by Michæl W. Bard
Text ©2007 Michæl W. Bard; illustration ©2007 Cubist

Part 1 -=- Part 2-=-Part 3

Home -=- #13 -=- ANTHRO #13 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

-= 14 =-

   Darrvid was dead.
   I floated there, at the end of a long, yellow safety line. My buddy was politely stayin’ far away because I had to do this. I’d insisted on it. In front of me was Darrvid, cold, dead. I hadn’t believed he was gone ’til I’d seen him. When the light caught him, when I seen it was him, it was like an electric shock explodin’ along my nerves. His eye sockets were empty, puckered explosions. His flesh looked undamaged, but I could see pustules along his lips, on the bare skin of his fingers. One hand was clenched around his cyanide capsule, which was open and empty. His clothin’ was torn, and his mouth was wide open in an eternally silent scream.
   Darrvid was dead. Floatin’ in the vacuum, taken by the Breath Sucker.
   It was almost a year after I’d talked to Eddie on High York. Durin’ that time I’d made a number of trips, got some more of Doc’s friends to come up. Sent up the genetic material from Nicholine and it was safe. New Ceres was gettin’ noticeably crowded, Kirri and her compatriots was busy. We even had our first mayor—Phil Guthurn—a rabbit fur. Won by a landslide; hell, I’d voted for him myself. Cæsar got hisself Brainified, but I hadn’t talked to him since he went under the knife. In addition to bringin’ people up, I’d been smugglin’ light weapons. Not many, just a few. Inspection was easy to get past. I’d learned shootin’ when I was young—never was much good at it, but it came back to me. Eddie, he was still on High York. I’d gotten confirmation from him of the Brain ships, information that they were buildin’ them rapidly. He’d even applied and been accepted into the program. And the Company’s goddamn directives got more and more extreme. Oxygen tax went up, pay rates went way the hell down, and petty little rules sprouted like weeds. No talkin’ after nine pm, censorship of language from Earth broadcasts. It was like the Company was goin’ out of its way to piss people off.
   And then Darrvid died. Or suicided.
   I floated there, my breath loud in my helmet. My stomach turned over and I had to will myself not to be sick—not somethin’ you want to happen when you’re in a space suit. Not for the first time, I, like so many others, wished there was a way to get your hand to touch your face, in my case right now to wipe away tears.
   We picked up Darrvid on radar a few hours ago; sent some cameras to figure out what he was, and they confirmed his identity. Forget the vids—vacuum don’t make you explode or anythin’, it just makes your soft tissues burst, and then all the water slowly boils out through your husk once you’ve suffocated, leavin’ a perfectly preserved, perfectly dry mummy. Custom for a body was to send a friend to get it, and I’d taken the orbital shuttle Aphrodite out to recover him. My buddy was another friend of Darrvid’s, one I didn’t know well, a feline, and a really touchy one. We had us a huge argument on who got to get the body, but Darrvid’s will listed me as his nearest kin on New Ceres. It was my job. Didn’t really trust the feline as my buddy, but at that point I didn’t really care.
   Feelin’ bile in my throat, I felt around and found one o’ Doc’s bug-jammers—the one I’d given him—in his coverall pocket. I put the gizmo in one of mine. They’d autopsy the body, and the rebellion couldn’t afford the Company findin’ that little toy.
   “Felitch… yeah, I got him.”
   “About time! I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
   “You just stay where you are! I thought we’d settled this! I’ll bring him back. It’s what—it’s what he would have wished.” The feline started to yowl somethin’, but I switched off the radio. I didn’t care.
   It’s odd. We get buried at space, dumped into a decayin’ orbit that’ll take us into the sun. But if somethin’ happens—an accident, murder—the body’s always brought back to a station before bein’ sent back out. I’d never had to do it before, thank God, but now…
   Now I thought I could understand why that tradition existed.
   Through blurred vision I gently grabbed Darrvid’s ankle, the dried flesh under the cloth crackin’ a bit under my gentle pressure. My stomach couldn’t take anymore and I dry-heaved—I’d been afraid of this and hadn’t ate or drank anythin’. A bit o’ foul bile splattered my helmet, its acid stench filled my nostrils. My stomach stopped, either havin’ nothin’ left, or knowin’ it was futile. Cockin’ my head I looked at Darrvid and saw that I’d clenched tight, crushin’ flesh and muscle, I could feel my fist now holdin’ the bone. I didn’t let go ’cause I didn’t know if I could grab him again. With fumblin’ motions, I switched my radio back on.
   “—damn it Eeysmarn! Answer me!”
   “Felitch, everythin’s—I got him. Just—”
   “Why the hell didn’t you answer?”
   “Just shut up and drag me in. Just… please.”
   Thank God he shut up and pulled me in, the buddyline tuggin’ me closer and closer towards him as the stench slowly cleared from my helmet, filtered out by the air system.

-= 15 =-

   Felitch and I got the body back to New Ceres. He did most of the work, I… I was just there. Maybe he understood, maybe he didn’t. I didn’t care. They took the body for the autopsy and I just signed forms like a robot. I slept, woke up, ate, showered. Leastways, that’s what I’m told. The investigation didn’t take long: Darrvid died of asphyxiation when he ran out of oxygen. Either he hadn’t taken the cyanide, or he took too little, or somebody was lyin’. There was no record as to how he got out there, cameras were blank in the period in question. That made no sense.
   Darrvid was dead.
   Didn’t matter though, ’cause I knew. Company goons had tried to take him, and he’d suicided to keep from betrayin’ me. The cyanide told me that that was the reason. The fact that he was holdin’ it was a signal. Most likely, the Company penetrated one of the cells below Darrvid, and traced the links up to him. He’d stopped the damage. How many cells below was compromised, I didn’t know. There were safeguards, the Doc’d find out and modify the system to re-establish conventional links.
   But Darrvid was dead. And I was mad. No, not mad, livid. Before… Before, this was somethin’ that had to be done. But now? Now, I didn’t even care anymore. I just wanted one thing.
   I couldn’t hate the Brains, not when Cæsar was one. But I figured that, like humans and furs, there was good Brains, and bad Brains. The Doc and I got together to talk about Darrvid’s death, without Kirri. The three of us never did meet all together, to keep from makin’ anybody suspicious.
   Darrvid was dead. And whoever was responsible, I was goin’ to make the son of a bitch pay.
   “Doc, who the hell would have done this!?”
   The Doc lit up another pipeful o’ whatever crap it was he smoked. “That, my boy, is an excellent question,” he said. “I think we may take it as read that one or another of the Company’s functionaries is responsible; as I told you, Shean, rebellion is a dirty business. On the other hand, it is at least logically conceivable that it could have been an accident. I mention this solely for the sake of completeness, inasmuch as the loss of all the video records for the time in question—”
   “Shut up, Doc! Just shut up! Who would know? Who would God damned fuckin’ know!?”
   I found myself standin’ in front of the doc, pushed up on the tips of my hooves so that my muzzle was almost up to his neck. My hand was around his shirt and I had yanked the Doc’s head down to a level with my own. “Who? Would? Know?” His pipe dropped from his lips and clunked to the floor, the scent of burnt tobacco rich in my nostrils.
   The Doc’s breath rasped loudly in my ears as they leaned forward, and I felt his fear. Shamefaced, I let go, turned away, clomped over to the wall and leaned against it, tears once again brimmin’ from my eyes. “I’m—I’m sorry—”
   “Shean. You can’t handle it like this. There’s too much of a risk. I’ll… I’ll try to find out. But quietly. Softly. Maybe when we’re done—”
   “If we’re done. If! No way in hell I’m waitin’ that long!”
   “Shean, you have to! It’s only been a year—”
   “Doc, the drive is almost attached. New Ceres is scheduled to move out in four months. How long we gonna wait? How long we goin’ to let these—these bastards get away with this?”
   He sighed, and picked up his pipe from the floor. “Mike would know.”
   I turned and stared at him. “Mike?”
   “The Brain here on New Ceres. Even if the tapes were erased, Mike would assuredly be aware of their content. Either he’d know because he was watching the rebellion to help it along, and he was watching Darrvid, or he’d know because he helped set it up.”
   “Fine! I’ll ask him myself—”
   Somehow the Doc got between me and the door. “And what reason will you give Mike for this inquiry?”
   “Your options are few. Imprimus, you may tell the truth, in which case you’ve damned us all. He knows you’re not in the original rebellion, and it is, quite simply, imperative that Mike not become aware of ours! And if you claim to be in any revolution, Mike will, assuredly, figure it out. Ergo, truth is most inadvisable. Secundus, you can lie to him—or at least you can make the attempt. Shean, you know that you’re not good at deceit. I can offer instruction, but there are all kinds of things that can give you away. Variations in body temperature, subtle voice tones, word choice—and you know that Mike will be looking for them all.”
   I stared at the Doc, my blood hot, nostrils flared for fight instead of flight. “I don’t care.”
   “Shean! Will you do me the courtesy of shutting up and listening for a minute! You–can–not–ask! Period! I’ll… I’ll get Kirri to ask. She’s in the old rebellion, after all; it would be eminently plausible for her to be suspicious. In fact, she’s always suspicious. I’ll let you know. Just… Just don’t do anything. Okay?”
   “I…” I remembered the weight of the people on New Ceres; there was somethin’ like fifteen thousand now. “Okay, Doc. Fine. I’ll wait. But you get her to ask, and you get her to ask now. You got me? And you tell me what Mike tells her!”
   “I will. Just be patient.”
   Noddin’, I turned and stomped out, my rubber boots squeakin’ on the stone steps out of the library.
   Yeah, the Doc did get Kirri to ask. And Mike said he’d caught what happened, an’ it had been an accident—a mistake.
   Mike lied.
   Kirri told the Doc, the Doc told me, and I told the Doc that I was leadin’ the assault on Mike when we took New Ceres.
   You know, you probably think I was crazy. And, you’re probably right. You’ve read about this, you know what happened, when it happened. To you it’s just facts, history—names on paper—a voice you’re listenin’ to. You didn’t know Darrvid. But I did! He was my friend. Possibly my best friend. He was closer to me than family. His death still hurts me.
   To you, this is just a dusty ol’ story. It’s history, one fur’s perspective. But to me… it was murder. It was the murder of my best friend.
   It was real.

-= 16 =-

   We had the wake about a week later—it’s what Darrvid wanted. With some of the money he left me, I rented The Bronze Unicorn, one of the higher class dives. Invitations went out to everybody on his contact list. Some I knew well, some I didn’t, and some I’d never met. The wolves who rescued him from the cage he grew up in got invited; I made a special trip to Earth to pick ’em up. And there were others. Felitch was there, too. The party was loud, lots was drunk, lots was nibbled, toasts were made, memories were told.
   The only oddball, the one who made no sense, was a small, mousy woman who kept to herself in the back. Now, if she was just a furry-type mousy woman, that would have been almost understandable. But she was a mousy lookin’ human. I made my way over to her when the party was warm, but before I got too drunk, cause somethin’ didn’t add up. Grabbin’ a bowl of extra spicy wings—the hamburgers was all gone—I pushed through the crowd to her.
   When I got close, I recognized her. Through her red eyes, her lonely eyes. She was the woman I seen in Darrvid’s control room, the one I suggested he bring into his cell. There was a space around her, like a moat, and I could almost feel a collective intake of breath when I crossed it.
   “May I sit down, Miss..?”
   She looked up, her eyes slowly focussin’ in on me. Shruggin’, she watched as I sat down on the far side of the booth, the table between her and myself.
   Puttin’ down the wings, I motioned to them. “Help yourself.”
   She just turned away.
   Lowerin’ my voice, I said, “It’s odd, you bein’ here. I wouldn’t’ve expected it.”
   She nibbled on her lips. “I… I needed to. To see… to see that he was really gone.”
   Pullin’ out the Doc’s gizmo, I put it beside the wings and switched it on. The lights blinked from green to red. At that point I didn’t care if Darrvid had recruited her or not; I was goin’ to. This was a revolt against the Brains, not humans.
   She squeaked and her eyes got wide when she saw the device. Yeah, she recognized it.
   “What’s your name? I missed it.”
   “Umm… Megan. Megan Chornton.”
   I nodded. “I’ve seen you in the control room. With Darrvid.”
   She slowly nodded.
   I grabbed m’self a wing an’ started tearin’ off the spicy meat. Chewin’ and swallowin’ the mouth full, I asked, “Did you know Darrvid well?”
   “I…” She paused, looked away, crossed her hands on her lap. “Not really.”
   “Why’re you here then?” I motioned at the others on the far side of the moat. “Nobody else seems to care for you. Darrvid wasn’t much for humans.”
   “I know.”
   Somebody had to break the ice. “You was in his cell, weren’t you?”
   She looked at me like a mouse caught in a flashlight, her eyes wide and flickin’ back and forth, lookin’ for an escape.
   I ate another wing to give her some time to relax. “You’ve already answered me, you know.” I motioned to the jammer. “I’m the one who gave him his.”
   “Oh, God…” She leaned forward, sobbin’ on the table. “What am I going to do?”
   “Megan, you ain’t supposed to cry here. You’re supposed to remember the good times. The fun times. Remember the joy he brought into your life.”
   She looked at me, a kind of hatred bubblin’ behind her eyes at my joy.
   “Megan, you got no idea. I been his friend for nigh-on ten years. Met him in the academy. Consider him my best friend. So many memories…” I turned away, blinkin’ rapidly. “I’ve cried, I’ve sobbed. For hours, all night, sleepin’ in a bed drenched with them. It only helps so much, y’ know.”
   She just looked at me.
   “Do you know why he invited you into his cell?”
   She shook her head.
   “I asked him to.”
   She blinked.
   “Darrvid… he didn’t have a good childhood. He wasn’t born free; his mother, well, she was a prisoner of some underground blood sports managers. They’d twitched her genes for speed and violence. Don’t know how she got pregnant, doubt Darrvid knew. If he did, he never told me. He watched her when they tried to take her away from him, make her fight. The bastards whipped her to death in front of him. They was humans, you know.”
   She just looked away.
   “Megan, there’s good humans and bad, just like there’s good furs and bad. I tried to teach Darrvid that, he tried to understand. God, how he tried…” I blinked back new tears and grabbed another wing and wolfed it down.
   She spoke in a quiet voice, so quiet I could barely hear her. “You furs hate us, don’t you?”
   “No. Not all of us. Some of us, maybe most. I don’t. I was lucky, lovin’ family, lovin’ humans. But a lot o’ your kind hates us—and some of us just return that. It’s a vicious circle.”
   “How did he get free?”
   “Some UN police busted in just as they turned the whip on him. A pair o’ wolves that had been trackin’ the ring. They didn’t have enough to take it to trial, but they heard him screamin’ and burst in. They’re both here somewhere. One, Wandrerrct, didn’t even ask for surrender; he just ripped out the throat of the man who was whippin’ Darrvid. Officially he was suspended without pay, but he’s told me about the party the force held for him. Damn near any of ’em would’ve done what the same—he was just the one who got to.”
   “Darrvid never mentioned any of that… He didn’t even talk to me much. Took me aside a couple of times, asked me questions. I thought I was being investigated or something. Then… he sprung this whole revolution on me.”
   “I told him to recruit you, to try an’ get to know you. I don’t want this thing to be furs against humans. We need to work together, live together. But I asked him into this thing. In a sense I… well, I guess I killed him.”
   “I could’ve left him out, just avoided him. Never been any good at keepin’ secrets. But he had skills, and he was needed, so I talked him into it. Sure, I knew what could happen, but I never expected it would—never felt it’d happen to me or anybody I knew.”
   “It’s not your fault!”
   “Maybe not, but it's my responsibility. If it wasn’t me, somebody else would have gotten him. He was just too important. Better it came from a friend.”
   “You’re Shean Eeysmarn, aren’t you?”
   I nodded and started workin’ on another wing.
   “He told me about you. Nothing specific, just… things. When that Stapledon was rescuing you, he’d turned off the microphone, but… we could all see him crying, hoping.”
   “Megan, it’s a dirty thing we have to do. And no, I didn’t come here just to link you back up with the rebellion. No… that’s secondary. You was alone, and we all need somebody at times. ’Specially now.”
   She nodded. Her hand zipped out, grabbed a wing, and zipped back.
   “You can get out, if you want. I won’t tell. Just drop out—I’ll cover for you.”
   She lowered her voice. “Shean, I… I can’t. It’s just wrong. It’d be a betrayal of Darrvid.”
   “I… yeah… it would. Betrayin’ him, betrayin’ our hopes. I don’t know how many humans we got out here, not many I fear. I’m afraid of what’s goin’ to happen. We need you.”
   “Need… me?”
   “Yep. Need you, the human. To force down their throats that humans aren’t bad, at least not all.” I looked at her, then nodded. “Congratulations. You run the cell now. I’ll leave it to you to get a replacement third.”
   “I—Thank you.”
   Pickin’ up the jammer, I switched it off and handed it to her. “Enough talk. I…” I looked at her, really looked at her. She hadn’t known him long, but she’d cried at his death just as I had. “Lemme tell you about Darrvid.”

-= 17 =-

   The official news came down last night: Company Directive 27-113: All pilots and related support personnel are terminated, effective immediately.
   It was four months after Darrvid was murdered. The official investigation said it was suicide. Megan recruited a new cellmate, and the revolution went on. The drive installation was finished two weeks ago and had passed final testin’. An’ that was when the goddamn Brains made their move! Apparently they had enough Brain-ships, so now they was dumpin’ all of us that’d done their dirty work for the past two centuries. Throwin’ us out like—like trash! Oh, there was more to the directive. Company-supplied apartments was revoked, current inhabitants had two weeks to vacate. Yes, that included me. Terminated personnel were immediately responsible for payin’ their oxygen tax. It just went on and on.
   My rubber-booted hooves thumped on the stone path that led to the Doc’s. They’d landscaped the park, grass was growin’, a few small trees was planted, but the fountain was still dry. Still wasn’t enough water for luxuries like that. I didn’t even care. Knockin’—or was that bangin’ on the door? whichever—it didn’t take long for the Doc to let me in.
   “We need to talk,” I said.
   He looked at me, eyes blinkin’ as he rubbed sleep out of them. “It had better be important, Shean. I trust you recall that your tutoring doesn’t start for another five hours? You know I hate mornings.”
   I just glared. “Tutorin’s over—I’m fired. I got two weeks to find a place to live, or start payin’ for what I have now.”
   “Ah…” He blinked some more. “Well, then. In that case, I suppose you had better come in. Let me see if I can brew up some coffee. I’ll… I will of course offer whatever assistance I may. I have space—”
   He motioned me in, and I followed, slammin’ the door shut behind me. Soon we was in the basement, the security was active, and I was pourin’ myself a shot of vodka while the Doc made himself some coffee, black. I gulped the vodka, and gulped a second, and was about to start on a third when the Doc stopped me. One hand was on my shoulder, the other held his coffee mug whose scent was thick in the air. He pushed my arm down until the glass tinked on the counter beside the open bottle.
   “Shean. You knew that this was going to happen—how could you not? You prognosticated it your-”
   “But it’s so fuckin’ sudden! Nothin’, and then poof! I’m on the scrap heap.”
   “Well, yes. May I ask how you are situated? Will you be all right in the short term?”
   I sighed. “For a few months, sure. I got enough socked away to afford the rent an’ oxygen tax. Don’t know what they’ll charge me, but I’m fine. Too fuckin’ many others aren’t, though!”
   “Indeed, provided that one restricts one’s attentions to that segment of the Rock’s populace which is directly affected by this new directive…” The Doc spent a bit o’ time starin’ at nothin’ in particular, then spoke up again. “Shean, may I ask how large that segment actually is? Your best guess will do; any more accuracy than one significant digit would be superfluous.”
   I scratched my chin, the scents of alcohol an’ coffee minglin’ as I parsed his request. “Maybe a thousand…”
   He nodded. “I concur. And you should be aware that there are close to twenty thousand on New Ceres, or at least there were last time I checked.”
   “That many!?”
   “Yes, Shean. That many. Surely you have been aware of the number of trips you’ve made in the past year, and the number of passengers you’ve transported on each trip? And, of course, that does not take into account the thousands of persons who resided here before that.”
   Jesus, he was right… “Then we’re screwed if we wait. We gotta do it now, or at least real soon.”
   “I think not—”
   “Well, then, you think wrong, Doc. Look—we need technical types t’ run the Rock, okay? We need the people who’re gettin’ drove away by this latest goddamn directive. So if we don’t light the fuse now, I figure the thousand we got will be down to five hundred by the end of the week, an’ maybe two hundred by the end of the month. An’ then where will we be?”
   I trampled his words. “In a month, there won’t be enough trained specialists on this rock to run it!”
   He sighed. “Shean, I don’t dispute anything you have told me here and now. I merely observe that as a matter of practical fact, we cannot hope to succeed at this juncture. You said it yourself: There are perhaps a thousand people who are personally inconvenienced by the directive. Therefore, should we put our plans into operation now, we shall have, at a generous estimate, no more than fifteen hundred who want to revolt. As for the Rock’s remaining population—which, I may point out, will number over eighteen thousand—it is not their ox that is being gored, so they shall be opposed. Do you think a revolution can hope to succeed when more than ninety percent of the body politic is, at best, indifferent to its goals? I don’t. I say again: If we implement the revolution under present conditions, we shall fail. Period.”
   “Then what the fuck do we do!?”
   The Doc finished off his coffee. “Shean… You’re right. Brute necessity dictates that something be done now, but current sociopolitical exigencies dictate failure regardless of what we do…” He carefully put his glass down. “Alright. Shean, I’ll thank you to remain in safety for the moment. Do, however, be ready to move at… I think two PM tomorrow.”
   “What’cha got in mind, Doc?”
   “Nothing it would be prudent to inform you of. I expect that you’ll know what to do when it happens. Accordingly, I would advise you to place your cell in a state of readiness; we can only hope for opportunity to strike once, so we had best be ready to seize it when it does.”
   I licked my lips. “Okay, I’ll set it up—get control over the asteroid defenses and local space traffic control. But once that’s done, I’m goin’ after Mike.”
   “Please, Shean, you know that’s Kirri’s—”
   “I don’t care! I told you I was gonna be there. You say we start at two; fine. I’ll be at the entrance to Mike’s vault at three. If Kirri’s there, great. Otherwise I’m goin’ in myself.”
   “Shean! Will you listen to yourself? You haven’t any appropriate skills—you’re not needed there—”
   “Doc, you shut up! This world sucks. Somethin’ stinks, an’ we both know it. Mike knows what happened to Darrvid, I’m goin’ to find out, and then I’ll deal with it. Yeah, you were right. Revolution stinks. It’s an ugly, messy thing. But I still got some honor, and I’m goin’ to do some things right! You tell Kirri!”
   With that I stomped out, my hooves ringin’ on the stone. The Doc might’a said somethin’, but I was too pissed to listen. I was out of a job, my life was in shreds, and I was mired neck deep in lies and betrayals. If nothin’ else, I would do right by Darrvid.

-= 18 =-

   I spent the rest of the day gettin’ royally soused in The Zero-G Rat. I’d never been that drunk before. The sensation was odd, warm, sure, but it was the first time I knew what Aunt Neeola meant when she talked about bein’ drunker than a pile o’ Catholics. I could see my life in ruins. But… what the hell could I do? I could go home, go on the dole until I went out of my mind. Most of the reality shows were out, they depended on physical confrontations. Some were more intellectual though, maybe one of those? Naah, odds sucked. I could always become a Brain, join Cæsar…
   And betray everybody who trusted me.
   God damn it all!
   Most of the pilots were with me there, all of us drinkin’ and bitchin’. Support crew and mechanics had their own place. Bars did a lot of business that day. I’m not sure how I got home, whether I made it under my own power, or somebody had taken me. I woke up in bed at local eight am, New Ceres was on Greenwich Mean Time. Head felt like to explode, mouth was dry as a stallion’s teat. An hour later, after a shower and a whole lot of water, I felt almost alive again.
   Got showered and dressed, made sure to put on my cork hoofboots, put the little pistol I’d brought up in my pack, and made my way out before noon. Called Megan ’fore I left and told her to meet me in the Bronze Unicorn. Told her it was important. We’d met a few times after Darrvid’s wake; nothin’ personal, just business for the revolution, but I got to know her. Good girl, but shy.
   The atmosphere on New Ceres that mornin’ was quiet. Yesterday was rage, anger, an’ frustration, but now it sank in. People were thinkin’ about their futures, figurin’ what to do next. Wouldn’t be surprised if there hadn’t been some fightin’ already about places on shuttles back to Earth. Even though the terraformin’ was still goin’ on, the jackhammer’s echoin’ in the distance, everybody knew things were changin’. I think everybody was startin’ to worry about their own livelihood.
   I got to the Unicorn just before noon. It was mostly empty, just a couple of skunks eatin’ breakfast near the window. Sittin’ down in the corner where Megan and I usually met, I watched Rawlin’ come over, his cloven cervine hooves clickin’ loudly on the stone. He owned the place, and ran it by himself durin’ the day before the maids came in at night.
   “Morning, Shean. The usual?”
   “Yeah—but double it. Didn’t eat well yesterday.”
   He snorted, his ears flickin’ around nervously. “I heard. I’d better warn you; no more credit.”
   “Had to after last night. Don’t know how many people have nothing saved. It’s not you, Shean—you’re good, you always have been—but I can’t make exceptions. Just wanted to let you know. I’ll have your lunch in fifteen or so.”
   “Oh. Thanks. If you see Megan come in, you point her over here, will you?”
   “Sure. Is there something betw—”
   “Nothin’ like that! I’m just concerned. She’s young, out o’ work too, and there’s too much hatred around here for humans. Called her and we’re talkin’ for a while. So keep your dirty mind out of the gutter ’til your ruttin’ season comes!”
   He chuckled. “Whatever you say, Shean.”
   Pullin’ out my tablet, I downloaded today’s paper and started readin’. The mass layoff was front page stuff. There’d been a riot last night at the Company office, not too big. Company goons put fifteen in hospital. Editorial said this was just the beginnin’; Brains were goin’ to kick us all out. The Doc probably had a hand in that one. Then lunch came and I started eatin’. Big burger drenched in cheese and mushrooms, fries, and a salad to keep Aunt Neeola happy. Food was excellent as usual, and I sucked it down while readin’ some of the ‘letters to the editor’. Lots of ugly rhetoric, no plans.
   I finished the salad, looked up, and saw Megan sittin’ there. “How long you been watchin’?”
   “Not long. Rawling will be along with mine in a few minutes. Didn’t want to bother you.”
   “Oh, that don’t really matter. You all right? After last night…”
   “I just stayed on duty. Somebody had to. I think the rest understood, but there’s a lot of ugliness going round about this.”
   “I know. At least amongst us. Too damned many people on this Rock—gonna be real trouble.”
   With a clink of plates and cutlery, Rawlin’ put Megan’s salad and fries down in front of her. “You done, Shean?” I nodded. “Anything else?”
   “Nothin’… well, better drop off a mug of water. I’ll be here a while.”
   “Take your time, Shean, I’ll keep the troublemakers away. I’ll turn the vid on at two so you can hear the mayor’s speech.”
   I blinked. “What speech?”
   “It was announced early this morning. He’ll probably encourage everybody to be calm, but who knows? Phil’s a good fur—maybe he’ll have some ideas to keep the peace.”
   “Maybe… You said two?”
   “That’s what the announcement said. Enjoy your lunch now, miss.” Rawlin’ turned away, somehow balancin’ my plates on one hand, their clatterin’ and clankin’ a counter-point to the clickin’ of his hooves.
   More from reflex than anythin’ else, I pulled out Doc’s little gizmo and set it up. Megan looked at it and I could see the fear in her eyes.
   “Doc told me to be ready at two. I’ve got other business, but you gotta take the control centre. You’ve got your plans worked out?”
   She nodded.
   “Megan, you gonna be all right? You got a place to stay? I’ve got room, and I’ve got enough socked away to cover us both for a while.”
   She stopped eatin’ and looked at me, and then leaned forward and whispered, “I thought you said we were going to move!”
   “Doesn’t mean you don’t need a place to stay.”
   “Shean, I—”
   “Megan, just sit and eat. If you need me, I’m here. Somebody’s gotta watch out for you.”
   “I’ve never done anything like this!”
   “You think I have!? Just you eat.”
   “What’s going to happen at two?”
   “Fuck if I know—Doc wouldn’t say. Just said to be ready and that I’d know.”
   She turned away and dug into her meal like someone starvin’. I returned to the editorials. There was a lot of ugliness goin’ ’round, a lot of hatred of the Company. I hadn’t payin’ attention, but I started pullin’ up old data about incidents, and ran a graph. Definitely increasin’. Lookin’ at the graph, it seemed so obvious. Who the hell would want to start somethin’ like that? Brains weren’t stupid; if I could figure this out, then so could they.
   “What’s that, Shean?”
   I turned the tablet around so she could see. “Incidents involvin’ Company goons over the last year.”
   One thing Megan wasn’t was stupid. “It’s like this is being orchestrated. Shean, what the hell have you been doing?”
   “What? Me? This is all news to me, too! I just run supplies up and down. Haven’t even been aboard for long enough periods to see this buildin’ up!”
   “I don’t believe—”
   The vid clicked on and the two-metre hologram brightened to show City Hall. A lectern had been set up and a wolf was standin’ to either side, wearin’ the badge of the Company.
   “—ayor’s expected to be out in a few minutes. There’s a large crowd here, and they’re not happy. The Company has stationed extra security around the mayor, and I can see riot police on the roofs of some of the nearby buildings.”
   “Good God…” I whispered, starin’.
   I felt Megan’s hand clutch mine.
   The cameras panned around and I could see the crowd in the square. Some I recognized as pilots or support crew. Most I didn’t. Some were carryin’ signs that said things about strike, or more simply GIVE US OUR JOBS BACK. There weren’t that many support crew, and my back itched as I realized that the Doc had been awful busy settin’ things up last night. There weren’t a single human in the crowd, as far as I could see.
   The announcer continued: “The crowd has been forming since early this morning, chanting and demanding their jobs back.” That was when I realized I could make out a dim roar in the background of the broadcast. Couldn’t make out words though. “It’s been orderly so far, but after some of the excesses last night, the Company isn’t taking any chances.”
   Rawlin’ had pulled up a stool and was sittin’ with us, watchin’.
   “Here comes Mayor Guthurn now!”
   The camera zoomed in on the white-furred rabbit dressed in vest and shorts. He hopped rapidly to the lectern, lookin’ more like an animal than a sophont as his ears bounced up and down. A few jerks threw fruit at him, but he dodged without lookin’ like it took any effort. Once he reached the lectern, he was all business-like an’ civilized.
   “The crowd seems to be quieting to listen to the Mayor speak. And… I think he’s about to start.”
   The sound clicked to an audio feed from the mics in front of the mayor. “—itizens, you need to be calm and orderly. Rioting and violence won’t achieve anything.”
   The crowd roared, shoutin’ out “jobs” and “food” and “fuck the Company”.
   “It’s absolutely despicable what the Company did to you all last night. But by the contract you all signed when you came up here, they do have the legal right to fire you without warning—”
   Screams of rage drowned him out and he waited for the crowd to calm down a bit.
   “They have the legal right—but they do not have the moral right! I’m going to talk to the UN Council and I will get justice for you. For all of you!”
   The cameras focused in on him just in time for his head to… to… explode like a ripe melon. I remember watchin’ that bullet dig right in. Fuckin’ thing went clean through, sprayin’ blood everywhere. Killed him dead right there. Right as he was promisin’ justice. An instant later the loud crack of a shot could be heard echoin’ through the Rock, both from the holo, and from outside the bar. Before the mayor’s body began fallin’ over, I heard a voice, loud and clear, roar out from the background: “The fucking Company won’t let him speak! They killed him so that they could get rid of us. Get rid of all of us!”
   The cameras moved around wildly, tryin’ to find who said it, but then switched back to the lectern. Couldn’t see the mayor’s body; not because it fell down, but because hundreds, thousands of furs was swarmin’ the stairs, takin’ out the Company goons with tooth and claw. I heard whistles, screams, more gunshots, the crack and kafompth o’ gas canisters.
   And then the holo went dead.
   “Jesus Christ…” Rawlin’ whispered.

-= 19 =-

   Ugly suspicions reared up in my mind. This was too convenient. Too God damned fuckin’ convenient. Hell! The Doc had even set the time! I sat there, stunned at the enormity of it, at the inhumanity of it.
   “Shean!” Megan shouted at me. “We’ve got to move now!” Her voice pattered down on me as though from an immense distance, like water down a high cliff.
   I looked at her, at her face, the world a blur. Sounds were distant, unreal.
   “They’ve declared war on us! The revolt’s going now whether we want it or not!”
   “What the hell are you talking about?” Rawlin’ asked.
   My mouth just hung open. I knew the Doc had set this up. Knew that the Doc had plotted murder. And yet… wasn’t it in a good cause..?
   Megan turned to Rawlin’. “It’s time for us to take the Company down.”
   I had a choice. Tell Megan, tell Rawlin’ what I suspected was the truth. Tell them and end the rebellion. Let Mayor Guthurn have been murdered for nothin’. Let Darrvid’s death mean nothin’.
   Reality snapped back into focus. “Megan, you go. Take over the control room. Get your cell in position now.”
   “What about you?” she asked.
   “I’m takin’ care of Mike.”
   “Shean, what the fuck are you talking about?” Rawlin’ burst out.
   “Rawlin’, I’m sorry. For a long time now, I, and others, have… worried on somethin’ like this happenin’. The Company, the Brains have gone too far. Rawlin’, we’re goin’ to put a stop to it. You close down, lock your door, bar your window. Don’t let anybody in you don’t know.”
   Rawlin’ looked at me. I watched the light in his eyes crystallize. “Shean, you get those bastards that killed the Mayor. You get them and you string them up like the fucking animals they are!”
   Oh God… Closin’ my eyes I tried to force the knowledge of the lie out of my muzzle. I’d made myself an accomplice to evil, and I didn’t know if I could ever face Rawlin’ again. I looked at him, forced myself to look at him. And then I knew what I’d have to do: When this was over, when what had to be done was done, I’d make sure the Doc paid. “Rawlin’, I’ll get ’em. Nobody who can do that,” I motioned to the dead holo, “to anybody deserves to live.”
   I saw that Megan was still there. “Megan—get the fuck goin’!”
   She jumped like a deer in a bus’ headlights and ran out through the door.
   “I’ve gotta move, too. Do what I said, don’t let anybody you don’t trust in that door until this is over.”
   “Good luck, Shean. Get those bastards!”
   Reachin’ into my bag, I drew the small pistol and checked its load. “I will, Rawlin’, I will. However long it takes.”
   Standin’ up, pistol in my hand, I clomped to the door, slow and purposeful. Rage and hatred poured through my veins—but it was controlled and focused. First Mike, then the Doc. One thing at a time. I opened the door; Rawlin’ was still standin’ at the table. The two skunks in the corner was watchin’. “Rawlin’, lock this fuckin’ door!” Then I left, slammin’ it behind me.
   There was a roar outside, the angry roar of an mindless animal. I’d suggested some kind of badge, some identifier, but the Doc and Kirri disagreed. Anythin’ we made could be captured, an’ then mass-produced an’ used by the enemy. I didn’t know how many people we’d recruited into our rebellion, but I knew it wasn’t large. The Doc said we wanted a small group of core people to take control of life support, local space control, the asteroid defenses, communications, engineerin’, Mike. If we had those, the rest could be sorted out. I knew the Doc and Kirri had gotten some strong arms to get rid of any Company goons… but I hadn’t wanted to know those details.
   Now I wished I’d asked more.
   I don’t know if it was on purpose or an accident, but the light tubes at the core flickered and faded to a dull red glow. Street lights wasn’t installed yet, or at least not completely, but bright red emergency lights clicked on. They was for in case of a major puncture. The world was blood red, everythin’ in it hard angles. In the distance I saw fires burnin’, though I wasn’t sure what there was to burn. The air was thick with the stench o’ smoke and dirt, burnin’ composites, an’ anger and hate. I kept to the alleys, off the main streets. A mob was gurglin’ down one—best way to describe it. There was no method to their madness, they was just pushed forward by the ones behind. I had to step over dead bodies, looted, crushed by the mobs.
   Turnin’ a corner I came upon a fur, a raccoon, leanin’ over the body of a human. He was lootin’ him, and I could see a knife in his hand, blood glintin’ off it in the red light. The human was moanin’ in pain, tryin’ to keep his guts from spillin’ out as they poured over his hands. Without thinkin’, I emptied a clip into the raccoon; he fell to the street, blood oozin’ out his wounds. There was nothin’ I could do for the human but put him out of his misery. With a new clip in I put a single bullet through his head, endin’ his pain. Nothin’ else I could do. Not a damn fuckin’ thing. All I could do was kill. Don’t know how long I stood there, disbelievin’ what I’d done. Trainin’ took over, there’d been no thought in it. And now I'd killed. Killed. All I had left was my anger and my hatred.
   Next thing I consciously heard was voices shoutin’ and screamin’ in the street nearby, gettin’ louder. They must’ve heard the gunshots— I fled down the alley, my hooves thuddin’ on the stone, the sound echoin’ all around me. I wanted to drop the damn gun, throw it far, far away, but the cold analytical part o’ me knew I’d need it.
   I went down more alleys. Hid in a doorway, helpless, as a small group of humans fled down Foote Avenue. A minute later a huge mob of furs, wavin’ flashlights and broken metal scraps ran after them, hooves and claws clompin’ and clickin’ on the stone. I don’t know how many there were, I couldn’t shoot. Not enough bullets. All they’d have done was turn on me. All I could do was hide in the doorway and let them go.
   It took me an hour to reach the vault entrance near City Hall that led down to Mike. Only one thing kept me goin’ through the horror: My need to know what happened to Darrvid. My need to avenge him. Mike was easy to get to, everybody knew where he was, and the entrance wasn’t guarded or even harmed. Everybody trusted the Brains after all. Normally the doors was open, leadin’ into a room with booths where people could chat with Mike one on one, ask for advice, play games, do whatever. Inside that room was where I found Kirri and her compatriots; a wolf an’ a husky, and a mouse. All four had body armour an’ machine pistols, ugly things of cold metal I hadn’t brought up. Kirri was standin’ beside a locked door in the back, watchin’ the mouse work at an open panel with some electronics.
   One of the canines shone a light in my face and I heard the other cock and raise his machine pistol.
   “Kirri!” I shouted, suddenly aware of how inadequate my pistol was.
   “He’s one of us!” Kirri hissed out. “Shut up and… and let him work,” she pointed to the mouse. Her voice was hesitant, and if I didn’t know better I’d have said she was cryin’.
   “Got it!” There was a click and the door opened a bit.
   Kirri grabbed it and yanked it the rest of the way. “Shean, you stay here!”
   “No way in hell, Kirri! You gonna shoot me?”
   I could see the canines lookin’ at Kirri until she finally shook her head. “I said he’s with us! If I get hit, you listen to him, understood?”
   The wolf growled out a response, “Yeah, I hear you.” He turned to look at me. “Be damn glad she vouches for you.”
   Kirri padded through the door with the mouse, the canines followed, and I thumped after, my hooves muffled by the cork. The corridor was cool and brightly lit. We stopped as the mouse opened another door, and then stopped again at another sealed door a short distance further. That was when my tablet chose to beep with an incomin’ message. Stickin’ my pistol in my belt, I pulled my tablet out of my pack. As Kirri glared at me, I pressed the receive. There was a cheap mic and speaker on the tablet, quality sucked, but I didn’t have time for niceness.
   “Shean? You there?” Megan’s voice lit up on the screen.
   “Yeah—” I hissed into the mic as the husky growled at me.
   “We… I’ve got control. I’ve locked out all external comm. There’s incoming, asking what’s going on. The news broadcast we saw got out. What should I do?”
   “Tell them that forces onboard are gettin’ things under control, but you know that some of the defensive systems have been compromised. Warn them to stay off until they can be secured.”
   “What if they come anyway?”
   “Then shoot them with the asteroid defenses.”
   “I can’t do that!”
   “Megan, you have to. I have no idea what’s goin’ on, how many Company goons are still holed up and ready to make a counter move. If more forces get aboard, we’re screwed. You have to!”
   “You just want all the dirt on my hands, don’t you!”
   “Megan—I—” I swallowed and tried to calm my heart just a little. “Megan, I already killed people today: A raccoon who was robbin’ someone, and a human who had his guts all over the street. Don’t you worry none about dirt on your hands, I’m so fuckin’ deep in it you’re a saint! Now, do what you have to. Warn ’em off, say you ain’t got control, but if they come, it’s their lookout. I’m gonna find out who killed Darrvid.”
   “Get a hold of Doc Tierra—he’ll know what’s going on. Co-ordinate with him, do what he says. You got me?”
   “Yes, I… Doc Tierra?”
   “Yeah, he’s in this too. I’m sendin’ you his number. Add code 666 after you dial, that’ll make sure you get through. Tell him I sent you, and I’m down with Mike. And tell him that—that Nicholine ain’t comin’ up, so he might as well stop tryin’. And that two vodkas are—”
   “Through!” I heard the mouse hiss as the door started to slide open.
   “I gotta get movin’. I’ll call you when I can.” Then I broke the connection and hurried after the wolves and thudded my way into Mike’s lair.
   Lookin’ around, I remembered Eddie’s description: The vault was all shinin’ metal, and the air was cold. Our breaths misted with each breath and I shivered. In the centre of the chamber was a massive metal cylinder, gleamin’ and dry. Pipes and tubes led to it, comin’ out of the floor, bolted to the ceilin’ and then curlin’ down a central post and into the thing.
   A motor whined and I whipped my pistol out and towards a camera that was movin’ around to focus on Kirri. The wolf was faster, and with a staccato roar, bullets tore into it and destroyed it, leavin’ behind a sparkin’ hissin’ shell.
   “Kirri? In God’s name, is that you?” Even comin’ out of a tiny little speaker, the voice was calm, melodious, and easy to recognize: It was Mike. I’d talked to him lots of times before I got dragged into the revolution. Everybody on New Ceres had talked to him.
   “It’s me, Mike.”
   “Kirri, I think there are some things you haven’t been telling me. Things that you’ve kept between God and yourself. And who else is here? I think… Shean Eeysmarn, I recognize for sure. Elthen Arness, I see you’ve put your skills to an unexpected use. And… God didn’t let me see enough of the wolf and the husky to ID them.”
   “Don’t say anything!” Kirri hissed, lookin’ at the pair.
   “Kirri, in God’s name, why didn’t you trust me?”
   I looked around, at the canines, at the mouse watchin’, at Kirri lookin’ at the post, tears in her eyes. What the hell was wrong with her?
   “I—I couldn’t take the risk.”
   And then I looked at the container. Inside that was Mike’s brain, and all the metal and electronics that made him into a Brain.
   “You know I can keep any secrets that God wants me to keep.”
   Inside was the bastard who knew how Darrvid had died.
   I looked at him and spoke, my voice as cold as the room. “Mike, who killed Darrvid?”
   “Shean, is it? You must have read the report God helped me write. It was an accident.”
   Even here, even right to my face, he was lyin’! “Cut the crap, Mike! It wasn’t, and you fuckin’ know it wasn’t! Stop hidin’ behind your so-called God, and tell me the fuckin’ truth!” With each word I took a step forwards until my muzzle was almost touchin’ his case.
   “Shean, what are you doing?” Kirri screeched, before waving the canines to lower their guns.
   I could see Darrvid’s dried corpse floatin’ in front of my eyes. “Did you do it, Mike? Did you?”
   “I’ve only done what God needs me to do, Shean.”
   “Shut up about your fuckin’ God! Who killed Darrvid Ruprecht?”
   “Shean, would you believe me if I told you?”
   Screamin’, I crouched down and jumped up and grabbed one of the thicker pipes. It was so cold it burned. Holdin’ it I climbed up the side of Mike’s braincase ’til my hooves was braced—and then I ripped the godforsaken pipe off. Metal wrenched and screeched, cold gas hissed out, and tubes inside tore drippin’ out blood and coloured liquid.
   “Shean, stop!” Kirri screamed, and I heard the cockin’ of guns.
   “Kirri,” Mike said, “you know this has to be done. I’m safe in God’s hand, where you put me. Lower your guns.”
   Mike’s voice was calm, and full of command, and the canines obeyed.
   I collapsed to the floor on my ass, my hands cold and bleedin’ where flesh froze and tore off, the broken pipe clankin’ to the floor beside me. I couldn’t see through tears as the pain of Darrvid’s death beat through my body all over again. Who killed him?”
   “Shean… as God is my witness, I guess I did.”
   “You… what!?”
   “I knew that something was going on. God helped me work through the clues. Probablity threads led to Darrvid, and I led him into the airlock by making a sound of somebody inside calling for help. Then I sealed the door and asked him what, in God’s name, was wrong, what was going on. I knew he was in the revolution that I believed I was leading, and his recent actions weren’t making sense.”
   “Why couldn’t you have left him alone?” Clamberin’ to my hooves, I grabbed the pipe and started bangin’ on Mike’s shell. Why!?”
   “Shean, as God is my witness, I didn’t directly kill him. My report was the truth in that much.”
   “God damn you!” I kept bangin’ away, not even dentin’ his casin’. Some part of me—some ancient animal part that hated and lusted—remembered the pistol, dropped the pipe and drew it.
   “Shean, as God is my witness, I swear I didn’t kill him. Darrvid is the one who opened the outer door. He choose to die.”
   “You bastard! You could have left him alone! Why didn’t you come after me? Why him? Why!?” Grippin’ the pistol in both hands I aimed it at the cylinder and started shootin’. Bullets boomed and ricocheted, the canines dove for cover and one yelped in pain. A bullet passed into the cylinder, liquids oozed out, blood red and oily. A second bullet pierced the bastard’s shell. I stopped, shakin’.
   “As God is my witness, it was his choice Shean. Kirri, do not fear for me. My fate is in God’s hands.”
   The pistol fell from my lifeless arms and thunked to the floor. “God…” I could feel my entire body shakin’. “God damn you!”
   The flow of the blood and gore slowed to a dribble that glurped down the sides of the cylinder and splashed into a pool around my hooves; the hatred that kept me goin’ fell to ashes amongst it.

-= 20 =-

   “What!?” Spinnin’ around I saw Kirri touchin’ my arm.
   “It’s over Shean. Mike is… dead.”
   I could smell fear and anger, hatred, and blood and oil.
   “Oh, God. Oh God—”
   At that moment my tablet beeped. Who the hell? I could see everyone lookin’ at me, so I picked it up and set it to audio only. “This, this…” I swallowed. It was done. “This ain’t a good time—”
   “Shean! It’s Tierra.”
   I paid attention, focusin’ on anythin’ other than Mike. “You all right?”
   “I am doing quite well, thank you. However, I fear we have a problem that needs you to deal with it. The other cells have reported in, and at this point, we have control of internal and external security, of life support, and of the drive—everything. Have you dealt with Mike?”
   I turned away from the mess I’d made. “Yeah…”
   A short pause. “Shean, how are you doing, if I may inquire?”
   “I—I don’t know…”
   The Doc sighed. “Shean, it does not please me to ask this of you at such a stressful time, but you need to talk—to everybody.”
   “What? Me?”
   “I fear so. What just happened was not unlike the detonation of a powder keg; the current atmosphere really is exceptionally ugly. There are uncounted, perhaps uncountable, incidents of arson, theft, and Lord only knows what other antisocial acts. On the bright side, if you will forgive the presumption implicit in my use of that word, not a single Company goon yet lives.”
   “Fine. You talk.”
   “I cannot, for the simple reason that I am human.”
   “So what?”
   “Shean, furs have been exhibiting most uncivilized behavior, looting and killing not least among their offenses. Unfortunately, I regret to say that of the victims of such offenses, an absurdly disproportionate percentage are human. Any fool could see that there was a certain amount of friction and discontent, but… I had no idea of the true extent of this phenomenon!”
   “So get a fur to do your talkin’. Just… not me.”
   “Shean, nothing would please me more than to allow you some time to yourself at this disagreeable moment. Unfortunately, reality cares not a whit for my pleasure, and the reality of the situation we find ourselves within demands a particular set of qualifications that you, alone, possess. You are a fur; you are a leader in this affair; and the Rock’s unwashed masses know you and, more importantly, respect you.”
   “Can this truly surprise you, Shean? The average person hereabouts is aware of you from news reports on either or both of two events—the Enterprise/High York collision, and the recent New Ceres near-disaster—in which you placed yourself in harm’s way for the benefit of other sophonts. Quite helpful for our cause, I assure you.”
   “I didn’t do those things for the revolution! I did ’em ’cause they was right!”
   “No doubt. But regardless of the motives for your acts, it remains true that those acts, and their consequences, are indeed of great benefit to the revolution. Intentionally or otherwise, Shean, you have made yourself our best choice for a public spokesman, and you will fulfill that role.”
   “Why the hell didn’t you tell me!?”
   “I would have preferred to—but you wouldn’t abandon your obsession with Mike. Really, Shean, whyever do you suppose I wanted you with Megan? I’d planned to tutor you a bit, but alas, the crisis came upon us far too quickly.”
   I could see Kirri lookin’ at me.
   “What about Kirri?”
   “Shean, I’m sorry to say this, but people won’t trust a vixen—”
   “I’m just as good as any other fur!” Kirri screamed.
   “Of course you are, Kirri. Nevertheless, vixens do have a reputation, and that reputation renders you unsuited to the task at hand. It doesn’t matter how competent or important you are; people simply will not look beyond your external appearance. Shean, you are our single greatest hope!”
   “Are you at a place you can talk? With video? Megan is prepared to pipe the feed from your tablet throughout all of New Ceres.”
   “Fuck—I don’t want this!”
   “Shean, what you want is—not—relevant! The fact of the matter is, people are dying and it isn’t going to stop!”
   “I…” I looked around and saw them all lookin’ at me. “Hell…” I tried to think of somebody else, but came up empty. Darrvid would have been better, but he was dead. God damn Mike! I licked my lips. “Okay, Doc. Yeah, I can… Just give me a minute or two.”
   “For what? I don’t want you cleaned up, I want you looking ruffled and dirty and involved! Be good enough to switch on your video so I can see how you look, please?”
   Almost numbly I pulled out the microphone and headset and put ’em on. The tablet had those, too, but their quality sucked. Then I turned the camera on. “There…”
   “Hmmm…” The Doc examined me like he was judgin’ a slab o’ beef. “Yes… I think we can work with that… Shean, can you disheval yourself a trifle more? Ruffle your mane, get some dirt on your face, maybe even a blood-spatter or two.”
   I cringed at the scent of blood and death all around me. “What the hell you talkin’ about?”
   “What I speak of is enhancing your efficacy in persuading the slaughter to cease. Shean, you need to look like you’ve been fighting. It’ll make you seem like one of them. The stronger your presence, the faster the killing will stop.”
   I looked down at the blood pooled on the floor. “Yeah… blood I got.”
   “Kirri! You know what I want, we’ve discussed this. Fix him up. I’ve got an outline ready, I’ll pipe it to his tablet in five minutes. I’ll complete the necessary arrangements and preparations here on my end.”
   “Shean, get over here!”
   Turnin’, I focused on Kirri.
   “I need to get you ready—oh, the hell with it.” With that she stepped into the muck and, without warnin’, slashed her claws ’cross my muzzle, drawin’ blood.
   I stumbled back, the oily gore suckin’ at my hooves. “What the fuck was that for!?”
   “It’s appearance, make you look like you’ve been in a fight.”
   “You think I wasn’t!?”
   “Doesn’t matter.” Grimacin’, she reached down to scoop up some blood an’ oil from Mike’s brain and splash it on my face.
   Sputterin’ and blinkin’, I damn near fell down.
   Kirri followed and ran her bloody paw through my mane, rubbin’ it backward and forward, gettin’ the hairs to stick out every which way.
   “There. That’ll do. Wish we had more time. Shean, you want me to hold the tablet for you?”
   “No, forget that, hold it yourself—it’ll shake a bit, make it look better. Willarrrd, you watch the door. Make sure we’re not disturbed. Shean, move over by that wall, the bare one. Let me just splash some blood on it.”
   She grabbed me with her bloody paw and dragged me over. “All set, Doc! He’s ready to go, best I can make him.”
   “You two been plannin’ this!”
   “Of course we have! If you were here more often, we’d have had a chance to prep you properly.”
   “Shean,” the Doc’s voice came over the headset. “Everything is in readiness. Megan is prepared to feed your speech to the news and display you on every system video. She’ll run your audio over every speaker and alert siren throughout the Rock. Can you see the script?”
   I looked; it was showin’ up on my tablet.
   “Yeah, I can.”
   “Excellent, Shean. We are now switching you over to Megan, who shall tell you when to begin. Megan?”
   There was clicks in the background, and then Megan spoke up: “I’ve got your feed running through the master board, and I’m using all the control emergency overrides. Are you okay, Shean? You look like crap!”
   “I’m… I can talk.”
   “Sorry for my outburst earlier. This is all so sudden. Switching you live, in five seconds… three…”
   “Oh, God…”
   There’s lots of things they teach you in flight school, includin’ how to command. It’s an old tradition; the captain is the one who runs the ship. Even pilotin’ a shuttle, you got that behind you. You need to learn t’ carry authority so’s the passengers listen when you tell ’em what to do. No time for explainin’ durin’ a crisis. They taught me things like speakin’ from my diaphragm, not my throat; how to project my voice; how t’ best use my tone. The debatin’ I’d done, well, it helped too, but this would go out to so many people! I was scared as all hell, but the trainin’ took over as I read the words.
   “I don’t know how many of you know me, but my name is Shean Eeysmarn. Though I didn’t choose it, events made sure I got caught up in what was happenin’ to me, to you, to all of us.
   “It started when a pilot I never heard of, name of Stapledon, managed to rescue me from collision with New Ceres with unbelievable pilotin’ skill. Not so unbelievable as it turns out, ’cause he was a Brain. That’s right, a Brain. Seems they figured out how to shrink their life support requirements down to somethin’ comparable to ours. And they didn’t bother tellin’ anybody.
   “Why am I tellin’ you all this? Well, think about events. Most of us came up here because we believed in space, believed in doin’ fair work for fair pay. Unlike those left behind on Earth, who have the choice of either becomin’ a Brain, or lyin’ in their beds watchin’ vid till they died, or killin’ themselves in the reality shows, we figured we’d come here where we could make a difference, where our lives mattered, where we could live the way we wanted to live.
   “Then the Brains come along and replaced us. They can do it better, so why should we do anythin’? So the company, which is run by Brains, cans all of us who made space work. No warnin’, no thank you; just good-bye, get lost, so long.
   “Sure, a lot of you here don’t have anythin’ to do with the Company, with workin’ in space. You came here because you wanted to be free, to control your destiny, to participate in sophont-kind’s greatest adventure. You was lured here by promises, by huge discounts, by words.
   “Did you even think of why the Company—why the Brains—did that? More’n a year ago, they knew they’d solved the life support problem. An’ that meant every single person up here was an inefficient waste of space and resources. Yeah, us: A waste of space and resources.
   “And yet, they kept bringin’ more an’ more people up here!
   “Maybe, just maybe, it was to get us all out of their neat little world. Out and up to a nice ‘safe’ little place where all they need is one little nuke, an’ we’re all dead. They kill us, our children, our genes, our hopes. Only ones they keep alive is the ones who’re happy with their little program of Bread and Circuses run by Brains for our own little safety.
   “Well, they forgot that some of us can still add. Some of us put two and two together, and the four we came up with really sucked. We didn’t know what was goin’ to happen. We sure as hell—”
   I paused for a second and looked at the next lines, not believin’ the Doc coulda wrote ’em. I near-as-damn-all refused to say them… and then I thought about what I’d seen, what was goin’ to happen unless someone brought some form of order back. The Doc had a plan; I sure didn’t. It was a choice between a huge whopper of a lie, or lettin’ hundreds or thousands more bodies pile up. For a second I hated the choice, hated the fate that had brought me to this point. Hated myself. Sure, lookin’ back on it now, I can see how each small step I’d made up to that point was the correct moral choice. It made sense. But now, now there was nothin’ but damnation whichever way I turned. Sure, I was screwed, my soul black and ruined, but I could help others. It was the only thing left I could do. Or so I told myself.
   “Sure as hell we didn’t know the Brains would kill our Mayor!
   “I… We had some ideas, made some plans, so if the Brains did try to kill us we’d at least have a chance to fight back. Well, they did try and kill us. They shot the best of us, killed him in cold blood, and then watched us yell and scream and bite and claw and kill each other. Right now they probably got their little police ships ready to come in and restore order, after havin’ ruthlessly manipulated us—that’s right manipulated us—to prune out the imaginative, the moral, the dreamers, amongst us. The best of us!
   “We all got a choice. I saw what happened, I saw that the Brains—includin’ Mike, the Brain here—planned and murdered our Mayor in cold blood. Cold, calculatin’ murder! Mike murdered my best friend Darrvid Ruprecht, and then hid the fact with destroyed records and deceitful words. And he murdered Mayor Phil Guthurn, the one that we selected, just when Phil promised to bring us justice!
   “There’s lines that cannot be crossed.” As I read more and more of the Doc’s words, I was crossin’ these same lines, one by one… and yet, I knew that order had to be restored. “And when those lines are crossed, somebody’s got to take a stand. Well, the Brains crossed that line, and I took a stand. We took a stand!
   “I ask you now, all of you, to go back to your quarters. There won’t be no evictions, nobody’s oxygen gets shut off. Please get off the streets and go home. If somebody’s wounded, help ’em as best you can. If someone’s bein’ wronged, help ’em.” I had a bit of light left in my soul as I added, “And that goes for all of us—humans and furs. Sure, some of us are the children of our creators, made in labs and test tubes, and others were forged in the relentless fires of evolution. But we’re all sentient, and all deservin’ of respect! We must live together, we must prove to the Brains—and to ourselves—that we’re worthy of livin’ in civilization as brothers and sisters of intelligence. That we’re all dreamers, and we all share the same hopes and loves.”
   And back to the Doc’s script. “I don’t know what’ll happen next. I, and them I’ve prepared with against this day, will keep everythin’ workin’. All of you are important. Those of us who prepared for this were few, on account of we didn’t believe it would ever happen, and we figured there’s no point stirrin’ up trouble. Well, they stirred up trouble, and, by God, we’re not lettin’ them get away with it!
   “Medical personnel, please stay on station. I’ll make sure you get the supplies you need. Treat the sick and injured, don’t worry about medical coverage. For this time, this glorious moment in history, we must all work together, as brother and sister, as fur and human, bringin’ the lightness of our good to the fore, and buryin’ our sins in the darkness where they belong.
   “Other technical people, please stay at your posts. If you fled, please return. Engineering is being run by Phillip Alexandros. Report to him and do what he says. Space control is being run by Megan Chornton; again, report to her and do what she says. Yeah, Phillip and Megan are humans, and I’m a horse. But does it matter? We all share the dream, and we all have duties towards civilization and towards the safety and happiness of our own.
   “The rest of you return home. Power and light are being restored. Some of you may wish to return to Earth; I think it’s a mistake, but I respect your choice, and your right to make it. As soon as order’s restored, we’ll arrange flights to High York for those who wish to leave. There’s lots of room there to hold you.
   “What we need right now, more than anythin’, is time. Time to get things organized. I wish your patience, and your understandin’, so that we can get that time. Give us a chance, that’s all I ask.
   “And God bless you all.”
   I almost said the word ‘end’ before cuttin’ myself off and lettin’ Megan switch me from the open broadcast.

-= 21 =-

   “Shean? You did great!”
   I listened to Megan’s voice and just sighed. I wasn’t cut out for this. “Megan, I… Fine. I’ll take your word for it. I’m goin’ home now.”
   “What!?” both Megan and Kirri shouted.
   “I, I need a long shower. I need to clean up.” In more ways than one. “I… I’m sorry.”
   Kirri nodded. “Williarrrd, you stick with him. Keep him damn safe! Comet, you help.”
   I turned and looked at the husky. “Comet?”
   He kicked at the ground sheepishly with a paw, and I could smell his embarrassment. “I was raised as a—they named—I’d rather not talk about it.”
   “Why don’t you change it?”
   “It just—It’s my name. Just—just shut up about it.”
   Williarrrd spoke up: “I don’t know where you live, so you lead. I’ll stay right behind. You hear anything, just dive for the ground and let me take care of it. You got that? And here, you need this more than I do.” I just stared as he took off his Kevlar vest and handed it to me.
   “I can’t—”
   “Shean,” Kirri snapped, “You can and you will. You’re now the spokesperson for all of us. Your face and voice are known. You’re the most important person on New Ceres right now. You’ll wear that vest and like it, and the rest of us are going with you too! You got that!?”
   I looked around at all their stern, earnest muzzles, and then I remembered one of my brothers, Harwood. He’d been born with a very rare colouration: Pure ivory in his mane, tail, even his hooves. His fur and hair was the sleekest and smoothest any of us had ever seen. From birth he was pampered, brushed, protected, waited on hand and foot, treated more like an object—a thing in a collection—than a sophont being. I’d envied him at first, but then when I was able to run through the fields, to get dirty, to get scratched and exhausted, I grew to pity him.
   And now, here I was: A protected trophy, just like him.
   Lookin’ around I sighed, loud an’ pointedly, and then said, “Fine. I understand the need, but I don’t like it. I… just stay out of my way as best you can, okay? I ain’t in the best of moods right now.” Turnin’, I stepped out of the pool of blood and oil, scraped my cork-shod hooves against a clean area of the floor and got as much off as I could. After puttin’ on the vest, I started walkin’, countin’ on them to hurry after me.
   I looked at the tablet. “Megan, I’m goin’ home. The location’s on file; if you can’t find it, the Doc knows. I’ll keep the tablet handy. Just… just leave me alone except in an emergency. I really need it.”
   “You sure you’re all right, Shean?”
   “No, I’m not. But I’ll manage. I have to. We all have to.”
   By the time I and my entourage got out of Mike’s vault and into the streets, the bulbs along the axis had brightened to a dull orange, though the emergencies were still on. The streets were a lot quieter, but there was smoke blowin’ along the ground, and the stench of fire and blood and fear was still thick in the air. We passed a smoulderin’ bonfire of Company pamphlets, and I wrinkled my nostrils at the scent of seared meat from inside. Behind me I heard claws clickin’ on stone as the wolf and the husky moved around me, dashin’ from cover to cover.
   I didn’t care. I just walked straight down the centre, holdin’ my tablet against my chest like a talisman. If somebody shot me now, it’d be no more than I deserved.
   “There he is!” The voice came from the distance, and I recognized the nasal twang of a horse of some kind. Or maybe a deer, I dunno.
   “Get down, you idiot!” Kirri screamed, and then Williarrrd tackled me, throwin’ me to the hard pavement, shatterin’ my tablet. The liquid in the display dribbled out, soakin’ into my vest as shots rang out from a rooftop. Whoever it was must’ve been using some high-caliber weapon, as each shot was loud, the boom almost deafening, and there was a significant pause between them. I felt Williarrrd on my back, plasterin’ himself over me as he fired wildly in the general direction, his gun clatterin’, shells clankin’ to the pavement beside me. One rolled against my ear—I tried flickin’ it away as the hot casin’ burned into my flesh.
   Williarrrd jerked and fell heavily against me, and somethin’ slammed into my back, just beside my spine. His pistol clattered to the ground with a dull clunk and Comet screamed an’ let off a hail of bullets. He musta got lucky or somethin’, or maybe he just had time to move into position, as there was a scream in the distance, a wail, and then a loud thump of somethin’ hitting the pavement.
   Then silence, but my gaspin’ for breath.
   Wigglin’ and kickin’, I got out from underneath him, and his body scalumped to the ground beside me. That’s when I realized that I was covered, soaked, in hot blood, its stench rich in my nostrils. Lookin’ at Williarrrd, it was obvious he was dead. His skull was untouched, but huge chunks of his chest were torn away. I could feel the bruise on my back, and I realized the bullet had gone through him, which is the only thing kept it from goin’ on through the Kevlar and into me.
   I saw Williarrrd’s eye open as blood dribbled out between his fangs. “Yeah?”
   “You… you safe?”
   “I’m safe.”
   “Good.” His breath rattled and he closed his eyes for the last time as I gently stroked his neck. “Take—take care of Comet…” A final wheeze and gurgle, and he was dead.
   Lookin’ up, I saw Comet standin’ over me, watchin’ the buildin’s around us. “You fucking bastard! Could you have made our job easier, stayed in cover!? No, of course not! Well, now he’s dead, because you were too stupid to take this seriously!”
   I just looked away, unable to face him. I could see the corpse of a horse, one derived from the draft horses, crumpled on the ground, bones shattered, surrounded in a pool of his own blood. A few feet away a massive sniper rifle lay on the ground.
   “The only reason you’re even alive, you cock-sucking bastard, is because that idiot over there,” he pointed at the horse, “was stupid enough to announce his position before opening fire!”
   “Comet, let him be,” Kirri said.
   I realized then that Elthen was gone. Found out later he’d run to ground. The humans may have modified us, bred us, but our instincts were still with us. I had mine to deal with, and Elthen used his to hide. Probably the best thing he could have done.
   “He killed Williarrrd!”
   “It was Williarrrd’s choice,” Kirri said.
   In the distance I heard shouts gettin’ closer. “Fuck…”
   “I thought the streets were too quiet,” Comet muttered.
   “Shean, how far away do you live? Is there any place closer?”
   “I—Two blocks—we can cut through—”
   “We stay on the streets, horse! Point the way and you stay behind me, and you crouch down. Got it!?”
   I snorted—as though that would be tough. “We can’t leave Williarrrd!”
   “Yes,we can, because we don’t have a choice. I’m going because it’s your only chance to live, and that’s what Williarrrd would have wanted, God knows why. You can come or stay for all I care!”
   “How do we know they’re goin’ to kill us?”
   “We can’t take the fucking chance!”
   “Shean,” Kirri pleaded, “we’ve got to get going. We have to! New Ceres needs you.”
   I looked down at Williarrrd’s corpse. I’d known him for… what, half an hour? …and he took the bullet meant for me. God! Why couldn’t I have gone down the other passage that night, like Kirri wanted? Because I’m too smart to fall for that, and I’m too stupidly honorable not to take the job that has to be done. Fuck! I scooped up Williarrrd’s machine pistol and ran after Kirri and Comet, my hooves thuddin’ on the stone. Thank you, Williarrrd. I wish I’d known you… I could hear the crowd behind us. I think they was human, but it was hard to tell. “Left here!”
   Like clockwork, the pair turned and jogged down Niven, crouched low and to the shadows. It wasn’t hard keepin’ up with them. Hell, I wasn’t even out of breath.
   “Number eighty-seven!”
   They stopped and I skidded to a stop at the door, punched in the security code, and they followed me in. The heavy airtight door kathunked shut behind.
   It was quiet, quiet and brightly lit. Everythin’ looked so… normal. All buildings had their own emergency power cells, in case of catastrophic hull breach. The lobby was quiet, the elevators were down thanks to runnin’ on internal power, so I led my bodyguards up the stairs. My apartment was on the third floor, an easy trip, but I had to slow down to let them catch up, pantin’ and gaspin’. Once I unlocked an’ opened the door we all bounded in, and Kirri shut it behind us.
   I think the run cleared my head. Leastways, I was calmer. I stood there for a bit, soakin’ in the normality, ’til I heard somethin’ drip on the floor in front of me. Feelin’ my wet vest, I remembered the tablet. Ah, hell! I was committed now, and I had to stay in contact. Trottin’ over to the vidphone, I punched in the access code, and told it to hunt up Megan. It searched the net, found the info, and rang her up.
   Didn’t take long for Megan’s face to appear. “Where the hell have you been!? I’ve been trying—”
   “Had some trouble, lost my tablet. Just got to a phone. What’s goin’ on?”
   “The ships are keeping their distance, but the Brains are trying to reach you. Doc wants you to talk to them. Tell them what our plans are.”
   “Me? Now? Fuck…”
   Comet called out: “You got anything drinkable, horse?”
   “Should be some beer in the fridge—help yourself. If either of you need it, washroom’s down the hall on the left. Megan, why—never mind, Doc’s usually right. What do the Brains want?”
   “They want to know what’s going on.”
   “Hell! Can’t they wait?”
   “They’ve been waiting for ten minutes.”
   I remembered Williarrrd’s body fallin’ on top of me. Somehow, his sacrifice gave me strength and I stood up a little straighter. “Megan… Megan, you tell them they’re goin’ to have to wait ten more minutes. Their turn will come. I’m takin’ a shower. Tell the Doc to work out a synopsis; don’t have text display here, never saw a need for it. He can give me the gist of the plans, and I’ll talk to the damn Brains. But not for ten minutes, clear?”
   “Yes, but Doc—”
   “Megan. You tell the Doc that if I’m the captain of this thing, folks gotta start playin’ to my tune. Let them call the shots, give them control, and you lose your authority. One of the things they taught me at the academy. I don’t like bein’ in charge here, but I am, and by God I’m goin’ do the best job I can. Ten minutes!” I hung up.
   “Shean, are you sure about that?” Kirri asked.
   “Damn right I am. I just needed some time to get my mind workin’ again. Comet, I’m… I’m sorry. Inadequate, I know. Some day you and I’ll sit down and you can tell me about Williarrrd. I want—need to know. I need to know so I can do right by what he gave me.”
   The husky snorted. “Go and shower, horse. You stink.”
   Turnin’, I made my way into the shower cubicle. Pullin’ my cork boots off I stripped and tossed it all into the hamper chute—it’d all be cleaned and back by tomorrow—and stepped into the shower. It started at the perfect temperature; for a while I just leaned into the water that pounded down my back, lettin’ its warmth wash away the pain and blood and soreness and guilt. After that came soap, and scrubbin’, and lettin’ everythin’ rinse off. I had a mother of a bruise just above where my tail should’ve been, and every time the pulsin’ water hit it, pain stabbed through me. The scratches Kirri tore in my muzzle stung from the soap, but at least they didn’t start bleedin’ again. Too soon the cycle was complete. The water switched off, and I grabbed the dryer and started dryin’ my fur and mane, and then brushin’ the worst of the tangles away.
   “Megan says your ten minutes are up!” Kirri called from the outside the washroom. “Is there any meat here? I’m starved!”
   “There should be some hamburgers in the freezer!”
   I stepped out, my hooves squeakin’ a little on the guaranteed non-slip bottom, and I wrapped a towel ’round my waist and came out. Steam billowed out around me as I made my way back to the vidphone. The call button was lit.
   No surprise; it was Doc. “Well, Shean, thank you for squeezing me into your busy schedule. Listen to me: You must tell the Brains that we’ve chosen not to be in their little utopia, that we have our own dreams of space and we aren’t going to let them take it away from us. This is of course the kind of thing we discussed, so I hardly expect you to require notes or a script. You must tell the Brains that we wish to give all the people who want to stay on Earth time to leave, and then we’ll be leaving Earth space. Everything we discussed. You must make sure they realize we aren’t allowing anything from them aboard; it would be far too great a risk. You must tell them we’re going to the asteroids or Saturn, we’re not sure. Do you understand all of that?”
   “I got it.” Lookin’ at him, I saw the cruel, hard human the Doc had become.
   “Doc, I just hope what we did today…what you did… is worth it.”
   The bastard didn’t even flinch. He just gave me a puzzled look, as if he didn’t have the tiniest clue in the world what I meant. “Excuse me, Shean..?”
   As the words came out of my muzzle, I knew they was right: “I know what you did, and one day I will see that justice is done. Got that? One day… but not now. It’ll have to wait.”
   He didn’t crack, not even a little bit, I’ll give him that. “My dear fellow, whatever can you be talking about?”
   “You know damn well what I’m talkin’ about—but now ain’t the time. Put the damn Brain on and let’s get goin’.” I could see Comet watchin’ me, tail whippin’ back and forth, and that did nothin’ for my mood. At least I already knew what I was goin’ to say.
   “I believe you’re overwrought, but as you say, now is not the time. Good luck to you, Shean. If you merely do half as good a job as you did in the speech, we shall all be in excellent shape.”
   “I will. You know who I’m talkin’ to?”
   “My apologies; I fear I do not.”
   “Patch ’em in.”
   “Switching now,” Megan said. “Good luck, Shean!”
   What image does a Brain put up on vid? In this case, it was a rabbit sittin’ behind a large wooden desk. There was a window behind him, and sunlight pourin’ through it. I could tell from the crispness, the perfection, that none of it was real. Part of me remembered the synthesized image of Adam Selene from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and that part of me shuddered.
   “Is this Shean Yoseph Eeysmarn I’m addressing?”
   “Yep. And how do I address you?” I waited through the time delay for his response.
   “You can call me Thomas James Foote.” I watched one of the ears artfully half-fold. “Now, what in God’s name is going on aboard New Ceres, and when can I expect to get my property back?”
   “Get your—” I could feel my ears point forward, stiff and proud. Remember, I told myself, he’s a Brain. You can’t out-think him. Just tell the truth and let him deal with it. “Never, Tommy. I’m afraid you gave up New Ceres when you fired the ones whose dreams built her.”
   “Shean, do you have any idea how much capital I’ve got invested there? By God, the shareholders aren’t going to be happy–”
   Capital? Shareholders? “Fuck the shareholders! You bastards are the ones who drove us to this! Well, you can reap,” I watched his expression change to slight anger as my interruption reached him, “what you’ve sown.”
   His expression changed to a stern father, sad that he was being forced to chastise a favourite son. “Shean, under God it doesn’t have to be this way. If you surrender, if all of you surrender, I can promise leniency.”
   For an instance I wished the damn Brains had killed the Mayor. I so wanted to be able to throw that fact into his smug face. But they didn’t, so I couldn’t. I could feel my fists clenching, and used the pain as my nails dug into my palms to focus. “Mr. Foote, you can just take your fatherly ways and stuff ’em. Now you just shut up and listen to some facts of the universe.”
   “Okay, son. You might as well have your say.”
   “We control New Ceres. That’s fact. You send ships up, we can an’ will use the asteroid defenses to shoot ’em down. Sure, you send enough ships an’ some will get through, but that’s a pretty high number of casualties. You designed the defenses; you run the sims. Your only real option is t’ saturate our defenses with fission and fusion missiles. Fire enough, some get through, and you’ll blow us up. Not much of a return on your investment.”
   “Now, you listen here! By God—”
   “You listen! It’s your Brain, Mike, what killed Darrvid Ruprecht. And it’s that same Mike who played here at creating revolution. Well, I’m sorry, but it didn’t work out for him. His damn neurons is dribbling out on the floor.”
   “What? You murdering Godless bastard!”
   “Like you ain’t a murderer? And don’t give me that crap about you getting’ angry and losin’ control. I know you Brains got too much processin’ power for that to ever happen, ’less’n you think you’ll get an advantage out of it. I’ve had a tough day, so I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen, and what your choices are. So just shut the fuck up and listen! You got me!?”
   I waited through the delay until his face assumed a neutral expression, both ears erect. “Okay. I’m listening.”
   “You can’t take New Ceres back, you can only destroy her. I’m bettin’ there’s enough human left in you to not do that. If you do try the saturation attack, well, we got transmitters up here and we’ll make sure what your bastard Mike did gets beamed to every sophont back on Earth. Now, we’re not pirates or barbarians, no matter how you plan to paint us. All we want is to control our own lives, and live the way we want—and it’s obvious that you Brains ain’t gonna let us do that on Earth. So, we’re leavin’. Goin’ away, where you can’t reach us. You got your world, we got ours, and that’s that. You got me!?”
   I waited until he clenched his lips, twitched his nose, and nodded.
   “Now, we’re not forcin’ nobody to go who don’t want to. We’re goin’ to restore order, and those who want to stay, we’ll ferry down to High York. Our pilots only, shuttles empty on return. If there’s any kind of coercion, bombs, stowaways, or anythin’ else, then all deals are off; we’ll go, and those who want to join you will just be shit out of luck. And, we might just pop off a few of your assets for our security. How much is High York worth?”
   “You wouldn’t dare!”
   “If you screw with us, what choice I got? I may end up bein’ painted the worst bastard since Hitler, but at least I’ll die free.”
   “By God, you listen here. We’re just doing what’s best for you. Nobody has ever been coerced—”
   “Oh, not openly. Just through subtle pressures and psychology. Just give it a fuckin’ break!”
   He relaxed from his aggressive posture and sat back down in his chair. I had t’ keep remindin’ myself that it was all an act, an illusion.
   “We’re leavin’. Give us… two days to restore order and clean up the mess you created. Another two days to ferry those who want to stay on Earth. And then we’re leavin’ and takin’ ourselves out of your hair.”
   “Where will you go?” His voice had an eerie calm about it.
   I blinked, surprised by his sudden change. “I reckon that ain’t none of your business. Out to the asteroids, maybe Saturn.”
   “Afraid to go the whole way?”
   I shrugged. “The system’s big enough for both of us. We stay away from Earth, and you can do whatever the hell you want!”
   “What if there are people on Earth who want to join you?”
   Fuck… I scratched behind one of my ears for a second. “Not much I can do for them. Your problem, you’ll have to deal with them.”
   “So much for the warm-hearted dreamer.”
   “You think I like this? There’s already twenty thousand people here! I can’t risk lettin’ you send agents or bombs up here just to save more. Too damn much at stake.”
   “God tells me that you’ve been preparing this hijacking for a long time. Your sperm and eggs arrived up there over a year ago, I believe.”
   How the hell..? Well, I’d never tried to hide that, wasn’t hard to work out the truth now. “You heard my speech earlier? I didn’t want this! Hell, I’d’ve been happy to keep workin’, visitin’ my family, and livin’ a nice quiet life. But no, you had to put efficiency above safety and sophont dignity, and you had to kill to get things your way. Well, I could maybe see this comin’, and I put things in place so that if the shit did hit the fan I wouldn’t be splattered by it. I don’t like it—hell, I fuckin’ hate it—but it’s the best I can do.”
   “Sounds like I have no choice but to accede to your demands.”
   “Don’t you dare put this all on my shoulders! You’ve been pushin’ towards this for years! Well, now you got it. Anybody approaches, I shoot ’em down. You get High York ready, ’cause I’m goin’ to ship you people as soon as I can. So you just deal with it!”
   He scratched his head and twitched his whiskers. “Fine. With God’s blessing, we’ll do it your way. You’ll let me know when you’re ready to start sending people back?”
   I forced my fists to unclench. “Yeah, I’ll let you know. This frequency?”
   “That’ll be fine. Good luck, and may God bless your journey.” With that he disconnected.
   “That went well,” Kirri said from behind me.
   “Like Hell it did. But now, it’s all in the damn open. Everybody knows where everybody else stands. You talk to Doc and Megan, and you get order restored. Total curfew ’til we leave orbit. Whoever wants to leave, tell ’em to report to the docks. Check them for arms, and ship them down. I’ll brief the pilots tomorrow. Right now, I simply can’t.”
   Comet broke in. “Leave the horse alone. Everybody has their breaking point, and he’s damn close to his. I’m just glad that I don’t have the weight of the world on my shoulders.” Then, to me, he said, “Shean, when this is over, name a time and we can talk about Williarrrd.”
   I turned to Comet and looked at him. His tail was down, his ears were lowered and he was barin’ his neck to me. Fuck! “Comet…”
   “Shean, Williarrrd was right. You’re one in a million. I’ll stand behind you because you’re the right fur for this job, and not because I’ve been ordered to.”
   “I…” I was just a simple rocket jockey! “Okay, fine, whatever you say. I’m… I’m sorry, I’m just overwrought.” I turned back to Kirri. “You get on with Doc and get things goin’! Eventually the Brains’ll think of a way past our defenses, and then we’re toast. Tell Megan to accept only voice and video transmissions, and keep ’em isolated from anything else. I’ve never heard of a virus that can come up that way, but the Brains probably have.”
   “Shean, who the hell put you in charge!?” Kirri glared at me, tail whippin’ back and forth.
   I leaned back, ears relaxed. “You did, Kirri. You and the Doc. You set me up! But I ain’t the dumb ol’ puppet you really wanted, an’ that’s too damn bad, so you just live with it. You don’t like what I’m doin’, then tell me, but in private, you hear?”
   Kirri looked for a second like she was goin’ to leap at me, but then her posture relaxed. “Sorry… Shean, you’re right. Just, keep doing it. And listen to us… we’re in this, too.”
   “I will. God knows I need all the help I can get! Now, you get to work, ’cause I’m goin’ to have a couple of those burgers you’re cookin’ up, and then I’m goin’ into my bedroom and I’m goin’ to read, and then I’m goin’ to sleep. If you’ve got an emergency, you get me. And find another tablet for me—I’m goin’ to need one.”
   “I… Sure, Shean.”
   I could see Comet chuckling almost under his breath.
   “Phone code is nine-six-eight. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I can smell a burger callin’.”

-= 22 =-

   Early on, the Doc and Kirri recruited somethin’ like eighty grunts/enforcers, and smuggled up the machine pistols for ’em in addition to the lighter weapons I’d snuck onto the Rock. There was other guns on New Ceres, big assault rifles that Company goons used, and we got most of those. Ten were unaccounted for… at least that’s what the official inventory said. God knows what else there was. What with my reputation, the fact that most folks wanted peace and quiet, an’ us havin’ most o’ the weapons, it didn’t take long for order to be fully restored.
   Comet and Kirri wouldn’t let me out until late the next day. The streets were eerie; I could still smell smoke and the stench of burnt paper and flesh in the air. The bodies had been removed, but there was blood on the streets and I saw one group of workers sandblastin’ out some stains. Didn’t have enough water to spare for stuff like that. The Brains would know, they was probably hopin’ the water shortage would drive us to give in. By the time I got to where I’d been shot at, there was nothin’ left. The body of the horse was gone, and Williarrrd’s body was gone too. I was told later that it’d been stripped, but at least it hadn’t been partially or fully eaten like some of the human or herbivore fur bodies had been. Comet always stuck with me; quiet, unobtrusive, but there.
   The day after, it was time to brief the pilots. I passed alongside the people lined up, our guards watchin’ them, lookin’ just like the Company goons used to look. Everybody clenched the guide ropes—this close to the bow axis, you was pretty much in freefall. Most were human, but there were furs, too. To me it was a mass of men, women, children, all without hope. There was babies who had no idea what was even goin’ on. I stopped before a family of horses, same breed as me, tiny beside the others. Comet stood behind me, gun sheathed, but his body language said he was ready to move if anybody tried anythin’. For a moment I looked at the stallion, he looked at me… and then he lowered his ears, acknowledgin’ my dominance.
   I asked him, “Why?”
   He turned away.
   “Why leave? There’s nothin’ for you on Earth.”
   “On Earth, I can walk down the street at night and know I won’t get shot.”
   “But the humans—”
   “Words don’t kill, Mr. Eeysmarn. They hurt, but those wounds heal.”
   “I didn’t want it to be this way…”
   His wife burst out: “You didn’t want it, they didn’t want it. It’s all words, words!” Then she took her foal’s head and turned it away from me, pressin’ the foal’s muzzle against her pants so that he couldn’t see me at all. I could hear similar sentiments muttered from others in the line.
   Lookin’ at them, I watched them lookin’ at me. Some had hatred in their eyes, but most had despair, hopelessness. Betrayal. I could see the horse lookin’ at me with eyes full of sadness.
   Turnin’, I dragged my way past them to where the pilots waited.
   There were twelve pilots for the five shuttles we had aboard, most furs. Fact is, we’d been gengineered with faster reflexes an’ better senses; most humans just couldn’t compete. I knew all the pilots, drank with them, had partied with them. Now they looked at me, and we weren’t buddies no longer. The humans just watched and the furs showed submission in their posture. Amongst the pilots were two horses, same breed as me, and they were just as submissive. Didn’t take long to brief the lot; told ’em to take nothin’ aboard ’cept fuel and air, and watch the loaders. Warned ’em to check their craft for bombs or other things stuck on. Each shuttle would have two crew; one for the way down, one for the way up. They’d fly and sleep and eat. There were a lot of people to move, and not a hell of a lot of time to move them. I asked for volunteers to fly the mission and they all stepped forward, no hesitation, so I wrote up lots and drew. Two stayed behind in reserve; a human and a rabbit. They’d rotate onto one shuttle after two flights, and that crew would get two flights’ leave and rotate onto another. I’d already worked out the schedule and they didn’t question it. They knew I’d been through it. Diggin’ up suits for them was easy as they all, like me, had one on board. I could see they felt happier, especially given what they was flyin’ into.
   Then I left, left my old life behind, and watched them move to their craft and begin loadin’.
   I sat in Darrvid’s old chair in the control centre. Place was closest thing to a bridge we had. Didn’t feel right, but it had to be done. I talked to Eddie down on High York. He’d been briefed by the Brains about the evacuation, and he said I was a fuckin’ idiot. I could see the barely controlled rage and betrayal on his face. Still, he promised to make sure nothin’ was snuck aboard the refuelin’ and restockin’ shuttles. That’s all I really needed from him. Signin’ off, I mentally wished him and Liz the best.
   I spent hours in the control room as a figurehead, just watchin’ the flights go out full and come back empty. Eventually I went back to my room, with Kirri and Comet who refused to leave. With my tablet I checked the stocks, calculated numbers. Water would be tight; New Ceres wasn’t a perfectly closed system, nothin’ we Earthlings built is. We’d have lots to reach Saturn, but no way could we go beyond Pluto with what we had on board. Helium 3 for the reactor wasn’t much better off. At least we had lots of fuel for the Orion drive.
   Comet was takin’ a nap in my bedroom when Kirri walked around behind me and began massagin’ my shoulders, gentle an’ professional-like. I was a bit surprised, and nigh-on pulled away.
   “You work too hard, Shean. You know that?”
   “Well, somebody has to.”
   “You should take some time for yourself. If you lose it, we’re all screwed.” Sayin’ that, she leaned over me and kissed me on my forehead.
   She walked around from behind me and I noticed she was stark naked. When the hell had she taken off her clothes?
   “Shean, we never did get to finish in the Rat…”
   I just stared, jaw hangin’ open as she dragged my chair around, the tip of her tail draped over one of her shoulders. A part of me could hear the legs scrapin’ on the floor, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her. “Wha-what do you mean?”
   “Back before you followed me into the tunnels, and you, me and Doc formed the new rebellion, love.”
   She clambered or hopped up onto my lap, one leg to either side of my waist and she leaned down and kissed me. My muzzle was at the level of her breasts. “K-K-Kirri—”
   Thank God, Megan picked that time to call about my phone conference with Phillip Alexandros. The tablet on the table behind me buzzed loudly and the sound cleared my head. “Kirri, what the hell are you doin’?”
   “Let it wait. You deserve a rest as much as anybody.” Leanin’ down, she kissed my muzzle.
   The tablet buzzed again.
   My body may be small and thin, but it’s all muscle. Grabbin’ the arms of the chair I shoved myself up and shoved Kirri onto the floor. Behind me the chair banged as it fell backwards. “This is not the place, and you know it! What the hell do you think you’re doin’?”
   “I—I just wanted—”
   “Kirri. Get out. Get the fuck out. Now!”
   For a moment she just looked at me, and then I leaned forward.
   My ears were erect, my muzzle was slightly open, and my teeth were bared. “Get the God damned fuck out!”
   Comet picked that moment to come in from my bedroom. He just looked, his muzzle expressionless, as Kirri squeaked and backed away.
   “And don’t forget to get dressed!”
   The tablet buzzed again and I grabbed the chair, slammed it back against the table, and shoved myself into it. I hammered the acknowledgement button: “Yes!?”
   Megan’s face appeared. “Sorry to bother you, Shean, but you asked me to, remember?”
   “Yeah, sorry… it was—not your fault. You got Phil on the line?”
   “He’s waiting for you. You sure you’re all right? He can reschedule.”
   I sighed. “Just put him through,” I said. “Sorry, work’s been gettin’ me down.”
   Comet just shook his head in the background.
   I talked to Phillip Alexandros for over an hour, confirmin’ the drive readiness, and settin’ a time to work out flight plans and accelerations. He wanted to keep it slow; I wanted fast—I didn’t trust the Brains to keep their half of the deal. We didn’t get it resolved before I had to clean and shower, just in time for my final duty for that day.
   Sayin’ a few words over the dead before they was fired into the sun.
   Cleanup crew worked day and night to neaten ’em up as best they could, and the shops worked just as hard to get the coffins ready. They used pressed silicon sheets—wood was a rarity then, not many trees planted. Most of the iron got taken out durin’ the minin’, we’d just been left with the lighter materials.
   The unloadin’ of passengers continued non-stop; we’d broadcast the funeral to the pilots. New Ceres had been designed for permanent habitation, and they provided facilities to eject unwanted stuff, like bodies and waste, out of Earth orbit and onto a decayin’ trajectory that’d take ’em into the Sun. Didn’t take any energy; the tubes was angled so New Ceres spin would give ’em the right course and speed. It’d be a long journey, but it would end. The engineerin’ reason was to keep more junk from clutterin’ up near-Earth space, but nobody really talked about that.
   The two hundred and seventeen coffins was lined up in ten neat rows of twenty, one row of sixteen, and one sealed all by itself. All the dead—all the dead—were here: Revolutionaries, Company goons, innocents caught in the middle. Mayor Guthurn was there, so was Williard, so was the horse that tried to kill me. I’d insisted on that, over the Doc’s and Kirri’s objections. The reason was simple. We were rebellin’ against the Brains for the right to lead our lives the way we wanted. Not against the Company, not against the servants of the Company. All the dead were sophonts, sophonts who’d died for the cause. They were all casualties, lives lost.
   They all deserved some respect.
   When I first got there I walked along the rows, pausin’ for a second to look through the clear silicone at the body inside. Comet and Kirri and Doc were behind me. At each pause I looked at the face, the blank face, quiet and calm in death. There were humans, far too many humans, with furs scattered amongst them. Some had flowers placed on top, but far too many were untouched. The room had been open all day for people to pay their respects. Most of the bodies I didn’t know, some I knew only casually, but each one I looked at in silent apology. I looked down at the horse who’d tried to kill me. Nobody knew why he’d tried. He wasn’t on record as one of the Company goons, but he could have been a sleeper. Now I’d never know.
   Aunt Neeola was right: We should have just asked. But I was right too, we couldn’t. Too much at risk if they’d said no. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t…
   I walked on, carryin’ two flowers as I slowly paced, my hooves echoin’ loudly in the huge chamber. I stopped at Felitch’s coffin, and wished I’d had a chance to talk to him about Darrvid. The fourth row contained both the raccoon I’d shot dead, and the human he’d slain and tried to rob. At the third row I came to Williarrrd, lyin’ there calm and reposed. I could see Comet stiffen behind me. Turnin’, I offered him the one flower and gave him room as he placed it on the transparency over Williarrrd’s calm muzzle. God knew Comet had far more right to do that than I did.
   Even Mike’s brain was there, his coffin sealed, dark gray. I gave him the same respect I gave the others, remembering him from before I got dragged into the revolution.
   Mayor Guthurn’s coffin was the last, and it was closed. No glass to show the mourners his shattered skull. His coffin was almost buried in flowers, and I stood there the longest, lookin’ down at the glitterin’ stone, rememberin’ him in life, rememberin’ what he tried to do before the Doc—the revolution I was a part of—shot him dead. My sight blurred, an’ Comet held me up as I lost it for a minute. A part of me wanted to shove my emotions aside, but I couldn’t. I just stood there, held by Comet, sobbin’. Faces flashed past me, Darrvid, Aunt Neeola whom I’d never see again, Cæsar, Williarrrd…
   Still leanin’ on Comet, I forced myself together. I slowly made my way to the podium that faced the dead, faced the holocams.
   “I stand before the departed… before those who gave their lives that we might live free. In life, they were all sophonts: Livin’, breathin’ life, worthy of respect. Humans, furs, Company, civilians, spacers. In death, they’re all equal.
   “Let’s have a moment of silence, of remembrance. Not just for the ones we lost, but for those others lost. Everybody here has somebody they cared about, who cared about them. All our sorrows, our burdens are shared.”
   I looked, blinkin’ back tears. So much emotion, so few words… Doubtless others could have said it better. I just did the best I could.
   “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Unto almighty God we commend the souls of the departed, and we commit their remains to the eternal deep.”
   I stood there and watched as, one by one, the coffins were loaded into the tube and ejected. And as each one vanished into the deep, I swore again and again to do my best for the survivors, to honor the memory of the dead.

-= 23 =-

   “People will die if we accelerate at 3G!”
   It was the day after the funeral. Flights was still goin’ to an’ from High York; they was due for completion in about eight hours, dependin’ on refuelin’ times. With Phillip Alexandros, I was in the one school, havin’ taken it over on account of its computers an’ holotank. We were discussin’ the flight plan to Saturn.
   “Phil, I’ve talked to the engineers. They say the structures can survive 3G—they’ll even guarantee ’em up to 4G, but I don’t want to push it.”
   “It’s not the damn buildings, you fool horse! It’s the people!”
   Most of the flight plan was already settled: Standard 0.1G acceleration, with turnover at midpoint; slingshot around Mars; then a dogleg at Jupiter just before we began deceleratin’. I didn’t want to dive in-system, what with the danger from flares, even though a tight slingshot around the sun would’ve saved us two days. Flight time was run just over a month, includin’ down time for tunin’ the engines. Fuel wasn’t a problem—the Company had stockpiled a major shitload o’ bombs. Big ones, small ones, a positively absurd quantity. Word was, they’d moved it all up here now to ease the transfer to other asteroids in the future. Phil once give me a tour o’ the ‘arsenal’, and neither of us could figure out the whys and wherefores of it. ’Course, the Company never did encourage questions. I’d told him to have a bunch of engineers check the bombs for boobytraps or detonators—I wouldn’t put it past the Brains to have prepared for a hijackin’.
   Anyways, me an’ him was discussin’ acceleration profiles: “Come on, Phil, five Gs ain’t nothin’! I've handled that for extended periods, no problems. This is only for two hours.”
   He paced back and forth. “Captain, you’re trained for this. You had the proper seat, the proper orientation. What are people going to do? Lay down on their walls?”
   “That’s what mattresses and blankets is for.”
   “Shean, there’s not going to be a build up. Orion drive doesn’t work that way. We’ll pick some of the big bombs, detonate them, and whoosh! From nothing to three Gs in fifteen seconds. It’d be in about one, except for the shock absorbers on the plate to moderate the momentum transfer to us.”
   “I know—”
   “No, you don’t! You may understand the math, but you don’t know! Nobody does! Now, if it was an emergency—”
   “You’re God damned right it is! Right now we got hostages. When they’re gone, what if the Brains launch an invasion? Two hours gets us out past twice Luna orbit, out of range of most craft. It’ll give us time. If we loaf around, who knows what they’ll do?”
   We looked at each, my muzzle against his human face as we leaned across the holotank, our breaths hot in each other’s face. He’d had bacon and eggs for breakfast.
   “Phil, it’s an order. Can the hardware handle it?”
   “Yeah… it can.”
   “Then you get the drive ready, and let me worry about the people.”
   “There are more than eighteen hundred casualties stacked in the hospital!”
   “Probably safest place for them. We can strap ’em in, move the beds, and there’ll be trained personnel there.”
   “Captain—when we light the drive, it’s not going to be smooth like the shuttles. We can only control the explosion so much. Acceleration isn’t going to be constant—it could peak at close to five Gs, depending.”
   “Ain’t that what the plate’s for?”
   “It is, but we haven’t done enough of this to fine-tune the system!”
   “You set up that program the robots used, bringin’ New Ceres into near Earth orbit, didn’t you?”
   “Then you done it all before.”
   “No, I haven’t! There was nobody aboard then, no shock absorbers. We had the thrust varying by two Gs at times!”
   Leanin’ back, I licked my lips, and twisted my head from side to side tryin’ to un-kink my neck. “Okay. How d’ you want to do it?”
   “If I wanted to leave fast, but safe, I’d run it at half a G for an hour, then slowly push it up to 1.5 Gs. No higher.”
   “S’pose’n the Brains launch a salvo attack. How long it take you to adjust acceleration?”
   Leanin’ back, he scratched the thick gray hair on his head. “Depends on when in the cycle I found out. Best case, we could swap payload and cycle it out in about thirty seconds; worst case… maybe ninety seconds.”
   “God…” Missiles could run ten-G acceleration with chemical rockets for too damn long, who knew what they could get up to with anti-matter propulsion? I wiped the sweat from my brow—it’d been a long plannin’ session, and a tense one. Only thing left now was departure, the course was finally settled. “Okay, how’s this: We start at one G for an hour, push it up to two for half an hour, then three for ninety minutes. Should give us close to the same final velocity. We shut the drive down for a day, you check everythin’, then we run at a tenth-gee for Saturn.” I punched the numbers in; our planned course didn’t change worth shit. The difference was so small, Saturn was so far away, that a little bouncin’ around at startup really didn’t mean anythin’.
   “I’d be happier with that.”
   “Let’s run with that, then. Just be ready for sudden changes. If there’s a mass missile strike against us, I may want the best you got—five Gs, whatever the hell you can push out of her.”
   “The plate won’t take the stress!”
   “And we can’t take multiple fusion missiles.”
   “Yeah, you do have a point…” He pulled up his pad and pressed various numbers into it. “I can keep bigger bombs ready, just in case. Hope to God we don’t need them! Best I can give you is four Gs, though—we don’t have anything bigger onboard.”
   “Okay. Thanks. And good luck.”
   “Thanks, sir. Wish we didn’t have to run this way, but… I mean, Saturn! Who’d have thought?”
   “Who’d’a thought indeed!”
   We shook hands. I locked the flight plan in and passed it up to Megan in control.
   The next seven hours were busy as hell. Beside the coffins, we’d made a shitload of padded cushions for the whole crowd. We posted acceleration safety notices all over the Rock. Loose objects and equipment got stored and strapped down, though there’d still be an awful lot of breakage amongst civilian possessions. The acceleration safety instructions included coverin’ up with a blanket to keep glass shards from breakin’ the skin. Us furs had it worse than humans; with our tails, we had to stand with our side to the wall, which added its own set of complications. I’d gotten all my stuff packed and piled against the stern wall, and I was pretty sure other spacers had, too. I’d made sure techs did it to the pilots ferryin’ people down to High York.
   I was in the control room, sittin’ in Darrvid’s newly-reinforced chair, watchin’ the crew bring in the last of the shuttles. Megan was at her console, overseein’ everythin’. I just sat there, lookin’ impressive. Well, as impressive as I could, what with bein’ half as tall as most folks… The air was thick with tension; people was afraid, and I didn’t blame ’em. Kirri was behind me—she looked worried and I didn’t want to send her away until I had to. Somethin’ had went wrong between us, and I wanted to fix it. Besides, there wasn’t anyplace she had to be, and at least she didn’t try massaging me again. Comet was there too, I’d made him head of security. Hell, he was always with me, and he knew what he was doin’.
   Finally, the last shuttle came aboard and docked.
   “Megan, how long ’til Athena’s drained and strapped down?”
   “Umm—estimate is twenty-five minutes. They’re going to try and do it faster.”
   I nodded and thought a moment. “Lieutenant Pulther, tell Phil he’s good to light the drive in thirty minutes. Flag him if the crew reports any delays in preppin’ Athena. Don’t clear it with me.” Pulther was the vixen who’d been on duty when I’d nearly crashed into New Ceres. Darrvid reamed her out, and then trained her himself, so she knew what she was doin’. Still… “And just relax. I got confidence in you.”
   She gulped. “Yes, sir.”
   “Sound acceleration warnin’, repeat every five minutes, count down from thirty seconds.”
   “Locked in, sir,” a pretty little filly replied. Hadn’t had time to get to know her, couldn’t even remember her name.
   “Megan, can y’ pick up any Earthside news broadcasts? If’n y’ can, put it on the speakers—might give us some warnin’ if they plan anythin’.”
   “Got one. Switching over.”
   “—oote has refused comment on the continuing standoff regarding the hijackers of New Ceres. Reports from those put off on High York emphasize the bloodiness of the hijacking, and the appalling conditions aboard the asteroid. Earth defenses and anti-missile systems remain on high alert in case the hijackers attempt anything, though they claim to just want to leave near-Earth space. Many doubt this.
   “Interviews with friends and relations of this ‘Shean Eeysmarn’, who claims to be in charge, have universally painted a picture of an innocent who’s gotten caught up in things beyond his skill to cope. Speculation is rampant as to who’s really controlling him and why.
   “Elizabeth, the Brain aboard High York, urges calm. She states that panic is what the hijackers want, and that as long as those on Earth remain calm and stay in their homes, the aims of the hijackers for further destruction can and will be thwarted.”
   “They don’t like us much, do they?” I asked out loud, but nobody commented.
   “At this point there’s no information available as to what plans, if any, are being made to retake New Ceres now that the last of the so-called hostages have been released. There were, by official count, nineteen thousand, eight hundred and fifty one persons aboard her at the time of the hijacking, and it has been officially stated that five thousand eight hundred and three have been transferred to High York. That leaves a maximum of fourteen thousand and forty-eight, but it’s not known how many were killed in the fighting.
   “Here on High York there are huge masses of people, and the facility is struggling to cope with their needs. All non-essential space flight has been grounded for the duration of the crisis, so the people are stuck here for the present. I’ve seen no sign of preparation for a counter-attack, but with the crowds here there’s no way to be certain.”
   “Captain,” Comet leaned over and whispered, “shouldn’t Kirri be somewhere safe?”
   There was a chair waitin’ for Comet, he’d insisted, but nothin’ for Kirri. “Kirri,” I turned so I could see her easily, “you better get goin’. There’s acceleration seats you can use in the lounge.”
   “You best go now—no place for you here.”
   She looked around, tail wigglin’ nervously, and then she turned and stalked out.
   “What’s up with her?” Comet asked.
   I answered quietly. “Damn if I know. Before—before all this,” I motioned around, but I meant the revolution, not New Ceres, “she weren’t nothin’ but a whore, far as I knew. And then she tries to take me to bed, almost drags me in. You were there. And ever since, she’s been distant, cold.”
   “Horse, I don’t trust her. There’s something deeply wrong with her—I’d watch her.”
   I looked at him curious-like. “Ain’t she the one invited you into the revolution?”
   “Yeah, but I didn’t know she was high up, and I’m glad as hell that she’s not in charge. Something’s not right with her.”
   I snorted.
   “Ten minutes to drive ignition, Captain,” the filly stated.
   “How they doin’ with Athena?”
   “Umm… just got the report now. She’s locked down and they’re moving to their acceleration stations.”
   I nodded. “Get the video feed of the drive—put it up for everybody to see, and keep the dirtside news audio only. Might as well see what they think o’ the show.”
   The large holotank in the centre that usually depicted New Ceres and surrounding space flickered; suddenly, we saw the massive drive plate secured to the ass-end o’ New Ceres. It weren’t no flat plate but a funnel, engineered real careful-like t’ get the most from each erg o’ push from the bombs. Right now the holo was mostly dark, one end lit by stark sunlight. Given the scale, there’d be nothin’ visible ’til the first bomb went off.
   “—and the lights went out, leaving the whole place in red light,” the Earth news said. “There was gunfire everywhere, voices shouting and screaming. God knows how I lived. I hid in an alley, in the dirt and garbage, afraid to breathe. Just lucky, I guess. When they finally restored full lighting, the streets were choked in smoke and the dead. I couldn’t move until Ishman here found me and talked me out. If it hadn’t—”
   “Five minutes, Captain. Sounding acceleration siren.”
   I nodded.
   “That’s an eyewitness account from Ms. Evelyn Calvert, one of the refugees from the hijacking of New Ceres. To recap…” It went on; Lord, did it ever! I just wished we could fast-forward through the waitin’…
   “Three minutes, Captain.”
   I nodded and watched the timer suspended below the engine, ignorin’ the drone of the announcer in the background. He was interviewin’ somebody else now.
   “Megan, check with Phil if the drive’s good to go.”
   “Confirmed, Captain. He’s ready to light her off in… one minute, eighteen seconds.
   Noddin’, I gripped my seat tighter, watchin’ the countdown. One minute, I could hear the wail of the final acceleration siren echoin’ through the interior of New Ceres. It was faint, distant, but I could feel it in my bones.
   Thirty seconds. Like everybody else, I locked my seat along the axis of acceleration.
   Ten seconds. Megan piped Phil’s voice into the bridge as he counted down. “—eight, seven, six, five—”
   Was I doin’ the right thing? Should I have accepted any Earthlings who wanted to go?
   “—two, one, zero!”
   The holotank dimmed as a Goddamn bright light flared, part-way inside the cup o’ the drive plate. A heavy hand squashed me back into my seat; the deck tilted ’til I was lookin’ up a sixty-degree shaft. All around me I heard metal groanin’ and vibratin’. It was a deep, deep moan, felt more’n heard, the ancient stone bitchin’ about bein’ forced to move out of where it wanted to be.
   “Acceleration falling,” Phil called out. “Peaked at 1.2G. Tossing next bomb out.”
   The holo was full o’ a dull red glow, with streamers of yellow and orange as fragments sputtered through the darkness. Then another flare—brilliant, eye-searin’. Around me the world creaked and groaned, complainin’. Those damn heavy hands pushed me back into my seat.
   Through heavy static, I could still hear the news from High York: “—been confirmed that a brilliant explosion has been seen coming from New Ceres. Not sure what caused it, it’s definitely visible in Europe and North America and on Anderson Base. A new star, shining briefly in the sky. There’s a second one—”
   I sat there, listenin’ to the awed voice, pressed back into my seat again and again by bomb after bomb, devices of destruction used to send us on our way. It didn’t take long for ’em to dope out it was the Orion drive. There wasn’t no launches from Earth or Luna, an’ New Ceres upped her acceleration to three Gs.
   Like Phil said, it weren’t constant, but it also weren’t so bad as he feared. Our acceleration wobbled from a low o’ 2.3 Gs, up to a high o’ 3.8 Gs.
   New Ceres was on her way.

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