ne morning, not long before the end of the world, a dead woman named Lou sat drinking espresso in Sheb’s Old Earth Diner, one of the few places still open in the cheap part of Stalktown. Lou was gaunt, her buzzcut blonde hair was coming out, daily, in chunks, and her face was deeply cracked and much too pale. She wore oversized third-hand military surplus urban camouflage trousers and jacket over an old black shirt. On her aching feet she wore thick red socks and heavy black military surplus combat boots, strapped tight.
Lou was working on flexing her morning-stiff hands, which made satisfying cracking sounds.
Sheb smiled. "How is it?" He took a certain proprietorial pride in the quality of his espresso.
"I can just about taste it," Lou said, and she was only half kidding. "Might need some more." She drained the cup and put it down in front of Sheb.
"You sure it’s a good idea for you to be… you know…" He nodded at a point somewhere around her belly, looking uncomfortable.
"You’re worried it’s not good for me, drinking all this coffee?"
"Crossed my mind."
"Of course, you’ve got a point. But call me crazy. Maybe I’ve got a death-wish!" She smiled as best she could. Lou’s sense of humor gave him chills sometimes.
Sheb was a tall skinny guy from Mars, with thinning red hair under a quaint white paper chef’s hat. He kept the diner meticulously clean, constantly scrubbing and polishing, wanting the place to look its best for the customers. Not that there were many customers these days.
Everybody was trying to get the hell out of Stalktown before the Bastard blew away the whole world. The Bastard was a rogue chunk of heavy exotic matter the size of Mars, but instead of calling it the "Type Three Herrington Object", it was simply - but not affectionately - known as the "Bloody Bastard". It was due to hit this world, Kestrel, in just over one week. Already, it loomed large and menacing even in the daylight sky. All attempts to deflect or destroy it had failed.
Sheb said, "All that coffee’s probably just making extra work for your... " He nodded, indicating Lou’s stomach. "You know, your bot things."
"I know, I know. It’s my only vice. Anyway, I can’t taste regular coffee anymore. And say," she said brightly, wanting to change the subject, "just when are you gonna make me one of those cheeseburger things?" She pointed at the gaudy antique sign on the wall behind Sheb. She’d often wondered about cheeseburgers.
He looked at her, knowing she was kidding. "You left your run a bit late, don’t you think?"
"Probably way too complex for me, anyway, eh?" she sighed. Sometimes Lou did have a little juice, water, or perhaps very carefully ate a bit of bread, as her maintenance nanosystems required. These systems took care of every cell in her body, keeping everything ticking, and nanofacturing essential chemicals, as needed, from the protein and carbohydrate stocks implanted during tink-refresh treatments. When her implant stores ran low, Lou found she’d get hungry for foods containing the specific elements her body needed. As well, she longed for peaches, one of her favorite things to eat - going way back to when she was a kid on Ganymede; when her financially well-off family could afford to have fresh peaches cryoshipped from Mars.
Peaches aside, her worst vice, by far, was coffee. Her onboard systems didn’t need anything found in coffee, except perhaps the sugar, but it was something she craved regardless. It probably dated from her university days, when she had lived on espresso brewed in her room, relying on it to get her through crushing deadline pressures. She knew it wasn’t good for her, but as she always said, her voice thick with irony, "Life’s too short not to have a little of what you like."
Sheb poured her a fresh espresso, getting the crema just right.
Lou blew on the surface and took a cautious sip.
Sheb said, as always, "So, how is it?"
She frowned, concentrating. "Not bad," she said at last, managing a smile. "I’m having a good taste day, even if it’s not a good hair day."
He smiled and nodded. Despite all the time he had known her, it was still difficult to fully accept the reality of Lou’s situation. He knew, in his mind, that she was dead in some very precise medical sense, and that she was on what amounted to very elaborate machine life support, which was racing to keep her alive against the greatly accelerated decay process of this nanovirus thing she picked up years ago. And yet, Lou seemed, despite everything, so cheerful. It was almost possible to forget that he was talking to an animated corpse. A corpse who, just a short time ago, had been a good friend to him when he’d needed it.
Between sips, Lou said to him, "Thought any more about...?"
His smile faltered. He wiped his big hands on his spotless white apron. "They’ll have to drag me out of here, Lou."
She nodded. "Y’only got another eight or nine days. Sheb, if you wait too long, the Red Cross won’t take you."
Sheb finished wiping his hands, and started wiping down the counter, working hard as usual, going after specks of dirt that only he could see. Lou noted that Sheb kept the place cleaner than a bloody hospital, and Lou had seen her share of hospitals. After a bit, he said to her, "You gonna call your mother?"
She worked her jaw. It hurt a little. "Touché."
He bobbed his head, acknowledgingly. They each had their sore points.
Lou picked up the cup; her hand shaking a little. Sheb said, "You okay today?"
Lou waggled her free hand. "Everything’s still attached. That’s the main thing, eh?"
Sheb didn’t smile. He didn’t like to think about what was really wrong with her. Sick, he could handle. The truth, that was hard.
Taking a very small sip, hoping it didn’t cook her tongue, she added, "You know how it is. Nothing a full infusion of nano-tink wouldn’t fix, at least for a while." It was a huge hassle. Her nanobots were inclined to wear out over time, so she had to get new ones. Just enough to keep her going. A full infusion, after all, would restore her to a state where she might be mistaken for living!
He nodded, wiping down his espresso machine. "And we know how likely that is."
She put the cup down, spilling a little coffee, and said, "The refugees are getting worse. This morning it was like a bloody jungle!"
Sheb flicked a glance at his door. He knew about them, hordes of them coming in from the countryside each day, all desperate to get offworld and upStalk - Kestrel’s only space elevator.
"You still got that bloody cannon thing?" he asked her.
Lou grinned, put her cup down, and popped open the stud on the big trouser pocket. She hoisted out the biggest, whitest handgun Sheb had ever seen, so big she needed both hands to hold it up.
"There you go," she said, and he knew right away that she would do the full performance. Lou had found the gun with only seven shots left in the ammo-pack. The one time she tried to practice with it, she accidentally fired off two shots. The sheer power of the weapon freaked her out, and she hadn’t been game to try again.
Lou went on, "Bausch and Franke, ten-millimeter caseless. Blinding rate-of-fire, auto-stabilized to minimize recoil." She thumbed the micro-gyros; he heard them whine and saw the gun steady itself in her small hands. "No bastard," she said, smiling, "no bastard, at all, messes with me, while I’ve got this." She sighted along the barrel, aiming at the diner door.
"Just so long as you don’t actually have to fire the thing. What have you got there, five rounds left out of fourteen or something?"
She flashed a smile back at him that he imagined was probably meant to have been charming and cheeky, but, in fact, was gruesome; he suppressed a shudder and went back to polishing away the imaginary specks of dust on the counter. Sheb seemed to do a lot of cleaning when Lou was around.
"I tell you, Lou, one of these fine days the owner of that thing’s going to come looking for it."
She shut it down and eased the huge white monster back into her trouser pocket. "By the time anybody comes looking for it, I’ll be up in the Orbital, long gone. Anyway, odds are that the bastards up there will confiscate it. They won’t want a girl with a gun like this wandering round, stirring up trouble in the Black Zones, eh?"
Sheb nodded in agreement. Lou said she had found the Bausch and Franke in a garbage bin several weeks ago. She’d been foraging for clothes - the pickings were good these days, since the refugees couldn’t take all their gear with them - when she stumbled across it. All identifying serial numbers and tags had been scraped off the ceramocomp barrel. Sheb and Lou imagined that the gun had been used in an execution and tossed, but they didn’t know. Lou reckoned you could find any damn thing in the garbage these days, from socks to body parts.
He went back to polishing. "Just be careful. That gun’s gonna be nothing but trouble, if you ask me."
She took another sip of her espresso. "Yeah, you’re probably right." They both knew the cops, these days, were out of control. People like Lou, scraping the bottom of the local underclass, were favorite targets - or target practice. Lou needed every edge she could get.
She smiled, knowing Sheb meant well, but also not knowing why she was always so keen to disregard what he said.
"Just thinking about you, Lou. Coming down here every day, it’s crazy out there." Which was easy for Sheb to say, living in the back of his diner.
She coughed out a dry laugh. "Mostly, folks take a good look at me, when I get close. Then they get a whiff. It’s not like there’s this instant revulsion or anything, or running for their lives, shouting ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ It’s just they kind of step back, and they look kind of puzzled, like they’re not sure why they feel uneasy, and they stare, and frown, and you can feel those looks. At least it’s been a few weeks since anybody came after me with a Bible and a crucifix."
Sheb laughed weakly. "Well, that’s an improvement."
She sipped the espresso, rolled it around in her mouth, trying to estimate how much sensation she’d lost since yesterday. Not much, maybe a little. These days she was getting Sheb to make it real extra strong, stronger than he’d make it for a regular person. She almost needed to eat it with a fork.
Sheb said, rubbing at his eyes with the heels of his freckled hands, "The Red Cross guys. They were in here yesterday afternoon, after you left."
Lou put her cup down. This was a surprise. "What did they want this time?"
"They brought this guy from the Orbital. He made me a better offer!"
Lou narrowed her eyes, wondering how to respond. "Uh-huh." The Orbital was an immense resort habitat poised at Kestrel’s L5 point.
Sheb scowled. "The bastards told me they had a bunch of venture capital guys up there who were talking about building a chain, a franchise operation ... of places like this. Imagine it, a franchise called ‘Sheb’s Old Earth Diner’." He shook his head. Lou looked around, admiring the art-deco colors, the neon, the curves, the speed-lines, the reproduction burger menus, Coke signs, even an authentic Wurlitzer jukebox. It was a great retro look.
More than a century ago the homeworld had been slagged, wiped out; nothing left. There were plenty of official investigations and official reports blaming everything from free-energy experiments gone wrong to swarms of giant space locusts, to ... you name it; but nobody bought any of it. Speculation into what really happened to Earth that day was one of the biggest pastimes in human space. Conspiracy theories proliferated in the vacuum of hard information. Another big pastime was the brisk trade in relics of Earth. Anything from Earth was practically fetishized, no matter how ordinary, how trivial. If it could be traced back to Earth, it was priceless. Anything at all. There were collectors who would pay huge money for things which, in the time before the homeworld’s loss, would not have excited any interest at all. Pens. Yo-yos. Car parts. Socks, matched or not. Insect collections. Some of the stuff in Sheb’s Diner was priceless, and Sheb knew it.
He went on, "You shoulda seen the guy, strutting round, talking in this loud voice, the way those bastards talk, waving his hands around, talking about his plans for ‘the brand’, he said. And the offer he made. You shoulda heard the offer." He started scouring the grill again, hard, all elbows and bunched knuckles, and frowning as he spoke.
Lou arched an eyebrow as she sipped. "Do tell."
Sheb shook his head. "Just an obscene amount of money. I’d get this nice place, in one of the towers on the Main Island. I would be set up for the rest of my life."
"Gosh," Lou said mischievously, "sounds terrible!" She thought about her own likely future, in the Black Zones of the Orbital, the dumping ground for the shunned and the poor. Only interstellar treaty obligations forced the Orbital’s owners to take them on, even if they were later shipped elsewhere. The Orbital, after all, was for the paying customers, people with more money than sense. She tried not to get all bitter. This time next week, once she arrived on the Orbital, after her own Red Cross ride, she’d become some kind of beggar. An untouchable - albeit only briefly. Completely cut off from any chance of keeping her condition from finishing the juggernaut destruction of her body, the nanovirus would turn her to dust in about four days flat. As it was, simply covering the periodic maintenance costs to stay as she was, was almost more than she could handle.
"So what’d you say to them?" she asked him, though she already knew.
"What’d I say? What’d I say?" A bleak chuckle escaped his lips. "Told ‘em to eat shit, same as I told ‘em before. I came here to Kestrel twenty-six years ago ‘cause I wanted a little piece of the frontier, same as everybody else. It was the start of the mining boom. Great times. My little dream, you know? Like the guy in that book who wanted to own the hot dog stand on Mars."
Lou knew that Sheb had been allocated an emergency standing-room-only place on a Red Cross stalk shuttle, but she also knew that if you didn’t claim your place by a given deadline, they gave it to someone who did want it. There was a surprising number of people who, like Sheb, were hanging on despite everything. It was up to him. If he met the deadline, he’d be riding upStalk squeezed in with a couple of hundred refugees. Even without taking the franchise guy up on his offer, Sheb could probably get by on the Orbital. There’d be no Black Zone for him. But that was cool, too, as far as she was concerned.
"Unified aggregated interstellar basic currency unit for your thoughts, Lou?" Sheb asked, smiling.
She flashed a lopsided smile, thinking about the fluctuating value of the money in her account, the little of it she had left. "Just thinking about the future. You know. The usual."
"And how you deserve all this crap the universe hands you, ‘cause you’re a freak of nature, ‘cause you’re a bad daughter, and you’re not fit to exist, all that?"
Lou let out a jet of breath. Sheb had the grace not to comment on the smell. She said, "Yeah, well." She didn’t want to think about her family, though she knew she probably should at least send them a note to let them know what was happening.
He said, same as he always said, "If you’re such a rotten person, why’d you go out of your way to help me that time? Huh? You never had to do a damn thing. Nobody else did. Certainly not the cops. But you listened to my troubles when nobody else would."
"You got in there, you snuck around, found things out, made that sheet of Paper perform bloody miracles, and figured out that the gangsters and the cops were-"
She gave him her look of death. "Shut up, Sheb. That’s all very well, but it doesn’t really help."
He wasn’t put off. Not anymore. "Would, if you let it. If you weren’t so hard on yourself."
Lou noisily slurped her coffee, drowning him out.
They said nothing for several minutes. Sometimes conversation dried up, usually when Sheb was trying to get her to see bloody sense. Lou had always had a problem with father-figures telling her what to do.
The diner door opened a bit; the bell, over the door, jingled.
Sheb muttered something in surprise. Lou slowly shuffled her way around on her stool, wincing at the pain in her wasted muscles.
There was a dog standing in the doorway, half in and half out. He looked like he might be a beagle, but he was in poor shape: starved, unwell, scratched and scarred.
Sheb said, "Christ! The bloody hygiene regs!"
He went to shoo the stray animal away, but the dog spoke, "Excuse me for interrupting. I’m looking for a private investigator named Louise Meagher. I was told I might find her here." He then looked directly at Lou. "Are you her? You certainly match the description I was given."