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April 2007
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
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Gene Wolfe

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    Back in Kit's hopper, with beverage bulbs bubbling in the microwave, March took a seat at the little table and tied himself down. "Grab a chair, Sue. I won't bite."
    "It was dangerous in there, wasn't it? That's why you and Kit came out so fast."
    "We just about got killed," Kit told her. "Windy saved us."
    "Sue saved us," March said dryly. "She didn't intend to, but she did."
    "Yes, I did! Not you, March, but Kit. She wanted me to listen on the icom and call for help if you two got in trouble, but I knew it would be too late. So I watched you instead and put on my Star-Chick Number Nine as soon as you had gone inside."
    Kit handed her a steaming beverage bulb. "We'd have been trapped in there and died if it hadn't been for you."
    "I'd have gotten us out," March said.
    "Sure, Windy. Here's your coffee." Kit laid her vacuum tray on the table and sat down, groping for the cords that would hold her in her chair. "Now it's Answer Time. Know what I mean? The last five minutes of the show, when Mike Wanitsky fiddles with his gun—"
    Robin tittered.
    "And tells us how he knew the cocker spaniel was the real murderer. You, Windy, are Mike Wanitsky."
    "Thanks. I've always wanted to be a really good-looking cop."
    "You just said you'd have gotten us out. How would you have done it?"
    "I don't know." March sipped his coffee and jiggled the bulb to stir the sugar. "I just know that it could be done, and I could do it. Did you think there were people in there lying to us through the droids and running things? There weren't."
    "I never even thought about it."
    "Nobody wants to spend weeks or months sitting around in a tomb waiting for somebody to come in. They build those things—the great majority of them were never meant to be traps for human beings—and go back to America or the E.U. or whatever. So what you're dealing with when you go into one of the bad ones is a machine. It can be a sophisticated machine, which that one was. But it's still just a machine, built by someone who didn't have all the time in the world to plan it or all the money in the world to spend on it."
    Robin said, "So you'd have gotten out."
    "Correct. Maybe I'd have found the circuitry that controlled the door. Maybe something else. But I'd have gotten us out."
    "I want to go back to the beginning, Windy. You told us about overhearing some people's transmissions from in there. Remember?"
    "Sure. I believe I can remember something else, too." March scratched his head. "Weren't you the one who began at the end? That's how I seem to remember it. I don't think it was Sue, and I know damned well it wasn't me."
    "Right. It was, and it was a mistake. You said the woman you overheard—it was a woman, wasn't it?"
    "That last one?" March nodded.
    "You said she thought her icom had gone out and kept trying to talk to the others until she went dead herself. What happened to her?"
    "Strictly speaking, I don't know. I wasn't there. I might make a pretty good guess, though, now that I've been inside. What happens when you're wearing a suit and you get into your hopper, where there's air?"
    Kit looked puzzled. "I take it off."
    "I know!" Robin waved both hands. "The salesman told me when I bought mine. It stops using the air in the tank and takes in air from outside."
    "Correct. You can disable that if you know the codes. If you do, you have to switch the system over manually when you want it switched. When you go into that Thuggee tomb, it shuts the door and fills the tomb with air to turn your suit air off. There's something in that air to kill or disable you, something that has to be pretty dilute because the tomb's big. The woman I heard may have been in an area where the air was relatively pure. Or maybe she wasn't a deep breather or had a slow suit. Whatever."
    "Wouldn't she have seen the others fall down?"
    "Sure, if they'd fallen." March grinned. "How do you fall without gravity? My guess is that they seemed to be moving around pretty normally. It probably makes you dopey at first. Later it may kill you, or the droids may do it. The idea of their machine offering lives to Death—real throats really cut on an altar—would tickle the kind of people who build things like that." He sipped his coffee.
    Kit said, "He grabbed my arm and reprogrammed my suit, Robin. As soon as the air started, he knew what was up."
    "Don't be like that. Windy saved my life, and if he hadn't I wouldn't have been around to save yours. Besides we got some great footage. Only I wish you'd waited until we'd thrown rocks back at the droids."
    "We can go in there again," March said.
    "After Number Nineteen maybe. Not now. I've got one more question."
    "Fine with me, as long as I get to ask one after I've answered yours."
    "Yes, if you promise to be nice. Robin won't bother us. Okay, here's my last question. The floor was stone, right? But the droids walked on it, and stayed down there like there was gravity. Only there wasn't any. How did they do it?"
    March smiled. "That's a good one, and I hadn't even thought of it. You've got rare-earth magnets in your boots. You probably know that. It's why you stick to the floor of this hopper till you take them off. They let you walk on the outside if you want to, stand on the roof and so on. Those droids had rare-earth magnets in the soles of their feet."
    Robin objected. "But it was a stone floor."
    "That's right, Windy. Cut right out of the asteroid or whatever you call it."
    "A lot of asteroids and meteorites contain a lot of iron. Ever heard of Excalibur, King Arthur's sword?"
    Kit nodded.
    "Now you know where the legend came from." Pausing, March sipped his coffee. "Here's my question for you. You knew right away that the droids weren't real people. How?"
    "I looked at the woman, that's all. So did you. I know you did—she was naked and you're not gay."
    "All right, I did."
    "She had a perfect figure, didn't she? No figure flaws. None. Real women always do. Big feet or thick ankles. No calves, like Robin. Bony knees. Thunder thighs. There's always something wrong. Women on vid can look perfect. So can women in magazines. But they look perfect because the cameramen and directors know just how not to shoot them. Watch the tabloids and you'll see the other thing, the flaws that some paparazzi shot through the fence."
    There was another hopper not far from their own when March left Kit's. Curious, he jetted a few miles, tapped the airlock politely with a wrench from his utility belt, and pressed his helmet to the hatch.
    After half a minute, there had been no sound from inside. By law, airlocks could not be locked or barred; he was tempted to go inside and take a look around. He contented himself with a tour of the exterior.
    It was, he decided, the oldest hopper he had ever seen, one that had actually begun life as an RV. Its pressure-bulged sides and top were bat–tered, and had been holed more than once and patched with epoxy. Peering through its tinted windshield and windows revealed an interior to match—an unmade bunk, worn seats, cigarette butts and trash everywhere.
    What it did not reveal was a human being. No one awake, asleep, or dead. When his inspection was complete, he jetted over to his own hopper—to the pre-owned hopper he had considered ready for the scrap heap before he had seen the one he was leaving.
    He had taken off his helmet and was pulling off his boots when he smelled cigarette smoke.
    "I hope you don't mind me coming in like this," the smoker said; he was young, with a face a quarter of an inch too long to be handsome. "Okay if I smoke in here? You've got a good air system. It's taking care of it."
    "Sure." March opened his suit. "What's up?"
    "I need to talk to you, that's all. I need a little info, and it seemed like this was the place to get it. You were over in the big hopper you're grappled to? The new maroon job?"
    "Uh huh."
    "Okay. Listen, I just want one little piece of info. Just one, and I don't think there's anything secret about it. I could go over and pound on the lock, and somebody would tell me, okay? So who does that big hopper belong to?"
    "I want some info, too," March said, "and the info I want had better not be secret either. Let's start with an easy one. Is this a friendly visit?"
    "Absolutely. I know you must be ticked off because I came in the way I did." The smoker ran slender fingers through glossy, coal-black hair. "But my jetsuit's pretty uncomfortable, and to tell the truth I'm not sure how far I can trust it."
    "Besides," March said, "you couldn't smoke in there."
    "Right. I realize I'm using up some extra oxy that way, but it doesn't amount to much."
    "That's good to know. Here's question number two. Want some coffee?"
    "Sure, if you do."
    "I do." March climbed out of his suit and stowed it in the locker. "I'm kind of bushed, and I've got the feeling you're not somebody I ought to deal with unless I'm fresh." He went to his hopper's tiny microwave.
    "You don't have to deal with me." The smoker bent to grind out his cigarette on March's floor. "Tell me what I want to know—that one thing—and I'm out of here. You can go to bed."
    "Wondering whether you'll come back inside once I'm asleep."
    "Yeah." The smoker looked thoughtful. "There's that. I won't, but you can't know it. You could hop somewhere else. Take a long hop. I wouldn't know where you'd gone."
    March shook his head. "I've got another question. What's my name?"
    "What's your name? I thought you'd want to know mine."
    "You can ask your own questions. I'll ask mine. You heard it. Who am I?"
    "I've got no frigging—I don't know. You want to tell me?"
    "No. I want you to tell me. Tell me who I am, so I'll know where we stand."
    "I can't. I don't know."
    "You don't know who owns the big red hopper, either." March reached past the locker to his tool box, flipped it open, and pulled out a two-pound dead-blow hammer.
    "You're not going to need that."
    "I hope not. Think you could take me?"
    The smoker shook his head. "Not as long as you're holding that I couldn't."
    "Good." The tool box snapped shut. "If you answer every question I ask, fast, I won't have to use it. Did you snoop around my hopper?"
    "A little bit, yes."
    "Fine." The microwave beeped, but March ignored it. "What were you looking for?"
    "An ashtrap and cigarettes. I don't have many. If I found any, I was going to bum one."
    "There are at least twenty books in this hopper. Maybe more. Did you look at them? Any of them?"
    The smoker shook his head. "Just for an ashtrap and cigarettes. I told you."
    "I asked you that because my name's written in the front of most of them. I'm March Wildspring. Ever heard of me?"
    The smoker's grin took March by surprise.
    "You have," March said. "Tell me about it."
    "I've just heard you mentioned a couple dozen times. You're a real dyed-in-the-wool son of a bitch. That's what she says. I've been wanting to meet you."
    "Congratulations. You have. Who said it?"
    "My wife. Her name's Robin Redd."
    March nodded to himself, recalling Robin's swollen eye and bruised cheek. "I should have seen that coming, and I didn't. You're Jim."
    "Right." The smoker extended his hand. "Jim Redd. Glad to meet you."
    March ignored it. "You bought that old hopper—the cheapest one you could find—and came out here looking for your ex-wife."
    "Hell, no." Redd shook a cigarette from a vacpack, crumpled the pack, and stuffed it into his pocket. "I'm looking for my wife, Robin Redd."
    "She says you're divorced."
    "Bullshit. Me and Robin aren't divorced till it's final, and that hasn't happened. No final decree, capeesh? I'm fighting to save my marriage, and I'm going to keep on fighting as long as there's a marriage to save."
    March sighed. "You've come way the hell out here, millions of miles, looking for her?"
    "So you can beat hell out of her and save your marriage."
    Redd lit his cigarette. "I wouldn't put it like that."
    "How would you put it?"
    "I want to talk to her, that's all. I want to sit her down and make her listen to what I've got to say. If she'll just shut up for a minute and hear my side of it, she'll come home with me. I know that. The trick is to get her to shut up and listen. Out here, I thought maybe she would."
    "Would you care to tell me what you plan to say to her?"
    Redd inhaled and allowed the smoke to trickle from his nostrils before answering. "What I want or don't want doesn't matter. I can't tell you, because you're not her."
    "I see. Sue and I—I call her Sue. She was Sue Morton when we were married, and Sue Morton afterward, too. She kept her own name."
    "I wouldn't have let her do that."
    March's shoulders rose and fell. "I did. I let her do anything she wanted."
    "She dumped you anyhow? That's what she says—that she dumped you. Maybe you dumped her."
    "No. She dumped me."
    "It makes you crazy, just thinking about it. I can see that."
    March nodded.
    "Okay, that's how it is for you. I don't want it to be like that for me, capeesh? I'd like to have you on my team. But if you're on her team, that's okay, too. I only want what's good for her, which is staying married and making this one work."
    "She says you hit her." March struggled to remember. Had anyone really said that Jim had done it? Or had it only been implied?
    "A few times. Yeah. She got me so damned mad. Ask me if I'd break her arms to save our marriage."
    "Would you?" March sighed again.
    "Hell, yes. Can I tell you about the names? I'll feel better."
    "If you like."
    "I picked her up for a date one time, and she showed me a paper. A legal paper, you know? It said she'd changed her name. You have to have a lawyer and pay a couple thou, but you can do that. Her new name was Robin Redd. I go what the fuck, we're not even engaged. And she said when we got married she didn't want to change her name. It would be putting herself down—she had a fancy word, but that was what it meant. So this way she could tell everybody she was keeping her old name."
    March glanced at his wristwatch. It was twenty-four hundred. Midnight. Aloud, he said, "I guess that meant a lot to her."
    "Then after we were married, she told people we had the same last name because I'd changed mine to match hers. She said my real name was Rosso. That was my grandfather's name, and I'd told her one time. My dad changed it. You see where I'm coming from, March?"
    "Not as well as you do yourself." How could he be this tired without gravity? "I need sleep. I'm going to offer you a bargain. You can accept it or reject it, but you have to leave this hopper promptly either way. Is that clear?"
    "I got it."
    "Fine. You promise not to go to the big maroon hopper tonight. Everybody in there's asleep anyway, and I don't want you waking them up. In the morning—let's say ten o'clock—I'll go there with you and introduce you."
    "I get to go inside? To see them?"
    Wearily, March nodded.
    "Then it's a deal." Redd extended his hand again; this time March accepted it and they shook.
    When Redd had gone, March got some coffee, icommed Kit, and stayed on until she answered. "This better be important, Windy. I was sound asleep."
    "I don't think it is, but you will. You were the one who hauled Sue out here. Have you been looking out your windows lately?"
    "No. Tell me."
    "There's an old beat-up hopper out there. Blue originally, but showing a lot of gray primer and rust. It's Jim's, and he was ready to pay you a little visit tonight."
    "Can he do that?"
    "Legally, yes. All he has to do is claim he has some kind of emergency. If he does, you've got to let him in. He may not know that, but it's the law."
    "Or he might."
    "Bingo. I got him calmed down and promised I'd bring him over myself tomorrow at ten. That's today now. This morning."
    "I see.… Does he know Robin's here?"
    "No. But he suspects it pretty strongly. Strongly enough for him to turn your hopper inside out looking for her."
    "Unless you're around to stop him."
    "Unless we both are. He's at least ten years younger than I am, and he may have a gun or a knife—he's the type. The thing for you to do is hop back to Kennedy, and I mean right now. Shove Sue out of your hopper as soon as you get there and tell her that her trip's over. In a day or two you can come back here if you want. Or not."
    Slowly, Kit said, "I won't do it, Windy." In the screen, her face looked troubled.
    "You'd better change your mind. I told Jim I'd bring him over at ten. I like to keep my word."
    "I know you do, Windy. It's one of the things I love about you. Have I said that?"
    He shook his head. "I don't think so."
    "I don't go back on mine, either. We're a couple of old-fashioned people, Windy. We belong together. Don't worry about Robin or me. We'll think of something."
    "I hope so." He felt he was about to choke. "I love you, Kit. The two of us can handle him. I can handle him alone if I have to."
    A sad nod and a blown kiss, and she was gone. He muttered "out," switching the icom function back to Standby.

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