The Outcasts of Heaven Belt - LightNovelsOnl.com
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"He's right. We shouldn't move him yet, anyway. Thank G.o.d we're in zero gee..." Betha pulled a scarf out of a cubby under the panel, starting a small blizzard of papers drifting. She wiped her face and spat gingerly, wincing. Wadie saw her control slip again, saw pain show, and her body bend as she pushed out of Welkin's sight Bird Alyn moved back to her side, month open; she frowned, straightening, shook her head. "All right. Pappy said it. We're going to finish the job. Nothing will stop us now! I'll start the winch. Bird Alyn, get back outside...and make sure the load is secured. Shadow Jack, you'll chart us a course for Lansing. Tell me what you need to know, I'll double-check you.... Abdhiamal-"
He met her eyes, bracing against what he expected to see. "Keep the h.e.l.l out of your way?"
Expressionless, she said, "Go to the infirmary and get me a hypo of painkiller for Clewell. They're pre-filled, with the first-aid supplies." She caught hold of a chair back, shook her head. "Make it two hypos. And then"-her eyes changed, clung to him-"keep the h.e.l.l out of my way, Abdhiamal!"
GRUSINKA-MARU (IN TRANSIT, DEMARCHY TO DISCUS) +.
"...how you intend to explain what your man's done now, MacWong? He must've shown the Out-siders how to get that hydrogen. Now he's made cer-tain we can't catch the stars.h.i.+p before it leaves the system." Esrom Tiriki moved incautiously in the over-crowded s.p.a.ce of the s.h.i.+p's control room.
"He isn't 'my man' any more, Demarch Tiriki. He was declared a traitor," Lije MacWong repeated wearily. He is a traitor, much to my surprise. Why? Re-venge? A reasonable a.s.sumption... He is a traitor, much to my surprise. Why? Re-venge? A reasonable a.s.sumption..." "In any case, he didn't deliver the stars.h.i.+p to the Ringers, either."
"But you said he would."
"It was a reasonable a.s.sumption." MacWong felt unaccustomed tension tightening the muscles in his neck-brought on by the discomfort of the s.h.i.+p's ac-celeration, and by the effect discomfort was having on everyone else, as well. He silently regretted the ill for-tune that had made Tiriki Distillates a part owner of this fusion s.h.i.+p, and permitted Esrom Tiriki to be here as its representative. Tiriki-and his company-had suffered considerable embarra.s.sment when their per-sonal plans for the stars.h.i.+p had been exposed; even Tiriki's two fellow representatives had begun to let their disapproval show as their tempers shortened. MacWong further regretted that Tiriki did not have the self-control to suffer in silence.
The Nchibe representative drew Tiriki's unwelcome attention again and MacWong drifted away past a yawning, fawning mediaman in Nchibe livery. They had picked up the Ringers' reply to the stars.h.i.+p's threats, and it had been sent on to the Demarchy-as all crucial information was, and would be, during their pursuit. The people, the changeable G.o.d to whom he had offered up Wadie Abdhiamal and other sacrificial scapegoats, kept watch over him even here. But now for once the people kept their silence, because any response would have reached the stars.h.i.+p too, and revealed their pursuit. For possibly the only time in his career he had a measure of freedom in his decision-making; he was not sure yet how much he could afford to enjoy it.
Because the next decision he would make now-and answer for later-was whether to continue pursuing the stars.h.i.+p or to return to the Demarchy. And the decision was not as obvious as it seemed...The stars.h.i.+p had taken a thousand tons of hydrogen-far more than it needed to escape from the system, from what Osuna had told him. Enough fuel to critically cripple its speed and maneuverability. Had they done that for revenge, too? Somehow he doubted it. They had destroyed a s.h.i.+p before; this time they could have destroyed so much more...they could have destroyed the major distillery. But they hadn't. He ex-perienced a curious mingling of fascination and relief.
But the stars.h.i.+p had gone to Lansing when it first entered the system; there had been a Lansinger with the woman at Mecca. If its crew had made some sort of deal with Lansing, that could explain a lot of things. And it would mean that the stars.h.i.+p would not be heading directly out of the system; that there was still a chance for Demarchy s.h.i.+ps to overtake it.
MacWong looked back as the s.h.i.+p's pilot ap-proached Tiriki and the others, to interrupt them def-erentially. And what would happen if they captured the stars.h.i.+p? He glanced out of the port beside him, seeing the long, intensely lavender thread of a second s.h.i.+p's torch reaching across the night. By then they would be millions of kilometers from the Demarchy-these three armed s.h.i.+ps, and the men who con-trolled them: ambitious men, men who enjoyed power, men like Esrom Tiriki. No matter what the people decided concerning the stars.h.i.+p, by then there would be no way that the Demarchy could force these men to obey it ... and no one would be quicker to realize that. His nearness to Tiriki and his insulation from the people had made him understand what Abdhiamal had known instinctively from the start: that the stars.h.i.+p which could be their salvation could instead turn out to be the bait for a deadly trap.
He sighed. You were always a better man than I was, Wadie; and that was your whole problem... You were always a better man than I was, Wadie; and that was your whole problem...
And maybe that explained Abdhiamal's treason better than any speculation about revenge. He had been more than sorry to make Abdhiamal into a man with-out a world...but maybe in the end it would turn out to be the best move he had ever made. And per-haps now he had the opportunity to repay Abdhiamal in part, as the spokesman of the people-by keeping his mouth shut about what he knew.
"Demarchs-" The three company men and the pi-lot looked up at him together; he watched a mediaman adjust a camera lens. "I think we all know by now that our attempt to seize the stars.h.i.+p has failed. But at least it hasn't fallen into enemy hands. It's leavin' the system; we might as well save a further waste of our own resources and return home-"
"Maybe we haven't lost it yet, Demarch MacWong." Tiriki showed him a porcelain smile that was somehow more unpleasant than his former petu-lance.
"We've just been given some new information about the stars.h.i.+p." The Estevez nephew nodded at the s.h.i.+p's pilot. "Lin-piao says that the s.h.i.+p isn't leavin' the system; it's turned back in toward the Main Belt."
"To Lansing," Tiriki said. "They're goin' back to Lansing."
"We still have a chance to take it; Lin-piao says it's only doing one-quarter gee now."
MacWong hesitated, seeing the three of them united, finally, in the purpose of carrying through their mission. And behind them the entire Demarchy watched in silent judgment. It knew what they knew; and it knew that he, MacWong, had instigated this pursuit. The people didn't know everything-but had they already learned too much? He could still press for a retreat...but would they accept it now? "If the people feel that a further effort to pursue the star-s.h.i.+p wouldn't be worth the Demarchy's while, I hope they'll let us know." He spoke the words to the wait-ing cameras with careful emphasis. "In the meantime..." He felt the intentness of seven sets of eyes, felt the pressure of a thousand more behind them. "In view of this new information, I feel we should con-tinue our mission. I have personal data, concernin' the stars.h.i.+p's entry into the system and its fuel needs, that support the theory it's headin' for Lansing now." Sorry, Wadie. Sorry, Wadie. He watched the faces relax into satis-faction and complacency. He watched the faces relax into satis-faction and complacency. But it's But it's my job to give the people what they want. my job to give the people what they want. He matched them smile for smile, one satisfaction for another. He matched them smile for smile, one satisfaction for another.
"Demarchs..." The pilot pulled self-consciously at the hem of his golden company jacket. "By the time we've changed course, we still may not be able to catch up with 'em. Even if the stars.h.i.+p can only manage one-quarter gee, by the time we decelerate again for Lansing ourselves."
The pilot broke off, as a frown spread among them like a disease. MacWong weighed its significance like a physician; and prescribed the remedy that he knew would heal any damage to his own credibility: "I think that may not turn out to be a problem, demarchs. If you'll consider the followin' course of action..."
RANGER (IN TRANSIT DISCUS TO LANSING) + 2.96.
Wadie walked the corridor to Betha Torgussen's pri-vate room, slowed by one-quarter gravity and the fa-tigue of their work in s.p.a.ce...and by the same tangle of emotion that drove him to face her now. The memory of the Discan sky, hazed with s.h.i.+ning flotsam and hung with crescent moons, haunted him: the knowledge of a costly victory won and almost lost again by his own actions; two lives, the last of the Morningside crew, almost lost-and with them the part of himself that he had only just begun to discover....
He reached the open door, stopped as the hallway slipped back into focus, and stepped through.
Rusty's head appeared suddenly from a coc.o.o.n of bedding, watched him like a familiar as he looked across the room. The captain sat at her desk, her back to him, her attention lost among scattered displays and printouts. Empty coffee cups littered the desk top; there was a sign above her head on the wall, TEN YEARS AGO I COULDN'T EVEN SPELL "ENGINEER," AND NOW I ARE ONE. He smiled briefly, until he heard her sigh, a sound that was a small groan. The vision formed inside his eyes of her cracked and bandaged ribs, a bruise the width of his arm.
He turned abruptly to leave the room again, found a picture on the wall inside a broad green arrow pointing down: found Betha Torgussen, and Welkin, and-Eric, bearded now and smiling. With them, two more women, two more men, and seven children bundled in heavy clothes; all pale, laughing, waving in three dimensions, joyfully disheveled against a back-ground of snow. A family who knew how to share...and somehow, with the fever of futile greed that burned through Heaven, their sharing no longer seemed to alien or so bizarre....
Rusty stirred on the bed, blinking; she mrred mrred in-quiringly. Betha turned across the back of her chair, controlling a grimace, her own eyes suddenly quick and nervous, questioning his presence. in-quiringly. Betha turned across the back of her chair, controlling a grimace, her own eyes suddenly quick and nervous, questioning his presence.
"Betha ... I'd like to see you, if you don't mind. There're some things I think I need to say." He crossed the room.
"All right, Abdhiamal." Her eyes went to his wrist, Clewell's wristband. "Yes, maybe you should." Her face changed. "But first, tell me how Clewell is. How is he taking the acceleration?"
"Well enough, I guess. He's very weak, but he's no fool..." And n.o.body's fool. And n.o.body's fool. Sudden appreciation for the old man filled him. "I don't suppose I'd have the guts to be here if I didn't believe he was goin' to be all right...But what about you? What are you tryin' to prove? Why the h.e.l.l aren't you getting some rest-" He broke off, not sure who he was really an-gry at. Sudden appreciation for the old man filled him. "I don't suppose I'd have the guts to be here if I didn't believe he was goin' to be all right...But what about you? What are you tryin' to prove? Why the h.e.l.l aren't you getting some rest-" He broke off, not sure who he was really an-gry at.
Her bruised mouth tightened. "Because I'd rather be sore than dead. And yes, I am trying to prove something." She gestured at the computer terminal, her expression easing. "I-didn't know whether to let you know about this, but...we've detected a patch of hydrogen and helium, Doppler-s.h.i.+fted into the red; I think it's a hydrogen fusion torch pointed away from us. Right now it's still thirty million kilometers behind us-but we're being followed."
"You can detect an averted torch at that range? Your instruments are better than ours." He was impressed again.
"Are they? Good...But with these fuel canisters strapped to the hull, we can't move faster than whoever's behind us. What I need to know is whether the s.h.i.+ps come from the Demarchy or Discus; and, if they are from the Demarchy, what you think their mission is. Do they still want to take the s.h.i.+p, or are they out to destroy us?"
He leaned on the desk, the tendons ridging slightly in his arm. "Good question. The s.h.i.+ps are from the Demarchy. n.o.body else has anythin' like that left; the Ringers have only oxyhydrogen rockets. Our-the Demarchy's-fusion s.h.i.+ps are owned by interests in the most powerful tradin' companies, but in times of 'national emergency' the Demarchy commandeers 'em. Which means MacWong's story about my hand-ing you to the Ringers must've been well re-ceived..." He stopped. "He knows it was a d.a.m.n lie; and knowin' him, I'd say that means he did it be-cause he still wants this s.h.i.+p, and that was the only way he could think of to get the s.h.i.+ps to follow you."
"But then he must know that we'll still outrun them, now that we've got the fuel; even if we stop at Lansing. If they have to do a turnaround to match our deceleration we'll be long gone before they reach us. If they don't slow down, they'll overshoot...and all they could do then would be destroy us in pa.s.sing." Her fingers tapped nervously.
He nodded. "He'd know that too. But he wants that s.h.i.+p intact for the Demarchy, and he's not the kind to mine quartz and think it's ice. He's got somethin' planned but I don't know what."
"At least we know where they are, and they don't know we know. If they were counting on surprise to close the gap they've lost it." She s.h.i.+fted in her seat, leaning hard on the desk top. "I suppose we'll know more when we begin decelerating and see if they do the same. Even if they don't slow down ... well, de-pending on what you can tell me about the range of their weapons, I think we can still stop at Lansing long enough to off load the extra hydrogen-and then accelerate at right angles to them with enough time to get away. By the time they can change course, we'll be out of this system forever."
"Out of our system forever. And we'll be..." He looked down at her strong and gentle face, wondered why he had ever thought it was plain. His hands tightened over a sudden desire to touch it.
Realization colored her cheeks. She looked up at him strangely, almost welcoming, lifted a hand. "Sit down, Abdhiamal...Wadie Abdhiamal. You'll be-better off without us, yes."
He sank down on the padded wall seat, pus.h.i.+ng aside heaped clothes. "Betha, there're no words to apologize for what we've done to you. And when it comes to things I've done to you, out of my own stupidity...my G.o.d, I nearly-killed you. All the things I said, not meanin'-"
Her hand waved the words to silence. "I never meant to ruin your life, Wadie...I owe you as many apologies as you owe me. More. Is it too late to cancel them all out, now?"
He leaned back, resting his head against the wall, eyes on her. "It's never too late. But I'm not-very good at expressing my emotions, Betha. I'm not even good at admitting them to myself." He took a long breath. "All of a sudden there are a lot of things I want to be different. But there's so little time-" He broke off; feeling the presence of ghosts. "That pic-ture across the room: Is that-Eric, beside you?"
Surprise caught her. She nodded, her face composed. "He was my first husband. He was-a kind of negotiator too, an ombudsman. We were monogamous for eight years before we married into Clewell's family."
"And you have children?"
"The twins, Richard and Kirsten; the boy and girl in front of me. They're about eleven now..." She smiled. "They're all my children. But the twins were born to me, they have my name. All seven of our kids who are still at home are staying with my family."
"You left your children-" He stopped himself be-fore he hurt her again. We do change; but change We do change; but change al-ways comes too fast...and too late. al-ways comes too fast...and too late. And there were only one hundred kiloseconds remaining until they reached Lansing. And there were only one hundred kiloseconds remaining until they reached Lansing.
She glanced at him, puzzled. "Yes. We left them with my parents, on their tree farm." And under-standing, "Half the world is your family when you're growing up on Morningside. They hug you, tell you stories, and make you toys...there's always some-one who's glad to see you. We didn't abandon our children. But it has been very hard to miss seeing so much of their lives as they grow. At least Clewell and I will still get to see how they've grown..." She looked down, shuffling papers; he saw the return of more than one kind of pain.
"Shadow Jack and Bird Alyn ... are they why you're risking everything, to buy a dyin' world a few more seconds?"
She hesitated. "I don't know. I hadn't thought...but I suppose maybe it is. I wish-I wish I knew how to do more."
"You know, then? What it's like for them on Lan-sing?"
"I'm not much lookin' forward to it myself, I've got to admit. But I've talked myself out of anythin'
better-literally." He smiled. "I don't regret it. It was in a good cause."
She picked up a cup, set it down aimlessly. "What will you do, Wadie, on Lansing?"
He smiled again, hearing his name; the smile stopped when he remembered. "Sit and watch the world end, I suppose. All the worlds. Not with a bang but a gasp."
"You don't have to, you know."
He felt her touch him as though she had raised a hand. He shook his head. "Maybe I do. Maybe that's my penance for pretendin' there was no tomorrow."
"You don't believe that?"
"I don't know." He shrugged. "I don't know what I believe any more." Only knowing that he was alive in a vast mausoleum and afraid to look at death. "But I belong here, to Heaven; if that makes any sense. It scares the h.e.l.l out of me, but I've got to see it through. But thanks." He saw her smile, disappointed.
"You can change your mind."
"Sooner than I could change Heaven...Ironic, isn't it; that we began with everything and Morningside with nothing... and look who failed."
"We almost failed too-more than once." Betha stared at the wall, looking through time. "So did Uhuru, and h.e.l.lhole, and Lebensraum. But we had help."
"From each other. Planets like Morningside are so marginal any small setback becomes a disaster...but they're the most common kind of habitable world; they're all like Morningside in our volume of s.p.a.ce. But our worlds are within reach of one another. We set up a trade ring, and when one of us falls flat, the rest pick it up and put it back together. And that's how we survive. That's all we do; we survive. But it's enough...it'll have to be enough forever, now that our journey here has failed.
"We have our own ironies, you know...Morningside was settled after a major political upheaval on Earth. Our nearest neighbor now, Uhuru, was settled by some of our former 'enemies' after their own empire on Old Earth fell. Need makes stranger bedfel-lows than politics ever did."
He laughed abruptly. "As the five of us should know."
"Yes." She held him with her eyes, fingers over her lips.
"If you'd come before the war, Betha, maybe the five of us would even be doin' some good. Heaven could have learned somethin' then about sharing. Now it's too late; there's nothing left to share."
She s.h.i.+fted position again, wincing. "Wadie...you said the knowledge that put Heaven's technology where it was is still intact. That if you could rebuild your capital industry, you could still make the Belt work again, and it could be everything it once was. You said even the Ranger Ranger could make the differ-ence...What if-what if we tied you into our trading network? It's feasible; the distance here from Morningside isn't that much greater than the distances we already travel. If we gave you the means for recovery, you could give us what we wanted all along, a richer life for all our worlds-and you'd never have to see this happen again!" could make the differ-ence...What if-what if we tied you into our trading network? It's feasible; the distance here from Morningside isn't that much greater than the distances we already travel. If we gave you the means for recovery, you could give us what we wanted all along, a richer life for all our worlds-and you'd never have to see this happen again!"
He listened to her voice come alive with inspiration; felt suddenly as though the pain and grief had lifted from her mind only to settle in his own. "That's what I said. But I was wrong."
"We've gone down too far. We can't recover now; death is a disease that's infected us all. We'll never work together now, even to save ourselves."
"But if they could understand that there was hope for all of them..."
"How would you make them understand? You've seen how well they listen." He slammed his hand down on the bench. "They wouldn't listen!"
"No, they wouldn't..." Betha began to smile, in misery, moving her head from side to side. "Wadie Abdhiamal-how did we come to this? You saying they wouldn't, me saying they would...How could we come to understand each other better than we understand ourselves?"
He shook his head, felt a smile soothe his own mouth, lost his useless anger watching her.
Her hand moved tentatively from the desk to touch the leather band on his wrist; he caught her hand and their fingers twined, brown and pale. She looked across at him, down at their hands. She drew her hand from his again, said quietly to no one, "And not one of them lived happily ever after...."
FLAGs.h.i.+P UNITY (LANSING s.p.a.cE) + 3.00.
A raid. While he, Raul Nakamore, had been chasing the phantom s.h.i.+p from Outside, it had run literal rings around him and raided the very distillery his borrowed s.h.i.+ps had been set to defend. While he was still locked into his initial-futile-trajectory toward Lansing, without fuel enough to make an attempt at further pursuit anything but a joke. Raul drummed ir-ritably on the arm of his seat, having no better way to vent his frustration. While he, Raul Nakamore, had been chasing the phantom s.h.i.+p from Outside, it had run literal rings around him and raided the very distillery his borrowed s.h.i.+ps had been set to defend. While he was still locked into his initial-futile-trajectory toward Lansing, without fuel enough to make an attempt at further pursuit anything but a joke. Raul drummed ir-ritably on the arm of his seat, having no better way to vent his frustration.
And yet, the reports he'd received indicated that the stars.h.i.+p had not headed directly out of the system, indicated, in fact, that the s.h.i.+p might be tracking his own course and returning again to Lansing. Raul glanced at the instrument board, seeing twenty-seven hundred kiloseconds elapsed, only twenty-three kiloseconds remaining before they reached Lansing. Like the fable of the tortoise and the hare-slowed by the stolen hydrogen, the stars.h.i.+p would never reach. Lansing before them, if Lansing was its destination. But why should it be? Why would these outsiders play pirate for Lansing, when they'd suffered losses in the Rings already? Revenge? But they could easily have destroyed the distillery, and instead they stole one thousand tons of hydrogen: too little to cripple the Grand Harmony, too much for a ramscoop's drive.
And showing them how to steal it had been Wadie Abdhiamal...Wadie Abdhiamal of the Demarchy. Outlawed by the Demarchy, Djem had said, voted a traitor by his own people for helping the stars.h.i.+p es-cape them. And if there was one thing he, Raul, was sure of, it was that Abdhiamal was no traitor. Why had he betrayed the future of his own people, then? He might not be a jingoist but he wasn't insane. Why would he threaten Snows-of-Salvation, when he knew better than any other demarch what it meant to the survival of both their peoples? Why would he betray his friends? Because they had been his friends; and by betraying them he had cut himself off from the only haven he would have found in his exile.
Maybe he'd been forced into it. But Djem hadn't thought that Abdhiamal had acted like a man who had been forced...Raul knew that Djem would never forgive Wadie Abdhiamal-for the betrayal of their friends.h.i.+p, if for no other reason. What was it about that s.h.i.+p, or whoever ran it, that would make a man like Abdhiamal willing to sacrifice everything? Maybe he would never know. But if that s.h.i.+p was following them to Lansing...
Raul stretched and turned to look at Sandoval. Sandoval sat with an expression of uncompromising bore-dom on his hawk-nosed profile, rereading a novel tape. A good officer, Raul thought. If he believed this use of his s.h.i.+p and crew was fruitless or pointless, he never let it show. Raul kept his own doubts and speculations private. Twenty-three kiloseconds to Lansing. And maybe they wouldn't be disappointed after all....
The sight of Discus, shrunken almost to insignifi-cance, greeted Raul as he pushed off from the hatch, drifting down to the stony surface of Lansing's docking field. He remembered looking up into a Demarchy sky, long ago, where Discus had been only a bright starpoint, one of a thousand scattered stars, and as unreachable as the stars. He remembered the feeling of isolation and desolation that had struck him then. But this time, invisible now but much closer at hand, there was the s.h.i.+p that he had left in low orbit above Lansing to ensure their safety. He moved cautiously as he waited for the handful of crew from the two docked s.h.i.+ps, easing tension and unused muscles; grateful, after nearly three megaseconds, for the re-turn of normal gravity. Across the field lay three other s.h.i.+ps. He studied them with a fleeting curiosity, realizing that even Lansing had the nuclear-electric rockets that the Grand Harmony didn't have; but realizing too that these s.h.i.+ps were so deadly that even the Harmony would be better off without them. Be-low him (the angle of gravity's feeble drag put the term into his mind), the semitransparent plastic that shrouded nine-tenths of Lansing rock showed muted patched of green and gold, pastelled by the angle of his sight. He thought of drifted snow, the pastels of impure gases crystallized by cold.
This was Lansing, the once-proud capital of a once-proud Heaven Belt, the only world of its kind. Its self-contained ecosystem had recreated Old Earth, and that was why its population had survived the war; and because, as a capital, it had been a showplace and nothing more. He knew that Lansing had been reduced to piracy at the time of their last close pa.s.s with Discus; he wondered what they had been reduced to by now. His crew were nervous and hos-tile. He had given orders for them to remain suited even inside the asteroid, to isolate them from any contagion-and to isolate them from any other incidents that might come out of a face-to-face confrontation with the locals.
They started toward the single airlock visible in the hillside above the s.h.i.+ps. Raul glanced on up at the sol-itary radio antenna on the crest of the naked hill. It was half-illuminated by the cold light of the distant sun, sinking into shadow as the planetoid tumbled endlessly, imperceptibly. No lights blinked along its slender stalk as a warning to docking s.h.i.+ps. His radio-man had been unable to detect any broadcast response from Lansing. He wondered whether their communi-cations had failed entirely, whether they even knew his s.h.i.+ps had landed...whether-like an unpleasant premonition-they might all be dead.
One of his men turned the wheel on the hatchway sunk into the rock; he watched it begin to cycle. The men behind him waited, without eagerness, without relief, without any sense of triumph at having reached their goal. He heard only broken whispers, an uneasy muttering, picked up by his suit radio. Their silence surprised him until he realized that it was an extension of his own; as if isolation and the pall of death that shrouded the Main Belt like a tent shrouded this world had affected them all. The airlock hatch swung out. With a sudden vision of the yawning pit, the gates of h.e.l.l, Raul entered the underworld.
The lock cycled again, replacing vacuum with at-mosphere in the crowded s.p.a.ce between. Raul felt his suit lose its armor rigidity, glanced back to be sure that no one disobeyed him by loosening a helmet. Af-ter nearly three megaseconds of uncertain reprocessed air, he knew well enough how strong the temptation was. He checked his rifle, settled it in the crook of his arm.
The inner hatch slid open. He looked through-into the staring faces of half a dozen men and women, frozen in disbelief. They had not, he gathered, been expecting him. He pushed through into the corridor, searching the frightened faces for a sign of leaders.h.i.+p; taking in the filth, the patched and piecemeal clothing. He heard the startled curses of the men behind him, raised his own voice. "All right, who-"
A woman who might have been young or old moved away from the rest toward him, carrying something bundled in rags; he saw a sheen of tears filming her cheeks, her dark eyes fixed on him with peculiar urgency. He heard her voice, trembling, "... a miracle, it's a miracle..." Before he could react she had forced the bundle into his arms; she pushed off and disappeared down the sloping tunnel. Taken aback, he looked down at the ragged bundle and found himself holding a newborn child. The baby made no sound; when he saw why, he turned his face away. "Whose baby is this?" His voice hardened with anger, with denial.
One of the men moved toward him, fear still on his face, a kind of desperation dragging him forward.
"It's mine ... ours. Please...please, let me have it." Something in his tone made the baby a thing. He stretched his arms; one sleeve flopped free, torn up to the elbow. His nails were outlined with black dirt; dirt filigreed the lines of his hands.