Pelted with stones, he
sees his loved ones destroyed, but
no-one hears his scream.
Karil rummaged through the pockets of his suit, found some sticky tape--no spacer would be without it--and taped his laser pistol to a hidden corner of the guy-tensor framework. Then he climbed out into plain view.
"That oughta shake 'em up."
He raised his hands in surrender. When startled faces appeared in the mantis-ship's faceted eye, he waved.
In a moment, two figures jetted toward him from the mass-driver, lasers trained on him. They settled down on magnetic boots beside him, patted him down, and taking an arm each, carried him across and into the lock.
When they removed their helmets, he found them to be a bearded young man and a girl in a ponytail. Lasers pointed at his back, they escorted him down the long corridor to the bridge.
The ship was cramped and Spartan. Pipes and power-cables were visible everywhere, and the lighting was gloomy. On the bridge, a second man turned away from the port in a swivel-couch. He was an Arab, bearded like Karil but quite a bit older, with an eye-patch. The other eye was dark and piercing.
"My God," Karil said. "Salim Malik. I thought you were dead."
Malik's eyebrows rose with surprise. "So. Ali Karil." He turned to the others. "It seems we have a hero of the Rebellion with us."
"Never heard of him," the girl said.
"You should have. Many of our brothers and sisters in the struggle are still alive because of him." His eyes narrowed again. "What were you doing on the Zephyr?"
"I will not be trifled with, hero or not! How did you get aboard that ship?"
"I suppose there's no point in keeping it a secret. I work for the Odysseus Project, trying to find out who's been hijacking their fuel shipments. What I was doing aboard the Zephyr was waiting to see who turned up."
"I see. Well, you've got your wish, haven't you?" He turned to the others. "Tie him in this couch so I can keep an eye on him. Then you can get back to your duties."
Karil was securely strapped to the astrogator's couch, his hands bound. The girl handed Malik the recorder from Karil's helmet before they left. Malik listened to the recording with apparent amusement, erased it, and turned back to the helm.
"I don't understand why you're doing this," Karil said.
Malik did not look up from the controls. "It's very simple. We need money."
"For the Rebellion, I suppose."
"Of course. Prison's hardly changed my views on that matter."
"But you're allied with the Rebellion's enemies against its friends. The Professor's on your side."
"Our side? Spending billions on a ship to be thrown away in another solar system? We can use those billions here and now. There's nothing more important than freedom for Mars. Certainly not this starship of his, which will never be launched. But I doubt if a mercenary like you would understand."
"Oh, don't give me this mercenary crap, Malik. My dearest friends are Martians. I've risked my life for Mars a dozen times. I was a friend of Progeny, like you. And I don't understand this problem you have with the Professor. He's educated the best and the brightest of Mars, his projects have been employing Martians for years, and he's been at odds with the High Companies for longer than that. In fact, he knew Progeny before any of us. They were students together and taught on the same faculty."
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend, in other words."
"Well, I can't say I care much for your friends. Like Madame Feronia, for one. She was your jailer on Venus. She runs the most notorious prison in the Solar System for the High Companies. She may have been a Belter once, but she's deep in Earth's pocket."
Malik laughed. "Madame Feronia is in nobody's pocket. And neither am I. You speak of the Rebellion's friends and enemies. The Rebellion has only one friend: power. And that means money. When I was in exile, wandering through the Belt in search of what was left of the Ancilius Group, Madame Feronia's agents came with a proposition, and I met with her. I intended to kill her, at first. But some things are more important than revenge. There is a higher purpose. There are powers at work that you know nothing about. Besides--" And he smiled. "--I can always take my revenge later."
"I see. And how do you feel about using equipment made by your fellow prisoners? There is Martian blood in every one of those booby-trapped components of yours."
"You seem to be very well informed."
"There's no point in keeping secrets from you, Malik. You belong on our side against Madame Feronia. Anyway, what are you going to do? Kill me? What would Progeny say to that? What will your own followers say?"
"I have no intention of killing you--unless you make it necessary."
"None of this is necessary. You don't have to do this. I'm not lying when I say the Rebellion has staunch friends in the Project. We can work together."
"I'm doing what I have to do, Karil, as you are. There are powers at work here that are beyond these petty matters."
"What petty matters? You mean murder?"
"There have been no murders."
"There have been damn good tries. Your friends at Feronia Industries have tried to kill me three times in the last month."
"I know nothing of murders. I'm not involved. Besides, there is always death. Revolution is a deadly business. Some things are more important than a few lives."
"Oh, shit! You didn't hear that from Progeny."
Malik turned on him, eyes blazing. "What do you know of Progeny? When Progeny was hiding from Armand Solla, I was by his side, wandering the Martian surface in a cramped sand-crawler for months, while you were living in the lap of luxury in your High Company palace. And when I was trapped in the Hell Hole of Venus, you were living the life of a Ganymede libertine, drinking and whoring with the rest of the pirates and perverts out there."
Karil forgot one of his basic rules--never argue with a fanatic. "I know that Progeny believed in Rebellion, not Revolution: 'The purpose of revolution is to replace one tyranny with another.' Remember that? 'Revolution is a tool for achieving power, as the police is a tool for keeping it. Anyone who indulges in murder and terror to achieve power will indulge in those things to maintain it afterwards.' And I know you broke from the Martian Liberation Front to help form the Ancilius Group because you couldn't convince him otherwise."
"Yes, and where is Mars now, after following Progeny? Still under the boot of the Quasi-Police! So don't quote Progeny to me!" Malik turned away to the port, grew calm again. "I don't wish to harm you, Karil. Or your friends. I'm grateful for what you've done for Mars. But I intend to do what I have to do. And I'll deal with the Devil himself, if I have to."
"I think you have, Malik."
Loris and Slava could see the asteroid Diotima spread out before them. On its surface were a domed city and the long track of a mass-accelerator, and in orbit above hung a docking-port and a mass-catcher. Material mined from the surface would be accelerated to escape-velocity and catapulted into the catcher to be loaded aboard barges. Apparently, it could also be used for catching other things, like cargo containers released from hijacked ships. The inhabitants of Diotima, honest miners most of them, would swear they had seen no solar-sailer.
Had Karil managed to escape detection? Was he on Diotima now, or hiding somewhere in the vicinity? Or did Feronia have him?
Her headquarters appeared now--torus-shaped, revolving under giant mirrors. Where was the Poseidon? Skulking about somewhere, no doubt, probably on the other side of the asteroid, trying to keep an eye on Atty. She would have to keep her wits about her to stay out of the tanker's gunsights.
They docked at the hub and descended to the rim, Captain Kesho towering over them in the elevator. A brick path led through a dense cane-forest. If not for the greenhouse roof-panels above, Loris would have thought herself on Earth.
As they rounded a turn, a full-grown tiger stepped out of the foliage and barred their way. Slava squealed in surprise and Loris instinctively thrust the girl behind her. Captain Kesho spoke to the big cat, and it stepped aside. They could feel its eyes on their backs as they passed, and Loris turned to see it melt into the foliage.
They saw several more animals on or near the trail--hogs, deer, cattle. Monkeys scampered across the path and shrieked at them from trees. Storks waded in pools. Dragonflies and other insects buzzed over lily-pads. Leopards dozed on tree-limbs.
A huge tree-bungalow overlooked a herd of elephants by a waterhole. They could see a black-haired figure sitting on the balcony. As they approached, a basket-elevator descended. Loris climbed in, and before she could help, Kesho picked up Slava like a doll and deposited her within. His eyes were on them as they rose into the tree, then he turned and left, head bobbing with his long strides.
Madame Feronia sat in a high-backed wicker chair, a carafe of wine and three glasses on a table beside her. "How do you like our preserve, Loris?" She waved a hand over the landscape below. "Does it remind you of home? Yes, I know you were born in Sri Lanka. You were named, in fact, for a creature native to that island--a kind of long-legged, big-eyed little monkey that you probably resembled as a child. I know everything about you, and your friend Ali Karil. He should see our African preserve near Ceres." A leopard padded out through the French doors and flopped at her feet. She scratched its head and it rumbled in contentment.
"It's Karil we're looking for," Loris said.
"We don't have him, Loris. I'm being quite candid."
"But you are do have our cargo."
"Yes, as I explained to you. I'm sorry to say so, but I'm afraid the Zephyr has been lost. Some wine?"
"Ah! Lucretia Borgia '72. An excellent vintage."
Madame Feronia laughed. If her smile was more chilling than her frown, her laugh was even more so. "You may choose your own glasses, if you like, and I'll drink first."
They did just that, waiting for Madame Feronia to drink a good long draught before sipping from their own glasses. "If you wish to view them," Madame Feronia said, "we have the recordings of the cargo's discovery. I'll have Captain Kesho take you to the salvage area and you can see them for yourself. You can have your ship examine them if you think they've been doctored in any way. You'll see that Karil was not there. By the way, I'm afraid you've insulted the good Captain."
"Yes, I'm afraid I have."
"If you think I might order him to kill you, then you have done the smartest thing you could do. A few hours ago, he would have shot you on command--I confess it freely--but now he would have to fight you with his bare hands."
"He would fight a woman?" Slava asked. She appeared to be getting tipsy already.
Madame Feronia's gaze fell upon her for the first time. Slava stared back at her. The cobra and the mongoose, Loris thought.
"Well, he'd fight Loris. He knows her reputation and, like me, she is more than a mere woman in his eyes." Madame Feronia shrugged. "Kesho has his quirks, but he's a valuable resource. His crew fear him more than the enemy."
"To the enemy," Loris toasted. "And, incidentally, just who is the enemy?"
"Anyone who gets between me and what I want."
"Including the Zephyr’s cargo. And perhaps the Odysseus itself."
"Well," Loris said, "my definition is just as simple as yours: anyone who tries to harm me or the people I love. And while we're on the subject, I think you should know that Atalanta is listening. She knows everything I know."
"It's no more than I would do. I suppose you have given her first-priority instructions."
"That's exactly right."
"The problem, Loris, is that this is a two-edged sword."
Loris' eyes narrowed. "In what way?"
"Atalanta," Madame Feronia said, "do you hear me?"
"You may answer," Loris said.
The ship's voice could be heard from the microphone on Loris' body. "Yes, I do, Madame Feronia."
"How are you succeeding at staying out of the Poseidon's range?"
"Loris..." Slava began.
"I'm keeping Diotima between us, thank you, Madame. The ship is big, and it's fast, but not very manoeuvrable."
"You realize that I can have your captain killed at any time."
"Yes, Madame, but the resulting publicity would be difficult to explain. I believe the investigation would end in your ruin."
"True, but if we hold Loris prisoner, you would not be able to call for such an investigation, if that would result in her immediate death."
"It appears we would then be at an impasse."
"It appears we are already there. I imagine you are monitoring your captain's heartbeat and respiration."
"In a moment you will find her slipping into unconsciousness."
Slava slid off her chair onto the deck. Loris leapt to her feet but was overcome by weakness and fell back in her chair.
"I drank from the same carafe, yes. But I'm an addict. Atalanta, you will soon see a shuttle on its way to Poseidon. Loris and what's her name here will be on board, unharmed. If you attempt to interfere in any way, they will die."
"Where are you taking them?"
"Somewhere you cannot follow."
"Where Karil is?" Loris managed to say.
"I told you, Loris. We don't have Karil. But I believe I know where he is."
"Loris," Atty broke in, "there are more ships moving in. An entire fleet is converging on my position."
Loris summoned up all her strength, fought the drug, forced her lips and tongue to work. "Get the hell out of here, Atty."
"Find Karil. Do it. Now."
Above Diotima, Atalanta's drivers roared into life. With acceleration that would have crushed a human passenger to pulp, she streaked out of orbit, leaving her pursuers behind.
Loris began to chuckle groggily.
"I don't see what you find so amusing," Feronia said.
"They'll never catch her. And she'll find Karil, if he's still alive, if she has to turn over every rock in the Belt."
"This is hardly devastating news, Loris. What can he do?"
"I don't really know. But together they'll find us. They'll bust into Hell itself to get us back."
"Now, that’s amusing, Loris, because Hell is exactly where you're going."
In the shadow of an unnamed 15-kilometer asteroid, the Zephyr, its electric power restored, hove to. As the mantis-ship waited for the shuttle from the surface, Karil studied the asteroid through the port, noting the pressure-dome, solar furnace, dish antenna, and landing-pad. It was a typical Belter station and a perfect hideout; it might be in occasional contact with passing ships, and the comm-operator's voice might eventually become familiar to some, but no-one would bother to visit.
After shuttling in, Karil was led into the dome--pleasant enough, he thought, with abundant greenery, sleeping quarters, a communal kitchen. There were perhaps a dozen people to greet them, all young and with Martian accents. Prominently displayed was the Martian flag--red, of course, and bearing the ancient circle-and-arrow symbol called the ancilius.
"My brothers and sisters," Malik orated, "we have an honoured guest with us today. Allow me to introduce Ali Karil."
A few of the older listeners knew of him; there were gasps of surprise. But others were puzzled.
"I see that some of you are unfamiliar with the name. That's unfortunate." He pointed to a slogan on the wall. "This latin phrase—Mars, vigila!--was the cry of the Roman high priest of Mars as he clashed the sacred spear and shield together to awaken the god of war at the opening of his temple, thus declaring that the Roman Empire was in a state of war. It was Ali Karil who taught us this fact, and he is responsible for "Mars, awake!" being our watchword. His intellect, his courage and devotion, served us in good stead in the darkest days of our struggle.
"He's to be made at home here, with the usual Martian hospitality--though there are two restrictions, I'm sorry to say. He is not to leave the dome, and he is not to be allowed access to communications. Otherwise, I ask you to treat him as a brother." He nodded and Karil's bonds were removed. "We may be enemies at the moment, Karil, but I hope we'll be friends some day. Will you eat with us?"
"Malik, I'm so hungry I'd eat with the Devil."
Malik was amused. Karil sat with the others. The meal was not fancy by any means--mostly home-grown hydoponics and some packaged synthetics--but it was good. The drink was distilled water; there was no alcohol.
Everyone was anxious to hear news of the outside world. Karil began by relating his trials at the hands of Feronia's agents and ended with a tribute to the Professor. Malik smiled from across the table; he knew propaganda when he heard it.
Later, Karil was invited into Malik's curtained alcove--furnished in classical Bedouin style with rugs and pillows and a methane-fired hookah. Malik played the host and soon Karil was quite thoroughly stoned and waiting for Malik's pitch. He found that his Arabic had become rusty in the Outer Worlds and he was abashed when Malik switched back to English.
"You present me with a dilemma, my friend," said Malik. "I have no desire to kill you. I wouldn’t dare kill you, in any event, for the sake of my organization's morale. Feronia will expect me to turn you over to her, but that would only be killing you by proxy. Naturally, I can't let you go, but I can't hold you prisoner forever either. Sooner or later, you would escape, as you have escaped from far more ruthless jailers than I. There is only one road open to me: I have to convince you to join us."
"I see that," Karil said.
"I'm well aware of your love for Mars and its people, and I would enjoy working with a man of your intelligence and culture, despite your being a damned infidel and sybarite. But there is the problem of your loyalty to Professor Kelley."
"There is a simple solution," said Karil.
"Ah, here it comes. Please go on."
"You could stop hijacking his shipments. After a few more years the starship will be launched and I could offer you my aid. I might even be able to speak for Loris in this. She's certainly no friend of the High Companies. The Professor would disapprove, of course, but he often disapproves of what we do, and as the Project would be completed, we would be independent agents once again."
"Your offer makes sense, Karil. It's tempting. But as you point out, I've signed with the Devil, and his contacts are notoriously difficult to break."
"Then help us defeat Madame Feronia. I'm sure she'd betray you without a second thought. You'd be avenging her Martian victims and making the High Companies extremely uncomfortable. I'm convinced they're supporting her."
"They probably are. It's hard to know who's supporting whom these days. On the other hand, I'm sure she's using them as much as they're using her. Madame Feronia is a very ambitious and resourceful lady. I'm sure her ultimate goal is complete control of the Outer Worlds, whatever other motives she may have."
"Other motives? I've found that power is usually quite enough."
"She's a strange woman, Karil. After the death of her husband, who built her financial empire from scratch, she managed--in spite of powerful opposition and universal predictions of disaster--not only to keep her holdings together, but to increase them. She's driven in a way that only those of us who are driven can understand. Just what it is that drives her, though, I couldn't say."
"What drives you, Malik? Love for Mars, and hatred of the Quasi-Police, and a certain desire to come out of Progeny's long shadow, I would imagine. But what else?"
"The absolute conviction that I'm right, Karil. But of course, like Progeny, you react with instinctive suspicion to all moral certainty, do you not?"
"Well, like you say, I'm a libertine and an infidel."
"Shall I tell you a story?"
"Please. I’d really like to understand you, Malik."
"All right. You have heard, I suppose, that I was the only prisoner ever to escape from the Oven on Venus."
"Yes. Of course, I also heard you died in the attempt."
"That's true, as well. I managed to get my hands on a crawler and set off across the surface. I knew, of course, that I was only escaping to my death, but I didn't care. However, there was a slim chance. Feronia was not the only company with a research station on Venus in those days. Titanic Industries had one at Aphrodite."
"But the Feronia station is on the Lakshmi Plain. You set out to crawl halfway across Venus?"
"I said the chance was slim. I lost my way, of course, in an acid storm, and the crawler began to malfunction. Finally, it tumbled into a crevasse. I lay there, my life-support systems failing, and knew that I was dying. Suddenly I found myself looking down at my body. I was no longer suffering from heat and thirst. I felt cool and refreshed and filled with happiness and a sense of release. I saw a light and went toward it. I saw a figure holding out his arms to me. I thought it was the Prophet himself, at first, and then the Mahdi. But when I was closer, I recognized Progeny."
Karil must have let his reaction show on his face.
"You think I was delirious, of course, hallucinating. But to this day the experience seems more real to me than you do, or this rock we're sitting on. And no doubt you find it ironic that a man who distrusted religion just as much as politics would appear to me like a saint. But that is how he seemed to me. He radiated wisdom and love. I felt his love enfold me like a garment."
Karil listened in astonishment. Malik was entranced, enraptured.
"He showed me things. There was a great pit of boiling rock with winged creatures flying in spirals about it. I saw one close up. It was a demon, with bat-like wings and a horrid, reptilian look about it.
"Having shown me Hell, he showed me Heaven. There was a kind of city in the clouds, a great tower, gleaming as if made of gold. There was strange music inside and falling water. He sat me down in a lush garden, flowing with running streams, like you and I used to dream about, reading the Qu’ran as children. And he spoke to me.
"He said that I would return to life, that I had a role to perform in the divine plan. He said that Mars would someday be the ruler of the Solar System--from the least of worlds it would become the greatest--that it would be terraformed and transformed into Paradise.
"It was he who told me about Madame Feronia, that she would contact me, and I should work with her. He told me to fear nothing, that I was part of the plan. So that's why I'm not concerned about Kelley and his starship. His goals will be achieved as well, in the end, though not in his lifetime. After his death, when he has also become part of the divine, he will forgive me.
"Then I felt Progeny slipping away. I cried out in sadness and loss. Suddenly I was alive, in a hospital bed at the Titan station on Aphrodite. My crawler had been miraculously transported across the planet and they had found it outside the dome. From the condition of the crawler, they expected me to be dead, but I was fit and strong. I stole a shuttle and escaped."
"There was no report of finding an escaped prisoner, you know," Karil said. "Kelley was on the Titan Council. He would have known."
"I realize that. I took one of the researchers with me, a Martian by birth. She's here now--the girl you met in the mass-driver. You can ask her. Everyone else died the next day. An accident. The dome was flattened by atmospheric pressure--or by the hand of God to facilitate my escape."
Or by a bomb you planted, Karil thought. He had been watching Malik's features intently, hoping to observe the tiny tell-tale facial movements that Loris had said would reveal a lie. Only at the end had there been the slightest tic. Perhaps Malik knew it was he and not the hand of God who had destroyed the Titan installation. But the rest of the story Malik believed with a certainty.
Just how he had managed to survive on Venus, Karil could not say, but the experience had obviously affected his mind. There was not the slightest chance of converting him. Karil would have to escape.
Atalanta plummeted through space, her pursuers left far behind. On her abandoned bridge, lights flashed at the astrogator's station as data poured forth. The sound of a voice was heard--that of Madame Feronia:
"I told you, Loris. We don't have Karil. But I believe I know where he is."
Analysis of her voice appeared on the screen. More data followed, faster than the human eye could see or the human brain could hope to analyze. The Asteroid Belt appeared--thousands and millions of rock-fragments, their orbits calculated and projected, and traced back for years. The portion of the Belt known as Feronian space appeared, followed by the trajectories of the missing solar-sailers, from their launch-point at Aeolus to their last-known position before their disappearance. The course of the Zephyr was drawn, diverging into two separate courses, one ending at Feronia's Diotima headquarters, the other striking off in a different direction, followed by its probable orbit calculated to the present moment, taking into consideration its sudden change in mass and the prevailing solar wind, and any asteroids along that course known to be inhabited, or recently inhabited, or claimed by any Belter company.
One asteroid stood out from the others by virtue of not belonging to Feronia Industries. A claim had been staked there shortly before the solar-sailer disappearances and never disputed by Feronia, even though a multitude of other such claims had been challenged by her or bought out in short order. There had to be a reason why this rock was allowed to remain independent.
Atalanta's drivers roared into life.
Through the dome, Karil could see a p-suited crew swarming over the Zephyr. So far, no-one seemed to have found his laser-pistol.
"What are they doing? Dismantling it?"
"Preparing it for flight," Malik said. "You see, the fuel-gondola's on its way--empty. We'll fit it back where it belongs and release the Zephyr to drift. If it is spotted, it'll be a long way from here."
"Why not simply destroy it?"
"Psychology, my friend. Vanishing without a trace is nowhere near as romantic as being found derelict. A thousand rumours and legends will spring up. You know how superstitious spacers can be. As Progeny said, there's no lie like a legend."
"I suppose the Poseidon Earthshaker is bringing the gondola."
Malik looked at him. "Very good. That's right."
"They'll want to take me back with them, you know."
"They won't know you're here. I said I'd keep you safe, didn't I?"
"They know already, Malik. Because there was a tracer on that container and thanks to you my ship followed it right into Feronia's backyard. If Madame Feronia's as smart as I think she is, she'll realize this is the only place I could be, and if so, I have to know way too much. She'll take this place apart to find me. My death will be on your hands, and that of my friends. And any of your people who try to stop her may also be killed."
"It sounds like the truth, Salim." One of the Ancilius Group was behind them. Others gathered around.
"You said it would be only unmanned ships, Malik," said one.
"That's right," said another. "You told us there'd be no killing."
"I didn't sign on to be responsible for Ali Karil's death, Malik," said a third.
Malik turned to face them. Karil waited to see how he would try to turn this development to his own advantage.
"I know what I said. And I'm a man of my word. You know that. Never let it be said that the Ancilius Group turned its back on a friend of Mars." He turned to the girl he had brought from Venus. "Rima, get suited up. You too, Karil. We'll take the Mantis and hide you where Feronia will never find you."
In a moment, Karil and Malik and Rima were in their p-suits and shuttling up to the mass-driver. The girl was at the helm and Malik sat behind Karil, covering him with a laser-pistol. The shuttle mated with the mantis-ship and the girl began to cycle through the lock. Karil stuck out his wrists for the cuffs.
"That won't be necessary, Karil," Malik said. "Now that we're out of hearing..." His pistol levelled on Karil's heart. "I'm really sorry, but we can't hide you forever, and you're way too dangerous."
Karil glanced at the girl, already climbing into the mass-driver.
"She's my most loyal follower, Karil. She doesn't care if I kill you."
Karil twisted and kicked the bulkhead behind him. The laser-beam flashed by, missing him by centimetres, and a tiny sizzling hole appeared in the hull behind him. Air began to rush out with a whistling sound. Karil collided with the instrument panel, grabbed a lever, and pulled. The lock irised shut in the startled girl's face, as the shuttle slipped free of the mantis-ship and drifted away.
Malik twisted about and took aim again. Karil slapped at the panel, striking a switch, and the shuttle lurched sideways with a puff of vernier-gas and began to tumble. Malik was thrown off balance and once again the laser-beam flashed by Karil and punched another hole in the hull.
He dove for Malik as the shuttle drifted toward the Zephyr. Their p-suits, in response to the loss of pressure in the shuttle, were inflating. Karil seized his opponent's laser-hand by the wrist. They tumbled in the rapidly thinning air, struggling, unable to get a good grip on each other's inflating suits.
Malik kicked Karil in the stomach and the impact hurled them apart, Karil into the bow, Malik to the stern. The latter clutched at the cargo-webbing there to steady himself and took aim.
Karil realized that Malik was too far away to reach in time. But Karil was leaning against the forward hatch. His hand flew out and struck the ejector-button on the panel. There was a puff of silent smoke as the bolts on the hatch were blown. The hatch-cover flew discus-like into space and Karil was sucked out into vacuum with the last of the air.
His suit fully inflated now, he tumbled toward the Zephyr's guy-tensor framework, grabbed it as he flew by, and swung about like a gymnast on the high bar. His laser was still there, taped to the superstructure, and in a moment, it was in his hand. He could see Malik jetting out of the shuttle's lock as the tiny craft tumbled away. He had a propellant-gun in one hand and his weapon in the other. He jetted toward the Zephyr, his head visibly turning behind his faceplate as he searched for Karil.
Rima's face was visible behind the viewport of the mass-driver, watching. She pointed in Karil's direction and Malik turned toward him. Where were the others? Several of Malik's followers had been at work on the solar-sailer. There they were, turning to watch the drama unfold silently before them. Suddenly, they all turned away and glanced out into space. Karil tapped the suit-radio button with his chin.
"...Captain Kesho of the Poseidon Earthshaker. Prepare to receive our shuttle." A point of light brightened among the stars as the super-tanker approached. Karil turned his eyes back to Malik in time to see him diving into the guy-tensor framework. Karil ducked back into the cage-like structure, swung about a beam, and thrust his feet into Malik's back as he passed.
Malik was thrown off course but managed to grab the framework and swing inside. For a moment, he and Karil stared at each other through their faceplates, from opposite sides of the cage, each with a laser on the other.
"I tried to save you, Karil," Malik said, "but you chose to try to escape. Now the Poseidon's here. It's too late. Drop your weapon."
He was speaking for the benefit of his followers, who could hear on their suit-radios.
"You're lying, Malik," Karil said. "But we know the truth, don't we? How long before they do? Eh, Malik? How long before they know their leader's a coward and a murderer, no better than the Quasi-Police?"
Malik's body tensed. Karil, his eyes on his antagonist's face throughout, saw the intention a split-second before the movement. His own reflexes, honed by Loris' training, were faster.
A bolt from Karil's laser sliced through Malik's body. There was a shriek through the suit-radio and the hiss of escaping air. Malik doubled over and careened away, tumbling, propelled by the air rushing through the gash in his suit. Karil turned quickly to face the others, to see what they would do. They were firing their suit-jets and scattering in panic flight toward the asteroid. Why were they fleeing?
Karil glanced up and saw the face of Rima through the port of the mass-driver. Her expression was distorted in an unheard scream of rage as she yanked the helm-lever hard over and turned the mass-driver slowly away. The catapult-end of the ship swung in his direction.
Karil had no propellant-gun. And his suit-jets had been removed to prevent him from escaping.
The mass-driver's engine fired. A pellet of rock flashed into the sail, then another, and another, with increasing frequency. The mantis-ship was drifting away in response, but the pellets were zipping by Karil like bullets from a machine-gun. A line of holes crept across the sail toward him.
He kicked away from the framework and dove through space toward the asteroid. If he did not rip his suit in the impact, he could hide there.
The mass-driver's stern swung in pursuit. He saw the asteroid rush toward him, put out his arms and legs to cushion the impact and protect his helmet, but he struck with a thud that drove the breath from his body.
His suit held. But when he turned over and tried to rise, awkwardly in the low gravity, searing pain raced through his body. He had injured himself in the fall--broken ribs, at least. He tried to rise again but could not do so without pain that made him feel faint.
Propellant-slugs flashed over him. The pressure-dome erupted like a volcano, hurling bits of shattered quartz, articles of clothing, masses of soil and vegetation, and other material into space. Either Rima had misjudged the trajectory of the mass-driver, or she was willing to destroy the entire station to wreak her revenge on Karil for killing Malik.
The mass-driver swung toward him, and a line of tiny meteorite-impacts puffed silently across the asteroid's dust-strewn surface in his direction.
Suddenly, the Zephyr's great sail was rent from top to bottom. Atalanta tore through like a knife and plummeted toward the mass-driver. She turned to take the impact of the propellant-bullets on her hardened lower hull as she struck the rear end of the mass-driver, thrusting it aside. A second space-vehicle erupted from the rent in the sail and dove in pursuit of Atalanta--a fully armed shuttle. Emblazoned on its side were letters that read POSEIDON ONE.
"Loris!" Karil shouted. "Look out!"
His suit-radio was dead, broken by the impact, and she would not be able to hear him. There was a blinding flash of light and Karil threw up his hand to protect his faceplate as debris rained about him.
When he looked again, he could see the mass-driver swinging away, tumbling out of control, half its fuselage a tangled wreck of steel, and he saw Atalanta cartwheeling past the asteroid into space. As she tumbled, her bow swung toward him, and he saw the wreckage of her bridge. Pieces of the ship fluttered behind her like the feathers of a falcon-struck bird.
Something ploughed into the asteroid's surface and bounded over his head. It was Loris's empty acceleration couch.
Karil screamed, and the pain was like a dagger-thrust to his heart. Atalanta's decapitated form tumbled into space and vanished among the stars.
The Poseidon's shuttle hovered over him.