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April 2007
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Charles de Lint
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
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Gregory Benford
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Gene Wolfe

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    Kit was doing deep-space aerobics, throwing herself from floor to ceiling and from ceiling to floor, her lush body enveloped in a fine mist of sweat that her hopper's air system stripped away only sluggishly. "I say we gotta go in," she gasped. "Round-file that sweet old lady giving us her warning? Over my dead body."
    "If you go in," Robin said, "I might go in it, too—only I wish you wouldn't."
    "I'm going." Kit grunted. "If Windy won't go, I'll go in by myself. You can shoot me."
    Watching her, March thought of all the things he would do—or try to—if Robin were not present. Aloud he said, "You'd better stop. You're wearing yourself out."
    "Just landed a little wrong and hit my knee. I do a hundred of these." Kit sprang from the floor, twisting like a gymnast in air that smelled of shampoo. "I've been counting to myself. This's eighty-seven."
    "Then I'll count the rest for you. Eighty-eight. Eighty-nine. Ninety.…"
    "You're the only friend I've got," Robin told Kit. "The only good friend. If you die, it's be just me and Jim, and he'll kill me."
    "Ninety-two. Kit, doesn't that tell you something about your little pal here? She's thirty-five, and she's got exactly one good friend. You. One good friend, and a second husband she thinks may kill her."
    "Thirty-one, dammit!"
    Kit snatched at breath. "How many?"
    "Ninety-six. And I know how old Sue is. She's eight years younger than I am, and her birthday's October thirty-first. That ought to tell you something, too. Ninety-nine." He watched Kit throw herself, with obvious effort, back to the crimson carpet. "One hundred."
    She straightened up, and Robin handed her a towel. "Thanks for giving me an honest count, Windy. I kind of thought you'd cheat."
    He nodded. "That's what Robin thought, too. She had me followed for a couple months."
    "Did you?"
    He shook his head.
    Robin threw a pepper mill at him. "You were too smart for them!" Missing his head by at least a foot, it slammed against the wall.
    March's eyes had never left Kit. "I was under the impression that Sue and I weren't speaking. Apparently I was wrong. I, however, am not speaking to her. It may spare your hopper a few scars."
    "She can throw my stuff at me," Kit told him. "Robin, you're a guest in this hopper. Windy's another guest in my hopper. I asked him to dinner. If you two want to rip open old wounds, I can't stop you. No violence, though. I mean real violence, like throwing stuff. Or hitting. Do it again, and you go out."
    "Into his hopper?" Robin's contempt was palpable. "I'd rather die!"
    "I doubt that he'd let you in. I'll just get you suited up and shove you out the airlock. Tourists come to Jupiter pretty often. Somebody will probably pick you up before your air runs out."
    March sighed. "You want me to say I'd take her in. And if I don't.…"
    "I'll think a lot less of you, Windy."
    "All right, I will. I only hope I won't have to. If I do, I'll probably kill her before I can get her back to terra firma."
    "I'm not from there, smart-ass." Robin cocked her head. "Terror whatever you said."
    Kit giggled as she joined Robin at the tiny table. "I'm not going to touch that straight line. Don't you touch it either, Windy."
    She tied the soft cord that would keep her from floating out of her chair. "Bulbs are hot. Windy, get over here and sit down. I know you always like coffee with your meals. How about you, Robin? Coffee? Tea?"
    "Tea, please." Robin's voice was one breath above a whisper.
    "Here you go. And here's your coffee, Windy. Now before you start gobbling my Truite Farcie aux Epinards, we've got to talk seriously about the next shoot. Do you remember when I said I'd go into that damned mausoleum or whatever it is alone if you wouldn't come with me? I meant every word of it."
    March sat. "You may change your mind when you've had time to think it over. I hope you will."
    Kit looked as grim as a pleasant blonde can look. "I change my mind before I've told anybody. Never after. If you won't go in, I'm going in alone tomorrow."
    So close to March that their elbows touched, Robin raised a beverage bulb to her lips and put it down. "Do either of you actually know where this awful place is?" Her perfume, musky and hinting of cinnamon, crept into his nostrils.
    Kit shook her head. "I'll find it. The dead lady can probably tell me, just to start with."
    "I call it Number Nineteen," March told her. "I've known about it awhile, but I haven't gone inside."
    "Then I won't have to ask her—I'll get it out of you. Shameless prostitution, right? Are you going in, too? Yes or no."
    "Then it's yes. I'll go in there with you on one condition."
    Robin said, "I'd go in with Kit if she was going in there alone. Not if you'll be with us."
    "That would have sounded better," Kit told her, "if you'd said it before Windy said he'd go. We call that bad timing in show biz." She turned to March. "What's your condition? Maybe I won't agree."
    "You'll have no reason not to. There's another one, not as big. I haven't gone into it either, but I've every reason to think it's dangerous. I want you to go into that one with me first. If I'm right, you'll get a little seasoning there. When we tackle Number Nineteen you're going to need some."
    "So you think," Robin said.
    Kit motioned her to silence. "I'm all for seasoning. Have you got any reason for thinking this one's not quite so hairy? Besides its being smaller?"
    March shook his head.
    "Then I'll go. When do we do it?"
    Robin said, "I'd like to know what reasons he's got for thinking it's dangerous at all."
    "Tomorrow," March said. The oven buzzed as he spoke.
    "Sounds good." Kit untied her cord. "Everybody ready for food?"
    The trout was served in Pyrex-topped dishes with tiny hatches that slid away at the touch of a fork. Kit demonstrated, thrusting her own fork in, and pulling it out laden with fish and spinach. March tried it, and a wisp of spinach floated away before his fork was halfway to his mouth. "Chopsticks might be better," he suggested.
    Robin giggled.
    "You've got 'em," Kit told him. "There's a trigger at the front of the handle. Feel it? Pull that, and the chow bar flips over to hold your stuff on. Loosen up when it's in your mouth, and you can get your food out.
    "Robin, can you clean up that spinach for me? Make yourself useful?"
    "You betcha."
    The Truite Farcie aux Epinards was delicious. March took another bite before he said, "Ever hear of the Thugs?"
    Kit chewed reverently and swallowed. "Like muggers, Windy?"
    "Not quite. There was a cult called Thuggee, and the members were the original Thugs. They worshipped Death and sacrificed people to her."
    Robin muttered, "Why do we always get blamed?"
    "Mostly they strangled them, although I believe they also stabbed a few. They offered the deaths of their victims to their goddess, and kept the victims' possessions to cover operating expenses. The Brits wiped them out two hundred years back."
    "Why are you telling us this, Windy?" Kit's hand hovered over the clip that would hold her fork when she had no need of it.
    "Because it seems like they're with us again, in a new and improved Westernized form. And I'm not telling you and Sue. Just you."
    "You mean they gave up the goddess business?"
    March shook his head. "The West has never abandoned religion, Kit. You just think it has because you and your friends have. Okay, I'm your friend and I'd like to be more. But you know what I mean."
    "We'll talk about that other thing sometime when we're alone." For a moment, Kit looked a trifle stunned. "You— You said they were Westernized, Windy. If you didn't mean no goddess, what did you mean?"
    "Computers, secure lines of electronic communication, and hoppers just to start with. Guns. Poisons. Ever been in an abattoir?"
    "A slaughterhouse? No, and I don't want to go."
    "You're going." March sighed. "Or I think you are. You said you'd go into this one—into Number Thirteen—with me if I'd go into Number Nineteen with you. Something like that. That's what it came down to."
    "This is good." Robin paused to sniff the fish on her fork. "Has anybody told you so yet? It's really luscious, and you'd better finish yours before it gets cold."
    Obediently, Kit ate. "Food doesn't taste as good when you're scared."
    "Then I wish I weren't," March told her, "and you won't be in Number Thirteen. Or I don't think so. If you'd been in a modern abattoir, you'd know the cattle aren't frightened. Fear makes them noisy and hard to control, so it's been eliminated. They get on a slow belt that doesn't shake at all, or make any kind of sound. It moves them down a narrow chute, and by that time they're used to chutes. This one seems less frightening than most. But when they get to the bottom and start back up, they're dead."
    "You're not eating," Kit said.
    "I thought you'd have another question." March took a forkful of trout and chewed it with appreciation. It was still delicious. Firm, fresh trout and tender, young spinach. Onions, shallots, cream, and something else. No, he corrected himself, several somethings else.
    "Well, I do," Robin said. "You told us you hadn't been in there. Or implied it anyway."
    Seeing that March intended to ignore her, Kit asked, "Is that right, Windy? You've never been inside?"
    "Then how did you know I wouldn't be scared?"
    "Because the others weren't. When I was still poking around the asteroid belt, I picked up the traffic of a party going in there. Or at least, I think that's where they were going. They weren't afraid. When the first stopped transmitting, the rest just tried to raise him. The last one thought her icom had gone out. About a minute later, she went silent, too."
    Robin said, "He may fool you, Kit, but he's not fooling me. I know him too well. They went into the big one, the one he's so scared of. Not the little one he's been talking about."
    "Did they, Windy? Was it really Number Whatchacallit and not the one you want us to shoot next?"
    "Number Nineteen," March said. "The one I'm hoping will give you a little experience without killing us is Number Thirteen."
    "Thirteen?" Robin grinned. "Oooh! That's scary!"
    "Shut up," March told her.
    The grin widened. "You betcha. But I thought you weren't talking to me, Marchy darling."
    "I wasn't. It didn't work, and I should have known it wouldn't. You always chipped away until I said something you could throw back at me in court. You haven't changed, and neither have I."
    He paused to collect his thoughts. When neither woman spoke, he said, "Sue doesn't really care, Kit, but you may. If I'd been assigning numbers to the memorials I found for advertising purposes, Number Nineteen would have gotten thirteen. I wasn't doing that. Number Thirteen was the thirteenth I found. That's all. Number Nineteen was the nineteenth. I could take you to Number Fourteen or Number Twenty. Both those look pretty safe. Just say the word if you'd like to go."
    Kit said, "I've finished my trout, Windy. So has Robin. Finish yours, so I can serve dessert."
    "No salad? That's not like you."
    "You're right. I forgot. Eat your trout."
    "In a moment. Sue had—"
    "It's Robin, dammit!" She was untying her cord.
    "It wasn't Robin when Sue and I were married," March told Kit, "and if she tries to live up to that red dye-job, I'll have to defend myself. I hope you understand."
    "I'm bigger and stronger than she is," Kit said levelly. "She may not know it, but I am. If she cuts up rough she'll find out fast."
    "I'm a black belt!" Robin screamed.
    "Sure you are—a black belt in Bad Sock Hop. You needed me when Jim kicked down your door, remember?"
    March cleared his throat. "Right now I want to grab you and kiss you, Kit. I want it as much as I've ever wanted anything in my life. What do you say?"
    "I think it had better wait. You know what we did last time."
    "All right." March sighed. "Your friend Sue had a legitimate question. Could the people whose transmissions I caught have been going into Number Nineteen? There were three empty hoppers near Number Thirteen, so I think that's where they went. I could be wrong."
    He took a bite of trout. As he had expected, it was still quite hot. "What's in this, Kit? What's the taste I can't label?"
    "Could be the fresh tarragon. Or the cider." Kit grinned. "Or my secret ingredient."
    Robin muttered, "Watch for bones."
THEY MET a mile plus from Number Thirteen, he in his worn orange suit, she looking like a lingerie model wrapped in cellophane. "We're alone now," he said, and gestured. "This is interplanetary space, so we're as alone as two people can be. Will you marry me, Kit?"
    "Robin's listening, Windy. I told her to listen in, and call the network for help if we stopped transmitting."
    "It's just common sense. After what you'd told me, I thought we ought to take a few precautions. I told her to ask for Bad Bill, or Phil Inglis if she couldn't get hold of Bill. Tell them we're in trouble and ask for help."
    March did not know what to say, and if Kit did, she did not say it. Silence closed around them, the menacing silence of the giant planet above them and the cool and watchful silence of the stars.
    At last Kit said, "Are you there, Robin? Speak up."
    "She probably doesn't know how to work the set."
    "I showed her. Robin?"
    "Maybe she'd rather listen than talk. That would be a first for her, but it's possible."
    "Poor Robin." Kit's face, distorted only slightly by the plastic bubble of her helmet, looked as though she meant it. "You don't want to admit that she might have a single shred of human decency."
    "All right, I admit it. She's probably got one, even if I couldn't find it."
    "You think she's listening in." From her expression, Kit thought it was at least possible.
    "I don't think it or not think it. I don't care one way or another. But I'll tell you this. If she is, she'll let us know when she hears what I'm going to say next."
    He took a deep breath of far-from-odorless suit air. "I know I'm not handsome, Kit, and thanks to your friend Sue, I'm just about broke. You're a star, and I'm a washed-up producer who was never terribly big anyway. Knowing all that—because I know you know it, too—will you marry me? Please? As soon as we get back to New York?"
    Kit listened for a moment. "You're right. She'd be screaming at me not to do it. She's not there. Come on, let's have a look at this mugger tomb."
    "You didn't say no." Suddenly March felt at least ten years younger.
    "I didn't say yes, either. The guy who sold me my suit said to lock arms."
    He complied, and she switched on her jets; a moment later he turned on his own as well.
    "Looks pretty dark in there, Windy. You got a helmet light?"
    "If you'd like to think it over, that's fine." For a moment he wrestled with his feelings. "All right, it isn't really fine but I'll wait. I'll wait till tomorrow or next week or next month."
    "Or next year. I—I don't know how to say this, but I'll wait for as long as you ask me to, just as long as you don't say no. And if you should change your mind after that, I'll probably come running. Hell, I know I will. I love you. I love you, and I know I'll never stop loving you. You're…I can't put it into words, Kit, but I'll never get over it."
    Her hand tightened on his, and her smile shone through her plastic helmet bubble. "You've got a lovely voice, Windy. Anybody ever tell you so?"
    He shook his head. "I've got a lousy voice and I know it. It sets people's teeth on edge. No resonance, no overtones."
    "Handsome is as handsome does, Windy, and you've got a voice that says beautiful things. You just proved it."
    "Is that why you didn't say no?"
    "That and a whole lot of other reasons." Kit pointed. "This fake lintel they carved out of the rock—what are those things pretending to hold it up? Is that a bird?"
    "You didn't say yes, either. Is it the money?"
    "I've got enough for both of us. Tell me about the bird."
    "It's an adjutant stork. The other animal is a jackal, I think. They're symbols of death."
    "Don't storks bring babies?"
    "Not this kind. Those are nice storks. Won't you tell me why you didn't say yes, Kit?"
    "Well, for one thing, you don't say you love me often enough."
    "I just did." When she did not reply, March added. "We'd better slow up."
    "Okay, I'm turning 'em down. Are you good with these controls?"
    "Fair. Yours are probably a little different."
    "Then look at this and tell me why it's not working." Kit held out her left arm.
    For a moment, he studied the buttons and the tiny screen. "You don't have Jets up." He pushed three buttons in rapid succession. The looming asteroid still rushed toward them, but it rushed no faster. "You've got to hit Control, select Jets, and press the Down key."
    "We're still going awfully fast, Windy."
    "Of course we are. There's no air resistance. Why didn't you say yes? You said there were a lot of reasons. Give me two or three."
    "I gave you one already. I know you said it just now, but you don't say it often. Bad Bill's another. I want to get dramatic roles, not just kids shows and cooking shows, all that crap. Marrying you would hurt my career—or it would just now, anyway."
    "If he found out, yes. What are you going to say if Bad Bill asks you to marry him?"
    "That he'll have to dump Loretta." Kit was grinning.
    "And if he does?"
    "It'll take a while. I know her, and she'll put up a fight. You could give lessons on that stuff, Windy. Why are you asking me?"
    "And meanwhile—?"
    "Meanwhile, I'll get some roles I want. Can we slow down? I'm getting scared."
    "Wait till we get inside, Kit. Be scared then." March spun them both until their reduced jets were braking.
    "Can I give you another reason? One more."
    "That's enough."
    "I want to. I didn't say yes—yet—because it would hurt you. Bad Bill hates your guts already for showing him up. If we get married and he finds out, he's going to hate you worse than poop on his birthday cake. It'll be twenty times rougher than it is now."
    March chuckled. "It couldn't be."
    "He could hire a hit. He's got the contacts and the money won't mean a thing to him. You can hire a good pro to smoke somebody for the price of a really nice hopper. Did you know that?"
    "I'd heard." March nodded.
    "So how many nice hoppers could Bad Bill afford? I'd say a hundred. At least that many."
    Kit's helmet LEDs stabbed invisibly at the entrance, which glared as though under a spotlight. "There! I got it on. Only it's not as dark in there as it was."
    "Turn it off," March told her. "Turn it off, and get your digicorder rolling. We want both digicorders for this one."
    They entered cautiously, he keeping them six feet above the stone floor.
    "It looks safe enough, Windy."
    He glanced at her; the blue-green light of the tomb had robbed her face of rouge as well as blood. "Did Ms. Applefield say it was?"
    Here lies the founder of our faith and prophet of the goddess. The voice might have been that of the blue-green illumination. Jayashankar the Great here reposes in his house of Eternity, as he wished. We, his disciples, have laid him here. Would you learn Truth, O visitors? Our faith is truth, and truth is joy. Like us, you are the subjects of the goddess. Know it. To know it, to rejoice in it, is paradise. Enter with—
    "Kit!" March grabbed her arm, his fingers flying across her keyboard.
    "What's up, Windy!"
    "Air! They're flooding the place with air. Look behind you."
    She did, and saw what he had known she would see: a steel door blocking the entrance and pinning their lifelines to the floor. "Are…Are we locked in?"
    You are free. There are switches to left and right, switch pads we have made large for you, so there can be no mistaking them. Black shuts, for black is the color of the goddess. Yellow opens. It will return you to the world of illusion. To open, you need only press the yellow pad to your right.
    "You're saying there's air in here, Windy? That we could live in here without the suits?"
    "There's air in here, and you'll die if you take off your helmet." He unhooked her lifeline. "It's poisoned—I don't know what with."
    A new voice said, "If it were poisoned, we'd be dead." It was a man's voice, a resonant baritone.
    A woman who was not Kit added, "We'll die if you break the hermetic seal now. We've no suits, so we'll suffocate. Please don't."
    A naked man and a naked woman had emerged from hidden entrances on either side of the tomb, he tall and muscled like a bodybuilder, she sleek and big breasted, walking on her toes though she wore neither shoes nor boots. They crossed the stone floor as if subject to gravity, and smiled as they looked up at Kit and March. The man said, "For as long as you're strangers in the paradise of the goddess, we shall guide you."
    "Holograms, Windy?" Kit looked as if she were about to cry. "I know they aren't real. Are they holograms?"
    The naked man reached up and grasped her boot at the ankle. "Come here, my lovely, lovely friend. Kiss me but once, and you may call me false thereafter."
    "They're droids!" Kit's other boot caught the naked man full in the face.
    "Get up!" March unhooked his own lifeline. "Get out of reach."
    Scooping up the naked woman, he jetted toward the steel door and flung her at the right-hand switch. The arc that burned and melted her plastic skin half-blinded him.
    "Up here, Windy!" Kit waved as a stone flung by the male droid struck his thigh.
    He rose to meet her, and she hugged him. "We're trapped. How can we get out?"
    "Pray," he said, and the Latin of an ancient prayer chanted in deep corridors of his mind.
    "That won't help!"
    "It'll keep us calm and let us think, Kit. Pretty often, that's all it has to do."
    Another stone whizzed past them, a near miss.
    "He's breaking them loose," Kit whispered. "My God, but he's strong!"
    "Nuclear powered?"
    "Do you really think so, Windy? I—watch out! I didn't think they could make them that little."
    "They can't. It could be a fuel cell, but it's most likely batteries, and they'll have to be pretty small. The power draw he needs to bust that rock will be pulling him down fast. Have you noticed what happens to the ones he's thrown?"
    "They keep bouncing around. There's no gravity."
    March nodded. "Just air resistance. It slows them a little, but it will take a long time to stop them. Suppose we catch a couple and—"
    The steel door was sliding up, not quite soundlessly now that the interior of the tomb was filled with air. He shot toward it with all jets at one hundred percent and Kit trailing after him like a kite; Kit's free arm caught Robin as she crossed the threshold.

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