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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 13

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"I've tried. They're not talking."

She could almost see the numbers, almost see them change. And beside the static-clouded picture, the Ranger's Ranger's displays projected the track of three closing s.h.i.+ps on a star-filled sky. Three s.h.i.+ps that stood out like flares now, their torches extended ahead of their flight, decelerating at last. She searched their brilliance for a smaller track, a seed of blossoming destruction. displays projected the track of three closing s.h.i.+ps on a star-filled sky. Three s.h.i.+ps that stood out like flares now, their torches extended ahead of their flight, decelerating at last. She searched their brilliance for a smaller track, a seed of blossoming destruction. Give us time, MacWong... Give us time, MacWong... Clewell left his seat, moved slowly along the panel to her side; she took his arm. The digits on the chronometer narrowed like sand in an hourgla.s.s, eroding their lives. One hundred seconds until the first s.h.i.+p pa.s.sed . . Clewell left his seat, moved slowly along the panel to her side; she took his arm. The digits on the chronometer narrowed like sand in an hourgla.s.s, eroding their lives. One hundred seconds until the first s.h.i.+p pa.s.sed . .

. sixty . . . fifty .. . She realized she had stopped breathing. "They're holding off! Forty seconds; that first s.h.i.+p can't fire on us now."

MacWong's face appeared below the tally. "Captain Torgussen." They saw the stress on his face and on the faces that ringed him in. "We're just now receivin' the results of a vote from the Demarchy. The majority accepts your aid to Lansing as evidence of your good will, Captain, and favors a modification of our mission...I hope you're listenin', Nakamore; you've just seen a demonstration of the real flexibility and strength of the people, the wisdom and fairness of the Demarchic system." He looked away, into the media cameras, and back.

"Captain Torgussen, the Demarchy will allow you to depart-if you will a.s.sure us that the Demarchy will be the center for distributin' your aid when you return to Heaven." His eyes asked her to promise anything.



On the center of the screen Betha saw the second Demarchy s.h.i.+p fall past them.

Nakamore's image came onto the screen. "You know I can't accept that, MacWong." His voice was even, no longer reaching out to goad an entire people. "I don't demand that control go to the Harmony. But it's not goin' to you."

Betha froze, realizing that Nakamore might still let them go. A promise at knifepoint was no promise at all ... and no solution. There had to be a way to reach both sides, or the next Morningside s.h.i.+p to come to Heaven would fall into the same deadly trap of greed. She heard someone come up behind her, turned to see Shadow Jack and Bird Alyn, peacefully hand in hand.

"What happened?" Bird Alyn brushed her soft floating hair back from her eyes and blinked at the screen.

Betha turned back to the screen, saw MacWong's pale eyes search her face for an answer. "It's going to be Lansing! Tell your people, MacWong, Nakamore. Those are Morningside's terms: our aid will be dis-tributed through Lansing, the capital of the Heaven Belt. Neither of your governments will be shown fa-vor, everyone will be treated equally."

They stared at her, unreal images; she saw Tiriki come alive, saw his mouth move soundlessly: "... a trick... want that s.h.i.+p destroyed..."

Wadie leaned past her. "Lansing's harmless, Lije! The Demarchy will accept it; you know they will."

MacWong moved back from the screen as Tiriki caught his shoulder; Betha read Tiriki's hatred. She looked at the computer plot. "That last s.h.i.+p will pa.s.s at only thirty kilometers; they can fire on us almost point-blank" She nodded at the screen. "If we don't see that s.h.i.+p pa.s.s by, we'll be Stardust...."

Behind her Shadow Jack said solemnly, "You mean we'll be dead."

MacWong broke away from Tiriki's grasp. She couldn't see his face, only that he faced the media's glaring eye and gave an order....

Nakamore began to laugh. "Thank you, you son of chaos!"

A barely visible streak of palest violet lit the darkness on the screen before them for the length of a heartbeat, and was gone. The third s.h.i.+p had pa.s.sed.

RANGER (LANSING s.p.a.cE) + 3.15.

MEGASECONDS.

"Crops may wither on the plain Sun may parch us, rain turn wild-"

Clewell strapped himself into the navigator's seat, feeling new strength and satisfaction fill the hollow weariness of his limbs. He looked down at the run-ning deflections on the panel, Shadow Jack holding Bird Alyn in his arms as she serenaded the long-suffer-ing cat floating in midair across the room, "Sharing brings us help for pain..."

The representatives of Heaven Belt...Clewell smiled, seeing them many years older and wiser, many years into the future, returning again to Lansing. "I never thought I'd be saying it, but I may just live an-other sixty years."

Bird Alyn braced her feet against the wall to peer sideways at him. "I can't believe it's real, Pappy. How did it happen? How did it all come out like this?" Shadow Jack kissed her cheek; she giggled.

Wadie pushed away from the viewscreen, where Lansing lay before them on the now-empty night: a chrysalis waiting for rebirth into a new life cycle. "Nothin's gone right in Heaven Belt for two and a half billion seconds, Bird Alyn. There are a hundred million corpses out there and G.o.d knows how many people who've gone through living h.e.l.l..." Bird Alyn's smile faltered; Shadow Jack held her tighter, the past darkened their eyes.

Wadie shook his head. "We must have paid for our mistake by now, a thousand times over. It's about time we had some good luck, dammit! It's about time."

Their faces eased. Clewell saw Betha look up from the panel, covering other memories, other sorrows.

"Yes, it is. Pappy"-her voice was even-"everything's secured, the sky is empty. Start charting our course; it's time to go home." Wadie moved back to her side; Clewell saw his hand lift, hesitate, and drift away, still uncertain. He had been beside her for days: helping, learning . . . watching Betha Torgussen with an intentness that had nothing to do with stars.h.i.+p technol-ogy. The man who would be a hero someday when their s.h.i.+p returned, MacWong had said; but who for now was still a traitor ... and the only trade consul-tant who would satisfy both the Demarchy and the Rings. A good man, Clewell thought; the right man. Like another good man who had loved his wife and been his friend.

Clewell felt Betha's eyes touch him once more, as blue as field flowers, still shadowed by memory and pain. Time heals all things . Time heals all things . . . and they would have the time they needed now. She changed the image on the screen. It showed him numberless stars; and one among the millions-shrunken, red, and constant-that would guide them home. . . and they would have the time they needed now. She changed the image on the screen. It showed him numberless stars; and one among the millions-shrunken, red, and constant-that would guide them home.

Laughter floated out of the room and down the stairwell as Bird Alyn and Shadow Jack, unknowing and unconcerned, put the past behind them forever.

Rusty settled onto his shoulders, purring in soft har-mony with the memory of song: Sharing brings us help for pain, For nothing's easy, oh my child.

He saw the faces of his other children, who he hoped would live to see the better world that had cost so much and been so long in coming. "Rusty," he said quietly, "it's about time."

About the Author

JOAN D. VINGE has had stories pub-lished in a.n.a.log, Orbit, Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, a.n.a.log, Orbit, Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, and various anthologies, including and various anthologies, including The Crystal s.h.i.+p The Crystal s.h.i.+p (t.i.tle novella) and (t.i.tle novella) and Mil-lennial Women. Mil-lennial Women. Two of her novellas have been published as a book ent.i.tled Two of her novellas have been published as a book ent.i.tled Fires.h.i.+p. Fires.h.i.+p.

Joan has a degree in anthropology, which she feels is very similar to science fiction in many ways because both fields give you an opportunity to view human relations.h.i.+ps from a fresh and revealing perspective. She's worked, among other things, as a salvage archeologist, enjoys horseback riding and needlecrafts, and is married to Vernor Vinge, who also writes science fiction.

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