Chapter 8: Wild Bill
It was so small. It fit easily in the palm of Wang Wei’s hand. It would have fit easily within a child’s hand.
“So,” he asked after looking at it a few moments, “how does it work?”
He didn’t even know the name of the technician in front of him. He was Korean, of that he was sure. But he had better things to do than remember the names of these technicians he hired. They liked solving puzzles and he gave them puzzles. He didn’t even have to pay them much because they had toys they played with. He wondered if they knew the contempt in which he held them.
“They are Von Neumann machines,” the technician said. “That means they are self-replicating. They are like the crabs that the farmers in the Belt use for their mining. They cost us nothing after the initial development costs... “
Wei waved off the technician’s explanation and turned instead to the middle manager. Wei didn’t know his name either, but he was Indian and he wasn’t as tedious as the Korean.
“The basic plan is this,” the middle manager said. “We send a swarm of these out to a hab which has been informed, according to the letter of the law, than its inhabitants owe taxes to the Allied Federation. They will be told that if they transfer the appropriate amounts to our account, then there will be no trouble. However, if they refuse, the swarm attacks the hab....”
“And actually, it doesn’t have to be a swarm,” the technician interrupted. “It could be just one roach--we call them roaches because of their size. Soon it will become a swarm as the numbers will increase exponentially.”
“The more resistance we meet; the better the example,” the middle manager said.
“And they will be impossible to stop,” the technician said. “They are small and they are fast. They are little spaceships for heaven’s sake.”
Wang Wei was pleased, but his features didn’t show it. His underlings worked hard to get his approval so he dealt it out in thin slices.
“So they will attack the habitats?” Wei asked. “What of the people in them?”
“The programming is for them to attack farm habs and to leave the person habs alone,” the technician said. “They will be get the metal from the hab itself and the fissionable material from the warming reactor, and of course, there will be plenty of water to take for propellant.”
“They will, of course, be recording everything they do,” the middle manage said. “It will be put on the Net and broadcast for all to see.”
“Not everyone to see,” Wei said. “Make sure there is a filter in place so that this does not get back to Earth. The farmers in the Belt can do nothing to me, but the politicians on Earth can be very inconvenient. They want money, but they want plausible deniability as to how it is made. For my part, I want fear. Fear is the only way we will get money out of these..these...rough hewn peasants and thieves.”
Jethro and Mary Kate had come to Mars for religious reasons--marriage and baptism. The reality of space travel was that it took time, so they couldn’t afford to simply be travelers. Jethro and Mary Kate had gotten jobs. Jethro had gotten work programming and Mary Kate had been working in the farms. They earned money to defray expenses and they killed the time while the orbits came into alignment again.
Two years had passed since Jethro had spoken to Dima the Russian, and he still didn’t know Dima’s last name. This in spite of the fact that he and Mary Kate and the family had actually socialized with Dima and Tasha on a couple of occasions. Tasha loved playing with the children and she and Mary Kate got along very well. Jethro had noted that Tasha did not wear her slinky, translucent outfits when Mary Kate brought the children along.
On this night they had been invited to Dima’s place and had been told to be sure the bring the children along.
“Tasha wants to see them,” Dima had said.
So they gathered the children together and took them out to Dima’s place. They had rented an airtight cart to drive them out so they wouldn’t have to put the little one’s in suits. When they got there, Vadim, who was Dima’s bodyguard, hooked the cart to the airlock, and when they had all safely entered Dima’s hab, he parked it for them.
When the elevator door opened, Dima and Tasha were there to greet them. This time the only thing that Tasha’s dress revealed was a baby-bump.
“Tasha! Dima!” Mary Kate said. “You didn’t have to come up to see us.”
It was Tasha who spoke.
“With us there is a sorprize for you,’’ she said smiling.
With that, everyone squeezed into the elevator--Mary Kate with a baby in her arms and Tasha with one in her belly--and the elevator went down.
When the doors open, on the other side in their stocking feet, Mary Kate saw a couple in their fifties. They were both smiling and there were tears in the woman’s eyes as she saw the baby in Mary Kate’s arms. It only took a brief instant for Mary Kate to see aspects of Jethro in each of their faces. Then she heard her husband’s voice beside her:
Then the world became a storm of hugs, kisses, and tears.
Even Dima was crying.
Wild Bill was annoyed. That is the way polite people would have put it, not that he was polite.
William “Wild Bill” McClain was eighty-five years old and had lived in the Belt for all but fifteen of those years. He has been born in the mountains of Kentucky and his family had taken their leave when the Appalachians became too tame. In the beginning, his family had grown marijuana and sugar cane and corn for whiskey, but through seventy years in space he’d been in space, he’d done a little bit of everything and he had met a lot of people. It was a general rule that if you didn’t know Wild Bill, you knew someone who not only knew him, but had a story about him.
In his later years, he and his wife Sally had settled down a bit and were growing potatoes to sell and to make a little vodka from. It was a quiet life. He drank a little whiskey, played a little Texas Holdem over the Net. He figured he might have as many as ten years left if he took care of himself.
But today he was spending part of his life annoyed because of a message he’d received from the Allied Federation:
“By the power delegated to the Department of the Revenue by AFHB1789, you are hereby informed that you have been assessed taxes for imputed income in the amount described below. You have 90 days in which to transfer the assessed amount to the Department of Revenue or property of an equal or greater value will be confiscated. Signed Wang Wei, Director, Department of Revenue, Outer Holdings.”
The amount, which was both ridiculously high and yet still well within Wild Bill’s means, was listed below along with directions for making the transferal.
“To hell with them,” he said. He repeated it and punctuated it with some rather salty language for which his wife, a strict Baptist, scolded him.
He printed the message out just so he could rip it up, griped to a lot of his old friends, who had gotten similar messages, and then he threw it away.