The Outcasts of Heaven Belt - LightNovelsOnl.com
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He glanced back at her, knowing what she hadn't said. "We just work together."
She nodded. "I thought maybe you-"
"No, we don't. We're not married."
She felt her mouth curve up in scandalized amuse-ment. "I admire your self-restraint."
His blue and green eyes widened; she saw darkness settle across them again. "There's no point in wanting what we can't have. It's only keeping alive that mat-ters-everybody keeping alive. If we can't get water for Lansing, then it's the end, and it's stupid to pre-tend it's not. There's no point in ... in ..."
He looked down at the control panel. "Those day-dreamers! Why don't they answer us? What do they need, a miracle?"
A voice broke from the speaker, "Unregistered s.h.i.+p-what the h.e.l.l are you doing up there, running so dark?"
Shadow Jack turned back to her, speechless; she smiled. "Now try wis.h.i.+ng for hydrogen."
Shadow Jack took them in, cursing in the glare, to a moorage on Mecca's day side. "'Not registered for main field.' Those nosy b.a.s.t.a.r.ds! How come we couldn't land in the dark, like the rest of those d.a.m.n charmed tankers?" He stretched, leaning back, and cracked his knuckles.
"I suppose they don't want some tourist cras.h.i.+ng into the distillery." Betha relaxed at last, at the reas-suring sound of magnetic cables attaching to the hull outside.
He pushed himself away from his seat. "That doesn't help us. If something goes wrong, we'll have a h.e.l.l of a time gettin' out of here this way." He moved toward the locker that held their s.p.a.cesuits.
She sighed and nodded, reaching out to catch Rusty. "We'll just hope nothing goes wrong," think-ing that whoever had named him for shadows had named him well.
Betha clung momentarily to the edge of the open airlock, looking down, and away, to where the world ended too suddenly: the foreshortened horizon, like the edge of a gleaming, pitted knife blade against the blackness. And beyond it the stars, scarcely visible, impossibly distant across the lightless void. She saw five torn bodies, falling away into that void where no hand could stop their fall, where no voice could ever break the silence of an eternity alone. . . . She swayed, giddy. Shadow Jack touched her back.
"Go on, push off." His voice crackled, distorted by his feeble speaker. on, push off." His voice crackled, distorted by his feeble speaker.
Behind his voice in her receiver she heard Rusty's fruitless scratching inside the pressurized carrying case; she saw figures coming toward them, moving along a mooring cable fastened amids.h.i.+ps. She pushed herself out of the hatchway with too much force, drifted through a graceless arc to the ground. She be-gan to rebound, caught at the mooring line and steadied herself. A mistake A mistake , . . And she couldn't af-ford to make another one. She was dealing with Bel-ters, and she'd d.a.m.n well better act like the Belters did. She felt tension burn away the fog of her exhaus-tion, as she watched Shadow Jack land easily on the bright, pockmarked field of rubble behind her. Above him she saw the sun Heaven, a spiny diamond in the crown of night, frigid and faraway-bizarre against the memory of her sun's b.l.o.o.d.y face in a dust-faded Morningside sky. As she turned away from the shadowed hull of the , . . And she couldn't af-ford to make another one. She was dealing with Bel-ters, and she'd d.a.m.n well better act like the Belters did. She felt tension burn away the fog of her exhaus-tion, as she watched Shadow Jack land easily on the bright, pockmarked field of rubble behind her. Above him she saw the sun Heaven, a spiny diamond in the crown of night, frigid and faraway-bizarre against the memory of her sun's b.l.o.o.d.y face in a dust-faded Morningside sky. As she turned away from the shadowed hull of the Lansing 04 Lansing 04 she could see other s.h.i.+ps moored; the stark light etched the crude patch-work of misshapen forms on her mind, overlaying her memory of the she could see other s.h.i.+ps moored; the stark light etched the crude patch-work of misshapen forms on her mind, overlaying her memory of the Ranger's Ranger's ascetic perfection. ascetic perfection.
"You staying here long?"
She couldn't see the port man's face through the s.h.i.+elding mask of his helmet; she hoped her own faceplate hid her as well. "No longer than we have to."
"Good; your exterior radiation level's medium-high. Not good for the plants."
She looked down at the stained rubble, wondered if he was making a joke. She laughed, tentatively.
"You're the Lansing people?" Eight or ten more fig-ures spilled out from behind him, with bulky instru-ments she realized were cameras.
"What are you here for?"
"Is it true that-"
"I thought everybody in the Main Belt was dead?"
She s.h.i.+fted Rusty's case, getting a better grip on the cable; their voices dinned inside her helmet. "We want to buy some hydrogen from your distillery." She looked back at the port man. "I hope we don't have to walk to the other side?"
He laughed this time. "Nope. Not if you're paying customers."
Betha noticed that he was armed.
". . . heard you Main Belters mostly scrounge and steal," the voices ran on. "Have you really got some-thin' there to trade for snow?"
"How is it that a woman's in your position; are you sterile?"
"What's in the box?"
They surrounded her like wolves; she drew back, appalled. "I don't-"
"That's for us to know, junkers," Shadow Jack said suddenly. "We're not here for handouts. We don't have to take c.r.a.p from any of you." He caught the guard's rigid sleeve. "Now, how do we get to the distillery?"
Betha's jaw tightened, but the guard raised his hands. "All right, you media boys, get off their backs. Take a picture of the s.h.i.+p; they didn't come from Lansing to pose for you. And be sure to mention Mecca Moorage Rentals. . . . No offense, buddy. Just follow the cable back to the shack; they're holdin'
the car for you. Welcome to Mecca."
"Say, is it true that-"
Shadow Jack drifted over the cable and pushed past them to the far side. Betha followed, her motion pain-fully nonchalant. "Thanks-buddy," she said.
The guard nodded, or bowed, and so did Shadow Jack.
"Christ, who were were those people?" She glanced over her shoulder as they boarded the single canister car of the ground transport; behind them someone sealed the door. She heard Shadow Jack mutter, those people?" She glanced over her shoulder as they boarded the single canister car of the ground transport; behind them someone sealed the door. She heard Shadow Jack mutter, "Unreal." There were two others in the cabin, she saw, wis.h.i.+ng it was empty, glad there were only two and hoping they didn't have cameras. Ahead through the plastic dome, the filament-fine monorail track stretched away over the barren brightness. Beyond the platform on her right she saw what looked to be a circular hatch-way set into the surface of the rock; above it was a sign: hydroponics co-op. She realized that the guard hadn't been making a joke; the chunk of naked stone that was Mecca was a self-sufficient world, riddled with tubes and vacuoles that supported life and all its processes. Too much radiation was bad for the plants. . . .
Her thoughts jarred and re-formed as gentle inertia pressed her against the seatback. Rusty snuffled and scratched in the carrier, making a sound like static in-side her helmet; suddenly, painfully, she remembered their destination, and their purpose. And that only Eric could help her now-but Eric was gone. "I won-der if this was built before the war?" She glanced at Shadow Jack's mirrored faceplate, needing an answer.
"Yes, it was." The voice in her helmet belonged to a stranger.
She started; so did Shadow Jack. They turned to look at the two others in the car; one, long legs stretching casually, reached up to clear his faceplate. "Eric-!" Her hand rose to her own helmet, hung motionless, almost weightless.
Curling dark hair, a lean, pensive face; the sudden smile that was almost a child's. The brown eyes looked surprised . . . amber eyes . . . not Eric, not . . . Eric is dead. Eric is dead. She pulled down her trembling hand, leaving her faceplate dark. "I-I'm sorry. I thought... I thought you were someone I knew." She pulled down her trembling hand, leaving her faceplate dark. "I-I'm sorry. I thought... I thought you were someone I knew."
He smiled again, politely. "I don't think so."
"You're the ones who came to trade, from Lan-sing." The second voice rasped like grit. "They said the car was waiting for you."
Betha winced, unseen. She looked across at the shorter, somehow bulkier figure; wondered if it was possible to find a fat Belter. Her own 1.75 meters felt oddly pet.i.te. The woman cleared her helmet gla.s.s, showed a middle-aged face, brown skin and graying hair, eyes of s.h.i.+ning jet.
"Yes, we are." Betha kept her faceplate dark to hide her paleness, felt Shadow Jack fidget beside her.
"You're the first ones I've ever seen from the Main Belt. What's it like back in there? It's good to learn that you aren't all-"
Rusty emitted a piercing yowl of desolation, and Betha gasped as it rattled against her ears.
"My Lord, what was that?" The woman's gloves rose to her own s.h.i.+elded ears.
"Ghosts," Shadow Jack said, "of dead Belters."
The woman's face went blank with confusion. Betha glanced at the man, saw him smile and frown together; he met her unseen eyes. "Never heard a noise like that. Maybe we pa.s.sed over a power cable." She realized that not only the cat, but the carrying case transmitter must be an unheard-of novelty in Heaven now.
The woman looked shaken. "I'm sorry. That wasn't gracious of me, anyway. Just that you're such a nov-elty. I'm Rinee Bohanian, of Bohanian Agroponics." She gestured at the sunside behind them.
"Family business, you know."
"Wadie Abdhiamal." The man nodded. "I work for the Demarchy."
"Don't we all?" the woman said.
She peered at him with a suspicion edging on dis-like. "Well." She looked back at Betha. "And what's your name? You know, I'd like to get a look at a gen-uine s.p.a.cewoman-"
"Betha Torgussen. I'm sorry, my helmet's broken." She crossed her fingers; no one showed surprise.
"And this is-"
"Shadow Jack," Shadow Jack said. "I'm a pirate."
"Pilot," Betha murmured, irritated, but the others laughed.
"That's a Materialist name." The man was looking at Shadow Jack. "I haven't met one of those in a long time."
"Everybody's one, on Lansing. But it's just wis.h.i.+ng. Nothin' left to contemplate." He was almost relaxing, the hard edge softening out of his voice.
The man glanced at Betha, questioning.
"Not everyone." She turned away toward the front of the car, looking for a reason to stop talking. She heard the woman asking the man what he did for the government, didn't listen to his reply. They were nearing the terminator; it ran smoothly to meet them, like a cloud shadow crossing the broken desert lands of Morningside. Beyond the terminator, parallel to the edge of shadow, lay a line of leviathans: stubby poles of steel crowned by rings of copper, strung with serial blinking lights, red and green.
"That's the linear accelerator," the woman said. "It's used to s.h.i.+p cargo that doesn't have to move too fast, or go too far.... What exactly does a Material-ist think?"
They crossed the terminator, blinking into night as though a switch had been thrown, and pa.s.sed between the looming towers of the accelerator. The dark-haired man sat listening to Shadow Jack; unwillingly Betha felt her eyes drawn back to his face.
". . . and you're given a word, the name of some-thin' material that's supposed to set each of you apart and shape your being somehow. Half the people don't even know what their words mean, now...."
She watched the stranger in silence, helpless, flushed with sudden radiance, chilled until she trembled. . . . Remembering Morningside, the first days of her love for Eric: remembering an engineer and a social scien-tist ill-met in a factory yard on the Hotspot perime-ter, and blazing metal in the unending heat of endless noon. . . . Remembering their last days on Morning-side: a film of ice broken in a well in unending dusk, where the crackling edge of the darkside ice sheet, stained with rose and amber by the fires of sunset, shattered its mirror image in the Boreal Sea. Borealis Field, where her family, as the newly chosen crew of the Ranger, Ranger, worked together preparing for an emergency s.h.i.+pment, preparing themselves for the journey across 1.3 light-years to icebound Uhuru. worked together preparing for an emergency s.h.i.+pment, preparing themselves for the journey across 1.3 light-years to icebound Uhuru.
They had been selected from all the volunteers willing to leave homes and jobs because another world in their trade ring needed help; but they had never imagined the journey that in the end would be a.s.sign-ed to them. Word had come from the High Council that a radio message had been received from Uhuru, and aid was no longer needed. They had been given a new, unexpected destination, the Heaven system, and a goal that was more than simple survival for an-other world or their own. She remembered the celebration, their pride at the honor, their families' families' pride. . . . Remembered Eric leading her quietly from the crowded, fire-bright hall, for one brief time alone before a journey that would last for years. His gentle hands, and the caressing heat of the deserted sauna; their laughing plunge into banked snow ... the heat of pa.s.sion, the wasting cold of death . . . fire and ice, fire and ice. . . . She cried silently, Eric, don't betray me now. Eric, don't betray me now. . . . . . . Give me strength. Give me strength.
The car slipped on through darkness.
The car drifted to a stop beneath the slender towers of their destination, among the ballooning storage sacs that glowed with ghostly foxfire-dim yellows, greens, and blues, excited by the ground lights into a strange phosph.o.r.escence. Betha shook off the past, looking out into the glowing forest of alien shapes. She heard the woman: ". . . how your Lansing fields are like our tank farmin'. Of course, there's no shortage of water for us; we have the snow stored below in the old mining cavities. We've got enough to last forever, I expect." A pride that was unconsciously greed filled her smile. The government man glanced at her; Betha saw him show quick anger and wondered why. Shadow Jack pushed abruptly up out of his seat, stabi-lized himself instinctively. Tension tightened him like a wire again; she wondered what showed on his face.
They followed the man and woman through disem-bodied radio noise and the impersonal clutter of workers on the platform, came to another hatch set into the solidness of the surface rock. Below the air-lock they entered tunnels that sloped steeply down-ward, without seeming to, into the heart of the stone. Betha felt her suit grow limp with the return of air pressure, making her movements easy. Sounds carried to her now, dimmed by her helmet, as she pa.s.sed new cl.u.s.ters of citizens, some suited and some not, all mer-cifully oblivious; she wondered again at the behavior of the cameramen on the field.
They followed a rope along the wall of the main corridor, where the rough gloves of pressure suits had sc.r.a.ped a shallow trough along the pitted surface. Ahead and below she saw the tunnel's end, opening onto a s.p.a.ce hung with fine netting. Curious, she drifted out onto the ledge at the chamber's lip.
"Oh..." Her breath was lost in a sigh. She stood as Shadow Jack already stood, transfixed by a faery beauty trapped in stone. Before them a vacuole opened up, a kilometer or more in diameter: an im-mense, unnatural geode filled with s.h.i.+ning spines of crystal growth, blunt and spike-sharp, rainbow on rainbow of strident, flowing color. The hollow core of air was hung with gossamer, silken filaments spread by some incredible spider....
The images began to re-form in her mind; she real-ized that this was the city, the heart of life in the Mecca asteroid-that the crystal spines were its tow-ers, reaching up from the floor, out on every side...down, from the ceiling. Why don't they fall-? Why don't they fall-? Her thoughts spun, falling; she felt someone's hands clutch her arms. Her mind settled, her feet settled softly on the ledge. Angrily she forced her eyes out again into the chamber's dizzy immensity. People drifted, as tiny as midges, along the gossamer threads; light ropes, strung across the wide, soft s.p.a.ces. The towers grew thickest, probing the inner air, on ceiling and floor, in the direct line of gravity's faint inexorable drag. The buildings that hugged the hollow's curving sides were shorter, stubbier, enduring greater stress. The towers s.h.i.+vered delicately in the slight stirring currents of ventilation; they were not solid crystalline surfaces, but trembling tents of colored fabric stretched over slender metal frames. Her thoughts spun, falling; she felt someone's hands clutch her arms. Her mind settled, her feet settled softly on the ledge. Angrily she forced her eyes out again into the chamber's dizzy immensity. People drifted, as tiny as midges, along the gossamer threads; light ropes, strung across the wide, soft s.p.a.ces. The towers grew thickest, probing the inner air, on ceiling and floor, in the direct line of gravity's faint inexorable drag. The buildings that hugged the hollow's curving sides were shorter, stubbier, enduring greater stress. The towers s.h.i.+vered delicately in the slight stirring currents of ventilation; they were not solid crystalline surfaces, but trembling tents of colored fabric stretched over slender metal frames.
"It was a 'model city' before the war." She saw that the government man was the one who had caught her arms; he released her noncommittally. "It used to be a gamin' center. Now we play more practical games; most of those towers belong to merchant groups." The man unlatched his helmet, lifting it off and look-ing at her expectantly. "The air's okay here."
She reached up only to switch on her outside speaker; her skin p.r.i.c.kled, wanting the touch of his eyes.
"Thank you"-she tried to sound unsure-"but I'll wait." Shadow Jack, speakerless, stood looking out into the city, sullenly content to play deaf and dumb. "Can you tell us which of those belongs to someone who can sell us hydrogen?"
"Hydrogen?" His wandering glance leaped back to her s.h.i.+elded face. "I thought you'd want air. Or water."
"We do. We need water-we have oxygen. So we need hydrogen, obviously." Rusty yowled; she closed her ears.
"Oh." His face relaxed into acceptance. "Obvi-ously. . . . You know, it's not often that I meet a woman who's chosen to go into s.p.a.ce. Is it common on Lansing?"
"Going into s.p.a.ce isn't common on Lansing, any more." Betha remembered suddenly that the stranger's golden-brown eyes belonged to the enemy. "If you could just point out the distillery offices for me?"
"Down there"-he pointed-"that cl.u.s.ter of long greens on the floor; lot of offices for the distilleries in that bunch. Tiriki, Flynn, Siamang..."
"Distilleries? There's more than one?" Should I have known1? Should I have known1? She swore under her breath. She swore under her breath.
"Sure are." But he smiled, tolerantly. "This is the Demarchy, the people rule; we don't like monopolistic practices. It infringes on the people; they won't stand for it-I know. Let me take you around."
"It's the least I can do, when you've come this far." He put two fingers into his mouth and whistled shrilly, three times. She flinched; he turned back to her, surprising her with a quick, apologetic bow.
"That's how you call a taxi here, now. Mecca's man-ners are going to h.e.l.l. . . . Heaven is going to h.e.l.l"
He laughed oddly, as if he hadn't expected to say it out loud. "I'm from Toledo, myself."
"What-ah-did you say you do for the govern-ment?" She looked away uneasily across the ledge. The woman from the train had disappeared. Why is he staying with us like this? Why is he staying with us like this?
"I'm a negotiator. I try to keep things from getting any more uncivilized than they already are." Again the quick, pained laugh. "I settle disputes, work out trade agreements... look into unexpected visits."
She almost turned, froze as she saw the cameramen from moorage emerge from the tunnel. "Shadow Jack!" She caught his arm. "Stay with me, don't get separated."
The voices closed in on them, "... in that run-down s.h.i.+p?"
"Who are you making your deal with?"
"What do you have-"