years.
Lamplighter shifted so he was in the frame. "Recognize that bird, ernesto2003?"
"Yes sir." It was one of the old Zenits.
"Care to read off the specs for your online amigos?"
"I'll add them in a voice-over, sir. If I get any details wrong my friends will ream me a new... I mean, I'll lose a significant amount of credibility, sir."
"Recognize the payload they're removing?"
"I think it's one of your communications satellites, sir."
"Right. What about the new payload Captain Marine Band and his shapely sidekick are working on?"
"I can't tell from here, sir."
"Let's take a walk."
"I'll have to stop recording." Ernesto couldn't afford to trip and break his camera.
"Do what you need to, son. Lamplighter's first and only rule."
"Yes sir." Ernesto clicked the camera off and stepped over a thick black power cable, following along in Lamplighter's wake.
Lamplighter paused as they passed the three engineers wrenching on the payload at warp speed. "Would you like to take a break, gentlemen?"
"Thought you'd never ask," a compact man said. He wiped a red bandana across his face. He eyed Ernesto up and down. "This the new guy, chief?"
"That remains to be seen."
The man stuck out his hand. "Well, either way, glad to meet you. I'm--"
"No names." Lamplighter glanced at Ernesto and for the first time Lamplighter looked uncomfortable. "They're on loan from NASA. An off-the-books deal."
"Temporary Duty Assignment," the first engineer said. "About as temporary as it gets, if this bird doesn't fly. Either way, we're all qualified for early out if we want it."
"Volunteers," the second engineer said. He'd wandered over, sipping a Diet Coke. "True believers, ernesto2003. Maybe these old coots are ready for retirement, but I'm not."
"I shouldn't be recording this," Ernesto said. "If you'll get in trouble I--"
"Screw it," the third engineer said.
"Easy for you to say, 'beatlestix69'." The second engineer sipped his diet cola.
"Listen, wiseacre, stony1632 said my screen name needed numbers in it."
"Did he now?" The engineer glanced at his coworker and chuckled.
"I might have, duckman."
"It's 'mandrake', compadre." He wiped his hands on a shop towel and looked Ernesto up and down. He turned to Lamplighter and grinned. "Ab ove maiori discit arare minor."
"We'll see," Lamplighter said.
"Hey, wait a minute." Ernesto looked from face to face. "Are you guys saying you're posters on Blogespacial!?"
"That's why we're here," the third engineer said. "Even then, it took some conniving. Uncle Sugar is unusually tight-fisted now that he's broke."
The first engineer grinned at Ernesto. "We're all grownups. We know what we signed up for. Even if the Federales don't. Officially."
"Like I said. You do what you need to, son. It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission."
"Try telling that to my dad."
"When I meet him, I will." Lamplighter smiled at Ernesto, a devil's smile, all teeth. "It takes three days to transfer this bird to the launch vessel and fuel her with LOX and RP-1. Until then no one's going anywhere. No one, including you."
Ernesto tried to keep the look of terror off his face. His dad would murder him. There was a wedding reception scheduled for Saturday night and Ernesto had promised to work the private room. "I need to make a call."
"First you need to see the new payload. The one you and your transnational, net-dwelling co-conspirators designed."
"I didn't do anything." Ernesto said. "I just made a place where people could share ideas."
"You're right, kid, that's nothing," Stony said.
Lamplighter grinned at the engineer. "I think he's a little too overwhelmed for irony right now, Stony."
"Is that so, kid? Are you a little overwhelmed?"
"No, sir." Ernesto was a lot overwhelmed.
Lamplighter gripped Ernesto's elbow and hauled him away. The engineers went back to their feverish wrenching.
"You've met Captain Weber," Lamplighter said. "Or should I say, 'hohnerman'?"
"That was a typo," the astronaut said. "There's no way to edit your screen name."
"It's off-the-shelf software," Ernesto said. He'd tried to edit his own screen name a thousand times.
"That's what the chief's little princess claimed."
Ernesto wasn't listening. He was trying to check out the NASA lady without her noticing. Maybe she was cosmicgrrl. Maybe that’s why cosmicgrrl’s replies were coming back so quickly. She was on board the command vessel.
"And this is--"
The astronaut grinned. "She goes by 'butterbug_babe'. On line."
Ernesto stared at the engineer. "Oh. I mean, wow. Really?"
She smiled at Ernesto. "Really."
"Your posts are brilliant. And your Spanish is outstanding."
"I paid attention in class."
"Yes, ma'am." Ernesto spent most of his time on-line cleaning up typos and grammatical errors. Half the people posting on Blogespacial! lately weren't native speakers. He'd tried writing a program to clean up the common English to Spanish translation errors but it hadn't worked out. He’d had to read and edit every post manually. Ernesto couldn't keep his eyes off butterbug_babe, who looked like he'd imagined cosmicgrrl would. Brainy, and competent, and calm under pressure. Everything Ernesto wasn't.
"You know what the greatest benefactor to space exploration is, Ernesto?" The astronaut grinned.
"War." That's what cosmicgrrl said. Ernesto had tried to argue with her but it was like a stone trying to argue with the wind.
butterbug_babe crossed her arms and frowned. "Reasonable people might disagree."
Ernesto glanced from face to face.
"War," Captain Weber said. "The mother of invention. Take a look at this bad boy."
Ernesto followed the astronaut to a workbench where a mottled brown and tan box hunched atop a vacuum clamp. "Recognize it?"
"It looks like a Miller-Lee 3D printer. A Mark Four. With some sort of adjunct processor and one big-a... I mean, some sort of large external power supply, sir."
"Like a remotely controlled Millie Tri-Delta. A Mike Five Roger. EMP hardened. Sealed and jacketed for desert use. Hydrogen fueled. We started using these puppies in the second Syrian War and--"
"Police Action," butterbug_babe said. "Technically."
"Call it what you like," Captain Weber said. "It smelled like war to me. Anyway, it's heavy duty, and this one's special. One of a kind."
Ernesto's stomach felt like it was filled with broken glass. "The first of its kind."
"Right. It's self-replicating."
This was all beginning to make sense. Lamplighter wasn't going to Mars. He had other plans. Plans that were all Ernesto's fault.
Lamplighter leaned over Ernesto's shoulder. "You don't look so good, son."
Ernesto didn't feel so good. The timing all made sense now. It was September 15th, 2021. In two weeks Ernesto would turn eighteen. He'd be called up for the draft. By December he could be frying in a sunbaked, 3D-printed sand hut, waiting to die. If he was still breathing he could search the desert sky and witness nothing. The asteroid 4660 Nereus would pass within 3.9 million kilometers of Earth. Close, but too distant to perceive with the naked eye.
"On Blogespacial!. I was just...thinking out loud."
Ernesto had trained with milspec 3D printers in citizenship class, trained with them so often that he dreamed about them, and about what they could do. Not just what they were born to do, but what they could do, if they were free to choose. When his number came up and Ernesto went to war, he'd vowed to do it on the front lines, sweating over a Seabee's shovel if he had to. He wasn't made to lounge in a safe, air-conditioned room, twitching a joystick from ten thousand miles away. That didn't make him a coward, and it didn't make him a fool, regardless of what anyone said.
"I was just trying to get a discussion started."
Lamplighter rested his palm on Ernesto's shoulder. "Well, you did that, son."
Ernesto swept his gaze the length of the assembly bay.
"You still want to make that call?"
"I have to, sir." His dad was counting on him for Saturday. He deserved to know that Ernesto was going to disappoint him. Again.
Ernesto flicked his cloudnode off. The conversation with his father hadn't gone well. The less he thought about the shouting the better. He rubbed his thumb across the cloudnode's controls. He flicked it alive and typed out a message.
Maybe next time you're in San Diego you'd like to have lunch. I know this great Mexican joint. They'll treat you like family.
Ernesto stared at the blinking cursor, heart pounding, index finger hovering over the send glyph. He stared at the virtual display for the longest time before he switched off and pocketed his cloudnode. Who was he kidding? He couldn't make any promises. Especially not that one. Not after talking to his dad. Not anymore.
Lamplighter leaned against the fantail rail. The ocean churned white behind him.
Ernesto zoomed in on Lamplighter's face.
Lamplighter frowned. "Power that down. We need to talk. Off the record."
"But you said--"
"Turn it off."
"What's eating you?"
"You heard me."
"Earlier, I asked you a question. You danced around it." Lamplighter pinned Ernesto to the deck with his gaze.
Ernesto shuffled his feet. "I wouldn't say that, sir. I said I hadn't given the topic enough thought."
"Have you now?"
"Umm... Too much, probably."
"Well, let me make this easier for you. In three days, maybe five if the seas don't lay, we're going to launch a mission to 4660 Nereus. On it will be a payload designed by a bunch of space-crazy kids. Kids on Space Blog."
"Whatever. You kids dreamed it up."
"We had help."
"Nevertheless, it's your project. Your mission."
"With some modifications to the budget, sir."
"Of course." Lamplighter leaned forward. "By December that payload will begin to dig in, and it will begin to replicate itself. Every two years--"
"One point eight two years, sir."
"Okay. Anyway, the asteroid will pass close enough to Earth that we can reprogram the payload, and the factory it's built, reprogram it on every pass, adjusting as we need to, so in forty years--"
"Will you stop interrupting?"
"In thirty-nine years, when 4660 Nereus passes within..." Lamplighter glared at Ernesto.
"One point two million kilometers."
"Right. The nearest approach in six hundred years, and we'll have everything we need. Everything, ernesto2003, that we need to get to Mars, will be there waiting, a hand's breadth away, cosmically speaking. Everything needed to get to Mars in style, and free for the taking." Lamplighter smiled. "Free, to whoever can lay off their boneheaded squabbling and get there first."
"Yes, sir." Ernesto glanced at his shoes. "But you'll be... umm."
"Dead. But you won't, Ernesto. 2003."
"I hope not, sir. I'd like to see what happens."
"I expect you will do more than see it, son. And I'd like to ask a favor."
"Take me with you. Take me with you, if only in your fevered imagination and your mad, improbable dreams."
Ernesto gazed far, far out to sea. He looked anywhere, everywhere, anywhere but at Lamplighter's shadowed face. "Yes, sir."
"Now I'll ask you one more time, and I expect a straight answer. What, ernesto2003, do you want more than anything in the world?"
"Hang on." Ernesto fished in his pocket for his cloudnode. He closed his eyes and pressed the send glyph. It wasn't ten seconds before the device twitched in his fingers. It took twice as long for Ernesto to screw up the courage to look. He stared at cosmicgrrl's reply.
It's a date. I absolutely love, love, love Mexican.
Ernesto's heart felt as if it might leap out onto the deck and race away on a trail of burning fire. When Ernesto glanced up he found Lamplighter watching—the sun pressing low against the western sky, close enough to touch, the Pacific churning behind Lamplighter, a long trail of foam, sun-kissed and endless in his wake.
"I, Ernesto Suarez, wish to be the richest man on Mars."
"Or the poorest. It doesn't really matter."
Lamplighter turned and gazed toward some unseen, farthest shore. The last rays of the sun lit the parting clouds as the stars began to rise.
"It wouldn't matter to me either, son."
Ernesto closed his eyes, not fighting the tears, but letting this singular moment, this calm, pregnant moment unfold around him, like wind embracing stone.
"I know. Sir."
September 15, 2081
Diego Suarez clasped the cinerary urn to his chest. It was ugly, and crude, and until this morning, the most precious thing in all the world.
"That's an impressive show and tell," Mrs. Singh, his fourth grade teacher, said.
"That's the tell. This is the show." Diego held the urn out at arm's length.
"It's a nice urn, Diego."
"My granddad printed it, on 4660 Nereus. Right before he died. Died saving people he'd never even met. Grandma Suarez says they were people he didn't even like. That's the story."
"You must be very proud."
"I'm supposed to be. But I'm not. Look!" Diego upturned the urn on the teacher's desk. A thin dusting of ash trickled out, not enough for one man, let alone two. "It's all a lie. Everything everyone ever told me was a lie." He had to stare at the bulletin board because if he didn't he'd choke on the nasty lump swelling in his chest, swelling exactly where a Lamplighter's heart was supposed to be. And wasn't.
Mrs. Singh held out her hand. "May I see that?"
Diego handed her the urn. Mrs. Singh took it, cupping it in her hands like it was a fresh oxygen charge and she was just back from a long walk. She closed her eyes and ran her fingers up and down the ugly, lying pot, touching, feeling, searching its surface for something Diego couldn't see. A single tear ran down her cheek.
She spoke without opening her eyes. "Tomorrow we'll take a field trip. To hydroponics. Tonight, I'd like you all to look up calcium phosphate, and be ready to discuss. Class dismissed." She ran her fingers over the urn one last time before she opened her eyes and handed it back to Diego. "You won't believe me, Diego, but this was the best show and tell. Ever."
Diego's grandmother scowled when he handed her grandpa's and Mr. Lamplighter's urn. Not that he believed the lie anymore. It was just a nasty 3D-printed pot, the sort Diego could crank out in half an hour on a bad day. It was a lie. He never should have taken it without asking permission but he'd forgotten about show and tell until the last minute and he was desperate to show up Chandra Patel for once.
"She really said that?" His grandmother watched Diego's face like she'd never noticed it before. "Padma Singh said that?"
"And she cried?"
"Not crying, really. Just a tear. It wasn't a big deal."
His grandmother glanced out the viewport. Diego couldn't see what she was looking at. Everything looked red, and sharp, and normal.
"Well." His grandmother shifted in her chair. "I don't mind telling you, Diego." His grandma cradled the urn like a baby. She closed her eyes and Diego began to worry that she'd fallen asleep, or worse.
His grandmother cracked one eye open, then the other, pinning Diego to the carpet with what his dad called "that damned Lamplighter look".
Diego shifted from foot to foot. "Don't mind telling me what?"
"That I am shocked, shocked, shocked." Grandma Suarez held out the urn for Diego. "Now go put this back where it belongs."
Copyright © 2013 by Patrick O'Sullivan