Monday, 3 January 2011

The Mary Anna

"Never life came into the world but life was paid for it' [Kipling]

I've paid the bills for your lifestyle; I've funded your every spree—
And now your father is dying; and you must listen to me!
I can be COMA’d, can I? The doctor has told you? He lied.
I shall be dead by tomorrow; no science can hold back that tide.
Those Cryo-Operative What-Nots postpone what they cannot cure
I’d rather die in my bed, now, than have ten frozen dream-years more.
Death’s not a thing to be feared, son, with skull-helmet, boots and black cape
Dying’s a part of our Life-world, a gravity none can escape.
Life launches us upward to high flight; but then the parabola drops.
And whilst I’ve been happy to live life I’m happy enough as it stops.
Fifty years out in the System, from Mercury to past Mars Base
Though it has earned me a billion, leaves nothing to cover my face
Nothing, I suppose, but two credits, to lie one-and-one on my eyes
And this chip I hold in my grasp here—and this for your secret prize.
Perform one task for me, Havel, though it’s neither your Soma nor R,
I know you’ve devoted your life to being where the Zip Crowd are.
Devoted your life and my money, and reckoned them both well spent
Though you’ve never earned half a credit to cover food, psych bills or rent.
Happy to live on my money, contented to slosh it away
And I no longer grudge you the credits—provided you do as I say.
Not counting the Line and the shipyards, the orbitals and the Facs too,
I've made twice a billion—and made me; but damned if I ever made you.
Pilot at twenty-five years flat; and married at thirty in haste
Ten thousand men on the pay-roll, and forty freighters in space!

And now I’m an honorary Senator, and wear the White Star on my coat,
Talk on the level to Generals of Industry, Presidents, people of note
Fifty years in the making, and every last year of it fight,
Investments that pay from Neptunian darkness up to Venusian light.
I didn't begin with mooching. I found me a job and I stuck;
I worked like a robot, and plunged on, though now they're calling it luck.
God, what ships I've served in—analogue, leaky and old—
Some with a hull thin as cardboard to keep out the vacuum and cold,
G-couches fashioned for giants that left you all bruised up and sore
Or couches made-up for a dwarf-man that plain chucked you out on the floor.
Whole days at 4G, unbroken, though Law sets its limit at hours
Fuel pellets lumpy as coal and as useless; or ground down explosive like flour.
Food that would poison a heifer, and crewfellows nothing but strife
And mission insurance for write-off worth more than a crewman’s life.
Add it all up and I traveled—I brag it—not short of a full light year
They called me Debugger and Fireman, the Pilot Who Knew No Fear:
I worked every billet I could, and I took all the money they paid
And spent it as random, or gambled it, scattered as soon as made.

Til I met and I married your mother, took the boost-up from boy to man:
Ten years older, and wise as AI, she taught me the need for a plan.
Piloting all through the System, a father at thirty-three,
And your mother saving the money and making a man of me.
I was content to be flier, but she said there was better to find;
She took the chances I wouldn't, and I followed your mother blind.
Only her past held her back, for she’d Law Tags she could not quit:
Justice pinned her for taxes, fraud, smuggling, anything as would fit;
Her credit rating was zeroed, she was banned from flying in space;
And all for a misunderstanding and a flechette in somebody’s face.
Now she had me to borrow the money—she helped me to manage the loan,
And we bought half-shares in a shuttle with a logo all of our own.
Though mindwipe was hers if they caught us, Saturnian jail for me,
But still we flew it together, and saved on a crewmember’s fee,
More than the money it kept us together when orbits were slow and long
And your mother was never a groundling; deep space was where she belonged.
Patching and fueling on credit, and living the Lord know how,
I started the Red Ox freighters—I’ve thirty eight of them now.
I say it was me that began it, and my name was the one on the slate,
But most of the running was Mary’s, and Mary shouldered the weight.

And those were the days of fast cargoes, and trade was brisk and fair
And Mercury would make us our fortune, but she died in the tussle there—
Owners we were, full owners, and the boat was named after her,
And she died in the Mary Anna. My heart; how young we were!
For Mercury’s made of pig iron, at the base of its gravity well,
And if you can mine out a portion there’s those as will buy all you sell.
Though we didn’t have mine equipage, and couldn’t afford mining crew
We only had wits and a ramshackle spaceship provisioned for just we two.
It wasn’t entirely legal, and it certainly wasn’t too safe
For the aim wasn’t orbital caution but to fly a bomb-run and to strafe.
My speed added star-blast momentum to concentrate nuclear bloom
And great big lovely chunks of mercury-iron were blasted up into ’cuum
Spun in elliptical orbits and free to be netted and snared
And precious as gold was the prize for those who had planned it and dared.
It was no schoolyard exercise, matching their wild delta-v;
I flew the craft and your ma stuck a dart-jet in every lump she could see.

And if we’d had a third crewperson maybe she wouldn’t have died
For maybe we would have had warning of the policeboat’s slammed broadside
Abrupt in our sensors from sun’s white shadow, coming-in shocking and fast,
Firing cannons to catch us our breath and that breath your mother’s last,
For the aft pods were hit, the hull breached, and vacuum quenched the blaze.
I rushed to repair and to find her, but Mary had ended her days.
She was beautiful-looking in death, although scorched up feet to thighs
And although the swift decompression had beetroot-blackened her eyes,
And there’s no shame in saying I wept, for grief pierced me like a sword;
But yet I couldn’t hold on to her, for fear that the police would board.
Although she was dead she was lawless, and I would have gone into jail,
And prison fees cost more than Mary Anna would get in a sale.
So I clutched her and then I released her, and tossed her out into space
And I busied myself with repairs, though all I could see was her face,
And awaited the police hail and boarding, and squared ship AI with my lie—
That I’d found the pig iron floating when I happened to be passing by,
And tagged it to warn other shipping of debris, all legal and friendly and fair,
And the police crew didn’t believe me, and I knew it and I didn’t care.
But they hadn’t a case, so they fined me and left me to go my way,
Wifeless and never to know in which grave-orbit Mary lay.

So I went on a spree back on Earth, and I fitted a Soma Bug,
But I dreamed your mother appeared and warned me to give up the drug.
A dream, or drug hallucination, or maybe her spirit: who cares—
Told me to stick to my business, let others stick to theirs,
Saving the money (she warned me), letting others who wanted get high.
Provide for my son—that’s you, Hav—let ‘son’ be enough of a why.
And I met McCullough moonside, renting space in Copernicus’ wall,
And between us we planned a repair yard, Lagranged and open to all:
Cheap repairs for the cheap ones. It paid, and the business grew;
For I bought me a laser-lathe huller, and that was a gold mine too.
‘Cheaper to build than mend;’ I said, but McCullough dreamed of the stars,
And we wasted a year in talking before moving the shop to Mars.
Nearer the asteroid beltways and higher-up over the Sun
But most of all further away from the paths where the Earth police run.
The Merchant Houses then beginning, and all of us started fair,
Building up spaceships like houses and fixing the drive-rails square.
And I wouldn’t call all of them criminal, though some tugged the law from true;
And I worked at fixing, and trading, and had too little time left for you.
Though I paid the best tutors and virals, saw you daily by face or by screen
You sensed my love lacked the meaning that a father’s love ought to mean.
Though I spoke to you fatherly words, and looked you full in the face
My eye was not on you—you knew it—but on money and spaceships and space.
And McCullough, he dreamed interstellar, and starsystems wholly new
And wasted our money on liners to fit generations of crew
And hulking expensive engines to make speeds near to half that of light.
But McCullough was killed in the nineties, and—Well, I'm dying to-night...

I knew—I knew what was coming, that the Houses would fall into war:
Wear-tear is one thing to repair-shops, combat damage something more.
Plasmetal and battle expansions. It paid, I tell you, it paid,
When we came with our nine-hour service and collared the long-run trade!
Then came the armour-contracts, but that was McCullough's side;
He was always the best at designing, but better, perhaps, he died.
I went through his private data; the notes were plainer than print;
And I'm no fool to finish if a man will give me a hint.
His children were angry—no matter. I saw what his equations meant;
And I started the Tachyon Thrust game, and it paid me sixty per cent.
Sixty per cent with failures, twice what we could otherwise do,
And a quarter-billion Credits, and I saved it all for you!
It was clear when the war was coming, and clearer when it would end
And backing the House of Ulanov was money it made sense to spend.
So peace came, more fierce and law-strict than even the old Solar Pact,
And I started my life quite over; for I had what I’d previously lacked,
And though you don’t value it, Havel, it’s getting, not having, that counts;
Not winning trophies for polo on pressurized hydraulic mounts.
You’re nearer sixty than fifty, and fruit from an alien tree,
I bought you the best education, and what have you done for me?
Though you married that thin-limbed woman, she’s white and stale as a bone,
She gave you your art-crowd nonsense; but where's that kid of your own?
The things that I value you scorn them, you take and you never give,
And the things I know are rotten you think are the way to live.
Half your time in VR, and the other half Pharmed-out on Som,
Eight different houses on four worlds, and none of them counts as a home.

I had a half billion then, but I didn’t consider it mine;
I brought out the Red Ox logo again and made it up into a line.
I used my money as grav-assist to slingshot me to the high road,
But you—you’re content just to shed it, as if it’s an onerous load.
Weak, a liar, and idle, and mean as a spaceship stray,
Nosing for scraps in the galley, a whelp who’s blind to the way.

I'm sick of the whole bad business. I want to go back where I came.
Hav, you're my son—or your Mary’s, and at least you carry our name.
I want to lie by your mother, though she’s dark and she’s far, far away,
And since Law forbids it, you’ll take me, and so you will earn your pay.
You’ve a million a year in my will, if you think that that is enough
But I know your taste, and your wife’s; her’s an expensive sort of love.
And you know I’ve more than a billion, not too far short of two;
And if you want to earn it then there’s things you’ll have to do.
The Lex Ulanova forbids flying inside Venus’s span
But that’s where my woman is floating, and you must deliver her man;
Take out the Mary Anna—I’ve fuelled and maintained her for this,
Jettison me near my wife; let us float til we bump-to and kiss
Because although she is lost, unmarked, and impossible to find
Yet fate will bring us together, though we’re dead and cold and blind.
Trajectories are random and space, don’t I know it!—vast
But we will have eternity to float and to fall and to pass.
The Ulanov want their monopoly, and I wish them the luck of the brave
But I’m not trying to steal their pig iron; I’m looking for a grave
I'll be content with the blank of space; no churchyard, shroud or bell
For the wife of my youth shall clutch me—and the rest can go to Hell!
She died in an instant, son, and that fact kept her spirit pure
And Fate is not so cruel that I’m kept from her ever and more.
Her beauty outlasted the vacuum, the decompression, the burn.
Never seen death yet, my Havel? … Well, now is your time to learn!

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