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CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT: LIFEBOAT ETHICS

Edmund Burke once said. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I would only only differ with Mr. Burke by adding that those who do nothing in the face of evil cannot be good men.

Or women, for that matter.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Good heavens!”

As Leugner passed from the airlock of the smaller ship he’d arrived in, to the airlock of the City of Newark, the first thing he saw, through the black balaclava bag over his head, was the body of a middle-aged man, all but decapitated by the blast of some powerful weapon.

The body had obviously been dragged here from somewhere else. It wore a suit and necktie. An empty leather shoulder holster lay between the torso and the left arm. A bloody streak on the airlock floor led from what was left of the man’s head toward the inner door of the airlock.

Leugner stumbled, and felt an urge to throw up. He was not a violent man, himself, but was employed to direct others to perform violent acts in a righteous cause. Although he knew that making history is an often messy process, he had never seen a dead body before, except on 3DTV. Why hadn’t anybody ever warned him about the smell?

Two of the young men took his elbows and helped him get past the horrific sight, and into the bowels of the hijacked spaceliner. There they summoned an elevator in the service core and escorted Leugner to the second level where he would unmask himself and read his statement. Leaving the service core, they passed one of Krystal’s heavily-armed cohorts into the elegant dining room, not quite as elegant as it had been.

Two other young men in gray had set up in that room, swiftly and violently clearing tables away from the curved outer wall and piling them in a heap, with their dirty dishes, leftover food, and soiled linen, near the double swinging doors to the kitchen. Every chair in the room had quickly followed. The men had then made everybody sit, huddled on the floor under the huge windows with their starry view. They had directed their camera so the 3DTV audience would look past Leugner, their main focus, to three hundred terrified and cowering passengers whimpering every time one of their captors made a sudden move.

That, of course, was the substance of the message.

One of the young men in gray directed Leugner to a place in the middle of the floor marked with an X made of blue gaffer’s tape. He was turned about, pulled this way and that, and generally treated like a window-dummy in a storefront until they were satisfied with the camera angle, placement, and lighting. One clipped a microphone to his jacket lapel, another made hand signals and counted backward silently from five.

Two … one … now.

“People of the Earth,” Leugner began. One of his assets was a partially eidetic memory. He’d only had to read the speech they’d written for him once to know it by heart. “My name is P.E. Leugner. I am the executive commander of Null Delta Em.” He used one hand to pull the black mask off his head, wondering what it had done to his hair. “I am speaking to you now from the East American Spacelines passenger vessel City of Newark, on course for Mars from the Earth/Moon system.”

The young man acting as director signalled to him to throw the bag away, not twist it between his hands. He nodded encouragingly. Leugner was glad he’d taken plenty of public speaking courses in college and no longer feared to address an audience, either in person or by media. He’d begun as one of the many who would rather have faced death. Thank heavens his fraternity at Yale had helped him overcome his fear of speaking.

Resting his gloved hands on the weapon slung across his chest, he said, “We ask for nothing. We make no demands. We have taken control of this ship to get our point across that space is too dangerous for human beings to live and work in, and that, as long as they continue to try, we of Null Delta Em will continue to make it even more dangerous.”

On cue, two of Krystal’s assistants had stepped forward abruptly and begun sweeping the muzzles of their weapons across the huddled passengers, causing many of them to cry out or try to bury their tear-stained faces among their fellow captives. Leugner gave them a few moments to quiet down before he continued.

“From now on, whenever you contemplate that cruel illusion they call progress, whenever you think of that foolishness they call space exploration and settlement, consider the fate of those you see behind me now, for they are victims of that illusion, of that foolishness. They, like so many others, thought they could defile space and other worlds as their ancestors did the Earth. Here is our message to you: there will be no more progress, there will be no more exploration or settlement. We of Null Delta Em stand in the way, and we are in control.”

Suddenly, from beside the pile of tables and chairs near the kitchen door, there came a brief flurry of motion. Leugner opened his mouth to continue speaking and stopped. He put a hand to his face. A common table knife stood quivering in his right eye socket. He pitched forward onto the floor, driving the knife the rest of the way into his brain.

By reflex, Krystal’s associates sprayed the tables with machinegun fire, reducing them and every chair to rubble, smashing every dish and goblet in the heap, filling the room with the haze and unmistakeable odor of smokeless gunpowder. Women passengers screamed and covered their ears, and so did more than one man. But it was too late. The powder smoke was clearing. The kitchen doors were swinging back into place.

And the knife-thrower was gone.

Huddled close to Jasmeen—who had not screamed—with her arms around her, Llyra looked this way and that for the nice old man from Tucson.

And couldn’t find him.

******

On the flight deck, they heard the machinegun fire from the dining room below. The flight deck was centered in, but several steps above—or forward—of the carpeted level of the luxurious lounge, which was now empty of human occupants, but brightly lighted to prevent any surprises.

From anybody’s point of view, the noise could only mean some kind of disaster had occurred.

Looking up from where she’d been standing at the pilot’s console for the last half hour—adapting the preprogrammed instructions for the final flight of the City of Newark—Krystal turned to the Captain, who was also standing.

“How do I get down from here—not by the elevator?” Johnnie had already started back toward Engineering.

Everything about this mission was strange. Whatever was going on down in the dining room, she could afford another moment or two. It didn’t really matter. Minde, the flight engineer, was seated in the pilot’s chair that she and the Captain stood on opposite sides of. The girl had just made the final alterations to the ship’s digitally predetermined course, then shut the navigation computer down, and disabled it by ripping out half the wiring behind it. The information stick she’d used, she broke in half and threw in a wastebin under the console.

Two dozen lesser computers, located aft within the engineering spaces, had received their orders and would follow them now, to the end.

To the death.

Nothing could be done now to alter the doom of the City of Newark.

Nothing.

Already, it was beginning to get cooler—or was that just one’s imagination? Down in the engineering spaces, two of Krystal’s people were busy shutting down unnecessary systems—life support foremost among them—so that the vessel’s engines would have every scrap of energy available for acceleration. Stopping a moon in its tracks, even a relatively tiny one like Phobos, was going to take a great deal of power.

All that was left now was to get her people safely into the escape vessel.

Resignation showing on his face, the Captain showed Krystal an emergency latch. Once pulled, a curved section of the glass wall around the control area swung away. Cradling her submachinegun and laying a steadying hand on the pistol in her holster, she jumped to the carpeted floor of the lounge and ran toward the dining room staircase.

“Keep an eye on that rascal, Minde!” she shouted as she started down the wrought iron spiral. Her mind was already concentrated on whatever was happening below, and she didn’t even slow to hear the answer.

“Don’t worry, Krystal, I—”

Minde didn’t have a chance to finish her sentence. Before she became aware of it, the Captain had taken her little chin in one powerful hand and the back of her head in the other, and twisted as hard and quickly as he could. Alan West was a very big man and an exceptionally strong one. He had only done this sort of thing once before—to a calf on his ranch born with its internal organs on the outside—but he felt the bones crack in her neck, heard her last breath rattle through her lips, and watched her eyes begin to glaze over.

The girl was dead as dead could be.

For just an instant, the Captain poked around inside himself for any signs of guilt or regret. Finding none, he shrugged and moved onward.

There was nothing else that he could do up here. The ship was done, and they had even disabled the system that let individual staterooms act as lifeboats. They required the mass, Krystal had explained, of staterooms and human bodies, to smash Phobos from its orbit.

No, no regrets at all.

He lifted Minde’s weapon from her lap. It was a Heckler & Sauer nine point five millimeter automatic pistol, so new it wasn’t broken in. The fearsome terrorist hadn’t even been carrying spare magazines. He turned, opened the inconspicuous safe under the engineer’s console, and pulled three more pistols from it. His own was well-worn, indeed, a long-barreled BNU ten millimeter magnum hunting pistol. And there was the brace of smaller pistols belonging to Llyra Ngu and Jasmeen Khalidov.

If he knew them by now, the girls’ spare ammunition carriers were probably still in their luggage. There was something about these colonials he loved. He pocketed three spare twenty-round magazines for his own pistol and also took his personal phone. There was a relay right here inside the ship that might make it useful in overcoming this gang of murderous criminals. He adjusted it to tell him quietly if anyone was calling.

Thinking hard for a moment, he decided, unlike Krystal, to ride the elevator, which had just returned. But he would enter the besieged dining room through the kitchen, where he could use the big round windows in the swinging doors to get a feel for things and maybe even preserve the element of surprise.

Somebody, he swore, somebody was going to be very sorry about all this.

******

“I’m here.”

Crenicichla answered his telephone. Not that many people had the number. He was standing at the service core in the engineering spaces where he’d just supervised two of Krystal’s people as they carefully disabled the local controls. Satisfied that his work was thoroughly finished down here—there were broken wires and components underfoot all over the deck—he was waiting for a car forward to the dining room.

The E.A.S. City of Newark‘s six mighty fusion engines would now hurl her inexorably to her destination and her destiny. Nobody could change that, short of utterly destroying her, and it was far too late for that. By the time anybody was even aware that she’d been hijacked, let alone caught up to her, she would have struck her mark on Phobos, instantly vaporizing herself and dropping the little moon from the Martian sky, incinerating or smashing everyone and everything on the planet.

If by some extremely improbable miscalculation she managed to miss Phobos, she would still hit Mars, doing damage both incalculable and irreparable. Either way, it would spell an end to human aspirations in space.

For Null Delta Em, it was a splendidly no-lose situation. They could claim—whatever way it happened in the end—that it was exactly what the organization had intended in the first place. It struck him that this was one of the last few spaceflights in human history.

Something to tell his grandchildren.

” … you there? We’re having a whole buncha trouble up here, Johnnie!” He’d almost forgotten the phone. The voice on the other end was Krystal’s. He’d never heard the woman in a state of panic like this before. If it frightened her a little, it frightened him a lot. “One of our passengers just wasted Paul Leugner—on System-wide 3DTV!”

Shit!” He felt his legs give way and his midsection turn to water. These operations were about psychology and very little else. They’d just lost the advantage, even if the rest of the mission went perfectly.

He wasn’t using video, in order to retain anonymity and prolong battery life. A good thing, he thought, that she couldn’t see his expression. As it was, it was disturbing her two people here in engineering.

On the other hand, Leugner had always been a worthless lump, in Crenicichla’s view. He’d never managed to figure out why their mutual sponsors had hired him in the first place. If it had been left to Crenicichla—and finally, it had—he’d have killed the man just before they departed this ship and let him become a martyr to the Cause.

He’d be a hell of a lot more useful that way than he had been alive.

Now some fool had beaten him to it, and the timing couldn’t be worse. To have a spokesman killed onscreen, just as he was declaring the dominance of Null Delta Em—that had been the plan, anyway, and Crenicichla had approved the speech—was very bad. He hoped Krystal understood that it wasn’t going to help the cause to murder innocent passengers simply out of revenge—at least not over System-wide 3DTV.

The guilty on the other hand …

“Did you catch whoever did it?” he asked, somehow knowing the answer in advance. She would have reported it completely differently, otherwise. The stainless doors slid open, and he stepped into the elevator, followed by Krystal’s people who were coming forward with him.

“No, no, he disappeared and probably didn’t even wait to see the knife hit. I guess it coulda been a she. I don’t have a passenger manifest here. Talk about your ego not being involved in your work! I have to confess it was so prettily done that I almost wish I’d done it myself.”

A thrown knife and an assassin on the other side who respects and admires the opposition. There speaks a real pro. Crenicichla laughed—Krystal was certainly his kind of girl—but he let her go on. He punched the button that would take them to the dining level she spoke from.

She said, “I’ve got as many people out looking for him now as I can spare, including some of your pretty boys in gray. But I’m thinking that anybody who can kill a man with a thrown table knife is going to be hard to find and harder bring in. I’m tempted to leave him alone to hole up somewhere, rather than waste the time, effort, and manpower.”

He would have made very much the same judgement. “Except that you don’t really believe he’s going let you or yours alone, any more than I do. The man’s got to be found, and as quickly as possible.” The elevator stopped with a subtle whish, but the doors seemed slow to open.

“I gotta agree with that, boss,” Krystal replied, “I—oh, my God!”

As much through the door as over the telephone, Crenicichla heard sharp blasts of powerful handgun fire, followed by short bursts from more than one automatic weapon, and then several more pistol shots. Careful not to use her name, he shouted at Krystal over the phone. He could hear people move around and make noise, but her only reply was silence.

He punched buttons again.

******

The individual who thought of himself as the Fastest Gun in the Moon slipped out of the service core as inconspicuously as its doors allowed.

He didn’t know exactly what Krystal and her crew were up to, but he did know Null Delta Em. Obviously, another ship had arrived, with its crew of gray-clad young men, to pick them up, which meant they planned to set some kind of destructive course and then abandon the City of Newark intending her to serve as some kind of a battering ram. It certainly wasn’t the first time something like this had been done.

Perhaps if he could get down to the engine room, he could stop them.

Sometimes he had to work to remember what his real name was. It didn’t seem to fit him any more, somehow. Luckily, neither did old age. Most men born five years either side of his birthday were slowing down a bit. None would dream of climbing down a steel-runged ladder in the heart of a spaceship to bring terror and death to a collection of hijackers. Yet that was just what he—Aaron Manzel—planned to do now.

Aaron Manzel. I am what I am and that’s all that I am. Pass the spinach.

Escaping from the dining room through the kitchen had been relatively easy, although he’d wished he’d had time enough to watch his thrown knife hit the target. He’d been looking for a chef’s blade, but he was confident that even a badly-thrown table knife would have created the effect he’d wanted. In a fraction of a second, on System-wide 3DTV, the group from Null Delta Em had gone from boasting conquerors to just another gaggle of blunderers.

They might as well not even have tried.

Gaining the corridor outside the kitchen, he avoided the elevators and opened a door in the service core. Inside the core were the cylindrical shafts and mechanics for three elevators, two of which wouldn’t go any higher than this level. A third, with the right key and the right code, went all the way to the flight deck. From inside the core, he could see where each of the cars was and what it was doing.

He preferred the ladder.

He took the pipe-like outsides of the ladder in his hands, locked the inside edges of his feet around them, too, and slid easily down to the third deck. He had brought no real weapons of any kind on this voyage, and he had no weapons now. This was where he would acquire what he needed.

Leaving the core on the third deck, he stepped cautiously into the corridor, using every one of the senses he possessed—senses that had been expertly trained and that he exercised and tested frequently—to the maximum. He couldn’t see or hear anyone at the moment, but it was interesting (to him, anyway) how often someone would give their position away with the smell of their food, or the stink of their fear.

Just now he could smell butter and garlic and Oregano. That wasn’t what was being served in the dining room. It might well be an intruder—who were those cloneboys, anyway? Where had they come from and brought Paul Leugner with them?—but it might be as simple as room service.

Sliding around the inner wall formed by the outside of the service core, he could only see about a quarter of the corridor at a time. At last he heard a door lock function. There were only four suites in this deck. He heard someone come out, into the corridor, humming to herself.

As quickly as he could, he slipped around the core to confront one of Krystal’s people, a young woman, brunette. Her arms were full of plunder from the room she’d just broken into. He recognized a tortoise shell barette he’d seen Llyra wearing. Before she could get her weapon cleared, he’d stepped in beside it, pulled a combat knife from a scabbard on her belt, and thrust it into her solar plexus, working it a little, from side to side, to find the big artery running behind the stomach.

She slipped forward to the floor and was dead.

Quickly, he wiped the knife off on her clothing, put it back in its scabbard, removed her pistol belt and readjusted it to his own size. He checked the weapon—a simple laser—and its spare charges.

Time to move on.

Leaving Llyra’s and Jasmeen’s possessions on the floor, he took the body by its heels—nice boots, he thought—and dragged it back the way he’d come. Opening the door, he pulled the body onto the tiny steel landing provided at each deck, and dropped it straight down the shaft.

Krystal and her people were stretched Angstrom thin all over the ship. Null Delta Em was one of the cheapest groups of its kind that he’d ever had to deal with. This wouldn’t do much to improve their morale.

On the fourth floor, he found absolutely nothing. Most of the half-dozen doors were swinging open, meaning that they had already been looted by the young woman he’d just killed or another of her group.

Entering the service core again, he watched what he thought of as the executive elevator—the one that served the flight deck—going upward. Neither of the other two was moving. As he slid down to the access to the fifth floor, it opened before he could reach it and one of the strange young men in gray stepped through and shut it behind him.

The man whose real name was Aaron Manzel had long observed that while hunting, or traversing dangerous pathways, no animal or human ever seems to remember to look up, even predators, who take frequent advantage of the fact, and ought to know better. This young man was no different.

Silently repeating “ten feet per second per second” to himself—the rate at which objects fall at the one-third gee at which the City of Newark was presently accelerating—Manzel drew the fighting knife from his confiscated gun belt, let go of the steel ladder, and fell feet-first on the young man, striking him on the head and one shoulder as he went by. Reflexively, the young man gripped the ladder tighter—the little sheet-steel landing was only about two feet on a side—which made him all the more helpless once Manzel reached his level.

He didn’t waste time or effort, but stopped himself by throwing his left arm around the young man’s neck, pulling his head backward, and plunging the knife into one of his kidneys with his right hand, producing massive shock and instant unconsciousness. Before his victim could fall, taking both of them down the intimidating length of the core—even one third gee can be lethal—Manzel seized the ladder and held them there for an instant, as he searched the young man’s clothes.

He carried no identification, and as far as Manzel could tell, there never had been any tags in his clothing. He had a medium-framed automatic pistol and a couple of spare magazines—which Manzel took—and a set of electronic keycards, probably for this ship. Manzel pulled the knife out of the young man’s back, wiped it clean on his otherwise tidy gray suit, and let him go to join the young woman below.

He wondered what else was happening on this floor. He guessed he’d better find out. Opening the panel as little as he could, he peeked out to see another gray-clad young man, apparently waiting for the first. He was unaware that the door had been opened because his back was to it, and he was talking quietly to yet a third gray-clad young man.

Manzel silently closed the panel to think about his options. Before he got very far with that, the panel opened, and a young man’s head thrust into the opening. “Karl,” the young man shouted. “What is keeping—”

Manzel grabbed him by the wrist, pulled him all the way into the core, and let him fall screaming, but paying most of his attention to the door, where an all-but-identical young man repeated his clone’s mistake. Manzel seized him and threw him down the shaft which echoed with his screams, as well. In an instant, both were silent, and Manzel was waiting for a third figure to make itself manifest. But nobody followed.

Now Manzel crept out of the door. There were a dozen compartments on this level, and each of the doors was open. The deck was silent and unoccupied. He reentered the core and began climbing aft, to the next level.

******

Captain Alan West left the elevator on the third level and made his way as quickly and quietly as he could to a little-known staircase—normally used to bring room service to the most elite passengers—he used to go back up to the kitchen. He recalled that the upper entry was hidden from the rest of the kitchen by several moving racks of pans and utensils. He’d argued with the chef about it just before departure.

And lost, for which he was now annoyed to feel grateful.

The kitchen was deserted, although he was willing to bet the hijackers had sentries posted just outside, in the dining room. He made certain that Llyra and Jasmeen’s pistols were secure in his pockets—for some reason it was important to him—took his own ten millimeter in his right hand and the weapon he’d taken from the dead flight engineer in the other, and approached the swinging doors with their frosted porthole windows. Sure enough, someone was standing to the left of the doors, but no one to the right where the tables were piled.

He saw two hijackers on the perimeter where they’d put the passengers—the Ngu and Khalidov girls were at this end of the crescent they formed—and somebody was in the middle of the room, striding up and down, waving a submachinegun around, and haranguing the prisoners. No matter the cause, these idiots were all alike, somehow.

West took a deep breath, grateful for all the combat ranch time he and his wife had put in, back home in Wyoming, strode forward, and pushed the right-hand door open. His left hand was already raised, and he shot the sentry through the skull with Minde’s gun without even looking. He also had his right hand raised and used it to kill the haranguer.

Blessed silence.

Before the other hijackers could react, he ran to the passengers, firing both guns as he did. He saw one of the hijackers go down—he couldn’t tell which gun he’d done it with. It didn’t matter. On his knees, firing back at the remaining hijacker who’d taken cover behind an upturned table, he let go of the weapon in his left hand, extracted the other pistols from his pockets, and tossed them to the girls, then regained Minde’s gun and made sure that the hijacker kept her head down.

Suddenly, there was a burst of noise beside him. Llyra had her pistol raised and pointed at the kitchen doors, where a body—one of the gray-clads—now lay on the floor between them, propping them open.

Jasmeen had been shooting at the individual behind the table, and was less surprised than anyone else when intermittent gunfire started coming from the opening in the ceiling where the spiral stairway stood.

Briefly, a female face appeared, upside-down, seeking targets. It disappeared and suddenly a hand was visible, filled with lethal hardware, spraying the dining-room down in hopes, apparently, of hitting somebody—anybody.

Bullets sang around Jasmeen—she heard a grunt behind her, but didn’t dare look back—as she held her fire, waiting for the right moment. Finally, the shooting stopped. Krystal stuck her head down again, and Jasmeen shot her. The woman sagged, then tumbled down the stairs.

Jasmeen’s impulse was to get up and run to her, to make sure she was dead, if nothing else, but Llyra took hold of Jasmeen’s arm to stop her.

“The Captain’s injured!” she whispered.

“Oh, I am not! I’ve hurt myself worse in my basement woodshop.”

“Is possibility,” Jasmeen answered. “Human sacrifice makes good bookends.”

Captain West’s white dinner jacket, already smudged and stained from his adventures getting here, now had a neat hole beneath the center of his right collarbone, and was soaked with blood. Jasmeen found a couple of clean linen dinner napkins, folded them, and pushed them under his jacket, front and back. She then turned to Mrs. Erskine.

“Make him lie flat on floor,” she told the older woman. “Keep steady pressure on wound—here’s another napkin—until I find help.”

The woman looked terrified until Jasmeen showed her what to do. Llyra smiled, remembering all the times that Jasmeen’s first aid training, a mandatory study for skating coaches, had come in handy. She’d even set a broken bone once—not Llyra’s—at the rink in Curringer, using a pair of lip-balm tubes as splints.

Only then did the two girls get up. Several other people were on their feet by now, milling around the ruined dining room, most of them avoiding contact with the dead bodies. More than one of the male passengers was attempting to convince the others that he was in charge.

In a clear, commanding voice, Jasmeen announced to the crowd, some of whom were still huddled on the floor, “Is best you all stay here. Worst may be over, but we don’t know. We will be back as soon as possible.”

“Two little girls?” said a large individual, pretty obviously from Earth. “Not on your life! I’m a retired police chief. Give me those guns!”

A head taller than the man, Llyra levelled her pistol on his face. “You’re not in New Jersey any more, Chief. We do things differently out here. Sit down and shut up.”

Grinning, Jasmeen glanced over at Llyra. “We are great big girl now?”

“No,” Llyra whispered back, imitating Jasmeen’s accent. “We are little girl with great big gun!”

“She’s still alive!” The cry came from the spiral stairwell where Krystal lay draped along the lowest half dozen steps. “She’s still breathing!”

People began to get up, if they had still been sitting on the floor, and drift slowly in the direction of the stairwell. They had things in their hands, now: knives, forks, broken plates. One woman had even taken off her shoe and was trying it for weight and balance—the heel could be a deadly instrument. Looking at each other, Llyra and Jasmeen followed them, but there wasn’t any way to slip ahead of them.

There was no easy way that they were going to prevent what was about to happen. Nobody would listen to them now. A noise ceased abruptly which they hadn’t even noticed before now. A couple of the big dining room windows had been penetrated by gunfire. All this time, they’d been whistling shrilly as air escaped through them into space. Now they had automatically resealed themselves, and the whistling stopped.

The passengers gradually surrounded Krystal, determined to have their revenge on her. By a kind of evil magic which was still not very well understood, even in the twenty-second century, they had been transformed—or had transformed themselves—into a mindless herd, waiting only for one of their dullwitted number to make the first move. The woman with the shoe was closest now, raising it high over her head. Jasmeen and Llyra could no longer see Krystal through the crowd.

“Hold it right there!” said a voice from nowhere. “Don’t come any closer!”

The voice was a man’s. The face that went with it, once he’d started down the stairs, was one they’d never seen before. He was relatively young, Llyra thought, and, well, extraordinarily handsome, wearing a white summer suit—stained black here and there, and splashed with blood—and he carried with him a submachinegun in each hand, tucking the short shoulder stocks under his arms at his sides. He walked down the spiral stairway from the lounge, stopped, and now stood over Krystal, threatening the passengers.

“You two!” He waved one of his submachineguns at a couple of the people up close. “Yes, I mean you! Pull her down very gently and carry her over to that elevator! Be careful!” He indicated the elevator that couldn’t be seen from the Captain’s table where Llyra and Jasmeen had been sitting at dinner, what now seemed like a year ago. Llyra thought hard about shooting the man, but feared that he might just massacre the rest of the passengers to get to her, if she missed. She glanced over at Jasmeen, who shook her head, agreeing with Llyra’s tactical assessment.

“Anybody else makes a move toward us, I’ll kill them where they stand!” Llyra hated being ordered to do what she’d already decided to do.

The stranger followed the two passengers with Krystal into the elevator, ejected his unwilling helpers, let the doors close, and was gone.

“Life support!” the Captain said suddenly. His voice was still strong and his eyes were clear. “Miss Ngu, Miss Khalidov, can you hear me?”

“Yes?” Llyra turned to him where he lay. Mrs. Erskine was still there.

“They’ve shut down all the life support systems—air, heat—I saw it on the bridge consoles. I got a distress call off, early on. You must move these people to the core where they’ll stay warm longest. Collect every emergency oxygen bottle from the ship—they’re scattered around with the fire extinguishers—and take them to the core, as well.”

Jasmeen nodded. “Trust us. You will be all right?”

“I’m less hurt than I am pissed off,” said the Captain.

“Then we’ll start by getting you to the core,” Llyra said.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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