SAM AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
I ushered her into Sam’s office and helped her out of the bulky dark coat she was wearing. Once she let the hood fall back I damned near dropped the coat. I recognized her. Who could forget her? She was exquisite, so stunningly beautiful that even irrepressible Sam Gunn was struck speechless. More beautiful than any woman I had ever seen.
It was more than her big, soulful eyes. More than the almost frightened way she had of glancing all around as she entered Sam’s office, as if expecting someone to leap out of hiding at her. She looked tragic, lovely and doomed and tragic.
“Mr. Gunn, I need your help,” she said to Sam. Those were the first words she spoke, even before she took the chair that I was holding for her. Her voice was like the sigh of a breeze in a midnight forest.
Sam was standing behind his desk, on the hidden little platform back there that makes him look taller than his real 165 centimeters. As I said, even Sam was speechless. Leather-tongued, clatter-mouthed Sam Gunn simply stood and stared at her in stupified awe.
Then he found his voice. “Anything,” he said, in a choked whisper. “I’d do anything for you.”
Despite the fact that Sam was getting married in just three weeks’ time, it was obvious that he’d tumbled head over heels for Amanda Cunningham the minute he saw her. Instantly. Sam Gunn was always falling in love, even more often than he made fortunes of money and lost them again. But this time it looked as if he’d really been struck by the thunderbolt.
If she weren’t so beautiful, so troubled, seeing the two of them together would have been almost ludicrous. Amanda Cunningham looked like a Greek goddess, except that her shoulder-length hair was radiant golden blond. She wore a modest knee-length sheath of delicate pink that couldn’t hide the curves of her ample body. And those eyes! They were bright china blue, but deep, terribly troubled, unbearably sad.
And there was Sam: stubby as a worn old pencil, with a bristle of red hair and his gap-toothed mouth hanging open. Sam had the kind of electricity in him that made it almost impossible for him to stand still for more than thirty seconds at a time. Yet he stood gaping at Amanda Cunningham, as tongue-tied as a teenager on his first date.
And me. Compared to Sam I’m a rugged outdoorsy type of guy. Of course, I wear lifts in my boots and a tummy tingler that helps keep my gut flat. Women have told me that my face is kind of cute in a cherubic sort of way, and I believe them—until I look in the mirror and see the pouchy eyes and the trim black beard that covers my receding chin. What did it matter? Amanda Cunningham didn’t even glance at me; her attention was focused completely on Sam.
It was really comical. Yet I wasn’t laughing.
Sam just stared at her, transfixed. Bewitched. I was still holding one of the leather-covered chairs for her. She sat down without looking at it, as if she were accustomed to there being a chair wherever she chose to sit.
“You must understand, Mr. Gunn,” she said softly. “What I ask is very dangerous…”
Still standing in front of his high-backed swivel chair, his eyes never leaving hers, Sam waved one hand as if to scoff at the thought of danger.
“It involves flying out to the Belt,” she continued.
“Anywhere,” Sam said. “For you.”
“To find my husband.”
That broke the spell. Definitely.
Sam’s company was S. Gunn Enterprises, Unlimited. He was involved in a lot of different operations, including hauling freight between the Earth and Moon, and transporting equipment out to the Asteroid Belt. He was also dickering to build a gambling casino and hotel on the Moon, but that’s another story.
“To find your husband?” Sam asked her, his face sagging with disappointment.
“My ex-husband,” said Amanda Cunningham. “We were divorced several years ago.”
“Oh.” Sam brightened.
“My current husband is Martin Humphries,” she went on, her voice sinking lower.
“Oh,” Sam repeated, plopping down into his chair like a man shot in the heart. “Amanda Cunningham Humphries.”
“Yes,” she said.
“The Martin Humphries?”
“Yes,” she repeated, almost whispering it.
Mrs. Martin Humphries. I’d seen pictures of her, of course, and vids on the society nets. I’d even glimpsed her in person once, across a ballroom crowded with the very wealthiest of the wealthy. Even in the midst of all that glitter and opulence she had glowed like a beautiful princess in a cave full of trolls. Martin Humphries was towing her around the party like an Olympic trophy. I popped my monocle and almost forgot the phony German accent I’d been using all evening. That was a couple of years ago, when I’d been working the society circuit selling shares of non-existent tritium mines. On Mars, yet. The richer they are, the easier they bite.
Martin Humphries was probably the richest person in the solar system, founder and chief of Humphries Space Systems, and well-known to be a prime S.O.B. I’d never try to scam him. If he bit on my bait, it could be fatal. So that’s why she looks so miserable, I thought. Married to him. I felt sorry for Amanda Cunningham Humphries.
But sorry or not, this could be the break I’d been waiting for. Amanda Cunningham Humphries was the wife of the richest sumbitch in the solar system. She could buy anything she wanted, including Sam’s whole ramshackle company, which was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. As usual. Yet she was asking Sam for help, like a lady in distress. She was scared.
“Martin Humphries,” Sam repeated.
She nodded wordlessly. She certainly did not look happy about being married to Martin Humphries.
Sam swallowed visibly, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down twice. Then he got to his feet again and said, as brightly as he could manage, “Why don’t we discuss this over lunch?”
Sam’s office in those days was on the L-5 habitat Beethoven. Funny name for a space structure that housed some fifty thousand people, I know. It was built by a consortium of American, European, Russian, and Japanese corporations. The only name they could agree on was Beethoven’s, thanks to the fact that the head of Yamagata Corp. had always wanted to be a symphony orchestra conductor.
To his credit, Sam’s office was not grand or imposing. He said he didn’t want to waste his money on furniture or real estate. Not that he had any money to waste, at the time. The suite was compact, tastefully decorated, with wall screens that showed idyllic scenes of woods and waterfalls. Sam had a sort of picture gallery on the wall behind his desk, S. Gunn with the great and powerful figures of the day—most of whom were out to sue him, if not have him murdered—plus several photos of Sam with various beauties in revealing attire.
I, as his “special consultant and advisor,” sat off to one side of his teak-and-chrome desk, where I could swivel from Sam to his visitor and back again.
Amanda Humphries shook her lovely head. “I can’t go out to lunch with you, Mr. Gunn. I shouldn’t be seen in public with you.”
Before Sam could react to that, she added, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just…I don’t want my husband to know that I’ve turned to you.”
Undeterred, Sam put on a lopsided grin and said, “Well, we could have lunch sent in here.” He turned to me. “Gar, why don’t you rustle us up some grub?”
I made a smile at his sudden Western folksiness. Sam was a con man, and everybody knew it. That made it all the easier for me to con him. I’m a scam artist, myself, par excellence, and it ain’t bragging if you can do it. Still, I’d been very roundabout in approaching Sam. Conning a con man takes some finesse, let me tell you.
About a year ago I talked myself into a job with the Honorable Jill Myers, former U.S. senator and American representative on the International Court of Justice. Judge Myers was an old, old friend of Sam’s, dating back to the early days when they’d both been astronauts working for the old NASA.
I had passed myself off to Myers’s people as Garret G. Garrison III, the penniless son of one of the oldest families in Texas. I had doctored up a biography and a dozen or so phony news media reports. With just a bit of money in the right hands, when Myers’s people checked me out in the various web nets, there was enough in place to convince them that I was poor but bright, talented, and honest.
Three out of four ain’t bad. I was certainly poor, bright, and talented.
Jill Myers wanted to marry Sam. Why, I’ll never figure out. Sam was—is!—a philandering, womanizing, skirt-chasing bundle of testosterone who falls in love the way Pavlov’s dogs salivated when they heard a bell ring. But Jill Myers wanted to marry the little scoundrel, and Sam had even proposed to her—once he ran out of all the other sources of funding that he could think of. Did I mention that Judge Myers comes from Old Money? She does: the kind of New England family that still has the first nickel they made in the molasses-for-rum-for-slaves triangle trade back in precolonial days.
Anyway, I had sweet-talked my way into Judge Myers’s confidence (and worked damned hard for her, too, I might add). So when they set a date for the wedding, she asked me to join Sam’s staff and keep an eye on him. She didn’t want him to disappear and leave her standing at the altar.
Sam took me in without a qualm, gave me the title of “special consultant and advisor to the CEO,” and put me in the office next to his. He knew I was Justice Myers’s enforcer, but it didn’t seem to bother him a bit.
Sam and I got along beautifully, like kindred souls, really. Once I told him the long, sad (and totally false) story of my life, he took to me like a big brother.
“Gar,” he told me more than once, “we’re two of a kind. Always trying to get out from under the big guys.”
I agreed fervently.
I’ve been a grifter all my life, ever since I sweet-talked Sister Agonista into overlooking the fact that she caught me cheating on the year-end exams in sixth grade. It was a neat scam for an eleven-year-old: I let her catch me, I let her think she had scared me onto the path of righteousness, and she was so happy about it that she never tumbled to the fact that I had sold answer sheets to half the kids in the school.
Anyway, life was always kind of rough-and-tumble for me. You hit it big here, and the next time you barely get out with the hide on your back. I had been at it long enough so that by now I was slowing down, getting a little tired, looking for the one big score that would let me wrap it all up and live the rest of my life in ill-gotten ease. I knew Sam Gunn was the con man’s con man: The little rogue had made more fortunes than the New York Stock Exchange—and lost them just as quickly as he could go chasing after some new rainbow. I figured that if I cozied up real close to Sam I could snatch his next pot of gold before he had a chance to piss it away.
So when Judge Myers asked me to keep an eye on Sam I went out to the Beethoven habitat that same day, alert and ready for my big chance to nail the last and best score.
Amanda Cunningham Humphries might just be that opportunity, I realized.
So now I’m bringing a tray of lunch in for Sam and Mrs. Humphries, setting it all out on Sam’s desk while they chatted, and then retreating to my own little office so they could talk in privacy.
Privacy, hah! I slipped the acoustic amplifier out of my desk drawer and stuck it on the wall that my office shared with Sam’s. Once I had wormed the earplug in, I could hear everything they said.
Which wasn’t all that much. Mrs. Humphries was very guarded about it all.
“I have a coded video chip that I want you to deliver to my ex-husband,” she told Sam.
“Okay,” he said, “but you could have a courier service make the delivery, even out to the Belt. I don’t see why—”
“My ex-husband is Lars Fuchs.”
Bingo! I don’t know how Sam reacted to that news but I nearly jumped out of my chair to turn a somersault. Her first husband was Lars Fuchs! Fuchs the pirate. Fuchs the renegade. Fuchs and Humphries had fought a minor war out there in the Belt a few years earlier. It had ended when Humphries’s mercenaries had finally captured Fuchs and the people of Ceres had exiled him for life.
For years now Fuchs had wandered through the Belt, an exile eking out a living as a miner, a rock rat. Making a legend of himself. The Flying Dutchman of the Asteroid Belt.
It must have been right after he was exiled, I guessed, that Amanda Cunningham had divorced Fuchs and married his bitter rival, Humphries. I later found out that I was right. That’s exactly what had happened. But with a twist. She divorced Fuchs and married Humphries on the condition that Humphries would stop trying to track Fuchs down and have him killed. Exile was punishment enough, she convinced Humphries. But the price for that tender mercy was her body. From the haunted look of her, maybe the price included her soul.
Now she wanted to send a message to her ex. Why? What was in the message? Humphries would pay a small fortune to find out. No, I decided; he’d pay a large fortune. To me.
* * *
Mrs. Humphries didn’t have all that much more to say and she left the office immediately after they finished their lunch, bundled once more into that shapeless black coat with its hood pulled up to hide her face.
I bounced back into Sam’s office. He was sitting back in his chair, the expression on his face somewhere between exalted and terrified.
“She needs my help,” Sam murmured, as if talking in his sleep.
“Our help,” I corrected.
Sam blinked, shook himself, and sat up erect. He nodded and grinned at me. “I knew I could count on you, Gar.”
Then I remembered that I was supposed to be working for Judge Myers.
* * *
“He’s going out to the Belt?” Judge Myers’s chestnut-brown eyes snapped at me. “And you’re letting him do it?”
Some people called Jill Myers plain, or even unattractive (behind her back, of course), but I always thought of her as kind of cute. In a way, she looked almost like Sam’s sister might: Her face was round as a pie, with a stubby little nose and a sprinkling of freckles. Her hair was light brown and straight as can be; she kept it in a short, no-nonsense bob and refused to let stylists fancy it up for her.
Her image in my desk screen clearly showed, though, that she was angry. Not at Sam. At me.
“Garrison, I sent you to keep that little so-and-so on track for our wedding, and now you’re going out to the Belt with him?”
“It’ll only be for a few days,” I said. Truthfully, that’s all I expected at that point.
Her anger abated a skosh; suspicion replaced it.
“What’s this all about, Gar?”
If I told her that Sam had gone bonkers over Amanda Humphries she’d be up at Beethoven on the next shuttle, so I temporized a little.
“He’s looking into a new business opportunity at Ceres. It should only take a few days.”
Fusion torch ships could zip out to the Belt at a constant acceleration. They cost an arm and two legs, but Sam was in his “spare no expenses” mode, and I agreed with him. We could zip out to the Belt in four days, deliver the message, and be home again in time for the wedding. We’d even have a day or so to spare, I thought.
One thing about Judge Myers: She couldn’t stay angry for more than a few minutes at a time. But from the expression on her face, she remained highly suspicious.
“I want a call from you every day, Gar,” she said. “I know you can’t keep Sam on a leash; nobody can. But I want to know where you are and what you’re doing.”
“Yes, ma’am. Of course.”
Easier said than done.
* * *
Sam rented a torch ship, the smallest he could find, just a set of fusion engines and propellant tanks with a crew pod attached. It was called Achernar, and its accommodations were really Spartan. Sam piloted it himself.
“That’s why I keep my astronaut’s qualifications up to date with the chickenshit IAA,” he told me, with a mischievous wink. “No sense spending money on a pilot when I can fly these birds myself.”
For four days we raced out to Ceres, accelerating at a half-gee most of the time, then decelerating at a gee-and-a-half. Sam wanted to go even faster, but the IAA wouldn’t approve his original plan, and he had no choice. If he didn’t follow their flight plan the IAA controllers at Ceres would impound Achernar and send us back to Earth for a disciplinary hearing.
So Sam stuck to their rules, fussing and fidgeting every centimeter of the way. He hated bureaucracies and bureaucrats. He especially loathed being forced to do things their way instead of his own.
The trip out was less than luxurious, let me tell you. But the deceleration was absolute agony for me; I felt as if I weighed about a ton and I was scared even to try to stand up.
Sam took the strain cheerfully. “Double-strength jockstrap, Gar,” he told me, grinning. “That’s the secret of my success.”
I stayed seated as much as possible. I even slept in the copilot’s reclinable chair, wishing that the ship had been primitive enough to include a relief tube among its equipment fixtures.
People who don’t know any better think that the rock rats out in the Belt are a bunch of rough-and-tumble, crusty, hard-fisted prospectors and miners. Well, sure, there are some like that, but most of the rock rats are university-educated engineers and technicians. After all, they work with spacecraft and teleoperated machinery out at the frontier of human civilization. They’re out there in the dark, cold, mostly empty Asteroid Belt, on their own, the nearest help usually so far away that it’s useless to them. They don’t use mules and shovels, and they don’t have barroom brawls or shootouts.
Most nights, that is.
Sam’s first stop after we docked at the habitat Chrysalis was the bar.
The Chrysalis habitat, by the way, was something like a circular, rotating junkyard. The rock rats had built it over the years by putting used or abandoned spacecraft together, hooking them up like a Tinkertoy merry-go-round, and spinning the whole contraption to produce an artificial gravity inside. It was better than living in Ceres itself, with its minuscule gravity and the constant haze of dust that you stirred up with every move you made. The earliest rock rats actually did live inside Ceres. That’s why they built the ramshackle Chrysalis as quickly as they could.
I worried about hard radiation, but Sam told me the habitat had a superconducting shield, the same as spacecraft use.
“You’re as safe as you’d be on Earth,” Sam assured me. “Just about.”
It was the “just about” that scared me.
“Why are we going to the bar?” I asked, striding along beside him down the habitat’s central corridor. Well, maybe “central corridor” is an overstatement. We were walking down the main passageway of one of the spacecraft that made up Chrysalis. Up ahead was a hatch that connected to the next spacecraft component. And so on. We could walk a complete circle and come back to the airlock where Achernar was docked, if we’d wanted to.
“Gonna meet the mayor,” said Sam.
Well, anyway, we go straight to the bar. I had expected a kind of rough place, maybe like a biker joint. Instead the place looked like a sophisticated cocktail lounge.
It was called the Crystal Palace, and it was as quiet and subdued as one of those high-class watering holes in Old Manhattan. Soft lighting, plush faux-leather wall coverings, muted Mozart coming through the speakers set in the overhead. It was midafternoon and there were only about a dozen people in the place, a few at the bar, the rest in high-backed booths that gave them plenty of privacy.
Sam sauntered up to the bar and perched on one of the swiveling stools. He spun around a few times, taking in the local scenery. The only woman in the place was the human bartender, and she wasn’t much better looking than the robots that trundled drinks out to the guys in the booths.
“What’s fer yew?” she asked. She looked like she was into weight-lifting. The gray sweatshirt she was wearing had the sleeves cut off; plenty of muscle in her arms. The expression on her squarish face was nononsense, unsmiling.
“West Tennessee,” said Sam. “Right?”
The bartender looked surprised. “Huntsville, ‘Bama.”
“Heart of the Tennessee Valley,” Sam said. “I come from the blue-grass country, myself.”
Which was a complete lie. Sam was born in either Nevada or Pennsylvania, according to which of his dossiers you read. Or maybe Luzon, in the Philippines.
Well, in less than six minutes Sam’s got the bartender laughing and trading redneck jokes with him. Her name was Belinda. I just sat beside him and watched the master at work. He could charm the devil out of hell, Sam could.
Sam ordered Tennessee corn mash for both of us. While he chatted up the bartender, though, I noticed that the place was emptying out. The three guys at the bar got up and left first, one by one. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guys in the booths heading for the door. No big rush, but within a few minutes they had all walked out. On tiptoes.
I said nothing, but soon enough Sam realized we were alone.
“What happened?” he asked Belinda. “We chased everybody out?”
She shook her head. “Rock rats worry about strangers. They prob’ly think you’re maybe a tax assessor or a safety inspector from the IAA.”
Sam laughed. “Me? From the IAA? Hell, no. I’m Sam Gunn. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”
“No! Sam Gunn? You couldn’t be!”
“That’s me,” Sam said, with his Huckleberry Finn grin.
“You were the first guy out here in the Belt,” said Belinda, real admiration glowing in her eyes.
“Yep. Captured a nickel/iron asteroid and towed her back to Earth orbit.”
“Pittsburgh. I heard about it. Took you a couple of years, didn’t it?”
Sam nodded. He was enjoying the adulation.
“That was a long time ago,” Belinda said. “I thought you’d be a lot older.”
She laughed, a hearty roar that made the glasses on the back bar rattle. “Rejuve therapy, right?”
Just then a red-haired mountain strode into the bar. One of the biggest men I’ve ever seen. He didn’t look fat, either: just big, with a shaggy mane of brick-red hair and a shaggier beard to match.
He walked right up to us.
“You’re Sam Gunn.” It wasn’t a question.
“Right,” said Sam. Swiveling toward me, he added, “And this young fellow here is Garret G. Garrison III.”
“The third, huh?” the redhead huffed at me. “What happened to the first two?”
“Hung for stealin’ horses,” I lied, putting on my thickest Wild West accent.
Belinda laughed at that. The redhead simply huffed.
“You’re George Ambrose, right?” Sam asked.
“Big George, that’s me.”
“The mayor of this fair community,” Sam added.
“They elected me th’ fookin’ chief,” Big George said, almost belligerently. “Now, whattaya want to see me about?”
“About Lars Fuchs.”
George’s eyes went cold and narrow. Belinda backed away from us and went down the bar, suddenly busy with the glassware.
“What about Lars Fuchs?” George asked.
“I want to meet him. I’ve got a business proposition for him.”
George folded his beefy arms across his massive chest. “Fuchs is an exile. Hasn’t been anywhere near Ceres for dog’s years. Hell, this fookin’ habitat wasn’t even finished when we tossed him out. We were still livin’ down inside th’ rock.”
Sam rested his elbows on the bar and smiled disarmingly at Big George. “Well, I’ve got a business proposition for Fuchs and I need to talk to him.”
“What kind of a business proposition?”
With a perfectly straight face Sam answered, “I’m thinking of starting a tourist service here in the Belt. You know, visit Ceres, see a mining operation at work on one of the asteroids, go out in a suit and chip some gold or diamonds to bring back home. That kind of thing.”
George said nothing, but I could see the wheels turning behind that wild red mane of his.
“It could mean an influx of money for your people,” Sam went on, in his best snake-oil spiel. “A hotel here in orbit around Ceres, rich tourists flooding in. Lots of money.”
George unbent his arms, but he still remained standing. “What’s all this got to do with Fuchs?”
“Shiploads full of rich tourists might make a tempting target for a pirate.”
“You don’t think he’d attack tour ships?”
“Lars wouldn’t do that. He’s not a fookin’ pirate. Not in that sense, anyway.”
“I’d rather hear that from him,” Sam said. “In fact, I’ve got to have his personal assurance before my backers will invest in the scheme.”
George stared at Sam for a long moment, deep suspicion written clearly on his face. “Nobody knows where Lars is,” he said at last. “You might as well go back home. Nobody here’s gonna give you any help.”
We left the bar with Big George glowering at our backs so hard I could feel the heat. Following the maps on the wall screens in the passageways, we found the adjoining rooms that I had booked for us.
“Now what?” I asked Sam as I unpacked my travel bag.
“Now we wait.”
Sam had simply tossed his bag on the bed of his room and barged through the connecting door into mine. We had packed for only a three-day stay at Ceres, although we had more gear stowed in Achenar. Something had to happen pretty quick, I thought.
“Wait for what?” I asked.
I put my carefully folded clothes in a drawer, hung my extra pair of wrinkle-proof slacks in the closet, and set up my toiletries in the lavatory. Sam made himself comfortable in the room’s only chair, a recliner designed to look like an astronaut’s couch. He cranked it down so far I thought he was going to take a nap.
Sitting on the bed, I told him, “Sam, I’ve got to call Judge Myers.”
“Go right ahead,” he said.
“What should I tell her?”
“Tell her we’ll be back in time for the wedding.”
I doubted that.
* * *
Two days passed without a word from anyone. Sam even tried to date Belinda, he was getting so desperate, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with him.
“They all know Fuchs,” Sam said to me. “They like him and they’re protecting him.”
It was common knowledge that Humphries had sworn to kill Fuchs, but Amanda had married Humphries on the condition that he leave Fuchs alone. Everybody in Ceres, from Belinda the barmaid to the last rock rat, thought that we were working for Humphries, trying to find Fuchs and murder him. Or at least locate him, so one of Humphries’s hired killers could knock him off. Fuchs was out there in the Belt somewhere, cruising through that dark emptiness like some Flying Dutchman, alone, taking a strangely measured kind of vengeance on unmanned Humphries ships.
I had other fish to fry, though. I wanted to find out what was on the chip that Amanda had given Sam. Her message to her ex-husband. What did she want to tell him? Fuchs was a thorn in Humphries’s side; maybe only a small thorn, but he drew blood, nonetheless. Humphries would pay a fortune for that message, and I intended to sell it to him.
But I had to get it away from Sam first.
* * *
Judge Myers was not happy with my equivocating reports to her. Definitely not happy.
There’s no way to have a conversation in real time between Ceres and Earth; the distance makes it impossible. It takes nearly half an hour for a message to cross one-way, even when the two bodies are at their closest. So I sent reports to Judge Myers and—usually within an hour—I’d get a response from her.
After my first report she had a wry grin on her face when she called back. “Garrison, I know it’s about as easy to keep Sam in line as nailing tapioca to a wall in zero-gee. But all the plans for the wedding are set; it’s going to be the biggest social event of the year. You’ve got to make sure that he’s here. I’m depending on you, Garrison.”
A day later, her smile had disappeared. “The wedding’s only a week from now, Garrison,” she said after my second call to her. “I want that little scoundrel at the altar!”
Third call, the next day: “I don’t care what he’s doing! Get him back here! Now!”
That’s when Sam came up with his bright idea.
“Pack up your duds, Gar,” he announced brightly. “We’re going to take a little spin around the Belt.”
I was too surprised to ask questions. In less than an hour we were back in Achernar and heading out from Ceres. Sam had already filed a flight plan with the IAA controllers. As far as they were concerned, Sam was going to visit three specific asteroids, which might be used as tourist stops if and when he started his operation in the Belt. Of course, I knew that once we cleared Ceres there was no one and nothing that could hold him to that plan.
“What are we doing?” I asked, sitting in the right-hand seat of the cockpit. “Where are we going?”
“To meet Fuchs,” said Sam.
“You’ve made contact with him?”
“Nope,” Sam replied, grinning as if he knew something nobody else knew. “But I’m willing to bet somebody has. Maybe Big George. Fuchs saved his life once, did you know that?”
“It’s simple,” Sam answered before I could finish the question. “We let it be known that we want to see Fuchs. Everybody says they don’t know where he is. We go out into the Belt, away from everything, including snoops who might rat out Fuchs to Martin Humphries. Somebody from Chrysalis calls Fuchs and tells him about us. Fuchs intercepts our ship to see what I want. I give him Amanda’s message chip. Q.E.D.”
It made a certain amount of sense. But I had my doubts.
“What if Fuchs just blasts us?”
“Not his style. He’s only attacked unmanned ships.”
“He wiped out an HSS base on Vesta, didn’t he? Killed dozens.”
“That was during the war between him and Humphries. Ancient history. He hasn’t attacked a crewed ship since he’s been exiled.”
The communications console pinged.
“Hah!” Sam gloated. “There he is now.”
But the image that took form on the comm screen wasn’t Lars Fuchs’s face. It was Jill Myers.
She was beaming a smile that could’ve lit up Selene City for a month. “Sam, I’ve got a marvelous idea. I know you’re wrapped up in some kind of mysterious mission out there in the Belt, and the wedding’s only a few days off so…”
She hesitated, like somebody about to spring a big surprise. “So instead of you coming back Earthside for the wedding, I’m bringing the wedding out to you! All the guests and everything. In fact, I’m on the torch ship Statendaam right now! We break Earth orbit in about an hour. I’ll see you in five days, Sam, and we can be married just as we planned!”
To say Sam was surprised would be like saying Napoleon was disturbed by Waterloo. Or McKenzie was inconvenienced when his spacecraft crashed into the Lunar Apennines. Or—well, you get the idea.
Sam looked stunned, as if he’d been poleaxed between the eyes. He just slumped in the pilot’s chair, dazed, his eyes unfocused for several minutes.
“She can’t come out here,” he muttered at last.
“She’s already on her way,” I said.
“But she’ll ruin everything. If she comes barging out here Fuchs’ll never come within a lightyear and a half of us.”
“How’re you going to stop her?”
Sam thought about that for all of a half-second. “I can’t stop her. But I don’t have to make it easy for her to find me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Run silent, run deep.” With deft finger, Sam turned off the ship’s tracking beacon and telemetry transmitter.
“Sam! The controllers at Ceres will think we’ve been destroyed!”
He grinned wickedly. “Let ‘em. If they don’t know where we are, they can’t point Jill at us.”
“But Fuchs won’t know where we are.”
“Oh yes he will,” Sam insisted. “Somebody at Ceres has already given him our flight plan. Big George, probably.”
“Sam,” I said patiently, “you filed that flight plan with the IAA. They’ll tell Judge Myers. She’ll come out looking for you.”
“Yeah, but she’ll be several days behind. By that time the IAA controllers’ll tell her we’ve disappeared. She’ll go home and weep for me.”
“Or start searching for your remains.”
He shot me an annoyed glance. “Anyway, we’ll meet with Fuchs before she gets here, most likely.”
His grin wobbled a little.
I thought the most likely scenario was that Fuchs would ignore us and Judge Myers would search for us, hoping that Sam’s disappearance didn’t mean he was dead. Once she found us, I figured, she’d kill Sam herself.
* * *
It was eerie, out there in the Belt. Flatlanders back on Earth think that the Asteroid Belt is a dangerous region, a-chock with boulders, so crowded that you have to maneuver like a kid in a computer game to avoid getting smashed.
Actually, it’s empty. Dark and cold and four times farther from the Sun than the Earth is. Most of the asteroids are the size of dust flakes. The valuable ones, maybe a few meters to a kilometer or so across, are so few and far between that you have to hunt for them. You can cruise through the Belt blindfolded and your chances of getting hit even by a pebble-sized ‘roid are pretty close to nil.
Of course, a pebble could shatter your ship if it hits you with enough velocity.
So we were running silent, but following the flight plan Sam had registered with the IAA. We got to the first rock Sam had scheduled and loitered around it for half a day. No sign of Fuchs. If he was anywhere nearby, he was running as silently as we were.
“He’s gotta be somewhere around here,” Sam said as we broke orbit and headed for the next asteroid on his list. “He’s gotta be.”
I could tell that Sam was feeling Judge Myers’s eager breath on the back of his neck.
Me, I had a different problem. I wanted to get that message chip away from him long enough to send a copy of it to Martin Humphries. With a suitable request for compensation, of course. Fifty million would do nicely, I thought. A hundred mil would be even better.
But how to get the chip out of Sam’s pocket? He kept it on his person all the time; even slept with it.
So it floored me when, as we were eating breakfast in Achernar’s cramped little galley on our third day out, Sam fished the fingernail-sized chip out of his breast pocket and handed it to me.
“Gar,” he said solemnly, “I want you to hide this someplace where nobody can find it, not even me.”
I was staggered. “Why…?”
“Just a precaution,” he said, his face more serious than I’d ever seen it before. “When Fuchs shows up things might get rough. I don’t want to know where the chip is.”
“But the whole point of this flight is to deliver it to him.”
He nodded warily. “Yeah, Humphries must know we’re looking for Fuchs. He’s got IAA people on his payroll. Hell, half the people in Ceres might be willing to rat on us. Money talks, pal. Humphries might not know why we’re looking for Fuchs, but he knows we’re trying to find him.”
“Humphries wants to find Fuchs, too,” I said. “And kill him, no matter what he promised his wife.”
“Damned right. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a ship tailing us.”
“I haven’t seen anything on the radar plot.”
“So what? A stealth ship could avoid radar. But not the hair on the back of my neck.”
“You think we’re being followed?”
“I’m sure of it.”
By the seven sinners of Cincinnati, I thought. This is starting to look like a class reunion! We’re jinking around in the Belt, looking for Fuchs. Judge Myers is on her way, with a complete wedding party. And now Sam thinks there’s an HSS stealth ship lurking out there somewhere, waiting for us to find Fuchs so they can pounce on him.
But all that paled into insignificance for me as I stared down at the tiny chip Sam had placed in the palm of my hand.
I had it in my grasp! Now the trick was to contact Humphries without letting Sam know of it.
I couldn’t sleep that night. We were approaching the second asteroid on Sam’s itinerary on a dead-reckoning trajectory. No active signals going out from the ship except for the short-range collision avoidance radar. We’d take up a parking orbit around the unnamed rock midmorning tomorrow.
I waited until my eyes were adapted to the darkness of the sleeping compartment, then peeked down over the edge of my bunk to see if Sam was really asleep. He was on his side, face to the bulkhead, his legs pulled up slightly in a sort of fetal position. Breathing deep and regular.
He’s asleep, I told myself. As quietly as a wraith I slipped out of my bunk and tiptoed in my bare feet to the cockpit, carefully shutting the hatches of the sleeping compartment and the galley, so there’d be no noise to waken Sam.
I’m pretty good at decrypting messages. It’s a useful talent for a con man, and I had spent long hours at computers during my one and only jail stretch to learn the tricks of the trade.
Of course, I could just offer the chip for sale to Humphries without knowing what was on it. He’d pay handsomely for a message that his wife wanted to give to Lars Fuchs.
But if I knew the contents of the message, I reasoned, I could most likely double or triple the price. So I started to work on decrypting it. How hard could it be? I asked myself as I slipped the chip into the ship’s main computer. She probably did the encoding herself, not trusting anybody around her. She’d been an astronaut in her earlier years, I knew, but not particularly a computer freak. Should be easy.
It wasn’t. It took all night and I still didn’t get all the way through the trapdoors and blind alleys she’d built into her message. Smart woman, I realized, my respect for Amanda Cunningham Humphries notching up with every bead of sweat I oozed.
At last the hash that had been filling the central screen on the cockpit control panel cleared away, replaced by an image of her face.
That face. I just stared at her. She was so beautiful, so sad and vulnerable. It brought a lump to my throat. I’ve seen beautiful women, plenty of them, and bedded more than my share. But gazing at Amanda’s face, there in the quiet hum of the dimmed cockpit, I felt something more than desire, more than animal hunger.
Could it be love? I shook my head like a man who’s just been knocked down by a punch. Don’t be an idiot! I snarled at myself. You’ve been hanging around Sam too long, you’re becoming a romantic jackass just like he is.
Love has nothing to do with this. That beautiful face is going to earn you millions, I told myself, as soon as you decrypt this message of hers.
And then I smelled the fragrance of coffee brewing. Sam was in the galley, right behind the closed hatch of the cockpit, clattering dishes and silverware. In a weird way I felt almost relieved. Quickly I popped the chip out of the computer and slipped it into the waistband of the undershorts I was wearing.
Just in time. Sam pushed the hatch open and handed me a steaming mug of coffee.
“You’re up early,” he said, with a groggy smile.
“Couldn’t sleep,” I answered truthfully. That’s where the truth ended. “I’ve been trying to think of where I could stash the chip.”
He nodded and scratched at his wiry, tousled red hair. “Find a good spot, Gar. I think we’re going to have plenty of fireworks before this job is finished.”
Truer words, as they say, were never spoken.
The three asteroids Sam had chosen were samples of the three different types of ‘roids in the Belt. The first one had been a rocky type. It looked like a lumpy potato, pockmarked with craterlets from the impacts of smaller rocks. The one we were approaching was a chondritic type, a loose collection of primeval pebbles that barely held itself together. Sam called it a beanbag.
He was saving the best one for last. The third and last asteroid on Sam’s list was a metallic beauty, the one that some Latin American sculptress had carved into a monumental history of her Native American people; she called it “The Rememberer.” Sam had been involved in that, years ago, I knew. He had shacked up with the sculptress for a while. Just like Sam.
As we approached the beanbag, our collision-avoidance radar started going crazy.
“It’s surrounded by smaller chunks of rock,” Sam muttered, studying the screen.
From the copilot’s chair I could see the main body of the asteroid through the cockpit window. It looked hazy, indistinct, more like a puff of smoke than a solid object.
“If we’re going to orbit that cloud of pebbles,” I said, “it’d better be at a good distance from it. Otherwise we’ll get dinged up pretty heavily.”
Sam nodded and tapped in the commands for an orbit that looped a respectful distance from the beanbag.
“How long are we going to hang around here?” I asked him.
He made a small shrug. “Give it a day or two. Then we’ll head off for ‘The Rememberer.’”
“Sam, your wedding is in two days.” Speaking of remembering, I thought.
He gave me a lopsided grin. “Jill’s smart enough to figure it out. We’ll get married at ‘The Rememberer,’ outside, in suits, with the sculpture for a background. It’ll make terrific publicity for my tour service.”
I felt my eyebrows go up. “You’re really thinking of starting tourist runs out here to the Belt?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“I thought that was just your cover story.”
“It was,” he admitted. “But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.”
“Who’s going to pay the fare for coming all the way out here, just to see a few rocks?”
“Gar, you just don’t understand how business works, do you?”
“How did space tourism start, in the first place?” Before I could even start thinking about an answer, he went on, “With a few bored rich guys paying millions for a few days in orbit.”
“Not much of a market,” I said.
He waggled a finger at me. “Not at first, but it got people interested. The publicity was important. Within a few years there was enough of a demand so that a real tourist industry took off. Small, at first, but it grew.”
I recalled, “You started a honeymoon hotel in Earth orbit back then, didn’t you?”
His face clouded. “It went under. Most of the honeymooners got space sick their first day in weightlessness. Horrible publicity. I went broke.”
“And sold it to Rockledge Industries, right?”
He got even more somber. “Yeah, right.”
Rockledge made a success of the orbital hotel after buying Sam out, mainly because they’d developed a medication for space sickness. The facility is still there in low Earth orbit, part hotel, part museum. Sam was a pioneer, all right. An ornament to his profession, as far as I was concerned. But that’s another story.
“And now you think you can make a tourist line to the Belt pay off?”
Before he could answer, three things happened virtually simultaneously. The navigation computer chimed and announced, “Parking orbit established.” At that instant we felt a slight lurch. Spacecraft don’t lurch, not unless something bad has happened to them, like hitting a rock or getting your airtight hull punctured.
Sure enough, the maintenance program sang out, “Main thruster disabled. Repair facilities urgently required.”
Before we could do more than look at each other, our mouths hanging open, a fourth thing happened.
The comm speaker rumbled with a deep, snarling voice. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
The screen showed a dark, scowling face: jowly, almost pudgy, dark hair pulled straight back from a broad forehead, tiny deepset eyes that burned into you. A vicious slash of a mouth turned down angrily. Irritation and suspicion were written across every line of that face. He radiated power, strength, and the cold-blooded ruthlessness of a killer. Lars Fuchs.
“Answer me or my next shot will blow away your crew pod.”
I felt an urgent need to go to the bathroom. But Sam stayed cool as a polar bear.
“This is Sam Gunn. I’ve been trying to find you, Fuchs.”
“I have a message for you.”
“From Humphries? I’m not interested in hearing what he has to say.”
Sam glanced at me, then said, “The message is from Mrs. Humphries.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but Fuchs’s face went harder still. Then, in an even meaner tone, he said, “I’m not interested in anything she has to say, either.”
“She seemed very anxious to get this message to you, sir,” Sam wheedled. “She hired us to come all the way out to the Belt to deliver it to you personally.”
He fell silent. I could feel my heart thumping against my ribs. Then Fuchs snarled, “It seems more likely to me that you’re bait for a trap Humphries wants to spring on me. My former wife hasn’t anything to say to me.”
“No buts! I’m not going to let you set me up for an ambush.” I could practically feel the suspicion in his voice, his scowling face. And something more. Something really ugly. Hatred. Hatred for Humphries and everything associated with Humphries. Including his wife.
“I’m no Judas goat,” Sam snarled back. I was surprised at how incensed he seemed to be. You can never tell, with Sam, but he seemed really teed off.
“I’m Sam Gunn, goddammit, not some sneaking decoy. I don’t take orders from Martin Humphries or anybody else in the whole twirling solar system and if you think…”
While Sam was talking, I glanced at the search radar, to see if it had locked onto Fuchs’s ship. Either his ship was super stealthy or it was much farther away than I had thought. He must be a damned good shot with that laser, I realized.
Sam was jabbering, cajoling, talking a mile a minute, trying to get Fuchs to trust him enough to let us deliver the chip to him.
Fuchs answered, “Don’t you think I know that the chip you’re carrying has a homing beacon built into it? I take the chip and a dozen Humphries ships come after me, following the signal the chip emits.”
“No, it’s not like that at all,” Sam pleaded. “She wants you to see this message. She wouldn’t try to harm you.”
“She already has,” he snapped.
I began to wonder if maybe he wasn’t right. Was she working for her present husband to trap her ex-husband? Had she turned against the man whose life she had saved?
It couldn’t be, I thought, remembering how haunted, how frightened she had looked. She couldn’t be a Judas to him; she had married Humphries to save Fuchs’s life, from all that I’d heard.
Then a worse thought popped into my head. If Sam gives the chip to Fuchs I’ll have nothing to offer Humphries! All that money would fly out of my grasp!
I had tried to copy the chip but it wouldn’t allow the ship’s computer to make a copy. Suddenly I was on Fuchs’s side of the argument: Don’t take the chip! Don’t come anywhere near it!
Fate, as they say, intervened.
The comm system pinged again and suddenly the screen split. The other half showed Judge Myers, all smiles, obviously in a compartment aboard a spacecraft.
“Sam, we’re here!” she said brightly. “At ‘The Rememberer.’ It was so brilliant of you to pick the sculpture for our wedding ceremony!”
“Who the hell is that?” Fuchs roared.
For once in his life, Sam actually looked embarrassed. “Um…my, uh, fiancée,” he stumbled. “I’m supposed to be getting married in two days.”
The expression on Fuchs’s face was almost comical. Here he’s threatening to blow us into a cloud of ionized gas and all of a sudden he’s got an impatient bride-to-be on the same communications frequency.
“Married?” he bellowed.
“It’s a long story,” said Sam, red-cheeked.
Fuchs glared and glowered while Judge Myers’s round freckled face looked puzzled. “Sam? Why don’t you answer? I know where you are. If you don’t come out to ‘The Rememberer’ I’m going to bring the whole wedding party to you, minister and boys’ choir and all.”
“I’m busy, Jill,” Sam said.
“Boys’ choir?” Fuchs ranted. “Minister?”
Not even Sam could carry on two conversations at the same time, I thought. But I was wrong.
“Jill, I’m in the middle of something,” he said, then immediately switched to Fuchs: “I can’t hang around here, I’ve got to get to my wedding.”
“Who are you talking to?” Judge Myers asked.
“What wedding?” Fuchs demanded. “Do you mean to tell me you’re getting married out here in the Belt?”
“That’s exactly what I mean to tell you,” Sam replied to him.
“Tell who?” Judge Myers asked. “What’s going on, Sam?”
“Bah!” Fuchs snapped. “You’re crazy! All of you!”
I saw a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. Through the cockpit’s forward window I watched a small, stiletto-slim spacecraft slowly emerge from the cloud of pebbles surrounding the asteroid, plasma exhaust pulsing from its thruster and a bloodred pencilbeam of laser light probing out ahead of it.
Fuchs bellowed, “I knew it!” and let loose a string of curses that would make an angel vomit.
Sam was swearing too. “Those sonsofbitches! They knew we’d be here and they were just laying in wait in case Fuchs showed up.”
“I’ll get you for this, Gunn!” Fuchs howled.
“I didn’t know!” Sam yelled back.
Judge Myers looked somewhere between puzzled and alarmed. “Sam, what’s happening? What’s going on?”
The ambush craft was rising out of the rubble cloud that surrounded the asteroid. I could see Fuchs’s ship through the window now because he was shooting back at the ambusher, his own red pencilbeam of a spotting laser lighting up the cloud of pebbles like a Christmas ornament.
“We’d better get out of here, Sam,” I suggested at the top of my lungs.
“How?” he snapped. “Fuchs took out the thruster.”
“You mean we’re stuck here?”
“Smack in the middle of their battle,” he answered, nodding. “And our orbit’s taking us between the two of them.”
“Do something!” I screamed. “They’re both shooting at us!”
Sam dove for the hatch. “Get into your suit, Gar. Quick.”
I never suited up quicker. But it seemed to take hours. With our main thruster shot away, dear old Achernar was locked into its orbit around the asteroid. Fuchs and the ambusher were slugging it out, maneuvering and firing at each other with us in the middle. I don’t think they were deliberately trying to hit us, but they weren’t going out of their way to avoid us, either. While I wriggled into my spacesuit and fumbled through the checkout procedure Achernar lurched and quivered again and again.
“They’re slicing us to ribbons,” I said, trying to keep from babbling.
Sam was fully suited up; just the visor of his helmet was open. “You got the chip on you?”
For an instant I thought I’d left it in the cockpit. I nearly panicked. Then I remembered it was still in the waistband of my shorts. At least I hoped it was still there.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got it.”
Sam snapped his visor closed, then reached over to me and slammed mine shut. With a gloved hand he motioned for me to follow him to the airlock.
“We’re going outside?” I squeaked. I was really scared. A guy could get killed!
“You want to stay here while they take potshots at us?” Sam’s voice crackled in my helmet earphones.
“But why are they shooting at us?” I asked. Actually, I was talking, babbling really, because if I didn’t I probably would’ve started screeching like a demented baboon.
“Fuchs thinks we led him into a trap,” Sam said, pushing me into the airlock, “and the bastard who’s trying to bushwhack him doesn’t want any living witnesses.”
He squeezed into the airlock with me, cycled it, and pushed me through the outer hatch when it opened.
All of a sudden I was hanging in emptiness. My stomach heaved, my eyes blurred. I mean there was nothing out there except a zillion stars but they were so far away and I was falling, I could feel it, falling all the way to infinity. I think I screamed. Or at least gasped like a drowning man.
“It’s okay, Gar,” Sam said, “I’ve got you.”
He grasped me by the wrist and, using the jetpack on his suit’s back, towed me away from the riddled hulk of Achernar. We glided into the cloud of pebbles surrounding the asteroid. I could feel them pinging off my suit’s hard shell; one of them banged into my visor, but it was a fairly gentle collision, no damage—except to the back of my head: I flinched so sharply that I whacked my head against the helmet hard enough to give me a concussion, almost, despite the helmet’s padded interior.
Sam hunkered us down into the loose pile of rubble that was the main body of the asteroid. “Safer here than in the ship,” he told me.
I burrowed into that beanbag as deeply as I could, scooping out pebbles with both hands, digging like a terrified gopher on speed. I would’ve dug all the way back to Earth if I could have.
Fuchs and the ambusher were still duking it out, with a spare laser blast now and then hitting Achernar as it swung slowly around the ‘roid. The ship looked like a shambles, big gouges torn through its hull, chunks torn off and spinning lazily alongside its main structure.
They hadn’t destroyed the radio, though. In my helmet earphones I could hear Judge Myers’s voice, harsh with static:
“Sam, if this is another scheme of yours…”
Sam tried to explain to her what was happening, but I don’t think he got through. She kept asking what was going on and then, after a while, her voice cut off altogether.
Sam said to me, “Either she’s sore at me and she’s leaving the Belt, or she’s worried about me and she’s coming here to see what’s happening.”
I hoped for the latter, of course. Our suits had air regenerators, I knew, but they weren’t reliable for more than twenty-four hours, at best. From the looks of poor old Achernar, we were going to need rescuing and damned soon, too.
We still couldn’t really see Fuchs’s ship, it was either too far away in that dark emptiness or he was jinking around too much for us to get a visual fix on him. I saw flashes of light that might have been puffs from maneuvering thrusters, or they might have been hits from the other guy’s laser. The ambusher’s craft was close enough for us to make out, most of the time. He was viffing and slewing this way and that, bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter trying to avoid his opponent’s punches.
But then the stiletto flared into sudden brilliance, a flash so bright it hurt my eyes. I squeezed my eyes shut and saw the afterimage burning against my closed lids.
“Got a propellant tank,” Sam said, matter-of-factly. “Fuchs’ll close in for the kill now.”
I opened my eyes again. The stiletto was deeply gashed along its rear half, tumbling and spinning out of control. Gradually it pulled itself onto an even keel, then turned slowly and began to head away from the asteroid. I could see hot plasma streaming from one thruster nozzle, the other was dark and cold.
“He’s letting him get away,” Sam said, sounding surprised. “Fuchs is letting him limp back to Ceres or wherever he came from.”
“Maybe Fuchs is too badly damaged himself to chase him down,” I said.
“Maybe.” Sam didn’t sound at all sure of that.
We waited for another hour, huddled inside our suits in the beanbag of an asteroid. Finally Sam said, “Let’s get back to the ship and see what’s left of her.”
There wasn’t much. The hull had been punctured in half a dozen places. Propulsion was gone. Life support shot. Communications marginal.
We clumped to the cockpit. It was in tatters; the main window was shot out, a long ugly scar from a laser burn right across the control panel. The pilot’s chair was ripped, too. It was tough to sit in the bulky space-suits, and we were in zero gravity, to boot. Sam just hovered a few centimeters above his chair. I realized that my stomach had calmed down. I had adjusted to zero-gee. After what we had just been through, zero-gee seemed downright comfortable.
“We’ll have to live in the suits,” Sam told me.
“How long can we last?”
“There are four extra air regenerators in stores,” Sam said. “If they’re not damaged we can hold out for another forty-eight, maybe sixty hours.”
“Time enough for somebody to come and get us,” I said hopefully.
I could see his freckled face bobbing up and down inside his helmet. “Yep…provided anybody’s heard our distress call.”
The emergency radio beacon seemed to be functioning. I kept telling myself we’d be all right. Sam seemed to feel that way; he was positively cheerful.
“You really think we’ll be okay?” I asked him. “You’re not just trying to keep my hopes up?”
“We’ll be fine, Gar,” he answered. “We’ll probably smell pretty ripe by the time we can get out of these suits, but except for that I don’t see anything to worry about.”
Then he added, “Except…”
“Except?” I yelped. “Except what?”
He grinned wickedly. “Except that I’ll miss the wedding.” He made an exaggerated sigh. “Too bad.”
So we lived inside the suits for the next day and a half. It wasn’t all that bad, except we couldn’t eat any solid food. Water and fruit juices, that was all we could get through the feeder tube. I started to feel like a Hindu ascetic on a hunger strike.
We tried the comm system, but it was intermittent, at best. The emergency beacon was faithfully sending out our distress call, of course, with our position. It could be heard all the way back to Ceres, I was sure. Somebody would come for us. Nothing to worry about. We’ll get out of this okay. Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh. Or maybe shudder. Good thing we had to stay in the suits; otherwise I would have gnawed all my fingernails down to the wrist.
And then the earphones in my helmet suddenly blurted to life.
“Sam! Do you read me? We can see your craft!” It was Judge Myers. I was so overjoyed that I would have married her myself.
Her ship was close enough so that our suit radios could pick up her transmission.
“We’ll be there in less than an hour, Sam,” she said.
“Great!” he called back. “But hold your nose when we start peeling out of these suits.”
Judge Myers laughed and she and Sam chatted away like a pair of teenagers. But then Sam looked up at me and winked.
“Jill, I’m sorry this has messed up the wedding,” he said, making his voice husky, sad. “I know you were looking forward to—”
“You haven’t messed up a thing, Sam,” she replied brightly. “After we’ve picked you up—and cleaned you up—we’re going back to ‘The Rememberer’ and have the ceremony as planned.”
Sam’s forehead wrinkled. “But haven’t your guests gone back home? What about the boys’ choir? And the caterers?”
She laughed. “The guests are all still here. As for the entertainment and the caterers, so I’ll have to pay them for a few extra days. Hang the expense, Sam. This is our wedding we’re talking about! Money is no object.”
In a matter of hours we were aboard Judge Myers’s ship, Parthia, showered, shaved, clothed, and fed, heading to ‘The Rememberer’ and Sam’s wedding. Sam was like Jekyll and Hyde: While he and I were alone together he was morose and mumbling, like a guy about to face a firing squad in the morning. When Judge Myers joined us for dinner, though, Sam was chipper and charming, telling jokes and spinning tall tales about old exploits. It was quite a performance; if Sam ever goes into acting he’ll win awards, I’m sure.
After dinner Sam and Judge Myers strolled off together to her quarters. I went back to the compartment they had given me, locked the door, and took out the chip.
It was easier this time, since I remembered the keys to the encryption. In less than an hour I had Amanda’s hauntingly beautiful face on the display of my compartment’s computer. I wormed a plug into my ear, taking no chances that somebody might eavesdrop on me.
The video was focused tightly on her face. For I don’t know how long I just gazed at her, hardly breathing. Then I shook myself out of the trance and touched the key that would run her message.
“Lars,” she said softly, almost whispering, as if she were afraid somebody would overhear her, “I’m going to have a baby.”
Holy mother in heaven! It’s a good thing we didn’t deliver this message to Fuchs. He would’ve probably cut us into little pieces and roasted them on a spit.
Amanda Cunningham Humphries went on, “Martin wants another son, he already has a five-year-old boy by a previous wife.”
She hesitated, looked over her shoulder. Then, in an even lower voice, “I want you to know, Lars, that it will be your son that I bear, not his. I’ve had myself implanted with one of the embryos we froze at Selene, back before all these troubles started.”
I felt my jaw drop down to my knees.
“I love you, Lars,” Amanda said. “I’ve always loved you. I married Martin because he promised he’d stop trying to kill you if I did. I’ll have a son, and Martin will think it’s his, but it will be your son, Lars. Yours and mine. I want you to know that, dearest. Your son.”
Humphries would pay a billion for that, I figured.
And he’d have the baby Amanda was carrying aborted. Maybe he’d kill her, too.
“So what are you going to do about it, Gar?”
I whirled around in my chair. Sam was standing in the doorway.
“I thought I locked—”
“You did. I unlocked it.” He stepped into my compartment and carefully slid the door shut again. “So, Gar, what are you going to do?”
I popped the chip out of the computer and handed it to Sam.
He refused to take it. “I read her message the first night on our way to the Belt,” Sam said, sitting on the edge of my bed. “I figured you’d try to get it off me, one way or another.”
“So you gave it to me.”
Sam nodded gravely. “So now you know what her message is. The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
I offered him the chip again. “Take it, Sam. I don’t want it.”
“It’s worth a lot of money, Gar.”
“I don’t want it!” I repeated, a little stronger.
Sam reached out and took the chip from me. Then, “But you know what she’s doing. You could tell Humphries about it. He’d pay a lot to know.”
I started to reply, but to my surprise I found that I had to swallow hard before I could get any words out. “I couldn’t do that to her,” I said.
Sam looked squarely into my eyes. “You certain of that?”
I almost laughed. “What’s a few hundred million bucks? I don’t need that kind of money.”
“Yes, dammit, I’m certain!” I snapped. It wasn’t easy tossing away all that money, and Sam was starting to irritate me.
“Okay,” he said, breaking into that lopsided smile of his. “I believe you.”
Sam got to his feet, his right fist closed around the chip.
“What will you do with it?” I asked.
“Pop it out an airlock. A few days in hard UV should degrade it so badly that even if somebody found it in all this emptiness they’d never be able to read it.”
I got up from my desk chair. “I’ll go with you,” I said.
So the two of us marched down to the nearest airlock and got rid of the chip. I had a slight pang when I realized how much money we had just tossed out into space, but then I realized I had saved Amanda’s life, most likely, and certainly the life of her baby. Hers and Fuchs’s.
“Fuchs will never know,” Sam said. “I feel kind of sorry for him.”
“I feel sorry for her,” I said.
“Yeah. Me, too.”
As we walked down the passageway back toward my compartment, curiosity got the better of me.
“Sam,” I asked, “what if you weren’t sure that I’d keep her message to myself? What if you thought I’d sneak off to Humphries and tell him what was on that chip?”
He glanced up at me. “I’ve never killed a man,” he said quietly, “but I’d sure stuff you into a lifeboat and set you adrift. With no radio.”
I blinked at him. He was dead serious.
“I wouldn’t last long,” I said.
“Probably not. Your ship would drift through the Belt for a long time, though. Eons. You’d be a real Flying Dutchman.”
“I’m glad you trust me.”
“I’m glad I can trust you, Gar.” He gave me a funny look, then added, “You’re in love with her, too, aren’t you?”
It took me a few moments to reply, “Who wouldn’t be?”
• • •
So we flew to “The Rememberer” with Judge Myers and all the wedding guests and the minister and boys’ choir, the caterers and all the food and drink for a huge celebration. Six different news nets were waiting for us: The wedding was going to be a major story.
Sam snuck away, of course. He didn’t marry Jill Myers after all. She was so furious that she…
But that’s another story.
Copyright © 2004 by Ben Bova