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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 12

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"The Mountain," Bird Alyn said. "There're the ra-dio-antennas, an' the moorage . . . there's one of our-"

"Hey." Shadow Jack tugged at her arm. "That's not one of our s.h.i.+ps! I never saw anythin' like that; where'd it come from?"

"Maybe it's salvage."

"No, look, there's another one."

Betha increased the magnification. "Pappy, those look like-"



"-Ringers! Ringers, go back, it's a trap, a-" A woman's voice burst out of the speaker, was choked off.

"Mother!" A small cry escaped from Bird Alyn.

"Those look like chemical rockets down there." Clewell finished the sentence, his voice like dry leaves rattling.

Wadie's hand tightened on her shoulder. "My G.o.d, those are Ringer s.h.i.+ps; fifty million kilometers from Discus..." His voice sharpened with disbelief. "The Demarchy knew the Harmony had a couple of high-ma.s.s-ratio strike forces, but nothin' like this. To be here now, with only chemical rockets, they must've started right after they first attacked you. And even then they'd need a ma.s.s ratio of a thousand to one-"

A new voice came over the speaker: "Outsider star-s.h.i.+p! This is Hand Nakamore of the Grand Harmony. Maintain your present orbit. Do not activate your drive or you'll be fired upon. One of my s.h.i.+ps will approach you now for boarding." Betha looked down on the airless mountain, at three c.u.mbersome Ringer craft, each hardly more than a ma.s.s of propellant tanks surrounding a tiny crew module. At last she saw one of them begin to rise, its invisible backwash kick-ing up clouds of surface rubble. Trapped... Trapped... Her hands knotted at her sides. The best the Her hands knotted at her sides. The best the Ranger Ranger could ever do was one gravity; and now she could only get one-quarter of that, with the load strapped to its hull. The Ringer chemical rockets could do several gees for more than long enough to close with them. could ever do was one gravity; and now she could only get one-quarter of that, with the load strapped to its hull. The Ringer chemical rockets could do several gees for more than long enough to close with them.

The seconds pa.s.sed; the Ringer s.h.i.+p rose slowly, al-most insolently, toward them. The minutes pa.s.sed...and with them, the Ranger's Ranger's last hope of avoiding the Demarchy fleet as well. last hope of avoiding the Demarchy fleet as well. Christ, why Christ, why must we lose now, when we're so close! must we lose now, when we're so close!

Wadie hooked a foot under the rail along the panel, steadying himself. "Betha, that was Djem Nakamore's half-brother, Raul, on the radio. He's a Hand of Har-mony, an officer in their navy. A high-ranking officer. Let me talk to him. He probably knows what I did at Snows-of-Salvation, but we were friends, once."

"Better wait, Abdhiamal," Clewell said quietly. "We've got more company, sophisticated wideband." He touched a switch and another segment of the screen brightened.

"Lije MacWong," Wadie said; Betha saw the easy grace tighten out of his body.

"Captain Torgussen: If you're receiving this, you must realize that the Demarchy has pursued your s.h.i.+p. The distance-velocity gap between us is small enough now so that you can't outrun our missiles; do not attempt to leave Lansing s.p.a.ce." Behind MacWong's self-satisfied face Betha could see a control room half the size of the Ranger's Ranger's and a s.h.i.+p's officer in a sun-gold jacket. Farther back in the room she saw cameras trained on the screen, saw a cl.u.s.ter of demarchs, like bright-painted wooden dolls-company representatives overseeing their interests. She saw Esrom Tiriki, felt her mouth tighten. and a s.h.i.+p's officer in a sun-gold jacket. Farther back in the room she saw cameras trained on the screen, saw a cl.u.s.ter of demarchs, like bright-painted wooden dolls-company representatives overseeing their interests. She saw Esrom Tiriki, felt her mouth tighten.

She signaled at Clewell to transmit. "I hear you, MacWong. And I'm impressed. Have you actually come all this way just to destroy my s.h.i.+p? You can't take us now; all you can do is destroy us in pa.s.s-ing..."

She hesitated. MacWong's startling blue eyes still stared blindly from the screen. She realized, chagrined, that even closing at eight hundred kilometers per second the Demarchy s.h.i.+ps were still mil-lions of kilometers away; light itself took half a minute to bridge the gap.

At last MacWong reacted, looked past her to Wadie. For an instant she saw apology and regret; an-other second, and she saw only triumph. "On the contrary, Captain Torgussen. We have no intention of destroyin' your stars.h.i.+p-if you obey our instructions. Our s.h.i.+ps will pa.s.s through your vicinity in about four thousand seconds. You have that much time to dismantle and deactivate your drive. If, by that time, you haven't satisfactorily proved that your s.h.i.+p will be immobilized till we return for it, you will be fired on and destroyed. The people want your s.h.i.+p intact, Captain, but if they can't have it, they don't intend to let it go to anybody else."

Betha pushed back, her arms rigid against the panel. "Wadie ... he's no fool after all." The Ranger Ranger lay in the jaws of a trap; and each jaw was unaware of the other. When the jaws closed on her s.h.i.+p, they would have to destroy each other too. She let go of the panel, forcing a smile. "Then I'm afraid you have a problem too, MacWong. We would have been gone before you arrived, except that someone else is already holding us here...Hand Nakamore, I'm sure you've been monitoring. Would you care to comment?" She waited, savoring the bitterness of useless satisfaction. lay in the jaws of a trap; and each jaw was unaware of the other. When the jaws closed on her s.h.i.+p, they would have to destroy each other too. She let go of the panel, forcing a smile. "Then I'm afraid you have a problem too, MacWong. We would have been gone before you arrived, except that someone else is already holding us here...Hand Nakamore, I'm sure you've been monitoring. Would you care to comment?" She waited, savoring the bitterness of useless satisfaction.

Clewell grunted. "The Ringers are transmitting video, not to be outdone..." A new patch of screen brightened with a black-and-white image. The Ringer control room was small, the crew strapped down to padded couches crowded by equipment: an image from the earliest days of s.p.a.ce travel. A thick-set Belter in a helmet with the Discan rings for insig-nia sat nearest the camera, his face grim behind a stubble of beard. "This is Hand Nakamore of the Grand Harmony. My forces have seized the Outsider stars.h.i.+p, and if it attempts to comply with your de-mands, we'll destroy it. We have several prewar fu-sion bombs in our possession. If you attempt to keep us from takin' that s.h.i.+p we'll do our d.a.m.nedest to destroy you too."

Betha glanced at Wadie, questioning.

"He could have the bombs; salvage from the war."

Wadie studied the embroidered whorls on his jacket front. "If he could maneuver into MacWong's path with them, he wouldn't have to be too accurate, even if it took the Demarchy crews a megasec to die of radiation poisoning. Things like this happened during the war, crews of dead men fighting their final battle. That's how we got three fusion craft intact..." He raised his eyes. "Nakamore will never let the Demar-chy take the Ranger, Ranger, even if it means he has to die too." even if it means he has to die too."

Betha saw the trace of consternation that betrayed MacWong at the sight of Nakamore; the obvious dis-belief on the ruddy face of the s.h.i.+p's officer and on the face of Esrom Tiriki. She watched them change again to hatred and defiance, heard MacWong begin an angry response.

"And so we're all going to die, and so are they...and so is Heaven." Her voice rose. "And for what?

This is insane-"

"Don't you think they know that?" Wadie moved toward her, almost touched her again. "They know it as well as we do. But they're trapped here just as we are; all that's happened in the last two and a half gigasecs since the war, all the frustration and fear, has been leadin' down to this.... It had to end like this. Your own song says it-'No one ever changed a world.'"

She drew away from him. "It's the people who have to be willing to change! It didn't have to end like this. If they could have seen that there was still a future...There could still be one now, but even you can't see it; you won't see it. You're right, death is is what you want...Suicide is the ultimate selfish-ness, and I've never seen a people more ready to commit it." She unstrapped, pus.h.i.+ng up out of her seat and away from him, her breath catching at the punishment of sudden movement. "You deserve it. d.a.m.n you all!" what you want...Suicide is the ultimate selfish-ness, and I've never seen a people more ready to commit it." She unstrapped, pus.h.i.+ng up out of her seat and away from him, her breath catching at the punishment of sudden movement. "You deserve it. d.a.m.n you all!"

He caught her wrist. Furious, she felt Shadow Jack move out of her way, staring, as Wadie pulled her back to the screen. "MacWong, Raul, this in Abdhiamal. I want to talk to you."

Nakamore acknowledged him and Betha thought she saw a smile; she waited, saw MacWong break off his speech: "Sorry, Abdhiamal. You're a dead man. You've got nothin' to say to the Demarchy." the Demarchy."

MacWong glanced sideways, barely turning his head. Betha looked past him at Tiriki.

"We're all dead men unless you listen to me! Because of this s.h.i.+p, which you don't have any more right to than Nakamore does, or I do. For G.o.d's sake, MacWong, there were seven people on this s.h.i.+p, who came three light-years from another system to Heaven; and five of them are already dead because of it. And now you're goin' to destroy the rest of them, along with the best s.h.i.+ps left to the Demarchy and the Rings? You're all that's left of Heaven Belt, and your own greed is ripping your guts out. You're killin'

yourselves because you're scared to die. Taking the stars.h.i.+p won't save Heaven, and it's goin' to finish you off instead, if you let it.

"But you don't have to let it happen." He nodded at Betha waiting beside him, silent with surprise.

"These people came to trade with us because they wanted a better life. And in spite of what we've done to them, they're still willin' to trade. There's a whole trade ring of worlds out there, holding each other up so that they never fall into the kind of trap we've put ourselves in. They can save us too. Heaven Belt can be all it ever was if we join them." He waited, searching the screen for a response. "Let the stars.h.i.+p leave Heaven, instead of destroyin' it. You'll accomplish the same goal but you'll have everything to gain and nothing to lose."

"You always could convince Djem that cold was hot, Wadie." Betha looked for mockery on Nakamore's face, was surprised when she didn't find it. "But this time you even make sense to me. ... I don't want want to destroy the stars.h.i.+p or my own s.h.i.+ps. If I could get out of this bind by lettin' the s.h.i.+p leave the system, I would. The way things have turned out, it'd be enough just to put the s.h.i.+p beyond every-body's reach.... And the point's not lost on me that the only reason we've got you now is that this woman, this Captain Torgussen, came back to Lansing as she said she would." Nakamore found Betha's eyes, curiously respectful. "I think you would come back to help us too." to destroy the stars.h.i.+p or my own s.h.i.+ps. If I could get out of this bind by lettin' the s.h.i.+p leave the system, I would. The way things have turned out, it'd be enough just to put the s.h.i.+p beyond every-body's reach.... And the point's not lost on me that the only reason we've got you now is that this woman, this Captain Torgussen, came back to Lansing as she said she would." Nakamore found Betha's eyes, curiously respectful. "I think you would come back to help us too."

Betha frowned in sudden pain, bit her lip.

"I'm willin' to let you go, Captain. But is MacWong?"

Betha saw MacWong surrept.i.tiously rolling the lace on his s.h.i.+rt front, still listening to Nakamore's trans-mission. Behind him the mediamen transmitted his own every move, his every word, to the waiting Demarchy: MacWong was pinned under the public gaze like a bug under gla.s.s. At last he said, "Your sugges-tion violates the Demarchy's mandate for this mission. I only have the authority to seize the s.h.i.+p or destroy it; I can't let it go."

"Even though you want to! Even though we may all die if you don't." Nakamore's words burned with contempt; his taciturn face was abruptly transformed, as though he were making a speech. Betha realized suddenly that he must be well aware that there was an audience waiting to receive it. Wadie began to smile, almost wonderingly. "You puppet. You call the Har-mony a 'dictators.h.i.+p' but we give more freedom to the individual than your people's mobocracy ever did or will. I have the power, the freedom of choice, to stop this stupidity. But you don't. Your people don't trust a man to use the judgment he was born with; they pick the words every time you open your mouth.

"But how are they goin' to tell you what to do this time, MacWong? They never imagined needing sec-ond-to-second control over hundreds of millions of kilometers, across a comm lag like this. By the time the whole Demarchy hears this and debates and amends and votes, things will be all over for us, and whatever they wanted won't mean a d.a.m.n thing...But you won't take the decision in your own hands because you're too afraid of the system, and of those pretty-boy anarchists behind you. The basic weakness and inefficiency of your self-servin' mob rule will make the Demarchy destroy its own s.h.i.+ps, and mine, and destroy this system's last hope of survival. I've al-ways known your 'government' was a farce ... an' even you can't deny that now. I'd laugh if it wasn't such a tragedy. Because that's what it is, a tragedy."

Betha watched impotent rage fracture MacWong's mask of complacency, saw real emotion for the first time on the faces of the listening demarchs behind him . . . saw the mediamen recording it all, so that the entire Demarchy could see and share their indig-nation. MacWong covered his anger. "Captain Torgussen, our s.h.i.+ps will pa.s.s you in thirty-six hundred seconds. If you intend to follow our instructions, I suggest you get in touch with us soon." His image vanished abruptly.

Betha said softly, "Try to monitor MacWong's communications with the Demarchy, Pappy; let me know how much worse that outbursts makes things."

Nakamore loosened the upturned collar of his stiff, bulky jacket, the anger flowing out of his eyes and voice. "He'll be back, I expect."

"My congratulations on ... your promotion to Hand, Raul." Betha watched Wadie bow, inscrutable.

"My duty, to accept; my desire, to serve." Nakamore gestured the honor aside, oddly embarra.s.sed. "I wish I could say the same to you, Wadie. But I don't know the Demarchy's etiquette for its traitors.''

Wadie smiled bleakly. "There's not any."

"You're the only reasonable demarch I ever met, and that's probably why the mob went after you. I don't approve of your act of piracy against the Har-mony...but I think I finally begin to see why you did it; why you want to help these people. I doubt if Djem'll ever understand it-"

"I know... and I'm sorry. There wasn't any other choice. It would never have happened if-"

"If we hadn't attacked the stars.h.i.+p when it first ap-peared? You're right. It was stupid of us. If we'd had sense enough to direct 'em to one of our bases instead, the Grand Harmony'd have its own stars.h.i.+p now. But we didn't, and all we got was death. But we knew the s.h.i.+p was damaged, and Central Harmony figured it was worth the gamble I could catch them here."

"That was a long chance," Wadie said. "You'd have been a long time gettin' home if what we saw is all the propellant you've got left."

"I know. Even without a battle, it would take us twenty megasecs to get back to Outermost-if our life-support systems held out. And then we'd freeze our a.s.ses off on that s...o...b..ll, waitin' for a fuel s.h.i.+p-ment to get us to the inner Harmony." Nakamore scratched his chin, looking tired. "But we took on food and air down on Lansing."

Shadow Jack pushed past Betha's shoulder to the camera. "Why didn't you just rip the tent and kill 'em quick, you b.a.s.t.a.r.d?"

Nakamore shrugged. "Boy, you're all pirates to me. But we didn't take that much. Look on it as a trade for the hydrogen you stole from the Harmony."

"Where's my mother?" Bird Alyn cried suddenly, shrill with anguish. "What did you do to my mother?"

Nakamore peered at her blankly; Betha saw com-prehension come to him. "So...your mother's goin' to have a stiff jaw for a few hundred kilosecs. But aside from that she's better off than you are-or we are-right now. Speakin' of which: Captain Torgussen, you have my permission to offload those gas canisters into a low orbit around Lansing. Then I recommend all our s.h.i.+ps move out a few hundred kil-ometers into s.p.a.ce. When the Demarchy forces arrive the fireworks'll be lethal over quite a volume; there's no reason why Lansing should be part of it. Somebody might as well get somethin' out of this."

He turned away, issuing soundless orders.

"Thank you," Betha said. She saw the curious smile still on Wadie's face as he watched the screen.

"What is that man? I don't understand him."

Wadie turned toward her, and the smile grew gentle. "Sanity hasn't entirely disappeared from Heaven, Betha. Not even from the Rings.... Raul is a decent man; but more than that, he's not stupid. I told you his brother never won a chess game from me. In all the time I spent in the Rings, I won only two games from Raul. He may still have some surprises left."

Betha rubbed her arms. "All I know is that he in-tentionally infuriated the Demarchy to the point where they'll never be satisfied until they see us all in h.e.l.l. Whatever he thinks he's doing, I don't like being his p.a.w.n."

The Ranger Ranger moved slowly out from Lansing. Betha watched it growing smaller below them, a world of elvish beauty, rising and falling in soft undulations beneath a transparent film of plastic spotted with milky patchwork. Trees reached upward toward the tent like sprays of lace, fragile fountains of leaves spiffing over fields of ripening grain...and fields of dying gra.s.s. She saw the velvet green of parklands, still well watered . . . and the peeling mud of dried marshes. The people below moved in a dream ballet among airy minarets and pillared buildings of state, on the world that had once been the symbol of Heaven's splendid extravagance. The last world she would ever see...She glanced at Clewell's still face, his closed eyes moved slowly out from Lansing. Betha watched it growing smaller below them, a world of elvish beauty, rising and falling in soft undulations beneath a transparent film of plastic spotted with milky patchwork. Trees reached upward toward the tent like sprays of lace, fragile fountains of leaves spiffing over fields of ripening grain...and fields of dying gra.s.s. She saw the velvet green of parklands, still well watered . . . and the peeling mud of dried marshes. The people below moved in a dream ballet among airy minarets and pillared buildings of state, on the world that had once been the symbol of Heaven's splendid extravagance. The last world she would ever see...She glanced at Clewell's still face, his closed eyes , , where he drifted in his seat listening for the Demarchy's response. Afraid of the stillness, she looked away again, stroked Rusty's purring, clinging form while she tried to picture the other beloved faces al-ready lost to her and the homeworld none of them would ever see again. There was no comfort now, no satisfaction, in this ultimate revenge that Heaven would inflict on itself in retribution for their deaths and her own. A terrible weariness settled over her, the futility of the last few weeks, the last four years. where he drifted in his seat listening for the Demarchy's response. Afraid of the stillness, she looked away again, stroked Rusty's purring, clinging form while she tried to picture the other beloved faces al-ready lost to her and the homeworld none of them would ever see again. There was no comfort now, no satisfaction, in this ultimate revenge that Heaven would inflict on itself in retribution for their deaths and her own. A terrible weariness settled over her, the futility of the last few weeks, the last four years.

"Betha..." Wadie kept his eyes on the screen. "I don't know how to save this s.h.i.+p. But I think I know how to save our lives. We can leave the Ranger, Ranger, use the use the Lansing 04 Lansing 04 to take us down to Lansing. All Nakamore wants an end to is the s.h.i.+p, not our lives. If we use our suits we can all make it." to take us down to Lansing. All Nakamore wants an end to is the s.h.i.+p, not our lives. If we use our suits we can all make it."

"No." Betha wrapped her arms across the aching muscles of her stomach. "I won't leave the Ranger. Ranger. But yes, the rest of you, get into your suits and go. There's no reason for you to stay; at least save your-selves." But yes, the rest of you, get into your suits and go. There's no reason for you to stay; at least save your-selves."

"What do you mean, you won't leave this s.h.i.+p?" Wadie pushed back from the screen, caught her chair arm . . "It's just a s.h.i.+p, Betha; it doesn't control your life. You aren't chained to it" "It's just a s.h.i.+p, Betha; it doesn't control your life. You aren't chained to it"

She shook her head. "You still don't understand, do you? After all this time. This is my my s.h.i.+p. I was part of its design, and part of its construction. Its crew were the people I loved; this journey meant everything to us, the future of our world...Everything about it binds me to s.h.i.+p. I was part of its design, and part of its construction. Its crew were the people I loved; this journey meant everything to us, the future of our world...Everything about it binds me to my my people, my past, my home. I can't leave it. I don't want to lose everything, I don't want to live forever in the place where it happened. I don't want to live like that." people, my past, my home. I can't leave it. I don't want to lose everything, I don't want to live forever in the place where it happened. I don't want to live like that."

"Now who's indulging in the ultimate selfishness?"

Her mouth tightened. "It's not going to hurt any-one but me"-realizing, as she saw his face, that that wasn't true.

"Well, what about... what about Clewell?"

"What about me?" Clewell opened his eyes, irri-tably, at the communications board. "I have no inten-tion of leaving the Ranger Ranger for that overgrown cinder down there." for that overgrown cinder down there."

"Damm it, you're just makin' her more stubborn. Why the h.e.l.l don't you tell her she's wrong?"

"She's my wife, not my child. She has a right to make her own decision. And so do I...I've lived too long already if I've lived to see this day. My body already knows the truth." He closed his eyes again.

"Now let me do my job; monitoring the Demarchy is hard enough as it is at this distance."

"May it do us some good." Wadie pulled himself back to the panel, ma.s.saged the cramped muscles of his neck. "All right, then...I'll stay too. I guess I've earned the right. I lost everythin' I ever valued because of this s.h.i.+p."

Betha froze her expression, willed emotion from her voice. "You won't blackmail me into changing my mind, Wadie."

He bowed solemnly. "Not my intent. Allow me the privilege of making my own decision, since you ex-pect me to accept yours. I'd rather die a martyr than a traitor."

She sighed, her nails digging into the palms of her hands. Thank you. Thank you. "All right, then. So only two will be going to Lansing." "All right, then. So only two will be going to Lansing."

Bird Alyn raised her head from Shadow Jack's shoulder, drifting, cradled in his arms. "No. Betha, we're not goin'."

"Now, listen-"

"No," Shadow Jack said. "We did what we wanted to do for Lansing. But there's nothin' anybody can do for us. We'd rather be-together-now, for a little while, than be apart forever." He glanced at the door-way.

"I see." She nodded once, barely hearing her own voice. "Come here, then, both of you." They drifted forward obediently. Betha worked a golden band from one finger of each of her hands. Reaching out, she took their own left hands, one at a time, slipped a ring over a thin straight finger, a thin crooked one. She joined the hands to keep the rings from floating free. "By my authority as captain of this s.h.i.+p, I pro-nounce you husband and wife.... May your love be as deep as the darkness, as constant as the sun."

Their hands clung to her own for a moment; she felt Shadow Jack's trembling. She turned away, heard them leave the room. Clewell's eyes touched her face in a caress. "Pappy, get off the radio a minute. We've got to leave those people some hydrogen..."

There were seventeen hundred seconds until en-counter.

Three hundred kilometers away now, Lansing was a greenish, mottled crescent on the darkness. Far enough away, Betha hoped, to survive whatever fires must burn across Heaven. On all sides emptiness stretched, filling the light-years to the distant stars. And the Ranger Ranger had been built to bridge those dis-tances, at speeds close to that of light itself. But it would never cross them again ... it lay stranded like a beached cetoid on the desolate sh.o.r.es of Heaven, trapped by primitive s.h.i.+ps with primitive weapons in the ultimate irony of defeat. had been built to bridge those dis-tances, at speeds close to that of light itself. But it would never cross them again ... it lay stranded like a beached cetoid on the desolate sh.o.r.es of Heaven, trapped by primitive s.h.i.+ps with primitive weapons in the ultimate irony of defeat.

"Five hundred seconds," Wadie said. Rusty curled serenely in the crook of his arm and washed a pro-truding foot.

Betha lit her pipe, inhaled the familiar, soothing odor of the smoke. "That's when the first s.h.i.+p will pa.s.s; they're strung out at about one-hundred-second intervals. But it doesn't matter ... we can't comply with MacWong's demand now."

Clewell chuckled suddenly, oblivious.

"G.o.d, Pappy, what in h.e.l.l are you laughing at?"

He shook his head apologetically. "At the Demarchy reacting to Nakamore's speech-their righteous indignation at being named for what they are."

"Well, put it on," Wadie said, strangely eager. "I want to hear that."

A burst of static mixed with garbled speech filled the room. Clewell lowered the volume. "Sorry; even with enhancement, it takes some practice to make sense out of that."

Four hundred seconds.

He pulled off his ear jack. "My G.o.d, Betha, I think they're actually trying to take a vote ... a vote on whether to let us go."

Betha pushed up out of her chair, caught herself on the panel edge with a gasp. "Pappy! Can't you clean up the transmission?"

"I'll try. MacWong's s.h.i.+ps are close enough now; we may be in the tight beam from the Demarchy."

He put an image on the screen; Betha saw print, illegi-ble through snow, recognized the format of a Demar-chy general election. A band of golden yellow brightened at the bottom.

"It takes about five hundred seconds for a full tally."

"Five hundred! Christ." She felt Wadie move close, his sleeve brush her arm. "Pappy, raise MacWong's s.h.i.+p."

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