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Charles E. Gannon

Four days out from Hygeia, August 12, 2352 AD (250 PD)

The ship's youngest rating, Brian Lewis, sighed so heavily that the inside of his faceplate fogged for a moment. “So, that's it, Skipper. We're locked out.”

Lieutenant Lee Strong stared at the uncooperative external airlock door in front of them.

The other rating, three-year veteran Roderigo Burns, asked, “Well, why don't we just set some charges and blow our way into the ship?”

Lee's senior NCO and EVA specialist, Jan Finder, made a reply that was more growl than human speech. “Because, idiot, if we blow a hole in the side of this tin can, we can't be sure who'd be left alive inside.”

“But the internal door—”

“Listen, recruit, and listen good. Since we can't see into the airlock, we can't know that the inner hatch is dogged. And we can't assume what we can't see. Even our green looey here figured that out—and a whole lot more, besides.”

Which was exactly the kind of backhanded—and therefore, safe—compliment Lee had come to expect from Finder. He'd watched how most NCOs worked with new lieutenants. If they hated them, it was all respectful formality to their face and subtle undermining behind their back. On the other hand, if they liked the new officer, they ribbed him gently at first—like this—but always in a way that reminded the ratings that even though their CO was a newbie, he was a smart newbie, and they'd better respect both his intelligence and his rank.

Burns sounded obstinate. “Well, even if the airlock's inner hatch is open when we blow the hatch, then when we blow the outer hatch, the environmental sensors will detect the exposure to vacuum and seal the emergency bulkheads automatically.”

“Only if the internal sensors are still functioning, Roderigo,” Lee said quietly. “And since we know this ship was seized violently, we've got to assume that any of its systems could be compromised.”

“Uh . . . well, yeah, Sir. I guess there's that.”

Lee heard the smile behind Finder's affirming grunt. He glanced at his overage top kick, whose squat, powerful form was a black silhouette against the starfield, with Jupiter an intensely bright star staring over his left shoulder. “Your thoughts, Sergeant?”

There was no sign of motion in the floating black outline. “We could try cutting.” The silhouette shrugged. “It's safer. But it takes longer, so they'll know we're coming. Not good.”

“Sounds like you're speaking with the voice of experience, Sergeant Finder.”

“Yep. When I was a green recruit, an officer tried doing that in a situation like this.”

“And the hijackers heard you coming and killed the hostages?”

“Worse than that, Lieutenant. They let us get on board, then executed a young girl right in front of us. Threatened to shoot more if we came any closer. That suckered our officer into talking, negotiating. Meanwhile, they worked most of their men around behind us, using the environmental conduits. They killed half our team.”

“And no hostages rescued, I'll wager.”

“You'd win that bet, L.T.—if you could find someone stupid enough to take it. Now, Burns here is none too smart, but he's said to be a betting man—”

“Hey—” complained Roderigo.

“That's enough,” Lee ordered. “We can't use demolition charges, and we can't use cutting torches.”

“So, we're stuck outside,” Lewis repeated in a voice full of quiet vindication. “We're done.”

“No, Lewis, we're not,” corrected Lee. “There's another way.” He studied the length of the outsystem passenger liner. Extending aft from the forward collection of habitation and command modules where they were floating, there was a midsection girdle of sausage-like fuel tanks and then a long, thin boom, bracketed by four support trusses. They all terminated at the rearmost engine decks. Pointing aft, Lee uttered the timeless, two-word order that junior officers had been uttering for millennia: “Follow me.”

He pushed off the hull of the liner—the Fragrant Blossom, two weeks out from Mars—and used his suit jets to angle astern, toward the engine decks.

* * *

They stared “up” into the large black hole in the belly of the liner's primary thrust module.

“You're not serious,” breathed Roderigo Burns.

“You might say he's deadly serious,” Finder quipped.

“I don't think you're helping matters, Sergeant,” Lee said.

“Sorry, sir. But this is nonstandard.”

“‘Nonstandard'?” Brian Lewis croaked. “Sirs, this is directly against regs. This is a class-one radiation hazard, and if—”

“Lewis,” Finder said from far back in his throat where he apparently cached a ready supply of gravel, “shut up. Those regs are superseded by emergency rescue ops. And don't you ever call me ‘sir' again. I'm not an officer; I work for a living. Now, you will give your undivided attention to the L.T. or I will give your ass the undivided attention of my boot.”

Lee was inspecting the edges of the large black hole. “No signs of recent wear. Probably hasn't been used since they did the post-production trial run.”

“Great,” muttered Lewis with a shiver.

“Calm down, Brian,” said Lee. “That test is performed with an inert core. It's just to prove the ejection system functional. Sergeant, get me a REM reading.”

Finder rumbled assent.

Roderigo Burns looked dubious, his eyes wide through the tinting of his photosensitive faceplate. “But sir, I thought they used this hole to vent radioactive wastes.”

Lee suppressed the urge to declaim the official fear-mongering that the Earth Union called “truth.” “No, Burns. A nuclear drive's core-ejection tube has one use, and one use only: to dump the business part of a malfunctioning reactor.” Which, as an automatic protocol, was pretty stupid in and of itself. But that was the Earth Union for you. Ever since the Greens and Neo Luddites had come to power almost two centuries ago, the words “nuclear power” had become functionally synonymous with “demonic arts.” The notion of exposing a human body to radiation of any kind had become such an object of fetishistic fear that many of the extreme Neo Luddite groups refused any medical diagnostics that involved X-rays (or even magnetic resonance imaging, despite repeated assurances that such tests did not involve any radioisotopes). Consequently, their life expectancy statistics were usually about ten years less than other groups living in the same communities.

Finder put away his palm-sized combination Geiger counter/radiance sensor. “Readings indicate eighteen REM per hour, holding steady.”

Lee turned to the ratings. “We'll be in and through in ten minutes. That a total exposure of three REM, tops. No physical effects.”

Burns and Lewis tried to look reassured but failed miserably; a lifetime of indoctrination was not overcome in a single minute.

Finder edged closer. “Okay L.T.; we go in the hot pipe. Then what? Sure as hell there can't be an airlock at the other end.”

“No, Sergeant, but there are access panels. Now, follow me.”

The carrier signal changed subtly; another subaudial hiss had popped into existence alongside the general tactical channel. “Sir,” said Finder, using the private link reserved for NCO-officer communications. “I'm the EVA expert. And I'm the meat-headed Sarge. So let me go in first, okay?”

Lee fought two contending reactions: a wise readiness to accept respectful advice from a career sergeant versus the powerful desire to show his men—by example—that he'd do anything he asked them to do, and that in this case, there was no danger in what he was ordering. Well, not from radiation, at least.

But Lee managed to resist that second, stronger impulse. He cleared his throat, and used his chin to shut off the private channel, sending his next statement to the entire team. “Sergeant Finder, on second thought, you lead with your radsensor. If it gets any hotter as we go, we'll want to know right away.”

“So we can bug out?” asked Burns anxiously.

“No: so we can double-time it to our objective.” Lee unholstered his large-framed ten millimeter handgun. “Let's go.”

* * *

The core ejection tube showed no sign of wear—or maintenance. Evidently, the fearsome legends of the nuclear dragon residing at the other end of this man-made cave had kept visitors away—even the ones whose duty it was to periodically check that the tube was unobstructed and functional. It was yet another example of the dangers of the excessive fear often inculcated by the Greens and Neo Luddites. As the terror of a technology became primal, the maintenance of it devolved into a collection of dread rituals, not clear-eyed technical practices.

Had the Greens found any other technology to provide inexpensive and swift space travel beyond the moon, Lee had no doubt they would have seized upon it. But, unwilling to focus either public attention or funds upon advances in new technology, the Green leadership in almost every country had reluctantly agreed to approve nuclear thermal rockets for limited use beyond cis-lunar space. Unfortunately, that approval came with so much dire rhetoric of the technology's implicit dangers that all too few people born on Earth had the interest—indeed, the courage—to master it. So it was left—as so many dirty jobs were—to the Upsiders, that very small population that lived either on the moon, on Mars, or in the rotational habitats. It was they who maintained the satellites, mined the belt, or helped to build the slower-than-light starships that sent feckless, and usually obstreperous, bits of the human race off to colonize other star systems.

Of course, that still didn't mean there were a lot of vessels with nuclear plants. Even now, there were probably not more than four dozen operating in the system, all marks and missions included. But whereas cargos could be shuttled from one far-flung point of the system to another with VASIMIR drives, and shorter trips could be made by slightly higher power magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters, deep space personnel movers had to be equipped with nuclear thermal rockets. Otherwise, journeys that currently took a few weeks would take months, even years, to complete.

But since the leadership of Earth always viewed nuclear rockets as a deal with the devil, they never became comfortable with them. If anything, their necessity was an infuriating goad to the Greens and the Neo Luddite camps alike, prompting a steady derogation of anything—or anyone—having anything to do with them.

And so, trailing at the rear of the four-man boarding team, Lee Strong watched his otherwise technically competent ratings—Burns and Lewis—superstitiously flinch away from contact with the sides of the tube. Lee half expected to see one of them make a warding sign in the direction of the fission plant itself.

At the end of the tube, Finder counter-puffed his suit jets until he hung motionless before an oversized hatch fitted with immense bolts. On the private channel, he reported, “REM now up to twenty-three an hour. Rising slowly. What now, L.T.? I didn't bring a big enough wrench to unbolt this monster.”

“We don't need one. We're not going in there.”


“Nope. Look to your left. See the panel, flush with the wall?”

“Yeah. Okay. Recessed bolts. But it looks like we'll need a special key wrench to unlock them for manual removal, and I don't—”

“You don't have the right shaped wrench-head,” Lee completed for Finder as he drifted forward between Burns and Lewis. “But I do.” He undid a small velcro-sealed pocket on the inside of his left wrist, and carefully withdrew the lanyarded key-wrench.

“Huh.” The sergeant had gone back to the private channel. “Guess that's why you're the officer.” Finder's quick smile sent a glint of teeth even through his semi-tinted visor.

“In this case, yeah. The big wigs in Geneva don't like advertising anything about nuclear access. Particularly a backdoor like this one.”

“So they entrust it to a lieutenant who'd never seen a nuke pile before leaving Luna. No offense, sir, but a lot of you guys from Earth—well, you're not exactly brimming with good sense. Current company excepted, of course.”

“Of course. And I can't say I disagree with you, Sarge.” Which was not just polite banter with the NCO whose help or hindrance would either save or undo him during his first year in deep space. In this case, the sergeant's Upsider prejudices were sadly accurate. After ensuring that every child grew up hearing an unceasing flood of invective against the dangers of technology, of space, and of nuclear power, the Earth Union's Space Activities subdivision had a hard time finding enough capable young men to serve as officers. Women were not permitted to work in the Customs Service or any of the other official spacefaring divisions of the Earth Union. Their ovaries had to be protected from the electromagnetic rapine of spaceside radiation exposure. And among the men, Lee had to admit that few of his training class had showed half as much technical aptitude as political shrewdness. Consequently, although they often failed to grasp the practical realities of life in space, they understood full well why, in services populated almost exclusively by native-born Upsiders, only natural-born sons of Earth were allowed to wear the gold braid of the officer ranks: they were the watchdogs of Dirtside interests. They were to ensure that those lesser humans born in space, and who performed all the dirty work there, never found themselves unsupervised long enough to consider turning the tables on their terrestrial masters.

Lee had finished unlocking the bolt covers with the key wrench. “They'll give to hand tools easily enough, Sarge.”

Burns' voice was hushed as he asked on the other circuit, “L.T., if the mutineers, or hijackers, or pirates, or whoever took over the Blossom hear us back here, could they—well, could they wash us out of this tube with radioactive gases?”

Resisting the impulse to shake his head at the depth of ignorance implicit in the question, Lee toggled his mic back to the general circuit. “No, Roderigo. That's not how these engines work. A particle bed nuclear rocket is designed so that all its radioactives are sealed within a shielded subassembly. At need, that ‘core' can be jettisoned through this tube, but it's a fairly specialized process, and the activation codes are only known to a few crewmembers. And I doubt any of the criminals currently in control of the hull are hanging back here in the Engineering section.”

“Okay, but if they were—I figure there's got to be some manual release, right, Skipper?”

It was reassuring that, only two months into his first year on his deep space tour, senior crewmembers were calling him “skipper.” “Well, in the event that the subassembly is, for some reason, frozen in place, there are ways for technicians to jettison it manually. But that would be a suicide mission, given the exposure levels.”

Finder had removed the bolts, and drifted a curved section of tube outward, revealing a narrower, rectangular passageway beyond. Half a dozen meters on, it turned to the right.

Roderigo Burns peered over Lee's shoulder. “Is the airlock around that bend?”

Lee shook his head. “Still no airlock. Just beyond that corner, there's another access panel that will put us in a safety-venting and access conduit that runs all around the unit. Then two double access panels before we reach the interior. Now, let's go—unless you want to increase your exposure time.”

Burns' eyes widened and, kicking off from the opposite side of the tube, he jetted into the exposed passageway.

“A good officer always knows how to motivate his men,” drawled Finder, “After you, Lieutenant.”

* * *

When they turned the bend in the narrow passageway, they found a plainly marked access panel in front of them. Hazard hatchings of yellow and black surrounded the six orange-colored bolts securing it in place.

Lewis was staring at the panel. “So, in order to get inside, we have to trigger these six explosive bolts and let this hunk of metal shoot straight into our faces?”

Lee shook his head. “Those six orange spots aren't explosive bolts, Lewis. They're frangible nuts. We can trigger them ourselves, one at a time, from the outside. That will not only control the release of the panel, but allow the inert gases on the other side to bleed off without blowing us halfway back down the ejection tube.”

Burns turned to stare at Lee. “Hey, Skipper how do you know all that stuff?” He sounded genuinely respectful, even a little relieved.

“I know it because I read the specs less than an hour ago.”

“And,” added Jan histrionically, “it is also because he is a hand-picked officer, and a member of our beloved Customs Patrol: humanity's most elite formation of misfits, political undesirables, and problem children. All hail the Customs Patrol.”

“All hail,” echoed Burns and Lewis with a level of enthusiasm that they usually reserved for latrine duty.

“That's the spirit,” Lee drawled with a grin at Finder. “Now, let's get going.”

* * *

The terminal access panel—the one into the engine room itself—was still responsive to commands. Lewis hot-wired the keypad and bled out most of the atmosphere while Lee deployed the rest of the team for an assault entry. “I'll take point,” he said, glancing back at Finder. Who apparently understood from that look not to debate the point. “The Sergeant will provide covering fire while you follow me in, Burns. We skim low and to the center of the room. There's plenty of cover around the power plant itself.” Burns nodded nervously, probably more at the notion of proximity to a nuclear reactor than armed adversaries. “Lewis, we go on three. One, two . . .”

On “three,” Lewis triggered the panel release; it swung out toward them. Lee angled around its opening arc, got low, kicked hard. He skimmed across three meters of deck, reached the reactor housing, and curled himself behind a control panel. A moment later, Burns jammed himself into the same space. “Okay, Roderigo,” Lee muttered, “you check our twelve; I'll scan our six.”

They peeked around the manifolds, control surfaces, and shielding of the nuclear rocket. No movement. Lee chinned open the circuit to Finder. “Sarge, talk to me.”

“I would if I saw anything, L.T. All quiet.”

“Okay. You and Lewis enter, seal the panel behind you. Then sweep the room from opposite directions. Burns and I will provide bases of fire.”

“Aye, aye, Skip.”

Twenty tense seconds later, the engine room was secure, and Finder was able to report a whopping three millirem per hour exposure level.

“So no leaks,” breathed Lewis gratefully.

“And no bodies,” Finder pointed out. “What next, L.T.?”

Lee glanced at the entry to the passageway that ran the length of the ship's keel-boom, up to the habitation modules. “We go forward. Right down the middle of that damned fifty-meter shooting range.”

“Right,” said Finder quickly. “Okay, now listen up, ratings. L.T. says we're going forward. Burns, swap weapons with Lewis; I want you on point with me for this one. Lewis, you use the bullpup to provide a base of fire. You follow the lead element at ten meters. Stay close to the outer wall of the passageway; no reason to line ourselves up like duckpins. Right, L.T.?”

Lee nodded while he wondered, what was Finder doing? Granted, Lee had indicated the next objective, and tactical deployment was the top kick's duty, but Finder had jumped in too quickly, as if he wanted to make sure that his deployment outline was the one used. And besides, Lee thought, toggling the private channel with his chin, Burns, not Lewis, was the best shot with the bullpup carbine they had brought. “Sarge,” he began—

Finder's response on the private channel was curt. “Trust me, L.T. I know Lewis isn't the better shot, but that's not what's important here.”

“Then what is importa—?”

“L.T., trust me. Please.”

“All right, Sergeant—with the proviso that we're going to have an after-action chat.”

Finder nodded. “You're the boss, Boss.” Finder switched back to general address. “Okay, Lewis, since you're our base of fire the rest of the way, you're our point-man into the passage. Get to the side as soon as you're in, and once the entry is secured, tuck down to the right; L.T. you'd go in last, and tuck down to the left. Sir, we go on your count.”

Lee nodded. “Lewis, you go on ‘three.' One, two—”

On “three,” Burns tripped the door release and Lewis drift-stepped into the passageway, Lee felt a fumbling at his left hand. Looking down, he saw Finder sneaking an odd-looking pistol into it. Well, pistol was a charitable term. It looked like a long, anorexic tube with a magazine at the rear and the manufacturing characteristics of a zip gun.

“What the—?”

Finder's voice on the private channel was a fast hiss, “Eight rounds. Gyrojet ammo. Recoilless for zero-gee. Don't use your ten-millimeter. Stay alive.” And then Finder was popping through the entry after Burns, barking orders. Lee was still so surprised he almost forgot to follow.

When he did, he discovered the rest of the team towing themselves down into crouched positions; Lee did so too, tugging his body into a ball to the left of the door.

“All clear, L.T.,” reported Finder. “Pretty quiet, for a hijacking.”

Lee kept his eyes up the corridor that dwindled away from them. “Yes and no. I wasn't expecting to find any bad guys back here, only crew bodies. One of which may be there.” Lee pointed.

Burns, squinting, nodded. “Yeah. Looks like a floater. Almost at the other end of the tube.”

“Twenty-three meters away,” reported Lewis, who was just taking his right eye away from the carbine's laser rangefinder.

“Active sensors off, Lewis,” Lee snapped. “They may not be patrolling this part of the ship, but they could have seeded with automated detection systems. So from here on, we go in old school: no sensors, no comm, hand signals only.”

“But L.T.,” Burns began.

Lee made a throat-cutting gesture with the edge of his left hand. Burns got the idea and shut up.

Finder nodded, pointed to Lee and Lewis, made a push-back gesture with his palm, raised all his fingers, held out a stationary thumbs up and waited.

Simple enough. Finder was simply reconfirming the order that Lee and Lewis were to follow at a range of ten meters. Lee replied with a thumb's up.

Finder nodded, tapped Burns on the shoulder and pushed firmly off the deck at a shallow angle, drifting to the right. Burns copied him, but drifted to the left. Lee waited until they were about eight meters away, then nodded to Lewis and copied Finder's jump.

However, being the only native Dirtsider in the team, Lee's free-jump was not as precise. He had to push back from the wall just before reaching the spot where the dead crewman was floating, Finder had already sent Burns ahead to secure the entry into the inhabited areas and now pointed at the corpse's wounds. Lee squinted through a diffuse cloud of small red globules. A small crossbow bolt had hit the crewman just above the hip. But that had not been the fatal injury. The two stab-wounds to either side of the sternum and the slashed neck were the obvious causes of death.

Lee tugged himself lower so he could see the shoulder tabs on the corpse's coveralls. As he suspected, an engineer, who'd probably been baby-sitting the reactor when the hijacking began. Either he had heard calls for help and was hustling forward, or the hijackers had baited him out. Either way, he had been surprised and probably disabled by the crossbow hit. Then his attackers had finished their job up close and personal. And since they had used a knife in zero-gee, it made it quite likely they were not Earth-born. Zero-gee melee was a very exacting skill, possessed only by those who already had a great deal of experience living and working in low or no gravity environments.

Finder leaned over until his helmet's faceplate touched Lee's. Through the glass, he heard the sergeant's voice, hollow and muted. “This was the work of Upsiders, no doubt about it.”

“Yes—this one killing was. But that doesn't mean that all the hijackers are Upsiders.”

Finder raised an eyebrow, then nodded. “True enough, L.T. Now, we're going to leave Lewis a little farther behind, okay?”

“More for us to chat about later on, then.”

Finder shrugged, smiled, turned to Lewis, and made a push-back gesture holding up ten and then five more fingers. Then he tapped Lee on the shoulder and readied to jump. As soon as Lee had postured himself identically, Finder nodded and they pushed off, gliding down the remaining corridor at waist-height.

Lee's jump was a little better this time, partly because he felt there was less reason to stick close to the wall. Reading the unfolding evidence, he doubted that the mutineers felt any need to patrol this part of the ship. Indeed, their absence here suggested that they were confident they had accounted for all the passengers and crew. And that prompted a number of surmises that began to coalesce into a coherent tactical picture.

Firstly, the attackers were clearly willing to kill the crew given little or no cause to do so. There was no sign that the dead engineer had been carrying a weapon. Or that he had been moving to help the other crew or passengers. Or that he had intended to hole up in Engineering, where he could have plagued the attackers with environmental shutdowns, bulkhead lockouts, and a dozen other things that would have made their takeover both dangerous and uncertain. On the contrary, it seemed far more likely that the attack had been so quick and fierce that none of the crew had had the chance to warn him. The unrumpled condition of his clothes and still-combed hair supported the conclusion that the floater had been accosted and bushwhacked by someone he trusted enough to come close to.

Which farther suggested that some of the crew were in on the mutiny, either as the ringleaders, or as accomplices to the attackers who had masqueraded as passengers. And since there was no sign that anything had gone awry with the hijacking, that prompted Lee's last grim conclusion: that the mutineers had not been interested in hostages. They had not made any demands for ransom or concessions in exchange for the hostages. Indeed, the mutineers had not contacted the authorities at all. The only reason Lee had known to investigate was because the Fragrant Blossom's captain had missed a privately arranged check-in call with his friend, Callisto's Chief Administrator for Outbound Operations. By deduction then, it seemed unlikely that there were any passengers or crew left to rescue.

Arriving at the entry to the hab modules, Lee stopped his forward glide with an outthrust left hand. Finder signaled for a huddle; they leaned their helmets together. “Okay,” he said, “what do you want me to do next, L.T.?”

“Not a lot of choice, Sergeant; we go room-to-room. And we go fast. I don't think they've bothered with guards, except in the forward section where they'll be manning the bridge and watching our ship. And waiting for their ride.”

“Huh?” said Burns.

“Their ride,” repeated Lee. “If they meant to take this hull somewhere, they wouldn't just be drifting here. Since coming on site, we've ascertained that they've got control over enough systems to keep the airlock sealed against us, and that their engines are in fine working order. So if it was part of their plan to take this ship somewhere else, they'd already be doing so. Which means that there's company coming.”

Lewis and Burns exchanged wide-eyed looks. Finder merely smiled. “I see we got lucky and drew a good CO. For a change. What else, sir?”

“Their lack of contact with us, and particularly their failure to warn us off by threatening the lives of hostages, means they probably don't have any left to threaten. So I suspect that we are in a free-fire situation. However, we can't be sure of that, and we definitely want to take these bastards alive, both because that's in accordance with regulations, and because we really—really—need to interrogate them.”

“What? Why?” Lewis asked.

“Because even among the few cases of deep-space hijacking or mutiny on record, this one is the odd-ball outlier. They're not after hostages, or the ship itself, so they're playing some other game—and we need to talk to a few of them if we're ever going to learn what that game is. Set up our entry, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir. Burns, you will lead the room breaches using the spray-gun.”

Roderigo was already pulling what looked like a wide-muzzled, sawed-off grenade launcher off his shoulder.

“Open the choke for maximum dispersion, and use the heavy tranq rounds.”

“Uh, Sarge, the chemical warfare experts told us that if a target is small, wounded, or has a coronary condit—”

Finder fixed Burns with a sharklike stare. “If the bastards die, the bastards die. We'll take every precaution, but with that tube of yours set on wide dispersal, you can't count on multiple hits. One gel bead is going to have to take any target down. So today you're serving up double-strength sleepy-time cocktails.”

“Roger that, Sarge.”

“The L.T. and I will be carrying the lethal firepower to clear the passageways, moving forward by leapfrog advance.”

Lewis frowned. “What about me?”

“You keep a tight hold on that carbine, Lewis. You're our ace in the hole. If the spray gun jams, or we bypass some hostiles and they come out on our rear, you're going to be our fire brigade. As needed, we'll call you forward to outflank them, or add your heavier firepower to ours.”

“So I stay all the way back here?”

“Yes—which also guarantees that if everything goes south and we have to beat ass out of here, you're holding the exit open for us.”

Lewis shrugged. “Yes, Sarge.”

“Good. Lieutenant, whenever you're ready, just give the word.”

Lee nodded. “The word is given.”

* * *

It was pretty much what Lee had expected. They entered the forward decks unopposed—except for the silent scrutiny of reangled video pickups, and the accusing stares of floating bodies.

The hijackers had killed crew and passengers alike. One of the latter—a Loonie, judging from her unnaturally lean build—couldn't have been more than fourteen years old. Maybe not even that much. Lee clamped his molars down hard and pushed on through the mid-air sargasso sea of corpses and blood globules.

Tagging closed stateroom hatches with small opening alarms to alert them to anyone emerging into their rear, they propelled themselves toward the bridge at best speed—

And were met halfway by two ill-shaven men who had obviously seen them coming on the realigned security cameras. The good news was that the enemy's armament was fairly light. One had a regulation ten millimeter pistol, the other had what looked like a repeating compressed air spear gun made out of spare parts. The bad news was that they were in their space suits: Roderigo's spray gun would be useless unless it hit them in the face.

Damn it, Lee thought, even as he shouted, “Burns, switch to lethals. Fire at will.”

As in most meeting engagements, most of the shots went wild. As in most zero-gee combat, the shots were wilder than usual. Burns was late swapping weapons, got a small spear cum crossbow bolt in the left shoulder of his hard-suit. It was impossible to tell from his grunt whether it had penetrated or merely thumped him mightily. Either way, he was now trying to correct a modest backward tumble.

Finder pitched forward, so that he was aimed face-and-shoulders first at his attackers. Lee did the same, appreciating how this nonregulation “prone posture” both minimized his body's silhouette, and put it in line with the recoil of his weapon. There would be push-back, yes, but little if any tumble.

And that seemed to be helping Finder's marksmanship. As the enemy's own ten millimeter rounds spanged and sparked overhead, the sergeant fired twice, paused and then fired a third time. The pistol-wielding thug went backward, struggling, trying to bring his pistol around to bear again. Finder ended that attempt with a fourth shot.

But Lee was too busy to see the outcome. Sighting down through his own weapon's basic peep sight, he lined up the man with the spear gun and fired. The gun didn't kick at all, but there was a brief wash of pressure on both the inner and outer surface of his gloved wrist. It was the angled back blast from the charge that kicked the round out of the barrel, equalizing the propulsive force both forward and back. An instant later, the tail of the round lit up like a tracer as its gyrojets kicked into life and sent it jumping forward.

And straight into the bulkhead behind the crossbowman. But now Lee understood why Finder had paused after taking two shots. He had been comparing the trajectory of his fire to the three-dimensional drift of his target. But now Lee's target was raising the reloaded spear gun. Lee fired two rounds.

The spear gunner spun sharply to the right as Lee's first bullet hit him in that arm. The second shot, a blind miss, extinguished whatever fleeting flare of triumph the young lieutenant had felt. Sighting carefully, Lee prepared to spend a fourth bullet on this target—

From behind him, a ten millimeter automatic barked three times. At least one of the rounds hit the wounded spearman in the center of mass. Blood erupted like a thin stream from a child's bubble-making toy, and the man's movements diminished into fitful writhing.

Lee turned to thank the now-pistol armed Roderigo Burns—but the rating was desperately reaching out for the wall, trying to stop the tumble imparted by his own quick sequence of shots. Lee stretched to help him—

Finder's voice was a respectful, if curt, reminder. “You wanted a fast advance, right, Lieutenant?”

Lee paused, nodded, turned back toward the bridge and snapped his hips down so that his feet contacted the deck; as they did, he kicked.

Arrowing forward ahead of his sergeant, he couldn't help smiling at Finder's appreciative mutter over the private circuit, “Not half bad—for a newb.”

* * *

Taking the bridge was pure anticlimax. Although the last two mutineers were armed with ten millimeters, they blasted away at a stray suit glove that Finder spun lazily through the doorway. Only three shots from each, but that was all advantage the top-kick needed. Swimming around the rim of the hatchway with the fell purpose of a stubby piranha, he watched as the hijackers tried to correct their tumbles and took careful aim.

Lee chinned the private circuit. “If they're helpless enough, we could take them pris—”

“Negative, L.T. Look at them; they're reorienting already. They're either Upsiders or have enough training to recover from the tumble. We'll have lost our advantage in another three seconds.”

Lee sighed, “Fire at will.”

They both did: two rounds from each of them finished the job.

That was when one of the door-opening alarms went off to their rear. Tugging themselves around into sharp 180 degree turns, Lee and Finder kicked and soared back the way they had come.

Before reaching the site of the first gun battle, they saw Burns taking cover in a hatchway, the distinctive bark of a ten millimeter causing him to flinch back even farther. Just then, a series of sharp, higher-velocity cracks echoed at them from even farther up the corridor.

“All clear,” signaled Lewis on the open circuit. “There was just one of them. Probably asleep when we came in. I got ‘im. Sarge, I hit him all three times, even though the recoil had me—”

“Great, Lewis, that's great.” Finder turned to Lee. “Well, there goes your chance to interrogate a prisoner, L.T.”

Lee shook his head. “Rotten luck, Sarge, rotten luck.”

Finder switched to private circuit. “That presumes the death of that last hijacker was a matter of luck—that there was no intent involved. Sir.” Finder's glance in Lewis' direction was dour.

Yes, Lee reflected, he and the sergeant would have an awful lot to chat about later on . . .

* * *

Arriving back on the bridge of his customs cutter, Lee relieved the acting XO, Bernardo de los Reyes, with an exchange of lazy salutes.

“Started worrying about you out there, Skipper,” said de los Reyes.

Lee finished pulling off his suit gloves. “Had to go to radio silence before we took out the hostiles about two hours ago. There were five of them.”

“And why so shy during the last two hours?” de los Reyes asked in an almost bored drawl, which was an act for the benefit of the bridge ratings. Bernie knew damned well that the extended radio silence meant something unusual was up. Probably something dangerous.

“No time to chat about that just yet, Bernie. We still have some work to do.”

Finder clumped onto the bridge as well, still in his vacc suit. “Lieutenant Strong's working on a pretty interesting hunch, Bernie.”

“You don't say?” muttered the much-younger de los Reyes. The two were pals from way back, and by all rights and measurements of seniority, it should have been Finder, not Bernie, serving as the brevetted noncom XO aboard their cutter, the Venerated Gaia. However, Finder's wit was not only barbed, but occasionally injudicious. Previous Dirtsider officers had put enough demerits and reprimands into his record to ensure that he never became anything more than he was right now: First Sergeant and EVA team leader.

Lee drifted across the bridge to hover behind the shoulder of the nav rating. “Navigator?”

“Yes, Lieutenant?”

“Run a plot for me: trajectory of the Fragrant Blossom for the next three weeks.”

“But sir, the Fragrant Blossom is adrift. She's not under power or on course for any—”

“I know, Rating. Indulge me.”

“Yes, Sir.”

As the first navigator worked, both Bernie and Finder drifted over to watch the process.

The computer flicked between subroutines, cleared, then showed a course plot that intersected one red circle: a possible rendezvous with a charted object.

“Throw that up on the main plot, Navigator,” Lee said with a nod at the computer screen.

Which showed that the trajectory of the Fragrant Blossom would carry it out of the Jovian side of the asteroid belt, and very close to one nearby planetoid, the red-circled 216 Kleopatra.

Lee turned to his two senior subordinates. “The hijackers weren't just drifting. If they had been, they'd still have been more or less on course for Callisto. But they're not. Which means that, after they took the Fragrant Blossom, they used some corrective thrust to put them on a coasting trajectory to that collection of rocks,” he pointed at 216 Kleopatra.

“Why there?” wondered the First Navigator.

“Because,” supplied Lee, “that's where their friends are waiting,”

* * *

Bernie and Finder were the only ones who accompanied Lee into the claustrophobic CO's ready room. As they entered, Bernie reached under the light table—already displaying the projected course to 216 Kleopatra—and flicked a switch. The room was suddenly filled with what sounded—or more accurately, felt—like a pitchless hum: a white-noise generator.

Lee glanced at Bernie. “Well, today seems to be the day for nonregulation surprises.”

Bernie met the glance sheepishly and shrugged. “Guess so, Sir. Now, how long do we have before we're on top of 216 Kleopatra?”

“Two hours and eight minutes,” Lee answered. “Meaning I've got no time to catch you up on what we found aboard the Blossom. Hell, we don't even have time to get instructions from, or clear a farther ops plan with, the brass back on Mars.”

Bernie nodded. It was a little over twenty light minutes to Marsm, which would guarantee at least a full hour's lag time.

“They're not going to be able to offer any worthwhile input before we have to commit to some plan of action,” he agreed. “So we either do this on our own—which means we carry the can for not waiting for confirmation if things go wrong. Or else they send us loose, provisional orders based on the first batch of incomplete data. So that, if things go wrong, they can blame the failure on our sketchy reporting and poor execution. That about what you were thinking, Skipper?”

“Something like that,” Lee acknowledged.

“Which leaves the steaming turd in our laps, either way,” Finder grumbled.

“In my lap, gentlemen, in my lap.” Lee sighed. “I'd be happy to share the inevitable blame with you both, but this is my command, my call, my court-martial.”

Bernie looked at Finder and expelled a histrionic sigh. “Jan, I meant to ask you, are we still having trouble with the lascom array?”

Finder was blank-eyed for a moment, then nodded sadly. “Oh. Yeah. That. Can't seem to figure out what's wrong with it.”

“And did you log it as being off-line yesterday, when we first discovered the malfunction?”

“I don't think so. I'll have to go back in the records and check. I might need to make a retroactive correction.” Finder was now beaming with positively malicious glee.

“I should report you both,” Lee said, managing not to smile.

“You should, Skipper,” Bernie agreed with a somber nod, “you really should.”

Lee grinned. “Okay, so the lascom will ‘finally' come back on-line after we get to 216 Kleopatra: too late for us to give a sitrep to, or get orders from, the brass on Mars. But just in time to send them word of what we found both there and here. And of course, we can't send by radio because we can't put out an active EM signature while there might be a hostile hull in our area of operations.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” agreed Bernie. “As per regs. Which we always follow around here.”

“So I have observed.”

Finder looked up. “You suspected there was something hinky bout the Blossom's hijacking from the start, L.T.—but why?”

Lee shrugged. “Logically, with an intact drive, the bad guys should have made best speed toward a hidey hole as soon as they could. Just as logically, we'd have spotted their engine signature—or their residual temperature, if we only came across them after they stopped boosting. Either way, they'd have been lit up like a neon sign on our sensors, once we arrived in the area. But they made sure they weren't.”

Bernie frowned. “So are you saying they knew we'd be here? But how?”

“That's the hinky part. The only way they could know we'd be here, running dark, was if they had access to classified information. Specifically, our projected patrol plot.”

“Damn,” breathed Finder, “that's nontrivial access.”

“Yes, but everything points to it. They not only knew we were in the area, they were also prepared for any conventional boarding attempt.”

Bernie frowned. “What do you mean?

Finder shrugged. “After we took down the mutineers and secured the ship, we found out that they'd booby-trapped all the logical ingress points—except the one they either didn't know, or forgot, about.”

“You mean the core-ejection tube?” Bernie shook his head. “Hell, they just probably figured no one was crazy enough to try it.”

Lee smiled. “You mean, they figured no one would be able to look past their superstitious fears and focus on the physics.”

“Yeah.” Bernie scratched an ear. “While we're on that topic, L.T., me and Sarge here couldn't help notice that you're not exactly—well, you're not like the other officers Earth has sent to us.”

“To put it scientifically, you are trying to ascertain why I'm not an arrogant prick?”

Finder guffawed. Bernie smiled broadly. “Uh, yeah . . . something like that.”

“Long story, but let's just say my family isn't exactly beloved by the ‘globally-appointed' politicos back home.”

“And home is where, for you?”

“Tacoma, then Vancouver, then Amherst.”

Finder and Bernie exchanged knowing looks. “Another New World troublemaker, eh?” Bernie asked.

Lee shook his head. “Not me. But my folks were. They're part of a dying breed, I'm afraid.”

Bernie shrugged. “Seems to me the independent spirit doesn't die too easily in ‘the colonies.'”

“Perhaps not”—Lee tried to smile genuinely but felt rue pulling down the corners of his mouth—“but die it does, nonetheless. There are a lot of disincentives for free-thinkers. You don't get prompt access to social services if you're known to be a card-carrying ‘recidivist.'”

Bernie and Finder exchanged long glances. “Yeah. We know.”

Lee leaned back. More and more it seemed that the “long chat” he was going to have with Finder had probably better include Bernie as well. “You guys have been watching me, haven't you?”

Finder smiled as he filled a liquid-bulb with coffee. “You're just figuring that out now? A smart guy like you—Sir?”

“No, I just didn't realize how methodical you've been. And how much more there must be for me to learn.”

Bernie shook his head. “Lieutenant, you don't know the half of it.”

“I'm sure you're right—but it's going to have to wait.” Lee glanced at the clock. “We'll be drifting past 216 Kleopatra in only two hours, and we've got a lot of work to do.”

“Like what?” asked Bernie. “Seems to me we should just back well away from the Blossom without altering its heading, match course, and lie doggo until an extraction ship comes out to pick up the mutineers. Then we hit them while they're in the middle of their personnel transfers and—”

Lee shook his head. “You're presuming that upon reaching Kleopatra 216, they'll have to stop for a long rendezvous, and that the mutineers will stay inside the Blossom, waiting for pick up. But they may go EVA beforehand, and get fetched by a small ROV tug. That way, the enemy ship could stay in the shadows of Kleopatra the whole time.”

Stares went back and forth between Bernie and Finder again. Finder was the first to shake his head and admit, “He's right.”

“Damned if he's not,” muttered Bernie. “Imagine, being schooled in space ops by a Dirtsider. My Ma on Mars will never let me live it down.”

“Then don't tell her,” suggested Lee. “But that EVA pick-up is not the scenario I'm most worried about.”

“Oh?” Finder leaned forward, coffee suddenly forgotten.

“Nope. Since the hijackers weren't interested in hostages, or the ship itself, that means they have other motivations. Motivations we haven't seen yet.”

Bernie shrugged. “Okay, but how does that change anything?”

“It changes things because, if they do have access to our patrol plot, then this is just the messy part of some bigger covert operation. An operation that someone is trying to hide, or to keep plausibly deniable. Which means it has to be perfectly sanitary.” He paused. “Which means that the tools they used to carry it out might need to be sterilized. With extreme prejudice.”

“Damn,” breathed Finder, “the kid—I mean, the lieutenant is right. For all we know, the rendezvous at 216 Kleopatra may only be to get information or proof of mission success. Once the extraction team gets what they need, their next move might have been to grease the hijackers themselves.”

“Yeah,” Bernie agreed with a nod, “it fits.” He folded his arms. “Okay, skipper, so what's the game plan?”

“Are all of our own ROV tugs available?”

“One hundred percent readiness, sir.”

“Excellent. And how many remote passive sensor packages do we have in stores?”

“Six, Sir. Of different marks.”

Lee nodded, then leaned over the light-table plot . “Okay, then. Here's what we're going to do . . .”

* * *

Almost two hours later, the crew of the Venerated Gaia was at general quarters, and wondering why the hell Lieutenant Strong was not maneuvering more aggressively. But the cutter—which they had long ago rechristened the Venereal Gato—continued to match the slow progress of the Fragrant Blossom, drifting side by side with the larger hull, fully in its shadow.

Couch-sized debris tumbled along with them. Having originated from the Blossom's cargo decks, it angled away from the twinned craft, the gap between junk and ships widening steadily.

The Gato was almost as silent as the space through which she glided. The hum of computers and the dampened vibration that resulted from running on batteries were unusually noticeable in the absence of human banter. The possibility of an engagement not only had the crew tense, but evoked a sense of the surreal, so rare was space combat. That the potentials of the adversary were wholly unknown only kept their eyes more firmly riveted to their screens, their fingers tense with waiting for orders to act.

The bridge crew had another object to stare at, however. There, in the main viewscreen, 216 Kleopatra—shaped like a 217-kilometer long dog-bone with a maximum width of 94 kilometers—loomed steadily larger. Tumbling end-over-end every five hours, it was a fairly kinetic rock, accompanied at some distance by two planetisimals—three and five kilometers in diameter, respectively. Intermittent sampling and mining ejecta accompanied it as well, the individual objects ranging in size from a handball to a house. And so, depending on the size of the enemy ship—assuming there was only one, of course—it could be hidden behind any of several dozen rocky slabs or lumps in the area, including, of course, the immense Kleopatra herself.

“Kleopatra is now within the outer engagement envelope of our missiles, Skipper,” the first gunner rasped, his throat evidently too dry to get out the words easily.

“Sensors, report,” Lee ordered, not turning to look at the rating in question.

“No change, sir. Of course, we'd get better data if we lit up the active arrays—”

Lee's interruption was quiet but sharp. “Don't even think that thought, Rating. We run dark until I give the word.”

“Yes, Sir, but—”

“I'm well aware that passive sensors don't give us full detection capabilities, much less targeting. For now, just maintain the lascom links to our passive assets and keep me apprised.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Bernie drifted closer. “Lieutenant, you know it's possible that the hijackers don't have anyone waiting for them here, that they just planned to switch to a smaller craft that they stashed here in some little crevice where we'll never see it.”

“It's possible,” Lee admitted.

“But you don't buy it,” Bernie completed the implicit reservation.

“No, I don't. Given all the trouble they went to in setting this up, I just don't—”

“Lieutenant—!” The tense exclamation was in reaction to a sudden orange glow limning the far rim of 216 Kleopatra: a false-colored superimposition of a new heat signature's halo.

“I see it, Sensors. Get me a triangulation on the probable point-source.”

“Can't do it, sir—not with the remote sensors we're depending upon currently.”

Bernie chewed his lip, staring at the orange glow. “That's a lot of juice, if we can see it as this range with portable passive sensors. What do you think—?”

“Nuke drive,” Lee answered flatly.

“Sounds like you were expecting it,” Finder said from the back of the bridge.

Lee turned, barked. “Sergeant, your post is in auxiliary for the duration of all combat. If this bridge is destroyed—”

The faces around Lee suddenly became pale. Finder snapped a salute. “I'm on it, Sir.”

Bernie smiled—until Lee swiveled around to face him. “Mr. de los Reyes, you are the only man on this bridge who is not secured in an acceleration couch. Do so at once.”

Bernie gulped, nodded, sat, and pulled at the straps.

The Mars-lean crewman manning the Sensors sounded as if he was being strangled. “That halo is heating up, Sir. Readings suggest high-energy particles—”

“I'll bet they do,” muttered Lee. “Prepare to re-angle the passive sensors—but be careful not to impart any vector change to the debris we mounted them on.”

“Aye, sir. The ROV tugs are ready to rotate the debris and converge the scanning cones of the individual sensors.”

And not a moment too soon. From over the rim of 216 Kleopatra, the orange halo coalesced as it rose, shrinking and concentrating into an angry red blob.

“Vampire, vampire!” shouted the Sensor Rating. “Moving at—holy shit!”

Lee ignored the profanity. “Gunnery, sensors are now under your direct control. Triangulate upon the emissions with the passive sensors.”

“That won't get us a serviceable target lock, sir.”

“I am aware of that, Rating. I'm not trying to get a hard lock with them—yet. And with our on-board active arrays still dark, he doesn't even know we've got him located. Unless he has ESP and knows that the junk paralleling us is concealing passive sensor packages.”

Bernie breathed appreciatively. “And working almost like a phased array of thermal detectors.”

“That's the idea. Let's hope it works. Helm, stand ready. Navigator, plot a direct retreat from that vampire.”

“We—we're running, sir?”

“No, we are opening the range. And if you wait another second to plot that course, I will cite you as derelict in your duty, mister.”

“Sir, plotting new course, Sir!”

The engineering rating licked his lips. “Do I bring our own power plant on-line?”

“Not yet. Right now, we're putting out less radiant energy than the plant on the Blossom. I want to keep it that way.”

Bernie smiled. “So we're hiding in the liner's thermal shadow.”

“Hopefully. Gunnery, ready a wide missile spread.”

“How many birds, Sir?”

“Salvo all.”


“Given how fast that ship is approaching, do you think we're going to get a chance to shoot twice?”

Gunnery gulped. “Salvo all, aye, Sir.”

The red blob seemed to have angles now, but was more intensely red—and it was growing visibly.

“That damn thing has twice our thrust,” muttered the helmsman.

“More like five times, and unless I'm very wrong, it's leaving a rad trail so hot that it almost glows in the dark.”

“Damn—yes Sir, I think it is,” said the sensor rating.

“Gunnery, do we have a preliminary target lock?”

“Still working, Sir. Interpolation is pretty messy with these portable sensors—”

“Sensors, has the vampire lit up its active targeting arrays, yet?”

“No—but he should have done it, Sir. He's in range. Is he damaged—?”

“He probably has home-brewed missiles with shorter range than ours. So he's hoping we'll panic when we see how rapidly he's closing on us, and that we'll go for a Hail Mary shot from extreme range.”

Bernie nodded. “Yeah, he wants us to launch while he's still just a thermal smudge. And once we do, he'll go active, get a fast reciprocal lock on us by tracking back along our own active sensor emissions, and run a missile up our ass.”

Lee nodded; he felt his armpits growing unpleasantly wet. “I say again, Gunnery, do we have a preliminary lock?”

“Not ye—Lock! It's fuzzy and unsteady, but I've got a piece of him. Not enough to guarantee a hit, though, Sir.”

“Salvo all, Gunnery. Set missiles to follow our guidance datafeed.”

“But Sir, if they're to have any chance of hitting him, we've got to light up our own arrays, get an active lock with our on-board sensors.”

“Negative. Not until fifty percent of our missiles' flight time has elapsed.”

“Which is happening . . . right . . . now!”

“Active arrays on,” ordered Lee. “Send that new datafeed straight to our missiles: give them a solid lock. Engineering, power to full. Helm, best speed away from the vampire.”

Gunnery whooped. “Missiles are transferring over to active array target lock. Eighty percent of them are still inside a possible intercept footprint pattern and are closing.”

Out in space, the missiles were no longer following the imprecise and irregular targeting data being relayed from the tactical thermal sensors riding the ROVs slaved to the Blossom's detritus. Now that they were using the active arrays' clean, infinitely superior guidance datastream, they rode it straight toward their target. The crude guidance from the passive arrays had put eight of the ten missiles close enough to adjust to a true intercept course—even though they had already closed sixty percent of the range to target.

Obviously, the enemy craft had expected the Gato to launch and engage her active arrays at the same time—the latter being the target they had been waiting for. Now, with eight missiles already bearing down upon it, the vampire attempted to evade, tumbling ninety degrees and using its extraordinary thrust to alter its vector as abruptly as possible. But the tremendous delta vee it had already invested in closing the range to its target now worked against it. Although the enemy hull could side-vector dramatically, it was still closing with the oncoming missiles, which tracked along with its vector changes unwaveringly.

The adversary discharged a desperate flurry of its own missiles—and then was gone in a short, vicious flash.

The elated whoops on the bridge died at the sound of Lee's harsh question. “Inbound missiles? “

“Three, sir. Jamming, but they're still on us.”

“Probably flying by simple on-board sensors now, looking for our emissions. Deploy decoys; put in a heavy mix of thermals.”

Bernie nodded. “Another reason you kept our own rockets cold for so long. If we had been building up engine heat over the past hour, their birds might have been able to distinguish us from our decoys.”

That was the very moment that the countermeasures rating reported that one of the enemy missiles had spent itself homing in on an RF emitter decoy; the other two expended themselves on the thermal flares.

Lee undid his seat-straps and stood. “Secure from general quarters.” He leaned over to the voice-activated comm system. “Sergeant Finder to the bridge on the double. Helmsman?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“As senior rating present, you have the con. I will be in the ready room with Mr. de los Reyes, preparing an after-action report and waiting for the sergeant to join us.”

* * *

As soon as the ready-room's door closed behind Finder, Lee turned to face his two NCOs. “Okay, gentlemen, now that we have a few minutes to talk, you have some explaining to do. Specifically, I need to know the origins of the gyrojet zip gun that you passed to me on the sly, Sergeant Finder, and why you made sure Rating Lewis was left out of the team that went into the forward section of the Blossom. Who, you later intimated, may have shot the last hijacker three times not out of nerves but in order to ensure that we had no prisoners left to interrogate. And then there's the white-noise generator that you obviously had installed in this room, Mr. de los Reyes. A pretty unusual modification for a man who ‘always follows regulations.'”

Lee sat down. “So I need both of you to remedy my Dirtsider ignorance about these matters. Right now. Before Mars can respond to the after-action report I just sent.” He folded his arms and waited.

“Wow,” breathed Bernie after blinking. “We had you pegged for the mild-mannered type, L.T.”

“Sorry to surprise you. Now, it's time to share your surprises with me. What the hell is going on out here?”

Finder massaged a calloused palm. “L.T., just to make sure that we don't waste time reinventing any wheels that are already spinning between your ears, what do you think is going on out here?”

“Well, what I already know is that what we Dirtsiders are told about Upside is incomplete and slanted to flatter the dominant political party on Earth, the Greens. Who have a penchant for information control, whereas the Neo Luddites don't have the clout, organization, or—most of allð—the patience to oversee the necessary subtleties and nuances. What I suspect is that despite all the rhetoric, the Customs Patrol Officer corps isn't the Earth Union's only ‘loyal eyes and ears' in space. The Union has to have other, less obvious methods of surveillance.”

Bernie shrugged. “We know where our officers' loyalties lie, given where all of you come from. No offense intended, L.T.”

“None taken. But that means you're more worried about informers from inside your own, Upside ranks.” Lee turned toward Finder. “So that's what was going on with Lewis. You suspect him of being an informer for the Earth brass.”

Finder nodded soberly. “Yeah. He's new and no one knows his family—not even the other Loonies.”

“He's a Loonie? He doesn't look it.”

“That's because he's not lunar-born. But his zero-gee skills are too good for him to have been born Dirtside.”

Lee thought about Finder's assertion. “Could he have grown up on one of the rotational habitats—like you, Sergeant?”

Finder smiled. “So you pegged me already? Good for you.”

Lee shrugged. “I've heard your accent in the mess. Sounds like one of the L-4 hab rings. And you didn't get that build living anyplace that had less than a one-gee equivalent. Means one of the big toruses. Which could be where Lewis' family came from. That would explain his Upsider skills, but why he'd be a first-generation Loonie, even so.”

Bernie nodded. “Which would also make him a perfect candidate for the Greens to recruit as a snitch.”


“The Earth Union maintains strict immigration limits between the different Upside communities. But there are ways to increase your chances of getting permission to move.”

“Such as a demonstrated willingness to ‘cooperate'?”

Bernie nodded. “They extort a lot of favors that way—particularly when people have a real need to change where they live. Medical needs, for instance.”

“Such as?”

Bernie leaned forward, legs wider, hands rubbing roughly between his knees. “You sure you want to hear all this, L.T.? Might change your world view more than you think. Might make it hard to go back.”

Lee breathed out. “Not sure I want to go back Dirtside. Not sure I want to live Upside, either.”

“Hell,” grunted Finder, “ain't like there's much in between.”

Lee smiled. “And there you have the crux of my dilemma, Sergeant. But go ahead, Bernie: tell me how the Earth Union uses medical blackmail.”

Bernie shrugged. “Okay—and remember: you asked. So, when I was growing up on Mars, we had some neighbors, two domes farther down the main tube. Nice folks, two kids, one a daughter. Guess I had a bit of crush on her. Anyway, when she was twelve, they diagnosed her with environmentally-induced leukemia.”

Lee frowned. “I thought the habitats on Mars all had to meet rigorous radiation protection standards.”

“Yes, and all our nonexistent pigs have wings, too. Look, L.T., maybe the protections passed spec when they were built. But in some cases, that's more than two centuries ago. Materials get compromised, shielding wears away, berms get eroded. Bottom line is we have to maintain them as best we can, but Earth always finds excuses to delay or cancel crucial cargos.”

“They delay shipments of basic shielding?”

“They delay shipments of everything. Including—and here we return to my story—specialty medications. My cute neighbor with the leukemia should have been getting her meds weekly, but the supply on Mars ran out after five weeks. She had to wait ten weeks before another batch arrived. If that had gone on, she'd have been dead in two years, three at the outside.”

Lee unclenched his teeth. “So her parents made a deal.”

“Of course they did. Wouldn't you? They got permission to go to one of the low-gee rotational habitats out near Earth's Trojan asteroids. And I'm guessing they're still there, working as snitches for the Earth Union. Lewis is a more typical candidate, though.”


“Well, frankly, because he's a Loonie. See, Loonies are generally the wealthiest Upsiders. They get lots of shipments from Earth, they get lots of loyalty perks, they have a lot of regular contact with Dirtsiders. And because it's only a light-second away, and it's part of the same public data net, and because you Dirtsiders see a lot of it on your screens, the Earth Union has got to make life on the moon look nice. So Loonies tend to enjoy the same social services and access to needed supplies. And where that kind of money and privilege is flowing, it's always easier to find sympathetics for the Earth regime.”

“If there's an Earth Union snitch on board a ship,” grumbled Finder, “it's even odds that he's a Loonie. Which is why we're careful sharing secrets with them. Like our home-made zero-gee pistols”

Lee leaned back. “This isn't exactly what they teach us in school about Upside life.”

“Yeah,” Finder said gruffly, “we know. Remember; we've dealt with a long line of your predecessors, a new one every year. And that's touches on the mystery we've been trying to solve, L.T. How did you become so—um, ‘open-minded'?”

Lee shrugged. “Well, some of my relatives are Fifthers.”

Now it was Bernie's turn to stare blankly. “‘Fifthers?'”

“Yes. As in ‘I invoke my rights as guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment'?”

“What's the Fifth Amendment?” asked Bernie.

Finder frowned. “If I remember correctly, that's the part of the American Constitution that gives people the right to refuse to respond to a question, even in a court of law, if it would incriminate them.”

“Wow,” wondered Bernie. “Whatever happened to that right?”

Lee shrugged. “It still exists in the U.S.—technically. But back about a hundred years ago, when the Greens were consolidating their hold on power before revamping the UN into the Earth Union, they managed to get the equivalent of loyalty oaths passed in most countries. In some places, like northern China, you had to respond. In others, if you didn't respond, it was the old ‘silence grants consent' construance. In a small number of countries, you could still refuse to take the oath. You had to explain why, however—except in the U.S. There, you could still just fold your arms and shut your mouth, as per your Fifth Amendment rights. Ever since then, anyone in the U.S. who doesn't roll over for the powers that be is dubbed a Fifther.”

“Huh. So you come from a long line of troublemakers,” observed Bernie. “I knew there was something I liked about you, L.T. But that doesn't explain why you're—well, competent.”

Lee shrugged. No reason not to tell them. “Probably because I grew up reading all the radical books in my great-grandfather's library—half of which you can't even find anymore.”

Bernie mused. “What sort of books have the Greens and Neo Luddites weeded out of Dirtside circulation?”

“Lots. Decent history of any kind. Fiction—or plays or poems—that had heroes whose behavior didn't ‘exemplify the spirit of communal cooperation.'”

“What?” Finder exclaimed, “No Shakespeare?”

“Oh, that's different. Anything from before the nineteenth century is now considered ‘primitive' literature.”

“Damn,” said Bernie with a stare, “I though they were called the ‘classics' of literature.”

“Yeah, well that was before the Behavioral Standards committees made sure that all our society's heroes unfailing demonstrated ‘model-worthy behavior.' So the earlier heroes are relegated to semi-barbarian status. No fault of theirs, of course. They lived in the benighted epochs before the Green Awakening.”

Finder was frowning. “Didn't the Russians try to control book availability during their Communism phase?”

Lee shook his head. “Can't say. It's hard to find much accurate history from 1800 onward. We had a little in great-granddad's library, but mostly books about America's past and its military campaigns. But novels—” Lee pictured the dark wood shelves that went on and on, that had been silent gateways into worlds other than his drab, narrow reality, in which bold ideas or actions were viewed as destabilizing and dangerous. In the books, characters had saved cities, built or broken empires, discovered continents, explored planets . . .

“L.T., you still with us?”

Bernie's quiet prompt jarred Lee out of his fond recollections. “So I decided I was going to live as much of that life as I could.”

Finder's bushy eyebrows climbed toward his receding hairline. “And how did you do that?”

Lee shrugged. “After college, I enlisted in the only service that still went in harm's way: the Coast Guard. Search and rescue. And the Earth Union is always glad to find people willing to sign up for that kind of duty, particularly officer material. Not a lot of folks with good grades are willing to take those kinds of risks anymore—not even to save someone else's life.”

Bernie nodded. “Well, that explains why you didn't get rattled on the bridge when we started trading shots with those bastards. Damn, even us Upsiders don't head straight into danger. If it's coming toward us, we sensibly run like hell. If we can.”

Finder smiled. “So you prequalified for the Customs Patrol by sailing into hurricanes.”

Lee smiled back. “Pretty much. That was the only way they were ever going to let me go Upside.”

“Which you wanted to do . . . why?”

Lee glanced at Bernie. “To do this. To go to a place where I figured the global bureaucracy couldn't have everything under its constant scrutiny and control.”

“Well,” exhaled Bernie, “welcome to the shit, Lieutenant Strong. Because that's what you asked to swim in, and that's where you are.”

“Skipper,” the communications rating broke in, “incoming signal from the brass.”

“Speaking of shit—” drawled Finder.

Lee cut a sharp look at him as he responded to the rating, “Pipe it in here.”

“Sir, there isn't really anything to pipe. It's a request for a retransmission of your after-action report, sir—to new lascom coordinates.”

“New coordinates? For where?”

“Best guess, sir? Hygeia.”

Bernie and Finder looked as surprised and puzzled as Lee felt. “Very well, Rating. Comply with the request.” He toggled the channel off, turned to the other two. “Hygeia?”

Bernie shrugged. “The outermost of the Belt's big rocks. Observation post, watering hole, fuel station, gathering place for off-contract prospectors and small-claim miners.”

“That I know. I've read the charts. But what do you mean, ‘off-contract'?”

“I mean what everyone out here knows, L.T., your superiors included. Not every person born off-Earth is duly reported to the authorities, nor is every business, or every ship, or every community.”

“So, by off-contract, do you mean they're not part of a legitimate commercial contract, or not part of the greater social contract?”

“Both. They only continue to exist because they stay under the radar.”

“Ah. And some of these—independents—come to Hygeia to trade?”

“That, and more. A lot of matchmaking goes on there. Talk to a Belter sometime about the about the difficulty of really long-distance relationships.”

Lee smiled. “I see your point. But then why would the brass order us to retransmit our report to Hygeia?”

Finder looked at his big feet. “Well, there are rumors, Skipper.”

Bernie looked over at him, surprised. “Okay, Jan, what've you been holding out on me?”

Finder looked up at him. “Listen, Bernie, if I told you everything I knew, then you'd be as smart as I am. Almost. So allow an old man his secrets.” He turned to Lee. “Skipper, word is that there are a few Earth Union ships—larger than cutters—which lurk around out here, and that they have hidden support caches on or near some of the major planetoids. Like Hygeia.”

Lee frowned. “You mean, other Customs Patrol craft?”

“Yes and no. Reportedly, these ships are under the control of a secret branch of the Customs Patrol, one that reports directly to the senior Green politico on the Earth Union Steering Committee. And these ships are crewed by guys like you, former cutter skippers and other Dirtsiders who got a little actual experience out here.”

Lee felt his frown deepen. “And what's their mission?”

Finder looked glum. “Whatever the politicos tell them it is.”

Lee felt his hands and feet suddenly go cold. “A spaceside Praetorian Guard?”

“Or Cossacks. So the rumor runs.”

Bernie stared at Finder. “I thought that was just an old wives' tale, bogeymen for scaring the kids.”

Finder's eyes rolled round toward the younger man. “If the tales I hear are true, they don't show up to scare people. Only to kill them.”

Lee started doing the forensic math. “If such ships really exist, it makes sense that one might be lurking nearby—particularly if our guess is right that the hijacking of the Blossom is just part of some larger covert conflict.”

“Okay,” said Bernie, “but if this Cossack Patrol is in on that action, then were the hijackers working for Upside or Dirtside interests?”

Lee nodded. “Or are there other players in the game?”

Bernie frowned. “Like who?”

The comm system squawked. “Incoming message, Sir. And be advised, there's a total exchange delay of forty seconds.”

“Acknowledged. Pipe it in, Rating.”

Bernie rubbed an index finger across his full upper lip as he did the math. “Twenty light-seconds range. A little closer than Hygeia, but not by much.”

The screen on the aft bulkhead flickered into life, revealing a plain-featured man, wearing an extremely conventional suit, seated stolidly in front of a nondescript background.

“Greetings, Lieutenant Strong. I am the Regional Customs Patrol Coordinator, Stephan Mann.”

With no outgoing signal to be sent until they were done watching this transmission, Bernie wasn't shy about filling in what he knew about their caller. “I've heard of this guy. Swiss-Belgian, been out here about five years. Every time he shows up, something funky has, or will, hit the fan. No friend of us Upsiders, and as Green as they come.”

Lee nodded and added silently, And not on any table of organization I've ever seen for the Customs Patrol. This guy handles special jobs only. Careful, now.

“We are in receipt of your after-action report, Lieutenant. You are to be commended on your competent performance.”

“I think he means, ‘enthusiastically congratulated for kicking bad-guy ass,'” muttered Bernie.

Mann's time-delayed image had not paused. “However, your failure to maintain necessary system readiness on your vessel compels us to append a negative comment to your performance. We trust you will ensure that such a failure does not recur.”

“System failure?” echoed Finder. “What system failure?”

Lee grinned sideways at him. “The lascom that you recorded as malfunctioning, ‘yesterday.' Remember?”

Finder's puzzled frown was replaced by the same sheepish look that was already on Bernie's face. “Oh, yeah, that. Sorry we didn't see this glitch coming, L.T.”

“So I don't get a cookie from Mr. Bad Suit. Big deal.”

The spare administrator in the admittedly bad (or at least, utterly dull) suit, was continuing. “What was of greater concern to us, however, was that you were unable to secure any prisoners. It would have been helpful to interrogate any of the perpetrators of the senseless and depraved criminal act that was carried out against the Fragrant Blossom.”

Lee raised an eyebrow. Senseless and depraved? That seemed to obliquely suggest that Mann was satisfied that the unexceptioned slaughter of both passengers and crew was an act of wanton savagery, not ruthless premeditation. It was a puzzling—or maybe telling—conclusion.

Mann droned on. “Concerning your speculation that the ship you destroyed was equipped with a reconfigurable nuclear thermal rocket—specifically, a gas model that could shift between closed and coaxial operating modes—our engineers point out that such a technology is hypothetical only. Your speculation also presupposes that there are rogue Upside engineers and shipbuilders who have achieved this high-performance technology independently, and have amassed sufficient radioactives to operate it. Our threat projection analysts deem both conjectures insupportable and not worthy of farther examination. However, if you have farther evidence to support your speculations, please transmit it now.” The message ended.

Lee looked at his senior ratings. “Am I going nuts, or did he just tell me that what I hypothesized is absolutely impossible, but then ended by asking me to send more evidence to support my hypothesis?”

“Uh, yeah, pretty much,” nodded Bernie.

Lee shook his head, and signaled to the communications rating. “Prepare to send reply.”

“Sir, your comm pickup is live and sending.”

Lee stood slightly straighter. “Coordinator Mann, I am happy you have received my reports and data so promptly. In the matter of the capabilities and origin of the enemy craft, I base my conjecture on theoretical work that dates back almost three centuries, and the Customs Patrol's known inability to maintain complete overwatch on Upside activities this far from Earth.”

He felt Bernie's and Finder's eyes upon him, watching, measuring, wondering how much he was going to tell or reveal about what he was learning about the real circumstances of Upside existence.

“However, while I can offer no concrete evidence of production facilities or personnel operating away from the supervision of the Customs Patrol or other duly appointed Earth Union authorities—”

—he heard two faint, relieved sighs behind him—

“—it is nonetheless noteworthy that the intensely radioactive nature of the threat vehicle's expended propellant, and its ability to generate such a profound energy spike so quickly points to a fundamentally different nuclear thrust technology, one that would be consistent with the projected performance ratings of a reconfigurable nuclear thermal rocket. I close by pointing out that it would be the perfect vehicle for their operation, able to change power levels quickly, and seize the offensive initiative with a five hundred percent thrust advantage over us, at least during our brief engagement.

“Finally, while our understanding of the Fragrant Blossom‘s hijacking is limited to what we can reconstruct from the forensic evidence, I must point out that although the felons showed depraved indifference to life, their actions are hardly seem ‘senseless.' Each step of their plan was deliberately and methodically executed, right down to the long drift they undertook to reach 216 Kleopatra a few days after the event, rather than making a fast getaway. The discipline evident in their actions leads me to conclude that this may not be the work of mere pirates, but of political radicals among the Upsider communities.” He switched off the comm hub, sat down . . . and suddenly noticed that both Finder and Bernie were carefully avoiding his eyes. “Okay,” Lee said in a low voice, “what now? Is there an organization of renegade, radical Upsiders?”

“Well,” answered Finder, “it's not so much an organization, as it is a loose collective. They call themselves the Spacers.”

“Why that?”

Bernie rubbed his hands anxiously. “Because, L.T., it's their way of saying you're wrong to think that the dirt is humanity's real home. The most extreme of them insist that humanity's prevalent obsession with living on a green planet is not only outdated, but dangerous. They believe that's why Dirtsiders treat Upsiders like crap: because they feel superior, because they live on Earth, the holy womb of the race.”

Finder nodded. “And their answer is to turn their backs on Earth and let it drown in its own sewage and self-importance.”

Damn, I really do have a lot to learn about what's going on out here, Lee thought.

“But I'm not sure the Spacers are militant enough to resort to hijacking, Skipper,” finished Bernie. “On the other hand, you're dead right that whoever took down the Blossom wasn't doing it to get money, to get the ship, or even to get the short-term concessions that hostages can buy. So we've gotta wonder, what were they after?”

Finder nodded with the whole upper half of his body. “Yeah, and why was there an illegal, nuke-engined, missile-laden hot rod waiting in the weeds to spirit them away?”

Lee nodded. “We have too many questions and not enough answers—but I don't think we're going to find any new ones just by combing the ship, again. I think we have to expand the search.”

“To where?” Finder asked.

“To the one place that might have answers, and which we can get to: Callisto. That's where the Fragrant Blossom was heading.”

Bernie nodded. “And you think that the ‘mutiny' was planned to make sure she didn't get there?”

“More specifically, to make sure that something or someone on board didn't get there.”

Finder frowned. “So you think someone on Callisto was waiting to receive the goods? Maybe the guy who sent the warning about the Blossom being overdue?”

Bernie shook his head. “No, that would be too obvious. And besides, Callisto doesn't get a lot of ships in—maybe four a year, tops. So a lot of people are going to be eagerly waiting on each one of those hulls for supplies, building materials, new personnel, forwarded cargo.”

Lee nodded. “Yes, but somewhere in the haystack of the Blossom's cargo hold, there just might be that one incriminating needle of evidence that will point to someone who was waiting for something not on the manifest, something secret.”

The communications rating called through the ready room door. “Skipper, incoming reply to your last transmission.”

“Thank you, Rating. Pipe it in.”

The screen brightened. Mann was seated as before but appeared to be on the verge of fidgeting. “Lieutenant Strong, it is my professional opinion that your comparative youth and the uncommon stress of the last few hours has you imagining perfidies, plots, and political renegades where none exist. It is an understandable after-effect of combat, but you must put these phantasms behind you. You have work to do and a patrol route to complete. You are to take the Fragrant Blossom in tow and make for the nearest secure Earth Union facility at best speed. You are not to conduct any farther forensic surveys of the ship's contents; that will be carried out by the on-site authorities. Farther communications on this matter are prohibited, except insofar as you must coordinate with the Earth Union facility at which you will turn over the derelict ship. If, since your initial report, you have detected anything anomalous or unusual on board the Fragrant Blossom, you are to report it now. I await your final transmission.”

After a few seconds, the communications rating prompted over the intercom, “Sir, do you wish to record your reply?”

Lee exhaled slowly, leaned back from the communications hub. “I will not be sending a personal reply. Simply transmit that I have nothing farther to report, that I have received and understood my orders, and will be under way to the nearest secure Earth Union Facility within the hour. Conclude with my regards to Coordinator Mann, and my thanks.”

Finder jerked his head toward the now-blank screen. “That bastard Mann should have let you follow up on the evidence, finish this investigation.”

Lee smiled. “Oh, but he did.” He punched the intercom stud, feigning obliviousness to the matched stares on the faces of his senior staff. “Helm?”

“Yes, Skipper?”

“Make fast the Fragrant Blossom for towing. Navigator?”

“Here, Sir!”

“Plot a course for Callisto. As soon as the helmsman signals that the Blossom is securely in tow, execute at best speed.”

“Yes, sir!”

Lee turned back to his goggling senior staff and smiled.

“You're trying to get yourself court-martialed,” hypothesized Bernie.

“I am obeying orders,” corrected Lee. “You said it yourself, we always follow regulations on the Gato. To the letter, in this case.”

Finder's face brightened with comprehension. “Because Mann told you to head to the nearest secure Earth Union facility. Which, given our current position is Callisto.”

“Yes, it's the closest—by about a thousand kilometers.”

Bernie stared balefully. “Skipper, you know Mann wasn't including Callisto in the list of options.”

“Do I, Bernie? He said ‘the closest.' If he had any exceptions in mind, it was—by regulations—his responsibility to make them explicit.”

“Lieutenant, Callisto is off-limits. We're not even allowed to go there.”

“That's where you're wrong, Bernie. You're not allowed to go there. No Upsider is, unless they are on a government contract to help build the Outbounders' interstellar colony ships. But as a Customs Patrol officer, I have clearance to go to the facility and inspect it, if I deem it necessary to ensure its security.”

“And do you currently have any concerns for its security?”

“I don't have to, Bernie. On the one hand, I have the clearance. On the other hand, I was just given an explicit order by Coordinator Mann to go to the closest facility—Callisto.”

Bernie glanced at Finder, who shrugged. “Hey, he's following regs, as far as I can tell.”

“Sure, Skipper's following the letter of the law—but is completely twisting the intent of it.” Bernie turned back toward Lee. “Listen, Lieutenant Strong, we don't get a lot of officers like you. So you'll forgive me if—for purely selfish reasons, and for the good of the crew—I ask you to reconsider this course of action. You know they're going to slow-roast you for going to Callisto—for bringing us Upsiders that close.”

Finder leaned forward. “Skipper, I hate to say it, but Bernie's right. Much as I'd like to see you get to the bottom of whatever happened on the Blossom, the Earth Union has made it painfully clear to us Upsiders that we're not allowed close enough to see the technology that's being used to build the Outbounder ships. And you can understand why. If your hunch is right, then our own off-contract communities found a way to improve on nuclear thermal rocket technology and build the raider that almost blew us to dust a few hours ago. What do you think they'd do with the fusion drive and power-plant technologies used for the Outbounders' STL colony ships? Or the waste-heat radiation systems? Or the robotics and automated systems?” He spread his hands wide. “L.T., your bosses know that if we Upsiders got our hands on those systems in their entirety, not just the little bits and pieces we fabricate separately, we'd have monkey copies operating in a few years. And we'd have improvements within a decade. And then how long would it be before the Spacers would decide to turn away cutters like this one—or vaporize them, if they refused to listen? With fusion-based energy and engines, we'd own space almost overnight. And you know what that means.”

Lee nodded. “Ultimately, you'd own Earth, too. Or can at least threaten it with annihilation.”

Bernie leaned close. “So don't push the letter of the regs on this one, L.T. The Earth Union will burn you for it, even if they have to trump up charges and falsify evidence. They can't afford to let you thumb your nose at them.”

Lee nodded. “True—but on the other hand, they can't afford to reprimand me if I find, and can prove, that there was a deeper conspiracy behind the hijacking of the Blossom. Hell, you know how they'll spin it, then: Coordinator Mann ‘displayed extraordinary foresight in ordering Lieutenant Strong to take the unusual step of towing the Fragrant Blossom to Callisto, thereby enabling him to surreptitiously conduct the investigation that ultimately revealed the identity and purpose of the saboteurs.'”

Bernie shook his head. “But L.T., you don't have to do that. You're taking a hell of a risk. And for what? Because you'll be able to prove your fellow Dirtsiders wrong?”

“No,” Lee said, looking steadily at Bernie, “because it's the right thing to do. Because it's our duty to find out who was ultimately behind the deaths of all those innocent people on the Blossom. No matter what our gutless superiors say, that is Job One. So that's the job we're going to do.”

“Damn,” breathed Finder, “you really do sail straight into hurricanes, don't you?”

* * *

“Administrator Perlenmann is on open channel, sir. Exchange delay is minimal.”

Lee leaned toward the audio pickup. “Hello, Mr. Perlenmann. I'm sorry to come to your facility under these sad circumstances.”

“Lieutenant, as I understand the regulations, you are not supposed to come to my facility under any circumstances. We are off limits to all Upsiders.”

“That is true, Mr. Perlenmann. But firstly, I am not an Upsider. Secondly, I was given clear orders to tow the Blossom to ‘the nearest secure Earth Union facility.'”

“And why was I not informed of your arrival earlier?”

“Again, orders. I was instructed not to send any transmissions relevant to the disposition of the Blossom until such time as I was ready to transfer her to the closest facility.”

“I mean no inhospitality, Lieutenant, but your presence here, and those orders, are most irregular. However, we are grateful you have brought the Blossom to us, both for operational and personal reasons.”

“I understand that several of her passengers were late-arriving members of Outbounder families already working here on-site.”

“That is correct. They will want to take possession of those bodies as soon as it is practicable. What is your ETA to Callisto, Lieutenant?”

“Just under three hours, sir.”

“Very well. After our navigational controllers have settled you into orbit, I will send a shuttle to dock with the Blossom and—”

“Mr. Perlenmann, I'm sorry, but that isn't going to be possible.”

A long pause. “And why not?”

“Unfortunately, in handling some suspicious containers that the hijackers evidently smuggled aboard the Blossom, a hermetic seal was broken and it is possible that a bioagent was released.”

Lee glanced at Finder, who, at that signal, opened a spoiled ration pack. He wrinkled his nose at the faint stench, and whispered, “Uh oh. Could be a biohazard, Skipper.”

Lee rolled his eyes, tried not to smile, and heard a note of concern creep into Administrator Perlenmann's voice. “It is not a particularly virulent pathogen, I hope?”

“It's too early to say, Mr. Perlenmann. We're still trying to type it. But until we do, and assess how effective our efforts at containment have been, I'm afraid I have to impose a quarantine.”

“Which puts us at a most difficult impasse, Lieutenant. We cannot safely come to you, and you are not permitted to come to us.”

“That's not quite accurate, Mr. Perlenmann. I have had no personal contact with the possible pathogen and, as a Dirtsider and officer of the Customs Patrol, I am authorized to travel to Callisto.”

Another long silence. “Very well, but that does not answer the issue of reclaiming the deceased family members of our Outbounders, nor our timely access to necessary supplies. We get only four shipments from cis-lunar manufacturers per year. They fabricate all the proprietary systems that go into the Outbound colony ships. Without those components, we're unable to work.”

“I think I have a way to solve those problems, Mr. Perlenmann,” Lee said. “Upon arriving, I will shuttle down to Callisto to present the paperwork necessary for releasing the bodies to their next of kin. The bodies themselves will need to remain under observation for seventy-two hours to ensure that they are not harboring elements of the unknown biohazard.” During which time we'll ensure that the incriminating needle we're looking for isn't being carried inside one of those bodies.

Perlenmann sounded thoughtful. “And so at that point, either my personnel or yours could transfer the contents of the Blossom to my shuttles?”

“Well, sir, we'll need to be a little more methodical than that with the cargo.”

“I don't understand, Lieutenant.”

“Mr. Perlenmann, the hijackers compromised the Blossom's computers. Among the most heavily damaged files were those containing the ledgers of the ship's manifest, stores, and personal effects. Unfortunately, we have not been able to locate any hardcopy back-ups. Consequently, because some of the contents of the Blossom's hold were bound for locations other than Callisto, we can't simply release everything to you. Instead, I must ask you to forward an itemized list of what you expected to be receiving from the hold—or from the personal belongings of the deceased. While we wait out the seventy-two hours of quarantine, we will locate the items you indicate and ready them for conveyance to you.” And sift through all that junk for the evidentiary needle we're seeking.

Perlenmann did not respond immediately. Bernie and Finder waited hopefully; Finder even had his fingers crossed. The silence dragged on—

“Very well, Lieutenant, although this is most inconvenient. Now, when did you say you would be arriving with the paperwork for releasing the bodies?”

* * *

Perlenmann met Lee at the entry to Callisto's cavernous ice separation and processing facility. Over the sustained, throbbing moan of the catalytic water crackers, he shouted an inaudible greeting and waved for Lee to follow. As he did, spacesuited workers turned to watch him pass, the exposed faces no more readable than the ones concealed behind sealed visors. Although the volatiles refinery was a shirtsleeve environment, it was separated from the murderous surface of Callisto by only one bulkhead wall. Suits were required, no exceptions.

Lee was turning to ask his bearded host about their daily production capacity when the immense hydrogen purification tank on the far side of the processing facility exploded. The shock wave slammed into Lee like a whole-body battering ram and sent him tumbling forward. His left shoulder hit the rocky floor first, his torso cinching at the waist. His feet continued arcing away from the source of the blast, dragging him head-over-heels into a punishing low-gee somersault.

Instincts took over—instincts that had been drilled into him during his training on Luna, and that had been acquired at a high price in bruised bones and suppressed vomit. As Lee's momentum spun him back into a heads-up position, he stretched his legs wide, thereby making his longest axis perpendicular to the direction of his tumble. His rotation became faster but less powerful. At the same time, his left hand (the expendable one) went out in front of him, elbow bent, wrist relaxed: a shock absorber for what was sure to be a nasty impact. His right hand caught the lower lip of his helmet's raised faceplate, pulled down sharply—

Burning hydrogen roared over and around him just after the faceplate clanked into place. The force of the fiery wash accelerated his forward tumble; he landed hard on his left hand, felt several bones bow, one crack. Lighting streaks of pain sprinted up his arm.

He managed to keep his legs wide and his hips cantilevered forward as his chin and chest slammed into the floor. His heels tried to rise again, struggling to unclench his abdominal muscles and pull him into another somersault.

But Lee fought back, kept his waist bent and legs down. His rotational momentum bled away and he started sliding forward, his left arm out for drag and stability while his right hand protected the faceplate. A few more skittering bumps and then he felt himself drifting to a halt. He rolled over, kicked his legs out-and-up, and came to a buttock-bruising stop.

The wash of burning hydrogen had been brief but every worker in the high-roofed chamber had been knocked flat by the force of the explosion. Most were swaying to their feet, some weren't. Uncertain hands fumbled to secure faceplates as snow began to materialize in the cold, thinning air; a clear sign that the explosion had caused a pressure breach, probably somewhere behind the shattered purification tank. Considering the leisurely pace at which the white specks were migrating in that direction, the breach was probably no worse than a small crack in the berm-covered bulkhead.

Lee rose into the almost nonexistent gravity, looked for Perlenmann, and spotted him rising to his hands and feet a few meters away. Lee dusted off his spacesuit, skim-walked over to the administrator, and helped him up.

From behind a cracked faceplate, Perlenmann nodded his thanks, silver-gray forelock bobbing limply. He smiled crookedly at Lee; “Welcome to Callisto, Lieutenant.”

* * *

Steam oozed out of the drinking tube which protruded from the top of Lee's coffee bulb. The ostensibly disposable bulb looked even older than the ones on the Gato. It had been washed and reused so many times that the plastic rim's innumerable hairline cracks resembled a thick forest of denuded saplings.

Directly across the table, Administrator Perlenmann stared down at nothing in particular as his chief engineer concluded his report. The news was not good.

“—so I figure we're down to forty-eight percent production capacity, Mr. Perlenmann, since that was our largest purification unit.”

Perlenmann nodded slowly. “Can we reconfigure any of the standard tanks to function as purifiers?”

The engineer nodded and rubbed his blistered cheek; he had been at the processing plant when the explosion occurred and hadn't gotten his faceplate down in time. “Can't do it, Mr. Perlenmann.”


The engineer scratched his reddening cheek, winced, snapped his hand away from his face. “Because storage tanks can't be retooled for refining. They're too thin-skinned to take the pressures generated during purification.”

“Very well, Mr. Carroll.” Perlenmann turned toward a man and a woman who were sitting at the far end of the table. He inclined his head slightly toward the woman. “Doctor Iseult?”

The woman, about thirty and pixie-ish, straightened in her seat, an action that was more suggestive of a porcupine bristling than a mere effort to improve posture. “Casualties were much lighter than they might have—or rather, should have—been. One fuel operations worker, Grigori Panachuk, is still in the infirmary.

“Frankly, it is a miracle that Panachuk didn't wind up in the morgue. He was standing within thirty meters of the tank when it exploded, with his faceplate open and his gloves off. Luckily, he was facing the other way, adjusting his collar communicator with both hands. Otherwise—”

“—Otherwise, Panachuk wouldn't have a face or hands left to worry about,” finished the man who was sitting near Iseult.

The doctor shot him an annoyed look, but nodded assent. “Mr. Parsons' assessment is correct. As it is, Panachuk has serious burns and a number of internal injuries. A piece of debris punctured his suit and lodged in his back. Seventeen personnel have been treated for second degree burns, another eighteen for fractures—nineteen, counting Lieutenant Strong.” Her eyes, sharp and unfriendly, flicked in Lee's direction. “The pain has subsided, yes?”

Before Lee could nod and lift his splinted hand in thanks, Iseult was finishing her report. “First degree burns and other, minor traumas—I don't even have a final count on those yet.”

Perlenmann nodded toward the man next to her. “Mr. Parsons?”

Parsons shifted his blocky frame, stared down at his coffee bulb, and wiped a greasy hand on the front of his faded gray coveralls. He didn't seem in a hurry to answer, or to be particularly impressed with Perlenmann's authority.

A faint German accent intruded upon Perlenmann's otherwise perfect diction; “Your report, Mr. Parsons.” Parsons now sounded like Parsuntz.

Parsons shrugged. “My report? Okay, here's my report. The casualties were predominantly fuel ops techs. All Upsiders. All my people.” There was a distinct tone of accusation in Parsons' voice.

“As I understand it, Mr. Parsons, there were also half a dozen flight technicians and two environmental maintenance workers in the processing area when the explosion occurred, all of whom sustained some level of injury. All Dirtsiders. I therefore doubt that this explosion was targeted specifically against your personnel.”

Lee stopped in mid-drink; a targeted explosion? Terrorism? Sabotage? Here too?

Parsons' face was split by a humorless grin. “Perlenmann, if you weren't such a book-loving Green, sometimes I'd swear you were in cahoots with the Sols yourself. How can you even doubt they were behind this? It was Sol sabotage, pure and simple.”

Lee put down his coffee bulb with a sharp clack. Eyes turned towards him. “Excuse me, but would somebody mind telling me what the hell is going on at this ‘secure' facility? Specifically, who or what are the ‘Sols'?”

Iseult, Parsons, and Carroll all exchanged brief, awkward glances. Perlenmann seemed to be waiting. In the end it was Parsons who leaned forward, incredulity in his voice. “Don't they tell you guys anything before they send you out here? Oh wait a minute, I forgot. It's beneath a Dirtsider's dignity to learn about Upside.”

Parsons was clearly looking for trouble. Lee held his tongue until he was sure of his resolve not to give it to him. “Mr. Parsons, prior to my assignment to the Gato, I read everything I could about Upsider communities and issues. And you're right, the info we're given on Earth is incomplete and slanted. However, I've been fortunate enough to be included in some Upsider conversations, so I know about some of the less obvious issues, and about political movements like the Spacers.” Parsons blinked. Hah, gotcha. “But I have never heard mention of the Sols, so maybe you'd be kind enough to clue me in.”

Parsons guffawed. “I don't know any way to ‘clue in' an inherently clueless Dirtsider, but I'll give it a try. Ignoring the Greenie administration in charge of this facility,” he glared briefly at Perlenmann, “you've got at least three distinct groups on Callisto. The smallest is made up of Dirtside contract workers. The largest is comprised of Upsiders like me, some of whom are probably undisclosed Spacers. Then you've got Outbounders, who just can't wait to get on their colony ship and abandon us Upsiders to the tender mercy of Earth's Greens and Neo Luddites. It's also possible that you've got a small number of Sols here, who think that Upsiders like me are soft, and that Outbounders are craven traitors.”

Iseult scoffed, looked away. Lee seized the opportunity. “You have a different perspective, Dr. Iseult?”

She turned to look at Lee, apparently trying to decide whether he was worth talking to. Eventually, she shrugged and offered her version. “Many of the personnel here do express one of two primary political sympathies: pro-Upside or pro-Dirtside. However, their differences have never been violent. The great majority of the Upsiders want to stay on Callisto and keep the Outbound operations running. They rightly believe that if it wasn't for the opportunity to send Earth's most wealthy Dirtsider dissidents off to the stars, the Green and Neo Luddite political alliance would probably discontinue all space-based activities altogether.

“The Dirtsiders are the technicians sent here from Earth to carry out the confidential engineering on the colony ships, or the Outbounders themselves. The Outbounders fear the same outcome that the Upsiders do, but rightly believe the way to prevent the closure of Callisto's shipyard is to offer strong support to the mostly moderate Greens of the Earth Union Steering Committee. As long as they stay in power, Callisto stays open and the starships keep leaving.”

“And the Sols?”

“They are the wild cards in this strange game. The Sols—the self appointed ‘star-chamber' of the entire off-Earth population—think that Outbound activities should be ended so that the moderate Upsiders are no longer seduced by the contracts they get from Earth. Then, they believe, the Upsiders would become desperate and help them overthrow the Earth Union.” Iseult shrugged. “I do not approve of their methods, but you can hardly blame them. They know what's coming.”

They know what's coming. Strange that such a simple sentence could have so ominous a sound. “They know what is coming, Dr. Iseult?”

Her fine-boned face was very grave. “War.”

“With whom?”

Mon Dieu, can you be so blind? Why, with Earth, of course. Upsiders may resent Earth, but they work with it—and have done so for almost three centuries, now. And over that time, the Upsiders have been accumulating power, gathering the knowledge and means to independently produce technologies which will soon reduce, maybe eliminate, their dependence upon Earth. However, when that day comes—” Iseult shivered although the room was warm.

“And the Sols believe that things are getting so bad that it's better to trigger a war now, to openly engage in sabotage?”

Perlenmann volunteered the answer. “Lieutenant, even out on Callisto, we hear the protectionist rhetoric in the speeches coming out of the Steering Committee in Geneva. The Behavioral Standards Committees have even gone so far as to retroactively restrict the books that may be distributed or owned Upside, including those that will comprise the now-stunted libraries of the Outbounder colony ships we launch.

“The last century's trend toward gradual improvements in freedom of trade and information is now reversing rapidly. And the Sols are not willing to stand by and let that happen. If they are behind today's bombing, it would be to call attention to the creeping return of tighter controls and the danger of Upsider complacency in the face of a potential conflict with Earth.”

“There isn't going to be any such conflict, and the Sols know it.” Parsons' growl swelled in both volume and disdain. “Let's be realistic. You Dirtsiders know that with us already sitting on the moon, ready to pull another Heinlein ‘drop-the-rock' maneuver, you can only push us so far. The Sols are making a mountain out of a molehill. When push comes to shove, the Earth Union will back down.”

Iseult shook her head. “Before Lieutenant Kotsukov was ‘transferred' he said the same thing about Upsiders: that they would ultimately kow-tow to the Earth Union's increased restrictions because the Upsiders are simply not self-sufficient in most regards.” The doctor smiled bitterly. “Parsons, if the leaders on both sides are as hardheaded as you and Kotsukov, then there will be war.”

Parsons snorted disdain but offered no rebuttal.

Lee kept his attention focused on Iseult. “Doctor, who is Lieutenant Kotsukov, and why was he ‘transferred'?”

Another uncomfortable silence. Perlenmann ended it, his voice not much more than a murmur; “Lieutenant Kotsukov was our on-site chief of security. He was ex-Customs Patrol and was given a small detachment to help him in his duties here.”

“A detachment of Upsiders?”

“No: Dirtsiders, like him. They were drawn from the domestic security administrations of several of the nations of the Earth Union.”

Lee kept his reaction from showing on his face. “Domestic security administration” was just a nice word for the paramilitary rent-a-thugs who hunted down unlicensed inventors and roughed up dissidents. “So Lieutenant Kotsukov was a strong supporter of the Green and Neo Luddite coalition?”

“He was a god-damned Dirtsider fascist,” snarled Parsons, “He didn't give a damn about politics except in one way: that Earth was to remain the object of all human veneration and the source of all authority.” Parsons snorted. “Hell, he didn't make it any secret that in his opinion, the Greens were too soft, and the Neo Luddites too boneheaded to be trusted. That didn't go over too well with the home office, I guess.”

Lee frowned. “I'm curious, Mr. Parsons. How did the Earth Union find out about Kotsukov's political sympathies? As Mr. Perlenmann observed, this is a rather out-of-the-way facility.”

Parsons' smile was feral. “I guess some concerned citizen must have sent a complaint to his regional advocate.”

So it was Parsons himself who had been responsible for Kotsukov's “reassignment.” Interesting—and valuable cautionary information, reflected Lee as he picked up his coffee bulb.

“Okay, so you've got potentially violent extremists in both the Upsider and Dirtsider communities, resentment toward Earth, resentment toward the Outbounders, and someone sabotaged one of your quarterly cargo runs when they took over the Fragrant Blossom—which I'm guessing would have shut you down for quite a while out here.”

Perlenmann nodded. “All true.”

“So why do you think it happened now? Which individuals might be behind it?”

Perlenmann smiled. “That is precisely what we hope to learn from your investigation, Lieutenant.”

Lee paused in mid-drink; hot coffee slid to a stop in the vicinity of his larynx and burned there. “I beg your pardon?” he croaked.

Perlenmann simply continued to smile—and Parsons jumped into the silence with all the docility of a scalded wolverine.

“Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, Perlenmann. You're going to turn the investigation over to him?” Parsons' finger fired an acrimonious beam at Lee. “To another undereducated and inexperienced Dirtside shavetail who's been here for less than three hours?”

Before Lee's shock at the frankness of the insults could transform into indignant rage, Perlenmann was halfway through a counter. “Lieutenant Strong's dossier indicates that he is not, as you would suggest, a ‘reject,' Mr. Parsons.”

“Then what the hell is he doing all the way out here? They only send losers to staff the deep space cutters of the Customs Patrol. Everybody knows that.”

Lee didn't bother to keep the edge out of his voice. “Mr. Parsons, my parents are American—Fifthers who are active in the Constitutional Return movement. My assignment here was, I am sure, partly motivated by the Earth Union's willingness to distance me from such a ‘recidivistic environment.'”

Parsons rolled his eyes. “Great; now we've got an American version of Kotsukov: a Yankee Doodle Dirtsider ready to give it up for the red, white and blue. What did you do, Perlenmann—put in a special order for this guy?”

Lee kept his own voice level. “Mr. Perlenmann had nothing to do with my arrival here, Mr. Parsons. That was strictly coincidental. Farthermore, I myself am not involved in the Constitutional Return movement. However,” he said, turning toward the Administrator, “insofar as any investigations are concerned, Mr. Perlenmann, I would be going well beyond my jurisdiction if I were to take charge of a civilian inquiry.”

Perlenmann smiled wanly—and Lee had the distinct premonition that he was about to learn that his jurisdictional knowledge was imperfect. Perlenmann did not disappoint him.

“Lieutenant, I must point out that while our charter here is through a non-security related agency, the Outbound Operations Administration, we are also officially classified as an Earth Union ‘secure facility.' The safety and secure operation of such facilities are the direct responsibility of the Customs Patrol. Under those terms, I believe your authority in this matter is quite clear.”

Damned if it isn't at that, thought Lee. If Callisto had only been a commercial refueling depot in the Belt, then it would be a local matter. But since the Callisto facility was where the Outbounder ships were built, and that necessitated the application of proprietary technologies that were subject to security monitoring and protection, it was—officially—a security asset, as well. That meant the investigation was Lee's responsibility.

He cleared his throat. “You realize, of course, that if you turn this matter over to me, the crime in question can no longer be investigated or tried as industrial sabotage. It becomes an act of treason.”

Only Perlenmann nodded. The others seemed surprised and suddenly uncomfortable. Lee pressed on, “Mr. Perlenmann, everyone here assumes that the explosion was the result of sabotage, rather than a mechanical failure. Why is that?”

Perlenmann shrugged. “Because, I am afraid, we have already experienced one smaller incident of sabotage here on Callisto. Our secure document scanner was sabotaged about four months ago. The replacement I asked for should be on board the Blossom. Did you happen to notice it when you reviewed the cargo?”

Lee nodded. “Actually, I did, because it was a rather surprising item. From what fragmentary records we have”—Lee suppressed a sudden impulse to cross his fingers as he said that—“it was actually included in the priority cargo manifest. But Mr. Perlenmann, I have to wonder if the two incidents are really connected. After all, why would a Solist, or a Spacer, or a militant Dirtsider bother to sabotage your secure scanner?”

Perlenmann folded his hands. “The Earth Union authorities require that we use our document scanner as a primitive data firewall to protect our mainframe. All incoming data is run though a standalone computer and converted into image files or hard-copy. Those images or hard copies are then run through the secure scanner, which is able to analyze any suspicious code elements without those elements becoming resident on any drive as executable data packages. That way, if viruses or trojans are found, they never make it to the mainframe.”

Lee nodded. “ But how would it be in anyone's particular interest to sabotage that?”

Parsons snorted. “Because all the extremists on this rock have their own worries about the administrator receiving a message they don't get to hear first. If there's no secure scanner, then coded orders can't be sent here, because there's no other means of decryption. So if the Earth Union Steering Committee gets taken over by Neo Luddite extremists and orders that Callisto is to be shut down, the Earth Union would have to send it in the clear, which gives the Outbounders a fair amount of warning.”

“And the Sols?”

Iseult shrugged. “They fear the opposite: that the most moderate Greens in the Earth Union Steering Committee might begin reversing the current crackdowns and even order the reacceleration of the Outbounder hull construction programs. The Sols would see that as undermining the urgency of their own radical anti-Earth agenda, so, given advance warning, they might successfully undermine that trend with key acts of terrorism.”

“Okay, so there's reason to suspect both sides of sabotaging the scanner. I'm assuming you already investigated and came up empty-handed?”

Perlenmann nodded.

“Okay, so do you at least know how today's explosion was rigged, what kind of bomb was used?”

Jack Carroll, the blister-faced engineer, pulled a small plastic sleeve out of his breast pocket, pointed at the blackened mass inside the bag. “There was no bomb involved. The saboteur used that electric igniter, slaved to a common wrist-watch.”

Iseult leaned forward. “Que? How can one have an explosion without an explosive?”

“When there's still some hydrogen in a fuel tank, you don't need an explosive, Doctor. Just a spark.” Carroll frowned, thinking. “My guess is that the saboteur's first move was to rig the fuel tank's level indicator so that it would read ‘empty' a little prematurely. That would keep the pumps from completely purging the tank after a processing run, which means that some of the liquid hydrogen would remain at the bottom of the tank.

“But, when the level indicator registers the tank as empty, the cryogenics shut off. So the tank begins to heat up a little—enough to cause the liquid hydrogen to evaporate into its very flammable gaseous form. At that point, all you need is one little spark and wham—you get one hell of an explosion.”

Lee frowned. “Who on Callisto would have the knowledge and technical expertise to set this up?”

Carroll's face did not betray what his voice suggested; that only a rank newbie would ask such a question. “Everyone, Lieutenant—with the possible exception of Dr. Iseult and some of her staff. And all the various models of igniters are easy to acquire, since we use them for so many tasks: for burning off waste gases, as starters for auxiliary power plants. They're ubiquitous.”

Lee sighed. No easy answers there.

Parsons rose noisily. “If we're just about done, I've got some people in the infirmary that I'd like to visit.”

Perlenmann hadn't even completed his nod of acquiescence before the fuel ops chief was out the door. Iseult and Carroll were close behind. Lee rose to follow.

“Lieutenant, a moment—if you please.” Lee regained his seat slowly. Perlenmann smiled. “I trust you've had warmer welcomes, Lieutenant. Although I confess surprise that you are out here at all.”

“Just luck, Mr. Perlenmann. It was my turn in the patrol rota—”

“You misunderstand me, Lieutenant. I mean I find it unusual that you are in the Customs Patrol.”

“Oh. That. Well, unless you were bluffing earlier, you've already seen my dossier.”

Perlenmann smiled faintly. “I have. Which is precisely why I'm asking what you're doing out here. A history major, with a minor in literature? And with dissident parents? I'm surprised you were even allowed to go to college.”

Lee smiled, knew it was crooked. “Administrator, that's not the kind of—er, ‘politically incorrect candor' I am accustomed to hearing from a Green official.”

Perlenmann shrugged. “I don't recall saying that I am a Green. Or anything else, for that matter. However, you will find in the course of your investigation, Lieutenant, that there is a great penchant for affixing labels around here. I suspect you arn't particularly susceptible to that kind of blind partisanship, but allow me to emphasize what you probably already know. It will not help investigator to assume that labels are either useful or accurate.”

“Probably no better than it does a facility administrator—even one so unusually articulate one as you, Mr. Perlenmann. So tell me, what are you doing in this plush job?”

The administrator stroked his beard. “Watching myself grow old, Lieutenant. In some ways, my story resembles your own. I started out as a young professor at Cambridge—Political Science—and was a bit of a radical in the eyes of my employers. I insisted on using unabridged original works, which was not a welcome pedagogical method when the books in question were treatises such as The Federalist Papers and Rousseau's Social Contract.”

“You're English?”

“Half. My mother was from Munich, which is where I grew up before going to school in Italy. I'm something of an EU mutt, I'm afraid. At any rate, I was accused of proffering the forbidden fruit of free thought—so they sent me here.”

“It would seem Milton takes a back seat to the Earth Union when it comes to devising suitable punishments for liberty-spouting Lucifers.”

Perlenmann laughed. “Lieutenant, despite the sabotage and political skullduggery, I am glad to have you here. Please feel free to come by if you need any assistance—or if you wish to borrow a book.” He swept a hand behind him, indicating the innumerable volumes of every height, width, and color, which covered all four walls in serried, sawtoothed ranks.

Lee had a sudden reminiscent flash of standing in the doorway that led into his great grandfather's library. “I just might take you up on that offer, Mr. Perlenmann.”

“Good. And Lieutenant, you might wish to introduce yourself to the on-site security personnel. They are, after all, under your direct command while you are on Callisto. Here are their dossiers. You might also be interested in learning that I haven't notified them of your arrival.” Perlenmann smiled. “Nothing like a surprise inspection to boost morale, eh?”

* * *

The duty officer's room was in complete disarray: overflowing ashtrays, dishes clotted with ossified leftovers, and a clutter of papers held together by the seamy brownish lacquer of old coffee spills. Through the far door, the tittering of girlish laughter was plainly audible. Moving softly on the balls of his feet, Lee approached the doorway.

Two double bunks faced away from the door, offering a direct view of the videoflat which had been set up (in defiance of regulations) on the wall opposite. The current cinematic fare: a buxom starlet in a Little Bo Peep costume halfheartedly fending off the advances of three leering, leather-clad adolescents.

The lower levels of both bunks were occupied. On the left, a broad torso (with a decidedly large central bulge) spanned the width of the mattress. To the right, a small and almost cadaverously lean man was cheering on the video studs in some mishmash of English and Portuguese.


The little stick figure on the right jumped so hard and high that he hit the ceiling, rebounded at an angle, caromed off the upper left bunk—and crashed straight into his larger companion, who was just rising. The stick figure went down in a heap. The larger man tottered and unsuccessfully aimed a meaty leg at the stick figure's head. Steadying himself, the big one spat a Slavic growl—”Izvierk!”—and then turned toward Lee, the growl metamorphosing into English. “And who the hell do you think you—?” The big man's mouth froze in a fishlike gape as his eyes hit the gold bar on Lee's left shoulder.

“You were about to ask me a question, Sergeant Bulganin?”

The broad Russian snapped his mouth shut—so hard that Lee could hear his teeth clack. Then: “Nyet—I mean, ‘no,' Sir. No question.” Bulganin had pushed himself to attention, but his chin stayed down and his dark brown eyes had hardened into stubborn, lusterless black beads.

Lee turned his attention to the smaller trooper, whose stare was rapidly shuttling back and forth between the Russian and the American. Eager, observant, waiting to see how things would work out. This one would follow whoever established himself as the top dog, rank notwithstanding. Lee turned his attention back to the Russian. “I take it Sergeant, that you were not informed of my arrival.”

“That is correct . . . Sir.”

A long pause on the “sir”; the challenge was starting already. Good. Best to get this over with right away. “And is this the condition in which you maintain your quarters?”

Bulganin shrugged, did not answer. Lee could feel the little guy's growing excitement; stick-figure smelled a fight brewing.

“I asked you a question, Sergeant.”

Bulganin, who hadn't uttered a sound, sneered. “I said ‘No, Sir.' My apologies; my speech must be too soft for you to hear.” Stick man giggled.

Lee took a step closer to the Russian. “That's odd, Sergeant. My hearing is quite good and you don't seem like the quiet type. But, perhaps your speech has become soft”—Lee lowered his eyes to Bulganin's sagging midriff—”along with the rest of you.”

The black eyes flared then smoldered. “The Lieutenant will please pardon my inquiry: I have seen a uniform and insignia of rank, but I have not seen papers.”

Lee admired the way the Russian refused to surrender the initiative. Bulganin was tenacious, if sloppy. There was probably a good soldier lurking underneath the blubber. Lee tossed his ID packet on Bulganin's bunk. “Lieutenant Lee Strong, Customs Patrol, USA, New World Collective. Now in charge here.”

Bulganin smiled faintly, smugly. “I see,” he said.

“No, you don't—but you will.” Still looking straight at Bulganin, Lee barked, “Cabral!”

The stick man jumped, rammed back to attention, his eyes wide. “Sir!”

Lee recited the dossier from recent memory. “Cabral, Eduardo. Senior Rating, Third Interurban Security Force, Brazil. Currently on detached duty to the Customs Patrol.” A rent-a-thug from the favelahs, probably; might as well check. “From Rio, Cabral?”

“Yes Sir!”

“Enjoying this assignment, Rating?”

“Yes Sir!”

“Then you don't have the brains you were born with. Bulganin!”—the Russian didn't even flinch as Lee turned back toward him, roaring his name—”First name: Arkady. Sergeant, 18th Security and Protection Group. Twenty-four-year service record. Demerits for brawling, drunken-and-disorderly conduct, and ‘political agitation'—nyet, tovarisch?”

Bulganin's eyes narrowed at Lee's drift into his nation's contemporary hardline Neo Luddite vernacular. “If we are foregoing standard military address, Sir, I prefer gospodin.”

Stubborn and insubordinate, but Bulganin had balls. “Perhaps I should include your mention of that preference when I make my first report, Sergeant. The Neo Luddite regime in Moscow might find it somewhat disturbing.”

“I am already in exile, sir.” Bulganin's eyes swept the dismal environment. “Where can they send me that's worse than here?”

Lee smiled. “They can send you out an airlock, Arkady. Things are tightening up back in Mother Russia. Neo Luddites—and their preindustrial Communalism—are busy looking for counter-revolutionaries. Some things never seem to change.” He stepped back. “And at this moment, I don't give a damn whether they ever do. The only thing I'm concerned with is what's going on right here, right now.”

“Sir, with all due respect,”—Bulganin's tone suggested that this was a minuscule amount—”I must ask. What do you know about what is going on right here, right now?”

“I know that discipline has gone down the drain and that this unit is currently incapable of carrying out its assigned mission.”

“Lieutenant, this ‘unit,' as you call it”—Bulganin glanced sidelong at Cabral, and then back—”has carried out its duties, even though we have been forced to struggle along without an officer for over a year now.” Bulganin allowed himself a slow, sarcastic smile.

Lee smiled back. “So you're in full readiness? Even for emergency duty in a full grav environment? Tell me, Sergeant,”—Lee looked down at Bulganin's overly-thick midriff—”have you been putting in the mandatory one hour per day in the spin gym?”

Bulganin's smile diminished, faded away.

“Have you, Sergeant?”

The Russian glanced sideways. “There have been—mechanical failures.”

“Have there? Well, then you'll be glad to learn that I stopped by the spin gym on my way here and found it to be in full working order. So I'll expect you to report for double-shift PT, Sergeant.”

Bulganin's eyes betrayed a hint of dread. “When?”

Lee's smiled widened. “Right now.”

* * *

Iseult cast a curious glance at Lee as she picked up Bulganin's feet and helped her orderlies carry the unconscious Russian out of the spin gym. Cabral stood to one side, watching, panting, and dripping perspiration. One calf was shaking spasmodically—a sign of over-exertion and electrolyte depletion—but the little Brazilian had stayed the distance.


The wiry private spun away from the door and came to attention. “Sir!” His chin was up, his eyes straight ahead and fixed, his body tensed with readiness. Lee restrained a smile. The top dog barks and Cabral listens.

“At ease, Rating.”

Cabral fell into the “at ease” position, which looked even more uncomfortable than his previous stance.

“No, no—stand down, Rating. Take ten.”

Cabral's eyes flicked sideways, evidently double-checking Lee's expression against Lee's words: was the American trying to trick him or was this a genuine invitation to relax?

Lee wandered over to a bench, and flopped down. Cabral breathed a sign of relief and joined him.

“So what do they call you, Cabral?

“Me, sir? Eduardo.”

“No, I mean your nickname.”

Eduardo smiled, a flash of white teeth. “They call me Fast Eddie, Sir.”

“Well, Fast Eddie, you didn't do too badly today. How long has it been since you put in”—Lee checked his watch—”fifty minutes in the gym?”

Cabral paused, then admitted, “A long time, sir.”

“Well, we'll be doing at least an hour every day, now. From here on in, we're going by the book.”

Cabral laughed suddenly, unexpectedly.

“Did I say something funny, Private?”

“Oh no, Sir. I mean, yeah, you did say something funny, but I guess you didn't know it. You said ‘by-the-book,' Sir. That's what the workers call Mr. Perlenmann.”

Lee leaned back on his elbows. “Why do they call Perlenmann ‘by-the-book'?”

“Well, it's sort of a double meaning, sir. I mean, he has all those books, right? Thousands of them. But it's also a joke about how he does things. Everything with Perlenmann is ‘by-the-book,' you know?”

Lee licked salty perspiration off his upper lip; odd, Cabral's description didn't quite jibe with his own perception of Perlenmann. “Tell me, Eddie, what do you think of all this sabotage business? Who do you think is behind it, the hardline Dirtsiders or the Sols?”

The Brazilian shrugged. “I don't know, Lieutenant. Could be either one, I guess.”

“What about the rank and file Upsiders? Are there any of them that might have a reason to shut down Callisto?”

Fast Eddie frowned. “I dunno, Sir. I don't see why they would.”

“Me neither. What about the Outbounders?”

“The Outbounders? But why, sir? If there isn't enough fuel, they can't leave.”

That's true, Eddie—which is also why no one would ever suspect them of destroying fuel to frame the group that was most likely to prevent them from leaving the system and resorting to violence: the Sols.

“Besides,” Eddie was continuing, “The Outbounder leaders—Briggs, Kerkonnen, even Xi—they're real nice, real pacifico. They've never done nothing that was, like, harmful or sneaky.”

Well, if this line of inquiry was to bear fruit, it certainly wouldn't be as a consequence of Fast Eddie's political perspicacity. Might as well get back to basics. “Rating, how long since you've done any shooting?”

“Long time, Sir; months.” Fast Eddie's eager smile was a testimony to the fact that he liked guns—a lot.

“Then it's about time we got you back in practice, Rating. What do you use for a range around here?”

* * *

Early the next day, Callisto's comm specialist paged Lee in his planetside quarters. “Incoming message from the Gato, Lieutenant Strong. Shall I match encryption?”

“Yes, please do. Put them through.”

A moment later, Bernie and Finder were crowding their faces into his screen. “Hi, Skipper. How's the chow down there?”

”Indistinguishable from what you're having up there.”

“Ouch. That bad? Well, so much for officer perks, I guess.”

“I guess. Do you have an update for me, Bernie?”

“Sure do. Skipper, this whole hijacking incident is getting weirder and weirder.”

Lee wondered how that was possible. “In what way?”

“Well, when we sent the hijackers' digitized DNA samples back to Earth, they assigned it the lowest priority status in their search queue.”

“That's odd. That search isn't hard and we should be at the top of the priority list.”

“That's what I thought. So we took the liberty of sending the samples to a pair of our Upside friends. One works database management on L-5, and the other is in charge of immigration record-keeping on Mars. They got us concrete results—and very fast.”

“Fast means that the hijackers were already part of the population that is pre-flagged for scrutiny.”

“Bingo. Seems the hijackers were all either convicted or accused felons.”

“Pawns for someone else, then. Not surprising.”

“No, but this is: every single one of them were Upsiders. They were either from cis-lunar or Belt communities. And all genuinely anti-social types, some with diagnoses of possible sociopathia. What do make of it all, Skipper?”

“Nothing conclusive. They're all Upside-born, so perhaps they were tapped by other Upsiders—Spacers, maybe—who needed cold-blooded killers. But on the other hand, it sounds like someone on Earth was involved, someone who had enough clout to get these brutes out of jail or off parole in exchange for doing this job.”

“But why?”

“Until we find what they were after on the Blossom—until we find that needle in the haystack—I don't think we're going to get any closer to having an answer to that question, Finder. About which: has there been anything interesting on the cargo claim lists send up from Callisto?

“Nothing particularly riveting, Skipper. We've been examining every piece they've asked for, including sensor scans for hidden compartments. If they have electronic components, we've run full data analyses. So far, nothing.”

“What about tantrums by the brass? Has anyone had a coronary about my decision to divert to Callisto?”

“So quiet it's scary, Lieutenant. We've received dispatches and routine orders, but that's all.”

“What orders?”

“Just the ones we were expecting. First a message to resume our patrol route ASAP, then a correction to that order, in response to Perlenmann's indication of our quarantine situation. He bought us an extra one hundred hours on-station. And I got us two extra days beyond that.”

“How'd you do that, Bernie?”

“Well, with Callisto's deuterium refinery down, I explained that we didn't have sufficient authorization to draw on Callisto's reserve fuel cache, since every frozen drop is now reserved for the next Outbound colony ship. At least until their main purifier is running again, and they've built up a sufficient surplus.”

Lee frowned. “I'm surprised the brass didn't kick that upstairs to get you the necessary permission.”

“We didn't give them the chance, sir. In the same communiqué, we indicated that we had made preparations to transfer the fuel from the Blossom to our own tanks. Pending their approval, of course, since that could be construed as tampering with sealed evidence.”

Lee was impressed at Bernie's inspired chicanery. “So what did they do with that pile of tangled prerogatives and priorities?”

“What bureaucrats do best: they passed the buck to Perlenmann. Who sat on the request for a while, and then sent notice to command—and us—that he was authorizing us to tap the Blossom's tanks and take on her fuel. Which, as you know, is a very long process unless you have specialized fuel tending apparatus.”

“True, but Perlenmann has a tender module. Several, I think.”

“So I gathered. But he didn't offer and we didn't ask.”

Lee smiled. “How long can you reasonably extend the refueling operations?”

“Brass tells us that due to the ‘situational impediments,' we have an additional two days to take on fuel. So we can stay on station for another six days, all told. Then you'll have to interrupt your Callistan vacation and—”

“Negative, Bernie. I'm staying.”

“Sir, I'm not sure I heard you correctly. Did you say you're staying?”

“Perlenmann has tapped me to investigate the sabotage that took out their fuel production. It's a matter of regulations: I can't say no. But that could be to our advantage. Did the brass say I had to take the Gato back out in six days?”

“Well, no, but you are the CO and I think they assumed—”

“That's their problem, then. If I haven't wrapped up here in six days, you resume our patrol roster as the acting CO. That gives me more time on Callisto to see if there's some connection between what happened to the Fragrant Blossom and the sabotage here. If they're two pieces of the same puzzle, then in the process of my investigation, I might find whoever was supposed to take possession of that lost needle you're still looking for aboard the Blossom.”

“Maybe, Skipper. I suppose I don't have to tell you that this is another decision that won't earn you brownie points with the brass.”

“This time, they'll have to complain to Perlenmann.” Lee told himself that would shield him from the worst of his superiors' probable wrath. Knowing himself to be a poor liar, he was not convinced. “If I'm not back on board in six days, head toward Hygeia first, quarter speed.”

“Why there, Sir?”

“So that you'll still be close when I call you back for a pick up.”

“Got it, Skipper. Anything else we can do for you?”

“Not unless you believe in the power of prayer or have a lucky rabbit's foot.”

“A what?”

“A barbaric Earth tradition.”

“Sounds Neo Luddite.”

“It probably is. Keep on looking for that missing needle of evidence, Bernie.”

“Will do, Skipper. You just keep your head down.”

“Sound advice. Out.”

* * *

It took the better part of a week to get Cabral and Bulganin reaccustomed to one-gee centrifuge exercise and military discipline. Bulganin remained silent and somewhat surly, but was obedient and seemed to acquire a grudging respect for Lee.

Which was more than could be said for the Upsiders among the facility personnel. Their written responses to Lee's inquiries about the explosion were terse to the point of uselessness. In the corridors, they avoided meeting his eyes, kept responses to his social greetings as brief and closed-ended as possible. The Dirtsiders weren't much better, and the Outbounders already seemed to be living in another world, simply eager to leave the incessant Upsider/Dirtsider bickering behind them.

The only individual who seemed willing to help was Perlenmann, who opened up his personal log for Lee's perusal. According to the administrator's accounts, the Upsider/Dirtsider factionalism on Callisto had never broken out into violence or sabotage before. However, since the explosion, Parsons' Upsider fuel-ops technicians had provoked at least two public confrontations with Dirtsiders, intimating that if they discovered the bombing had been specifically directed against them, they would retaliate. It was far less certain that they would exert much care in ensuring that their retribution was directed only against the guilty parties.

By the middle of the second week, Jack Carroll had finished his forensics report on the technical details of the saboteur's methods—a report which Lee and Perlenmann decided to keep under wraps until the case was nearing its resolution. A general disclosure now would only tell the perpetrator how much the investigators did (or, rather, did not) know.

As he leafed through Carroll's report, Lee sighed, letting his last hopes for an easy investigation escape along with his breath. Ten days of thorough research had turned up nothing. The time had come to press some personal buttons and to see what happened when he did.

* * *

The cavernous gut of the damaged hydrogen purification tank was alive with the echo of distant work crews. Lee craned his neck to look up at the “ceiling” ten meters overhead and moved deeper into the vast space, angling toward the intermittent white-blue glow of workers' torches.

A dozen steps later, he found himself approaching a stocky silhouette, its hands-on-hips stance backlit by the intermittent light of the welding. Parson's voice was less pleasant than usual. “What do you want here, Dirtsider? My people have filled out your idiot reports, so leave 'em alone.”

“I wish I could, Mr. Parsons, but I'm afraid ‘your people' didn't complete the questionnaires I gave them. To be specific, not a single one of them provided the names of any individuals that they suspected of being radicals—either Dirtsiders or Upsiders. Now I wonder why that would be.”

“Wonder all you like, Patrolman.” Parsons spat; the impact of the saliva made a flat sound, like a pebble ricocheting off slate. “We're not snitches on this station. And if that's what you require of us, then you can go to hell.”

“If you, or any of your people, have any relevant suspicions, I advise you not to withhold them. Anyone who does so knowingly is obstructing an official investigation, which in this case makes them accessories to sabotage—and guilty of endangering the lives of the workers at this facility.”

As Lee had guessed, that was the right button to press; Parsons' voice grew taut, his words coming out in a rush. “You're going to accuse my men of endangering their fellow fuel workers? All of whom are Upsiders? Well, take your best shot, Patrolman. But I'll tell you this: we watch out for our own here on Callisto, and if we have any problems, we sort it out ourselves. You don't understand how things work out here—and it's real easy for newcomers to get hurt by things they don't understand. Don't you agree?”

“Threatening a Customs Patrol officer is a serious offense, Mr. Parsons, and it makes me wonder if I shouldn't expand my investigation to include you as a prime suspect.”

Parsons laugh was soft and deep. “Did I threaten you, Lieutenant? Gee, I can't remember saying anything threatening. I was just commenting on how outsiders can find this sort of political problem to be difficult—even dangerous—to handle. And as for investigating me,” Parsons snorted derisively, “be my guest. Let me guess. You're convinced that I'm a deep cover operative for the radical Dirtsiders, right?” His teeth shone as he sneered. “Yeah, while the Dirtside Greens and Neo Luddites are slowly strangling this facility out of existence, you'll waste time investigating the people who need to keep it running in order to survive.”

Parson's tone grew more strident. “You make life hard for us and who knows, maybe production will suffer. Maybe that will make life hard for the Greenie bigwigs on the Steering Committee by giving the Neo Luddite hardliners just that much more ammunition to criticize their handling of Callisto. Maybe that will mean an inquiry, and maybe that will make life hard for you—very hard.” He paused and leaned closer. “You get my drift?”

Lee leaned into Parsons' face. “Yes, and I hope you're getting mine. I'm here to uphold the law and find the saboteur. And that's exactly what I'm going to do—with or without your help.”

Their faces were less than three inches apart, the scratchy hiss-and-whine of torches intermittently piercing the silence. Then Parsons changed his stance, which gave him an excuse to lean back and laugh. “Suit yourself, Patrolman; it's your court-martial.” He turned into the glow of the torches and drift-walked away across the belly of the fuel tank, shouting orders as he went.

* * *

Doctor Iseult arched an eyebrow when Lee entered her office. “And to what do I owe the honor, Lieutenant?” The crisp tone added about a foot to her diminutive frame.

Lee smiled tentatively. “Might I take a seat, Doctor?”

Iseult impaled him with a glare that suggested she was seriously considering a negative response; then she sighed and waved him into the chair on the other side of her desk. “Well, you are sitting. What is it?”

“Doctor, I'm sure it's no secret that I'm not making a lot of progress with my investigation.”

Iseult's smile was genuine, if wry. “You have a talent for understatement, Lieutenant. From what I hear, you are making no progress at all—although you are making a number of enemies.”

Lee nodded. “I was hoping you might be a little more willing to help me.”

Iseult's smile now included a measure of incredulity. “Oh? And why is that?”

“Because you're a doctor.”

“Which would tend to make me resent paramilitary bullies such as yourself, non? After all, I get to clean up the messes made by you uniformed children.”

Lee shrugged. “I suppose so. But I thought that, given the increasing potential for violence on Callisto, you'd want to help me prevent farther bloodshed, rather than just patch it up when it occurs. But I guess I was wrong.”

Iseult's smile had disappeared, although her teeth were still displayed—now in a rictus of rage. “Merde! The gall—that you would attempt to extort cooperation from me in such a manner!”

“Like I said, Doctor, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to save lives.” Lee rose to leave.

Mon Dieu, you are arrogant—no, sit. Sit down, damn you.” One tiny fist clenched and went white as she regained her composure, a process which took almost half a minute. Then she looked up, her eyes cold and bright. “Unfortunately, you are also right. Parsons' people are getting edgy. I am afraid that they will convince themselves that they must preempt the Dirtsiders—and even the Outbounders—by attacking them first. Physically.”

“And that concerns you.”

She blinked. “Of course it concerns me. As you so astutely observed, I'm a doctor.”

“No, I mean it concerns you because you sympathize with the Outbounders.”

Her eyes widened, then narrowed. “Do you wish me to help you—or simply to sit still for an interrogation?”

“Possibly a bit of both, Doctor. I do recall that, when I first arrived, you seemed to stick up for the Outbounders when Parson was bad-mouthing them.”

Iseult drummed her slender fingers against the tabletop, stared at them while she weighed her next statement. Finally: “I suppose I do support the Outbounder point of view, somewhat—as well as other moderates. It's the extremists and their pawns who are the real danger to us. Spacers and Customs Patrol, Sols and pro-Earth fascists—you'll all kill each other yet. And when your final war starts, Callisto and every other innocent spaceside community will be caught in the middle.

“And even if you do not have your idiotic war, it is still true that we live on a razor's edge here on Callisto. If the political mood on Earth worsens, then the Outbounder colonization program will be disbanded, and this facility will be closed. And the same will happen to many of the deep-space facilities which exist to supply us. In that scenario, many—-most—of those displaced Upsiders will have to be relocated to Earth. No other place can absorb such a sudden increase in population.”

“But what about the Upsiders who were born in low- or zero-gee, who can't survive on Earth, even in neutral buoyancy pools?”

“Lieutenant, I am a doctor, not a social planner. I do not have such answers—if any exist.” Frustrated, she looked away, her mouth leaned against her fist.

Lee stole a fast, assessing look at her. She cares, but she's genuinely torn about what to do. She doesn't have the dogmatic certainty of a political factionalist. Time to back off. “I'm sorry, Doctor; I didn't mean to upset you.”

“Lieutenant, it is bad manners to lie, particularly if you lie so badly. You most certainly did mean to upset me.”

Lee felt his face grow uncomfortably warm. “Yes, Doctor. I'm sorry—but I had to.”

“Well, at least you can be embarrassed enough to blush about it. Perhaps you are human after all, Lieutenant Strong.”


She almost smiled. “Very well. Lee. You may call me Genevieve if you are done provoking me.”

“I believe I'm quite finished, Genevieve.”

“Good. Now, how can I help?”

A new voice intruded. “You can help by giving Mr. Panachuk a sedative, Doctor; he's a bit too eager to get out of bed and back to work.” Perlenmann emerged from the infirmary, pushing open the door and leaning against the jamb. “How goes the investigation, Lieutenant?”

“It's going, Mr. Perlenmann, but not very fast or very far. I was hoping Dr. Iseult could give me some new insights, particularly into the Outbounders.”

The administrator shook his head. “I find it hard to believe that the Outbounder leaders—Mr. Briggs and Mr. Kerkonnen—would advocate violence of any type.”

“What about Ms. Xi?”

Perlenmann shrugged. “She is the most temperamental of the Outbounders, but that makes her almost too obvious a suspect, don't you think?”

“Maybe she didn't do it herself. Maybe she got somebody else fired up enough to do it for her.” Out of the corner of his eye, Lee saw Iseult frown skeptically.

Perlenmann shrugged again. “Perhaps, but the only reasonable underlying motive—that the Outbounders are trying to frame and discredit the Sols or Spacers—seems a bit far-fetched. Now I must regrettably return to my office; I'm swamped with paperwork.”

Perlenmann drift-walked out of Iseult's office. Lee stared after him, and when the door had closed, asked, “What about him?”

Iseult cocked her head. “What do you mean?”

“Could he be—well, a secret Dirtsider fascist, someone who's been waiting for a reasonable excuse to get this facility shut down?”

“Perlenmann? A fascist or Neo Luddite plant? Are you mad?” Iseult's full laugh was a pleasant, musical sound.

“What's so funny?”

“Lieutenant, even if Perlenmann had sympathies for any of the extremist factions, he would never act upon them. Everything with him is by the book, and his mandate is quite clear: to keep Outbounder operations running at ‘the maximum sustainable level.' And despite the supply reductions and delays that the Neo Luddites have caused by their filibustering in Geneva, he has managed to stay close to the original ship launching schedule. Which is no mean feat, believe me.”

“I do.”

“Well, then there's your answer, too. Perlenmann's mandate is spelled out clearly and he does not deviate from its rules.”

Lee nodded. “Yeah—but it's the exception that makes the rule. Maybe this is the exception.”

Iseult shook her head once, sharply. “No. Listen, Lee: I know enough people who either speak to, or are undeclared, radicals. I'm not in on any of their plans, but they trust me—enough for me to know that they all consider Perlenmann to be a stooge for the moderate Greens who are in power back home. Upsiders, Dirtsiders, Spacers, Outbounders: the one thing they can agree on is that Perlenmann won't break the rules.”

Lee shrugged. “Well, I had to ask.”

“Yes, you did. Is there any other way I can help?”

“Not right now.” Lee rose into the almost nonexistent gravity.

“Good; then it's your turn to help me.” Iseult rummaged in her desk, produced a small bottle of pills and handed them to Lee. “For Sergeant Bulganin,” she explained.

Lee smiled. “Weight loss pills?”

Iseult's face became stern. “That is not funny, Lieutenant. Kindly make sure that the sergeant gets these. Promptly.”

Lee frowned. “What are they?”

Iseult, who had directed her eyes to her computer, looked back up at Lee, surprised. “You don't know?”

Lee shook his head.

“He didn't tell you?”

Lee shook his head again.

Mon Dieu, men are so childish! Lee, Sergeant Bulganin suffers from asthma, and all that exercise you've been pushing him through has been making it worse. Much worse.”

Lee's thoughts were suddenly cluttered with images of Bulganin in the spin gym, his stony face alternately florid and pale, but always creased by rigid lines of suppressed pain. Lee had attributed the strain to the Russian's excess weight, but now he realized why Bulganin's gray sweatshirt was always black with perspiration, why neither his running time nor his endurance had improved: he wasn't getting enough air.

Lee closed his hand around the bottle. “Thank you, Doctor. I'll see that he gets these immediately.”

* * *

Bulganin stood to attention as Lee entered the now-pristine duty officer's room. The American waved him down.

“Be at your ease, Sergeant. Have a seat and take ten.” Bulganin eyed Lee suspiciously and then slowly sank into his chair. He turned back toward the computer on his desk.

Lee extended his hand across the table, uncurled his fingers to reveal the medicine bottle. “Sergeant, I believe these are for you.” Bulganin's face reddened and his jaw locked in place. His bearish paw reached out, removed the bottle with slow dignity, and stashed it in his breast pocket. He nodded faintly and shifted in his seat to readdress the computer.

“Sergeant, why didn't you inform me about your condition?”

Bulganin's jaw worked silently for a moment before he muttered, “It is not serious, Sir.”

“Damn it, Bulganin, that's not true and you know it. More to the point, now I know it, too.”

Bulganin's eyes did not meet Lee's. “You are removing me from duty, then?”

Lee shook his head. “Hell, no, Sergeant. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't. I can't afford to lose you.” Bulganin's eyes grew slightly less hard. “But I do want to know how long you've had this condition and why—why—you didn't tell me.”

Bulganin looked away from the computer, considering. Then: “May I speak frankly, Sir?”

“I insist upon it.”

“I did not tell you about my condition because I will not be humiliated by being excused from your physical training requirements—Sir.”

I did not set those standards, Sergeant, and you know it. They are Customs Patrol regulations.”

Bulganin nodded slightly. “Yes, that is true. But after your arrival, I—I did not wish to receive any special treatment from you, Sir.”

Lee nodded. “I think I understand, Sergeant. But hopefully we've gotten beyond our initial friction—at least somewhat. I'm still going to expect an hour of 1-gee PT from you each day. However, you are now to fulfill that requirement by spending three separate twenty-minute periods in the gym, with at least an hour of nonphysical duties preceding each of those PT periods.”

Bulganin had his mouth open to protest, but Lee held up his hand. “That is an order, Arkady.”

Bulganin closed his mouth, stared, and then smiled slightly. “It will be nice to breathe again.”

Lee smiled back. “I imagine it will. How long have you had this condition, and why isn't it on your records?”

Bulganin frowned. “It's not on my records because I've never reported it.”

“Christ, Bulganin, that's taking a hell of a chance.”

The Russian shrugged. “I would have been taking a bigger chance if I reported it. As you pointed out, my record has some rough patches, including anti-Neo Luddite protests. What do you think would happen if they found out I had severe asthma? Discharged from the service. And then what? I don't know how to do anything other than be a soldier. So I requested spaceside duty and tried to volunteer for the most isolated posts.”

“—Hoping that on those assignments, you could either conceal your asthma, or that your CO wouldn't bother to report it.”

Da—I mean, yes. That is it exactly.”

“Well, don't worry, Arkady; I'm not going to add any health reports to your record.”

Bulganin blinked and then beamed. “Spaseebo, Lieutenant.” Then he looked away, uncomfortable.

“What is it, Sergeant?”

“Sir, I am afraid I have—er, ‘forgotten'—to tell you something that might be relevant to your investigation.”

Ah hah; now maybe I can get somewhere. “I understand how something might have slipped your mind, Sergeant. It's been a very busy ten days.”

Bulganin smiled gratefully. “It's about Kotsukov, Sir. He was involved with the Outbounders. Although they did not share his fervor for Earth's continuing dominion, they were certainly interested in ensuring the continuation of the Outbound operations.”

“So I've heard. But why would Kotsukov associate with them? Logically, he'd consider them traitors, right?”

Bulganin nodded. “And so he did. But Kotsukov was practical. They had the same foes: the Sols. Besides, for the time being, Kotsukov was only too glad to see Earth ridding herself of dissidents so disaffected that they would rather take their chances traveling to the stars.” Bulganin shrugged. “Towards the end, he even helped them to arrange their secret meetings.”

“Secret meetings? Why secret?”

“Well, I think the Outbounders were starting to make contingency plans, trying to decide what they should do if Earth terminated work on the current colony ship.”

“Were they considering militant options?”

“I'm not sure, Sir, but I think some of them were. And Kotsukov, he . . . well, he . . .”


Bulganin swallowed. “He told me where they held the meetings.”

* * *

As the ventilation fan cycled to a slow halt, Bulganin uncoupled the unit's hinge. A heavy push, a scratchy squeal of breaking rust, and then the fan and its mounting bracket swung inward, revealing an air shaft approximately one meter in diameter. Bulganin squeezed himself into the aperture and waved for Lee to follow.

It was a tight crawl. On three separate occasions, Lee regretted that Fast Eddie wasn't familiar with the ventilation system. He would have been a much faster duct-crawler than Bulganin.

After half an hour of crawling, Bulganin came to a dead end where the vent broadened and was blocked by a rapidly spinning fan. After cutting power to the fan and waiting for the blades to drift to a halt, the Russian freed the hinge and yanked the fan inward. It swung back, revealing a tight-meshed grate. The two men crawled forward until they were within inches of the mesh.

Beyond the black metal grille-work, about thirty-five individuals were sitting in an irregular semicircle. Bulganin pointed once, twice, three times; “Briggs, the leader and the smartest. Kerkonnen, his right hand. Xi, good spokesperson. She's only twenty-seven; holds more appeal for the younger ones.” The other individuals represented a broad mix of age, ethnicity, and profession.

Lee drew his sidearm: he was once again carrying a standard issue ten-millimeter caseless automatic. Concerned that the homebrewed Upsider gyrojet pistol might raise some eyebrows and unwanted speculation about his own loyalties, he kept it well out of sight.

Lee's attempt to eavesdrop on the Outbounders' debate was unsuccessful. “Bulganin, can you hear what they're saying?”

“No, Sir. Too much noise out there and too much echo in here.”

Lee checked his watch. “Well, we'll have the opportunity to inquire about the topic of tonight's meeting soon enough. Coming up on the two-minute mark. Check your weapon and make sure you've got tranq rounds loaded.”

Bulganin frowned. “Are you sure you want the tranq, Sir?”

“Quite sure, Sergeant. Besides, we'll have another option on call if we need it.”

Bulganin nodded, produced his own ten-millimeter automatic, and sat so that his legs were curled up between his body and the grille.

Lee watched the seconds tick away. “Follow me in as soon as you can. And don't try jumping for distance, Arkady, just a good landing.”

“And ‘safety-on' until I'm steady.”

“Right. Okay, it's show time. Make it a good kick.”

Lee, alongside Bulganin, rose into a scrunched parody of a sprinter's crouch. The sergeant pulled his legs back and kicked the grate—hard.

As the grate tumbled out and away—pinwheeling in the low-gee—Lee launched himself forward. His fast, level glide carried him about seven meters, at which point he swept his bent legs up and then stamped down; a whump and he was grounded. He snapped the handgun's safety off—and could barely keep from grinning at the semicircle of open mouths before him.

“In accordance with Earth Union Legal Code 1770B2, I am detaining all persons here assembled, effective immediately. Please do not—”

Xi and two others launched into a long, floating run toward the room's main entrance, a large door directly opposite the vent Lee had come through. Bulganin, landing with a thump just a few feet behind Lee, made a guttural inquiry. “Drop them?”

“Not necessary, Sergeant. Just flank out.”

Xi and her companions reached the door just as it opened inward, revealing two panicked adolescents. They began screaming about a raid and were then forcibly propelled forward into the room, courtesy of Fast Eddie's booted feet. Xi turned and bolted back the way she had come.

But the other two exits were now blocked by Lee and Bulganin respectively. Xi completed her last leaping step just a few feet away from where she had started, her lips a taut line, her almond-shaped eyes wide and bright—and locked on the pistol Bulganin had pointed at her. Behind Xi, Briggs and Kerkonnen exchanged looks and raised their hands slowly into the air.

Lee holstered his weapon, but left the safety off. “Much better. And now, if you don't mind, I've got a few questions . . .”

* * *

Perlenmann stared at Lee over steepled fingers and across a table littered with open books. “So where does that leave us?”

“Just about back where we started.”

Perlenmann closed a few books, revealing more open ones beneath, as well as the new scanner that had been offloaded from the Gato. “You're sure none of the Outbounders were involved in the sabotage?”

“Am I sure? I don't know if I'm sure of anything.” Lee sighed, wondered what the scanner was doing mixed in with Perlenmann's precious books. “I can tell you this much, however. If any of the Outbounders were involved in some elaborate false-flag sabotage plot, they're keeping it a secret from their own leaders.”

“What about Ms. Xi? She seems to their political firebrand; could she be more militant than she appears?”

Lee shook his head. “Not likely. And she's got a pretty good alibi for the seventy-two hours prior to the explosion.”


“She was home with a nasty virus that's been going around; confined to bed per Iseult's orders. Lots of folks visited her, so she's got wall-to-wall witnesses who can testify that she was at home constantly during the three days preceding the explosion.”

Perlenmann shrugged. “I suppose we must conclude, then, that the Outbounders were not the saboteurs.”

“Leaving who? The Sols—if any of them are even on Callisto? Or a lone psychopath?”

Another shrug. “Maybe the former, but I doubt the latter. The Earth Union bureaucracy screens for mental aberrations before allowing access to Callisto.”

“Well, then, I'm fresh out of possible suspects.”

Perlenmann re-steepled his fingers. “Well, presuming the explosion is not an expression of madness, it must still advance the objectives of the saboteur, who is evidently not a Dirtsider, an Outbounder, and probably not a Sol.”


Perlenmann shrugged. “So maybe it is no longer effective to go looking for the culprit. Maybe we must trick him into standing forth where we can see him.”

Lee frowned. “I don't understand—”

And then, with the suddenness of an eye snapping open, Lee understood—and not just about the sabotage, but about the Fragrant Blossom's hijacking, as well. “Mr. Perlenmann, I'm going to make a quick, private call to the Gato. Then I'm going to confer with Dr. Iseult before we call for a closed-door meeting . . .”

* * *

Lee made sure that his face was set in grim lines when he reentered Perlenmann's briefing room later that day. His nod of greeting was returned by Iseult and the administrator. Parsons scowled at him from the far end of the table. Briggs and Xi simply looked worried.

Lee shoved aside a few books as he sat down. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

Parsons' scowl deepened. “Yeah, well, I got a lot of work to do, so—”

“Then we might as well get straight to it. Dr. Iseult?”

Genevieve folded her hands in front of her but did not look up. Her voice was small and tight. “Mr. Panachuk died a few hours ago.”

Perlenmann's eyes widened slightly. Briggs looked saddened, Xi looked concerned, and Parsons, open-mouthed, struggled to get out a single word: “What?”

Iseult explained. “When the tank exploded, Panachuk was evidently hit by a needlelike fragment traveling at very high speed. It must have entered on the same trajectory as the larger fragment we removed. Consequently there was no separate entry wound. The smaller fragment entered high in his left lung. When Panachuk later reported intermittent coughing with slightly bloody sputum, we presumed he had come down with the same bug that recently affected Ms. Xi and so many others—all the more likely since Panachuk's burns taxed his immune system and made him particularly susceptible to opportunistic infection.

“Possibly Panachuk didn't feel the fragment working its way inward with each coughbecause of the the pain medication he was receiving for his burns. Or possibly, he did feel it but didn't want to risk being invalided out of his job here. Either way, the first warning we had was when we found him unconscious with rapidly deteriorating coronary function.” Iseult looked away. “The fragment ultimately worked its way into his heart. By the time we isolated the problem and prepped him for surgery, he was dead.”

Parsons had grown very pale. “Jesus Christ. Poor Panachuk. His wife Marta is—”

“That will have to wait, Mr. Parsons,” Lee interrupted. “We've got a bigger problem to deal with.”

Parsons frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Panachuk's death means that this is no longer merely material sabotage; the crime now includes murder—the murder of one of your people. How long do you think your workers are going to wait for the wheels of justice to turn? That's why I've asked you all to assemble here. If we don't find the killer fast, your workers may take matters into their own hands and lynch some scapegoat. Fortunately, I think we have a strong suspect.”

Briggs blinked; Xi looked wary. “Who?” she asked.

“Jack Carroll, chief engineer.”

“Jack?” Parsons stared blankly at Lee. “You've got to be kidding.”

“I'm not. He's got the know-how, he had the opportunity, and we have evidence that he tampered with the forensics results.”

“In what way?”

Lee leaned back. “Well, in his report, Carroll claimed that he couldn't establish the make of the commercial watch that the saboteur used as the timer for the electric igniter. I went over the evidence myself and I'm pretty sure I have been able to type the watch—which is identical to one which Carroll owned, and which he reported as missing about a week before the explosion.”

Parsons shuddered, then shook his head. “You're wrong. Even if Carroll did it, he wouldn't have killed anybody. He could—and would—have prevented that from happening.”

Lee frowned. “I'm not sure I understand how you reach that conclusion, Mr. Parsons.”

Parsons scowled “Because if he really wanted to kill people, he'd have used a spark-gap igniter to touch off the hydrogen, not one of those dinky magnetic-induction igniters—”

Parsons stopped. Lee was smiling and Perlenmann's left eyebrow had risen precipitously.

Lee leaned forward. “Tell me, Mr. Parsons, how did you happen to know—know—that the saboteur used a magnetic-induction igniter rather than a spark-gap igniter?”

Parsons' complexion—already pale—became corpselike.

Lee continued. “You couldn't know about it from Carroll's final forensic report; I had that sealed, pending the conclusion of this investigation. And you couldn't have identified the igniter at our first staff meeting; it took Carroll two hours with a microscope to determine that what kind of igniter it was. So I ask you again, Mr. Parsons: how did you happen to know that the igniter used was a magnetic-induction model?”

Parsons didn't say anything; his eyes went around the room, starting at Lee and ending at Perlenmann. Then, he started to rise—

The door opened and Fast Eddie leaned in from the corridor, ten-millimeter automatic held securely in both hands. It was centered on Parsons' chest. Parsons sank slowly, carefully, into his seat.

Lee leaned back with a sigh. “Mr. Parsons, I'm going to ask you this question just one more time . . .”

* * *

The flood of admissions came quickly once Parsons was informed that Panachuk was not only still alive, but scheduled to be released later that day. Parsons was also angry—but relieved—to learn that Carroll had never been a suspect; despite his other failings, Parsons clearly didn't want anybody else paying for his act of sabotage.

Parsons' tale unfolded along the lines Lee had expected. Although Parsons felt the Sols were dangerous extremists, he was an ardent undisclosed Spacer, and so was also concerned both by the Upsiders' accommodation with their Dirtside masters. So he concocted a scheme designed to correct both problems.

By crafting the fuel tank sabotage to look like a Solist political statement, Parsons was certain that the Earth Union would crack down broadly in response to the sabotage and thereby spawn an Upsider backlash against Dirtside oppression.

However, Parsons had planned to simultaneously rally the Upsiders to mount “vigilance patrols” that would ultimately be credited with successfully suppressing farther “Sol violence” on Callisto. The moderate Greens would no doubt crow over the “elimination of treason on Callisto” and proudly point to the self-policing Upsiders as the means whereby it was eliminated, thereby making them poster children for the argument that, with proper incentives, spaceside communities could be made to aid Earth Union interests.

Of course, that would demonstrate to those same “exemplary” Upsiders that they could wrest concessions from the Dirtsiders if they were organized and proactive. In the long run, Parsons had hoped that the Earth Union would entrust more of the operation of Callisto to Upside hands, and in so doing, make the confidential technologies more accessible to the Spacers who would then carry that information to their independent enclaves in the Belt. There, those technologies would be developed and disseminated to increase the collective power position of the Upsiders in relation to their terrestrial masters.

“But I had nothing to do with the scanner sabotage,” Parsons finished. “Not as though that will help me much now. So let's just get it over with.”

Perlenmann cocked his head. “Get what over with?”

“Don't toy with me, Perlenmann. I know what happens next. I've confessed, you sentence. That's part of your job as administrator.”

Lee released a slow sigh. He was glad his part in this mess was over. Maybe now things would start settling down . . .

Perlenmann's words ruined that nascent hope. “Mr. Parsons, I am willing to suspend your sentence and permanently seal the record of these proceedings—and of Lieutenant Strong's investigation—if you will agree to undertake a special community service project.”

Iseult looked from Perlenmann to Lee. “Can he do that?”

Lee nodded, his mind racing ahead, trying to see where this was all leading. “Yes, he can, Doctor. Even though I was running the investigation, Mr. Perlenmann is this facility's de facto judicial authority.”

Perlenmann nodded to acknowledge the correctness of Lee's comment. “Just so. Mr. Parsons, are you interested in this solution?”

Parsons was still staring at Perlenmann as though the administrator had grown another head. “Uh . . . sure. Yes.”

“Then, Mr. Parsons, here is what you must do. You must convene an open forum comprised not only of Upsiders and Spacers, but Outbounders and Dirtsiders, as well. And your first collective act must be to renounce violence. After that, you are to use the forum to air your concerns to the entire community. This means that the entire community will also hear the often contending concerns and viewpoints of your adversaries. If you achieve no more than that, I will be satisfied. We need to exchange views, not blows, here on Callisto.”

Perlenmann glanced over at Lee, smiling. Lee smiled back and nodded. Yes, it was all becoming clear now. Very clear.

Perlenmann was concluding. “Do you agree to these terms, Mr. Parsons?”

Parsons nodded, dumbfounded. “Y-yes. Sure.”

Lee nodded at Perlenmann. “And it's all by the book, isn't it?”

Perlenmann smiled again. “Yes; quite.” Then he stared at Parsons and proclaimed. “Mr. Parsons, having agreed to fulfill the service required, you are free to go. But fair warning: if you perpetrate, incite, or encourage any farther violence to persons or property on Callisto, I shall reopen the file on this matter, have you incarcerated, and remand you to Earth for appropriate sentencing on the charges of sabotage and treason.”

Parsons stood, looked anxious to be off. Lee smiled. He probably wants to get the hell out of this room before Perlenmann comes to his senses and throws the book at him. Which is what should have happened.

Perlenmann nodded. “You may go.”

Parsons exited, followed closely by Briggs, Xi, and Cabral. The little Brazilian still kept his eyes on Parsons—and one hand on his holstered gun. Iseult, with another raised-eyebrow glance at Lee, followed them out.

As the door closed behind them, Lee shook his head. “Bravo, Mr. Perlenmann. A command performance.”

Perlenmann's smile dimmed somewhat. “I'm afraid I don't understand you, Lieutenant.”

“Mr. Perlenmann, you understand me so well that you have been able to control me like a marionette without my knowing it. Except that you did step over the line of legality one time—and that's what gave you away.”

Perlenmann smiled. “And what is this purported oversight of mine?”

“Oh, it wasn't an oversight; you just didn't have a choice. The scanner, Perlenmann. You sabotaged the scanner.”

The smile widened. “And why would I do such a thing?”

Lee indicated the cluttered table. “Well, partly because of the books—which the current Earth Union censorship prevents from being distributed anymore.”

Perlenmann shrugged. “I fail to see your reasoning. Why scan books that I already have, as do a number of Upside libraries?”

“You're not worried about Upside readers, Mr. Perlenmann. Your concern is with Outbound readers, particularly those in coming generations who would otherwise be deprived of the true depth and breadth of human thought, innovation, and imagination. So, since the Dirtside censors control what goes into the colony ships' data banks, you realized that the only way to work around their restrictions was to create your own, uncensored graphical library.

“But the old secure scanner wasn't the right tool for that job. It was too slow. So you got something that can capture pages in the blink of an eye. And all those images are probably hidden with false file names, or mixed into other data records on the Outbounder colony ships.”

Perlenmann smiled. “Better than that. The library files are hidden among compressed backups of earlier versions of navigational software. The Outbounders will not even be aware of them until several years into their journey. At a preset date, the archives will unfold themselves and alert the crew to their existence.” He leaned back. “So, you have discovered my heinous crime. I am at your mercy.”

“You might not want to make a joke of that just yet, Administrator Perlenmann, because I'm not done. You see, I started thinking about how your sabotaging the secure scanner might answer some of the other mysteries I've been grappling with. Like how it might be related to the hijacking of the Fragrant Blossom.”

Perlenmann raised an eyebrow; his tone was wry. “So those pirates were after my scanner, too? I was not informed that it has such an inexplicably high market value.”

“Actually, it's you who had the inside information on its value, and it was the hijackers who didn't. But let's stop calling them that; they were paid assassins, sent to retrieve something they never found. Because it was hidden in that scanner, right there.” Lee pointed at the unit.

Perlenmann's smile vanished.

Lee tapped the scanner in a slow rhythm. “It's been said that the best place to hide a big crime is deep within a small one. And that's what you did. Sure; you wanted the new scanner. And if you had been caught, you could always have blushed and smiled a little and all would have been well. And no one would have thought to look any closer at the new secure scanner—which was in fact a data mule. Oh, I know you intend to use it to digitize your library, too, but its real purpose was as a means of transmitting illegal, even treasonous, data, stored as coded ‘test images' on the scanner's chip. And unless I'm much mistaken, that's what the assassins on the Blossom were actually after. They were there to intercept that data. That's why they didn't give a damn about hostages, or stealing the ship. It's why they had to stay aboard her, letting her drift, attracting no attention, while they tried to locate the hidden data. It's why they had an armed, high-speed getaway ship waiting at 216 Kleopatra to retrieve the information, debrief the hijackers, and then probably liquidate them.”

“And yes, we found a large store of test images in the scanner. We made a record of them, but they didn't make any sense to us until now. But I suspect that if we had the right cipher, we'd discover why someone was willing to send assassins to retrieve that information—and why, as its recipient, you're willing to live a double-life that smacks of treasonous intent.”

“I'm curious, Lieutenant. What led you to conjecture that I was the recipient for such secret data?”

Lee shrugged. “Part of my research involved going over your confidential logs, which include the base's comm records. I went back and checked the transmissions to and from the Fragrant Blossom during its prior arrivals. There was almost no communication between you. But this time, from the moment the Fragrant Blossom left her orbital berth at Mars, you were in constant contact with her.” Lee smiled. “Obviously, you and her captain had a lot to talk about. And that was a lucky coincidence for you, because if you hadn't set up a regular call-in schedule with the Blossom's CO, you'd have never learned about the hijacking in time to alert us.”

“Oh, luck had nothing to do with our frequent communications, Lieutenant Strong. That was our attempt to discourage the assassins we already feared might be on board the Blossom.”

Lee stared. “What do you mean?”

“Lieutenant Strong, although the Blossom's captain did not have any definitive proof, he had considerable reservations regarding several late-booking passengers, as well as one or two replacement crewmembers. He communicated these reservations to me and so we made a very public point of establishing a relatively frequent check-in schedule, which included information that we hoped would deter any potential mutineers. For instance, I mentioned several times that your cutter was within the area, as well as your sister-ship, the Revered Timberland. Clearly, we underestimated the determination of our opponents.”

Lee heard the self-recriminatory tone. “Don't blame yourself, Mr. Perlenmann. These assassins weren't going to let anything interfere with their plans.”

Perlenmann nodded, stared at Lee. “I'm not sure you know the full truth of your own words, Lieutenant Strong. Only two days prior to their attack, the Revered Timberland—or Ravenous Tiburon, in your parlance—was called away to provide emergency medical aid to a small, temporary mining outpost deeper in the asteroid belt.”

“So what? We get those calls all the time.”

“I'm sure you do—but not about outposts that don't exist. But this hoax had a most impressive pedigree. The message had a valid Customs Patrol authorization code affixed to it. And when the Tiburon departed, it also ensured that yours was the only ship left in the area.”

Lee felt cold streak down his spine. “What are you implying?”

Perlenmann held out his hands. “I should think it is obvious. The closest of the two ships that could have come to the aid of Flagrant Blossom was officially ordered to a distant location only two days before the hijackers acted. So who was left alone in the approximate vicinity of the attack site? Why, a junior commander. A commander with no prior combat experience. A commander from a family with questionable political affiliations. A commander who, by all reports, was getting along entirely too well with the crew of the Venerated Gaia, a.k.a. Venereal Gato.” Perlenmann, looked at Lee over steepled fingers. “You know, don't you, that positive reviews and reactions from your Upsider crew is actually a matter of grave concern to your superiors?”

Lee swallowed. He hadn't known that, but given everything he'd learned in the past weeks, it made sense. From the Earth Union perspective, if an Upsider crew adopted and confided in a Dirtsider officer, that could evolve into a Very Risky Situation indeed. “I find your conjectures . . . disturbing,” Lee admitted, his mouth suddenly very dry.

Perlenmann nodded. “I thought you might.”

Lee had recovered a bit. “Logically, then, whoever drew off the Tiburon has agents inside the Customs Patrol. And, being behind the hijacking, they almost certainly advised the assassins and their recovery ship on our position and isolation. Which is why the assassins didn't bother to change their game plan. They figured we'd be too far off to detect anything amiss, or stumble across them—as long as the crew of the Blossom didn't get off a cry for help, and they continued to drift along quietly. And that's also why the assassins were ready for every conventional boarding method we might have tried. Someone told them exactly what to prepare for.”

Lee regarded Perlenmann closely. “But we'd have never been there at all—never learned about the Fragrant Blossom's troubles— if it hadn't been for you. None of the people plotting to seize the Blossom could anticipate that you would contact me directly, that you were keeping close tabs on the situation—and my position.” Lee shook his head. “I should have known something wasn't kosher when your message about the Blossom came directly to our own lascom. You would only have had such precise coordinates on us if you'd already been tracking and taking regular fixes on our position. Just like the bad guys were.”

Perlenmann nodded. “And you see the implications that logically follow from your conjectures, of course.”

“You mean that you're part of some larger clandestine organization? Sure, but what organization? And which side is it working for?”

“The organization I work with does not support any one faction. Our concern is for the welfare of this whole solar system. And for the whole system to be healthy, all parts of it must enjoy equal freedoms. And the most fundamental of all those freedoms is this: that persons must be free to read, write, say, and think what they will. Without that, all other freedoms are not merely meaningless, they are shams.”

Lee smiled crookedly. “Now you're starting to sound like my parents.”

Perlenmann returned the smile. “That was not my intention, but it does not surprise me.”

Lee leaned back, realizing that, for the first time since puberty, he was completely uncertain as to the outcome of his present conversation, or where it might take him. “So, what's in the scanner: your secret plans, or your enemies'?”

Perlenmann sighed. “Unfortunately, both—but that was not our intent. Our own plans were the last covert package to be carried by the Blossom, and would have attracted no attention. But events dictated that another data package—plans for a top secret operation being prepared by the Greens—had to be shipped out here along with it.”

“Okay, so let's go through this one step at a time. What is this about a secret Green operation?”

Perlenmann sighed. “The Greens have devised a clandestine plot to simultaneously wipe away the increases in Upside self-sufficiency while simultaneously eliminating the recent political gains of the Neo Luddites. It's quite an ingenious scheme actually, dubbed ‘Case Red.'”

“And how did it come to be on the Blossom?”

Perlenmann shrugged. “Apparently, one of our agents got unexpected access to the plans—probably as a target of opportunity—and had to get them beyond the clutches of the Green security apparatus.”

“Don't you mean the Earth Union security apparatus?”

Perlenmann shook his head. “No. The Greens couldn't afford to use Earth Union forces to reclaim the file. If they did, the contents would be examined—which would reveal their attempt to undermine their supposed political allies, the Neo Luddites.”

“So the Greens have their own secret security apparatus. And that's probably who was behind the hijacking, the raider ship, and the radio call that pulled away the Ravenous Tiburon.”

“Unquestionably. All done to keep their perfidy concealed from both the Upsiders and the Neo Luddites. So, when Case Red fell into the hands of our operatives, I suspect their only choice was to get it off world as quickly, and as far, as possible.”

“So they gave it to the captain of the Blossom.”

“Yes, who the Greens apparently knew was part of our organization. What they didn't realize was that his only role in the organization was as a courier, bringing a series of secret documents out to me on Callisto. And so, without any intention of doing so, we suddenly had all our most crucially secret eggs in one fragile basket: the Blossom.”

Lee nodded. “And although the Greens tracked Case Red to the Blossom, they couldn't take open action before she departed. Everything in port is under official scrutiny at all times.”

“Exactly. So the Greens deposited a mix of operatives and amnesty-bribed thugs on board the Blossom instead. The operatives went as replacement crew, the thugs masqueraded as legitimate passengers. The captain suspected as much, of course, but could do nothing. The infiltrators had impeccable false identities and credentials, supplied by Greens who control the necessary personal record databases.”

Lee saw how these circumstances had led to what he had discovered on the Blossom. “So the infiltrators waited until the liner was in deep space, took her, interrogated both the crew and passengers in an attempt to locate the Case Red file, and failing that, eliminated them and continued the search on their own. And it's entirely possible that Coordinator Mann deflected us from investigating more deeply because he is an agent for the Green conspirators. In fact, he might be the one who set the hijacking to begin with.”

“There is no way to be certain, but he had the opportunity and authority to do so.”

Lee stared around at the books. “Now, about your own secret file—the one the scanner was carrying as test images: what the hell is it?”

Perlenmann folded his hands. “The images are graphical copies of a computer code—a code too important and sensitive to be transmitted as code. So we have been shuttling it out here to Callisto, piece by piece.”

“And what makes this code so important?”

“Do you know what a backdoor is, Lieutenant?”

“Sure. It's code put into a program—usually an operating system—so that the code writer can access and control the system later on without having to log on or go through any other security protocols.”

“Precisely. Well, we have been recompiling the code of a long-unused backdoor for almost five years.”

“What is it a backdoor to?”

“The market and financial management software used by the Earth Union.”

Lee stared. “How did your agents get access to that kind of code? That should be completely inaccessible.”

“It is. Even to the Greens themselves.”

“Mr. Perlenmann, you're going to have to stop talking in riddles, please.”

“Actually, I'm stating the simple truth. The Greens are no longer aware that this backdoor exists. You see, several decades before the economic collapse of the twenty-first century, the programmers who wrote the financial tracking and exchange software used by the major markets of the world realized that there could come a day when world leaders might need to intervene to forestall an imminent fiscal crash. So they put a backdoor in all their programs.”

“And the security subroutines of those programs never tweaked to it?”

Perlenmann smiled. “That would have been a most difficult task, since the backdoor was nested inside the security subroutines themselves.”

“Oh,” said Lee, who did not feel particularly intelligent at that moment.

“When the markets did collapse a generation later, the backdoor codes were mostly forgotten by the new market managers, and what remained was lost in the chaos.

“That would have been the end of the story if there had not been a collection of nations—mostly in Europe—which, by nationalizing their debts and shifting to an emergency command economy, remained stable enough to continue trading amongst themselves. In time, the global markets—now under Green control—reasserted.

“However, in the technophobic culturescape arising from the collapse, there was no interest in creating new programs to integrate and manage dataflow between the world's markets. So they simply retained the old software and rebuilt the old machines which ran it.”

Lee goggled. “And they're still using that system today? Almost two hundred years later?”

Perlenmann shrugged. “Why not? It works, and to replace it would mean a significant investment, appropriated over the objections of the Neo Luddites, many of whom detest the entire notion of money, anyway. The software has evolved, of course, but its core program is still the same. And the backdoor is still there.”

“And your organization found the code for it? How?”

Perlenmann's smile was sly; Lee pictured him suggesting to Eve that she might enjoy just one tiny bite of that shiny, ripe apple. “It was never entirely lost, although its full potential was not understood. The access code itself was split up shortly after the Greens began their initial rise to power. For generations there was no opportunity, and no pressing reason, to reassemble or use it. Until the recent retrenchments, it was conceivable that, over time, the Greens would relent and humanity would reattain a reasonable balance between eco-consciousness and technological advancement, despite the resistance of the Neo Luddites.

“But then we started getting fragmentary reports of a clandestine Green operation dubbed ‘Case Red.' Named for how it will begin—the inciting and then crushing of a ‘popular revolt' on Mars—the plan is designed to strip away every bit of autonomy the Upside communities have managed to accrue and set them back about a century. It is also structured so that it will appear to be a purely Neo Luddite plot.”

“So you began reassembling the pieces of the backdoor code in order to cripple the fiscal structures of the Earth Union before they could make the Upsiders their serfs once again.”

“Well, yes. But we are not doing this just to save the Upsiders. We are trying to save Earth, as well.”

“How does destroying Earth's markets save it?”

Perlenmann feigned surprise. “I thought you were a student of history, Lieutenant Strong.”

“I am. And what you're doing will have an effect as profound as the Great Depression of the twentieth century, or even the currency collapse of the late twenty-first century, which is what brought the Greens to power in the first place.”

“Just so. But tell me, weren't there even worse social cataclysms in history?”

Lee shrugged. “Of course there were. The collapse of the Roman Empire led to the Dark Ages. Centuries of misery, decline, and belief that humanity was now debased, fated to live in the shadows of a greatness that could not be regained.”

“Just so. Now, what made the Roman fall so much greater than the economic collapses of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?”

Lee started. “Well, you can't really compare them at all. A market collapse is the failure of just one element in a larger, integrated system.” And then Lee saw what Perlenmann was driving at. “They didn't cause a complete social implosion because, however bad they looked at the time, they weren't complete system failures. They were corrections of a flawed element within the system.”

“Exactly. Of course, it doesn't feel like a mere ‘correction' to the people living through those events. But we can be sure of this: they were far less terrible than being alive in the Europe of 500 AD, enduring a squalid, wretched existence among ruins, lost in a deep night of decline and despair.”

Lee nodded. “Which, if the Greens and the Neo Luddites succeed with Case Red, is exactly where Earth is headed. By smashing the Upsiders, they're smashing the few injections of innovation and growth that stave off complete cultural and economic stagnation, and ultimately, implosion.”

Perlenmann nodded and folded his hands. “Lieutenant Strong, let us even presume that the Greens fail to execute Case Red. If the Earth Union continues on its current course for another century, what is likely to become of it?”

Lee's throat became uncomfortably dry and tight. “The same thing: stagnation and implosion. The Great Depression, the Dark Ages, and the Fall of Rome, all rolled into one social cataclysm. Anarchy. Savagery. Barbarism.”

“Horribly so. An unavoidable and unpreventable certainty. As in Rome, the system has accrued so much power and inertia that, if left to its own devices, it will not merely stumble to a halt: it would crash into a thousand, irreclaimable pieces.”

Lee looked up sharply. “So are you trying to sell me the idea that your backdoor sabotage is actually some kind of perverse mission of mercy?”

“Admittedly, it does seem perverse. A market collapse now will kill thousands and generate much misery. However, left to fester for another fifty to a hundred years, it will become a great fall that will kill billions and generate unparalleled suffering and barbarism. Or are you beginning to doubt your own conclusions, Lieutenant Strong?”

Lee shook his head, considered. “And now I understand why you've been recompiling the code out here. Because Callisto is Ultima Thule, the far Marches of the Empire. It's a place where ships come only four times a year, where Earth Union oversight is almost nonexistent, and where the presence of the Customs Patrol is so rare that our visits are memorable events. So where better to put such a code back together, and who better than the local eye and arm of Earth Union authority, the facility administrator?”

Perlenmann nodded, watched Lee, said nothing, seemed to be waiting.

Lee nodded back, understanding. “And now that the backdoor code is fully compiled, you want me to carry it back in-system for you, where others of your organization can spread it for maximum effect before you activate it.”

Perlenmann shrugged. “I cannot compel you to carry it in-system. But I would not use coercive means even if they were at my disposal. To do so would make me the very thing I strive to defeat.”

“And if I refuse to work as your courier?

“Perhaps another means of conveying the code to where it is needed will present itself. Perhaps not. However, I must be frank: we are now in a desperate race against disaster.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the Greens must presume that Case Red has been compromised. They will almost certainly move up the timetable for its implementation. What they had thought to initiate in five or six years might well be accelerated to two or three years—maybe less.”

“And you'll do nothing?”

“The only thing we can do is spread and activate the backdoor code as quickly as possible. Which means, Lieutenant, that you have a decision to make, and very soon.”

Lee considered. If he became a courier for either the backdoor code or Case Red, he was committing treason. If he simply boarded the Gato and did nothing, he was still aiding and abetting treason. Either way, he was breaking his oath of service unless he arrested Perlenmann immediately.

Of course, the Earth Union had broken its vows in so many ways, so profoundly, and with such callous disregard for the people it was supposed to protect and serve, that his oath of service to it had begun to feel like a contract made with a con man. But still, if he was going to break with the Earth Union and his oath, shouldn't he take the moral high ground and do it openly—?

“Lieutenant, I have spent many years observing expressions on the faces of other people. If I were to guess, I would say you are in the throes of a conflict of conscience. Perhaps I can clarify things for you. If you openly repudiate your oath of service, you will undo all we have worked for. Such a statement will attract the very attention we must avoid. I am sorry to say that I require not only your services as a courier, but your silence—at least until you have delivered the data.”

Lee considered. Well, yes; that certainly did make it simpler—in a way. If he was going to break an oath, he would have to go all the way and become a coconspirator. Not merely an open enemy of the state, but a covert traitor, a spy. He almost wished he had not decided to come out and see what real life was like, out among the Upsiders.

Perlenmann's smile was sad. “Lieutenant, I believe there is not much middle ground in the choices before you. You know what I am guilty of. You must either uphold your oath and arrest me, or not.”

Lee leaned back, let his eyes wander across the books, across Perlenmann's face—creased with a slight suggestion of anxiety—and finally let his gaze rest upon the scanner. “All this scanning—even with a new machine—must still take forever.”

Perlenmann shrugged; “It's not too bad, but it is rather tedious; scan, turn a page, scan, turn another page—”

Lee nodded, rose, picked up a book. Hesse's Magister Ludi. “Given all the work ahead of you, it sounds like you could use another pair of hands.”

“Yes, I can use another pair of hands, Lieutenant. In more ways than one.” Perlenmann handed Lee a thinner volume: Sun Tzu's The Art of War. “In more ways than one.”

* * *

The sudden, virtually overnight breakdown of the entire financial network of Old Earth on July 26, 252 PD (2354 Old Style), inflicted catastrophic damage on Old Earth's markets and national economies. The “Economic Winter,” as it came to be known, effectively wiped out over a third of all major corporations within the first thirty-six hours. Efforts to control or even slow the rolling collapse of the planetary economy proved fruitless, and by August 1, well over half of the world's transnational corporations had been driven into failure. Old Earth had never seen such a tidal wave of bank and corporate bankruptcies, and every effort to restart the economy or somehow impose financial order failed in the face of massive collapses within the world trading networks as the software which had provided the sinews of the financial system crumbled, apparently overwhelmed by the sheer cataract of disaster.

Claims by the ruling political parties that the onslaught of ruin were the result of some sort of bizarre plot, delberately inflicted by “terrorists,” were greeted intitially with incredulity and then with rage as the political leadership's obvious effort to scapegoat someone else—anyone else—for its own failures sank home. Mobs took to the street, initially inchoate and fueled solely by rage and desperation, but leaders soon emerged. Within weeks, the first of the Committees of Renaissance was organized in North America; within months, the ruling Greens and Neo Luddites of the GRASP coalition found themselves fighting for their lives. The ruling elites' longstanding plans to retreat to Old Earth's orbital habitats in the face of disaster failed; officers of the Customs Service ordered to support Earth Union police forces against the Committees' armed supporters either refused or were forcibly prevented from obeying by their crews; the Upsider community, from Mars to Callisto, declared its support for the insurrection; and after three weeks of bitter fighting on Luna, the Lunar habitats also joined the united opposition.

By January 253 PD, the Earth Union had effectively disintegrated. The old national units which had never been officially superseded asserted their sovereignty and independence once again, and the surviving leadership of the discredited Green and Neo Luddite parties had been driven entirely from power. The rage directed at them, sparked by the economic collapse, had grown nothing but fiercer and more burning as the citizens of Earth recognized the systemic stagnation and paralysis which had been ideolgically imposed upon them, and many of those political leaders were forced deep into hiding or even—in one of history's most bitter ironies—into seeking safety in interstellar flight once those flights were resumed in 257 PD.

The Economic Winter imposed untold suffering. It has been estimated that well over a century of accumulated wealth was destroyed in a period of less than two weeks. The actual death toll has never been fully assessed, but must have measured in the hundreds of thousands on a planet-wide basis. The individual citizens whose life savings were wiped away are literally beyond counting. And yet, despite the staggering blow the Sol System had taken, the tide of human capability and creativity rebounded dramatically in the period of restored individual liberties and representative government which blossomed in the wake of the Earth Union's destruction. By 261 PD, the system had almost completely recovered from the Economic Winter and charged ahead into two T-centuries of unparalleled economic, technological, and intellectual growth and expansion. Nor did the renaissance of humanity's home star system stop there. The nightmare of Old Earth's Final War still waited in the mists of the unseen future, but for the next six T-centuries, until the slide into the political and ideological madness of that cataclysm began with the Veronezh declaration of 850 PD, the light of human hope, dreams, and aspirations burned as strongly as that of Sol itself.

From Darkness Back to the Stars:

The Collapse of the Neo Luddites,

Ephraim Bousquet, Ph.D.

Pélissard et Fils, Nouveau Paris,

Haven, 1597 PD

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