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CHAPTER FORTY: SURVIVORS

Catastrophe is a peculiar thing. It might take an individual who has been a complete failure in life and turn him into a hero who, once the emergency is over with, slides comfortably back into failure again. That’s a fairly common chain of events. Or it can take a compentent, successful individual and turn him into a blubbering weakling. I’ve seen that happen, too.

The thing is, you can never predict exactly how it’ll turn out. You can only watch—and laugh or weep—as it happens.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

It was cold in here.

Wilson could tell that in several ways. Among them, the little microscopic scrubbers inside his helmet were having difficulty keeping up with the frost that wanted to form on the inside of his faceplate. He tried hard breathing downward, away from the faceplate, but it didn’t work very well.

He, himself, was warm enough. This was an exceptionally good envirosuit his grandmother had insisted on, and these were considerably milder conditions than it had been manufactured for. He paid close attention, however, to his toes and fingers, and had his suit monitoring their temperature.

When he had crawled the full length of the escape tunnel—an easier job than he had expected it would be—he ran into a circular door at the top. Featureless, it didn’t yield to pressure, nor could he fit a finger into the crack that divided the two halves, to pull it open.

He hadn’t thought to bring a tool belt along—a major failure in his estimation. So much for the great rescuer. He had a caliper that would have worked perfectly. He considered using one of his guns, but suddenly realized that he didn’t know what the conditions were on the other side of the door. In the tunnel, it was a hundred and ten below zero, and while there was plenty of nitrogen and traces of rare gases, the carbon dioxide had frozen out—he could look back at the trail he’d made in the dry ice frost—and the oxygen fraction was all but gone.

He opened the control panel on his left arm and pulled out one of many thermocouples that informed his suit of conditions outside of its protection. He gently teased it out, without yanking hard on the fine wires connecting it. He pulled out his field knife, a heavy nine-inch titanium alloy blade recommended specifially for use in space, formed into the shape that knifesmiths and their clients often refer to as a “sharpened prybar”.

He adjusted the microphones outside his suit to the maximum, and began working the knife, slowly and deliberately, into the fine line that separated the halves of the circular door. He heard no hissing or rushing noise, which meant that the atmospheric pressure levels on each side of the door were more or less equal. When he could see a tiny glimmer of light through the space he’d made, he inserted the thermocouple into it along the unsharpened back edge of the heavy knife.

Brrrrr! The same miserable hundred and ten degrees. He reclaimed his thermocouple, tucked it away, and began prying in earnest at the door halves. At some point, the electronics in the door must have decided that somebody had caught something important in the gasketing while trying to get away, and it opened, surprising Wilson, releasing his knife, and nearly spilling him back down the tunnel, the way he’d come.

Hanging on by his elbows, he thrust himself up into the control area, put his knife away in the scabbard built into his suit, and pushed a labelled button that reclosed the door. To his left, he saw a human form still sitting in the pilot’s chair. Expecting the worst, he approached the seated body, turned the chair, and looked down at a lifeless face. She had been blond, almost pretty, and wore an East American Space Lines uniform. But she hadn’t died of cold or anoxia. Her head hung on her chest in a manner suggesting that her neck had been broken. It would have been easy to prove if she hadn’t been frozen solid.

The navigation computer in front of her had been ripped loose of its system of sensors and servos, and was probably worthless. He wondered if she’d done it—a forensic inspection would tell, he supposed. He found a panel that gave him views of various areas throughout the ship, which seemed, except for this young woman, to be deserted.

Then he began finding bodies here and there, an inordinate number of young men wearing identical gray suits, almost like a uniform, and an ununiformed individual here and there. They were all dead and covered with frost.

Finally, he found a view of the service core. At the very bottom, nearest the engines, he saw a sight that nearly made him collapse in despair. Dozens, maybe hundreds of bodies were huddled together in the failing warmth, probably having breathed their last breaths of decent air. Green cylinders were scatted everywhere. It looked like they’d collected and exhausted every cannister of emergency oxygen in the ship.

There was more than one camera in the service core, but, try as he might, he couldn’t see his sister or Jasmeen. That was probably a good thing.

He spoke. “Scotty, do you hear me?”

“Indeed, I do, Commodore. We’re aft in the engineering spaces, Pharch and me. These pirates, or whatever they were, really knew how to screw up beautiful machinery. All six engines are at full throttle, producing one third of a gee, but there doesn’t seem to be any easy way left to control them.”

Wilson said, “Well, whatever you do, don’t open the service core yet. There are hundreds of bodies in there, hundreds, just forward of where you are. They’re all almost certainly dead—” It had been extremely difficult to say that. “—but I don’t want to take a chance. Think about how we can access them without killing them, will you?”

“Aye, aye, Commodore. “Did you see—”

“No, I didn’t. Shorty and Merton, did you copy that? Don’t enter the—”

“I may have a solution for you, Wilson.” It was Merton, who was turning out to be surprisingly resourceful. “It looks like there’s some kind of emergency refuge on the cargo deck where they normally carry heavy machinery. It’s someplace they could go if a Caterpillar tractor got loose and went out through the hull. I’m looking at it now—it’s tiny—but it seems to have an inner hatch connecting to the service core.”

“It wasn’t in the blueprints,” Scotty added. He had a memory for engineering.

Merton replied, “It has the look of a retrofit, and a fairly clumsy one.”

“You want us to go in?” asked Shorty.

“No, no,” said Wilson. “Wait for me. We’ll all go in at the same time.”

“I’ll stay below,” Pharch volunteered. “And keep an eye on the engines.”

******

Conditions in the cargo hold were much the same as everywhere else aboard the City of Newark, with slightly higher concentrations of oxygen than on the upper decks—the organisms that consumed it were further away—but not quite enough to sustain life. It was abysmally cold.

Wilson joined his friends at the makeshift airlock, having moved Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend to a closer mooring. Everything inside the hold was covered with a thin layer of carbon dioxide snow. On this deck, it seemed to be mostly heavy construction equipment, bound, he guessed, for Mars, or perhaps even for transshipment to the Jupiter project, or Ceres. Some of it looked like machinery that his father had argued about with the Curringer Corporation and had planned to order.

“Gentlemen,” Wilson told his friends, reaching for the airlock door, “I’ll be going in first. After all, it’s my kid sister in there.”

And Jasmeen.

Nobody wanted to challenge Wilson on that point. He opened the outer door, squeezed into the small amount of space available inside—the airlock had been hastily constructed from common sandwich panels, relatively thin titanium alloy on the outsides, half an inch of foamed aluminum on the inside, the panels welded together into a box with ragged edges and corners that could tear an envirosuit if its wearer happened to be careless—and told the others, “Okay, who else is coming? There may be room for one more in here, as long as they’re pretty small.”

“As much as it pains me to admit it … ” Shorty didn’t finish the sentence, but managed to squeeze in beside Wilson. The door swung closed.

Wilson looked at Scotty through a porthole inset in the door. “Why don’t you and Merton stay out here and watch our ships—unless we call you? It’s probably not going to be a very pleasant sight in there.”

Scotty nodded. “We’ll just be sitting here, all alone by the telephone.”

“No,” Merton said. “I’ll be back at my ship, collecting oxy cannisters, just in case.”

“Good thinking. Check mine, too. Here we go.” Wilson opened the inner door and stepped onto a tiny steel platform. A ladder beside it ran the length of the core, a little over a thousand feet.

“Whoa!” Shorty had nearly missed the platform and fallen into the core. They both knew that a fall like that, even at one third gee, was fatal.

Down at the bottom, they could just make out the huddled bodies, looking a bit like they were lightly covered with snow. Wilson was tempted to use the magnifying feature of his faceplate, but he decided against it.

Instead, he swung around so that his hands were on the outer uprights of the long ladder, his feet clamped around them the same way.

“You okay, Shorty?” In a way, he was asking himself the same question.

“Sure, Commodore. I’ll be right behind you.” The tough-guy from Lost Angeles sounded a little scared.

Wilson loosened his grip on the ladder just a little, and began to slide down toward the two or three hundred human bodies lying at the bottom of the core. Shorty was directly above him. It didn’t take long until they reached the last of the platforms, just inside its access door. This would be another cargo level, forward of the engineering spaces.

There were people lying everywhere, close together, some of them bloodied, some of them not. There were green emergency oxygen bottles everywhere, as well, a few of them still hissing. It looked to Wilson as if the passengers had all covered themselves with table linen from the restaurant. His suit guages told him it was twenty-five degrees in here—above zero—and that there was only enough oxygen remaining for—

Suddenly, an old man lying directly at Wilson’s feet shivered and pulled the tablecloth over his face, settling deeper into the huddle. His movement stirred those around him, and a wave of motion slowly made its way out across the mass of bodies lying on the floor below Wilson.

“Holy crap, Commodore, looks like they’re alive! Well, most of ‘em, anyway!” He didn’t know what he was feeling, but Wilson would surely remember this moment for the rest of his life, and so would Shorty.

Wilson shouted into his suit mike, “Scotty! Merton! Pharch! Get that spare oxygen down here right away!” To Scotty: “Later on, we can run a line from one of our ships if we have to. Hell, it looks like they’re all alive!”

“We’ll do it,” said Scotty. “But I’ll have to climb back into my envirosuit. I have life support back up! Air and heat. Believe it or not, there are auxiliary controls on every deck of this ship! And this cargo bay is at eighty degrees above. It’s actually starting to get hot!”

One of the forms below looked up at him. In some ways, it was like a scene out of Dante. “Wilson, is it really you? I knew you’d come, somehow!”

“Llyra!” Then he checked to see if he’d switched on the speakers mounted on the outside of his suit. He had, but how was he going to get down to his baby sister without stepping on somebody with his heavy boots? How cold was the outside of his suit? He didn’t want to give her frostbite, or anybody else. Where was Jasmeen? Why weren’t the damned nanobots taking care of the condensation that was suddenly blurring his vision? “Yes, yes, it’s me! I’m coming. I’ll be right there!”

Somehow, he managed to make his way down to her. Instead of trying to embrace him, which would have been difficult, considering his suit, she simply wrapped both of her small arms around one of his. When she sat up, she lifted the cloth. He saw Jasmeen beside her, her eyes on his own, sparkling and beautiful. With his free hand, he took one of hers.

“Oh, Wilson,” Llyra told him, “I’m so happy we’re not going to
die!”

“Me, too, kid.” He was having more of that faceplate problem. “Me, too!”

******

He is not little boy any more, Jasmeen thought, looking across Llyra at Wilson. Has not been for long time. He is full grown man, for all that he is two years younger than I am. He appears to be natural-born leader, natural-born hero of variety my mother and father once told me about. He is space pilot, asteroid hunter, gunfighter, businessman, and, oh yes, he is father—or will be in another few weeks.

He is Llyra’s brother, for Allah’s sake!

Wilson had ordered the survivors all taken, a few at a time in the elevators, to the forward observation lounge. There was plenty of room there for rest and treatment, and he hadn’t wanted them to have to see the dining room again, with its smashed furniture and bloodsoaked carpet.

It looked like somebody had been decapitated down there. Probably the someone on the passenger lock.

Scotty had managed to shut the engines down from an auxiliary control space by cutting off their reaction mass—East American Space Lines used Lunar granite dust—then pulling the catalytic palladium rods from the fusion reactors. They weren’t floating all over the ship because she was now under tow by four asteroid hunters, including Wilson’s, at about one tenth of a gee.

For some reason, Pimble Pharch couldn’t be found. His ship. Lilac Waffle, was gone, as well.

Just now, Wilson didn’t give a damn about Pharch. He was sitting with Jasmeen and his sister on a huge, deep, comfortable sofa. The girls were wrapped in a warm blanket together, sipping hot chocolated coffee. He’d taken off his helmet and gloves. Merton and Shorty had gotten the kitchen restarted somehow, and had plenty of hot food and drink for anyone who needed them.

At present, they had lots of customers. Two-hundred eighty-five individuals had taken refuge in the service core, not counting a small handful of thoroughly dead bodies that the passengers all swore were part of the hijackers’ gang. Some had broken necks, others had been stabbed or simply shot. Wilson believed that someone here had killed them.

And for some reason, was keeping quiet about it.

His phone rang. “Talk to me.”

It was Scotty. “I believe we can do it, Commodore. I’ve got the course calculated and ready to send and found all the good attachment points.”

“Let me talk with the Captain,” Wilson told him, “I’ll get back to you.”

He stood up and looked down at Llyra and Jasmeen. Their color was beginning to come back. “We’re about to turn this ship over and get her decelerating, but I need to confer with Captain West. It won’t be too rough, but it won’t be unnoticeable like it was meant to be. When the time comes, both of you find something that’s bolted down and hang on.”

Jasmeen cast her half of the blanket aside and stood up, fully recovered—or giving that impression, anyway. Somehow Wilson had forgotten how appealing her tight little body was, half athletic, half voluptuous. It was even possible that he’d never really noticed until now.

Llyra rose with her. “You confer with Captain,” Jasmeen said. She’d pronounced it “Keptin”, which he found irresistably appealing for some reason. “We will help everybody else find bolts to hang on.” Llyra seized her brother’s hand, and before he knew it, her coach had taken the other. “Thank you for saving lives,” the older of the two girls said. Was that a tear in her eye? “Some cultures would say that you own them now.”

He swallowed. “Neither of you owes me thanks. You’re my family. You have no idea what it was like to find you two alive, after what I’d …” He turned and walked away, wondering exactly what had just happened.

If anything.

He found the Captain at the opposite side of the lounge with his crew, most of whom seemed to have survived the attempted hijacking. They had pulled several pieces of the comfortable lounge furniture together and were sharing warm blankets and hot drinks with one another.

“You know,” the Captain said to Wilson. They had seen each other several times since the asteroid hunters’ arrival, but had not been introduced. “I was offered a fireplace for this room, one of those round ones with a conical hood? Next time I’ll consider it more seriously. I think I like the idea of a spaceship leaving a trail of smoke behind from its chimney.”

Looking down at the Captain’s blanket-covered form, Wilson told him, “As soon as you can give me a list of your fatalities, sir, I’ll have them beamcast straight back to your company in the Earth/Moon system.”

“Don’t ‘sir’ me, son,” he told Wilson. I take it you’re in charge of the rescue party, and you command more vessels than I do. Call me Al.”

“Okay, Al, but it’s vessels I lead, not command.”

“A fine distinction, but an important one. To begin to answer your question, we lost a Space Marshal and two people from the kitchen. I don’t know if that’s complete, but I’ll find out and let you know. At the moment, nobody’s at their duty stations.” He waved an arm, taking in his shaken crew, sitting around him. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Wilson nodded.

“The opposition fared a lot worse,” West suggested.

“Yes, Al, nineteen dead and still counting. I’d like to talk to you about that sometime. But we’re ready now to get your ship turned around. I need you to send somebody down and round up all those oxygen bottles. I wouldn’t want to be turning this ship over, and have one of them come sailing out through the wall of the service core. I also wanted to discuss the possibility of restarting her engines after turnover.”

The Captain nodded.

“The boys and I could probably decelerate you all the way to Mars with our ships, and we’ve got three more coming back to join us right now. But we were at high-boost almost on the opposite heading when we got the message, we’re all getting a little short on reaction mass, and … ”

“You would appreciate our helping ourselves, to whatever extent we can. Very well … I heard your people call you ‘Commodore’, is that right?”

“It’s a joke.” He reached a hand down to the Captain. “I’m Wilson Ngu—and yes, Al, it’s those Ngus, including my baby sister over there.”

“She handles a Ngu Departure Mark Two pretty effectively for a baby.”

Wilson laughed. “My sister Llyra is probably an East American’s worst nightmare. She came about as close to being born with a gun in her hand as anybody ever has. She’s a much better long-range shot than I am, and I’m a three-tournament silhueta winner, back home.”

The Captain nodded and began to get up off the overstuffed sofa.”I’ll be down to inspect the engines as soon as I can move my legs again.”

******

Four hours later, through the transparent dome of his own little vessel, Wilson could see Captain West sitting in his chair on the flight deck of the City of Newark, flanked by a couple members of his bridge crew. The bodies of the young woman and the other hijackers had been put away in cold storage on one of the cargo decks until they could be properly identified.

Somehow, he doubted if they ever would. Only East America still kept files of fingerprints and retinal patterns. The rest of humanity had moved on too quickly for that to follow. From what he’d learned from the passengers, a couple of hijackers were missing, including the woman who’d been at the spaceport with the assassin who’d murdered Fallon. He very badly wanted to have a private conversation with her.

There was a passenger missing, too, an old man who had befriended and defended Llyra and Jasmeen, and who could kill with a thrown table knife. A private conversation with him would probably be illuminating, as well.

Pimble Pharch seemed gone for good.

Once they’d started, it hadn’t taken West’s technicians—with the aid of Shorty—half an hour to repair the dense network of plugs and cables that connected the navigational computer with various systems it controlled, or that sent it information. In fact, it had taken the Captain somewhat longer to reprogram it. Other bridge functions had been restored, as well. It would be the Captain who gave the Turnover command.

Meanwhile, the ships Wilson had sent after the yacht were back, safe, if empty-handed.

“Very well, my fellow captains,” West spoke to Wilson, Marko, Mikey, and Scotty, whose ships presently stood at the ends of long lines attached to the larger spaceship, every engine silent. “Captain West has given the word. If it’s agreeable, let’s make it thirty seconds on my mark. Are you ready? Mark!”

Wilson watched numbers, hanging in the air before his face, count down.

Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend and Marko’s Mina (named after a Chinese movie star, Wilson had learned), were attached to towing bollards near the front end of the space liner, Albuquerque Gal and Nessie, at her stern. The pair forward—Wilson and Marko—would pull at her, taking her ninety degrees off the line she presently occupied, turning her on an imaginary point amidships. Mikey and Scotty would gently brake her, until she had completed a full one hundred eighty degree rotation, confirmed by her Captain.

“Five, four, three, two, one!” Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend fired one of her three engines. The other two would be unnecessary—and perhaps too much—for this job. He could see that Marko’s ship had done the same. The stars reeled about them as the collection of ships pivoted on the liner’s horizontal axis. In seconds, she was halfway where they wanted her to be, and the two ships at the bow stopped blasting.

The Captain said, “Cut!” abruptly to Mikey and Scotty, after they had braked her practically to a halt. He then let his fingers play across his own keyboard—Wilson could see it under magnification—firing powerful thrusters fore and aft that brought the ship to rest, her stern now pointed at where Mars would be about ten days from now. The asteroid hunters cast off—their lines would be gathered in later—and hovered, waiting for her six hybrid fusion engines to fire.

There was a fugitive flickering, and then there they were, six big frying pans at the stern of the ship, filled to their brims with a brilliant blue-white hell. The City of Newark worked her way up to one tenth of a gee—Wilson and his friends kept up—and stayed there for the next four hours, as her badly-abused systems were checked.

And double-checked.

Wilson took a shower in the comfort of his own ship, had a hot meal, and then called his sister. The spaceliner had some kind of communication relay that made ordinary phones work perfectly. It was a nice touch, and one he wouldn’t have expected from anything East American.

“Llyra Ngu’s telephone. Is Jasmeen Khalidov speaking.” She sounded extremely serious, exactly the way they always portrayed Martians on 3DTV.

For some odd reason, Wilson’s heart began beating a little more quickly in his chest. “Uh, hello, Jasmeen. May I speak with my sister?”

“No, Wilson,” she said, still very serious. “You may not.”

Was that humor in her voice or was that just wishful thinking on his part? “Okay,” he told her at last, “I’ll bite. Why can’t I talk to Llyra?”

“Because telephone is not waterproof. Your sister is taking shower.”

He laughed. “Okay, I’ll call back later.” He started to thumb it off.

“Is good idea,” he heard her say. “Is better idea if you come over and have dinner with us here. They have dining room almost fixed now and kitchen works perfectly. I do not think that they have room service. Llyra needs to see you around, Wilson. Makes her much less afraid.”

“I’ll be happy to come over. I was just going to lock onto the City of Newark anyway and shut my engines down for a while. Save a little reaction mass that way. But I have to tell you, Jasmeen, I don’t believe there’s anything in the universe that my sister’s afraid of.”

There was a pause at the other end, then, “Do it for me, then, Wilson.”

An odd thrill went through his body. “Dinner it is, then, in an hour.” What the hell was wrong with him? He’d known Jasmeen for years and never felt this awkward and tongue-tied in her presence before. It must be a reaction to nearly losing her and his sister.

That was it, only a reaction.

Hands above the keyboard, he was about to head for one of the larger ship’s airlocks, when there was an explosion—a big one—he actually heard it as the wavefront of expanding gases rolled over his ship.

Backing away on his thrusters, he saw that one of the City of Newark‘s six engines was missing, an impossible tangle of fiery wreckage taking its place. Chunks of shrapnel were flying in every direction.

The Captain had his wits about him, though, and cut his other five engines almost instantaneously. “Mighty Mouse’s Girfriend? Mina? Anybody else? Did anybody happen to get the license number of that bus?”

Wilson answered, “Your number four engine just blew up, Captain, with what appears to be minimal damage to the rest of the ship. You don’t appear to be venting atmosphere. You are off course again. How are you for air pressure?”

“We look fine, on the boards. You gentlemen want to give us a little inspection? That had the feel of deliberate sabotage to it—or am I just being paranoid? Nope, I just checked and there are people out to get me—or my ship. I’m not going to trust those engines again until I tear them apart and put them back together again with my bare hands.

“I don’t think you’re paranoid, Captain,” Wilson said.

Scotty added, “And even paranoids have enemies.”

“How reassuring,” said the Captain.

“We’ll inspect the hull for you, Captain. What will you do for power—”

“We may have to depend on you, sir, although it grieves me deeply to—”

“Don’t give it a thought. We’ll inspect the ship and then I’m coming aboard. Ngu out.” He picked up his phone and punched a single button.

Jasmeen again. “You two all right down there?” he asked. “Slipped in the shower, did she? Only a bruise? I’m glad to hear it. But the City of Newark just lost an engine, and I’m going to be a little late for dinner.”

******

Aaron Manzel, the individual who sometimes thought of himself as the Fastest Gun in the Moon, fired an opposing pair of thrusters in the little spaceship’s stubby wings, rolling her so that she appeared to be orbiting over Mars, instead of under. He’d always hated it the other way around. Somehow it never failed to make him feel gloomy and claustrophobic.

“There, that’s better, isn’t it?” he asked his companion.

His companion didn’t answer, but gave him a murderous look.

The Swan-class yacht White-Winged Dove groaned alarmingly as she rolled in response, her backbone severely bent, if not completely broken. She’d held together so far, but she’d probably been dealt a mortal blow, he thought, when her angry pursuers had destroyed her upper engine. They’d looked like a squadron of asteroid hunters, and he wondered if Llyra Ngu’s brother Wilson had been among them. In any case, the ship would almost certainly come apart when he tried to land her.

Manzel attempted to be philosophical about it. After all, he’d lived to see, and do, quite a number of wonderful things—certainly far more than his fair share—in his long and adventure-filled life. Unfortunately, he didn’t believe in that nonsense about fair shares. There was quite a number of wonderful things remaining for him to see and do—and quite a number he wanted to see and do again.

He’d lied to his new friends: Mars was not one of them.

Unlike the Earth, all swirly blue and white—and most beautiful when she was stormiest—Mars was unpleasant to gaze upon at the best of times. To begin with, under a cloud cover that was only occasional even now, the world was covered with meteoric scars large, medium, and small. A mottled orangey-pink in the few remaining desert regions, and a sickening mustard yellow where the macaroni plants had taken over altogether, the whole planet closely resembled a gigantic infected wound, centered on the three thousand mile gash that was Valles Marineris.

“Unidentified spacecraft,” came a powerful radio signal from the ground. They could probably roast an ox on a spit close to their antenna.

The ship was presently over Valles Marineris, that vast and complicated system of equatorial rifts and prehistoric river canyons, now filled once again with coursing water. It was the most highly developed and densely populated region of the Formerly Red Planet, because it was very nearly the lowest, and possessed the richest atmosphere.

“This is Coprates Spaceport Control. Do not approach without permission and instructions. I say again, do not approach without permission—”

“This is White Winged Dove, Coprates Spaceport Control,” Manzel answered. “Lately out of Port Armstong in Luna. Your message heard and understood, but probably not doable. I’ve only got four or five orbits left in this poor crippled bird, and then she’s for the long singe and a messy landing. I’ll try very hard not to ugly up any of your runways.”

“White Winged—I thought I recognized that Swan-class profile! So you’re the one! You’re hot, whoever you are. I’ll come and arrest you, myself, for the reward! That’s a stolen ship you’re flying! She’s implicated in the hijacking of the East American space liner and cold-blooded murder!”

“Well she’s since been stolen back, Coprates Spaceport Control, Scout’s Honor and sorry about your reward. By the way, if you’re in communication with City of Newark, have them inform Miss Ngu and Miss Khalidov that their friend Aaron made it this far. I have references to back up what I’m saying, and a pair of Null Delta Em prisoners.”

“Null Delta—”

“Furthermore, Coprates Spaceport Control, White Winged Dove‘s owners are more than welcome to recover any of her that’s left after I set her down. Almost certainly, I won’t be in any condition to protest.”

Martians loved to see themselves as fatalists and stoics. They loved that kind of talk, although, for the most part, he really meant it this time. Manzel winked at Crenicichla, gagged and taped into the copilot’s seat. Crenicichla glared back. Manzel grinned at his prisoner.

The radio said, “We only have one runway, White Winged Dove.” For shuttlecraft from both moonports. Manzel shrugged to himself. In many ways Mars was still a frontier planet and would probably always remain so. For reasons dating back to their brief war of independence from Earth, Martians didn’t like things hanging over their heads in orbit and had developed ways of dealing with them.

“Okay, then, Coprates Spaceport Control,” he told them. “I’ll try hard to miss it if it’s at all possible. Can you recommend a nice, soft desert nearby, where your emergency vehicles can reach us in a hurry?”

“Locate Coprates Chasma in the eastern half of Valles Marineris—you should have charts. Look for a horseshoe-shaped astrobleme tight against the south canyon wall—that’s where we are: Coprates City and Coprates Interplanetary Spaceport. There’s a large sandy basin to the west, between the horseshoe crater and an isolated set of little mountains. Land anywhere in that basin, we can be there within half an hour. Sooner, if we start now!”

Manzel displayed one chart after another on the navigation screens until he found what he wanted. He then overlapped the view from one of the ship’s exterior pickups on the screen. There it was. He would land as close to the horseshoe-shaped crater—and the spaceport—as he could.

“Got you, Coprates. A nice little desert, as ordered, and a gentle turn to starboard at the bottom.” He wondered if the structure of the ship would survive it. “Should be interesting. Follow us down if you can.”

“Will do, White Winged Dove, and good luck. You’re gonna need it.”

“You’re telling me.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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