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Channa woke to an excruciating, high-pitched wailing.

The engines! she thought. I'm still on the derelict! I've got to get out of here! 

She lifted her head with a gasp and laid it back down again with a heartfelt groan. This has to be a fatal headache, she thought, nobody could feel like this and live. 

The ceiling overhead was a soothing pale blue as were the privacy screens around her. There was a vase of flowers on the bedside table and a bank of portable equipment on the other side, quietly talking to itself and occasionally waving a sensor probe over her body. A suit of working clothes, overtights and jacket and belt, were draped on a clothes stand at the foot of the bed. The air had a slight, pleasant scent of cedar.

Sickbay, she thought. The ambience was unmistakable.

The wailing went on and on, sometimes breaking into sharp yelps. I hope I live long enough to kill whoever is making that racket. 

"Who is that?" she finally demanded.

"Ah, Channa," said Simeon in a voice as soft as rain water.

Channa sighed and closed her eyes again. It was restful, and her body was beginning to accept that she was alive and in no danger. Which was a difficult thing, if you'd gone under deeply concerned about your chances of ever waking up again.

"Welcome back to the living," said a flatter voice with a lilting singsong accent. There was a sound of movement.

She opened her eyes to see Doctor Chaundra leaning over her. He had his professional expression on; a sort of antiseptic smile, nothing like the genuine enthusiasm he showed in a social situation talking about his specialty. Channa managed the complex procedure of smiling and wincing simultaneously.

"My head," she said in a croaking voice, feebly raising a shaking hand to rub her brow.

"Got just the thing," he said. He touched the angle of her throat with an injector. It hissed and she felt a touch of cold.

Almost instantly, the pain boring its way into her brain began to fade. "Oh, Ghu! that's better." She licked dry lips.

"No, I have merely blocked the pain," the doctor said pedantically. "The organic damage is minimal but will take several days to heal."

"Thirsty?" She raised her brows in pathetic query.

Chaundra poured a glass of water from a bedside carafe, put in a straw and handed it to her.

She sucked greedily on the straw, mindful of her head position, and handed him the empty glass. "More," she demanded. He refilled it, and she drained it again almost as soon as he handed it to her. The wailer took off again. Channa frowned. "Who's that badly hurt?"

He grimaced. "She's one of the people we evacuated from the ship; the first one awake. We don't know who she is. She's done nothing but shriek since she woke up. To answer your other question, no, she's not badly hurt. She's dehydrated, and probably has a headache like yours from that, and she had a bloody nose from the abrupt deceleration."

There was an especially violent shriek and the sound of something metal tipping over and of things scattering. Voices murmured soothing words in edged tones.

"If she can scream like that with a headache like the one I woke up with, she's crazy," Channa said.

Chaundra nodded. "That, too, is a possibility, but I feel that she is presently venting hysteria as a by-product of coldsleep." He sighed. "The earliest methods sometimes had the effect of suppressing basic inhibition."

"Can't you give her something?" Simeon asked from a wall mike. "That sound has just gone from pathetic to seriously annoying."

"No," the medical chief replied. "Or rather, I'd prefer not to immediately. They drugged themselves rather heavily, indeed, presumably to keep their oxygen consumption down. I've no idea for how long a period of time, but from their physical condition, it must have been too long." He gave another of his sighs. "I'd really rather not put anything else into her system. Especially since many of the substances they used seem to have been past recommended shelf life, or discontinued types, or both."

"They say that if someone gets hysterical, a simple slap across—" Simeon began.

Chaundra interrupted him. "I am thinking that has more to do with relieving the frustration of the listeners than the distress of the patient," he said with a resigned smile.

"You're a saint, Doctor," Channa told him. Actually she knew that he was a pacifist widower with a passion for surgery, but no matter. "But I'm not. So, before I'm compelled to go over there and knock the little git through the wall, I'd like to get out of here."

He smiled and touched the machine. It waved more probes over her, prodding in two or three sensitive places. The readouts had bun nodding almost at once. "Yes, you can be going now."

She stood with a satisfied sigh. "Um, is there anyone coherent awake yet?"

"Yes, a young man. He's still more than a bit groggy, so we haven't let him up yet. He wants to help this girl."

"Can't you put him on a pallet or in a chair and push him over there?" Simeon asked. "It might help both of them."

"Depends," Chaundra said, "on how he's doing."

"Just seeing him might help her," Channa suggested.

"Worth a try," Chaundra shrugged and grabbed a float chair from a cluster of them by the door. "Over here," he said and Channa followed, pulling on a dressing gown.

The man in question was the beautiful lad she herself had packed up. Simeon watched Channa's pupils enlarge and decided that she was probably responding even more enthusiastically than she had on the ship. Pheromones, he told himself wisely. And fewer distractions. 

The young man had raised himself up on one elbow, a slight sweat glistening on his shapely brow. He looked at them with distress in his light blue eyes.

"Please, let me go to her," he pleaded. His accent was exquisite, his voice a light baritone. The language was recognizable Standard, although the vowels had an archaic tonality.

From the look on her face, Simeon decided that Channa would have taken him to hell if he wanted to go. Simeon wanted him off the station.

Guys like him cause more trouble than beautiful females, Simeon thought. On the other hand, if he can shut that screamer up, I'll put him on the payroll. 

Channa and Chaundra helped the Adonis into the chair and pushed him over to the pallet where the young woman lay. He reached out for her hand and began stroking it.

She had waist-length dark hair and a pale, bony face with plain features and high cheekbones. Long, gold-lashed eyes of a dark blue that was almost black stared at him, her screeches cut off for a blissful moment of silence. Then the whites showed all round the iris of her eyes, and before Channa or Chaundra could stop her, she had grabbed the carafe from the table beside her and was swinging it at him.

"You did this! You could have killed me! I almost died!"

The metal carafe connected with his temple in a sickening smack. The young man slid bonelessly from the chair while, not content with the damage she'd just inflicted, the girl strove to climb over the safety railings on the side of her pallet, shrieking that it was his fault, all his fault. Then she began to sob with equal vigor. "My love, my love, what have they done to you?"

Chaundra's interns and head nurse leaped for the pallet in well-choreographed unison. This infirmary saw a lot of visiting miners, still high on various recreational chemicals, not to mention plain old-fashioned ethanol, so they knew what to do. One pinned her arms and another slapped an injector on the nearest portion of her flailing body. Instantly she slumped into unconsciousness.

"Doctor," Simeon said firmly, "put that girl in restraints until she returns to rationality. She can blame me for this one."

"You have it," Chaundra said. The nurses buckled the unconscious woman onto her pallet but were too professional to show the slightest trace of vindictiveness as they tightened the straps. Chaundra bent over the unconscious man.

"Glancing blow after all," he said, pulling up one eyelid. "Should regain consciousness soon."

"I'll be in my quarters, Doctor," Channa said, and gathering up her clothing, walked wearily to an elevator. She entered and leaned against a wall, dosing her eyes.

"You okay?" Simeon asked anxiously.

She smiled. "I'm very okay, thank you." She opened her eyes and straightened, rolling her shoulders to loosen the kinks. "I'm still thirsty," she said, "and hungry, and alive." Then she widened her eyes in dismay. "How could I forget? The brain, did he make it?"

Simeon paused. "No."

Channa slumped and covered her face with her hands. She looked up, her lips pressed tightly together for the rest of the ascent. Then she asked quietly, "Have you had a chance to find out anything about our survivors?"

"Not as much as I'd hoped to, but I did find out something about the shellperson. He was Planetary Manager Guiyon. Last assigned to a colony planet called Bethel, orbiting the sun GK728, known locally as Saffron. I informed Central Worlds of his . . . death: beyond the call of duty, I'd say. They told me what they had on record. After his original contract ended, he just stayed on, apparently for no other reason than he liked Saffron's pretty yellow color.

"Bethel's seemingly just an undistinguished colony of no great population, located a little off the beaten path, more than a bit xenophobic in their attitudes. They won't trade with nonhumans, for example. It was established about three hundred years ago by a tightly knit, religiously oriented group. Hmmm." Simeon paused. "In three hundred years, a religion could develop any number of nasty kinks. The refugees may have been cast out. They may have left voluntarily to establish another base for their sect. I don't have that information." He continued softly. "Guiyon must have been there a long, long time. A long time and a long way to die like that, alone in the dark."

His final words were said in the merest whisper and Channa felt tears pricking at her eyes. It was fitting for a brawn to mourn a brain. She let her tears fall. She could. Simeon couldn't.

She left the elevator and entered the lounge, dropping weakly into the nearest comfortable chair. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, letting the tears fall. For a long time she and Simeon observed silence.

"What about the data we got from the bridge?" she said at last, wiping her eyes again with the back of her hand. "Was it blank?"

"I, uh, can't read it," Simeon said. Under the grief, embarrassment tinged his voice. "The codes are ancient. In fact, it may not be a code, it may be a language. One I don't have on record, which means it must have been extinct before spaceflight and in limited use even then."

Channa began to laugh, suppressing it with effort before it took her over. She stifled it with a groan. "I'm almost afraid to ask this but . . ." and she found herself glancing at his column for reassurance. "What's the report on the people we rescued? Besides the screamer."

"Forty of the fifty we found survived to reach the station."

"Oh, Ghu!" she said and sat forward, her arms crossed on her knees, her forehead resting on them. "We didn't have time to count the dead, did we? Damn! We could at least have done that!" She sat back again and looked around the room bitterly, as though resenting its comfortable, unchanged appearance.

"I know," Simeon told her. "I feel that I've failed."

"You aren't the only one," she said, and sobbed once. She placed her hand over her mouth, pressing hard, to stifle any others that might follow. After a moment she spoke again in a thick voice. "And the station?"

"That came out all right," he said, and gave her a report long enough for her to regain control: good news in the fortunate lack of injury to station personnel, lack of any real structural damage to the station or traffic, with the notable exception of the ore carrier. He reported that incoming ships were huddled on the far side of the station—just in case—and ended with an invitation to the party being thrown by the tug pilot volunteers for anyone who wanted to come. By the time he was finished, Channa was struggling to keep her eyes open.

"I never thought I'd see the day when I was too drained to debauch," she said in a hoarse voice. "I must be getting old."

"Cut yourself some slack, kid," Simeon said, reverting to his juvenile affectation. "You did actually die. Subjectively, I mean. I think it's a bit much to expect to be in a partying mood two hours after being brought back to life. Remember, the slogan is 'eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.' So you're covered."

Channa managed a weak grin.

She looks awful, he thought with concern, and she probably looks exactly like she feels. "How would it be if I sent something down in your name, champagne or something?"

"Perfect," she said weakly, but with feeling.

"And you must eat something. Doc Chaundra said you'd feel better for it. It'll stave off a return of the headache."

"I'm for that." She rose, reeling slightly on her way to the small galley to find whatever was easiest to prepare. She was staring into a cupboard, not even registering what she was looking at, when the door to the lounge swooshed open. She stumbled out to see who it was and arrived in time to see Mart'an, himself, and a bevy of waiters sweep into the main lounge.

"Ah, my dear and valiant mademoiselle!" He snapped his heels together and bowed crisply from the waist. "I salute you. We of the Perimeter Restauran' would like to thank you for your extraordinary bravery which has saved the station." His arm swept out gracefully, indicating the serving trolley. "A mere token of our esteem, I know, but we put our hearts into everything that we prepare, and this evening, I think that we have even surpassed ourselves. As our gratitude is surpassing." He bowed again, a more modest version, with his right hand spread across his heart.

Channa smiled stupidly at him for a moment until she could gather enough of her wits together to tell him that he was very kind.

He offered her his arm and led her to a chair. Instantly his cohorts flowed into action. A table was brought, a cloth spread, service laid, wine poured, napkin spread and food appeared on her plate. The arrangement alone was a work of art. Simeon recognized actual Terran truffles decorating the appetizer and the entree was no less than carre d'agneau Mistral. A file said the recipe was by Escoffier, Mart'an's boyhood hero.

I bet they'd chew it for her if she asked them to, Simeon thought, amused.

"Ah, Monsieur Simeon." Mart'an exhaled a tragic sigh, his face wearing the blank expression softshells adopted when addressing someone unseen. "How we wish we could offer a similar tribute to you."

Simeon put his likeness up on his column-screen, made it smile appreciatively and bow slightly. "By coming to the aid of my brawn in this manner, monsieur, you are serving both myself and the station superbly. I cannot begin to express my appreciation."

Channa's eyes widened; her mouth, however, was fully occupied.

Ha! he thought, triumphantly. Didn't think I had it in me, didja, Happy? Diplomacy 'R Us. 

"I wonder," he said confidentially to Mart'an, "if it would be possible for you to clear away at a later time? Ms. Hap is extremely weary and I need to bring her up to speed on station business before she retires. . . ."

"Of, course," Mart'an said heartily. With a flutter of his hands, he gathered his magic minions together and the whole group departed as smoothly as they had arrived.

Channa sipped her wine with an appreciative glow on her face.

"Go easy on that," he cautioned her. "I know you're thirsty, but water would be a better choice."

"Yes, Dad." She picked up her fork and began eating again, chewing appreciatively. "Too bad you can't taste foods, but I assure you this lamb is deeelicious." She rolled her eyes. "So, bring me up to speed. What else is there to crown today's glad tidings?"

"Nothing more really," he said, "except that the computer has finally regurgitated a translation program for me. The language was extinct—Chuvash, whatever that is. The AI worked back from loanwords of known languages, but it's warning me that there are gaps in vocabulary and most certainly in shades of meaning . . ."

"What does Central Worlds say about this disaster?" She yawned deeply. "Or don't we have enough comsat capability left?"

"I gave them an outline of events and the reappearance of . . . Guiyon. They were more concerned that I was still operational. Which I am. They expect a full report, of course, but I'm hoping to include more information about the ship. They can wait. They've the bones of the matter."

"Any news on Joat?"

"Nothing specific," he said with a sigh. "With everyone suited up, it was impossible to tell who was who. Not all suits have nametags and skill-codes. I haven't heard a sound from the engineering section."

"Well, I want to be sure she's all right," Channa said, exploding in angry anxiety. "You open up a channel down there and tell her that we need to know if she made it. One lousy 'yes, I did' will be sufficient." She picked up her fork again but was merely pushing food around the plate, her expression almost sulky.

Simeon regarded her with a mildly exasperated mental smile. When she was tired, Channa was amazingly like Joat. Sending the necessary discreet query, he was also relieved to have received a prompt reply, though he puzzled over Joat's odd undertone.

"She made it. I told her one word would do it, and she gave me two. Quote, I'm okay, end-quote. You should try to get some rest, Channa." A pause. "No, wait a minute. She's adding something. Oh, really? Quote, Tell Channa she did a neato job."

Unutterably relieved, Channa pushed the table aside. Somehow, knowing that Joat was safe released the tension that had kept her going so long. Like a robot, she moved toward her quarters, made it to the door before she stopped, holding onto the frame.

"Simeon," she said, looking over her shoulder at his column, her head of its own accord resting against the cool metal panel, "I am your brawn, remember. You are required to inform me of any untoward incident. Yes?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said meekly.

She nodded sharply: a "you'd better" gesture, and entered her quarters. The bed beckoned irresistibly; she had a dreamlike memory of fumbling with the sickbay wrapper and crawling onto the bed, of a servo pulling the covers up around her. Soft music hummed her to sleep.

* * *

"Good morning," Simeon greeted her the next day. "You look rested," he said. I'm learning, he congratulated himself, I didn't say, you looked like hell on a rampage last night, or even, you look a lot better, I'm acquiring sensitivity, he thought smugly, suppressing the thought that she had made him so. Hope it doesn't wreck my style. 

"I feel rested, too," she said in some surprise. "After yesterday, I'm surprised I woke up today. You didn't," and her tone became suspicious, "let me oversleep?"

The essential Channa has not altered overnight! "Nothing new to report. I'm still parsing through the language, but it's odds on we'll get more out of the passengers than the logs."

"How are they? Anybody else awake yet?"

"Doctor Chaundra says that poor bastard the screeching Valkyrie cold-cocked is their leader, name of Amos ben Sierra Nueva. The valkyrie is Rachel bint Damscus. I knew you'd like to put names to the face . . . es," he added hurriedly, not wishing to single the man out for her attention in any way. "The doc says he'll be able to join us at the meeting."

"Who else?"

"Leader Amos and his sidekick, a guy called Joseph ben Said."

Channa took a sip of the coffee she'd made. "When are they due here?"

"We've a station officers meeting in about an hour. Chaundra, too, if someone's not critical. Whenever we've finished that, I'll call down for Sierra Nueva and this Joseph fellow."

"Do me a favor," Channa said, "call him Amos, would you please? Sierra Nueva makes him sound like one of those dances that are supposed to make your blood boil and your libido unhinge."

"You got it. We don't want forbidden passions running riot all over the station, now do we?"

"Well," she said with a grin, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively, "that part's negotiable."

Well, well, Channa ma belle, nothing like dying to loosen a person up, eh? Let's hope the "mellow" lasts a while in you. 

He noticed a visitor in the corridor and opened the door before the boy outside could ring for admittance: a tall thin twelve-year-old, dark and slender of face but with green eyes and a reddish tint to his brown hair. The boy stood there a moment startled, his mouth a perfect O.

"Come on in," Simeon invited. Channa looked up from her notescreen and reinforced the welcome.

"Uh, hi," the kid said nervously. Simeon noted that he walked with a cane. "I'm Seld Chaundra? I'm in Joat's class?"

"Oh, really?" Simeon said helpfully.

"Yeah." Seld's free hand bunched the material of his trouser leg. "Um, is she here?"

"Not at the moment," Channa told him, resting her chin on her fist. "We'll give her a message," and Channa added a mental I think. "Is there a problem?"

"Oh, no," he shook his head in wide-eyed denial. "It's just . . . Well, she wasn't in class today and I was worried that she might of got hurt or something yesterday."

"That's very kind of you," Channa said approvingly. "But she came through . . . okay!"

"We'll tell her that you were asking about her, Seld," Simeon told him.

"Will she be in school tomorrow?"

"Quite possibly," Simeon said mendaciously. "I'll let her know you were asking for her and tell her to contact you. Does she have your call code?"

"Yes, sir, she does, sir." Like all station-born youngsters, Seld was not unaccustomed to Simeon speaking from the nearest sound cube, but he had the good manners to bow to the column. "Sorry to have bothered you." He waved at Channa and stepped back through the door.

"Well!" Channa said, pleased. "She has a peer who cares enough about her well-being to beard you in your lair."

"You think that's enough to entice her back out?"

Channa deliberated. "I think it will certainly alter her thinking. When you're sure no one cares about you, it's easy to be depressed and feel hopeless. Go on," she said with an encouraging smile at his column, "tell her Seld was here, worried she might have been hurt, and looking for her in class."

* * *

"Yeah, he's okay—Seld is, sort of," Joat said. "Bit of a kid, y'know?"

"Chronologically speaking," Simeon remarked blandly, "you're a kid yourself."

Joat laughed with more than a trace of bitterness; it was a sound like a yelping coyote. "Never had the time or chance to be one. So it's a little late, like, to expect me to act like one."

Silence fell in the improvised nest at the intersection of the ducts, but the girl heard just the softest sigh of regret issue from Simeon.

Softie, she thought, with a rueful affection. Even if he was . . . what was the jingle? Spam-in-a-can? Nice guy, she decided. He needs someone to look after him. Besides Channa Hap, that was. Channa might be his brawn, but she seemed to have looked after everyone else yesterday instead of him.

"Yeah, Seld's not a bad osco. Sorta knows his way around a keyboard, in a kid sorta way. Can't fight worth shit, though."

"He says they miss you at school," Simeon replied noncommittally.

Joat gave a second bark of sour laughter. "Not that bitchite Louise Koprekni, she doesn't."

"Pushing her face in the toilet bowl was a bit extreme, wasn't it, Joat?"

"She said I smelled."

"You did smell. Then! That's about the time you considered regular washing wasn't such a bizarre notion."

Joat's lower lip stuck out, and she turned back to her keyboard and the collection of miscellaneous electronic junk which Simeon had been trying to identify.

"What's that you're contrapting?" Simeon asked.


"Dare I ask what a riffler is?" Do I want to know? 

"Ultrasonic. Pops the caps." At Simeon's interrogative sound, she explained. "Bursts the capillaries, like, you know, instant really, really bad sunburn?"

"It what?" Then he modified his tone to a more conversational level. "We hadn't planned on dragging you out, you know."

"I didn't figure you would."

"You haven't . . . ah . . . tried it out, have you?"

"Not yet."

"How will you know it works?"

"It will!" The confidence in that reply was unnerving.

"Is it . . . umm . . ."

"Wouldn't kill anyone, but it'll sure make 'em think twice about following me."

"Ah, I see."

His visual picked up just the hint of a grin as Joat bent her head to continue her handiwork.

"Some things," she said cryptically.

Silence fell again. Conversations with Joat reminded Simeon of documentaries he had seen of catching trout by hand. You had to be very patient to succeed.

"Looks like trouble coming," she said neutrally.

"Trouble's over," Simeon said. "Look, Joat, I do apologize for not checking on you during the alert, but . . ."

"No need. You gave me a suit, remember. That was all I needed," Joat pointed out reasonably. "Something threatens you, the station, we're all in deep kimchee. Right? Much better you spent your time keeping us from getting in so deep we have to shovel our way out."

"You've an extremely realistic attitude, Joat," Simeon said, with a certain tone of admiration for the independence in her that also worried him.

"I'm no sap," Joat announced with satisfaction. "Troubles don't come by ones and twos, either—you get 'em by kilobyte loads. I'll be ready." She patted the riffler.

"I'm sure you will," Simeon replied soothingly.

"Yuh. See you at dinner."

"At dinner?" He sounded surprised but that pleased her. "Umm, yes, see you then," he added, doing a good job of sounding casual.

* * *

Joat whistled soundlessly to herself as she felt Simeon's attention withdraw—most of it, at least. She also switched on the white-noise maker and the scrambler she'd rigged up. She was no longer completely sure they worked, Simeon having had enough of a look at her contrivances to perhaps neutralize them. Not that he'd have had time to bother about her with so much else on his mind these days. Even a brain had some limitations.

She didn't want an audience while she reran the stuff she'd recorded during Channa's exploits on the intruder ship. First she screened something that had come in on the Central datablip just today. The watchman program Joat set up had cut it out and routed it to her system automatically.

Stretching luxuriously, she popped the tab on a can of near-beer. She stayed away from the real thing because it made her feel loggy and squiff. She bit a big hunk off a chocolate nut bar, grinning around the mouthful with vindictive delight as the scene played on.

A crowd surrounded the obviously official building and their chant ran shrill and menacing as they waved their placards which bore the same message they chanted.

"Dorgan the bigot! Dorgan out! Dorgan the bigot! Dorgan out!"

The ground-floor windows have been shattered and a line of riot-armed police were holding the SPRIM demonstrators at bay. The visual shifted to an interior room where Ms. Dorgan of the Child Welfare department, looking rumpled and alarmed, was gesticulating wildly.

"And I categorically deny saying that shellpeople are unnatural abominations with no right to live!" she wailed. "Or that they make me want to puke!"

Joat grinned. She wanted to be a systems engineer when she grew up—or maybe even a brawn—but editing was a nice hobby. Editing transmissions of recorded conversations sent to SPRIM and MM, for example. Channa had the right idea, but adults had no enthusiasm for taking an idea and running with it.

"Like the teacher said," she muttered, taking another mouthful. "I gotta lot of buried hostility I got to learn to express."

* * *

"I felt a good deal like screaming myself," Joseph said.

Amos sighed and lowered himself into a chair. Once Joseph insisted, the doctor here—a man, oddly enough—had moved him into a small suite, with a private sitting room.

Apparently private, he reminded himself, though there might well be listening devices. Otherwise, it had the common strangeness of everything here, like soft synthetics for the walls which could alter shade or suddenly turn themselves into view screens. He had commanded that the space-scene transform itself into something more restful, and the holograph had turned to a neutral brown solidity. In its way, that made him uneasy too. What appeared to be plain bare plastic was obviously anything but.

"It is difficult to believe that we are safe," he said, rubbing a hand over his face, which had grown enough beard to rasp. He resolved to ask for a sonic, or the local equivalent. "To be frank, my brother, I never expected to wake again."

"Neither did I," Joseph said, prowling with slow restlessness. The gravity was slightly higher than Bethel, just enough to be noticeable. "But we do not know that we are safe—even from the Kolnari."

Amos looked up sharply. "We do not?"

"The shell—Guiyon," Joseph amended, at Amos' frown "—said that it—"

"He." Amos compressed his lips firmly after that correction; the more so since he himself had never felt entirely easy with Guiyon.

Guiyon saved us, he remembered. More than that. Guiyon had been the first to listen to his youthful doubts without recoiling in horror and ordering him to do penance. Only families descended from the Prophet were allowed speech with the Planetary Manager. Most Bethelites thought that entity was at best legend, at worst an abomination of the infidel. I am too old to believe in nursery tales, Amos thought. He was a man now, with many depending on him.

"He," Joseph said, making a soothing gesture with both hands. "He intended to take us to Rigel base. This is not Rigel."

"No," Amos conceded. "SSS-900-C. Although they seem reluctant to tell us more."

"Understandable, sir. Would you immediately trust fugitives who came so close to destroying them, though we knew it not? However, there are things they cannot help but tell us."

"Yes," Amos said slowly. "For one, that this is no military base."

"Just so, my brother. These are a peaceful people." At Amos' dubious look, he went on. "I was raised dockside, you will remember. I know more of traders and trading than most. These are respectable merchants and spacefarers, by their own ethics, if not by Bethel customs. Dockside, we would have called them easy marks."

They looked at each other, haunted by what neither would mention first. Amos took hold of himself. A respectable, an ethical people deserved the truth.

"And we cannot know if the Kolnari still pursue," Amos whispered. Sickness tugged at the pit of his stomach. To achieve safety, even for so few, and jeopardize in turn their saviors. "We must talk to them!"


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