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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 5

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Mediamen and staring locals crowded them, ringed them in, jostling and interrupting. She saw the gov-ernment man elbowed aside as the air taxi drifted up to the ledge, grating to a stop. She pushed toward it, gesturing to Shadow Jack. It was canopied and propeller-driven, steered by hand by a bored-looking, well-dressed boy. "Where to?"

"To-to Tiriki's. And hurry." She ducked her head at the edge of the striped canopy, felt the footing bob beneath her in a sea of air, seeing crystals reflecting above and below. Shadow Jack followed. The taxi sank outward and down, away from the grasping mob on the precipice.

". . . Torgussen!" She heard the government man shouting after her.

She looked back; her hands rose to her helmet, fum-bling, pulled it off. She saw his face change with in-credulity . . . recognition . . . loss. . . . Stop it! Stop it!

There was no resemblance, there could be no recogni-tion . . . Eric is dead! Eric is dead! She clung to a canopy pole, feeling the air currents stir her pale, snarled hair, soothe her burning face. She clung to a canopy pole, feeling the air currents stir her pale, snarled hair, soothe her burning face. Oh, G.o.d, how often will this Oh, G.o.d, how often will this happen? happen? Shadow Jack hung over the edge, looking down, up, sideways, as they pa.s.sed the artificial sun caged in gla.s.s suspended in the cavern's center. Slowly she sank onto a seat, forcing her own senses to absorb her surroundings, jamming the echoes of the past. Shadow Jack hung over the edge, looking down, up, sideways, as they pa.s.sed the artificial sun caged in gla.s.s suspended in the cavern's center. Slowly she sank onto a seat, forcing her own senses to absorb her surroundings, jamming the echoes of the past.



The cavern was filled with sound, merging and in-distinct: laughter, shouting, the beehive hum of un-seen mechanisms. She looked ahead, aware now of subtle differences of richness and elaboration among the ma.s.sed towers; of balconies set at insane angles; of dark hollows in the bedrock walls, tunnels to exclusive homes. And gradually she became aware of the mingling of spices that perfumed the cool filtered air; she breathed deeply, tasting it, savoring it, easing her stuffy head. Unimpressed, the driver stared through her at the emerald pinnacle of their destination.

They pushed through the soft elastic mouth of the roof entrance, into a long empty corridor stretching twenty-five meters down to the building's base on rock. Betha began to sink toward it, almost impercep-tibly, and with no sensation of falling; they began to pa.s.s doorways. Shadow Jack unlatched his helmet, pulled it off and shook his head. She heard him take a deep breath. "Where are we?" His hair was plastered like streamers over his wet face; he wiped it back with a gloved hand.

"Tiriki Distillates. The man from the train suggest-ed it." She hesitated, not wanting to tell him what she suspected.

"b.a.s.t.a.r.ds." His mouth pulled back. "I'd like to see this place blow up. They wouldn't be so-" Anger choked him.

Betha watched him, feeling sorrow edged with an-noyance. She reached out; her glove pressed the soft, resistant covering on his shoulder. "I know how you feel ... I know. But so did the people in that train car. Take the chip off your shoulder, right now, or I'll knock it off myself: I can't afford it. I want some-thing from these people, and so do you, and it's a h.e.l.l of a lot more important than what either one of us feels. So put a sweet smile on your face while we make this deal, and keep it there if it gags you."

Somewhere the memory broke loose: "'Smile and smile ... and be a villain.'" She smiled, breathing the cool scented air, and willed his eyes to meet hers. Slowly he raised his head; as he looked at her, for the first time, she saw him smile.

Someone pushed through a doorway almost at her side. He caught the flap, looking at her with frank disbelief.

She rubbed her unwashed face, embarra.s.sed. "We'd like to negotiate for a load of hydrogen. Can you tell us who to see?"

A mask of propriety formed. "Of course. Sure. At the far end of the hall, the Purchasing Department. And thanks for doing business with Tiriki." He ducked his head formally and moved past them, push-ing off from wall to wall, rising like a swimmer through the brightening sea-green light. They went on down, into the depths.

"Look at this rag." They heard the voice before they reached the doorway. "What do they know about it? They don't know a d.a.m.n thing."

"No, Esrom."

Betha brushed aside the flaps and they went in, wearing smiles rigid with tension.

"I could do better myself. That's what we ought to do, do it ourselves. We ought to hire some mediamen and put out our own paper-"

"Yes, Esrom."

"-tell them our side. Look here, Sia, 'monopo-listic'..."

The golden-skinned, ethereally beautiful woman be-hind the counter looked up at them; her arching eye-brows rose. The golden-skinned, strikingly handsome man with the printout turned. Brother and Brother and sister, sister, Betha thought, Betha thought, and . and . . . . . impeccable. impeccable. They wore soft greens, colors flowing into a background of sea-green light, the woman in a long embroidered gown, the man-in an embroidered jacket, lace at his sleeves. She pictured what they saw in return, brushed at her stringy hair. They wore soft greens, colors flowing into a background of sea-green light, the woman in a long embroidered gown, the man-in an embroidered jacket, lace at his sleeves. She pictured what they saw in return, brushed at her stringy hair.

But the man said, "Sia, did you ever see anything like that? Look at that skin, and hair, together. . . ." His dark eyes moved down her suit, identified it, looked back at her face. "But she's been in s.p.a.ce."

In-terest faded to regret.

The woman tapped his arm. "Esrom, please!" She charmed them with a smile. "And what can we do for you?" She smoothed her sinuously drifting, raven-black hair along her back, tucked strands under her, lacy cap.

"We'd like to buy a load of hydrogen from you." Betha felt herself blus.h.i.+ng crimson while they watched in fascination. She tried to hide her annoy-ance. "One thousand tons."

"I see." The man nodded slowly, or bowed, looking vaguely surprised. He reached for a clipboard on a chain. "Do you want it s.h.i.+pped?"

"No, we can move it ourselves."

"Where are you coming from?" The woman's voice was as fragile as her face, but with no hint of softness.

"Lansing." Shadow Jack smiled, tall and thin and genuine, with one blue eye and one green.

"The Main Belt!" Brother and sister looked at them again; silent, this time, with a morbid awe. A newscast appeared on the screen behind them, flas.h.i.+ng pictures between lines of print. "That's quite a trip," the man said quietly. "How long'd it take you?"

"A long time." Betha gestured up at worn, dirty faces, not needing to force the grating weariness into her voice. "And it'll be even longer going home. We'd like to get this settled as soon as we can."

"Of course." He hesitated. "What-er, what did you want to offer in trade? We're limited in what we can take, you understand...."

Charity begins at home. She saw Shadow Jack's rigid smile twitch, as she pulled off her gloves. She saw Shadow Jack's rigid smile twitch, as she pulled off her gloves. But But who am I to blame them for that? who am I to blame them for that? She balanced Rusty's carrying case against the metal counter top and unsealed the lid, hearing the hiss as the pressure equalized. Rusty's mottled head rose over the edge, her dilated pupils black with excitement, flas.h.i.+ng green in the light. Her nose quivered and she wriggled free, rising up into the air like a piece of windborne down. Betha heard the small gasp of the woman, and let the case drift away. "Will you take a cat?" She balanced Rusty's carrying case against the metal counter top and unsealed the lid, hearing the hiss as the pressure equalized. Rusty's mottled head rose over the edge, her dilated pupils black with excitement, flas.h.i.+ng green in the light. Her nose quivered and she wriggled free, rising up into the air like a piece of windborne down. Betha heard the small gasp of the woman, and let the case drift away. "Will you take a cat?"

"An animal," the woman whispered. "I never thought I'd ever see one. . . ." Shyly she put out a hand. Betha stroked Rusty, rea.s.suring, pushed her toward them. Rusty b.u.t.ted softly up against the woman's palms, sniffing daintily, sidling in pleasure along the fine satin cloth of her sleeve.

"I think you've come to the right place." The man's slender hands quivered. "Dad would give you the whole distillery for that animal." He laughed. "But he'd make you pay s.h.i.+pping in to the Main Belt."

"Are there many animals left on Lansing?"

"No." Betha smiled, felt it pull. "A load of hydro-gen will be fine."

"We have gardens," Shadow Jack said. "Lansing's the only tent rock. We were the capital of all Heaven Belt, once." He lifted his head.

"Sure," the man said. "That's right, it was. I've seen pictures. Beautiful..."

Rusty slipped away from the woman, began to jab a paw through the holes of a mesh container for pa-pers. The papers danced and she began to purr, smugly content at the center of the world's attention. Betha's eyes were drawn away to the newscast on the wall; she froze as she saw her own face projected on the screen, realized it was not coverage of their arrival on Mecca. With all her will she glanced casually away, reaching out to scratch Rusty under the chin.

The man caught her motion, turned to look up at the screen. Her eyes leaped after him, saw her image vanish into lines of print. The man looked back at her, puzzled; shook his head, grimacing politely. "Don't mind the screen. We like to get the news from all over, to see what the compet.i.tion's up to. It's all static anyhow-mediamen'll say anythin' they're paid for." He gestured at the printout settling gradually into a heap on the counter. Rusty pounced, overshooting, and swept it out into the air.

"Here, little thing, don't hurt yourself," the woman murmured, her hands tightening with indecision.

"She'll be all right," Betha said, irritable in her re-lief.

A small disapproval showed on the woman's face.

"Do you mind if we take a look at your s.h.i.+p?"

Betha looked back at the man. "No . . . but it's at the other end of the ast-of the rock."

He nodded. "Easy to do." There was a small con-trol panel under the wall screen; he moved away toward it. "What's your designation?"

"Lansing 04."

He changed settings, and the news report vanished. "Lansing 04... "Lansing 04...." Betha saw their s.h.i.+p appear, an image in blinding contrasts on the sunbleached field. "I guess it's possible for you to move a thousand tons with a s.h.i.+p that size. How much does it ma.s.s?"

"Twenty tons without reaction ma.s.s or cargo."

"We like to be sure, you know." He looked up. "It's goin' to take you a lot of megasecs, though, to get back to Lansing."

She watched his face for unease, saw only his easy solicitude. "We'll manage; we have to."

"Sure." His eyes moved from her to Shadow Jack, touching them, she saw, with a kind of admiration.

"We'll start processing your s.h.i.+pment."

Rusty crashed against the counter edge in a snarl of printouts and sneezed loudly.

"Hey, now." The man turned away, reaching for Rusty almost desperately. "Dad would kill us if somethin' happened to-" His voice faded, he let her go, catching up a sheet. Betha saw her own face on the page between his hands, not disappearing this time. "...alien stars.h.i.+p..." She heard Shadow Jack's soft curse of defeat. She drifted, clutching the counter edge until her fingers reddened.

The Tirikis turned back to her. "It's you," the man said, staring. "You're from the stars.h.i.+p."

"And you've come to us."

An unconscious smile spread over their faces, the look of guileless greed Betha had seen on the woman in the shuttle. "I don't understand," she said stub-bornly. "You've seen our s.h.i.+p; we've come from the Main Belt. There were a lot of people taking our pic-tures on the field-"

"Not that picture." The woman shook her head, her black hair rippling. Betha watched them remembering, rea.s.sessing. "We've heard about you ever since you came into the system over a megasec ago."

"And you didn't get get from there to here in a megasec in the s.h.i.+p we saw." The man looked at Shadow Jack again. "You are from the Belt; maybe it's your s.h.i.+p. What are you, a snow pirate?" from there to here in a megasec in the s.h.i.+p we saw." The man looked at Shadow Jack again. "You are from the Belt; maybe it's your s.h.i.+p. What are you, a snow pirate?"

"We're not pirating anything." Betha caught Rusty, pinned her against her suit. "We offered you a deal, this cat for a load of hydrogen. We've got nothing else that would interest you, wherever we're from. Just let let us make the deal and go-" us make the deal and go-"

"I'm sorry." The man looked down at the spiral of paper. "I'm afraid we are are interested in a s.h.i.+p that can go from Discus ... to the Main Belt ... to the Demarchy..." Betha saw his mind work out the parameters. interested in a s.h.i.+p that can go from Discus ... to the Main Belt ... to the Demarchy..." Betha saw his mind work out the parameters.

"... in one and a half megaseconds."

She wondered bleakly what he would think if he knew it had only taken a third of that. "What is it you want from us, then?" Knowing the answer, she knew now that she had failed because there had never been a way to enter Mecca undetected.

"They want your s.h.i.+p! Let's get out of here." Shadow Jack pushed away toward the door, pulled aside the flaps, froze. Betha turned. Facing him, in a wine-red jacket flawlessly embroidered, was the man who worked for the government. Impeccable . . . The man's eyes fixed on her in return, and on Shadow Jack. He stared, incredulous, and she knew that this time he was staring at wild, filthy hair and streaked faces. Not at her paleness-she knew from his eyes that her face held no surprises for him. "Captain Torgussen," he nodded. "And not from Lansing-obviously."

"You have the advantage of me," Betha said. "I'm afraid I've forgotten your name."

He smiled. It hardened as he turned to the Tirikis, making a bow. "And just what does does Tirikis Distillates want with the stars.h.i.+p?" His hand found the front of Shadow Jack's suit, pushed him back into the room. Tirikis Distillates want with the stars.h.i.+p?" His hand found the front of Shadow Jack's suit, pushed him back into the room.

"I guess you weren't kidding, boy, when you told us what you do for a living."

"Who are you?" the woman asked, indignant.

"Wadie Abdhiamal, representing the Demarchy government."

"Government?" The man made a face. "Then this is none of your business, Abdhiamal. b.u.t.t out before you get into trouble."

"That's monopolist talk, Tiriki. And I think you've got the ideas to go with it. I'm here on business-these people and their s.h.i.+p are what I came to Mecca to find. The government has claimed the s.h.i.+p in the name of all the people of the Demarchy."

"Your government claims don't hold air, Abdhia-mal." The man glanced down at his reflection on the counter top, readjusting his soft beret. "You know you've got nothin' to back them up. We found these two first, and we're keeping them."

"Public opinion will back me up. n.o.body's goin' to let Tiriki have total control of that s.h.i.+p. I'll call a public hearing-"

"Use my screen." The man pointed. "When we tell the people how the government has been goin' behind the Demarchy's back looking for the stars.h.i.+p, they're not goin' to hear a word you say. You'll be out before you know what happened, and I mean out of every-thing."

"But you'll be out one stars.h.i.+p-and that's all that matters to me. Set up a hearing."

The woman moved toward the wall screen.

"Just a d.a.m.n minute!" Betha turned desperately, caught them all in a look. "Sixty seconds-one minute, where I come from-to mention some things you seem to have forgotten about my s.h.i.+p. One, it is my my s.h.i.+p. And two, only I know where it is. And three, if you think you'll get it without my full cooperation, you're wrong. My crew will destroy it before they'll let it be taken-and that will destroy any s.h.i.+p that gets within three thousand kilometers of it." Shadow Jack came back to her side, his face questioning. The others were silent, waiting, their frustration and greed sucking at her like flames. "Now, then. You seem to have reached an impa.s.se. But I came here to make a deal, and I'm still willing to make a deal-since I don't think I have any other choice. I doubt if you'll let us leave, in any case. s.h.i.+p. And two, only I know where it is. And three, if you think you'll get it without my full cooperation, you're wrong. My crew will destroy it before they'll let it be taken-and that will destroy any s.h.i.+p that gets within three thousand kilometers of it." Shadow Jack came back to her side, his face questioning. The others were silent, waiting, their frustration and greed sucking at her like flames. "Now, then. You seem to have reached an impa.s.se. But I came here to make a deal, and I'm still willing to make a deal-since I don't think I have any other choice. I doubt if you'll let us leave, in any case.

"So ... suppose each of you tell me why you want my s.h.i.+p so much, and then I'll tell you who gets it And it wouldn't hurt if you mention what's in it for me-" Rusty began to struggle, clawing for a foothold on her slick suiting. She saw Abdhiamal watch the cat, smile with irrelevant fascination before he met her gaze in turn. He didn't answer; waiting for the op-position, she thought. "Well?" She turned away, afraid of him, afraid of herself, afraid to let him see it. struggle, clawing for a foothold on her slick suiting. She saw Abdhiamal watch the cat, smile with irrelevant fascination before he met her gaze in turn. He didn't answer; waiting for the op-position, she thought. "Well?" She turned away, afraid of him, afraid of herself, afraid to let him see it.

The Tirikis spoke softly together. They faced her finally, beautiful and determined. "Your s.h.i.+p would build up our business-and revolutionize the Demarchy's trade. The way things stand we don't have all the snow we need where it's easy to get at; we have to go to the Rings, and it's a hard trip with nuclear-electric rockets. And the Ringers make it even harder, because they know we can't do anythin'

that would threaten our allotments of gases. If we had your s.h.i.+p we wouldn't have to depend on them. Your s.h.i.+p would make the Demarchy a better place to live. . . . You could continue to captain it, work for us. We'll pay you well. You'll be part of the richest, most power-ful company in the Demarchy-"

"And when the Demarchy objects, that company will make your s.h.i.+p into a superweapon and take over." Abdhiamal held her eyes.

She felt her eyelids flicker; he slipped out of focus as she shook her head, denying. "No one will use my s.h.i.+p as a weapon. Not even you, Abdhiamal, if that's why you want it."

"The government wants it so it won't become a weapon and bring on a new civil war. G.o.d knows, the old one's still killin' us. Somebody's got to see that the s.h.i.+p is used for the good of the whole Demarchy, and not turned against us. It could be the stimulus we need to revive the whole Belt, the technology you have on board. We might be able to duplicate your ramscoop, build our own, reestablish some kind of regular communication outside the Demarchy. You could help us-"

"Don't listen to him!" the woman said. "We're the government, we, the people. He's got no authority to do anythin'. You'd be torn apart by everybody who wants your s.h.i.+p. He can't protect you. Stay with us. We'll take care of you." She lifted her hands. "You've got nowhere else to turn." Betha recognized the threat behind it.

"They'll take care of you, all right," Shadow Jack whispered. His gloved hand caught Betha's wrist, squeezing until it bruised, "Don't do it, Betha! They're all liars. You can't trust any of 'em."

"Shadow Jack." She turned slowly, her hand still locked in his, and touched him with her eyes. He let go; she saw the anger drain out of him, leaving his face empty. "What about the hydrogen-for Lan-sing?"

"We'll send them a s.h.i.+pment; whatever they need."

"And you?" She faced Abdhiamal again. "Is it true that your promises are worthless?"

"The government only does the Demarchy's pleasure. Why don't we ask the Demarchy? We'll call a general meeting, and let you tell them all about your s.h.i.+p. Tell everyone the location-but warn 'em too, to keep away-tell them what you told us. Then n.o.body will be at an advantage. I'll tell them what your s.h.i.+p could mean to all of them, to the whole Belt. Every-body will have a hand in decidin' how to make the best use of the opportunity, the way things were designed to be done. . . . The Demarchy means you no harm, Captain. But we need your help. Give it to us, and you can name your own reward."

"Anything but a ticket home." Shadow Jack searched her face; she averted her eyes . .

"All right." She reached down for Rusty's carrying case, forced herself to look at Abdhiamal again.

"Abdhiamal, I'll try it your way...."

He smiled, and she couldn't see behind it; she fought the desire to trust him. "Thanks." He turned to the Tirikis. "Set up a meeting."

"No. Wait." Betha shook her head. "Not here. I want to be on my s.h.i.+p when I make the announce-ment. If everyone has to know where it is, some luna-tic will try to take it no matter what I say. I have to be there, to countermand my orders; I don't want to lose my s.h.i.+p now. I'm sure you don't, either?" She looked back at him. "We'll take you to the s.h.i.+p; we can broadcast from there.... After all, it's not going to get away from you without fuel, is it?"

"I suppose not. And I suppose you're right." He nodded once, watching the Tirikis. "Okay, I'll accept your terms."

"Go with 'em, Abdhiamal." Esrom Tiriki's voice mocked him. "That'll give us plenty of time to spread the news of this; the mediamen will tear you apart. By the time you call a meetin' you'll be public enemy number one. n.o.body will listen to you then. You can count on it." His hand jerked at the counter's edge, chopping down.

She saw Abdhiamal's smile tighten. "Let's get goin', then."

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