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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt Part 9

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"Yeah, Djem, it's me."

"We picked up the broadcast debates from the Demarchy-how they've outlawed you. I figured maybe you'd..." Nakamore's face set, with the righteous anger of a man to whom loyalty was everything; with the pain of a man betrayed by a friend. "We were fools not to see what you and your...stars.h.i.+p aliens would try. Why stop with a thousand tons of hydro-gen? Why not take it all?"

"One thousand tons of hydrogen is all we need, Djem. And we need it bad, or I wouldn't put you through this." Without fuel, the stars.h.i.+p was trapped, prey to the first group quick enough to take it. And then the Grand Harmony, the Demarchy, and every-one else would be the prey. Then the threats would be no bluff. This was for the best; this was the only choice he could possible make, the only sane choice.

If he could only ... He started, "Djem, I-" But no words would come.

Nakamore waited, his black eyes pitiless. At last he leaned forward, reaching for the unseen panel.



"Trai-tor." His face disappeared; and with it the last chance of asylum for a banished man. Discus alone lay on the screen.

The captain sat gazing fixedly at the screen, her mouth pressed together, a brittle golden figurine. Welkin glanced at Wadie, apologetic but saying noth-ing, saving him from the embarra.s.sment of a witty response that wouldn't come.

"...think they'll do it?" Bird Alyn pulled at the flapping end of her belt. "What if they don't?"

"They will." He found his voice, and his com-posure. "In fifty million seconds, Djem Nakamore never won a game of chess from me."

"You were perfect, Betha." Welkin turned back, his faded eyes searching the captain's downturned face.

"Eric couldn't have put it more convincingly."

"If Eric were alive, we wouldn't be doing this."

Wadie nodded, relieved. "I almost believed you meant every word of that, myself."

She struck a match. "What makes you think I didn't, Abdhiamal?" She lit her pipe, facing him with the same hardness that had faced down Snows-of-Salvation. "What have the Ringers done for us lately?"

"Indeed." He bowed grimly, looked back at Welkin. "I've learned my lesson-I'll never insult an-other engineer." He pushed off toward the door.

Betha watched him disappear down the stairwell, shaken with the coldness that left her words of apol-ogy stillborn.

"Betha...would you...are you really goin' to...destroy the distillery?" Bird Alyn whispered un-happily.

Bertha met the frightened face. "No, of course not, Bird Alyn I wouldn't do that. I'm not really a-a butcher."

Bird Alyn nodded, blinking, maneuvered backward and started for the door.

Clewell rubbed his beard. "Then why act like one, Betha? That was a little too convincing for me, too. Or isn't it an act any more?"

Shame warmed her face, drove the coldness from her. "You know it is, Pappy! But that d.a.m.ned Abdhiamal-"

Clewell lifted his head slightly, unfastened his seat-belt. "He's not such a bad sort ... for a 'd.a.m.ned fop.'

He's held up pretty well under one gee...un-der everything he's been through." Meaning that she hadn't made things any easier.

"He's a phony; he's lucky he didn't cripple him-self." She looked away irritably.

"He's a proud man, Betha. He might not call it that...but anybody who can stand straight and smile while gravity's pulling him apart-or loyalty is-has my admiration. In a way, he reminds me of-"

"He's not at all like Eric."

His eyebrows rose. "That wasn't what I was going to say. He reminds me of you." He held up a hand, cutting off her indignation. "But now that you men-tion it, there is something about him ... a manner, maybe; even a physical resemblance. Maybe it's why I like him in spite of myself; maybe it's what bothers you. Something does."

"Oh, Pappy..." She lifted her hand, pressing her rings against her mouth. "It is true. Every time I look at him, anything he does, he reminds me-But he's not not Eric. He's not one of us, he's one of Eric. He's not one of us, he's one of them. them. How can I feel this way? How can I stop wanting...wanting..." She reached out; Clewell's firm, weathered hand closed over her wrist. How can I feel this way? How can I stop wanting...wanting..." She reached out; Clewell's firm, weathered hand closed over her wrist.

He smoothed her drifting hair. "I don't know. I don't know the answer, Betha." He sighed. "I don't know why they claim age is wisdom. Age is just get-ting old."

Shadow Jack moved restlessly, trapped in the too-empty box of the room where he slept, haunted by the ghost of a stranger: manuals on economics, a non-sense song lyric, a hand-knit sweater suspended in midair-a dead man's presence scattered through drawers and cupboards in the clutter of a life's de-tritus. Rusty clung to his shoulders, her mute accept-ance easing the shame of his exile. He stroked her mindlessly, hearing only the ticking of the clock; meaningless divisions marking the endless seconds. He wondered whether they would get what they wanted from the Ringers, wondered how he could face Betha Torgussen again...wondered how he would face the rest of his life.

Rusty's small, inhuman face rose from his shoulder, her ears flicking. "Bird Alyn?" He pushed to the doorway, saw Wadie Abdhiamal disappear into an-other room. He heard Abdhiamal's voice, almost inaudible: "d.a.m.n that woman! She'd spit in the eye of G.o.d."

Shadow Jack moved along the hall, stopped at Abdhiamal's doorway, staring, "What's the matter, she spit in your eye?"

Abdhiamal twisted, a split-second's exasperation on his face. He smoothed his work s.h.i.+rt absently, smoother his expression. "Yeah...somethin' like that"

"What happened up there? Did we get the hydro-gen?"

"Probably...Why weren't you in the control room?"

He grimaced. "I couldn't do it. I-I called the cap-tain a pervert."

"You what?" Abdhiamal frowned in disbelief.

Shadow Jack caught the doorway to move on, des-peration turned him back "Can ... I talk to you ... man to man?"

Abdhiamal gestured him into the room, no trace of amus.e.m.e.nt on his face. "Probably. What about?"

Shadow Jack cleared his throat; Rusty pushed off from his shoulder, rose like a lifting s.h.i.+p, and swam toward Abdhiamal. "How come you never married?"

Abdhiamal laughed, startled. "I don't know." He watched the cat, reached out to pull her down to his chest. "Maybe because I never met a woman who'd spit in the eye of G.o.d."

Shadow Jack's eyes widened; and looking at Ab-dhiamal, he wondered who was more surprised.

Abdhiamal laughed again, shrugged. "But somehow I doubt it."

"I mean...you said before, that now you never would get married. I thought there was-some other reason." He reached for the doorframe.

"There was." He stopped, holding on.

"I've traveled a lot. That means I've been exposed to high radiation levels and potential genetic damage. We have ways of preservin' sperm so men at least can travel and still raise healthy children. But with the bill of attainder, I'm legally dead now. They'll destroy my account." Abdhiamal took a deep breath.

"And I've been sterilized."

Shadow Jack looked back, letting the words come. "I'd be happy if I was sterile!" He shook his head. "I didn't mean ... I didn't mean it like that. But we can't ever get married, Bird Alyn and me, because I'm not sterile and she's not. We are are defective. We shouldn't ever have children, but we would..." defective. We shouldn't ever have children, but we would..."

Abdhiamal scratched Rusty under the chin. "It's a simple operation. Can't they perform it on Lansing?"

"They could . . . but they won't." Misery hung on him like a weight. "If you're a Materialist, you're sup-posed to take responsibility for your own actions. You're supposed to take the consequences, not expect anybody else to do it for you. Like my mother, when my sister was born an' they said she was too defective . . . my mother had to put her Out...She wouldn't let my father touch her any more." He looked down at his hands. "But the medical technol-ogy's bad anyhow. Sometimes I think they just don't want to waste what's left."

Abdhiamal's voice was gently professional. "How were you judged defective? You look sound to me."

Shadow Jack's hands tightened on metal. "Maybe I wasn't defective, then. But my sister was. And they needed more outside workers, so they told me I had to work on the surface. That's what you do if you're marginally damaged, like Bird Alyn. That's where I met her..." Where he had discovered what life must have been like once, lived in the beauty of gardens and not the bleakness of stone. And where he had discovered that his own life did not end because he had left the s.h.i.+elding walls of rock; that feeling did not, or belief, or hope. But he had spent too many megaseconds mending a tattered world-shroud, too many megaseconds in a contaminated s.h.i.+p...And there were no miracles to heal a crippled hand or mend a broken heart.

He struck the doorframe. "Everything goes wrong! I didn't mean to call Betha . . . what I called her. But she had so many husbands; she even has children! When Bird Alyn and I can't even have each other ... it just made me crazy. Betha lost so much, and I said-I said that to her. She helped us after we tried to take her s.h.i.+p just like everybody else-"

"You did? And she let you get away with it?"

He nodded, feeling ridiculous. "All we had was a can opener... I guess she thought we were fools."

"And-you said she has children?" Abdhiamal looked down at the wide leather band circling his wrist.

"Yeah. Goin' into s.p.a.ce is like . . . like doing any-thing else to them. It's not the end of anything." He bit his tongue, remembering that it had been for the crew of the Ranger. Ranger.

"If she forgave you for trying to steal her s.h.i.+p, I expect she'll forgive you for callin' her a pervert. Sooner than she'll forgive me for makin' remarks about engineers."

Shadow Jack frowned, not understanding.

Abdhiamal's smile faded. "It seems you and I have more than one problem in common. Like every group in Heaven Belt shares the problems of every other one. And I'm not so sure any more that there's an easy answer for any of us."

Shadow Jack turned away, saw Bird Alyn watching him from the end of the hall. He met her eyes, hopelessness dragging him down like the chains of gravity. "There aren't any answers at all. I should have known that. Sorry to take up your time, Abdhia-mal."

Wadie closed the door, still cradling the cat ab-sently against his side. In his mind he saw the future on Lansing, grief and death among the gardens-and saw in Lansing the future of all Heaven... The future? The future?

Silence pressed his ears, deafening him. The end. The end. The Demarchy was only one more fading patch of snow. There was no answer. Nothing he could ever do-nothing he had ever done-would hold back Death. He had made himself believe that his work had some relevance and worth, that a kind of creation ex-isted in his negotiations, a binding force to keep equi-librium with disintegration and decay. But he had been wrong. It had always been too late. He was a d.a.m.ned fop, living at the expense of everyone else . . The Demarchy was only one more fading patch of snow. There was no answer. Nothing he could ever do-nothing he had ever done-would hold back Death. He had made himself believe that his work had some relevance and worth, that a kind of creation ex-isted in his negotiations, a binding force to keep equi-librium with disintegration and decay. But he had been wrong. It had always been too late. He was a d.a.m.ned fop, living at the expense of everyone else . .

. and wasting his life on the self-delusion that he was somehow saving them all. Wasting his life: he had thrown away his last chance of ever having a life of his own, a home, a family, any real relations.h.i.+p. And all that he had ever done, been, or believed was meaningless. It had all been for nothing-and it would all be nothing in the end. Nothing. Nothing.

Rusty squirmed in his grasp like an impatient child. As he released her his arm sc.r.a.ped the ventilator screen, his hand closed over a flat, palm-sized square trapped by the soft exit of air. He pulled it down, stared at it. A picture-a hologram-of a man and a woman, each holding a child, flooded in blazing light where they stood before an ugly, half-sunken dwell-ing. The woman was Betha Torgussen, her hair long, coiled on her head in braids. And the man, tall, with dark hair and a lean, sunburned face . . . Eric? Eric? Her voice came to him suddenly, from behind a s.h.i.+elding faceplate, in a train car on Mecca. Her voice came to him suddenly, from behind a s.h.i.+elding faceplate, in a train car on Mecca. I-I thought you I-I thought you were someone I knew. were someone I knew. Wadie brushed the images with a finger, moving through them. Ghosts... Wadie brushed the images with a finger, moving through them. Ghosts...

Betha Torgussen's voice came to him out of a speaker on the wall, telling the crew that Nakamore had acquiesced.

RANGER (DISCAN s.p.a.cE) + 2.74 MEGASECONDS.

"Okay, Pappy, the cables are secured. We really out-did ourselves when we closed with this load! Start us in." Betha raised her chin from the speaker b.u.t.ton, hooking her arm under the twisted strength of the steel cable, secure in the crevice between cylinders of hydrogen. She felt the abrupt lurch as the winches started the final s.h.i.+pment of fuel moving in toward the looming brilliance of the Ranger. Ranger.

"This is the lot, Betha." Clewell's voice filled her helmet, smiling. She imagined his smile, felt it through the s.h.i.+p's mirrored hull.

"This is it. We've done it, Pappy! We're really go-ing to make it." Through the s.h.i.+elded faceplate of her helmet she saw the molten silver, the ruby scarab of Discus reflecting on the Through the s.h.i.+elded faceplate of her helmet she saw the molten silver, the ruby scarab of Discus reflecting on the Ranger's Ranger's hull, rising above a dull-green horizon of cl.u.s.tered tanks, marred by a tiny spot of blackness. The shadow of Snows-of-Salvation ... or a ragged hole torn in the metal. She looked away, dizzy, past the small bright-suited figure of Shadow Jack at one end of the fifty-meter-long bundled cylinders. And out into the void; imagined the merciless drag of the Discan gravity well pulling her loose into the endless night...like five others before her. She shut her eyes, clung to the cable; opened them again to look down at the solid surface of the tanks, along the dull greenness at Abdhiamal, inept and uncommunicative at the s.h.i.+pment's other limit. They were almost flush now with the hull, rising above a dull-green horizon of cl.u.s.tered tanks, marred by a tiny spot of blackness. The shadow of Snows-of-Salvation ... or a ragged hole torn in the metal. She looked away, dizzy, past the small bright-suited figure of Shadow Jack at one end of the fifty-meter-long bundled cylinders. And out into the void; imagined the merciless drag of the Discan gravity well pulling her loose into the endless night...like five others before her. She shut her eyes, clung to the cable; opened them again to look down at the solid surface of the tanks, along the dull greenness at Abdhiamal, inept and uncommunicative at the s.h.i.+pment's other limit. They were almost flush now with the Ranger's Ranger's ma.s.sive protection; it would be over soon. ma.s.sive protection; it would be over soon. One more, just one more time... One more, just one more time... Sweat tickled her face; she shook her head angrily inside her helmet. Sweat tickled her face; she shook her head angrily inside her helmet. d.a.m.n it! You won't fall- d.a.m.n it! You won't fall- "Betha!" It was Bird Alyn's voice, rising clearly for once above the crackle of her feeble helmet speaker. Betha saw her, gnatiike beside the immense holding rack clamped to the s.h.i.+p's skin. "The load's not clos-ing even!...Abdhiamal, your end-the end cable's caught between tanks-"

"I'll clear it."

"Abdhiamal, wait!" Betha saw him go over the end, saw the flash of his guidance rocket as he disappeared. "Pappy! Loosen the aft cable, right now!" She pulled her own guidance unit loose from the catch at her waist, pressed the trigger, sent herself after him to the end of the world. Looking over, she saw him hovering near the hub of the wheel of tanks, the cable trapped between two cylinders. She saw him catch hold of the cable, brace his feet, and pull-"Abdhiamal, stop, stop!"-saw the cable slip free... watched as the bound tanks recoiled below her and the cable wrenched loose from the hull, arcing soundlessly toward her like a striking snake. She backed desperately, know-ing, knowing- "Clewell!" Her face cracked against the helmet gla.s.s in starbursts of light as the cable struck her across the chest, throwing her out and away from the s.h.i.+p. She fought for breath, blood in her mouth, her lungs crippled with pain, saw the s.h.i.+p like a fiery pin-wheel slip out of her view, blackness, blood and mol-ten silver, blackness...She fumbled for the trigger of her guidance rocket, but her hands were empty. And she was falling.

No- Betha began to scream. Betha began to scream.

Wadie felt the cable slip loose as the captain's voice reached him, telling him to stop. He fell back, sud-denly unsupported, looking up in surprise-to see what he had done, see the tanks rebound, the cable lash out like a whip and knock her away ... saw her guidance rocket fly free, tumbling, a spark of light. "Oh, my G.o.d-" He heard the cried of Bird Alyn and Shadow Jack, echoing his own, no sound from Betha Torgussen; waved the others back as he went after her into the night.

The immensity of isolation stifled him, filling the black-and-brilliant desolation like sand, dragging at him, holding him back ... as the isolation of his own making had cut him off from truth all his life. He closed with her spiraling form slowly, agonizingly, centimeters every second . . . seeing in his mind a ruptured suit, a frozen corpse, her pale, staring face cursing him even in death for the hypocrisy of his wasted years. Yet wanting, more than he had ever wanted anything in his life, to close that gap between them, and see instead that it was not too late....

And after a s.p.a.ce as long as his life his gloved hand clamped over an ankle. He drew her toward him and used his guidance unit to stop their outward fall. He caught her helmet in his hands, felt her clutch him feebly as he searched behind the silent, red-fogged gla.s.s for a glimpse of her face. Repeating, wild with relief, "Betha . . . Betha . . . Betha, are you all right?"

Her shadowed face fell forward, peering out; her chin pressed the speaker b.u.t.ton. "Eric...oh, Eric." He heard her sob. "Don't let me go ... I'll fall ... don't let go, don't let go..." Her arms tightened convulsively, silence formed between them again. He stroked the tempered gla.s.s, "I won't...it's all right ... I won't let you go." The plane of the Discan rings blinded him with frigid glory, as immutable as death; he turned away from it, started them back toward the diminished s.h.i.+p, across the black sand desert of the night She kept radio silence; he did not search for her face again behind the blood-reddened gla.s.s, granting her the privacy of her grief, feeling the ghosts of five human beings move with them. And at last he heard her voice say his own name, thanking him, and say it again....

"What happened?"

"Is she all right?"

"Betha, are you all right?"

The voices of Shadow Jack and Bird Alyn cla-mored in his helmet as they met him, their hidden faces turned toward Betha, gloved hands reaching out.

"She's hurt. Help me get her inside." She scarcely moved against his hold, silent as they made their way through the airlock.

They entered the control room, her hands still locked rigidly on his suit. He looked across the room at the panel, looking for Welkin; cleared his faceplate, suddenly aware that nothing moved. "Welkin?" He saw a hand, motionless above the chair arm, and his throat closed.

Betha raised her head as if she were listening, but he could not answer. She released her grip, pus.h.i.+ng away from him. "Pappy?" Her voice quavered, she folded into a tight crescent in the air, her arms wrapped against her stomach. "Pappy ... are you there?" He heard a small gasp as she tried to lift her hands. "Somebody ... get this helmet off. I can't see. Pappy?"

"Betha-" Shadow Jack began, broke off.

Bird Alyn moved to release Betha's helmet, lifted it slowly, jerked back at the sight of her face filmed with blood.

But Betha had already turned away, shaking her head to clear her confusion, pulling distractedly at her gloves. She froze as she saw the old man's drifting hand. "Oh, Jesus." Her own hand flew out, caught at Bird Alyn's suit, groping for purchase. Bird Alyn put an arm around her, helped her cross the room. Wadie followed.

"Pappy . . ." Her voice broke apart as she reached him.

Welkin opened his eyes as she touched his face, stared her into focus uncomprehendingly, his right hand pressing his chest. She laughed, or sobbed, squeezing his shoulder. "Thank G.o.d! Thank G.o.d ... I thought...you're so cold..."

"Betha. Are you-?"

"I'm all right. I'm fine." She put a trembling hand up to her face, glanced at her b.l.o.o.d.y fingertips. "Just a... nosebleed. What-what happened?"

"Pain ... in my chest, like being crushed; down my arm...must be my heart. Was afraid to move. When I saw...what happened to you on the screen-"

"Don't. Don't think about it ... it's over. We'll make it, Pappy. We'll make it yet. Close your eyes, don't move, don't worry, just rest. We'll take care of you." She managed a smile, new blood blurring on her chin, her hand gently cupping his face.

"Should we get him to the infirmary?" Wadie hesi-tated near her shoulder, forcing himself to speak.

"No." Welkin shook his head, eyes shut. "Not yet. Finish the job!"

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