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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 2

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"There was a war, the Civil War. Everything got blown up, all the industry. n.o.body can keep any-thing going any more, except the Demarchy and the Ringers. They're the only ones far enough out to have snow on some of their rocks. Lansing is capital of zero, nothin'; most everybody in the Main Belt's dead by now."

"I don't understand," Betha said, not wanting to un-derstand. Oh, G.o.d, don't let our very reason for Oh, G.o.d, don't let our very reason for com-ing here have been pointless... com-ing here have been pointless... "We heard that Heaven Belt had the perfect environment, that it had a higher technology than any Earth colony, than even Old Earth." "We heard that Heaven Belt had the perfect environment, that it had a higher technology than any Earth colony, than even Old Earth."

"But they couldn't keep it goin'." Shadow Jack shook his head.

Betha saw suddenly the fatal flaw the original colo-nizers, already Belters, must never have considered. Without a world to hold an atmosphere, air and water-all the fundamentals of life-had to be processed or manufactured or they didn't exist. And without a technology capable of the processing and manufacturing, in a system without an Earthlike world to retreat to, any Dark Age would mean their extinction.

As if he had followed her thoughts, Shadow Jack said, "We'll all be dead, in the end, even the Demarchy." He looked away, forcing out the words, "But our rock is out of water now. Everybody there'll die if we have to go around Heaven again without it. And we don't have a s.h.i.+p left that'll take us to the Ringers-to Discus-for hydrogen to make more. We've got to find enough salvage parts to put one to-gether. That's why we were out here. It's a gigasec before we'll be close enough to Discus to make the trip again."



"You trade with Discus for hydrogen?" Clewell broke her silence.

"Trade?" Shadow Jack looked blank. 'What would we trade? We steal it."

"What happens if the-Discans catch you in their s.p.a.ce?" Clewell reached under the panel for his cov-ered drinking cup, pulled up on the straw.

Shadow Jack shrugged. "They try to kill us. Maybe that's why they attacked you: they thought you came from the Demarchy. Or maybe they wanted your s.h.i.+p; anybody'd want this s.h.i.+p. Can you run it all with only two people-?" His mismatched eyes wand-ered speculatively.

"Not two untrained people," Betha said, "in case you still have any ideas. It's not even easy for us. There were five more people in our crew; the Discans killed them all." And all for nothing. And all for nothing.

He grimaced. "Oh." Betha saw the girl flinch.

"One more question." She took a deep breath. "Tell me what this 'Demarchy' is, that everyone seems to confuse with us."

Shadow Jack glanced away, suddenly oblivious, as Clewell finished his drink. Bird Alyn licked her lips, rubbed her mouth with a misshapen hand.

Out of water... A memory of her own children, too far away, too long ago, dimmed their hungry faces. She looked down at her own hands, at thin golden rings, four on the left hand, two on the right. "Well?" A memory of her own children, too far away, too long ago, dimmed their hungry faces. She looked down at her own hands, at thin golden rings, four on the left hand, two on the right. "Well?"

Shadow Jack cleared his throat, his eyes daring her to offer water. "The Demarchy-it's in the trojan as-teroids sixty degrees ahead of Discus. It's got the best technology left now. They made the nuclear battery that runs our electric rocket; they're the only ones who can make 'em any more."

"If they're so well off, why do they have to rob the Discans?"

"They don't have to. Usually they trade, metals for the processed snow, for water and gases and hydro-carbons. Sometimes things happen, though-incidents. They both want to come out on top. I guess they think someday they'll build up the Belt again. They're wrong, though. Even if they'd quit fightin' each other, it's too late. Anybody can see that."

"Not exactly a c.o.c.keyed optimist, are you, boy?" Clewell said.

Shadow Jack frowned, scratching. "I'm not blind."

"Well, Clewell." Betha felt Rusty snuffling against her neck, settled the cat on her shoulder. Claws hooked cautiously into the weave of her denim jacket. "What do you think? Do you think it's the truth?

Did we-come all this way for nothing?"

He rubbed his face with his hands. She saw his own wedding bands reflecting light, three on the left hand, three on the right. "I guess it's possible. It's so insane, it's the only way to explain what we've been through."

She nodded, glanced at the haggard faces of the waiting strangers: Not exactly angels. Not exactly angels. Victims, of a tragedy almost beyond comprehension; a tragedy that had reached into her own life, and his, to destroy the dreams of another people as it had destroyed its own. This Heaven, like all dreams of heaven, had been a fragile thing; perhaps none of them had ever been meant to be more than a dream. . . . She lit her pipe, calmed by its familiarity, before she searched the two tense, expectant faces. "I'll make you a proposition, Shadow Jack, Bird Alyn. You said Lansing needs hy-drogen for water; we need it for fuel. We're going after it now. Come with us and tell us things we need to know about this system, and if we succeed we'll share what we get with you." Victims, of a tragedy almost beyond comprehension; a tragedy that had reached into her own life, and his, to destroy the dreams of another people as it had destroyed its own. This Heaven, like all dreams of heaven, had been a fragile thing; perhaps none of them had ever been meant to be more than a dream. . . . She lit her pipe, calmed by its familiarity, before she searched the two tense, expectant faces. "I'll make you a proposition, Shadow Jack, Bird Alyn. You said Lansing needs hy-drogen for water; we need it for fuel. We're going after it now. Come with us and tell us things we need to know about this system, and if we succeed we'll share what we get with you."

"How do we know you'll keep your word?"

Betha raised her eyebrows. "How do we know you've told us the truth?"

He didn't answer, and Bird Alyn frowned at him.

"If you're honest with us, we'll be honest with you." Betha waited.

He looked at Bird Alyn; she nodded. "I guess anythin's better than our chances alone. . . . But what about the Lansing 04? Lansing 04? We can't junk it-" We can't junk it-"

"We can take your s.h.i.+p with us. It's possible we can repair your s.h.i.+elding."

His mouth opened; he shut it, embarra.s.sed. "We- can we radio home, Lansing, and tell 'em what hap-pened?"

"Yes."

"Then, its a deal. Well stick with you, and tell you what we know." They relaxed visibly, together, hanging like rag dolls in the air.

Clewell folded his arms. "Just keep one thing in mind-that the captain meant it when she told you it takes training to run the Ranger. Ranger. We'll be accelerating at one gravity. Even if you took over the s.h.i.+p and contacted your people, they'd never catch up with you. All you'd get out of it would be a one-way jour-ney to forever." We'll be accelerating at one gravity. Even if you took over the s.h.i.+p and contacted your people, they'd never catch up with you. All you'd get out of it would be a one-way jour-ney to forever."

Shadow Jack started to answer, kept silent.

"I'll see to your s.h.i.+p, then. Clewell, will you take them below? Maybe, ah . . ." She looked back; tactfulness eluded her. "They could use a shower."

"A shower of what?" Bird Alyn murmured.

Betha paused, inhaling smoke. "Well... water."

"Unfortunately we're out of champagne." Clewell pushed off for the doorway.

Shadow Jack laughed uneasily. "Enough water to wash in?"

She nodded. "Use all you want; please. We have plenty. And soap. And clean clothes, Clewell-"

"With pleasure." He led them eagerly out of the room into the echoing stairwell; Rusty floundered af-ter them. For a moment Betha drifted, listening, her eyes taking in the gra.s.s-greenness of the rug, the dust-blue sky color of the walls, that had been designed to keep seven people from going mad dur-ing more than three years tau of close confinement. She realized the vast and pernicious emptiness that had filled the room, the entire s.h.i.+p, in the past few days; like the greater desolation beyond its hull. Realized it, now that suddenly it was no longer true. She heard the sprayers go on, and faint yelps of excited laughter.

Clewell reappeared in the doorway, carrying Rusty. "I hope they don't drown themselves . . . though anything would be an improvement."

She looked down at the pipe in her hand, remem-bering how he had carved it for her during their final days in Borealis. Surprising herself, she began to smile.

RANGER (IN TRANSIT, LANSING TO DEMARCHY).

+ 290 KILOSECONDS.

Bird Alyn moved slowly through the green light of the Ranger's Ranger's hydroponics lab, her frail body twitching with the effort of standing upright in one gravity. She hummed softly, oblivious to discomfort, pulled into the past by the cool constant moistness and the smell of apples, the hum of insect life. Shadow-dapples slid over the tiles, merging and breaking with the drift of canopied leaves, showering sparks of veridian fire over the viscous liquid inside clear, cov-ered vats. hydroponics lab, her frail body twitching with the effort of standing upright in one gravity. She hummed softly, oblivious to discomfort, pulled into the past by the cool constant moistness and the smell of apples, the hum of insect life. Shadow-dapples slid over the tiles, merging and breaking with the drift of canopied leaves, showering sparks of veridian fire over the viscous liquid inside clear, cov-ered vats.

The setting was strangely alien, like everything in the bountiful alien wonderland of this stars.h.i.+p. But a fern or a tree were always the same, no matter how gravity or its lack contorted them. They were living things that required her-that rewarded her care and attention with a leaf or a blossom or fruit to give her people life. The only living things that willingly ab-sorbed all the love she could give them, that never turned away from her because she was an ugly, un-gainly cripple....

Bird Alyn drew the dipstick out of another vat, studied the readings, shook it down. She sighed and slid down the vat's side to sit on the floor, ma.s.saging her swollen feet. They p.r.i.c.kled, with the sluggishness of poor circulation. She leaned back, looking up through the s.h.i.+fting green; imagined she saw the milky translucency of the Lansing shroud and Shadow Jack working as a spinner, instead of the banks of fluorescent lights.

She had counted the kiloseconds, the very seconds of every Lansing day, until Shadow Jack came down to join her for the day's one meal. Silent, moody, filled with futile anger-he was still the one person in her world who responded to her, who pushed out of his own shadowed world each day long enough to show her kindness. Sometimes she wondered whether he was kind out of pity; never caring whether he was. She was simply grateful, because she loved him, and knew that love had no pride.

From childhood she had understood that she would work in the surface gardens; through all of her life she had seen why-that she was different, deformed. Her parents had trained her to use a computer, because they had accepted that she would have to work at a job where the radiation level was high; they had equipped her to work on a s.h.i.+p, to do the best she could for the survival of her world. But beyond that they had withdrawn from her, as people withdraw from a mistake that has ruined their lives, as they withdraw from the victim of a terminal disease.

And she had never questioned her own inferiority, because Materialist philosophy taught her that every individual must accept the responsibility for his own shortcomings. She had gone to work on Lansing's sur-face almost gladly; glad to escape from the world of normal people, glad to lose herself in the beauty of the gardens, solitary even among her fellow defec-tives.

And then she had discovered Shadow Jack sitting dazed and frightened in the gra.s.s at the entrance to the tunnels. . . . Shadow Jack, who had grown up used to a normal life of security and acceptance. Who had been told, suddenly, that he was not normal, and cast out into an alien world, ashamed, abandoned. She had comforted him, out of compa.s.sion and her own need; his need had bound him to her, and made them friends.

But as they grew older she began to want more than just his friends.h.i.+p; even though she knew that it was wrong, and impossible. On the Lansing surface the mores of the tunnels were distorted by neurosis, or by need, until each person became literally respon-sible for his own actions, and endured whatever con-sequences followed. She had seen things that would have appalled her parents, and learned to see that they did no one any harm; to see that that was the only real criterion for what was right or wrong. And there were things that had made her afraid, once she under-stood them, and grateful that Shadow Jack slept beside her every night in the sweet cool gra.s.s or be-tween the sheltering pillars of the abandoned state buildings.

But Shadow Jack would never touch her, never let her ease the anger and the helpless resentment that never let him go. And helpless in her own futility, she kept her silence, knowing that it was wrong for a defective to want a husband; impossible, that Shadow Jack could ever love an ugly, clumsy cripple....

Bird Alyn saw someone draw aside the insect net-ting and enter the lab, brus.h.i.+ng aside grasping shrubs and vines. She struggled to her feet, trying to make the figure into Shadow Jack . . . heard a woman's voice call softly, "Claire?"

Bird Alyn stood on tiptoe, fading against the flow-ers in her green s.h.i.+rt and blue jeans. "What?" She teetered and almost dropped the dipstick. She clutched it against her side with her crippled hand. "Oh, Betha."

Betha stared at her in return, shook her head, bemused and disconcerted.

Bird Alyn smiled, glancing down. "I-I thought it was Shadow Jack. He said he was goin' to come watch me work...." Her smile collapsed.

"Pappy's got him cornered; he's showing him around up in the shop." Betha touched a fern, pulled off a yellowed frond, pulling the dead past loose from the present She looked back, concern showing on her tired, pale face. "Are you sure you want to do this, while we're still at one gee?"

Bird Alyn nodded. "It's all right. I sit down a lot, and just-watch, and smell, and listen. It's so long since I worked in the gardens. Do you mind?"

"No...no. You don't know how much I appreci-ate it. There's enough work on this s.h.i.+p for seven people. And-Clewell's not as young as he used to be." The captain's eyes left her, searching the green shadows. "You have the perfect touch, Bird Alyn . . . I almost took you for a dryad when I came in."

"What... what's that?"

"An enchanted forest spirit." Betha smiled.

"Me?" Bird Alyn twisted the dipstick, laughed her embarra.s.sment. "Oh, not me. . . . These plants take care of themselves, really, it's easy . . . not like Lan-sing . . . they look so different here, so thick and squat. . . ."

"These?" Betha looked up.

"On Lansing things keep growin' up, they don't know when to quit; it's tricky, the root systems have to go down to bedrock and catch hold . . . and with the mutations . . ." Bird Alyn faded, suddenly aware of her own voice.

Betha sat down in a tiled bench, reached out for the strangely shaped thing half-hidden under a fall of vine. "Claire's guitar. Claire used to run hydroponics, and she used to play for the plants. It's a musical instrument," seeing Bird Alyn's puzzled expression. "We all used to come down here in the evenings, and sing. She used to claim the plants enjoyed the music, and the emotional communion. Of course, Lara would claim it was just the carbon dioxide they wanted . . . and Sean said it was the hot air." Her mouth curved wistfully. "And Eric-Eric would say that it was prob-ably a little of everything..." Her hand rose to her face; Bird Alyn counted four plain golden rings, sur-prised, before it dropped again.

"How . . . um, how does it work?" She had known a girl once who had a whistle made from a reed.

"The-guitar, I mean." She leaned back against a heavy wooden shelf, pushed up onto its edge with an effort.

"I can't really give you a proper idea, Claire was an artist; I only know a few chords. But it's something like this. . . ." The captain settled the guitar across her lap, positioned her fingers on the strings. She stroked them tentatively.

Bird Alyn s.h.i.+vered. "Oh..."

Betha smiled; her fingers changed position on the strings and the s.h.i.+mmering water of sound altered. She began to sing-almost unconsciously, Bird Alyn thought-in a warm, clear voice merging with the flow of music: "Understanding comes from learning No one ever changed a world.

Live your life, don't waste it yearning, You can't change it, little girl-"

Bird Alyn felt her throat tighten, looked down at her twisted hand, blinking hard.

She heard the captain take a long breath, caught in her own memories. "I'm sorry." The clear voice strained slightly. "I should have found something a little more cheerful."

"Please . . . will you-will you do some more?" Bird Alyn looked up.

Betha's face eased. "All right. . . they aren't much, just some old folk tunes. But it's a strange thing, the effect that everyone singing together has-the bond that grows between you, the feeling of unity. It gives you the strength to carry on, when things are hard. And it's hard to hate anyone when you're singing with them; hard to be angry....

"Together we continue, Our song will never end.

Sister, brother, Father, mother, Share their lives with one another: Woman, man and friend...."

Bird Alyn leaned forward, like a flower leaning into the light. "Morningside must be a beautiful place!"

Betha made a sound that was not quite a laugh. "No, it's . . . Yes. Yes ... in a way. In its own way." Her fingers brushed the strings again.

"I wish I could do that...Do you . . . know any love songs?" The captain looked up sharply; Bird Alyn realized that somehow she had said the wrong thing.

"I'll be glad to show you what guitar chords I know, Bird Alyn, if you want to learn to play. Maybe the plants miss it."

Bird Alyn folded her arms. "I-I don't think I have enough fingers...."

The captain's face froze with a second's embar-ra.s.sed awkwardness. "Oh. Well, I think I can reverse the strings for you; I've seen a guitar played left-handed before. If you'd like me to?" She smiled again.

"Oh, yes!" Bird Alyn slipped down off of the shelf, left the dipstick hanging absently in the air. It slid through her nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor. Instinctively a long bare foot stretched to pick it up; she lost her balance, and fell. "Lousy luck!"

Sprawled on the floor, she fumbled after the rod, shook it and checked the readings, while a familiar hot flush crept up her face.

The captain came to her, caught her arms and lifted her effortlessly to her feet. "Are you all right?"

Betha's hand brushed her arm rea.s.suringly, as a mother might have touched her. "It takes a while, doesn't it, to break the habits of a lifetime."

Bird Alyn looked down, confused by her solicitude. "Does anybody ever get used to this? If you're not born used to it, I mean..."

Betha stepped back. "In time. Morningside's pull is less than one gee, but we've been at one gee on the s.h.i.+p for three years, and we don't even notice the dif-ference any more. I've read some Old World studies on one-gee adaptations from low gravity. It's possible, but it takes about a year-thirty or forty megaseconds-to get back to the minimum endurance you had at zero gee. And there are long-term stress effects on the body. But they decided that you'd last, with good medical care, if you wanted to go through with it."

"I think I'd rather go home," Bird Alyn said.

"Me too." Betha nodded.

But you can't. Bird Alyn glanced down at her, blus.h.i.+ng again. "I mean ... I always say the wrong thing!" Bird Alyn glanced down at her, blus.h.i.+ng again. "I mean ... I always say the wrong thing!"

"No. It's all any of us want, Bird Alyn. And we're going to do it." Betha studied the pattern of gleaming rings on her hands; they tightened suddenly.

Bird Alyn listened to water dripping somewhere, thought of tears. She heard someone else enter the lab; recognized Shadow Jack this time.

Betha smiled, a pleased, private smile, following her glance. She turned back to the bench, picked up the guitar. "I'll change the strings for you, when I get the chance. But now I'd better get back to work. We're almost into Demarchy s.p.a.ce; you won't have to put up with gravity much longer." She started away toward the door, spoke to Shadow Jack as she pa.s.sed him. Bird Alyn watched his own gaze fix on her, fol-low her, with admiration that was almost adoration. Bird Alyn felt envy stir, turned it inward habitually. Her mouth tightened with pain as though she had turned a knife.

But Rusty struggled in Shadow Jack's arms, meowing with sudden impatience as they caught sight of her. Shadow Jack let the cat drop, still half afraid of its strangeness. Rusty trotted ahead to b.u.t.t against Bird Alyn's bare ankles; Bird Alyn leaned over and picked the cat up, and a pink tongue sandpapered her chin joyfully. Rusty settled, purring, onto her shoul-der. She thought of the embroidered hanging in the room that was hers now: a cross-st.i.tched portrait of Rusty, and the words, A HOME WITHOUT A CAT MAY BE A PERFECT HOME, PERHAPS-BUT HOW CAN IT PROVE ITS t.i.tLE? Bird Alyn let herself imagine an entire world filled with living creatures, and music; not a fruitless dream, but reality. The kind of world Lansing must have been, in the time she had never known; the kind of world it could never be again.

"I thought Rusty was looking for you," Shadow Jack murmured, self-conscious. "I'll bet if there were ten animals on this s.h.i.+p, every one would want to be with you."

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