Tom Purdom






There were seventy-one items in the cargo and they had all been shaped by two of the most celebrated designers in the Solar System. The men were lithe and muscular, the women lithe and curvy. Psychologically, they were all good-humored and wonderfully amenable. The physiologist on the design team believed they set a new standard for amenability. He had worked out a biochemical modification that had astounded the psychologist when she had analyzed the results. Their destination was a new resort hotel an ambitious entrepreneur was fabricating on the surface of one of the younger asteroid cities.

There were twenty-six men and forty-five women. They started their journey in a waiting room next to a "secret," "unregistered," port just under the surface of Ronaka City. Twenty minutes before departure time, their mentors told them to undress and form five lines. There was no talking or fidgeting. The men eyed the women and the women returned little smiles. Chronologically, the oldest was sixteen, the youngest a little under fifteen. Physiologically, they were all nineteen to twenty.

On the surface of the asteroid, a ship was being loaded with cargo silos that had been passed through an officially authorized port. The ship itself was essentially a framework of girders with a spherical crew habitat at the front end. A crane lifted eight silos out of the official port and a suite of pre-programmed molecular devices fastened the silos to the framework.

The crew halted the countdown ten minutes before the ship was supposed to leave the asteroid. A boarding tube snaked out of the secret port and fastened itself to the side of a cargo silo. Boxes of false cargo flew down the tube. The mentors gave the word and the real merchandise climbed up the tube and settled into the individual mesh cocoons waiting in the silo. A piston pushed the ship away from the city. The huge solar sail mounted at the front of the crew habitat started expanding. Ten hours after the ship left Ronaka City, the sail had become a silver mirror six kilometers in diameter. Sunlight exerted its steady, gentle pressure on twenty-eight square kilometers of reflecting surface. In the darkness inside the clandestine silo, molecular machines scurried along the fibers that held the secret cargo and injected nutrients and sedatives as they were needed. Thousands of other moles floated in the spaces between the cocoons and collected body wastes.

The front section of the silo concealed a small crew habitat and a smaller version of the sail that loomed over the front of the ship. Twenty-three hours after departure, the three people crowded into the secret habitat examined the information on their screens and debated one of the most important decisions they would ever make.

They knew the Interception Patrol had placed a ship somewhere in the space around Ronaka. They had been advised their surveillance suite could identify a typical patrol ship out to twenty thousand kilometers.

They argued for almost two hours. In the end, two of them voted in the affirmative and one shrugged and accepted the decision. The fake silo broke away from the cargo ship. Its thrusters pushed it away from the ship at a ten degree angle.

"Look at it this way," the female member of the trio had said. "If a patrol ship does try to pursue us, it's going to be twenty thousand kilometers away when it spots us. It will take it over three tendays to close the gap. How many officers are going to launch a chase knowing they're committing themselves to spending thirty edays coming after us? And another thirty working their way back to Ronaka?"

As it turned out, their equipment wasn't quite as good as it was supposed to be. The nearest patrol ship was seventeen thousand kilometers away, not twenty. The ship was keeping station near a small asteroid and their sensors had failed to distinguish it from the rocky background behind it.

The crew habitat on the patrol ship was a sphere four meters in diameter. The entire crew consisted of one young officer who was strapped into a web in front of his screenbank. The half pips of a sublieutenant adorned the collar of his neatly belted blue uniform tunic. The ID strip over his right pocket displayed one of the most famous names in the Fourth International Brigade. Millions of people all over the Solar System could have told you his mother had been Gunnery Sergeant Wei, his father was Assault Sergeant Kolin, his first name was Denif, and people who valued his society called him Den, not Deni.

"The surveillance system has detected a suspicious event in quadrant two," the Voice of the patrol ship said.


Copyright (c) 2000 by Tom Purdom.  All rights reserved.  This document may be printed out and archived for personal use.  All other use is strictly prohibited.

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