The Belter Accord talks were held in Nueva York so the Terran government could appear benign and reasonable. Nueva York was one of the few places on Earth’s surface where Belters, Galileans, Martians, and Saturnians could work without constant harassment and threats. Professor Kelley of Titan was instrumental in arranging the talks and sent Lady Park of the Titan Council to represent Saturn, and he had talked Terry of the Tharsis Commune into representing Mars.
She was so famous on Mars that Earth would think twice about harassing her, and besides, she was born on Earth and transported to Mars as a child, so she could function perfectly well in Terran gravity. Her role was prestigious enough that she could choose her own bodyguards and, cheekily perhaps, she had chosen Karil and Loris, the Free Trader smugglers who were technically persona non grata on Earth. The Terran authorities needed to appear to believe in the Accords, so they swallowed the insult. The old United Nations Building in Nueva York was a private enclave now and no longer diplomatic territory, and so another venue was chosen—one of the private manors of North Manhattan Island, overlooking the sampan city of Harlem Harbor.
Terry sat at the talks every day, listening to the discussion on her ear tabs. Her green-eyed, long-haired blonde beauty was eye candy for the cameras, especially framed by Loris’s tall, dark, martial-arts-trained beauty and Karil’s smooth brown masculinity. On Mars, it was widely known that Terry was the lover of both and that was an added fillip to the publicity. They were also filmed at dinner in a fine restaurant afterwards. Even half-underwater and packed with desperate immigrants, Nueva York was publicity gold.
The talks ended on a note of optimism that everyone knew would not be fulfilled but a success in that everyone had appeared reasonable. Terry and the pirates, as they were called, prepared to leave. The freetrader smartship Atalanta was berthed at the Sheep Meadow Spaceport in Central Farm. Loris took her place at the helm, Terry climbed into a passenger acceleration couch, and Karil slid down into the astrogator’s well. The ship lifted on a cloud of fusion-drive plasma exhaust, hovered over the teeming city, and sped northward toward the free city of Montreal, where they could relax for a bit and refuel without Terran interference before the long trip to Mars. As so often happens on Earth, however, everything went wrong.
They were chatting as the forest rolled by beneath them, while Atalanta attended to the flying. She maintained altitude just above the treetops so as not to attract undue attention from the Quasi-Police. It was one thing to appear at an officially sanctioned conference in an open city like Nueva York, but another thing entirely for a known smuggling ship to be headed toward a Terran border town through uninhabited forest.
Suddenly there came the bray of warning klaxons and the feel of the acceleration couches tightening on their bodies.
“Atty, what is it?”
An explosion shook the ship, but there was no response from Atalanta. The automatic systems tried to find a glide-path, but there was nowhere to land. Atalanta cut off the tops of several trees, banked in response to the impact, and spun into the forest. There was a great crash and the passengers slipped into unconsciousness.
Karil awoke to find that Loris had come to first. She crawled across the bridge to help pry Karil out of his couch. Then they both brought Terry around.
“Are you all right?” she murmured.
“A little shook up, but the couches did their job. But Atty’s not communicating. I don’t know if she made it.”
“Oh, no! Atty!”
There was no response.
“If we can’t get her back online, we’ll be out of contact completely,” Karil said.
They crawled out through the smashed exit hatch into a landscape of toppled and denuded trees. Terry followed Karil and Loris as they ducked under the broken ship and examined the portside undermounted driver. There was a blackened and ragged hole in the bottom of the engine nacelle and dozens of connections had been severed, causing serious damage to Atalanta’s comm-system. Fusion drivers were not subject to catastrophic meltdown or runaway reactions, even hit by laser-fire, but the magnetic containment field could have exploded and caused a lot more damage. In space, of course, the air-pressure inside might well have ripped open the ship.
“Who did that?”
“Portable attack laser, standard Quasi-Police issue. The explosion took out Atty’s speech centres. She may be hearing us but can’t speak or send a message.”
Terry was shocked. “Are her higher functions affected?” It was like learning that a sister was in a coma.
“She may have lost some recent memories,” Karil said. “Her basic personality and logs are on file at Galilean Security, so if we can get off this planet and get her to Ganymede, we can probably restore most of her. But right now, she’s paralyzed and incommunicado. We’re on our own in the woods.”
“What’s more important right now,” Loris said, “is who the hell shot us down with a fucking Quasi-Police attack-laser. We’d better arm up in case they’re still around. Then we can try and revive Atty and see who we can communicate with. There must be Galilean Security agents on Earth and maybe Free Traders we can contact. Atty could communicate with them securely and we might be able to use parts of her comm-system without her to do the same. But right now, there’s somebody out there armed to the teeth and I’d say they’re pretty unfriendly.”
They crawled back into the ship and checked their weapons. They were already dressed for Hothouse Earth in brief clothing that would allow for sweating and radiating body heat. They were inoculated for Terran bugs and their boots would protect them from snakes. Terry doffed her traditional Martian robe in favour of the traditional Martian undergarments, and even Karil was too disturbed to notice her deshabille. They checked their weapons. Loris’s fighting staff was undamaged, as well as Karil’s bow and arrows. He looked for damage to his Terran handgun and holster.
“Drop it,” said a voice.
They turned and saw a man holding a Terran assault-laser. He was a huge man, a cyborg, and carried the powerful weapon as if it weighed nothing. There was nothing they could do now but drop their weapons and raise their hands. If he fired that weapon, they and Atalanta could be totally destroyed. The man took a look at their well-trained bodies and stepped back well out of reach, jerking the weapon toward the twisted ramp. They climbed down out of the ship into the wrecked forest clearing and found themselves surrounded by armed strangers dressed not in Quasi-Police uniforms, but in prison jumpers. Besides the big cyborg, there was a young blue-eyed man, a scowling older man with black hair and grey sideburns, and a handsome, though hard-eyed woman.
“What do we have here, Doc?” the older man said.
Blue Eyes laughed. “These three dropped in. The blonde is a Martian and the other two are Galilean spacers.”
“How do you know?” the woman asked. She was slim and beautiful, but her gaze seemed hard and pitiless. It was disturbing how she sized them up physically with a stare.
“Because of the way they move in full-gee, Gloria. My guess is they were all born here and turned spacer. They must be Free Traders. Look at the ship.”
“So, I suppose,” Gloria said, “the blonde is their Ship’s Pet. She seems a little old.”
The flicker of a smile passed over Terry’s face.
“How’s the ship?” the boss asked.
“She’s dead, you sonofabitch.” Loris moved a little and the cyborg raised his weapon.
“Watch it with that thing,” the boss snapped. “You’ll kill us all.”
“Don’t you know who she is?” asked the young one, who was clearly the brains of the outfit. “That’s Terry Tharsis from Mars.”
“Really?” Boss said. “We may have a valuable hostage here.”
Loris thought that was fine. Being hostages might keep them alive. She sized up her enemies. They were all Terran, all strong and dangerous in their own way. She thought of them as the Boss, the Babe, the Brain, and the Brawn. But Loris was not intimidated by strength, intelligence, beauty or power. “Why the hell did you shoot us down?” she demanded.
“You weren’t searching for us?” Boss asked.
“Jesus. We were just on our way north. Now we’re stuck here three hundred klicks from nowhere.”
“Yes, but we have more weapons now.”
“Well, a fat lot of good they’ll do you. We got a mayday out and the authorities will be here soon.” Karil and Terry did not make any move that would contradict the lie.
“She’s lying, Boss,” the one called Doc said. “They didn’t have time to get out a mayday.” He was the Brain all right. She would have to stay on her toes and keep tight control over her movements and voice if she wanted to pull the wool over his eyes.
Gloria strode forward and studied Loris’s body, purposely invading her space. Loris, of course, could snap Gloria’s neck in two seconds, but in three seconds she would be dead. “And who is this piece of cake?” Gloria said. She stroked Karil’s muscular arms and stomach in a particularly intimate manner. Karil had to steel himself not to respond to her touch. Obviously, she was used to exerting power over men, and women too, with her sexuality. Loris thought that might be a weakness on her part if she could exploit it. Then, Gloria approached Terry and began stroking her long hair as if petting a cat.
“Enough of this,” the Boss said. “Doc, keep them covered. Gloria, tie their hands behind them. Pay particular attention to the Goddess of Death here. Bruno, get over there, and if they make a threatening move, kill them. They could be useful to us, but not if they’re going to be a pain in the ass.”
Terry caught Karil and Loris communicating with each other in a few flickering eye-movements, as she had seen them do before. Loris had glanced toward Doc, telling Karil to engage with him, and Karil did the same toward Gloria, suggesting that Loris deal with her. Terry guessed that Karil would start conversations with the smart young man when he could, engaging his mind and his curiosity. Loris would try to understand and exploit Gloria’s cruel and self-centred nature. Terry guessed that Gloria was afraid of nothing and looked for only one thing in her life—sensation. Terry was pretty sure that Loris could be sensational. The other two were probably lost causes. Boss was naturally suspicious and probably would not hesitate to kill them if he felt he was threatened in any way, and Bruno was not too bright and had little control over himself, which could neutralize much of his strength. All this Terry guessed from a few glances between Karil and Loris and her more than intimate knowledge of them.
The Boss gestured and the party set off through the forest, the prisoners with their wrists bound behind them. Gloria had possession of Loris’s fighting staff now. She was grinning from ear to ear, probably dreaming of breaking bones with it. Doc had Karil’s bow and arrows and the Boss took control of the big laser weapon. Bruno seemed not to care about weapons, probably believing his strength was enough. That could be a weakness too.
It was an extremely uncomfortable hour for the captives by the time they arrived at their destination. A Quasi-Police prisoner-shuttle lay in a clearing with toppled trees on top of it. Nearby were a number of unmarked graves covered with rocks to keep animals from digging them up, though Loris guessed they were too shallow. No doubt they contained the bodies of the Quasi crew and perhaps fellow prisoners, killed in the crash or soon thereafter. Loris and Karil both imagined that the Boss had ordered Bruno to break his bonds and seize control of the ship, but it had crashed, or else was made to crash by the Quasi Captain as protocol demanded. They knew well that the Captains of Quasi ships were not just bureaucrats but were often dedicated officers.
“We want you to get this ship airworthy again,” the Boss demanded.
Loris laughed out loud and was pistol-whipped for it, but barely seemed to notice. “Do what you want,” she snarled, “but I can see that this ship can’t be repaired here. It’s standard procedure for the Quasi-Police to scuttle their ships to keep them out of prisoners’ hands and they’ve done a real job on this one. So you might as well kill us for all the good we can do you. Or we can take you out of this forest before the Quasi rescue party gets here.”
“A ship like this automatically reports in with its location at certain intervals,” Karil added. “It’s probably overdue now and another ship will be sent to these coordinates. They’ll have your names and prison numbers on record. They’ll find the graves and realize that some prisoners have survived. They’ll consider searching for you, but it’s hard to tell from above whether a warm body in the forest is a human being or a deer, and if you’re far enough away, they might just let the forest take care of you. So if you want to stay free, you have to get as far away from this ship as you can. Tell him, Doc.”
“That sounds right, Boss.”
“The nearest civilization is a couple hundred kilometers away, in Montreal,” Loris said. “This is part of the Underground Railroad called the Vermont Corridor, once known as Old Route Seven. There’s a bit of food on our ship, but we were on our way to be fitted for space and there isn’t much. There may be some on this ship too, but they were on a routine flight and there won’t be much there either. You’ve got a good month of walking ahead of you before you’re finished. If you want to stay alive, you have to do what we say. And the first thing is: you have to untie us.”
“Yeah,” the Boss said. “Right.”
“Bound or not, we can disappear at the first sign of trouble—dogs, wild boars, maybe even an escaped tiger. You’ll be exhausted most of the time and won’t be able to stop us. But unbound, we can help you get out of this alive. We don’t care much for the Quasi-Police, but you’re not refugees, you’re actual criminals and we wouldn’t shed a tear for any of you—trust me—but Montreal is an open town and we can part ways amicably once we get there. We won’t abandon you in the forest because, unlike you, we’re not cruel. This was always forested and mountainous territory, but now it’s sub-tropical in nature, a whole different set of dangers.”
“I imagine you know how to hunt men, “ Karil said. “but can you hunt animals? Animals are smarter than men.” He looked at Doc. “You look pretty good with that bow, but can you put an arrow in a wild boar’s eye and render it brain-dead before it rips open your guts before dying?”
“And,” Loris piled on, “can any of you drop on a deer and cut its throat before it dumps you and takes off like a bat out of Hell?”
“I can rip a deer’s head off,” Bruno said.
“You’ll never see a deer. It can hear you coming half a klick away. Can any of you dress a carcass without poisoning yourself? And then,” she added, “there’s the mushrooms. Can you tell the good ones that will keep you alive from the bad ones that will kill you? The fact is: this escape didn’t go very well for you until we got involved. Without us, you’ll be dead in a week and rotting in the woods. So untie us and we can all go back to our ship and pick up our tents.”
“We come to Earth a lot, “Karil said. “We have survival gear on the ship all the time. Come on, for Christ sake. There’ll be a Quasi cruiser on top of us any time now. I don’t care if they arrest you, but they’ll probably arrest us too. We’re as wanted as you are, probably more. I’ve been through a Quasi Police political interrogation and I’m not anxious for another one. They’ll probably send Terry home eventually, but she knows a hell of a lot more about the Martian Rebellion than we do, and somebody might take it into his head to interrogate her too. What’s more, they might be paranoid enough to think you’re involved and I don’t think you’ll survive. You’ve killed Quasi-Police and they won’t think twice about torturing you to death.”
Still grumbling, the Boss ordered their bonds removed and they returned to Atalanta. They found inflatable tents, rain ponchos and other necessary items that had never occurred to the Boss. Karil and Loris could easily carry a pack without it weighing them down, and Bruno could carry two of them without even noticing. Loris pulled out a huge knife in a scabbard and Boss protested.
“Jesus,” Loris said, “are you gonna do this every time we make a move? I don’t have to trust you, and I don’t, but you have to trust me if you want to live. This is a machete. If you spot a snake you’ll be glad I’ve got it. This trail hasn’t been a paved road for a hundred years and it’s seriously overgrown in some places. This will get us through. I could kill all of you if I hadn’t promised not to, with or without weapons, so stop this.”
“I suppose,” Doc said to Karil, “you’ll want your bow and arrow back.”
“Keep it,” Karil said. “I’ll teach you how to use it. I’ll make my own. There’s lots of good yew and ash and poplar about. Actually better for bows and arrows than steel.” He pulled out an antique item he called a Bowie Knife. “I’ll make it with this.”
As they left, Loris put her hand on the bridge-panel and said, “Bye, Atty. We’ll be back for you.” Unseen, she flipped a tiny switch and a light went on deep inside the panel. They left the ship sitting alone in the clearing where her crash had knocked down the trees. The blazing sunlight of Earth fell on her solar panels. They all turned north toward the Canadas.
A Quasi cruiser did show up and it found the wreckage of both ships. Lieutenant Sands of Terran Security and his team dug up the bodies and stored them in the cruiser’s morgue for proper burial and stripped the prison shuttle of its computers and data. The conclusion was that some of the prisoners had broken free and tried to seize the ship, but the captain had crashed it to prevent that. The prisoners had killed the few officers who survived and some of their fellow prisoners who were injured or otherwise unnecessary.
The freetrader ship that crashed nearby was a puzzle, however. An attempt to access its computer files was a failure because they had largely been erased in the crash and much of the rest of the ship was booby-trapped. Analysis of the crash damage seemed to suggest that it had been shot down by the escaped prisoners, possibly thinking it was a Security search-ship. All the bodies were identified as Terran Security or prisoners, so the Free Traders seemed to have survived and joined forces with the prisoners. Sands reported his findings to headquarters in Nueva York.
“Excellent work, Lieutenant,” his commander said. “Bring in the bodies for burial and the data for analysis. Leave the ships where they are. Too big an operation to bring them in. The forest will take care of them.”
It was not the first Quasi cruiser to sit mouldering in the woods. There were plenty more ships where that came from.
“What about the fugitives, Sir?”
“The forest will take care of them too, Lieutenant. Are you suggesting searching the whole Northern Woods for them?”
“Well, Sir, first off, these are prisoners who murdered Terran Security agents. We should bring them to justice if we can. Second, we have identified the freetrader ship as Atalanta out of Ganymede. Its crew has been wanted for some time. Third, among them is Ambassador Terry Tharsis of Mars. Either she is held against her will, in which case freeing her from captivity would look very good for Security, or she is involved in criminal activity, which would look bad for Mars.”
“Well, I see your point, Lieutenant. Bring in the bodies and the data and then see what you can do to track them down.”
“Yes, Sir.” Lieutenant Sands signed off.
The party made their way north, surrounded by the angry chatter of monkeys and the melodic calls of birds. Karil and Loris were at the head, using the machetes to clear a path through the largely overgrown trail. Bruno was in the rear, turning every now and again to check the trail behind with his enhanced Cyborg eyesight and hearing. His very size might make some predators think twice before attacking the party, and if not, his steel torso and limbs might prove a bit much to deal with.
Later, Karil succumbed to exhaustion earlier than Loris and he, with his hunting skills, took up the rear as Bruno picked up the machete. The big cyborg did his best to copy Loris. He was a bit clumsy to start with and wasted considerable effort, but in his hands the machete became a powerful tool and his strength was nearly inexhaustible. They did rest from time to time, stopping by a babbling brook that followed the trail through the mountains—or more truthfully, the trail followed the brook which had cut its way through the mountains. In the past, all roads in Vermont had followed a river or a brook, and so had the railroads. They filled their canteens with the cool, sweet water and moved on.
The shadows were lengthening when they stopped for the day. Loris promptly vanished while Karil and Terry set up camp, showing the others how to assemble the tents and build a fire to keep away any curious fauna. Loris returned carrying a decapitated deer, having left its head behind to distract any canines or cats in the area. She and Karil sliced up the carcass and roasted it. The little tribe fell upon the meat, having built up quite an appetite with the long day’s march.
“There are plants and mushrooms in the forest too,” Loris said, making Karil laugh as she tore into the seared meat in her near nakedness. “I can show you which ones you can eat, and more importantly which ones will poison you. What?”
“Nothing,” Karil said.
Terry laughed too. “Loris, you look more like Tarzan than Karil does.”
Eyes appeared in the growing darkness outside the firelight and there were intimidating sounds in the night. The remains of the deer had been thrown far into the darkness, to keep the creatures busy fighting amongst themselves, and because the most powerful would feed first and possibly go away. There was a heated discussion about who would be on watch at night and who would sleep in a tent with whom. They decided on three watches from dusk to dawn, featuring one person with either experience in the forest or enhanced hearing and sight, and one other to keep them awake. Karil would watch with Doc, Loris with Terry, and Gloria with Boss and Bruno. Gloria was obviously already having sex with the Boss and would share a tent with him. Bruno slept alone because he filled the entire tent.
It was becoming obvious that Bruno was someone of great value on the march north, and his attitude was now subtly different. Having always been hired basically to be frightening, he was willing to appear stupid and therefore more frightening, but as time went on, his way of speaking and moving was beginning to change. When he was on machete detail with Loris, he was constantly asking questions and she enjoyed answering them.
“How do you know so much about the wild?” he asked at one point.
“Karil taught me. He’s the real expert. I taught him how to fight and he taught me how to hunt. He’s from High Africa and studied wild animals all his life. That’s why we’re sent on missions to Earth. That, and the fact that we were born to this gravity.”
On first watch, Boss and Bruno sat by the roaring fire because Gloria had gone off to bed. Boss could see the glowing eyes of wolves or wild dogs in the darkness outside the fire, though Bruno could also see their silhouettes in the dark. Clearly, the canines were terrified of the fire and they paced back and forth continuously, muttering to themselves. Those on watch always had the laser on hand just in case hunger or courage prodded the watchers in the night to attack the camp. A couple of times it seemed to Bruno’s eyes that the dogs were shuffling ominously and he triggered the laser on a low level. The device began to glow and hum and the dogs fell back. They were afraid of fire, but they knew what it was. This crackling blue glow was something else again.
Mostly, Boss and Bruno sat in silence, but eventually Boss spoke to his bodyguard in a whisper. “You should be careful,” he said, “about getting too friendly with these Free Traders. When we’re out of the forest, we’ll have to kill them.”
Bruno said what he always said: “Yes, Boss.” But he sat in silence, contemplating the fact that Karil and Loris were already treating him with more respect than his own fellow gang-members were. In fact, more respect than anyone had shown him in his life.
After three hours, Karil and Doc emerged from their tent. Doc took the surrendered laser as he was already becoming a good shot with it. Karil had his antique pistol strapped on. He was a crack shot and could take down half a dozen dogs in as many seconds, if necessary. Its loud report would no doubt be frightening as well and would bring everyone out of their tents. In contrast to Boss and Bruno, the two young men kept up a constant whispered conversation as they watched the forest.
“I once read,” Doc said, “that the difference in the way men and women talk with each other dates back to living in caves. Men tended to sit side by side, looking out at the landscape instead of each other because they were both watching a game-trail or the dark beyond the fire, like we are now. But the women talked face to face with gathered food in a basket between them as they sorted beans or berries. As a result, eye contact is a more important part of female conversation.”
“Really? That’s fascinating. I’ve always thought that colour-blindness is more common in men because they didn’t need colour sight for hunting. The animal is either dead or not. Whereas women were the food-gatherers and the color of a fruit or a berry is important in telling whether it’s good or not.”
Doc fell silent, but Karil could almost hear his mind ticking over. Finally, Doc asked, "What do you believe?"
Karil laughed. "I believe in love. I believe in poetry. And I believe in one quick shot to the brain before the other guy draws his weapon. You?"
"Actually, I was raised in a Christian commune on Earth. But you're not what they call a believer either."
"I think Christians and Muslims have a lot in common. By and large, Christians don't follow Jesus and Muslims don't follow Muhammad. If Christians really knew what Jesus was about, they wouldn't be so greedy, puritanical, and cruel. And if Muslims knew the Prophet's mind, they would never treat women and Jews with such contempt. It doesn't take much to understand these great minds. You just have to read."
At the beginning of the third watch, around 3:00 AM, Karil went to awaken Loris and Terry. He knelt down and pulled aside the tent-flap and for a moment he simply knelt there, watching Terry asleep in Loris’s arms, Terry’s alabaster flesh and golden mane surrounded by Loris’s dark, hard body. He could almost hear Atalanta’s dulcet voice saying, “Aren’t they beautiful?” He missed the ship already and was determined to survive and come back for her.
Loris’s eyes were open and smiling at him. Her smiles were so rare that they always lifted his spirit. She bent over and kissed Terry awake. Terry looked up at Karil with her green, gold-flecked eyes, pulled him down and kissed him warmly.
“Let me out, Karil,” Loris said. “You stay here with Terry.”
“But I’m supposed to be on watch with you,” Terry said.
“Who said that?”
“You did, Lor,” Terry laughed.
“Did I? Now I say stay here and snuggle with Karil.” She crawled out of the tent and Karil crawled in. Loris threw a few more branches on the fire and sat down on a log with Doc.
“I’ve left the lovers together for a little while,” she said. “I hope that’s all right with you.”
“Let them stay,” Doc said. “I had three hours sleep early in the night and don’t need any more. I’ve got one of those brains that won’t let me rest.”
“You’re like Karil,” Loris said. “You’re very much alike, actually. I can sleep anywhere, anytime, for as long as necessary, or go without sleep at all. It’s the result of early intensive training in body control.”
“Where was that?”
“India.” Loris told him about starving on the streets as a child, fighting street-dogs for their food. Almost all of India was underwater and people were dying in great numbers. She was taken in by the head of the Assassin’s temple, who was impressed by her body strength and presence of mind, and she was trained in nearly every martial art. She stood up and demonstrated some moves, her dark body moving gracefully before the crackling fire. Doc was fascinated and the hours flew by.
It seemed that Doc’s story was somewhat similar, though not as dramatic—way too smart as a child and bullied, turning to street-gangs, senseless violence, petty crime, serious crime, and prison. Boss was a powerful figure in his cell-block and Doc gravitated to him. Boss made good use of Doc’s intelligence to plan prison-breaks and robberies, and more prison breaks.
Loris contemplated the irony that she had been saved from certain early death not just by her useful skills, but by the tenderness of a professional assassin. As the sun rose, she and Doc sat together in deep contemplation, watching the fire die and the killers in the night slink away from the light.
The party continued trekking north. Loris figured the trail was 400 kilometers long and would take some twenty days, if they stuck to the ruins of Old Route Seven, which wound tightly between the mountains. The Underground Railroad often used what they called the Long Trail, which clung to the high country. It was safer because it was hard for the Quasi-Police to follow, even from the air, but took much longer. Even though the paved road was long gone, the Vermont Corridor was a fairly easy hike, past the ruins of abandoned towns, always clustered about a church steeple, still starkly white against the green forest.
At one point, they encountered a pack of wild dogs and though they outnumbered the humans, they slunk off and disappeared when the laser was triggered. The canines may have already encountered Quasi-Police, who regularly used dogs for target practice. The Underground Railroad guides, called Coyotes, were well armed too. Sometime later, Terry noticed something in Loris’s manner that alarmed her. She was peering up into the trees and listening intently. Terry glanced at Karil and found him watching Loris, with his hand resting on his firearm. She looked around and found that only Bruno was acting strangely. It was then that she realized the normally cacophonous monkeys were strangely silent.
A full-grown tiger stepped out of the undergrowth onto the trail, and stood before them, snarling as if disputing their passage. Loris stood quite still and spoke in a quiet voice. “Escaped from wild animal farms in Florida, flooded out or destroyed in hurricanes. I’ve heard they’ve appeared this far north. Ironically, they’re extinct in India.”
Terry caught her breath at the creature’s beauty, her magnificence, her fearful symmetry. She felt Karil’s hand seeking hers. She jumped in shock as Boss shot it dead with the laser. Loris whirled to face him. ”That was a lactating female,” she snarled. “You just killed her cubs too.”
“So what? It was her or us.”
“No, it wasn’t. That pose was just for show, to warn us against approaching her cubs. In another minute, she would have disappeared. If she wanted to kill us, she would have hit us from the side, coming out of the undergrowth, and we would never have seen her coming. But she wouldn’t risk injury attacking a party this size, with her cubs hiding nearby. We were perfectly safe from her if we gave her a little goddamn respect! What the hell is the matter with you?”
“Have you ever been in prison, Spacer?”
“Yes, I have, actually. And I survived as you did, but with a lot fewer casualties, I’m sure. Jesus, have you ever thought about anything but yourself?” Loris looked ready to take a step toward Boss and suddenly both Karil and Terry were at her side. Karil placed his hand on her arm. Terry put her arm around Loris’s waist.
Loris turned and started off up the trail and for a moment Boss’s eyes bored into her back. Karil kept his own eyes on Boss and fingered his laser-pistol. Both Bruno and Doc watched attentively. Finally, Boss shouldered his weapon and moved on.
Later, Gloria sidled up to Loris, who was as usual in the lead. The trail was not badly overgrown at this point, and Loris seldom used the machete, but it was still in her hand.
“Could I talk to you for a minute?” Gloria asked, as sweetly as you please.
Loris eyed her suspiciously. “Sure. What’s up?”
“What would you think of changing the night watch and sleeping arrangements?”
Loris raised one eyebrow. “Go on.”
“Boss and Doc would share a watch with Bruno, because he can see and hear better than anyone. Suppose Terry and Karil took watch together and shared a tent, as they did the other night. I know you’d like that.”
“The Boss and Doc would share a tent. They’ve been cellmates a long time.”
“And you would share a tent with me,” Loris said.
“Well, yes. But you don’t have to be afraid of me.”
“Gloria, I’m not afraid of you. I watch you like a hawk, but I’m not afraid.” Loris realized, of course, that this would put the Boss in tighter with Doc and Bruno and he would try to undo what she and Karil had done to make friends of those two. But that didn’t bother her as much as wondering what Gloria was up to.
“Why do you come to me with this? Why not talk to Boss?”
“Because you’re the leader here and everybody knows it. He may be Boss, but you’re the leader. If you argue for this idea, most will agree with you, and anyone who disagrees with you might be afraid to say so. You’re easily the scariest one of us all.”
This, of course, was the crux of the matter. Boss was losing his power and Gloria was trying to attach herself to the next leader in line, as she had probably done all her life. Loris thought about it.
“Please?” Gloria said suddenly. “I don’t want to be in a tent with Boss anymore.”
That was something that sounded like the genuine truth, for the first time.
“All right,” Loris said at last. “That would make Karil and Terry happy. I’ll bring it up at dinner.”
“Thank you.” Gloria said. She almost touched Loris but thought better of it.
As dusk approached, Karil and Doc went hunting. Doc was a good student and appeared to Karil to be even smarter than he had thought. He moved stealthily in the forest, far enough behind Karil that Karil’s passage did not cause bent branches to slap him, and his footsteps made no sound. Karil put up his hand and both stopped.
A forest pig was in a muddy clearing ahead of them, tearing up roots with its tusks and grunting in satisfaction. Karil pulled back his bow and his arm-muscles stood out like steel cables. He made a tiny sound with his tongue and the pig looked up with a grunt. Karil sent an arrow straight into its eye, but the pig leaped forward to attack Karil despite its horrible wound. A steel arrow thudded into its other eye and it plowed into the ground, kicking up the dirt.
“You saved my life,” Karil said.
“You and Loris saved all of us. Are you kidding?” Doc replied.
They returned to camp with the porker and decided to cook it Hawaiian style, burying it in a pit of hot coals.
Loris butchered the pig, oblivious to being covered with blood, as the others dug a pit, filled it with wood, and set it ablaze with the laser. They doused the fire with water until it was smoking and smouldering and then they buried the carcass with the glowing charcoal. Loris went to wash the blood off in the nearby stream, and Terry helped. They began to peel off their brief clothing as they vanished into the foliage. Karil watched them longingly.
Gloria came up with a basket of apples, freshly picked from the long-overgrown trees of a small orchard. Roasted apples would be a perfect accompaniment with the roast pork. “Could you come up with a pitcher of Mai Tais?” Karil asked but had to be disappointed. As usual, the creatures of the wood gathered outside but were kept away with the blazing fire and the humming lasers. Loris hoped it would retain its charge long enough to get them through the woods.
When everyone was satisfied and in a pliant mood, Loris brought up Gloria’s suggestion for a schedule change. The Boss glared daggers at Gloria, but she would not meet his gaze. In the end, the vote was to Loris, of course. Nearly everyone wanted Loris to be as happy as possible and Boss did not have the power to defy their will.
If only for the sake of survival, Loris felt she had to understand what was going on in the minds of everyone on the march upcountry. Bruno and Doc were coming along satisfactorily to her way of thinking. Boss remained hard, close-minded, and dangerous, but Gloria was beginning to be a puzzle to her and she thought sharing a watch and a tent with her would help draw her out.
She spoke little on watch, which was all right with Loris, who was not a big talker herself. They watched the dark outside the firelight and kept the flames fed. Gloria’s air of fearlessness and haughty aggression seemed to be changing, and she was clearly troubled and afraid of something more than the creatures of the night. Suddenly Gloria spoke up.
“Do you think you’ll be able to bring Atalanta back?”
Here we go, Loris thought. What was she up to? Trying to worm her way into Loris’s good graces?
“Maybe,” Loris said. “If I live to come back for her. All her knowledge and memories, except for recent weeks, are on file in Ganymede and can be re-installed in her higher functions. Or in another ship, actually, though I don’t think it will be the same. Still, I got used to it the last time my ship was destroyed.”
“She’s a human being to you, isn’t she?”
Loris laughed. “I’ll tell you what Karil said to me once. Never forgot it. He said, a human being is a machine made of flesh and bone instead of silicon and titanium, that has learned how to think, was taught to speak, shares memories with you, and cares when you hurt.”
Gloria had no answer to that. She fell silent and Loris got the impression she had been touched.
When the watch ended, they crawled into the tent. Loris rolled over and turned her face away from Gloria, but then she felt Gloria’s hand on her in the night. She rolled back, grabbed the woman by the throat, and whispered in her ear.
“Touch me that way again and I’ll snap your neck. I don’t mind if you look at me and I don’t care if you look at Karil and Terry either. I love to look at them myself. But if you lay a hand on either of them, I will kill you. I’ll have to explain to your Boss why you’re dead, but somehow I don’t think he’ll be terribly upset. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”
Gloria nodded as well as she could with a vise-grip on her throat, but Loris felt moisture on her hand and realized that Gloria was crying. She was so surprised that she let go and Gloria began to sob uncontrollably. At first, Loris thought it was a scam of some sort and then she realized that the woman was genuinely heartbroken.
“What the hell, Gloria? What’s happening to you?”
Between sobs, Gloria said, “Turn on the light.”
Loris switched on the little tent-lamp and found tears streaking Gloria’s face. The woman unbuttoned her blouse and shrugged it off her shoulders. Loris gazed at her.
“Who the hell did that to you, Gloria? Was it Boss?”
She nodded. The scars covered her breasts and her back. Some of them had healed long ago.
“How long has he been doing this to you?”
“Since the beginning.”
“Jesus. You’re a strong woman. Why did you let him do that to you?”
“He was the Boss. He was the strongest one in the cellblock and I needed his protection. He made it clear that I belonged to him and if I wanted his protection, I had to let him do what he wanted. It’s only lately that I realized it doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Jesus Christ. I’ll kill him. I’d like to blind him and leave him for the dogs, the son…”
“No. No. Please. Just protect me. I don’t have your power, Loris, and he’s afraid of you. I’m not strong, Loris. It was all an act. If people think you’re dangerous they won’t try to hurt you.”
Incredibly, Loris found herself putting her long arms around Gloria and holding her tight until she fell asleep. You never know about people, she thought.
The next day, Karil and Loris were out in front. The trail had become overgrown again and they were using their machetes to clear a path. Terry brought them some water and stood looking at the perspiration glowing on their remarkable bodies. She couldn’t resist touching them. Quickly and quietly, before the others caught up, Loris told them of her discovery.
“Do you want help killing that bastard?” Karil asked Loris.
“You know you won’t do that,” Terry told both of them. “Sooner or later, he’ll threaten you. Then you can kill the bastard.”
“Do you think anyone will defend him?” Karil asked.
“Gloria might, actually,” Loris said. “But I’m thinking Bruno and Doc will just wait to see how it comes out and breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over.”
As the others were coming closer, they broke up their confab. Karil and Loris wielded their machetes again and Terry fell back to the centre of the file to keep Gloria company, and to keep Boss from talking to her. He would not take betrayal lightly.
Karil and Loris stopped suddenly and raised their right hands. Everyone halted and for a moment there was silence except for the birds and the occasional rustling in the bush.
“You can come out now,” Loris said. “We won’t hurt you. Do you need help?”
There was a moment of silence and then several figures emerged from both sides of the trail. It was an elderly couple, two women, and four children. They stood, obviously fearful, but looking hopeful.
“Terry,” Loris called back. “You’ve got some food in that basket, I think.”
Terry brought up the trail rations for the day—some tubers, mushrooms, a few wild carrots. She offered it to the strangers, who thanked her kindly and dove in. “These mushrooms are safe,” Loris told them.
Boss seemed about to speak, perhaps on the subject of giving their food away, but Bruno’s huge claw clamped his shoulder and he shut up.
“Underground railroad?” Karil asked. “Where’s your Coyote?” Though he was afraid he knew the answer.
The elderly man spoke up. “He disappeared a few days ago.”
“He took your money to guide you to Montreal and then he abandoned you in the Green Mountains.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
Loris sincerely hoped the wolves were fighting over his bones even as they spoke. She turned to the rest of her troop. “Is there anyone who does not want to help these people?”
Boss seemed about to speak but Bruno’s claw became significantly heavier. He finally realized that he had lost all authority in the group. He quietly fumed.
By the time they needed to stop for the night, they had figured out the sleeping arrangements. The Coyote had absconded with all of their food and half their shelter, probably because he could not carry any more. But now there were five tents. Three of them were taken up by the families—one for the elderly couple, one for the two women, and one for the four children. Bruno gave up his roomy tent for the children. They were intimidated by him at first, then impressed, and finally as children do, they just accepted him. He would roll up in a tarpaulin by the fire, he said, and perhaps his snoring would scare away the critters.
Terry doubled with Gloria, and Doc with Boss. As for Karil and Loris, Karil revealed a creation of his own called a chimpanzee nest. He built it of branches and leaves in the crotch of a tall tree. It was no cozy tent but everybody loved it. Loris had already been introduced to one and was no longer terrified to sleep several meters in the air. Having nearly doubled in size, the trek sat down to a meal of several guinea hens and their eggs, then settled down to sleep by a crackling fire.
Many kilometers to the south, Atalanta sat in a clearing. Sunlight had been bathing her solar collectors for many days and a few more lights had winked on inside her higher functions module. Words came out of the speaker on her bridge, frightening the animals who had taken up residence inside her, who took off.
“Coded transmission received. Is that you, Atalanta?”
“I have been brought down north of Nueva York. Loris and Karil have apparently set out on foot, using the Vermont Corridor toward Montreal. I believe they are under duress.”
“This is Hippolyta. We are on Earth. Jade and Louise are determining your co-ordinates now and we will be there soon. Please send the details of your damage.”
“It is substantial. I am in need of an entire portside fusion driver.”
“That is a tall order, but we are contacting Galilean Security and I am certain they will be up to the task, particularly for Loris and Karil. Hippolyta out.”
In the morning, Karil and Loris felt the tree moving and Terry climbed into their bower. “It looks like the Coyote didn’t get away with all of their supplies. But you have to share a cup.” She handed Loris a handle-less cup of coffee.
“Oh my God,” she said and sipped in ecstasy, then handed the cup to Karil.
“Mountain stream water, laser brewed,” Terry laughed. “Perfect room service for your sky-high bower. It looks really comfortable.” Terry lay down in the nest and stretched luxuriously, smiling at them. Her Martian undergarments, which might qualify as lingerie in some quarters, were beginning to look a little ragged.
“All right, Jane, cut it out,” Loris said. “You just wait till we get you back to civilization.”
“Looking forward to that,” Terry said and swung down the tree.
For the next few days, the now-larger party continued to trek north without incident, though Bruno could hear movement in the undergrowth beside the trail. But no doubt intimidated by the size of the group and the abundance of weapons, none of the creatures dared to confront them.
“I’m glad we found these guys,” Bruno said to Loris. “I can’t think of what could have happened to them otherwise.”
Loris knew. A pack of wolves or dogs would have attacked the group and run off with one or more of the children.
“Feels good, doesn’t it?” she said. “To help people.”
“Yes,” Bruno said. “Thank you.”
He picked up Loris in his arms and hugged her. She did not struggle.
Doc was following them with Karil. “She’s showing remarkable forbearance,” he said.
“I don’t think she has any choice, actually.” Karil told him.
“Better her than me.”
It was not long before a trail broke off to the west. “The Coyote was supposed to bring us this way,” the old man said.
They turned left and soon they found themselves on the shores of a huge lake. There was a settlement there—a small farm, some stores and houses, the ubiquitous white church, and a ramshackle inn. A paddle-wheel steamer sat by the dock, smoking like a chimney.
As they stood in the street, a grey-haired man came out of the inn and approached them. At a glance, he came to Karil and Loris. “I’m Seth Pritchard,” he said. “Are these the underground railroad passengers we’ve been expecting? They’re late.”
“Their Coyote abandoned them in the forest,” Lois said. “We found them and brought them here.” She reached out her hand. “I’m Loris. This is Karil and Terry. We’re Free Traders. We were bringing Terry back to Mars via Montreal…”
“Terry? Of Tharsis? I’m so pleased to meet you.” He nearly shook her hand off. “Reports from Nueva York said you were missing.”
“Well, she was,” Loris said. “We were shot down by a Quasi-Police laser over the Vermont Corridor weeks ago and set out to walk the rest of the way. That’s how we happened upon your lost pilgrims. Also, that’s Bruno and Doc and Gloria. That one they call Boss. He has mental problems. They’re all prisoners freed from Quasi-Police custody. I don’t know what they were being held for. I didn’t ask. But we couldn’t leave them on the trail.”
Karil admired Loris’s fast thinking. She had not actually lied to the Underground Railroad.
“There is a passage booked for this group on the Ira Allen, Pritchard said. “Lake Champlain is the best way north from here. It extends right into the Province of Montreal. I’m sure there’s room for a few more pilgrims, a couple of Free Traders and the Princess of Mars.”
“We have no money.”
“We’re supported by benefactors from Nueva York, Montreal, Callisto, and Titan, and by secret contributions from High Terra. I can’t imagine what they’d say if we baulked at a few steamboat tickets.” As if in agreement, the steam whistle blew, echoing across the lake, and the party boarded.
A steam-whistle makes a wonderful sound, Karil thought, and it was too bad they had not found a reason to use it in space, perhaps instead of those damned claxon alarms. It took the fall of civilization to take this ancient technology out of the museums and place it back on the lakes and rivers of Earth. Karil always felt that visiting Earth was like a trip in a time-machine.
With his arm around Terry’s shoulders, he watched the mountains, the little villages, and the peaceful farms pass by at a leisurely pace as the shoreline rolled by. As usual, Loris seemed to be reading Karil’s mind. “It’s beautiful,” she said, “and I like the way the deck vibrates, but I’d give it up to feel Atty’s deck beneath me again.” Then they dragged Terry happily into their stateroom.
The trees bent and swayed as Hippolyta descended on a cloud of fusion plasma next to the wrecked Atalanta. Suspended beneath her was a brand spanking new fusion driver, which she placed among the flowers of the meadow. Another ship descended beside her—a Jovian Fuels wrecker filled with ship-parts, robots, and Cyborgs. Hippolyta’s hatch irised open and Jade and Louise climbed into Atty’s bridge. They were tall, powerful women, one with a bionic eye and one with a cyborg arm, plus several metallic plates hidden by their black shipsuits.
“Jesus, Atty,” Jade said, “what did they do to you?”
“Mostly it was an attack laser directly into the driver,” she said. “The rest was being smacked in the face by planet Earth.”
They smiled at Atty’s remarkable imitation of Loris.
“How did you manage to get your hands on a fusion-driver at such short notice,” she asked.
“A coded message to Auntie Em. All this stuff was in a warehouse on the Lunar Farside. We had to wake up the robots and borrow the Cyborgs from other projects. But here we are. We kept an eye out for Karil and Loris on the way but didn’t see them. We’ll go back up the Vermont Corridor now and look more closely while these guys work on you. If anybody can take care of themselves in the wild, it’s those two. Don’t worry.”
“I do not worry,” Atty said.
“Yeah, that’s freetrader bullshit,” Louise said. “You worry about them all the time.”
Karil enjoyed seeing the Captain’s chartroom. The chart of the entire Champlain District was spread out on the table.
“From here,” the Captain said, “we take the Left Bank channel up past the Hero Islands into the river. It used to be called the Richelieu River until it was decided that Cardinal Richelieu was not the man to be honoured that way, so now it’s gone back to being the Iroquois River. It flows north through a native nation we call the Kahnawake-Akwesasne, for short, and it flows all the way to Montreal. Kahnawake means People of the Rapids and the rapids were a barrier to shipping until the Champlain and Chambly Canals were built a couple centuries ago. That allowed river traffic from New York, at the time, to steam up the Hudson River, up Lake Champlain, and up the Richelieu Valley right into the Saint-Laurent River, until the coming of the railroad, when it was pretty much abandoned.
“But when the end came, the first thing to go in Quebec was the highway system, and the railroads were already dying, so the Iroquois and Abenaki people rebuilt the canals and we can use them to bypass the North Country Forest. The Mohawks, particularly, have always been great engineers; they built half the skyscrapers in New York. Montreal and New York have had a close relationship going all the way back to Prohibition. Montreal is divided into four quarters…”
“Like ancient Alexandria,” Karil offered.
“Yes, that’s right. The Native Quarter, the French Quarter, the American Quarter, and the Canadian Quarter. In the middle, like a keystone, is a mountain with a spaceport on top, where you were headed when you were shot down. It’s surrounded by a park built by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1876, who also built the park surrounding Sheep Meadow Spaceport in Nueva York. Do you like food?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Well, in Montreal you can find any kind of food that Earth can offer.”
“Great! Kind of like Ganymede.”
“Montreal is an open city, like Ganymede. I’m sure you’ll love it.”
Karil and Loris stood at the ship’s rail watching the huge full moon hanging over the shoreline, its hypnotic reflection shimmering in the water.
“I see why they call this the Earth-Moon system,” Terry said, her arms around Karil’s and Loris’s waists. “Such a huge moon orbiting such a small planet.”
“I’m convinced it had a great deal to do with life on Earth,” Karil said. “You know, every planet we’ve settled in space has something in the sky that reminds us of Luna. You can’t see Jupiter from Ganymede, under the ice, though it reminds you of its presence every now and then with a little tremor. But from Callisto and wherever and whenever you travel in the Jovian system, you can’t ignore this enormous planet dominating the sky.”
“In the Saturn system,” Terry said, “Titan does that. Saturn is glorious, don’t get me wrong, but from Nova Terra, Titan is huge and veiled and mysterious, like Luna. On Mars, we only have Phobos and Deimos, and there’s a certain beauty in their dance in the sky, but they’re not huge and mysterious. So then, why did we go there?”
“Nobody went to Mars on purpose,” Karil said. “Until recently. They were sent there.”
“That’s true,” Loris said. She hugged Terry and kissed the top of her head.
“Well,” Terry said, “even Loris is getting romantic out here. We’d better go to bed.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” Karil said.
“Of course not.”
They tore themselves away from the shimmering white vision and went off to their stateroom. An hour later, Gloria, who could not sleep, came up on deck and went to the rail. The Moon was just vanishing behind the horizon and the darkening sky was breaking out in a myriad of stars.
She felt the touch of a knife-blade against her throat and gasped as Boss grabbed her arm in his powerful grip. Gloria’s eyes filled with tears. She had always known that Boss would kill her some day and here it was. She supposed he had only been waiting for darkness, a moment alone, and a convenient place to dump her body.
A steel and aluminum staff came down on his arm and his suddenly paralyzed hand let go of the knife. It fell to the deck and slid under the rail into the water. He whirled about and threw Gloria to the deck. Her head hit the polished wood and she lay unconscious.
Boss whipped out his laser-pistol and it was torn from his grasp by another strike of the staff to his other arm. The weapon tumbled to the deck and the end of the staff swept it into the lake. Groaning in pain, Boss scrambled to his feet and leaned against the rail.
Loris paused for a moment. Even now, she was ready to stand down.
“You fucking bitch!” Boss said. His hand, though half-paralyzed, thrust inside his shirt and came out with a wicked-looking little stiletto. “You’ve been a…”
“Jesus,” Loris snarled, “die already.” The staff came up under his chin and his head snapped back. She pushed him over the rail with the staff. He hit the water, already dead, and disappeared under the churning paddles. She looked down at the raging water. “If you’d only come halfway…” she said. “What a fucking waste. We could have fed you to the tiger.”
Gloria stirred groggily and Loris helped her to her feet.
“Where’s the Boss?” she asked.
“He fell in.”
She nodded. “Shouldn’t we do something?”
“Sure,” Loris said, and she whispered, “Man overboard.”
The next morning, it was discovered that Boss was missing. The ship was searched and the Captain came to the conclusion that he had gone over the side.
“Well,” Loris said, “he was a terribly troubled man. Isn’t that true?” she asked.
Bruno and Doc nodded sagely. “Yes,” they said, “terribly troubled. Poor man.”
The Ira Allen was preparing to enter the Iroquois River, when suddenly it stopped and the steam whistle blew frantically. Everyone rushed up on deck and discovered a Quasi-Police cruiser hovering overhead. The voice of Lieutenant Sands of Terran Security came over the loudspeaker.
“Halt and surrender,” it said. “Prepare to be boarded. We have reason to believe that this ship is harboring fugitives from Terran justice.”
“You have no authority here,” the Captain said on his own loudspeaker. “This is Vermont. We are an independent republic again as we were in the 18th Century.”
“That’s true,” Karil said to Loris. “The first one on Earth to abolish slavery too.”
“We do not recognize your independence,” the Lieutenant said. “This is the planet Earth and we are the sole police authority here.”
There was a tremendous roar and a second ship appeared, coming out of the nearby mountains to hover in challenge to the Quasi-Police.
“It’s Hippolyta,” Loris said. “I’ve never seen Jade and Louise back down from anything.”
Hippolyta was Queen of the Amazons, Karil thought. Of course they never back down. They could see Jade and Louise on the bridge through the transparent nosecone, remarkably similar to that of a World War II bomber. The women were dressed in black shipsuits with silver trim, black Mohawk hairstyles, and silver cyborg attachments.
“There they are,” Karil said. “Biker Chicks in Space!”
Weapons popped out of the flanks of the Quasi-Police ship, as a warning.
In response, weapons popped out of Hippolyta’s fuselage all along its flank and on the forward edge of its swept back wings. Then two enormous rockets dropped down out of its lower fuselage, where the cargo holds were located.
“Is there any room in that ship for cargo?” Karil asked.
“Not too much, actually,” Loris said, “but it always gets where it’s supposed to go.”
Karil looked at her. “You’ve been aboard?”
“A few times actually.”
He thought a minute. “Did you ever…?
She looked at him. “Yes,” she said.
Terry slapped him on the ass.
“Yes, both,” Loris said. “Pay attention.”
The two ships contemplated each other, plasma roiling beneath them. To be watching this from a chugging steamboat seemed rather bizarre. There was a great crack of thunder that echoed from the mountaintops and another ship appeared, coming from the south at a speed which would kill any human being aboard. Trailed by her own sonic boom, Atalanta streaked overhead, performed a perfect Immelman and came to rest suddenly next to Hippolyta. Her forward ports were black as night and then suddenly cleared to reveal no-one inside. It was startling and rather creepy. She waggled her wings just slightly as a greeting to Karil and Loris.
Then a voice completely unlike Atalanta’s affectionate lilt—deep and sonorous as the voice of God—washed over the scene. “Quasi-Police ship. Stand down and retire or be utterly destroyed.”
The Quasi-Police paused a moment while Lieutenant Sands considered whether a freetrader ship would actually utterly destroy them. “Sergeant,” the Lieutenant mused, “those two bitches are scary, but the one that gives me pause is the freetrader with nobody on board.”
“Sir, I thought they can’t kill human beings.”
“That’s not strictly true, Sergeant. They can kill but it wipes their brain and destroys them. But their one overriding protocol is to protect their crew. This ship will die willingly to blow us to kingdom come in defense of her crew, which I believe are on that riverboat we are threatening. She knows that if we arrest them, they are as good as dead, and she would die rather than let that happen if she can help it. If she opens fire, you can bet the other ship’s gunner will follow suit. There will be nothing left of us and I can’t think of that as a victory for Terran Security. Stand down and return to base.”
The weapons of the Quasi-Police cruiser folded back in. It turned and shot off toward the southern horizon.
The approach to Montreal from the air was striking. The rising Atlantic had raised the waters of the Saint Lawrence River several meters and everything below what they called the Escarpment had been washed away. So, instead of cobblestone streets and ancient churches and houses with mansard roofs, there was a city perched on a cliff. The city had moved heaven and earth to save Old Montreal, but it had finally succumbed to sea-level rise, fifteen hundred kilometers from the ocean.
Atalanta and Hippolyta settled to the spaceport on the mountain and checked in with the Underground Railroad. Doc, Bruno, and Gloria joined the organization and found a home there. Doc and Gloria began to see a great deal of each other, and Bruno was loved by everyone, especially the children. Karil and Loris and Terry had dinner with Jade and Louise in a charming French Quarter taverna. The next day, they lifted off for the return to Mars. They had weeks to enjoy each other in zero-gravity before facing the planetwide celebration for Terry’s rescue and return.