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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 11

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Raul held the child out slowly, uncertain. The fa-ther took it, almost jerked it from his arms. Abruptly the man pushed through the circle of armed crewmen and caught the edge of the hatchway. He thrust the baby inside, his hand found the control plate, his fist struck it and started it cycling.

Raul saw Sandoval leap forward, but the man pressed himself against the wall, covering the plate, as the door began to slide shut. Sandoval's gloved fist caught him by the front of his s.h.i.+rt, ripping the rotten cloth; the man pushed him away with a foot. The hatch sealed shut as Sandoval tried to force his fingers into the gap. The light blinked red from green above their heads. "Why you-" Sandoval turned back, as two of his crew pinned the man between them.

"Sandoval!" Raul raised a hand. "That's enough. That's enough...It was a-mercy killing. Let him go."

"Sir-" He saw Sandoval's rage trapped behind helmet gla.s.s.

Raul shook his head, putting aside the memory of his own three daughters and two sons, all grown now and sound. He watched the father sag against the wall in slow motion as the crewmen released him. The man plucked mournfully at the drifting edges of his torn s.h.i.+rt, as though the tear were a death wound.



Raul glanced back down the tunnel, saw that the rest of the onlookers had disappeared. He moved toward their prisoner through the crew's muttered an-ger, through a ring of set faces. The man cringed and put up his hands, "I had to ... I had to. Somebody had to do it; she knew that, but she wouldn't admit it! Everybody said so. It would've died anyway-wouldn't it? Wouldn't it? You saw it, it was defec-tive..." He lowered his hands, reached out to grasp Raul's suited arm, "You saw it?"

Raul's fist tightened against the urge to slap the hand away. He took a deep breath. "Yes, I saw it. It wouldn't have lived."

The man began to whimper, clinging to his sleeve. "Thank you...thank you..."

Raul shook him roughly, caught somewhere be-tween pity and disgust. "Who are you?"

The man looked at him blankly, stupidly.

"Your name," Raul said. "Identify yourself."

"Wind...Wind Kitavu." The man straightened, letting go of Raul's arm as reason came back into his eyes; aged eyes in a young man's face. "Who-what are you doin' here?"

"Askin' the questions. First, is anybody in charge here, and if so, can you take us to 'em?"

Wind Kitavu nodded, staring distractedly into the muzzles of half a dozen rifles. "The prime minister, the a.s.sembly. I know where the chambers are. I'll take you..." His fingers searched the tear in his s.h.i.+rt again, drew the edges together nervously. "You aren't the-" Raul watched the question form on his lips, saw him swallow it. "You want me to take you?"

Raul gestured his men aside; letting Wind Kitavu pa.s.s, he followed, and the crewmen fell in behind him. He noticed that one of the prisoner's legs was shorter than the other and twisted. The gates of h.e.l.l; the The gates of h.e.l.l; the capital of Heaven. capital of Heaven.

They were not led out onto the surface as he had expected. Wind Kitavu kept to the subterranean hall-ways, where dull-eyed men and women with stringy hair watched them pa.s.s, showing mingled fear and wonder, but mostly showing confusion. No threat. No threat. He felt his warinesss settle into a bleak feeling of de-pression. A woman pushed out from the wall, moving with Wind Kitavu, ". . . stars.h.i.+p . . .?" Wind Kitavu shook his head, and she drifted free, her face tightening. Raul saw despair in her eyes as he pa.s.sed, and his spirits rose. He felt his warinesss settle into a bleak feeling of de-pression. A woman pushed out from the wall, moving with Wind Kitavu, ". . . stars.h.i.+p . . .?" Wind Kitavu shook his head, and she drifted free, her face tightening. Raul saw despair in her eyes as he pa.s.sed, and his spirits rose.

On his orders Wind Kitavu pointed the way to the communications center, and he sent Sandoval with two men to investigate. With the others he continued on, wondering what they would find when they reached the a.s.sembly chambers.

Whatever he had been expecting could not have prepared him for what he found. Someone had sent word of their arrival ahead: seven figures stood wait-ing, tiny in a vast rough-walled chamber that he somehow instinctively knew must have been intended for storage and not as a meeting hall. And like gem crystals in a matrix of barren rock, the five men and two women shone, resplendent in robes of state. One man, Raul noticed, was still adjusting the folds of a sleeve tangled by haste. The nearest of them started forward, his drifting progress a ceremony, his face set in expressionless formality. Raul studied the intricacies of layer on layer of brocade as the official ap-proached: the fibers absorbed and enhanced light, sent it back at his eyes in a shower of scintillating fire. He began to see, as he probed the wash of gemlight, the patches where it dimmed and faltered. The garments were stained and frayed, eaten by time. The man wore a soft, turbaned head covering of the same material; his seamed face and gnarled hands, fading darkly against the brilliance, were clean.

Raul waited silently until the official reached him. The six a.s.sembly members, their own threadbare splendor muted, cl.u.s.tered slowly behind him. Their group stare rested on Raul's weapon rather than his face. At last the man lifted his gaze, searching Raul's helmet gla.s.s to meet his eyes. "I am Silver Tyr,"-the voice surprised him with its unwitting arrogance- "President of the Lansing a.s.sembly, Prime Minister of the Heaven Belt-"

The man broke off, as laughter rattled in Raul's hel-met; for a long second he didn't realize that it was not his own bitten-off laugh, that it had come from one of his crewmen. He raised a hand to stop it, hearing mentally the clattering mockery the chamber would make of the sound.

"And you are-?" The prime minister forced the words with rigid dignity-demanding respect not for an aging shadow man, ludicrous in the rags of lost richness, but for the undeniable fact of the lost dreamtime, of what they had all been, once, before their fall from grace.

"Raul Nakamore, Hand of Harmony." And almost unthinkingly he held out a hand, gloved against contamination but open in friends.h.i.+p, in recognition. "We mean you people no harm; we only want your cooperation while we're here."

The prime minister extended a hand, with the hesi-tancy of a man who expected to have it lopped off.

"And what have you come here for, sir?"

Raul shook the hand, let it go, before he answered. "We've come huntin' pirates, Your Excellency." He dredged the unaccustomed t.i.tle up from a half-forgot-ten history lesson. He noted the ill-concealed start of guilty knowledge on more than one face.

Seeing him observe it, the prime minister said, al-most protesting, "But that happened almost a gigasec ago, Hand Nakamore-and it was an act of need, as you must know. Surely you haven't come all this way, after all this time, to punish-"

"I'm not speakin' of your last raid on the Rings, Your Excellency-I think you know that. I'm speakin'

of a stars.h.i.+p from outside the Heaven system, that destroyed one of our Navy craft and raided our main distillery-and is pa.s.sin' by Lansing on its way out of this system-"

"Sir-" Raul heard Sandoval's voice, turned at the sound of more men entering the room.

Sandoval and the two crewmen joined his group, escorting an angry, thin-faced woman. Brown skin, brown eyes , , brown hair graying at the temples: Raul a.s.sessed her as she a.s.sessed him. He felt her anger flick out in a lash of wordless contempt as she glanced at the robed figures of the a.s.sembly. Her gaze returned to him, the anger cooling; he thought of a fire banked, controlled, still burning underneath. brown hair graying at the temples: Raul a.s.sessed her as she a.s.sessed him. He felt her anger flick out in a lash of wordless contempt as she glanced at the robed figures of the a.s.sembly. Her gaze returned to him, the anger cooling; he thought of a fire banked, controlled, still burning underneath.

"Sir, we found this woman in the radio room. She claims their comm's out of order."

He nodded; turned back as the prime minister said, "We know nothin' about a stars.h.i.+p. You saw the only s.h.i.+ps we've got. They can't even reach Discus any more-"

"Face reality, Silver Tyr!" The sharp edge of the woman's voice slashed his words. "He can see you're lyin'; all of you, you couldn't cover the truth any more than those robes cover your rags. If he didn't know the truth before, he knows it now. The best we can do is cooperate, the way he says, and hope maybe he'll be willin' to bargain-"

"Flame Siva! Would you betray the only people in the universe who care enough to help us? And your own daughter-"

"No cripple, no defective, is a child of mine." Her voice betrayed her. Raul felt the heat of bitter disap-pointment in the ashes of her words. The sagging fig-ure of crippled Wind Kitavu tightened in a flinch. "But that's irrelevant, anyway, under the circ.u.m-stances."

A frown settled into the lines of the prime minis-ter's face. "Two of our people are on board the star-s.h.i.+p. They say the Grand Harmony attacked the stars.h.i.+p first. It has a reason and a right to retaliate against you, and you have no legal claim on it, in our judgment. We have no intention of cooperatin' with any attempt to seize it."

"I see." Raul matched the frown, realizing that there was nothing he could really do to these people, because he had already destroyed their only hope. "Fortunately for you, we don't really need your co-operation...but we won't tolerate any interference. We intend to wait here until that s.h.i.+p arrives." He studied their responses; knew, with certainty and a kind of callous joy, that it would. "One of my s.h.i.+ps is remainin' in orbit above Lansing; if we encounter any resistance, the captain has orders to hole your tent. If you want what time you've got left to you, don't get in our way."

"Even on Lansing we don't run to meet Death, Hand Nakamore." The prime minister looked down at his gun.

"Especially on Lansing," Flame Siva said. "We're Materialists, Hand Nakamore, realists. At least we're supposed to be." She paused. "Just what are you plannin' to do to that s.h.i.+p and its crew? Will you seize it intact?"

Raul laughed shortly. "That's what we'll try to do. But I'd disable it permanently before I'd let it get away from us again. And we want the crew alive, to show us how to run it. But if they refuse to let us board-piracy is a high crime by anybody's law, pun-ishable by death." He saw the a.s.sembly members s.h.i.+ft, glittering. from us again. And we want the crew alive, to show us how to run it. But if they refuse to let us board-piracy is a high crime by anybody's law, pun-ishable by death." He saw the a.s.sembly members s.h.i.+ft, glittering.

"She's lost most of her crew to you already," the woman murmured, almost to the floor.

"She?" Raul said, surprised. "That's right"-remembering a detail of alienness and the detection of human remains-"she: a woman pilot. So her crew is short-handed?"

"Two of our own people are with them," she re-peated. He realized that it was more than a simple statement of fact: her daughter, her daughter, the prime minister had said. Her hand rose, agitated; she brushed her neck, her matted hair, controlling a gesture he recog-nized as threatening. "The captain promised us the hydrogen we need to survive, if they helped her get it for her own s.h.i.+p...the hydrogen you wouldn't share with either of us, unless we took it from you by force." the prime minister had said. Her hand rose, agitated; she brushed her neck, her matted hair, controlling a gesture he recog-nized as threatening. "The captain promised us the hydrogen we need to survive, if they helped her get it for her own s.h.i.+p...the hydrogen you wouldn't share with either of us, unless we took it from you by force."

He waited, not responding because she hadn't made it a challenge.

"What would you give us if I helped you secure the s.h.i.+p intact?"

Surprised again, he asked, "What could you do to guarantee that?"

Thin hands crossed before her, locked around her thin arms; sleeves that were too long and too wide slid back. "Allow me to finish repairs on the radio . . . give me parts for it if you have them." She glanced up, her eyes hard and bright. "Let me make contact with the s.h.i.+p when it approaches, to rea.s.sure them that it's safe to come in close, so that you can take them easily."

"We could do that ourselves."

"No, you can't. My-our people on the s.h.i.+p know the radio here and its problems, and they know my voice. A stranger's voice would make them suspect somethin' was wrong . . . and so would radio silence."

"You may have a point" Raul nodded.

"Will you leave us the hydrogen if I do that?" No fire showed this time.

"If the s.h.i.+p escapes, they can come back with the hydrogen!" Wind Kitavu burst out. "Don't take away our only chance-"

She turned; her face silenced him. Raul wondered what showed on it. She turned back. "Will you?"

Knowing how easy it would be to lie, he said, "I'll request permission. Maybe I'll get it; maybe I won't."

He waited for her reaction, was puzzled by a kind of exasperation, as if she had wanted him to lie, wanted an excuse to perform treason. Or was it something else? He thought of Wadie Abdhiamal.

"But the crew, then? If you...take the s.h.i.+p in-tact."

"If I take them alive?" Her daughter... Her daughter... finding in that sufficient explanation at last. "So she does matter to you?" finding in that sufficient explanation at last. "So she does matter to you?"

Flame Siva started; her eyes were cinders, her voice lost its strength. "Yes ... of course she matters..."

And suddenly defiant, "They all matter! They're tryin' to save us!" She stopped, biting her lip.

Raul s.h.i.+fted lightly. "If they don't resist us, we'll release your daughter and the other one here; if that's what you want" That'll be punishment enough. That'll be punishment enough. "For the rest-there's a Demarchy traitor on board, who gave 'em the information to hit our distillery. I don't think he's left himself much of an option." "For the rest-there's a Demarchy traitor on board, who gave 'em the information to hit our distillery. I don't think he's left himself much of an option." But I But I still want an explanation. still want an explanation. "And the outsider crew, what's left of it-they'll cooperate with our navy, one way or another, I expect." "And the outsider crew, what's left of it-they'll cooperate with our navy, one way or another, I expect."

"You'll never let them go." Not a question.

"I don't think either the crew or our navy will ever be in a position to negotiate about that."

She nodded, or shook her head, a peculiar sideward motion. "We do what we can, here . . . and take what we can get. We're responsible for our own ac-tions." Again the defiance, the spite, the fire ... she faced the ghosts incarnate of the Lansing a.s.sembly. "We take the consequences."

"Sandoval." Raul signaled him forward. "Take her back, let her work on the radio. And whatever hap-pens, don't let her broadcast anythin', repeat, anythin', until you get the word from me."

"Yes, sir." Sandoval saluted smoothly and led her away, her head high, flanked by guards.

Raul delegated two more men to guard the airlock, keeping one with him. The prime minister and the as-sembly members waited, aware once more-as he was aware-of their lack of consequence, their loss of con-trol.

The prime minister turned to Wind Kitavu, his robes opening like a blossom. "You. What are you doin'

down here like this?"

"You know what I was doin'." Wind Kitavu jerked into an arc away from the wall. "The baby. You all know, don't act like you didn't!"

The prime minister drew back, an undignified mo-tion. "Then don't expect anythin' from us! You knew what would happen. Accept your own mistakes . . . get back to work." He stretched his arm.

Raul saw dirt still crusting it from wrist to elbow as his sleeve moved. He heard one of his crewmen laugh out loud again, seeing it; did nothing this time to check it. He turned away. "Wind Kitavu."

Wind Kitavu halted his sullen drift toward the door.

"Are you goin' out onto the surface?"

A nod, faceless. "Got to tell my-wife. Tell her about the baby."

"Then we'll follow you up. I want to see those d.a.m.ned gardens."

"d.a.m.ned gardens . . ." It echoed, someone else's voice; Wind Kitavu moved toward the exit. Raul did not turn back to acknowledge the Prime Minister of all Heaven Belt.

Raul followed his unresponsive guide through more tunnels, this time feeling the upward slant. Brightness grew from a point of light ahead of him, widening as he rose to meet it-an intensity of light that could only be the sun's. But this time he approached day in the way that had been natural for the human species through the countless years of its existence, a way that for him was entirely novel and unexpected: he crossed into the daylight freely, easily, unhindered by any barrier.

And stopped, absorbing, absorbed by the blinding greenness that enfolded him as he emerged from the hillside. He had a sudden, vivid memory of the hydro-ponics greenhouses of the Harmony, the heat and hu-midity that made them a sweltering h.e.l.l to the average citizen. His crewman retreated into the tunnel's en-trance behind him; he ordered him back sharply. Peri-odic hydroponics service was required of all citizens, a shared trial. He had done hydroponics service in his youth; but as a Hand of Harmony, it was no longer required of him. Maybe rank does have its privileges. Maybe rank does have its privileges.

But the handful of ragged workers cl.u.s.tering now didn't look any more uncomfortable than the ones in the tunnels behind him. Insulated by his suit, he would never experience the reality of the gardens, of how life had been on Old Earth. Two futures waited here with him, in the balance of life and death-and either way, he would never have this opportunity again....

He looked back at the s.h.i.+fting knot of sullen, dirty faces, at the genetic deformities that marked them like a brand. Above them all, latticed and embroidered by the fragile looming trees, the roof of the sky was a transparent membrane, disfigured too by blotches of clumsy patchwork. Once there must have been some-thing more, a s.h.i.+eld of force to protect them from so-lar radiation ... a protection that had long since been lost. In the Grand Harmony permanent hydroponics duty was given as a punishment. Here it was a punish-ment too, in a different way; for the crime of having been a victim...He left his helmet on, the idea of contamination back in his mind again: not the con-tamination of disease but a more pernicious contami-nation of the spirit. It was not a place he wanted to get the feel of, after all.

"What is it now?" One of them clutched at Wind Kitavu's sleeve, pulling his torn s.h.i.+rt halfway off his shoulder. "Are they wearin' suits suits to come out an' preach at us now? " to come out an' preach at us now? "

Wind Kitavu worked free, jerking his s.h.i.+rt back up his arm. "No..." His voice dropped, his hand ges-tured at them as he explained. Raul lost the words as an atmosphere in gentle motion hissed sibilance. He watched the lithe motion of the reaching trees, watched an expression that was growing too familiar spread from face to face in the group of workers, the desolation so complete that it could not even reform into anger.

Wind Kitavu asked something in return, and the man who had stopped him pointed vaguely away. Without asking permission, without turning even to look back, Wind Kitavu left them, disappearing be-tween the shrubs, loosening a slow shower of pastel blossom petals where he pa.s.sed. The baby, The baby, Raul made no move to stop him, remembering what it was he went to do and having no desire to be a witness to it. The other workers began to drift back and away, still watching him warily as their bare feet pushed off from the springy mat of trampled vegetation. Raul made no move to stop him, remembering what it was he went to do and having no desire to be a witness to it. The other workers began to drift back and away, still watching him warily as their bare feet pushed off from the springy mat of trampled vegetation.

Raul glanced back into the tunnel, still empty be-hind him. He noticed for the first time that the over-head lamps that illuminated the underground were flameless. Electricity...somewhere these people still had a functioning generator, probably an atomic bat-tery from before the war-or even from some later trade with the Demarchy. He considered again the fact that the Grand Harmony had none at all because of the Demarchy. If not for their bounty of snow, the Grand Harmony would be in a worse position than Lansing-and the only worse position was death.

The Demarchy made him think of Wadie Abdhiamal and the mystery that lay behind their impending meeting. He had seen Abdhiamal function as a negoti-ator at Snows-of-Salvation: inexperienced, unsure of his own position, but wringing cooperation out of both sides with an instinct for fairness that dissolved cultural biases the way a heated knife sank through an ice block. And as a s.h.i.+p's captain he had transported Abdhiamal to meetings in Central Harmony and half the inhabited rocks of the Rings. He had seen the man ignored, insulted, actively threatened, but never losing patience...And he had been surprised, suspicious, and finally pleased when Abdhiamal questioned him about matters of Harmony governmental policy. Pleased, in the end, because he saw Abdhiamal actu-ally listen and learn and make use of what he learned to help them all.

The only weakness he had found in Wadie Abdhia-mal was his inability to deal with one thing-the inevi-tability of Heaven's end. He had found that Abdhiamal believed some answer still existed; while he, Raul, like the people of Lansing, had seen long ago that the only answer was death. And yet he began to suspect that Abdhiamal's obsessive optimism covered a conviction as certain as his own that Heaven was doomed...but more than that, it covered a deep, pathological fear: Abdhiamal was not a man who could accept that all he accomplished would mean nothing in the end. He could not continue on that road, knowing its end was in sight; he would stumble and fall, crushed by the burden of his own knowledge. And so some part of Abdhiamal's mind had shut the truth away, buried it in a lie that let him continue. Raul had envied Abdhiamal the Demarchy, where comparative richness helped him protect his il-lusions. And he had wondered whether anything would ever force him to admit the truth....

But the stars.h.i.+p-even he, Raul, had discovered hope again in what it could offer Heaven . . . and, specifically, the Grand Harmony. Why would Abdhia-mal, of all people, try to make sure that neither of their governments got its hands on the s.h.i.+p? Abdhia-mal was a fair man-but was he fair to the point of in-sanity, of genocide? And the woman who piloted the s.h.i.+p . . . why would she run such risks to keep a promise to a place like Lansing? Were they both in-sane, were they all? Or was there something he wasn't seeing? . . . Too many things that he couldn't see. But if if she kept her promise, if that s.h.i.+p was falling right into his hands ... that was the only answer that he would ever need. Ever. she kept her promise, if that s.h.i.+p was falling right into his hands ... that was the only answer that he would ever need. Ever.

RANGER (LANSING s.p.a.cE) + 3.09.

MEGASECONDS.

"Can't you raise Lansing, Pappy?" Betha moved stiffly up from the rendezvous program on the control board.

Clewell pulled the ear jack wearily away from his head. "No. I've got the s.h.i.+p monitoring all up and down the spectrum. If anyone talks to us we'll hear it."

"Maybe the transmitter broke down," Shadow Jack said. "It's out about half the time, seems like. They have a hard time keepin' it repaired." Bird Alyn floated beside him above Betha's head, gazing at the magnified image of Lansing on the screen. Betha watched the cloudy, marshmallow softness of the tent pa.s.sing below: a shroud for a dying people, who would live a little longer because of the Ranger. Ranger.

Discus hung above and to the left, tilted and indis-tinct, a tiny finger's jewel. And somewhere in the closer darkness: three fusion s.h.i.+ps from the Demarchy. Not one of them had begun deceleration to match velocities with Lansing and the Ranger. Ranger. Their mission was one of murder...Betha glanced at the latest tracking update; less than ten minutes left to of-fload the hydrogen. Their mission was one of murder...Betha glanced at the latest tracking update; less than ten minutes left to of-fload the hydrogen.

"Well, our time is a little limited...I'm sure that Lansing won't mind if we drop you and the tanks into low orbit, and then get ourselves out of here." She smiled up at Shadow Jack and Bird Alyn, forcing warmth into her voice. "They should be glad to see you two coming home with eight hundred tons of hy-drogen."

"They will," Shadow Jack said. They nodded, their faces s.h.i.+ning clean and smiling bravely above the col-lars of their pressure suits. "But...are you sure you're goin' to be all right when we go?" An odd longing edged his voice, and a secret shame. "Just the-two of you?" He glanced away at Clewell's drawn face, cracking his knuckles.

From the corner of her eye Betha saw Wadie look at her...impeccable Abdhiamal, in embroidered jacket and faded dungarees. She smiled in spite of her self. "We'll be all right," she said, managing a confi-dence her own aching, battered body did not really believe, for his sake. She would not play on his guilt to make, him change his mind. They had come this far; they would find a way to do the rest, somehow. Later...she'd think about it later. "Don't crack your knuckles, Shadow Jack. You'll ruin your joints."

Shadow Jack grinned feebly and stuffed his hands into his gloves.

Wadie touched her shoulder. "Look."

As they spoke the Ranger Ranger had slipped a quarter of the way around Lansing. On the near horizon, they saw a blunt protrusion of naked stone, the tent lap-ping its slope like clouds below a mountaintop. had slipped a quarter of the way around Lansing. On the near horizon, they saw a blunt protrusion of naked stone, the tent lap-ping its slope like clouds below a mountaintop.

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