THE SHADES OF HEROES
THE WANDERING ROCKS
Silent in the dark,
carried on the solar winds,
what dire fate awaits?
"I'm going to need a drink," Loris said. "No, we're all going to need a drink." She went into the galley, muttering to herself, and returned. Slava sat beside Karil in the recreation cabin, still shaking like a leaf, and his arm was around her tiny shoulders as she sank into the blanket they'd wrapped about her. She snuggled under his arm as if she never wanted to leave. Loris sat down and offered them drinks; Slava took hers and drank it down in one gulp.
"Look," Loris began, "if you want to run away from home, I've got no problem with that. If I'd been brought up in one of those small-town colonies, I'd run away too. But this isn't the circus. I realize asteroid hunting has its own hardships and dangers, but I'm pretty damn sure you've never had to fight for your life. We're going into the Belt now to take on an organization that has already tried to kill us more than once."
"I understand, Loris. I'm young and inexperienced, but I'm not afraid..."
"No, you don't understand, damn it! You have no idea how dangerous you are. Look at Karil; he's the picture of protectiveness. And if you came with us, I'd have to feel the same way, for his sake. If either one of us hesitates in a crisis, becomes distracted or preoccupied or indecisive because we're worried about you, it could be the end of us all. We cover each other's backs, Karil and me, instinctively. But we also trust each other to take care of ourselves, too. I don't think we can do that with you. Do you see?"
Slava's eyes filled with tears. "You're so beautiful, Loris. What you have together is so beautiful. I can't compete with that, but I don't want to. I just want to share it. You're a part of Karil. And Atty is too. And I love him."
"It's romance and excitement you love, not Karil. What are you? Twenty years old? You don't know what love is."
"I do know what love is. I know it when I see it. When I found Karil, he was nearly dead. Now he's putting himself back in danger, for the Professor and what he believes in. If that's not love, what is?"
"Oh, shit." Loris drained her own drink.
"I won't be in the way, Loris," Slava said. "I'm a good pilot and a good astrogator. And I know the Belt like you know Ganymede."
"She has a point there," Atalanta said. "You could use an experienced Belter astrogator on board when Karil's on the Zephyr."
"And then what?"
"I could be Ship's Pet," Slava said quietly.
Karil and Loris looked at her in astonishment. "You don't even know what that is."
"I have a pretty good idea."
Loris laughed out loud. Her eyes bored into Slava's. The girl did not turn away from her gaze, as armed men often did. "You'd belong to me as much as to Karil, you know. That's what it means."
Slava hesitated, but still did not drop her gaze. "All right," she whispered.
Karil shook his head. "We'd have to tattoo the ship's registry number on your little bottom," he said. "It's going to hurt."
Slava gasped, but she stuck out her chin. "All right."
"We're kidding, for God's sake," Loris said, throwing up her hands. "Jesus, Slava, you'll have to get with the sense of humour around here."
The girl launched herself across the cabin and into Loris' arms. "Oh, thank you," she said. "I'm so happy."
"Let go of me, will you? Karil's the one you should be hugging."
"Yes, Captain." Slava threw herself into Karil's arms and covered his face with kisses.
"All right, Atty," Loris said. "We can get under way now. Come on, Slava. Your first lesson is about lift-off procedures. Karil can teach you the Ship's Pet stuff later."
Slava was learning about sex in zero-gee; there was a stanchion in the cabin that she had thought only for locomotion about the room, but she had learned that she could cling to it and drift as Karil crawled over her body like a bumblebee on a hanging blossom. Her body was as sweet as her character--small, white, with high pointed breasts and gently rounded belly. Her nipples were hard, her abdomen tense as she breathed in short, nervous gasps.
"You have to relax," Karil said. He began to stroke her body with his fingertips, feeling the softness of her skin. He drew little circles about her nipples. He kissed her breasts and she whimpered. As he worked his way farther down her body, kissing, gently nipping, she began to moan.
"I'm very shy about that," she whispered.
He looked up at her. "Yes, but you like it, don't you."
Loris was preparing breakfast in the galley when Slava came in.
"Good morning, Loris," she sang.
"You sound pretty happy this morning," Loris drawled. She turned and glanced at Slava, who looked entirely too cute in Karil's shirt and a radiant smile.
"Of course, I'm happy," Slava said. "I'm on my honeymoon." She hummed a popular song called "Free Fall Honeymoon" as she helped Loris prepare the coffee.
"Look, Slava, let's not get carried away with this honeymoon stuff, okay?"
Slava looked serious. One of the first things Loris was going to have to teach her was not to let every stray thought and emotion show on her face all the time. "I know, Loris. This is an important mission." She made it sound terribly romantic. "It's not a honeymoon. I was only joking."
"Jesus." Loris put her arm around her shoulders. "Don't let me scare you so much, okay? Unless it's an emergency, of course. Then, when I say frog, you hop."
Slava exploded in merriment. "You say the funniest things, Loris. Do you make them up?"
"God help us. Where's Prince Horny? Don't tell me he's got you fetching breakfast in bed for him."
"Yes," she said happily.
"I see. Well, take this to him. I have a feeling he needs nourishment."
Slava collected the covered free-fall dish and kicked off toward Karil's cabin. She stopped at the hatch and turned. "Do you want to join us?"
"No, I mean..." Slava’s hand flew to cover her mouth and the dish drifted away. She snagged it. "No, I mean come and sit with us. You look...lonely."
Loris shook her head. "I'm all right, Slava. You go on."
The hatch irised open and Slava drifted through. Karil pulled the elastic sheet aside and she slipped into the bag beside him. She found that she was as hungry as he was.
"Tell me about her," she said.
"Don't talk with your mouth full in zero-gee," Karil said.
"No, I mean it. Tell me about her."
Karil sighed and sucked on a coffee-bulb. "Her name is Terry. She's blonde like you, but her hair is very long. And she's got teen-age children, of course. I've known her for a long time--since the early days of the Rebellion."
"And Loris was her lover too?"
"Yes. How did you figure that out?"
"It's how you get to be intimate with Loris. You make love to the same person."
Karil laughed. "For someone raised in a sheltered environment..."
"What happened? With Terry."
"She married my best friend and took him back to Mars."
"That's so sad."
"Not really. I could have married her too. But she's a duster and I'm a spacer. Old story. Then, when Jay died, there was still the commune to run, and the children, and Mars. And for me there was Atty, and Loris, and there were still planets I hadn't seen."
"But you think about her."
"All the time. Well, not all the time."
Slava giggled. She took up the plate, covered it, and left it spinning in the air. She peeled back the sheet and began kissing Karil's nipples, then worked her way down over his belly.
"Teach me something," she said.
"All right. I've got something you can learn. But I warn you--it can be very tricky in zero-gee."
Back in the galley, Loris drank her coffee alone.
"I'm not lonely," she snapped.
"Whatever you say, Loris," Atalanta said.
There is no sight in space more haunting than an unmanned solar sailer. The Zephyr loomed in the port like some ghost-ship of Terran legend--silent, coursing under full sail as if with determined purpose, and not a soul on board.
Loris glanced down at the screen to see Slava helping Karil load supplies into the auxiliary craft--Atty's sturdy little Hum Bug. Designed to be lifeboat as much as a shuttle, it could sustain Karil for days, if not weeks.
"Loris," Atalanta said, "I can see you're not happy about this."
"I never liked it," Loris told her. "I wish we'd arranged something more informative than a simple tracer--a heartbeat monitor, a communication..."
"Karil wouldn't have it. Even scrambled, a heartbeat is too regular a rhythm and could be detected by a sufficiently intelligent computer, but only I can decode the tracer-signal, since I'm the one who generated the random numbers for it."
"You're right. And he's right. But..."
"I cannot advise you, Loris. I cannot be objective in my assessments where human life is concerned. But Karil does not appear to be afraid."
"Karil thinks he'll live forever."
"Ready to go, Lor," he said cheerfully and waved at the camera. Slava kissed him one last time before he picked up his helmet and sealed himself into the little craft, then launched himself into the void. So huge was the solar sail that he seemed to be plunging into a vast, still sea.
The cargo gondola was waiting for him like a bulbous spider in the rigging-web, and behind it stretched a long tail of fuel-tanks. In a very complex transfer manoeuvre, Karil overtook the ship, jockeyed into position, and mated magnetically. There, between the solar-panel array and the dish antenna, he would be well hidden.
There was a plan of sorts, though it depended on some major assumptions. It was assumed that the hijackers were re-directing the ships into orbit around their home asteroid and cutting the sails loose. If the opportunity presented itself, Karil hoped to slip out of the ship, hidden by the huge sail, and hide on the asteroid somewhere, perhaps in a crater. Atalanta would detect the change in orbit from the tracer-signal and come rushing in to catch them dead to rights. From his hiding place, and if communication were not too dangerous, he hoped to be able to direct this process, or at least warn Loris what to expect in terms of numbers and weapons. The hijackers would find the Hum Bug in short order and realize their hideout had been discovered, but it was hoped that Atalanta would be there by then. The fact is: they were making it up as they went along.
For now, there was nothing to do. He inserted a book into the reader and settled down to wait, aware of the tracer blinking on the panel beside him. That and the light of the reader were the only lights inside the Hum Bug. Outside, of course, the Zephyr was lit up like a carnival midway with beacons and running lights, and the sail itself blazed like a sunset sky.
It would be a long wait--days, probably, but the Hum Bug was crammed with life-support equipment and Karil was used to losing himself in his reading on long interplanetary voyages. Still, he found it difficult to concentrate on his book, and his mind wandered. He tried not to think too much of his dangerous position, but memories of his most recent experience aboard a solar-sailer kept popping up. He concentrated on Slava: his rescue at her hands, her sweet little body in his hands, the sound of her little whimpers, murmurs of delight, gasps of mounting excitement, and that final cry like the mewing of a kitten.
He tapped on the reader's keyboard and entered a marginal note: "Note: I have discovered the most useless thing in existence. A hard-on in a spacesuit."
Loris bolted awake. No, the tracer was blinking as usual beside her berth. It was not Atalanta's voice that had awakened her, but Slava's.
"What is it?"
"May I talk with you?"
"Sure. I wasn't sleeping very well anyway."
Slava drifted into the cabin, still dressed in her sleepshirt.
"What's the matter?"
She hesitated, finally said, "When I was a little girl, I used to sleep with my sister. She's dead now. We used to curl up together and I felt very...safe. I never felt that safe again after that, but on Jubilee there was always noise, always people in the corridors outside. It's so quiet out here, and I keep thinking of Karil..."
"You're feeling lonely, and you'd like to get in bed with me, but you're afraid I might try to make love to you."
"Yes," she said.
"You don't have to be afraid, Slava. Come on."
Loris pulled aside the elastic fabric and Slava slipped in beside her. The woman put her arms around the girl, and they snuggled down to sleep.
"Can you imagine," Loris whispered in her ear, "how much Karil would enjoy this?"
Slava chuckled and drifted into sleep.
Karil stared out the port at the stars. How different it was, he thought: on board a ship like Atalanta, and even more so aboard a great liner, one was constantly aware of moving through space at great speed--the roar of the drivers when accelerating and the life-sounds of the ship when not, fluids constantly bubbling through the bulkheads, and relays clicking, the sound transmitted through the walls.
At the moment, Karil was accelerating through the Gap at great velocity, but in total silence. The stars did not appear to move at all, and because the ship was not tacking at the moment, he could not even hear the whine of the guy-motors or the almost subliminal twang of the guys. He was drifting like the face of God above the waters of creation, he thought.
Relaxing was something that some people knew how to do. Loris, for example, despite her lightning reflexes and hyper-alert mind, knew how to meditate. Her limbs would relax, and her mind would clear, and her breathing and heart rate would slow. She could even slip into that state in the midst of battle, raining blows upon her enemies in a blur of movement while remaining absolutely calm. In contrast, Karil was a small tornado of adrenaline during battle, his heart and mind working so fast that the struggle about him seemed to be going on in slow motion. At the end, he would be panting with excitement, nostrils dilated, eyes wide, revelling in the almost sexual heat of battle, while Loris was as unperturbed as the surface of a subterranean lake.
Terry knew how to relax, too. Despite the pressures of matriarchal power, responsibility for a hundred precious lives, and the constant danger of mere existence in the hostile Martian environment, she could abandon herself to sensuality with a thoroughness that Karil would probably never know. In bed, she was like a wheat-field, with Karil and Loris as the wind and the rain washing over her. She had whispered to him once that his lovemaking, working together with Loris as efficiently as captain and navigator, drove her crazy with desire. But that was not crazy to him. Crazy was the thing that went on in Karil's mind, all the time.
Slava, however, he had to admit, seemed to be able to give him some moments' peace. She accepted the pleasure he offered her with a childlike joy and gave him pleasure in the same way. Always, he had approached sex as he approached his reading, with a driving hunger and a voracious desire. Slava, he realized, was making him approach sex the way he approached music, by letting it wash over him and seize control of his emotions. Other women, in the Martian warrens and in Ganymede's tunnels, had come to him mindful of his reputation, and there was always a bit of the circus performer in his lovemaking. Slava wanted only the joy of learning how to please the one to whom she was devoted.
He clicked on his reader and began to add another marginal note:
In the crowded forest of my mind
where thoughts scream for attention like orangutans
and dreams flit here and there
like multicoloured birds,
where fantasies prowl like leopards in the night,
their green eyes glowing,
and sometimes a tendril of imagination
curls and twines and blooms into a poem,
there is a quiet glade where you are queen...
It was the shadow on the sail that alerted him. He could see it clearly now, creeping across the golden diamond from one side to the other. There was a ship falling into parallel orbit. Karil was familiar with the silhouettes of just about every kind of vessel that passed through Galilean space, but this shadow was unrecognizable, and it looked like a great insect.
"For Christ sake," he said. "Why can I never finish a god-damn poem?"
The ship was still out of sight behind the sail, and Karil was determined to get a look at it. He fitted on his helmet, checked his laser, switched on the recording device inside his suit, and crawled out through the lock. In a moment he was creeping over the outer hull of the gondola, his respiration like thunder in his ears. He peered over the edge of the solar-array and caught just a glimpse of the ship vanishing behind the sail again.
He crept into the web of the guy-wire framework, where he could see better without being seen himself. In a moment, the ship appeared once more.
"It's an old Belter-Baroque mass-driver," he said, as the recorder clicked on. "I haven't seen one in years, except in books. It looks like a praying mantis with a small asteroid in its forelimbs, mandibles chewing away at the rock and ejecting it astern for propellant. The solar panels are shaped like wings and there's a triangular forward cabin, with bay-ports like faceted eyes. Maybe they found it in a junkyard or stole it from a museum somewhere. But it's been modified by some hot-shot engineer. There are modern fusion-drivers attached to the flanks, so it can go much farther much faster than the original design. It would have to be a real hot rod to run down a solar-sailer."
Suddenly, the running light on the framework beside him winked out. One after another, all the lights went dead, blackness running around the perimeter of the sail like movie-marquee lights going out. He felt a clunk through his gloves and boots and glanced back at the gondola.
It was drifting away. No longer ringed with lights but clearly visible in the reflection off the sail, it was falling away into the stars, carrying the Hum Bug and the tracer with it. Karil turned and prepared to jet across the gap toward the departing gondola, but the sail increased its acceleration, freed from the mass of the huge fuel-tank, and the accompanying ship drifted back into full view. If Karil came out of his hiding place now, he would be plainly visible against the brightly lit sail.
He hesitated for a moment too long and realized that the fuel-gondola and the tanker-train were no longer illuminated by the light reflected off the sail. Without lights, the gondola would be extremely difficult to find in the blackness of space. To take off after it now, with nothing but suit-propellant to control his movements, would be simple suicide.
"Well, Loris," he said into his suit-recorder, "I think I might have done it this time. I left the gondola to take a better look at their ship, and now the gondola's gone. We figured they would cut the sail loose, but what they did is separate the cargo. You'll be following that to wherever it's going, but I won't be there. I'm riding the mother of all hang-gliders now. Their ship is still with me, so it appears they want the Zephyr as much as the fuel. I suppose it's too valuable to throw away. Pretty soon now, I won't have much in the way of options--die of asphyxiation or surrender and hope they don't kill me on sight."
"Loris," Atalanta said, "the tracer has changed course."
Loris glanced down over Slava's head and checked the readouts on the panel. The girl responded to the changing figures with a flurry of key-tapping.
"Diotima, Loris," she said. "Karil's headed for Diotima."
Loris smiled grimly. "Hold on, Baby Cakes."
The warning was too late. Slava's stomach seemed to leap into her mouth. A hammer-blow of thrust threw her shoulders back into the couch. Acceleration mounted until her ribs ached and her breath came in short gasps. She could barely turn her head to read the accelerometer, and when she did, she could barely believe the reading.
"Loris," Atalanta said calmly, "there's something you should know about Diotima."
"It's the regional headquarters of Feronia Industries."
"Shit. We can't go in there with guns blazing, can we? We'd be handing them the Professor's balls on a silver platter. Listen, Atty, I want you to prepare a formal complaint against Feronia, detailing our suspicions and our evidence..."
"We don't have any evidence, Loris."
"All right, our suspicions then. Tag it Priority One."
"Priority One?" Slava repeated.
"Threat to human life. If Atty has any reason to believe I'm dead, she broadcasts it all over the System."
"What are you planning?"
"I'm going to pay a little visit to this regional headquarters. I'm going to speak to Madame Feronia herself, if she's there. And I have a feeling she is."
"I don't want to criticise, Loris..." Slava began.
"Why not?" Loris snapped. "It appears to be part of the astrogator's job description on this ship."
"It's just that it seems a little like walking into the lions' den."
Loris snorted. "Daniel made out all right, as I recall."
"Daniel had the Lord on his side."
"Well, I've got Atty."
"Thank you for the vote of confidence," Atalanta said, "but I'm afraid the lions are out in force today."
"What do you mean?"
"I've just detected a ship approaching. Overtaking us, in fact."
"Can you identify it?"
"It appears to be the Poseidon Earthshaker."
The comm began to beep at the standard hailing frequency, and Loris switched it on.
"Ahoy, the freetrader," said a baritone voice. For a moment, Loris had trouble placing the accent, and then realized it was Central African. "You are entering Feronian space. Identify yourself."
"This is freetrader Atalanta, Galilean independent registry, temporarily under the flag of Juno."
"What is your business here?"
"Am I speaking to Madame Feronia?"
"No, you are not," the male voice said, testily.
"Then please tell her I wish to speak to her."
"Madame Feronia cannot be disturbed at this time. You are speaking to Captain Atakuwa Hujambo Kesho of the Poseidon Earthshaker. You will conduct your business with me."
"I will not conduct my business with a mere mlinzi, with a mtumishi. My business is with Madame Feronia herself."
There was a moment of silence. "Very well then, you shall get what you want." The man's voice dropped ominously. "But I suspect you will wish you had not."
Loris grinned as she switched off the comm. "I'm glad Karil taught me a little Swahili," she said to Slava. "The Captain's a Watusi."
"From his tone of voice," Slava said, "I think you've made an enemy for life."
Loris shrugged. "Probably. I called him a servant, and worse. But if Madame Feronia is my enemy, so is he. If not, his enmity doesn't matter. And I gained his respect. Now there are at least two women in the Solar System he respects."
The comm-screen flickered, and a woman's face appeared. She was handsome in a certain hard-edged way, with classic Mediterranean features and an abundance of raven hair. She could have played any one of a dozen Roman empresses in a Ganymede bondage-opera.
"I am Madame Feronia. Who am I speaking to, please?" Her voice was computer-distorted to prevent Atty from detecting any lies. The first of these was the implication that she did not know who Atalanta’s captain was.
Loris put her own image on the screen and the women regarded each other for a moment like tigresses on a forest trail. Slava was glad she could pretend to busy herself with astrogator's business and let Loris look Madame Feronia in the eye.
"My name is Loris. I'd like to speak to you in private, please."
"I'm a busy woman, Loris. I'm overseeing a salvage operation."
"I see. Well, Madame Feronia, I believe the ship you are salvaging belongs to us. It is the Zephyr, and it is registered to Aeolian Shipping, currently leased to the Odysseus Project."
"There is no ship. Containers of fuel have been found adrift in our space. They practically drifted into our mass-catcher, in fact. I can only assume they were jettisoned or lost in a wreck, and according to interplanetary law they now belong to me."
"Not if they were under escort."
"Escort? There was no escort."
"Was there not a shuttle and an armed guard in attendance? Come now, Madame Feronia."
"There was not a living soul anywhere about, Loris."
Slava glanced up at Loris in alarm, but Loris appeared cool. "If there are any casualties associated with the wreck--if there was a wreck--I wish to claim the bodies."
"There was no-one, Loris, either living or dead." Madame Feronia smiled, but as far as Slava was concerned, it was not an improvement over her frown. "But I see your business here is legitimate. Perhaps you'd care to inspect the cargo yourself, as a representative of the Odysseus Project."
"Perhaps not," Slava said to herself.
"Yes, we would," Loris said.
"Excellent. I'll inform the docking crew of your imminent arrival. They will prepare to receive your shuttle."
You know damn well we have no shuttle, Loris thought. "I'm afraid," she said, "that our shuttle is missing. Perhaps Captain Kesho would be kind enough to pick us up."
"I'm sure he would. He's expressed a profound desire to meet you. He will be arriving shortly."
Loris switched off.
"Us?" Slava said. "You're taking me with you?"
"Don't be afraid, Slava."
"I'm not, Loris." She seemed to be telling the truth. "But I was sure you'd tell me to stay."
"That's not a good idea. Atty's my trump card and I may have to play her. It looks like they're doing this by the book, making it look like legitimate salvage. If so, they probably won't try to harm us. If anything does go wrong, there's not much you could do out here, and Atty may have to move fast to keep out of their clutches. She can do that much better without a human being to take care of. Do you understand, Atty?"
"Yes, Loris, but I'd be happier if neither of you were going in."
"I know, but we've got to take a look."
"Loris," said Slava, "what's happened to Karil?"
"I don't know. I'm worried too. We followed the tracer straight here, so we know they've got the Hum Bug. My guess is Karil's a prisoner. That's why we've got to take a chance on going in. We can't help him out here."
"Loris," said Atty, "the Earthshaker is here."
The great ship appeared on the screen, and Slava decided it was apply named. Beyond it they could see the asteroid Diotima and the industrial complex surrounding it. The super-tanker seemed nearly as large as the asteroid. They could see the Captain's shuttle coming toward them, and in a moment, it had mated with Atty's lock.
"Do you have your wire in place?" Atalanta asked.
"Yes, Atty. You'll be able to hear everything that goes on. And as soon as we leave, I want you to keep away from the Poseidon. Chin up, Slava. Karil would be proud of you."
They cycled through the lock and climbed into the shuttle. Captain Kesho was well over two meters tall. A special acceleration couch had been built for him, but he still looked like Alice in Wonderland on the cramped bridge. His pilot was a cyborg, as deadly looking as the one Loris and Karil had encountered at the Lotus-Eaters.
"Hujambo, Kapiteni," Kesho said with cold politeness. "You will forgive me for not rising."
"Sijambo, Kapiteni," Loris replied. "Labeka."
He looked them over carefully as they strapped themselves in. His face was expressionless, though his eyes bored into them with what was obviously more than casual interest. Then he turned to the pilot and gave orders. The shuttle pulled away and dropped toward Diotima.