Jason and Alissa
the late Robert Willey
DEATH CAME QUIETLY TO THE ROW.
The suit stank. The Tech inside it stared out through the scratched port at the pipe that looped around the outside of the recreation dome and muttered a string of curses that would've peeled a deep-space trader.
What he wanted more than anything was a tall cool narcobeer to kill the hangover drumrolls in his head. The one thing he didn't want, he knew, was to be hanging outside Vulcan, staring at a one-centimeter alloy pipe that wouldn't hook up.
He clamped his waldos on the flange, set the torque rating by feel, and tried another round of obscenities, this time including his supervisor and all the stinking Migs enjoying themselves one meter and a world away from him.
Done. He retracted the waldos and slammed the suit's tiny drive unit into life. Not only was his supervisor a clot who was an exjoyboy, but he was also going to get stuck for the first six rounds. The Tech shut down his ground-zeroed brain and rocketed numbly for the lock.
Of course, he'd missed the proper torque setting. If the pipe hadn't been carrying fluorine, under high pressure, the error wouldn't have made any difference.
The overstressed fitting cracked, and raw fluorine gradually ate its way through, for several shifts spraying harmlessly into space. But, as the fracture widened, the spray boiled directly against the outer skin of The Row, through the insulation and, eventually, the inner skin.
At first the hole was pin-size. The initial pressure drop inside the dome wasn't even enough to kick over the monitors high overhead in The Row's roof control capsule.
The Row could've been a red-light district on any of a million pioneer planets—Company joygirls and boys picked their way through the Mig crowds, looking for the Migrant-Unskilled who still had some credits left on his card.
Long rows of gambling computers hooted enticements at the passing workers and emitted little machine chuckles when another mark was suckered into a game.
The Row was the Company-provided recreational center, set up with the Migs' "best interests" at heart. "A partying Mig is a happy Mig," a Company psychologist had once said. He didn't add—or need to—that a partying Mig was also one who was spending credits, and generally into the red. Each loss meant hours added to the worker's contract
Which was why, in spite of the music and the laughter, The Row felt grim and gray.
Two beefy Sociopatrolmen lounged outside The Row's entrance. The older patrolman nodded at three boisterous Migs as they weaved from one bibshop to another, then turned to his partner. "If ya gonna twitch every time somebody looks at ya, bud, pretty soon one of these Migs is gonna wanna know what you'll do if they get real rowdy."
The new probationary touched his stun rod. "And I'd like to show them."
The older man sighed, then stared off down the corridor. "Oh-oh. Trouble."
His partner nearly jumped out of his uniform. "Where? Where?"
The older man pointed. Stepping off the slideway and heading for The Row was Amos Sten. The other man started to laugh at the short, middle-aged Mig, and then noticed the muscles hunching Amos' neck. And the size of his wrists and hammer fists.
Then the senior patrolman sighed in relief and leaned back against the I-beam.
"It's okay, kid. He's got his family with him."
A tired-looking woman and two children hurried off the slideway to Amos.
"What the hell," the young man said, "that midget don't look so tough to me."
"You don't know Amos. If you did, you would've soaked your jock—specially if Amos was on the prowl for a little fight to cheer him up some."
The four Migs each touched small white rectangles against a pickup and Vulcan's central computer logged the movement of MIG STEN, AMOS; MIG STEN, FREED; MIG-DEPENDENT STEN, AHD; MIG-DEPENDENT STEN, JOHS into The Row.
As the Sten family passed the two patrolmen, the older man smiled and tipped Amos a nod. His partner just glared. Amos ignored them and hustled his family toward the livee entrance.
"Mig likes to fight, huh? That ain't whatcha call Company-approved social mannerisms."
"Son, we busted the head of every Mig who beefed one on The Row, there'd be a labor shortage."
"Maybe we ought to take him down some."
"You think you're the man who could do it?"
The young patrolman nodded. "Why not? Catch him back of a narco joint and thump him some."
The older man smiled, and touched a long and livid scar on his right arm. "It's been tried. By some better. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you're the one who can do something. But you best remember. Amos isn't any old Mig."
"What's so different about him?"
The patrolman suddenly tired of his new partner and the whole conversation. "Where he comes from, they eat little boys like you for breakfast."
The young man bristled and started to glower. Then he remembered that even without the potgut his senior still had about twenty kilos and fifteen years on him. He spun and turned the glower on an old lady who was weaving happily out of The Row. She looked at him, gummed a grin and spat neatly between the probationary's legs, onto the deck. "Clot Migs!"
Amos slid his card through the livee's pickup, and the computer automatically added an hour to Amos' work contract. The four of them walked into the lobby, and Amos looked around.
"Don't see the boy."
"Karl said school had him on an extra shift," his wife, Freed, reminded him.
"He ain't missin' much. Guy down the line was here last offshift. Says the first show's some clot about how some Exec falls for a joygirl an' takes her to live in The Eye with him."
Music blared from inside the theater.
"C'mon, dad, let's go."
Amos followed his family into the showroom.
Sten hurriedly tapped computer keys, then hit the JOB INPUT tab. The screen blared, then went gray-blank. Sten winced. He'd never finish in time to meet his family. The school's ancient computer system just wasn't up to the number of students carded in for his class shift.
Sten glanced around the room. No one was watching. He hit BASIC FUNCTION, then a quick sequence of keys. Sten had found a way to tap into one reasoning bank of the central computer. Against school procedure, for sure. But Sten, like any other seventeen-year-old, was willing to let tomorrow's hassles hassle tomorrow.
With the patch complete, he fed in his task card. And groaned, as his assignment swam up onto the screen. It was a cybrolathe exercise, making L-beams.
It would take forever to make the welds, and he figured that the mandated technique, obsolete even by the school's standards, created a stressline three microns off the joining.
Then Sten grinned. He was already In Violation…
He drew two alloy-steel bars on the screen with his lightpen, then altered the input function to JOB PROGRAM. Then he switched the pen's function to WELD. A few quick motions, and somewhere on Vulcan, two metal bars were nailed together.
Or maybe it was a computer-only exercise.
Sten waited in agony as the computer screen blanked. Finally the computer lit up and scrolled PROJECT COMPLETED SATISFACTORILY. He was finished. Sten's fingers flashed as he cut out of the illegal patch, plugged back into the school's computer, which was just beginning to flicker wearily back into WAITING PROGRAM, input the PROJECT COMPLETED SATISFACTORILY from his terminal's memory, shut down, and then he was up and running for the door.
"Frankly, gentlemen," Baron Thoresen said, "I care less about the R and D program's conflicting with some imagined ethical rule of the Empire than our own Company's health."
It had started as a routine meeting of the Company's hoard of directors, those half dozen beings who controlled almost a billion lives. Then old Lester had so very casually asked his question.
Thoresen stood suddenly and began pacing up and down. The huge director's bulk held the board's attention as much as his rumbling voice and authority.
"If that sounds unpatriotic, I'm sorry. I'm a businessman, not a diplomat. Like my grandfather before me, all I believe in is our Company."
Only one man was unmoved. Lester. Trust an old thief, the Baron thought. He's already made his, so now he can afford to be ethical.
"Very impressive," Lester said. "But we—the board of directors—didn't ask about your dedication. We asked about your expenditures on Bravo Project. You have refused to tell us the nature of your experimentation. and yet you keep returning for additional funding. I merely inquired, since if there were any military possibility we might secure an assistance grant from one or another of the Imperial foundations."
The Baron looked at Lester thoughtfully but unworried. Thoresen was, after all, the man with the cards. But he knew better than to give the crafty old infighter the least opening. And Thoresen knew better than to try threats. Lester was too scarred to know the meaning of fear.
"I appreciate your input. And your concern about the necessary expenditures. However, this project is too important to our future to risk a leak."
"Do I sense distrust?" Lester asked.
"Not of you, gentlemen. Don't be absurd. But if our competition learned of Bravo Project's goal, not even my close ties with the Emperor would keep them from stealing it—and ruining us."
"Even if it did leak," another board member tried, "there would still be an option. We could possibly affect their supplies of AM2 ."
"Using your close, personal ties with the Emperor, of course," Lester put in smoothly.
The Baron smiled thinly.
"Even I would not presume that much on friendship. AM2 is the energy on which the Empire and the Emperor thrive. No one else."
Silence. Even from Lester. The ghost of the Eternal Emperor closed the conversation. The Baron glanced around, then deliberately dropped his voice to a dry, boring level.
"With no further comments, I'll mark the increased funding as approved. Now, to a simpler matter. We're fortunate in that our maintenance expenditures on Vulcan's port facilities have dropped by a full fifteen percent. This includes not only internal mooring facilities, but the pre-sealed container facility. But I'm still not satisfied. It would be far better if…"
Amos' eyes flickered open as the livee ended and the lights came up. As near as he could gather, the Exec and his joygirl, after they'd moved to The Eye, had gone off to some pioneer planet and been attacked by something or other.
He yawned. Amos didn't think much of livees, but a quiet nap came in handy every now and then.
Ahd nudged him. "That's what I wanna be when I grow up. An Exec."
Amos stirred and woke up all the way. "Why is that, boy?"
"'Cause they get adventures and money and medals and…and…and all my friends wanna be Execs, too."
"You just get rid of that notion right now," Freed snapped.
"Our kind don't mix with Execs."
The boy hung his head. Amos patted him. "It ain't that you're not good enough, son. Hell, any Sten is worth six of those cl—"
"Sorry. People." Then Amos caught himself. "The hell. Callin' Execs clots ain't talkin' dirty. That's what they is. Anyway, Ahd, those Execs ain't heroes. They're the worst. They'd kill a person to meet a quota. And then cheat his family outa the death benefits. You becomin' an Exec wouldn't make me and your ma—or you—proud."
Then it was his little girl's turn.
"I wanna be a joygirl," she announced.
Amos buried his grin as he watched Freed jump about a meter and a half. He decided he'd let her handle that one.
Pressure finally split the pipe, and the escaping gas forced it directly against the hole it had punched through into The Row.
The first to die was an old Mig, who was leaning against the curving outer wall of the dome a few centimeters from the sudden hole in the skin. By the time he'd seen the fluorine burn away flesh and ribcage, leaving the pulsing redness of his lungs, he was already dead.
In The Row's control capsule, a group of bored Techs watched a carded-out Mig try to wheedle a joygirl into a reduced-rate party. One Tech offered odds. With no takers. Joygirls don't give bargains.
The pressure finally dropped below the danger threshold and alarms flared. No one flinched. Breakdowns and alarms were an every-shift occurrence on Vulcan.
The Chief Tech strolled casually over to the main computer. He tapped a few keys, silencing the bong-bong-bong and flashing lights of the alarms.
"Now, let's see what the glitch is."
His answer scrolled up swiftly on a monitor screen.
"Hmm. This is a little dicey. Take a look."
His assistant peered over the Tech's shoulder.
"Some kind of chemical leak into the dome. I'll narrow it some." The Tech tapped more computer keys, cutting a bit deeper into the information banks.
AIRLOSS INDICATED; PRESENCE OF CONTAMINANT; POTENTIAL LIFE JEOPARDY; REDLINE ALARM.
The Chief Tech finally reacted with something other than boredom.
"Plinking Maintenance and their damned pipe leaks. They think we've got nothing better to do than clean up after them. I've got a mind to input a report that'll singe every hair off their hairless—"
"Don't interfere with my tantrums. Whaddaya want?"
"Don't you think this should be repaired? In a hurry?"
"Yeah. Figure out where—half these damned sensors are broke or else somebody's poured beer in them. If I had a credit for every time…"
His voice trailed off as he traced the leak. Finally he narrowed the computer search down, pipe by pipe.
"Clot. We'll have to suit up to get to it. Runs over to that lab dome—oh!"
The diagram he was scrolling froze, and red letters began flashing over it:
ANY INCIDENT CONNECTED TO BRAVO PROJECT TO BE ROUTED INSTANTLY TO THORESEN.
His assistant puzzled. "But why does it—" He stopped, realizing the Chief Tech was ignoring him.
"Clotting Execs. Make you check with them anytime you gotta take a…" He tapped for the registry, found Thoresen's code, hit the input button, and settled back to wait.
The Baron shook the hands of each of his fellow board members as they filed out. Asking about the health of their families. Mentioning dinner. Or commenting on the aptness of someone's suggestions. Until Lester.
"I appreciate your presence, Lester, more than you can imagine. Your wisdom is definitely a guiding influence on the course of—"
"Pretty good duck-and-away on my question, Thoresen. Couldn't do it better myself."
"But I was not avoiding anything, my good man. I was only—"
"Of course you were only. Save the stroking for these fools. You and I understand our positions more clearly."
"Forget it." Lester started past, then turned. "Of course you know this isn't personal, Thoresen. Like you, I have only the best interests of our Company at heart."
The Baron nodded. "I wouldn't expect anything else of you."
Thoresen watched the old man as he hobbled out. And decided that old thieves get foolish. What could be more personal than power?
He turned toward the source of a discreet buzz and pointed. Six shelves of what appeared to be antique books dropped away, allowing access to a computer panel.