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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 6

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She pushed Rusty, protesting, into the case and sealed the lid. She felt a small joy at a sacrifice re-fused, and felt the Tirikis' eyes change enviously be-hind her. She smiled faintly.

"How can you smile now, after that's happened?" Shadow Jack muttered. He picked up his helmet.

Softly she said, "Didn't I tell you there was always a reason to keep smiling?"

LANSING 04 AND RANGER (DEMARCHY s.p.a.cE) + 1.73.

MEGASECONDS.



Wadie watched the stars.h.i.+p grow on the screen in the cramped, stinking cabin of the Lansing 04. Lansing 04. His admi-ration grew with it-and his heartfelt grat.i.tude. This was the s.h.i.+p from Outside, a s.h.i.+p to cross interstellar s.p.a.ce at interstellar speeds, with a body streamlined to silken grace as a protection against the corroding par-ticulate wind. It had none of the ugly angularity of the s.p.a.cecraft he had always seen; it was pragmatic perfection, and there hadn't been a s.h.i.+p like it in the Heaven system in generations. The prewar stars.h.i.+ps of the Heaven Belt had been converted into the dead-liest of wars.h.i.+ps during the war-and had been destroyed, every one, just as the access to the basic re-quirements for life, the delicate balance of survival, had been destroyed. In the end the Main Belt had become a vast mausoleum, and now the isolated sur-vivors were disappearing, like patches of melting snow.... His admi-ration grew with it-and his heartfelt grat.i.tude. This was the s.h.i.+p from Outside, a s.h.i.+p to cross interstellar s.p.a.ce at interstellar speeds, with a body streamlined to silken grace as a protection against the corroding par-ticulate wind. It had none of the ugly angularity of the s.p.a.cecraft he had always seen; it was pragmatic perfection, and there hadn't been a s.h.i.+p like it in the Heaven system in generations. The prewar stars.h.i.+ps of the Heaven Belt had been converted into the dead-liest of wars.h.i.+ps during the war-and had been destroyed, every one, just as the access to the basic re-quirements for life, the delicate balance of survival, had been destroyed. In the end the Main Belt had become a vast mausoleum, and now the isolated sur-vivors were disappearing, like patches of melting snow....

He looked down at the back of Shadow Jack's head. His own head ached insufferably. He looked back at the screen again, counting the seconds until they reached the s.h.i.+p. Even if it hadn't been all he imagined, still it would have been a haven, an escape from the past two hundred kilosecs of suffocating in-dignity in the foulness of this sc.r.a.p-metal coffin. And an escape from the sullen, hostile boy and the small, blunt woman who might as well have been a man, like all the other women who pushed their way out into s.p.a.ce. He watched her as she soothed the cat above the humming control board, the rings s.h.i.+ning on her hands. He looked down at the silver-and-ruby ring on his own thumb, the gift of that other s.p.a.cing woman and her man, and wondered wearily why this one bothered to wear so many rings, when she obviously wasn't interested in her appearance.

The stars.h.i.+p's image blotted out the stars; un.o.b-trusively, he used his water ration to clean his face and hands.

Not a s.h.i.+p. Wadie pulled back, halfway through the Wadie pulled back, halfway through the Ranger's Ranger's lock, as the room opened before him. lock, as the room opened before him. This is a world. This is a world.

"This is the control room." The captain moved past him, her voice husky in her hoa.r.s.e throat; he heard the clanking as Shadow Jack still fumbled with a pressure suit in the lock behind him. He drew a long breath of cool air, coughed once as his startled lungs reacted.

"h.e.l.lo, Pappy."

The captain pushed off from the wall, with the in-definable lack of grace that marked her alienness more than her face and hair. She moved across the vastness of the control room toward the instrument panels. He suddenly realized that the room was not empty, that he was being studied by a girl and a short pale-skinned man. "Betha-" A smile spread in the man's grizzled beard-an old man, too old to still be in s.p.a.ce, to still be sound. . . . The slim brown girl wasn't looking at him at all, but only staring through him toward the lock. She was a Belter, ludicrously dressed in faded pants cinched by a flapping belt.

"You mean to tell me this is all you brought back?"

The old man gestured at him, half joking, half ap-palled. "This-fop? You traded our Rusty for this?" this?"

The captain shook her head, amused, said blithely, "No, not 'Shadow Jack and the Beanstalk,' Pappy. I just said we didn't get the golden goose . . . and maybe we've been the golden goose, all along, and didn't know it."

Wadie felt Shadow Jack brush by him with the cat in his arms. The boy tossed her out into the air, giving her momentum, and she paddled on across the room, perfectly at ease.

"Rusty!"

She made rusty meows of pleasure, moving toward the old man's familiar hands.

The Belter girl's face startled him, transformed by wild bliss as her eyes found Shadow Jack. He looked away from her, back at the old man. "Wadie Abdhiamal, representin' the Demarchy. And usually better than this. I'm afraid two hundred kilosecs in that deathtrap didn't do much for my appearance." The old man laughed.

Shadow Jack glanced back at him. "Try it for a couple megasecs, sometime."

The captain drifted against the control panel, lines of strain settling on her face again, making it grim. "It was h.e.l.l, Pappy. I didn't want to make you come into Demarchy s.p.a.ce to pick us up, but I don't know how much longer the life-support system would have held up. It wasn't adequate for two-and with three . . ." She rubbed her face, smearing grime. "The past two days were worse than the whole two weeks going in. But we had to bring him along. It was the only way we could get out of there. Their communications net-work is incredible; they already knew everything about us-everyone did, on every single separate piece of rock. And every one of them just waiting to grab our s.h.i.+p and play G.o.d with it-just like the Ringers. We can't trust either of them now; if we want hydro-gen we're going to have to take it."

"Captain Torgussen," Wadie said, "the government only wants-"

"I know what you want, Abdhiamal. My s.h.i.+p. You made it clear enough. But your Demarchy will have to catch us first." Her eyes cut him, blue gla.s.s. "I'm sorry, Abdhiamal, but you're on our ground now. Consider yourself our hostage."

Shadow Jack laughed, sitting back in the air. The girl moved away from the panel to his side, her face expressionless.

Wadie said nothing, saw the captain hesitate.

"You don't seem very surprised. You didn't believe what I told you at Mecca, and still you let this hap-pen?"

"I didn't know whether to believe you or not. Af-ter what you've been through, I figured maybe you really had given orders for the destruction of your s.h.i.+p, and I didn't want to take that chance. And I didn't want to take any chances with the Tirikis. And if you were lying about cooperating . . . well, I'm on your s.h.i.+p; that give me another chance to change your mind. Heaven Belt needs your help."

"We don't owe you anything; greed and hostility are all we've met in Heaven Belt."

"Why did you come here in the first place, except to trade on the fact that you figured we were ridin'

high? Why shouldn't we be as greedy? One hundred million people-most of the Main Belt-died in the first hundred megasecs after the war. And the ones that are left . . ." He pointed at Shadow Jack and the girl. "Look at Lansing. Their people won't last another cir-cuit around Heaven. And we're all headed for the same thing, unless we have your s.h.i.+p."

She frowned, hooked a shoe under the security rail that edged the panel. "The fact remains that we have rights of our own, as human beings-including the right to leave this system if we choose-and you're not willing to give them to us. It's true we came here to trade, because we thought Heaven had things we wanted. But you've got nothing to offer, and we can't afford to waste our s.h.i.+p and the rest of our lives for nothing. Morningside can't afford it. We just don't have the resources to throw away on you."

"I-admit we didn't consider your position-" He broke off, the cra.s.sness of it embarra.s.sing him. "We made a mistake, not considerin' your position. It was a stupid mistake. But we aren't the Ringers; we don't just want your s.h.i.+p, we want your cooperation. We might still have some things you'd want. It wouldn't have to be forever. The use of your s.h.i.+p, its reactor, and its shop, for a hundred and fifty megasecs. We'll deal with you fairly." The part of him that had ques-tioned MacWong asked, Will we? Will we?

The Belter kids stared at him, distrustful, more in sympathy with out-siders than with a man from their own system.

The captain moved restlessly. "I don't believe that. Everything I've seen shows me I can't depend on the Demarchy. You can't even depend on each other. Even if you meant every word you said, someone else would make it a lie and attack us...I'm not blind, Abdhiamal, I can see what's happened here, and I know if s true that you need help. If I'd only had some sign to prove to me that at least the Demarchy was worthy of our trust. But I haven't. We can't help you; you won't let us. It's impossible."

"Captain, I-"

"The matter is closed." Something in her voice told him that it was closed, irrevocably, and that the rea-son went much deeper than a simple betrayal of trust.

Not understanding, he only nodded, his own fa-tigue and exasperation leaving him defeated. "To what end am I your hostage then, Captain?"

Her eyes s.h.i.+fted, clouding. "I don't know. What-ever end we come to, for better or worse...will be yours too, I suppose. You helped us out of a tight spot, Abdhiamal. Inadvertently, but you did help us. I'll try to be as fair to you. If we get get the hydrogen we need, I'll find a way to get you back to the Demarchy before we leave the system. It will only be a-temporary inconvenience." She looked at him strangely for a moment; turning away, she reached for the old man's arm. "Oh, Christ, Pappy, I'm so tired. So glad to be back." He pulled her close, too close; held her until she broke away, kissing him once, tenderly. the hydrogen we need, I'll find a way to get you back to the Demarchy before we leave the system. It will only be a-temporary inconvenience." She looked at him strangely for a moment; turning away, she reached for the old man's arm. "Oh, Christ, Pappy, I'm so tired. So glad to be back." He pulled her close, too close; held her until she broke away, kissing him once, tenderly.

Old enough to be her father . . . surprise let a gri-mace of distaste pull his own mouth down; he cov-ered it as they looked back at him. Only four, in this large, empty room; and two of them were Belters. Too empty. "Where's the rest of your crew?" . . surprise let a gri-mace of distaste pull his own mouth down; he cov-ered it as they looked back at him. Only four, in this large, empty room; and two of them were Belters. Too empty. "Where's the rest of your crew?"

The old man glanced at the captain; she shook her head. "It doesn't matter; he'll find it out soon enough, I suppose." Her hand gestured at the screen and knotted into a fist. "They all died at Discus. And we're going back. Pappy, get started on a course for Discus. We can't risk staying here any longer. We're going to take what we need from the Ringers, Abdhiamal, any way we can, and that's going to suit me fine." She threw it at him, defiant, before she turned to Shadow Jack and the girl. "I'm going to get us out of here as fast as I can. I want to be sure no one from the Demarchy can touch us. We'll be doing one gee for five or six days, again, to get us back to the Rings."

"It'll be worth it." Shadow Jack cracked his knuckles. The girl's mouth set in a line; she nodded. She moved closer to Shadow Jack, stroking his bare arm lightly. He glanced down at her hand, irritated, but didn't pull away.

"Thirsty?" she said. He straightened out of his drifting slouch, smiled suddenly, wiping his hand across his mouth. "Yeah!" He pushed off from the wall and they left the room.

The old man was strapped into a seat, working at the panel. The captain moved out into the air to col-lect a pencil and an unidentifiable metal cube. She pushed the cat into a compartment in the wall.

"Captain-"

She started back toward the control board. "What?"

"I'd like permission to use your radio."

"Refused." She reached a chair, maneuvered herself down.

"But I need to-"

"Refused." She turned her back, cutting him off as she began her work at the board. He waited, studying the tasteless combination of pale-blue walls and green carpet He noticed a stripe of deeper blue on the wall, an arrow, and the word down.

"The Lansing s.h.i.+p is secure. Are the co-ords in, Pappy?"

"They're in. Ready when you are."

"Right. Ignition . . . thirty seconds. Feet on the ground, all of you!" The last of it went over an inter-com, rattling off of walls through the empty heart of the s.h.i.+p. Wadie watched her hands move through a sequence on the panel, felt the light, familiar hand of gravity settle on his shoulders. And begin to bear down: His feet touched the floor, the drag against his legs continued, increasing past the point of familiarity, past the point of comfort. He backed up, caught hold of a bar along the wall, remembering thirty seconds of one gee on a Ringer s.h.i.+p, and realizing what it would be like for the next five hundred thousand sec-onds. Pain wrenched his muscles; the blue-on-blue streaked wall filled his vision down. . . . His hands tightened, and he stood, enduring the pain, ignoring the heart that beat against his ribs like a fist.

He stood-and moved tentatively away from the wall, as the pressure bearing down on him stabilized. Dizziness made him sway, but he controlled it, bal-anced precariously as the captain and the old man rose from their seats. They looked toward him with expec-tant pity; the cat struggled out of the wall through a plastic porthole, made a circuit of his legs, licked his booted foot consolingly with her tongue. He folded his arms; looked down, and back at them across the room. He smiled, blandly.

The captain turned and walked out of the room. The cat bounded after her, tail flying like a banner.

"Abdhiamal, is it?" The old man came over to him, held out a hand. "My name's Welkin, navigator on the Ranger" Ranger"

Wadie nodded, shook his hand, wondered at his motive in offering it. He noticed that Welkin's hand was bright with golden rings, like Betha Torgussen's; and that his grip was strong and firm.... But the old man must be tough, if he could take one gee-ten me-ters per second squared, the gravity of Old Earth. This was what it had been like to live on Earth. A crash and Shadow Jack's pained "h.e.l.l!" rose from somewhere below them. No No wonder we called this system Heaven. wonder we called this system Heaven.

RANGER (IN TRANSIT, DEMARCHY TO DISCUS) +2.25.

MEGASECONDS.

Fifty Kiloseconds later Wadie climbed the empty stairwell, one step and then another-wanting to crawl and knowing there was no one to see it, but deter-mined that he would keep control over something, if only his own dignity. He had investigated the lower levels of the s.h.i.+p's living area: the crew's quarters; the alien lushness of a hydroponics lab adapted to one gravity; the workshop-the last memory was almost a hunger. He had seen everything but the section on the second level, behind a sealed doorway where a warn-ing light blinked red. And everywhere he had been stunned by the incredible waste-of water, of air, of living s.p.a.ce-in a matrix of drab austerity that was primitive compared to the Demarchy's sophistication. He contemplated the irony in the idea that the Morningsiders considered themselves poor, when in some ways they were the richest people he had ever seen.

He reached the top of the stairs, leaned against the railing until his dizziness pa.s.sed and his heartbeat slowed. His muscles ached dully when he stood, and when he moved pain burned in his trembling legs like a hot wire. He did his best to put his new clothes in order before he entered the control room.

The others were already there, watching something on the viewscreen. The captain and Welkin sat in chairs. Shadow Jack and the girl lay on the carpet, spreading their weight over the greatest area. The girl was trying to do pushups, her body rigid from the knees, as he looked in. He saw her elbows tremble, watched her collapse face down on the cus.h.i.+on. She lay spread-eagled on the floor, defeated. "I can't"

"Then don't," Shadow Jack said, and more gently, "It'll be over soon, Bird Alyn; we don't have to get used to it." He flipped playing cards out into the air, watching their incredibly swift plummet to the rug.

"Look who finally woke up." He looked back over his shoulder; the cat sidled past his head and sat down on the cards.

Wadie bowed casually, carefully keeping his bal-ance. No one moved in return, and indignation rose in him until he remembered that he couldn't expect civil-ity here. Pirates . . . He almost smiled, struck by the memory of what it had meant to be called a Belter, once, in the time when the only Asteroid Belt was Sol's. He studied the captain's face, clean now like her fair cropped hair; met something in her eyes that startled him. She glanced down, lighting a pipe. The tangy sweetness of whatever burned stirred memories in him, instinctive, of things he had never seen.

"At least you're a likelier-looking trade this time," Welkin said.

Wadie looked down at the blue cotton work s.h.i.+rt, the blue denim pants that stopped ten centimeters short of his ankles. He had forced the pants neatly into his polished boots. The boots braced his legs, but weighted them down like lead. "At least I'm clean." He stepped carefully over the doorsill and crossed the room, holding his head up, back straight. He reached the nearest swivel seat and lowered himself into it, leaned back easily, breathing again. The girl stared up at him, awed. Shadow Jack looked away with a frown; he muttered and pushed the cat, scattering cards.

"Captain . . ." Wadie turned in his seat, reordering his arguments. He stopped, as he realized what they had been watching on the screen. "You've been moni-toring Demarchy communications?" Six separate images showed on the bright screen, each one a differ-ent broadcast frequency. He recognized a general newscast, three corporation hypes, two local arbitra-tion debates.

The captain nodded. "It's been-enlightening."

"Has there been anything about your s.h.i.+p from the Tirikis?"

"Yes, news items; and there was a-" She glanced back at the screen, as two of the broadcast segments suddenly disappeared, replaced by an octagonal star caught in a golden paisley, on a field of black. As they watched, the symbol blotted out the rest of the seg-ments one by one. "What is this, Abdhiamal?"

"It's a call for a general meeting; any demarch who wants to partic.i.p.ate can monitor the final debate, startin' now, and vote on the issues involved." He remem-bered uneasily that it had been two hundred and fifty kiloseconds since they had left Mecca, more than two hundred and fifty kilosecs since his last report. "I ex-pect this'll be the debate about your s.h.i.+p, and what happened at Mecca. The Tirikis started to promo the second we left the rock; and n.o.body's heard a word from me. I'd like to monitor the debate. And I'd like a chance to defend myself, if you'll give me an open channel."

She put her pipe aside. "All right, I'll monitor the meeting. You can listen; but I can't let you speak."

"Why not? Your s.h.i.+p's clear. And they can track you by your exhaust, they don't need a radio fix-"

"I don't need you telling them our plans. I'd rather let them guess."

"Captain, I need to talk to them. This meetin' could mean my job." They all looked at him, unresponsive. He swallowed his irritation. "You-experienced the communications network we've got; it's from before the war, and it still works as it should. It's what makes the Demarchy work-every demarch's got equal pri-ority on it, and anybody with a gripe about anythin' can broadcast it. Everybody who's involved or inter-ested can debate. If they need to, they take a general vote, and the vote is law."

"Mob rule?" Welkin said. "The tyranny of the ma-jority."

"No." He gestured at the slender golden teardrop on the screen, symbol of the hundred-and-forty-million-kilometer teardrop distribution of the trojan as-teroids. "Not here. You can't get get a mob together across millions of kilometers of s.p.a.ce. It keeps the vo-ters' self-interest confined to their own rock. They're independent as h.e.l.l, and they're informed, and they judge. A jury of peers." a mob together across millions of kilometers of s.p.a.ce. It keeps the vo-ters' self-interest confined to their own rock. They're independent as h.e.l.l, and they're informed, and they judge. A jury of peers."

"Then why would you be worried about losing your job?"

"Because I'm not there to defend myself; the Tirikis can claim anything, and if n.o.body hears different from me, what are they goin' to think, except that it's true? My boss will be answering them in my place, and he doesn't even know what's happened. If I can't tell them, I could take him down with me. The gov-ernment floats on water, and if you rock the boat you drown."

The captain leaned forward, pressing her hands to-gether. "I'm sorry, Abdhiamal, but you should have considered that before you came with me. I can't af-ford to let you speak now...Do you still want to listen in?"

He nodded. All the symbols but one were gone from the screen again; as he watched, the time lag closed and the last one faded. The general meeting had begun.

". . . should already have put our fusion craft in pursuit." Wadie rested his neck against the seatback, as Lije MacWong's final argument drew to a close on the screen. "We've done all we can to follow the wishes of the Demarchy. Too many things are still unclear to us, too, because we only know what you do. I'm a civil servant, no more, no less. If the people want to remove me for working in the people's inter-est, that's your privilege. But I don't feel that I've done anything to betray your trust." A band of color showed at the bottom of the screen, slowly turning violet from blue; voter partic.i.p.ation was eighty per cent and rising.

Wadie watched the manicured brown hands fold on the gargoyled desk top, the pale compelling eyes that had challenged the Demarchy before and won. They disappeared suddenly; the seconds pa.s.sed, reb.u.t.tal: esromtiriki flashed on the screen. He felt his mouth tighten as Tiriki's serene, golden face appeared, eyes gleaming like metal. "The fact remains that the gov-ernment ..."

The captain leaned back in her seat, fingers tapping soundlessly on the chair arms. "He's one of the trolls, Pappy. Handsome, isn't he?" She looked up. "And out for our blood. How does it go again? 'I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead-'" She broke off, took a deep breath. "Screw Jack and the Beanstalk...What was that about fusion s.h.i.+ps, Abdhiamal? I thought you said the Demarchy de-pended on fission power and fission-powered electric rockets?"

He nodded. "We have three small fusion craft left from before the war; they're our navy, if you want to call it that. But you've got a big lead on them. They couldn't catch you before you got to Discus."

"But it could give us less time to maneuver once we're there."

". . . the government agent Abdhiamal threatened us and kidnapped the Outsiders who had come to us to negotiate. Two hundred kilosecs have pa.s.sed with-out any further word from him. Their knowledge would have benefited the entire Demarchy, it could have saved Heaven-but because of this the government agent Abdhiamal threatened us and kidnapped the Outsiders who had come to us to negotiate. Two hundred kilosecs have pa.s.sed with-out any further word from him. Their knowledge would have benefited the entire Demarchy, it could have saved Heaven-but because of this 'government man' we've lost the crew and the stars.h.i.+p forever. Consider that, when you make your final decision." The band of light below him showed an ever-deepen-ing violet.

Wadie's hands tightened over nothing, final re-b.u.t.tal: Lije MacWong showed on the screen.

"I regret to say that, in honesty, I can't deny Demarch Tiriki's final accusation. Wadie Abdhiamal, a negotiator from my agency, has overstepped his au-thority to a degree I consider criminal. He has in the past been suspect of questionable loyalty, of known Ringer sympathies, and I frankly consider it possible that he intends to aid them in usin' that s.h.i.+p against us. I can only repeat that he was acting without my consent, or the consent of any other person in the government. This agency isn't, and never was, a party to these actions. He alone committed a crime, and like any other criminal, he should be found guilty..."

Wadie straightened, felt something grate in his neck.

"... of treason against the Demarchy..."

"Lije!" he whispered, incredulous, willing the ma-hogany face to turn and the pale eyes to meet his own.

".. . and so, fellow demarchs, I want you to recon-sider the basic issue before you make your decision. This should not be a simple vote of no confidence against a government that's served you well; this is a judgment on the fate of the one man who has be-trayed the hopes of us all I ask instead for a bill of attainder against Wadie Abdhiamal, government negotiator, for treason..."

You b.a.s.t.a.r.d- He pushed himself up and moved through a nightmare to the panel. He pushed himself up and moved through a nightmare to the panel.

". . . let him never set foot on any territory of the Demarchy on pain of death. He has betrayed us all..."

"Let me talk." He reached toward the banks of but-tons.

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