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AIRBOYS had it easy, Russ thought. He did not have much time to think this, because he and their ship, the Asskicker II, were falling pretty nearly straight down onto the Ganymede ice fields. Philosophy would have to come later. If ever.

But atmospheric pilots did have it easier. Air gave your airfoil some lift. Absence of air—that is, pure space-at least let you turn easily, let you swivel and fire attitude rockets without trouble.

In between was this—the thin, howling scarf of gas boiled out of Ganymede by men. Just enough gas to make trouble, but too skimpy to use for much aerodynamic lift.

It wrenched and slapped at Asskicker II. Russ fought them down through the skimpy skin of atmosphere, using the air’s rub to brake.

“Secured?” he called.

“Aye!” came shouts. From Zoti and Nye and Kitsov and Columbard, all strapped in, watching their subsystems.

They sounded scared. Usually in this raw war death came fast, and nobody had time to really get their guts snarled up.

But when the snake had hit Asskicker II they’d patched the punctures, stopped the engine runaway, saved the electricals. Salvaged a few minutes, maybe.

Certainly they hadn’t salvaged the mission. The ship had been venting methane from the aft tanks, a giant fart. They could not possibly complete the dive around Ganymede and lay their egg on Hiruko Station.

The Feds had probably seen the blowout and figured they were dead. So Russ and Columbard had let their ship tumble into Ganymede’s upper air, arcing around the rim of the moon so that the main Fed cruiser couldn’t see them.

“We gotta get down!” Columbard called.

“Yeah, yeah,” Russ answered. His copilot knew the zigs and zags of space nav, but knifing down through this shrieking air rattled her.

“Got one-nine-zero sec till we come out from behind Ganymede,” Columbard said rapidly. “The Feds—“

“Nosing in,” Russ said.

He fired their remaining engines. The methane flared and sputtered and then growled, angry as a damaged hornet.

The sudden hard thrust threw his stomach into his throat. He gulped, eyes watering.

They dipped and banked and the speckled ground was coming up like a big hand swatting them.

“Slam it!” he called.

Columbard gave them max power. Russ saw a blue-white peak slice by them like a snowy hook. He tried to find a level spot. Asskicker II had to come down vertically and had never been designed for more than scooping through the upper layers of atmospheres, to feed its ramscoops.

Damn this soup! he had time to think—and then they hit.


And bounced.

And split.

Their reserve air blew out, whoosh!, taking debris with it. Russ felt a painful jab in his side and then they flipped over.

Shouts, shrieks . . .

A bone-jarring, splintering crash . . .

His board went solid red . . .

Power gone, armory down, life support . . .

Columbard’s tracer showed red. Then blue. Outside, Ganymede was a broad, dirty-gray plain.

Russ found that a shattered strut was poking him in the ribs. One more centimeter and it would have punched through his skinsuit.

He would be sucking on the whole solar system, trying to inhale it—like Columbard.

He found her in the: tangle, legs crushed and her eyes wide open, as though looking into some fresh truth he could not see.


Russ flexed his four-fingered damp-hands and surveyed the landscape. They were on the nightside of Ganymede, though pale crescents of the other moons sliced the darkness, and Jupiter hung like a fat, luminous melon above the distant horizon. He counted three distinct shadows pointing off at angles, each differently colored.

“Maybe these’ll help us sneak by optical patternrecog detectors,” he said to Zoti, pointing.

“Shadows?” she asked, puffing up a slope even in the light gravity. She carried a big supply pack. “Think so?”

“Could be.” He didn’t really think so but at this point you had to believe in something.

“Better get away from here,” Zoti said.

“Think the Feds got a trace on us?”

She shook her head, a tight movement visible through her skinsuit helmet. “Our guys were giving them plenty deceptors, throwing EM jams on them—the works.”

Russ respected her tech talents, but he never relied on tricks alone. Best thing was to get away before some skimmer craft came to check for the wreck.

“We’ll hoof in three minutes,” Russ said.

He looked back at the crushed metal can that a big blue-black ice outcropping had made of Asskicker II. It didn’t look like a fabulously expensive, threatening bomber now, just a pile of scrap. Nye and Kitsov came up the hill, lugging more supplies.

“Got the CCD cubes?” Russ asked Nye.

“Yeah, I yanked them.” Nye scowled. He never said much, just let his face do his complaining for him.

“Think they’ve got good stuff?” Russ asked.

“Some fighter stuff,” Nye said. “Then a big juicy close-up of the snake that got us.”

Russ nodded. Snakes were the thin, silvery missiles that their Northern Hemisphere tech jockeys couldn’t knock out. “Well,” he said, maybe that’ll be worth something. “

Kitsov said, “Worth to Command, could be. To Natwork, no.”

Zoti said, “Natwork? Oh-look, Network can’t use anything that’s classified. A snake shot will have TS all over it.”

Russ asked, “TS?”

Zoti grinned. “They say it means Top Secret, but as far as we’re concerned, might as well be Tough Shit. Means we make no loot from it.”

Russ nodded. He hated this mercenary shit. If everything had gone right, Asskicker II would have lobbed a fusion head smack onto Hiruko Station. Earthside network royalties for the shot would’ve gone to them all, with Russ getting twice the share of the others, since he was captain and pilot.

Had that made any difference? You could never really be sure that some subconscious greed hadn’t made you rush the orbit a little, shade the numbers, slip just a hair off the mark. Could that be what had let the snake through?

He shook his head. He’d never know, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“Still think we’ll see a single yen out of it?” Zoti asked him. He realized she had interpreted his shaking head as disagreement. They would be reading him closely now. The crew wanted reassurance that they weren’t doomed and he was the only authority figure around. Never mind that he’d never led a ground operation in his life.

“I think we’ll get rich,” Russ said, voice full of confidence he had dredged up from somewhere. He wondered if it rang hollowly but the others seemed to brighten.

“Is good!” Kitsov said, grinning.

“It’ll be better if Vie get out of here,” Russ said. “Come on.”

“Which way?” Nye asked.

“Through that notch in the hills there.” Russ pointed. Nye frowned, black eyebrows meeting above his blunt nose. “What’s that way?

“More important, what isn’t that way,” Russ said. “We’ll be putting distance between us and Hiruko Station.”

Nye’s forehead wrinkled. “You sure?”

“We don’t have any nav gear running, I had to sight on the moons.” Russ said this confidently but in fact he hadn’t done a square, naked-eye sighting since tech school.

Zoti said tentatively, “How about a compass?”

“On ice moon?” Kitsov chuckled. “Which way is magnetic pointing?”

“That’s the problem,” Russ said. “No magnetic field. Let’s go.”

They moved well in the low gravity. None were athletes but they had kept in shape in the gym on the voyage out. There wasn’t much else to do on the big carriers. Columbard had said that Zoti got all her workout in the sack, but then Columbard had always been catty. And not a great enthusiast in the sack herself, either. Not that her opinion mattered much, Russ thought, since she wasn’t around anymore to express it.

A storm came sweeping in on them as they climbed away from the wreck. It was more like a sigh of snowflakes, barely buoyant in the thin, deadly methane air. It chilled them further and he wondered if they would all get colds despite the extra insulation they all wore over their combat skinsuits.

Probably. Already his feet tingled. He turned so that his bulky pack sheltered him from the wind. They’d all get frostbite within a couple of days, he guessed.

If they could survive at all. A man in a normal pressure suit could live about an hour on Ganymede. The unending sleet of high-energy protons would fry him, ripping through delicate cells and spreading red destruction. This was a natural side effect of Jupiter’s hugeness—its compressed core of metallic hydrogen spun rapidly, generating powerful magnetic fields that whipped around every ten hours, These fields are like a rubbery cage, snagging and trapping protons spat out by the sun. Io, the innermost large moon, belched ions of sulfur and sodium into the magnetic traps, adding to the sleet. All this rained down on the inner moons, sputtering the ice.

Damn it, he was a sky jock, not a grunt. He’d never led a crew of barracks rats on a mud mission.

He kept his mind off his bulky pack and chilled feet by guessing what the Feds were doing. The war was moving fast, maybe fast enough to let a downed bomber crew slip through the Fed patrols.

When Northern Hemisphere crews had held Hiruko Station they’d needed to work outside, supervising robot ice-diggers. The first inhabitants of Ganymede instead used the newest technology to fend off the proton hail: superconducting suits, Discovery of a way to make cheap superconducting threads made it possible to weave them into pressure suits. The currents running in the threads made a magnetic field outside the suit, where it brushed away incoming protons. Inside, by the laws of magnetostatics, there was no field at all to disturb instrumentation. Once started, the currents flowed forever, without electrical resistance.

He hoped their suits were working right. Asskicker II’s strong magnetics had kept them from frying before, but a suit could malf and you’d never know it. He fretted about a dozen other elements in a rapidly growing list of potentially deadly effects.

Already he had new respect for the first Hiruko crews. They’d been damn good at working in this bitter cold, pioneering against the sting and bite of the giant planet. They had carved ice and even started an atmosphere. What they hadn’t been so good at was defending themselves.

No reason they should’ve been, of course. The Southern Hemisphere had seen their chance and had come in hard—total surprise. In a single day they had taken all Ganymede. And killed nearly every Northerner.

The bedraggled surviving crew of Asskicker II marched in an eerie dim glow from Jupiter. Over half of Ganymede’s mass was water ice, with liberal dollops of carbon dioxide ice, frozen ammonia and methane, and minor traces of other frozen-out gases. Its small rocky core was buried under a thousand-kilometer-deep ocean of water and slush.

The crust was liberally sprinkled by billions of years of infalling meteors. These meteorites had peppered the landscape, but the atmosphere building project had already smoothed the edges of even recent craters. Ancient impact debris had left hills of metal and rock, the only relief from a flat, barren plain.

This frigid moon had been tugged by Jupiter’s tides for so long that it was locked, like Luna, with one face always peering at the banded ruddy planet. One complete day-night cycle was slightly more than an Earth week long. Adjusting to this rhythm would have been difficult if the sun had provided dear punctuation to the three-and-a-half-day nights. But even without an atmosphere, the sun seen from Ganymede was a dim twenty-seventh as bright as at Earth’s orbit.

They saw sunup as they crested a line of rumpled hills. The sun was bright but curiously small. Sometimes Russ hardly noticed it compared to Europa’s white, cracked crescent. Jupiter’s shrouded mass flickered with orange lightning strokes between the roiling, somber clouds.

Ganymede’s slow rotation had been enough to churn its inner ocean, exerting a torque on the ice sheets above. A slow-motion kind of tectonics had operated for billions of years, rubbing slabs against each other, grooving and terracing terrain.

They leaped over long, strangely straight canyons, rather than try to find ways around. Kitsov proved the best distance man, remorselessly devouring kilometers. Russ watched the sky anxiously. Nothing cut the blackness above except occasional scruffy gray clouds.

They didn’t stop for half a day. While they ate he ran an inventory on air, water, food. If their processors worked, recycling from the skinsuits, they could last nearly a week.

“How much food you got?” Nye wanted to know while Russ was figuring.

“I’m not carrying any,” Russ answered levelly.

“Huh?” Like most cynics, Nye was also a little slow.

“I’m carrying the warhead.”

“What!” Nye actually got to his feet, as though outraged.

“Regs, Sergeant,” Russ said slowly. “Never leave a fusion head for the enemy.”

“We got to survive out here! We can’t be-“

“We are,” Russ said. “That’s an order.”

Nye’s mouth worked silently. After a while he sat back down, looking irritated and sheepish at the same time.

Russ could almost sympathize with him, perhaps because he had more imagination. He knew what lay ahead.

Even if no patrol craft spotted them, they couldn’t count on their carrier to send a pickup ship. The battle throughout the inner Jovian system was still going on—he had seen the flashes overhead, far out among the moons. The Northern Hemisphere forces had their hands full.

He looked down at his own hands—four dampfingers with delicate tools embedded in the tip of each. Combat pilot hands, technological marvels. Back on the cruiser they could detach these ceramo-wonders and his normal hands would work just fine.

But out here, in bitter cold and high sucking vacuum, he couldn’t get them off. And the chill seeping into them sent a dull ache up his arms.

The pain he could take. The clumsiness might be fatal.

“Get up!” he called. “Got klicks to go before we sleep, guys.”


They spotted the auto-truck the next day at noon.

It came grinding along beside a gouged trench. The trench looked man-made but it was a stretch mark. Ganymede’s natural radioactive elements in its core had heated the dark inner ocean, cracking the ice shell.

But the strip beside the natural groove was a route the automated truck used to haul mined ores.

Or so Russ figured. He did know that already, after just over a day of hard marching, his crew was wearing out fast. Zoti was limping. Maybe she had spent her gym time on her back. He didn’t give a damn one way or the other, but if she slowed them down they might have to leave her behind.

But the truck could change all that. He stopped, dead still, and watched it lumber along. Its treads bit into the pale blue ice and its forward sensors monotonously swept back and forth, watching for obstructions.

Russ was no infantry officer. He knew virtually nothing about flanking and fire-and-maneuver and all the other terms that raced through his head and straight out again, leaving no residue of useful memory.

Had the Feds put fighting machines in the trucks? The idea suddenly occurred to him and seemed utterly logical. He could remember nothing in the flight briefing about that. Mostly because the briefing officer expected them to either come back intact or be blown to frags. Nobody much thought fighter-bombers would crash. Or have surviving crew.

Could the truck hear his suit com? He didn’t know.

Better use hand signals, then. He held up a claw-hand. Nye kept walking until Kitsov grabbed his arm. They all stood for a long moment, looking at the orange-colored truck and then at Russ and then back at the truck again.

One thing was sure, Russ thought. If the truck was carrying a fighting machine, the fighter wasn’t so hot. His crew made beautiful targets out here, standing out nice and clean against the dirty ice.

He waved with both arms. Drop your packs.

Somewhat to his surprise, they did. He was glad to get the bulk off his shoulders.

The truck kept lumbering along, oblivious. He made broad gestures. Pincer attack.

They closed the distance at a dead run. The truck didn’t slow or turn.

They all leaped the deep groove in the ice with no trouble. They cleared the next forty meters quickly and Nye had reached the truck when a small popping sound came from the truck rear and Kitsov fell.

Russ was headed for the hatch in the front so he couldn’t see the rear of the truck at all. The popping came again and Nye fired his M18 at something, the whole clip at once, rrrrrrrtttt!

The popping stopped. Russ ran alongside the truck, puffing, Zoti beside him. Nye had the back of the truck open. Something came out, something ail pipes and servos and ripped aluminum. Damaged but still active. Zoti brought up her M18. Nye hit the thing with the butt of his M18 and caved in an optical sensor. The fighter didn’t stop. It reached for Nye with a knife that suddenly flipped up, standing straight out at the end of a telescoping arm. Zoti smashed the arm. The fighting machine tumbled out and went facedown on the ice. Russ shot it in the back of its power panel. It didn’t move anymore.

“Damn!” Nye said. “Had a switchblade! You ever—”

“Get in front!” Russ yelled, turning away.

“What? I—”

“It’s still armed,” Russ called, already running. If Nye didn’t want to follow orders that was fine with him.

They had all nearly reached the front of the truck when the fighter went off, a small crump. Shrapnel rattled against the truck.

“Think it’s dead now?” Zoti asked, wide-eyed.

“Leave it,” Russ said. He walked to where Kitsov lay facedown.

The man had a big hole in his chest and a bigger one in back. It was turning reddish-brown already. The thin atmosphere was sucking blood out of the body, the stain spreading down the back and onto the mottled ice. It made a pool there that fumed into a brown vapor.

Russ looked at it, his mind motionless for a long moment as he recalled Kitsov once saying some dumb reg made his blood boil. Well, now it was.

Russ knew that even the skimpy gear on Asskicker II could have kept Kitsov running long enough to get back to the cruiser. Out here there was utterly no hope.

Two days, two crew. Three remaining.

And they had maybe six days of air left. Plenty of time to get their dying done.


Russ wondered what shape and size of man had designed the forward seat. He peered out through a smeared viewport, barking his knees against the rough iron. The auto-truck had been fashioned from Ganymede ore and nobody had bothered to polish rough edges. The seat bit into him through his skin suit and somehow the iron· smelled bitter, as if some acid had gotten in at the foundry.

But, far more important, the cabin was warm. The Ganymede cold had seeped into them on the march and they kept the interior heaters on high, basking in it.

He watched the rutted terrain ahead closely. There had been no sign of activity during the day they had ridden in the auto-truck. The truck was sluggish, careful, dumb. It had stopped twice to pick up ore canisters from robot mines. The ore came out of a hole in the ground on a conveyor belt. There were no higher order machines around to notice three stowaway humans.

Russ got out of the seat, having to twist over a ceramic cowling, and jerked a thumb at Nye to take over. They switched every half hour because after that you couldn’t stay alert. Zoti was asleep in the back. He envied her. He had caught some downtime but his nerves got to him after a few hours.

“Helmet,” he called. Russ pulled his on and watched Nye zip up. Zoti slept with hers on, following orders. The simple pleasure of the cabin’s cozy pressure was hard to give up.

He climbed out the broken back hatch. Nye had riddled it but the pressure seal inside self-healed. Russ used handholds to scramble onto the corrugated top of the truck. He could see much farther from here. Watching the rumpled hills reassured him somehow. Scrunched down below, staring out a slit, it was too easy to imagine Feds creeping up on them.

Overhead, Jupiter eclipsed the sun. The squat pink watermelon planet seemed to clasp the hard point of white light in a rosy glow, then swallowed it completely. Now Europa’s white, cracked crescent would be the major light in the sky for three and a half hours, he calculated. A rosy halo washed around the rim of Jupiter’s atmosphere as sunlight refracted through the transparent outer layers.

He wished he could get the crazy, whirling geometry of this place straight in his head. The Feds had knocked down all navsats, and he couldn’t stay on the air long enough to call for a position check with the carrier.

This truck was carrying them away from Hiruko Station, he figured. It would be reassuring to get some sort of verification, though. No pickup mission would risk coming in close to Hiruko.

He took out his Fujitsu transponder and tapped into the external power jack. He had no idea where the carrier was now, so he just aimed the pistol-grip antenna at the sky and got off a quick microwave “mayday” burst. That was all the carrier needed to know they were alive, but getting a fix on them would be tough.

Job done, he sat and watched the slow swirling dance of the sky. No flashes, so maybe the battle was over. Only for a while, though. Neither side was going to give up the inner moons. Russ grinned, remembering how just a few years back some of his Earthside buddies had said a real war out here was pointless. Impossible, too.

Too far away, they said. Too hard.

Even after the human race had moved into the near-Earth orbits, scattering their spindly factories and cylinder-cities and rock-hopping entrepreneurs, the human race was dominated by nay-saying groundhogs.

Sure, they had said, space worked. Slinging airtight homes into orbit at about one astronomical unit’s distance from the sun was—in retrospect—an obvious step. After all, there was a convenient moon nearby to provide mass and resources.

But Earth, they said, was a benign neighborhood. You could re-supply most outposts within a few days. Except for the occasional solar storm, when winds of high-energy particles lashed out, the radiation levels were low. There was plenty of sunshine to focus with mirrors, capture in great sheets of conversion wafers, and turn into bountiful, high-quality energy.

But Jupiter? Why go there?

Scientific teams had already touched down on the big moons in the mid twenty-first century, even dipped into the thick atmosphere. By counting craters and taking core samples, they deduced what they could about how the solar system had evolved. After that brief era of quick-payoff visits, nobody had gone back. One big reason, everyone was quick to point out, was the death rate in those expeditions: half never saw Earth again, except as a distant blue-white dot.

Scientists don’t tame new worlds; pioneers do. And except for the bands of religious or political refugee/fanatics, pioneers don’t do it for nothing.

By 2050 humans had already begun to spread out of the near-Earth zone. The bait was the asteroids—big tumbling lodes of metal and rock, rich in heavy elements. These flying mountains could be steered slowly from their looping orbits and brought into near-Earth rendezvous. The delta-V wasn’t all that large.

There, smelters melted them down and fed the factories steady streams of precious raw materials: manganese, platinum, cadmium, chromium, molybdenum, tellurium, vanadium, tungsten, and all the rare metals. Earth was running out of these, or else was unwilling to pollute its biosphere to scratch the last fraction out of the crust. Processing metals was messy and dangerous. The space factories could throw their waste into the solar wind, letting the gentle push of protons blow it out to the stars.

For raw materials, corporations like Mosambi and Kundusu grubstaked loners who went out in pressurized tin cans, sniffing with their spectrometers at the myriad chunks. Most of them were duds, but a rich lode of vanadium, say, could make a haggard, antisocial rockrat into a wealthy man. Living in zero-gravity craft wasn’t particularly healthy, of course. You had to scramble if a solar storm blew in, and crouch behind an asteroid for shelter. Most rock-hoppers disdained the heavy shielding that would ward off cosmic rays, figuring that their stay would be short and lucky, so the radiation damage wouldn’t be fatal. Many lost that bet.

One thing they could not do without, though, was food and air. That proved to be the pivot-point that drove mankind still farther out.

Life runs on the simplest chemicals. A closed artificial biosphere is basically a series of smoldering fires: hydrogen burns with oxygen to give water; carbon burns into carbon dioxide, which plants eat; nitrogen combines in the soil so the plants can make proteins, enabling humans to be smart enough to arrange all this artificially.

The colonies that swam in near-Earth orbits had run into this problem early. They needed a steady flow of organic matter and liquids to keep their biospheres balanced. Supply from Earth was expensive. A better solution was to search out the few asteroids that had significant carbonaceous chondrites—rock rich in light elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen.

There were surprisingly few. Most were pushed painfully back to Earth orbit and gobbled up by the colonies. By the time the rock-hoppers needed light elements, the asteroid belt had been picked clean.

Besides, bare rock is unforgiving stuff. Getting blood from a stone was possible in the energy-rich cylinder-cities. The loose, thinly spread coalition of prospectors couldn’t pay the stiff bills needed for a big-style conversion plant.

From Ceres, the largest asteroid, Jupiter loomed like a candy-striped beacon, far larger than Earth. The rockrats lived in the broad band between two and three astronomical units out from the sun-they were used to a wan, diminished sunshine, and had already been tutored in the awful cold. For them it was no great leap to Jove, hanging there 5.2 times farther from the sun than Earth.

They went for the liquids. Three of the big moons—Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—were immense iceballs. True, they circled endlessly the most massive planet of all, 318 times the mass of Earth. That put them deep down in a gravitational well. Still, it was far cheaper to send a robot ship coasting out to Jupiter, and looping into orbit around Ganymede, than it was to haul water up from the oceans of Earth. The first stations set up on Ganymede were semiautomatic—meaning a few unlucky souls had to tend the machinery.

And here came some of that machinery now.

Russ slid back and lay down on the truck’s flat roof. Ahead a team of robos was digging away. They had a hodgepodge of tracks and arms and didn’t look dangerous. The biggest one threw out a rust-red stream of ore that the others were sampling.

One of the old exploration teams, then. He hoped they’d just ignore the truck.

“What’ll we do?” Nye whispered over comm.

“Shut up,” Russ answered.

The truck seemed to hesitate, deciding whether to grind over to the robos. A small robo noticed this and came rolling over on balloon tires.

Russ froze. This robo looked intelligent. It was probably the team leader and could relay an alarm.

Still lying flat, Russ wormed his way over to the edge of the truck roof. He brought his heavy pilot’s hands forward and waited, hoping he blended into the truck’s profile.

The robo seemed to eye the truck with swiveling opticals. The truck stopped. The robo approached, extended a telescoping tube. Gingerly it began to insert this into the truck’s external socket.

Russ watched the robo’s opticals focus down on its task. Then he hit it carefully in the electrical cowling. His hand clanged on the copper cowling and dented it. The robo jerked, snatching back its telescope arm.

The robo was quick. It backed away on its wobbly wheels, but just a little too fast. They spun. It slewed around on the ice.

Russ jumped down while the robo was looking the other way. It might already be transmitting an image. He hit the cowling again and then pried up the copper sheet metal. With two fingers he sheared off three bundles of wire.

The robo stopped. Its external monitor rippled with alarm lights. Russ cut some more and the alarms went off. MECHANICAL DAMAGE, the robo’s status digitals said.

The other robos just kept on studying the soil.

Zoti was coming out of the rear hatch when he climbed back on the truck. “Back inside,” he said. “Let’s go.”

They got away fast. Those robos had been easy only because no Feds had gotten around to reprogramming them.

Soon enough, somebody would. They were in for a long war out here. He could feel it in his bones.

Trouble was, Earthly interests swung plenty of weight—and mass—even out here. The old north-south division of wealth and ability was mirrored in the solar system, though warped. The Southern Confederation Feds wanted a greater share of the Jovian wealth. So they had seized a few Northern Hemisphere ice-eating bases, like Hiruko Station. Those robos now labored for the Fed factories waiting in near-Earth orbit for the ore.

The shock of actual war, of death in high vacuum and biting, unearthly cold—that had reverberated through Earthside politics, exciting public horror and private thrills.

Earth had long been a leafy preserve, over-policed and under-armed. Battle and zesty victory gave the great publics of the now-docile planet a twinge of exquisite, forbidden sin.

Here was a gaudy arena where civilized cultures could slug it out, all the while bitterly decrying the beastly actions, the unforgivable atrocities, the inevitable horrific mischances.

And watch it all on 3D. In full, glossy color.

The economic motivations sank beneath the waves of eager surrogate participation. Unfortunately, the two were not so easily separated in the Jovian system. The first troops guarded the automatic plants on’ the moons. Thus they and the plants became first targets for the fleets that came accelerating into the system. Bucks blended with blood.

Hiruko Station was the first to fall to the Feds. Now the only way to root them out was to blast the surface, hoping the ice mines would escape most of the damage. That had been Asskicker II’s job.

Russ wished he could get news of the fighting. Radio gave only meaningless coded buzzes, flittering through the hiss of the giant Van Allen belts. News would have distracted him from his other preoccupation: food. He kept remembering sizzling steaks and crisp fries and hot coffee so black you had to sip it slow.

Already he had to be careful in dividing up their rations. Last meal, Nye and Zoti had gotten into a petty argument about half a cereal bar. They knew there wasn’t much left, even with the packs of Kitsov and Columbard.

He rode along, not minding the cold yet, thinking about fried eggs and bacon. Zoti came topside. She had been copilot and she shared his dislike of the cramped, blind cabin, even if it was warm. They were used to fighting from a cockpit, enveloped in 3D graphics, living in an all-seeing electronic world.

“I could do without this mud-bugger stuff,” Zoti said on short-range suit com.

“Mud, now that I’d like,” Russ said.

“Yeah, this ice gets to me. Brrrr! Pretty, though.” Russ studied the gray-blue valley they were entering. Gullies cut the slopes. Fans of ‘rusty gravel spread from them across the rutted, rolling canyon floor. It did have a certain stern beauty. “Hadn’t noticed.”

“Wouldn’t mind living here.”

He blinked. “Really?”

“Look, I grew up in a ten-meter can. Rockrats for parents. “

“How you like this grav?”

“A seventh of a G? Great. More than I ever got on a tether.”

“Your parents ever hit it big?”

“Last time I was home, we still measured out our water in cc’s.”

He waved at an ice tower they were passing. He hadn’t been able to figure whether they were eroded remnants or some kind of extrusion, driven by the oddities of ice tectonics. “So to you this is real wealth.”

“Sure.” She gave him a quizzical glance. “What else is better’n ice? You can make air with it, burn the deuterium for power, grow crops—even swim.”

“You ever done that?”

“In grav? Naw—but I sneaked into the water reserve tanks at Ceres once. Strangest thing I ever did.”

“Like it better than zero g?”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Everything’s better in gravs.”


“Well,” she gave him a veiled glance. “I haven’t tried everything yet.”

He smiled. “Try Earth normal sometime.”

“Yeah, I heard it’s pretty bad. But grav keeps everything steady. It feels better.”

He had wrenched his back carrying the fusion warhead and felt a twinge from it as the truck lumbered through a depression. “Not so’s I’d notice,” he said moodily.

“Hey, cheer up. This’s a holiday, compared to fighting. “

“This is fighting. Just slow-motion, is all.”

“I love it, ice and gravs.”

“Could do with some better rations.” It was probably not a good idea to bring up food, but Russ was trying to find a way to keep the talk going. For the first time he was feeling differently about Zoti.

“Hell, at least we got plenty water.”

The truck lurched again and Russ grunted despite himself. “Maybe we should carve out some more?”

“Sure,” she said lightheartedly. “I’m getting so I can spot the pure water. Tastes better’n cruiser supply. “

“Wait’ll we get onto the flat. Don’t want this truck to speed up and leave you behind.”

“Take it off auto.” They had already nearly left Zoti once when she laser-cut some water ice.

“Don’t want the risk. We override, probably’ll show up in a control system back at Hiruko.”

“I don’t think the Feds have had time to interface all these systems. Those Dagos don’t know zip.”

“They took Hiruko pretty easy.”

“Snuck up on it! Listen, those oily bastards . . . “ And she was off on a tirade. Russ was a Norther, too, born and bred, but he didn’t have much feeling about political roots that ran back to lines drawn on Earth’s old carcass. He listened to her go on about the filthy Feds and watched the lurching view, and that was when he saw the bat.

It came over the far ice hills. Hard black against the slight haze of a yellow ammonia cloud, gliding when it could, jetting an ivory methane plume when it couldn’t.

“Inside!” he whispered.

They scrambled off the truck roof. Zoti went in the rear hatch. He looked over the lip of the roof and saw the bat veer. It had seen them. It dove quickly, head-on toward them.

The M18s were lashed to the roof. There wasn’t time to get Zoti back out so he yanked an M18 free—making sure he got the one loaded with HE—and dropped off the back of the truck, slipping and landing on his ass. He stooped far over and ran by kicking back on the ice, so that he didn’t bounce in the low gravity. He used the truck for cover while he got to the shelter of some jagged gray boulders.

It made one pass to confirm, sweeping in like an enormous thin bird, sensors swiveling. He wedged down among the rocks as it went over. It banked and turned quickly, coming back. Russ popped his helmet telescope out to full extension and saw that it carried rockets under the wings.

It lined up on the truck’s tail and swooped down. It looked more like a kite from this angle, all airfoil and pencil-thin struts.

The bat was looking at the truck, not at him. He led it a full length and opened up with the HE shells. They bucked pretty bad and he missed with the first two rounds. The third caught it in the narrow fuselage. He saw the impact. Before he could grin a rocket fired from under the right wing and streaked straight for him, leaving an orange trail.

He ducked. The rocket fell short of the truck but close to him. The impact was like a sudden jar. He heard no sound, just found himself flat on his back. Mud and ice showered him.

The bat went on, not seeming to mind the gaping hole in its thin fuselage, but it also didn’t rise anymore. Then it started a lazy pitch, yawed—and suddenly was tumbling end over end, like a thrown playing card.

It became a geyser of black fragments against a snowy hill.


Russ had caught all the right signals from her, he thought.

It was dumb, he knew that, and so did she. But somehow the tension in them had wound one turn too many and a mere glance between them set all the rest in motion.

Sure enough, as soon as Nye left by the forward hatch to recon over the hill, Zoti started shucking her skinsuit. Then her thin green overalls.

He wasn’t far behind her. They piled their clothes on the deck and got down on them. He suggested a sitting position but she would have none of it. She was feverish and buoyant in the muted phosphor glow of the cabin, swiveling on him with exuberant soft cries. Danger, sweat, piercing cold—all wedded into a quick, ferocious, hungry battering that they exacted from each other, rolling and licking and slamming among the machine-oil smells and rough iron rub. Fast and then, mysteriously, gravely slow, as though their senses stretched time in pursuit of oblivion.

It was over at last, and then maybe not, and then definitely not, and then, very fast this time, over for sure. They smiled at each other through a glaze of sweat and dirt.

“Lord!” she gasped. “The best!”

“Ever?” Frank disbelief.

“Sure . . .“ She gave him a sly smile. “The first, too.”

“Huh? Oh, you mean—”

“First in real gravity, sure.”

“Gravity has a way of simplifying your choices.”

“I guess. Maybe everything really is better in gravs.”

“Deck of an auto-truck isn’t the best setting.”

“Damn straight. We’ll give it a try in some place better.”

“You got a date.” He got to his knees and started pulling on his blue long johns.

Automatically he reviewed their situation, shifting back into reality after a blissful time away. He replayed events, trying to see it whole, to look for problems, errors.

They had been forced to override the truck’s controls. The bat had undoubtedly reporting something, maybe even direct vid images of them. So Zoti and Nye had conferred over the board and got the truck off its designated route.

They left the marked track and ground gears to work their way up among the jagged hills. An hour later two bats came zooming over. By that time Nye had gotten the truck back into a cave. They had left the snow two klicks back, picking their way over rocky ridges, so the bats had no tracks to follow.

They sat there edgily while the bats followed a search pattern, squaring off the valley and then other valleys, gradually moving away.

That had given Russ time to think and get hungry and eat. They didn’t have much food left. Or time. Unless the Norther fleet kept Hiruko busy, the Feds would have time to send a thorough, human-led search party.

So they had to change tactics. But keep warm.

Hiruko probably had this truck identified by now. Which meant they needed another truck. Fast.

Once they’d broken the code seal on the truck’s guidance, they had access to general tracking inventory. Nye had found the nearest truck, about fifteen kilometers away. They had edged out of the cave when an ivory fog came easing in from the far range of rumpled mountains.

The truck moved pretty fast when its cautious nav programs were bypassed. They approached the target truck at an angle, finally lying in wait one hill over from its assigned path.

And when Nye went out to recon the approaching truck, Russ and Zoti had taken one swift look at each other, one half-wild glance, and had seized the time.

Nye came back through the hatch as Zoti tucked her black hair into her neck ring.

“It’s coming. No weapons visible.” Nye looked from Zoti to Russ, puzzled.

Russ realized he was still flushed and sweaty. “Good,” he said energetically. “Let’s hit it.”

“Better hurry,” Nye said, his face narrowing again as he concentrated on tactics. “It just loaded up at a mine.”

“Okay. Come out and help me on with my pack,” Russ said.

Nye looked surprised. “You still gonna carry that warhead?”

Russ nodded. “Regs.”

“Look, we gotta move. Nobody’d expect—”

“You want to pay for it when we get back?”

Nye shrugged. “Your hassle, man.”

“Right,” Russ said evenly.

The second truck was moving stolidly down a narrow canyon. It had the quality of a bumbling insect, dutifully doing its job.

“Flank it?” Zoti asked as they watched the truck’s approach.

“Okay,” Russ said. “You two take it from the sides, just after it passes.”

“And you?” Nye asked sarcastically.

“Hit it right where the canyon necks in. See? I’ll come in from the top.”

It had finally occurred to him that the light gravity opened the choices of maneuver. He leaped from the nearest ledge, arcing out over the canyon and coming down on the top of the truck.

Zoti and Nye fired at the rear hatch, rounds skipping off the thick gray iron. A fighting machine, Class II infantry, popped out the front hatch.

It clanked and swiveled awkwardly. It had heavy guns built into both arms and started spraying the rear of the truck, chipping the metal corners. It hadn’t registered Russ yet. When it did a small gun popped out of the machine’s top and fired straight at him. He shot the machine three times and it tumbled over and broke in half.

Russ didn’t get to see it fall. A heavy round went through his shoulder. It sent a white-hot flower of agony through him and knocked him off the truck. He landed on his neck.


“Actually,” Nye said with a sly sort of humor, “that shoulder may not be the worst news you got.”

Russ was not in a terrific mood. Nye’s wit went unremarked. “What?”

“I got a readout on this truck’s itinerary. Didn’t have to bust into the command structure to do it, either.” Nye grinned proudly.

“Great.” His neck hurt worse than his shoulder. The truck’s rumbling, shifting progress sent jabbing pains all down his spine. The bandage over his shoulder wound pulled and stung. Aside from this he was merely in a foul mood.

“We’re going to Hiruko Station,” Nye said. “Drop off the ore.”

“Well, that doesn’t matter,” Zoti said. “We’ll just jump off somewhere.”

Russ nodded blearily. His mouth was dry and he didn’t feel like talking. “Right. Steal another. Play musical trucks with the Feds.”

“Better hurry. We’re less than twenty klicks from Hiruko.”

“What?” Russ barked.

Zoti’s mouth made a precise, silent O.

“Looks like you had us pointing the wrong way all along,” Nye said, his humor dissolving into bitterness.

Russ made himself take a breath. “Okay. Okay.”

There didn’t seem much more to say. He had probably screwed up the coordinates, gotten something backward. Or maybe the first truck took a turn that fouled up his calculations.

It didn’t matter. Excuses never did, not unless you got back to the carrier and a board of inquiry decided they wanted to go over you with a microscope.

Zoti said carefully, “So close . . . they will pick us up easily if we leave the truck.”

“Yeah,” Nye said. “I say we ride this truck in and give up. Better’n freezing our tails, maybe get shot at, then have to give up anyway.”

“We bail out now,” Russ said.

“You hear what I said?” Nye leaned over Russ, trying to intimidate him. “That’s dumb! They’ll—”

Russ caught him in the face with a right cross that snapped Nye’s head around and sent him sprawling.

For once his pilot’s hands proved useful. They were heavy and hard and in his weak condition gave him just enough edge. Russ was sitting on the floor of the truck cabin and he didn’t want to bother to get up. He also wasn’t all that sure that he even could throw a punch while standing, anyway. So when Nye’s eyes clouded and the big man came at him Russ kicked Nye in the face, lifting his boot from the deck and catching Nye on the chin. Nye fell facedown on the deck. Russ breathed deeply and waited and let his neck stop speaking to him. By that time Zoti was standing over Nye with a length of pipe. He waved her away.

“Now, I’m going to pretend you just slipped and banged your head,” Russ said evenly. “Because we got to get out of here fast and I don’t want to have to shoot you for insubordination or cowardice in the face of the enemy or any of those other lawyer’s reasons. That would take time and we don’t have time. So we just go on like you never did anything. Got that?”

Nye opened his mouth and then closed it. Then he nodded.

“Do you . . .” Zoti hesitated. “Do you think we can get away?”

“We don’t have to,” Russ said. “We just have to hide.”

“Hide and freeze,” Nye said sourly. “How’s the carrier gonna—”

“We won’t hide long. How much time will it take this truck to reach Hiruko?”

“Three, maybe four hours. It’s going to a smelting plant on the rim of the first bubble. I—”

“Close enough for government work,” Russ said.

He felt infinitely tired and irritable and yet he knew damn well he was going to have to stay awake until all this was done.

Zoti said, “Are you sure you can . . . ?”

Russ breathed in the stale cabin air. The world veered and swam.

“No, matter of fact, I’m not.”


The fusion warhead went off prettily on the far horizon. A brilliant flash, then a bulging yellow-white ball.

Nye had rigged the trigger to go if anybody climbed through the hatch. He further arranged a small vid eye and stuck it into the truck’s grille, so they got a good look at the checkpoint that stopped the truck. It was within sight of the rearing, spindly towers of Hiruko Station. The town was really rather striking, Russ thought. Some of the towers used deep blue ice in their outer sheaths, like spouts of water pointing eternally at Jupiter’s fat face.

Too bad it all had to go, he thought.

The three of them were lying beneath an overhang, facing Hiruko. They ducked their heads when they saw a Fed officer scowl at the truck, walk around it, then pop the forward hatch. He looked like just the officious sort Russ hated, the kind that always gigged him on some little uniform violation just as he was leaving base on a pass.

So he couldn’t help grinning mirthlessly when the flash lit the snow around them. The warhead was a full 1.2 megs.

Of course, it was supposed to be a klick-high airburst, delivered from orbit. Designed to take out the surface structures and Feds and leave the mines.

This was a ground-pounder. It sent a shock wave they watched coming toward them across the next valley. He didn’t have time to get to his feet. He rolled out from under the ledge. The wave slammed into their hill and he felt a soft thump nearby. Then the sound slapped him hard and he squeezed his eyes shut against the pain in his neck.

When he opened them Zoti was looking into his face anxiously. He grinned. She sat in the snow and grinned back saucily.

He looked beyond her. The hill had folded in a little and the ledge wasn’t there anymore. Neither was Nye.

If it had just been snow that fell on him they might have had some chance. He had gotten partway out from under the ledge, nearly clear. But solid ice and some big rocks had come down on him and there wasn’t any hope. They dug him out anyway. It seemed sort of pointless because then all they could think to do was bury him again.

The bomb cloud over Hiruko dispersed quickly, most of the radioactive debris thrown clear off the moon.

They sat in a protected gully, soaking up what sunlight there was, and waited. As a signal beacon the fusion burst couldn’t be beat. Carrier ships came zooming over within an hour.

A survey craft slipped in low on the horizon a little later. Only when it was in sight did Zoti produce the rest of their food. They sat on a big flat orange rock and ate the glue-like bars through their helmet input slots. It tasted no better than usual but nobody cared. They were talking about gravity and its myriad delights.

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