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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 1

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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt.

By Joan D. Vinge.

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labours. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.

-ECCLESIASTES

There are more stars in the galaxy than there are drop-lets of water in the Boreal Sea. Only a fraction of those stars wink and glitter, like snowflakes pa.s.sing through the light, in the unending night sky above the darkside ice. And out of those thousand thousand visi-ble stars, the people of the planet Morningside had made a wish on one-called Heaven.



Sometimes when the winds ceased, a brittle silence would settle over the darkside ice sheet; and it might seem to a Morningside astronomer, in the solitude of his observatory, that all barriers had broken down be-tween his planet and the stars, that the very hand of interstellar s.p.a.ce brushed his pulse. s.p.a.ce lapped at his doorway, the night flowed up and up and up, merging imperceptibly with the greater night that swallowed all mornings, and all Morningsides, and all the myriad stars whose numbers would overflow the sea.

And he would think of the stars.h.i.+p Ranger, Ranger, which had gone up from Morningside's fragile island into that endless night: a silvered dustmote carried on a vi-olent invisible breeze across the cathedral distances of s.p.a.ce, drawn from candleflame to candleflame through the darkness.... which had gone up from Morningside's fragile island into that endless night: a silvered dustmote carried on a vi-olent invisible breeze across the cathedral distances of s.p.a.ce, drawn from candleflame to candleflame through the darkness....

They would be a long time gone. And what had seemed to the crew to be the brave, bright immensity of their fusion craft shrank to insignificance as they left the homeworld further and further behind-as the Ranger Ranger became only one more mote, lost among countless unseen motes in the fathomless depths of night But like an ember within a tinderbox, their lives gave the s.h.i.+p its own warm heart of light, and life. The days pa.s.sed, and the months, and years . . . and light-years, while seven men and women watched over the s.h.i.+p's needs, and one another's. Their shared past patterned their present with images of the world they had left behind, visions of the future they hoped to bring back to it. They were bound for Heaven, and like true believers they found that belief instilled a deeper meaning in the charting of stars and the tend-ing of hydroponic vats, in their silence and their laughter, in every song and memory they carried with them from home. became only one more mote, lost among countless unseen motes in the fathomless depths of night But like an ember within a tinderbox, their lives gave the s.h.i.+p its own warm heart of light, and life. The days pa.s.sed, and the months, and years . . . and light-years, while seven men and women watched over the s.h.i.+p's needs, and one another's. Their shared past patterned their present with images of the world they had left behind, visions of the future they hoped to bring back to it. They were bound for Heaven, and like true believers they found that belief instilled a deeper meaning in the charting of stars and the tend-ing of hydroponic vats, in their silence and their laughter, in every song and memory they carried with them from home.

And at last one star began to separate from all the rest, centering on the s.h.i.+p's viewscreen, becoming a focus for their combined hope. Years had dwindled to months and finally weeks, as, decelerating now, back-ing down from near the speed of light, they kept their rendezvous with the new system. They pa.s.sed the or-bit of Sevin, the outermost of Heaven's worlds, where the new sun was still scarcely more than an ice-crowned point of light Counting the days now, like children reaching toward Christmas, the crew antici-pated journey's end before them: all the riches and wonders of the Heaven Belt.

But before they reached their final destination, they would encounter one more wonder that was no creation of humankind-the gas giant Discus, a billow-ing ruby set in a plate of silver rings. They watched it expand until it obliterated more of this black and alien sky than the face of their own sun had blocked in the out in awe at its splendor, the captain and the navi-gator discovered something new, something quite unexpected, on the s.h.i.+p's displays: four unknown s.h.i.+ps, powered by antiquated chemical rockets, on an inter-cepting course....

RANGER (DISCAN s.p.a.cE) + 0 SECONDS.

"Pappy, are they still closing?"

"Still closing, Betha." Clewell Welkin bent forward as new readings appeared at the bottom of the screen. "But the rate's holding steady. They must be cutting power; they couldn't do ten gees forever. Christ, don't let them hit us again...."

Betha struck the intercom b.u.t.ton again with her fist, "It's going to be all right. No one else will get near us." Her voice shook, someone else's voice, not Betha Torgussen's, and no one answered, "Come on, somebody, answer me. Eric! Eric! Switch on-"

"Betha." Clewell leaned out across the padded seat arm, caught her shoulder.

"Pappy, they don't answer."

"Betha, one of those s.h.i.+ps, it's not falling back! It's-"

She brushed away his hand, searching the readouts on the screen. "Look at it! They want to take take us. They must; it's burning chemical fuel, and they can't afford to waste that much." She held her breath, knuckles whitening on the cold metal panel. "They're getting too close. Show them our tail, Pappy." us. They must; it's burning chemical fuel, and they can't afford to waste that much." She held her breath, knuckles whitening on the cold metal panel. "They're getting too close. Show them our tail, Pappy."

Pale eyes flickered in his seamed face. "Are you-?"

She half-rose, pushed back from the panel, down into the seat again. "Clewell, they tried to kill us!

They're armed, they want to take our s.h.i.+p and they will, and that's the only way to stop them. . . . Let them cross our tail, Navigator."

"Yes, Captain." He turned away from her toward the panel, and began to punch in the course change that would end their pursuit.

At the final moment Betha switched the screen from simulation to outside scan, picked out the amber fleck of the pursuing s.h.i.+p thirty kilometers behind them-watched it fleetingly made golden by the alchemy of supercharged particles from her s.h.i.+p's ex-haust. And watched its gold darken again into the greater darkness shot with stars. She shuddered, not feeling it, and cut power.

"What-what do we do now?" Clewell drifted up off the seat, against the restraining belt, as the s.h.i.+p's acceleration ceased. The white fringe of his hair stood out from his head like frost.

Before her on the screen the rings of Discus edged into view, eclipsing the night: the plate of striated sil-ver, twenty separate bands of utter blackness and moon-white, the setting for the rippling red jewel of gas that was the central planet. Her hand was on the selector dial, her eyes burned with the brightness, par-alyzing her will. She shut her eyes, and turned the dial.

The intercom was broken. They still sat at the table, Erie and Sean and Nikolai, Lara and Claire; they looked up at her, laughing, breathing again, looked out through the dome at the glory of Discus on the empty night .... She opened her eyes. And saw empty night They still sat at the table, Erie and Sean and Nikolai, Lara and Claire; they looked up at her, laughing, breathing again, looked out through the dome at the glory of Discus on the empty night .... She opened her eyes. And saw empty night Oh, G.o.d, Oh, G.o.d, she thought. The room was empty; they were gone. she thought. The room was empty; they were gone. Oh, G.o.d. Oh, G.o.d. Only stars, gaping beyond the shattered plastic of the dome, crowding the blackness that had swallowed them all.... She didn't scream, lost in the soundless void. Only stars, gaping beyond the shattered plastic of the dome, crowding the blackness that had swallowed them all.... She didn't scream, lost in the soundless void.

"They're all-gone. All of them. That warhead...it shattered the dome."

She turned to see Clewell, his face bloodless and empty; saw their lives, with everything suddenly gone. Thinking, frightened, He looks so old. He looks so old. . . . She released her seatbelt mindlessly, pushed herself along the panel to his side and took his hands. They held each other close, in silence. . . . She released her seatbelt mindlessly, pushed herself along the panel to his side and took his hands. They held each other close, in silence.

A squirming softness batted against her head; she jerked upright as claws like tiny needles caught a foothold in the flesh of her shoulder. "Rusty!" She reached up to pull the cat loose, began to drift and hooked a foot under the rung along the panel base. Golden eyes peered at her from a round brindled face, above a nose half black and half orange; mottled whiskers twitched as the mouth formed a meow? meow?

like an unoiled gate hinge. Betha's hands tightened over an urge to fling the cat across the room. What What right does an animal have to be alive, when five human beings are dead? right does an animal have to be alive, when five human beings are dead? She turned her face away as Rusty stretched a patchwork paw to touch her, She turned her face away as Rusty stretched a patchwork paw to touch her, mrr mrr ing ing con-solation for an imcomprehensible grief. Betha cradled her, kissed the furred forehead, comforted by the soft knot of her warmth. con-solation for an imcomprehensible grief. Betha cradled her, kissed the furred forehead, comforted by the soft knot of her warmth.

Clewell caught Rusty's drifting tail, bloodied at the tip. "She barely got out."

Betha nodded.

"Why did we ever come to Heaven?" His voice shook.

She looked up. "You know why we came!" She stopped, forcing control. "I don't know ... I mean ... I mean, I thought I knew..." Four years ago, as they left Morningside, she had been sure of every-thing: her destination, her happiness, her marriage, her life. And now, suddenly, incredibly, only life re-mained. Why? Why?

Because the people of Morningside, the bleak inner-most world of a pitiless red dwarf star, had a dream of Heaven. Heaven: A G-type sun system without an Earthlike planet, but with an asteroid belt rich in accessible metals. And with Discus, a gas giant ringed in littered splendor by frozen water, methane, and am-monia-the elemental keys to life. The ore-rich Belt and the frozen gases had made it feasible-almost easy-to build up a colony entirely self-sufficient in its richness; heaven in every sense of the word to colon-ists from Sol's asteroid belt, who had always been de-pendent on Earth for basic survival needs. And it had become a dream for another colony, Morningside, hungry now for something more than survival: the dream that they could establish contact with the Heaven Belt, and negotiate a share in its overflowing bounty.

The dream that had carried the stars.h.i.+p Ranger Ranger across three light-years; that had been shattered with the shattered dayroom, by the reality of sudden death. The desolation burned again across her eyes; her mind saw the across three light-years; that had been shattered with the shattered dayroom, by the reality of sudden death. The desolation burned again across her eyes; her mind saw the Ranger's Ranger's one-hundred-meter spindle form, ev-ery line as familiar as her own face, every centimeter blueprinted on her memory . . . saw it flawed by one tiny, terrible wound; saw five faces, lost to her now in darkness, endlessly falling.... one-hundred-meter spindle form, ev-ery line as familiar as her own face, every centimeter blueprinted on her memory . . . saw it flawed by one tiny, terrible wound; saw five faces, lost to her now in darkness, endlessly falling....

Clewell said softly, "What now?"

"We go on-go on as planned."

"You want to go on trying to make contact with "Do you want to lead them home by the hand, to these ..." His hand pointed at the ruin on the screen. murder all of Morningside? Isn't it enough-"

Betha shook her head, clinging to the arms of her seat. "We don't have any choice! You know that. We don't have enough hydrogen on board to get the s.h.i.+p back to ramscoop speeds. We have to refuel somewhere in Heaven, or we'll never get home." A vision of home stunned her: firelight on dark beams, on the night before their departure-a little boy's face bright with tears, buried against her s.h.i.+rt. Mommy Mommy . . . I dreamed you had to die to go to Heaven. Remember-ing her child's sobs waking out of nightmare, her own eyes filled with tears and the endless darkness. She bit her lip. Remember-ing her child's sobs waking out of nightmare, her own eyes filled with tears and the endless darkness. She bit her lip. G.o.dd.a.m.n it, I'm not G.o.dd.a.m.n it, I'm not a child, I'm thirty-five years old! a child, I'm thirty-five years old!

"Pappy, don't start acting like an old man." She frowned, and watched his irritation strip ten years from his face. Without looking, she reached out to blank the viewscreen. "We don't have any choice now. We have to go on with it." We have to pay them back, We have to pay them back, her eyes flickered, hard edges of sapphire glinting. She tossed Rusty carefully away, watched her cat-paddle uselessly as she drifted out into the room. "We have enough fuel left to get us around the system . . . but who do we trust? Why did they at-tack us? her eyes flickered, hard edges of sapphire glinting. She tossed Rusty carefully away, watched her cat-paddle uselessly as she drifted out into the room. "We have enough fuel left to get us around the system . . . but who do we trust? Why did they at-tack us?

And those s.h.i.+ps, chemical rockets-they shouldn't have anything like that outside of a museum! It doesn't make sense."

"Maybe they were pirates, renegades. There's noth-ing else that fits." Clewell's hand hung in the air, un-certain.

"Maybe." She sighed, knowing that renegades had no place in Heaven. Having no choice except to be-lieve it, she forgot that the angry, mindless face that had cursed her on their screen had called her pirate. pirate. "We'll go on in to the main Belt, to the capital at Lansing, as planned, then. And then . . . we'll find a way to get what we need." "We'll go on in to the main Belt, to the capital at Lansing, as planned, then. And then . . . we'll find a way to get what we need."

TOLEDO PLANETOID (DEMARCHY s.p.a.cE) +.

30 KILOSECONDS.

Wadie Abdhiamal, negotiator for the Demarchy, stirred sluggishly, dragged up out of sleep by the chiming of the telephone. He turned the lights up enough to make out its form and switched it on. "Yes?"

He saw Lije MacWong's mahogany face brighten on the screen, pushed himself up on an el-bow in the bed.

"Sorry to wake you up, Wadie."

He grinned. "I'll bet you are." MacWong enjoyed getting up early. Wadie glanced at the digital clock in the phone's base. "Somebody need a negotiator at this time of night? Don't the people ever sleep?"

"I hope they're all sleepin' now. . . . Are you alone?"

Wadie glanced back over his shoulder at Kimoru's brown, sleek side, her tumbled black hair. She sighed in her sleep. He looked back at MacWong's image, judged from the disapproval in the pale-blue eyes that MacWong already knew the answer. Annoyed but not showing it, he said, "No, I'm not."

"Pick up the receiver."

Wadie obeyed, cutting off sound from the general speaker. He listened, silent, for the few seconds more it took MacWong to surprise him out of his sleep-fog. "Be down as soon as I can."

He got out of bed, half-drifting in the scant grav-ity, and went into the bathroom to wash and shave.

When he returned he found Kimoru sitting up in bed, the pinioned comforter pulled up to her chin. She blinked reproachfully, her eyelids showing lavender.

"Wadie, darlin'"-a hint of spite-"it's not even morning! Whyever are you gettin' up already; am I such a bore in bed?" A hint of desperation.

"Kimoru." He moved across the comfortable con-finement of the room to kiss her lingeringly. "That's a h.e.l.l of a thing to say to me. Duty called, I've got to leave . . . you know I hate to get up early. Particu-larly when you're here. Get your beauty sleep; I'll come back to take you out to breakfast-or lunch, if you prefer." He fastened his s.h.i.+rt with one hand, touched her cheek with the other.

"Well, all right." She slithered down under the cover. "But don't be too late. You know I've got to charm a customer for dear old Chang and Company at fifty kilosecs." She yawned. Her teeth were very bright, and sharp. "I don't know why you don't get a decent job. Only a government man would put up with a schedule like yours...or have to."

Or a geisha-? He went on dressing, didn't say it out loud; knowing that she didn't have a choice, and that to remind her of it was unnecessary and tactless. A woman who had been sterilized for genetic defects had very few opportunities open to her, in a society that saw a woman as a potential mother above all else. If she was married to an understanding husband, one who was willing to let a contract mother provide him with heirs, she could continue to lead a normal life. But a woman divorced for sterility-or an unmarried sterile woman-had only two alternatives: to work at a menial, unpleasant job, exposed to radiation from the dirty postwar atomic batteries; or to work as a geisha, entertaining the clients of a corporation. It was prosti-tution; but it was accepted. A geisha had few rights and little prestige, but she did have security, comfortable surroundings, fine clothes, and enough money to support her when she pa.s.sed her prime. It was a sterile existence, but physical sterility left her with little choice. He went on dressing, didn't say it out loud; knowing that she didn't have a choice, and that to remind her of it was unnecessary and tactless. A woman who had been sterilized for genetic defects had very few opportunities open to her, in a society that saw a woman as a potential mother above all else. If she was married to an understanding husband, one who was willing to let a contract mother provide him with heirs, she could continue to lead a normal life. But a woman divorced for sterility-or an unmarried sterile woman-had only two alternatives: to work at a menial, unpleasant job, exposed to radiation from the dirty postwar atomic batteries; or to work as a geisha, entertaining the clients of a corporation. It was prosti-tution; but it was accepted. A geisha had few rights and little prestige, but she did have security, comfortable surroundings, fine clothes, and enough money to support her when she pa.s.sed her prime. It was a sterile existence, but physical sterility left her with little choice.

Knowing the alternatives, Wadie neither blamed nor censured. And it struck him frequently that in working for the government, he had picked a career that most people respected less than formal prost.i.tu-tion-and one that had left his private life as barren of real relations.h.i.+ps as any geisha's. He looked past his own reflection in the mirror, at Kimoru, already asleep again with one slender arm reaching out toward the empty half of the bed. He had no children, no wife. Most of the women he saw socially were women like Kimoru, geishas he met while negotiating disputes for the corporations that used them. He avoided them while he was on a.s.signment, because he avoided anything that could remotely be considered a bribe. But in their free time the geishas liked to choose their own escort, and he had enough money to show them a good time.

But he rarely stayed in one place long enough to get to know any woman well; and the few normal women he had known at all had bored him with their endless insipid conversation, their endless coquetry. to know any woman well; and the few normal women he had known at all had bored him with their endless insipid conversation, their endless coquetry.

Wadie brushed back his dark curling hair and settled the soft beret carefully on his head. He was a fastidious dresser, even at dawn. It was expected. He picked up a silver ring set with rubies, slipped it onto his thumb. It had been a gift of grat.i.tude, from two people he had helped long megaseconds before, a husband-and-wife prospecting team. He remembered that woman again-a woman pilot, a sound, healthy woman who had chosen to be sterilized in order to go into s.p.a.ce. No kind of woman at all, really; because no real woman would willingly reject a home and family. That woman had been a freak-stubborn, defensive, self-righteous; a woman out of her place, out of her depth. And yet her partner had married her. But he had been a kind of freak himself; a media-man-a professional liar-with scruples. It was no won-der the two of them chose to spend the rest of their lives in the middle of nowhere, picking over salvage on mined worlds....

Wadie shook his head at the memory, looking into the mirror, into the past He wondered again, as he had wondered before, what bizarre chemistry had drawn them together, and still kept them together. And won-dered briefly, almost enviously, why that chemistry had never worked on him. He shrugged on his loose forest-green jacket, b.u.t.toned the high collar above the embroidered silken geometries. h.e.l.l, he was eleven hundred and fifty megaseconds old-thirty-eight Old World years-most of them spent solving everyone else's problems, living everyone else's life instead of his own. If he hadn't found a woman by now who would accept him on his own terms, or one who could make him forget everything else, he never would. He wasn't getting any younger; if he wanted a child, he couldn't afford to wait much longer. When he finished this new a.s.signment he would hire a con-tract mother to bear his child and raise it while he was away. He glanced back one last time at sleeping Kimoru as he left the apartment, closing the door quietly. wait much longer. When he finished this new a.s.signment he would hire a con-tract mother to bear his child and raise it while he was away. He glanced back one last time at sleeping Kimoru as he left the apartment, closing the door quietly.

Wadie yawned discreetly as he left the building's shadow and started across the quiet square. It was barely daylight now; the glow of the fluorescent lamps brightened like dawn in the ceiling's imitation sky, ten meters above his head. The magnetized soles of his polished boots clicked faintly on the polished metal of the square, added security in the slight spin-gravity of Toledo planetoid. The surface of the square curved along the inside hull of a ma.s.sive, hol-lowed chunk of iron, a rich miner's harvest and a solid home, but one that was beginning, ungraciously, to show its age. The silvery geometric filigree of pure mineral iron beneath his feet had been preserved once by a thin bonding film, but it was oxidizing now as the film wore away. He could trace rusty paths, dull reddish brown in the early light, leading his eyes across the square and under the tarnished rococo wall to the entrance of the government center. Symptoms of a deeper illness . . . something like panic choked him; from habit he took a long breath, and eased back from the edge, from admitting that the disease would be terminal. He went on toward the center, ordering the lace at his cuffs. Living well is the best defense, Living well is the best defense, he thought sourly. he thought sourly.

Lije MacWong was waiting for him inside. Offi-cially Wadie worked for the citizens of the Demarchy; actually he worked for MacWong. MacWong, the People's Choice: the Demarchy's absolute democ-racy was an unpredictable water beneath the fragile s.h.i.+p of government, and it had drowned countless un-wary representatives. But MacWong moved instinc-tively with the flow of popular opinion, sometimes even risked diverting that flow to suit his own vision of the people's needs. He did the people's business, and made them like it. Wadie wondered from time to time what MacWong's secret was; and wondered whether he really wanted to know. "Peace 'n' pros-perity, Lije."

MacWong glanced up as Wadie entered the office, ice-blue eyes placid in his dark face. "Peace 'n'

pros-perity, Wadie." He rose, returned a formal bow, and moved reluctantly away from his aquarium.

Wadie peered past him for a glimpse of the fish-three glittering golden things no larger than a finger, with tails of s.h.i.+ning gossamer, moving sinuously through sea gra.s.ses in the green-lit water. The gold-fish were the only nonhuman creatures he had ever seen, and for all he knew MacWong was still paying for them. He pulled off his hat, watched its soft mushroom roundness begin to flatten beside MacWong's on the desk top. "With all due respect, I trust this news about a Mysterious Message from Outer s.p.a.ce is genuine, and I'm not here because you like to see me suffer." He sank slowly into MacWong's neocolonial desk chair, smoothed wrinkles from his jacket.

"Have a seat." MacWong smiled tolerantly. "The 'message' is genuine. These aren't home movies I'm goin' to show you." He leaned carefully against the corner of his desk, avoiding the fresco of silver animal heads, and flicked a switch on the communications in-set. Nothing happened. "Dammit," He picked up a platinum paperweight shaped like a springing cat and dropped it on the panel. The impact was unim-pressive, but the Kleinfelter mural projection on the far wall faded, and was replaced by the image of a woman's face. "I don't know what I'll do if this desk quits working. They don't build 'em like they used to." He set the paperweight gently back in place.

"They don't build 'em at all, Lije." Wadie traced the scrolled embroidery on his jacket front; his fingers froze as he looked up at the screen. "A hologram? Where'd you get that, MacWong?" that, MacWong?"

"We picked it out of the air, or s.p.a.ce, anyhow, thirty kilosecs ago. It's a genuine hologramic transmis-sion; it took us ten kilosecs to figure that out. And it's not beamed. Think of the power and bandwidth something like that requires! I don't know anybody who can do that for the h.e.l.l of it any more."

"Not many that can do it at all-" He broke off, watching, listening, as the woman's voice rose. Her skin was pale to the point of colorlessness, like her cropped, floating hair; her face was long and angular. She wore a faded s.h.i.+rt open at the neck, without jew-elry. In her thirties, he judged, and making no attempt to cover it up; her plainness was almost painful. He put it out of his mind, concentrating on her voice. She spoke Anglo, but with an unfamiliar accent; the most common words seemed to take on extra syllables in her mouth.

". . . please identify yourselves further. We were not aware of violating your s.p.a.ce. We are not, repeat not, not, from your system; and we-" She was interrupted by a noise that barely recorded; Wadie saw her pale skin blush with anger, her eyes sharpen like cut sap-phire. He glanced at MacWong. from your system; and we-" She was interrupted by a noise that barely recorded; Wadie saw her pale skin blush with anger, her eyes sharpen like cut sap-phire. He glanced at MacWong.

"The Ringer navy," MacWong said. "Their 'cast went the other way. This is all we picked up."

The woman glanced offscreen, and spoke words that he couldn't hear, insulting words, he guessed; but her voice was steady as she faced the screen again. "This is not a Belter s.h.i.+p, we are not 'Demarchists,'

and we have committed no acts of 'piracy.' You have no authority over my s.h.i.+p; permission to board is de-nied. But if you will give us co-ords for your-"

Again she was interrupted; he watched tension grow, tightening her face. 'We're not armed-" And resolution: "But we deny your 'right of seizure.' Pappy, get us-" She turned away again, and her image was ripped apart by a burst of red static. For half a second more he saw her, and then the screen went white.

"Well?"

Wadie loosened his hands on the metal frame of the chair. "Did they destroy it? Is that all?"

MacWong shook his head. "The s.h.i.+p took a hit, but it got away from the Ringers-all but one of 'em. We monitored some of their followups; that alien s.h.i.+p is a ramscoop, and when one of the Ringer pursuit craft got too close she just used the exhaust to melt it into sc.r.a.p. Maybe that indignant Viking Queen isn't armed, but she's dangerous."

Wadie said nothing, waiting.

"We don't know where the s.h.i.+p is now, or even why it's here. But I have some ideas. She said it was from outside the system, and I believe that. n.o.body in the Belt has anything that sophisticated any more. And a woman runnin' it-particularly a woman who looks like that-"

"Maybe she's an albino . . . maybe she's from the Main Belt. The scavengers don't care who goes into s.p.a.ce; they've got no protection against radiation any-how. Maybe they got very lucky on salvage." And yet he knew that MacWong was right; that the woman and her accent were too alien.

MacWong looked at him. "n.o.body gets that lucky. What's wrong, Wadie, the miracle too much for you? This isn't some mediaman's fantasy, believe me. That's a s.h.i.+p from Outside, the first contact we've had with the rest of humanity in over three gigasecs. And the course they set away from the Rings could be taking them to the old capital, Lansing. If that's right, there can only be one reason why that s.h.i.+p is here: they don't know about the Civil War. They've come to Heaven lookin' for golden streets, and when they learn there aren't any left we'll never see 'em again. We can't let that happen...."

"What good would one s.h.i.+p do us now?" He stared at the blank wall screen, against his will felt another question stubbornly taking form.

"That s.h.i.+p could do us all the good in the uni-verse." MacWong picked up his platinum cat s.h.i.+p could do us all the good in the uni-verse." MacWong picked up his platinum cat "That "That s.h.i.+p is treasure, that s.h.i.+p is power...that s.h.i.+p could save us." s.h.i.+p is treasure, that s.h.i.+p is power...that s.h.i.+p could save us."

Wadie nodded, admitting to himself that the s.h.i.+p's immense fusion reactor alone could give the Demarchy the start to rebuild capital industry. And G.o.d only knew what other technology-functioning technology-they might have on board. Just the possession of a s.h.i.+p like that would change the Demarchy's snow dealings with the Rings forever. They could even by-pa.s.s Discus and the Ringers, set up distilleries of their own out on Sevin's moons....

For as long as he could remember he had lived with signs of a society gradually coming apart at the seams, alone in the wasteland that civil war had made of Heaven Belt. Because of its peripheral location, the Demarchy had survived the Civil War relatively in-tact. But the Main Belt had been destroyed, and now the Demarchy's only outside trade contact was with the Grand Harmony of the Discan Rings, and the Ringers were barely surviving. The Demarchy was slipping down with it, but because it had so much fur-ther to go, he had discovered that no one else seemed to realize the truth. They were blinded by the fierce, traditional self-interest that was the Demarchy's strength-and perhaps, now, its fatal weakness.

He had become a negotiator, hoping to bind up his people's self-inflicted wounds. He had believed that somehow the unifying element, the common bond of need that joined every human being, could be used as a force against disintegration and decay; that the De-marchy would continue, that they would find an an-swer. And with this s.h.i.+p . . . His imagination leaped, fell back as the question struck him down: Who would control a s.h.i.+p like that . . . and who could control the ones who did control it? "But as you said, that s.h.i.+p will go back home, once they see what's left of Lansing."

"Maybe." MacWong nicked dust off of his cuff. "But Osuna thinks they might need to refuel first. It's a long way home to anywhere from here. They're not likely to go back to the Rings to get fuel, under the circ.u.mstances. Which means they might come to us; if they need processed hydrogen, there's no place else to go. So I'm sendin' out everyone I can spare. I want you at Mecca. The distilleries will make it a prime target, and you're more experienced at dealing with- 'aliens'-than anybody on the staff."

Wadie accepted the tacit compliment, the tacit dis-taste, remembered fifty million seconds spent in the Grand Harmony of the Discan Rings, and things it had shown him that he had never expected to see. He stood up, reaching for his hat "What if they're not in the mood for negotiation?''

"I don't expect they will be. But that doesn't mat-ter; you're paid to put them in the mood. Promise them anythin', but keep them here, stall that s.h.i.+p, un-til we can take control of it."

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