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"I can't keep her level! I can't keep her level!"

Amos ben Sierra Nueva leaned forward, gripping the edge of the console as if he could force strength down the commlink and the beam to the stricken transport.

"Do not panic, Shintev," he said, firm but calm. "You are too close to your destination for panic."

Panic seemed to be the order of the day. The bridge of the Exodus—a minor substation control center for three hundred years—was in pandemonium as the refugee technicians struggled to activate and improvise. There was a hissing puncture right through the pressure hull where they had slammed a steel tube for the coaxial feeds to Guiyon's shell. None of the big cargo-bay doors were operable so they had had to lash the surface-to-ship transporters to the exterior of the ancient ship and climb in through service-hatch doors. The air was thin and cold, dim with the emergency lighting, full of the smell of fear and sweat and scorched insulation.

"Excellent sir. I think that the enemy has detected us," a voice said from one corner.

"You think?"

"I am not sure!" the technician wailed, on the brink of tears. "They are moving . . . yes! They have detected us!"

Amos' head whipped around. Then the link from the last shuttle began to transmit only a long high-pitched scream. He looked back again to see a face rammed into the pickup, plastered there by centrifugal force. Flesh and pooling blood rippled across the screen before it blanked out.

"They are gone," Amos said into the sudden hush. "Decouple the remaining shuttles. Prepare for boost."

Another chorus of screams protested that they were not ready.

"The engines are on-line," Guiyon's calm deep voice said. "That will suffice for now."

Amos turned and punched an override. "Prepare for acceleration! Acceleration in ten seconds from mark. Mark!"

A speck of light blossomed across one of the exterior fields.

"They got Shintev," somebody whispered. An extra-orbital fighter, bouncing across the surface of the troposphere like a skipped stone had gotten close enough to launch a seeker missile at the out-of-control shuttle.

"Attend to your duty!" Amos snapped. Later there will be time for prayers, and for tears. 

Force pushed at the ancient ship. Humming and snapping sounds vibrated through the hull. Exterior feeds showed gantries and constructs bending and breaking under a strain they had never been intended to endure. The ground-to-orbit shuttles were breaking away as well, and a few figures in spacesuits.

Damnation, Amos thought, looking away. They were warned! So many lives rested on his shoulders.

The great cloud-girdled shape of Bethel began to shrink in the rear viewscreen. The visible face of the planet was obscured by dust and flame from the fighting. Acceleration flattened him into his chair as he read figures from the flickering screens.

"Guiyon!" he said. "We are moving too slowly!"

"Peace, Amos. I am trying to—yes, I am venting the life-support tanks." Tens of thousands of kilotons of water were jettisoned. "That will help us. And hinder the enemy."

"What force pursues us?"

"Five ships of small to moderate size. I think they are the enemy sentinels. None other are in position or rigged for pursuit."

"Will they be able to intercept?"

"I do not know. But I must stress the engines, and there will be casualties among the passengers."

"Do what must be done."

The weight pressing into his body increased until his bones creaked from the gravity that the antique compensators could not handle. The actual gravity would crush.

Behind the Exodus, half the universe vanished in a blaze of drive energies. The hull did not hum anymore: it creaked, with occasional rending and crashing noises as components which had weakened or reset during the long years as an orbital station came apart under the stress and crashed sternwards. Somewhere a child called for its mother, again and again.

"What can we do?" Amos asked.

"Little, until we clear the gravity well," Guiyon answered. "Pray, perhaps, since that was your custom?"

One by one, the refugees lifted voices in chant.

* * *

Patsy Sue Coburn glanced over at a silk-clad Channa Hap. Channa was sipping champagne and listening politely to a medical officer who had backed her into a corner to tell a story that seemed to involve a lot of cutting motions. The room was full of station bigwigs, section representatives, department heads, company reps, merchanter captains, the odd artist or entertainer. Trays floated about at shoulder height, loaded with beverages, canapés, and stimulants. Everyone seemed filled with a new enthusiasm for conversations they'd had a hundred times before, as if the new brawn had reinvigorated old topics. Patsy Sue felt the warmth of Florian Gusky's presence even before his deep voice rumbled softly in her ear.

"So . . . what do you think of the new girl?"

Patsy looked at him out of the corner of her bottle-green eyes and flicked back her long blond hair. His jaw was thrust forward and his thick neck was hunched into heavy shoulders, accentuating the rugged cast of his features. A big man and nearly as tough as he thought he was. Gusky was an enthusiast for Revival Games, particularly rugby; he looked ready to tackle Channa.

Or stomp on her with cleats, she thought. "I think the new woman's elegant," Patsy replied. And makes me wish I'd been a little more restrained, she added to herself. Her own Junoesque figure was squeezed into a tight red sheath with a deep cleavage and a slit skirt. Her ash-blond hair—her own natural coloring with the barest tint of help from modern technology—was woven with ropes of black pearls.

"I think she's a snob," Gusky said decisively.

"She seems a bit reserved," Patsy allowed. Who wouldn't be, dropped into this mill-and-swill? 

"She seems shallow."

"What is yer problem? Y' lookin' at the woman like you think she's got the legs of a cockroach under that gown. I've neva known you to make snap judgments. Do you know somethin' that needs tellin'?"

He looked into his drink, frowning. "No . . . it's just . . . Simeon's awfully quiet." He looked up at her with concern in his brown eyes. "That's just not like him."

She grinned and flicked her blond bangs aside. "Well, this will be quite an adjustment fer him after all," she said. "He an' Tell Radon were together for decades. Maybe he's missin' him and doesn't feel like bein' at a party."

Gus nodded, pursing his lips. "Yeah, or maybe he wants to give her a chance to shine. . . ."

They both looked down for a moment and shuffled their feet. They looked up at the same moment and said, "Simeon?" simultaneously, and then burst out laughing.

"You called?" The familiar image bloomed on a screen beside them.

"Ah! Oh, hi, Sim, we, uh . . . we . . ."

"We were just saying you're kinda quiet tonight," Gus finished.

"Well, with most of my senior staff here at the party, I'm sort of pulling double-duty," Simeon said listlessly. "Excuse me," and he was gone.

Patsy and Gus looked at each other in amazement, then turned to take a new look at Channa Hap, now being introduced to a cargo specialist.

Gus shook his head. "What did she do to him?"

Patsy smiled. "Trimmed his sails good and proper."

"This was not a match made in Paradise," Gus muttered.

"Oh, I dunno," Patsy said, narrowing her green eyes thoughtfully. "The woman has style, Gus. This place could use some style. Look at this party. When was the last time you came to Simeon's place and got somethin' besides beer and pretzels?"

Gus looked at her in amazement. "What's that supposed to mean? Are you telling me you can be bought with the right canapés?"

"No. Chocolate truffles maybe, but not synthesized fish eggs on carbo wafers." At his growl she continued more seriously. "What I'm sayin' is, this place is more like a boys' camp than the hub of culture and science and business that it could be. She'll shake us up all right, but maybe that's a good thing. It's goin' to get a lot more interestin' around here."

He went back to glowering. Patsy went over to Channa to compliment her choice of the Rovolodorus' Second Celestial Suite as background music.

"Glad you like it, Ms. Coburn," Channa said. Her smile had the slightly artificial quality of someone who has spent the last few hours fending off would-be favor seekers. "You're from Larabie, though, aren't you?"

"I left," Patsy replied. "Didn't like the down-home music there, and I get so sick of the Miner's Rant and the other Pioneer Stomp stuff Simeon plays. No offense, Simeon."

"None taken," a voice said out of the air, the "n" fading into silence.

Channa's next smile was more genuine. "I'd have thought the chief environmentalist would be in favor of stability," she said.

"I get so sick of watchin' algae breed," Patsy said, and they both laughed. "Maybe that's why I had four husbands in a row—just to show I wasn't a unicellular organism."

* * *

"Goodnight," Channa called as the door swished shut behind the last departing guest. The big circular room looked even larger with the crowd gone; the holos on the walls had reset to restful underwater scenes with tropical fish.

She turned toward Simeon's screen image on the pillar—a brain's body was there, after all, and it had become a matter of courtesy in brawns to address that position even if the brain could hear them anywhere on the station. She stood a moment leisurely studying the large Sinosian tapestry that was tastefully draped across his column.

"That's a lovely hanging," she said at last. "I've been admiring it all evening." She clasped her hands behind her back and walked slowly towards him. "Thank you," she said softly. "This party was very pleasant, Simeon, and a thoughtful gesture."

Once you loosened up a little, Simeon thought in some surprise, you were fun, too. If I can just keep you half-tanked, we might be able to get along. 

"Well, everyone is more relaxed at this sort of gathering," he said, "divorced from their official positions. You get to see the social side before you have to contend with the professional."

She nodded. "I had just enough time before they got here to glance at everyone's records. I didn't want to make the same mistake with them that I made with you."

"You didn't read my records?"

"No," she said archly, "I wanted to be surprised."

"So did I," he admitted.

She laughed. "Then I guess we do have something in common after all. We can both screw up. Goodnight, Simeon."

Smiling, she gave one last wave at the column as she went into her room.

She has a nice laugh, Simeon thought, as the door swished closed behind her.

* * *

Phew, Channa thought.

She thought again, and took several recondite pieces of equipment out of her bag.

When these showed that the sensors in the walls weren't activated, she was slightly ashamed of herself for being so uncharitable about Simeon.

* * *

"There is no chance of repairing it?" Amos ben Sierra Nueva said.

"Crapulous none," the technician rasped. "Esteemed sir," he added, wiping at the lubricating fluid on his cheek.

They both backed out of the corridor and dogged the hatchway. A subliminal hum surrounded them; Amos was alone among the refugees in knowing that was a bad sign. Misaligned drive, no surprise after the colony ship had spent three centuries doubling as an orbital station. It was a miracle that the engines functioned at all, and a tribute to the engineers of the Central Worlds. A double miracle that they were holding up under the unnatural stress of maintaining subspace speeds past redline for so long. Guiyon's doing.

"We will just have to economize on oxygen," Amos said firmly.

"Stop breathing?" the technician asked.

"Coldsleep," Amos replied. "That will cut down our consumption by at least half. A small crew can manage the ship. It was designed so. Guiyon could run it alone, if need be."

Sweat from more than the exertion of crawling along disused passageways glistened on the man's brown skin. Amos forced himself to breath normally as he walked back to the command deck. His chest felt heavy but it was impossible to detect any CO2 buildup yet. Purely psychological, he told himself sternly.

"There is no chance of repairing the machinery," he said to the assembled command group. A few of them grunted as if struck. "At the current rate, we will exhaust the available air supplies two-thirds of the way to our destination."

"Why was the ship not properly maintained?" someone half shouted.

"Because this was an orbital station with unlimited supplies and an algae tank!" Amos snapped, then brought himself back under control. Of necessity, they had had to dump the excess water in the tanks. Too much mass to haul when speed is essential. "We lost more supplies, too, when the enemy hulled us."

"This is our situation," he said, deliberately calm. "We have to deal with it. A hundred lives and the fete of Bethel depend upon it."

They all nodded. There was no way the Kolnari fleet could have been kept secret, even in backwaters like the Saffron system, if there were any witnesses after they left a world. Given time on Bethel, they would hide their tracks the same way.

"What . . . what about coldsleep?" Rachel said, licking her lips.

"A possibility presently to be considered," Amos said. "Guiyon?"

The brain's voice sounded inhumanly detached as always. There were four centuries of experience behind him, and abilities no softperson could ever match. Amos shuddered slightly. Abomination was the most charitable term the Faith used for such as he. Control yourself, Amos chided. Guiyon rescued us all. He is our only hope. The stress was bringing back archaic fears.

"Marginal," Guiyon said. "Possible. We should concentrate all the personnel in one or two compartments, pump the atmosphere from the others back into reserve, and begin coldsleep treatments immediately." He paused. "We are not properly equipped—internal temperature control is very uncertain. There is a risk of substantial casualties."

"Do it," Amos said, with the ring of authority in his voice. He could sense the others relaxing. The menace was still there, but someone was taking steps. Now, if only I had an authority figure, he thought wryly. I suppose the responsibility has to stop somewhere. "And may God have mercy upon us."


Amos waited until the others had filed out to begin reorganizing the hundred-odd refugees.

"The enemy?" he asked softly.

"Four ships," Guiyon replied. "One turned back, I think, with engine problems—there were discontinuities in its emissions. The remainder are gaining slowly. I am running the engines over the specifications as it is, but they were never designed for this sort of usage. My estimate is that we have escaped so far because the Kolnari ships are carrying extra fuel mass and sublight maneuver engines. They are also not redlining their propulsion systems."

"Will we have enough lead-time to reach Rigel Base?"

"That is impossible to calculate," Guiyon said. His voice was slowly taking on an extra tinge of animation, like a piece of rusty machinery that turned more smoothly when warmed up after long disuse. "Too much depends on intervening factors—mass density in the interstellar medium, the enemy's actions, and what awaits us. We still have several possible destinations, but there may have been changes since the last update. My data is very old."

"As God wills," Amos said reflexively.


* * *

The data-input jumped and fizzled through the jury-rigged inputs. Pain jagged along Guiyon's nerves in sympathy with the overstressed fabric of the ship. Anxiety ate at him as sector after sector went blank, a spreading numbness like leprosy.

Behind him, the rosette of pursuing Kolnari ships was mostly hidden by the blaze of his own drive energies. The sleeting energetic particles of their beam-weapons were not probing and eroding at the drive coils of the ancient, crumbling vessel. Ghost memories of the ship when it was young and strong haunted him, confusing his responses. His own nutrient and oxygen feeds kept slipping past redline, and each time the emergency adjustments took longer to swing the indicators back.

We will not make Rigel Base, Guiyon knew. He would not, and the ship would not. And if they could, the softshells on board most certainly would not. I must select an alternate destination. 

If there is one.


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