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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 8

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"From radiation!" It was the first time he had heard Abdhiamal raise his voice. "From genetic damage. The fission units that power our s.h.i.+ps and factories are just too dirty. In spite of everythin' we've done, the number of defective births is twenty times as high as it was before the war."

Clewell thought of Bird Alyn. "What about men?"

"We can preserve sperm. Not ova."

"You've lost more than you know because of that war." Abdhiamal stood silently, expressionless. Clewell unstrapped the leather wristband that had been a part-ing gift from one of his sons, and held it out. "Do you recognize that symbol?" He pointed at the design enameled on a circle of copper, as Abdhiamal took it from his hand.

"Yin and and yang?" yang?"



He nodded. "Do you know what it stands for?"

"No."

"It stands for Man and Woman. On Morningside, that means two equal halves merging into a perfect bi-ological whole. A spot of white in the black, a spot of black in the white ... to remind us that the genes of a man go into the creation of every woman, and the genes of a woman go into the creation of every man. We're not men and cattle, Abdhiamal, we're men and women. Our genes match; we're all human beings. It makes a lot of sense, when you stop to think about it."

"Odd-" Abdhiamal smiled again, noncommittal. "Somehow I didn't think yin yin and and yang yang would have been a part of Morningside's cultural heritage." would have been a part of Morningside's cultural heritage."

"Your people and ours, all came from the same Old World in the beginning. In the beginning yin yin and and yang yang didn't mean much to us. We had a lot of sym-bols to separate us, then. We just need one now." didn't mean much to us. We had a lot of sym-bols to separate us, then. We just need one now."

"Yin and and yang yang and the Viking Queen ..." Abdhiamal murmured; his smile turned rueful. "And Wadie in Wonderland. Why were there more men than women in your-family?" and the Viking Queen ..." Abdhiamal murmured; his smile turned rueful. "And Wadie in Wonderland. Why were there more men than women in your-family?"

Because it happened to work out that way. Clewell almost answered him with the truth. He paused. Clewell almost answered him with the truth. He paused.

"Son, if you have to ask me why a marriage needs more men than women, you're younger than I thought you were." He grinned. "And it's not because I'm slowing down."

Abdhiamal drew back, disbelief ruffling his de-corum. He held out the wristband.

Clewell shook his head. "Keep it. Wear it...Think about it, when you wonder why we're strangers to you."

Betha reentered the control room; Shadow Jack and Rusty still lay head-to-head on the gra.s.s-green rug. She moved quietly past them, sat down at the control board, and pulled Discus into focus on the screen, a small silver crescent like a thumbnail moon. All that mattered now, and nothing else. She would get this s.h.i.+p home; this time they would would succeed. Nothing must get in the way of her purpose, no man, living or dead, no memory.... succeed. Nothing must get in the way of her purpose, no man, living or dead, no memory....

Her torn hand burned. She pressed it down on the cold panel, leaving a spot of blood. Her mind crossed three light-years and half a lifetime to a factory yard on the Hotspot perimeter, where she had burned her hand on hot metal, inspecting the ideal made real. She had gone outside to see her first engineering design pa.s.sing in sequence on the a.s.sembly line-unbearably silver in the blinding noon light, unbearably beautiful. She was in the third quarter of her twentieth year, fresh from the icy terminator. The golden rain of heat, the battering flow of parched desert air on this, the perimeter of total desolation, dazed her; pride filled her with exhilaration, and there was a certain student-worker...She waited for him to stand beside her and tell her that her design was beautiful. And then he would ask her- Rough gloves caught her arms and turned her back, "Hey, s...o...b..rd, you want to go blind?" She saw Eric van Helsing's adored, sunburned face laugh at her through the s.h.i.+eld of his helmet, as she caught the padding of his insulated jacket. "They always said engineers were too quirky to come in out of the sun. You'd better go back."

"For a social scientist, you haven't learned much about motivation, Eric van Helsing." Angry because he had ruined everything-and because, like a fool, she had waited for him-she pulled away, almost ran back across the endless gravel yard, escaping into the cool, dazzled darkness inside the nearest building. She stood still in the corridor, fighting tears, and heard him come through the doors behind her....

You are the rain, my love, sweet water Flowing in the desert of my life...

Someone entered the room; Betha smelled the scent of apples. She looked for Claire's smooth moon-round face and golden tangled curls...found Bird Alyn again, thin and brown and branch-awkward: a dryad in a pink pullover s.h.i.+rt and blue jeans, with flowers in her hair...Bird Alyn, not Claire, who tended hy-droponics now.

Shadow Jack stirred as Bird Alyn dropped down beside him, her freckled cheeks blus.h.i.+ng dusky-rose. Betha turned back to the screen, hiding her smile.

". . . like some apples?"

"Oh . . . thanks, Bird Alyn." He laughed, self-con-scious. "You always think of me."

She murmured something, questioning.

"What's the matter with you? No! How many times do I have to tell you that? Get out of here, leave me alone."

Pain knotted in Betha's stomach; she heard Bird Alyn climb to her feet and flee, stumbling on the doorsill. Betha turned in her seat to look at Shadow Jack; kneeling, he glared back at her as he pushed himself up.

"Maybe it's none of my business, Shadow Jack, but just what in h.e.l.l is the matter with you?"

"There's nothin' the matter with me! You think ev-erybody has to be like you? Everybody isn't; you're a bunch of dirty perverts!" His voice shook. "It makes me sick." He went out of the room. She heard him go down the steps too fast.

Betha sat very still, clutching the chair arms, won-dering where she would find the strength to rise...Rusty sidled against her legs, mrring. mrring. Stiffly she reached down, drew the cat up into her lap; hanging on to meaning, to the promise of a time when Heaven would be no more than one of countless stars lost be-hind the twilight "Rusty, you're all the things I count on. What would I have done without you?" Stiffly she reached down, drew the cat up into her lap; hanging on to meaning, to the promise of a time when Heaven would be no more than one of countless stars lost be-hind the twilight "Rusty, you're all the things I count on. What would I have done without you?"

Rusty's rough, tiny tongue kissed the palm of her hand twice in gentle affection. "Oh, Rusty," she whispered, "you make misers of us all." Betha got to her feet slowly and looked toward the empty doorway.

Shadows moved silently over the tiles, moist and green, like the waters of a dream sea. Bird Alyn sobbed against the cold hexagonal tiles of the seat-back, touched by the fragile fingers of a hanging fern. "... not fair, it's not fair..." Her love was an endless torment because it fed on dreams. He would never touch her, never stroke her hair...never love her, and she would never stop wanting his love.

She heard him enter the lab, and the sob caught in her throat. She pushed herself up, eyes shut, wetness dripping off her chin.

"Don't cry, Bird Alyn. It wastes water." Shadow Jack stood before her, hands at his sides, watching her tears drip down.

She opened her eyes, saw him through lashes starred with teardrops, felt more tears rise defiantly. "We have . . . plenty of water, Shadow Jack." Misery coiled inside her, tightening like a drawn spring. "We're not on Lansing; everything's different here!"

His eyes denied it; he said nothing, frowning.

She turned away on the bench. "But I'm not ... I know I'm not. Why did this happen to me? Why am I so ugly, when I love you?"

He dropped down beside her on the seat, pulled her hands, one crippled and one perfect, down from her face. "Bird Alyn, you're not! You're not...you're beautiful." She saw her image in his eyes and saw that it was true. "But-you can't love me."

"I can't help it... how can I help it?" She reached out, her wet fingers brushed his face. "I love you."

He caught her roughly, arms closing over her back, and pulled her against him. She struggled in surprise, but his mouth stopped her cry, and then her strug-gling. "...love you, Bird Alyn...since forever...don't you know?"

Her outflung hands rose to tighten on his shoulders, drawing him into her dreams, joy filled her like song- Let me blossom first for you, Let me quench my thirst in you....

"No-" He pulled back suddenly, letting her go. He leaned against the cold tiles, gulping air. "No. No. We can't." His hands made fists.

"But...you love me..." Bird Alyn reached out, astonished by disappointment. "Why can't we? Please, Shadow Jack... please. I'm not afraid-"

"What do you want me to do, get you pregnant!"

She flinched, shaking her head. "It doesn't have to happen."

"It does; you know that." He sagged forward. "Do you want to feel the baby growin' in you and see it born...with no hands and no arms, or no legs, or no- To have to put it Out, like my mother did? We're defective! And I'll never let it happen to you because of me."

"But it won't. Shadow Jack, everything's different here on the s.h.i.+p. They have a pill, they never have to get pregnant. They'd let us..." She moved close, stroked the midnight blackness of his hair. "Even one pill lasts for a long time."

"And what about when they're gone?"

"We...we'd always have...memories. We'd know, we could remember how it felt, to touch, and kiss, and h-hold each other...."

"How could I keep from touchin' you again, and kissin' you, and holdin' you, if I knew?" His eyes closed over desperation. "I couldn't. If I was never going to see you again ... but I will. I'd see you ev-ery day for the rest of my life, and how could I stop it, then? How could you? It would happen."

She shook her head, pleading, her face burning, hot hopeless tears burning her eyes.

"I can't let go, Bird Alyn. Not now. Not ever. I couldn't stand what it would do to me ... what it would do to you. Why did we ever see this s.h.i.+p! Why did this happen to us? It was all right till-until-" His hands caught together; he cracked his knuckles.

Softly she put out her own hand, catching his; fin-gers twined brown into bronze. Because of this s.h.i.+p their world would live...and because of it, nothing would ever be right in their lives again. She heard water dripping, somewhere, like tears; a dead blossom fell between them, clicked on the sterile tiles.

Betha left the doorway quietly, as she had come, and silently climbed the stairs.

RANGER (DISCAN s.p.a.cE) + 2.70 MEGASECONDS.

Discus, a banded carnelian the size of a fist, set in a sil-ver plane: The rings, almost edge-on, were a film of molten light streaked with lines of jet, spreading toward them on the screen. Wadie drifted in the cen-ter of the control room, keeping his thoughts focused on the silhouette that broke the foreground of splen-dor: Snows-of-Salvation, orbiting thirty Discus radii out, beyond the steep gradient depths of the gravity well. Snows-of-Salvation, that had been Bangkok on the prewar navigation charts, the major distillery for the Rings. It was one of five, but it out-produced the rest by better than ten to one; in part because its op-erations were powered by a nuclear battery construct-ed in the Demarchy, in part because it could send out s.h.i.+pments using a linear accelerator, also from the De-marchy but infinitely more useful here where transport distances were short. The Ringers' own primitive oxyhydrogen rockets made hopelessly ineffi-cient tankers.

He remembered Snows-of-Salvation as it had been when he arrived with the Demarchy engineers: endless grayness honeycombing the ice and stone; a chill that crept into a man's bones until he couldn't remember warmth; a small gray population, a people renting s.p.a.ce in purgatory. A people fanatical to the point of insanity, in the eyes of the Demarchy. He had been sent to keep demarch and Ringer from each others' throats-sent because no one better qualified had been willing to go. He had stayed to see that two incompatible and suspicious groups never forgot their common goal of increasing the supply of volatiles. And in the fifty megaseconds he had spent in his grim and lonely exile, he had come to know a number of men he could only call friends and had seen more of the Ringers' Grand Harmony than any other demarch. He had come to understand the chronically marginal life that existed for the Ringers everywhere; to see, almost painfully, what made them endure their oppressive collectivist ideology: the knowledge that they must always pull together or they would not sur-vive...

The captain's voice drew him back. His eyes fixed on her where she hung before the viewscreen, her hair floating softly, free from gravity, her s.h.i.+rtsleeves rolled up to the elbow. He stared, the present an over-lay on the past. The clean, colored warmth of the control room drove out a dreary poverty that made Morningside's plainness suddenly seem frivolous.

Morningside...could he ever have come to see its people as clearly as he had seen the Ringers? How long did it take to feel at ease with a people who of-fended your sense of propriety in every way imagin-able? Whose behavior slipped through your attempts to categorize it the way water slipped between your fingers...Four kilosecs ago he had come to the up-per level to get himself some food and had found the captain and Welkin already in the dining hall and Bird Alyn playing her guitar. They had all been sing-ing; as though in four thousand seconds they were not going to commit an act of piracy or face one more trial whose outcome meant freedom and life for all of them....

Together we find courage, Our song will never cease....

Or perhaps, he had realized suddenly, they sang be-cause they were much too aware and afraid of that fact. Not what you sing, or how, Not what you sing, or how, Welkin had said, Welkin had said, but how it makes you feel. but how it makes you feel. Suddenly aware of his own part in that coming trial, he had been drawn across the room to join them by something stronger than curiosity . . . only to have Betha Torgussen's face close and lose its warmth as she saw him; only to have her rise from the table, breaking the pattern of song, and abruptly leave the room. Suddenly aware of his own part in that coming trial, he had been drawn across the room to join them by something stronger than curiosity . . . only to have Betha Torgussen's face close and lose its warmth as she saw him; only to have her rise from the table, breaking the pattern of song, and abruptly leave the room.

"... I can't believe this reading, Pappy. They should be frying down there, but they're not. There's no magnetosphere, no trapped radiation field...Do you know anything about this, Abdhiamal?" The cap-tain glanced over her shoulder at him, not quite meet-ing his eyes.

He looked past her at the screen. "This is Heaven, after all, Captain. Discus's radiation fields are strong enough, but they don't reach much higher than the rings. That was one of the things that brought us to this system-the rocks and s...o...b..a.l.l.s around Discus are accessible as they never were around Old Jupiter."

He caught her eyes. "You don't seem very concerned about whether we we were fryin'?" were fryin'?"

"We make good s.h.i.+elding on Morningside, or we'd have fried long ago." She broke away, as she always did, now; looked up at Bird Alyn hanging near the ceiling above her head. "Bird Alyn, find the local talk frequency for me." Her voice was calm.

Bird Alyn nodded, braced against the ceiling, and swooped down to the panel to catch up an earjack.

"Where's Shadow Jack?" Welkin asked.

Bird Alyn stared at the panel, said something inaud-ibly.

"What?"

"...don't know...said...didn't think he could face..." She shrugged. The room filled with static as she switched on the receiver. The static slurred abruptly into words. The words sharpened as Bird Alyn locked them in. "Here..."

"What are they broadcasting?"

"They're talkin' to a s.h.i.+p, I think; a tanker. I heard 'hydrogen.'"

"Good-then let's rudely interrupt them." The cap-tain reached for the broadcast b.u.t.ton. "You're sure they'll know who we are, Abdhiamal?"

"I'm sure. Even the Ringers have had time to spread word of what happened to that s.h.i.+p by now. And if their propaganda is as extreme as it usually is, they'll expect you to be a butcher. They'll-respect your threat."

"All right." She wet her lips, pushed the b.u.t.ton. "Snows-of-Salvation, Snows-of-Salvation, come in please..."

The speaker shrilled irritation; Bird Alyn jerked the earjack away from her head.

"Who is that? Get the h.e.l.l off this freq! there's a mixed-load dockin' in progress here! Do you-"

The captain's hand on the b.u.t.ton cut him off. "Tell them to hold off, we have something more important to say to you."

"Who is this?"

"This is..." She hesitated. "...the s.h.i.+p your Navy attacked two megaseconds ago ... the s.h.i.+p from Outside." She released the b.u.t.ton.

No answer came.

"You've impressed them." Wadie smiled, humorlessly.

A different voice came through, a voice that was strangely familiar to him, ordering the unseen tanker into a holding orbit. Welkin reached across the comm panel, by Bird Alyn's shoulder, and a new segment of the screen erupted into a blizzard of static snow. "We're receiving wideband." He typed a sequence on the console; abruptly the screen showed a squeezed triple image. He punched in a correction, and a single black-and-white' picture re-formed. They saw a pinched face squinting from behind wire-rimmed spectacles: a middle-aged man in a heavy, quilted jacket and a thick knit cap. "We're transmitting com-patible now, too," Welkin said. The captain nodded, seeming to take the old man's skill for granted.

"What is it you want here?" The familiar voice matched a familiar face, harsh with anger or fear. With With anger anger . . . . . . Djem Nakamore was too stubborn and dogmatic to acknowledge anything else. Wadie pushed out of his line of sight as Nakamore glared at Betha Torgussen. Djem Nakamore was too stubborn and dogmatic to acknowledge anything else. Wadie pushed out of his line of sight as Nakamore glared at Betha Torgussen.

Her face hardened, staring Nakamore down. "We want one thousand tons of processed hydrogen, sent out on the trajectory I give you to our s.h.i.+p. If you fail to do this, I'll destroy your distillery, and you'll all die." The hardness seemed to come easily; Wadie felt surprise.

He watched their expressions change, the two strangers in the background showing real fear. Naka-more stiffened upright, drifting off-center on the screen.

"You won't destroy us. Even the Demarchy would want you dead if you did that."

"We're not from your system; you're nothing to us. The Demarchy is nothing. I hope you all go to h.e.l.l together for what you've done to us; but Snows-of-Salvation will get there first unless you obey my or-ders."

"...they meant it..." a blurred voice said in the background. Nakamore turned away abruptly, cutting off sound. He spoke to the others, their eyes still flick-ering to the screen, faces tense, their breath frosting in the cold air as they spoke. Nakamore turned back to the panel, out of sight below him, and punched the sound on. "We don't have a thousand tons of hydro-gen on hand. We never have that much, and we just sent out a big s.h.i.+pment."

Wadie shook his head. "They'd never let the supply get that low. The output is nearly three thousand tons per megasec, and they have at least four times that as backlog in case the distillery goes off-line for repairs."

The captain twisted to look at him, cutting off sound in return. "You're that familiar with their oper-ation?"

He nodded. "I told you-I spent almost fifty million seconds down there. I saw that distillery put together and saw it go into operation. I know what it can do. And I know that man..." He remembered Djem Nakamore's face, the bald head reddened by the light from a primitive methane-burning stove; remembered the amused face of Djem's visiting half-brother, Raul. He heard the hiss as water sweated from the ceiling to drop and steam on the stove's greasy sur-face, as he waited while Djem pondered his next pain-fully predictable move that would lose him his hundredth, or his thousandth, game of chess to Wadie Abdhiamal. Stubborn, didactic, and unimaginative...honest, forthright, and dedicated to his duty. No match, as Djem had told him, often enough and with-out resentment, for Wadie's own quick and devious mind-yet too stubborn not to go on trying to win. Wadie adjusted the earflaps of his heavy hat, put out a hand to move his queen, told you-I spent almost fifty million seconds down there. I saw that distillery put together and saw it go into operation. I know what it can do. And I know that man..." He remembered Djem Nakamore's face, the bald head reddened by the light from a primitive methane-burning stove; remembered the amused face of Djem's visiting half-brother, Raul. He heard the hiss as water sweated from the ceiling to drop and steam on the stove's greasy sur-face, as he waited while Djem pondered his next pain-fully predictable move that would lose him his hundredth, or his thousandth, game of chess to Wadie Abdhiamal. Stubborn, didactic, and unimaginative...honest, forthright, and dedicated to his duty. No match, as Djem had told him, often enough and with-out resentment, for Wadie's own quick and devious mind-yet too stubborn not to go on trying to win. Wadie adjusted the earflaps of his heavy hat, put out a hand to move his queen, Checkmate. Checkmate. ... "I know that man. Push him; he's not-devious enough to know whether you're bluffin'. And he'll do anything to keep that distillery intact." He realized suddenly that it could have been Raul instead who faced them now and was glad, for all their sakes, that it was not. He looked away as he spoke, avoiding the bright image on the screen and Betha Torgussen's eyes. ... "I know that man. Push him; he's not-devious enough to know whether you're bluffin'. And he'll do anything to keep that distillery intact." He realized suddenly that it could have been Raul instead who faced them now and was glad, for all their sakes, that it was not. He looked away as he spoke, avoiding the bright image on the screen and Betha Torgussen's eyes.

The captain frowned slightly, then turned back to Nakamore on the screen. "I don't accept that. You have twenty-five thousand seconds to give us the hy-drogen or be destroyed."

"That's impossible! ... It would take at least a hundred thousand seconds."

"Lie," Wadie said softly, shook his head again. "He's stalling; Central Harmony keeps plenty of naval units in this volume, and he's hopin' some of 'em will get here in time."

Nodding, she repeated flatly, "You have twenty-five kiloseconds. I know you have a high-performance linear accelerator down there. Use it. I don't want any manned vehicles to approach us. Copy coordinates ..." She spoke the numbers carefully.

As she finished speaking Nakamore looked past her, angry and beaten, but little of it showing on his face. "Are you there givin' her the answers, Wadie?"

Wadie hung motionless...speechless. He pushed away from the panel at last, out into Nakamore's view.

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