Professor Charles Kelley left his house in the woods and walked to the parapet at the edge of the terrace. He stood there, sipping brandy and looking out over the landscape. The wooded hills descended to the surface of the lake, with a winding path down to the dock and boathouse. Across the water was another mountainous and wooded landscape, dotted with cabins sporting wood-smoke chimneys, rising to the edge of the kilometers-long window-wall of crystal panes, curving up the cylinder into the next landscape, half upside-down in the sky.
Through the crystal panes, he could see the thick orange clouds of Titan, Saturn’s major moon, and as the colony rotated for artificial gravity, the golden beauty of Saturn itself appeared in the light of the distant sun, the exquisite rings three-quarters on as if posing for pictures. As always, he drew both strength and comfort from what he considered the most beautiful sight in the Solar System. Kelley was a very tall man with intense Irish blue eyes and thick red hair and beard touched with grey. His assistant, Terry, came up beside him, her long golden mane like a banner in the breeze.
“There’s a message for you, Charles,” she said. “It’s urgent.”
He sighed. Moments of peace are vanishingly rare when you are the senior member of the council responsible for the entire Saturn System, its moons and colonies, the space-traffic passing through, and ambassadorial relations with the rest of the Solar System—the Jovian Moons, the vast Asteroid Belt, Occupied Mars, and the powerful Earth-Luna System including all its satellites and colonies.
He followed her back into the cabin and found Jay Coldwell, his slim, dark, fiercely intelligent assistant, sitting at the computer. The real wood-fire blazed cheerfully in the fireplace, throwing ash into the air that would soon return in snow, but Jay was looking worried. He rose and offered the chair to Kelley and Councilman Lucenzo appeared on the screen, looking distraught.
“Sorry to disturb you, Charles,” he said, “but this is important. There has been an incident at the prison on Titan.”
Deep beneath the opaque atmosphere of the huge moon lay the robotic mining facility that contained the prison for the Saturn System, often referred to as Hades or Tartarus—the gloomy realm that held the Titans in Greek myth.
“They’ve taken the warden and the prison staff hostage and are demanding a ship to escape the system. They’re led by Soranus Altor. You remember…”
“I know his name entirely too well,” Kelley said. Altor had claimed to be a political refugee from Earth, but then he robbed the Bank of Nova Terra, stealing a billion Terran credits from the sale of Saturnian fusion-mixture to the High Companies, and killed two guards in the process. Few criminals deserved to be incarcerated on Titan, and he was the foremost among them.
“Well,” Lucenzo said, “only now we’re finding out he was actually a major criminal gang-leader on Earth. You know how hard it is to get information out of the Quasi-Police. He’s sent us his demands.”
“Let me see.”
Soranus Altor appeared on the screen, sitting in a chair like a throne. Prisoners male and female stood behind him, armed with weapons from the prison armory, and three robot dogs lay at his feet. The camera panned to the left for a moment, to show the office staff of the prison in handcuffs. The Warden was bound and gagged, immobilized in a chair. The camera panned back to Altor.
“My Dear Professor,” he said, “you can see that my colleagues and I are in control of your prison. Your hard-working staff are my assurance of co-operation on your part. All I want is a ship, fueled and provisioned for a long voyage and capable of carrying a dozen passengers. I’m quite sure you can arrange this. And I don’t want one of your police cruisers with the bugs and trackers built in. I want an independent civilian ship. Answer me.”
“Altor, I’ll have an answer for you in a few minutes.” Kelley shut down the connection and Lucenzo appeared again on the screen.
“Lucenzo,” Kelley said, “Did I see your wife there?”
“Yes, Charles. She’s the Warden’s secretary.”
“I’ll get her back for you,” Kelley said. “I promise. How can he be controlling the Hounds of Hell? They’re programmed to protect the staff from the prisoners.”
“Evidently, he’s re-programmed them to obey him. During the robbery of the Titan Bank, he revealed himself to be a programming expert.”
“Does he really have control of the entire prison system? The weapons, the surveillance, the life-support?”
“I think we have to assume so.”
“Wonderful. Captain Chambers, are you monitoring?”
Captain Chambers appeared on the screen. There was chaos behind him as the Titan Security Assault Team scrambled for weapons. “Councillor Kelley,” he said, “we ‘ve been following developments from the beginning.”
“Then you know that he can detect the approach of a ship and shoot it down.”
“I do. But we can get in undetected, as you know.”
“Are you ready to do that?” Kelley was not sure he liked this idea.
“We’re thoroughly trained. The appropriate locks are disconnected from the alarm system. We only need half an hour or so to suit up, arm up, and get down to the surface.”
“All right, then, Captain. Go ahead.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Captain Chambers turned. “Awright, you heard the…” And the sound was cut off.
“Give me Altor again.” Kelley said. The man himself appeared, grinning triumphantly.
“Altor,” Kelley said. “Please do not allow your comrades to harm any of the hostages or everything will go terribly awry. Frankly, I’m quite willing to get you out of the Saturn System and wash my hands of you. Several Free Traders have already arrived for the Odysseus Project and more are on their way. They are not exactly inside the law, any of them, and would not allow me to plant bugs in their ships if I wanted to. I’m sure we can find somebody who will take you where to want to go for sufficient remuneration on my part. But it may take a few days to convince them and meet their price. Is this acceptable to you?”
“I agree, but a few days only. After that, we begin to throw out hostages, naked, and see how long it takes the atmosphere of Titan to asphyxiate and freeze them. Give us the transponder number of the ship and we will let it dock. Any other ship will be destroyed on approach. We know how to fire your rockets. Do you understand?”
“I do. I think this is a satisfactory conclusion if you will keep your men under control.”
The Orpheus entered the atmosphere of Titan near the north pole, over Kraken Mare, and sped south. First the distant sun and then Saturn itself vanished in the orange smog that lay heavily over the dark landscape. Below them were vast, dark dune fields looking like spread coffee grounds, cliffs and mountains of rock-hard ice, and lakes and rivers of methane and ethane. As they approached the prison, ironically located in an area called Shangri-La, the ship shut down and cut off any radio noise which might be picked up by listeners. The thick atmosphere kept the ship aloft as it glided through the skies. Methane rain pelted against the ports as the troopers suited up for EVA and checked their helmets, just as they had done in their many practice runs.
The bridge was sealed off and the assault team made their way aft to the lock. It irised open and they launched themselves into the dense Titan air. Their pressure suits were equipped with vanes more like eagle’s wings than hang-gliders, and they literally flew toward the prison in the dense atmosphere. The structure blazed with lights in the infernal darkness. The methane furnaces at work under robot control in the mining complex below had boiled off clear ammonia and hydrogen gas from the opaque atmosphere, and the many-storied citadel of Titan Works stood out in a bubble of clear vapor. It looked like a wall of brass in the orange light.
The troopers descended onto the surface undetected and made their way to the one lock that was not linked to the power system as it was used entirely by robots, who had their own electronic keys. The troopers turned wheels manually and the lock opened, then they slipped inside, sealed the hatch behind them, and filled the lock with breathable air. They stripped off their pressure suits and checked their weapons. They opened the inner hatch and there was no alarm. Weapons at the ready, they crept up a ramp and through a maze of corridors, well known to them from their training. Soon they were creeping silently down the corridor toward the Warden’s offices.
There was a sound behind them and they turned to see the three huge robot dogs racing toward them in their swift mechanical trot. They opened fire but the mindless machines closed on them in seconds. Three men went down under attack and the corridor was suddenly filled with escaped prisoners bearing automatic laser-rifles and, though a few prisoners went down in the fire-fight, the troopers were quickly annihilated. Altor took pictures of the dead bodies and put them online for Kelley to see.
“I expected something like this, Professor, and frankly would have been rather disappointed if you hadn’t tried. But after a little persuasion, one of the hostages told us about your unguarded back door. To show my good faith, I will not kill any hostages yet, but if the ship I demand is not forthcoming, and quickly, I will begin doing so, each death more awful than the one before. Get me my ship, Kelley!”
The Professor cut the connection to Altor and turned to Jay. “Get me Atty on our emergency code.”
Jay punched out a number and they heard the lovely voice of the freetrader ship Atalanta.
“Professor, it’s wonderful to hear from you,” she crooned. “We are approaching the Saturn System. Is there some problem to lead you to contact us this way?”
“There is, Atty. We have a serious dilemma.”
Captain Loris appeared on the screen, nearly dressed as she climbed into her acceleration couch. The Professor felt better just seeing the tall, dark, and handsome woman, followed by the equally muscular and handsome Ali Karil, bare-chested and looking rather magnificent. In the background, he spotted a small Asian woman with tousled black and red hair.
“What’s up, Doc?” Karil asked.
Kelley began to explain.
Chi-Chi Li was presented with a series of visual delights even more astonishing than those of Jupiter and its myriad moons. The golden jewel of Saturn had been growing in the forward port for weeks. Its faerie rings continued to revolve, tilting this way and that as they circled it, sometimes opaque and sometimes transparent, with tiny moons accompanying them like herding sheepdogs. The cloudy bulk of Titan grew in the port, and outlined against it were the gleaming ribs and rings and enormous mirrors of the Nova Terra colony, until Li could see the green, blue-sky beauty of its forests and plains and smoky mountain peaks inside, like emeralds inset in silver.
Atalanta approached the endcap as instructed and mated with a lock, Atty crooning her acknowledgement of docking instructions from the interior. The hatch irised open and they stepped through into the Martian Normal gravity of that level. Li had been faithfully doing her treadmill exercises for a month and her muscles were now powerful enough to function for a time in the Terran gravity the habitats of Nova Terra were built for, but it was a joy to stand and walk in the slightly more than one-third gee of Mars.
“The Professor thinks of everything,” Loris said.
They could not miss the man himself striding toward them across the hangar like a demi-god, flanked by Terry and Jay. Karil embraced them all like the old friends they were, lingering perhaps a bit longer in Terry’s arms as her golden locks cascaded over him. Loris followed suit.
“This is the redoubtable Chi-Chi Li,” Karil said, pushing her forward like a favourite possession, “pride of the Martian Liberation Front.”
In fact, Li was often in hot water with the exasperated leadership of the MLF, who seemed constantly to be lecturing her about some rash action or breach of the rules, but at the moment, there was nothing on her mind but a sense of awe. Terry was the last wife of the great, sainted Progeny Brown, founder and foremost teacher of the Martian Communal Movement and the Martian Rebellion itself. This angelic creature, all smiles and green-eyed delight, was embracing Li’s little battle-scarred body with Commune-Mother warmth. Then Li was enveloped in a great bear-hug from Professor Kelley himself, who towered over her like a Titan.
He glanced up at the hatch behind them. “Atalanta, my dear,” he said. “It’s lovely to see you again.”
“Why, thank you, Professor,” the ship replied. “I’m thrilled to be attached to Nova Terra again, especially now that it’s alive and bustling with human beings. I can hear a thousand voices. That must be very gratifying for you.”
Kelley laughed. “I was a little sad to be sharing what I had come to think of as my own private world, but I do love to hear the children’s laughter, the cries of the birds, and the lowing of the cattle drifting down from the sky. Will you be monitoring the conversation after I bring Karil and Loris and this beautiful Li to their quarters?”
“I hope I may do so, Professor.”
“I’m afraid I will need all of your skills,” he said and ushered them down the corridor.
The luxurious rooms set aside for the Professor’s guests offered a huge window and a balcony overlooking landscapes above and below and the vast transparent solars revealing Titan and Saturn. There was a huge bed and—to Li’s astonishment—an equally huge soaking tub. Lying in water is a pleasure rarely even dreamed of by Martians, and she was dazzled. But of course, she realized, most of Saturn’s moons and the rings themselves were made of ice.
Terry and Jay made drinks for their guests and Kelley sat down to explain the situation—Soranus Altor, his crime and trial and conviction to the prison on Titan, the prisoner revolt, the seizing of hostages, and the cruel ultimatum.
“Let me see,” Loris said. “They will allow one registered freetrader ship to dock. But you know, don’t you, that he will immediately seize control of that ship.”
“Yes, of course he will,” the Professor said. “Once you open the lock, you are as good as dead, and if you manage to thwart his desires, the hostages will suffer. But Jay has a possible solution.”
Karil grinned. Of course he does, he thought.
“Do you remember the Seventh Level?” Jay asked.
“You shut that down years ago,” Loris said, “when you discovered al-Zubair housing prisoners there without trial.”
“Yes,” Kelley said. “It was unfit for even the most incorrigible prisoners and we didn’t need it anyway, since we have so little crime. Most criminals are kept here in the colony where they at least have light and fresh air. You treat people like animals and they act like animals. You have to be pretty close to inhuman to be sent to a hell like Titan. My Ranger team tried to gain access through the robot entrances, but Altor had thought of that and the assault…failed.” Kelley sighed deeply. “But the Seventh Level has never been connected electronically to the prison system, data about it have been stricken from the records, and it’s now sealed. It can be unsealed and entered surreptitiously and there is no way that Altor can know about it. I blame myself for allowing Captain Chambers…”
“So, what’s the plan?” Loris demanded. There was no point in letting the Professor dwell on the matter.
“I tell Altor that his ship is coming and give him the registration number so he can open the main lock to it. But before Atty docks, the four of us…”
Terry interrupted him. “What do you mean us? Does this mean you intend to go down there yourself?”
“Of course I do. I’m not sending Karil and Loris and Li into danger without joining them. I’ve already lost an entire team and I will not send another one. They will be deputized and will accompany me. At least, I hope…”
“You didn’t mention that,” Terry said.
“Of course not. You would have wasted too much time trying to talk me out of it.”
“I see.” Terry shrugged in a way that implied she did a lot of shrugging.
“Don't worry, Terry,” Karil said, “We’ll watch over him.”
She smiled her thanks.
“Atty,” the Professor went on, “you’ll see that I’ve given you detailed plans of the entire prison complex.”
“I see that, Professor. I have been studying it for milliseconds.”
They began to work out the plan.
Atalanta was swallowed up by the gloom of Titan’s atmosphere and observed the sky ahead in infrared light. Karil and Loris, Li and Kelley were aboard, clad in battle-armour—who would have thought it was available in such a variety of sizes--and carrying assault-guns. In addition, Li had her sawn-off shotgun on her back and Loris carried her telescoping fighting-staff on hers. Karil and the Professor wore hand-lasers on their hips, and Karil had his powerful but silent steel bow and a quiver full of arrows.
Kelley had already informed Altor of the ship’s imminent arrival and the kidnapper was planning his reception. Before the great mining complex rolled over the horizon to greet them, Atalanta swerved off the course and landed on the rock-hard, icy surface, hidden from the complex by an icy ridge. Her passengers climbed into a Titan Rover, Atty lowered the hatch, and the vehicle trundled out onto the methane-slushy surface. Piloting by infra-red, Kelley drove into a canyon and came up to the long-abandoned sub-basement entrance.
The rover’s waldo mandibles unsealed the hatch. It opened and the rover crawled inside. It trundled across the lock as the hatch closed behind it, and the waldos engaged the internal atmosphere controls, flooding the lock with breathable, if stale, air. The Rover’s forward lock spun open and the four mismatched commandos climbed out.
At that instant, Atalanta appeared outside the main lock of the prison and Altor punched in the code he was given and compared it to the code reported by the ship. His second-in-command had his finger on the trigger that would launch the rockets.
“That’s the one,” Altor said and punched open the lock. His men shouldered their weapons and pushed inside. The ship was silent. Altor crept to the bridge, assault-gun at the ready, and found no-one at the helm. The lights blazed and the sounds of the ship’s relays and circulating systems could be heard inside the bulkheads.
“They’ve sent it down on automatic,” Altor laughed. “I guess the owners were willing to sell their ship to Kelley, but not to trust us with their lives.”
“Saves us the bother of killing them, doesn’t it?” said Altor’s pilot. “There will be trackers, of course.”
“Can you find them?”
“Are you kidding? Leave it to me.” He began tapping keys.
Altor and his men searched the ship, found food and other supplies in the holds, and the pilot declared the fuel-tanks full of high-grade Saturnian fusion-mixture.
“I’ve found a couple of trackers,” he said, “and disabled them. Just a gesture on their part. The schematic says it’s a very fast ship. I like it.”
“Are the higher functions erased?”
“No sign of intelligence. I imagine they offloaded the A.I. into a new ship as part of the deal. I’ll plot a course to Saturn for gravity-assist toward Jupiter for a boost to Earth. We can hide out on Earth and set up for new business ventures.”
“You and you stay here,” Altor said, pointing to two of his men. “The rest of you come with me back to the warden’s office. We’ll dispose of some of the hostages and take the rest with us to make Kelley think twice about trying to shoot us down.”
“Can we take the women?” one of his crew asked.
“Yes, yes, it’s going to be a long trip. But get a move on. I still don’t trust Kelley. I’m sure he’s got something up his sleeve.”
Kelley and his ad-hoc Rangers moved swiftly but silently through the corridors toward the warden’s office. When they turned the corner and saw the entrance to the office several meters away, they found the three robot attack-dogs waiting for them. The creatures leaped to the attack and bounded toward them in their swift gait. Karil and Kelley drew and fired their lasers, which were somewhat effective, but most of the robots’ vital systems lay behind hardened plates and still the creatures came, limping a bit but still deadly.
“Sorry for the noise,” Li said. She pushed between them, snatched her sawed-off shotgun from its holster on her back, and proceeded to blow the e-mutts to smithereens. The commandos raced past the piles of twittering and vibrating robotic bits on the floor and darted into the warden’s office. Three kidnappers raised their weapons and dropped instantly, two with laser-holes in their foreheads and one with an arrow in his chest.
Kelley whipped out his commando knife and severed the bonds of the warden in his chair. His limbs were useless, having been tied for so long, but Kelley snatched him off his chair and put him down behind his desk. The other hostages were released, their bonds cut by knife-blade and the chains by laser, and all were pushed down behind desks, where their saviours hunkered down with them. All except for Loris, who snatched her staff from its clip on her back, tapped it into its full length, and flattened herself against the wall beside the door.
Altor and his men approached the entrance carefully, alerted by the gunfire and stepping over the quivering piles of robot dog. Altor took out a grenade. He flattened himself against the wall beside the door and pulled the pin. Suddenly, Loris appeared and her staff clattered across his forehead. He stumbled back and dropped to the floor and the grenade rolled into the midst of his men. They dropped their weapons and took to their heels, as Loris ducked back out of sight. The grenade went off with a roar and the kidnappers collapsed, some dead, some horribly wounded, and some merely stunned.
Kelley’s long legs carried him out into the corridor beside Loris. A couple of men were able to raise their weapons. A short burst of fire from Kelley’s assault-gun finished one off, and the other was thumped into unconsciousness by an aluminum rod. They found the remains of Altor’s body in several pieces.
“Okay, Atty,” Loris said.
The ship’s hatch irised shut. Altor’s pilot and the men guarding him collapsed, unconscious, as Atalanta filled the ship with sleeping gas. “No sign of intelligence, my ass,” she said.
There were a few things to be done. The hostage-takers had to be dealt with, some sent to the hospital, some to the morgue, and some back to the cells they had come from. There was a funeral for Captain Chambers and the TSAT soldiers, at which Kelley was barely able to avoid breaking down. But nobody suggested he skip his next lecture, because they knew it was the only part of his job that he seriously loved. That was why everyone called him Professor despite his having a string of doctorates.
Karil made his way to the classroom and sat in, way up in the back, as the students filed in. Karil had never been to college. He and Jay and a few others had been tutored by the High Companies. It was no doubt an excellent education, based on the classical studies traditions of Europe, but he knew he had missed a lot of the advantages of actual university studies, particularly contact with strangers. He had made up for that with space-travel, which brought him into constant contact with other cultures. Clearly, Professor Kelley was in his element in front of a classroom. Karil was looking forward to the lecture, though he was very sorry to be missing Chi-Chi and Loris in the tub.
“The High Companies Corporate Empire,” Professor Kelley said, “which includes the High Companies orbital habitats at L-1, Earth and Luna themselves, the prison complexes at Venus, and occupied Mars, far from being the efficient and coherent corporate dictatorship they envisioned, is a muddled, fragmented, bickering mishmash of competing business interests. They believed that the riches of the Asteroid Belt, the virtually free shipping of solar-sail, and the unlimited energy of the sun would keep them in power forever, but their corporate empire is already in decline. This is not unlike what we’ve been reading about--the transitional period that came in between the height of the Roman Empire and the phase in which they were in decay and being overrun by the Visigoths.
“When the Powers originally decamped into Earth orbit to escape the planet they had ruined, they thought they were getting away from the kinds of problems they had caused on Earth, but they were just planting the seeds for similar problems to catch up with them in the new space-based culture. Their intention was to set up a corporate empire that would control the Inner Solar System while the Outer System went its own way. The Romans did something like that at the height of their power. They set up borders such as the Scottish Highlands and the Rhine/Danube River Complex and left the barbarians in control of what was beyond the borders. The barbarians now, incidentally, are the Belters, the Galilean, and us.
“But the High Companies, despite all their talk of consortia, remained competitors at heart and fell to bickering among themselves. This is why their police forces are an incoherent mess rather than a well-defined command structure. They still have the trappings of power like Poseidon Earthshaker and Grim-Visaged Ares, and the Pavonis Space Complex, but they are run by a bloated, dysfunctional, fragmented bureaucracy, like the one which was unable to cope with global warming on Earth. This is why the Martian Rebellion is winning in its struggle against their overwhelming power, and the Galilean Libertaria, which Earth believes is still a lawless, splintered frontier society, continues to out-compete them. The fact is, the Belters, like the Martians, are strong believers in personal freedom and find trade with the Galilean Moons simply more reliable and trustworthy than trade with Earth…”
The bell rang and the period was over. The students began to shuffle to their feet. “Read the next chapter in Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization,” Professor Kelley called after them. He looked up and found Karil still sitting there, came up and joined him.
“I hear you’ve been dragooned into making a speech.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Karil said. “But Terry’s a better public speaker than I am and knows you better than anyone. So why not her?”
“Well, everybody here knows Terry, but you’re the Poet Laureate of Mars and a pretty big celebrity for an undercover agent.”
“Oh, please! You’re a better speaker than all of us, Charles. Listening to you just now, I realized that you’ve anticipated a kind of dark age to come when the Terran Hegemony collapses and you’re setting up a university out here at the edge of civilization, a kind of haven for literature and culture for the coming Renaissance. You’re a historian and a political scientist, and now you’re dabbling in antimatter engineering.”
Kelley laughed. “Now, I wonder which one of those is the most dangerous. We’d better get a move on or the party will start without us.”
The party celebrating the Odysseus Project was held on a terrace overlooking the Nova Terra landscapes. The sounds of colony life drifted down to them from all around—children playing, the roar of lions and the call of birds, the lowing of cattle. There was enthusiastic applause as Karil stepped up to the dais.
“Some people,” he began, “thought that the Wily Odysseus should be constructed right here in the Saturn system, giving the first interstellar exploration ship a home port in the outer reaches of the inhabited Solar System. And also, let’s face it, because it would be cheaper. But Professor Kelley wanted it to represent all of us, with crew and scientists from every inhabited world and moon in the System, and he wanted everyone involved in its construction.
“I thought his choice of the asteroid Heracles was perfect, not only because its eccentric orbit crosses planets from Mercury to the Belt, but because I always thought of Professor Kelley as a kind of Heracles himself, and not only because of his imposing appearance. I realize that Heracles was hardly an intellectual, but he was, according to legend, a builder and a saviour and a solver of intractable problems for the good of society. There is no truth, incidentally, to the story that Charles Kelley, like Heracles, strangled two pythons in his crib. He was too tall to fit in a crib.” There was a smattering of laughs. “If his parents had possessed a crib his size, I’m sure he could have strangled six serpents before breakfast.
“But he is a truly Heraclean performer of labours. Heracles wrestled with a river, which is impressive, but Kelley created rivers out of asteroids and ice. Heracles captured the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Golden Hind, the Erymanthian Boar, the Horses of Diomedes, the Cretan Bull, etc. Kelley built a world where the experts said he could not and brought lions and horses and a lot of bull to live in it. I helped to transport some of these creatures, mostly in the form of DNA, but also in full breeding size, all the way from Earth, in zero gravity, and I can tell you that cleaning the Augean Stables was a walk in the park by comparison..”
“Heracles defeated outlaws and helped establish civility in Greece. The Professor does that too. This very day, he not only defeated outlaws, but he descended into Hell, just like Heracles, and brought back hostages. This is called the Harrowing of Hell. No, sorry, that was Jesus. I get my Sons of God mixed up. He could have brought up the Hounds of Hell like Heracles did too, but they met with a small accident.” He winked at Li.
“Finally, Heracles helped Atlas carry the world—for a while at least--and rescued Prometheus, who brought the light of fire and knowledge to mankind. Kelley has always carried a world on his shoulders—we are living in it now—but he is about to take the fire of antimatter destruction and turn it to knowledge for everyone in the Solar System. The moment he heard of antimatter drive, he realized that it was good for something other than warfare; it was good for interstellar travel, that it could take us to the near stars in a human lifetime.
“He has ripped the great drivers out of the apocalyptic warships of the late unlamented al-Zubair—speaking of criminals—which were somewhat egotistically called the Shadow of God and the Victorious, renamed them Prometheus and Atlas, and intends to beat those swords into the plowshares of galactic exploration. That is a labour worthy of a Titan.” He raised his glass. “To the Titan of Saturn, Professor Charles Kelley.
The crew of Atalanta were taken to the hangar to see Professor Kelley’s new little ship. It was similar to the freetrader planform, though without the broad flying-wing shape, which revealed that it was not designed to fly in atmosphere, nor to carry a great deal of cargo. The name on the bow was Celestial Intelligencer.
“What’s that?” Loris asked Karil.
“Uh—I don’t know.”
“Karil! You don’t know? Wow!”
The Professor laughed. “Celeste?” he said.
The ship spoke in the typical freetrader voice, a calm and friendly alto, but in this case, there was a slight, lilting Irish accent, which Karil thought might well sound like Kelley’s mother. “The Celestial Intelligencer was a grimoire published by Francis Barrett in 1801. Much of it was taken from the archivist and historiographer to Charles the Fifth, named Cornelius Agrippa, who was mentioned in Marlowe’s Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”
Professor Kelley was beaming proudly. “Come aboard,” he said.
The bridge was similar to Atalanta’s, except that the captain’s acceleration couch was somewhat longer than Loris’s, and the astrogator’s arc below was wider, with many more screens. There were two couches before it.
“Terry and Jay will be here,” Kelley said. “They have been studying and are now qualified astrogators. But the computer files here are more voluminous, even, than Atty’s. The ship is a travelling research library.”
“Of course it is,” Loris laughed.
“Have a seat,” the Professor said. “I’d like to get your thoughts on the Free Trader escorts I’ve hired to protect the move.”
Karil and Loris sat down and the seats slid forward into the arc. Chi-Chi Li stood behind them, fascinated by what was happening. Kelley climbed into the pilot’s couch above and stretched out, happy and comfortable. Ships’ data and pictures, some of them wanted posters, flashed on the screen. Loris pored over them.
“Well, Professor,” she laughed, “you’ve hired quite a rogues gallery of privateers. Tough as nails and brilliant pilots. Some of them are connected to Galilean Security, some are involved in the Martian Rebellion, and some have spent time in Venus Prison.
“This ship is Hippolyta, named after the Queen of the Amazons. This couple is Jade and Louise.” The women were Amazons themselves, tall and muscular. Jade had a bionic eye and Louise a cyborg’s arm. “This ship is Artemis. The crew, Poul and Betti, who look like a sweet old pair, are famous for their knowledge of weapons and their extensive collection of firearms. They design weapons too. Atty has a couple of their attack-lasers tucked under her wings.
“This is Circe and this couple, Daniel and David, like to create an aura of magical power. Circe has an advanced CGI camouflage system that Galilean Security is interested in. I’ve seen the ship seem to disappear in front of my eyes. This is Themis, named after the Goddess of Justice, I believe. This guy, who calls himself Bear, is a serious tavern brawler.” He was a big man with a full beard and twinkling eyes. “And his son Mike follows in his footsteps. I wouldn’t mind having either of them beside me in a fight.
“And this ship is Lyssa, who is…uh.”
“The spirit of madness,” Karil prompted, “rage, frenzy, and rabies. She was the daughter of Nyx, or Night.”
The black pair on the bridge, obviously brother and sister, were tall and slim, both of them bald with head tattoos.
“Victor and Ayesha,” Loris went on, “ claim Zulu warriors in their family tree, not to mention Hashshashim assassins and , it's claimed Barbary Pirates. I can tell you they’re both completely fearless. All in all, it’s a hell of a team.”
“Well,” Kelley said, “Let’s not forget the beautiful swift huntress Atalanta, and the beautiful, but deadly, Loris and Karil.”
“Hear, hear,” Li said.
“Okay, they’re all tough fighters,” Kelley said. “But in your opinion, can I trust them?”
“Have they all signed contracts?”
“Then, they’ll die to protect you and to keep your antimatter engines from falling into the hands of Earthforce. Free Traders don’t always play nicely with others, but when we’re on a job, we’re on a job.”
Getting Free Traders to fly in formation has been compared to herding cats. Karil never owned a cat, unless you include the pride of lions he adopted as a teenager, but Loris did and she thought the comparison apt. Kelley’s latest miracle, then, was inspiring his ragtag spaceforce to follow Celestial Intelligencer in a long arc from Titan orbit to that of the minor moon Tethys. Halfway round the circumference of Tethys was the vast Ithaca Canyon, all of two thousand kilometers from one end to the other and some five kilometers deep. Carved into the wall of that canyon by robots under the control of the late Marwan al-Zubair was the cave in which his fleet of antimatter-driven warships had been under secret robotic construction.
The outer shells of the unfinished Shadow of God and Victorious would remain in their cradles, stripped of their antimatter-drive engines, to be used as scrap or whatever might be needed later. The engines themselves, larger than most interplanetary ships, were ready to be transported to the Asteroid Belt, where Kelley was building his interstellar exploration ship Wily Odysseus.
Guided by powerful, fusion-driven robot tugs, the great engines rose into orbit around Tethys. The names Atlas and Prometheus were emblazoned on their bows and sterns. Most ships in the Solar System were named for gods and demigods, but to Karil’s memory, this was the first time that ships’ engines had officially registered names, instead of familiar nicknames, affectionate or otherwise, bestowed by their engineers. The Free Traders had taken to calling them The Titans.
The Free Traders were impressed by the size and obvious power of these engines, not to mention their Art nouveau beauty, as they were jockeyed by the tugs into orbit above Tethys and set into motion toward Saturn by fusion drive. The freetrader ships surrounded them. Karil envisioned a pair of huge brass cannons of the Napoleonic Era escorted by equestrian soldiers. Saturn tilted toward them as if bowing and the convoy sped past the gas giant, slipping between the planet’s cloud tops and its rings in a breathtaking move, to be flung into the darkness of interplanetary space by Saturn’s mass.
Even at fusion-drive velocities, the voyage from Titan to Jupiter is a long one. What kept Chi-Chi Li entertained was the gathering of the Free Traders, who were strange and fascinating. Having grown up in a commune, constantly surrounded by family, Chi-Chi had found herself homesick for Mars, even with the warm and attentive Karil and Loris by her side. But it seemed that Free Traders, whom she had thought solitary creatures, were more gregarious by nature than she had expected. Audio and visual conversation among the ships was constant, for the ships themselves were always in contact with each other, sharing data.
Li was particularly fond of Poul and Betti of Artemis because they shared with her a fascination with weapons. She proudly showed them her sawn-off shotgun and they loved it. She explained that shotgun shells contain their own oxygen and could fire on the surface of Mars. “What’s more, the shot goes faster and farther there, and even if it doesn’t kill you, it will rip a dozen holes in your pressure suit.”
“That looks like hand-carved teak and gold-plated steel,” Poul exclaimed. “We have something from that period.” Li was astonished at the size of the weapon they showed her. They called it an Elephant Gun. They had a device set up in a cargo hold that would prevent them from being thrown backwards by the gun’s kick and demonstrated how it could totally demolish just about any target. They also had fancy lasers that would cut titanium like butter. Li loved their accent, which they shared with Artemis, and which Loris referred to as Southern. Atalanta seemed particularly close to Artemis. Not only were they both A-series, but Karil pointed out that the demigoddess hunter Atalanta was a devotee of the moon-goddess Artemis.
For his part, however, Karil was particularly drawn to Victor and Ayesha. His home colony was an attempt to reproduce the African continent of Earth, and these two were experts in real African history. He was not entirely sure that they were descended from Zulu warriors, Barbary pirates, and Hashshashin assassins as they claimed—In the outer Worlds, Earth was considered strange and exotic and those who hailed from that planet tended to exaggerate for dramatic effect—but being a born romantic, he loved the idea. Li listened spellbound as Karil spoke of his childhood on the plains of High Africa, horse-riding and hunting and building treehouses over waterholes. Li had been born and raised in a cave and her imagination was fired by the great open spaces of the savannah, where you could feel wind in your hair and the sun on your face.
It turned out that Victor and Ayesha were old friends of Karil and Loris. When Professor Kelley was building the African portion of Nova Terra, he had purchased animals already extinct on Earth but which High Africa had grown from frozen DNA. Since Karil was persona non grata in the High Continents and his family was intent on killing him, Victor and Ayesha stepped in to deal with Karil’s father, the Sultan.
Their ship, Lyssa, Goddess of Madness, had the calm and gentle voice of Atalanta, but there was something strange about it—something that seemed like a threat. Li saw Victor and Ayesha exercising once in a while and was astonished by their lean musculature. They were as fit and as beautiful as Karil and Loris, but there was something a little frightening about them too. When Karil and Loris put their arms around her, she could feel their muscles moving in their limbs like serpents, but the effect was as comforting as a feather bed in a warm cavern because she felt their love. She doubted if Ayesha and Victor were the same. But she’d be damned glad to have them at her back in a fight.
Bear and Mike were loved by everyone, it seemed. There was always a grin on their faces and a twinkle in their eyes, and their speech was peppered with exotic and complex obscenities that made Li laugh out loud. Mike played the guitar and sang ridiculously ribald songs. Of all the Free Traders, they reminded her most of her fun-loving fellow Martians. Themis, their ship, as Goddess of Justice, seemed always to be shocked by them and criticized them sharply, but this was part of the game and she was what Karil called the Straight Man. In actual fact, she was as solicitous and nurturing as any of the other freetrader ships.
Daniel and David warmed to Li right away. They had a habit of suddenly making things appear out of thin air and then disappear again in the middle of a conversation. Li’s reaction—squealing with joy and clapping her hands like a child—made them grin every time. She would have loved to bring them to dinner in her home commune sometime and delight the entire family. Circe’s voice was a bit deeper and more mysterious than most. At one point, they showed Li the outside of the ship and the star-studded cosmos seemed to fracture and vanish as she watched, leaving the ship all but invisible in the dark. Then, suddenly, it was there again. Dan and Dave enjoyed her look of astonishment as much as her laughter.
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, seemed somewhat cold, the opposite of Atalanta. Jade and Louise were tall and carried their cyborg attachments with pride and style. Loris, it seemed, was an old friend of theirs, and Li thought, perhaps a lover at one time. They chatted comfortably together, but at one point, a micrometeorite struck the ship with a loud thud, and both Jade and Louise reacted exactly as Li had seen Loris react—a swift movement and a sudden scowl that made them look like predators on the hunt. Laser-pistols had appeared in their hands as if by magic. Li looked at Loris and Loris grinned. This woman, who touched Chi-Chi Li with gentle hands and warm lips, was clearly a space-cold killing machine when she needed to be, and so were Jade and Louise.
The Professor’s ship, Celeste, was also part of the communication web, riding just above Prometheus’ nose like a pilot fish before a shark. Li enjoyed listening to Karil and the Professor talk, most of the discourse flying high over her head, and found that Jay was able to slip into the conversation seamlessly. As was Terry. Li was dazzled by Terry, of course, and not just because of her angelic beauty—in zero-gee her golden locks writhed like a living thing—but because of her role in Martian history. She was a kind of goddess there, the last wife of Progeny Brown, who had re-made Mars in his own image. Li knew as well that both Karil and Jay were her lovers. This was not so strange among Martians, but unusual among Earthers, who always seemed to be so dominated by their passions. With such entertainment, the long journey passed, and then one day they saw Jupiter in the distance.
Galilean society came out to watch the Jupiter slingshot of Atlas and Prometheus. Ships of all kinds were placed alongside the cleared corridor, freetraders as well as freighters and passenger liners. Even Grey-Eyed Athena, Fair Aphrodite, and the new White-Armed Hera, the great interplanetary spaceliners, were there, packed with partygoers. Professor Kelley frowned at the open publicity but could hardly blame the onlookers. This was a technology now controlled by the Outer Worlds, and though there were Terran scientists working on it, Earth possessed nothing even close to controlled antimatter power. Ironically, it was a Terran who had first solved the problem of what was rather terrifyingly called the annihilation drive, and the first thing the Terran authorities thought of using it for was to build weapons. But the Outer Worlds, still fired by the thrill of exploration, intended to use it for deep space travel someday. That was worth celebrating.
Transported by the robot tugs, the two great engines and their accompanying freetraders plunged into the Jovian system, cut so close to Jupiter that the spacers could look down into the crimson thunderheads and lightning superbolts, and then were flung at accelerated speed toward the Asteroid Belt. The send-off had been heartwarming, but the Belt seemed like a vast black loneliness swallowing them up. The tiny space-rocks and the occasional factory-colony were so few and far between that they would probably never be seen except on the astrogation screens. It seemed like they were entering a dark moor haunted by monsters.
It was another week or so before the monsters appeared. Not far from Mars, they were suddenly accompanied by a trio of Terran warships. Atalanta identified them as Earth’s greatest battleship Poseidon Earthshaker, flanked by two huge cruisers named Grim-Visaged Ares and Hades Unconquerable. Hades was Earth’s newest ship and the Free Traders were amused.
“Hades Unconquerable, eh?” said Bear. “How could we resist putting the lie to that? What? Was Unsinkable Titanic not available?”
“I must insist,” Kelley told everyone, “Do not fire until you see the red of their lasers. They’re here primarily to intimidate us. Nova Terra has purchased the asteroid Heracles and my name is on the contract, which qualifies me as a Belter. Earth is at war with the Martian Rebels and competing with the Galilean, but not with the Belt. They rely on the Belters. The last thing they want is to antagonize them with an unprovoked attack.”
“But you know, don’t you, Professor,” Jade replied, “that they’ve wanted to get their hands on one of those antimatter drivers for a long time.”
“Not that they know how to fire up the damn things,” Daniel added, “Their scientists are still chasing antimatter around in circles.”
“But they’d still like to take one apart and study it,” Victor said, “and we can’t let them do that, can we?”
Chi-Chi Li realized that all the Free Traders were itching to trade blows with one of these space-behemoths. Knowing Karil and Loris as well as she did, she began to worry.
Karil noticed her chewing on her lip. “Poseidon Earthshaker is a sledgehammer,” he told her. “It wins by pounding and pounding like waves against the shore. Ares is like a chariot. It goes in fast, fires, and comes back again. This Hades is something mysterious. It must be loaded with the newest weapons. Freetraders may have fewer weapons, but their lasers are as powerful as anything Earth has, and their ships are far more maneuverable. We can pick a dozen targets and hit them all before Poseidon can line up on a second one. So far, they’re just escorting us through disputed territory. They’d have to be fucking crazy to…”
Hades Unconquerable suddenly fired on Artemis and blew it to scrap-metal. Hippolyta, Lyssa, and Circe opened up on Hades instantly, coming at it from three directions, and concentrating their fire on the bow-weapons which had annihilated the freetrader. Li was thrust into her acceleration couch as Atalanta responded to movement on the part of Ares, aiming at it directly to stop it from coming to the aid of Hades. Loris’s face was grim as Atalanta and Themis faced off against the cruiser, darting in and raking its side with laser fire, forcing it to turn and defend itself.
Poseidon Earthshaker did nothing. On the bridge, Admiral Darius was stunned at how the confrontation had gone awry. Someone on Hades had disobeyed orders and he was furious. If the Poseidon was forced to open up now with its overwhelming force, there was every chance of destroying the antimatter drivers, which his superiors wanted for themselves, not to mention having to explain how Earthforce, in an unprovoked interplanetary incident, had wiped out the cream of the Galilean Free Traders and Professor Kelley to boot, with whom they were not at war. He had half a mind to open fire on Hades itself.
Circe flickered and vanished, and suddenly it appeared above Hades and sent a bolt directly into the portside fusion drivers, then spun about and flipped away. Hades was crippled, but it turned and took aim directly at the antimatter drivers. Lyssa accelerated straight into the Terran cruiser’s bridge and exploded.
Hades Unconquerable erupted in plasma fire. Shards of metal and human bodies flew in all directions. Kelley shouted into the microphone, “Free Traders, stand down, stand down!” If the battle could be cut off right after the Free Traders’ revenge of the unprovoked attack by Hades, there might be some chance of preventing total disaster, but he could see that Themis, perhaps taking the name of the Goddess of Justice a bit too literally, was creeping toward Ares in a threatening manner.
Suddenly, all the screens on all the ships dissolved into random pixels and then a human face appeared, a gray-haired man in a Captain’s uniform. “This is Zeus Thunderer of the Galilean Worlds,” he said. “Stand down, everyone, or face the consequences.”
Kelley and his rag-tag spaceforce watched the Zeus Thunderer approach, growing larger and larger in their screens until it dwarfed the entire Titan fleet, antimatter drivers and all. Lasers and rail-guns popped out of both its flanks, all the way down its length. The Free Traders backed off and took their places beside Atlas and Prometheus as if cuddling up to them. The surviving Terran warships quietly turned about and headed off across the Belt.
“Where the hell,” Loris wondered, “were they building that?”
“In the Jupiter Trojans?” Karil offered.
“That could be. Galilean Security’s in total control there. In fact, that’s a gravitational junkyard full of wrecked ships and parts of ships. Secret construction materials at hand.”
The Captain of Zeus Thunderer appeared on their screens again. “Professor Kelley,” he said, “fancy running into you out here. I’m Captain Loomis. May I escort you to Heracles? I don’t think the Earthshaker will be bothering you anymore, but this is something of a shakedown cruise for us and we might as well continue.”
Heracles is a rare O-type asteroid about five kilometers in diameter which traverses the Belt with one end of its orbit near Mercury and the other near Jupiter. It crosses both Earth and Mars orbit in its 908-day cycle and can often be seen by most of the inner Solar System, with a bit of magnification. Professor Kelley had insisted it was wrong to build the Wily Odysseus out near Titan despite the ease of access and security because he wanted the ship to represent everyone in the Solar System.
When the convoy arrived at Heracles, accompanied by the impressive Zeus Thunderer, everyone at work on the site came out in every ship and shuttle available to welcome them. In orbit around the asteroid, in addition to its tiny moon, was an Island One type of habitat, a laser-powered foundry, a dockyard containing ships of all kinds and the taverns thereof, and the interstellar ship in progress itself—mostly, so far, the enormous keel and the great radial arms that would hold the antimatter engines as far as possible from the eventual human quarters. It looked like a great cross in space and Karil smiled to think of Prometheus bound to it. A second habitat that revolved to provide living quarters in a comfortable Jovian 2.3 gravities for the cyborg roustabouts also provided security for the site. No-one in their right mind would try to steal anything from under the noses of an entire troop of cyborgs.
There was a funeral held for Artemis and Lyssa, Poul and Betti, Victor and Ayesha, which was attended as well by some officers and crew of the Zeus. There was a properly rowdy wake for the Free Traders, held in a tavern in the marina. The party was crashed by cyborgs later. Bear and Mike got too drunk and picked a fight with some of the cyborgs, who restrained themselves and only beat them senseless. A good time was had by all. Chi-Chi Li was carried back to the ship by Karil and Loris and put to bed.
Kelley had done his best to reproduce his home on Nova Terra here on the Heracles site. The wind in the trees was a recording and the crackling fire was a hologram, but the huge library and his mewling clowder of cats were real enough. His housekeeper, Mrs. Pumphrey, insisted on making a home-cooked meal for the Professor, Terry and Jay, Karil and Loris and Ch-Chi Li.
After dinner, a fat Persian cat hopped up on Loris’s lap and she fussed with his ears. “Hey, Izzy,” she said. “What’s new?” He purred loudly and Loris found a piece of chicken on her plate to give him.
Li turned to Karil with an unspoken question on her lips. “Isfahan used to be Atalanta’s ship’s cat,” he told her. “It got a little dangerous out there and Loris dumped him in the Professor’s lap.”
Kelley chuckled. “He’s been great entertainment. He escapes now and then and somehow makes his way up to the zero-gravity level to play. He comes back when he gets hungry. The colony’s full of people who know him by name.”
From the speaker on the wall, they heard Atty purring and making mewling sounds, and Isfahan replied.
“Of course,” Li said. “She speaks cat.” She sat back and looked over the table of good smells and abundant laughter. She turned to Loris.
“Could you take me home soon?” she asked.
“Yeah. Just now. Besides, I think Mars needs me more than you do.”
“We’ll miss you,” Karil said, kissing her. “But you should be where you belong. Anyway, you’ll have lots of exotic stories to tell. You can tell the Martians they have friends in far places. And you can tell them all about hangovers in zero gravity.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“You’ve even learned a song or two.”
Li laughed to think of Mike’s most recent composition, called “Poseidon Earthshaking in its Boots.” The Martians would love that one. Karil and Loris volunteered for a mission to Mars and took Chi-Chi back home. The rest of the Free Traders accompanied Zeus Thunderer back to the Galilean—to keep it safe, they said.