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Station-born and bred, Channa had gone space-walking as soon as she was old enough to fit into a juvenile suit. But there the difference between her Hawking Alpha Proxima Station days and now ended.

Theoretically, she knew that SSS-900-C was at the edge of the Shiva Nebula. Trade routes crossed here, carrying processed ores essential for drive-core manufacture. As the ship which had brought her had approached the dumbbell-shaped station, she'd watched the process on her cabin's screen with great interest. But theory, and that shipboard view in complete safety, had not prepared her for the great arc of pearly mist that filled her vision plate; mist glowing with scores of proto-suns in a score of colors.

"Spectacular, ain't it?" Patsy asked.

Channa came to herself with a start. "What are you doing out here?"

"This tug's my emergency station," she said, grinning broadly inside her bubble helmet. "The algae'll keep right on breedin' for a while without me, randy little bastards. An' I'm a right good tug pilot, too."

"Believe you, ma'am," Channa said, throwing a salute from her bubbled temple. What's Simeon on about? He's got a fleetof sortsto command. "Let's go."

In turn, they slid down into the cramped cabin of the tug and plugged suit feeds into the ship system. The tugs were stripped-down little vessels, just a powerplant and drive with minimal controls; wedge-shaped, with grapnel fields and an inflatable habitat for taking survivors in their dual role as rescue vessels. The docking bay and the cabin itself were open to vacuum, but she felt a low whining as Patsy brought the drive up and lifted them out. There was the usual disorienting lurch as they passed out of station gravity. Now the only weight was acceleration, and the barbell shape of the station was a huge bulk below them instead of behind. Her senses tried to tell her she was climbing vertically in a gravity field, then yielded to training as she made herself ignore up and down for the omnidirectional outlook that was most useful in space.

"Vectoring in," Patsy said into her helmet mike.

Other tugs were drifting motes of light, fireflies against the blackness. The analogy remained in force as they circled the drifting hulk of the intruder; it was big. Forward was a frayed mass of tendrils, and the rear still glowed red-white, heat stow to radiate in vacuum.

"Readings?" Channa asked. Her nose itched; it always did when she had a helmet on.

Simeon's voice answered her. "Main power system went out when they burned their drive," he said. "Be careful about that, by the way—it's radiating gamma, real museum piece. Main internal gravity field's down. There are localized auxiliary systems still operating amidships, and traces of water vapor and atmosphere. There might be a chamber in there still running life-support."

Channa scanned the bridge section of the ship again. The instruments available in the cockpit of the tug were basically little more than sophisticated motion detectors.

"I can't get a thing," she said in frustration. "Am I missing something?"

"Not much," Simeon told her. "There's too much dirt out there, which'll confuse readings. See if you can get aboard."

"Right," she said, and looked down the hull toward the equator where the shuttle bays should be located. "Bring us in there, Patsy."

Channa flicked an indicator light on the hull. They sank gradually, until the ancient ship filled half the sky.

"Don't build 'em like this anymore," Patsy said as they beheld shuttle bay doors which were easily two hundred meters long, big enough to accommodate a small liner.

"They don't have to," Channa answered absently. Drive cores were a lot cheaper and safer nowadays, which made ships this size obsolete. "Somebody did not like them."

This close in, the scars on the hull were enormous, metal heated to melting with a slagged look around the edges of the cuts, but miraculously there didn't seem to be much structural damage as they swung further into the bay.

"They have to be alive," Channa murmured. "Nothing could kill people this lucky."

"Except running out of luck," Simeon said grimly.

"There is that." She came at last to a smaller shuttle bay and attempted to open the portal with several standard call codes. "Simeon, what does the library suggest we use for a ship this old? I'm not getting any response with the usual ones."

"Three one seven, three one seven five?"

"Tried it, nothing."

Simeon relayed several more codes.

"Nothing's working," she said in disgust. "Could they have locked them?"

"Hard to say until we're sure they're crazy or not. Try another bay. That one might just be inoperative."

She had Patsy fly out and down the massive ship's side until they came to another shuttle bay. It, too, refused her admittance.

"This is ridiculous," she said in exasperation. "They got in, so there has to be an operable entrance!"

"Considering the visible damage, maybe you'd have more luck with a service hatch. There're close to a hundred of them and only six shuttle bays. Try something midship."

"That's a good idea," she said, feeling more optimistic with such odds. "Just in case, what do we use for a can opener? We don't want any survivors dead of old age before we reach them."

The very first hatch they tried opened, about half a meter. Channa looked at it, Simeon looked at it through her eyes via the implant which connected directly to her optic nerve.

"You're not that big, but you're also not that small," he said with a wistful note.

"I'm putting us down," Patsy said. "Contact." A faint clunk came through the metal of the tug as the fields gripped the big hull.

"And I'm going to try and effect entry. I think it's wide enough." Channa told Simeon.

"Just you be very careful, Channa-mine . . ."

"For Ghu's sake, Simeon, I've been space-walking since I was five. I'm a stickfoot."

"Yeah, but I don't think your station ever experienced a hostile attack. And there's all that flying junk! Could knock you right off the hull . . . or smear you across it."

"You do know how to give a girl confidence. I'm going, Simeon, and that's that." She muttered to herself about titanium twits and agoraphobic asses as she prepared to leave the tug. Patsy Sue at least gave her a cheerful grin and a thumbs-up. "We need to know what or who's in there."

"No problem," Patsy cut in, reaching into the toolbox under the pilot's seat. Her hand came out with the ugly black shape of an arc pistol.

Channa looked around, her jaw dropped. "Aren't those illegal?"

Patsy waggled the pronged muzzle. "Not on Larabie, they ain't."

Channa shook her head, then picked up where she'd left off. "You know, Simeon, they do give us brawns training. I've done search-and-rescue before."

"How often?"

"Once. My inexperience will only make me more cautious. I can do this, Simeon. Once I'm inside maybe I can do something to widen the hatch opening. Direct some of the other tugs this way so I'll have reinforcements nearby, if I need them."

Patsy waggled the arc pistol, apparently accustomed to the weight of the weapon.

"Assuming it's needed," Channa added cheerfully. "Have you got any positive life readings, partner?" she asked as she eased herself with practised care out of the tug. With one hand on a hull bracket, she let herself drift to the hull where the stickfield of her boots held her safely.

"According to my sensors, nobody's conscious. But there might be—"

"Stop being so reassuring," she said facetiously. "Have you got a medical team ready?"

"We were just getting to know each other," he said regretfully.

Channa paused, caught by the emotion in his voice. "You are the most manipulative creature it has ever been my misfortune to meet," she said coldly, clipping a reel of optical fiber to her suit. Simeon sighed. "Look, I'm not a total idiot. The tug will shield me on one side, and I'm only two strides away from the hatch."

"Me? Manipulative? I'm supposed to keep my brawn from risking its fluffy little tail."

Carefully breaking boot contact, she took the first step to the hatch, and the second. Then clipped both feet free and floated neatly to the opening to examine it more closely. The magnetic grapple built into the left forearm of her suit twitched, with a feeling like a light push. The contact disk flicked out, trailing braided monofilament, and impacted on the door of the bay. She activated the switch that reeled her in. Patsy followed with an expert somersault leap that landed her less than an arm's length from her friend.

"Showoff," Channa said.

"You ain't the only one with walk experience," Patsy said. Her voice was light, but the arc pistol was ready as she peered within the half-open hatch. "Coburn to rescue squad. We're about to enter the Hulk. Stand by."

Channa licked dry lips. It's the suit air, she told herself firmly. Always too dry. She spoke aloud to Simeon. "You're just jealous of me, Bellona Rockjaw, heroine of the space frontier."

"I'm right there with you, Channa," Simeon said with a trace of wistfulness in his voice.


She struggled to get through the narrow opening, grunting with effort.

"Do not get stuck," he advised her.

Channa started to giggle. "Do not make me laugh," she admonished. "And stop reading my mind."

With the unpleasant sensation of metal and plastic scraping against each other, she pushed through at last. The chamber had held maintenance equipment of some sort long ago; there were feeds and racks for EVA suits, and empty toolholders. Only a single strip lit the dim interior. On the hullside wall was a massive, clumsy-looking airlock, and a blinking row of readouts beside it.

"Some systems still active," she said. "Patsy, prop yourself against the frame and see if you can't push the hatch door open."

"Nevah get through iffen I doan," the older woman muttered. "Makes me wish I were flat-chested, too."

"She is not," Simeon replied vehemently.

Channa grinned, but Patsy Sue was busy getting herself into position in the hatchway, attaching her filament to the inside of the hatch before she grabbed the top of the frame with both hands and gave a mighty heave. The hatch did not so much as budge a millimeter.

"No, it's jammed tighter'n . . . nemmind. You got a polarizin' faceplate?" Patsy asked.


"Okay. I'll try somethin' subtle."

Coburn stepped back, raised the arc pistol and fired four times. The bar of actinic blue-white light was soundless in vacuum, but a fog of metal particles exploded outward like glittering donuts centered on the aiming points. Patsy nodded in satisfaction and twisted herself around to brace her feet on the hatch and grip two handhold loops on the hull nearby. Channa could hear her give a grunt of effort, and the hatchway flipped out into space, tumbling end-over-end.

"Nice brand of subtle you wield," Channa said.

"Think nothin' of it," Patsy said, pretending to blow smoke off the arc pistol's barrel. "Any luck?"

Channa bent over the touchpad beside the airlock. "Not much. Ah, that's got it. Simeon, how's the transmission holding up?"

"Loud and clear, since Patsy got the door out of the way. I may lose Patsy's signal further inside. Maybe you should wait? There're four more tugs closing in on your position."

Channa ignored the pleading note, not without a pang of guilt. But what the hell, the situation is irresistible, she admitted. She had been trained as an administrator-partner-troubleshooter, but most of the time, circumstances were fairly conventional. Not boring; she wouldn't have made it through brawn training if she were bored with it. On the other hand, she wouldn't have been picked if there weren't an element of the adventurer in her psychological profile.

"String this, would you, Patsy?" she said, passing over the reel. The optical fiber was encased in woven tungsten-filament, with receptor-booster chips at intervals. Barely thicker than thread, it had a breaking strain of several tons. Tacked to the wall behind them, neither her implants nor Patsy's suit communits could fade out. Patsy welded the outer end to the hull beside the hatch, using the spot heater in her construction suit's gauntlet.

"Ready?" Channa said, taking a deep breath.

"Surely am." Patsy came up behind her, arc pistol ready.

"Standing by," Simeon said.

The keypad lights blinked green and amber. "I think it's saying there's some doubt about the atmosphere," Channa said. "It's definitely pressurized in there." She attached a sensor line to the surface.

"They're in trouble," Simeon said. "Hear that whining?" Channa shook her head, and felt him boost the audio pickups of her helmet. A faint tooth-grating sound came through.

"What is that?"

"That's the main internal drive cores," Simeon replied grimly. "The powerplant's down, but they're still superconducting. The alloys they used back then were tough. They built 'em more redundant then, too."

"Which means?"

"Which means . . . to stop this thing, the pilot put everything the powerplant had into the drive. The exterior coils blew before it could go all out. Now the internal coil's going to go."

"Bad news," Patsy said.

"It's going to blow?" Channa asked apprehensively. The energies needed to move megatons between stars were immense. 

Simeon listened. "Not just yet, but soon. Building, but the noise will be considerably more audible before I'd panic. Get that inner hatch open, woman! I'll send the troops. You've got about thirty minutes before you have to be off."

The interior airlock slid open. The two women kept their helmets firmly on as it slid down again and the air hissed in. Channa looked down at the readouts on her sleeve and punched for analysis.

"Oxygen's down, CO2's way up," she said grimly. "Necrotic ketones, or so it says—decay products. I'd hate to have to breathe this stuff. Could anyone breath it and live?"

"Depends on natural tolerances," Patsy replied. "And it might not be bad further in." Being an environmental maintenance specialist, she knew the parameters. "From the volume of n.k.'s, their scrubbers must have been down for a while."

The inner hatch of the airlock slid open. Now that they were no longer in a soundless vacuum, the exterior pickups of their suits relayed the hiss. Unfortunately, a high-pitched whine was now equally audible: the kind that made the hair on your arms lift up. Channa looked down the long corridor, shabby with age and dim with the emergency glowstrips' ghostly blue light.

Flies buzzed around them. Patsy slapped one against the wall.

"Blowflies," she said after a good look. There was a faint quaver in her voice. "Had 'em on the ranch."

"Sound pickup says there are live ones down there," Channa said. "Let's go."

* * *

Doctor Chaundra's hands flew over his keypad as he made notes. He was a smallish brown-skinned man with delicate bones and a precise, scholarly manner.

"Fifty maximum, you say?"

Simeon switched back to the implant data filling another part of his consciousness. Channa's breathing sounded ragged; her heartbeat was elevated, and the stomach-acid level indicated suppressed nausea. Simeon wasn't surprised. The things she was seeing made him feel a little sick in an entirely nonphysical way that was still highly unpleasant.

"Short-term, improvised attempt at coldsleep," she said, voice struggling for the objectivity of a report. He looked at the tangle of cobbled-together equipment around living and dead. "Probably to cut down on air consumption. Heavy equipment failures."

The latest chamber held mostly dead ones, eyes fallen in and dried lips shrunk back over grinning teeth. Maggots, too. Some of the corpses were children, dead children nestled against dead mothers. In a few, the maggots gave a ghastly semblance of life, moving the swollen, blackened limbs. About the only mercy was the elastic nets that held living and dead down to the pallets on the deck or to the bunks. Evidently someone had foreseen that the interior gravity fields might go. Simeon imagined walking into one of those chambers and finding the putrefying bodies floating loose. . . .

"This one—" Channa began, swallowing and bending over a body that was either still alive or only recently dead. Drifting maggots brushed the surface of her faceplate and clung wetly, writhing. She retched, then forced herself to brush them away.

A chunngggg sound echoed through the still air. "What was that?"

Simeon split his viewpoint yet again. The rescue ship hovering off the side of the hulk had launched a missile carrying a large-diameter hose and attached to a pumping system: a force-deck system which punched through the hull and sealed itself.

"Air harpoon," he said. "We'll be pumping in a second."

"I kin hear it," Patsy said from the corridor. Her arc gun crashed, opening a sealed door. "More in heah. 'Bout the same."

"With fifty living, we should have no trouble," the doctor was saying to Simeon in the safe, clean sickbay office. Chaundra tapped for a closeup on one of the recordings, looking at the life-signs readouts beside the wasted face of a refugee. "Coldsleep dosed, the old partial method; very unsafe dosage, and oxygen deprivation. Dehydration, starvation, but mostly inadequate air. Hmm."

He blinked. "Physical type? Sometimes there is genetic divergence on isolated colonies. I must check. These look to be of sudeuropan race—archaic type, very pure. We should evacuate them as soon as possible."

"I'm working on it," Simeon said with controlled passion. I'm never going to look at battlefield reconstructions quite the same way again, he thought.

Through Channa's ears, he heard feet clacking in the corridor outside, stickfields in the suit shoes substituting for gravity. The volunteers came in briskly enough, inflatable rescue bubbles in their hands, then halted in disbelief. One tried to control his retching for a moment and then went into an excruciating and dangerous fit of vomiting inside a closed helmet. His squadmates removed it, only to have his paroxysm grow worse as the stink hit his nostrils. The luckless volunteer went into the first of the bubbles.

"Get moving!" Channa ordered. Only Simeon could hear the tremors in her voice beyond the range of normal ears. "The living ones are marked with a slash of yellow from a cargo checker. Use plasma feeds, the emergency antidotes, and get them out of here. These people belong in regeneration. Now!"

Raggedly, then with gathering speed, the stationers moved to their work. Channa escaped back into the corridor, exhaling a breath she had not been conscious of holding. Simeon was profoundly thankful she had not tried cracking her suit seals when the air hose went in. It would take months of vacuum to get the stink out of this ship. Much more time than the vessel had. The final fire of the interior coils would at least cleanse it.

"How long?" she asked.

"Not less than an hour, not more than three," he replied. "I think the pirate hypothesis is out."

Channa nodded jerkily; too many families and children. Pirates were much more common in fiction than in fact, anyway. Bodies floated in the next chamber down, and medics working over the three living before transferring them to life bubbles.

"Ms. Hap, I'm !Tez Kle." The Sendee wore a medical assistant's arm-flash on his suit.

Channa glanced at him in surprise. Not many aliens chose to specialize in Terran medicine. Of course, Sondee were rather humanoid, if you managed to ignore the four eyes—two large and golden about where eyes should be, and two more above the whorled ridges that served as ears; you could not sneak up on a Sendee—and the lack of any facial features apart from a nostril slit and round suckerlike mouth. They had lovely voices, with far more vocal range and control than a human.

She came up beside the bubbles. "You're in charge?" He nodded. "Let me give you a hand," she said.

The first figure she turned to had reddish-black hair, a short muscular man with a square face. She released his restraints and lifted him, then gave him a gentle shove into the body-length sack, sealed it and activated it. His color seemed to improve immediately. She turned to his companion and froze.

"Channa, your vital signs just did the strangest little jig. What's the problem?" Simeon asked.

This young man was tall, close to two meters, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped, shapely and muscular as an athlete. He had a clean, classically perfect profile, with firmly molded chin and sensitive mouth. His delicately curving cheekbones were brushed by long dark lashes, the corners of his eyes tilted upwards. His long hair was blue-black, curling back from his high intelligent forehead to fell almost to his shoulders.

Channa sighed in admiration, then caught herself. This stud is so handsome even being sick makes him look good. 

"Oh ho," Simeon crowed. "Very nice, Channa, but if you don't put Adonis there in his sack, he's going to go a very unflattering shade of blue."

"Em . . . right." She unbuckled the man and sealed him in his sack, connecting the two bags together. Then she tugged them behind her to the lock where she turned them over to the waiting med-techs. The goods-transporter's hold was filled with floating, jostling sacks while Channa and the med-tech chief stood in the lock, checking their sensors for heart-beats.

"Guess we got them all," !Tez Kle said. "But I don't think we can save them all. We left those we were certain we couldn't help," he said apologetically.

"Nothing else you could do," Channa told him. "We don't have time for anything else. Go," she said, and slapped his shoulder. "I've got a tug outside." She sealed the end of the caterpillar lock behind him and waited impatiently for the pilot to retract it. "Damn, I wish we could have gotten to the bridge."

"You and Patsy give it a try," Simeon answered. "Every bit of data will help, but we're cutting it a little close. I'm positioning tugs to push that wreck away from the station and soon."

Channa looked up sharply. "It's still a danger to you?"

"Nothing this brain can't handle," Simeon said blithely. "You do what you can, brawn."

She looked down at the notescreen tethered at her waist, studying the map of the ship's interior which she had managed to acquire from its own data banks, archaic as they were.

"I'll try through here," she said, struggling with the toggles of the hatch. "It'd be the more direct route, if it's open. If it isn't, I'll rendezvous with Patsy immediately."

* * *

"I need some people for tug and detonations work," Simeon announced. "It's going to be dicey."

The assembly room beneath the south-polar docking bay was full of second-wave volunteers, those not needed or qualified for the emergency medical work. Every single one stepped forward. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Simeon found time for a grim internal smile. That old line's worked its challenge since Gilgamesh, he thought, proving that even the oldest books on military psychology were right. People were very reluctant to appear frightened in front of others, especially their friends. He called the roll of those he needed. They were already suited up, helmets under their arms. Gus, of course, and six of the more experienced tug pilots, with six of the mining explosives experts who had been taking R & R on the SSS. "Thank you and I thank all the rest of you, too."

As soon as the room emptied of all but the participants, he began the briefing with the truth.

"That ship is going to blow. The engines, by the sound of them, are critically unbalanced, redlining far off scale. We've got the survivors off her. But we've got to get her far enough from the station so that when she goes, she won't take us with her. That's not the only problem. We've got to be sure she'll break into the smallest possible fragments and that they are thrown in a favorable dispersal pattern."

The explosives men grinned at each other. "Easiest thing in the world, Simeon," their spokesman said with a rakish smile. "If you know what you're doing."

"We do," one of the others said, thumping the spokesman jovially on the back. The man didn't so much as rock on his toes.

"That's good to know, guys! Can you tug pilots match their skill by redlining your engines a little to pull her as far away from us as you can?"

"Hell, Simeon," Gus said, "you oughta know we'd have no trouble doing that little thing for you."

"I'll be monitoring and should be able to give you fair warning to get yourselves clear." He paused a moment, anxious despite their obvious disregard for the inherent dangers. "Have I made the situation clear?"

Gus grinned. "Couldn't be clearer, station man," he said, giving his broad shoulders a preparatory twitch in response to the challenge. "And we don't have much time for further chatter!"

Another voice broke in: Patsy's. Simeon keyed her visual transmission to one of the ready-room screens; she was back in the control seat of her tug.

"My, ain't the machismo level high around here? You got one tug already in place, Simeon—mine. Count me in, too."

Gus winced. "Look, Patsy, we're in very deep, ah—"

"Very deep shit," she finished, grinning at him. "Ah know the words, Gus."

Everybody laughed. Simeon looked them over and stifled a wave of bitter longing. A military commander of any stature led his troops from the front, not from an impervious titanium column. Don't worry, if they fail you'll be the only one left to say what happened, thanks to that same titanium column. If you can live with your conscience, that is. 

"I'll keep my eye on the coils and give you enough warning to peel off," Simeon promised.

Almost simultaneously, helmets covered the faces of this small band of heroes.

* * *

"This is taking more time than it's worth," Channa said in disgust, giving the control panel a final thump with her fist. The door valved open.

"Damn! And I thought that was a station legend," she said. "Does it work for you, Simeon?"

"Having a servo whack me with a wrench to make me work properly?" he asked. "No, not often. The bridge ought to be right down there. And hurry."

"How are we handling the demolition?" she asked him, stepping through the half-open door and trotting down the darkened way, her helmet light fanning ahead. Mercifully, no bodies floated about this section.

"I've got a team rigging explosives all around the ship to blow it to," he paused, his own nerves making him play the clown, "smithereens. Real, genuine, non-station piercing smithereens. It would be disgraceful, utterly disgraceful, to get holed by flying debris after surviving this morning, don't you think? Ah, the tug volunteers are in place, ready to grapple. Ah! They've broken her out of orbital inertia."

Movement was not obvious this far in the bowels of the dying ship. "Who's in charge of the team?" Channa asked.


"Patsy said he was a good pilot," Channa commented. "Soon as I finish here, I'll join her. Is she still standing by at the hatch?"

"She is, to pick you up and bring you straight back to the station with any information you discover."

"I can scan the info back to you, Sim-mate, but first I have to find it, you know." She stumbled over some jumble piled in the corridor and recovered herself.

"You and Patsy get straight back here. I can't have my brawn risking her neck when . . ."

"Simeon," she said reasonably, "brawns are supposed to risk their necks for their brains. And if you, the station, are at risk, I am required to reduce that risk any way possible. This time I can do it by helping tug the risk away from here. Have I made myself clear on this point?"

"I don't like it," Simeon said in a disgruntled mumble. "Foolish risk."

"Thank you for your input, but Simeon . . ."


"Don't you ever try to forbid me to do the job I'm here to do. You got that?"

"Right in the forehead, sweetheart."

"Not quite where I was aiming, but it'll do," Channa said.

"If you get through to the bridge of that ship, can I ask you for a download?" Simeon said plaintively.

"Why else am I penetrating this about-to-blow-up wreck?" Channa said. "Patsy, you read me?"

"Welcome to the pahty, Channa," came Patsy's cheerful voice.

"You don't mind my crashing?"

Patsy laughed. "Watch yoah choice of words, girl."

* * *

"I just noticed something," Channa said, slowing her pace.


"Paper. What's all this paper doing around?" There were sheets of it drifting down the corridor and sticking with static attraction to the rubbery walls.

"This lumbering hulk must be filled with gear so ancient it's exotic," Simeon said.

"Paper storage?" she said dubiously.

"Maybe they regressed."

"Could it originally have been piloted by a shellperson?" Channa asked, suddenly jumping to some conclusions that ought to have been more obvious to both herself and Simeon. If she got the edge on him on this one . . .

"Highly unlikely," Simeon said patronizingly. "B & B ships weren't that common then. All of these little back-of-beyond colonies were literally a shot in the dark, too risky to expend us on. C'mon, forward is to your right, one more passage to reach that control room."

"Aye, sir," she said. She worked her way forward, past leaking pipes and the occasionally sparking control boxes, ruptured by the overloads of the catastrophic deceleration.

"Paper," Channa said in wonder, wishing she could touch the valuable substance with her bare hands.

"And books! At least I think that's what I saw when you glanced into that corner. No, further right. Yes! Books!"

"No time for browsing now," Channa said firmly.

"Right," he said. "Antiquarian reflex, sorry."

"Ah, I am now at the control room," she said.

It was large and circular; most of the consoles were under shrink-shrouds of plastic that looked rigid with age. Raw, hasty jury-rigs had restored a few panels to functionality. She had to duck under festoons of cable which were draped to and fro with no noticeable pattern. In the dimming light, she saw jury-rigged control boxes taped to consoles. The whole bridge seemed to have been reconstructed with mad abandon.

"Ghu! They flew this thing?" Simeon exclaimed. They must have been crazy, he thought and cocked a weather-ear to the sound from the engine. "The log," Simeon reminded her. "Though I'm inclined to doubt that this outfit has anything that fancy. Strip the data bank, too. We want any information we can get."

"You tell me how to retrieve information from this archaic mess and you've got it," she answered, peering from workstation to workstation, trying to figure which one might access the main banks.

"I've got to go a long way back in my own files to find something comparable," he said. "There're only three centuries of buggering-up to decode but . . . ah, try the second console to your right. About the only one they hadn't been trying to use."

She drew the information feedline out of her glove and pressed it over the inductor surface. The screen beside it clicked to life and began flowing with a spaghetti-complex web of symbols.

"Oh, my oh my," Simeon muttered.

"Problems, Sim?"

"Nothing ol' Simeon can't handle," he said. "But the code is old. I don't have anything that esoteric on file. Nothing I can't eventually decipher."

"Don't let your modesty run away with you," she muttered, looking down at her wrist chrono. Plenty of time, she thought. I hope. 

"I'm just cracking the interface and downloading it to decode at leisure," Simeon replied. "Don't get your tits in a tizzy."

"What did you say?"

"Old slang," he replied blandly.

"Another antiquarian reflex, no doubt," she said archly.

"Touché. Okay, got it," he said, "Get out of there."

* * *

"Gawd-damn this thing!" Patsy said in frustration.

The tug was presenting its broad rear surface to the ancient colony ship. Channa scanned carefully on visual and deep-magnetic, looking for a place to engage their grapple.

"Time is a factor here, Ms. Hap." Gus's voice was a little testy. Aligning an extra tug in the pattern had taken more time than anticipated.

"I just got up here, Mr. Gusky. I'm looking for a flat spot among these struts. I can see why you gave it a pass. It's a mess. Wait, I think I see something now, it's . . ." She looked again and increased the magnification. "Bloody hell!" she cried.

"Crap!" Simeon's voice overrode hers. It took the others a few moments longer.

"I don't believe it," Channa whispered.

"What?" Patsy demanded. "What do you see?"

"It's a shell. There's a shellperson out there, strapped to the hull."

"Are you sure?" Gus' voice cut in. "Look, everyone else is in place, we have to get this thing away from the station—"

Simeon ordered in a roar that nearly fractured eardrums. "BELAY THAT, GUSKY!" A moment of stunned silence followed. "Check it out, Channa. Now!"

"Aye, aye, sir," Channa said even as she strobed a landing spot where Patsy could set the tug down. "Yes, Mr. Gusky, it's a shellperson all right. Granted, it doesn't look like anything you're likely to have seen, but brawns learn to recognize 'em all."

She hoped Simeon never had occasion to bellow like that again, with the decibels going off the gauge. Understandable, of course, or at least to her. If brains had a collective nightmare, it was being cut off from their equipment and left helpless. Attached to their leads and machinery, a shellperson was the next thing to immortal, a high-tech demigod in this world. Cut off from it, they were cripples. Spam-in-a-can, as the obscene joke had it. Neither Simeon nor she were capable of abandoning a shellperson, even if its occupant should prove dead.

"Gus, why don't you set the haul in motion," Channa said, knowing her priorities had just shifted. "Patsy and I will get this shellperson off."

She anchored the grapple just above the shell and as quickly as possible, reeled the tug to it. She studied the shell in the monitor as she drew closer. "It's inward facing, they did that right at least."

"Fardling right?" Simeon cursed. "Did it right? There is nothing right about this. What kind of shit-for-brains did this? That shellperson was lodged on the exterior of the hull! Anything could have happened to him or her! Bastards, bastards, bastards. Get him out of there!"

Channa heard the cold passion in Simeon's voice and recognized another aspect of him, one his often diffident manner and sometimes boyish enthusiasms had masked. Shellpeople were as individual as normals. Why had she thought him shallow, even trivial? Because of his fascination with ancient wars and weaponry?

"I'm on my way, Simeon," she said. "Gusky, step on it. We'll get out of your way. This won't take long."

"It had better not," the ex-Navy man said, his voice still carrying a trace of resentment. "Wilco. Out."

The surge of acceleration was faint but definite as the bulky vessel began to move. Channa locked a safety line to her suit before she swung down to the pitted, corroded surface of the hull and began to thread her way through the crazed jungle of beam-fused girders that covered it like fungus. The light had the absolute white-and-shadow of space, but the froth where vaporized metal had recondensed looked out of place.

I'm too used to things being new and functional, she told herself at a level below the machine-efficient movements of hands and feet. Fear coiled at a deeper level still, shouting that she was risking two living humans for a shellperson who could have died long ago. Brawn training overrode that trickle of fear almost before she noticed. A shellperson could not be left, not while a brawn could remove him.

"Is the brain alraht?" Patsy asked.

"Can't tell yet," Channa told her. Off to her left a white light flashed and the metal toned beneath her feet.

"What was that?" she half-squawked.

"Iron ore," Gus said. "She's moving into the dispersal cone of that load of balled ore. There's a lot of that crap out here. Hurry."

I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying, Channa thought. The shell was a shape like a metal egg split down the middle, with a tangle of feed lines and telemetry jacked into opened access panels. Three more winks of light as ore struck at hundreds of kps further down the derelict's hull, then a whole cluster. Debris flipped away into space with leisurely grace.

"Channa . . ." Simeon began. The rage was out of his voice, replaced by fear for her. Somehow that warmed Channa despite the cold clamp she'd put on her feelings.

"Can't be helped," she said and planted her own grapple at the top of the shell, just beside the lugs.

"It's a different design from mine," Simeon told her. "I'm doing a search now to see where you can put a heavy magnet without interrupting anything vital."

"Fine," she said distractedly. "Looks like they just took a dozen loops of wire cable and tack-welded it to hold the shell down. Talk about improvisation!"

Simeon watched her hands as she used a small laser to cut through one of the cables lashing the capsule to the hull. It broke free and the shell fell away from the hull slightly, fine wires floating like roots in a glass of water. God, it looks so naked, he thought helplessly.

Channa's gaze had passed over the code name incised on the shell so he could read it. PMG-266-S, a low number brain of very advanced years. Guiyon. The name floated up out of deep storage where all the names of his kind rested. A managerial sort. Working for the Colonial Department as it was, back then. Paid off his contract and dropped out of touch, presumed rogue. A hermit.

"He's a two-hundred series," he told her. "Now put the grapple dead center, upper side."

Channa used a remote control device to lower one of the smaller grapples from the tug, gingerly placing it as directed. Then she returned to cutting cables. She was working on the next to last one when a pebble-sized piece of ore struck the back of her helmet, hard enough to knock her sideways and to burn straight through her air regulator from left to right. Simeon saw specks of plastic spin off in the wake of the tiny meteor. The exterior view from the tug's pickups showed metal glowing white-hot.

"Channa!" Simeon called. The med-readouts flashed unconsciousness. He overrode the suit and ordered it to inject stimulants, a horse-dose, anything to buy her time.

"Oww." Channa jerked and then shook herself, hauling back on the safety line until her feet touched the surface of the ship. A red light flashed on the inside of her faceplate and the message:

"System failure—air regulation. Ten minutes emergency supply only" appeared. It was replaced by 10:00. Then 09:59, and the seconds scrolled down inexorably.

"Channa, you okay? Should Ah git down there?

"No!" Channa rasped. "Keep ready for lift."

Simeon called. "Channa, get inside."

"I'm almost finished," she said gruffly.

"Now," he said.

She ignored him. He watched the cable part, and her hands reached for the last one. From another view he watched the ancient colony ship being dragged away at an ever increasing acceleration.

"Channa! Get your ass in that tug now!"

"Shut—up!" she snapped.

The final cable parted and the shell swung free. For the first time, Simeon saw that the feeder line was damaged. No, he thought.


Channa began to disconnect the shell's input leads. It was difficult work in the unwieldy suit gloves, but her long-fingered hands moved with careful delicacy. She closed the valve on the broken feeder line.

"Might not be too bad," she muttered. "There'll be an interior backup. Probably ruptured when they stopped."

Then she keyed the remote to reel them both back to the tug at a careful pace, holding on to the exterior lugs and using her feet to fend them off random projections. The shell went ter-unnnggg against the light-load grapnels up near the apex of the stubby wedge; the mechanical claws closed on the hard alloy with immovable pressure.


She turned and pivoted around a handhold and dove feetfirst into the control seat.

"Get yo' suit plugged in!" Patsy snapped, beating Simeon by nanoseconds.

"Can't. This is a standard EVA suit, the input valve's upstream of the break. Get moving, we have to help haul this thing!"

"Negative," Simeon said. "Make tracks back to the station, Patsy."

"Negative on that." Channa said. "If we don't get this hulk far enough away, there won't be a station to go back to."

Patsy bit her lip and touched the controls. The tug sprang straight up, the derelict shrinking from sky-spanning vastness to child's model size in seconds as the great soft hand of acceleration shoved at them.

"Then you plant that grapnel field," she said urgently. "We can help the boost with our own rise. But when that's done, we're goin' home, girl."

Channa began the adjustments. The tug was designed for straightforward long slow pulls, not this redline-everything race against disaster. She must balance the uneven pull that might shred the tug's structure and compensate for the hulk's weakness by intuition as much as anything. Who knew what structural members had given way within? It would do very little good to rip a large segment of it loose. . . . The giant ship began to grow slightly smaller.

She glanced at the readout. "I hate these clock things," she said fiercely. "They must have been created by a sadist. I'm going to know when I run out of air."

"Stop talking," Simeon ordered, "you're wasting oxygen. When that clock has flipped over another thirty seconds, you return to station!"

Gus' command rang through the conversation. "Synchronize release, slave controls to mine as Patsy cuts loose."

Channa keyed it in. "Five seconds. Mark."

Patsy cursed with scatological inventiveness as the little craft surged. Then it flipped end-for-end and the space behind them paled as the drive worked to shed velocity. They would have to kill their delta-V away from the station before they could return.

"Priority," she barked over the open circuit. "Everyone git outta my way, 'cause I ain't stoppin'!"

Deceleration turned to acceleration again. Channa wheezed a protest as her ribs clamped down on her lungs.


Simeon's monologue took on a frantic note. He forced his mind not to calculate times, with an effort that almost banished fear.

Keep her informed, he thought: " . . . madness to have attempted that sort of linkage. The nutrients might have given out on the trip. It depends on when the feeder line was damaged. I might be responsible for that. It could have happened when I hit them with the satellites. What do you think? No, don't answer, save your air. I know we won't be able to tell anyway until we examine him.

"What kind of people are these?" he asked for perhaps the twentieth time. "Could they be pirates who stole the brain? Then why didn't they bring it inside? The access-way? Sure, that must be it, they couldn't get it through the hatch. Still, a shellperson is a valuable resource. You'd think they try to protect him more if they had to leave him outside. It could be some kind of punitive measure by an insane religious sect. Nah, Central would never assign a brain to a group like that, it wouldn't make sense." He began to curse again. "Hey, Channa, stop rolling your eyes like that. You're making me dizzy." The circling increased in tempo. "Okay, okay, I'll change the subject. Sheesh, take away a woman's ability to talk . . ." Channa closed her eyes. "I was joking, Channa." Her eyes remained closed. "You're getting close to the station. You're going to need to see where you're going. Remember what it's like out there." No change. "Okay, I apologize. It was a stupid, ignorant remark and I regret it. I didn't even mean it. Bad joke, okay?"

She opened her eyes.


She was midway between the receding colony-ship and the station.

"I estimate that you'll run out of air three minutes before you reach the station," Simeon said. "But, if you take the most direct route, that unfortunately will take you right through the thickest concentration of spilled ore."

"Shit!" Patsy hissed. Tell me somethin' Ah don't know!"

Channa fought down an oxygen wasting sigh. "Play safe?"

"Then you'll fall short by four minutes, eight seconds."

"Play safe. Don't want a shell full a holes."

Simeon was silent for a moment, feeding the pilot instructions for avoiding the worst of the ore-meteor cloud.

"You've got more guts than sense, Channa."

Patsy closed one eye and laughed. "Mind now, Ah didn't say Ah didn't like it, Ah was just remarkin' on it." She opened her eye. "Y'hold on now, we're goin' through like a scalded armadillo."

Channa's breathing began to rasp; psychological, but it wasted air.

Oh, God, don't let her die, he thought. That shell's hanging out there. Is the mass of the tug enough to shield him from debris? 

Even one pebble of ore at the right angle and all her sacrifice would be for nothing. Simeon knew Channa was about to undergo an experience that would feel like dying. Humans could survive for several minutes without air—hours, sometimes, in cold water. The length of time to brain death was utterly unpredictable but oxygen deprivation might cause brain damage.

Despite a very real and intense anxiety about Channa, his thoughts inexorably returned to the shell . . . to Guiyon. He's alone in the dark, Simeon said to himself, Channa's got Patsy, and me. Sensory deprivation would make every second feel like a subjective hour, and the backups would keep the shellperson conscious until the last precious molecules of nutrient were gone. Simeon wished desperately that he could spare hum the nightmare.

"Headache," Channa gasped. "Hurts." Her head lolled, would have fallen forward if the savage high-G acceleration had allowed it.

Her breathing was rasping louder now and not psychosomatic. It was instinct—the hindbrain telling the lungs that they were suffocating. The readouts showed an adrenaline surge, just the wrong thing. Reflexes older than her remote reptile ancestors were preparing the body to fight free of whatever barred it from air.

"Hang on, Channa, hang on," Simeon chanted. Then: "Can't you go any faster?"

"Not 'lessn you want this here tug smeared all over the loadin' bay," Patsy said grimly.

* * *

"Isn't inertia wonderful?" Gusky muttered to himself, looking down again at the readings, fourteen kps and building. Not very fast, but the battered remnant of the hulk still massed multiple kilotons.

"Bit of a paradox," one of the volunteer miners said. "I want this thing as far from the station as I can get it—but I want to be as far away from it as possible myself."

"Ho. Ho. Ho," Gusky said. "Number three, you're a little off synch. Don't waste our delta-V."

"What's our safety margin, Gus?"

"That depends on when Simeon tells us to cut and run." I'm really, really sorry I got you mad at me, Simeon! "I'd like to get twenty klicks from the station before we drop the thing. But, what can I tell ya? If she blows without warning, if the explosives don't do what they're supposed to, if we don't get far enough away before she goes . . . actually, I don't think we have a safety margin."

"Sorry I asked."


Simeon's voice broke in. "Prepare to drop in one minute seven seconds from mark. Mark. Get it right, Gus."

"Yeah," said one of the miners who had rigged the charges, "that thing has to stay in the same attitude. Charges won't be half as effective if it's tumbling."

"Roger that," Simeon said. No time for a linkup. They'd have to listen, really carefully. "Everyone got that mark?"

A chorus of affirmatives. Gusky licked sweat from his upper lip. He'd never told Simeon, exactly, but his five-year hitch in the Navy had been pretty uneventful: patrols, exercises, showing the flag, mapping expeditions. The most nerve-wracking moments had been the fleet handball competitions and surprise inspections.

"You pull the trigger, right?" he said.

"You got it, buddy," Simeon replied. His voice had less timbre, less humanity to it than usual.

"I hate being reassured in a voice that calm."

I've got other things on my mind. "Channa's suit got hit. She's running out of air."

"Oh." I screwed the pooch again, goddamitt. "Sorry."

"Get ready."

The tugs were arrayed around the great tattered bulk of the intruder ship like the legs of a starfish, linked by the invisible bonds of the grapnel fields. Gusky kept the rear-field screen on at a steady x25 magnification. When the fields released, the image of the hulk seemed to disappear into a point-source of light in less than a heartbeat. Vision went gray at the edges, before the engines cycled down to something bearable. Tugs necessarily had high power-to-weight ratios. Then the shrinking dot of the derelict blinked with colorless fire.

Gusky cycled the screen to higher magnification. "Phew," he said gustily. The charges had cut the remaining forward section loose from the half-melted engine compartment and its core. Joined to the power module, whatever parts of the ship did not vaporize would be hyper-velocity shrapnel in all directions. With a klick or so distance and a vector away from the station, much less could go wrong. Blast is less dangerous without an atmosphere to propagate in. There is nothing to carry the shock wave except the actual gases of the explosion and they disperse rapidly. Given minimal luck, the explosion would just kick what was left of the hulk further away.

"When will it—"

The screen blanked protectively. So did his faceplate and the forward ports of the tug's cabin. Beside him the copilot flung his hand up in useless reflex. Even from the rear, the intensity of light was overwhelming.

"Did it work?" Gusky called as visibility returned. That was not as reassuring as it could have been. Half the sensors and telltales on the board were blinking red.

"Sorry." This time Simeon did sound sorry. "That ship . . . the engines were so old, the parameters were different . . . There's a lot more secondary radiation and subflux than I thought there would be."

"Thanks," Gusky said facetiously. "All right, people, report."

"I've got a flux in my drive cores I can't damp," one of the volunteers said immediately. "Induction, I guess. Getting worse."

"Let me see it," Gusky said, surprised at his own calm. This was much better than waiting; there wasn't time to be worried. "All right, you've got a feedback loop there and it's past redline. Set your controls for maximum acceleration at ninety degrees to the ecliptic with a one-minute delay, then bail out."

"Hey, this is my tug." the volunteer wailed.

"It's going to be your ball of incandescent gas in about ten minutes," Gusky said grimly. "Or hot gas that includes you. Take your pick."

Simeon cut in. "Station will pick up full replacement costs."

"Lobachevsy and Wong, you're closest," Gusky said, "pick 'em up!" Gusky's pickups showed the luckless volunteers jetting away on backpack and their craft streaking for deep space on autopilot. "The rest of you, dump me some data."

"Yessir, Admiral," one replied dryly.

The information dutifully came in. "Okay, Lobachevsky, Wong, you look functional, sort of. Take the others with overstrained drives in tow, and we'll go back nice and slow and easy." With several millions' worth of tug that just became so much scrap. Suddenly boring routine becomes very attractive as a way of life. War games are excitement enough. 

He touched the control surfaces to establish a tight line circuit to the station. "Simeon, what about us?"

"Let's put it this way, Gus. None of you are going to die. But some of you aren't going to be very happy for a while, either. Sickbay will be crowded." A long pause. "Congratulations."

Gus grinned; half of that was relief from raw fear. Everyone who lives in space is afraid of decompression, which is why many become agoraphobic planetside. Those who do much EVA work or serve on warships develop a similar fear of radiation, which has the added terror of killing insidiously. On the other hand, most dangers in space either kill cleanly or let live.

"You're welcome," the big man continued. "What about Channa?"

Patsy's voice joined in. "She's gonna be fahn. Hey, Gus," she went on lazily, "you thaink people will respect us for this?"

Gusky keyed for the visuals. He got a double view, overhead from the docking chamber where the tug rested in its cradle and from the vehicle itself. Both showed Channa Hap being carried off in a floating stretcher.

"Phew. Glad she made it okay."

"Yayuh, mah sentiments exactly. Got a good one thar."

Gusky nodded. On station, Channa acted like a cryonic bitch, he thought, but she's there when it comes down to cases. This was the worst emergency SSS-900 had faced in the time he'd been here. SSS-900-C, he reminded himself.

"I dunno," he said, "I never respected anyone who led from the rear."

She laughed. "Hey! This might get us a nice rest cure somewhar pretty. We could go tagetha." She made the last a question.

"If any two parts of us are still stuck together when this is over, Patsy, you got a date."

"Unh-hunh!" she said enthusiastically.

Hey, first base, Gusky thought. After thirty months of ritualized sparring so routine it had gotten to be as comfortably low-key as playing war games with Simeon. That is, if I'm not sick as a puke once sickbay gets through with me. Doctor Chaundra believed in repairing you rapidly. In some circles he was known as "Kill or Cure Chaundra."

"I need a drink," he said solemnly.

"Ah'll buy," Patsy said.


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