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"All things considered, we didn't come out of the day too badly at all," Chief Administrator Claren said, once more running his stylus down his notescreen to be sure he'd missed nothing.

Ducking her head, Channa managed to hide a yawn. Meetings were meat and drink to Claren. When he had the opportunity to trot out his careful graphs and statistics for an audience, he positively glowed and inflated. Like a plain girl who's just been asked to dance by a high-school hero, she thought mordantly.

"We're down about three million credits," she pointed out, reaching for the water carafe.

Two section chiefs sprang to fill the glass for her: fame was already a bit wearing. The meeting was supposed to have started as a working breakfast. Plates and crumbs were scattered around the table. Gusky was there too, looking a little pale—either from the medications, or from the party. Not only was he prominent in his own business, he was a section representative and, with the recent favorable publicity, looked likely to be re-elected.

Patsy was filing a fingernail. "Somebody has ta pony up the expenses," she pointed out. "Fer example, we commandeered equipment from Namakuri-Singh—who arh not known to be a charitable organization."

Gusky grunted. "I commandeered the equipment which will have to be replaced, which you, Simeon, authorized me to use."

"Not me personally. The station!" Simeon said sharply. Brains tended to be sensitive about personal debt, having had to pay off such a whacking great amount for their early care and education. "No one could say that I didn't do everything possible to minimize damage. Loss of the tugs was unavoidable and the station is morally obligated to compensate their owners for the loss. Which, Claren, we will recoup from Lloyd's, invoking the force majeur clause."

"Yes, yes, of course, it will," Claren muttered, making a quick notation.

"The other unavoidable losses and damages which we've discussed today are going to wipe out the contingency fund."

"It will?" Gus asked unhappy.

"Yes, it will," Claren agreed in a lugubrious tone of voice.

"In a good cause," Simeon said briskly.

"On this Lloyd's claim," Gus went on, "we'll be dealing with bureaucrats, bureaucratic accountants at that. Government bureaucratic accountants, with lawyers in tow."

"The withered hand on the controls," Simeon intoned.

"We could just rely on their decency, good nature and inherent generosity," Gus suggested. Even Claren laughed at that.

Channa shuddered. "So we should be prepared for accusations of mismanagement and hand-wringing over the cost of every rivet, bolt and coupling." She affected a nasal tone. "Didn't you realize that seventeen-point-three seconds boost would have done just as well as seventeen-point-seven?"

Chief Administrator Claren assured them that his entries would be meticulously checked, all forms would be properly made out, filed on time and to the proper bureaus.

"I won't go so far as to guarantee prompt or even early payment," he said, allowing himself a very small smile, "given that we'll be dealing with departments over which I have no control. But, I can promise you that I will do my best, and that is very good indeed."

There was a rumble of agreement.

"At least we," Channa said firmly, "can authorize immediate release of the contingency fund to private persons who suffered damage and loss, or have to make repairs germane to station functions. Claren, just get the claims into the insurance companies as soon as you can."

"Good luck," said the owner of a minerals company in awry tone. "I've noticed they're always more enthusiastic about collecting premiums than paying claims."

That brought another chuckle. Channa turned to the pillar and Simeon's image. "As far as the station exterior damage is concerned, isn't there a relevant clause in the station's charter that guarantees immediate repairs?"

"Hmmm." The holo turned static for a moment before Simeon smiled. "Yes, as a matter of fact—emergency expenses for maintaining station integrity and saving life and limb are covered under the general station contract with Lloyd's. We ought to be able to cover everything."

"Excellent," Claren said, tapping at his keyboard.

"'Nuther li'l thing. Fo' all them drills, Simeon, when we was supposed to know what to do iffen thar was a real one, thar was a mighty lot of folks ended up runnin' around like scalded roosters. Ought to be fined, to remind 'em to pay attention."

"Fined? Yes, fined! Fine. Good notion, Patsy," Simeon said. "And the longer they've been on station and should know better, the heavier the fine. Pinch a pocket, mark the memory. What bothers me is why didn't they know where they were supposed to be. I call these drills—even if you're always complaining about them—often enough for everyone to know exactly where to go and what to do. Their names are always checked off on the roster, so why the hell were they running around bumping into walls?"

"Aw, thar's allus some folk who panic, Simeon," Patsy said. "Mos' of us was whar we shoulda been. And Lord knows, we got it all done, din we?" Patsy said.

"I'm inclined to think that perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt here," Channa put in. "But perhaps you should keep an eye on the group leaders, in the event that they just automatically check off every name on their list without verifying that everyone is in position and accounted for."

"Assign them a buddy," Gus said. "If they're too helpless to know where to go and how to get there, make it a joint responsibility."

"Should be the group leaders," Chaundra said in a disgusted tone.

"Joint responsibility! Excellent," Simeon said, "just like B & B teams."

The resolution was passed unanimously.

"Move that we break for lunch," somebody said. "It's 1300."

"Seconded," Channa said. "I think I need a full stomach to hear what our guests have to say. Spaceflot suggests they've got a fairly lurid set of adventures to tell us. Any objections? Adjourned."

* * *

A little different from last night, eh Happy? Simeon watched as Channa munched on her thin sandwich. He hoped she was comparing this fare with the feast Mart'an had spread for her. The deck commissary was not up to Perimeter standards, although Gus claimed that they did an acceptable late-night pizza.

"So, brief us with what you know, Simeon, about our latest arrivals," Gus said.

Simeon made a throat-clearing sound. "Data base describes 'em as a 'tightly knit, religiously oriented group' in origin," he said. "Judaeo-Sufi Buddhist roots."

"Wow," Patsy said. "Thassa mouthful. But do they believe in God?"

Wondering looks, sage nods and quizzical "ooh's" went around the table.

"Probably worshipping snails and marrying their siblings, or some such genetically stupid custom," Vickers said. The station security chief was a short, rather squat woman from New Newfoundland. "Buddhists, you said? No wonder they nearly crashed us. That kind don't know much about mechanical stuff."

"Wait, just a precise minute." Doctor Chaundra held up a protesting hand. "To begin with, I saw no medical indications of dangerous inbreeding. They may have looked as if they didn't comprehend directions or our comments, but they were all dazed from their experiences. They are needing rest and recuperation, but under that is health. Genetic diversity is low, but there are few recessives. I would hazard that they must have had a good screening program to begin with. The group is above the norm. One or two may have endocrine behavioral problems from the coldsleep drugs. They administered drugs well beyond their storage lives. The Bethelite leader is a very articulate man, educated and intelligent.

"Although," he went on, with a slight frown, "he has not been particularly communicative."

"Unfortunately, education and intelligence don't always go hand in hand," Simeon commented. "It's not that I've got my heart set on the 'religious fanatics drive the heretics away' scenario, but it does fit the little I've been able to decipher of Guiyon's log. Phrases like, 'Damn rockheaded elders who said immorality and doubt in the young had brought doom'; 'told them their children had a right to live'; 'feared some of them might betray us'; 'escaped as best we could'; and saddest of all, 'had to leave some behind to face death.' "

Patsy put down her sandwich. "I'm not hungry anymore."

"Nor am I," Channa said grimly. "It's time to get this from the mouths of the horses."

Stallion, you mean, Simeon remarked very privately.

* * *

Amos ben Sierra Nueva was accompanied by the smaller, thickset man who had been found beside him on the colony ship. Two of Vickers' guards were discreetly in attendance, more to guide the floatchairs than guard.

They're weak as kittens, Simeon thought, not to mention unarmed and with no place else to go and nothing to go there in. Station personnel developed a special kind of paranoia as a survival trait: nothing, no one must harm their station. Any station, no matter how state-of-the-art and safety conscious, was totally vulnerable. Had he, in innocence, welcomed aboard terrorists fleeing 'rockheaded' elders? Oddly enough, the presence of Guiyon argued against that possibility.

As their chairs thumped softly off their air cushions to the floor, the two strangers looked with impassive expressions at those seated around the table.

Simeon heard Patsy murmuring under her breath; very faintly, almost subvocalizing. He focused, upping the gain on his receptors:

"Oh, my oh my, that one is pretty," she was saying. "My oh my oh my."

Patsy's obvious interest in the man did not surprise Simeon but it did suggest he might have an entirely different problem on his hands. However, if Patsy's charms should win Amos, Simeon could relax. Then he caught Channa, glancing surreptitiously at Amos' classic profile, slightly clouded with a worry that only gave him a more Jovian solemnity. Then, seeing the look exchanged between Amos and Joseph, Simeon wondered hopefully if the short, muscular man was his boyfriend.

"Dr. Chaundra says that we mustn't tire you," Simeon said by way of calling the meeting to order, "but we'd appreciate your filling us in on a few details."

Amos gave a start, and his eyes widened as he suddenly looked up to the pillar at the head of the table and saw Simeon's synthesized face. So, he knows about shellpeople, but he's surprised to find one here. 

"We are grateful for your succor," Amos began formally, bowed his head, touching forehead and heart with one hand.

"I am Amos ben Sierra Nueva, and my companion is Joseph ben Said." The short man repeated Amos's gesture.

Seeing it, Gusky frowned slightly and moved his fingers. Simeon read the message. I figure the short one for a hard case. 

The brain accepted that verdict. There were some things that only personal experience could teach. Amos continued speaking, pausing as he sought the appropriate words but gradually becoming more fluent and his blue eyes began to warm with sincerity.

"We are of the colony on Bethel. I am loathe to tell you, in the face of your generosity, of a terrible scourge, a bright evil that flies upon us even now."

"A . . . bright evil?" Channa asked uncertainly.

Scourge? Evil? Sheesh! Simeon wondered. The archaic syntax made the man sound as salted as a historical holoplay. What's he talking about? Devils? So he can blame the whole disaster on the supernatural? There was a rustle as the others around the table leaned forward. They had expected to hear about something safely in the past, not a new threat to the station. Yesterday's had been more than enough for a long while.

"Indeed, lady, you are in grave danger." He caught the blank or startled expressions around the table. "Has Guiyon told you nothing?" he asked desperately.

"Guiyon is dead," Simeon said, and saw both men go rigid with shock and grief. He thought better of them for it and paused to let them recover. "The ship's logs are all but unreadable. Why don't you fill us in?" Simeon suggested quietly.

"He is dead?" Amos's drawn face had gone pale under its smooth light-olive coloring. "But, how is that possible? He was a shellperson, an immortal Ah, perhaps that is why we are not at Rigel Base or some other Central Worlds facility where we thought to seek assistance."

"He brought you here, to SSS-900-C, a space station and many light years from Rigel Base."

"How can an immortal die?" Joseph asked softly, suppliant as he spread his hands wide in his lap.

"The feeder lines to his nutrient sources had sheared off and, as there was no backup . . ." Simeon trailed off and both Bethelites bowed their heads a moment, honoring the dead. "Considering the state of that truly ancient vessel of yours, he did well to get you this far."

Amos glanced at his companion. The other man's hard blocky face was drawn, and he nodded his head slowly twice, as if encouraging. Amos hesitated, cleared his throat and, throwing his chin up, spoke directly to Simeon.

"This is even worse than I had imagined. Guiyon must have been truly desperate. Can you defend yourselves?"

"Well, we fended off your out-of-control ship pretty successfully," Simeon replied. "What did you have in mind?"

Amos leaned forward, supporting himself on the armrests of the chair. His eyes took on a fierce glow.

"I will tell you," he said passionately, sweeping a look at those around the table. "We of Bethel are a peaceful people." His fists met and clenched. "Virtually a defenseless people." His mouth twisted in pain. "We were attacked from the skies above our peaceful planet. I do not know how you count the hours in a day or the days of a week, a month or a year. I do not know how long we were unconscious in the Sleep. We fled our home world for four periods of twenty-five hours before I took the drug. Just before I did, Guiyon told me that he thought we would have a solid five days' lead. So nine days of twenty-five hours—two hundred and twenty-five hours."

"Sixty minutes in yo' hoah, Mr. Sierra Nuevah?" Patsy asked.

Looking over at her expressionlessly, he nodded slowly.

Simeon called up a holo of Bethel, culled and realized from the Survey Service data base.

"That is our world as it appeared before this Exodus," Amos said bleakly, watching the slow rotation on the screen. "Our capital city was there," and pointed to where two large rivers flowed into a bay. "Keriss, we called it. The place where the Pilgrims landed and erected our Temple. The Kolnari . . ." He broke, squeezing his eyes closed, his face a mask of pain.

Reference, Simeon prompted silently, feeling the computer begin its work. Then he felt a mental lurch as he reviewed what Amos had said. The city of Keriss was there: past tense. Gus caught it as well, his pupils widening.

"They demanded unconditional surrender," Amos was saying, his face wiped clear of any emotion. "By sneak attack, they disabled our orbital habitats, our communications, everything we might have used to call help."

He folded his shaking hands, clasping them so tightly the knuckles showed white. "The Council of Elders convened," he said. His lips tightened. "They decided this tribulation was punishment for the increasing immorality of the younger generation. Me!"

He stabbed himself in the breast with his fingers, "And those like me, who only wanted a little more freedom, who only wanted to have answers to reasonable questions. They would not listen to me—even though I am a male descendent, in the Prophet's own line."

Locked in bitter memory, Amos did not notice the surprise his words generated.

Ah, patrilineal descent system, Simeon thought.

"I thank the All-Knowing for Guiyon, for when I left the council chamber that last time, he called to me. Escape, he said. 'To go where? How?' I asked. He told me then of the colony ship that had brought us to Bethel. For three hundred years we had used it as a weather and relaying station, nothing more. I left to gather those who might follow me."

His hands knotted together. "And the Kolnari . . . when the Elders refused surrender, they destroyed the city with a fusion weapon!"

A shocked murmur ran around the table. No one had used fusion weapons in generations. Certainly not in any sector answerable to the Central Worlds.

"Murderers! Looters! Pirates!" he spat out the words and rubbed his face with his hands.

Another murmur. SSS-900-C was in a very peaceful sector; the only nonhumans were species who did not practice institutionalized violence. The settlers were mostly well-integrated types, if a bit rambunctious, but no more than was expected on a frontier. Piracy was an historical phenomenon or a sporadic occurrence far out on the Arm.

In a steady voice, all the more effective because of its calm, Amos went on. "A tenth of our people died in that moment, and all our leaders. The Kolnari told us that we must capitulate or they would strike again. They broadcast their message from a dark screen. They would strike again and again until we were obliterated to the last man. Just this implacable voice. The cowards! They did not even show us the face of our enemy. They gave us two hours to make up our minds.

"And so we began. It was very hard. We had to determine who we could take." His cheeks grew red with shame as he continued. "First we took Guiyon from his column. We could not open the main bay doors. Ah, but we were so stupid, so innocent, so untrained! We'd managed to get supplies, disconnect Guiyon, gathered our people, flown to the ship without being detected and then," he gave a harsh bark of laughter, "the doors refused to open! Some murmured that the Elders had been right. We were being punished for our sins.

"Then, Joseph here," and Amos laid a light hand on the short man's shoulder, "opened one of the service airlocks. Only it was much too small for Guiyon's shell. He insisted that he didn't have to be inside, that we must strap him to the hull near the bridge, so that his brain synapses could be wired into the command panel. He had to tell us everything that had to be done. We knew so little of such matters." Another bitter snort. "And we were so afraid. None of us knew anything at all about spatial navigation. I had piloted a ship, but only a small one, and never beyond Bethel's moons. Beyond Bethel's moons," and he made a broad sweep of his arm, "was not fit for men of Bethel. Also, we know nothing of the worlds outside our little system. Guiyon handled what outsystem commerce was permitted to us on Bethel."

He paused, swallowing hard, and Chaundra filled a glass with water for him. Amos nodded gratefully and drank before he resumed his story.

"Guiyon dared not risk bringing us to one of the nearer colonies for fear of leading those monsters to an equally defenseless planet. Instead," and he gave a mirthless laugh, "we may have led them to an even more defenseless space station. At least on a planet, one may know of safe hiding places. I do not know why we are here and not at Rigel Base. Guiyon must have changed course again. There were four fiends in our wake when I had to accept the drug. Well-armed warships, or so Guiyon thought. And we have led them here to you who have saved the poor fragment of our people who fled from our once beautiful planet." He bowed his head, his shoulders slumping with his consummate despair.

An appalled silence had broken into a quickly rising babble of "they've brought trouble here," "they led fiends to us?" "But we're defenseless." Simeon let out a modulated howl and they all shut up.

"Thank you," Simeon said ironically when silence fell. When in danger, or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout, he added to himself.

"Guiyon brought them here because first, the engines were about to blow, and second, they were dying fast anyway, and third, SSS-900-C is, after all, on the main route in this quadrant of Central Worlds sphere of influence. Now, if we could examine the problem more calmly?"

Claren turned to May Vickers. "As security chief, you're required to defend us!"

Vickers looked at the man. "With stundart pistols?" she asked incredulously. "I'm a police officer with fifty part-time assistants. I lock up drunken miners and see domestic disputes don't get out of hand," she said. "I've never had experience with fiends and I want no part of four warships." She crossed her arms across her solid chest and looked accusingly up at Simeon.

"Is it possible that you might have lost them?" Chaundra asked.

The two Bethelites shook their heads glumly.

"Unlikely," Simeon said, "not when Guiyon was overdriving the engines and leaving an ion trail a blind alien could follow."

Gus nodded. "Any warship could."

"Iffen they couldn't see the trail, thar's all them pieces of the ship rollin' about, saying 'theah heahh!' " Patsy waved her arms like a signalman. "We cain't hardly say they passed on through."

"My information banks give me no information at all about any group, or star system, known as Kolnari," said Simeon. "While I realize that your experience with these people is short-term, had you even heard of them on Bethel before they struck?"

Amos shook his head. "Guiyon had heard rumors of a band of marauders in the Arm from the few traders that came to Bethel. He was also forbidden by the Elders to tell any but themselves what news traders brought of the worlds beyond Bethel. On the ship, he did tell me," and Amos furrowed his brow, trying to remember the exact words the shellperson had used, "that they struck so swiftly that no alarm could go forth. That that was how they avoided detection by any force great enough to come against them."

"Central Worlds, for instance," Channa said with a rueful quirk of her lips.

Amos nodded. "The first wave of destruction was aimed at our air and space ports, at communication installations. The strike was as complete as it was unexpected. They chose not to show themselves to us until all our space capacity was destroyed . . . or so they thought. All we know of them was from a very brief time when we fought them. They follow us to destroy the evidence of the destruction of Bethel, the latest of their crimes. They will kill, and quickly. No doubt," he added with scorn, "they feel uneasy being only four instead of three hundred."

"Three hundred?" Simeon asked.

"Three hundred ships. So Guiyon told me. He had seen them coming in but was forbidden by the Elders to speak until they had decided what to do."

Gus whistled. "If that's three hundred warships, people, not only do we have a problem, this whole sector has a problem." The Navy was much larger, but it was scattered.

"Have you had any recent word from Central, Simeon?" Channa asked him.

"Basically no more than an acknowledgement of the . . . ah . . . incident in the vein of 'Gee, that's too bad, but you're equipped to handle it and when your reports are filed, we'll see what we can do.' But of course that's based on what happened yesterday; this may get us action."

At least I hope it will, Simeon thought. Three hundred ships! Shit! Simeon opened a tight beam to Central with a mayday flag attached. Hopefully he'd have some hard news before too long.

"What sort of armament did they have?" Gus asked while the rest of the station's leaders sat, trying not to look at each other and especially not at Amos and Joseph. Amos had gone even paler and the blue of his eyes had faded. He just sat there. On the other hand, Joseph was watching each and every one of the station heads with a critical gaze and the slightest of knowing smiles on his full lips.

Simeon could see that the initial numbness his people had felt was giving way to fear. Gus was fighting it with trained reflex, but the others were edging slowly toward panic.

"You must have something to fight with," Joseph said, suddenly leaning his arms on the table and directing a piercing gaze from one face to another. "We fought, and we had much less than you did who turned the vessel from your station yesterday. With what did you blow it into pieces? Do you have more? That is something. It is more than we had who saw our ships withered to slag. Our city . . ." He broke off and struck his fists impotently into the table. "We have brought you warning. We had none!"

Amos caught his friend by the wrists before he could damage his hands. "Peace, my brother," he said softly.

"Oh, youah brothas?" Patsy said in mild surprise, peering closely at both to find some familial resemblance.

"Not of the blood," and Amos touched his temple with his index finger, "of the mind."

"Unh-hunh!" Patsy blushed and tightened her lips into a straight line.

"I've sent a message to Central Worlds," Simeon told them in a brisk voice that he hoped sounded as if he had matters well in hand. "They're consulting with the Space Navy brass—to see what to do. I was hoping they'd tell me what they were doing, and or what we can do. I should've anticipated a full fledged diplomatic-bureaucratic-governmental-bunfight, complete with quarrels over jurisdiction. Everyone with something to say about this has to be tracked down and given an opportunity to give his fardling opinion in triplicate. Amos, believe me, kid, I know just how you feel about elders. The good news is that Navy intends to act fast, only there aren't any Navy units close. The nearest is eighteen days away. This is assuming the brass cut movement orders today and not sometime after we've become the subject of mere academic debate, because we don't exist anymore.

"Which means that at best we can look forward to thirteen lucky days with our naked butts hanging out waiting for a kick from a booted foot. That nearest Navy unit is a patrol corvette, a warship only by courtesy."

"Then you must flee!" Amos leaned forward urgently. "You cannot hope to defeat them. You must leave this place."

"Great idea," Simeon agreed, "in principle. Only the station can't move. That's why it's a station. It's stationary. Get it?"

"You mock me most unfairly," Amos replied with solemn and offended dignity. "I have no knowledge of space stations or of your capabilities. Further, I am not wrong. If the station itself cannot move, then its people must."

"As far as such advice goes," Gus cut in, "he has a point. We should evacuate as many as we can—children, the sick, nonessential personnel. Whoever we can, or whoever's hot to go."

"By my calculations," Simeon said, finishing them in that instant, "given the number of ships currently in or near me at the moment, we should be able to evacuate over a thousand souls." He liked that touch. "Not counting crews."

There was silence for a moment. A thousand was a fraction of the average ever-shifting population of the station.

Amos broke the silence hesitantly. "How many people will that leave on the station?"

"Fifteen thousand, or so," Channa said grimly. "Our population varies. Simeon, does your estimate include emptying cargo bays and stuffing our people into them in suits?" A desperation procedure and liable to result in some fatalities.

"No, we could evacuate a few hundred more that way."

Although, given the average softperson's reaction to long-term confinement in tight spaces, we probably won't get many volunteers for traveling that way.  

"And before you ask," Simeon continued, "no, I haven't even asked the captains their views on such an . . . exodus. That's a best case scenario. We can't prevent those who aren't docked in the station physically from leaving, so the scheme is still just inside this room. I think that before we start bringing anyone else into this, we should have at least one plan to present, preferably more than one."

"Evacuation plans?" Chaundra asked, his brow farrowed.

"Those," Simeon said, "and plans to fight for the station."

There was a certain brightening around the table. Nothing visible, but the lift in attitude was almost palpable.

"That's right up your alley, Simeon," Channa said gently, "even if this isn't a military installation."

"To fight," Joseph said, his dark eyes glinting with revived hope. Or was it vengeance? "Yes, this is what we would like to do, but how? Did you not say that you had no weapons? And surely they will not give you a chance to combat them. Why should they not simply rush in and destroy you? That would be but child's play for them."

"We will employ guile." Geeze, their lingo is contagious, he thought. "Remember, you said these people were pirates?"

"Yes," Amos said. "When they made their initial demand for surrender—they mentioned deliveries of materials, machines, labor. Pirates, but they speak as though they were a people, a nation. The High Clan, they sometimes named themselves. At others, the Divine—" his mouth puckered in distaste "—the Divine Seed of Kolnar."

"Right." Simeon spoke briskly. This is just another exotic scenario, he told himself firmly. Games theory experiencedon't freeze up now. You've done things like this thousands of times. "So they're no more than criminals, not a true army, disciplined, strategically trained. More like guerillas. Jump in, grab what they can, jump out. Right now, they're pursuing you, and these four ships aim to destroy you to keep you from spreading any nasty rumors about them. So, what we better do first, is get their minds off killing by distracting them with the material things they wanted from you in the first place. Right?"

Every station officer thought about this. Then Gus nodded slowly.

"If these people are space-based, and from the description I think they must be—what a prize the SSS-900-C would be!" He turned to Amos and Joseph. "What sort of industries does . . . did Bethel have?"

"Very few," Amos said, rubbing a thoughtful hand along his stubbled jaw. "We could maintain equipment and manufacture some components for in-system work. We traded rare foodstuffs and organic molecules for what little else we needed. Traders came perhaps once in a generation. The latest only last—"

Joseph swore antiphonally with Gus, Patsy, and Simeon. Channa snapped her fingers. "They must have been . . . what's the phrase?"

"Casin' the joint," Patsy said for she had a store of such archaic phrases.

"Spies!" Joseph said. Tears welled in his eyes, tears of pure rage.

"Always someone who can be bought," Simeon said, giving his holo image a wise appearance. Or so info tapes say, but I've never had to use that tactic. 

Joseph nodded jerkily. "I knew several who would sell their mothers and fathers . . . maybe their fathers . . . for the price of two bottles of arrack."

"Back to the here and now, please," Gus said, boulder-solid.

Amos shook his head, sending the long black curls flying. "We have . . . had, very little high technology, and of what there was . . . much was in Keriss."

"So they'll be hurting for equipment, possibly for skilled labor," Simeon said. "They've got to be. Whaddya bet that most of those three hundred ships are transports, factory vessels, that sort of thing. They wouldn't be self-sufficient even if they have a home base or star system."

"There've always been folk who'd rather steal than work," Gus said. He had no arguments on that score from anyone. "And they'll want to steal from us."

SSS-900-C was a maintenance and repair center. It was also heavy with rare materials intended for shipyard and general shipbuilding use. No one argued with that, either.

Simeon addressed the two refugee leaders. "First, we have to get them thinking along those lines. Otherwise they may simply sweep in and put a couple of high-yield missiles into us. My plan calls for a sacrifice on your part that I'm reluctant to ask of you."

"Ask," Amos said quietly. "A drowning man will grab even the point of a sword. I should like to prove worthy of Guiyon's sacrifice. Ask!"

"I want to tempt them with booty too rich to resist and get their acquisitive jukes flowing. We'll commandeer one of the company yachts that salesmen travel in when they show their samples to rich customers, and we'll cram its holds full of things the bastards won't be able to resist. With the promise of much more easily available—here!"

"Such as?" Channa asked suspiciously.

"Technological stuff, upgrades in software, in computers, the latest improvements in fuel efficiency. We'll include luxury fabrics, perfumes, jewelry, exotic delicacies . . ."

"Bribery will only make them hungrier to sack the station," Joseph all but shouted, half-rising from his chair.

"Peace, my brother," Amos soothed him, "remember that sicatooths do not eat grass. One must put out a goat to bait the trap for them."

"See, you don't shoot the cow you're milking," Gus contributed.

"Hell no, you don't eat a pig lahke that all at once," Patsy said.

Simeon almost laughed aloud to see the puzzled expressions on the faces of Amos and Joseph. Good one, Patsy, remember that "my brother" fake they pulled on ya and don't let 'em think they can be more obscure than we can. 

Chaundra explained the humor and only raised his brows slightly when Joseph asked, "What's a pig?" Channa herself was puzzled. She would have expected the natives of an agricultural world to recognize the name of an important farm animal. Her own protein came out of vats, the way nature intended, as far as she was concerned. If not literally, then she didn't want to think about it.

"Won't they think it's kinda odd, though, one guy sellin' so many different things?" Patsy asked.

"Not if he's a middle-man type, importer-exporter, rather than a manufacturer's rep," Simeon said. "It's not that hard to deceive people once, Patsy."

"But we have none of these things you have mentioned," Amos said, puzzled. "We have no cloth or jewels or software. What is this sacrifice you would ask of us?"

"We need someone to put in the yacht well be sending out, and I'm not about to send a living person. I'd like to send one of your people who died in transit from ship to station. Preferably someone who died as a result of the environment failure, since that's why he's going to be out there in this luxury ship, broadcasting an offer for a huge reward to anyone who'll rescue him."

Amos and Joseph looked shocked. They sat unmoving for a minute, then slowly turned to meet each other's eyes.

"Impossible!" Joseph said, his lips tight with fury. "What you ask is base sacrilege!"

Channa glanced at Simeon's column as though appealing for help, then plunged in, knowing no diplomatic way of putting this. "Your funerary customs are . . . firmly set?"

"Yess!" Joseph hissed. "We honor our dead, we bury them and revere their resting place."

"Well," Simeon told him, "we have no place to bury our dead here on the station, and it's prohibitively expensive to ship them back to their home planets. You can't simply bury them in space because eventually they constitute a navigation hazard. Here we cremate our dead."

"And the ashes?" Amos asked.

"Unless specifically requested, there are no ashes."

Amos bowed his head. "For our dead, we request ashes, so that one day, hopefully, we might return our friends to Bethel. As to your . . . your appeal for the body of one of ours, I think, my brother," and he turned to Joseph, "that we should consider that an honor to serve is being offered one of our dead rather than sacrilege. Surely, whoever we choose, would have been pleased to be of help to those who survived."

"It is wrong!" Joseph said. "And I object!"

"My brother," Amos said through gritted teeth, "if you angle with a straight hook, only those fish which are willing get on it. Be reasonable, or we may all be dead. It is only a hope, a possibility we are offered. If they destroy this decoy, they will then destroy the station and we will join our friends who are dead and we can all go unburied forever." He stared at his companion until, after a long moment, Joseph lowered his eyes and nodded. To Simeon, Amos said, "Choose the person most suitable for this ruse from among our dead brothers."

"Thank you," Simeon said simply, and the others around the table murmured their thanks as well.

"Okay," Channa said, bringing them back to more immediate concerns, "these pirates come upon this derelict space-yacht. They hear the message, 'Help, help, my environment system is down, auggh, I'm dying, save me and I'll reward you with umpity-zillion credits.' "


"They give him a buzz, no answer, so they bip on over to his craft and board it."


"They find—whomever—several days dead due to environment failure."


"Why don't they just hold their noses and sail on?"

"Um, well, first, it's the nature of pirates to be greedy. So we'll pile the ship high with cases of samples, clearly marked samples, clearly marked as coming from SSS-900-C. Second, no one likes to go back to their senior officer and say, 'It was a total waste of time, sir,' because it makes them look bad in their captain's eyes. So I think we can expect them to make at least a cursory search of the ship. Third, there'll be a curiosity factor, since I plan to choose the most opulent yacht in the area. These guys probably haven't seen anything like it hanging around the out-systems.

"So they'll probably be crawling all over it saying, 'I can't believe it! Look at this! What luxury!' One of these factors will attract their attention to the com screen, which will show a report our salesman was inputting when disaster struck. It will say something to the effect of O frabjious day, I've just made the biggest sale of my career to the SSS-900-C. I've promised them delivery in fourteen days or less. The home office has confirmed the delivery date. Order manifest follows. Hooray, hooray, bounce bounce! 

"And there will be a listing that would make me drool and want to turn pirate."

Gus nodded. "It sounds do-able, though I hate to spare even one ship from the evacuation effort."

"I can understand that, Gus, but balance the dozen or so who could be evacuated on the yacht against the fifteen thousand plus people at risk on the station, and I think the sacrifice is justified," Simeon replied. Seeing that he had his audience listening very carefully, he went on. "Now, to prepare the rest of the station for pirate-fall, I want all irreplaceable equipment disconnected and hidden, or if it can't be moved, I want it disguised or dismantled with no spare parts visible. All menus on all computer terminals will be changed. I intend to make them as confusing and difficult to understand as possible, in order to encourage any outsider using our equipment to make as many horrible and damaging mistakes as possible. We'll need to have the emergency crews on alert at all times."

Twenty glum faces surrounded the table.

"Just a minute," Channa said slowly. "You're suggesting we let these . . . these fiends occupy the station?"

"We can't stop them," Simeon explained patiently. "We can't stop a single real warship from sinking a missile into the station's equator and blowing all fifteen thousand of us to MC-squared. I don't like it either, Channa. But we have to keep them from doing too much damage until the Navy gets here—and we know the time frame on that. If we can confoozle them long enough so the Navy can catch 'em, that'll solve how to get rid of them.

"Once they make a few disastrous mistakes, they'll prefer to use our people. Why should they break their brains trying to learn how to run a station they'll only be occupying until they can loot it empty? I want our people, not theirs, in sensitive positions. No matter how it looks to them, I want real control of the station to remain in our hands. I'm willing to take a few risks to gain that advantage."

"Oh," Channa said carefully. "Sounds reasonable."

"Doctor Chaundra, you're really going to hate this one."

"You want me to make people sick."

"Got it in one. How'd you guess?"

"I assume that you know I didn't become a physician because I enjoy watching people suffer," he said calmly. "I will not kill. Otherwise, who do you want me to do it to and why do you want me to do it?"

"I want to be able to declare a class-two quarantine, make them reluctant to enter the living quarters. We can't keep them out entirely unless we declare that a deadly disease is rampant on the station, in which case, we might as well blow the place ourselves and spare them the missile. I'd like to see the infirmary littered with volunteers groaning in misery, for authenticity's sake. But, most important, I want every one of the pirates who enters the living area to walk out with whatever bug you're using in his or her system doing what it does best. Fairly soon, they'll get the idea they should confine their communications with stationers to holocasts."

Chaundra wore a crooked smile. "Leper, unclean, unclean," he said in a singsong voice. Patsy was the only one at the table who understood his reference, but Simeon did, too. Then Chaundra shook his head. "Too little time to fake that particular disease. So! Agreed, I will search for a suitable virus. We can synthesize readily—but we must hope the . . . Kolnari? have inadequate medics and no equivalent facilities."

"Patsy?" Simeon began.

"Yo, lover."

"As soon as we've got some data of a physical nature on these fiends, I would appreciate it if you could come up with some spore, or pollen or mixture of gases that would make our anticipated visitors real unhappy. If you can arrange to afflict their ships only, and not the station, I'll like it even better."

"Oh, Simeon, an opportunity! You do love me, doncha honey?"

"First and always, sweetpea."

"Aw, blush." She consulted her keyboard. "Allergies'd be a good bet. They're pretty dam specific in groups with low genetic divers'ty. Once we get some tissue samples, yeeehah!"

"Seriously, we can evacuate people or critical supplies like mining explosives, but not both," Channa said.

"I was just coming to that. We'll have to leave some in the stores or it would look odd. After all, we are a supply center. But I want as much of that particular commodity relabeled, rerouted, or hidden wherever. We should leave, maybe, four percent below the lowest reserves we've ever recorded. Have the records show that we're between shipments, the additional four percent shortage of explodables is because we used some of the stores to blow up the colony ship." Simeon saw no point in giving the Kolnari free weapons. "I'd like to do the same with food and medical supplies as well. Any questions?"

"Yeah," one of the supply officers spoke up, "where are we gonna put all this stuff, particularly the explosives?"

"You get it together," Simeon said, "I'll tell you where. Right now, let's work out what supplies the evacuation ships will need and I want you to start pulling together those tasty goods we're going to use to tempt the . . . sicatooth."

"You got it," the woman said.

"We, too, would like to serve," Amos said earnestly, "in any way that we can. Ask and we will aid you to the best of our ability."

A passle of farmboys, ranchers and students from a medium tech planet. I'm sure we'll find lots for you to do, Simeon thought.

Amos continued. "It is to our great shame that we have brought this terror down upon you. Better that we had all died . . ."

"Shut up!" Channa snapped, the verbal equivalent of a slap to a hysteric. "How dare you say that? All lives are precious. Guiyon thought so. He recognized that he must save as many of you as he could and he did. Stop beating your chests. You'll only get more bruises. For all we know, they might have come this way anyhow."

"You have been harbingers, and though such aren't much appreciated, I'd like to say now that I, Simeon, SSS-900-C, am grateful to you, and particularly to . . . Guiyon. If you'd all died at Bethel, no one in this sector would have known of the Kolnari and how they operate." Simeon paused. "I gather they operate on a scorched earth policy?" When the two Bethelites looked puzzled, he added gently, "They clear away all traces that they've been there? That anyone's been on that planet? Hmm. Thought so. Can't leave clues behind if they want to keep on cutting their swath of destruction."

Simeon caught an odd sound coming from Joseph and did a quick enlargement of the man's face. The Bethelite was actually grinding his teeth. Amos' blue eyes dulled with the pain of his own thoughts on the subject of total annihilation.

By now that concept was dawning on three or four stationers and their expressions reflected their shock. Piracy and looting were bad enough, but these Kolnari had gotten away with implied multiple acts of genocide.

"Central and the Navy are receiving hourly update blips," Simeon went on to provide what reassurance he could that SSS-900 was already ahead of the Kolnari on the dice roll. "Bethel will have retribution, if not blanket reparations when the accounting is rendered. You've saved not only yourselves, but us and what's left of your world."

" 'He who fights and . . . ' " Diplomatically Channa edited the old adage slightly " ' . . . escapes away! Lives to fight another day.' " She even made it rhyme. She went on firmly. "Dying would just . . ." She waved her hands, racking her mind for the right words.

"Would be wasteful suicide," Simeon concluded for her. "And allow the Kolnari to sweep the board." He caught Channa's little grimace over his constant use of war-gaming terminology.

"Exactly, and you can't let those . . ." Again she fumbled for a dire enough epithet.

"Black-hearted sons of bitches?" Simeon offered. Nice combination of informality and traditional epithet, pleased with himself.

"Thank you . . . black-hearted sons of bitches go on killing and stealing. So, if you want to wish somebody dead, wish it on them," Channa finished, thumping the table with a fist for emphasis.

Amos smiled in chagrin. "You have burnt away my weakness with your fiery speech, beautiful lady. I shall direct my hatred towards our mutual enemy."

"Fine! Glad that's been settled. Now I'm going to adjourn this meeting," Simeon said. "Channa and I have to address the ships' captains in two hours and you all have plenty to do. I'd like progress reports every six hours from everyone, please. You may contact me at any time with any difficulties encountered. Amos, would you be good enough to accompany Doctor Chaundra to the morgue to choose our decoy. He'll also assist you with proper funeral arrangements for the other victims."

Amos nodded solemnly. Chaundra put his hand sympathetically on the younger man's shoulder, powered up the floatchair, and they left the lounge together. Joseph's float, activated by one of the guards, started back to the infirmary. The station officers bustled off, no one of a mind to chat or rehash the meeting. Only Channa remained, staring off, her eyes unfocused.

"I take it back."


"At the moment, I'm deeply and utterly grateful that you chose to study war instead of romance."


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