Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday, February 27, 2010

(A Speculative Novel)


Meyer Moldeven

This work is under a Creative Commons License.

©Meyer Moldeven 1984, 1999, 2006, 2010

Added: 11.29.10

Over several decades in scores of sf stories, movies, political and professional journals, books, blogs, articles and whatnots by many writers and artists about 'space' and those who might some day migrate to, inhabit and possess a peaceful and civilized space, I note and recoil from where their contexts are socially adverse for a space community’s wellbeing and existence. A reminder to Earth’s history is not necessary.

'Colony' implies national 'possession' 'dominance' 'ownership' ‘proprietary’ and their political variations. Perhaps such terms, as defined, do apply where a private sector entity has legal ownership thereof (like over a collection of robot workers) but would it be appropriate if the workers were humans and the relationship 'governance' and the workers themselves, collectively, a society, a population, a settlement, a civilization, and far more, appropriately so defined for the common good.

We are well into an era that contemplates, even prepares plans and R&D programs and expenditures of funds and resources for eventual human migrations into deep space. The many Languages and acquired Social Interactions of Planet Earth need to take this into account and address the expanding, universal phenomenon accordingly.


Meyer Moldeven


. ‘ . . . and to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, . . . nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.' (President Barack Obama President, The United States of America, Inaugural Address, January. 20, 2009)

'Summary- The concentration of production of rare earth elements (REEs) outside the United States raises the important issue of supply vulnerability. REEs are used for new energy technologies and national security applications. Is the United States vulnerable to supply disruptions of REEs? Are these elements essential to U.S. national security and economic well-being? September 30, 2010

'The hope of the author in creating this 'future history' is that readers will include youths and young adults who are contemplating their future careers, and will encourage them to explore opportunities that contribute toward sustainable civilizations and human rights.


The Master of Luna's farside reclamation yards watched the space tug prowl the rows of derelicts, probe gaps between them to inspect a particular ship or platform, back out, hover briefly and move on. He noted the tug's skillful skirting of net-bound clusters of reclaimed parts and dodge drifting rubble. Satisfied, the Yard Master's attention went elsewhere.
Tethered in rows or clusters, the derelicts huddled and the entire facility rotated in a slow, graceful space ballet a hundred kilometers above the moon's pitted and scarred surface. The ships, power plants and other gear had absorbed decades, for many, centuries of grueling and punishing service. Now, brutally warped and ruptured surfaces along their lengths, hulls staved, and bow, sterns and portals ripped to expose their guts, the wrecks waited their turn for meltdown and recycling.
Robotech cutters discharged high energy bursts and streams as they ranged the line, tearing ships asunder, segregating, netting and space-sweeping the residue into hoppers that fed the fusion-powered furnaces.
The tug was a frequent visitor. Peering through the view port above the control panel, or free-floating outside encased in his mobile maintenance suit, Brad Curtin studied each ship or platform that suggested potential to his need.
'A freighter if possible,' his often-voiced open bid accompanied searches of the latest inventory lists, 'but any deep space platform will do so long as it has a repairable power plant and thrusters, navionics and enough room for crew and cargo. I'll scrounge parts from the other derelicts along the line, here or elsewhere. Somehow, I'll get it up to the Space Safety Guard's standards.'
To each appeal, the Yard Master had shrugged and mumbled regrets. 'Nothing but what you see, Brad; hulks, wrecks and debris.'
To each reply, Brad nodded his disappointment. Below close-cropped ash-gray hair his cool green eyes restlessly scanned the clusters and rows for anything he might have overlooked. Departing the yard, his lean features set into a frustrated, determined frown.
Accredited interplanetary platforms and freighters, even for local hauls along the Earth-Venus-Mars routes, were few, Brad knew, no matter how obsolete or space-weary. Speculators hurriedly snatched up vessels that had been declared beyond repair. Minimally rehabbed to far below prevailing standards, they were quickly accepted by black marketers to meet the desperate need for transports along the space lanes to the solar rim. Only those refused by the black market wound up in the Luna salvage yards for recycling. Brad realized that his limited finances confined him to leavings.
The Yard Master looked for Brad to resume his search after a couple of sleeps. Traffic along the space lanes was heavy and the pressures of the job were as uncharitable to cargo carriers as to crews. There was always a chance, and Brad had little choice but to wait, increasingly impatient.
The five long years to qualify for a Deep Space Freighter Master's Certificate hadn't been easy; no scholarships and no favors. He'd had to earn to learn all through the Space Mariner's Academy.
Space-tug roustabout jobs had barely garnered the necessities for survival during Brad' years of study and apprenticeship. His sole recourse, time and again, was to volunteer for dangerous, but premium pay jobs to cluster-load and brace high-risk and high mass cargo into the tight compartments of heavy-duty transports. Eventually, he'd collected enough credits to pay the Academy's tuition fees. A year's work afterward gave him a small set-aside, enough for the down payment on a fixer-upper long haul space platform, if luck was with him.
His credit rating established, Space Mariner Master's Certificate in hand, he had begun the search.
Months passed.
'Got one coming in you should look at. Get over here, quick.' The yard master said it once and switched off.
The High Pockets had been found abandoned during one of the Space Safety Guard's random sweeps of the Asteroids, where she had been adrift, lost from the records for more than two centuries. It happens. Now, beam-lashed to a cluster of beat-up hulls, power plants, netted accessories and residue, the relic was nevertheless the closest to a recognizable vessel as any in the yard.
With the yard master's help, Brad checked the ship's structures and power plants with portable stress testers and penetrays, and walked, climbed and crawled from the tip of the bow thrusters, through space-dust coated and trashy cargo bays, ancient and broken materials handling equipment, and crew's quarters and galley. He completed his cursory inspection of spars, conduit and bulkheads as he made his way along crawl spaces and air ducts and exited through the aft thrust nozzles.
She was little more than a stretched out space scow, barely three hundred meters from her staved bow to the chewed up innards of her stern drives. All outer surfaces were deeply abraded, gouged or split, and her ribs, surfaces and frames cracked, mangled and twisted. She bore the scars of unmerciful savaging by tumbling space rocks, sand and pebble swarms, and cargo packs that had, more often than not, bounced off her portal frames during loading and unloading. Space tug cowboys herding high-mass clusters in and out of storage bays are not kind to space freighters. Clearly, the old derelict had earned its peace.
Reviewing his inspection notes with misgivings, Brad listened to the Yardmaster's assurances. The past year's search had produced nothing better, and the likelihood of another candidate was poor indeed. Brad sighed and signed; the High Pockets was his.
Renting a space maintenance overhaul kit and calling in friends from Luna's outback, Brad disengaged the old ship from its cluster and backed her out of the pen. His tug, beam-lashed to the High Pockets' stern, dragged her into a nearby rental do-it-yourself mooring. He couldn't afford the luxury of delay.
Brad' apprehension increased as he detailed the work to be done. Diminished credits added worries to long hours in the ship's bays and along its spars, bulkheads and consoles. He jury-rigged controls, power lines, conduit, cables and comm nets, surfaces and thrusters, cargo handling gear, and whatever needed attention to get by inspections.
Considering the urgent need for cargo carriers, the Spaceways Safety Standards Board inspection robo passed the ship as 'borderline-marginal.'
'I'm puttin' you in with the other crawlers in the traffic lanes,' the robo's supervisor said. 'You're classified as a Type 4 freighter confined to round-robin routes between Luna, Venus and Mercury. We want this old tub where the Space Guard can keep an eye on it. If nothin' else, at least it'll be easier for us to tow you in or recover your cargo when, not if, you have a breakdown.'
He added a parting word, 'Don't feel too bad. A nice quiet milk run on short haul will keep you out of trouble and release a better ship for the long hauls to the rim.'
He couldn't have been a worse prophet.
The milk run did get off to a good start. The routes were profitable, with reasonable contracts from government and a private mining company. The job was essential but routine: to haul mining control modules, robot parts, rigs, and high-mass power plant components to-and-from repair shops and storage yards on Luna to the ore processing depots in Mercury and Venus planet shadows.
On return trips, when planet alignments were favorable, the contracts called for the High Pockets to collect, cluster and load hundreds of ore-blocks that had been robo-launched from Mercury's surface along its shadow, and haul them to the furnaces and mills above Venus. From there, the freighter loaded or towed refined, newly cast ingots, and worn and damaged mine and milling equipment back to Luna. Normally, the end of a run gave Brad and his crew a break on Luna, where they mixed with friends and made the rounds of the surface sports centers and social clubs.
Sure, they were milk runs, but they paid well. Brad tended to his own affairs and expected the same of others. The reconditioned High Pockets functioned better than he had expected. The credits stacked up, and Brad began to pay off the mountainous debts that had piled up in buying and rehabilitating his ancient ship.
He hoped, in time, to move on to a larger, higher powered container ship. As owner and master of a ship certified for the Belt and beyond, he would fix his sights on the extra-long hauls out to the rim and the Slingshot construction site. Hard, boring work, patience and tolerant fates; he would make it yet.
That's when it happened.
His sworn statement under psychic probe during the Space Guard's accident investigation was a matter of record.
'We were homebound,' he testified, 'with a full cargo of worn and damaged track-layers, rock-crushers, drill robots, filters and other tools in the forward and aft storage bays, and ingots well-secured in stress-certified compartments. My ship was within legal limits. Mass and balance were certified by Space Traffic Control before they cleared us from Venus shade. Everything was in order.
'The trip was in 'routine' status, all equipment operated within specs, and the crew, all old hands, doing their jobs according to the ship's standard operating procedures. We were only twenty or so million kay from the Luna Space Traffic Control Zone, but still in max drive. There was plenty of time to compute and kick-in vector and deceleration programs.
'That's when that strung-out jock in the space-buggy took us on for a game of 'chicken.'
'The buggy was a single-seater, tiny, barely ten meters bow to stern, but the way she whipped around us, it was plain to my duty officer that she was charged by a micro deep-space drive. My duty officer hit the alarm; I got to the bridge within fifteen seconds after the buggy's first pass.
'I checked our status and proximity to mass in vicinity; then the ship's scope analysis and estimate of the buggy's tracks and gyrations. I checked my duty officer's report and ship instruments' assessment. Both had concluded the buggy was overpowered for mass, especially in the confining lanes plowed by slow freighters like my High Pockets.
''Chicken' was the last game I wanted to play - with anyone. My three-hundred-meter freighter with all storage bays packed bulkhead to bulkhead with high mass, is barely maneuverable under the best of circumstances. Evasive action against some hot shot in a souped up space-buggy was out of the question.'I had my communicator saturate the jock with alarms and warnings that he was cutting too close and endangering the lives of my crew and the safety of valuable property. I kept my ship steady on course, knowing that was best for both ships. My decision.
'It got worse. Not only did the jock ignore my warnings; he lined up alongside my bridge and danced on his thrusters. He flipped from relative vertical to horizontal, then corkscrewed us lengthwise fore to aft and back. To add insult, he whirled his buggy on its tail like a damn dervish, right alongside where I stood on my bridge and then cut across my bow. That hotshot was one good pilot, I'll grant him that.
'After a minute or so of that, the buggy circled my ship, close. The pilot probably liked what he saw, because he surface-snaked us again bow to stern. That must have been dull; he peeled away, tore ahead a quarter-million kay, skewed around, and came straight at my bow, curdling space. When collision was just about unavoidable, he did an up and over. In doing that, he cut us much too close, snapped off a dozen masts, sensors and nav-guides.
'We were endangered, but the space-buggy couldn't take much more either. My First Mate logged damage control reports. The Mate's statement is in the record, and I quote, ''We're hurting bad. That crazy jock is flying more than the buggy.' I agreed and logged: 'The buggy's pilot, in my opinion, is under the influence of a substance that distorts his judgment and his ability to handle a space vessel.''
'I ordered emergency stations and had my damage control and rescue units suit up. Our space rescue gear was ready. I took over the ship's maneuvering controls, transferring from all-robot to limited manual in readiness for emergency operations. I ordered my communicator to FLASH all Space Guard and other ships in the sector, informing them of extreme hazards in the spaceways and confirming our coordinates. I claimed harassment of my ship by an obviously deranged pilot and demanded immediate intervention. This, too, is a matter of record.
'The jock must have gone berserk; he took us on for full 'chicken.' He shot ahead about a million kay, flip-flopped, and came at us head-to-head, flashing visuals and transmitting collision signals. Our computer showed him as boosting all the way.
'I can only assume he expected us to give way. Judging my ship's limitations in the short distance that separated us, I didn't even try. At our closing speed, only the buggy had the option to alter course. The pilot either chose not to or was too slow reacting.
'That brightly colored, beautiful little flitter buried itself deep in our forward cargo bay. My rescue team went in, but we knew what we'd find. It was there: chunks of metal, shards of bone, and scraps of flesh splattered on mining bits, rock-crushers, and other odd pieces of equipment.
'I ordered my Damage Control Team to seal the bay for the Space Guard Investigation Team.'
Brad' first mate and those members of the High Pockets' crew that witnessed the incident supported Brad' and first mate's sworn statements. It was not enough.
The jock had been the son of a prominent politician.
The High Pockets was on record as 'marginal.' The hearings were followed by a hurried trial.
The finding: Curtin, owner and Master of the space freighter High Pockets, had assumed manual control of his ship's systems during an emergency. The ship's instruments should have reacted in a timely manner - automatically. At minimum, the ship's Master should have initiated evasive actions. Collision avoidance instruments did not record such initiatives.
The verdict: Master Space Mariner Captain Brad Curtin was guilty of disregarding standard operating procedures to prevent a collision in controlled spaceways. His neglect contributed to the death of a citizen, destruction of one spacecraft and damage to another. Result: Significant damage to government property consigned to the High Pockets for transport.
Penalty: loss of Master Space Mariner's Certificate, prohibited from holding command or crew position directly related to spacecraft operations, confiscation of vessel and personal credits, and confinement for five years to rehabilitation and retraining.
Appeals denied.

CHAPTER ONE (NOTE See The 'Spunnel' immediately following the 'Epilogue')

The recon-patroller's torso-pads adjusted to Lieutenant Pete O'Hare's slight shift in place as his eyes ranged the flickering banks on the lights. An aberrant indicator caught his eye and he mind stroked a control. Satisfied, he moved on; the greens held firm.
Pluto's moonlet, Charon, came into view off to starboard. Beyond, he saw the surface crust of mottled methane frost that comprised the gray shadowed landmass of the planet, a half million kay to port. Only the hard, unblinking lights of Tanktown Coldfield, and a dozen or so outposts and junctions where rutted trails converged, broke the drab Plutonian landscape.
Concentrating on the mind-screen image, O'Hare steadied his craft along Pluto's orbit, a stream of electronic *spunnel* booster pulses from his home station updating his ship's position and condition.
At 3 o'clock starboard a huge cylinder rotated almost imperceptibly on its lateral axis. Markings emblazoned in five-meter block letters on its blunt bow and stern and fifteen meters high along each quarter of its length were clear from any angle: UIPS SLINGSHOT LOGISTICS DEPOT.
Space transports and platforms, no two alike, rode their holding beam moorings along the Depot's flanks. Space tugs and barges labored in all directions, taxis charged about, and space-cranes swayed above dozens of platforms extending from the Depot portals
Leviathans off-loaded to barges as other ships in a multitude of shapes and sizes grappled with cargo and passenger flitters from flex-conveyers that snaked across gaps from the Depot to cranes moored or moving along active links, multi-armed space cranes that raised and lowered crates, bundles and modules, arranging, aligning, connecting and disconnecting.
Aggregates of netted and beam-tethered girders, multi- meter-wide conduits in hundred-meter lengths, and coupled modules bound by mag-beams were being pushed or followed along behind robot tugs controlled by remotes from the station's cargo control center. In single file or clusters, the machines traversed the open stretches between the Depot's portals and nearby transports for their first or final step in a long journey.
The brightly-checkered orange-green cylinder slipped from O'Hare's screen. A deployment station to O'Hare and hundreds of his colleagues, and more than four centuries of predecessors, the Depot was as familiar as his home base above Earth.
'Time,' O'Hare murmured as he mind-activated the key that contacted Keeper. 'This is a Slingshot Tac Ops from Red Fox to Keeper. I am hot to trot on Point Charlie off Fandango Force Field. All coordinates green for Scout Operation Xray Delta slash Four. Time for go is 2112 slash 14 Solar. I am keyed to transmit on Spunnel Channel 9212, scramble 38. Confirm. Over.'
The response was equally silent, registered directly in the addressed cognition node. The message's clarity was unaffected by passage through hundreds of spunnel boosters that linked O'Hare to Keeper's console in its shielded bunker under Luna's surface.
'Keeper to Red Fox. Orders: scout Planet Pluto Zone confirmed. You are cleared to start at 2112 slash 14 Solar. Spunnel 9212 slash 38 is open for your transmissions. You are spunnel-psy monitored by Spacetrack Ceres. Out.'
O'Hare tensed, psy-blinked his view screen down to the instruments vital to his mission, and mind fine-tuned several controls on the panel that faced him. The fifteen-meters-long vessel, with a barely two-meter beam, swooped low and began its run across Pluto's plain barely a couple of meters above the frozen methane crust.
The view screen readouts showed subsurface galleries, several outlined as irregular but empty, others reflected high-mass space ship configurations. He focused to adjust his instruments for deeper penetration.
Without warning, the panel blurred in O'Hare's vision and. he felt his head and body swell. Dead in a single moment, his brains, bones and guts splattered across the cockpit and the ship exploded.

Lieutenant Jake Ramirez smoothly accepted the target blip that registered on his mind-screen and displayed the target's dimensions, mass, spin, velocity and coordinates. As the data strung out Jake whistled, soft and low. He tapped the channel traffic override to the Depot's spunnel booster.
'Spunnel Flash to Keeper. Switch to Scramble 2.' Jake flipped the key and, without a pause, mind-recapped fast.
'Blue Fox to Keeper on Scramble 2. Message keyed at 2115 slash 14 Solar. Request Spacetrack Ceres confirm my position and condition. Readouts show high-density aggregate of multi-dimensionals. No organics. Field is about one-half by three-fourths kay. Note high mass Group Four thermal nuclear power plants. Neutronic penetray analysis initiated; data shows that in addition to power plants the aggregate includes machined parts configuration-tagged to Catalog 11 long range lasers, explosive decompressors, particle beamers and gun mounts. I suspect this is a cache of contraband weapons and spares positioned for pickup by Planet Pluto terrorists. What are your orders? Over.'
'Keeper to Blue Fox. Spacetrack Ceres confirms unregistered objects near your position. Ceres' remotes confirm your findings. Space Force concludes the supplies present an immediate threat to Slingshot. Your orders are to destroy the cache immediately using Type K1 nuclear explosive missile set at Baker Two Seven. Launch at not less than 15,000 kay. Remain on station and follow up. Search for and melt down all residues; use your laser-doubles set at 8. Report when task is completed. Your Tac Ops and psych systems are monitored. Start now. Out.'
Keeper's message was concurrently downloaded into Jake's computer as authenticator for the mission and for demolition and laser gun settings. The computer adjusted thrust and vector to bring the ship to the 'fire' point and engage the countdown and sequence to launch, arm the warhead, and conduct laser follow up. Missile launch was at 8 seconds.
Without warning, the computer froze. The frame of the pilot's capsule glowed red, then white. A second later, the ship disintegrated into thousands of metal and composite fragments, and charred nodules and shards of what had been human flesh and bone.
'Flash Scramble Spunnel Alert. To Supreme Commander, United Inner Planetary System Space Force, Earth Headquarters, from Keeper, Luna Station. Attack report. Repeat: attack report. Recon-patrollers R-19557, Red Fox, and R-87265, Blue Fox in Planet Pluto Special Zone on recon missions under Keeper control, were attacked and destroyed by particle beams; attack times: Red Fox 212014; Blue Fox 215514. Beamers fired from unidentified batteries, but source is Sectus Gorge, coordinates GT165, Planet Pluto. The UIPS patrollers were on approved Tac Ops missions: cite our messages to Red Fox and Blue Fox this past half-hour, info recorded in your Headquarters Tac Ops Action File. Regret to inform you no life force emanates from Red Fox and Blue Fox wreckage. Spacetrack Ceres will maintain active monitor for survivors. Recovery and investigation teams dispatched from Log Depot to both attack sites. Out.'
'Flash To President, United Inner Planetary System from Supreme Commander, Space Force. This is the initial report of attacks on two of our recon-patrollers while on UIPS-directed missions in the Planet Pluto Special Zone. I conclude that both vessels were destroyed by Plutonian terrorists. No survivors. UIPS ships and support stations sunside of Neptune hold on Defense Alert Two. Defense Alert One is in effect at Slingshot work site and throughout Plutonian Special Zone. Details follow.'
'To President, UIPS from Commander, Space Force. Copy to each Senior Elder of the General Assembly, Ministers of Intelligence and Diplomatic Protocols, and Slingshot Director. This is follow on to our initial report of attacks on our recon-patrollers in Planet Pluto Special Zone. Recon-patroller Red Fox was destroyed while on assigned mission to scout Special Zone to identify launch and support sites for spacecraft that present potential hazards to Slingshot construction. Thirty-five seconds later, sister ship Blue Fox, on directed survey of the Planet Pluto and Logistics Depot zones for unregistered space debris and contraband was similarly attacked and destroyed.
'Transmissions from the patrollers' Tac Ops systems, and scansplays of their external observations, ceased immediately after the attack. Note that Spacetrack Ceres reports of the events, confirmed by Keeper on Luna, indicate conclusively that in the last few milliseconds of functional stability before the ships' defenses were breached, their damage report systems salvoed signal bursts to spunnel boosters. The signals confirm each patroller had been the target of long-range particle beamers.
'The missions of the two patrollers have not been completed. Although the Red Fox scout mission can be rescheduled, we must be prepared for an increase in such attacks throughout the Special Zone. Blue Fox was three seconds from a missile launch to destroy a cache of contraband, and was attacked before it could complete the task. Consequently, Plutonian terrorists now have added significantly to their already large quantities of space weapons.
'Repeat alerts have been spunneled to Commanders of UIPS ships, posts and stations throughout the System, and to all UIPS vessels that enter or are in the Outer Region; also to ships under way, and at space and surface moorings. Note that Slingshot-bound ships, the Depot, and work sites have been on Defense Alert Red since the Outer Region seceded from the United Planetary System, therefore Slingshot alert and readiness in their sectors remain unchanged.'


Rymer Camari, President of the United Inner Planetary System entered the conference room of his official residence. Nodding a hasty greeting to his Ministers of Intelligence and Diplomatic Protocols, and to the Commander of the UIPS Space Forces, he took his seat at the head of the long table and stared at the others at the table in silence. The President's gray robe hung loosely from his thin shoulders. His deeply lined face framed a thick mane of white hair. He was as angry as they all felt.
A panel in the opposite wall slid upward to reveal a well that encased a cylindrical view tank. The cavity behind the tank was crammed with communications gear that connected wirelessly to the cylinder's base.
The view tank glowed and cleared to the United Inner Planetary System standard regional simulation. Color and symbol coded characters glowed the real time and local positions of UIPS planets and their natural and artificial satellites, schematics of space traffic lanes, space spunnel booster stations, the Asteroids, and the six Guardian Stations equidistant along the Asteroids outer perimeter.
Touching a key on a console embedded in the table the President brought the Strategic Concepts Computer on line.
'Computer,' he said, 'integrate these proceedings into the database. Follow, analyze across-the-board and display.'
He looked at the Space Force Commander.
'Where are we now, Jim?' His voice was flat with controlled rage.
Admiral Jim Selvin, short, stocky, a face of craggy slopes framing deep-set, flinty eyes, shifted slightly.
'There's little more to add to what we had an hour ago,' he said. 'Two good pilots dead; two impossible-to-replace patrollers destroyed.'
Rubbing his chin vigorously to hide his emotions, he grated, 'We confirmed that the bandit beamer drew back into an underground tunnel that cuts into an ice gorge south of Tanktown Coldfield. Their weapons' cache is even now being approached by unidentified space tugs. No doubt in my mind they're Narval's thugs and they're going to clamp a tow beam on the package and haul it off to some subsurface storage or assembly shop. Once those guns are assembled, installed and calibrated we could be on the receiving end of more nastiness.'
Leaning forward over the table, he looked directly at the President. His hand became a fist, and he pounded the table in cadence with his words.
'Mr. President,' he said, 'the real hell of it is we can't stop them, and we've no one to blame but ourselves. It's downright unrealistic to keep our self-defense forces in the Special Zone so far below what's needed to protect our vital interests.'
'I know that, Jim,' the President shrugged, 'but our hands are tied by our treaty with Outer Region politicians.'
Jim looked directly into Camari's eyes. 'But they're the ones violating the agreements,' he breathed. 'If we ever needed clear evidence of that fact, we just got it rammed down our throats. We'd better get off our duffs and do something.'
Allen Dynal, Minister for Intelligence, nodded agreement but did not interrupt; his turn was coming.
Selvin leaned back, turned his head and scowled at the view tank; the others at the table joined him watched the rapidly forming scene.
The Admiral's outburst had provided guidance to the computer. The display opened to the Planet Pluto sector: two tiny red lights flashed rapidly at the coordinates where the attacks had occurred. A steady blue light indicated the location of the hi-jacked weapons.
Selvin continued. 'The entire sector in which this attack originated is honeycombed with utility passageways and subsurface supply and maintenance shops,' he said. 'They date back to when the first colonizing cadre went in. The subsurface should have been returned to its original state when we had no further use for the tunnels and galleries. We did start to collapse the ice walls and overheads; obviously, we didn't get very far.'
He sighed heavily.
'Understandable,' he went on. 'Hundreds of junctions and cutouts were dug to serve one-time needs. They were never charted. The same can be said for subsurface technical facilities. No question that many are still usable.'
The view tank's image blurred, then cleared to show a broad expanse of the Plutonian land mass. A white, steady glow identified Coldfield, the surrounding red and blue lines depicted the scores of subsurface passageways that extended from the domed city.
'There's no doubt the underground passages and caverns are being used by Narval as maintenance and operations hangars for his fleet,' Selvin said returning his eyes to Camari. 'Many are big enough to accommodate nuclear thermal power capsules, repair shops and catapult launchers. The floors were stabilized by pseudo-gravity enhancers during construction and the way they were screwed deeply into the frozen surfaces and bonded, they're firm enough, even under the planet's low density to support the weight of battle cruisers.'
The silence hung heavily as Selvin glared at the view tank. His voice rasped.
'They must have installed heavy screens in the overheads. Many of our readings are dim, even with our most advanced penetration gear.'
'That's all I have for now, Mr. President,' he said, leaning back.
Camari's eyes fixed on a somber-visaged individual who gravely returned his look.
'Let's hear the intelligence review, Allen,' the President said.
The Minister for Intelligence placed his hands on the table before him and began to speak. His voice was low and intense, and his eyes moved from the President to Jim Selvin, who faced him grimly.
The view tank flickered and clouded as the Minister for Intelligence spoke, then cleared to an overview of the Outer Region. The scale reduced planets, satellites, and stations to color-coded pinpoints of light. The computer adjusted to focus on a magnified Plutonian sector. The Uranus and Neptune orbits, although within the quadrant, were cut out by the compression. The Slingshot Construction Site rode the rim.
'The latest reports of military construction, commitments and political realignments among the outer nations are ominous,' Allen said. 'They're pledging themselves to each other through mutual assistance pacts and are building military spacecraft and weapons to back up their agreements.'
Pointing thoughtfully with his right forefinger at his left palm, Allen reeled off the military assets of each nation beyond the Asteroids, and correlated their potential capabilities to economic resources over the coming decades and centuries until Slingshot reduced the solar system's deficits. He wove into his analysis the effects of orbital dynamics on normal and spunnel transit times from each Inner and Outer Region point-of-origin to the Slingshot work sites. He moved on to the status of weapons research and development, and identified the locations of the Outer Region's weapons manufacturing sites and military training facilities.
'The defense of Slingshot through purely military means,' he concluded, 'especially in protecting our routes and the Log Depot, is, as Jim stated, is not possible given the present circumstances. The Plutonian terrorists are expanding their field of operations, and they get generous support from political sympathizers throughout the region.
'Our intelligence sources report that many supporters of the Plutonian partisans are direct descendants of the insurrectionists who fomented the dissolution of our first interplanetary union. Now, it seems, their objective is to destroy Slingshot, and us as well.
Allen Dynal and Jim Selvin looked steadily at each other; they were not in disagreement.
Camari broke the hush that followed Dynal's words.
'We are well into an armed confrontation,' he said. 'Nevertheless, whatever actions we take must minimize destruction to life and property, require no diversions from resources allocated to Slingshot, and in no way restrict Slingshot's construction and launch schedules.'
Turning his head slightly, he nodded at the last of his three advisors present.
Chan Dahl, Minister of Diplomatic Protocols, laid his massive forearms on the table, palms down. His abrasive voice matched his heavy features and rotund body. He spoke rapidly in summary fashion: with nothing new, Chan passed quickly over the diplomatic chasm that had formed between the United Inner Planetary System and The Independent Nations of the Outer Region following the dissolution of the first United Planetary System. He summarized the complex alliances that had evolved among the independent governments beyond the Asteroids following the secession, and moved on quickly to the initiatives of his Ministry to reconcile inter-regional differences.
'The issue of the transit fee has become critical,' he said. 'Each TINOR nation has expressed vehement impatience to levy a toll on the UIPS for each transport or other vessel that enters space contiguous to their planetary and satellite orbits. They insist that such space is legally controlled within their natural boundaries, and that by passing through, we trespass. Restitution, they claim, is in order.
'Negotiations are in diplomatic limbo. The impasse will, quite likely, remain for some time. Our position is unchanged; the fees they demand are without justification, an extortion to which we cannot submit.'
Throughout the discussions, the Strategic Concepts Computer flashed a continuing display. As each topic was opened for discussion the view tank portrayed the corresponding regions, sectors, planets or satellites, shifting from one to the other as needed to clarify points or accompany the exploration for alternatives. The lower section of the tank registered the computer's quantification of speculations by the President's advisors, and their probabilities toward realization.
Finally, President Camari raised his hand to halt the discussions. He pressed a softly glowing disk on the table. The view tank cleared. Resting his chin in the palm of one hand, Camari gently rubbed his temple with the fingertips of the other.
'Instructions to Strategic Concepts Computer,' he began. 'Summarize the facts and the options, arrange and rate them according to their probabilities for results favorable to the UIPS, and separately, favorable to the interests of TINOR. Consider UIPS limitations in nonrenewable metals, minerals and other reserves until Slingshot begins to produce. Assume that Slingshot will succeed on schedule and generate sufficient raw useable substance over time to meet the needs of both Regions.
'Project each option's draw-down on resources committed to Slingshot, and estimate their impact on schedules. We may need to gamble here. Crank in the latest estimates on the years it will take for the Extractor to reach Alpha Centauri, get organized around the job, and begin to produce. Compute out to the time that we will begin to rebuild stockpiles within the Solar System.'
Leaning slowly back into the depth of his chair as he spoke, Camari lowered his hands to his lap. His eyes moved from one advisor to the other. They returned his gaze, the bleakness in their eyes matching his own. 'Try different combinations within the options and rate them,' he continued. 'Examine our treaties with the other powers and negotiations now going on. Show how each option, which has statistical probability for success up to exponent three can adversely affect those treaties or negotiations.'
He sighed. 'We need to take a fresh look at where we are. We've also got to avoid political irritations that may exacerbate the situation further. On the other hand, revisions to treaties and to our positions at the negotiating tables may be essential; Slingshot may reduce ongoing conflicts, but we cannot wait. Review the current readiness and activation sequence for our Quick Reaction Capability to deal with contingencies in the Slingshot Special Zone. Detail what needs to be done and by whom to upgrade our QRC initiatives for each 'contingency' that I have accepted as a 'probable.' Show costs separately and integrated with relevant schedules. Draft implementation plans and orders to commit resources but keep them on 'Hold' until I direct otherwise.
'We meet again in two hours,' he said, rising. 'Computer: be ready to give a presentation on each option and variations within the parameters I specified. Cover resource requirements and schedules, and tactical options and their possible effects on UIPS forces and assets in the Special Zone. Maintain current. When I select the course of action and authenticate them with the Presidential Implementation Designators, release directives compatible with the decision. Monitor and report. This terminates my instruction to Computer.'
The President stood and turned toward the door. Pausing, he glanced back at the Minister of Intelligence.
'Allen,' he said, 'give me a rundown within the hour on our penetration assets throughout the Outer Region. I am especially interested in your ability to intensify rapid infiltration and disruption throughout Narval's domain.'
The door slid shut as he passed through. The wall panel across the view tank cavity lowered as the advisors departed.

The Strategic Concepts Computer presented visual displays accompanied by a gently modulated audio. The analysis was incisive, the coverage comprehensive.
At its conclusion, the President asked for the comments of his Ministers and the Commander of the Space Forces.
Scores of questions probed and tested the computer's logic and conclusions. Exchanges, in a few instances, became questions and observations which resulted in revisions that were instantly extended to corollaries, and their programs adjusted. Finally, it was done - for the time being.
The President's eyes took in his grim advisors. Speaking softly, he passed his decision to them and into the Computer. They sat silently for several moments, weighing the decision's potential effects. Camari would consider further before keying the Presidential Implementation Designators.
Rising and making his way toward the doorway, Camari motioned to the Minister of Intelligence. 'I've read your report on our assets in TINOR, Allen, and have a special task for your Ministry. You must start on it immediately.'
He motioned Allen to join him. They passed through and the door closed silently.


The Interstellar Mining and Teleport System

A retrospective compiled from Slingshot records and commentaries published in 'The Interstellar Historian' early in the Third Interplanetary Millennium.

The System consists of two terminals, each of which includes an integral, fully robotized capability to conduct internal command-and-control, self-maintenance and repair, and logistical, teleportation, communications and other logistical functions and operations essential to its unique mission. The terminal positioned in orbit above Alpha Centauri is designated the Extractor and the terminal positioned along the Solar System's rim is designated the Collector. The Extractor selects and draws pre-designated elements, minerals and other usable substances from the Alpha Centauri star system, and collects, accumulates, converts and channels the matter into its spunnel transmission subsystem for direct interstellar transfer to the Collector. The Collector receives the product, converts it into its original or otherwise appropriate form, identifies, classifies, quantifies and records constituents and mass; refines and ejects the raw product for transport to and storage along the solar rim or at a location Authority determines to be more suitable.
The Extractor and Collector terminals are constructed four million kilometers beyond Dwarf Planet Pluto. During the System's research, engineering, development, test, evaluation and subsequent construction, launch and transition to destination, the terminals are spunnel-linked and tested and managed both as separate entities along with their support systems, and as the integrated master scheme.
During construction the System is linked to Planet Pluto, employing mass attractors, orbital dynamics controls and stabilizers, and other means, as required.
The On-site System Authority possesses and Commands Launch and Self-Defense Forces under Powers delegated by the President of the United Inner Planetary System (UIPS).
Following launch, the Authority directs and oversees the Extractor fleet's disengagement from the Solar System's gravitational and other constraints employing Dwarf Planet Pluto's outbound orbital momentum to attain and maintain escape velocity for as long as needed.
Should circumstances require additional 'slingshot' velocity to escape Solar System gravitational forces and/or other transition operations Authority may assume direct operational command of the entire fleet through safe transition into the interstellar realm and into safe orbit at destination.
Authority to conduct Command surveillance and prior approval for spunnel jumps through trans-stellar phase and into orbit at destination so as to retain integrity and safety for transporter/extractor crew and passengers. Authority assumes direct Command for positioning the Extractor in orbit above the target at a location commensurate with data developed previously by drone scouts. On site Authority, at all times, exercises surveillance and control over operations and support systems, and equipment on station in a manner that will ensure safe and productive results in perpetuity.
The Collector is positioned along the solar rim, or elsewhere outbound, as determined by UIPS Authority. The Collector is spunnel-linked to the Extractor's product mining-to-product launch to Collector nodes, functional and operational nodes, and to the Extractor's orbital dynamics systems at destination work sites.
The Extractor, operating at destination, analyzes, selects, and draws from Alpha Centauri low orbit specified substances from proximate asteroids, comets, satellites, planetoids, space debris, swarms, star surfaces, subsurface and other accessible bodies and strata, reduces the substance to spunnel teleportable constituents (the product), loads the product into launch hoppers and dispatches it via spunnel jumps to the Collector. Critical to the program's success is timing the Extractor's launch. Piggy-backed to Dwarf Planet Pluto during creation, the Extractor uses the planet's orbital momentum for launch. The launch window is precise and short-lived along Planet Pluto's outbound orbit. Dwarf Planet Eris cuts in to supplement velocity toward planet/Solar System escape should the need arise.
Escape-velocity disengagement from Pluto, and freed from Dwarf Planet Eris' attraction, the Extractor fleet accelerates along its course to optimum velocity through integrated thrust of augmented thrusters, spunnel jumps, or other more advanced propulsion and transition systems that are or become available in time to accomplish the Objective.
The Terminals and their command and control, supporting research and development schemes and projects, facilities, spunnel teleport and other logistics and communications networks, surface and space stations and outposts is formally designated 'The Interstellar Mining and Transport System.' UIPS Authority acknowledges that the mission, launch and interstellar reach of the Program is consistent with the ideals, objectives and will of the solar community and approves the Solar Community's dubbing this System 'Project Slingshot.'


The Watch Commander drew a hand weapon from the rack, adjusted the power to low stun, and set the safety. He slipped the sidearm into the sheath at his waist, and scanned the monitors displaying his areas of jurisdiction.
The agri-ecol bays and industrial shops of the prison station were orderly and busy. The officer's fingers ranged the console's keys. Audio-viz transmissions from passageways, wardrooms, and work and recreation areas slipped across the screens in rapid succession. Inmates and guards moved about, operated equipment, or worked at their benches; each, in his or her own way, putting in their time on the station's business.
A keystroke brought up the eight people boarding the Guardian Station through a lower aft air lock. Two were station guards, their weapons sheathed but retainer clips disengaged for instant withdrawal.
A slight adjustment brought into sharp focus the closed features of the three men and three women in dun-colored coveralls under escort. He studied their faces for a moment and turned away. The bank of screens shut down as he stepped across the threshold of the cubicle that served him as both command post and sleeping quarters. He strode briskly toward a hatch at the end of the passageway.
The lead guard, who had appeared a moment before on the screen, stepped off the ladder leading from the lower level and glided forward in the light pseudo-gravity followed by the six prisoners he and a subordinate had escorted from a transport. The prisoners were wary-eyed, silent and unshackled. The second guard brought up the rear.
The forward guard came abreast the Watch Commander, stopped, barked a command to halt, and turned to face his charges. They knotted forward, not anticipating the order.
'OK, inmates,' the guard grinned, 'up against the bulkhead. You're gonna get the official greeting to this paradise of the outback.'
Swinging about, he tossed a perfunctory salute in the officer's direction. At ease against the opposite bulkhead, he watched benignly as his charges shuffled about and lined up in no particular order. The guard at the other end stood astride the passageway in a casual stance.
The Watch Commander cleared his throat with a slight cough to focus their attention.
'I'm Lieutenant Malcolm,' he said. 'I run the Reception Center on this station. You may or may not know where you are; let's be certain that you do.'
The six faces stared at him. Brad Curtin, third from the head of the line, shifted his gaze from the officer to the guards and back.
'The manifest of the transport from which you just disembarked listed you as 'cargo' transferred to this station from the temporary holding jails of Earth, Luna, Mars or wherever you boarded the ship. Don't let being recorded as 'cargo' bother you: official visitors and guests are passengers, prisoners are cargoes. If the transport's brigs were cramped, that's the name of the game; they're not built for comfort. Each of you did get a separate cell on board, I understand. In that respect, at least, you all got better than routine treatment.'
The last remark raised sardonic eyebrows on two faces in the line. The rest remained impassive.
Malcolm paused, then continued.
'Be prepared to be here for a while. You know your commitment period. Whatever happens to you here depends on your attitude and your compliance with orders, and on decisions by those conducting your rehabilitation.'
Pacing the line he stopped before each prisoner and stared at him or her from under bushy black eyebrows. Relaxed against the wall, or tense and erect, they returned his gaze. Inspection completed, he nodded at the guard astride the passageway and turned back to face the line.
'You are inmates in the Social Rehabilitation Center of Guardian Station 15, about five million kay from the Asteroid Belt's outer rim, or what was the Belt before the space-miners got through with it. This station used to be the mining control center for the sector. Now, with the Belt down to useless rubble, the station's been downgraded to a prison, among other things.
'Our internal security is good. We've had no attempts at breakout in a dozen years. In the attempt that was made before then, the inmate didn't clear the sector. When it was over, I might add, he was a bit the worse for the experience.'
He paused to let his words sink in.
'This is an institution at which high-risk and special treatment prisoners are confined.' His words matched the pace of his stride. 'Our inmates include people convicted of piracy of spacecraft, smuggling controlled minerals and other substances, theft of government and private properties, hijacking, espionage, armed robbery, gun-running to terrorists in the Outer Region, and murder. That's the short list.
The prisoner's faces remained expressionless.
'Bear in mind …' he reached the end of the line and reversed direction without breaking the cadence in his voice, 'that although the Guardian Stations are along the borders between the Inner and Outer Regions, we're far from isolated. For example, this Station's present orbital coordinates accommodate Inner Region traffic to the Planet Pluto Special Zone through both normal space and spunnel micro-jumps.
'Heavy freighters, construction rigs under tow, platforms, military craft and objects too big for the spunnel are routed through this sector in both directions. Sometimes they stop to pick up and discharge passengers and cargo, or they're technicians to service our specialized equipment. We may have a half-dozen or so spacecraft alongside at any one time, just doing their jobs. When station activity gets crowded, inmates dream of stowing away to somewhere else. That's no more than a dream; don't underestimate our surveillance systems. Be warned.'
He pointed at one prisoner, then another in a jabbing motion.
'Our job is custodianship of those who can't adjust to realities, and rehabilitation and training of those who can be helped, eventually, to return to the outside world. There are other options for inmates who have special attributes. You will learn more of those in time.'
Pausing, he scratched at his jaw.
'You are sojourners among us, and transient,' he closed. 'We will not abuse you; on the other hand, we will not coddle you. We tell all new inmates, as I'm now telling you: cooperate, and you'll find your stay tolerable, resist, and take the consequences.'
A stern, hard stare, a shrug and his features relaxed.
'OK, that's the official greeting for all newcomers. I know you've all had a long, boring trip on a beat-up transport. I expect you'll want to unwind a bit.'
He glanced at the forward guard, back against the bulkhead, and returned his stare to the prisoners.
'First, we'll get you into some decent quarters, and let you clean up and rest. Get to know each other; you'll be together for a while.
'The guards will escort you to your core compartment. Normally, you would have started orientation and psy-phys testing immediately. Your schedule is different. Your first orientation lecture will be in two hours. Sergeant Jenkins,' he motioned the lead guard forward, 'will escort you to and from orientation. Don't play games with him; he knows them all.'
'All yours, Jenks,' he said. 'Move 'em out.'
Jenkins came forward, pointed to a hatch further along the passageway.
'Follow me.'
Lieutenant Malcolm stepped aside. He watched the line move past silently and climb the companionway out of sight.
None looked back.
Lining up in loose formation at the head of the companionway and responding to a signal from Jenkins, the prisoners started along a passageway. The other guard brought up the rear.
They crossed spidery overpasses that spanned workshops and agri-eco bays under cultivation. People and service robots moved about; the new prisoners drew few glances.
Jenkins drew them to a halt in a wide corridor. Ahead was a shimmering force field. He murmured words and placed the palm of his hand on a dull composite plate embedded in the wall. The force field faded to a haze. They passed through, and the haze resumed its shimmer.
A portal appeared up ahead.
Jenkins motioned toward it and stepped aside as the prisoners passed him and on through the portal. The guards did not follow.
Of a sudden minus escorts, the prisoners clustered inside the entry and stared about.
The compartment was generous by space habitat standards. Well-lighted, it stretched ten meters from wall to opposite wall. Parallel in the center of the room was a double line of four gray tables fused to the deck, each with a table-long bench along each side. Evenly spaced along the wall were curtained sleeping enclosures. Behind partitions on opposite sides of the compartment were entries to two standard wash-lavs. The furnishings were functional and clean.
One after the other, the prisoners drifted off to inspect the enclosures. It didn't take long; back again, they kept their silent distance.
Brad leaned against one of the tables and crossed his arms. He took a second quick look around the compartment, one eye bite at a time, turning to take it all in, skipping each of cell-mate that crossed his vision. His movements gave the group a focus; it was easier than to just stare at the walls and the few furnishings.
Brad rewarded their attention or absence thereof by slowly scratching the back of his head. He slipped his butt backward on to a table's top and pressed his other hand down along its edge.
'I don't get this,' he said, his expression puzzled. Making eye contact where he could, his tone low, flat yet courteous, he said, 'We may as well get the formalities out of the way. I'm Brad Curtin.'
Faces relaxed a mite; someone sat on a bench. The ice broke, but the silence held. Brad had their attention.
Seconds passed.
The word welled up as a growl, low and rumbling from a squat, muscular man. His deeply embedded eyes circled the room from under a boulder-brow that bridged the space beneath his bald pate to blend with the stub nose, wide mouth and crinkled skin of a seemingly amiable face.
'I'm Zolan,' said the third male.
Slight of build, waxy, and a spacer's pallid complexion coating long narrow features. As alert and tense as a coiled spring, Zolan leaned against a bulkhead, eyes moving rapidly from Brad to Hodak to the walls to fix on one of the tables.
'That takes care of the men.' A woman's voice, melodious, unruffled. 'I'm Adari.'
Sturdy, tightly curled hair and chocolate skin. Her soft, rounded features were dimpled, cheerful, animated. Standing near a sleep enclosure, her grin was infectious. She brought long-absent grins and nods from the others.
Repeating her name slowly, she smiled invitingly at the petite woman beside her.
'My, aren't we cautious,' the little one said as she looked up and returned Adari's grin. 'I am Kumiko,' she shifted her eyes to take in the others, 'and I regret to say that I am not particularly pleased to be among you.' She paused, eyes twinkling. 'Nothing personal, mind you, it's just that I did have other plans.'
Eyes shifted to the last of the group. Tall and slender, olive-skinned, she paced the narrow space between the wall and the cell's central section. Her turn, no longer to be put off.
'Myra,' she said flatly.
The ice closed back.
It would take time.


The meeting hall was roughly triangular, the rows of form-fit seats molded into the deck that sloped downward toward a dais jammed into a corner. Alongside the dais a meter-wide view tank rose from the deck to blend into the overhead. Thick cables snaked from the base and disappeared into the nearby bulkhead.
The six prisoners entered, milled about, silent, their features without expression. In their own time, they took seats, several empties apart. The first three rows remained vacant.
Hodak broke the silence. 'The Blue Plate Special the Looie gave didn't sound right,' he growled. 'I want to know more about what he was gettin' at with that crack about our schedule 'being different.''
Adari turned, brows raised, to stare at him thoughtfully. She nodded slowly and turned back to join the others to focus on a figure perched on a high stool beside the view tank.
He looked tall, despite his being seated. A slate-gray uniform covered him from neck to ankles; his feet shod in high-top deck slippers that matched the shade of his garment. He wore no insignia. Long, crowded features and tawny space-worn skin formed a face of planes and angles. His hairless head and long hands looked like they might have been hacked from a block of Mercurian tuscanite and left to weather for a million years in the sun's glare.
The hall quieted. Satisfied that he had their attention, the man stood. The mere suggestion of height, seated, did not do him justice. He unfolded like an articulated, mechanical crane. Fully extended, his towering frame rose more than two meters from heels to gleaming naked scalp.
His first words took Hodak's challenge.
'You will know, Hodak.' His voice was soft, and carried the gravity of authority.
His eyes moved from one to the other.
'What I say here applies to all of you,' he said. 'I will not answer all of your questions, but you will be told all you need to know at this time.'
He stepped down from the dais toward them, halting inside the curve of the first row of seats.
'I am Ram Xindral,' he said, 'your orientation lecturer, your trainer and, should you need one, your counselor. I am also your Control. Take specific note of the term 'control.' It has only one meaning: you are in a prison, but from here on take no orders from prison staff. You take your orders only from me; I am not 'prison' staff.'
'What the hell!'
Hodak again, bouncing up, down, up again. Adari, her mouth open in surprise and alarm, also stood, paused, and moved to stand beside Hodak. Zolan remained seated, his hooded eyes on Xindral. Kumiko shifted position slightly and stared vacantly at the deck. Myra remained motionless, her face closed. Brad, brows drawn into a frown, crossed his arms, waiting.
'Hah! This sure as hell isn't the standard orientation lecture for new inmates.' Adari's cynical laugh burst from her in a jeering bark.
'No, Adari, it isn't,' Ram said with a smile, 'but bear with me.'
The hall charged with tension and wariness. Hodak remained on his feet, bent forward, hands gripping the back of the seat in front of him, challenge in his eyes.
Xindral clasped his hands behind his back. The gesture tightened his frame and seemed to increase his height. He faced away from them, strode back to stand beside the view tank and turned. Hodak grunted, sat, muttered under his breath; Adari returned to the seat alongside, leaned in toward Hodak, listened to him mumble, and grinned, nudged and nodded.
'Details later,' Xindral continued. 'Let's get this first part over with. I'll talk. Cut in with questions if you need to, and bitch if it helps; we'll get to know each other better. If you take off on a tangent, so be it. I'll go along, within limits. I didn't expect this to be a monologue, by far. It'll take a while, but you'll get the information I intend you to have.'
An uneasy shifting about ensued. The prisoners weren't buying. Brad sensed the apprehension in the others that he felt in himself. Xindral's opening remarks along with his aura projected formidable power despite his slender frame.
'Before we continue,' Xindral said, 'know that you are not quartered in the penal section of the station. The usual new arrivals don't get this sort of attention. Furthermore, the lectures given to them are confined to station routines. Their processing includes a few tests that are evaluated for basic intelligence and skills. It helps the staff assign them to shops, rehab training, and eventually for return to the outside world. You're not that lucky.'
Xindral's last words jolted Hodak back on to his feet.
'Look, whoever the hell you are,' he rumbled, jabbing a stubby finger at Xindral, 'let's cut out the crap about our luck. First the Looie, now you, puttin' on this mystery act with fancy hints that don't make sense. You said to ask questions. OK, here's one: am I an inmate in this prison or not?'
'You are, and you aren't,' Xindral shrugged. 'That's my answer at this time. As we talk, the picture will clear.'
An angle on Xindral's face flexed into a grin.
The animosity in the hall was palpable, exacerbated by Xindral's evasive response to a fair question. As Hodak grumbled his way back down into his seat the elongated figure drew a flat, palm-sized control from a sheath fastened to his belt and pressed an embedded key.
The view tank's haze cleared to the standard solar schematic. It faded, replaced by a ring of tiny multicolored lights: the Asteroid Belt.
'This display is tailored to the general run of inmates processed through orientation, just to give them an idea where they are. Their familiarity with deep space is often limited, so station lectures start with fundamentals. We'll pass on this.'
Brad tensed at Xindral's choice of words, and sensed the others had been similarly alerted. He glanced sideways. His companions, as he, stared at one another as if seeing them for the first time. Were they of a kind?
Xindral continued as if he hadn't noticed.
'A footnote,' he said. 'The Belt's been cleared of almost all rocks and swarms, plus the big ones that we couldn't use for outposts and stations. As you may recall from your school days, it wasn't easy hauling micro-spunnel terminals around the Belt and ramming rocks into it for transfer to meltdown and refining above Venus.
'In short, the big space sweeps of five to eight hundred years ago cleared away most of the residue in Belt orbits that had no beneficial purpose and were a hazard to traffic. The Belt was a good source for minerals - while they lasted.'
He paused to key the instrument in his hand.
'That's done,' he said. 'What's left are only a few of the big ones, like Ceres for our Solar Spacetrack Center, and the few outriders we've held on to as border stations, spunnel gateways and strategic reasons.
As he spoke the ring of lights in the tank flickered. Another ring formed, evenly spaced rods, each radiating a contrasting color.
'The Guardian Stations,' Xindral said, 'have been in position for more than six centuries. Twenty stations; no more are planned.'
The tank zoomed in on five of the twenty rods along a quarter of the orbit; the rods expanded to form slowly rotating cylinders.
'The Guardians are apportioned among four generally equal sectors, any one of which serves the quadrant that it happens to transit at the time. Responsibilities and missions overlap, and are passed along from the station moving out of a quadrant to the one entering it along the common orbital path. Using standard and hyperspace omnidirectional surveillance, each station's primary job is to monitor its sector: inward toward the Sun, and outward to the rim and beyond as far as our technical capabilities extend. The service areas change constantly in keeping with the alignment and dynamics of planets, traffic lanes, and conventional and spunnel teleport channels.'
Xindral folded himself back on to the high stool as he spoke.
'Since the political separation of the Inner and Outer Regions, these Guardian Stations, reverted to us by the treaty, formally serve only the Inner Region's jurisdictions. Informally, however, the stations cover the entire system; to do otherwise would bring about enormous disasters in space traffic and communications.
'The Guardians functions include standard and spunnel communications, disaster relief, search and rescue of distressed spacecraft, intercepting and diverting comets-to-rocks-of-hazard, meteors, debris and other threats to traffic in the spaceways that serve Inner Region space colonies, outposts, spunnel boosters, and so on. Often, the Outer Region folks help when their interests are involved; just as often they don't. It's one of the prices we pay for this political breach, and one of the most frustrating.'
Zolan turned to aim a remark at Adari. She giggled and elbowed Hodak. He growled and twisted away. Kumiko's eyes lifted from the deck to lazily roam the blank overhead. Myra's face openly played non-listener. Brad continued to observe Xindral closely, glancing occasionally at the tank.
Aware that he was losing his audience, Xindral paused and stood quietly.
'Do my words bore you?' He leaned forward to take them all in. His voice, still soft, nevertheless exposed a cutting edge.
Zolan looked at Xindral as he contemptuously gave the tank the back of his hand.
'Who're you trying to kid?' His challenge was cast low, tight. 'I don't know about the rest of these folks. I haven't asked any of them about themselves, nor have they tried to check me out. But you wouldn't have brought us together without first investigating us for whatever your purpose might be. For example; you must know I'm a space communicator. So, frankly, your rambling on like this not only bores me, its phoniness is clear and insulting.'
Hodak slapped his knee and laughed. He pointed at Zolan, then wagged his finger at Ram.
'Comm isn't my beat,' he said. Thumbing over his shoulder at Zolan, he added, 'but what he said goes for me.'
Xindral brushed the keys on the control and returned it to its case. The view tank faded as he fixed his eyes on Zolan.
'Yes, Zolan, I am familiar with your background.' Shifting to Hodak, 'Yours, too.' His glance widened to include the others, 'as I am with the backgrounds of you all.'
In response, the prisoners silently glared defiance.
'Zolan's observation is correct and on point,' Xindral said, ignoring their disdain. 'We're not fooling one another. Simply stated, you have much in common. You are professional space men and space women, and highly qualified at that. Your skills and resourcefulness remain with you and I am aware of them.'
Slouchers straightened. Hodak and Adari looked around, grinned, and the grins were returned. Tension remained, subtly altered.
'A couple of points,' said Xindral. 'First, you are all from sunside of the Belt and you are not known, as far as my sources can determine, where I don't want you to be. Second, together, you represent a cross-section of space professions and experience vital to the success of an important and urgent task. What you are going to be asked to do will place your lives at risk. You will need to rely on each other's professions and personal skills under difficult circumstances.'
Brad had enough.
'Now let's just wait a minute!'
He was on his feet, instantly joined by the others.
Xindral, head cocked slightly to one side, sat back and listened.
'Zolan said it first,' said Brad. 'None of us speaks for the others, so what I say is for myself. Who are you to push me - us - into a life-risk situation?'
The words, tightened by long-suppressed rage, spewed forth.
'You just counted off a couple of 'points'.' Brad raised his hand, index finger raised. 'Now here's one for you. I'm here because I was convicted of a so-called offense against society. No way do I consider myself a criminal; furthermore, I don't know if these others,' motioning in their direction, 'consider themselves criminals or not. Again, I say, not my business. I'm here to serve a prison sentence, and that doesn't include doing odd jobs where my life goes on the line.'
Brad and Xindral faced each other across the charged space between them. Xindral's frame towered over Brad who had to tilt his chin slightly to maintain eye contact. The momentary confrontation past, Brad, obviously fed up with Xindral's evasions, crossed his arms and waited. The tall man studied him.
'Your point is well made,' he said. 'You have forced the issue forward, and your challenge must be answered before we go much further. Here are a few of the pieces. Think about them.'
He stepped back on to the platform and took his seat.
'You were selected only after a searching investigation into your backgrounds, your personalities, and your capabilities: phys and psy, technical skills, job performance, resiliency, whatever it takes.
'You are now a UIPS task group, for want of a better designation. One of you will be appointed Commander. You will be given a job to do. You will depend on each other in most difficult circumstances: your records for reliability under stress were among the selection criteria. You were acceptable.
'As to your appointment, that was made by an authority outside this station, actually, outside the Correctional Service of which this penal institution is a part. From the time you were moved into the holding cells for transfer here, you came under the jurisdiction of a Ministry that is involved with the most vital interests of the UIPS. The specifics of your mission will be covered in our next session.'
'The hell you say.' Hodak bounced again. 'You're still dangling us on a string. Lay the whole bit out. Now!'
Nods and grunts followed Hodak's demand.
'Very well,' Xindral said, after a short pause. 'Actually, there's no reason to delay your marching orders.'
His voice flattened.
'By direction of the President of the United Inner Planetary System you are appointed to the Strategic Penetrations Detachment of the Ministry of Intelligence. Your unit identifier is 'Sentinel'. Your unit commander is Brad Curtin, present.
'Copies of your orders are in a secured file in the Ministry of Intelligence. A copy is temporarily posted in your core compartment. When you read it, note that all requests for release or reassignment are denied.'
Xindral folded back into his normal, slightly stooped posture. His audience, frozen, stared at him blankly.
'That's it for now.' Xindral ordered, the flatness gone. 'Return to your compartment and report back here in an hour. Brad, please stand by.'


His face blank and focused on Ram, Brad sensed his companions rise around him. Kumiko was first, and without a word moved to the entry and waited for it to clear. She did not look back. Zolan, on his feet, mouth agape, stared at Xindral. Adari, still seated, gawked in bewildered disbelief from Xindral to Brad to Hodak. Hodak glowered, gestured rudely, and cursed furiously and loudly. Myra retreated behind an icy mask.
Xindral, stock-still on his stool, watched their reactions.
The scene held for several seconds. Xindral broke the silence.
'Your real orientation and training begins when you return. First I must speak with your Commander. Please excuse us.'
He turned and touched a disk on the bulkhead. The entryway cleared and Jenkins appeared.
'Escort our friends back to their compartment, Jenks. Commander Curtin will remain with me. Return the group in an hour.'
'Yes, sir.'
Myra, Adari, Hodak and Zolan rose and milled about for another moment before joining Kumiko at the entry. Passing through, they spoke animatedly to each other. The entryway clouded over.
Xindral hefted the stool forward, placed it alongside Brad, and folded his long frame on to it facing the view tank.
'For the record, Brad,' he said gently, bridging the silence between them, 'those of us who work in Strategic Penetrations carry no formal rank. If we did, yours would be the equivalent of a Lieutenant Commander in the United Inner Planetary System Space Force. Mine would be a couple of notches above.'
He shifted his frame about and bent a long leg to bring his foot up to the lower rung. His tone shifted to neutral, cool.
'My friends call me Ram. OK?'
Brad nodded, eyeing him. Ram withdrew and contemplated the control in his grasp. After a moment he stroked the keys. A rainbow of colors swirled and drifted off, replaced by an ash-gray sphere. Planet Pluto spread across half the tank with its flat stretches of methane frost broken by low, jagged water-ice chasms, hillocks and craters. Charon and the Slingshot Logistics Depot hung off near the edge of the tank's flattened top.
Brad glanced at the scene, and back to Ram.
'Brad,' Ram spoke slowly, quietly, 'a trite expression, repeated all too often during our history, is 'humankind now faces its greatest crisis.' The statement has been declared so often across the ages that it's lost meaning, obviously because it changes in context and perspective from one event, century or millennium to the next. I suppose those who said it, meant it. Nevertheless, even if the term 'crisis' never really applied in the past, it does in these times.
'The deficits in mineral ores, other industrial-base substances, and the many other natural nonrenewables we've wasted over the centuries but still depend on, if not resolved within the next few decades, could force us back into the Earth's caves, and I don't say that 'casually.' Ceramics, composites, and other substitutes were fine as far as they went, but they do only part of the job. We'll soon be running short of substitutes for our substitutes. Building bigger and better colonies in space over the past fifteen hundred years has consumed far more of our resources than we expected. Earth is almost barren and many space colonies in both the inner and outer regions can no longer meet existing needs let alone those of the future.
'In short, our dispersed civilizations must have access to sources for minerals and other industrial substances, now and in perpetuity, in order to survive and evolve. Homo sapiens will never accept inactivity. If we don't move on to something new and challenging, then we'll drift into extinction. History is replete with records of civilizations that failed and just disappeared because people were too lazy to save ourselves. You've heard all this dozens of times; I won't dwell on it further.'
Ram stood, paced, and turned his head to keep Brad in sight as he paced and reversed direction. Brad's eyes fixed on the view tank and stayed there. There was nothing new in Ram's words, so far.
'Slingshot schedules are in their most critical phase. We have a launch window for the Extractor. It's not much of a window. If we miss it, Slingshot fails. It's that simple. The launch can not be aborted; there'll be no second chance. People across the system, by the millions, are committed to the schedule. You, and your crew now serve in that legion.'
'What's going on here,' Brad cut in. 'Are you telling me we've been pressed into this job with no choice of our own.'
His anger showing, Brad thumbed over his shoulder toward the entryway, then at his chest.
'Tell me, Ram,' he demanded, 'how did it happen that we six, three men and three women, are here at this time for this purpose?'
'The selection was certainly not random,' Ram replied. 'Despite the billions of citizens in the UIPS, we're all tagged and catalogued. It's a simple job for the computers to correlate any unique manpower requirements the government might have to the UIPS index, cross-check phys-psy profiles, professions and technical skills plus experience, competence, reliability and anything else that we crank in as rating factors. You mentioned 'three men and three women;' your mission can not exclude gender compatibility consistent with the prevailing psychosocial construct - this is what we are.
'In my line of work, our data bank produces an optimal selection of personalities, skills and identities for the best possible teams we might need to support our contingency plans. Old stuff; we've been doing that throughout history. Why you folks? The computer selected you, showed where each of you was located and why, and that you were all, shall we say, relatively unknown and available. None of you will be missed.'
Brad and Ram locked eyes as Ram added, 'As far as the mission goes, you and your colleagues were sent here for confinement and rehab, whatever the reason and however rehab was to be done. It's just that your team has been diverted. Coddling and other amenities of confinement are not part of our program. If you feel you're being treated unfairly, that's unfortunate. We need every qualified man and woman we can get. The prime requisite is that the team, meaning you and your colleagues, have and share the intelligence, initiative, guts and whatever else it takes to do the job.'
'That's another point right there,' shot back Brad. 'You've assigned us a mission, you tell us it's dangerous, and then add, as an aside, you've judged us up to it, whatever in hell that's supposed to mean. But let me tell you, if I'm the guy to run it, I want to know a lot more. I've got to have confidence each team member will be there when the chips are down. So, what can I expect?'
For a moment, Ram gazed shrewdly at Brad. His eyes twinkled, and his features mustered a sly grin.
'You seem to have slipped into the role of team Commander,' he said.
Brad looked away, hesitated a moment, and rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.
'Well,' he said, 'I agree with what you've said about the mess we're in. No question that Slingshot is our only option. Obviously, I have nothing else on my schedule. Just doing time in this tin can would be a bore. But that doesn't justify your pushing me - us - around. OK, that's said, let's get back to my crew. I'll not pry where I've no business to, but who are they?'
'Their psychological profiles are available to you,' said Ram. 'I agree, you'll know all you need to know about them to get the job done. I can give you a quick rundown on each now, if you wish.'
'I do.'
'Myra is a logistician and a Medic certified to Level 4 in space-related trauma, physical and psychological. She was Med-Exec to a research team in a mini-tank town off Venus. Somehow, she got involved with the leader of a gang running controlled substances around the Inner Region. When the net was pulled in, there she was. Tried as an accessory and judged guilty. Nowhere near criminal in my judgment. She's quite bitter because she was used, and then convicted and sentenced on what she feels are false charges.'
'I understand her bitterness.'
'Nothing we can do. Your engineer, Hodak, is a damned good heavy-duty spacecraft maintenance engineer. Also lots of experience on a broad range of space support equipment used in surface ops. He's been all over the Inner Region, and worked on Ceres where he was the spaceport's chief of maintenance for about ten years. Got into a fight off Mars while on R & R and killed a man. Convicted of manslaughter. He's an expert in the martial arts and in using exotic weapons. Street-wise.'
'Understood. Next?'
'Zolan. As he said, a communicator, and I might add, from way back. As a child, he was classified 'gifted' and treated accordingly by the system. At the age of twelve, he came up with design refinements for spunnel cracking and message transmission that raised eyebrows among the top pros in the field. His skill caused his downfall: he was convicted of illegally penetrating and modifying a database that was integrating a highly sensitive project. Just enjoying the challenge, he claimed. The project engineer didn't get wise until too late. During the trial he told off his former bosses; called them incompetent and unqualified to pass judgment on him or his work. Anyhow, he got a couple of years to cool off.'
'Does this job call for his kind of communications expertise?'
'Yes, and more. Zolan will be an extremely important asset for your mission. You'll agree, I think, when we get to your orders and the operation. I should add that, when your training is over, you will all be good communicators. But Zolan is at the hub.'
'That leaves Adari and Kumiko. What's their input?'
'Adari is your navigator. She knows both Regions like the palm of her hand, and her record shows she's well versed in nav for the entire system. She got drunk on duty and borrowed the ship's recreation funds without permission to have a gambling holiday in Tanktown Vegas. She returned broke as well as hung over. To add to her problems, some joker on Vegas gave her a whiff of Titan's deep strata gas. Almost blew her mind, but she's OK now. Spent a year in hospital on Guardian 18. No permanent damage. Now, she's doing time on the funds charge. Excellent navigator and gutsy.'
'Ah, little Kumiko,' Ram smiled. 'Last, but far from least. Kumiko is a former officer of the UIPS Space Forces and an expert in space armaments. She can break down entire systems, and repair and reassemble them, blindfolded, from micro-miniatures to the big stuff. For some reason, her talent made her rather defiant of authority. Took manual control of her ship's guns when her patrol's sensors tagged unknowns inbound across no-mans-land sunside of the Jovian orbit. The unknowns were under a heavy screen and wouldn't cooperate with the Space Guard's self-identification requirements. Her Commander told her to punch a tiny hole in the screens, just enough to identify.
Instead, she not only blew the screens away, she scorched the bow of a UIPS cruiser on a classified mission. The cruiser was out-of-line, of course; they should have responded to the query. But Kumiko had gone too far. She was forced to resign from the Service, and offered a choice to either join a penetration team to the Outer Region or work in an arsenal under tight supervision. She made her choice.'
'Quite a group.'
Ram stood and stretched. He looked down at Brad who had leaned back, hands clasped behind his head.
'All different, yet six of a kind,' he said. 'None of you, by far, are hardened offenders of the law. The crimes you were convicted of were, how shall I put it, less than deliberately malicious.'
'Hah!' Brad' bitter snort curdled in his gullet.
Xindral shrugged. His manner changed; tightened. He motioned toward the view tank.
'Let's get on with it, Brad, 'he said. 'There's a lot we need to cover.'


Brad drew his legs in and stretched them straight. His eyes followed Ram to the dais and as he turned to face him.
'You and your crew will start intensive training in intelligence operations using our most advanced methods. It will cover infiltration, interrogation, psychological defenses against psychic probes and other means that might be used to acquire information from you, under duress or otherwise. You will absorb intelligence countermeasures and counter-countermeasures, identification of military spacecraft and weapons used by both Regions, analysis of our military capabilities and those of our adversaries in a range Orders of Battle, covert communications through conventional, unconventional and spunnel channels, and other tricks of the trade. Your quick reaction reflexes will be enhanced through means that will not be apparent to you.'
'What does that last part mean?'
'I'll get to it. First, your mission. Your 'escape' from this Station has been arranged. The pieces are being moved into place. Your destination is Tanktown Coldfield on Planet Pluto.'
The view tank's image of Pluto enlarged as did the gray-black contrasts of the planet's surface. A white light in a mottled area blinked, drawing Brad' attention. His eyes returned to Ram.
'Your initial field of operations is centered in Coldfield,' Ram pointed to the light. 'Where you go from there depends on the contacts you develop and how well you exploit each opportunity. The tank town has a permanent population of about fifty thousand plus about ten thousand transients. Mix with the transients for starters.'
'Get to the mission, Ram,' Brad cut in.
Ram sighed. 'We've sent a series of formal diplomatic missions to The Independent Nations of the Outer Region (TINOR),' he said, 'including the renegades that now run Planet Pluto. We've asked them repeatedly to not interfere with the Slingshot program. We've emphasized to each TINOR government that Slingshot is as important to them as it is to us. They're not listening. We're still pressing diplomatic means, meanwhile, our schedule is being disrupted by terrorists.'
'How does this team fit in?'
'If we send in a military force to sweep away these scoundrels, our action will be seen as an imperialist intrusion into the Outer Region. It will create such resentment among the governments out there that the Slingshot schedule cannot help but suffer serious harm. Getting TINOR's cooperation will also become more difficult than ever.
'Maybe, if we gather enough hard evidence of a conspiracy and confront them with it, they'll change their ways. Right now, they're blaming the attacks on partisans over whom they have no control. We don't buy that. We need you to gather and send confirmations to us and, while you're doing that, disrupt the plans and efforts being marshaled against us. Use whatever initiatives you can devise on site. Go where you need to, do whatever it takes to frustrate our adversaries.'
'What happens if we fail?'
'Failure is unacceptable. As long as you or any of your people are alive and useful to us we'll get through to you and we'll expect you to keep us current on developments.
'Big order.'
'Yes, it is.'
'I am, or rather, I was, skipper of a space freighter,' Brad said, tenting his hands. 'I know almost nothing of military operations, intelligence gathering, and especially covert actions, whatever those might entail. I'm not familiar with space weapons except for garden-variety small arms. Other than Kumiko, I gather that the members of this team are not experts in the weapons and explosives we are likely to encounter or use. You're sending us in against a rough crowd, from the way you describe them. Aren't you risking a lot on us?'
'Yes, we are.
'That's encouraging.'
Brad rubbed his jaw.
'I suppose you'll give us access to friends we have on Pluto.'
'Are you joking? There are none.'
'Then how in the hell do we get started?'
'Join the bastards.'
'What? Are you serious?'
'I refuse.'
'You're not being given the choice. None of you are.'
'I can withhold my cooperation.'
'I repeat, Brad, you have no choice.'
Ram paused, eyeball to eyeball with an icy Brad. Ram's voice went as flat as when he had read the group their orders.
'You will be neurologically and psychologically adjusted as you progress through this indoctrination. The 'adjustment,' for want of a better term, is necessary for several reasons. It applies to the entire team.'
Brad stared.
'What does that mean?'
'Just that we can't afford to have normal human weaknesses and scruples interfere with getting the job done.'
'The hell you say,' Brad raised his voice. 'You're telling me we're expendable?'
'You're in covert intelligence work, Brad, and you'll be in the enemy's camp. Doesn't that answer your question?'
'Come on, dammit.'
Meeting Brad' eyes, Ram shrugged.
'Each of you will be full to the brim with motivational boosters to keep you oriented to the mission. You won't stray, whatever the temptations. We'll install undetectable barriers against psychic probes; then there are….'
'Damn you, Ram.' Brad cut in, his voice crackling with rage. 'You sons of bitches are going to roboticize us. Expendable is bad enough; you're programming us into suicide.'
'Not quite, Brad. Hear me out.'
Ram paced restlessly as he spoke, his tall, slender frame swaying, his head changing direction to maintain eye contact. Brad rose and stood erect, legs apart, fists on hips, fury pouring out in his body language.
'Your team has just been assembled,' Ram said, 'yet we don't have a moment to lose to get you in place and operational. Orientation and training will allow no more than four sleeps. The special knowledge and skills each you needs for this mission will be implanted into your conscious and subconscious minds, and, as it suits our needs, into your survival instincts. We have a long history at this game.'
Brad rose and strode angrily up the aisle to the door and pressed the panel that would slide it open. The panel did not function. Other than raise his eyes to follow him to the door, Ram continued talking as if Brad had remained nearby. After a moment's hesitation, Brad returned to his seat. Ram paused and gazed at Brad sympathetically.
'If you're all going to operate like a well-lubed machine, without appearing to be doing so,' he said, 'you'll need all the gimmicks we can hang on to each of you.'
Ram shrugged and went on, 'News of your escape will be broadcast system-wide; all part of the cover. They'll be suspicious for quite a while, but you've got to penetrate, despite the risks.
'The mission has many subtleties; you must all understand how they interact. Above all, you must never, despite the most extreme interrogation, betray the mission. In that sense, yes, you are expendable. Small comfort, I know, but insurance against betrayal will entail a simple psy-mod.'
'Is there to be a complex one?'
'Let's have it all, man.'
'If you are to join these terrorists, pirates, or whatever they are, your characters must be suitable to blend with theirs. On the one hand, you will be loyal to each other and to us; on the other, you, and I mean each of you, will lie, cheat, bribe, subvert, sabotage, and kill for the mission, and if it serves our greater purpose, act convincingly against us. That's one complex psy-mod.'
'There's more?'
'There's communications and one other. About comm, off-planet messages from Planet Pluto, especially through spunnel channels, are under the tight control of Pluto's so-called government. Transmission facilities are under constant heavy guard. You'll all be checked out by the local security people to make sure none of you are carrying prohibited comm gear or are otherwise wired.'
'The 'other'.'
'Last resort. It's need-to-know, if and when needed. When you become aware of the crisis to which it applies it will surface in your consciousness and in the mind of one other member of your team. You'll each know what to do.'
'Sounds like a jolly crowd.'
Ram grinned.
'I'm sure you'll all have a party. Back to comm: the Log Depot and the Terminals' work site have spunnel centers. Zolan will have the access codes to the Log Depot. At all costs, keep the construction site from becoming involved in this intelligence operation. If word got out that we used the Terminals for covert message transmissions, the Outer Region governments would blow their collective tops. We can rationalize using the Log Depot if we experience piracy and harassment of our transports and citizens. It'll be extremely dangerous to go beyond that.'
'No chance of using the Pluto comm center?' Brad asked.
'Don't count on it.' Ram's face was grim.
'What happens afterward, assuming that we survive? Also, can what you're doing to each of us be reversed so that we can return to what, for us, would be normal?'
'In the order you raise them: first, after this is over you will all be free citizens, records cleared, and we'll help you to return to your former lives, or reasonably close to what they were; second, the mods are reversible and you will all be de-programmed.
'You mention survival, Brad. You may be searching for assurance that you'll come through alive. I can't give you that assurance, for you or for your team. In all sincerity, I think that you and your team have less than an even chance for survival. Understand then, the name of the game is dare, but not stupidly.'


A retrospective compiled from Slingshot records and commentaries published in The Interstellar Historian early in the Third Interplanetary Millennium.

The Slingshot Advance Cadre arrived in the Neptune-Pluto orbit-crossing transition early in the 16th century of the Interplanetary Era, before the breakup of the old United Planetary System. Colonizing Pluto and constructing space kits which would be transformed into surface habitat and supply depots had begun several centuries earlier when the planet was barely past aphelion but within economical range of deep space transports. The cadre's vessels carried and towed communications gear, specialized construction rigs, platforms and kits which had been fabricated or assembled in the industrial tank towns above Luna, Venus and Mars, and cooperating governments of satellites in the outer region.
The Cadre's primary mission was to establish a base of operations on Pluto. The program called for the planet to ultimately support a colony of fifty thousand specialists and construction workers - and their families - for the assembly and testing phases, plus ten thousand transients and temporary residents. The latter would comprise 'rest and relaxation' visitors, liaison and special missions staff from a nearby logistics depot and the construction sites, and agricultural and food processing workers from Planet Pluto's moon Charon. Also expected were cargo handlers and ship's personnel from transports entering and departing Pluto from and to points throughout the system.
About eighty percent of Pluto's permanent adult population would work directly on the two terminals. The specialized professions for the initial phase ranged from scientists and engineers to artisans, skilled and semi-skilled workers in all of the disciplines and industrial skills required to construct and operate a complex station in space and service and maintain a permanent habitat and population on Pluto's surface.
Children would be born on Pluto, natural or cloned. They, as well as the general population, would be cared for and supported by a host of administrative, health care, educational, recreational, life support and community services.
The Cadre's mission was in phases. The first task of the initial phase was to land on Pluto's surface, seek out stable surfaces or create them by fusing subsurface strata to sufficient depth for support of heavy structures. Gravity enhancement surface panels and their energy sources would be installed wherever enclosed communities or special purpose structures were to be constructed. A detachment of the Cadre would land on Charon, Planet Pluto's moonlet, and fuse and seal sections of the moonlet's surface and subsurface same as on Pluto.
On the solidified, stabilized surfaces of Pluto and Charon the Cadre would erect a tank town dome. The dome would have a ten-kilometer radius on Planet Pluto and a one-kilometer radius on Charon. Construction would proceed concurrently on surface and subsurface utility and life support facilities essential to human habitation. When enclosed areas were shirt-sleeve ready for occupancy, the Cadre would erect essential life support, residential and recreational facilities. These would be followed by technical, communications and transport networks for Slingshot scientists, industrial technicians, and staff, followed by enclosed living areas for the remainder of the general populace that would train and do the work during the subsequent phases.
The tank town on Planet Pluto would be named Coldfield; its counterpart on Charon would be Lamplight.
The Coldfield and Charon tank towns were habitable by the middle of the 18th century Interplanetary Era.
An On-site Project Management Team (OPMT) directed the Advance Cadre. The OPMT formed the nucleus of upper level managers and experts charged with organizing and guiding the functional task groups. The functional staffs would bring into being the on-site technical and administrative support facilities, install and operate its equipment, and govern the communities within which the populace worked and resided.
The OPMT was organized into three groups: Group One: Planet Pluto; Group Two: Charon, and Group Three: Logistics Depot. Each Group had its mission.
The Group One (Planet Pluto) mission:
Five kilometers from Coldfield, construct and operate a fusion-based energy generating and power transmission system to provide sufficient output to support all anticipated power requirements of the planet;
Beneath and adjacent the Coldfield dome, construct, organize and operate surface and subsurface laboratories, manufacturing and overhaul plants, space and surface transport and traffic routes and controls, surface roadways, utility and communications systems, landing and mooring facilities, energy hubs for gravity enhancement grids, and other essential utilities and facilities;
Establish and administer institutions for law enforcement, public health, education and other community affairs.
Group Two (Charon):
Convert Lamplight into a food-growing and processing plant capable of feeding the entire Plutonian permanent and transient populations, and workers at the Logistics Depot and the Terminals Construction Site. Encapsulate Lamplight in an impermeable composite membrane and introduce and maintain constant temperature and air-moisture and other agriculture-supportive atmosphere and environment that meet prevailing space colony or equal standards;
Constructively use Charon's and Pluto's water ice and substances generated as waste and by-products of human habitation throughout the Pluto sector. Conduct research and develop hydroponics and other agricultural systems, protein synthesis and manufacture, and ship to Coldfield, the Slingshot work site and the Logistics Depot quality foodstuffs suitable for storage and consumption. Charon operations are to be fully automated and robotically maintained.
In support of the Charon mission, the Planet Pluto, the Slingshot Logistics Depot, the Terminals' construction site, and ships in passage within the Pluto sector constitute an integrated ecological entity. All organics and all mineral and chemical plant growth stimulants, such as discarded or excess food and fluids, bio-waste, usable industrial and community waste, and cadavers are committed to processing as fertilizers or for specialized application to the creation of foodstuffs. Organic waste and cadaver parts not suitable for constructive purposes (fertilizer) on Charon will be fully sterilized and reduced as close as practicable to zero residue.
Group Three (Logistics Depot):
Construct a space station to specification above Coldfield and designate it 'Slingshot Logistics Depot.' Arrange for the depot to serve for central receiving, warehousing and shipping center for materiel committed to the Slingshot Terminals, and for processing materiel through the Planet Pluto surface technical and servicing facilities;
Provide the Depot with facilities and train its personnel for emergency backup in manufacturing and servicing capabilities redundant to those on the planet;
Create a highest level technical capability to synthesize materials, and manufacture, fabricate, test and calibrate those precision parts, tools and accessories which are best made in the micro-gravity and pollution-free conditions of deep space and/or safely distant from Pluto's and Charon's surfaces and their gravitational influences;
Augment the Depot's security with a gated force field that fully encapsulates and protects the Depot and all vessels engaged in loading and off-loading personnel and materiel; patrol contiguous space and keep the Logistics Depot and UIPS citizens and property self-sufficient and safe from disease, harassment and harm;
Install on the Logistics Depot and at the Terminals Construction Sites independent communications, cargo, living organisms teleport centers, each capable of receiving and dispatching authorized cargoes, passengers, dispatches and communications via conventional, spunnel, and specified non-conventional channels.
The Terminals Construction Site: The Slingshot Site is the focal point of the UPS operation. The Construction Site's mission is to research, design, fabricate, test, assemble and, ultimately, launch, position at destinations and operate and maintain the Slingshot terminals.


The planning did not anticipate the dissolution of the United Planetary System, the creation of independent and estranged Regions in their place, and a hostile government on Pluto.


Arms folded across his chest, Brad half-listened to Hodak reeling off status from screens that lined the Raven's flaked, time-battered bridge.
The indicators in Brad's line-of-sight, at least those that still functioned, displayed erratic and uncertain status of systems and accessories in the main power plant, fluids pressure pumps, oxygen generators and other vital gear. More than slightly precarious, according to the dials and blinking lights, but the records would show that the ancient utility had been accepted at the spunnel gateway in the void between the Asteroid Belt and Jupiter, despite its technical difficulties. Sneaking into the tail end of a crowded convoy of Slingshot-bound transports gave them the 'jump' they needed. The Neptune spunnel exit would do fine and provide a seemingly reasonable story under interrogation, if it came to that.
Stripped to her vitals, all but the simplest decisions withdrawn from her computer, the Raven reminded Brad of the High Pockets when he first took her over. The Raven's maintenance records showed that she had slipped to less than marginal for menial tasks. Hodak's verifiable expertise with duct tape and hand tools would get credit for the successful escape.
Planet Pluto, in her ashen melancholy, lay dead ahead. Sprawled across the frozen methane plain a couple of points to starboard Tanktown Coldfield's lights shimmered through its frost-crusted, barely translucent dome. Stretching away from the twenty-kilometer-wide city, the mottled terrain spread in all directions, slashed by ravines and man-made, soil-fused excavations, roads and bridges.
Mooring towers, launch and landing pads spotted the barren landscape across which crawled processions of utility tugs. Near-space cargo and passenger shuttles and taxis landed at and departed from pads adjacent pressurized airdocks into the city. Deep-space transports and utilities rode high, immobilized by fore-and-aft mag-beams at the pinnacles of two-hundred-meter mooring towers.
The Raven drifted closer. Brad noted the hard orange glow of energy packs encapsulated in vehicles moving about on the tanktown's dome and surrounding land surfaces. Adjusted magnification defined the vehicles as personnel carriers, flatbed trailers, dome fissure-fusers, and methane frost scrapers. Coldfield was a busy place.
Charon drifted into view from over the horizon as the Raven nosed forward. The moonlet's solid gray-green landscape was broken only by Lamplight's dome and its high-intensity flashers that pinpointed its landing pads, gateways and walkways. Further out, the logistics depot slid slowly across the sky like a glowing green-and-orange sausage.
Zolan keyed a signal to Pluto Traffic Control as the Raven crossed the line into the planet's jurisdiction. He added the ship's name and call letters. Several minutes passed without response. Zolan leaned back from the console and winked at Brad. News of their presence had preceded them and they were likely wondering, Why had the ship appeared in their skies?
The receiver squawked, 'Raven. Stand by for escort.'
A yellow-and-green-striped space tug drifted alongside and flashed its follow me signal. Brad nodded at Zolan who acknowledged the tug's instruction. Adari trimmed the Raven's controls and clamped a mag beam on the tug. She and the tug driver exchanged salutations and prattled navigational details as the escort moved off with the Raven following like an elephant leashed to a flea. Adari logged their destination: Slot 09 along Coldfield radius marker 13K.
Their passage was slow. Despite heavy traffic of tugs, taxis, and other small craft the lanes were orderly and the flow steady. Traffic thinned as the ship drifted over the parking field and disappeared entirely as the Raven closed on its mooring towers.
The escort rattled off mooring coordinates and the Raven fixed her position. Adari released the mag-beam. The tug slipped around to starboard and mag-nosed the clumsy vessel into its slot. A command from the tug and mooring beams glowed at the fore-and-aft towers to immobilize the Raven. Adari and the tug driver exchanged rough civilities and the escort was up and away.
'Lock down, fore and aft,' Brad intoned. 'Safety check mooring beams and vital connections. Secure all internal hatches and passages. Set environment controls at minimal levels for an indefinite stay. Report.'
He keyed the order into the log, added the time of entry, and keyed the record closed using his suspended Master's code.
Myra assembled records required by port officials. Hodak and Adari consulted checklists as they trooped from one compartment to the next; Hodak opened and closed switches, turned wheels and secured and sealed valves as Adari observed and verified. She surveyed each station, mumbled, 'confirmed,' and initialed the appropriate items on her copy of the checklist.
Zolan closed down the deep space communications system and inspected their suit's intercoms. Kumiko drew six handguns from a rack, checked firing controls and charges, and fitted the weapons to suits.
Zolan called for a taxi.
'Lock-sealing the effective range on personal weapons is the first order of business for all newcomers.'
The officious clerk in the Port Registration Office was skinny, short, stooped and sallow; and he squinted as if he had just emerged from darkness into glare. The deep wrinkles around his mouth twitched from cast-iron grin to scowl and back as he pointed from Brad' holster to the waist-high counter that separated them.
Brad drew his sidearm, checked the safety and set it on the counter. His companions followed suit. The clerk hefted each weapon in turn, double-checked the safety, and positioned it under a penetray scanner to check for illegal modifications and, using a hand-held standard, reset the range to Coldfield's limits.
'Five meters, max,' he said as he worked, 'and minimum effect level at all times. Set it any way you want when you leave the dome, but reset it as soon as you come back in. We do the first one for the record; after that it's up to you. Penalty for violation depends on circumstances; minimum is a couple of sleeps in the brig.'
He peered at them across the counter.
'We know who you are and where you came from,' he said. 'Keep out of trouble and you'll get by OK.'
As he finished each weapon inspection he returned it to the countertop, pointing the muzzle into a shielded enclosure and stepped back behind a barrier. The owner picked up the sidearm, rechecked the safety and the setting, and slipped it back into its sheath.
'Hope you were listening when I said we know who you are,' said the clerk, scowling , looking from one to the other. 'If you didn't hear me the first time, I'll repeat it: keep out of trouble and you'll get by OK. Y'hear?'
Brad scowled back, silent. Hodak grinned; Myra and Kumiko nodded and vigorously pointed at themselves.
'I hate trouble,' Myra said with solemn sincerity.
'Me too,' Kumiko chimed in. 'I hate trouble. I really do.'
Adari laughed, leaned over the counter, and rumpled the little man's scant hair. He jerked away.
'Wouldn't think of it, Buster,' she boomed.
She drew her hand back, looked at the palm, and rubbed it on her suit as she turned away. Zolan ignored the scene.
Hodak leaned over the counter and waved the clerk closer.
'So you know where we're from, do you?' His voice was a friendly growl and he got a curt nod in reply.
'Then you know we came here for sanctuary,' Hodak said. 'How do we get it?'
'Your entry permit is provisional; permanent party status depends on how you adjust to our rules.'
'This is the only place left to us,' Hodak added a whine to his voice. 'We're not about to start trouble and wear out our welcome.' Switching to a hoarse whisper, he added, 'Look, man, we need a place to put our stuff, and then we want to look around. Maybe we can find action in our kind of work that'll build up our credits. We've talked it over.' He thumbed to include his companions. 'We're available, and we can't afford to be choosy. The Inner Region doesn't mean a thing to us. Know what I mean?'
The clerk repeated his grin-scowl, snickered, and slapped Hodak on the shoulder.
'What's the word on living accommodations under the dome?' Adari cut in.
'Gotta register for permanent quarters, and you'll need a permit to build a place of your own. They're almost impossible to get. Try for 'temporary' until you know your way around. Good place to start is the Condor over on Con-man Slash.'
'How do we get there?' Kumiko asked.
'Taxi to dome air lock 22,' he replied. 'Inside, take the second transit strip. The off-ramps are Smuggler's Alley, Faithhealer's Spread, Plunder Cove, Bunco Crawl, and then Con-Man Slash. It's in the center of town; you can't miss it.' He waved them toward the air lock. 'On your way, folks; you're cleared.'
He watched them suit up and enter the air lock. When he heard the whisper of the outer door, he lifted a comm device, pressed buttons and spoke hurriedly.


Clearing the outer door, Zolan leaned against the buffer, tightened his bootstrap with one gloved hand, the other pressed against the wall to steady himself. Seconds later, he pulled away, shook his leg to settle the boot for comfort, and caught up with Brad.
Grasping Brad' elbow activated the suit-to-suit circuit. Myra, Hodak, Adari and Kumiko crowded in close and energized a camouflaging mix of artificial jive and loud laughs on the nature of the terrain, the location of the Transit Strip, the tank town's appearance in the distance, whatever served as a barrier to electronic penetration.
'The clerk passed the word about us,' Zolan told Brad. 'Gave full descriptions and said to notify someone called 'Scarf'. By the way, he did a lot more than check our weapons while we stood at the counter. We were scanned down to our bones. He's sending the file to his control, including the main portal's lock combination on the Raven. He'll have a lifter ready for someone who's to arrive soon. Looks like they're going to search the ship.'
'Fine,' Brad nodded. 'Nothing there to cause us a problem. Pass the word as we move along. No changes in plans until some contacts develop. Then we'll regroup and go on from there.'
Boarding a robo-taxi that had, a few moments previously, discharged suited figures at a nearby mooring tower, the Sentinels lined up along the taxi's portal. Zolan consulted a placard on the instrument panel and punched in the coordinates for Air Lock 22. As the flitter rose and headed toward the dome Brad thought back as he weighed their chances.
The processes of intense physical training and weapons drills, the concentrated telepathic loading of Plutonian political history and its government's despotic apparatus had been cleared from their consciousness; the substance remained. Nor were they aware of any new or altered neuro-muscular capabilities or functions. They knew they had a job to do, and what the job was. They were on their own: no mercy from one side, no help from the other.
More than three-score sleeps had passed since their choreographed escape; only the events flashed through his mind; why they happened did not.
The Raven, on a lengthy umbilical-catwalk, had been tethered to the Guardian Station, ostensibly for servicing after a servicing round of nearby communications boosters. The ship was skeleton-staffed. Brad and his companions had been secretly transferred beforehand to a cubicle adjacent access to the catwalk.
At Brad' signal, the Sentinels moved quickly. Hodak, acting as clumsily as he could, slammed and locked the passageway safety doors with the loudest noises he could generate, broadcasting the unusual activity to all within hearing range and for electronic sensor pickup.
They had lurched and stumbled noisily along the catwalk, Adari loudly suppressing giggles. As the last of the six cleared in through the Raven's air lock, Hodak had hit 'Emergency,' on all switches and the ship-to-station servicing lines went through quick-disconnect. Portals closed and locked.
Within seconds, Brad was on the bridge and his crew at rehearsed departure stations. The caretaker officer and his two aides stepped aside, silent, businesslike. They were Ram's men.
Adari hit the tether-disconnect. Disengaged, the catwalk drifted in toward the station as the ship edged away. Signaling Hodak for minimal repulse and acceleration to increase the drift, Brad ordered all hands immediately into accelo-nets. He increased thrusters to 'low' and, following a moment's pause into 'intermediate.' As soon as he sensed they could handle the acceleration he stepped the thrust up to 'max.'
The old tub creaked, pitched, rolled and yawed; lights flickered and dimmed; systems slipped into yellow or borderline red on half a dozen indicators, all recorded on the ship's records. The Raven all but flapped wings, and true to her name, took off. To the hundreds who watched from the Station's portholes, the escape was real. The cover might hold.
The alarms went out from the Guardian Station to Sector Space Guard, and from there to a patroller conveniently distant. Messages spunneled throughout the sector and to Earth and Luna: 'escape of dangerous felons,' 'sabotage of station surveillance system,' 'Station 15 unable to respond in time,' 'immediate pursuit and capture essential,' with abundant expedites and ASAPs in the text.
The scenario was exquisite. The word was out, and within hours, had spread system-wide.
A couple of million kay out, Ram's men boarded a well-stocked utility lifeboat and headed back to a prearranged pick-up. The Raven settled into outbound, Brad aware of an opportunity to merge with traffic at a not too distant spunnel booster.
Brad brought his mind back to the present as the flitter settled on the landing pad near air lock 22. Entering the pressure compartment and attaining atmospheric balance the Sentinels removed their suits and sealed them in wall lockers. The switch of weapons and holsters to clips on their inner coveralls completed, they strolled out of the storage room and mingled with a throng of citizens and commuters. Moments later they were on a moving transit strip on their way to beautiful downtown Coldfield.
The strip cut across and through narrow streets and alleys lined with huts fused from the gray detritus of the planet. Occasionally, a mall or square appeared along the transit route, lined with workshops, playgrounds, and colorful private houses or apartment complexes. Occasionally, they saw a dwarf tree or a flowering shrub in an earth-filled container.
Running and leaping alongside the moving strip as it passed slowly through stations, hawkers waved and shouted at the commuters and passersby, inviting them to examine and purchase the novelties and artifacts they waved about or in nearby open air stalls. From above, lighted globes, strung close beneath the dome, cast a harsh, grotesque glare across the city.
People swarmed, and a raucous clamor shrilled along the tightly packed streets and alleys. Men, women and children in all shapes and sizes: tall, short, stocky, slender, organic, bionic, robotic, and combinations thereof. Hairstyles ranged from totally shaved to elaborate hair-puffs, and garments from dreary, simple shifts to flamboyant, complex robes that twisted, circled, and knotted around their wearers.
This was Planet Pluto post-secession: a mixture of migrants from across the system. The tank town took them all, for itself or for Slingshot, or both. Those who stayed procreated, natural or clone, according to their customs or inclinations. The effect was a mixture of breeds whose interactions had brought out a bewildering patchwork of hybrid cults, philosophies and arts. Behavior ran the gamut; newcomers accepted or were overwhelmed.
Kumiko pointed ahead. The Condor loomed, a sprawling, multi-storied, down-at-the heels apartment-hotel, its surface colors akin to the low, drab rise on which it stood.
Stepping off the strip, they crossed an alley and entered the crowded lobby. Joining the laughing, chattering throng, they made their way to the desk robot, and registered. They received identicards to a small apartment with sleeping cubicles off a common room. The communal lavatory and electronic bio-shower were down the hall.
Entering the apartment and tossing their gear into a corner, they kept up a running chatter.
Hodak's only concern was where their next meal was coming from.
'Gotta find jobs or we don't eat,' he barked as he hoisted his pack on to a sleep pad and tore at its flaps.
Kumiko and Adari opened and slammed cabinets, checked housekeeping supplies and 'ooh-ed' and 'ah-ed' each discovery.
Myra and Brad stomped into a sleeping cubicle and heaved the sleeping pads first one way, then the other.
'Look in the corners,' Hodak bawled across the narrow hall, 'that's where the little buggers build their nests.'
Myra shrieked and drew her sidearm as Brad stepped back. She set the ray-spread to conic and ran the beam from one end of the pad to the other, into the corners and along the walls. They inspected the results, laughed loudly, and went on to the next cubicle to repeat their exuberant performance.
Zolan strolled from one room to the next, sharing the action with his noisy friends, meanwhile scanning the walls, ceiling, floor, lighting fixtures, visi-screens and cabinets.
He rounded toward Brad and brushed against him. His fingers pressed their message. The others, watching, drew the correct conclusion.
The rooms were bugged, sight and sound.


Brad and Hodak strolled into the Charnel Pit, Coldfield's popular tavern.
The barroom was noisy, grimy and crowded. Incense streamers slid and coiled along the soil-fused floor, their dissipating pungency unable to disguise the acrid stench of sweaty bodies and unwashed garments.
The long bar was hidden by leaners. Narrow aisles snaked among benches and clustered tables around which boisterous, elbowing humanity teemed.
A coarsely seamed face along the bar turned, observed Brad and Hodak as they glanced around from inside the doorway. Whispers went down the line, jumped to the tables and around the room.
The tumult ground down as necks craned. A hum rose and fell as Brad and Hodak were inspected, commented upon, and judged. It didn't take long for the noise to return to its former level: the amenities of barrooms everywhere.
From where he stood, Hodak failed to see a table with a couple of empty chairs. They waited. Shortly, nudging Brad's arm, he nodded toward a table newly vacated against a wall.
They pushed and twisted through the narrow spaces to the table in time for Hodak to slam his hand, palm down, flat on the tabletop, glaring off a trio of competitors.
They sat, and Hodak pressed the glow-disk in the center of the table to summon the robo-dispenser. Meanwhile, they surveyed the throng.
Some types were recognizable; others would need to be guessed at. Mostly, they were familiar: spacefarers and space tug cowboys in tight-fitting foundation suits, construction stiffs in fitted helmets and spacers' harnesses, clerks and tradesmen in business tunics, and street people in coarsely woven, grimy open-necked shirts and shorts. Slingshot technicians' jumpsuits were marked by distinctive shoulder patches.
Scattered in knots, or leaning against walls and supports, men and women, bare to the waist and sporting sheer breechclouts or none at all, flaunted their wares.
Brad recognized spoilsmen plying their trades. They were the dandies attired in colorful, skin-tight sports suits: thieves, pickpockets, high-tech gear rustlers, black marketers, professional gamblers, and experts in all the scams that are or ever were.
Hand and shoulder weapons were everywhere: lashed to thighs or slung across backs, flat on tables or stacked along the bar. Churning and jostling, the swarm shifted constantly: singly, in couples and groups; from fledglings newly on the wing to old timers diminished by adversity. Most were in their prime: hard of face and body, wary, unbridled and self-seeking. They mixed freely.
At a table further along the wall near to where Brad and Hodak sat, Drummer gently swirled the contents of his drinking goblet. He was gaunt, well past middle years, with a high-boned countenance. His head was capped by snow-white hair trimmed straight across at his shoulders. Dressed simply, Drummer wore a dark cloak over a white, open-necked blouse tucked into loose breeches that ended a bit below his knees. He did not bear a weapon.
Drummer stared about and searched for strangers that might serve his purpose. When he heard that the Raven was at planet-fall, he had called for and reread all available newscasts and reports to refresh his recollections of their crimes, personal backgrounds, and escape.
Were they really escaped prisoners? Or were they agents of the UIPS? If they were fugitives they might be suckered into President Narval's mercenaries where their spacer's skills would help fill the gaps. If they were revealed to be UIPS agents, they would be quickly disposed of, or manipulated and exploited through false leads to Narval's benefit. When no longer useful they would be terminated.
The newscasts and intelligence summaries on the escape were insufficient. Drummer's position as one of Narval's closest advisors, and his own private and secret ambitions, compelled him to learn more about the newcomers. How could they fit into his schemes?
Drummer ordered a fresh drink from a passing robo-dispenser. It arrived in a large snifter. Cradling the rounded bottom in his palm, he swished the gold-hued liquid with a gentle motion, eyes moving from the drink to the crowd to Brad and Hodak, and randomly round again.
A hard-muscled sledgehammer of a man barged into the Charnel Pit, sullen anger knotting his beefy face. His military uniform was skin-tight: a black tunic belted over blood-red breeches. The military helmet he wore was also halved black and red as were his holster and the hand-grip of the protruding weapon. His black cavalier boots were made for swaggering. Formidable.
Deep, red-rimmed eyes glared from under the helmet's visor, searching for an open space along the bar. The line was solid.
'Open ranks,' he snarled, and leaned heavily into the instant gap.
The barman rushed forward and raised his hand in respectful greeting.
'Honored to see you, Major Scarf,' he said, 'what'll it be?'
'Firehouse Red, and I don't mean the runny slops you peddle to the bar flies.'
The barman dashed off and returned with a long-necked flagon and a large tumbler. He poured a slow-flowing, crimson liquor that bubbled as it settled. The barman set the brimming tumbler close to the Major's massive, thick-fingered hand.
The Firehouse Red disappeared in a single, spasmodic swallow, for all its slow-flowing nature. The barman stood by. The instant the tumbler slammed down, he refilled it, the ritual repeated in silence.
Finally, the sledgehammer hesitated, belched, and, with a satisfied sneer, scratched his crotch. The barman filled the tumbler a third time and turned away. Instantly, the flagon was yanked from his hand. The barman glanced back at the flagon, Major Scarf, grinned sheepishly, and kept going.
Placing the flagon alongside on the bar, Scarf raised the half-filled tumbler, fondled it, and tossed a scornful glance up and down the line. Few met his eyes, and those who did looked elsewhere as soon as he fixed on them. With a snort of contempt he wheeled to face the room. Removing his heavy helmet and lowering it to the ground alongside his leg, he leaned back to rest his elbows on the bar's edge.
His eyes scanned the room, sectoring the crowd and scrutinizing each person. Taking in the tables along the wall, he paused at Brad and Hodak, and scowled at them steadily through half-closed eyes.
Brad and Hodak returned Scarf's gaze with expressions cold and closed. The Major's eyes moved on and fixed on Drummer. His face twisted into a malevolent grin.


'Hey, everybody, quiet.' Scarf's spit-and-phlegm bellow tamped the barroom noise. It ground down.
Pointing at the solitary figure seated at the wall table, Scarf smirked and barked, 'Give us the magic words, Drummer.'
The crowd's eyes went from Scarf to Drummer and back. No one spoke.
'Drummer knows,' Scarf added sarcasm to his tone, raising his finger to tap his temple. 'The future is open to him.'
Drummer sat, transfixed, staring at Scarf. His free hand closed into a tense fist, then opened to cap his knee.
'C'mon, Drummer,' Scarf went on, derisively, 'tell us what you're going to do to make things right for all of us, and how we'll all be prosperous after Slingshot cuts away.'
His voice became harsher, gibing.
'You've been sittin' on that Plutonian Council for years, Drummer, pushing your pet ideas to loosen up controls here and give more civil liberties there. You call yourself a Progressive, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean. To me, you're a revolutionist, undermining Narval's government, and trying to cram your politics down our throats.'
Scarf moved away from the bar, drink in hand. Taking a long noisy swallow, he fixed his eyes on Drummer from above the rim.
Lowering his drink, he belched again and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. Placing the tumbler on a nearby table he took another step toward Drummer.
'Being on the Council saves your neck for now, Drummer,' he said with venom. 'Soon as Narval gets wise to you, and kicks your tail off, I'll be coming after you.'
He reached Drummer's table.
'On second thought, why wait that long,' his voice changed to a snarl. 'Now's as good a time as any.'
He grasped the front of Drummer's cloak and jerked him to his feet.
'Tell me, old man, what can you do that Narval can't?'
The onlookers' silence hung heavily. The stale incense rose in eddies and diffused the shadows cast by the glowing wall sconces.
'Show's over, Scarf,' said Drummer in a low voice, trying to twist away. 'I've got to be on my way.'
He placed his hand over Scarf's huge paw to loosen it's grip. They were of equal height, but Scarf, more than twice Drummer's mass and build, would have none of it.
'The hell you do,' he growled, tightening his hold.
Scarf began to shake Drummer, at first slowly, then with growing violence. Drummer, unable to maintain balance, slipped to his knees. Scarf jerked upward, raising Drummer on unsteady feet. Ramming his face close, he cursed in a loud, coarse monotone, swinging Drummer in one direction, then another. Unable to disengage, Drummer was confused. His cloak tore, his hair fluttered about his face, and specks of spittle flew from his lips.
Brad and Hodak watched the commotion from where they sat. Scarf's sudden outburst was of more than passing interest. He had called his victim 'Drummer,' a name familiar to Brad through the many intelligence briefings he had been given during indoctrination; also, 'Scarf' was a name used in the immigration clerk's call from the landing site.
Other than military, who and what was Scarf, and why was he tormenting Drummer? More important, could this barroom brawl be exploited to the Sentinels' advantage? They desperately needed a contact within Narvel's regime. Their mission did not include the luxury of time. An opportunity had fallen into his lap. Brad leaned toward Hodak.
'The bruiser,' he said. 'Take him down, but easy.'
Hodak shot a quick glance at Brad, rose and shambled between the tables until he was behind the sledgehammer.
Tapping Scarf on the shoulder, he said quietly, 'Hey, c'mon, let the old geezer alone. He was just minding his….'
Scarf reacted with incredible speed for his size. Shoving Drummer away, he whirled, arm extended. Powered by the force of his pivot, the edge of his rigid hand aimed directly at Hodak's throat.
Hodak stepped back and to the side, gripped Scarf's thick wrist in his muscle-corded hands. Using his attacker's momentum, Hodak twisted and bent. The Major's huge body catapulted through the air and crashed on to a table and its several chairs, sending the occupants spinning.
A hand appeared from nowhere and pulled Scarf's pistol from its holster. In seconds, Brad was back at his table. The barroom went deathly silent.
Scarf bounded up, spitting saliva, floor dust and curses. He reached for his weapon and gaped when he felt emptiness. Recovering, hunched forward, he charged Hodak, murder in his eyes.
Freed, Drummer stepped back to the wall, shaken, not understanding what was happening. He searched for a safe place.
Focusing on the struggle he recognized Hodak as one of the escaped prisoners he had been speculating about. Taking a chance, he moved toward the table from where Brad watched the action and the crowd.
Hodak, waiting for Scarf's charge, stood balanced until the last fraction of a second, then stepped aside. Scarf passed like a juggernaut and smashed into the bar.
Leaning heavily over the bar, breathing in convulsive gasps, Scarf turned his head to glare at Hodak. Running his hand down his thigh he felt again for his weapon. Eyes narrowed to slits, he searched along the filth-strewn floor. Scanning, his eyes passed the table where Brad sat, stopped, and snapped back.
The weapon, distinctive by its red and black grip, lay there. He saw Brad watching, and Drummer nearby, back to the wall.
Scarf lunged at Hodak, arms grappling. Hodak danced back and away. As Scarf passed, Hodak grasped his wrist and elbow, twisted, and curved Scarf's arm back and up between his shoulder blades.
Hodak was gentle. With his free hand he probed and manipulated nerve centers in Scarf's neck and shoulders. Scarf dropped to his knees, then slipped back on to his rump, legs spread, arms slack, face perplexed. It was enough.
He sat there, shaking his head to clear it. Looking up, he saw Hodak standing a short distance away, and beyond, a ring of faces, several grinning, others frightened and wary. Shifting his eyes to where his weapon lay, Scarf glared at Brad and Drummer.
The silence was broken by the shuffle of Scarf groping upright, using a nearby table for support. He lurched to the bar and leaned over it for several seconds. Straightening, he grasped his helmet with one hand, wrapped the other around the flagon of Firehouse Red, and stalked out of the Charnel Pit.


The barroom's heavy vapors seemed to cease their dreary ballet. An uneasy cackle, strident and jarring, erupted from a corner, accompanied by the flat slap of a hard hand against the bar's rough counter. The tension dissolved into a ripple of raucous laughter. The hubbub resumed, and quickly returned to its former level.
Myra, followed by Zolan, Adari and Kumiko, entered the barroom, spotted Brad and Hodak, and moved toward them, snatching empty stools along the way. Placing the stools, they encircled the table.
Their eyes took in Scarf's heavy-duty red-black weapon, and then Brad and Hodak, elbows on table, scanning the crowd. They saw Drummer nearby and noted his disheveled appearance.
They rose silently, rearranged their seats, and sat again, backs against the wall. Kumiko fixed her eyes on the entryway; Adari scanned in the opposite direction, taking in the bar. Zolan and Myra joined Brad and Hodak to observe the roisterers resume their barroom habits.
Drummer still showed his embarrassment, apprehension and rage. His eyes darted from the doorway to Hodak to Brad. Brad turned his head slightly to take him in, then pointed to an overturned stool nearby.
'Pull up and sit a while.'
'You in charge?' Drummer asked.
'No,' Brad said, 'we're each on our own. Just socializing.'
He motioned at the stool again.
'C'mon, join us.'
Drummer looked closely at Brad, then at the others who ignored him. Brad's expression was bland, neutral.
Drummer felt certain that Scarf would return soon with reinforcements. He had to get out, fast, and he needed an escort to safety. Beyond that, he wanted to know why the squat powerhouse, now sitting calmly at the table, had intervened. He must have realized that his interference had been made at great personal risk.
Drummer righted the stool and stared intently at Hodak as he sat. Hodak, sensing Drummer's scrutiny, glanced sideways at him, winked straight-faced, and returned to observe the crowd.
Drummer finally turned to Brad, convinced he was the leader of this pack.
'We'd better get out of here, now,' he said, his tone urgent. 'Scarf'll be back as soon as he collects a few of his goons.'
'What was it about?' Brad asked.
'No time for talk,' Drummer replied, gesturing his impatience. 'We've got to get away from here, and I mean right now.'
'Sure, but who is that guy?'
'Major Scarf. Chief of Internal Security for President Narval. He has his own troops, and I don't doubt that he's lining them up right now.' Drummer's fingertips tapped the table in nervous staccato. 'Let's get out of here. Now.'
Brad stood, and the others rose with him. 'Lead the way,' he motioned Drummer toward the doorway. 'We're not familiar with the territory.'
'Leave that to me,' said Drummer.
Brad hefted Scarf's weapon, slipped it into 'safe' and, passing the bar, handed it to the bartender with a nod that was returned with a respectful wave.


Mixing with the street people, Drummer in sight up ahead, they moved swiftly. Adari trailed Drummer; Brad next followed by Myra and Kumiko. Zolan and Hodak brought up the rear. Drummer successfully resisted the temptation to look back.
Zolan activated his throat mike and spoke soundlessly. Brad acknowledged by stepping up his pace. He passed Adari and drew alongside Drummer.
'Your buddy, Scarf, must have had a friend in the bar,' he said. 'We're being tailed.'
'Another hundred meters. Cut into the alley on the left,' Drummer responded. 'It'll take us through a maze that still confounds the street people. We'll have a better chance in there to lose whoever is following.'
A corner loomed. They squeezed into a narrow, rubble-strewn passageway between high, rough walls. Stumbling along the barely lighted shaft they entered an alley, equally shabby, crowded with street people, refuse, and abandoned machinery.
They sped along the alley, noting its darkened, fuser-formed doorways, some empty, others clogged with trash. Inside, they saw the shadowy outlines of men, huddled women and children.
Drummer twisted from one alley into the next, and then another. He ducked through a gap in one wall, squeezed along a narrow hallway and exited into an open space. They packed up close, running and stumbling.
Drummer slowed next to a wall of composite blocks. Several were missing, leaving a space through which they squirmed. It was tighter than they had experienced so far. In near darkness, they were at a dead end.
Ahead was loose rubble forming a heap about two meters high. Drummer clawed his way around the side. He motioned the others forward and slipped out of sight.
Following one behind the other, they saw a shaft in the surface barely wide enough to drop through. They dropped into the darkness. It was less than a couple of meters. A light glowed and reflected from a wall to illuminate Drummer.
They were in a small, roughly rounded chamber. The walls were fused rubble, irregular and jagged. The floor was a mixture of Plutonian sand and detritus.
Drummer knelt beside a rock that protruded from the wall. He twisted the rock, pulled, and pushed it sideways. Reaching into the vacated space, he placed his palm on a flat, smooth disk.
A low hum from the wall. A fissure formed where the wall met the rubbish-laden floor. The breach lengthened and curved, its ends meeting the wall. The section dropped away into darkness.
'Move, move,' Drummer snarled his impatience. 'Scarf has this entire sector blocked out by now. He'll throw his mobile units into the alleys and cover every square meter. These subsurface crawl spaces and links are our only way. Feel for the ladder.'
He lowered himself through the opening and vanished.
Brad was committed. His glance ordered the others to follow Drummer. Hodak passed his light to Brad and dropped through first, then Zolan followed Myra, Adari and Kumiko. Brad dropped through and pushed the cover up until it snapped closed. He felt vibrations above him, then, after several seconds, silence.
'Must be spreading the dust of our tracks and the outline of the cover,' Zolan murmured, looking up from immediately below.
The ladder was rickety, and the shaft narrow and long. When Brad reached bottom, he was in a low gallery, about five meters square, hacked out of the rock. They were in the hub of a dozen passageways that led off in as many directions from low entries.
Drummer bent and disappeared through one of the entries. One after the other, they followed.
The entry led into a utility service tunnel, the walls lined with hundreds of braided cables and banks of wall switches and junctions. Neutro-lighted sconces glowed at intervals, providing dim direction to their flight.
Scuttling in single file and dodging cables slung between supporting columns, they covered distance swiftly. Brad moved up behind Drummer, replacing Hodak who dropped back to rear guard immediately behind Zolan.
'Scarf knows about these passages, and that we would head for them,' Drummer gasped over his shoulder. 'What he doesn't know is which access and branches we took and where we'll surface. A slight advantage, if we act quickly.'
They scampered and slithered for more than half an hour. 'Looks like we're the only ones down here,' Brad said to Drummer.
Drummer halted to recover breath. The line closed up.
'Normal,' Drummer gasped. 'These passages were abandoned years ago, after we switched to local spunnel transmission from control modules suspended beneath the dome. Too much trouble to collapse the subsurface tunnels, I suppose. Also, we had to consider the surface effects of a collapse. Couldn't afford the chance. As you see, the network is still useful.'
He shot a quick glance at Brad, then ahead along their route.
'Don't get the impression I've got to run from Scarf,' Drummer said, heaving another deep breath, 'or even to avoid him under ordinary circumstances. Obviously, he was drunk. My presence in the barroom gave him an opportunity to enhance his image. Your companion's intervention, I admit, relieved the pressure, but the method he chose may prove unfortunate.'
'Why this melodramatic escape?'
'To avoid a confrontation in which Scarf, backed up by his troops, would be in complete control; a confrontation in which you couldn't possibly hold your own. The encounter has already caused me embarrassment. I don't relish a repetition.' Drummer paused. 'And there's another reason.'
'I know who you are, and the circumstances that brought you and your associates to Planet Pluto. I want to know more.'
'My answer to that depends on what I learn about you and your companions.'
Drummer slowed to a fast walk, searching spaces between the bundles of the thick cables.
'So that you know,' he said, 'we're heading for my villa-dome about five kay from the city.'
Drummer grunted that he'd found what he had searched for. Clawing under a flap, he uncovered a depression in the wall alongside a cable junction. He pressed himself in behind the junction and into a cranny, motioning to Brad. One by one, they squeezed through, and found themselves at the foot of a flex-ladder. Drummer climbed; they followed.
They emerged through a manhole into a kiosk next to a transit strip. Darting from the kiosk Drummer boarded the strip and nodded back to Brad to join him. A moment later they were all gliding toward an air lock leading to the outside.
Entering the air lock, they hurried into space suits from the public service rack, checked each other's seals and oxygen reserves, tested the communications and pressurization systems and crowded into the pressure-equalization chamber. Air lock and suit pressures up, balanced and checked, Drummer jerked a lever and, a moment later, they ducked under the rising panel to the outside.
Running along the ramp Drummer flashed his suit lamps at a parked robo-taxi. The signal activated the craft and it was in ready status when they reached it. Boarding first, Drummer keyed in coordinates. As the last Sentinel scrambled through the hatch he hit the lift button. The taxi rose and curved away.


The black skies and drab mounds of Planet Pluto were spotted with color. From where he stood on Drummer's enclosed patio, Brad looked through the transparent shields at ice-gray of Charon low over scarred ridges to the west. Shifting his eyes slightly brought into focus the panorama of Coldfield's dome and its multi-colored lights. The orange-green cylinder of the Slingshot Logistics Depot gleamed in the black sky.
The Fandango force field around the depot shimmered. A wide gap separated the transports loading and unloading at the portals inside the force field from those outside waiting in line or clustered formations until moorings inside became available.
The short taxi ride from Coldfield had been uneventful. The formalities of introductions behind them, the host and his guests had refreshed themselves, dined and rested.
Drummer joined Brad and followed his gaze to the orange-green cylinder and its gaggle of transports and tugs. The silence was brief.
Drummer said, 'I've had your ship searched.'
Brad shrugged, eyes scanning the scene outside, and replied dryly, 'Hope it was worth your while. To us, it was transportation. Any old tub would have done. As it turned out, we were lucky.'
'I'll accept that it's an 'old tub.' I gathered as much from the reports I received,' Drummer said, 'but I understand the primary systems are in good condition, considering the vessel's history and the spunnel shocks the ship must have experienced on your way here. How does it all fit together?'
'How does it concern you?' Brad turned to face Drummer.
'Come, now.' Drummer shook his head impatiently. 'Let's not act naive; it doesn't go with the rest of you. But,' he added waving his finger at Brad and turning away, 'just so you don't make a habit of responding to my questions with diversions, be aware that I am a member of President Narval's Council of Advisors. Despite the incident with Scarf, I have considerable authority and resources at my command.
'I've checked through my confidential sources in the Inner Region,' he went on, 'and confirmed you are all convicted criminals that escaped from a Guardian Station prison. Now, for starters, how did you manage to get a spunnel jump and make it this far without tearing that old wreck apart? Those vessels don't have navionics for trips to the rim, nor do they carry the required gear and supplies. Straight answer.'
'We're spacers,' Brad said. 'One of us is an experienced maintenance engineer. Another is a space navigator. We've all knocked about the spaceways a bit on assorted jobs. I was Captain of a freighter before the Space Guard and the Transport Board took my ship away from me on trumped up charges, and then sent me up for five years of rehab. We teamed up on the Guardian Station, worked out the details, kept our noses clean and our eyes open, and, when the chance came, grabbed it. We did have a few breakdowns, but we kept her moving along until we could attach the ship to a convoy through the spunnel. We took our chances and made it.'
Drummer shook his head. A muscle twitched in his jaw.
'The reports I received identified your former professions and gave me the rest of your personal histories. Frankly, it has me wondering: a ship's captain, paramedic-logistics type, a maintenance engineer, communications specialist, navigator, and a weapons technician. Wasn't it odd to have these special skills fall into place?'
'Not really,' Brad countered. 'I could have made up any kind of crew I wanted. The station has lots of spacers under lock and key. These folks happened to fit in with my plans, and they were as anxious to get out as I was. It worked. Now, what's the problem?'
'The problem,' Drummer replied, 'is that a half-dozen escaped convicts with exceptional space skills make it to Planet Pluto; that one of them defends a high level official in a tavern brawl, making for himself a mortal enemy of their sanctuary's chief security officer. To cap it, the escaped convicts are now guests in the home of the official that they defended in the barroom scrape who, I might add, also happens to be a member of the President's Council. See the problem?'
'Crank this in,' Brad added, 'the citizen, who considers himself a high government official, moves about without a bodyguard thus inviting confrontations. Also, his attacker's arrival at the barroom couldn't possibly have been predicted, let alone his drunken behavior and my friend and I happening to be there. Add who it was that took the initiative for departure from the tavern, and that it was the high government official that invited the escaped convicts to his home. He wasn't threatened or coerced into extending his hospitality.'
Drummer grinned, nodded. 'You ordered Hodak to intervene. Why?'
'First, tell me more about Scarf.'
Drummer shrugged.
'He's been with Narval since the beginning of the regime. Did, and still does, most of the dirty work that keeps any government in power, and is better at it than most. He has a special hatred for dissidents to Narval's policies and uses spies, informers and killers to infiltrate their organizations and tear them apart. By the way, he also had your ship searched. Watch out for him. Now, my question.'
'When Scarf began to hassle you, I had no idea of his identity or position. His words and actions in the barroom gave me an impression that, if we got you out of that mess, you might reciprocate by helping us to get permission to remain on the planet, and maybe steer us to jobs. It was a chance. Now, as to your problem with us: is it insurmountable?'
Drummer studied Brad' face, trying to read his thoughts. 'Not really, insofar as a temporary resident status,' he said. 'Scarf will not be easy with you and your friends, especially my rescuer, Hodak. I'll talk to my associates. The skills you all have might be useful to us. Since you're a former ship's captain, I'll consider you spokesman for your colleagues.'


President Narval invited all TINOR ambassadors to meet with him in his conference suite; the subject was not announced in advance. The ambassadors sought guidance from their home governments. In response, they were instructed to attend, make no commitments, and report back immediately on the proceedings.
As the appointed time neared, the Presidential Security Guard, augmented by a detachment of heavily armed police, moved into the conference area. They took up positions at doors leading from the President's Suite, along the connecting corridors, and inside the Conference Room. All rooms, corridors and exterior approaches leading to the meeting site were physically and electronically searched, and the identity disks of all individuals passing through the area scrutinized and verified.
Shortly before the meeting, the President's Council entered and took seats along the wall, leaving the chairs around the table for the guests. A lackey scampered about, lifted the lids of beakers, peered in, made minute changes in the alignment of goblets, and scuttled out.
A view tank rose from a well at the front of the room, glowed, and cleared to show the Special Zone. Charon and its background of stars had been dimmed to reduce the clutter. In the foreground, the Slingshot Logistics Depot and its maze of ships, tugs, articulated cranes and flex-conveyers were portrayed busily engaged in loading and unloading the docked vessels, and the new arrivals waited their turn.
A flurry rippled through the room as a door panel slid back into its slot and the Ambassadors strode in from an anteroom. They were men and women of varying appearance: tall and short, slender and rotund, and cadaverous and fleshy. More than half wore the military uniforms and ranks of their nation, and the rest were in the colorful robes of their offices and governments.
Mostly in their middle years, they had the hard, arrogant look of ruthless power, survivors of craft and intrigue. Faces suspicious and wary, they took places around the table and did not speak.
A brusque announcement cut the silence. 'The President of Planet Pluto.'
President Narval, haughty in appearance and adorned in the red-black robes of office, entered to the sound of sliding chairs and rustling garments as all present leapt to their feet. Narval's massive body, pear-shaped and tapering into short legs and diminutive feet, shuffled forward in top-heavy gait.
Drummer entered behind Narval and moved to stand silently beside a lectern adjacent the viewtank.
Sunken between ponderous shoulders, Narval's hairless head was small and neckless, his face smooth-pale with thin-lipped mouth and a stumpy nose. Cold, deep-embedded eyes constantly shifted focus and direction. His small hands, fingers laden with rings, appeared to drip from his sleeves.
Lumbering to his raised chair at the head of the table, Narval laboriously stepped up and sat, lifted his hand to his mouth and nibbled at a fingernail. Finally, satisfied, he held the finger up, examined it and redirected his attention to his audience.

President Reen Narval had earned the fear and respect that he enjoyed. A victor of scores of battles for control of the planet's criminal syndicates and political machinery, Narval had left a trail of blood and broken bones behind him as a warning to challengers. Challengers to his rule did not survive.
A man of many talents, Narval had migrated to Planet Pluto from an independent colony orbiting Callisto. He had accepted expulsion from the place of his birth as the alternative to the court's sentence of physical labor in Callisto's encapsulated and sealed mines.
Educated and trained to practice law in the Outer Region's intersatellite and interplanetary courts he had, instead, become a serious liability to his government and to his community.
At his disbarment, the investigating officer of the Callisto Ethical Practices Board had presented irrefutable evidence of Narval's numerous conflicts of interests, extortions, frauds and other crimes in the performance of his responsibilities as an officer-of-the-court. Removed from the judicial arena, he was proven to have also cheated in the Callisto gambling halls, swindled citizens of sound repute, and twice convicted of murder.
Callisto and its orbiting colonies were wide open, but Deen Narval was too much for them. He was told to quickly depart Callisto's jurisdiction or take the consequences.
He left gracelessly, found a haven on Planet Pluto, and applied his many talents with vigor. Organizing Coldfield's fragmented criminal elements, he ruled with an iron fist. Solidly entrenched, he imposed tactics of terror on the population and encountered little resistance. He rose to the top, balanced on a mound of broken bones and crushed bodies.
Soon after TINOR came into being, Narval proclaimed Planet Pluto's independence, with himself as President. Despite the UIPS urgent need for Planet Pluto to support Slingshot, the newly formed, but weakened government of the Inner Region was unable to influence a populace dominated by a ruthless despot.
'I will govern well, and we shall prosper,' President Narval glibly promised the Plutonian citizenry. 'I have studied and practiced interplanetary law for many years. I shall demand justice for our planet and for all our people. We will not be slaves to the imperialists of the Inner Region.'
The new President organized a brotherhood with like morals, and bestowed on them ministries of great personal influence and profit. A bureaucracy rose and flourished; the spoils systems and corruption matched those of ancient Earth.
Reen Narval, President of Planet Pluto, confronted a dilemma.
Slingshot construction was approaching completion. The Terminals and Planet Pluto would come to a parting of the ways before the end of the century. Employment and extortionate profits from Slingshot services and industries would plummet as Planet Pluto continued outbound along its eccentric orbit into interstellar space. The economy would wither, and the inhabitants migrate elsewhere.
Narval had to provide for himself. For the moment, he held a good hand, and the stakes made the game worth while, providing it was himself that shuffled the deck and dealt the cards.
Leaning back in his chair, Narval scanned the faces at the table.
'I have dispatched a message to the President of the United Inner Planetary System,' he announced solemnly. 'It will open a new and better relationship between TINOR and the UIPS.'
The Ambassadors stared at him, aghast. Several rose partially out of their seats, looked at others at the table, reconsidered, sat, and glared grimly straight ahead rather than toward the head of the table. Narval smirked. A bombshell, indeed.
'Until now we have played children's games with the UIPS,' he continued, raising his voice to the level and tone of a despot's traditional bellow to repel an imagined enemy. 'That time is past. We must move on to a strategy that is more aggressive than petty raids on UIPS shipping or destroy a few of their insignificant spacecraft.
'The buildup of TINOR's military forces has reached the level at which, together, we have the strength to influence the final stages of Slingshot construction. That includes the launch schedule of the Extractor station to Alpha Centauri. We must use this new power to benefit all nations in the Outer Region. In short, the warships and weapons in Planet Pluto's military fleet, along with those of your governments, are a force that the UIPS can not ignore.'
Narval motioned to Drummer.
'Read my Proclamation.'
Bringing his hand close, he inspected its palm and fingers. Selecting a fingernail, he commenced nibbling at it, giving the task his full attention.
Drummer rose to his feet, drew a scrolled document from the sleeve of his robe and unrolled it. Holding the scroll so that his listeners could see his face, he read from the scroll without hesitation or inflection.
'The President of Planet Pluto sends greetings to the President of the United Inner Planetary System and to all citizens of the Inner Region.
'I, President Reen Narval, hereby declare and proclaim that Planet Pluto, as an independent and properly constituted member of The Independent Nations of the Outer Region, has the legal and inalienable right to use and to defend TINOR territory under my jurisdiction consistent with time-honored custom and interplanetary law.
'The Government of Plant Pluto, now and henceforth, assumes for itself as lawful all dominant rights of independent nations to possess and control all territory, properties, materials, supplies and all other resources on and beneath the surface of Planet Pluto. Such rights extend off-planet to national boundaries established in conformance with treaties in effect for delineating planetary and satellite jurisdictions in near and contiguous space.
'Through this Proclamation, we, the Government of Planet Pluto, exercise our rights and impose our legitimate authority.
'On the other hand, we are realists. It is not possible for us, at this stage of Plutonian national and industrial development, to assume the operation and servicing of vital life and community support systems, nor has the Planet Pluto Government the technical skills and facilities at this time to produce and deliver equipment and commodities essential for a self-sustaining economy.
'We, therefore, conditionally grant to the Government of the United Inner Planetary System license to install, operate, and service all life and general communal support systems in Coldfield Tanktown, and in all posts, camps and stations on the surface of Planet Pluto, its satellite Charon and throughout its contiguous space.
'We are, furthermore, gracious hosts. We herewith grant conditional permission for all spaceports, landing pads and mooring towers, and their associated technical accoutrements and equipment, to remain open to UIPS traffic. This conditional permission is granted providing qualified UIPS technicians and administrators under the oversight of Plutonian citizens staff these facilities. The Plutonian overseers will be afforded training by the UIPS to qualify them to assume the primary's operational and management responsibilities in all functions within two Earth years from the date of this Proclamation. The Government of Planet Pluto, as sovereign, will provide for station security and will exercise oversight and offer guidance through its appointed administrators.
The Government of Planet Pluto hereby levies an inventory tax on all materials and products arriving in Plutonian territories from the UIPS. The tax base includes all raw materials, partial and fully fabricated structures, technical equipment, and components thereof which are or yet to be committed to Slingshot. The Slingshot Logistics Depot, which occupies space within Plutonian jurisdiction, and all UIPS cargo transports entering Plutonian space, are subject to this inventory tax.
'Our inventory tax is merely an extension of the passage tax on ships intruding on TINOR's jurisdictions and which is currently being negotiated by the UIPS and TINOR governments. We anticipate the successful a completion to these negotiations.
'This Decree is in effect. Your cooperation is welcomed.'
Drummer released the lower end of the scroll and watched it curl up. He finished rolling the document, bound it with a ribbon, and tucked it into his sleeve. He stood silent, eyes on Narval.
Narval rose as he spoke slowly, his tone disdainful. 'I suggest that you communicate with your Governments concerning my message to President Camari. Add my expression of trust that they appreciate the advantages of presenting a common front.'
Waddling toward the door, he beckoned Drummer to follow.


Narval slouched back into his overstuffed chair. Drummer faced him from across the enormous ebony-composite desk.
Bringing his hand close, Narval searched for a fingernail that demanded his attention.
'President Camari must accept that we have the military forces to impose our will on Slingshot,' he said, momentarily shifting his eyes to Drummer. 'If he does not accept my offer I want to ram it down his throat. Have you come up with an action to implement our new policy?'
'I have.'
'Lay it out.'
'With no advance notice, impose the inventory tax on all Slingshot supplies on board the Depot and on UIPS vessels on both sides of the Fandango force field. The first step is to conduct our own inventory of UIPS property in Plutonian space; to do that we must have on site access to the Depot's records, and spot check the records against the assets. The presence of our military forces in space close to the Depot will back up our inventory staff. Businesslike, formal, and highly visible.'
'Why don't you use that tactic on the dozens of Slingshot laboratories and assembly centers here on Pluto's surface? Seems to me that would be less risky.'
'For good reasons, Mr. President. We need an exercise that is sufficiently visible, even spectacular, to make both the UIPS and our TINOR allies respect our will and capabilities to use organized military forces throughout our legitimate jurisdiction. A surface operation on Pluto will be barely noticed and not impress them with our military strength.'
'How do you expect the Depot to react?'
'At first, with confusion. The Depot Commander will try to bluff. Meanwhile, he'll spunnel an alarm to Earth and insist on guidance. We must not accept delay.'
'What if you meet resistance?'
'Overcome it. Set an example. After all, we are exercising our rights as a sovereign nation.'
'And after the inventory?'
'If peacefully accomplished, we withdraw. We'll spunnel the UIPS formal documentation on the amount of taxes due, and the schedule and interest for delinquent payment.'
'The penalties?'
'I have several in mind. Fines for minor delays, blockade of the depot and, eventually, military action should they get nasty.'
'How soon can you launch?'
'Three days.'
'Do it.'
Drummer turned to leave. Narval raised his jeweled hand. Drummer paused and turned back.
'What's this I've heard from Scarf about you taking a pack of escaped Inner Region convicts under your wing?'
'There's more to it than that,' replied Drummer. He filled in the gaps.
Narval scrutinized his fingernails as Drummer talked.
'I'm surprised to hear you patronize drinking establishments where such raffish elements gather,' Narval murmured around the focus of his attention.
'I feel it my duty to get about, to see, and to listen. There is much to learn by observing our people going about their daily lives. The Charnel Pit is one of the few places in Coldfield where people gather to relax and talk.'
Narval peered sideways at Drummer from narrowed eyes.
'Hm, you see and you listen to the people. What else, I wonder? Do the people also see and listen to you? What do you tell them, Drummer?'
'I tell them nothing, President Narval. I don't know what you mean.'
'Well, let it go for now. Back to your little brood. You say they're experienced spacers, and you've checked the facts of their escape. You know we're short-handed in technicians for the military fleet. Can we use them?'
'I'm not certain that I trust them,' Drummer responded.
'Test them.'
'Take them along on the inventory operation.'
'As I say, test them. Force whoever is leading them into a difficult situation. Keep him close to you and watch how he works himself out of it. If he does well, throw him to another pack of wolves. Get him and his gang involved, deeper. Make them prove themselves. When you're satisfied, bring them up to a level where we're squeezing from them all they have that's useful to us.'
'Scarf is after them.'
'Leave Scarf to me, Drummer. That's all.'
Scarf entered and waited for Narval to notice him. Narval's eyes were fixed on his hands. He spoke without looking up.
'Drummer has given me his side of the incident in the barroom,' he said, his voice cutting with sarcasm. 'The hangers-on in that sinkhole have, by now, spread their version all over Coldfield, Lamplight, as well as the depot and Slingshot. You came out of it looking like a fool in a confrontation that enhances Drummer's image to the detriment of the President's Chief of Security.'
Narval raised his head. His small eyes drilled into Scarf.
'I don't trust Drummer,' he said. 'I suspect him of trying to subvert my rule. He's too popular in the Council and among the officers and men of the military fleet. I can't chance direct action against him at this time. For the moment, I need his expertise in military strategy and managing our resources.
'I'm looking to you to find or create enough evidence so that, when I'm ready, we can undermine Drummer's reputation. As it is, you've built him up by embarrassing your high position in my government. Do your job right, and my problem with Drummer will fade away. I'm not pleased at all with your progress so far.'
Scarf's face was flushed.
'Yes, sir,' he said. 'My intent was to accost Drummer in a public place, draw him out, and make him look foolish. The circumstances in the Charnel Pit were fine, or so I thought. Intervention by an outsider was totally unexpected. When I get my hands on that convict, I have plans for him.'
'Hold off, Scarf. You can have him when I'm done with the pack, including Drummer. Until then, put your anger on hold.'
'Yes, sir.'
'Now, listen carefully.'
Narval leaned forward, eyes on Scarf. He described Drummer's upcoming inventory operation. Stubby fingers tapped the desk surface.
'I'll tell Drummer that I want you to go along on the inventory,' he said. 'Think up a reason; I don't care what it is so long as it gets you aboard. The real reason is to keep your eyes on Drummer, the operation, and these convicts he's harboring. I want to know everything that happens. Do you understand?'
'Yes, sir. I do.' Scarf's eyes lit up. He continued eagerly. 'If Drummer goes to the depot or boards UIPS ships, I should go along to see what he does. My cover should compel him to take me with him. I suggest, sir, that you appoint me as your counter-intelligence representative on Drummer's task force. My job, then, would be to check if the depot or a transport, whichever we board, is conducting secret surveillance of our military facilities, field training, and ship movements. Drummer can be told that my boarding the depot would be essential to the mission you've assigned to me.'
'Hasn't our man on the depot told us they've been performing those observations for the UIPS for quite a while? Wouldn't Drummer see through that ploy?'
'Not if you tell him this would be the first opportunity for your Chief of Security to enter the UIPS domain and report to you directly on his observations. It would take me out from under Drummer's command.'
'Hm, yes, I see what you mean.' Narval returned to examining his fingernails. He lifted a finger to his lips and nibbled.
'Very well, Scarf. I'll tell Drummer.'


Drummer paced the command deck of the Plutonian flagship Dragon, Brad nearby. Scarf, sprawled in an open accello-net fastened to a nearby bulkhead, watched and listened.
The ship vibrated as it moved along the launch rail leading to the mouth of the gallery hanger. Captain Hyk, the ship's Commander, hunched over a control computer on the nearby bridge and snapped orders to his Operations Officer. Both cast sideways glances at Scarf, discomfited by his presence.
Brad visualized the scene on the bridges and flight decks of the more than two dozen warships, ranging from cruisers to fighters, that formed the task force. All were in final countdown for launch from tunnels and other enclosures cut into reinforced shelters across a hundred kay of Pluto's surface.
At Drummer's invitation, Brad analyzed the launch schedule and deployment pattern. He had tactfully suggested substantive alterations to minimize warning time to the depot and its nearby transports. After some debate, during which Brad repeatedly justified his proposals to skeptical ship commanders, they were computer-tested, modified and accepted.
Brad knew he was on trial. Ram's words surfaced as he scanned the bridge: ' will lie, cheat, bribe, subvert, sabotage, and kill for us, and should our greater purpose call for you to do so, against us.'
'This one,' he mused, ironically, 'is on the 'against us' side of the ledger.'
Hodak appeared at the entry to the command deck and beckoned to Brad. As Brad approached, Scarf rose and sauntered in their direction, scrutinizing instrument dials along the way. His ears seemed to throb with the effort of eavesdropping.
'I've gone over the maintenance and operations checklists for all ships and technical support committed to this mission, as you told me to,' Hodak said, 'and then spot-checked them against installed equipment. We've only been on this job a couple of days, so I couldn't probe to any meaningful depth.' He heaved a deep sigh. 'From what I've seen so far, Brad, the systems are not as well-maintained as they should be, and much of the data and training are not applicable or out of date.
'My recommendation is that as soon as we get back we conduct a hard-nosed professional inspection of the fleet to pinpoint all the cats-and-dogs these dunderheads have jerry-rigged into the equipment and the software. We gotta give priority to the checklists that need to be updated to correspond with installed equipment. No two ships have the same configuration, so each checklist will have to be tailored. That's only the first step, and it'll be one helluva lotta work.'
'Drummer's main concern right now is getting through this operation without using weapons or incurring a technical breakdown,' Brad said. 'Either one will detract from the image we're trying to build. He should know ASAP what you found. I'll pass it along to him. Stand by with Kumiko in case Drummer needs some technical advice on weapons or engineering.'
Hodak turned to leave, and his eyes met Scarf's. Hodak grinned, and gave Scarf a thumbs up. Scarf glowered and turned away, moving back to the net. Hodak disappeared down the passageway.
The ship advanced along the gallery launcher at the mouth of the tunnel. Captain Hyk turned to Drummer.
'The Dragon is at launch station,' he said.
Drummer and Brad stepped from the command deck to a small balcony overlooking a shallow pit covered by a pale, translucent screen. A network of lines, representing tunnels and galleries, formed on the screen, each incorporating a tiny, yellow moving and blinking light to indicate a warship under Drummer's command. As each light reached launch position, it halted and changed from yellow to green. Drummer and Brad watched the last of the yellows convert. All green, ready to launch.
Drummer picked up a microphone, Brad beside him.
'This is Drummer,' he said. 'Operation authenticator is Tornado Six. Execute. First wave. Launch.'
Five green lights flashed to red and disappeared, on their way to predesignated stations outside Fandango: one off each blunt end of the Depot cylinder and the remainder at the entry to the gateway force field.
Ten seconds later Drummer repeated his codes and launched the second wave. The corresponding lights on the screen flashed red and out. New green lights appeared in their place, this time moving in arcs converging on the cylinder centered in a sphere: the depot in its force field cocoon.
The converging lines massed, reformed, and spread into a pattern resembling the spoke tips of an open umbrella, with the Gateway, the crowded transports and the depot centered at what would be the umbrella's hand grip.
Drummer turned his head and looked at Brad.
'Went off rather well,' he said.
'Seems so. That was the easy part. I don't envy you the next.'
Drummer touched a switch connecting him to the bridge.
'Captain,' he said. 'Launch the Dragon. Take your position at the coordinates that I gave to you. Activate our comm system to the depot.'
The ship shuddered as it shot from the tunnel and headed for the concentration of spacecraft above Pluto. It slowed as it passed through the umbrella formation and stopped fifty kay from the nearest transport.
Time lapse from launch was less than two minutes. Surprise was complete; the effect, paralyzing.
All movement around the depot slowed to a halt. The intranet filled with 'What the hell's going on?' 'Who are these guys?' and 'Bring on the dancing girls.' Then, suddenly, the channels blanked, replaced by silence.
Drummer keyed his microphone open and handed it to Brad.
Brad took a harsh tone.
'Attention: Commander of Slingshot Logistics Depot and Masters of all vessels, inside or outside the Fandango Force Field. The national interests of the Government of Planet Pluto demands compliance with Plutonian laws by all persons and properties within its jurisdiction. You and your vessels and the Logistics Depot are in Plutonian territory: therefore, our laws apply to you.
'The Fleet Commander of this Plutonian Security Force wishes to speak with the Commander of the Slingshot Logistics Depot. Depot Commander, please identify yourself and stand by. Acknowledge.'
Silence. Thirty seconds.
'Logistics Depot. This is the Plutonian Security Force. The message we sent you moments ago was for the Depot Commander. Did you read? Acknowledge.'
The reply came.
'Your message received. Please identify Fleet Commander.'
Brad and Drummer exchanged glances. Drummer laughed.
'The formalities must be observed,' he chuckled, his tone dry. 'Tell him.'
Brad keyed the mike.
'Fleet Commander Deke Drummer.' He put a rasp into his voice. 'Now, get on with it.'
Another voice came on.
'Colonel Hanno here. I'm the Depot Commander. What the hell game are you playing, Drummer?'
Brad' tone turned icy.
'Let's get one point straight, Colonel Hanno. You will be speaking with a Fleet Commander with the rank of Admiral. Should you need reminding, Planet Pluto is a sovereign and independent nation, and you are a guest within our borders. Your choice of words is offensive. Do you read?'
A long pause.
'I read.'


Drummer took the mike.
'Colonel Hanno, this is Admiral Drummer.' He winked at Brad. 'Colonel, my Government requires an inventory of Slingshot properties, materials and supplies in your depot and on the transports nearby. The information we develop from this one-time inventory will be used to compute UIPS taxes while the depot and transports are in Plutonian jurisdiction. My fleet is escorting the inventory specialists. Please arrange for them to board your Depot and the transports on both sides of your force field, so that they can get to their work.'
'I have not received instructions from my Government concerning the inventory or the taxes to which you refer.'
'That is between you and your Government. I am here at the express order of President Narval to see that the inventory is conducted. Can I count on your cooperation?'
'If I decline, what then?'
'Blockade, for starters.'
'The UIPS will not permit your interference with our operations.'
'Is that the formal response of your Government to my request?'
A short pause. 'No.'
'Then I suggest you dispense with the posturing and arrange to receive the inventory crews. Please instruct all Masters of transports doing business with your depot to cooperate with our agents.'
Another voice cut in, heavy with anger.
'No goddamned shakedown artists are coming aboard my ship.'
Brad motioned Drummer to give him the mike, indicating by his facial expression that the intruder did not deserve a direct response from Drummer's level.
'This is Commander Curtin,' Brad said with low-toned authority, 'Executive to Admiral Drummer. Who speaks?'
He winked at Drummer, who leaned back in his chair, grinning.
'Lieutenant Bura, commanding the transport Sandbox. I repeat: keep your damn squeeze clerks away from my ship, regardless how legitimate you claim your purpose to be.'
'You're in no position to refuse,' Brad shot back. 'You're in Plutonian territory, and we have every right to employ police or military powers to enforce our jurisdiction. You will cooperate in this inventory, peacefully, if possible; under force, if necessary.'
'You'll have to fight your way on to my ship.' Bura's voice was harsh, angry. 'Be advised we are armed and prepared to repel unauthorized boarders. I take your demands to be attempted extortion, and a clear threat to the safety of my ship, crew and cargo. That, at the least, is piracy in my book, and I am within my authority to use force to keep pirates off my ship. Now, chew on that.'
'Lieutenant Bura.' Brad' voice was space-cold. 'You now insult the Plutonian Government by accusing it of piracy. Your attitude gives us good reason to question the purpose of your presence in our territory. By your words, you command an armed vessel. Now you dare to threaten legitimate representatives of a sovereign nation with your guns. We have no choice but to conclude you are a danger to our ships and to our people.'
'Ridiculous. I am merely protecting the safety and integrity of my vessel.'
'So you say. Nevertheless, you have threatened to use force against our exercise of legitimate rights. Tell me, Bura, is your ship really a commercial cargo transporter or is it a UIPS warship with a military mission inside our borders?'
'What in hell are you trying to do, whoever you are? My ship is a transporter of cargo, and you know that damned well.'
'I know no such thing. All I know is you claim to be armed and say you will use guns against us. I repeat: are you on a military mission?'
'No, damn it, I am not.'
'I don't believe you.'
'That's your problem.'
'Not at all, my man, it's yours. You insult and then threaten harm to us.' Brad grinned at Drummer, who was watching him with an appraising expression. 'Our fire control system has you marked and our guns are trained on your ship. How does that strike you?'
'I say,' Brad roared, 'Bura of the Sandbox, how does that strike you? You have ten seconds to reply.'
Lieutenant Bura's voice came in, low and tight with suppressed rage.
'I read you, loud and clear. My gun crews are standing down.'
'Unacceptable, Bura,' Brad said flatly, 'you remain a serious obstacle to the success of our mission. Stand by and do not interrupt again. Admiral Drummer wishes to complete this transaction with the Depot Commander. Colonel Hanno, we are waiting for your answer to Admiral Drummer's request, which, I repeat, is to arrange for our inventory specialists to perform their duties aboard your Depot and the transports within your control area.'
'I take note of your fleet's deployment, Admiral Drummer,' the voice of Colonel Hanno was subdued but intense, 'and the manner in which your Executive responded to Lieutenant Bura's protest. My responsibility for the safety of UIPS supplies, properties and personnel under my command and for UIPS vessels in the Planet Pluto Special Zone leaves me no choice but to accede to your outrageous demands. I do so under most solemn and vigorous protest, and only because your guns are trained at our heads. Be aware these conversations are being recorded and spunnel-transmitted to my Government as we speak.'
'Your protests are noted, Colonel Hanno,' said Drummer. 'Please include our respects to your Government. Now, as to procedure for the audit, I suggest we set up a small group of administrators and specialists to prepare schedules and other details. This must be done immediately, as we have no wish to delay your support operations unnecessarily. Do you agree?'
'Good. One of my ships is now approaching the Gateway. I realize you may have reservations concerning one of my military craft entering your restricted zone, and I respect your reservations. Please have your representatives board the Plutonian craft outside the Gateway. My specialists are aboard, and the two groups can work out the details. Is this satisfactory?'
'I reject your term 'satisfactory', and accede under the same protest.'
'I understand, Colonel Hanno. By the way, one other matter, concerning the Sandbox. I cannot accept Bura's assurance that his gun crews are on 'stand down.''
'What do you mean?'
'I mean, Colonel Hanno, that I insist on an inspection of the Sandbox by members of my military staff so that I am certain the Sandbox's guns are not a threat to the safety of my fleet. I cannot continue to dilute my capabilities by the need to keep the Sandbox under special surveillance throughout this operation. That ship's guns must be rendered inoperative and, frankly, I don't trust Bura to perform that service for me.'
'Lieutenant Bura,' said Colonel Hanno, 'I assume that you and other transport Commanders have been listening in on this delightful exchange.'
'I have.'
'What do you say?'
'You're the Zone Commander.'
'For the safety of your ship and the rest of us, I recommend you comply with their demand.'
'Yes, sir.'
'Admiral Drummer?'
'Very good. Have the Sandbox stand by to receive boarders. This completes our discussion, Colonel Hanno. I'll get back to you if the situation calls for it.'


Brad studied the Sandbox on the utility craft's view screen.
'I think you'd better have a look,' he said to Kumiko as he twisted aside on the cramped flight deck. She peered over his shoulder.
'Got a problem?' Scarf sneered, his huge bulk cramped the remaining space behind the flitter's pilot seat. He hunched forward trying to see around Kumiko.
Brad ignored the question. He needed Kumiko's assessment of the Sandbox dead ahead.
Drummer had given him the job.
'I want this done in a way that will demonstrate to the UIPS that we're serious, and can back our words with actions. We've got to replace their image of us as misfits. They've got to see us as an organized military force that can defend its vital interests and, if necessary, impose its will.'
'What do you have in mind?'
'I want to use Kumiko's expertise as a weapons officer familiar with Inner Region ordnance. I want both of you to board the Sandbox and check all installed armament that can be directed against our fleet. Avoid a scrap, but if you find the guns have not been deactivated, do it for them.'
He pointed at Brad to emphasize his words.
'I don't want their weapons slipping back into operational status as soon as you leave their ship. Whatever it is you do, fix their armament so that it'll take them at least fifteen hours to get them back on line. We'll need that much time to finish our job here and return to base.'
Scarf joined them, listening.
'I don't like it.' His words were angry; his features petulant.
Drummer looked at Scarf with open scorn.
'Your likes and dislikes are the least of my concerns,' he snorted and turned back to Brad.
Scarf cut back in.
'I repeat, Drummer, I don't like it, and what I like or don't like is your concern. I'm here on counter-intelligence work, and I don't like your sending this guy,' thumbing toward Brad, 'and one of his sidekicks over to a UIPS ship on a highly sensitive assignment. I'm not that trusting they'll do the job as thoroughly as you're laying it out.'
Drummer frowned.
'What do you suggest?'
'That I go along.'
Brad stepped back to let the two work it out. He didn't relish the assignment. The Sandbox's commander was not going to accept boarders graciously.
'You go along? What the hell for?'
'To see how the assignment is carried out, and frankly, to make sure this guy doesn't, shall we say, inadvertently pass information to the enemy.' After a short pause, Scarf added, 'I'm within my authority, Drummer. Part of the counter-intelligence function.' Adding, with a sneer, 'Don't you agree?'
The utility's approach to the cylindrical Sandbox closed in on the port side. Brad, at the controls, increased viewer magnification and inspected the ship closely. Kumiko, looking at the same image, reached under Brad' arm and adjusted knobs and levers, zeroing in on one gun turret after another along the Sandbox's length. She whistled softly.
'They're loaded for bear,' she said. 'Circle them, Brad, let's see what's on the other side.'
Brad took the utility around to starboard, then topside and below.
Scarf again. 'OK, you've looked her over. Now, what's the problem?'
'The ship has four laser-quads and a couple of explosive decompressors. She's a heavily armed attack transport, that's all.'
'So what? Can you do the job?'
Kumiko looked at Scarf, her soft features wreathed in smiles. 'Oh, yes,' she said. 'I can do it. May take a little more time, though.'
Scarf leaned back.
'Well, let's not fool around with these jokers. If they don't cooperate, I'm for back to the Dragon and let our guns talk for us.'
'Listen, Scarf,' Brad said, exasperated, 'our job is to disable the armament, not destroy the ship. Also, if you recall, Drummer wants to get through this exercise without using force. That's why we're here: to fix the Sandbox so they and any other ship commanders of like mind won't get ideas about resisting us. It's a psychological play that will make the rounds as well as disarming a ship. So, let's get on with it.'
Brad opened the inter-ship comm-line.
'Calling Sandbox. This is Curtin on Dragon Utility One, approaching from your starboard. Are you prepared to receive us?'
'Ready,' came back. 'Your air lock is number 4, starboard. Go there now. We will extend umbilical and catwalk as soon as you're matched up.'
Brad guided his craft along the Sandbox to a portal bearing a large painted '4.' Slowing the utility, he closed with the Sandbox, gently fingering controls until they were matched precisely to the heavy transport's bearing and drift.
'Now,' he said.
Kumiko hit a switch, and the utility beam-anchor connected to a triangular plate above the airlock, immobilizing the utility to the huge transporter's axes.
The number 4 clamshell panels drew back and slipped aside. A yellow and white-striped catwalk snaked out and suckled up to the utility's hatch.
Kumiko looked at overhead dials and lights.
'On track,' she said, and after a moment, 'OK, Brad, we're connected and secure.'
Brad closed a bank of switches, opened another. 'We'll take no unnecessary chances,' he said. 'I'm setting the thruster to cut in at twenty percent as soon as we're back in and slam the hatch. Five seconds and into forty, another three and we go max. That's for just in case. So, if we need to move fast when we board, hit the accello-nets pronto. Got it?'
'Right,' from Kumiko.
'Sure, sure. I got it.'
'Next. I want 'em to be able to see that the power settings on our sidearms are low enough so as not to kill or cause serious injury. Is that clear?'
'If they start anything, I'd just as soon take a few of them out for good.' Scarf postured his belligerence.
'Nothing doing, Scarf,' Brad shot back. 'Using our weapons on this mission is bound to delay the schedule, if not much worse. It's been fouled up already by this little sortie. So don't provoke 'em; set your weapon in the lower levels.'
Brad set his weapon at the extreme low setting and noted that Kumiko did the same. Scarf set his at the highest level in the non-lethal category, and with a sneer at Brad, returned the weapon to its sheath.
Kumiko looked thoughtful. 'We should wear suits while we're on board the Sandbox, Brad,' she said. 'It may slow us down a bit, but we'll need to look at gun emplacements that have minimal air or none at all.'
'Sounds reasonable. OK, keep your suits on.'
They transferred their sidearms to outer sheaths, donned the suits, checked the communications and pressure, and were ready.
'Move out,' Brad said.


The Sandbox welcoming committee observed Brad and his party's approach through a clear pane in the air lock's pressurized section. The four husky deckhands and the officer-in-charge hefted snub-nosed laser rifles.
One of the deckhands responded to Brad' hand signal that his crew was aboard by conducting a safety check of the ship-to-utility connections. He turned away, and Brad felt the deck vibrate as the clam shells slammed shut. Kumiko and Scarf moved up to stand behind Brad as pressure equalizers hissed. Moments later, the air lock's inner door slid aside and they passed through. Opening their helmet faceplates, they returned the glares of the receiving party.
'Rimov, and gunnery is my business,' said the officer, 'what in hell are you gonna do to my guns?'
Brad wished he were beside the grizzled spacefarer facing their common adversary, rather than confronting him.
'Curtin, and my business is to make sure your guns don't get you all killed. I want to check your weapons control center, and every gun emplacement. First, central control.'
'Hey,' chimed in Scarf. 'How about a drink with the ship's commander? Courtesies of the spaceways, and all that? I'd sure like to sample some Inner Region booze.'
'You guys ain't invited guests, no way,' Rimov flashed back. 'The Commander is fussy about the people he drinks with.'
'Well, you can tell him …'. Scarf raised a fist to gesture, but Brad waved him off, his eyes holding on Rimov.
'To hell with that,' he snapped. 'We're here to do a job and get back to our ship. I repeat: first, the fire control center, then each gun emplacement. Now.'
'Our fire control center has been deactivated. Why do you have to see each gun?'
'You know damn well, Rimov,' Brad said, putting as much harshness into his tone as he could muster. 'Your pieces can be fired independent of central control; I'm going to make sure they won't be. Let's get on with it.'
Brad noted that Rimov was staring at the intensity slide visible on the breechblock of his sheathed weapon. Rimov then tilted his head to scrutinize the settings on Kumiko and Scarf's weapons. His brows tightened, puzzled. It passed.
'OK, follow me,' he said, pivoting and taking the lead.
The passageways were narrow, confining them to two abreast. Rimov and one of his men walked ahead, the other three escorts followed close behind Brad and his party. The corridors they traversed had been cleared; no encounters.
Brad, familiar with transports of the line, memorized their route. They had boarded amidships, lower starboard, and were headed for an armor-enclosed section near the stern. The surveillance and tracking gear and the laser-quads' fire control computers should be there. That part should be relatively simple. They reached a closed, heavy door. Rimov turned to Brad, his face reflecting rage.
'You didn't answer my question,' he growled. 'What're you gonna do to my guns?
'Nothing you couldn't fix in a couple of work shifts,' Brad replied, motioning to the door. 'Let's move.'
Grudgingly, Rimov placed his palm on the disk lock. A click and the heavy door retracted into the adjacent bulkhead.
As Brad expected, the fire control center consisted of dozens of consoles, scopes, directional and power control devices, and clusters of computer terminals.
Kumiko and Brad circled the small room as Scarf watched from his position inside the entryway. Rimov stood beside Scarf, his guards along the bulkhead, tense, weapons directed at the deck.
Kumiko pointed to a console.
'I've got to see behind that panel, Brad,' she said, pointing. 'The master firing system controls should be concentrated there.'
Brad turned and waved Rimov closer. Scarf didn't move; he got it all on his helmet intercom.
'Remove the panel,' Brad said, pointing.
'Won't take my word, will you,' Rimov growled.
Reaching over, he snapped several quick disconnects, slid the panel forward, reached into the recess behind, fiddled a couple of seconds, and pulled the panel forward again. It came loose, and he stepped back with it in his hands.
'Cut the power to this console,' Kumiko ordered.
Rimov shrugged, went to another console and pressed several disks as Kumiko watched. When Rimov turned back to face her she checked several lights and dials above the space where the panel had been installed.
Satisfied, Kumiko drew off her outer glove. Her hand remained encased in translucent, skin-tight insulation. Reaching into the cavity, she withdrew a tiny black chip. Setting it down on a nearby shelf, she repeated the operation. Shortly, a dozen chips lay on the shelf.
Rimov flushed with fury as he watched Kumiko work, but remained silent.
Finally, Kumiko stepped back, pulled a plastic bag from a pocket in her suit, and dropped in the assorted parts. Looking around the room, she went to a wall cabinet, opened the door, rummaged about and withdrew still more chips.
'Back up supplies,' she said, adding them to the others in the plastic bag.
She looked at Brad.
'The fire control center is out of action,' she said. 'Even if they do have more spares stashed away, it'll take them at least twenty hours to install the parts and calibrate the system.'
Brad turned to Rimov. 'Let's start with the aft gun turrets, and take them, in order, moving forward.'


The next two hours were given to rushing along passageways, climbing companionways and ladders, and crawling along narrow walkways. Several turrets could only be reached from the outside; Kumiko's advice to wear suits proven sound.
At each gun emplacement, Rimov, his guards and Scarf watched Brad and Kumiko inspect sector guides, range and directional interlocks and power drives.
Once satisfied that a gun emplacement was not booby-trapped, Kumiko inserted random realignment parameters into laser blocks, twirled tracking sequencers into disarray, and switched about chips and connectors. When she was done with a turret, the gun had a zero firing potential, and would take hours to repair, calibrate and test.
Brad noted that Rimov, following Kumiko's work closely, showed grudging admiration in his eyes. She was disabling the guns with gentle care, not damaging them, and Rimov knew it.
Finally, they were at the ship's bow. The final turret had been rendered inoperative.
Brad faced Rimov.
'We'll be on our way. Back to the air lock.'
Brad was relieved. They would soon be in the flitter, heading back to the Dragon, the job done. Even Scarf could not fault them. Scarf's report might even work to the Sentinel's advantage.
Rimov took the lead. The deckhands seemed less tense. They sensed that Rimov was impressed by Kumiko's professionalism, and they, too, had observed the consideration that Kumiko had shown for the ship's equipment. She was no crowbar techie.
They moved toward the air lock single file, Rimov in the lead, Brad, Kumiko and Scarf following, and the four deckhands, two abreast, in the rear.
Rounding a corner, they stopped. Ahead, three men crouched, laser-rifles at their shoulders aimed at them.
'Rimov, and you guys in the rear, outta the way. We're puttin' these bastards down.'
The order came from a short, blond-haired buck, eyes glaring above his gunsight.
'Wait,' Rimov screamed. 'What's the hell's goin on, Cordy? These guys got safe conduct from Bura.'
'I don't buy that, Rimov. We got the word down below that the ship's bein' taken over by Narval's goons. We're gonna stop 'em. Come for'ard, I'm tellin' ya. They're goin' down, right now. Get ready, Joe, Pete.'
The two guards behind Scarf and Kumiko dropped to the deck and snaked back around the corner. They were not about to shoot at shipmates.
Rimov dashed toward Cordy, his arms waving.
'Don't fire. Back off,' he shouted.
The men with the rifles were momentarily confused, uncertain; one began to lower his weapon. Rimov was a ship's officer; they would be in deep trouble if they disobeyed.
Without warning, the decision was taken from their hands.
Scarf panicked.
Stepping back and behind Kumiko, using her as his shield, he frantically jerked his heavy hand weapon loose, at the same time crouching in firing position. Gripping the weapon with both hands, he rammed the setting into max and fired around Kumiko. Brad was out of his momentary line of fire. Not so Rimov.
The burst hit Rimov between the shoulder blades. There was a sharp, crackling sound as cloth and Rimov's flesh carbonized. He fell forward, dead before he struck the deck.
No one moved. Cordy and his men stared at their fallen officer.
Brad didn't wait for them to recover.
'Back,' he shouted to Kumiko and Scarf. 'Around the bend. Now.'
Kumiko whirled and raced around the corner. Scarf rolled back on to his feet and dashed after her. Brad followed.
Rimov's guards were nowhere in sight.
There was a roar of rage behind them.
'They shot Rimov. After 'em. Shoot to kill.'
The passageway was long; they would be at the wrong end of a shooting gallery as soon as Cordy reached the bend. The only break was a narrow ladder through a hatch in the overhead.
'Up,' Brad commanded. 'Fast.'
Kumiko first, then Scarf. Brad followed.
As Brad drew his legs up through the hatchway a searing blast struck the frame, missing him by centimeters. Brad twisted away as another bolt flashed up through the hatch, scorching the bulkhead from which he had just moved.
Brad shouted down.
'First guy who shoves his head through the hatch gets it burned off.' Turning to Kumiko and Scarf he whispered, 'That won't hold them for long.'
'Listen, about that shooting ...'. Scarf began.
Brad snapped him short with an impatient gesture. 'Shut up. We've got to get to the utility.'
They looked around. The space was almost dark; the only light from widely spaced, low-power neutro-lamps. They were standing on a narrow platform, little more than a ledge, from which a catwalk bridged a complex of girders and cables.
Brad mentally reconstructed their route before Cordy's challenge. The portal through which they boarded should be within fifty meters of where they crouched. Their lives depended on the catwalk passing close to it.
Studying the arrangement of the structures around them and the coding on cable bundles, Brad peered along the catwalk, first in one direction, then the opposite.
He looked at the open hatch and shouted down. 'We demand safe conduct to our ship. Do you hear me?'
Scarf shoved his face close to Brad.
'Are you kiddin'?' He said, his tone expressing his disbelief. 'I just killed one of their men. They're not gonna give us safe conduct anywhere.'
'I know that,' Brad replied. 'Even if they do promise us safe conduct, it'll be just to get at us. I want them to think we're going to hole up here until they give us an answer. Bura must know by now. We've got to get off before he personally takes charge of the search.'
Brad again scrutinized the ship's stringers and cable coverings. He pointed.
'Let's go.'
They crossed stretches where ledges and walkways narrowed abruptly to barely enough for passage. Sharp projections along the way snagged and cut into their protective suits. They realized that they might face serious seepage from their suits as soon as they entered the vacuum of space.
A sudden, raking fire erupted behind them. Metal frames around them darkened from the bolts of energy.
Scarf jerked his weapon and returned the shots before Brad could stop him. The flash of his weapon provided the ideal target, and brought concentrated fire in return.
Stooping and sliding, Brad and Kumiko stumbled forward. Scarf scrambled along behind, firing haphazardly to the rear.
Scarf howled with sudden pain. Brad looked back. In the dim light, Scarf hung over a girder, motionless. Brad raced back to his side. A wide strip from sleeve and shoulder was burned away; blood oozed.
Kumiko bent beside Brad. She yanked her glove off, reached in through the still smoking sleeve and felt for a pulse in Scarf's neck.
She stepped back. Brad, in the cramped space, hauled the unconscious Scarf upright, bent, and with Kumiko's help, lifted him on to Brad' back.
Scarf's scream of pain had brought a pause to the firing.
Grasping stanchions and cables for support, Brad staggered along the catwalk.
'Hatch up ahead.'
'Might be it.'
Brad gasped. Even in the light pseudo-gravity, Scarf's bulk was hard to maneuver.
'Take a peek.'
Kumiko was gone and back in an instant.
'Looks clear.'
'No choice. Down you go. I'll drop him through.'
Kumiko dropped out of sight. Brad thrust Scarf through the hatch and followed. The drop was not deep.
The number 4 air lock was less than ten meters ahead. Brad heaved Scarf across his shoulders, and with Kumiko leading the way, they rushed toward it.
The deck carried the slap of running feet, fast and closing.
Cordy appeared at the end of the passage. Seeing them, he crouched on one knee and raised his weapon.
Kumiko beat him; at the sound of running, she had drawn her sidearm. As Cordy took aim she fired from the hip. Cordy fell back, stunned.
Brad had the door to the outer air lock open, Scarf on the deck inside. Kumiko rushed past Brad and he slammed the door and clipped it sealed. She snatched an emergency space stretcher from a bulkhead rack and snapped it open. It took the two of them to roll Scarf's inert body into the envelope, seal it around him and start an oxygen flow.
They snapped their faceplates closed. Brad hit switches. The outer portals slid apart. The catwalk and other connections to the utility were still in place. Carrying the stretcher between them, they crossed over.


A retrospective compiled from Slingshot records and commentaries published in The Interstellar Historian early in the Third Interplanetary Millennium.

Military forces had been non-existent for fifteen hundred years when the communities of the Outer Region broke away from the United Planetary System. Weapons of mass destruction had no purpose since the birth of the first World Federation in the fifth century of the Interplanetary Era.
In place of an organized military, the World Federation created an Interplanetary Constabulary to protect lives and property, investigate crimes, control traffic, and maintain general order. Their charter extended to all planets, satellites, colonies, outposts, stations, and all places throughout the void to which humankind had ventured.
The mission of the Constabulary remained unchanged during political reorganizations within the first World Federation and its successors. Its agents ranged the Solar System, and did their jobs quietly and efficiently. Few dared challenge their authority. When challenges did occur, they were not for long.
War, and the effects of war on people and things was forgotten.
It was inconceivable, in those times, that the region beyond the Asteroids would become politically and socially alienated from the unified government that humankind had finally adopted to guide them into the future. History, the citizens of the world concluded, had demonstrated the impotence of the ancient, long-discarded array of adversarial nation-states and come-by-chance leaders to govern one species. None had expected a return to the old, long-discarded ways.
When separation of the Inner and Outer Regions became inevitable, scholars in both Regions explored the possible and the probable relationships that might develop under the new order. The studies predicted that politically independent nation-states would create multilateral alignments and conflicting societies, lifestyles and philosophies.
They took into account evolving technological and industrial capabilities, prevailing energy and declining reserves of industrial metals, minerals, and useable substances and related them to the Solar System's demographic trends and predictions. When the United Planetary System dissolved, the successor UIPS' felt it had no choice but to continue the Slingshot program.
The conclusions of humankind's most distinguished scientists and philosophers suggested that two independent orders in space would bring with them a heightened likelihood of social and technological dislocations and disruptions. There would be interregional and, within TINOR, international competition for diminishing resources. There would be a multitude of disputes, constantly revised, to resolve territorial and jurisdictional differences forever caught up in and being molded by the astronomical dynamics of orbiting planets and their satellites.
The effects on Slingshot could be catastrophic. Its security was paramount. Immediately following separation of the two Regions the President of the new UIPS directed the creation of a powerful Military Space Force.
The UIPS searched the ancient archives of its military history and designed weapons of defense and offense. Ships of war and their supporting systems were brought back into being, and spunnel diameters and gateways expanded to accommodate them. A militant phoenix rose from its ancient ashes.
The Military Space Force was charged with patrolling the spaceways beyond the Asteroids to protect UIPS' vital interests. Their responsibilities included protecting the lives of UIPS citizens and private and government property throughout TINOR wherever they happened to be, in space or on the surfaces of planets and satellites.
The role and intent of the UIPS military was explained to all TINOR governments. 'The Military Space Force,' proclaimed the President of the UIPS, 'would remain until TINOR's member Nations were sufficiently stabilized to participate in ensuring peaceful passage along spaceways and at moorings throughout the Outer Region, and separately and collectively agree to participate in and support the Slingshot Program.'
TINOR, as a Federation, interpreted the formation of the UIPS Military Space Force and the President's proclamation on its role as contemptuous of their social and political maturity. The outcome was predictable.
Local TINOR Defense Forces were hastily organized and equipped. Dozens of ships of war were built and many space transports were converted into armed vessels. Each TINOR government, using self-defense as justification, established controlled corridors extending hundreds of thousands of kilometers into its contiguous space, often far beyond their legitimate jurisdictions. Passengers and crews of foreign space transports, passenger liners, and utility and pleasure craft, whatever their points of foreign origin or destination, required visas, local pilots, and armed escorts upon arrivals and departures.
Suspicions festered on all sides. It was an era of international and interregional political tensions and harassment, and military, technological and industrial sabotage and espionage. The history of Earth's ancients had returned to haunt the solar community.


Brad poked his head into Drummer's office at Fleet Headquarters. Drummer, at his desk, bent over a document, cast frequent glances at electronic displays on the wall nearby. Racks of data capsules, no space for them on the busy desk, crowded the floor nearby. A conical view tank, recessed in the wall to his left, glowed with symbols of ships and their military characteristics, along with tactical and logistical links.
Scanning the monitors and view tank, Drummer hefted a hand control and pressed keys. Eyes half-closed, he silently transformed mental images into memoranda and messages. Suddenly, aware of Brad' presence, he paused and focused on him in the doorway.
'I thought you planned to take a couple of days off after Tornado Six,' Brad said.
'Can't,' Drummer replied, his eyes back to his notes.
'What's happening?'
'Until Tornado Six, our forces functioned as separate units. Tornado Six was our fleet's first integrated operation. The mission succeeded because we got away without military opposition. I can't trust that sort of luck to hold. We need to refine our tactics, based on our experience with the log depot and that armed transport, and in anticipation of an early organized response by the UIPS.'
Brad appeared uncertain whether to remain or move on.
'Stand by a moment, Brad.'
Drummer resumed recording. Symbols in the tank flashed off and on too quickly for the eye to follow, but Drummer was no longer giving them his attention. He touched a glowing disk on the arm of his chair, sighed, and leaned back. The view tank cleared to continue its work unobserved.
'I need a break anyway. Here's what's happening, Brad.'
He motioned Brad to a seat alongside his desk.
'Narval was impressed at our success, especially how we bluffed our way through it. Just as well we didn't push too hard and force an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. He wants much more preparation before we get to that point. I agree, we'll leave that until our next no-notice inspection.'
'Well, we did have a fire fight, of sorts, on the Sandbox,' Brad interjected.
'By itself, much less significant than the raids we used to make on UIPS shipping. The Sandbox incident was the ship commander's fault however one looks at it. By the way,' Drummer grinned. 'I suggested to Colonel Hanno that he chastise the Sandbox's commander about allowing his people to attack my agents. Lax discipline, and all that.'
Brad laughed, but grimly recalled Rimov's wasted death. Drummer joined him in the laugh, then quickly resumed his serious expression. Elbows on desk, hands clasped, he frowned at Brad.
'In categorizing the Sandbox incident 'insignificant' I do so only in the context of its effect on objectives and strategy. In another sense, it was quite important.'
'Narval was pleased with the way you handled yourself, both on the Dragon in dealing with Hanno and Bura.'
'How did he find out?'
'Scarf, it seems, was quite anxious to get a verbatim record of everything said in his presence during Tornado Six. He was wired, and everything said in his presence was recorded. Had events gone otherwise, I'm convinced he would have lifted statements that each of us made and twisted them to discredit us.
'Putting Scarf in hospital immediately upon return to base didn't give him the chance to tailor the transcript. Since he reports directly to Narval, the recordings were sent to the boss from the hospital as soon as Scarf was admitted - routine security under the circumstances. I heard a short while ago that Narval spent some time in Scarf's hospital room. I can only assume he was questioning Scarf on the unedited recording as well as whatever he witnessed.'
'What happens now?'
'Got a call from Narval's office a short while ago. Narval wants to meet you. Call his office ASAP and get a time.'

Narval's stare was long and searching. He ignored the armed guards standing within effective range of Brad.
'Sit,' he pointed to a heavy chair directly in front of his desk. Straight-backed from flat, hard seat to shoulder level, extension clamshells from the upper section of the chair curved forward sharply to form tapered wings.
Brad sat. The clamshells closed in and stopped a few centimeters from his temple. Wired pads extended and touched his skull at several points. The chair was not comfortable; psychic probes weren't meant to be.
'Tell me about yourself,' Narval leaned back, inspected his fingers, and then concentrated on a monitor in the wall behind the chair in which Brad sat.
My name is Brad Curtin,' Brad began, 'and I'm here with five others to seek sanctuary.'
'Tell me about the crimes of which you were convicted, the Guardian Station prison to which you were committed, how you organized your escape, and how it was carried through. You know, of course, that you're undergoing psychic probing. The probe compensates for your awareness of its being used on you; the validity of the findings is not degraded. I see the monitor from where I sit, so, let's hear your story.'
Brad spoke for fifteen minutes without interruption. He related the events on the High Pockets, the investigation that led to his trial, his testimony before the Board, and his arrival at the Guardian Station. Without hesitation, he swung into the cover scenario that had been burned deep into his psyche by Ram's technicians: how he had selected his accomplices, organized the escape, joined the convoy into the spunnel, and finally, his arrival on Planet Pluto.
Brad let the embedded scripts flow freely. He trusted Ram's preparations; his life and the lives of his companions depended on it. Far more important, the Sentinel mission demanded it. Anomalies, he knew, would be sensed immediately, should he even try to color his recounting of the personal knowledge and programmed experiences now deeply embedded in his mind.
Brad stopped talking; the general questions had been answered. Narval studied the wall monitor behind Brad, and returned his stare to Brad.
'Let's clear up a few points,' he said. 'I understand the ship that you, shall we say, expropriated for your escape was no more than a local utility vessel in the Belt. Yet, from what you say - and your ship's log - your destination was the rim. Wouldn't you have had a fuel problem?'
'We thought at first that we would. Our plan, originally, was to get to a refueling station, replenish our energy packs, and take it from there. When we checked our bearings, we discovered that our coordinates put us within range of a spunnel node so we headed for that. When we got there, several convoys were lined up for entry to the Special Zone. Our ship had UIPS markings and the gateway was crowded. We managed to get in the lineup and made it.'
Narval glanced at the monitor.
'I see. Now, the Guardian Station prison, I am informed, keeps tabs on its inmates using a sophisticated surveillance system. How did you manage to evade observation long enough to get away?'
'Zolan, a member of our group is an expert in electronic countermeasures, counter-countermeasures, and so on. The system on the Guardian Station was installed two to three centuries ago. It serves fine, I suppose, for the ordinary run of inmates confined on the station. Zolan devised a screen behind which we did our planning and preparations. When we were ready to go, he rammed both a counter and a counter-counter device into the station's sensors. The double whammy confused the hell out of the system long enough for us to make our getaway.'
'That's my next question. It seems to me the Space Guard should have been after you immediately. How is it they let you get away?'
'I think I owe you the credit for that.'
'That's the way I figure it. The Guard needs a minimum number of ships to do its work in the Inner Region spacelanes. Those lanes are so crowded that they need every ship they can muster to maintain order. On that I speak from long and bitter personal experience. Since the secession, many more Guard vessels are needed along the Belt and their overlap into the Jovian Void; at best they're thinly spread.
'Because of the threat to Slingshot that they perceive in you, the UIPS has been draining both groups lately to augment patrols along routes through the Outer Region that converge on the Special Zone. The additional ships are from the Belt patrols. With all that they already have to cover, expending vital resources to chase a few escaped convicts just wasn't worth it.'
Narval wheezed a chuckle.
'So, you think you are beholden to me for this indirect assistance. Really feel that way?'
As he asked the question he looked intently at the monitor. Brad, in turn, watched Narval's eyes.
'I can't see it any other way, Mr. President.'
Narval grinned.
'Your answers to my questions present an interesting scenario,' Narval said after studying the monitor. 'The probe, by the way, does not indicate significant deviations from the facts - as you understand them, of course.'
Narval waved the guards away. Saluting, they left the room, closing the door softly behind them. Narval motioned Brad to a chair of much gentler design alongside his desk. As Brad exchanged seats Narval swiveled his chair to face him. He leaned forward and grasped Brad' wrist in a puffy grip.
'The interrogation is over,' he said. 'This little session with the probe, along with voice analyses of you and your associates has, up to now, failed to disclose a threat to me or about what you all now know of my plans and military capabilities. You seem to be what you claim. Nevertheless, you remain under scrutiny.'
Brad shrugged and remained silent; his features reflected that he expected no less.
Narval's smile was vapid, metallic.
'I commend you for the manner in which you represented Drummer and, I might add, myself. You did well with the log depot Commander and that upstart on the transport. I am especially pleased with the way you conducted yourself in that little squabble on the transport.'
'Thank you, Mr. President.'
'Now, to more important matters, Brad.'
Narval leaned back in his deeply cushioned chair and tented his stubby fingers.
'Your observation on the deployment of UIPS military forces interests me. It supports my suspicions. The Inner Region's internal Space Guard is constabulary in both organization and mission. Their jurisdiction is confined by the UIPS borders. Their Military Space Force, on the other hand, has a charter to roam the Solar System - comparable to ancient laws ensuring open seas and oceans.
'Transfer of fighter craft and pilots from the UIPS Space Guard to the Military Space Force, I suspect, is now taking place. Many will need to be refitted for long range operations, and their crews trained in the use of military concepts in place of those directed at local constabulary duties.'
Narval twisted the rings on his fingers, and his tiny eyes seemed to sink deeper into the surrounding fat.
'The greatest single concern of the UIPS is the integrity of Slingshot and the Special Zone. I am convinced that the UIPS military forces, once they attain optimum strength, will attempt to crush me, or at the least, dominate the Zone.
'We must prepare to withstand, to resist, and to triumph over this UIPS aggression in the Outer Region.'
Brad felt Narval's eyes on him
'You are going to help me to prepare,' Narval said.


Drummer expected the call..
'Drummer,' Narval said as the door closed behind the guard and they were alone, 'my threat can be as effective a weapon as the deed itself.'
Drummer chose caution. 'How so, Mr. President?'
Narval peered sharply at Drummer as he leaned his heavy body back, and folded ring-encrusted hands across his paunch. He shifted his gaze to the ceiling and half-closed his eyes.
'The UIPS now perceives us as having demonstrated a capability for military actions against their vital interests. If we follow up with threats and menacing gestures against Slingshot, the effect may unnerve them, to say the least. How do you see it?'
'It seems to me we've gone far beyond mere threats,' Drummer responded. Raiding and harassing their transports, attacking and destroying a couple of UIPS patrollers, and now, the inventory tax. We formally notify them by Proclamation that we'll lay siege to the Log Depot, we've boarded one of their armed transports and disabled its armaments. These are not empty threats and impetuous gestures.'
'Even so, they are prologue, Drummer. Hear me.'
Narval twisted his rings, first in one direction then opposite. Lowering his eyes to his hands, he paused often between words, choosing them with care.
'Here in the Outer Region, the separate nations are convulsed by internal struggles for power both internal to their sovereignty and within the family of independent satellites that orbit their host planet. Their political philosophies are diverse, lack cohesion, and have powerful advocates or opponents, some openly, others covert. The Heads of State are insecure and fear political coups. Rapid changes in leadership cannot be ruled out.'
Drummer watched Narval' eyes caress his entwined fingers.
'If new leaders arise and take over the reins of power from incumbents, so much the better for me. New governments will need time to become entrenched, create lines of authority and accountability, and install bureaucracies responsive to the wishes of a new elite. I repeat, confusion in the ranks, within other governments, is to my advantage.'
'Can you count on such events materializing?'
'Of course not.'
Narval wagged a finger at Drummer.
'But the uncertainty within regimes that these disruptions can, and may occur, dissipates and weakens their energies. If they fear enemies from within, and suspect enemies from outside, then they are diseased and warrant being replaced by a daring and skillful master.'
'Who might that be?'
'I'm not sure I understand.'
'Then listen carefully, because you play a vital role in my plans.'
Narval motioned a now openly apprehensive Drummer to the chair beside his desk. As Drummer sat, Narval leaned close.
'My strategy has two facets: one involves TINOR, the other, the UIPS. They are interdependent.'
Unwinding clasped hands, Narval's fingers drummed the desk.
'I repeat, with TINOR in turmoil no head of state can feel secure. New philosophies surface and attract supporters, occasionally, even strong leaders. If forces with objectives opposing mine move into the Outer Region, I will not sit by idly. I will intervene, even if it means imposing the most stringent discipline and controls.'
'With respect, President Narval, does Planet Pluto have the right to intervene into the affairs of other nations?'
Narval scowled, recovered, and snickered.
'Power gives us rights we would not have otherwise. When the old United Planetary System decided to use Planet Pluto as the forward base for Slingshot, they invested the planet with some of their most advanced technologies. Other communities throughout the Outer Region are just that: places where people live, work, play, consume and little else.
'Slingshot has given Planet Pluto a far greater role in the solar scheme. And now, a role that was entirely unexpected when Slingshot was first planned, dissolution of the unified solar government released us from UIPS domination. We gained opportunities to fashion and strengthen an infrastructure, and freedom to confuse our TINOR neighbors with a melange of schemes to satisfy their greed. Slingshot technology, facilities, and materiel give to us, more than to any other member of TINOR, the means to attain our aspirations. Power creates its own logic, Drummer. To answer your question: I will intervene into the affairs of other nations when it is to my benefit to do so.'
Narval's hands clenched into fists. He pounded the top of his desk in a tattoo as he glared at Drummer through eye slits embedded in fat.
'Understand me, Drummer,' Narval shrilled. 'I will be the dominant force in TINOR, and that's only the beginning.'
Narvel quieted, each warily observing the other. Hesitatingly, Drummer tried to respond to Narval's incredible declaration.
'Is that what's behind your recent Proclamation to the UIPS on a new foundation for interregional relationships?'
'What else is there?'
'Unfortunately, we cannot repeat Tornado Six. When I approved it, I intended it as a one-time operation to, shall we say, test the waters. It succeeded through your command, and the extraordinary initiative of Brad Curtin. We must now go on to other probing and design new confrontations from which the UIPS will be forced to retreat. Our tactics will, at times, include diversions, as we must keep both TINOR governments and the UIPS off-balance. They must be kept guessing - not certain - where I will move next.'
'How do you expect them to react to such provocation?'
'There is little likelihood the UIPS will gamble with the future of our solar civilization by retreating from Slingshot; they cannot risk the system-wide demoralization and desolation that would follow. I intend to play on their fears and on public pressures to attain my ends. That's where threats come in; we must use them regularly, but with cunning and consistency. UIPS perception of danger to Slingshot, compounded by the enormous distances from their military centers, will compel them to be reasonable. If our tactics are convincing the UIPS will have no alternatives. They will accede to my demands.'
'What if they resist?'
Narval's pudgy fists resumed their pounding.
'Let them,' he snarled, 'I will be ready; I will go further and challenge them. They will be compelled to come to me, and I command the high ground. I will defeat them, and move on quickly to my ultimate objective.'
'And what is that?'
'Isn't it obvious?'
'Yes, President Narval, but I must be certain.' Drummer's face was pale. 'My ears want to hear what my mind has been forced to conclude.'
'Very well, Drummer, hear this. Planet Pluto is strategically situated at this time to be the single, most influential force in human affairs. I will use that influence to consolidate my military control over TINOR. When I have that I will confront the UIPS and beat them down. I, Narval, will rule the Solar System.'
Narval's ultimate objective was clear and set. Drummer knew better than to dissuade him.
Having confided in Drummer, Narval waxed garrulous.
'I have debts to pay,' he said, 'and I shall get much pleasure in making good on them. Many insults and humiliations need to be returned to former colleagues on Callisto. And there are others, in tank towns throughout the Outer Region and in the UIPS. They will feel my wrath.'
'Is vengeance all there is to it?'
Narval caught himself.
'No, no, of course not,' he said, hurriedly. 'I shall govern. I shall be wise and magnanimous. Magnanimous, that is, to those who support me, and,' clenching his fists again, 'merciless to those who oppose me or seek to undermine my will.'
'Considering Planet Pluto's distance from the centers of social and industrial activity,' Drummer interjected, 'and our planet's far-ranging orbit, this could be a difficult location from which to govern the Solar System.'
'I've thought of that, Drummer. I shall move to Luna and rule from there. In stages, we can adjust to its gravity. Once Slingshot goes operational, this planet will revert to an outpost beyond the rim line. It was never meant to be more. To me, Planets Pluto and Eris' orbit have always been just stepping stones.'
A broad grin rippled across Narval's features. Drummer, somber-faced, returned Narval's gaze and saw his eyes shrink into lumpy flesh.
'Drummer, my plans include a position of great power and prestige for you.'
'A new elite and a new hierarchy will be created when I take control. I will want a council of advisors, commanders and administrators for internal affairs, constabulary and military forces, security, intelligence, and a vast bureaucracy to manage the affairs of government for an entire system of planets, satellites, and thousands of artificial colonies. Much will need to be done, and you will be in the forefront.'
'You honor me.'
'I expect faithful service, Drummer.'
'I shall do my best.'
'Good. Now, as to Brad Curtin.'
Narval leaned back and entwined his fingers across his abdomen.
'I had him here a short time ago and questioned him under a psychic probe. He withstood the inquiry. The probe did not disclose any inconsistencies to my questions; therefore, I can only conclude he is what he claims to be. What is your opinion?'
'My talks with Brad and his companions led me to that conclusion.'
'So be it then.'
Narval's attention seemed to wander. He reached for a document on the desk, and he perused it as if his mind was elsewhere.
'Drummer,' he said, raising his eyes, 'I want you to give Brad and his companions a special assignment, and report to me periodically how it is progressing. Keep them together, but watch them, and report to me immediately of any suspicious activities. I've also ordered Scarf to keep an eye on Brad and his crew.'
'Scarf? To what purpose?'
'I have plans for Brad, if he does well.'
'What is the task?'
Narval locked eyes with Drummer.
'Tell Brad to begin preparing plans and evaluating our military capabilities to penetrate the protective shield around the Logistics Depot and to capture it.'
'Good God! Take over the depot? For what purpose?'
'The reason you will give Brad is that TINOR will hold it hostage for a greater share in decisions on the disposition of Slingshot-generated assets.'
'That isn't the real reason, is it?'
'No. The objective is diversionary.'
'And the real objective?'
'You will be told when it is time.'


The Sentinels slouched in chairs, or sat on the floor, backs against the walls of the small workroom. Their faces reflected fatigue.
'About fleet capabilities for sustained combat,' Brad said. 'I need a 'how goes it' on the status of your evaluations. Give me a quick rundown and a documented report by the end of the day. Myra, you first.'
Myra spoke from where she sat on a chair tilted against the wall.
'I had training facilities and systems, emergency medical support, and general administrative backup. What I saw was guys and gals floundering around, leaning on each other, and making excuses. The training programs are antiquated; many aren't even remotely tied in with the equipment installed on ships of the line. Equipment operators are learning by hit-or-miss, and they miss much too often. Can't blame them for low effectiveness because the procedures are hazardous to their health. If we don't improve the situation fast, the crews will deteriorate to where they won't be worth a damn when the going gets even a mite rough.'
Myra paused, tipped her chair forward, crossed her arms, and gave Brad a hard look.
'I mean it, Brad. What's more, the medical backup for combat support is atrocious. If we incur casualties, the injured won't have much to depend on, and if the troops have no faith in their medics, their morale will drop, and I mean fast. There goes your combat capability. For example, medical supplies haven't been checked and updated for years, if they were ever checked at all. They don't know what they've got or where. The system needs a complete overhaul. I spot-checked the software and links on training, medical, and administrative systems, and found them to be full of gaps and obsolete citations. My report, Brad, is that these areas need one hell of a lot of work to get them up to even minimum standards.'
She tipped back until her head and shoulders touched the wall and closed her eyes. Her exhaustion was unmistakable.
'Document your findings, Myra,' Brad said. 'I want specific recommendations to deal with each deficiency that you find, the name of the person accountable, and a list of the supplies, equipment and skills to clear the problem.'
Turning to the others, he added, 'That goes for everyone; there isn't much to work with, so be realistic If you report a problem, tell me how to fix it. If the shortages can't be filled, we might have to take from one ship or facility to fix others. Clear?'
'OK, you're next, Zolan. What's the story on communications?'
'The equipment is generally good. It all came from the Inner Region, and not very long ago. Part of what we have was taken in the raids on UIPS ships; the rest is original equipment installed here during the Slingshot buildup. Most of the space-to-space systems are fully operational; there are some weaknesses in space-to-surface and surface-to-surface links. That part can be handled.'
Zolan paused to nod at Myra.
'There's a 'but', though, and here's where I tie in with Myra's findings on training. We've got a good supply of comm spares, but not enough skills to do the work. The comm folks can operate the equipment, no sweat there. The problem is that although much of the gear is self-repairing through built-in robotics, when the robies themselves need fixing, no one knows how. Chain reaction; it won't take long for subsystems to break down as the pressure of sustained ops builds. Barely enough maintenance robots on each ship and station to keep the equipment working. The number of out-of-commission robots is increasing steadily, and no one seems to know what to do about it. In time, this could easily lead to wide gaps in communications capabilities.'
'Do you know what to do about it?' Brad asked.
'Lay it out in your report. That's one area where we can't afford any screw-ups. Adari, let's hear it on ship's navigation systems and surface nav-aids.'
'Well, Brad,' Adari grinned, 'I had a nice summary all arranged in my mind, but I won't waste time by repeating what Zolan and Myra reported. Comm maintenance also applies to nav, as does training and data. The equipment is good, but only because it's fairly new and is robotically self-maintained. But nav robotics have no backups. Generally, when maintenance robies need fixing the work's done by human specialists or other robies. They're not on board. Eventually, this fleet is going to be in a sad predicament: nav equipment will go down, and no way to get 'em back on line.'
'How are you on fixing nav robots, Adari,' Brad smiled.
'I get by.'
'Put that in your report, too.' Brad turned to Kumiko and nodded.
'Guns, power packs, tracking and fire-control systems in fair shape. Ordnance-types and gunners are a breed apart, especially when they're taking care of their own, and even when working conditions are tight. They always do most of their own maintenance. The guns are modern, and there's a good supply of ready-to-install chargers. Ship commanders exercise their gun crews frequently, and many have been on the raids, so they have combat experience that the UIPS military lacks. As far as armaments go, this fleet will be a powerful adversary in any confrontation.'
'Sounds encouraging,' Brad said wryly. 'When you prepare your report, just tell it like it is. A bit of good news would be welcome.' Motioning to Hodak, he added with a tight grin, 'Last, but not least, what's the situation on structures, facilities, energy sources, and general logistical support.'
Hodak, leaning against the wall, rubbed his bald spot and frowned.
'I ain't happy at all,' he said. 'As I told you on the Dragon, maintenance training of ships' crews is sloppy, and standards are either just not there or obsolete. We're working on the ops and logistical support checklists but they're still far from compatible with facilities and installed systems. These guys operate by the seat-of-their-pants. What's more, ship's structural and power plant robies are down for maintenance half the time and spare parts are a mess. That also applies to surface shops and equipment.
'When ships are taken out of the line for repair, the process is too damn long, mostly because of the marginal and nonstandard support equipment. We got a real problem here, Brad. The sooner we get on it the better.'
Brad leveled a finger at Hodak.
'I want you to include in your report a way to update direct support from surface shops. If we're going to do ourselves any good on this rim rock one thing we can't afford is a fleet that can't stand up to a confrontation with the Inner Region. I'm not about to be hauled back to that tin can Guardian Station to face escape charges. I don't think any of us want that.'
Adari and Hodak nodded; the rest sat motionless. All looked somber.
Brad stood. 'That's all for now. I'm going to give an oral report to Narval as soon as I can arrange to see him. He needs to issue a heads up with a whip in his hands. Meanwhile, you all have jobs to do. Be where I can reach you.'
Narval and Drummer turned away from the view tank in which they had observed Brad and heard his words and those of his cohorts.
'Well, what do you think?' Narval bit into a fingernail.
'They raise valid issues, President Narval. If we are to challenge the UIPS military we certainly can't do it with an inferior force. I think we should listen carefully to what Brad suggests, and then, considering your objectives, adopt those ideas that will assist you in attaining them.'
'I will listen to Brad, Drummer,' Narval said. 'Then, I will tell him to report the details of his findings to you. I want you both to do what's necessary to bring our military fleet to a high level of readiness. Prepare instructions to our commanders for my signature. We must reach our maximum combat capability in the shortest possible time.'
Narval's eyes gleamed beady-bright.
'The shortest possible time. Did you hear me, Drummer?'
'Yes, Mr. President, I heard you.'
'I want to be informed, within the next one hundred hours, when you and Brad expect the fleet will be ready for sustained operations, and I mean 'combat readiness.' The names of ship and facility commanders who do not cooperate with you or Brad will be reported to me immediately. Do you understand?'
'I do.'
'Very well. Now, I have a special assignment for Brad. As soon as the two of you have the fleet upgrading program under way, I want Brad to conduct a joint review with TINOR military commanders to find out what shape they're in for a confrontation with the UIPS, should it come to that. I've already communicated with the Heads of the outer region governments, and they've agreed in principle to a preliminary meeting. I've approved a meeting place off Neptune; Scarf has the schedule and the coordinates. He will accompany Brad as my Security representative and sit in on all discussions. Tell Brad to use the Dragon for the mission and chair the meeting. Let the TINOR people tour our ship; we must give the impression of power. Any questions?'
'Brad may need to reveal what he knows of plans to take the Depot.'
'I want him to do just that early on in the meeting. It will give them all a target against which to plan and integrate deployment schedules, vectors, tactics and combined operations. Anything else?'
'No, President Narval.'


Brad stood beside Captain Crisper and surveyed the scene in the tank on the Dragon's bridge. Scarf lounged in an accello-net within sight and sound, as he had for most of the voyage from Pluto.
The Dragon's pilot and communicator, upper bodies insulated in nearby instrumented cubicles, concentrated on their tasks. Arms folded across his chest, Zolan stood along a bulkhead where his eyes could take in the full compartment without altering stance.
Ahead lay Titan in its retrograde orbit around Neptune. The satellite's surface was only partially accommodated by the tank. Titan's rugged peaks and glaciers cast a mix of orange, brown and white against a backdrop of vaporous nitrogen. Along the horizon's curve, lightning flickered and danced, and steady, high-intensity lights marked the location of domed mine shafts that probed and sucked at the satellite's core. Above Titan's nightside orbited a cluster of robotized tank towns and their outriders.
Gleaming slivers separated from the cluster, assumed an egg-shape and bloomed into a flight of spacecraft. They formed up abreast fifty kilometers distant, facing the Dragon's bow.
The speaker above the communicator's enclosure broke into the bridge's silence.
'Message from Captain Yargoul of the Jovian Battle Cruiser Windstorm to Captain Crisper of the Plutonian Battle Cruiser Dragon.'
Captain Crisper spoke without moving or taking his eyes from the tank.
'The message.'
'Ready to receive.'
'Greetings, Captain Crisper. I have been authorized by my President and the TINOR representatives that I am escorting to inform you that we are here in response to the invitation of your President. Is the representative of your Government present?'
The Captain glanced at Brad, who nodded. The response was released.
'Greetings from Captain Crisper to Captain Yargoul. My government's representative, Commander Brad Curtin, is present and prepared to meet with you and your colleagues. Commander Curtin suggests the meeting take place in the Command Conference Room on board the Dragon as soon as the primary members are aboard. Is that agreeable?'
A short pause, then the reply 'Affirmative.' Shortly, utility boats cut away from the ships and converged on the Dragon. Each vessel maneuvered to synchronize axes and align portals. Precisely positioned, each vessel locked on in turn and extended ship-to-ship umbilicals.

The Dragon's conference room hummed with the murmur of the Dragon's seated guests when Brad entered and took his seat at the table. Zolan occupied a seat against the bulkhead behind Brad, adjacent a glowing view tank.
Scarf was there somewhere along the side, known and ignored; a security agent to peer over TINOR citizens' shoulders was normal.
Professionals long in their trade, they were battle cruiser and destroyer flotilla commanders of the major TINOR powers, backed up by their experts in military intelligence, tactical operations, and navigation, logistics and internal security. Brad' measure would be taken quickly, and his influence and TINOR's decisions would depend on their assessments. He expected no less.
Brad' eyes ranged the table, giving each face equal time. They returned his scrutiny, casual, arrogant, challenging. It was his show, and his reputation.
Brad did not rise to speak.
'I needn't introduce myself,' he began. We've all done our homework I'm sure, and you know as much about me as I do about each of you. So, to business.'
Zolan rose, drew an instrumented rod from its niche at the base of the tank and brought up the quadrant that depicted the Special Zone. Manipulating keys along the rod, eyes on the tank, Zolan quickly brought the Logistics Depot in toward the core and increased magnification so that it occupied most of the tank space.
'The objective,' Brad said in a flat voice.
A long silence, then from the far end of the table 'What the hell does that mean?'
'Just that. We're going to take it.'
A gasp, this time from his left, followed by 'You guys are out of your minds.'
Feet shuffled on the grav-plates. Several among the seated were arranging themselves to rise and depart.
Brad waited.
The shuffling stopped. They were here to listen, not to commit. Brad leaned forward, placed his forearms on the table, one hand over the other. His steady eyes moved from one face to the next.
'No,' he said, 'we're not out of our minds. We can do it, and our losses can be kept within acceptable limits if we work together. Furthermore, the Depot can be taken with minimum damage to its structures and to its Slingshot stores.'
'What's the point?'
Brad looked at the questioner, a big man in a black and gray uniform and a soft helmet liner perched on the back of his head. Brad knew him through the phys-psy profiles he had studied before the meeting.
'Captain Yargoul,' Brad said, ' sooner or later the UIPS must accept that they no longer have mastery of space beyond the Belt.'
Altering his tone to include all, he continued, 'I needn't dwell on the obvious: our collective forces and Slingshot's distance from the UIPS places us in a far stronger position than we thought we would be at this time. I emphasize collective. On our own, any of us, individually as nations or in an alliance of satellites, wouldn't stand long against an organized assault by a UIPS battle fleet. But, collectively, we will not only resist them, we will win and take back full control of space throughout the Outer Region.'
Eyes cold, voice gritty as space-sand, Brad tapped the tabletop for emphasis.
'Having the power isn't enough. We've got to show it, and make it credible. Planet Pluto demonstrated what can be done with real power during Operation Tornado Six. I'm sure you're all familiar with that little exercise, and have studied the tactics.'
Closed faces. The silence was broken with low but audible 'So have their tac ops people.'
'Right, and we think they've concluded that TINOR is in a strong position to run its territories and space voids without any more interference from them. Also, that we can devise tactics and take initiatives that put them off balance and upset their Slingshot schedule. What we did in our legally contiguous space can be repeated elsewhere. The result is the end of UIPS dominance over its former colonies and spacelanes.'
Brad paused to preface his next words.
'You can continue to accept invasive UIPS traffic through your Territorial and Contiguous zones. You can do the same for their uninvited presence in your Exclusive Economic Zones even though the Laws of the Seas Conventions over the past several millennia expanded treaties to include or affirm each independent nation's rights. Or you can align with Planet Pluto, which is your right as a free and independent nation. Together - collectively - we can demand that the UIPS acknowledge TINORs jurisdiction in the Outer Region. TINOR can back their demands with military power that the UIPS can no longer ignore.'
There was a long silence, followed by, 'What does the Log Depot have to do with it?
'First, it's the closest, most politically vulnerable target within TINOR's legitimate boundaries and jurisdictions. Second, control of the Depot equates to a strangle-hold over construction progress and launch of the Slingshot terminals - which is life-or-death for the UIPS.'
'... and not for the rest of us?'
'Not for centuries. If it ever really came to sheer survival, we'll outlast the UIPS. When they collapse we can move in and feed off their carcasses for a thousand years if we have to. Meanwhile, we'll take over Slingshot and have it ready for the next launch window.'
A hard-visaged warrior leaned forward in his chair, and shook his head slowly. 'You're a callused son-of-a-bitch, Commander Curtin,' he said, directing his eyes directly at Brad,
'Maybe so. I'm also a realist. If we play the game right, and show a united front, this confrontation won't escalate to major military actions. The UIPS has got to cross our space, there's no other way. Take the depot and we can force them to finish Slingshot, but with TINOR playing a major role. It'll take some negotiating, but it's not likely that they'll shut down Slingshot.'
'How will you take the Depot?'
'You mean, how will we take the Depot? Unfortunately, we can't repeat Tornado Six. That was a crisis we manufactured and ran all the way, a one-shot operation. We've come up with another strategy to take the Depot, and that's what this meeting is about. You're all in on the action.'
'This is the first I've heard the Depot is to be taken,' said Captain Yargoul, looking around. 'What about the rest of you? Have your governments cleared this as a joint operation?'
Heads shook in the negative accompanied by shrugs and grunts. Unanimous.


Brad leaned back in his chair both hands pressed against the table's edge, arms straight and straight.
'Your governments have agreed to a united front against the UIPS, otherwise you wouldn't be here. Your Heads of State sent you. We're military men, not politicians or clever diplomats. What does that tell you?'
'Then I'll say it. We're here to plan a military action. That's what we do. The decision on whether the plan is implemented is up to TINOR politicians and diplomats. That's how they earn their keep. The target has been made known to you. Our immediate task is to assess the forces we will have available and operational to do the job. For that I need to know your capabilities, now and for the time they will be committed to the combined operations. Let's start with the Jovian System.'
Brad fixed his eyes on Captain Yargoul.
Time stretched, no one moved. Finally, at a nod from him, a gaunt spacer seated behind him reached into a pocket, withdrew a capsule and tossed it toward the front. It floated gracefully at Zolan in the light gravity. Zolan caught the capsule, turned, inserted it into a slot at the base of the tank and pressed a key on the rod.
The tank shimmered, cleared, and in rapid succession flashed images of battle cruisers, destroyers and support ships. Data unreeled across the lower section of the tank, listing ship's armament and ship's readiness rating.
The recording completed, Zolan withdrew the capsule and returned it in the same manner as received. Another floated toward him, preceded by a growl 'Titan.' The routine repeated, and within a short time, the major TINOR platforms and weapons for a combined assault on the Logistics Depot had been recorded and rated for readiness.
When the last capsule had cleared the tank Zolan's fingers raced across the console's keypad and the screen recapped the inputs. The Logistics Depot reappeared high up in the tank wrapped in its protective cocoon, and lines of transports loading and off-loading cargoes or waiting their turns.
The scene contracted, and the vacated space filled with numbers and codes representing the few UIPS recon-patrollers in the Plutonian sector followed by a tabulation of TINOR's combined assault fleet. The computer presented TINORs combined fleet's Order of Battle, and stabilized.
The assembled commanders, master strategists and tacticians all, pointed, commented, and proposed options on the employment of ships, formations and weapons. Zolan keyed their suggestions into the computer and the results appeared in the tank. Finally, there were no further options. Brad nodded.
'Mark it and distribute a copy to each Commander present,' he said, and turned back to survey the group around the table. He waited.
Captain Yargoul cut the brief silence.
'What we have, so far, is a textbook tactical disposition of forces around a theoretical objective. The reality will depend on the strategic plan for the operation and what we expect will come out of it. When do we get to that?'
Brad grinned.
'That will be made known to you at the appropriate time.'


Brad and Zolan walked silently down the ramp from the Condor and boarded the outbound strip. Skirting knots of commuters they faced outward in a momentarily vacant slot for two along the edge of the fast moving lane. Opportune and random, the location was as secure as any from eavesdropping.
'I briefed Narval an hour ago,' said Brad. 'He's certain that he can get the TINOR leaders to join for a healthy share in the prize. I've been ordered to plan for a combined operation to take the depot.'
'He's sitting on that. What he wants from me now is to portray an integrated assault by TINOR combined forces from a point halfway between the depot and the Slingshot construction site. I'm to work out the details and keep each element on a timeline from launch to full military control of the objective.'
'Doesn't that strike you as odd?'
'Talk to me.'
'Setting the launch point against the depot from a couple of million kay outbound from the Plutonian orbit doesn't make sense. It's especially suspicious when you consider that the TINOR forces will be coming from sunside of Pluto and therefore sunside of the depot - the presumed target less than a half million kay from here. Why not have the fleet rendezvous closer to the target?'
'My question, precisely.'
'How do you see it?'
'I'm not sure yet. Narval did say to crank in diversionary tactics that would draw the Terminals' defensive forces away from their normal ops zone.'
'That's weird.'
'Agreed. He's setting it up this way to maximize his options, he says. The final decision, he said, needn't be made until the final moments. Confuse the enemy and all that.'
'Are you saying the same plan can be used against the Terminals?'
'Absolutely. Oh, a few formation and tactical switches but they can be made in the field as the fleet changes the target.'
'Would it work?'
'A bit of delay, but I'm sure it would. But at whichever target Narval's final order sends the fleet, the results would be a disaster for the UIPS. The real target's spunnel lines will crash, destabilization will disrupt the entire Slingshot construction schedule. We'll have lost the launch window.'
More commuters swung aboard the strip and crowded their space. Brad and Zolan eyed them; time to split.
'What do you have in mind, Brad?
'Not much choice. Use the depot spunnel facility to get word to Ram. At first the depot's command post won't know what to make of your call and our designator. Don't take any nonsense about getting Hanno on line. Once you're through to him, you shouldn't have an access problem. So get to the depot, shoot the burst, and get back here without being spotted.'
'The message?'
'Narval's orders to me. Everything we've learned at the meeting off Neptune, especially the Order of Battle and options on formations for the combined fleet. List the types of weapons and warheads installed on each ship of the line and the coordinates for TINOR rendezvous and launch at the depot as the target. That'll get them as suspicious as we are. Crank in what the coordinates might be if Narval make a last minute switch. Point Icarus has been designated code name for the TINOR rendezvous. Include that. Tell Ram I said to get his fighting folks off their butts and earn their keep.'
Brad shifted, stepped over to a slower lane, and from there off the strip. He disappeared among the pedestrians. Zolan remained where he was for a distance, disembarked and strolled about near an air lock as he mind-impressed his message on a comm capsule.
Colonel Hanno will be surprised, Zolan mused as he pushed his way into the suiting-up room. Contemplating his mission, it might take a bit of time for Hanno to respond and track the code, interpret the instructions, and acknowledge what they required of him. He would need to push Hanno hard.
He selected and checked a suit for fit, fresh fluids, air and communications. Climbing in and closing up, he stepped under a helmet rack, drew it down, rotated mating surfaces, closed and locked the seals. The automatic self-test devices hummed pressure checks, and indicators glowed as the life support systems balanced internally. The suit inflated, held for several seconds, and subsided to normal. A tiny light above the inside visor glowed green to show status as ready.
Passing through the outer air lock Zolan turned toward a line of flitters. A guard watched him approach, rifle held casually across his chest.
'OK,' said the guard when Zolan was within five meters. 'Hold it there. What's on your mind?'
'Name's Zolan. I need a long range flitter for a hop into the outback.'
'Let's see your authorization.'
'What authorization?'
The guard's head wagged in his helmet.
'Y'gotta have authorization for a distant destination, buddy. That's orders. Otherwise, take a taxi.'
'Orders, hell,' Zolan growled. 'I can't get where I have to go using a taxi. I can't do my work with you security types puttin' the chocks to me for 'orders' each time I need to check a worksite.' His tone became scathing. 'Get your superior on-line and tell him my name and what I want. If he has any questions, tell him to check with Brad Curtin on President Narval's staff. C'mon now. Move, man, move.'
The guard's manner changed with the name-dropping.
'Yes sir,' he said. 'Right away, sir.'
Zolan's comm contact with the guard went on hold as the guard switched to another line. Ignoring the guard, Zolan surveyed several nearby utilities.
Moments later his line with the guard reopened. The guard's voice was deferential.
'Clearance received, sir,' he said. 'Got a real good single-seater here for you. Just came out of the maintenance shops. All systems have been checked and she's ready to go. Shall I warm her up and crank in the coordinates for you, sir?'
'That's OK,' Zolan replied, 'I'll do the set ups myself. I've got several places to visit and want to work out the trip on the box so I don't waste any more time. Which bird?'
'Follow me, sir.'
Moving along the line the guard stopped at a low-slung framework from which a crude cage hung suspended, held in position by braces angling in from connecting structures. Behind the cage, halfway along a shaft running aft, hung a tiny nuclear power plant. Nozzles of cone-shaped propulsion units on gimbals hung in neutral. That would change as soon as Zolan inserted his coordinates and activated the thrusters.
'Here she is, sir,' the guard exclaimed, proudly, offering Zolan a checklist. 'All yours.'
'Right,' Zolan grunted. Shifting his eyes critically from the checklist to flitter and back, he walked around the tiny flyer inspecting the spars for alignment and cracks. Moving to the power plant he examined the reactor's cover and seals for seepage and the thruster nozzles and gimbal for cracks and wear. Finally, satisfied after scrutinizing the instrument panel, he stepped back, initialed the checklist and handed it to the guard.
'Looks OK on the outside,' he said. 'I'll check out the warm up. If it cooks OK, I'm out of your way.'
He squeezed into the cage, set and activated the reactor. Observing the power levels rise on the gauges, his fingers stroked the flitter's keys and levers. He tapped his coordinates into the nav-comp as the plant warmed.
The guard moved closer.
'Know how to set her? Maybe I can help, sir.'
He stuck his head into the crowded space and watched the computer screen flip through the coordinates that Zolan inserted. The screen stabilized and reflected a series of vectors. The guard studied them as Zolan ignored him.
Zolan adjusted the torso belts and rechecked the reactor dials. He heaved a heavy sigh.
'Well, time to hit the road,' he said. 'Stand back, man, I'm taking her up.'
The guard stepped back and saluted. Zolan moved the power lever and directional control. The framework and cage quivered and the flitter lifted up and away.
Looking down, Zolan saw the guard bending backward, watching his direction of flight.
'Hope he got them all down right,' he thought as he entered changes into the computer.


Zolan peered ahead.
Reaching the depot's perimeter was less of a problem than he had anticipated. Following a few short stops to surface stations to inspect military tunnels and comm links, and validate the flitter's flight record, he diverted to a depression between Coldfield and the horizon. Resetting coordinates had taken seconds. Resuming flight, he quickly merged for a short distance with a queue of tugs and taxis along a crowded lane, then veered sharply up toward the Logistics Depot.
Blending his flitter's comm with the flood of electronic signals from nearby tugs and transports at the Gateway, Zolan drew closer to the huge Depot and took shelter in a knot of lashed vessels. Taking several deep breaths, he fixed his eyes and mind on the depot. Concentrating, he constricted and relaxed his neck and shoulder muscles in an irregular pattern, and repeated the rhythm until it invoked a slight pressure high in his left shoulder. The stresses energized the short-range sending device implanted in him prior to the Sentinel's escape.
His voice, inaudible beyond his voice box, opened contact with the depot's command post.
'Calling Ditch-digger,' he intoned. 'Ditch-digger, refer to your x-library program file 6756, and respond on Bootstrap.'
He repeated the message and waited. It would take time for the comm technician on duty to work it out. The communications staff would scurry about, searching for the program. Restricted to Sentinel, this would be its initial activation.
The receiver in his ear whispered, 'This is Ditch-digger in Bootstrap. Continue.'
'Ditch-digger. Scramble 16.'
Zolan hunched and tightened his shoulders to switch channels.
The voice came through. 'Done.'
'I want to speak with Colonel Hanno.'
'One moment, please.'
A short pause.
'This is a Sentinel call. Break the seal on your copy of the Sentinel Support Plan and refer to Annex C, Section 21, line numbers 416 to 422. Note the encryption structure. I will cite the line in the structure that authenticates my request for support. Waiting.'
Minutes passed. Breaking the seal on the highest classification Sentinel Support Plan was a grave responsibility that Hanno would not take lightly. He would need to do it in the station's security vault with no witnesses present. The comm center would then need to be cleared of personnel other than Hanno before the exchange could proceed. Finally, the receiver whispered again.
'I have the lines you refer to. Continue.'
'Note how the authenticator is to be stated,' Zolan said.
He rattled off a sequence of numbers, letters and symbols. Injecting a short, prescribed silence, he spun off another set. The authenticator was in two parts, each requiring its own method of presentation.
'Authenticator confirmed,' Hanno said after a pause. 'State request?'
'I'm in a flitter near the Gateway,' Zolan said. 'Request permission to come aboard and have unattended access to the spunnel transmitter for about fifteen minutes. I will then depart.'
'Permission granted. Do you wish an escort from your position to the dock?'
'Yes, please send an unarmed tug to lead me through the gate, match me up, and point me at the dock. Tug operator and anyone else that observes my presence or the flitter must not repeat must not log the serial number of my vessel or any of its features. Clear all your people to beyond ten meters in all direction from the passageways I'll be using, and from the spunnel comm center. I am armed with a hand weapon set for maximum effect on people without collateral damage to non-organics. My mission requires such precautions. Do you accept these conditions?'
'I accept your conditions.'
'Acknowledged. Have an unarmed guide at the air lock to precede me to the spunnel console. Instruct him to not speak to me, no questions, and to not interfere in any manner in what I do. When I've completed my work in the comm room the guide is to lead me back to the air lock. The same tug is then to get me through the Gateway, same conditions, and I'll be out of your way. When I'm gone conduct your highest level UIPS security briefing. This mission is classified UIPS Black. Understood?'
'Understood. Ready?'
'Ready. I am moving toward the Gateway and will be there in two minutes. Have your man flash his reds and greens at one second intervals. I will respond with standard flitter yellows at the same spacing. Out.'
Zolan carefully adjusted the controls to slip the flitter away from the screening vessels. Clear, he maneuvered his craft close to a space buoy that marked the route through Fandango.
A yellow-green striped tug appeared in the distance and grew larger. The Gateway's diameter could expand to pass the largest freighters or close completely. It could be straight or as convoluted as a randomly configured corkscrew. The tug passed through, flashing the agreed-on signals.
Zolan responded. The tug stopped, reversed heading, and waited for him to line up. Inside the force field, the route took them over, under and around huge freighters and through swarms of shuttles, tugs, and barges. Five hundred meters from the depot Zolan pressed a disk on his control column and a mag beam reached out and locked on to the tug.
The tug's thrusters glowed brighter with the power needed to match up both craft. Aligned, Zolan released the tug, and gentling his thrusters, brought his flitter to rest on a landing platform that had articulated from a portal.
Space suit closed and glare screens partially activated to veil his features, Zolan strode the Depot's corridors behind his escort. Although he had docked at the portal nearest his destination, the spunnel console was still almost a quarter kay from the air lock.
Reaching the console chamber, Zolan motioned his guide to wait outside. He entered and inspected the area for intruders and bugs. It seemed secure.
Approaching the squat spunnel transmitter he noted that Hanno had activated the system for immediate use and disengaged all logs and file-for-record links. Confirming the disconnect, Zolan wasted no time in preliminaries. Inserting the capsule he keyed the transmitter to the channels assigned to Sentinel and set off his burst.
The transmitter was a model that dated back several centuries to the depot's construction. Zolan knew from his training for the mission that a spunnel burst from the depot had to be arranged in parts. Each segment was to be inserted separately into the spunnel dispatch slot. The ancient transmitter could process only so much at a bite.
Zolan held the final segment and reached to insert it. A couple of seconds and the transmission would be complete. The console was coded to dissolve the capsule immediately following the burst; there would be no residue.
He bent to insert the end of the message.
Sensing movement behind him, he slipped sideways and hit the deck. Without warning, the squat console disintegrated as a rending flash arced across to where he had been a fraction of second before. Off balance, twisting to face the door, Zolan drew his weapon.
The bulkhead above split and the flash blinded him. His suit shielded him against the instant hell-fire that bounced off the bulkhead.
Silence followed the attacker's second shot. Zolan crouched, weapon extended, vision slowly clearing. No further shots. Snapping a quick glance around, he took in the damage. The console was a melted lump and the room a shambles. He had to get out and away.
Up on his feet, he raced through the open doorway, gun raised. His escort to the comm room lay spread-eagled in the corridor, head burned to a crisp by what must have been a max shot. The corridor was empty.
'They cleared the area of everyone but the killer,' he thought bitterly.
Having committed the route to memory as he followed the escort to the spunnel room, Zolan raced along the corridors, gun in hand. No one barred his way.
The air lock came in view. He dashed through, twisted through the flitter's framework and into the cage. He cut the mag beam to the dock and signaled the waiting tug.

They met on the transit strip.
Standing close, facing off the strip, observant, Zolan briefed Brad in quick, terse phrases.
'What's your assessment?' Brad asked when Zolan finished.
'It was a long, straight corridor. The escort must have been shot from the bend some distance away. Damage to the comm room was extensive. Scarf must have an agent there. My having the area cleared alerted him. That brought on the attack.'
'Did you get word to Hanno?'
'No. It would have raised questions I couldn't answer without breaking our cover. He'll have to figure it out for himself. I'm concerned about what the agent will report to his control.'
'Whatever they conclude, the action eliminates the depot as a comm resource for us. Did you get the entire message on its way?'
'I don't know. The last fragment included the Point Icarus coordinates.'
Their eyes met.


President Camari stonily contemplated the incomplete communication and turned to Intelligence Director Dynal. Ram sat disconsolately in a chair nearby.
'Allen?' Camari's raised brows posed his question.
'We couldn't get through directly to Hanno to find out why the message was cut short. So we went spunnel to the Terminals and patched in to the Depot on coded conventional. Hanno reports his spunnel transmitter was destroyed. He was certain he was hoodwinked into permitting a saboteur aboard and screamed about a security breach on the Sentinel Support Plan. He said the 'saboteur' escaped before the alarm could be acted on. A damned lucky delay, I think.'
'Did you enlighten him?'
'No, sir. Too risky for Sentinel, and he has no need-to-know. I did tell him to run deep background checks and truth verification tests on all Depot personnel. He objected, thinking he had already pinpointed the culprit. I told him to do it anyhow, slap into the brig anyone who didn't pass, and report the results to me under highest classification through the construction site's spunnel center.'
'Good. No question they've been infiltrated. We must consider the depot compromised for classified until Hanno assures us he's cleared the problem from his facility.'
The President touched a button on his desk, running the message through again in its entirety. He switched the screen dark.
'The Outer Region's target might be the depot, but I wonder.' Ram said. 'Perhaps destroying the depot's spunnel transmitter is prelude to an attack. If it is, they must realize that the incident set off alarms throughout our defenses. They'll also know we can maintain spunnel contact and relay messages to and from our patrollers and other craft through the construction site.'
'Considering Hanno's report on what happened, the attack on his spunnel transmitter focused on keeping this message from getting through, not to merely destroy the machine. That alone would not have been worth the effort.'
'We're down to one spunnel link in the Special Zone,' Dynal added. 'The one we built on Planet Pluto is controlled by Narval's people.'
'Does Sentinel have access to the transmitter at the Terminals?'
'The sender would need to personally key in the clearances as well as the text,' said Ram, 'otherwise the message would be compromised. All off-planet messages from Planet Pluto pass through Narval's comm control center so that's out. We do have the last resort. Should it fail, Sentinel will be isolated.'
'Have you checked it lately?'
'We run random tests from this end to be certain that it's ready to function. As you know, sir, it has its uncertainties and carries a high price.'
'Back to the message,' Camari sighed and rubbed his temple gently as he pondered. 'Their combined forces, and the distances involved, place us at an enormous disadvantage.'
'Without question.'
'Ram, what's your estimate concerning the missing piece?' Camari pointed to the message in his hand.
'The missing piece,' Ram replied, 'the one we need most is Sentinel's assessment on 'where and when' we can strike at TINOR's fleet with maximum effect.'
'Depends entirely on Sentinel? No other sources?'
'At this stage, none, sir.'
Camari lowered his head, lost in thought. Raising his eyes to Ram, he spoke quietly.
'We've got to get our thinking through to the Outer Region's Heads of State and to their people. Camari faced Ram directly. 'I want you to get out there, Ram. Be my emissary to TINORs Heads of State. Impress on them again the disaster that all of us face, and why we must arrive at a peaceful solution. Concentrate on the leaders of the major satellites; whichever way they go, others will follow.'
'I'll need the formal weight of our government,' Ram said.
'Of course. I'll notify them all that you are my Ambassador plenipotentiary, carrying a personal message from me. Use the spunnel shuttle and send me reports as you go along.'
'Narval, too?'
'Of course. And while you're in his area, learn all you can from whatever sources; but watch yourself with that bastard. He'd as soon cut your throat as look at you.'

'Category one message, spunnel to Earth via Guardian Station 4. Personal to President Camari from Ram Xindral. President Gelliman, Callisto, unchanged in his conviction that Slingshot will benefit only the highly industrialized inner system. He repeated charges that the UIPS problem results from poor control and excessive consumption of raw materials, plus breakdown in recycling and conservation policies. He concluded that Slingshot is our internal problem and that it's being forced on TINOR. Demands UIPS halt Slingshot construction, withdraw from the Special Zone, and resolve UIPS resource crises internally.'

'Category one message, spunnel to Earth via Guardian Station 4. Personal to President Camari from Ram Xindral. Prime Minister Manra, Io, says he wishes us well in building a bridge to another star. He makes an issue that transportation, construction and operations for all phases of Slingshot, including ultimate storage of incoming raw matter will be inside TINOR jurisdictions; therefore, the TINOR governments have a legitimate right to dictate apportioning Slingshot's benefits. Refuses to negotiate this point.'

'Category one message, spunnel to Earth via Guardian Station 7. Personal to President Camari from Ram Xindral. Foreign Ministers Roab of Ganymede and Slega of Europa represented their governments. At conclusion of meeting they issued a joint communiqué. Quote: it is only reasonable and proper that the governments of the Outer Region not be excluded from an equitable share of the enormous financial and material resources being lavished on the Interstellar Matter Teleport System (Slingshot). The UIPS can begin to remedy this injustice by agreeing to pay a transshipment tax on all materials, manufactured parts, tools and equipment, and personnel passing through the separate TINOR jurisdictions and contiguous space. Passage fees for individual vessels in transit also must be negotiated and included in the agreement. Unquote.
(From Ram) It is my opinion that the positions taken by the governments of the Jovian Federation are orchestrated. I suspect that reports on my discussions with Heads of State or their representatives are being passed around among them. I am departing for Titan to meet with Chairman Stabar. The Chiefs of Staff of the other Saturnian governments and the governments of the Uranus and Neptune satellite unions have notified me that their views are consistent with those of Chairman Straber. They state nothing is to be gained by pressing for separate meetings with them.'

'Category one message, spunnel to Earth via Guardian Station 9. Personal to President Camari from Ram Xindral. Chairman Staber's position is the same as those summarized in my previous reports. Staber openly proclaims that TINOR's intent is to control the terminal that will receive and store incoming substance and oversee its distribution. Insists a formal treaty be negotiated now, otherwise, the entire Slingshot Program will be viewed as a threat to the integrity of TINOR's legal jurisdictions. I am proceeding to the Planet Pluto Special Zone and will contact Narval from inside the Logistics Depot's protective force field. I will insist on President Narval's guarantee of safe conduct prior to departing the depot for Coldfield.'


Ram entered the depot's conventional communications center and nodded to the young operator.
'Make the contact.' he said, adding, 'Relay the message through one of the transports; delete all references that show this facility is in the loop.'
Switches snapped as the operator nodded. His hands sped across the keypad. A few moments passed and his voice issued as an electronic whisper.
'Calling Planet Pluto Comm Center. This is the UIPS Transport Akiba, Call Sign 943 dash 792. We have a Priority One message for your government. Stand by to record. Acknowledge.'
A slight crackle.
'This is Planet Pluto Comm Center to Call Sign 943 dash 792. We are ready to record. Go ahead.'
Ram drew a small plastic card from the breast pocket of his tunic and handed it to the operator. Without glancing at the card the operator slipped it into a slot in the console. A light on the panel blinked on and off and the card ejected. The operator returned it to Ram with a single motion and a smile.
'Message dispatched, sir.'

Narval's pushed the message aside and away. Face flushed in anger, he stared at Drummer.
'What do you make of it?'
'The message is less than straightforward, Mr. President,' Drummer replied. 'Ambassador Xindral seemingly appeals for an audience with you to discuss matters of interest to both his government and ours. The suggested agenda it carries, however, puts us on the defensive with barely room for reasoning with his government. He asks for a guarantee of safe conduct. As a legally constituted government in a community of nations, and in the absence of, shall we say, formal military hostilities, such a request is not only unnecessary, it is an affront. I suspect, Mr. President, that the Ambassador's motives place you at a disadvantage.'
'I agree.'
'His distrust of us is evident in the manner in which the message was routed. Transmitted from a cargo transporter off the depot's force field, no less. His personal vessel must be somewhere in the pack up there, but he obviously intends to keep it hidden. Very unseemly for a formal visit by an Ambassador.'
'Your recommendations?'
Drummer paused, then spoke slowly.
'Consider the facts: his tour of the Outer Region was preceded by a personal message from Camari to Chiefs of State. He has had audiences with TINOR Presidents or Ministers. They have informed you of their replies to his appeals. Those who declined to meet with him took the course they did because they had nothing to add to what had already been stated by the others.
'Because of your initiatives, President Narval, you are central among the TINOR leaders in pressing the issues between the Regions. Refusing to see him may be interpreted by our colleagues in TINOR as a lack of conviction in our cause, or even as weakness. My recommendation is that you see him, but manipulate the discussions to give our rights dominance. Insofar as 'safe conduct', I suggest we ignore the insult, grant him permission to visit our planet, and wish him a pleasant stay.'
Narval drummed on the desk, pushed at the message again, and shifted about. He was uncomfortable.
'I'll think about it, Drummer,' he said. 'Meanwhile, extend the invitation, set up suitable quarters for him away from our official guest house, meet him when he arrives, and so on. Have him stand by. When I decide on the approach to the discussions, I'll let you know whether I'll meet with him.

'Well, Scarf, have you finished reading it?'
Narval impatiently bit a fingernail.
'Yessir, Mr. President.'
'What the hell do you mean by 'sir'? I asked for your opinion, dammit.'
'Well, sir, he asks for an audience with you...'
'Don't repeat the message, Scarf. Tell me what you know of this man.'
Scarf's face lost its embarrassed flush and he hastily pulled a notebook from his pocket. Striking a series of keys, Scarf peered closely at the screen. He pointed to the book as verification for his words.
'Ambassador Xindral is a senior Intelligence Officer assigned to Slingshot. That's about all we've got on him. Definitely not a run-of-the-mill diplomatic type.'
'That's what concerns me, Scarf. I'm highly suspicious of his motives even if Camari did notify us in advance. Intelligence officer, indeed. If he becomes aware of our preparations and reports back, our plans will be jeopardized. Drummer wants me to see him. I don't want to be in the same room with this person. Yet I can't refuse without losing face. Now, get me out of this, Scarf.'
'How far can I go, Mr. President?'
'As far as you like, just keep me out of it.'
Scarf rubbed his beefy jaw reflectively, then grinned.
'I have reason to suspect, Mr. President, that this known UIPS intelligence officer is using an Ambassadorial cover for purposes harmful to Planet Pluto's internal security. How's that for starters, sir?'
Narval's eyes gleamed with sudden craft.
'Go on,' he said.
'His ostensible mission to meet with the President of Planet Pluto is, in actuality, a guise under which he intends to meet with dissident elements among our people. His real mission is to subvert and undermine the foundations of our government. In other words, in reality, his coming here is to disrupt. He should be dealt with according to the rules of his own game, and not those of normal interplanetary or interregional diplomacy'
'What 'game' Which 'rules'?'
'Agents that conduct a mission such as his are expendable, Mr. President. There are no rules.'
'Whatever happens to him will be outside accepted protocols, and will occur prior to his arrival at the President's Official Residence. The incident will result from initiatives taken by the UIPS Ambassador, himself. The Government of Planet Pluto will not be involved.'
'Very well, Scarf. I leave it to you.'

'Hodak,' Brad motioned him forward. 'I want you to show me the new power pack for the cruiser being overhauled in gallery 3. Where is it?'
Hodak glanced at Brad, then away.
'It's still in the shop near the north side of the dome. Take us a few minutes to get there.'
'OK, let's go.'
Leaving the cubicle that served as office they boarded the strip. Standing close, they spoke through unmoving lips.
'Ram's here.'
'In Coldfield?'
'Not yet, but soon.'
'What's up?'
'He's to see Narval. His job is to try to work out an agreement that'll keep Slingshot construction moving along.'
'How'd you find out?'
'Drummer mentioned it to me in passing. He's arranging a meeting between Narval and Ram.'
'Has the time been set?'
'Not yet. Drummer's waiting for the go ahead from Narval.'
'You mean Narval isn't sure he wants to meet Ram?'
'Suspicious, isn't it?'
'Damn right.'
Their eyes met and moved on to the passing scene.

'If there's to be an incident,' Brad asked, 'who'll be setting it up?'
'Scarf, who else?'
'Soon as I hear when Ram's due and where he's to be lodged, I'll get back to you. For as long as he's on Planet Pluto your job is to keep him out of harm's way.


Entering the Charnel Pit, Ram scanned the tavern. An empty table beckoned, and he folded his long frame onto its stool and delicately leaned an elbow on the least filthy spot of the scarred surface. Shifting his body slightly, he observed the milling crowd with frequent glances toward the entry.
Garbed in earth-toned street clothes, he had just left his room at the Condor, his mind on Drummer. Their meeting at the landing pad had been proper and courteous, with no attempts at prying, either way. Confining themselves to amenities, they spoke of tedious space jumps, the qualities of accommodations in various parts of the system, and generalities on a better life for humankind from a benevolent Slingshot.
Drummer had taken leave following Ram's inspecting his lodgings at the Condor and shrugging them acceptable under the circumstances. Departing, Drummer informed Ram that he would call for him or send an escort as soon as a suitable time for his meeting could be arranged with President Narval. Ram expressed his trust that the meeting would be soon and productive.
As his eyes accustomed to the barroom's smoke-diffused lighting the harsh faces of the jostling crowd emerged. A frontier, indeed, he mused. Satisfied that he drew no untoward attention, he glanced once more toward the door and signaled a robo-dispenser.
A face drifted past, paused for the briefest moment, and moved on. It was enough. Ram gave no outward sign, but felt less alone. Hodak ambled to the bar, where the drinkers greeted him and jovially made room. An hour and several drinks slipped by. Hodak and Ram ignored each other.
A small man in a nondescript tunic sidled up Ram's table.
'Xindral?' He wheezed.
Ram glanced at him and away. He remained silent.
'I have a message for Ram Xindral.'
'Give it.'
'If you're Xindral, the person you're here to see prefers to meet with you away from his normal place of business. I am to guide you to the meeting. Follow me.'
'Name the man who sent you?'
'Why didn't he come himself?'
'He is with his superior at the meeting place.'
Ram was suspicious. It could be a trap. On the other hand, it was not unreasonable that Narval might want to meet away from the formal seat of government. His options were limited. If Drummer had really sent the message, and he refused the escort, the meeting with Narval would be off to a bad start, perhaps canceled.
The messenger stood by, subservient, waiting. Ram brought his hands to his forehead as if deliberating a decision, and gently rubbed his temple to camouflage a flashing glance at Hodak. Hodak subtly acknowledged the sign.
'Be with you as soon as I finish my drink,' Ram said.
Taking a sip, he placed the goblet on the table and began to fish about in his tunic pockets, clumsy and time-consuming. Finally, he rose slowly, towering over the small man.
'Lead on,' he said.
Alarms shrilled in Hodak's mind as he recognized the person speaking with Ram. What were Scarf's stooge and Ram discussing? Ram's mission to Planet Pluto was clearly diplomatic and entirely Drummer's show. Drummer would not have knowingly accepted Scarf's involvement in the proceedings.
Ram's surreptitious glance in his direction and deliberately clumsy hesitation imparted doubts concerning his predicament. Hodak stretched, quickly finished his drink, and slapped drinking partners' shoulders good-bye. He sauntered toward the door, left the barroom and, outside, turned away as Ram and his escort emerged and moved off. Hodak turned casually to observe.
A man in a dark tunic slipped out from a shadow along the wall and followed behind Ram. Another trailed further behind. As Hodak watched, two more moved out of an alley and took positions ahead of Ram and his escort. Ram was boxed.
Hodak followed, barely close enough to distinguish Ram's swaying form in the street crowds.
Ram's guide moved toward a break in the wall and motioned Ram to follow. Hodak saw Ram hesitate, speak harshly, and draw back. He was too late. The others closed in and pushed him forward. Ram stumbled, tripped, fell, tried to rise. Arms whipped about and he stayed down. The four lifted and dragged him through the breach. The fifth waited until they disappeared and darted away. It had happened fast.
Direct intervention on his part, Hodak realized, would be extremely hazardous. Recognition would instantly compromise the Sentinel mission. He had to help Ram in a way that would not disclose his own identity.
He slipped silently into the alley.
From up ahead rumbled curses and harsh laughter; they were sure of themselves.
Hodak's eyes searched the shadows without success except for the grind of boots on stony detritus and the scrape of a weight being dragged. He closed the gap, counting on the procession ignoring their rear.
The sounds up ahead muted and stopped. Peering from a recessed slot along the wall he saw Ram's abductors crowd around the entry to an open utility. One of them crawled in covering and Ram's unconscious form passed to him. The remaining three followed and the cover drawn into place.
Hodak moved swiftly to the entry and pressed his ear against its thick plastic cover. Shifting position and scooping aside loose dirt and pebbles, he pressed his ear first against the ground then the cover. He heard noises from the other side, diminishing into distance.
The odds were not with him but timing and surprise might even them a bit. Lifting the cover slowly, he felt the texture of the surface and slipped into the dimness beyond. He crouched in the rubble, the distant sounds giving him direction.
The tunnel lights were faint and flickering, their sconces widely spaced. It was enough.
Working his way forward along the tunnel, short dashes from one bend to the next, Hodak closed on the laughing, cursing pack. They were close beyond the next bend.
Feeling along the waistband of his tunic, Hodak drew a thin, flat metal strip from the weave. Holding the strip gingerly, he jerked their ends in opposite directions and sensed the sharpness of the blades that instantly snapped outward along both edges. Twisting and turning formed a half-meter long and bending it slightly along its length added it a curve comparable to the ancient Australian boomerang. It was both silent and deadly.
Hodak eased closer to the bend in the tunnel, and snaked his way along the ground until he had a view of the scene ahead.
Ram lay in a heap against one wall, motionless. His captors, facing the opposite wall, were busily examining its surface. Words bounced back along the wall.
'… as good a place as any, huh?'
'Yeah. … get this over with and head for the Blind Pig. … thirsty as hell.'
'OK, Patch and Swat, you two - start burning the hole. Cut it deep enough so all of him can be shoved in. Leave enough room so we can seal it over with the same dirt. Flume, you start collecting rocks to pack around the body once we get it in place. Then we'll just pack and fuse-seal until it's all smoothed over. This guy'll be riding this mud ball 'til hell freezes over.'
'What're you gonna do, Angel?'
His tone was sarcastic. It brought him a snarl in return.
'Scarf put me in charge of this detail, Flume. Remember? So when I tell you to haul rocks, don't fight it.' The heavy tone eased. 'I was ordered to search the guy. Scarf wants everything from his pockets, and all his clothes, just in case he's got something stashed away. I gotta deliver the stuff as soon as we're done here. My orders are also to mess up the body so it'll never be identified, even if it does get found. So let's get with it.'
As Hodak peered around the bend one of the thugs moved off down the tunnel: Flume, the designated rock collector. Two of the remaining three drew soil-fusers from a backpack and concentrated on its power settings. The fourth, obviously Angel, turned toward Ram who was beginning to stir.
Seeing Ram's movement, Angel drew his weapon, hefted it, and aimed it at Ram's head. Angel's mouth twisted into a savage grin.
His companions turned from their work to watch.
'A couple of seconds. I want him to see it coming,' Angel said over his shoulder.
Hodak pressed his fingernail against a pip on the instrument in his hand and felt it vibrate with energy. Thrusting his arm further into the tunnel's bend he hurled the boomerang toward Angel.
The weapon reached its maximum velocity within two meters of the throw. Moving at a speed that made it invisible to the naked eye, it flew silently and true.
The slender implement curved around Angel's neck and, without stopping, completed its return to Hodak's hand.
Angel's head was gone from his shoulders.
The sound of Angel's falling body startled the two staring expectantly at Ram, waiting for the execution shot. Turning, they gaped at what had been Angel. They scrambled in panic to press their backs against the tunnel wall. Dropping the soil-fusers, they drew and waved their weapons about.
One of them shouted, 'Flume. Can you hear me, Flume?'
'Yeah, I hear you. Whatta ya want?'
'Get back here, quick.'
Flume came running, took in the scene and joined the other two against the wall. Together, they stared at Angel, then along the tunnel, one direction then the other.
'What the hell's goin' on?'
'How do I know? We didn't hear anything, then the noise of him falling. We looked and there he was and there was his head. We had our eyes on the big guy; couldn'a been him did it.'
'What do we do now?'
'Search me.'
'Let's get outta here.'
'Can't. We gotta finish the job, or Scarf'll burn us alive.'
'Then we better stick together from now on,' Flume said. 'You two finish cutting the hole but now make it deeper. I'll keep watch. Soon as you're ready we'll load 'em in, seal it up with stuff from around here, and scram.'
As Hodak watched, Patch and Swat recovered enough to raise the soil-fusers and direct the nozzles at the tunnel's wall. An amber glow formed on the fuser's tips and the tunnel wall's surface bubbled and flowed in the light gravity. Wielding the fusers expertly they distributed its liquefied substance in a rough, irregular pattern, blending it in with the surrounding surfaces. The excess that reached the floor quickly hardened and cracked into rubble.
Flume, back against the opposite wall, weapon high and ready, peered tensely about. Finally satisfied, Patch switched off his fuser and tapped Swat on the shoulder. Swat glanced at him, switched off, and they stepped back.
'This'll do it,' Patch said. 'Load Angel in first. The back of the hole is too small for the big guy.'
He leaned over, grasped the open-eyed head by a hank of hair and flung it into the hole. The head disappeared with a soft thud. Swat joined Patch; each grasped one of the body's arms and legs and they heaved it in after the head. Patch leaned into the hole and pushed the solid flesh as far as it would go. Turning, he motioned Swat toward Ram.
For a moment Flume faced away from Hodak. He did not see the boomerang before it twisted around his throat and was gone.
Intent on Ram, Swat and Patch saw neither the strike nor the weapon. They heard a gurgling sound and whirled. Flume was on the tunnel floor, blood pulsing from the neck of his headless torso. The head, itself, had rolled against the opposite wall, eyes open.
Panicked, they fired frantically down the tunnel in both directions.
The boomerang back in his hand, Hodak waited. An open assault was unacceptable, both for himself and for Ram. He would be cut down with a single sweep of the killers' heavy handguns, and with his identity revealed, Scarf would track down the Sentinels with a vengeance.
Snapping a quick peek he saw Patch and Swat back to back in the middle of the tunnel, facing in opposite directions and whispering to each other in terror. Guessing the distance between the two he extended the boomerang slightly and pressed the pip.
Stepping away from the wall Hodak threw the boomerang around the bend.
One of the targets must have seen it coming. There was the beginning of a scream.
Boomerang back in hand, Hodak walked around the bend. Patch lay quietly; Swat's body still quivered.
Hodak took less than five minutes to enlarge the hole, load the newly dead in with their companions, and smooth the surface to match the tunnel's wall.
Ram, still groggy, sat against the opposite wall and watched.


The space was little more than two meters across, a vault cut into the side of a tunnel to store supplies. It was enough.
Leaving Ram in the dimly lit space to recover, Hodak rushed to an exit, surfaced, took his bearings, and found Brad in his office. Brad immediately sensed the urgency from Hodak's expression.
'Let's get our people together,' Brad ordered. Hodak quickly passed the word and, within minutes, the Sentinels convened in an unused air lock.
Myra left for headquarters to cover; the remainder strung out behind Hodak to the subsurface vault where he'd left Ram.

'And that's it.' Ram finished recapping his trip as he gingerly rubbed the large bruise on his head.
'They're lining up for a confrontation,' he said, 'both political and military, and Slingshot is the club they'll hold over us. They think they smell the blood of victory, and there isn't a cool head among them.'
He turned to Brad.
'Your message was incomplete,' he said. 'What was left out?'
'Narval's instructions concerning an assault launch point,' Brad replied, citing the coordinates and bringing Ram up to date.
They were silent as Ram mulled over his options. Sighing, he rose and stretched his frame, bending slightly to keep his head from scraping against the vault's roof.
'The attack on me must have been approved by Narval,' he said. 'My feeling is he didn't want to talk to me because his planning and commitments are too far along. He feared that, had we met, I might get enough from our discussions to see his game plan. I've got to get home - fast.' Grinning at Brad, he asked, 'OK, how are you going to get me out of this rat's nest and back to my ship?'

Narval screeched, face twisted, hands pounding his desk.
'What do you mean, standing there and telling me you've lost track of your people? Not that I give a damn about them, but you gave them a simple job to do, and I want to know - now - where it stands.'
'That's just it, Mr. President,' Scarf said, his normally ruddy face gray with fear. 'I haven't received a 'sitrep' from my agent-in-charge. I did get an interim report from the back-up observer I assigned to track them from the Charnel Pit. According to him, the Ambassador was taken into custody immediately upon leaving the bar. Along the way he resisted and had to be - uh - restrained. Everything looked to be under control, so the observer left to report.'
'Tell me precisely what you ordered your agent to do.'
'Identify himself as coming from Drummer. Take the Ambassador into custody under the guise of escorting him to a private meeting with you. While in custody, and without witnesses, Xindral was to be terminated and his body buried in a tunnel. The site was to be returned to its original appearance, and Xindral's possessions brought to me.'
'Where is this site located?'
'My agent was to give me the exact location when he delivered the Ambassador's personal effects.'
'You mean you don't even know where to start looking? Is that what you're saying?'
'I know the location where they took him down. Well, I got a problem there too; the subsurface node branches off in several directions.'
'Is it possible Xindral overcame his restraints and neutralized your team?'
'Not likely, sir. The back-up observer said he saw sufficient force used against Xindral, when he resisted, to render him unconscious.'
Narval sank back into his chair, head lowered, staring into his lap. Raising his head, he fixed burning eyes on Scarf.
'Despite your assurances, Scarf, I think it not only possible, but likely, that Xindral got away from your team. For all you know, your goons may be in hiding, afraid to face you with the truth. If Xindral's still alive, he must have concluded by now that the attempt against him would not have occurred without my approval. So, we're committed, and I can't afford to wait.'
He pointed a shaking finger at Scarf.
'Xindral can leave Coldfield only through an air lock. Post extra guards. Deploy patrols to strips leading to air locks on the perimeter. Mark him as a newly arrived renegade, a killer and genetic flake dangerous to Coldfield's safety. Order your people to take no chances with him; he is to be destroyed on sight. I want Xindral found, and I want him dead. Do it. Now! Move!'

Hodak was back from scouting the tunnel up ahead. The way was clear, with an exit a kilometer distant. The opposite direction would lead them back to the center of Coldfield.
Brad cocked an eyebrow at Ram. Ram nodded.
Hodak and Kumiko took point, Brad behind Ram. Zolan and Adari rear guard. They covered ground swiftly.
The passageway widened, and a ramp led up to a mezzanine from which other tunnels branched. Ascending the ramp Hodak disappeared into a low, narrow entryway in the wall. The others followed. Ram folded to his knees and went flat to squeeze through. The cut ended abruptly at a rock face. A ladder rose to the dim outline of a manhole.
Kumiko climbed and slipped a slender filament through the tiny gap between the edge of the utility cover and its frame. Below, Zolan inserted the free end of the filament into a clip on the bridge of a pair of goggles, and donned them.
'Up a mite,' he called to Kumiko. 'OK, hold it, now scan a 360, slow.'
He gave the goggles to Brad who donned them and scoped the ground level through the filament.
'The manhole is in a cul-de-sac, closed in on three sides by walls set back about two meters from where we are. The cul-de-sac accesses a street on which traffic is passing. The dome's inside wall is on the far side, and I see some markings on it. Each of you, look about and get your bearings. Speak up if you recognize the area or the markings.'
The goggles passed from one to the other. Zolan tossed them up to Kumiko at the top of the ladder and caught them as they were lowered. He handed them to Ram who peered at the ground scene as he listened.
'Strip markings,' Adari said. 'They're usually located to orient folks coming in from the outside. My guess is we're close to a strip or an air lock.'
'Any idea which one?' Brad asked.
'Not from appearances,' Adari replied, 'but I kept track of our twists and turns to this point, and the way I figure, we're in the western quadrant of the city. The sector has more air locks than the others because it's on the main route to landing pads for the maintenance shops. We've lucked out - maybe.'
'What do you mean by 'maybe'? Don't hold back.'
'The traffic. More people about.'
The silence was heavy.
'If we can make it to an air lock without being challenged,' Brad said, 'we'll get Ram to a taxi. Hodak, can you rig a taxi to manual control and leave it with enough power for a one-time flight to the depot's cocoon?'
Hodak, Zolan and Adari put their heads together. Ram shoved his head in among them, and vigorous hand motions cut the air. Ram nodded as Hodak turned back to Brad.
'Can do,' he said.
'Next item,' Brad said. 'Ram, can you get your long frame into a standard suit?'
'Once we get into the air lock I'll look for the biggest suit on the rack. Then I'll just have to push, pull and squeeze. Won't be the first time.'
Brad looked up at Kumiko, holding the scope in place.
'Got it?' He called up.
'As long as I'm up here, how about me taking point?'
'OK. Now, set weapons at max and cover each other.' If we're seen and tied to Ram, the whole operation is compromised. So we'll have no witnesses. Act accordingly.'
Kumiko pushed the manhole lid aside, climbed out and darted forward to where she could see along the street. She took in the scene quickly, first one direction then the other.
Several people passed on a nearby strip. They did not notice Kumiko. She waited until they passed where they could see into the cul-de-sac, then signaled the others up.
As Zolan came abreast of Kumiko he drew a pencil-thin tube from a pocket in his tunic. Holding it in one hand he twisted the knurled knob that formed one end, and returned it to his pocket. He winked at Brad who had come up beside him.
Brad saw the question in Ram's eyes.
'One of Zolan's home-grown gadgets,' he said. 'Sets up an omni-interference field for a couple of hundred meters. We'll be moving through a comm-blank until he switches it off.' Then to Kumiko, 'Which way?'
'Left. Air lock. Hundred meters.' She crouched and darted away.
'Ram, stoop, bend, whatever it takes to shrink. Stay close to the wall for as long as you can. Everyone keep a few meters apart. Hodak, you stay close to Ram and watch the rear. OK, let's do it.'
Two burly men came around the end of a nearby structure, stopped, stared at Ram as he rose through the manhole, and then at each other. Zolan caught both in a conical burst as they backed away. They fell in silence.
Hodak and Zolan dashed forward. Each grasped a set of ankles, hauled the bodies into the cul-de-sac and dumped them down the utility hole.
Brad took a quick look in both directions and nudged Adari.
'Go,' he said.
Kumiko was at the air lock. Brad, Hodak and Ram were well away from the cul-de-sac. Kumiko stepped into the enclosure containing the suit racks, her weapon raised and level, safety off, finger a tiny space from the trigger.
Two guards, sitting on a bench, rifles across their thighs, gaped at her.
'What the hell,' one of them yawped, raising his rifle.
The other guard flipped the switch on a hand-held transmitter and started to raise it to his lips. Kumiko cut them both down. She raced up and across the long room, checking alcoves, corridors and behind suit racks. Empty.
Ram entered, quickly followed by the others. Hodak remained at the door, alert for intruders. Adari moved across to the keypad control for the outer air lock, and peered through the visi-screen. She thumbed up.
Ram rummaged hastily among the space suits on the rack. Adari left her position, grabbed a suit and worked herself into it. Brad, Kumiko and Zolan were halfway into theirs. Zolan moved to the outer door. Hodak, suited up, called to Ram, who hurried over.
'Here's one you might squeeze into. C'mere, give it a try.'
Ram looked distastefully at the suit. 'Well,' he muttered, 'that's what happens to a giant among pygmies. I couldn't find anything bigger than what you've come up with. Give a hand here.'
Adari joined them. Together, she and Hodak shoehorned Ram into the suit and closed the seals. Helmets fitted, they ran quickly through air tank and suit connections security and pressure checks. Minutes later they were ready for departure.
Brad motioned Kumiko closer, and they opened their faceplates.
'Stay here until we return,' Brad instructed, 'but keep your suit on. Now that we're all wearing suits we can't be identified. So, if you get innocent visitors, just incapacitate them. If anyone comes looking for a fight, don't wait for an invitation.'
Kumiko nodded and closed her faceplate. Weapon in hand, she took up a position where she would not be seen from the entryway.
Brad lumbered to the air lock and, a moment later, the panel to the buffer space slipped aside. Gesturing Ram, Zolan, Hodak and Adari through, he stepped after them and closed and emergency dogged the panel leading back into the dome. He lifted the safety cover and pressed a wall plate. With a swish of escaping air, the outer doors slid up. They stepped out.
A dozen taxis and space tugs were scattered about on the ramp. Choosing the taxi most distant from the others Zolan beckoned Hodak and Adari to follow him. Moving as quickly as their suits and the light gravity would allow, they reached the taxi and climbed aboard. Brad and Ram brought up the rear, turning often to watch other suited people moving about. A ramp guard was some distance away, gesturing among a knot of people. The Sentinels remained unnoticed.
Reaching the taxi, Zolan and Hodak began to adjust its controls, vector and power instruments. Adari's helmet filled in the pilot position. Raising her glove she beckoned frantically to Ram. He climbed in beside her. Her hand on his helmet she spoke rapidly, pointing at the instrument panel.
Brad watched Adari move back and out as Ram moved into the seat she vacated. Bending forward, her helmet touched Ram's as her gloved hands pointed to where the depot was visible. She slapped Ram on the shoulder and stepped back.
The jerry-rigged taxi rose slowly at first, gained speed and disappeared into the backdrop of black velvet and stars.


Camari strode into the Conference Room, took his seat at the head of the long table, and stared bleakly at his advisors. The faces of the Ministers of Diplomatic Protocols and Intelligence were grim; the Commander of the Space Forces looked ready to explode.
'I suppose you've all studied Ram's report,' Camari said in a low, angry voice. 'What do you think? Selvin?'
'If they take the depot,' Admiral Selvin said, 'we're out of business. Even if we get the depot back undamaged, we'll be unable to make up the time lost. The construction and launch schedules are that tight.'
'What do you suggest?'
'Stop them - now.'
'They'll know we're coming when the fleet lines up to enter the spunnel. It's a new node but they've got it under surveillance. How do we get around that?'
'Diversionary tactics. Risky, but we have no choice.'
The Strategic Concepts Computer recorded, analyzed, and reported. They listened then talked.

The Solar Spunnel Communications Control flashed a Category One Alert across the system. The Alert was directed to all planets, satellites, stations, outposts, and all ships in space from Mercury to beyond the Slingshot construction sites.
Rymer Camari, President of the United Inner Planetary System wished to address the citizens of all nations on a matter of extreme urgency that would affect the entire Solar System. The TINOR Chiefs of State were urged to convene their Executive and Legislative Councils and to at least listen to the UIPS President.
Interplanetary spunnel boosters were raised to maximum range. The added power cleared Camari's image and speech for override into all open aud-viz transmitters and receivers throughout the system.
When Camari's features formed in view tanks or on screens his manner was grave, and his tone solemn and deliberate. The message was brief.
'Greetings to all peoples and Governments of our Solar Community,' he began. 'We wish you well. I have chosen this time and this means to speak to you directly because the threat is real and our peril increases by the hour. Unless we act in concert, disaster will befall us all.
'Not long ago two of our manned recon craft were attacked and destroyed near Planet Pluto. These ships were part of a small protective force that the UIPS maintains in the Plutonian Special Zone for the safety of the Slingshot terminals and its logistics depot.
'The Government of Planet Pluto was aware of the patrollers' missions. One of our scouts was known to be scouting the Plutonian outback for subsurface tunnels and galleries where unscrupulous adventurers sneak off to hide after preying on our transports. The other UIPS patroller had identified a cache of contraband weapons in space that presented a clear threat to Slingshot.
'The attack on the two UIPS ships could not have occurred without the prior knowledge, approval and very likely, the direct orders from authorities high in the Plutonian Government.'
The President sat forward in his chair and his face loomed larger across the system. His voice lowered, and increased its intensity.
'We cannot consider these incidents in isolation. Our transports to the Slingshot depot and construction site are being raided and harassed by terrorists and pirates who are directed by and given sanctuary by both official and non-official entities. We are compelled to conclude that TINOR terrorists and pirates act in the context of agreements among their Governments. Doing so constitutes direct military and economic warfare against the UIPS and is an attempt to sabotage the Slingshot mission.
'I must tell you now we are outraged by this conspiracy and these attacks. The UIPS does have recourse. It can respond in kind.
'What then? Warships carrying weapons of unprecedented destructive power are at the ready in both regions. Have we no choice but to keep escalating provocation, sneak attacks and reprisals until our full military fleets are unleashed in their fury against each other? If we get to this, citizens of TINOR, do not rule out reprisals on your encapsulated communities. Be aware: history clearly shows us that there are indeed few, if any, real sanctuaries for civilian populations in times of war.'
He paused to let the words sink in. His voice became crisp and forceful.
'I am now faced with this decision: Should the UIPS retaliate against Planet Pluto and all other members of TINOR that interfere with innocent passage of our transports to and from the Slingshot sites?
'That is one course open to us; it would bring death and havoc all across the star system we know as our home. We must look to alternatives. The creators and wielders of weapons must demonstrate reason along with valor. War, in any form and at any level, is a blind evasion of the real problems that confront humankind.
'When the old United Planetary System was replaced by the UIPS and TINOR, the relationships among governments and peoples deteriorated. We drifted apart. The few interregional agreements that did evolve supported special interests. Once ingrained, they became acceptable, even generally attractive, practices. Now we each have our spheres of influence, and we guard them jealously - and often with apprehension.
'There remains, to this day, a deep distrust and fear that one nation or independent colony, or any collective, will attempt to secure advantage over another. Each of us, focused on our own interests, sees the danger and seeks to avoid being its victim. This infectious distrust and fear must be cleansed from our system-wide community of nations if we are ever to live in peace with each other.
'Misunderstandings have arisen over the centuries concerning the intentions for Slingshot facilities and personnel in place throughout what has now become TINOR territories or jurisdictions. We accept our share of blame for these misconceptions. Let us dispel them.
'The Collector Terminal, as you all know, will be disengaged upon completion and take its position on the system's rim. When the launch window opens, and it will be open to us for only a very brief time, the Extractor must depart - there will be no second chance for several centuries. The Extractor must fly as fast and as true as the missile did from the sling of David to the head of Goliath. The Extractor is our missile, Alpha Centauri is our target and, as David's leather sling was the instrument to save an ancient civilization, the orbit of Planet Pluto powers the sling that will save our civilizations for the eras which are yet to come.
'What happens afterward? When the Extractor has departed, the logistics depot will no longer be needed by us, and UIPS citizens in the Zone will return home. All but a small portion of our facilities, equipment, and supplies will be transferred on site to the Plutonian Government. Whatever is not wanted by its new owners we will remove and help Planet Pluto to convert and reconstruct Coldfield and the rest of the planet to fit the needs of its citizens. We will provide material support and training for transition to an infrastructure and administration of Pluto's choice. We invite all of TINOR to share in this task.'
Camari leaned back for a short pause. His eyes peered earnestly at his unseen audience. His voice softened.
'Perhaps our intentions should have been disclosed earlier; even excellent hindsight offers little comfort.
'That was the past and, admittedly, a poor foundation upon which to build; let us now look to a more positive future. I make this proposal to all Governments of this star system, the common heritage of humankind.
'We are in disarray. As history has demonstrated time and again there are no real winners in contests of military arms, to the contrary. Our response to the incidents off Planet Pluto is that we reject reprisal merely for vengeance, or for imposing ourselves on the Plutonian people. In the same vein, we reject war against any Government within TINOR. Not because we cannot wage war, but because war would annihilate cities and lives on both sides. Further, Slingshot would be lost to us, and ultimately, the entire solar civilization would wane and disappear.
'I propose we meet in space, along the border between our Regions at a place of mutual agreement. Let us convene as equals to examine our differences. We must give greater credence to each other's needs and aspirations and arrive at consensus on sharing in the responsibilities for this family of planets and satellites. Let us search for ways to combine our diverse interests into a new and majestic pioneering spirit for the great leap to the stars that is yet to come.
'This is the challenge and the opportunity.'


Narval's rage shot from his mouth in a viperous hiss as he pointed at a baffled Drummer. Brad, straight-faced behind Drummer, stood easy. Scarf, off to the side, stiff and erect, stared blankly at the wall behind Narval, his features twitching to depress a smirk.
'You were responsible for Camari's emissary, Drummer. I've had you notified that I am ready to receive him. Where is he?'
'He's disappeared, Mr. President.'
'So I'm told. What does that mean?'
'Your orders were to provide lodgings for the Ambassador somewhere other than the official guest house. I had no choice but to put him up at the Condor. When I was informed of the time that you agreed to see him, I went to the Condor to extend the formal invitation. He wasn't there. I inquired of the Condor's management and also among the citizens present. Several recalled him because of his unusual height, but no one, it seems, saw him leave.' Glancing toward Scarf, he added, 'I immediately requested your Chief of Internal Security to put out search parties. That's where it stands.'
Narval turned to Scarf.
Scarf stiffened his bulk without much effect.
'We've searched the city, Mr. President,' he said, 'and can't find a trace of him under the dome. But we had several unexplained killings a short while ago and I'm sure he's involved. Two of my agents were gunned down on the street near air lock 43, apparently without reason, and their bodies were dumped down a utility access hole. Also, two of my guards, on special detail inside the air lock were killed. Add to that a communications blankout swamped the same area about that time, and a space taxi is missing from the 43 ramp. We can't get a tracer on the taxi; its automatic location signal is out, and it doesn't respond to direct inquiry. All this, taken together, is very suspicious, and leads me to conclude the Ambassador skipped rather than meet with you.'
Brad' eyes moved gravely from one speaker to the other.
'Drummer.' Narval turned back to him. 'When you met with Camari's Ambassador, what did you discuss?'
Drummer shrugged and stroked his chin.
'Just the routine chit-chat of protocol: small talk about the inconveniences of long hops and living out of traveling kits. Oh, yes, we expressed our hopes for a better future when Slingshot cuts in. That was about it.'
'Then why would he leave so abruptly?'
'I have no idea, Mr. President.'
'This incident does not please me, Drummer. A special envoy arrives from the UIPS, obviously carrying an important message to me from President Camari. He leaves before he delivers the message, with no advance notice. As he leaves he kills several Plutonian citizens and steals property. No, I don't like it at all, Drummer.'
His fingernails drummed the desk. Suddenly conscious of what he was doing, he stopped and brought his hands close and inspected for damage.
'Drummer, draft a personal message from me to Camari, complaining about the manner in which his Ambassador conducted himself on Planet Pluto. Accuse the Ambassador of murdering several of our citizens and stealing our property to escape our judicial process. Tell Camari his message to me, if he really sent one, was not delivered. That'll throw the ball back to him. As far as I'm concerned, the matter is closed. I have far more important matters to discuss with you and Brad.'
He waved his hand at Scarf.
'Get on about your business.'
As Scarf closed the door behind him, Narval shifted his bulk. Placing both hands flat on the desk he studied each ring. He glanced momentarily at Drummer and fixed his eyes on Brad.
'I am not a fool,' he hissed as his features contorted into waves of quivering fat.
'That UIPS envoy had motives for coming to Planet Pluto far beyond delivering a message to me and getting a formal response. His timing was to be here when Camari broadcast his appeal for his convocation with TINOR Heads of State. He was here to assess my reaction.' Looking from one to the other, he demanded, 'Did you hear Camari's speech?'
'Yes,' from Drummer.
Brad nodded.
'Well, as my diplomatic affairs advisor, Drummer, what did you make of it?'
'My feeling is that Camari is willing to meet us halfway to resolve differences between the Regions.'
'You do, eh? What about you, Brad?'
'I'm neither a politician nor a diplomat, Mr. President. I can't see behind the words. Taken literally, I suppose, he wants a grand party to talk things out. That might be fine, providing it ties in with your plans.'
'Aha,' Narval said, with a gentle slap at the desk's top. 'You've hit it a lot closer than Drummer. The question of the moment is how might this so-called peace conference affect achieving my ultimate objective?'
'I have not been made privy to your 'ultimate objective,' Mr. President,' Brad said. 'I cannot advise you on that point.'
Drummer looked straight at Narval, silent.
'My question, Drummer,' Narval demanded, his tone impatient.
'You shared your objectives with me in confidence, Mr. President. I am not at liberty to speak on them in the presence of others, without your permission.'
Narval stared long and hard at Drummer and back to Brad.
'Not yet,' he said. 'Meanwhile, and especially in the light of the forthcoming convocation, I want you, Brad, to accelerate preparing our military fleet to take possession of the depot and that gaggle of transports and other vessels that constantly hover about. They will be the main bargaining chip when I give my ultimatum to Camari.'
Brad nodded, his features closed.
Drummer looked dubious.
'That means we must have the facility under our control when you speak to President Camari.'
'Sound conclusion,' Narval replied caustically. 'Now, Drummer, is the time for you, my chief diplomat, to engage in a bit of manipulation and encouragement among our allies - in my name and behalf, of course.
'We'll do this one step at a time. Prepare personal messages from me to the heads of TINOR governments. Remind them of our past agreements to stand together to resist incursions by the UIPS . Point out that Camari's invitation presents us with an excellent opportunity to exert our combined will on this issue. Then, state my intention to take temporary control of the Slingshot Logistics Depot to add weight to our persuasions. Are my instructions clear?'
'They are, Mr. President.'
'Good. Emphasize the need for us to act in concert to bring peace and prosperity to the Outer Region. Lay it on thick about how we can demonstrate our unity of purpose to Camari, and harmony among ourselves if we join forces. This shouldn't be a surprise to them; it was the purpose of the planning at the Neptune meeting. Wasn't it, Brad?'
'It was.'
'Here, then, is my first objective, Drummer. I want the TINOR warships that were committed at the Neptune meeting to be alongside ours to take over the Depot. The Depot must be ours before the convocation gets under way. That is vital to our purpose. In the message, say that now is the time to strike. Insist that they send their ships as quickly as possible to join in the operation. Also, and be shrewd in presenting this: TINOR ship commanders are to be subordinate to and carry out the orders of the Plutonian Fleet Commander for the duration of this operation. Clear?'
'Clear, Mr. President.'


Narval sat hunched over as Drummer and Brad entered. He did not wait for them to approach.
'Well? Speak up, Drummer,' he snapped. 'Don't wait for a special invitation.'
'The replies to your message have come in, Mr. President. They are all in the affirmative. Their fleets are getting ready.'
'Ah hah!'
Narval's head shot up, and he straightened as much as his deeply cushioned chair would allow. He patted the top of his desk, and his face creased into a broad grin, flushed with triumph. Eyes dancing from Drummer to Brad and back, he patted the desk once more, obviously enjoying the moment. The grin quickly transformed into one of deadly cunning.
'That takes care of my first objective,' he said. 'From here they are both independent and interdependent. You must plan carefully and carry out my instructions without deviating.'
Eyes fixed on Drummer, he raised his jeweled hand to point at him.
'I have already told you how you fit into my plans for the future.' Turning to Brad, 'You have proven yourself a reliable and resourceful leader, Brad. When I have attained my goals, you, along with Drummer, will be amply rewarded with material wealth and positions of honor. I tell you this now because in my world loyalty has a price, and you are entitled to know I will pay it. How do you stand?'
'I hear and I understand, Mr. President,' Brad replied and, without flinching a muscle, 'I stand with you.'
Leaning as far forward as his paunch would allow, Narval motioned Drummer and Brad forward. They took chairs close to the desk.
'Drummer, I appoint you Commander of the Combined Fleet, and I now order you to take the objective. Brad, I appoint you Drummer's Chief of Combat Operations. I will issue the necessary orders to all Commanders of the Plutonian fleet and to the Commanders of our allies' forces.'
Narval watched Drummer and Brad' faces as he spoke. Both returned his gaze with grim, attentive expressions.
'When you have taken the objective, only Scarf's security troops are to be allowed to board and take stations throughout the facility. You have another task.
'Once internal security is established, invite the ship commanders to a celebration on your flagship. Reject declinations; they must appear. Permit the celebration to go on for a bit, then, Drummer, the bolt.
'Announce to the assembled Commanders - those of the Plutonian fleet and those of our allies - that I have instructed you to take their oath of allegiance to me, Narval of Planet Pluto, and to none other. Those who refuse are to be eliminated on the spot in plain view of the others. Those who agree are to be placed under psychic probes, then and there, to ensure that their oath of allegiance to me is without reservation. Any who fail to pass the test are to join the ones that openly refused. No second chances. Understood?'
'Understood,' Brad said.
Drummer nodded, his face gone pale.
'Transfer contingents of Scarf's troops from the objective to your flagship, several hundred if necessary, whatever number you need to cover the operation. Make certain that you transfer enough technicians to set up and operate the psychic probes. If any Commanders or their staffs chose to be feisty, the troops are your execution squads.
'The ships of those Commanders who refuse to swear allegiance to me will be boarded by our troops, and all resistance crushed. Subterfuge may be necessary; do not hesitate: the end justifies the means. Replace the original Commanders with officers next in command; promise them wealth and position, use the psychic probes to verify; at some point an officer will switch allegiance to us.
When your takeover is completed, the combined TINOR fleet will be under my control. I shall then use this power to dominate Camari's convocation and dictate my terms to both the UIPS and TINOR.'
'Timing is of the utmost importance,' Brad reflected.
'Exactly,' Narval said sharply. 'All of your plans and timetables must be synchronized with the actions I take following my arrival at the convocation.'
'Any attacks on the depot will be immediately spunnel-flashed by Hanno to the UIPS,' Drummer said.
'I've thought about that,' Narval replied. 'Brad, I want your man, Zolan, to install generators and controls for an electronic barrier sunside of the Planet Pluto Special Zone to keep all messages from the UIPS, conventional or spunnel, from passing through. Can he do it?'
'Good. I will transmit a coded message to you from my ship when I have the agenda for the conference. The message will tell you when to energize the barrier. I must control the timing on this operation so precisely that the conferees have minimal warning before I make my announcement. Vitally important: the electronic barrier must go up sufficiently in advance of launching your operations against the target so that no messages of the attack passes through from the depot, the terminals site, or any UIPS ships in the area. The comm-blackout will itself set off alarms throughout the UIPS. By then, it will be too late for them to interfere.'
'Sounds reasonable, Mr. President,' Brad said. 'Once we get the situation under control, including lining up the Commanders of the allied warships, we can punch a hole in the barrier just big enough to get a flash through to you at the conference site, giving you the score.'
'Excellent, Brad, excellent.'
Narval beamed at his new Commander of Combat Operations and twisted his mouth into a malevolent grin.
'One change', he said, eyes on Brad. 'Up to now, the objective of your strategic planning and tactics has been the Depot. Now here this: the Depot is no longer the target. Your target is the Slingshot construction site including the 'Terminals.' You are to take control of the entire complex and hold it as my hostage. Adjust your plans, tactics and schedules accordingly.'


The air was stale in the alcove adjoining Brad' office. Hodak and Kumiko hovered over a console, entering and manipulating data. They compared computations against hard print charts, entered notes in manuals and drawings spread across a worktable, and mumbled at each other solemnly across the space separating them. Adari studied a celestial navigational chart tacked to the wall, Zolan tapped at a remote keyboard, and Myra scrutinized a spreadsheet. All were engrossed in their own piece of the action.
Brad, entered and paused to observe them. Myra glanced up, saw him, waved absently as her eyes returned to the spreadsheet.
Weaving along the tight aisle to a chair against the far wall, Brad turned the chair about and sat, his arms on the upper crossbar. He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
'Take five,' he said. 'Let's talk.'
Zolan pressed a key to save his data, Kumiko rolled up her chart, and Hodak put a marker in the manual. Myra and Adari's charts lay where they were as eyes focused on Brad. The room was cramped, moving about was difficult.
'We have new orders,' Brad said.
Zolan grunted, 'Ahh, nuts,' and frowned at Brad in disgust. Myra groaned and Hodak sputtered a sullen blast of profanities. Adari shrugged, and Kumiko gave Brad her sweet so-what-else-is-new smile.
Brad recounted his meeting with Narval and Drummer. So that there would be no misunderstandings among them, he repeated Narval's strategy and instructions, finishing with the new target for the assault. The room was silent.
'Now that we know the construction site is the target we'll use it for fleet integration, formation and logistics in place of what we had before,' Brad rasped. 'Better now than after we've launched and met up with our allies. Not much time, though. We'll be working round-the-clock until it's done, checked out, and the space and surface Commanders briefed.'
He gave orders rapidly.
'Break out the ops, tac and support plans we worked up for the Combined Fleet's Order of Battle at the Neptune meeting. Myra, rework your admin and medical requirements. Install two dozen psychic probes on the Dragon. We'll need at least that many to check out the loyalty flip-flops Narval expects when we lay the game plan on the TINOR Commanders, especially that he's their new boss. Draft an order to Scarf for Narval's signature to transfer three hundred of his shock troops from our attack transports to the Dragon, and crank its effects into tactics and logistics. Scrounge up enough certified technicians to operate the probes. That'll still leave about eleven hundred troops to secure the Terminals after we take them; that should be enough. Juggle the tactics for that change. If anyone asks, we're using Scarf's troops on the Dragon as flunkies during the victory party. I don't think you need me to draw a picture of the real reason. We've got to reshuffle the entire logistics deck. Your job, Myra. Got it?'
Myra grunted, raised her middle finger, then quickly realigned it with the rest of her hand and snapped off a mechanical salute.
'Got it,' she said.
'Kumiko, the targets will cover an area much wider and deeper than you planned for in your original computations. Rework the combined fleet's weapons assets, analyze our firepower and orient them to the terminals' weak points. Let's talk after we finish here and work up formation options and vectors from rendevous. Cover surveillance and interdiction against potential threats from UIPS assets in the Special Zone; rework tracking guidance for each type of weapon installed on Plutonian ships, and update target displays for our launchers and guns should it get to that. I especially want you to analyze the combined fleet's Order of Battle to identify our potential vulnerabilities and how an enemy force might exploit them. Provide me with a detailed document in a capsule so I can use it on the Dragon.'
Brad turned to face Hodak.
'Reexamine emergency maintenance in this new arena. Our ships will be much further from home base than if the depot was the objective. We can't afford any ships dropping out of the line.
'Adari, got a big one for you. The other TINOR ships will still rendezvous with the Plutonian fleet at Point Icarus, halfway between the depot and the Slingshot work site. Work out the nav for our fleet to the rendezvous; design formations, convergence and other vectors that'll keep the ships out of each others way. Employ Order of Battle options to lay out the nav for each ship of the combined fleet from Point Icarus to target. Kumiko and I will be working on tac-options and we'll get them to you as soon as they're ready.
'This applies to all: compute, coordinate and commit resources to implement our new orders. OK. Get going.'
Brad motioned Zolan and Hodak closer.
'I'm putting a fast utility under your command, Zolan. Your number one job is to build, harmonize, test and whatever else it takes to create a communications interference generator. Camouflage and position it between the Planet Pluto Special Zone and all sunside comm boosters, both spunnel and conventional. Set it up to activate by remote. The screen must have enough spread to block all messages, incoming and outgoing from Planet Pluto, the combined fleet, plus the depot area and the Slingshot terminals. Exception: Narval wants us to flash him a message as soon as we've taken the objective and turned the ships' Commanders. Fix the barricade so that we can shoot a one-time spunnel message through to him. Clear?
'Clear. When?'
'Now. I'll go with you to the tunnel where the generators are stored to make sure we select the best of the lot. Hodak, you come with us to give 'em a condition check. We can't afford chances with this equipment.'

Narval removed the tiny earpiece through which he had listened to Brad give his orders, smiled with satisfaction, and pressed a button along the edge of his desk.
'Scarf out there?'
'Yes, Mr. President.'
Scarf sidled in and stood deferentially at the entry.
'Don't just stand there, you idiot,' Narval snapped. 'Get up here where I can talk to you.'
Scarf hastened forward and halted a couple of meters from the desk. He held his helmet in one hand and saluted with the other.
'Here are my orders to you for while I'm gone. Double the guards on Planet Pluto's spunnel transmitter. No Plutonian communications are to be permitted to destinations outside the Special Zone. One exception: I've given Drummer orders that when he completes the tasks I've assigned him, he is to send a flash message to me at the conference site. You will open the spunnel center for only that outgoing message.'
'Yes, sir.'
'Figure out some way to be aboard the Dragon during the operation. Watch Drummer; I still don't trust him. If he tries to undermine my authority while I'm away, shoot him.'
'It'll be a pleasure, sir. What about Brad and his buddies?'
'If they resist what I've ordered them to do, take them out, too.' If it gets to that, send me a coded FLASH via spunnel after you've done it. If you do kill Drummer and Brad, assume control of the combined fleet and the Terminals. If that's not possible, blast 'em all out of the sky.'


Zolan walked into Brad' office and dropped into a chair, clearly exhausted.
'How'd it go?'
'Couple of dozen screen generators in position sunside,' Zolan hefted a small, flat control in his hand as he spoke, then tossed it on the desk.
'The energizer,' he said quietly.
Brad turned the control in his hands as he examined the safeties, then slipped it into a pocket.
'Narval leaves for the conference in a few hours,' he said, almost in a whisper. He could not hide his deep sadness.
They rose and walked together toward the door. Without speaking, Zolan left and disappeared around a bend in the corridor.
The hour of Narval's departure brought a whirl of excitement to Coldfield. The transit strip from the official residence to the President's air lock had been stopped, scrubbed clean, and a padded chair installed on it for Narval's comfort.
Narval boarded the strip, accompanied by his personal guards. The guards took protective positions ahead, behind, and along the strip's edges, completely surrounding their leader. The strip began to move and maintained a slow, steady pace until Narval was abreast the air lock; it came to a smooth stop.
The air lock had been decorated with flags and bunting; a red carpet extended from the strip to the air lock. Narval swept in and passed through the inner compartment.
The Revenge, Narval's luxurious spunnel yacht was moored to pylons above the air lock. The yacht's commander, Captain Ras Hamdia, stood stiffly at the head of a line of ship's officers inside its portal.
A set of taut, parallel cables rose from the air lock to the ship. Fastened to the cables at surface Narval's personal red and black lift was ready to transfer him aloft without the inconvenience of donning a space suit.
Narval entered the lift with an officer who dogged the doors and flashed the ready signal.
'Up, easy,' the ship's captain ordered.
The lift rose slowly until it reached the Revenge's portal. An articulated crane grasped the cabin gently, drew it inboard along slackened cables and lowered it to a mobile platform. Suited technicians dashed forward to disengage the cables, and the capsule was pushed inside.
Narval safely aboard, space tugs encircled the Revenge and took positions along its hull. Mag-beams flashed across. The Revenge disengaged from the mooring tower and drifted off. The tugs nudged it along to a hundred kay above the dome, cut their mass attractors and the ship disappeared into the node of the Planet Pluto Spunnel.
Narval was off to his destiny.

Zolan stood among a throng of space-suited citizens below the Revenge, from where he watched it ascend and move off. Minutes later, none but Zolan remained.
Aware of his awesome responsibility, a sense of serenity in the power of his will suffused Zolan's being. He had been faithful to the science and art of his chosen profession, and his devotion to the Sentinel's mission had enriched his harmony with all about him. It had come to this.
Tilting his head back in the clear plastic helmet of his suit, Zolan watched the Revenge enter the spunnel node. He lost interest and headed for a space taxi.
Climbing aboard, he punched in his identifier code and the coordinates for a tunnel warehouse fifty kay distant where he had a clearance on file. The taxi digested the data, reported to its master control inside Coldfield, and received the required permission. The taxi rose briskly in a tight turn and accelerated toward a range of low hills.
Out of sight beyond a hillock, Zolan reached into the circuitry behind the instrument panel, manipulated cables and connections, and punched in new coordinates. The taxi paused and aligned to the new course, Zolan's hands on its manual controls. The advance notification to control center was inoperative.
Charon grew in size up ahead as the taxi approached. Zolan stabilized the flitter to hover stationary barely a meter above the frozen methane. As he disembarked, Zolan reached behind the instrument panel and readjusting the circuits. Transmissions from the taxi's computer would soon resume and indicate a routine return from the previously entered destination. Zolan watched the taxi out of sight.
The distant tiny sphere that formed the solar Sun was a wonder to behold against the black velvet sky, and clusters of distant stars. He absorbed once more the splendor of the planets in their graceful courses around the giver of life. He recalled and visualized each planet, natural and artificial satellite and space station out to the Guardians. He had roamed among them all; they were the only home he had known.
A sense of weariness seemed to overpower him; he could not delay. He searched the heavens for a star with which to orient himself. Finding it, he faced the direction wherein lay the secret spunnel booster through which he would send his message. Ram would know how it had come, what it meant, and what it had cost.
Zolan cleansed his mind, except for the message. He closed his eyes and the strength of his concentration brought on trance. A tiny glow, deeply embedded in his subconscious, mushroomed into a pulsing network of charged filaments. His arms and legs throbbed, and the pain of furies cut through his torpor and slowly drained him of life force. Seconds later, his face shrunk and seamed, his body collapsed in on itself. The filaments cracked and snapped, and Zolan's brain exploded inside his skull as the message burst through. The stiff suit held his body erect, arms extended toward the Sun on the stark and lifeless plain.
Ram's state-of-the-art modification had accomplished its task.


Ram Xindral, representing the UIPS, met with TINOR's advance team on Guardian Station 16 to plan protocols and logistics for the upcoming convocation. Planet Pluto did not send an emissary.
Agreements were quickly concluded and the diplomatic cadre took over to prepare an agenda for the meeting's substance.
Spunnel channels flashed coded messages to home governments in the Outer Region, reported on problems encountered and the options available. Instructions flashed back, rarely agreeing with offered solutions, more often insisting on new approaches that in turn became the subjects of lengthy discourse. When an issue was considered sufficiently clarified for the convocation and reported to the seats of UIPS and TINOR Governments, it was almost invariably reopened as an extension of still another issue. This went on and on.
Eventually, an agenda of sorts was fashioned to guide the discussions. It limited itself to an agreement, in principle, which identified the paramount issues of urgent and general concern. The preliminaries over, the advance teams departed for home.
A fleet of UIPS transports escorted by Space Guard entered the Great Space that separated the Guardian and Jovian orbits. Hauled along by a network of mag-beams converging from a score of space tugs dragged the Conference Disk, two hectometers in diameter and a decameter thick at its hub.
At the agreed upon coordinates the Disk slowed and stabilized. The escorts drew back, clustered and waited.
Docking slips scalloped the Disk's rim, each with its own hoists, articulated and flex-umbilicals, power junctions, and docking, launch and maintenance support facilities. Emergency, fire-fighting, rescue, and med-evac craft dotted the upper and lower surfaces. Anchored, they were ready to service spacecraft or launch instantly to where they might be needed.
Ram and his UIPS technicians, administrators and security specialists boarded the Disk from a utility transport. A TINOR team entered through another portal. Members of each team serving a Chief of State inspected the suites assigned to their nation's conferees, made changes to meet personal or cultural needs and, when satisfied, installed the scheduled occupant's accouterments and trappings of Office.
Engineers and technicians swarmed throughout the berths and mooring docks, inspecting and testing equipment and procedures to accommodate their Leader's vessel, and for routine support and emergencies should such arise. They conducted or observed ship handling tests and space rescue capabilities. Finally, the administrators and technicians agreed the facility was ready. The Joint UIPS-TINOR Security Team sealed the Disk's portals and posted their guards in armed capsules around the rim and on the Disk's gently curved surfaces.
They waited.


Drummer and Brad walked the corridor leading to the Dragon's bridge. The battle cruiser, aligned with its sisters in countdown on catapults in galleries and tunnels across Planet Pluto, was minutes from launch to Point Icarus.
Accompanied by a party of officers, Brad had completed the final formal inspection and sign-off of the Plutonian warships committed to the operation. Myra, Hodak, Adari and Kumiko had trailed along as specialists, respectfully responding to technical questions tossed at them by the official inspection party.
The Sentinels had taken Zolan's death hard, aware but unable to share their grief with words that might be overheard by their enemy. They were in a somber mood difficult to hide, and Kumiko's eyes were red-rimmed. She spoke little.
Moving from one tunnel and gallery hangar to another, the inspection team had checked the readiness of command and control, function systems, weapons readiness, logistic support and all that bore on their mission. Openly enthusiastic and congratulatory to ships' crews on what he observed, Brad was inwardly appalled at the strength of Narval's fleet. Combined with the TINOR forces coming to join them at Point Icarus, the slim forces that the UIPS maintained in the Plutonian Special Zone faced an overwhelming adversary.
At the companionway to the command deck, Brad deferred to Drummer. Drummer acknowledged the courtesy with a slight smile and nod. They ascended, and Brad closed the door.
Drummer strode to the forward bulkhead, paused, and drew a small device from his pocket. He moved casually about the compartment, meanwhile reading the device's indicators. Brad watched him in silence. After two full turns Drummer pocketed the device and faced Brad.
'Routine precautions,' Drummer said with a shrug. 'This deck compartment is free of both sight and sound bugs. How did the inspection go? Are we prepared and on schedule?'
'A few glitches here and there, but nothing serious. I've instituted corrective actions, and we'll be ready.'
Drummer nodded uneasily. Brad waited. Drummer's next words came with awkward hesitation.
'Ah - when Narval gave us his final orders, I - ah - sensed, correct me if I'm wrong, some misgivings on your part.'
'Misgivings? What do you mean?'
'Before we proceed, I must have your word that whatever we discuss here will be held by you in the strictest confidence. Have I your word?'
Brad stared long and hard at Drummer. He thought back to Scarf's accusations and threats preceding the fight in the Charnel Pit. Did Drummer really support Narval? What was Drummer's real objective? Time was short; yet Brad had to be certain.
'You have my word.'
'Now respond to my first statement.'
Drummer gave a heavy sigh and motioned Brad to a bench along a bulkhead. They sat and stared at the bulkhead opposite.
'How far will you go to take the Terminals?' Drummer asked.
'You're in command of the combined fleet, Drummer. You tell me.'
A deep silence settled between them. Drummer brought his eyes around to where he could observe Brad' profile. He sighed heavily.
'What I now say to you, Brad, puts my life in your hands, but say it I must.' He paused, as if to gather strength and conviction, and to organize his thoughts. 'I believe that Narval is deranged. He would rather see the Solar System's civilization's grovel in the dust than have them advance, even survive, without him as their ruler.'
'Are you suggesting he be stopped?'
'He must be.'
'I hoped you would know.'
'Me? Why me?'
'You've become the authority on the capabilities and tactics of this operation. The Plutonian military Commanders respect you as a leader and as a professional, as do the Commanders of the ships soon to join us. Need I say more?'
Brad turned to face Drummer.
'How far do you commit yourself?'
'My life.'
'It will take that, and more.'
'What do you mean?'
'Betrayal strips men of - I believe the word is - honor. Would you accept being a traitor to President Narval?'
'If it will bring an end to this madness.'
'Are you willing to follow my orders - without question?'
'To what purpose?'
'Your words: the end of this madness.'
'Define your terms, man. Tell me in your words, not mine, to what end I commit my life, and as you put it, my honor.'
'Confusion and disruption throughout the combined fleet, destruction of Plutonian warships and, possibly, those of all TINOR; no assault on the Terminals and, ultimately, removal of Narval from any position of authority in the Outer Region.'
Drummer nodded slowly.
'I commit myself to that purpose. And yourself?'
A knock on the door. The Dragon's yeoman peered in before he spoke.
'Comm-center has a classified Category One spunnel message for you, Admiral Drummer,' he said. 'It's in the President's personal code, sir, to which only you have the keys. Have I your permission to pick up the message and bring it to you?'
'Never mind, yeoman. We're heading back under the dome. I'll get it.'

Drummer read the decoded message through and handed it to Brad who quickly scanned and silently returned it. Drummer reread the message and placed it slowly in the middle of his desk. The communication bore the dispatch symbols of the Revenge within the past hour. The text was brief:
'Narval to Drummer. We are six hours from the conference site. According to the operations plan I approved before my departure the combined fleet will rendezvous at Point Icarus when the Revenge is one hour from destination. I will advise. Your launch at target must be consistent with the conference schedule just provided to me by the Conference Controller. Based on the agenda and schedule I order you to energize the communications barrier immediately upon receipt of this message. Further, I order you to have allegiance sworn to me by Commanders of all TINOR ships and the Director of the Slingshot Terminals not less than eight hours following my arrival here. Spunnel flash to me 'mind only' highest priority-*interrupt during conference proceedings* immediately upon attacking the objective. Spunnel flash immediately to Revenge your understanding of this order.'


The soft clicks of switches opening and closing and the thunks of levers rammed home were the only sounds on the Dragon's command deck as Drummer and Brad climbed the companionway.
Captain Hyk, standing on the bridge platform above the command deck, took them in with a quick glance, nodded, and continued about his business directing and observing the Dragon entering launch.
Brad followed Drummer to a computer in a tiny alcove on a balcony above the plotting table. They swung seats out from under the table on which the console rested, sat, and Brad entered his ID and password. He followed with instructions that brought a series of real-time graphics across the monitor. Selecting first one, then another, the two men studied the displays, pointing and commenting on their observations. Drummer straightened.
'Recap, Brad,' he ordered.
Brad tapped keys and the screen listed each Plutonian ship in the Assault Force and its Commander in one column and the readiness level for launch in the other.
Brad pointed at the highlighted 'Fleet readiness 92 percent'
'Made the trip from home stations along diverse routes and under detection wraps. They're inside the comm-barrier an hour from Point Icarus. It'll take us that long to launch, form up, do the distance, and position ourselves to receive them.'
A yeoman's head appeared at the head of the companionway, looked around and located Drummer.
'Call from security up at the tunnel entrance, sir. Visitor to see you.'
'Who is it?'
'Major Scarf, sir. Says he has urgent business to discuss with you.'
Drummer and Brad exchanged glances. Hyk immediately gave his full attention to his monitor's screen. Drummer knew that neither he nor Hyk could refuse Scarf's request to come aboard. He addressed Hyk.
'Any objections, Har?'
'None, Admiral.'
'Very well, yeoman, escort Major Scarf to my quarters.'

The compartment was small, not built for comfort. Scarf's massive frame crowded the space.
'I'm coming along.' Scarf's tone was brusque.
'The hell you are.' Drummer's was equally blunt.
Brad eyed Scarf. 'Your job is on the surface,' he said. 'What purpose can you serve by tagging along?'
Scarf looked from Drummer to Brad and back, not sure whom he should address. He chose Drummer.
'Coldfield and the surrounding areas are under full control of my security forces. I've left my deputy in charge, and he can contact me within seconds should that be necessary. With Narval gone, there's not much going on in the city. But here,' he tapped Drummer's chest with his forefinger, 'you've got a lot more'n a thousand of my best troops for occupation duty on the Terminals.'
He paused, hitched up his gun belt, eyes defiant.
'Those troops are mine, and I'm gonna lead them when they go into action. I'm moving in over my on-site troop commander, that's all. What's more, I understand you've reassigned some of my troops to this wagon. That's fine with me. I'll just move in with them, and assume direct command until they're back with the main group. Entirely proper for me to do this as chief of their Service.'
Brad thrust his hands into his pockets to hide the fists they had formed. His mind worked furiously on the new threat.
'Our plans are complete, Scarf,' he said. 'If you remain, we expect you to follow orders from the Fleet Commander.'
Scarf, sensing victory, showed his pleasure.
'Sure, sure,' he said, a grin creasing his face, waving the proviso away with the back of his hand. 'Anything the boss says. It's your show. I understand.'
Taking Drummer's silence as acquiescence, Scarf pivoted in the small space and squeezed out of the compartment. He barked at the guard to escort him to the officer-in-charge of the troop detachment.
Drummer issued the launch order. One following the other, the warships catapulted off of their launch tracks, rose swiftly into space, and formed up behind mine sweepers Scamp, Varlet and Scalawag. The battle cruisers Dragon and Tiger, guarded by destroyer screens and support ships, turned toward Point Icarus.
Three million kay ahead, the Slingshot terminals appeared as just another sparkler in a runnel of multicolored jewels. Slingshot had always been real to Brad; in the deepening crisis for humankind's survival its purpose was profound. It had been since its inception.
Brad keyed the Slingshot complex closer on a nearby computer screen. Generally familiar with the schematics of the Slingshot stations, he was overwhelmed by the two enormous cones and their peripherals which configured the Terminals' hoppers. Each terminal, almost five kay across its base, formed an intricate maze of interlocked spars, beams, panels, conduit and modules.
The Slingshot stations were centers of activity. Inside and out, the work areas were crowded. In all directions were massive and intricate fusion generators, transformers and power distribution systems; dozens of spherical, rectangular and cylindrical workshops and clusters of habitat, first aid stations, transports and tugs and barges pushing, pulling, warping and traversing. It was a picture of enormous structures and modules spread across the visible space ahead. The scene was geometric chaos.
Separated from each other by more than a hundred kay of open space, the Terminal schematic expanded explosively on the Dragon's screens as the fleet narrowed the gap. At Point Icarus the Slingshot construction site filled more than half the monitor's screen.
Brad and Drummer watched as changes occurred hastily throughout the Terminals' space. Lights dimmed or blacked out entirely; others increased intensity. Three destroyers darted through the protective force field's gates, deployed, and took defensive positions. A mine-layer advanced, came about and laid a pattern of nuclear eggs.
The Plutonian Assault Force had been quickly detected. Their intentions obvious, Slingshot's managers prepared as best they could to defend themselves. Scores of transports were lined up to escape through the gateway; those that had reached the outside lumbered toward deep space.


System-wide distribution: Filed at Conference Site
The Leaders of the United Inner Planetary System (UIPS) and The Independent Nations of the Outer Region (TINOR) are at the place they selected to resolve urgent Solar System problems of mutual concern. Here's how the arrangements worked out:
Consistent with the schedule, the TINOR guests flashed their international identification and ship numbers to the Conference Control Center to report that they had formally arrived in response to President Camari's invitation.
Concurrently, at a signal from the UIPS President's ship Eagle, the station flashed an array of multicolored beacons. Docking berths along the rim opened and their controllers transmitted 'ready' signals to the visiting flagships. Tugs, utilities, and emergency craft took their stations.
The UIPS Eagle nosed forward and matched its headings and moments to the Disk. Mass attractors took over, fine-tuned the alignment and drift, and gently drew the Eagle a third its length into the dock. Mooring beams grasped the vessel and it was transfixed. A red and white candy-striped umbilical snaked out from the dock and sealed against the Eagle's main portal. Eagle, the host, had docked.
Turning to the guests, the 'Ready' signals flashed again. Taking the lead, Planet Pluto's Revenge matched up and was drawn into its docking space. The others followed. The disk was transformed into a multi-spoked wheel spinning slowly against the backdrop of sun, planets, satellites, space colonies and stars.
The umbilicals' seals tested and secure, the Heads of State disembarked, each followed by an entourage of advisors, diplomats, strategists, economists, interplanetary law specialists, sociologists, philosophers, and others expert in the disciplines appropriate to the agenda.
The parties walked separate corridors from their docking berth to an arched entry into the conference theater at the hub. The pseudo-gravity plates had been eased to a comfortable level for the inhabitants of the Outer Region. The representatives of Earth wore soft enhancer boots to compensate.
The central hall was huge, and the round table at its center wide enough to accommodate them all. Massive chairs were at the table, and behind each a row of smaller chairs to accommodate the lessors. A holoview tank, suspended halfway to the overhead, glowed softly. The walls were festooned with the emblems and insignia of all Nations in attendance.
Arriving under the arch, the Leaders paused. President Camari stepped away from his chair and invited all to enter and join him at the table.
Entering and approaching the table, the Leaders turned to right and left to greet each other. Formality aside for the moment, they expressed their pleasure at seeing one another again, or in meeting for the first time. They came together at the table and formed small groups.
Camari and Narval took each other's measure as they worked their way forward. Camari, as host, paused at each knot or singular meeting to shake hands and express his pleasure to each Head of State for their accepting his invitation. Politicians all, the supreme diplomats of the Solar Community, they accommodated to the occasion and replied in kind.
Camari and Narval were face to face. Silence gripped the room.
'Greetings, President Narval,' Camari said, 'your presence at this convocation will contribute much to its success.'
'Greeting to you, President Camari. I feel certain that it will.'
'I remind you, President Narval, these are indeed desperate times. Extraordinary measures are essential if we are to preserve our civilizations, perhaps our species. Separately or collectively, we must be prepared to take risks for our survival. Do you agree?'
'Not only do I agree, Mr. President, but I shall remind you of your words as we proceed through these deliberations.'
'So be it.'
Camari nodded and turned away. With everyone's eyes on him, he strode to his place at the table, spread his arms wide in welcome, and sat.
Greetings over, the Solar System's leaders took their places at the great table. Their advisors entered and took seats behind them.
The First Convocation of the Solar Community was under way.


Captain Hyk strode the bridge impatiently.
'Point Icarus in ten minutes,' he reported to Drummer and Brad as they entered the tight compartment. 'The Jovians and Saturnians are coming up fast, and the Neptune-Uranus team is close behind. Orders?'
'You'll get yours with the rest, Har,' Drummer's tone reflected his tension. He turned to Brad.
'Brad, I wish to address the Commanders of all Plutonian ships. Set up closed communications, please.'
'Yes, sir.'
Brad strode to the console he and Drummer had used to assess the fleet's status a short while before. He detached a microphone from the bulkhead nearby, keyed the computer, and spoke.
'Attention, all ship Commanders of the Plutonian Assault Force. Rig for 'Commanders Only' secure communications with Admiral Drummer. The Admiral will speak in one minute. Countdown - start now.'
He handed the mike to Drummer. The first of many uncertain steps would now begin in the plan he and Drummer had worked.
Drummer glanced at the ship's chronometer, then at Captain Hyk. Time.
'Ship commanders, Admiral Drummer here. Our allies are approaching in formation and they will link up with us in seven minutes at Point Icarus. We must greet them properly. I order the Plutonian formation to come about immediately from its head-on orientation to the Terminals and cluster to face our allies. Do it now. At Point Icarus I will address the combined fleet.'
Drummer paused, then added, 'I am turning over the details of this change in formation to my Chief of Combat Operations. Follow his instructions without hesitation.'
Drummer handed the microphone to Brad and stepped back. Brad rattled off the revised orientations and positions, ship by ship listed in the Order of Battle. Both he and Drummer watched the effects in the observation pit's view tank.
As Brad spoke the close order of the original formation dissolved and opened. The maneuver was extremely complex, but within minutes the ships had come about in a ragged formation to face its oncoming allies.
Out of the corners of his eyes Brad observed Hyk input orders to the Dragon's guidance control and navigation centers. Hyk glared at Drummer as if the man was out of his mind. Brad expected the other Commanders to be equally perplexed and angered by the unexpected reorientation.
Drummer, by his order without prior notice and planning, had completely disrupted the Plutonian tactical formation. Valuable time would be spent to sort out the confusion and array for the assault.

Captain Yargoul, Commander of the Jovian Combined Strike Team, stood on the bridge of the Battle Cruiser Windstorm and scowled into his view tank. The unconventional redeployment of the Plutonian Assault Force amazed and appalled him.
'What in hell are they doing?' Yargoul pointed at the tank as his Executive stared aghast over his shoulder.
'Damned if I can tell, Captain Yargoul,' replied his deputy. 'This isn't called for in the rendezvous plan.'
'I don't like it. Get nav on this right now and pass the word to our ships' Commanders. Assume a waiting formation ten thousand kay from the rendezvous. Get the Commanders of the Saturnian and Neptune-Uranus teams into a closed conference call with me. I'm going to suggest they do the same until we find out what this is all about.'
'They smell a rat,' Brad thought as he watched the oncoming fleets slow and alter formation. He hastily left the command deck.
Walking swiftly along a passageway he passed Hodak at a workbench calibrating instruments as cover. Their eyes met and Brad moved on. Hodak switched off his test panels and headed toward a side passageway.
Myra, checking medical supplies in a wall cabinet, glanced at Hodak's features as he brushed by. His grunt caused her to close the cabinet and walk off. Kumiko and Adari would soon have the message.
The storage compartment was tiny, barely enough to hold them.
'Drummer will be talking to all ships' commanders in the combined fleet in less than a minute. I want to be there when he does so that I can deal with their reactions. Also, Hyk is a problem. I expect them all to line up against us, including the Plutonian crews. The best we can hope for is a short delay while they argue among themselves. It's up to the five of us; six, really, if I can count on Drummer.'
He looked from one tense face to the other.
'Hodak, your first job is Scarf. As soon as he hears Drummer he'll come charging up with his goons to take over the ship. Stop him.'
'Kumiko, to the ship's fire controls. Do as much damage there as you can without being detected. I want as many as possible of the Dragon's long-range guns inoperative.'
He turned to Myra.
'Suit up and head for the hangar deck where the two-place fighter-bombers are in position for launch. Tell the officer-in-charge I sent you to check combat readiness. I want three two-place jobs up front on catapults, fully charged and armed, hot and ready for launch. The officer on duty is sure to ask why it's you that's giving the orders. Just say that the fighters are going after the Terminals' minelayers and destroyers that just popped out through the force field's gate. Tell him I'm briefing the pilots personally and will send you along as my observer. He won't like it, but I doubt that he'll interfere.'
'Got it.'
'Remain on the flight deck, Myra. Move around and spot where each guard is stationed. When you see us coming, start to take them down. Pinpoint their positions to us as we come in so we can clean them all out fast. Confusion in the ranks works to our advantage.'
Turning to Adari, he asked, 'Did you put it together?'
'Come with me back to the bridge. I'll brief you on the way.'
His look took them all in.
'Gather round - close.'
Speaking rapidly, not wasting words, Brad shared information that Ram passed to him before his departure.
'A UIPS battle fleet should be loading about now into a new spunnel node off Luna. They'll be here shortly. If Drummer doesn't neutralize the TINOR fleet, the job will be taken on by the UIPS. But they'll need time to re-group as they enter this arena. Our job is to keep the TINOR fleet off balance until ours is ready.
'Everyone is to be suited-up and checked out for extended combat. Except for Myra, spread along the corridor as close to the Flight Deck hatch as you can without drawing attention. Keep a low profile and wait for my signal. I expect Drummer will be with me and we'll all go in together. On your way.'

Drummer spoke to the combined fleet he believed still under his command. His tone was grave.
'This is Admiral Drummer. My words are, first, for Commanders of this combined fleet. Beyond that, I speak to all ships' crews and troops who make up this task force, and for all men and women within reach of my voice, whatever your nationality or whomever your leader.
'We are confronted with a dilemma. The mission assigned to this fleet is to capture the Slingshot Terminals. Slingshot and all that it represents will then become hostage to the negotiations now taking place between TINOR and the United Inner Planetary System.
'If denying the UIPS access to their Terminals for a brief period was the real objective, I would have no qualms in moving forward. But the orders given to me by President Narval go much further, and I must share them with you so that you will understand what we face.'
Captain Hyk's eyes narrowed and he took steps toward Drummer. Brad, standing silently behind Hyk, covered the distance to the door he had closed when he returned to the command deck. He shoved the locking dog closed. Turning back his hand brushed his sidearm, releasing the safety. Hyk halted several paces from Drummer, who ignored him.
'With heavy heart, I must now inform you that President Narval has a deeper strategy, one that presents a clear and present danger to all nations and peoples of TINOR, and perhaps to the entire Solar System. I state it as simply as I can: Narval's strategy is betrayal.'
The way back had closed; Drummer plunged ahead.
'Here are the orders given to me by our President. Judge their purpose and their honor for yourselves. First, to capture and hold the Terminals. As soon as the Terminals are taken and secured, I am under orders to subvert all ships' Commanders of our allies so that they swear allegiance only to Narval. Those who refuse, under psychic probe verification, are to be slain.
'If this is done, Narval will have consolidated enough military power to dominate the entire Outer Region. When his position is firm, his strategy is to use Slingshot to force the UIPS to its knees, and establish himself as ruler over the entire Solar System. These are the real objectives of President Narval of Planet Pluto. If we follow his orders, have no doubt that he will attain them.
'I refuse to comply with those orders. I urge all Commanders of our 'allied' TINOR forces to return to their home stations and report to their Chiefs of State who are now attending the Solar Convocation. Establish boards of inquiry, or conduct such investigations as you feel appropriate. But do not proceed with this adventure concocted in the mind of a madman. It means disaster for us all.
'I am now opening this channel for replies from the Senior Commanders of the combined fleet.'


Captain Yargoul's face, inflamed with rage, flashed on the screen.
'By what right do you take this on yourself, Drummer,' he exploded.
'I choose to be a free man, Captain Yargoul, and have spoken as one.'
'I don't believe President Narval gave you orders to turn us against our own Governments.' Yargoul's eyes glittered his suspicion. 'What's your game, Drummer?'
'Those were indeed the orders given to me by Narval. As for my 'game', as you put it, it is, first, to take Planet Pluto out from under tyranny; and second, to bring reason to the negotiations now taking place between TINOR and the UIPS. You cannot help me with the first, but you and all honorable citizens of the TINOR federation share in the obligation to help with the second. How do you stand, Captain Yargoul?'
'I stand against you, Drummer, and I charge you with treason against your Government and disloyalty to our cause. You are not fit to lead this fleet. As ranking officer next in line I now challenge your right to act as Supreme Commander of this Combined Fleet. I hereby replace you in that capacity and assume command.' His voice rang with the power of his new authority. 'Captain Hyk, take Admiral Drummer into custody. If he resists, shoot him.'
Drummer switched off the communications console and turned to face Hyk.
'And you, Har, you're a Plutonian and should understand, better than most where the real treachery lies. You've seen Narval's psychic probes placed on board and must have suspected what they and Scarf's troops aboard must mean. Think, man. Tell me I can count on you.'
'I'm an officer in the service of President Narval,' Hyk growled, 'and I remain loyal to him. I recognize Captain Yargoul as the Supreme Commander. The Plutonian forces in this combined fleet now come under my command. Drummer; I place you under arrest. If you resist I won't hesitate to shoot you down where you are.'
Hyk drew his weapon and aimed it at Drummer.
'Easy does it, Har.'
Brad spoke from where he stood off to the side. Hyk shifted his focus and saw the weapon raised in Brad' grip. Reacting instinctively, he crouched and swung toward Brad, the nozzle of his gun flaring. A tight beam laced across Hyk's chest, and he crumpled to the deck. Brad slipped his gun back into its sheath.
Captain Yargoul's commanding voice blasted from the ship's loudspeakers, addressing the fleet.
'All ships' commanders. You've heard and witnessed Admiral Drummer's treasonous statements. I am compelled, by circumstances, to assume command of the combined fleet. You will follow my orders; I order that any commander or crew member who refuses to recognize my authority is to be disarmed, imprisoned, or shot immediately.
'The target stands: we will move on the Slingshot Terminals and take them. I order the fleet to array itself for the assault. Unfortunately, Drummer has sabotaged our rendezvous, and we must reconstitute the assault formation. My chief navigator will issue sector orientation and vectors to each ship in the fleet so that we can form up for combat operations. Follow his orders without question.'
As Yargoul spoke Brad released the clip securing the door and yanked it open. Adari entered and darted for the communications console, drawing a tiny capsule from her tunic. She slipped the capsule into the computer slot, slapped switches and pressed keys. She looked at Brad. He nodded. Adari pressed the final key. A light flashed red; the message on the capsule went out to the fleet.
A deep voice issued from the ship's speakers: 'This is Captain Yargoul's chief navigator,' it began. 'Here are the formation positions for each ship in our Order of Battle. Use as your reference Annex X-ray to the Slingshot Assault Plan. Comply immediately upon receipt of your ship's new coordinates. Jovian Battle Cruiser Boulder and destroyer screen to Sector Alpha, coordinates R784-212-426; Saturnian Battle Cruiser Encounter and destroyer screen to Sector Gamma, coordinates R415-856-275; Plutonian Battle Cruisers Dragon and Tiger and screen to Sector Beta, coordinates....'
Adari grinned at Drummer who was staring at her.
'Lucked out,' she said. 'Yargoul brought his chief navigator along to Brad' planning meeting off Neptune. His voice was on our tapes, and easy to synthesize. Even Yargoul himself won't know the difference. The capsule is transmitting orders to each unit of the fleet to move to new coordinates in a three-dimensional tract. This redeployment will get them so screwed up it'll take 'em a while to even figure out which way is sunside.'
'But how did you know events would develop just this way?'
Adari winked; tapped her temple with her forefinger.
'Just put myself in their place, and figured the options,' she said and turned to Brad.
'Do you have all the data on where you've sent them?' Brad asked.
Adari patted her pocket and nodded.
'Figured we'd need the information. Run a copy for each fighter. Meet us on the flight deck.'
Drummer snatched up Hyk's weapon as he followed Adari who spun off into a side corridor. Brad pulled the door closed behind him, drew his gun, narrowed the beam to its tightest focus and raised the power to maximum. He directed the beam into the crack between the door and the frame. Within seconds the door had fused shut. The Dragon's bridge, at least for the moment, was isolated.

Hodak crouched behind a massive generator at the bend of an L-shaped corridor. The rapid-fire beam rifle in his hands was energized and off-safety. The passageway had a single entry to the bay in which Scarf and his troops were quartered. Hodak had a free field of fire. He did not expect a long wait.
Drummer's appeal to the fleet commanders cut into the talk and laughter rolling down the corridor. Drummer's opening words brought complete silence. Long before it ended Hodak heard shouts and curses from the bay. Scarf's heavy voice rose above the clamor, giving orders. Hodak drew breath, raised and leveled the weapon. He hoped Scarf would come out first; that would simplify his job.
Scarf did not. Instead, armed troops spilled from the bay, crowding the passageway. Scarf followed, his coarse features congested.
'There's five of 'em, plus Drummer,' he shouted. 'Search the ship. You know who they are. Shoot 'em on sight.'
Hodak tried to draw a bead on Scarf but troopers blocked the line of fire. Several started in his direction. He cut a swath through them, searching for Scarf.
The first streaks of concentrated energy wrought havoc in the forward ranks. The stench of burning flesh came at him with a rush, and the corridor reverberated with howls and screeches of agony. Unaware of what they were up against, the troops milled about in confusion. They clawed at each other in panic to get back into the bay and out of the line of fire. Scarf was somewhere in the melee.
The tiny receiver in Hodak's ear came alive.
'Sentinels. Flight deck. Now.'
Hodak directed a final lengthy barrage of rifle bursts at the entry. Molten metal and sparks bounced off the frame in all directions, followed by screams and shrieks from inside the compartment.
'Unfinished business,' Hodak muttered as he turned and raced off.


The watch was changing on the flight deck. Up ahead Brad saw three guards and two technicians entering to take their posts; moments later an equal number came out and disappeared down a companionway. Ship's crew strolled the passageways and on business in and out of maintenance shops, or engrossed in discussions with companions about Drummer's appeal.
Few noticed Brad or his companions; those who did gave them a passing glance and moved on. The ship was preparing for action, and armed, suited-up crews were to be expected.
Brad signaled a pause. Adari, in flight gear as the others were, joined them and stood with Kumiko laughing and talking through open visi-plates. Hodak, against a bulkhead, held a maintenance manual, slowly flipping pages, apparently reading. Brad and Drummer moved short distances along the corridor, seemingly in thoughtful conversation. The scene reflected routine.
The traffic thinned. Brad looked quickly along the corridor and motioned. They converged toward the companionway leading to the flight deck.
Brad entered first, followed by Hodak, Adari, Drummer and Kumiko. Inside, Kumiko swung the hatch shut and dogged it.
Myra, pressed into a corner against the far bulkhead by the Chief of the Flight Deck, smiled up at him, eyes wide. Big and chunky, he talked fast, trying to convince her of something that he obviously believed was good for both of them.
Seeing Brad appear at the head of the companionway, Myra pushed the hulk away with one hand and drew her weapon with the other. Before he knew what was happening, the fleshy man with the high hopes was flat on the deck, out of it.
Stooping and pointing, Myra circled toward Brad.
'Two, there, rifles.' In another direction. 'One, on the catwalk, rifle.' Over her shoulder. 'Two in the control room, sidearms, but they may have rifles stashed close by. Fighters on the cats, ready to go but still on control room switches.'
Brad snapped out orders.
'Hodak and Kumiko, control room. Switch the fighters to self-launch. Adari, the guy on the catwalk. Myra and Drummer, suit up and into the first ship.'
Hodak and Kumiko charged into the control room before Brad finished speaking. Red and orange flashes and a staccato clatter erupted through the doorway, followed by silence. Hodak and Kumiko tore out, bent low, splitting to right and left. They carried rifles at the ready.
Adari, eyes and gun elevated, skirted the fighters.
'What the hell's goin' on down there?' The shout came from a guard on a balcony above. 'Who're you guys?'
That's all it took. Shots followed each other closely. The guard fell slowly in the ship's light pseudo-gravity.
Hodak ran to join Brad. Kumiko headed for the fighters to switch the catapults' activators to internal controls, arm and charge the guns, and insert into each ship's computer the capsules Adari had passed to her.
A guard darted by Brad and took cover behind a line of heavy equipment. A succession rifle blasts cracked through the air close above Brad. Crouching, he raised his weapon and fired. The guards would be difficult to get at.
'Down, Brad, flat.'
Hodak's hoarse whisper carried from two meters behind him. As Brad ducked a soft swishing sound sliced above his head. Glints of light sparkled from a curved, shiny object. Seconds later, the boomerang returned, wetly red.
'Go, Brad.'
Hodak wiped the boomerang on a wiping cloth, collapsed and slipped it into a pocket along the thigh of his space suit.
Motioning Hodak forward to climb into the nearest fighter, Brad followed. The others, already in place, were racing through their checklists.
Brad began his preflight as he switched his comm to 'on.'
'Myra, Drummer, do you read?'
'Loud and clear.'
'Kumiko, did you fix our inter-ship comm the way Zolan told you to?'
'Fixed. They'll have to search and analyze dozens of scramble channels to find and fix on ours. We have a private and moving channel.'
'OK. Check suits. Batten down and seal up. Now listen hard.'
Brad stroked control panel keys, switches and levers as he talked.
'For identification, Hodak and I are One; Adari and Kumiko, you're Two, and Adari and Kumiko, Three. The job is to keep them confused and stumbling over each other for as long as we can, and hope for the best. The capsule Kumiko slipped into your computer has the formation we hope they've assumed. By now they're on to and faked redeployment. So we're dealing in seconds, minutes if we're lucky.
'The deployment we triggered concentrates them in three sectors: Alpha, Beta, Gamma. Two take Beta; Three to Gamma, and I'll be in Alpha. Your sector coordinates are in the capsule; use standard locks to interface the coordinates with your ship's flight controls. Go for command decks, weapons control centers, thrusters or other operational vitals. Try for battle cruisers, but don't ignore other targets of opportunity. Keep your explosive decompressors and laser-quads at max. Talk as you work so we all know what's happening. Go.'
The signals from Brad' control panel had their effect. The rushing sound of escaping air told them the huge portal was opening. Within seconds the battlefield lay ahead.
Brad hit the catapult release.
The ship lunged forward. As it cleared the flight deck, Brad cut in the thrusters. Hodak glanced back over his shoulder.
'Two and Three are clear,' he announced.
The three fighter-bombers skewed sharply toward their assigned sectors.
'Two talking. Battle Cruiser Intruder coming up. Dead ahead. Range: 2500 K. Destroyer screen not tight enough. Ex-decomp at max. Range: 2000 - 1000 - 400. Three second burst. On target, but about 50 meters aft the bridge. Gotta go around for another try, dammit.
'Back at 900 - 500. Incoming laser-quads. 300. Two second burst and breaking port. What do you see, Adari?'
'Made it this time, kiddo. Bridge collapsed. But move this baby's tail. I can almost feel their heat.'
'Three to One. Skip to Channel C for a sec and you'll hear Scarf. They must have cleared the Dragon's bridge. He's giving orders to the P-fleet to line up for a hit at the Terminals. Looks like he wants a kind word from his boss. I'm heading back to the Dragon.
'Dragon coming up. Range: 1700 K. Spotted us. Have incoming. You didn't down all their guns, Kumiko. Lousy shooters, though. At 1400 - 700 - 300. Decomp on sustained - Five second burst. Passing over. What's the word, Myra?'
'Their stern sucked a lemon. Totaled. Hold it. Fighter catapulted off the flight deck platform. It's closing with a Dragon screen destroyer. Get back to 'Channel C', it may be Scarf talking.'
He was.
'Major Scarf to Destroyer Viper. I'm coming aboard and taking command of the Planet Pluto Assault Force. Notify all Plutonian units to be ready to attack the Terminals and inflict maximum harm. Those orders come directly from President Narval. I'll lay out the attack formation as soon as I'm aboard.'
'Two to One. Hear that? The fighter has matched up and I see Scarf in transfer.'
A brief silence.
'Comin' round the bend and linin' up. They see us and know we ain't their lovers. Destroyer had to stabilize to bring Scarf aboard; now they're hustlin'. I'll give 'em the nose decomps, as we slip under. 500 kay - 350 - decomps on - goin' under.'
'Blowout - they're gone. Hey, Hodak, takes care of your buddy.'
'SOB was no buddy of mine. OK, Two. Move it, Brad.'
Brad searched for the Windstorm, Yargoul's battle cruiser, and now the assault fleet's flagship. Two and Three had scored hits in the tight field, significantly diminishing the fleet's capabilities. If the Windstorm could be taken out, or even damaged, the enemy fleet's command-and-control would be seriously degraded.
Two destroyers converged on Brad from 11 and 1 o'clock. Brad switched to their channel.
'Fighter-bomber - unknown,' he heard. 'No response to my challenge.'
'Same here.'
'OK. That does it. Fire!'
Brad reacted instinctively. His feet slammed footpads as his arms and hands yanked and twisted the other controls. The sensitive fighter-bomber corkscrewed and hurtled away just as laser-quad beams from both destroyers crossed where he had been a fraction of a second before. Jiggling reversers and thrusters, he space-skidded into a tight half circle and dived under the closest of the two destroyers. Killer beams tracked him but the arc couldn't catch up.
Passing under, Hodak cut loose with his laser-quads, raking laterally across the destroyer's underside. At the close range the damage was devastating. The destroyer split apart along the shock line with a silent, flaming explosion.
Brad spun the ship about and fired the bow explosive decompressor at the other destroyer. The destroyer crumpled into a twisted mass of metal.
Veering off, Brad searched his instruments for signs of battle cruisers. Hoping for a lead, he flipped the switch to Channel C and caught the tail end of a transmission: '...enemy formation is now changing course to close with us. They are centered on coordinates H010 and V210. Distance: 5 point 2 million kilometers, closing fast. Tracking, and will report. This is Lieutenant Asto, Commander of Titan Patroller Group. Out'
Brad felt a surge of elation. Drummer reached across the intervening space and pounded his shoulder. Was it possible? The next voice on Channel C dispelled his doubts.
'This is Fleet Commander Yargoul to all Commanders of the TINOR Combined Fleet. UIPS battle fleet has just emerged from behind a comm screen sunside of Planet Pluto. The screen was erected to keep the Logistics Depot and the Slingshot work site from communicating with their government during this operation. Unfortunately, it also kept us from messages dispatched by our own headquarters. The UIPS fleet is still out of range, but closing fast. All TINOR ships move to your battle formations and stations. Point for convergence is coordinate H010-V210. Attention: Commander of Plutonian Destroyer Group Two. Have one of your squadrons remain in this sector and to take out the interceptors that have been harassing our fleet and then catch up with us. Out.'


'One to Two and Three.'
Brad quickly briefed the Sentinels on the transmissions. It brought a grunt from Hodak, a sigh of relief from Myra, a squeal of delight from Kumiko and a sarcastic 'Well, it's about time' from Adari.
'Brad.' It was Drummer's voice.
'This conversation confirms feelings I've had since we joined forces against Narval, but I'd like to ask the question nevertheless.'
'No need to, Drummer. I was going to tell you at the first opportunity after you made your appeal to the ships' commanders. Your feelings were right: we're all members of a UIPS team sent to Planet Pluto to keep Narval, and anyone else, from interfering with Slingshot. Our job is far from finished.'
Drummer lapsed into silence.
'Shouldn't we give our side a rundown on what's happening?' Myra asked.
'To do that we'd have to use unsecured channels,' Brad replied. 'As soon as we do that we're in the open. Yargoul will get a fix on us, and pick us off with their long-range particle beamers. Right now we're specks in a crowded and still disorganized field, and that's our only protection. These fighters are Plutonian, and that's part of our cover.'
'Well, look,' Adari sounded frustrated. 'We've been carrying the ball for quite a spell. Our folks are here and ready to take over. We know where they're at; let's give 'em our report in person. Then, maybe, I can wash my hair. I feel a mess.'
'This fleet still has a helluva lot of firepower left.' Hodak's voice was grim and brusque. 'We're right among 'em. We're 'point' for our side.'
'You're right, Two,' Brad said. 'Our job has changed: we're eyes and ears for our people, goes along with running interference. It's not over for us until the fleets are within range of each other, and then we'd damn well better be out of the way.'
He paused to scan the battle space, and added: 'I'll break into 'clear' in two minutes to give our people a sitrep. Don't waste time on the TINOR squadron they're leaving behind to get us off their back. Start now in the direction you're going to take to reach the UIPS fleet. Hold on their perimeter until I find out what they need from us. If you run into Yargoul's fleet along the way, shoot first.'
'Three to One. Comin' up on a cruiser. The protective screen on this one is tightenin' up and it'll be a hard nut to crack. Got me a tail-end charlie mine sweeper. I'll give it a try. At 1300 kay - 800 - 400. Two seconds burst right up the thrusters. Gone. They've marked us. We got laser-quads incoming. Into e evaaasive. Man, this baby's got speed. Out of it. OK, One and Three. They're organized again and sure as hell know we're slappin' at 'em. Ain't gonna be easy to get outa here.'
'Two here. I hear you, Three. Got a couple of destroyers off my starboard bow. Coming around for a nose job. We're marked. Got incoming, lots of it. At 1200 - 800 - 300. Two sec….'
'One to Two. Come in.'
A guttural howl of anguish tore through Brad' earphone. Myra..
'I'm heading over, Brad,' she screamed, her voice hoarse and breaking.
Brad didn't stop her, nor did he want to.
The battle cruiser Windstorm, surrounded by its destroyer screen, was in sight. Brad weighed his chances on getting close enough for an effective shot.
Studying the scene, Brad did not, at first, see the gray sphere separate from the Windstorm and plunge ahead. Hodak did, paled, and pointed wordlessly. Brad stared at the sphere. His heart pounded.
The Windstorm had launched a guided fusion warhead. The target was obvious.
Brad knew the warhead's capabilities from the Neptune briefings. The Windstorm carried a K12, a fifteen meter-diameter warhead capable of destroying a natural minor satellite or a large populated colony. The bomb's mass was such that a heavy cruiser could carry no more than one. One was all that would be needed to decide the battle. The fireball had a two thousand kay radius, and the piggy-backed neutronic dispenser, once the cloud was released by the detonation, would inflict radiation death throughout tens of thousands of kay in all directions.
The UIPS fleet faced annihilation, as did Slingshot.
Brad reacted instinctively. He jerked his ship around and pumped max thrust after the speeding warhead.
A second later his mind snapped back from its momentary panic.
'One to Three.' He recounted the facts. 'If Two has survivors get them on board, or lash them to the sides, or whatever makes sense. Then catch up with us at max and give us a hand.
'These warheads are coated against detection in the old stealth style. I've got to warn our fleet what's coming so they can go evasive as much as they can. Our fleet's breaking from course or formation will mess up any tactics they have in mind. They won't have time to form up even if they do escape the blast and radiation zones. Firing at the warhead won't help, even at close range. It's wrapped in so many layers of armor even particle-beamers can't penetrate, so I don't know what our explosive decompressors and laser-quads can do. But we've got to try.'

Two was a twisted, gray mass in a slow tumble when Three drew close. Myra reduced power in her ship's magnetic beams and directed them at the wreck until it stabilized. She maneuvered until the ships touched. The beams held.
Myra pushed the canopy clear, climbed out, and crawled forward. She grasped a jagged projection on the wreck, swung aboard, and stared into what had been the control pit. She turned away and returned to her ship without looking at Drummer. A particle beamer left no organic residue.
Brad switched to standard communications channels and keyed in his identity. In a moment they were switched to a channel closed to outsiders.
'Sentinel One to UIPS Fleet Comm Center. Acknowledge.'
The reply was swift.
'UIPS Comm to Sentinel One. We read.'
'Sentinel One. Flash Immediate. Must talk to Fleet Commander. Fleet in extreme and immediate danger. Now, partner, now.'
'Selvin here.'
'Sentinel One. Enemy Battle Cruiser Windstorm has launched a K12 fusion warhead. I do not question the warhead's vector; expect that its mass attractors and proximity fuses are set to coordinates of your fleet.
'I am overtaking the warhead and will try to neutralize. Forcing a change in warhead direction with my ship is not possible; the warhead's mass and guidance system exceeds by far any pressure my fighter can exert. Suggest you consider evasive action; will advise further if neutralization accomplished.'
The warning had been given. There was no time for talk. The warhead was less than a hundred meters ahead, and closing.
Drummer tapped Brad on the shoulder and pointed. Two was coming up.
Cold sweat drenched Brad' forehead and drained into his eyes. He blinked, shook his head to clear his vision, and increased air flow in his suit.
'Brad,' Myra's voice, fast. 'Can we detonate it with our guns from here? At this extremely close range the concentrations of laser-quads and explosive decompress energy by both of us at a single point might disable some part of the warhead or set it off.'
'It would take too much time to cut through. I've got another idea. If it doesn't work, we won't have enough time to try anything else. Drummer, take the controls and get the ship as close to it as you can, not more than a meter from the warhead's surface. Then orbit slowly, nose close to the warhead so that I can scope the surface. I'll tell you when to stop. Myra, take the controls and keep close above in my line-of-sight. Hodak, strap on your tool kit and stand by.'
Drummer maneuvered the ship close and set a pattern that covered the sphere methodically. Brad opened the canopy, and directed the ship's beacon at the bland, gray surface. Minutes passed; the gray coating that passed underneath was unbroken. Or was it?
'Stop,' Brad' command was almost a shout.
He pointed to a barely visible crack curving into a circle half a meter across.
'Drummer, Myra. Get as close to it as you can. Use your attractors to stabilize and hold position. Give me a hand, Hodak.'
Brad climbed over the side. The light gravity-enhancer soles of his space boots provided barely enough adherence to the warhead's surface. Sliding, he made his way to the finely marked circle, Hodak close behind.
'Access to the calibration cavity,' Brad said as he stooped, shed his outer glove, and felt around the mating edge. 'The bomb has to have a place to insert fuse and trajectory data and make the final adjustments. The well is closed with a plug as thick as the armor, and it's rotated into place. The plug's outer coating is the same composition as on the rest of the casing. Cut a radial slot along the edge of the cover. We'll push to rotate the cover counter-clockwise; it'll take both of us to work it loose.'
'Why not cut out the entire plug?'
'Too much time. The shell is too thick.'
Hodak grunted, withdrew a cutting tool from his kit and after much effort formed a shallow, slanted groove in the well cover. A heavy metal pry bar came next. Squatting, he forced the flat end into the notch and pushed. The energy to push forced his body in the opposite direction.
Brad motioned Myra to move her ship closer. At arm's length, and the ship immobilized by its mags, Hodak braced his back against the fuselage and tried again. He felt the bar bottom into the notch.
Brad squatted beside Hodak and, using the fighter ship's mass to steady themselves, they pushed. The pressure scraped the plug's surface, but it remained fast. They made a fresh cut, braced themselves, and pushed, sweat pouring from their faces. Very slowly, the plug gave way, eventually the surface rose slightly above the warhead's surface. More cuts, and a finger hold. The plug rose a bit more. It seemed hours before their hands could grasp it firmly.
They unscrewed the plug. It drifted away.
'When Ram had our skulls crammed with all that raw data I thought this was garbage we'd never have to use,' Brad said. 'I think a lot differently now. Myra, Drummer, hold the mags tight and be ready to break away as soon as we're back aboard.'
Lying on his side directly above the opening he inserted his arm and shoulder into the well as far as he could. Inside the cavity he located knobs and keypads by touch. At random, Brad twirled the knobs, pressed the keys, and opened and closed switches. After a brief wait, he tore several wire connections loose.
'Working in the dark like this has disadvantages,' he grunted.
Withdrawing his arm he slipped his outer glove back on. Hastily they climbed back aboard their fighters and whirled away.
'The warhead's computer assessed and integrated my random,' Brad said. 'The solution may change its flight path or, for all we know, reset the switches for the proximity fuses so that our ships' mass and proximity sets the bomb off. Let's get as far away from as we can before it all comes together and whatever's going to happen happens.'
The two fighter-bombers raced toward their home fleet.
Barely beyond the fatal radiation zone the now distant warhead detonated. The fireball looked as huge as the Sun from Venus.
Brad opened the communications channel.
'Sentinel One to UIPS Fleet Comm Center. We're approaching in two Plutonian fighters from the direction of the blast. Be ready to receive; we're coming in. Acknowledge.'


The opposing fleets maneuvered warily. It was too late for either side to fire long-range thermonuclear warheads safely. The battle would be a tight arena.
Brad and Hodak matched up to Admiral Selvin's flagship Ruthless. Without altering formation the Ruthless extended a mag-beam and drew the fighters quickly to the flight deck one following the other.
Wasting no time on boarding formalities, Brad motioned his colleagues to follow as an escort led them at a run to the command deck. Selvin was waiting impatiently. A debriefing officer took Hodak in tow, and Drummer escorted to the VIP lounge. At a sign from Brad, Myra trailed after him.
The fleet command center was fifteen meters across and ten deep. View tanks, consoles and displays along the bulkheads glowed and portrayed the multidimensional battle zone, updates on readiness of the fleet and whatever had been considered relevant in defeating the enemy. Specialists and back-up technicians studied displays, recapped real time data, checked results and sent them on in an ongoing process. The place hummed with muted voices and the almost silent clicks of an organized combat ops center.
Selvin waved Brad to join him at a plotting table. A globe-shaped view tank, suspended close overhead displayed the three-dimensional battle zone. The command center's communicator hovered close to Selvin, his head encased in a helmet spunnel-linked to all ships in the UIPS fleet, fleet headquarters on Earth, and the conference site. A hard copy dispatch remote on a shoulder harness extended forward waist-high.
Selvin hastily exchanged handshakes with Brad and Myra. Brad talked fast pointing to the capsule Myra held in her hand. Listening, Selvin's Executive signaled the communicator to open the secure link to Commanders on all ships in the fleet A nod from the grizzled fleet commander and Myra inserted the capsule into a slot on the view tank's base. The Exec motioned the battle staff to observe and listen. Taking turns, Brad and Myra reeled off details on the enemy fleet's Order of Battle.
Brad pointed to locations in the view tank, suggesting potential UIPS tactical options to exploit the enemy's vulnerabilities. He added how Captain Yargoul might respond, and how the UIPS fleet might use them to advantage.
As Brad spoke, a microphone picked up his words and fed into the computer to bring current the fleet's, now by-passed database. Selvin and his staff, even as they listened to Brad, observed the effects on the plotting screen. A superseding fleet tactical formation spread before them.
There was no time left for discussion; the opposing fleets were too close. Selvin, eyes on the tank and plot, took over and spun out orders to his ships' commanders.
'Your view tank has a copy of what I have here,' he said. 'The enemy fleet is down to four battle cruisers, sixteen destroyers, three fighter-bombers, seventeen fighters, four gunboats, and three attack transports with troops aboard, plus a tagalong pack of armed support ships.
'Consider the destroyers are in their best screening positions. We are totally committed. Launch fighters as soon as the TINOR fleet is in optimum range. Target priorities are cruisers, destroyers and gunships. Take the offense immediately against all enemy ships that penetrate our outer defenses.
'Avoid contact with transports or support ships. If an enemy vessel is disabled, engage in rescue if your situation permits; especially should they retire from the arena and present no hazard to the Slingshot construction site. In such circumstances, do not pursue. If they do begin to approach the Terminals, pursue at max and take them out. Keep the construction site command center informed so that they can take defensive actions.
'Engage the enemy. Attack. Attack. Attack.'

The TINOR Commanders facing Captain Yargoul on his view screen appeared apprehensive. They had not closed with the enemy fleet and lost two cruisers, three destroyers and a dozen fighters. The thermonuclear warhead launched at the enemy fleet had been faulty or sabotaged into premature detonation. They had taken savage blows.
Captain Yargoul rallied his forces.
'The battle has just begun,' he exhorted his listeners. 'Our surveillance of the enemy fleet shows we are in a strong position. Form up for penetrating the enemy fleet. Destroyers tighten screens. As soon as the enemy gets within range launch fighter-bombers and fighters. Gunships and attack patrollers take the point. Attack.'
Optimum range was closing for particle beamers. Fighter-bombers, gunships and patroller-fighters from each side sped and dodged toward their firing points.
A Jovian fighter-bomber plunged through a gap in the UIPS shield and came at the bridge of the UIPS cruiser Implacable. Arrayed to fire for effect the Implacable cut loose with successive volleys of its forward laser-quads. From a turret above the cruiser's upper structures a molecular disrupter flashed a cascade of energy that coalesced into twisting, jagged bolts. The fighter-bomber dissolved as its guns fired a short burst. Fragments caromed off its target's hull.
Two thousands kilometers distant, a Titanian gunboat evaded the UIPS defensive screen and slashed in at Selvin's Ruthless. The flagship's guns set up a withering fire, but couldn't match the lightning speed of the closing gunboat. A raking laser-doubles knifed through the Ruthless amidships, opening ten meters of hull. The vacuum of space sucked at storage bays, shops and wardrooms; dozens of bodies floated through the rupture. The gunboat, caught in a crossfire of laser-quads, exploded silently. The Ruthless' internal safety doors had slammed shut immediately, isolating the damaged bays and compartments.
Suddenly, the main bodies of the two fleets were within range of each other's heavy weapons. A tangled circus of cruisers, destroyers, gunships and fighters careened through space, sweeping the battle arena with their guns. Battle craft, from both sides, blossomed into clouds of wreckage, shards and debris in the first minutes of combat.
More heavily armed, the TINOR forces were nevertheless at a disadvantage. The fleet had not completely recovered from the disruptive effects of the haphazard redeployment that Adari contrived. Drummer and Brad had deserted them; Hyk and the Dragon were gone. The TINOR forces lacked cohesion. Captain Yargoul had barely assumed command of the combined fleet and needed to assess the situation. There was no time for that. They were face to face with a powerful adversary who had appeared without warning. An easy victory had become a struggle for survival.
Two UIPS destroyers made a run at the Jovian cruiser Boulder. Four explosive-decompressors cut loose simultaneously at the cruiser, striking her amidships. A succession of explosions wracked the ship, hurling debris and bodies in all directions. The ship rolled and yawed wildly out of control. The UIPS destroyers cut away.
The Ruthless' damage assessments flashed to the bridge and the ship's Commander informed the fleet command deck.
'We've still got full power and most of our guns are operative,' Selvin announced to his staff after a brief study of the report. 'With another of their cruisers gone the big ships have evened out, but they've still got the edge in destroyers. We've…'
'Fighter-bomber locked on to enemy cruiser Encounter.' The communicator's voice cut in over the loudspeaker.
'Put him on,' Selvin ordered.
The pilot's voice filled the room, low and tense.
'… 3000 kay starboard. Destroyer screen at 2000, kinda loose. Going in. Have incoming, lots of it. In evasive. I'm hit, but I'm through. 700. More incoming. Bridge in sights. Three seconds burst - a hit. I'm out of control. Encounter dead ahead... gonna ....'
Selvin turned away to hide the pain in his eyes at still another death.
'Cruisers three to two, in our favor.' An officer called out from his position at the battle monitor. 'New ball game.'
Brad pointed, drawing Selvin's eyes to the constantly changing plotting table and view tank.
The displays showed the struggle had become a series of separate skirmishes spread across a million kay in all directions. Fighter-bombers and fighters without a mother-ship, and destroyers that had lost their cruisers ranged the battlefield singly and in pairs, searching out and attacking the enemy.
Not visible to the naked eye through the swarm of space debris around them, the view tank's sensors discriminated against displaying the lacework of crossing beams from laser-quads, explosive decompressors, molecular disrupters, and here and there, a cruiser's particle beamer.
Admiral Selvin stared at the tank.
'Does he realize what he's doing?' He whispered.
The Jovian heavy cruiser Windstorm and its screen of destroyers had changed direction about twenty five thousand kay distant and headed straight at the UIPS fleet; the Jovian light cruiser Intruder and its escorts lined up behind. The UIPS cruisers Ruthless, Avenger and Implacable were broadside to the oncoming enemy line. The gun ports for the Windstorm's and the Intruder's most powerful long range weapons were along their lengths and out of position for initiating or even returning fire toward the UIPS battle fleet. Jovian vessels of all types that came within range of UIPS weapons would be overwhelmed by UIPS concentrated broadsides. The Windstorm's escorts would not have the range until the two fleets were closer.
'They've inadvertently maneuvered themselves into an ancient sea battle formation,' Selvin said. 'It was once know as 'crossing the T.' They intended to cut straight through our defenses to optimize their broadsides but instead they opened their own to ours. That's how the game is played. I have no choice.'
Selvin's battle computer counted down the enemy's distance and flashed estimates on when the enemy line would be optimally exposed to particle beam volleys.
'Cruisers: ready your particle beamers,' Selvin commanded, 'open fire as soon as you get the window.'
Moments after he spoke, the Admiral's order transformed into action. Abruptly, the gun circuits snapped shut. Lights dimmed and the Ruthless throbbed as the beamers sucked up massive amounts of energy. The Avenger and the Implacable joined in.
Indicators swung wildly. The technicians watched the dials and verified that a stream of highly charged, invisible particles had erupted from the beamer tubes. The lights returned to normal, and the throbbing tapered off.
The bolts struck the leading TINOR warship full length from bow to stern, and moved on the second in line as soon as it moved forward into range. The TINOR battle cruisers shuddered, smitten as by a giant hammer. Their hulls collapsed and the ships exploded into enormous, silent fireballs. Destroyers and support ships in close screens were caught in the blasts and shattered.
The TINOR fleet's will to continue the battle was gone. Without their Supreme Commander, undermined from within, and poorly organized for defense, they had disintegrated as a fighting force.
The battle ground to a halt. What was left of the TINOR armada withdrew beyond the reach of the UIPS fleet's long-range weapons, careful to demonstrate that their retreat was in a direction away from the Slingshot Terminals. It was just as well, lines of UIPS destroyers and gunships had formed up as a shield between the work sites and any potential attacker from the residue of the TINOR Combined Fleet.
The arena quieted. UIPS search, rescue and medical craft searched the area, marking wrecks of both sides with electronic signals, collecting the dead and treating the wounded. Communications lines opened between the fleets. Admiral Selvin requested the TINOR commanders to order a stand down from all weapons. All Plutonian Assault Force vessels were ordered to form up and prepare for boarders.
Brad and Selvin stood in a corner of the command deck, their heads close as they talked. Brad drew an object from a pocket of his tunic as he spoke: the control for the communications barrier Zolan had erected. Selvin, hand to chin, stared at the control as Brad talked, pointed to it, and then in the direction of the companionway.
Selvin nodded. Brad raced away.


Camari's impassive gaze roamed the faces of those seated at the conference table. The discussions were not going well; he had not expected otherwise in the early stage.
The meeting had quickly degenerated into an open clash of wills between Camari and Narval. The other TINOR Chiefs of State sat back to enjoy the contest, posing occasional questions to Camari or Narval, or to both. All knew they were in a waiting game.
Camari went along, drawing Narval out. Each was eager for a message from the Planet Pluto Special Zone that would present a new reality and defining course for the conference.
Narval realized that he was being goaded by his TINOR allies to exacerbate the confrontation between the Regions. Noting the time, he decided to drop the first bombshell.
'We have been called together to prepare a course for the future,' he intoned, looking about with scorn. 'Yet we of the TINOR sit here and quibble, lacking a unified will to confront the UIPS directly and compel them to concede to our demands. The circumstances of the times call for the raw strength of an iron fist, not for a press of beggars with outstretched, pleading palms.'
'I take exception,' President Straber of Titan leaned forward and waggled his finger at Narval. 'We are a confederation of nation-states. Are you suggesting that we abdicate our sovereignty to a single authority? If we were to do that we face the chaos that preceded the separation of the Regions. We of Titan would find that way unacceptable.'
Narval seized the moment to pave the way for the supreme power he felt would soon be his. The message from Drummer would surely come within minutes.
'The old United Planetary System, from which we broke away,' he countered, 'was based on so-called democratic principles and due process. The United Planetary System fell apart. The fragmented, international order that replaced it, this grotesque arrangement of nation-states, is equally ineffective and therefore obsolete. Our system of authority and governance must be raised above the antiquated, interminable rules of the desperate bickering we now witness here at play among us. I will personally impose such changes.'
'Through tyranny?' Camari's words were dry as the desert sands of Mars.
Narval's eyes narrowed to slits of hatred as he glared at Camari. Damn, where was Drummer's message?
Camari continued in the same tone, confronting Narval directly, 'I voice the profound hopes of the peoples of our diverse cultures, and yet, of our common species, that your threat is nothing but idle chatter.'
He turned his head to right and left, taking in the others at the table.
'What say you, leaders of TINOR, to this threat from a criminal let loose among us from Callisto? Will you yield to Narval your constitutional rights and authority so that he personally assumes the power to dictate to your nation and to your people? I, for one, reject his proposal with contempt and declare, here and now, that the UIPS will fight to the death any attempt by Narval to impose his will on the United Inner Planetary System or, for that matter, on any nation in the Solar System.'
Around the table, and in the seats beyond, a shocked silence fell. They were indeed cynical and self-seeking politicians, and devious ploys were their stock in trade for getting and holding power. Narval's past was well known to them all. His words were a direct challenge to their positions, their regimes, and their lives. Faces clouded, they appeared overcome by the realization that Narval's capture of the Terminals was merely one part of a far greater conspiracy to destroy their sovereignty.
Advisors leaned forward to whisper to their Masters. Suspicious glances were cast at Narval who responded with a look of mocking amusement.
'This is all without significance,' he thought, 'by now TINOR military forces are committed to me.'
Camari sat quietly, letting it all happen. The dice had been cast elsewhere.
Ram entered and strode swiftly around the conference table toward Camari. Something in the way Ram's elongated frame stooped and flexed as he walked created an impression of suppressed excitement. Camari tensed with apprehension. Ram caught Camari's eye as the UIPS leader leaned back in his chair.
Ram bent and whispered into Camari's ear. His urgent manner and Camari's close attention stirred the conferees. Several round the table and in the seats beyond glanced at each other, eyebrows raised; others eyed Narval. This was to have been his show.
Narval sat motionless, eyes hooded, his normally ruddy face visibly graying.
Camari held up his hand for attention. It was an unnecessary gesture; all eyes had been on him and Ram from the moment Ram entered.
'I understand an unusual spunnel communication has arrived from the Planet Pluto Special Zone.' Camari announced. It is addressed to all Heads of State attending this convocation. The message calls for an audio-visual presentation in the view tank. Any objections?'
Without waiting for a response, he nodded over his shoulder. Ram murmured into the tiny transmitter in his hand.
The view tank, centered above the conference table, lost its soft neutral glow, blinked, and the Planet Pluto sector appeared. The tank displayed the debris of a space battle: ruptured ships, unrecognizable masses and fragments, and human bodies. In the background were the Slingshot Terminals, intact.
From around the table came sounds of breath drawn sharply, gasps and muttered curses.
The view narrowed and zoomed in on a broad sheet of drifting metal. It bore the emblem of the Jovian Combined Strike Team. Large letters emblazoned above the emblem spelled out the partial word 'Windst...'
All eyes in the room were spellbound, fixed on the tank. All, except for President Pazzim of Callisto. At the sight of the drifting scrap that had once been the pride of his fleet, he groaned loudly, hunched his shoulders and lowered his head. He did not look up again.
The hull of a battle cruiser formed along the tank's outer edge and tumbled slowly end over end toward center. Bow collapsed, the ship drifted into and out of view. Experts from the back seats leaned forward and whispered. The lifeless hulk had been the Plutonian Battle Cruiser Dragon.
Camari shifted his eyes to Narval, half up from his seat, face putty-white, lips quivering, eyes transfixed on the view tank. Tearing his eyes away, he pointed at Camari and screeched.
'It's a trap,' his voice trembled in panic and became a wail. 'This is another stratagem concocted by Camari to frighten us.' He gestured wildly and his mouth dribbled. 'I know your ways, Camari. You're trying to divide and pit us against each other so that you can move in and take over. It won't work. Since you cannot shake our unity and resolve with empty appeals for Slingshot, you now invent battles that never took place. They just couldn't have happened. We're on to you. You're a fraud and a cheat. I move this convocation be terminated immediately. I, for one, have no intention to remain and be subjected to further lies.'
Even as Narval squealed and pounded on the table, the scene in the tank changed to a broader view to take in a phalanx of wrecked warships, some lined up bow-to-stern, others in a disorganized cluster. Again the secure Terminals formed the backdrop.
The scene cut to the command deck of a warship. A face, contorted by anger and despair, appeared and addressed them.
'I am Captain Klars Abou, Commander of the Saturnian Combined Strike Team, now also acting as Commander of the TINOR Combined Fleet, or what's left of it. I make this statement of my own free will. The original mission given to me by my President was to join with other military forces of TINOR to take and hold the Slingshot Terminals hostage as insurance for an outcome in negotiations that would be favorable to TINOR.
'The mission to take the Terminals failed. We were attacked and defeated in battle by the military forces of the United Inner Planetary System. We were betrayed by the Plutonians.
'The Commander of the UIPS Military Space Force has ordered all our warships, except those of Planet Pluto, to return to our home bases. The TINOR military forces, at the outset, had neither strategic nor tactical plans for the confrontation that we have experienced. Our forces are in utter disarray; we have no choice but to comply with the orders of the UIPS Fleet Commander. I have therefore directed the dissolution of the TINOR Combined Fleet and ordered the vessels to return to their home stations. The UIPS fleet commander has granted us leave to use the spunnel system for this purpose.'
Captain Abou's features faded. An ominous quiet descended on the conference room. Narval, stricken and silent, remained half-standing, looking from the tank to Camari, and at the faces of his co-conspirators. Camari returned Narval's gape impassively.
There was more. Drummer's features replaced those of Captain Abou. His features were stern and his head shook slightly with tension and anger. However, his voice was grave and measured in tone, deep and vibrant.
'Leaders of Solar Governments. To those who do not recognize me, I am Deke Drummer, formerly an advisor to Reen Narval and, also formerly the Supreme Commander of the TINOR Combined Fleet. I confirm Captain Abou's words. The mission against Slingshot failed. The reasons are diverse, but failure is a fact. You now have the task, at your convocation, to seek solutions to our common problems through other means.
'All military forces and government administrators of Planet Pluto are under my command. I proclaim to you that the Government of Reen Narval has fallen. I have established myself as Regent over Planet Pluto until a lawful President is chosen by the will of our people. I hereby declare Reen Narval persona non grata on Planet Pluto, and have instructed my warships to attack and destroy his vessel should he enter Plutonian jurisdiction. I remind you all that Narval came to Planet Pluto as a criminal outcast from Callisto. I suggest to the President of Callisto that he take custody of Narval and deal with him on the basis of the crimes he committed within the Callistonian jurisdiction.
'To President Camari, I herewith declare that the original understandings on cooperation and collaboration with the Government of Planet Pluto until Slingshot launch remains in effect. Planet Pluto is an independent nation, nevertheless, I request that, in this singular situation, that you personally represent our interests at the Convocation. I look forward to an early exchange of Ambassadors and consultations to review our mutual interests and objectives. I have in mind three people whom I hope you will consider for high position in your representation to my Government. I shall communicate with you separately on that matter.'




Filed at Solar Conference Site


The meeting of Chiefs of State is a success.
President Camari of the UIPS opened the proceedings with a brief speech. Ignoring past differences, he emphasized common interests, interdependence of peoples and nations, and benefits through collective efforts to meet the needs of the dispersed communities of humankind.
'The singular authority of the old United Planetary System,' Camari said, 'had no need for means to resolve issues among separate nation-states. Such is no longer the case. We must provide for interregional and international deliberations and decision-making. Furthermore, our diminished reserves of metals, minerals and other essential substances, on the one hand, and the benefits of an operational Slingshot, on the other, creates new challenges of common concern and more options in the search for solutions. Unless we accelerate our collaboration to resolve the minerals crisis our civilizations may well erupt once more toward the potential disaster we now strive to resolve.'
Following President Camari's opening remarks, the conference was addressed by TINOR Chiefs of State. Each expressed the aspirations of his or her people and their capabilities toward attainment. All agreed that their meeting was timely, that the problems were mutual, and that the agenda be addressed without delay.
The dialogue was intense as the conferees sought a balance between inalienable rights and solemn obligations. Many issues were extremely complex: What are an inhabited planet's or satellite's jurisdictional limits within territorial and contiguous space? What are the rights and obligations of one Region's military and commercial vessels and citizens when inside the lawful boundaries of another? What is the definition of 'innocent passage' in the context of a multi-national Solar Community? How are our constantly changing interplanetary and interregional spacelanes to be maintained? Who will pay for such services? Questions posed in one context were injected into others or phrased to highlight a wide spectrum of diverse interests and nuances.
Discussions among the primary conferees were, at times, suspended for caucuses of Chiefs of State with their advisors. Ad hoc committees were set up to explore options in depth, or at minimum, to provide clarity and context to the issue. The meeting rooms along the periphery of the assembly hall filled with specialists who argued loudly, in whispers, and at length.
Often, additional data was needed from seats of government. The spunnel channels were loaded with traffic, and archives throughout the system opened, many for the first time in millennia. The Conference Disk's computers absorbed facts and expert opinions and spewed distillations of new conclusions. Slowly, positions clarified and consensus formulated.


The draft Declaration of Principles that emerged from the back rooms dealt with merely a few of many issues that needed immediate solutions. A broad array of issues remained open for future review.
Following hours of debate the Draft Declaration of Principles was approved by the Leaders of the Solar Community.
All agreed the Convocation augured well for the future of humankind.




In order to:

Create and foster political, societal, economic, and cultural environments throughout the Solar Community, which will preclude or minimize acts of international and inter-regional aggression, economic warfare, cultural disruption, and other forms of active hostility between or among the Independent Nations of the Solar Community;
We hereby establish and agree to the following:
This framework for peaceful coexistence within which all Nations respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of each other;
Recognize the mutuality of interests among all peoples and Governments of the Solar Community in sharing the benefits of The Interstellar Mining and Teleport System,

and to

Prepare for and extend the human experience into interstellar space and toward the coming Interstellar Era,


We reject and renounce economic, cultural, military and any other warfare, and the threat of warfare to attain regional, national and cultural objectives. We will settle all disagreements and disputes through peaceful means.


We affirm that the peoples of all nations, states, colonies, settlements, communities, howsoever they may be designated now and in the future throughout the Solar System and, eventually throughout the Interstellar Realm, have ecological unity. Their harmony is such that none are truly independent of the others.


We affirm that the Solar System is the common heritage of humankind, and all the resources of the Solar System, now and in perpetuity, are part of that common heritage. We agree that each Government representing the people of a planet, satellite, independent space entity or a legally constituted part and/or collective thereof, is entitled to its fair share of the natural resources originating within the Solar System or acquired from other star systems. Such resources will be available, proportionately, from the Common Reserve in conformance with a nation's, government's, or people's verified needs and technological capabilities to utilize the resources for peaceful and beneficial purposes.


In furtherance of ARTICLE ONE, we most solemnly declare that continuance of organized military forces by any Government or other entity within the Solar Community can serve no useful purpose. We manifestly recognize that the existence of military mass destruction weapons and their supporting agencies and facilities increase the likelihood of their utilization to resolve differences or jurisdictional disputes, with consequent harm to human life, properties, societies and civilizations.

We, independently and collectively, agree, without reservations except for the EXCLUSION stated in this ARTICLE, to the phased reduction of all military spacecraft, weapons, facilities, human or robot training and other support systems and technologies to the point of their complete elimination not more than five Solar Standard Years from the date affixed to this Declaration of Principles.


We exclude from this ARTICLE specified accords which are, or will be, required by a legally constituted Government to exercise normal internal constabulary powers and authority on, and in space contiguous to, their planet, satellite, independent community or zone, and between and among Governments, as mutually agreed to among the Parties concerned. All signatories to this Declaration will be kept informed of such constabulary agreements prior to implementation and their views considered.


We recognize that precise delineation's of spatial jurisdictions are essential for the orderly processes of government. We agree that jurisdictions to be defined and delineated include:
a. the outer limits of any one nation's spatial control and administration. Such delineation shall take into account the irrevocable right and obligation of any Government which exercises legitimate influence or control over a non-hazardous natural or artificial planet, satellite, planetoid, space station, outpost, spunnel node, link, net or booster; transiting comet, asteroid, meteor swarm, planetary or satellite ring, or other astrophysical body to ensure absence of human interference to that body's or phenomenon's free and unencumbered passage through that Government's spatial jurisdiction.
b. control and operation of space communications booster, relay, and terminal stations and their supporting research, development, manufacturing, and logistics systems and technologies. The intent of this delineation is standardized and economically operated and serviced conventional and hyperspace communications systems throughout the Solar System and in interstellar space.
c. traffic control, flight safety, and management of UIPS and INOR approved inter-regional, interplanetary, inter-satellite and other space- ways. Acceptance of responsibilities shall not exceed the Party's existing technologies, resources and capabilities.


We commit our Governments to accept financial, fiduciary, material and technological assessments for our utilization of the common space-ways. We agree that these assessments are for the purpose of defraying the expenditures of any one Government or entity toward maintaining and upgrading those common space and traffic management systems that fall within their borders, or other mutually agreed upon jurisdictions, and for performing such services for the common good as:

a. removal of hazards to innocent passage;
b. traffic control;
c. search and rescue;
d. acquisition, deployment, operation and servicing of communications and navigational aids;
e. construction, operation and maintenance of space and surface ports of entry and departure for the common use of all spacecraft;
f. trained, equipped and ready investigation teams to assist Governments of Primary Concern in determining the facts of 'incidents- in-space' which occur in proximate international areas, and
g. emergency logistical support capabilities for performing urgent essential repairs to damaged spacecraft of other Nations in peaceful transit. Such repairs shall be to internationally accepted standards that will permit the craft to continue its flight to a location designated by the Government having legal ownership, or authority to repair or dispose of the spacecraft.

h. We agree that spacecraft, spacecraft parts, man-made or otherwise artificial bodies and parts thereof greater than [to be determined] in size/mass, pollutants, or otherwise potentially hazardous, shall be stipulated in an amendment hereto not later than_(to be agreed upon), wreckage, and generated excess materials and human waste, will not be discarded or abandoned in space. Derelicts and unattached parts thereof, rubbish, waste matter, and all human-made objects in space are considered to be hazards to traffic or are unsafe for other reasons. They will be collected or tagged with an active signal and towed or transported to where they will not be a hazard to traffic or may pollute the space environment. The Government of the nearest surface or human habitat to initiate and follow up on actions for the objects' reduction to harmless residue or its temporary or permanent removal to a location where it will not cause harm to people or things.
i. Deliberate destruction of a natural or artificial body or object anywhere in space in a manner that creates new debris of which components, shards, bits-and-pieces, residue that escape the collection/control of the party that caused the 'destruction' may have caused or may [likely] yet become a serious hazard to traffic or habitat. The creator of such destruction shall expeditiously justify the 'act of destruction' within the Regional judicial system.


We announce the formation of an international apparatus, with representation from all Governments, colonies, or other populated entities to assemble within three Solar Standard months from the date affixed hereto. The primary purpose of this Assembly is to facilitate implementation of this Declaration. They shall also create and ensure support for an interplanetary citizen's volunteer group to review and resolve complaints and suggestions from the populace that may contribute to recommendations for improvements to this Declaration that will:
a. promote the free and unencumbered passage of transports, vessels, people and commerce between and among the Nations of the Solar System;
b. encourage cultural, economic, and scientific research, and exchanges of scholars, students, and information for the benefit and betterment of humankind;
c. enhance the understanding of all peoples regarding the positive values, which have evolved over the millennia since the beginning of the Great Migration from Planet Earth,
d. organize and begin the planning for humankind's exploration and migration into the Interstellar Realm.


We declare and affirm we act in concert with the spirit and letter of this Declaration of Principles in the interests of international cooperation, interplanetary peace and security, mutual understanding among our far-flung peoples, and the survival of our species.


We encourage all Parties to expand on these accords through their initiatives and agreements for mutual benefits to themselves and to all Governments and peoples in the peaceful use of space.



The networks of mass attractors that tethered the Extractor to Planet Pluto were disengaged five Earth centuries after construction began. The planet contributed its orbital momentum to the launch. In time the integrated drives of the nuclear-laser propulsion thrusters took on the full load, and the dream of humankind was on its way to the Alpha Centauri star system, on schedule.
Scientists and technicians on Earth and Planet Pluto maintained constant oversight of the Extractor's subsystems and structures through spunnel monitors. A convoy of robot deflectors and screens cleared the path of meteoroids, sand and rock swarms and space debris. Hundreds of logistics robots crammed the station's cavernous bays, self-sustaining and programmed to activate sub-systems, deploy robot specialists and service the machine during its voyage, and for millennia afterward in its operational environment.
Maximum acceleration for almost two Earth decades increased the fleet's velocity to five percent speed-of-light, which it maintained for more than an Earth century. Deceleration and vector corrections took another three decades. Alignment to major concentrations of sources for metals, minerals and other substances, selection of a 'first phase' work site, calibration of instrumentation and activating its spunnel channels and monitors required still more.


Back along the Solar rim, the Collector remained linked to Planet Pluto for two decades following the Extractor's departure. Its schedule along Pluto's orbit provided sufficient time for the Collector's transit to its permanent station along the rim, to track the Extractor's position via spunnel to refine details for combined operations, and for positioning and integrating the thousands of locks that will comprise the solar and interstellar arrays.
The citizens of the Solar community tuned in to witness the release of the Interstellar Spunnel Signal from the hand of the President of the newly formed United Nations of the Solar System. It would be the final signal to synchronize and activate the collective controls of the Extractor and Collector.

The President activated the Signal.

Remote spunnel nodes along the route from the Solar System to Alpha Centauri monitored the Signal and the response. Rings of laser arrays along the edge of the Extractor's hopper flashed alive and focused their beams on a large, slowly tumbling planetoid hundreds of kilometers across its minor dimension.
Sensors, analyzers, siphons and beam-guides paralleled the lasers signals along an incandescent column of plasma from the dissolving planetoid into the Extractor's hopper. The truncated apex of the Extractor's cone glowed red, then violet, and thirty meters of its length disappeared into hyperspace.
The invisible nozzle hurled a concentration of elemental substance through hyperspace at its sister station four and a half light-years distant.

The first sign of incoming was a churning, expanding mass of violet bubbles around the apex of the Collector. Shifting colors as it cooled and solidified, the mass became a brown globe. The globe separated from the nozzle and drifted off, to be replaced by another mushrooming bubbling mass on the nozzle's tip.
A troop of robot space tugs clamped mag-beams on the free-floating globes and hauled them off. Another line of space tugs moved into position for the next gift of crude but treasured substance teleported across interstellar space.

The cornucopia was in flow


Humankind's first teleport link to the greater universe was in place.


NOTE The Spunnel

‘Spunnels’ in the public’s jargon, came into being, the term compressed from the phrase ‘hyperspace tunnels,’ a universal phenomenon once suspected and eventually confirmed. In the centuries preceding The Great Migration the phenomenon had been generally referred to as a ‘wormhole’, an archaic and irrelevant expression, even in those ancient times.


Projecting a current dilemma into the distant future is the essence of hard science fiction as compared to myth and fantasy. Natural phenomena, especially contrivances of the imagination, are fair game for science fiction storytellers and readers.

Such is the case with the 'wormhole' (or 'spunnel') as I thought it might some day be designated. After all, the tunnel under the English Channel that connects England and France is popularly called the 'Chunnel.' The spunnel, when we do make that leap, will eventually be just another hyperspace highway for flash e-mail, and beyond that, for instant teleportation of people and things in long haul solar, interstellar and intergalactic logistics.
Let's imagine forward in time a couple of millennia and examine cosmological 'spunnel' history in the context of my story. The following is another excerpt from The Interplanetary Historian, in an imagined retrospective published in the late 22d century of the Interplanetary Era:
'Spunnels, as natural phenomena were imagined before the Interplanetary Era as conduits connecting cosmological black holes and white holes. Even then, theorists suggested that matter might conceivably be drawn into a black hole and instantaneously transported to a point in the universe light-years distant, and there ejected through the cosmological tunnel's 'white hole.'
'Firm evidence of spunnels existence, and their potential utility, did not surface until the 12th century of the Interplanetary Era. However, the scientific base and the supporting technologies for research, development, test and evaluation of disciplines to exploit the phenomenon were still unclear. They also lacked the priority and essential qualitative character until well after the 15th century IE.
'In the beginning, spunnel cracking, channeling, and route management were confined to long-line communications between Earth and stations beyond the Asteroids. Spunnel applicability to interstellar communications was caught up in deep space paradox.
'Assuming that an interstellar spunnel could be constructed, scholars postulated that the unrestrained terminus of the conduit (at an interstellar destination) would need to be located and anchored, which required facilities and equipment in place plus on-site integration and calibration capabilities. The issue was moot, sensible people claimed: why have interstellar communications when there was no intelligence at the other end to receive?
'This particular dilemma was snarled in the facts of diminishing reserves of industrial minerals and other essential substances. Generally, interstellar projects were just not affordable. All in all, pretty much of a 'Catch-22,' a pre-IE term for a paradox of blended inconsistencies.
'As part of the research into spunnel cracking and control, researchers, for example, injected into the spunnel nodes minute quantities of photons or finely-ground metal and other substances. Cataclysmic disasters instantly followed: explosive regurgitation; diversions of substance to unknown destinations; tunnel distension, warpage and disruption; massive obstruction explained away in popular nonsense as 'systemic constipation,' quite distressing and embarrassing at times; also implosions at intakes and explosions at exhausts, and more.
'Eventually, after much trial and error, substance dispatched was substance received. A monumental breakthrough in the technology of controlled teleportation of matter within and across interplanetary distances
'Interstellar spunnel operations, however, remained frustrated: matter transfer by spunnel would remain confined to the Solar System until a fixed white hole or black hole phenomenon was in place at each end, pinned down, stabilized, and operational. Robotics were fine as far as they went, but some sort of oversight by instruments or humans themselves was considered essential for the outset. Nine years for two-way light-speed transmission of data to a robot-operated Slingshot terminal off Alpha Centauri wouldn't hack it. Real-time control from the Solar System was the only way to go.

Slingshot lit a fire under the requirement.


Appendix A The Order of Battle

The Order of Battle in the War Between The Independent Nations of the Outer Region (TINOR) and the United Inner Planetary System (UIPS).


Admiral Deke Drummer, Supreme Commander, Combined Fleet
Commander Brad Curtin, Chief (Temporary), Combat Operations
Flagship: Battle Cruiser Dragon (Heavy)

Plutonian Assault Force

Battle Cruisers:
Dragon (Heavy); Captain Har Hyk: 4 long-range particle-beamers; 4 medium-range molecular disrupters; 6 laser-quads; 1 thermonuclear warhead launcher; 3 fighter-bombers; 3 fighters; field hospital; 1,500 assault troops; 2 personnel carrier pods (100 troops capacity each)
Tiger (Light); Captain Dana Crisper: 2 long-range particle-beamers; 4 explosive decompressors; 4 laser quads and 6 laser-doubles; 4 fighters

Destroyer Groups (DG) Two
DG One: Dragon Screen; Lt Commander Jeff Bray:
Viper 2 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-quads
Serpent 2 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-quads
Scorpion 3 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-quads
Centipede 8 laser-quads
DG Two: Tiger Screen; Lt Commander Merc Kass:
Iguana: 2 explosive decompressors 4 laser-quads
Salamander: 1 explosive decompressor; 4 laser-quads
Crocodile: 6 laser-quads
Mine-sweeper Squadron; Senior Lt Cons Cong:

Attack Transport Group; Senior Lt Lud Nosto:
Each: 10 laser-quads and 5 troop carrier pods (100 troops capacity each pod).
Attack Transport Support Unit (Command: Warrant Officer Talen Brand)
Dolphin (Supply)
Wallaby (Emergency Repair)

Jovian Combined Strike Force Captain Ezo Yargoul, Commander Battle Cruisers:
Windstorm (Heavy); Captain Eso Yargoul: 7 long-range particle-beamers; 2 molecular disrupters; 4 explosive decompressors; 8 laser-quads; 1 thermonuclear warhead launcher; 3 fighter-bombers; 3 fighters
Boulder (Light); Commander Daron Mich: 1 long-range particle-beamer; 4 explosive decompressors; 6 laser-quads; 2 fighters

Destroyer Groups (Two)
DG One: Windstorm Screen; Commander Cap Roque:
Grit: 4 explosive decompressors; 6 laser-quads
Volcano: 2 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-quads
Crag: 6 laser-quads
Flint: 2 explosive decompressors; 6 laser-quads

DG Two: Boulder Screen; Lt Commander Ras Mohl:
Seamount: 6 laser-quads
Massif: 2 explosive decompressors; 4 laser quads

Support Group; Lt Petra Karan:
Shelf (Supply)
Shop (Emergency Repair)
Saturnian Combined Strike Team
Captain Klars Abou, Commander

Battle Cruisers
Encounter (Heavy); Captain Klars Abou: 2 long-range particle-beamers; 2 molecular disrupters; 4 laser-quads; 12 laser-doubles; 3 fighter-bombers; 3 fighters
Intruder (Light); Commander Sun Wanat: 2 long-range particle-beamers; 6 explosive decompressors; 2 fighters
Two Destroyer Groups
DG One: Encounter Screen; Lt Commander Thet Furo:
Duster: 2 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-quads
Lava: 4 explosive decompressors; 6 laser-quads
Stonecutter: 6 laser-doubles
Wedge: 6 laser-doubles

DG Two: Intruder Screen; Lt Commander Rac Mong:
Slate: 6 laser-quads; 8 laser-doubles
Pellet: 2 explosive decompressors; 6 laser-quads
Support Group; Lt Savo Devor:
Usher: (Supply and Maintenance)
Uranus/Neptune Combined Strike Team
Captain Ambro Yark, Commander
Titan Destroyer (Heavy) Tamerack; Captain Ambro Yark: 1 long-range particle-beamer, 8 laser quads
Titan Patroller-Fighter Group
Senior Lt Rib Asto:
(Each fighter: laser-doubles fore and aft):
Titania Gunboat Scout Squadron; Lt Commander Vex Tumon:
(Each scout: 4 laser-doubles.)
Hound Dog
Titania Support Ship Sucker
Mine Sweeper and Logistics Support Unit
Warrant Officer Pert Intol



Special Defense Force, Slingshot Special Zone
Admiral James Selvin, Commander
Admiral Yuri Volkov, Vice Commander
Flagship: Battle Cruiser Ruthless (Heavy)

Battle Cruisers
Ruthless (Heavy); Captain Ambrose Brach: 6 long-range particle-beamers; 4 explosive decompressors; 8 laser-quads; 1 thermonuclear warhead launcher; 6 fighter-bombers and 3 fighters
Avenger (Light); Captain Lars Hanken: 4 long-range particle-beamers; 2 molecular disrupters; 6 laser-quads; 2 fighter-bombers; 2 fighters; field hospital
Implacable (Light); Captain Takeji Komatsu: 2 long-range particle-beamers; 1 molecular disrupter; 6 laser-quads; 3 fighter-bombers

Destroyer Groups (Three)
DG One: Ruthless Screen; Commander Shlomi Rabin
Shatterer: 1 short-range particle-beamer, 6 laser-quads
Wrangler: 2 explosive decompressors; 6 laser-quads
Saber: 10 laser-doubles
Blazer: 4 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-doubles

DG Two: Avenger Screen; Lt Commander Komo Huambo:
Thunderer: 8 laser-doubles
Sharpshooter: 2 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-doubles
Sniper: 6 laser-quads
DG Three: Implacable Screen; Commander Leta Zano:
Tinderbox: 3 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-quads
Brimstone: 10 laser-doubles
Arrow: 2 explosive decompressors; 4 laser-doubles
Dart: 8 laser-doubles
Patroller-Scout Squadron, Lt Commander Ahmed Ismail: (Field reassignment from Logistics Depot to Special Defense Force):
Rover: 2 laser-doubles
Ferret: 1 explosive decompressor; 1 laser-double
Spotter: 2 laser-quads

Slingshot Site Defenses

1 Destroyer/Mine Layer Squadron (Slingshot Screen); Commander Mac Vati:
Blitzer: 2 explosive decompressors; 2 laser-quads
Pounder: 4 laser-quads; 6 laser-doubles
Devourer: 2 laser-quads; 1 molecular disrupter
Mine Layer: Farmer
Forcefield Defensive Screen: Mantle
Armament - Effective Range/Kilometers
Laser-quads, multiple-parallel - 1300K
Laser-doubles, multiple-parallel - 1150K
Explosive decompressor - 1450K
Molecular disrupter - 1500K
Long-range particle beamers (fusion charged) - Range 18,000K
Thermonuclear warhead - detonation parameter 50,000K
Fighter and Fighter-bomber Characteristics
Fighters-bomber, two man crew - 1 bow explosive decompressor (forward firing-90 degrees centerline omni-fire field) and 2 amidships upper and lower turrets laser-quads
Fighter, one man crew - 1 bow laser-doubles or quads (forward firing)


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About the author

About the author: Age 92 as of this posting (2009). Was a U.S. civil service employee from 1941 to 1974; first duty station, parachute rigger at Patterson Field, Ohio; transferred to Hickam Field, Hawaii immediately following the 'Pearl Harbor' attack; back to Wright-Pat, in acquisition management for personnel parachutes for the Korean War. During Cold War on to French Morocco, developed plans to support Strategic Air Command in war with the USSR. Back to States and McClellan AFB, Calif. Several years in logistics management; served on task group to review 'program definition proposals' for Project SLOMAR (Space Logistics, Operations, Rescue and Maintenance); senior civilian in the Commander's IG office. Assigned 'additional duty' (1968 Viet Nam War) to support the county to create an area-wide 'suicide prevention service' consistent with the mission and functions of an Inspector General and the USAF IG Complaints System. Paraprofessional training and served as hotline volunteer, SP public speaker, and SP advocate/activist. More in my memoir, Military-Civilian Teamwork in Suicide Prevention at


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