Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

THE SKY PEOPLE

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 16th edition

University of Chicago Press, 1988

 

The Space Race:

 

The history of the space race is marked by a very high degree of parallelism. The early EastBloc lead in heavy multistage rockets, and the early American perfection of reusable two-stage winged shuttles, were both temporary. Given that both competitors were operating within the same framework of natural law, and that both were prepared to commit very large resources, this was perhaps inevitable. On Venus, the United States even planted its initial manned base (Jamestown) fairly close to that of the EastBloc (Cosmograd), and within a year of the founding of the latter. Ostensibly this was to leave the possibility of mutual support open, though there was widespread speculation that the real goal was to limit any possible EastBloc territorial hegemony.

The EastBloc has never revealed why it decided on a location for Cosmograd so far from the landing sites of its initial probes...

 

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Marc checked the sensor in his hand again. It obstinately refused to show anything but absolute normality; he tucked it back into the leather sheath at his belt and crawled forward over the surface of the dirigible's gas cell. That was like being a bug on an air-mattress, if you allowed for the net of soft strong rope over everything; he advanced with a hand or foot always hooked under a length of it, since the 'saur intestine of the gasbags was both shiny and slippery-slick. The he checked the valve and piping...

Zip, he thought disgustedly, and swung down the side of the cell until he could reach across and clip his safety line onto the vertical ladder that ran from the top of the gondola to the observation blister. Inside the gloom of the Vepaja's main hull, the creaking of the shamboo ladder was lost in the muted groaning chorus that the airship's fabric always made when it was underway. The interior was hot and stuffy as usual, and saturated with an olive gloom and the smell of well-cured 'saur intestine, the local equivalent of goldbeater's skin used for the big donut-shaped gas cells that filled most of the interior. The cells surged a little inside their confining nets, billowing on either side of him as he climbed past the axial girder that ran down their centers and up towards the observation blister. He heard the voices long before they could be aware of him.

"Do we really have to talk about him?" Blair said.

"You're the one who seems obsessed, Chris," Cynthia said.

Works OK. Tone far too friendly.

"All right, then, let's talk about you and me," Blair said smoothly.

"In other words, you don't want to talk about yourself—you want to talk about how I feel about you."

Blair joined in the woman's teasing laughter. "I'm certainly interested in how you feel," he murmured.

Cynthia groaned in mock agony. A moment later her breath caught...

Marc felt himself flush in the darkness. You stay any longer, p'tit, you're going to be a dominon, and Peeping Tom isn't your name.

He slid back down the ladder hastily, his boots thumping on the roof of the gondola before he swung into the control room. Tyler looked at him and raised his brows.

"Anything wrong, Lieutenant?"

"No, sir. The main valves all check out and the hand sensor says there's no excess."

Tyler frowned at the gauges. "That's odd. We're showing what should be a trickle leak."

Unexpectedly, Jadviga Binkis spoke up; her English was excellent, though thick with what Marc thought of as a Boris-and-Natasha accent.

"When gauges disagree with physical inspection, is good idea to trust physical inspection," she said.

Tyler nodded politely, not adding: Maybe it us with your sensor systems.

"Well, everyone keep an eye on it," he said.

Just then Cynthia slid down the ladder, using the fireman's grip with hands on feet on the uprights, bypassing the stringers.

Either that was very quick, or things haven't progressed as far as I thought, Marc mused to himself. Then: Mais, none of your business, boug! He still had to fight down a grin when Blair slid down after her, looking flushed and frustrated in a way Cynthia wasn't equipped for, and running his hands through his shock of yellow hair.

"Did I hear you say there's a gas leak, sir?" Cynthia said to Tyler.

Nobody took a hydrogen leak casually on Venus. The denser air combined with the greater partial oxygen pressure to make fire a worse hazard than it had been on Earth since the Cretaceous, when Earth's atmosphere had been similar. Forest fires here had to be seen to be believed.

"The computer says it's drawn down 2% of bottled reserves to maintain cell pressure," the captain of the Vepaja said. "But I just had Lieutenant Vitrac do a visual and hand-sensor check on all the cells and the valving."

She gave Marc a hard quick glance as he nodded, then listened with interest.

"There's no excess hydrogen in the upper hull," he said, and everyone showed at least a little relief, even the stone-faced EastBlocker. They were all on the same flying bomb, after all. "No leaks that I could detect, and no mechanical fault in the valves or the vents."

The airship had six lifting-gas cells, each with its own main valve opening through the upper keel. In addition there were latticed vents all along the upper surface, with fans to maintain a continual throughput of air inside the hull, from bottom to top and out.

"All those p'tit h'atoms," Marc murmured.

He got a quelling look from Tyler and a quick grin from Cynthia; Jadviga just looked puzzled. Blair was doing his imperturbable-Englishman routine again, above such things as mere anxiety. Hydrogen atoms would leak through nearly anything, eventually; they were just too small to be completely contained. Fortunately they leaked up, and if you could make sure they went outside the hull there was little chance of getting the sort of hydrogen-air mixture that turned you into another martyr to the cause of interplanetary exploration and incorporated your remains into the base of the Venusian food-chain.

"Still," Tyler went on, "I'm not going to take any chances. We're only four hundred miles out. We'll find a good mooring spot and spend the rest of the day and as much of the night as we need to an inch-by-inch inspection of everything. The gas cells, the reservoir, the piping, and everything between."

Nobody so much as frowned. Flying on the Vepaja was just as boring as Captain Tyler had promised; and besides, it was their lives. Marc called up a map of the area on his screen; it was all satellite imagery, since they were well west of any area that had been overflown from Jamestown before, much less walked on. Photography from the space station could show you the general outlines of things, but experience had shown that the devil was well and truly in the details.

 

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"Haul away!" Marc said into the handset.

They all stepped well back as the electric winch hummed in the Vepaja above them. The dead tree they'd clipped the cable around was massive, the stump thicker through than a man's body at the chest height where they'd secured the hitch, and tapering to a pointed stub not much higher. The wood was weathered enough to be iron-hard, but hadn't been dead long enough for the roots to rot. It held with a creak, and the airship sank by the nose as the braided 'saur hide came taunt. As it did the gas pumps on the roof of the gondola chugged, compressing the lifting medium in the cells into a much denser, non-buoyant form in the steel storage tanks along the keel. That was always preferable to valving off gas to descend.

At last the orca shape hung two hundred feet up, streaming out behind a long curve of cable; it could pivot around the anchor point in a complete circle if the wind veered, and it would be over water for most of that—the tree had grown on the tip of a spit of land running out into a lake five miles across and ten long.

"Go for it, boys," Cynthia said cheerfully. "Just watching all this honest work makes me feel better. A little sweat never hurt anyone."

She was keeping watch with one of the heavy game rifles in her arms. Jadviga Binkis stood behind her, looking in the other direction and holding a chunky automatic shotgun, loaded with heavy rifled slugs. Back home police used those for breaking through thick locked doors; they were an acceptable way to knock down something large, living and mean at close quarters. Mostly what was in view was the water of the lake they'd christened Myposa, reed-grown close to shore, blue with small whitecaps further out. Rolling open downs surrounded the water on this northern shore, with thick forest in the valleys and scattered trees; the tall grass rippled like long slow ocean waves. Most of the birds and beasts had fled when the airship came close, but they could see moving dots on the edge of sight.

Marc and Blair went over to where the pump lay and lifted it with a grunt, walking it between them with a careful shuffle until they had it resting securely on the graveled beach. Then the hose and power cable came down, and they snapped the connectors home.

"All clear, Captain," Marc said again.

The pump started up, its mechanical purr oddly alien among the creak and rustle of vegetation, the cheep and buzz of insects, the rustle of beasts too tiny or too witless to be alarmed by the huge shape in the sky passing through grass and brush. Small hand-sized fliers with triangular wings and long tails tipped with miniature rudders and mouths full of tiny needlelike teeth flew among the bugs, snapping up prey and leaving legs and bits of gauzy wing to flutter downward.

The airship bobbed a little closer to the ground as water flowed into the ballast tanks. The rest of the afternoon sunlight falling on the great hull went into cracking for the hydrogen, to fill the cells and cram into the reserve tanks.

"Captain, I'll take a gander around and maybe get us some fresh meat," Marc said into the handset.

"All right, Lieutenant," Tyler said. "But don't go out of visual range of the airship; that's an order."

"Roger, Captain."

Blair frowned. "It's an unnecessary risk," he said.

Marc shrugged. "Mais, so's getting out of bed in the morning," he said. "And we should conserve our preserved foods."

"Trivial."

Marc shrugged again. "Since I'm cooking tonight, let me get some decent ingredients. The dried stuff... is it desiccated or desecrated?"

"I'll take a turn in the galley, if you wish," Blair retorted.

Nearly a week together in the Vepaja had revealed that the Englishman was rather proud of his cooking skills. He was much better at it than Marc had expected, in a rather academic-by-the-book way, and could manage a fairly good omelet as long as their fresh eggs held out. While Jesus might be able to turn water into wine, even He couldn't do anything worthwhile with dried, powdered eggs.

"But we don't have any Brussels sprouts for you to overdo, old boy," Marc said blandly.

The blond man flushed and took a step towards him. Cynthia cleared her throat and said: "Let's get to work. That inspection won't do itself."

Marc waited while the basket was lowered from the cargo doors on the Vepaja's keel and the other three had been hoisted up into their craft. As the doors closed he pulled a mottled length of parachute cloth out of a pocket and tied it around his head like a bandana, knotting it at the back of his head.

Then he whistled sharply and picked up his rifle; he didn't bother with the bush-jacket, just buckling on the belt with pistol and knife and machete, and slinging the bandolier with its cartridge loops over one shoulder. Tahyo's gangling form rose out of a clump of grass at the signal. He trotted over, as always covering the ground fairly fast even though his legs and paws and head still looked far too big for the awkward rest of him. At the sight of the rifle and the sound of Marc working the bolt to chamber a round his goofy eagerness sank into a quivering joy. Tahyo had never had the slightest doubt about what he was supposed to do for a living, and he loved his work.

The yearling greatwolf was already a bit above his master's waist at the shoulder, his barrel head nearly breastbone high as he took the air; that was blowing from a bit west of north. He followed obediently as Marc walked in that direction, keeping the breeze in his face and carefully to the open ridges where he could see the Vepaja clearly. Grass still green enough to smell sweet when it crushed underfoot waved around him, waist-high to chest-high most of the time; there was an undergrowth of herbs, some prickly, some with small blue-green flowers.

The trees on the higher ground were smallish flat-topped thorny acacias, and he kept a wary eye on them; leopards and other medium-sized predators liked to use them as convenient points from which to drop in for dinner.

Unfortunately keeping to the high ground meant everything else could see the airship too, and each other—and most animals felt sort of exposed on a ridgetop; the ones that didn't were the ones which didn't mind being seen, which usually meant big and dangerous. After a half-mile he stopped before the ridge ahead of him sloped up and the grass grew shorter.

"Stay!" he said to the greatwolf, and went forward stooping, and then snake-crawling.

When he was on the top of the ridge the grass was just tall enough to hide everything but his head, and the bandana would break the outline of that. Before him the ground broke away to a low swale covered in forest, rising to more grassy hills on the other side; the strip of forest followed a creek to his right and left. An infinite freshness rolled in towards him, and for a moment he simply lay and enjoyed it. Here he was an atom among atoms. There weren't any complications out in the bush, just a million million creatures going about their lives, willing enough to treat you as you treated them...

Then he sighed: back to business. "Tahyo!"

Behind him the greatwolf came to its paws, head quivering with eagerness.

"Circle wide, boy!" A hesitation, and Marc gestured. "Circle wide!"

Tahyo shook himself as if in understanding and cut off to the right, loping through the tall grass down the hill and disappearing among the trees. Marc lay, neither tense nor relaxed, simply waiting, not even really watching, just letting his eyes drift. If you tried to see everything, you saw nothing; his father and uncles had taught him that a long time ago, and training later had only sharpened it. What you needed to do was know what the patterns were, and see only the breaks in the pattern, the things that didn't fit.

"Like that thrashing in those brushes," he murmured to himself, very softly, watching leaves shake and insects rise in a glittering cloud.

Then he heard Tahyo's cry—something between a howl and a roar, with more than a bit of puppyish yelping still in it, what he called wulfing to himself. The bushes were around man-high, with long narrow leaves and pink trumpet-shaped flowers; at this distance he wasn't quite sure if they were really bushes, or vines growing over something else. The things that came out of them were equally unfamiliar; their voices were like terrified brass trumpets, honking and echoing across the grassy hills.

Some type of 'saur, he thought. The warm-blooded kind.

Small ones, smaller than him but a little bigger than, say, Cynthia; bipeds with that ran like ostriches on two muscular-thighed hind legs, a resemblance increased by the long hairy feathers that covered their bodies. The thick tails and the yellow crests on their sheep-like heads were pure Venus, and the front limbs were shorter and held close to their chests, with long gripping fingers ending in blunt claws. The teeth in their open mouths confirmed it; flat shearing and grinding plant-eater equipment. The herd had about a dozen adults, and juveniles ranging down to knee-high hatchlings.

Marc grinned at their bulge-eyed panic, and gently released his hold on the rifle. Tahyo appeared behind them, wulfing and leaping and snapping, darting back and forth. Greatwolves were pack hunters and they used exactly this sort of tactic, a noisy pursuit driving prey onto a hidden ambush. The herd—or flock—was stampeding up the hill in honking, gobbling panic, like a cartoon of six-foot Thanksgiving turkeys.

The first of the 'saurs came by on either side, biggish adults that probably outweighed him. He ignored the grown ones, and the others with the distinctive crest; those were probably the males, and would taste rank. He took one long breath and let it out, then another and coiled ready without moving. Just there, a plain uncrested medium-sized one—

Marc exploded out of the grass, the machete free in his hand. The oncoming 'saur reared back in terror, screaming like a steam-whistle and rearing back on its tail; one foot pistoned out in a kick that might have been dangerous if he hadn't dodged. That put him in position for a quick flicking sweep with the two-foot blade, twisting with a grunt to put the weight of his body behind it. The impact made a heavy, slightly soft catch in the arc of the shining steel, and the head fell with a thump a few feet away. The headless body ran on for six steps with a bright red spray of arterial blood spurting up in twin jets before falling forward, flat on its...

"Headless neck, eh?" Marc said to himself, chuckling as he wiped the machete clean on a handful of grass. Tahyo came bounding up the hill, bristling and rolling his eyes and exuding a general air of God, that was fun, let's eat!

Marc met him with a stern sit! before letting him have the head. The rest of the 'saur herd went honking off northward, apparently not noticing the Vepaja floating in the sky. Marc looked up carefully; there were plenty of birds and pterosaurs around, including one variety he'd never seen before, with a four-foot wingspan, black-and-white stripes on its fuzzy body-fur and a long row of spike teeth in its beaklike mouth. It sailed in and clung to the side of a boulder not far away with its feet and the claws on the leading edge of its wings, watching him intently, or more probably watching the bleeding carcass at his feet.

None big enough to worry about—except possibly a dot too high to make out, which might be anything. Prudently he dragged the sixty-pound carcass over to a flat-topped acacia and hoisted it up by the surprisingly chicken-like feet to butcher down to something more portable. Tahyo came crawling on his belly, grinning and wagging his tail, but he waited until told to dive into what a greatwolf considered the real treat, the multicolored and rather stinky guts.

"Just don't roll in it, you dirty saleau, you," Marc said. "Or I'll give you a bath."

The greatwolf understood bath all right, and gave a placatory whine at the dreaded word. When the butchering was finished—Tahyo completed his meal by eating the feet, crunching them like candy-sticks and belching contentedly—he packed the remaining meat in a roll of canvas and paused for a moment.

The sun was down nearly to the horizon in the east, sinking far beyond Jamestown—beyond Kartahown, beyond civilization, beyond the maps. The clouds there were like frothed castles of white whipped cream, just starting to get a ruddy tinge.

"Me, I'm sticky and tired," he mused. "But it's a good day."

He'd enjoyed wilderness back on Earth... but even if you were out in the bayous beyond Grand Isle, you always knew that you were really in an island of wild in a sea of civilization. Here it was exactly the opposite. There was a world out there, and the base, or even Kartahown and the Mother River and its cities, were the islands. Tiny little islands, in a sea of living things, all of them mating and killing and eating just as they always had. If you wanted to know what was over the hills, you had to go there yourself.

"So I can advance the cause of science and civilization without being around to see the consequences, eh, Big Hungry Dog?"

Tahyo looked up at him, thumped his tail on the ground, and quickly gulped down a last bite of giblet with a slightly guilty look. The greatwolf looked relieved when the human made no attempt to take the savory morsel, and then sighed with resignation when he rose with the bundle of meat on his back and a tumpline to bear the weight across his forehead, took up his rifle again and trotted back towards the anchor-point by the lake.

"Gar ici, I'm glad to have you along," he said to the animal running beside him. "Keep a nose out for anything that might like to snack down, eh? We're smelling of blood and meat, us."

Animals were beginning to filter back into the area, losing their initial fear of the shape of the aircraft when nothing particularly bad happened. Besides small game like a tiger-striped looks-like-a-rabbit, he spotted half a dozen varieties of antelope, a troop of man-sized tailless baboons, wild hogs four foot at the shoulder and stripped with patterns of tan and yellow, and once something huge raised its head over a fifty-foot tree for an instant and then crashed away, invisible save for the heaving of the vegetation. Further in the distance came the appalling squall of a sabertooth, either celebrating a kill or working off frustration from missing that last infinitely satisfying leap-and-plunge-in-fangs.

The rest of the crew had completed their inspection and were making a temporary camp. That meant mainly doing their laundry, digging a fire-pit and bringing down some cooking equipment; they'd spend the night in the Vepaja, a safe two hundred feet above the bugs and beasts. Marc silently rubbed the 'saur with the spice-mix and set it to roast over coals already giving a nice white glow. Things burned faster on Venus.

And from the silent, troubled looks Cynthia is giving me, that's not all that heats up quickly. Mais, get over it, boug. It's her life, and if she doesn't feel the same way about you, that's just the luck of the draw. Thinking otherwise, that's obsession and madness country. So what if there are only a hundred and thirty of us locked up together on the same planet—you're supposed to be the pick of ten million volunteers. Act like it!

It was still intensely frustrating, if you were a healthy twenty-four-year-old.

Maybe I should take up that offer of a housekeeper. He grimaced. I'm not prejudiced. I just think that sex with the locals is... creepy. Weh, weh, they're human beings, or near as no matter, but... and you can get the fleas out of a local girl's hair, but can you get the ghoulies and ghosties out of her mind? I'm not sixteen any more. The thought of sleeping with a woman I can't really talk to puts me off. Though not quite as much as involuntary celibacy.

When the cooking was set in motion he headed down to the water with soap and a towel, after giving it a careful checking-over. These upland lakes were usually pretty free of parasites, but that didn't mean there weren't other predators. When he'd waded out, dried off and switched to some clean fatigues, Cynthia came over.

"Marc—"she began.

He grinned and shrugged. "It's OK, Cyn. I'm a big boy and I know how things work."

She smiled, though with a wince-inducing amount of relief, and changed the subject. "I'm glad we had time to check things over before we got impossibly far from base."

Marc picked up his rifle and they walked back towards the fire; a mouth-watering smell was coming from it as wafts of blue smoke drifted skyward.

"Me too," he said. "I'd be even happier if we'd found what went wrong and knew we could fix it—or not."

 

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"Passť, passť!" Marc mumbled in his sleep.

Tahyo whined again; he understood get lost, dog! quite well by now. He still stuck his nose—cold, wet, healthy, startling—in his master's ear once more.

Marc threw off his light blanket. The interior of the Vepaja's gondola was an oval about a hundred feet long, with a lower level half that length fared into the middle for the ballast and reserve-gas tanks. The interior partitions were shamboo wicker covered with coarse cloth on both sides, enough for privacy—if your hearing wasn't very good. Their merit was that they could be easily rearranged to suit a specific mission. For this one the central corridor had the galley and head opposite each other right behind the control chamber, then five small rooms, each with a narrow bunk and not much else.

He yawned and stretched in the stuffy dimness, lit only by starlight through the round porthole, open now for fresh air. Even that wasn't much, with the usual high haze and no moon. Nights on Venus were darker than Earth.

"If you think I'm taking the basket down to the surface just for you, you're crazy, Tahyo," he said. "You can use that litterbox we set up and learn to like it."

Then he grimaced. It was a smelly, messy procedure, and the one argument that had almost persuaded him to leave the young greatwolf behind on this trip. Tahyo didn't like it either; it offended his sense of propriety to unload in the airship, which he evidently considered their den and thus sacrosanct. Doc Feldman thought it was an instinct not to mark a lair with scents another predator might follow to vulnerable nursing mothers and pups.

Usually he'd endure a heroic degree of discomfort to wait for the morning, but this time his anxiety didn't seem to be quite the Oh-God-I-just-can't-hold-it-boss type of stress. Instead he was bouncing back and forth between the narrow cot and the door. Marc yawned and blinked and began to swing out of the bunk. Then he froze. The airship had swung out over the water during the night; all the better, security-wise. But there was just enough starlight on the still water to see it was a lot too close; and now they were down by the nose as well.

The alarm went off just as he reached for the button by the head of his bed—it was the steady whoop-whoop-whoop of the manual override too, not the choppier sound of an automatic warning, so someone had slapped their emergency button.

Marc jumped for the corridor, almost tripped over the hysterically wulfing Tahyo—the greatwolf hated what the mechanical wail did to his sensitive ears. He plunged past the galley and into the control room, to find Blair in the commander's seat; he was on watch right now, and frantically pressing buttons and screens. The water was starting to fill the view through the slanted windows.

"Main valves on the forward three cells open. Can't get the buggers closed from here," he said, loud but tonelessly, without looking up from the urgent futility of his task.

Marc whirled and flung himself at the ladder, vaguely conscious of others following him. There was no time for anything else; if they came down in the water here they'd be lucky to make it to shore naked. Trying to walk three hundred miles back to Jamestown that way...

Up through darkness lit only by the dim red of the night-lights, with the gas cells of the airship looming around him lime monstrous pillowy giants from a child's nightmare. A turn and twist and he scrambled lizard-style over the upper surface of the donut, the net-covered surface feeling palpably looser and less taut under his body than it had earlier in the day. Then he was at the top, where a short tube joined the cell to the valve in the hull surface above. His hand slammed at the switch there to close it; he could hear the hiss of escaping gas.

"Shit!" he screamed, as nothing happened. "Use the manual override, use the manual override!" he shouted, to whoever was... please God... on the second and third cells.

That was an aluminum lever. He grabbed, pulled... and felt the servo working against him, keeping the valve open to the alien night. He reached across without hesitation and pulled the power connector. It might spark and blow them all to the afterlife, but that was an acceptable risk right now.

There. The heavy three-pronged plug came lose; his hand flashed back to the manual lever and yanked. A clung from above, and the rubber-edged rectangle thunked closed.

"Number One cell secured!" he called.

"Number Two secured!" Jadviga Binkis' voice.

"Number Three secured!" Cynthia.

Just then a rumble came from far below them; the emergency ballast was dropping hundreds of gallons of water a second into the lake—the same water they'd expended precious time and power to pump up that very day. The fabric beneath him began to bulge and grow resilient once more as emergency hydrogen from the tanks flowed through.

"Pouponer, old girl," Marc gasped. "Make yourself nice, eh?"

He lay for a moment in sweating exhaustion on the top of the cell. Much as he loved the Venusian wilderness, he had no desire to die in it trying to fight off a 'saur or a sabertooth with an improvised wooden spear.

Then he forced himself to swing back to the ladder and down into the control deck. Captain Tyler was back in his seat, though like Marc he was wearing nothing but his boxers. Cynthia and Jadviga came through an instant later, nearly as undressed. Only Blair was still in his uniform, and he was looking white-faced himself. Outside the water of the lake receded with smooth grace as the Vepaja regained buoyancy; they could see it clearly now, since one of the prow searchlights had been switched on.

After a moment Tyler nodded and turned the swivel chair to face the rest of them.

"There wasn't any alarm until Wing-Commander Blair noticed what was happening—" Tyler began.

He gave the Englishman a glare. Marc did too; he hadn't noticed too damned much, since he was supposed to have been awake and alert. Tahyo had turned out to have more on the ball.

"Sir, as you said, there wasn't any alarm from the automatic systems. And all the gauges remained steady—I did keep an eye on them, I assure you."

"—and as he says, there's something amiss with the computer," Tyler finished. "Miss Whitlock?"

"I'll check it, Captain," she said. "But offhand I can't think of anything spontaneous that would cause precisely that cascade of errors."

"Of course is not spontaneous," Jadviga Binkis said.

Marc started slightly; she was usually so quiet you could forget that she spoke at all. She went on:

"Is sabotage, wrecking. As was crash of Riga. There is a conspiracy at work here."

"Perhaps," Blair said. "But a conspiracy by who, and to what end? I can think of any number of motives—for example, having lost their shuttle, the EastBloc might wish to see our base suffer a corresponding loss."

The others looked at each other, dismayed. Captain Tyler nodded slowly:

"They say the third time it's enemy action. I'm not inclined to wait that long." He looked around. "It's my decision, but I'd like to consult. Who's for returning to base?"

Oh, that's a toughie, Marc thought unhappily. On the one hand, I don't want to miss this trip—and Jadviga's husband and his crew may be alive. On the other hand, I'm not real eager to die, either. Difficult enough just making the trip, but what if the next bit of sabotage is a fire?

His hand twitched; then he pressed it firmly down by his side. Stillness held for a second, then Blair's hand went up, and more slowly, Cynthia's.

Tyler smiled grimly. "Well, I say we're going on, but it's nice to be in the majority."

A pause, then: "And here's how we're going to do it from now on. Obviously, single watchstanders are out... except for me. I'll set up a roster. For starters, since you were so alert, Lieutenant, you and Wing-Commander Blair can share the rest of the night watch."

"Captain," Cynthia said. "I'd like to get to work right away on the computer's programs."

"Can you tell who did what?"

"Ummm... no. I mean, I may be able to find out what's been f... screwed up in the program, but code doesn't carry fingerprints."

"The morning will do, Ms. Whitlock," Tyler said calmly. "After losing so much gas and ballast, we're not going anywhere tomorrow. And I want to consult with General Clarke."

Suddenly Jadviga spoke: "You assume saboteur is among us, Captain?"

Tyler nodded. "From the non-fatal nature of the sabotage, yes," he said. "Whoever he or she is, they'd want a chance of getting out. Which is why I've decided on continuing with the mission. The further we get from Jamestown, the less likelihood of whoever it is acting again. Unless they're not just nasty but suicidal."

He spoke calmly, but Marc was glad he wasn't the saboteur. He suspected whoever it was wouldn't live long after Captain Tyler found out their name.

And no suicide will be needed.

 

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Copyright © 2005-2007 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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