Beauty and the Beast – 2178
We are going to switch gears here for a take on a classic fairy tale brought to us by author in residence and my writing companion, Tom Elias.
Although Tom may be new to blogworld, he is no stranger to the SciFi genre. So sit back and enjoy a version of Beauty and the Beast that is truly out of this world.
Bika Carlton stared out the widow port at the austere Lunar landscape. One of the wealthier residents of Luna Seventeen, he enjoyed the luxury of this view because he could afford the monthly payment. The view would end soon, Bika knew, because he could no longer haul enough water for the payments.
Were he alone and responsible for nobody but himself, this problem would be simple to overcome. As a self-made shipping success, Bika understood what it meant to go without, tighten his belt, and continue to struggle on toward success. No longer could he take refuge in the ease of self-reliance. Around him, the trappings of wealth and comfort mocked him for his complacency and foolishness.
Out on the stark surface, someone in an enviro suit bounced along in the familiar gait particular to Lunar dwellers, and Bika thought, “Probably a repair crew, now that it’s safe.” The massive, unpredicted solar flare that wrecked his shipping fleet also caused significant damage to the unprotected portions of the Lunar infrastructure that had been turned sunward at the time. Thoughts of the revolving Moon reminded him of the time, and Bika collected his personal effects and stepped out of the apartment just ahead of Belle’s morning alarm.
He had resolved to not broach the subject with his daughter until he knew for certain that he could lay out a coherent plan of action for her with confidence. He wanted her to feel taken care of, no matter what, because that is what daddies did. Bika loped through the hallways of Luna 17, steadily connecting downward to levels below the gray and airless surface. He was surprised that his meeting would be in The Below. Anyone rich as The Beast could surely afford a domed office with a fountain.
“Bika Carlton,” he said to a receptionist who barely acknowledged his existence in The Beast’s Spartan offices.
She barely nodded and continued to subvocalize dictation into her desktop AI. Bika lingered momentarily and then seated himself. After close to thirty minutes past his appointment time, a group of executives dressed in the latest nanofiber enviro suits. Their clumsy stride told Bika that they came from a deeper gravity well, but he guessed Mars because they didn’t walk like complete Earthlings.
As if choreographed, a flock of administrative types disgorged from a side door as it dilated open. The receptionist stood up and indicated that Bika would follow her. She stood at least four inches taller than Bika. Willowy-thin like Belle, the woman showed all the signs of being a Lunar native, her moves effortless and unconscious.
If the reception room he sat in had little by way of decoration, The Beast’s office displayed even less. Bika thought it looked more like a cargo hold than an office. A simple credenza sat centered on one unadorned concrete wall and held only a box that clearly functioned as a speaker. The receptionist touched a pendant communicator at her neck and her mouth moved silently. A light on the box lit green.
“Mr. Carlton, thank you for coming,” the disembodied voice of The Beast sounded.
“Thank you for having me,” Bika answered with a knot building in his gut. The Beast, wildly successful beyond what Bika earned in his life, wielded massive power. Always the shrewd businessman, The Beast frequently extended help in the form of financial assistance to smaller freight companies like Bika’s. The Beast earned his company’s success as well as his nickname. Reflecting on the man’s cutthroat reputation did not help alleviate Bika’s nausea.
“All right,” The Beast’s voice echoed in the spare room, “Tell me the background.”
Bika nearly launched a soliloquy on the misfortune of the solar flare and his fleet sitting in tatters in high Martian orbit. Sadly, those fine vessels now had more in common with Mars’ two lumpy moons than they did with flight-worthy spacecraft. Around him, the dour flock of administrative specialists ran through a litany of dry data on balance sheets, profit and loss tables, and estimates on targeted markets around the Solar System. Each one spoke in turn as if rehearsed. Clearly, they performed this number often. Soon enough, they concluded the flow of raw data, and a silence hung in the office air.
“Carlton,” The Beast’s gritty voice sounded, “You know what all that means. You’re dead in the water, and what’s more, I own the papers on most of those hulks. They’ll take at least a year to overhaul, and what I just heard tells me you cover one month with what you make the previous one. Nothing wrong with that. It’s ballsy. Not many like you anymore. But facts are facts. You could ship twice your annual haul for five years and not come close to being in the black with me. You owe me.” The man let the statement hang.
“Yes,” Bika said, “Yes, I do. I don’t know what to say.”
“Oh I know how you’ll pay me back, don’t worry,” The Beast said with humor in his voice. “You have one old bucket left, and I have just the project for it.”
Bika swallowed and prepared himself for the worst.
Belle finished setting the table while dinner sat in the warmer unit of the tiny kitchen behind her. Meals on Luna, regardless of relative wealth, were not elaborate, flavorful or large. Overeating in low gravity could have embarrassing side effects. Belle managed to keep up her share of domestic tasks while she finished her university schooling. She knew her father would be home within minutes since he remained a creature of habit.
In spite of being absent for long periods after her mother died when Belle was small, the young woman turned out remarkably well-adjusted and bright. She made honors marks in her courses to be sure, but remarkably never took the wealth her father earned for granted, somehow driven by the same innate need for personal achievement that her father used to carve out his life.
She whipped her thick, black braid over her shoulder and returned to the kitchen unit to retrieve the plates of warm food. She met her father just as the apartment hatch cycled.
“Hi Daddy!” she enthused.
“Hi, Peanut,” Bika answered, dejected.
Belle immediately sensed the trouble in her father, set the plates down, and hugged him. Bika felt relief, and held his daughter tight until his eyes dried. Later, each of the two had mainly pushed their tasteless food around their plates, and Belle understood the entire problem. In spite of it all, she could see hope.
“Daddy, this isn’t so bad,” she soothed, “I mean, we’ll just get a different apartment, and cut back, and while you’re gone on the mission for this Mr. Beast person, everything will be fine. I’ll finish school while you’re gone.”
“I know you will, Peanut,” Bika agreed, attempting a smile and a convincing glance into Belle’s bright green eyes. “I just have to make sure I get everything set up for you. The rent and such, I mean.”
Belle nodded in agreement and much later, Bika stared out the same window port. The scenery scarcely changed, but in the darkened apartment, the light pouring in highlighted the tracks of tears on his face. Nobody could ask for a better daughter. Bika told her most of his plan, but not all of it. In his mind, there could only be one workable solution.
The Beast had arrayed the facts and then put down his trump card that morning. Bika would commit his one remaining functional ship to a special mission for The Beast. He claimed he needed the old scow because the plasma jet engine would not interfere with the cargo he planned to haul. The hitch was, Bika would pilot the ship, alone. Relativistic effects of the old bucket’s drive included, Bika would age almost twelve years, and his Belle would wait for fourteen on her side of Einstein’s frame of reference, at the least.
None of this truly concerned him, though. Bika had much to do, because he planned on engineering this imposed duty upon him. He would start tomorrow and talk to all the people he needed to. He saw his solution as the only way out, and Belle would be taken care of for life. The Beast would get his due, his project destroyed for trying to take away the rest of his life. For Bika, it only meant dying.
One week later, Bika again stood in the undecorated office of The Beast, again regarding the speakerbox.
“Carlton,” the voice of The Beast came clear from the device, “Do you think I got where I am by being a fool?”
“I don’t think you’re a fool, and I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bika said, nervous.
“Try and bluff me all you want, it makes no difference. Did you think I wouldn’t find out about you blowing up your ship and the additional insurance you’ve bought up this week? Hmm?” The Beast said with cutting sarcasm.
“I… I don’t know,” Bika said.
“You’re the fool, Bika, for signing the contract you did without reading it well, and for assuming my absence would insulate you from my awareness,” The Beast lectured, his tone now cutting. “You have some balls, though. I can’t deny that. I also can’t let you out of this so easily.”
“What now?” Bika said with anger and a sense of nothing to lose.
“Change in plans. To ensure you don’t pull something funny, Carlton, your daughter will travel on the ship with my cargo, not you,” The Beast explained.
“You bastard,” Bika whispered.
“I hear that a lot,” The Beast said, “I know what you’re thinking. I’m not without a soul. She will ride in stasis. I’d take the rest of your life for squandering my investment, but not hers. Have her at the Luna spaceport tomorrow.”
Bika, overcome with a dizzy spell, teetered and then repeated himself, screaming, “You bastard!” The indicator light on the speakerbox, however, was dark.
Belle wore her concern well-hidden. Only the smallest of creases between her eyebrows gave away her emotion. Bika, her father, read it clearly, and the tiny furrow might as well have been a furrow cut into his heart.
“I have failed you,” Bika said, eyes wet and boring through the deck plating of the port’s shuttle dock.
“Daddy, you always tried hard. Nobody’s lucky all the time. I’d rather sleep for twelve years to be done with this than lose you,” Belle said.
Bika shook his head, unable to speak in the face of his daughter’s kindness and grace.
“Besides,” Belle continued, “This is the least I can do to repay all you gave me until now, Daddy.”
Belle hugged and kissed her father, took her small bag and walked into the shuttle’s airlock. She turned and smiled, and that image of Belle remained burned in Bika’s mind for the guilty years that followed.
Bika’s remaining freighter powered through deep and unforgiving space. Being old and outdated became an advantage on this journey, and it also meant that the components rarely failed out of wear. The deck plates and deep structures vibrated with the power of the engine that rammed them along at a large percentage of the speed of light.
Magroodian pulled himself along one access corridor, trailing his ruined leg behind him. His opposite arm, twisted and weak, provided a stabilizing point and occasional anchor despite its apparent ruin. Magroodian tended ships in flight and the low gravity in the older model freighters proved ideal for him for this and other reasons. He could tend on newer and slower interplanetary routes, but those often involved other passengers. Magroodian preferred solitude because he could avoid the stares and the questions.
One year into the journey to Centauri Alpha II, Magroodian felt the comfort of a well-worn routine. He exited the cargo bay after checking the precious device it held. His next task involved checking the telemetry and guidance. All of the panels indicated that systems onboard were ticking along perfectly. He logged all of this faithfully, and turned his attention to his favorite task.
The stasis unit self-diagnosed and rendered a report of nominal metrics. Magroodian peered through the glass, trying to see past the fog. He purged the interior atmosphere, clearing the viewplate. Inside slept the Angel. Magroodian had seen beautiful women, even slept with a few before the accident, but this creature plucked every heart string Magroodian possessed. Belle Carlton’s raven hair and porcelain skin remained unchanged, of course. Only the occasional lead stuck to her head in places disrupted the perfect vision of beauty. Magroodian felt pangs of hunger, and realized he had stared at her again for hours.
Two years later, Magroodian’s routine had evolved. One task taking several months’ time enabled him to speak with her, in a way. Cobbling components of unnecessary or redundant systems, he had devised an input channel to the stasis machine, and by reading a message he could communicate in a way with the perfect beauty laying wrapped in cold, artificial sleep. The improvised device would feed her these messages back through her monitoring leads, slowed for her reduced awareness. Magroodian’s first love letter, when read, ran to ten recorded minutes and then required his agonized patience for over a week while it slowly trickled into her mind.
The fact that Belle could not answer never slowed Magroodian down. From his lonely, disfigured point of view, having half of a relationship to him was more than he had hoped for to begin with. He wrote poems, random thoughts, and love letters to her, not knowing if his words registered or were merely expressed as slow, cold dreams. Today he carefully read a short but deliberately-crafted note to her.
“My Perfect Little One,” he read, “My mind is filled with thoughts of you. They are thoughts of nothing but love, caring and kindness. In my mind, we are together, and we have finally found our Someday. I cannot tell you how much joy these thoughts bring me, and I have them because of you in my life.”
Magroodian wiped the saliva from his mangled jaw, not wishing to slurp it back into his mouth while reading. He fed the file to the device he’d built, and set about waiting. At the moment the slow-trickle device finished an unknown, random chunk of interstellar matter struck the hull, detonating a maneuvering thruster fuel unit.
Months passed, and Magroodian struggled mightily to keep the freighter intact and functional. He felt tired in his bones, unable to recall a night of rest not interrupted by a new crisis. Ever resourceful, Magroodian shifted power sources, rewired entire systems, and kept the engines humming. Yet, system failures moved through the ship like a malevolent poltergeist.
Now he feared that he could save no more systems. He had already cut life support to much of the freighter, and what the remaining areas had ran at minimal levels. Nonessential computer systems were offline. What remained beyond navigation, stellar drive and life support were the circuits for Belle’s stasis pod and the cargo package. With mysterious faults cropping up still, Magroodian could choose between maintaining the cargo or Belle.
He agonized this before realizing that the system load for the stasis unit took more resources than an additional, conscious human would. Magroodian realized while he watched the stasis unit cycle down that the fear of having to face Belle for real outweighed the fear of having to sacrifice her outright. While she slowly floated up to consciousness, Magroodian moved his possessions from his room into the galley.
Belle slowly realized that she no longer slept in stasis. In fact, someone moved her to a comfortable bed and saw to her recovery regimen before she regained consciousness. She felt cold, deep down, and she shivered. Something in the room smelled funny, and it took Belle several minutes to understand that she caused the odd odor. Her limbs felt heavy and rubbery, and sitting up caused pain everywhere. Breathing deeply caused her to rack herself coughing.
Gradually, though, she felt a little better. She thought standing might be useful, but somehow doing that was impossible. At the hatch to the room, a chime sounded. She could barely croak out a sound, and the door opened. The ugliest man she had ever seen stood there holding a tray. She quickly realized even with her eyes that refused to focus well that this poor man had suffered a grave injury somehow. His hair grew in patches, and his face hung misshapen and jumbled on his head. One eye drooped, sightless, and ropy scar tissue laced up his neck. Belle’s heart broke for Magroodian simply looking at him.
“Here is some food,” he said, placing a small tray with a smaller cup of broth near her. “You should eat very slowly. Your stomach has not processed food for three years. I will explain everything when you’re ready.” He turned awkwardly on his atrophied leg to leave.
“Wait,” Belle managed, stopping Magroodian. “Tell… me… please.”
Magroodian sat in a chair – his former furniture – with his face mainly averted. He told her of his struggle to keep the ship under power, save the cargo, and her life. Belle absorbed it all. She had missed so much, and the few ounces of broth in her stomach felt like gallons. She grew sleepy, and Belle later recalled broken images of Magroodian bent over her, gently tucking her under a blanket and arranging her pillow.
“Tell me your name,” Belle said at some point days later. She recovered quickly, and the two of them walked the decks to build back her stamina.
“Magroodian,” he answered, looking down and away. “I run the ship while it flies.”
“My name is Belle,” she said, “I bet you know why I’m here.”
“Yes,” Magroodian said.
They walked together a bit. The induced gravity made each of them tired in spite of remaining low. Belle, used to half what she struggled with now, felt exhausted. Magroodian mentioned it would be good practice for Centauri Alpha II, and then remained silent while Belle breathed hard and thought.
“You don’t ever look at me when you talk,” she said, and Magroodian did not answer. Belle lunged ahead and whirled in front of him, preventing him from limping further. “Look at me, please.”
He did, reluctantly turning his mangled face to her but keeping his working eye locked on the floor. Belle said nothing for a long moment.
“It hurt very much,” she finally said, more a statement than a question.
“Yes, very much,” he answered and wiped his chin. He felt something like a pressure on his cheek, and looking up saw that he sensed Belle’s perfect, graceful hand touching his face. He felt dizzy because of this act of gentleness. He dared to look at Belle’s face, and stopped breathing when he saw the tears flowing down her soft cheeks. In that moment, he would have given his own organs to keep her alive, or sacrificed himself for her, merely for her touch and her tears.
Later, the freighter was only months out from Centauri Alpha, and Magroodian managed to get the deceleration phase configured in spite of the patchwork quilt of circuits and fixes. He grew comfortable with Belle, and she with him. They shared an easy friendship. He never mentioned the love notes or the system he devised to communicate them. Over dinner, without warning, she alarmed him with a statement.
“I had such beautiful dreams while I was in stasis,” she said, then asking, “Is that a common phenomenon?”
“Dreams? How do you mean?” Magroodian said, defensive.
“Oh! They seemed to go on forever,” Belle smiled, “And there was this amazing man who read me beautiful poetry. Sometimes he wrote love letters. It was so vivid that I can’t get it out of my head.”
“Well, I will check the library, but I’m sure it’s connected to the stasis effects or the medications,” Magroodian said.
“Too bad, almost,” Belle giggled, “I would love to meet whoever could say those wonderful kind of things to me.”
“Perhaps someday you will, or someone like him,” he answered quietly.
The lights went out at that instant and the entire freighter shuddered. Magroodian, twisted and bent, sprang into action like a cat.
“Stay here, Belle!” he said and hobbled through the dark by memory. His instincts told him the engine main power relays were failing, and he headed that way. The emergency lighting finally kicked in, flickering and red. In the drive compartment, Magroodian saw that he guessed correctly. He brought the main power grid off line. He now owned about two hours of time to spend on figuring this out before the backup generator systems expended their chemical fuel. The backup battery system he disconnected long ago in the process of saving the freighter.
Magroodian quickly determined that it came down to a choice. He used the standard procedure and added key systems one by one to the recoupled power grid. No matter how he did it, or in what order, it still came to a choice. He left power to the cargo bay and its cargo online. The life support systems remained on backup. Belle found him hunched over a computer much later.
“You fixed the problem,” she said with amazement.
“No, far from it,” Magroodian spat.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Life support is on backup power, and that system can run life support by itself for about…” he glanced at the computer, then finished, “Six more hours. Then the backup system is out of fuel.”
“That would give you six hours to find the problem, right?” she asked.
“Yes, but the fuel runs out. We don’t get more. If something bad happened later, we would have no backup power system at all. Besides, the support system damage is in part of the ship I have sealed off. We don’t have suits that support that kind of vacuum work anyway.”
“Oh,” Belle said.
“Our cargo takes power, but I cannot even uncouple it from the master relays or it will be worthless,” he explained.
“So what do we do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Magroodian lied, thankful for the fact that his twisted, ugly face could not convey deception.
The next hours contained few conversations. Magroodian existed in an agitated state of activity, most of it spent at the helm. He sat in earnest silence, only wiping his chin and surrounded by technical manuals. He had some piloting experience because the job required it. Because of this, he knew there were some operations a navigation program could not execute. Planetary orbital insertion happened to be one of them, so Magroodian did the best he could.
Belle saw him many times, limping along as quickly as he could in his race against time. He went in and out of the cargo hold frequently. She assumed his task of saving the ship consumed him completely, and willingly stayed out of his way. She distracted herself by investigating the ships’ systems using the computer terminal in her room. Magroodian did in fact have most of the ship completely shut down. She wondered why he had not just taken the cargo hold off line months ago. Looking for anything to answer that, Belle found some audio files, hundreds of them. She only played three before she bolted from her small berth to find Magroodian. When she found him near the airlock, their eyes met and both knew what the other thought.
“Why?” she said with a quavering voice and tears on her cheeks.
“It is the only way one of us will survive all the way to Centauri,” Magroodian answered, now suited up and clearly set to walk out of the airlock.
Belle shook her head. “No, no. Why didn’t you tell me? About the recordings? It was you all along. My poet.”
Magroodian’s world stopped. Tempted to just walk into the airlock and cycle it without a word, he ultimately dropped his hand to his side. He felt defeated.
“You could never love anyone as… hideous as me,” he said, indicating his face with his good hand. “It was easier.”
Belle was speechless for a moment, tears flowing. Then she shook her head again, a puzzled look on her face. “You’re wrong, but what were you about to do?” she asked.
Magroodian explained the trade-off quickly, concluding the explanation by saying, “So I’ve cut the life support down to accommodate one person, programmed the insertion at Centauri Alpha, and I was about to… walk out.”
Belle dissolved into waves of hard, sorrowful tears. She staggered against the bulkhead, rocked to her core. Magroodian had no idea what he had done or said that caused this. He only wanted to save her life. She stopped sobbing abruptly and wiped her face. She looked into Magroodian’s eyes and strode to him. In an instant, she stood inches from his face with hers. The fire in her eyes softened, and he felt the sensation again that meant her hand rested against his ruined face. Then she leaned in and placed one soft, loving kiss on his lopsided mouth.
“You silly man,” she said in a whisper, “I’ve loved you for months now. And if I had known you wrote me such beautiful words, that those were more than dreams… that they came from your heart…”
She cried again, softly, and this time into his neck. Eventually his arms took her and held her. They stood that way for a long time.
Later, Magroodian decoupled the cargo hold power system from the main junction. Belle watched as he reconnected the life support and recalibrated it to account for two humans instead of one. Then she asked to see the cargo, and Magroodian walked with her on his uneven legs to the hold. The backup lights illuminated the device in a surreal red light.
“It’s a kind of communication device. I’ve been sending reports back to the owner with it,” he said, and Belle saw the keyboard and screen, now dull black.
“Why is it special?” she asked, intuiting the uniqueness of it.
“It uses entangled quantum particles. Whatever messages I type here, or whatever data I send, is instantaneously reflected back on Earth with no delay.”
“Oh God,” she gasped, seeing the point.
“Yes,” Magroodian said, “It’s one of a kind and took trillions of credits to research and build. But it takes a lot of power. It would have made the owner richer than any man in the Solar System.”
“He’s going to be furious with you,” Belle said.
“You could say that,” he answered, wiping his lip.
Some months later, Magroodian initiated the braking and entry sequence. Both he and Belle struggled under a full Earth gravity for weeks, and then he increased the braking thrust. By the time the external cameras showed them the bright, yellow disk of Centauri Alpha, both had adapted to two full Earth gravities as best as they could. They helped one another, adapted to each other, and grew close.
Magroodian maneuvered the freighter manually now, Belle watching in fascination as he caressed the controls with his one good hand and expertly put the ship into a stable orbit of the second planet, an Earth-like world far from home. Planetary systems detected and relayed a standard query message. When the colonial authority learned their identity, the next message was a sharp and directive. The Beast’s Centauri office expected him to come in person, immediately.
“You’re in trouble,” Belle said.
“Oh yes. I ruined the company,” Magroodian explained.
Belle, catching her breath loudly, said, “Oh no! You should have pushed me out the airlock, stasis thing and all.”
“I could never have done that, Belle,” Magroodian said, “You know that.”
His words seemed to calm her. Then she stated without room for debate, “I am coming with you.”
“All right,” Magroodian acceded.
Within two hours, a corporate shuttle hailed them and instructed them to extend the docking posts.
Magroodian sat in the office, sweating and breathing heavily under almost twice Earth normal gravity. Beside him, Belle reclined in a gravity chair designed specifically for offworlders unused to such a deep gravity well. Her breathing came hard, and some motions made her groan, but never once did she complain.
An administrative functionary breezed into the room on muscular legs. This functionary collected the bills of lading and other necessary documents, to include each of Magroodian and Belle’s identification files. The man broke the electronic seal on the case, flipped casually through the packet, and then pulled a scanner out to upload the identity information on their cards. It matched the logged mission data, and he then swiped a special, textured area of the device first down Belle’s arm, then Magroodian’s. Belle’s swipe earned a green diode light, as did Magroodian’s. The readout for Magroodian, however, made the functionary double-take and then fly from the room.
Seconds later, a cadre of other administrative types flooded the room. Belle lay there confused as the team made her more comfortable and brought food and drinks. More teams arrived, these equipped with data pads and earpieces. Magroodian sighed and then groaned as he stood. He whispered something in the ear of one aide, who vanished. All of the rest he waved away. He and Belle were alone again in seconds.
“What is going on?” Belle asked.
“Belle, you may hate me for this, because I’ve not been totally honest with you,” Magroodian said.
“Go on,” she said with hesitation.
“Belle, I am The Beast,” he said without decoration and waited for whatever response he earned. None came, and he continued, “Everything else is true except I don’t work for the man, I am the man. The company is now in the red, this destruction of my face and body is not makeup. I was and still am a hard and shrewd businessman, but once I fell in love with you, and you returned it to me so well, I changed completely. I’ll understand if you leave and hate me. I can have you back on Luna on one of my fold ships in two weeks. I regret making you my insurance for our trip. I do not and will not regret falling in love with you, Belle.”
He finished his statement and stood ready for whatever Belle had to say. Minutes passed, and tears again brimmed in her eyes. Then, slowly shaking her raven-haired head, she raised her arms to him, inviting him to her for an embrace. The Beast, Magroodian, accepted it gladly