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Chapter Two

“It’s your move, Edyta,” the blond, blue-eyed girl said, tapping the portable chess set squeezed into the armrest space between her seat and the next. “You do plan to move sometime today, don’t you?”

“Of course I do!” Edyta Sowczyk, four centimeters shorter, with dark eyes and bright chestnut hair, tore her attention away from the window beside her. “But there’s plenty of time for that! I want to see the spaceport!”

Karolina Kreft sighed and shook her head with an air of martyrdom. It wasn’t a very convincing sigh, all things considered. At fifteen, she was barely a year older than Edyta, and she rather suspected that her younger friend was quite a bit smarter than she was. Not that Karolina was a dummy, by any means. She wouldn’t have been invited on this special tour of the spaceport if she hadn’t been in the top two or three percent of her class. But Edyta had been accelerated a full year ahead of her age-mates, and she was still in the top two or three percent of their class.

She also regularly beat Karolina’s socks off at chess…when she could keep her mind on the game, anyway. And that, little though Karolina cared to admit it, was one reason she wanted Edyta to go ahead and move now. The trap she’d set for her opponent’s queen’s knight wasn’t something Edyta was likely to miss under normal circumstances. Under these circumstances, though…

“We’ll get to the spaceport when we get to the spaceport,” she said. “In the meantime, let’s go ahead and try to finish up this game.”

“Oh, all right.”

Edyta flounced around in her seat—she was small-boned and petite enough she actually had space to do that, despite how tightly packed the airbus was—and looked down at the chessboard. She reached out impatiently, then paused, fingertips millimeters away from her king’s bishop. She stayed that way for a moment, then withdrew her hand and settled back in her seat.

“That was sneaky, Karolina,” she said, toying with one of her pigtails’ cheap but pretty green ribbons. The holo pattern printed on it flashed in the sunlight, and she tilted her head to one side, considering the board. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re trying to pick on my poor little knight.”

“Who, me?” Karolina tried her very best to sound innocent, not that she expected Edyta to buy it for a moment.

“Unless it was someone else who moved your queen,” Edyta said almost absently, her eyes very thoughtful. Then she reached out again, not for the bishop this time, but for her king’s knight, and Karolina puffed her lips in frustration as her trap fell apart.

* * *

“How much longer, Andrzej?”

Lukrecja Wolińska had to raise her voice to be heard over the excited chatter of more than a hundred kids.

The high school teacher sat directly behind the airbus driver. As one of the four chaperones attached to the tour group, she had the luxury of an empty seat beside her at the moment, since her seatmate, Roman Sowiński, was currently somewhere back along the crowded central aisle attempting to quell some of that chatter. His mission reminded Lukrecja of an Old Earth king named Canute, and he was welcome to it.

Lukrecja’s real job would start once they got the bus on the ground, and she felt more than a little trepidation as she contemplated it. All the kids on the tour were good kids, but they’d also been born and raised in the Projects. They were about to have the chance to peer, however briefly, through a window into the sort of opulent lifestyle they and their parents could scarcely even imagine. And it was going to be up to her to make sure they behaved themselves while they did that peering.

The good news was that any kid from the Projects understood on an almost cellular level that there were different sorts of rules for different sorts of people. They knew the families of the Oligarchia came from a world totally unlike their own, and they also knew there were…consequences to arousing an oligarcha’s ire. She could depend on them to be on their very best behavior. The problem was that the rules of behavior they’d been taught might not be adequate for today’s expedition.

Oh, stop worrying! she told herself, looking over her shoulder and smiling as she saw Edyta Sowczyk’s head bent over the chessboard between her and Karolina Kreft. They were two of the brightest spots in her teacher’s life, and she knew both of them—especially Edyta—could scarcely wait. In a sense, both of them had grown up in the spaceport’s shadow, since their parents worked—when they could find work—for the Stowarzyszenie Eksporterów Owoców Morza, which dominated the spaceport’s business. Then again, that was true one way or another of a lot of people in the Projects.

“Not much farther, Ms. Wolińska,” Andrzej Bicukowski, the airbus driver said, raising his own voice but never looking away from his HUD, “but there’s a traffic jam in the regular approach lanes.” He tapped the earbug tied into the Lądowisko Air Traffic net. “Sounds like a pair of air lorries tangled, and then a limo ran into them. ATC’s closed down the South Approach to a single lane. Don’t imagine anybody’s moving very fast along it, either, and this beast is a bit big to be threading any needles, so I’ve filed a diversion from our original route. It’ll bring us in from the east side of the port, over the SEOM warehouses along the river.” He grimaced. “It’s less scenic, but it’ll get your kids on the ground a lot quicker.”

“Quicker is good,” Lukrecja said with feeling, as the background chatter reached a new decibel level. “Quicker is very good.”

Bicukowski chuckled and the airbus turned into one of the tertiary approach lanes along the outer ring route.

* * *

“What the fuck does that idiot think he’s doing?” Wiktoria Lewandowska growled.

She stood in the Stowarzyszenie Eksporterów Owoców Morza’s main shipping and traffic control room glowering over one of the duty controller’s shoulders at the display. The orange icon moving across it showed no transponder code. That was true for quite a few of the icons on his display at the moment, probably because the air traffic crews and their computers were still trying to sort out the confusion of the worst midair collision in the last five or ten years. It wasn’t too surprising their systems were hiccupping, given the fact that a badly damaged air taxi had spun out of the fireball and impacted directly atop an automated air traffic relay station. But none of the other blank icons were intruding on her airspace. Oh, sure, the route along which it was headed was technically in a public transit lane, but it cut directly through SEOM’s airspace. Public or not, that air belonged to SEOM, and everybody damned well knew it!

“Probably another lorry trying to avoid that pileup on the South Approach, Ma’am,” the controller replied, putting her own thoughts into words. “Hard to be sure, of course. ATC’s being even slower than usual updating the feeds. Probably too busy trying to sort out the mess.”

“Well I don’t give a damn how busy Traffic Control is!” Lewandowska snapped. “That’s our airspace, and I’m sick and tired of having frigging gypsies drift through it anytime they damn well please!”

The controller considered—briefly—pointing out that there weren’t that many gypsy air lorries working the spaceport these days. The big transport lines had frozen them out again, and it was going to be months, at least, before they started getting a toe back into those particular waters. God only knew what they’d find to survive on in the meantime. In fact, quite a few of them probably wouldn’t survive at all. That always happened when the big boys shut down their access again. But it wasn’t his business to tell Wiktoria Lewandowska anything she didn’t want to hear.

“Tell him to clear our space right damned now,” she commanded.

“Already tried, Ma’am. He’s not answering on any of the standard freight channels.”

“He’s not?” Lewandowska turned her eyes from the display to glare at the unfortunate controller. “Why the hell not?”

“I don’t know, Ma’am,” the controller replied, very carefully not adding How the hell am I supposed to know? to his answer.

“Well, we’ll just see about that!” Lewandowska stepped back and keyed her personal com. “Give me Perimeter One,” she said.

* * *

Andrzej Bicukowski frowned and killed another fifty kilometers per hour of airspeed. It wasn’t unheard of for Lądowisko Air Traffic Control to get behind in the outlying sectors of the system capital, but it was unusual for them to drop the ball this close in to the heart of the city. Especially this close to the spaceport. The oligarchowie didn’t like it when their flight plans got screwed up, but it looked like that pileup on the South Approach must be even worse than he’d thought it was. Over a dozen emergency vehicles were headed into it now, and it sounded as if the automated system had gone on the fritz again. Every professional driver and pilot in Lądowisko knew the entire system needed to be replaced, but convincing the people who controlled the credit flow to spend the necessary money wasn’t the easiest thing in the world.

“Lądowisko Spaceport Control,” he said into his mike again, hoping like hell there might be at least one human backing up the automatics. “Marianna Tours One-Zero-Niner requests copy confirmation of flight plan update. Repeat, Marianna Tours One-Zero-Niner requests copy confirmation of flight plan update.”

He sat back, the fingers of one hand drumming lightly on the control column, then growled a mild obscenity under his breath as a red icon pulsed in his HUD.

Great! Not enough they won’t talk to me, but now the transponder’s gone down! What a time for the update feeds to shut down!

He slowed the airbus still further, going to Visual Flight Rules. Fortunately, visibility was excellent.

* * *

“Yes, Control,” Kazimierz Łukaszewski said. “Perimeter One copies.”

He punched the button, dropping his orbiting air car out of automatic and checked his displays. There it was. The fat-assed orange icon lumbering across SEOM’s private airspace wasn’t even trying to clear the perimeter quickly. It was just ambling right through the middle of the airspace SEOM paid perfectly good money for. Ms. Lewandowska was right. It was about damned time the gypsies learned their lesson.

* * *

Lieutenant Ludwik Kezczyński of the Siły Zbrojne Włocławka growled in disgust and came around for another circle of the spaceport. He’d just completed a four-hour training mission, and he was more than ready to put his sting ship back on the ground and hand it over to the ground crew. Not only had it been boring as hell, but he had a hot date waiting, and Pelagia wasn’t the sort who cared to be kept waiting by a mere lieutenant in the planetary armed forces. He didn’t think she’d be impressed when he said “I tried, Honey!”

He checked his display, and his ill temper eased just a bit as he realized the pileup was even worse than he’d thought it was. There were over a dozen vehicles involved, they’d landed all over the ground traffic lanes, some of them in bits and pieces, and at least three of them—not to mention what looked like a couple of ground lorries—were on fire. No wonder ATC was tearing its hair while it tried to sort out the mess. And they weren’t going to get that done anytime soon, either. It looked like Pelagia was just going to have to—

His train of thought hiccuped as he noticed the icon swooping down from the north-northeast at a dangerous rate of speed. It was the sort of maneuver a trained military pilot noticed, and he punched a command into his sensor suite, then frowned. The transponder said it was a civilian air car, all right, but its emission signature matched that of a Skrzydło Jastrząb forward reconnaissance vehicle, which mounted a pair of thirty-millimeter pulse cannon and provision for up to six underwing missiles. What the hell was it doing screaming down like a bat out of hell that way?!

“Lądowisko Spaceport Control, Stingship Alpha-Five-Charlie requests priority direct link to civilian air car Oscar-Mike-Sierra-Echo-Seven-One!”

* * *

Kazimierz Łukaszewski’s lips drew back in an anticipatory smile as the icon swelled rapidly in the center of his display. It still wasn’t flashing a transponder, and he checked his approach angle carefully. Perfect. He was coming in from the land side of the Szeroka Rzeka estuary. His little demonstration would have plenty of deep, empty water in which to land.

* * *

“Alpha-Five-Charlie, Lądowisko Spaceport Control.” The voice in Lieutenant Kezczyński’s earbug sounded more than a little harried. “Trying to get you that link, but things are a little confused just now.”

“Lądowisko Control, Alpha-Five-Charlie copies, but you’d better expedite. I don’t know what this idiot thinks he’s doing, but—”

* * *

Łukaszewski was old-school. Or he liked to think of himself that way, anyhow. What he really wished was that he’d been born on Old Earth back when aircraft were made of canvas and wire and the only fire control they had was the human eye. It had taken men to fly those contraptions!

Under the circumstances, he decided, he could allow himself a small treat, and he disengaged the fire control computer and activated the manual trigger button on his flight column.

* * *

A proximity alarm screamed, and Andrzej Bicukowski stared in horror at the projected flight paths on his short-scan radar. There was no time to ask ATC what was happening. There wasn’t even time to hit the seatbelt warning sign.

He slammed the throttle wide open and heaved the huge airbus around to port, circling across the estuary in a frantic effort to avoid the midair collision.

* * *

“Oh, Christ—no!

Lieutenant Kezczyński’s face went white as the airbus in the Marianna Tours livery turned sharply left, away from the oncoming “civilian” air car. He understood instantly what the bus driver was doing, and why. And under normal circumstances, it would have been the right thing to do.

Today, it was exactly the wrong thing.

* * *

“Oh, shit!” Kazimierz Łukaszewski screamed. He tried—he really tried—to get his finger off the trigger, but it was a lifetime—a hundred lifetimes—too late.

The airbus swerving to avoid a midair collision with his air car flew straight into the “warning burst” of pulser fire and disintegrated in a blinding ball of flame.

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