The Outcasts of Heaven Belt - LightNovelsOnl.com
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She met his eyes hesitantly, forgetting everything in the miracle of his smile.
FLAGs.h.i.+P UNITY (DISCAN s.p.a.cE) +.
Raul Nakamore, Hand of Harmony, settled back into the padded acceleration couch, weightless, held down by straps. He wedged the light wire headset into a slot on the panel, through with the radio, through arguing with his half-brother Djem. So he was wasting the Grand Harmony's resources . . . risking his life ... risking the crews of three s.h.i.+ps to pursue a phan-tom. So he was leaving Snows-of-Salvation unprotect-ed from a Demarchy attack to chase a s.h.i.+p that could run rings around the s.h.i.+ps of the Grand Harmony, even this high delta-vee strike force. A s.h.i.+p from Out-side ... a crippled stars.h.i.+p, that had left behind a tiny spreading cloud of debris and human remains. A s.h.i.+p that had eluded their grasp once-but that might not be able to do it again. It was worth the gamble. But poor Djem; he But poor Djem; he never could see beyond the end of his own nose. never could see beyond the end of his own nose. Raul half-smiled. Raul half-smiled.
Somewhere five thousand kilometers below him, sil-houetted against the silvered detritus of the Discan rings, the lump of frozen gases that was Snows-of-Sal-vation held the Grand Harmony's chief distillery. It had been constructed with Demarchy aid, and it was crucial to the Harmony's survival, and the Demarchy's. His brother was in charge of Snows-of-Salva-tion, would do anything to maintain its safety. But if the Demarchy decided to attack here in the Rings, even this "secret weapon" couldn't stop them from doing fatal damage. And in spite of what too many in the Navy believed, the Demarchy would never try it, anyway. Djem would never be able to see that, but Raul would stake his career on it- had had staked his career on it. The Demarchy would never attack them...unless it had that stars.h.i.+p. But if the Grand Har-mony took it first- staked his career on it. The Demarchy would never attack them...unless it had that stars.h.i.+p. But if the Grand Har-mony took it first- "Sir." Sandoval, the balding s.h.i.+p's captain, interrupt-ed his pattern of thought diffidently. "Everything's secure for ignition. At your command-"
Raul nodded, unb.u.t.toning his heavy jacket in the unaccustomed warmth of the control room. Been Been un-derground too long... un-derground too long... He sighed. "Proceed." He sighed. "Proceed."
Sandoval settled back into his own seat, spoke or-ders into his headset that would coordinate with the crews of two other s.h.i.+ps. There was no video com-munication; video was used only to impress the en-emy. Raul studied the complexity of the control board, banks of indicators spreading up the walls in the cramped s.p.a.ce around them. Most of it was pre-war artifact computing equipment, installed to give these s.h.i.+ps superior maneuverability in combat. They were one segment of the Grand Harmony's high delta-vee defense force, specially designed, specially equipped with a fuel-to-ma.s.s ratio of one thousand to one. Although Raul Nakamore ranked in the highest echelons of the Harmony navy, he had always maintained that their existence was pointless waste of desperately needed resources; and for that reason he had never been on board one of these s.h.i.+ps before. But now the stars.h.i.+p had changed his mind; as it could change the very future.
He sank heavily into the padded seat as the snip's liquid-fuel boosters ignited and thrust grew to a steady two gravities, more than slightly painful on his Belter's frame. He checked the chronometer on the panel. Thrust would continue for thirteen hundred seconds, boosting them to sixteen kilometers per sec-ond ... and in that time, expend seven thousand tons of fuel: the outer stages of the three s.h.i.+ps themselves, and of seven drones. And still it would take them over two megaseconds to reach Lansing-and their quarry might not even be there. Raul settled down to wait, trying not to imagine the waste, but rather to remem-ber what had made him so certain it was worth it...
He had been sitting in his office, studying endless s.h.i.+pping schedules, when the confidential report had reached him: a ramscoop stars.h.i.+p, origin unknown, had crossed the path of a naval patrol . . . and had destroyed one of their s.h.i.+ps before escaping. He had studied the report for a long time, with the warmth of the methane stove at his back and the chill silence of Heaven's future ahead of him. And then he had no-ticed that a meeting was announced, his presence was required.
He left his office and made his way along the endless dank, slightly smoky corridors from the Mer-chant Marine wing. The government complex made up the greater part of the tunnel-and-vacuole system that honeycombed the subsurface of the asteroid Har-mony, that had been the asteroid Perth in the time be-fore the Civil War, before the founding of the Grand Harmony. The chill began to eat its way through his heavy brown uniform jacket; he pushed one hand into his pocket, using the other to push himself along the wall. He was a short man, barely 1.9 meters, and stocky, for a Belter. There was a quality of inevitabil-ity about him, and there had been a time when he had endured the cold better than most. But he was a career navy man, and he had spent most of his adult life on s.h.i.+ps in s.p.a.ce, where adequate heat was the least of their problems. But for the past sixty megaseconds since his promotion he had been an administra-tor, and learned that the only special privilege granted to an administrator was the privilege of managing a double workload.
He pa.s.sed through large open chambers filled with government workers, into more hallways identical to the ones he had just left, into more chambers-as al-ways experiencing the feeling that he was actually traveling in circles. Unconsciously he chose a route that took him through the computing center, guided by past habit while he considered the future. The past and the present surprised him as he became aware of his surroundings: of the crowded rows of young faces intent on calculation, or gaping up at his pa.s.sage.
He looked toward the far corner of the chamber, almost expecting to find his own face still bent over a slate of scribbled figures. He had worked in this room, twelve-hundred-odd megaseconds ago, starting his career while still a boy as a computer fourth cla.s.s. A computer in the oldest sense, because the sophisticated machinery that had borne the Discans' burden of endless computations had been lost during the Civil War. After the war, the Grand Harmony had learned the hard way that it would never survive without pre-cise data about the constantly changing interrelation-s.h.i.+ps of the major planetoids. And so they had fallen back on human computation, using the inefficient and plentiful to replace the efficient but nonexistent, as they had had to do so many times.
A bright child could learn to do the simpler calcu-lations, and so bright children were used, freeing stronger backs for heavier labor. Raul remembered sitting squeezed onto a bench with another boy and a girl, huddled together for warmth. His nose had dripped and his lips were chapped, and he had stared enviously at the back of his half-brother Djem, who was one hundred and fifty megasecs older and a com-puter second cla.s.s. The higher your rank, the closer you sat to the stove in the center of the room. .
. . By the time Djem made first cla.s.s, Raul had joined him, and been rewarded with warmth and one of the few hand calculators that still worked.
Their common grandfather had proved Riemann's Conjecture, and become the best-known mathe-matician-and perhaps the best-known human being- to come from the Heaven Belt; but then the war had come, and made him only one more refugee. He had been on vacation in the Discan rings when the war began, and his loyalties had been suspect. But his mathematical skill had been undeniable-and now, two generations later, the residue of his genius had put his grandsons on the path to success in a new regime.
"Only through obedience do we earn the right to command. . . ." Raul left the computer room, and his youth, behind; the universally colorless moral admoni-tions from the inescapable wall speakers crept back into his consciousness along with the cold. He won-dered how long it would be before the news of the alien stars.h.i.+p worked its way into the communal broadcasts, between the Thoughts from the Heart and the lectures on Demarchy decadence-and what form it would take when it did. He did not object to the constant intrusion into his life. He was used to it. It was as much a part of the life he knew as the cold. He realized that it served a purpose, distracting the people from the cold and the endless dreary labor of their daily lives, reinforcing their sense of unity and dedica-tion to the group.
But if he felt no resentment toward the broadcasts, neither did he take them seriously any more. He had realized long ago that they were just as much propa-ganda as the Demarches own lurid displays of unharmonious advertising. . . . The Demarchy, that still lived in warmth and comfort-thanks to the distilleries of the Grand Harmony-but which kept the people of the Grand Harmony from sharing that comfort. It re-fused to sell them the atomic fission batteries that were still the Demarchy's major source of power, for heat, for light, for s.h.i.+pping, for the few factories that still operated. No existing factories operated at more than one percent efficiency in the Grand Harmony-except for the distilleries-and virtually their only source of heat and light came from the inefficient burning of methane (because the Rings had a surplus of volatiles, but that was all they had).
Raul pushed the thought out of his mind, as he pushed aside the more painful truth that his people, all the people in Heaven Belt, were doomed. Regret was useless. Hatred was counterproductive. Raul faced the truth, and faced it down. He saw the road ahead clearly, saw it grow steeper and more difficult until at last it became impossible. But he moved ahead, one step at a time, strengthened by the knowledge that he had done all that was humanly possible.
There had been a time when he had absorbed every word of the broadcasts, and believed every word. He had hated the Demarchy then, with the blind pa.s.sion of youth; and because he was young and competent and expendable, he had been sent on a mission of sab-otage into Demarchy s.p.a.ce. And he had failed in his mission. But to his intense humiliation, the perversity of the Demarchy's media-ruled mobocracy had trans-formed him into a popular hero, taking his impas-sioned last denunciation of their own aggression to heart . . . and the Demarchy had sent him home, a shamefaced messenger of goodwill, to open negotiations for the construction of a distillery that would benefit both the Demarchy and the Grand Harmony. But relations between the Harmony and the Demarchists had never improved past that one act of cooper-ation, the real purpose of which lay in their shared needs: independent Demarchy corporations still vio-lated Discan s.p.a.ce, and only their overall economic weakness kept them from outright seizure of the Har-mony's vital resources. The Grand Harmony still denounced the Demarchy, and blamed it for its own marginal existence.
But because of his experience in the Demarchy, the conviction that good and evil were as easily marked as black and white, that every question had a simple an-swer, had been lost to him forever. And as he came to see that the Demarchy was not totally evil, he had re-alized that it was not totally to blame for the Har-mony's precarious survival, either. He had come to see the greater, totally amoral and totally inevitable fate that drew the Grand Harmony, and the Demarchy as well, down the road of no return.
And when he had seen that there was no turning back, no turning aside, he had transferred from De-fense to the Merchant Marine; to serve where he be-lieved he could function most effectively, and make the Harmony's pa.s.sage down that road as easy as pos-sible.
Raul reached the hub of the government complex at last, felt the eddies of cold draft catch him as he moved out into the suddenness of open s.p.a.ce. Over-head the ceiling was dark and amorphous, but he knew that its vault was a surface of clear plastic, not solid stone. Once it had opened on the stars, and the magnificence of Discus-when the Rings of Discus had been the water-well for the entire Heaven Belt. But now the clear dome was blocked beneath an insu-lating pack of snow; the dome had become too great a source of heat loss.
He made his way across the multiple trajectories of other drifting government workers, most of them navy men like himself. He returned their raised-hand salutes automatically, his mind reaching ahead of him into the restricted meeting room where his fellow Hands sat in a private conference with the Heart.
Raul settled quietly into his seat, waiting for the meeting to be called to order. He sat at the end of the long table farthest from the position of the Heart, as the newest officer to achieve the rank of Hand. He nodded to Lobachevsky on his right, looked past, identifying the faces of officers and advisers down the table. He noted without surprise that they had split into opposing factions, as usual-the defense faction on one side, the trade faction on the other. He had settled with the trade faction, as usual. Seeing the bare, s.h.i.+n-ing tabletop as a kind of no man's land between them, he smiled faintly.
A single word silenced the muttered speculation; Raul turned his attention to the head of the table, rose with the rest, acknowledging the arrival of the Heart-the triumvirate that controlled power's ebb and flow in the Grand Harmony. Chatichai, Khurama, and Gulamhusein: like a many-faceted Hindu deity, indistinguishable from one another, or from their staff, in the drab sameness of their bulky clothing . . . but unmistakably set apart by an indefinable self-satisfac-tion-and the unharmonious ambition that had taken them to the top, and made them struggle to stay there. Raul knew the kinds of stress that worked on them, and was grateful that he had already risen above the level of his own ambitions.
The three men at the head of the long table settled slowly onto the seat, a sign for the officers to do the same.
"I a.s.sume you all read the communications that brought you here"-Chatichai spoke, taking the initia-tive as usual-"and so I a.s.sume that you all know that fifty kiloseconds ago our navy encountered a s.h.i.+p like nothin' that exists anywhere in this system. . . ." He paused, looking down; Raul recognized a tape re-corder on the table before him. "This's a report from Captain Smith, who was in charge of the patrol fleet that encountered the craft." He pressed a b.u.t.ton.
Raul drifted against the table, listening, and watching expressions change along the table's length. They had taken the intruder for a Demarchy fusion s.h.i.+p violating Discan s.p.a.ce, at first. Then, as they began to close and a woman's voice answered their chal-lenge, they realized that what they had come upon was something totally unexpected. The s.h.i.+p had bro-ken away from them, accelerating at an impossible sustained ten meters per second squared; it had destroyed one of their own closing craft almost casu-ally, with nothing more than the deadly effluence of its exhaust. But they had fired on the escaping s.h.i.+p, and they had recorded a small, expanding cloud of debris...
An undercurrent of irritation and excitement spread along the table. "Why the h.e.l.l didn't Smith give that woman port coordinates, when she asked for 'em?" Lobachevsky muttered beside him. "d.a.m.n sight more reasonable than tryin' to take the s.h.i.+p by force. Losin' a s.h.i.+p-serves him right." He glared across no-man's-land at the opposition. Raul kept his own face ex-pressionless.
Chatichai raised his eyes, and his voice. "The ques-tion before us now, gentlemen, is not whether Captain Smith acted in the best interests of the Grand Har-mony-but what further action should be taken concernin' that s.h.i.+p. I don't think anybody here will disagree that the s.h.i.+p had to come from outside the system. . . ." He paused; no one did. "And I don't think we have to detail for anybody here what a s.h.i.+p like that could mean to our economy ... or to the Demarchy's, if they get hold of it instead." Another pause. "But is it feasible, or even possible, for us to get our hands on that s.h.i.+p? And in any case, what action should be taken to ensure that it doesn't fall into the Demarchy's hands instead?"
Raul studied the dull sheen of the table's scarred plastic surface, seeing beyond it as he listened with half-attention to the debate progressing along the table's length: the s.h.i.+p was damaged . . . the s.h.i.+p could still outrun anything that Heaven Belt could send after it. The s.h.i.+p might seek out the Demarchy because of the attack . . . there was no reason to be-lieve its crew would trust anyone in the Belt, now. The s.h.i.+p was the answer to the Harmony's survival . . . the s.h.i.+p was a phantom, and pursuing it would only waste more resources they couldn't afford to lose. . . .
Raul glanced up, pus.h.i.+ng his own thoughts into or-der. He rarely spoke out unless he had been able to consider all sides of a question; he had learned long ago that selective silence was a more effective tool than a loud voice. Since his promotion to Hand, he had used it to good effect to earn himself a reputation for getting what he wanted, for building up the effi-ciency of the Merchant Marine and the influence of the trade faction. Finding a lull, he broke into the dis-cussion: "As you all know, I've been opposed to the development and support of our high delta-vee force from the beginnin'..." He searched the faces along the table, seeing resentment glance along the far side, feeling the gratification that spread from Lobachevsky along his own side. He had believed, along with the minority of others, that the Demarchy posed no real-istic threat to the safety of the Grand Harmony, that the resources used to maintain a defense fleet would serve the Harmony's interest better if they were employed to bolster trade within the Rings, and even with the Demarchy itself. Because he understood that the status quo was deterioration, and that nothing could overthrow that order..."But this's a situation I never foresaw. In this situation, I have to admit I'm glad we have a high delta-vee force available . . . and I am in favor of usin' it to pursue that s.h.i.+p-" Voices indignant with betrayal cut him off; he saw the hostil-ity re-form into surprise across the table. "I know it's a gamble. I know it's probably a futile one, the odds against us capturin' that s.h.i.+p are d.a.m.ned high. But they're not astronomical: the s.h.i.+p's damaged, we don't know how severely. It may be that they'll lie low at Lansing, if Lansing's still alive; it's worth the loss, worth the gamble, to find out. We've got this d.a.m.ned high delta-vee force whether we want it or not-let's put it to some rational use!
If we know this much about the stars.h.i.+p, you can count on the Demarchy knowin' just as much-and bein' just as interested. I don't believe they're any threat without that s.h.i.+p; but if we don't get the s.h.i.+p, and they do, anything we do is goin' to be academic from then on.
"I propose that the closest available high delta-vee force be readied as soon as possible to pursue the star-s.h.i.+p toward Lansing. And I request that I be given command...."
The acrimony of the final debate faded from his mind as acceleration's false gravity abruptly ceased, leaving his body free in a sudden release from tension. He had won, in the end, because there was no one in the room who could question his sincerity, or his de-termination to achieve whatever goal he set himself. And so these s.h.i.+ps would continue in a drifting fall toward Lansing. And if the life-support systems held out, they would find-something; or nothing. The cards had been laid down; the Grand Harmony had gambled on the last chance it would ever have.
RANGER (DEMARCHY s.p.a.cE) + 553 KILOSECONDS.
"No, that won't work either. They could see this isn't a prewar s.h.i.+p." Bird Alyn shook her head; her hair, caught into two stubby ponytails, stood out from her head like seafoam.
"Then there's nothing more I can suggest, offhand." Betha glanced from face to face, questioning. Clewell sat firmly belted into a seat; Bird Alyn and Shadow Jack sprawled in the air, totally secure in the absence of gravity. The five-day journey along sixty degrees of Discus's...o...b..t had transformed them, superficially: Their skin and hair were s.h.i.+ning clean, their long, gangly bodies forced into dungarees and soft pullover s.h.i.+rts. But the start of one-gee acceleration had left them crushed on the floor like reedflies, and they still winced with the stiffness of wrenched muscles, and the memory. And there were other memories, that shone darkly in their hungry eyes and quick, nervous words; memories out of a past that Betha was afraid to imagine and glad she would never know.
"I still say you should leave the Demarchy alone." Shadow Jack stuck out a thin bronze foot, stroked Rusty gingerly as she drifted past. "We should've gone for the Rings. It's a lot safer to steal it from them. If you ask me-"
"I wasn't asking-that." Betha smiled faintly. "I "I want to trade, not steal. ... I already know how 'safe' it is in the rings of Discus, Shadow Jack." want to trade, not steal. ... I already know how 'safe' it is in the rings of Discus, Shadow Jack."
"But the Demarchy's worse. They've got a higher technology."
"How much higher? You don't really know. And they aren't looking for us, either. With your s.h.i.+p to ferry us in, we can slip in and out of a distillery be-fore they even think about it. But what do we trade for hydrogen?" She repeated the inventory again in her mind, struggling with the knowledge that only Eric would know what was right, what to offer, what to say. Only Eric had been trained to know. .. . Oh, Oh, Eric- Eric- Shadow Jack frowned, pulling at his toes. Bird Alyn caught Rusty, set her spinning slowly head over paws in the air. Rusty caught her own tail and began to wash it. Bird Alyn laughed, inaudible.
"The cat," Shadow Jack said. "We could give them the cat!"
"What?" Clewell straightened indignantly.
"Sure. n.o.body's got a cat any more. But n.o.body in the Demarchy could know we didn't; Lansing had a lot of animals, once. And it's just what the Demarchists go for: somethin' really rare. The owner of a distillery, he'd probably give you half his stock to own Rusty."
"That's ridiculous," Clewell said.
"No . . . maybe it's not, Pappy." Betha spread her hands, and Rusty pushed off toward her. "I think he's got a point. Rusty, would you like to live like a queen?" She gathered Rusty into her arms, gathered in the precious memories of her children's faces, as they handed her the gifts of love. She felt her throat tighten against more words, wondering what payment would be demanded next of them; knowing that whatever the emotional price was, they must pay it, if it would buy this s.h.i.+p's pa.s.sage home to Morningside. She saw sharp sorrow on Bird Alyn's face; saw Bird Alyn struggle to hide it, as she hid her own. "Besides... we haven't been able to think of anything else that wouldn't give us away. Any equipment we tried to trade would be obvious as coming from outside the system. We'll be taking enough of a risk as it is."
"I know." Clewell looked down. "You're the cap-tain."
"Yes, I am." Betha pulled herself down to the con-trol panel, tired of arguing, tired of postponing the inevitable. There was no choice, there was only one thing that mattered-saving this s.h.i.+p-and she must never forget it...She watched the latest surveil-lance readouts, not seeing them. The Ranger Ranger was well within Demarchy s.p.a.ce now. They had detected dozens of asteroids and heavy radio traffic. They had identified Mecca, the largest distillery, eight million kilometers away, with a closing velocity of ten kilo-meters per second-only hours of flight time for the was well within Demarchy s.p.a.ce now. They had detected dozens of asteroids and heavy radio traffic. They had identified Mecca, the largest distillery, eight million kilometers away, with a closing velocity of ten kilo-meters per second-only hours of flight time for the Ranger. Ranger. But it would take the But it would take the Lansing 04 Lansing 04 two weeks, decelerating every meter of the way, to close the distance-and-velocity gap between them and Mecca. Her stomach tightened at the prospect; the extra s.h.i.+elding they had put on board the Lansing s.h.i.+p cut the radia-tion levels to one-sixth of what they had been, but the readings were still too high. And yet if the two weeks, decelerating every meter of the way, to close the distance-and-velocity gap between them and Mecca. Her stomach tightened at the prospect; the extra s.h.i.+elding they had put on board the Lansing s.h.i.+p cut the radia-tion levels to one-sixth of what they had been, but the readings were still too high. And yet if the Ranger Ranger came any closer to an inhabited area, the risk of de-tection would be too great. came any closer to an inhabited area, the risk of de-tection would be too great.
The road to Morning Is cut from mourning, And paved with broken dreams....
"I'm going to Mecca, Pappy," she said at last. "I'm going to get us our ticket home."
Clewell sat firmly in his seat as Bird Alyn floated free above his head. They watched together while the Lansing 04, Lansing 04, a battered tin can with a reactor tied to its tail, fell away into the bottomless night. He looked back from the darkness to Bird Alyn's face, her own dark eyes still fixed on the screen. "I'm glad you're here. There's too much-emptiness on this s.h.i.+p, alone." a battered tin can with a reactor tied to its tail, fell away into the bottomless night. He looked back from the darkness to Bird Alyn's face, her own dark eyes still fixed on the screen. "I'm glad you're here. There's too much-emptiness on this s.h.i.+p, alone."
She blinked self-consciously, her arms moving like bird wings as she turned toward him in the air. Her eyes rarely met his, or anyone's; as if she was afraid of seeing her own image reflected there. "I wish-I wish she hadn't taken Rusty."
He had to strain to hear her, wondered again if he was getting a little deaf. "So do I. She did what she thought was best...And you wish she hadn't taken Shadow Jack."
She still looked down; her head twitched slightly.
"She did what she thought was best." He thought of Eric, who had been trained to know what was best; remembered Betha's anguished doubt, in the private darkness of their room. "She means everything to me, too."
Bird Alyn looked up at him at last. "Are-are you Betha's father?"
He laughed. "No, child; I'm her husband. One of her husbands."
"Her-husband?" He almost thought he could see her blush. "One "One of her husbands? How many does she have?" of her husbands? How many does she have?"
"There are seven of us, three women and four men." He smiled. "I take it that's not so common here."
"No." Almost a protest. "Are ... the rest of them back on your-planet?"
"They were the crew of the Ranger." Ranger."
She jerked suddenly. "Then-they're all dead, now."
"Yes, All...." He stopped, forcing his mind away from the empty room on the next level below, where a gaping wound opened on the stars. Deliberately he looked back at Bird Alyn, saw her embarra.s.sment.
"It's possible to be in love with more than one person, you know."
"I always thought that meant somebody had to be unhappy."
He shook his head, smiling, wondering what strange beliefs must be a part of the Lansing culture. And he wondered how those beliefs could survive, when a people were struggling for their own survival.
On Morningside the first colonists had struggled to survive, expatriates and exiles fleeing an Earth where the political world had turned upside down. They had arrived in a Promised Land that they discovered, too late, was not the haven they were promised-discover-ing at last the lyrical irony in the name Morningside. Tidally locked with its red dwarf star, Morningside turned one face forever toward the b.l.o.o.d.y sun, held one side forever frozen into night. Between the subsolar desert and the darkside ice lay a bleak ring of mar-ginally habitable land, the Wedding Band . . . until death did them part. The fear of death, the need to enlarge a small and suddenly vulnerable population, had broken down the rigid customs of their European and North American past. They were no longer the people they had once been, and now, looking back across two hundred years of multiple marriage and the freedom-in-security of extended family kins.h.i.+p, few Morningsiders saw reason in their own past, or any reason to change back again.
Bird Alyn folded her arms, hiding her misshapen hand. And Clewell realized that perhaps the people of Lansing had had no choice in their customs either. If the radiation levels were as high as those on the Lan-sing 04, Lan-sing 04, even one percent as high, then the threat of genetic damage could force them into breeding customs that seemed strange or even suicidal anywhere else. The whole of Heaven Belt was a trap and a betrayal in a way that Morningside had never been: because Heaven had promised a life of ease and beauty in re-turn for a high technology, but it d.a.m.ned human weakness without pity. even one percent as high, then the threat of genetic damage could force them into breeding customs that seemed strange or even suicidal anywhere else. The whole of Heaven Belt was a trap and a betrayal in a way that Morningside had never been: because Heaven had promised a life of ease and beauty in re-turn for a high technology, but it d.a.m.ned human weakness without pity.
Clewell was silent with the realization that whatever Morningside lacked in comfort, it made up for in a grudging constancy, and that even beauty became meaningless without that....
"How did you and Shadow Jack end up out here?"
She shrugged, a tiny waver of her weightless body. "I can work the computer; my parents programmed the recon unit. And Shadow Jack wanted to be a pilot and do something to help Lansing; he won a lottery."
"Your parents let you go, instead of going them-selves?" He saw Betha suddenly, in his mind: a gang-ly, earnest teenage girl, helping him take the measure of the immeasurable universe . . . saw his own chil-dren, waiting for him across that universal sea. He covered a sudden anger against whoever had sent their half-grown daughter out in a contaminated s.h.i.+p be-fore they would go themselves.
Bird Alyn looked down at her crippled hand. "Well, you can only go if you work outside...."
"Lansing's a tent world ... we have surface gardens, and a plastic tent to keep in an atmosphere." She ran her hand through her hair, her mouth twitching. "You work outside if you can't have chil-dren." For a moment her eyes touched him, envious, almost accusing; she turned back to the viewscreen, looking out over isolation, withdrawing into herself. "I think I'll take a shower."
He laughed carefully. "If you take too many show-ers, girl, you'll wrinkle up for good."
"Maybe it would help." Not smiling, she pushed off from the panel.
He looked out at the barren night, where all their hopes lay, and where all the dreams of their separate worlds lay ruined. Pain caught in his chest, and made him afraid. Help me, G.o.d, I'm an old man. Don't Help me, G.o.d, I'm an old man. Don't let me be too old. . let me be too old. . . . He pressed his hands against the pain, heard the sprayer go on and Bird Alyn's voice rise like warbling birdsong, beginning a Morningside lullaby: . . He pressed his hands against the pain, heard the sprayer go on and Bird Alyn's voice rise like warbling birdsong, beginning a Morningside lullaby: "There's never joy but leads to sorrow, Never sorrow without joy.
Yesterday becomes tomorrow; I can't stop it, little boy...."
LANSING 04 (DEMARCHY s.p.a.cE) + 1.51.
"There it is," Shadow Jack said, with almost a sigh. "Mecca rock."
Betha watched it come into view at the port: a fifty-kilometer potato-shaped lump of stone, scarred by nature's hand and man's. Mecca's long axis pointed to the sun; the side nearest them lay in darkness, haloed by an eternal corona of sunglare. As they closed she began to see landing lights; and, between, them, immense s.h.i.+ning protrusions lit from below, throwing their shadows out to be lost in the shadow of the void. She identified them finally as storage tanks-enormous balloons of precious gases. At last . . At last . . . She stirred in the narrow, dimly lit s.p.a.ce before the instruments, felt her numbed emotions stir and come alive. She filled her congested lungs with the dead, stale air, heard a fan go on somewhere behind her, clanking and ineffective; wondered whether she could ever revive a sense of smell mercifully long dead. It was small comfort to know that the claustro-phobic misery of their journey would have been worse without the overhauling they had done on board the . She stirred in the narrow, dimly lit s.p.a.ce before the instruments, felt her numbed emotions stir and come alive. She filled her congested lungs with the dead, stale air, heard a fan go on somewhere behind her, clanking and ineffective; wondered whether she could ever revive a sense of smell mercifully long dead. It was small comfort to know that the claustro-phobic misery of their journey would have been worse without the overhauling they had done on board the Ranger. Ranger. Two strangers from Lansing could teach even Morningsiders something about tough-ness. . . . The Two strangers from Lansing could teach even Morningsiders something about tough-ness. . . . The Ranger Ranger came back into her mind, and with it the galling knowledge that they could have crossed Demarchy s.p.a.ce to Mecca in one day instead of fifteen, in perfect comfort-if things had been different. "But we're here. Thank G.o.d. And thanks to you, Shadow Jack. That was a good job." Her hand stroked his arm unthinkingly, in a gesture meant for someone else. He started out of his habitual glumness, looking embarra.s.sed and then something more; reached to scan the radio frequencies. Static and voices broke across the cabin's clicking silence. came back into her mind, and with it the galling knowledge that they could have crossed Demarchy s.p.a.ce to Mecca in one day instead of fifteen, in perfect comfort-if things had been different. "But we're here. Thank G.o.d. And thanks to you, Shadow Jack. That was a good job." Her hand stroked his arm unthinkingly, in a gesture meant for someone else. He started out of his habitual glumness, looking embarra.s.sed and then something more; reached to scan the radio frequencies. Static and voices broke across the cabin's clicking silence.
"Did-did you love one of them best?"
She sighed. "Yes . . . yes, I suppose I did. It's some-thing you can't help feeling; I loved them all so much, but one . . ." Who isn't here, when I need him. Who isn't here, when I need him. She shook her head, her eyes blurred, and sharpened again as a piece of the real world moved across them. "Out there, Shadow Jack." She leaned closer to the port, rubbed the fog of moisture from the gla.s.s. "A tanker coming in." She shook her head, her eyes blurred, and sharpened again as a piece of the real world moved across them. "Out there, Shadow Jack." She leaned closer to the port, rubbed the fog of moisture from the gla.s.s. "A tanker coming in."
He peered past her. They saw the s.h.i.+p, still lit by the sun: a ponderous metallic tick, its plastic belly bloated with precious gases and clutched inside three legs of steel, booms for the s.h.i.+p's nuclear-electric rockets. "Look at the size of that! It must be comin' in from the Rings. They wouldn't use that on local hauls." He raised his head, following its downward arc. "Down there, that must be the docking field."
She could see the field clearly now, an unnatural gleaming smoothness in the artificial light, cluttered with cranes and ringed by more mechanical parasites, gorged and empty. Smaller craft moved above them, fireflies, showing red; sluggish tows in a profusion of makes.h.i.+ft incongruity. Another world . . . Another world . . . She lis-tened, watching, matching fragments of one-sided ra-dio conversations with the movements of the slow-motion dance below them: boredom and sharp attention, an outburst of anger, unintelligible humor about an unseen technicality. "Shouldn't they be re-ceiving our signal? " She lis-tened, watching, matching fragments of one-sided ra-dio conversations with the movements of the slow-motion dance below them: boredom and sharp attention, an outburst of anger, unintelligible humor about an unseen technicality. "Shouldn't they be re-ceiving our signal? "
He nodded. "They are. I guess they'll call us down when they feel like it."
Rusty stirred in the air above the control board, batted listlessly at the twined cord of his headset. "Poor Rusty," Betha murmured, reaching out. "Your trip in this sauna is almost over..." The rawness of her throat hurt her suddenly.
Shadow Jack twisted guiltily, stroked Rusty's rumpled fur. "Bird Alyn really let me have it for makin' you take Rusty away. She didn't want to lose her. She loves plants, makin' things grow-things that are alive.
. . ." His mouth twitched, almost a smile, almost sorrow. "I guess Rusty was about the most wonderful thing of all, to Bird Alyn."
"You miss her."
"Yeah, I ... I mean, well, she's the only one who can really use the computer."