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

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

Home -=- #14 -=- ANTHRO #14 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

-= 24 =-

   The Doc was late.
   It was nearly two weeks into our trip. So far there was no sign of pursuit, just the ongoing slander of us as hijackers and terrorists on Earth. Next week we was due to whip around Jupiter, slingshottin’ at a safe distance. But right now, I had to chat with some folks who’d asked for a little parlay. The plan was for Kirri, the Doc, an’ me (and Comet, of course) to meet ’em, but the Doc was a no-show.
   “Comet, you can let ’em in.”
   He padded over to the door. In a literal sense he did walk up, as the floor seemed to be tilted at nigh-on six degrees. Mind you, that varied with the drive thrust. Walkin’ was a bastard for the first day, but then I got used to it. If you listened you could still hear the Rock’s faint groans and pops, but you had to really listen for it.
   The door opened and two people walked in—a deer and a kangaroo. Well, the deer walked; the ’roo hopped. It figured there weren’t no humans, they seemed to be in mighty short supply these days.
   “Have a seat. Water’s here, help yourselves.” I motioned at the jug and the slightly tilted level of ice water inside. At that point the thrust went up a notch, and everybody grabbed a chair or stumbled against a wall for the second or two before things got normal again. I grabbed my tablet before it could slide into my lap.
   The deer seated himself, but the kangaroo just crouched, balancin’ on his legs and tail. Kangaroos never could use chairs. Nobody touched the water.
   I looked at my ‘guests’. “Is one o’ you in charge? If so, it’ll make things go faster.” I already knew who’d do their talkin’. The deer’s name was Jonthan Sanper; the kangaroo was Elroy Farnsworth. He was the leader—used to be a politician back on Earth. That’s what Doc and Kirri said, and their sources was always well-informed. For some reason, I hated Farnsworth on sight, first time I laid eyes on the bastard… Shoulda trusted my instincts.
   The ’roo cleared his throat. “I expect I can best serve in that role.”
   The deer nodded his head slowly, what with the heavy, growin’ rack that stretched high over his head. Definitely not a spacer—they tended to either cut theirs off when they needed to, or just remove the buds all together.
   “Then speak your piece,” I said.
   “We, and others, would like to know when you’re going to re-establish civilian government, and when you’re going to relinquish your post as dictator.”
   I sighed, ears lowered. Even though I’d known it was comin’ from the briefin’, it still hurt.
   “Nobody begrudges the job you did during the crisis of our departure, but nothing other than rhetoric has come out of Earth ever since we left. Obviously we’re too far for them to reach.”
   ‘Too far’? What a dipshit. If only! “Mr. Farnsworth, I’m well aware o’ what’s happened. Thing is, I’m also well aware o’ what could happen. How about you gimme the gist of your proposal? I’ve read what you sent me, but if you could just summarize so’s I know where you stand, I’d appreciate it.”
   “Very kind of you.” He leaned back; his rolls o’ fat shoulda made his tail creak like a rusted-out hinge. “My proposal is simple, and entirely logical. Since the death of our beloved Mayor Guthurn, we’ve been without civil government for far too long. Yes, the civil servants have maintained critical services, and I wholly understand the need for water rationing until we can mine more around Saturn. I’m well informed.”
   I would’ve said finally got it hammered through your thick skull, but that was just me.
   “And, as I mentioned, you did serve wonderfully in the crisis. But, the crisis is now over. It’s time for the rightful civilian government to set the policy for New Ceres. Humbly—”
   I bet.
   “—I’ll take the interim position until proper elections can be held. You, of course, would remain in charge of the technical—” He used the word like a curse. “—aspects of New Ceres, but you’d be subject to civil authority. We can get the change of power into place in time for our arrival in Saturn—”
   Jonthan leaned towards Mr. Farnsworth’s ear and whispered somethin’.
   “I meant in orbit around Saturn, of course.”
   Well, that explained who wore the brains in that group.
   “We all think this request is entirely reasonable, and we have a signed petition of over one thousand, which is just over six percent of the resident population.”
   I nodded. Sadly, not everybody who stayed on New Ceres was technological dreamers. A lot o’ them what came up was misfits who, though very well off, couldn’t take advantage of Earth society, and Farnsworth was definitely in that category. The Brains ran things so well that politicians really had no power on Earth; he’d run against Mayor Guthurn and I hadn’t voted for him then. Jonthan was far more intelligent, but he was shy and unsure of himself. He’d probably been browbeaten by Mr. Farnsworth—poor sod had the look of a deer in headlights.
   Thrust fell for a second; the room looked almost level. Crossin’ my arms in front of me on the table, I asked, “Mr. Farnsworth, how come you think the crisis is done?”
   He looked at me, eyes wide, as though he couldn’t understand why a peon like me wouldn’t fall over myself agreein’ with his precious opinion. “We’re trillions of miles—” Jonthan’s ears fell. “—away from Earth. Surely, we must be far, far out of the reach of the Brains!”
   “You think so, do you, Mr. Farnsworth? You do know that the Brains have ships capable of twenty-five Gs acceleration, or at least they did well over a year ago. Who knows what they’re up to now? An’ you got any idea how far Saturn is from Earth at twenty-five Gs? Less’n two days, that’s how far! All they need’s one of them ships, with one Brain an’ about a hundred fusion missiles strapped on. They launch ’em in a volley, and we’re toast.”
   Jonthan looked thoughtful. Mr. Farnsworth just looked confused.
   “Then… why is it taking us so long!?”
   I sighed; he could get his answer from his science advisor. “Mr. Farnsworth. Sanper. I don’t know that the crisis is done with. Damn sure it won’t be before we reach Saturn, and likely not while we’re stuck there gatherin’ resources.” Ignorin’ Mr. Farnsworth’s sneer at my obvious unintelligent bumpkin upbringin’, I continued: “And if’n you forgot, I am in charge right now.”
   They both looked at me, Mr. Farnsworth visibly frownin’, his ears curvin’ forward. Even Comet frowned.
   “Still an’ all, you’re right—we need a civilian government, and soon. It may be tight, but there will be open elections immediately.” If I hadn’t known that Farnsworth’s campaign wouldn’t stand a chance, I’d’a been afraid at the glint—no, gleam—of eagerness in his eyes. “But that government’s gotta do as I say, and it’ll have control only over municipal matters such as land distribution, parkin’ tickets, fines for civil code violations, that sort o’ thing. Everythin’ else, it’s my business until further notice.”
   “And how long will that be?” Jonthan asked.
   “I don’t know. But I can see it lastin’ for years.”
   “Years!?” Mr Farnsworth burst out. I watched Jonthan relax his ears slightly.
   “Yep. Possibly the rest of my life.”
   Mr. Farnsworth’s muzzle hung open like a catfish gasping on the shore.
   “I’ll be bound by civil law, of course, and won’t be allowed to run for the office of Mayor myself. But, until I’m certain we’re all safe, both from the Brains and from the rigors of livin’ away from Earth, I got no moral choice but t’ remain in charge.”
   “Safe from the rigors of living away from Earth?” Jonthan asked. “Given that we’re going to be living away from Earth for the rest of our lives, doesn’t that make your position kind of permanent?”
   I nodded. Figured he’d be the one to see it. “Yeah. It does, damn it.”
   “Now just a minute—”
   “You can just shut up, Mr. Farnsworth, because that’s the way it’s goin’ to be. And, before you ask, there won’t be no election for my successor. He, or she, will be my second in command, promoted up.” Right now that was officially Megan; neither the Doc nor Kirri were officially in the chain of command. “I’d suggest that you, or whoever gets elected, put in place a law to prevent those servin’ in the military command chain of New Ceres from holdin’ civic office. Now, you may not believe this, but I hate this as much as you do. I don’t want it, but I got it, and ain’t no way in Hell I can give up my responsibilities until they’re fulfilled.”
   Mr. Farnsworth stood up, leanin’ forward as thrust decreased momentarily. “You haven’t heard the last of this!”
   “’Course not—but that ain’t goin’ to change nothin’. ’Less’n you want to start another revolution?”
   “I—” He looked thoughtful.
   “You can take off. The notice of elections was posted,” I checked the time, “fifteen minutes ago. Now, if you’ll ’scuse me, my time is valuable. Comet, would you kindly show these fine people out?”
   Comet nodded and padded over and opened the door as they stood up to leave. I could see Jonthan look at me with new respect, and made a mental note to have Megan look into recruitin’ him. He just needed some encouragement… so I nodded to him. The door clicked shut and I sighed, hangin’ my head so that my chin was on the table. “God damn it, but I hate this!”
   “Well, horse, hopefully you didn’t just fuck up.”
   “Didn’t just..?”
   “Forget it—what’s done is done. We’ve got a more serious problem, anyway. Doc isn’t answering his phone.”
   “What do you mean?”
   “I mean he’s not answering his phone. I just tried him, using his priority code, and got his answering machine on the fifth ring.”
   I scratched behind an ear. “That don’t make sense…”
   “You got it, horse.” The best thing about Comet was that he refused to put me on a pedestal.
   “Fine. Let’s go and see him. I just hope nothin’s happened.”
   Kirri said: “Shean, you should stay here. You should delegate more.”
   “Kirri…” I sighed. “Kirri, I got responsibilities, that ain’t changed. As much as I’d love to spend time with you, I can’t. We’d best keep our relationship strictly platonic, however much either o’ us might wish otherwise.”
   “You comin’, Kirri?”
   “I’ve—I’ve got other things to do.”
   “Fine. Comet, let’s go.”
   I trotted down and Comet fell in behind me. My hooves squeaked slightly; I’d taken to wearin’ a softer rubber sole, given the frequent changes in acceleration. It weren’t long before we was out in the city. Beyond the faint groans and pops, New Ceres still weren’t noplace near what it used to be. Oh, the damage was repaired. Most of the injured had recovered—two died from the initial acceleration—an’ people went out, but they didn’t talk on the streets. They stayed indoors, or at homes. Those that didn’t have work to do, I mean. The Doc and I set up the elections mostly to try and get people involved again.
   Comet and I walked the rest of the way in companionable silence. We reached the Doc’s place, no problem. A couple people greeted me by name, pilots I knew. Most just looked; a few pointed and whispered. The door was locked, but it took my thumbprint. I pushed it open and squeaked in.
   “Doc? You here? You all right?” Silence greeted me. “Comet, you—”
   “I’m sticking with you, horse.” He had his machine pistol out. “I’d tell you to stay here, but I don’t know if that’d be any safer. Just you watch yourself!”
   Noddin’, I let him lead as we poked through the Doc’s house. Didn’t take us long to find out he wasn’t there. I called Megan an’ had her set up a search of New Ceres, and, two days later, that hadn’t turned up anythin’ either.
   It was like the Doc had just… vanished. How in God’s name does a body do that from inside a closed damn system!?
   System logs confirmed all the airlocks was still shut; and there weren’t no spacesuits and shuttles gone missing, neither. So, where the hell was he? Kirri was clueless, but she said I had to carry on, with or without him. “We need you, and whatever happened to the Doc, that just means we need you more.”
   I didn’t have a heck of a lot of choice in the matter. Kept the search active for the Doc. It didn’t make any difference, the Doc was just gone. Gone as though he’d never existed.
   That made me nervous. The last thing we needed, the one thing we most could not afford, was another revolution.
   The sophont cost of the last one was too damned high.

-= 25 =-

   A few days passed. Farnsworth started runnin’ immediately. A few others joined later; a human named Arnold Donaldson, a skunk named Althene Skander, and a wolf named Meerson Alderson. Posters was going up, we had commercials on the infonet, everythin’ looked fine. Wasn’t sure who I’d vote for, ’ceptin’ it damn sure wouldn’t be Farnsworth.
   Then a surprise: Althene pulled out o’ the campaign. I remember watchin’ the announcement. She looked nervous, her head kept movin’, and her speech weren’t its normal melodious self. She claimed personal reasons, a need to concentrate on her job, and a lack of experience to try and hold the job. Farnsworth’s mouthpiece said her campaign stunk.
   That’s when Farnsworth got nasty. He never said squat about how well he could do the job, but he had lots to say on how poorly I’d done it. It started out subtle; things like how I’d drove away near a quarter of the population, how their skills would be needed, how I’d steered us for Saturn without consultin’ nobody. Then it expanded to include things like how I’d usurped power, and then a recording of my announcement to him sayin’ I was takin’ over pendin’ further notice.
   I was startin’ to wish I’d not said the Captain couldn’t run. It’d seemed to me a logical restriction and limitation on the Captain’s—on my—power, but now it was screwin’ me. I debated takin’ a more active role in support of one of the other candidates, but had no idea who.
   Next mornin’ Comet banged on my door far too early. “Horse! You let me in right now! We gotta talk!”
   Didn’t take long before we was seated in the kitchen, me wrapped in a bathrobe and sippin’ coffee—very, very black coffee. “What the hell’s goin’ on, Comet?”
   “Meerson sent me a message this morning. He worked with me on Luna in security.”
   “And you woke me up for this?”
   “He got a message from someone who claims that he, or she, has incriminating evidence about his past. Evidence that would get him arrested.”
   “And I should care… why?” I’m never at my best when wakin’ up.
   “Horse, I’ve known him for years. No way would he ever do anything like that. And note that it’s not somebody turning him in, it’s somebody telling him to back off, or else they will.”
   “Hell… But I can’t think of anythin’ we can really do about it.”
   “No. We go with it, the faked evidence is released, we get mired up in it and your name gets even dirtier by association.”
   “But you said he was innocent!”
   “This is politics, horse. The truth doesn’t matter worth a damn. Election will be over long before it can be properly investigated. And sophonts remember the bad things, not the good things.”
   “I think you’re underestimatin’—”
   “Damn it, horse, you have brains, but you don’t know shit! Look at the timing! Althene drops out, a few days later somebody’s pressuring Meerson out. And, according to the polls, Meerson was closest to Farnsworth in percentage support.”
   “Don’t know why, but people must like Farnsworth.”
   “Horse! He’s the one behind this!”
   “Comet, I dislike the guy as much as you—”
   “—but the people have the right to their choice.”
   “Horse, I wish I could believe in the intelligence and competence of sophonts like you do. But it doesn’t work that way.”
   “Comet, should we help Meerson?”
   “Horse, that’s the last thing we should do, and he knows it!”
   “Then why’d he tell you?”
   “So that we know.”
   “Horse, I told you: We help him, we get dirt all over us. He’s dropping out—somebody probably knows of his association with me, and through that with you, and you have to stay clean.”
   “Horse, just leave it. But, I think we need to meet that Arnold Donaldson today. He used to hold office on Anderson, lots of qualifications.”
   “Fine. Set it up. I need to shower, eat my oats, and get dressed. Anythin’ pressin’ today, shipwise?”
   “Nothing that can’t be put off.”
   I nodded, and a couple of hours later I was clean, full, and dressed, and had Comet stuck to me like a burr supermagnet. An hour more, an’ I was knockin’ on Arnold’s door. Didn’t take long for him to answer and invite us in.
   “What can I do for you, Captain?” Arnold was Lunarian born, with the typical low-G elongated limbs and thin build. He walked with a cane and it clacked on the floor as he motioned us to seats.
   “I just want to talk to you about the mayoral race.”
   He nodded.
   “You’ve heard about Ms. Skander?”
   He nodded.
   “Meerson Alderson’s droppin’ out too.”
   He slumped into a heavily padded chair, sighin’ in relief. “Well, it’s their choice.”
   “I have it on good authority that Mr. Alderson was blackmailed into droppin’ out.”
   “What? You think I have something to do with it?”
   I started kickin’ the front of the chair, the staccato thump of my hoof pacin’ my words. “I’m not sure who’s doin’ it. You might be, but I think it’s Farnsworth. He’s in the lead and Meerson was the closest behind him.”
   “You don’t like Mr. Farnsworth, do you?”
   “Can’t say as I do. Not because of the crap he’s dumpin’, but he rubbed me the wrong way when I saw him in the last election.”
   “Then you think I’ll be next?”
   “Well, I have no plans of dropping out. Now, normally I’d ask you for your support, but I think I’ve already got it. And right now, you openly supporting me might not be the best thing. Thanks for the warning, though I’m not sure what I can do with it.”
   “Okay—just wanted to warn you. And, I admit, get a feel for you. Yeah, you got my vote. Let me know if I can help you.”
   “Thank you, Captain. Now, if you’ll be on your way, I’m very busy right now and have lots to do.”
   So we left. Two days later Arnold Donaldson dropped out of the race.

-= 26 =-

   “It’s none of your business, and you have no legal right to force me to answer! I have my reasons.” And with that Arnold Donaldson slammed his door in our face.
   It was two days after he’d announced his droppin’ out of the race. Comet and I had gone to talk to him, to see what had happened, to talk him out of it. It hadn’t worked. All yesterday we’d talked to everybody else we could think of—none of them was interested in runnin’ for mayor. A surprisin’ number even slammed the door shut when they saw it was me.
   “I think we’re screwed, horse.”
   “There’s gotta be somethin’…” I sighed. “Any ideas?”
   “Maybe I can help?”
   We spun around and then just stared at the speaker: Jonthan Sanper.
   He looked at us, cocked his head, looked at me, and then furtively scratched the velvet on one of his growing antlers.
   “You’ve got to be kidding,” Comet said.
   “No, I’m not.”
   “Let’s get going,” Comet said. “There’s got to be someone—”
   “There isn’t. Can we talk somewhere private?” Jonthan asked.
   I looked around. Comet shrugged. “What can it hurt?” he said.
   I snorted. “Fine! Follow along behind us. Comet, keep an eye on him.”
   “With pleasure, horse!”
   It didn’t take long for us to walk to the Unicorn, the rapid click-click of Sanper’s hooves a counterpoint to the thuddin’ of my rubbershod ones. It was just startin’ to get crowded as it was nearly lunch, but Rawlin’ led us to a booth at the back.
   “Just in time, Captain!” Rawlin’ said. “I’ve prepared a special, just for you!”
   “Sure,” I said. “Bring it on.”
   Sanper had a double salad and cola, Comet just had water.
   I asked, “Okay Mr. Sanper, we’re private. What d’ you want?”
   He licked his lips and touched the velvet on his antlers again. “It’s—it’s about Elroy Farnsworth.” I could scent his nervousness.
   “I bet,” Comet growled. “What’s he want from us?”
   Muscles rippled in Sanper’s throat and he looked sick for a second. He chewed rapidly and swallowed. “It’s not anything like that! Something’s got to be done about him.”
   “What’re you talkin’ about?”
   “He’s mad. I—I just wish I’d known—it’s the past though. What’s done is done.”
   “Just say your part and be gone, Sanper.” Comet took a sip of water.
   “When I came to see you, I believed in him. He’s a charismatic figure, even you have to admit that. Anyway, I was working late last night—”
   “And here comes the fake offer of evidence to arrest the bastard,” Comet muttered.
   Sanper blinked and sighed. “Can you two can just shut up and listen for a bit? Then you can judge me. Yes, I already knew about the blackmail to get rid of the other candidates, I helped put it toge-”
   “You lousy son of a bitch!” Comet roared.
   It was probably a good thing that Rawlin’ picked that time to come with the food. He put the salad and cola down in front of Sanper, and the water in front of Comet. “And now, for the piece de resistance!” With a flourish, he put a massive plate in front of me, nearly filled with a single hamburger that dripped and oozed goodness. In addition to the meat, I smelt bacon, mushrooms, Swiss cheese, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, garlic, mustard—the list o’ scents just went on and on. “I call it my Double Deluxe Bacon Mushroom Swiss Cheese Burger with all the fixings! Let me know what you think, will you, Captain?”
   I just nodded, lickin’ drool off my lips as he moved off. “Sanper, you just tell us your story. Then we can think on what t’ do with you. And Comet, you be quiet an’ let him talk, okay? Maybe we can get some information from him.”
   Comet growled under his breath.
   “Umm—Thank—Thank you captain.” He picked at his salad and chewed and swallowed a leaf. “You see, I believed in Farnsworth. He was going to do something; nobody else was. Our meeting with you, that just solidified my thoughts. Captain, I believe in democracy. You usurped it, and that makes you, made you, no better than a criminal. Farnsworth provided an alternative. The only alternative. I believed that he was the right person for the job. And, as he was the right person, anything that was necessary to ensure he got the position was acceptable. Kind of like you and the revolution.”
   I nodded and then took a big bite, mustard and grease drippin’ off my muzzle.
   “I don’t blame you for not trusting me.”
   “Meerson was a friend, deer,” growled Comet.
   I could barely smell Sanper’s fear over the symphony of odors and tastes from the hamburger. Sadly, business came before pleasure and I chewed and swallowed my mouthful far too fast. “Go on.” I took another bite and savored it as Sanper and Comet went at it.
   Sanper began: “Umm—thank you. In my mind, the end justified the means. You’d proven yourself dangerous, Captain, assuming total power with no legal recourse to remove you from office if the people weren’t happy. That is simply wrong. But Farnsworth’s worse! Somebody left a monitor on, and it displayed Farnsworth’s plans.”
   “How d’ you know they’s his?”
   “I checked the digital ID on the file—it was Farnsworth’s.”
   “Such things c’n be forged,” I pointed out.
   “Why would somebody in Farnsworth’s office forge something like that?”
   “Well, who’d be stupid enough to leave it displayed like that?”
   “I don’t know! But it was there. Captain, Farnsworth plans to win the campaign, hold a referendum and depose you, and, regretfully, temporarily hold the office until a new captain can be trained. You had little choice, I agree that something had to be done and you, thankfully, did it. Same with Farnsworth. And, like you, he’s not planning to give up that power.”
   I gagged, coughin’ out some of the hamburger, hurriedly swallowin’ the rest to keep it from bein’ wasted.
   “You all right, horse?”
   I nodded. “Sanper, that’s all fine an’ dandy—if it’s true. But it don’t do us a lick o’ good. What are you offerin’?”
   “Captain, I’m willing to run for office, with your support—”
   “Hah! My understandin’ is, given the vilification Farnsworth’s heapin’ on me, if I support anybody I screw them.”
   “At this point it doesn’t matter, Captain. I’m the only chance, and I need you.”
   “Forget it, deer.”
   “Captain, if you support me, and if you agree to make the Captain’s office an elected one, I’ll run. And I mean make the Captain’s office a free and open vote.”
   “What? You’re insane!” Comet burst out.
   “An’ I should trust you?”
   “You have to, Captain. I’m the best hope you have. In fact, I’m the only hope you have. If I run, having been part of Farnsworth’s campaign, that’ll take support away from him. If you stand behind me, we’ll get the moderates. We can be the voice of reason.”
   I sniffed, and Sanper’s scent suggested he was earnest. Comet’s scent and expression didn’t agree. O’ course, scents could be faked… But I didn’t think this one was. I remembered Sanper in the conference room with Farnsworth. I’d respected him then. “Okay. But on one condition.”
   “What are you doing, horse?”
   “Comet, be quiet.” I turned back to Jonthan Sanper. “Open election, fine—but candidates must come from the Rock’s military chain o’ command, an’ they gotta be lieutenant or better. Ain’t no sense in lettin’ an incompetent take the reins. Also, only civilians can run for mayor. Former or current mayors can’t never be captain, even if they join the military; likewise, former or current captains can’t never be mayor. Not ever.”
   Jonthan scratched at an antler. “I can work with that. But regardless of who wins, the resolution has to be made into law within a month of the conclusion of the election. And the first elections must be within six months. Democracy is a right and I will not let it be usurped! Clear?”
   “Agreed, provided they’s no pendin’ crisis. Last thing any Captain needs is an election when they’re fightin’ to save the ship.”
   “Comet, if this is the price, then so be it. We got a deal, Mr. Sanper?”
   “We do.” Standin’ up, he offered his hand to shake.
   I stood up and shook it.
   “I hope you know what you’re doing, horse.”
   I sat back down. “You an’ me both! Now, let’s figure out how we’re goin’ to do this—after we finish lunch, of course.”

-= 27 =-

   After that things went fast. Jonthan threw himself into the campaign like a whirlwind. It didn’t take long before Farnsworth came after him, callin’ him a traitor, claimin’ a conflict of interest in that he knew privileged information about Farnsworth’s own campaign.
   Jonthan had a right simple reply to that: There weren’t nothin’ illegal about it.
   When asked ’bout why he’d chose t’ run on his own, Jonthan said he’d “come up against items in Elroy Farnsworth’s politics that he could not morally stand behind.” When pressed for details, he just said, “I’m sorry, but I cannot comment as that would be a release of privledged information relating to Elroy Farnsworth’s campaign.”
   When I was asked, I said, “It’s like this: Jonthan Sanper’s a body I c’n work with. I doubt that’s true o’ Elroy Farnsworth.”
   As Comet feared, my close association with Jonthan dragged him down in the polls. Just to make sure, Farnsworth sent Jonthan a warnin’ to withdraw, lest he reveal things best kept secret about Jonthan’s past. Jonthan thanked him, but said he had nothin’ to hide. And so it came out that Jonthan had accepted bribes, and shown favoritism, in his time as Chief Science Advisor to the British Parliament. Jonthan said it was crap, an’ his record spoke for itself, an’ he was clean. Didn’t make much of a difference; Jonthan nosedived even further down in the polls. But he fought on, stated his opinion, and concentrated on Farnsworth’s policies. “After all,” he told me, “it’s not like we have anything to lose at this point.”
   With about a week left in the campaign, Jonthan was far behind—but actually beginnin’ to close the distance. Once he had some momentum, he dropped his bombshell, swearin’ he’d make the captaincy an elected office if he was voted in. “Unlike my opponent, I respect and honor everything that Captain Eeysmarn has done. I do, like Elroy Farnsworth, have concerns over what future holders of the captain’s office might do. The office needs to be accountable to the people, but at the same time it needs to be set up that only properly trained people can hold the office. Thus, unlike my honorable opponent, I have a plan to resolve this issue, and I swear to make the captaincy an elected position. Of course, such a position of responsibility does require a certain minimum of training, so only qualified individuals would be allowed to run for the position. After all, you wouldn’t want an eighteen-year-old in command if the Brains attacked, would you?”
   It didn’t take long for the press to approach me. “I did what needed to be done. I didn’t want this, but the crisis came and I acted as any moral person would. As to the concept of the elected captain, I’ve come to agree that the people need some control, but that not everybody can hold the office. If the elections were limited to qualified people, then I’d certainly put it into action. I don’t want to be here any more than any of you, ’cept maybe Mr. Farnsworth, and I’d love to give it up if they was somebody could do the job as well as, or better’n, me.”
   Sanper started risin’ again in the polls.
   Farnsworth didn’ like that. He got down right mean. As usual, nothin’ overt. But, his campaign adds started usin’ a less than flatterin’ picture of Sanper. Somehow he’d gotten himself a snapshot of the deer with a ‘caught in the headlights’ look. Made him look stupider’n a three-day-dead worm. And, an anonymous citizen started postin’ all the mistakes and errors and visual gaffs clipped from coverage of Samper’s campaign. Little things, things no one’d remark upon—not ’til they was all strung together in a five minute vid an’ posted for free public consumption.
   Sanper stopped risin’, and started fallin’. But if you think that was enough for the bastard, you don’t know Farnsworth at all.
   It was right fortunate that Comet’s paranoia had convinced me to let him wire the archives for sight and sound. Not to mention implementin’ daily hard backups of all the data, rather than the current weekly system. That’s why we had cameras watchin’ an’ recordin’ as a rabbit snuck in after hours to upload a virus into the system, and then run a new soft backup usin’ the old method. Comet woke me when the silent alarm went off, and we both had a fine, clear view as the rabbit did his dirty work.
   “But you ain’t gonna nail him? How so?” I asked.
   “You just wait and see, horse.”
   I got a bit more sleep before Comet dragged me out to Jonthan’s offices. Officially they opened at eight in the mornin’, and we was there about quarter-of. Jonthan’s staff was already there, goin’ over voter lists, makin’ sure that those who’d left New Ceres wasn’t on it in case somebody tried to pull the old ‘dead voters’ trick, and Jonthan was in his office rehearsin’ a speech to the plumber’s guild. At eight sharp a mob of reporters appeared at the door.
   “Wait for it, horse,” Comet said, holdin’ up a paw.
   I just watched as the reporters burst in screamin’ out accusations about bribery and covered-up crimes. A nervous deer went back and grabbed Jonthan and brought him out.
   “Mr Sanper, is it true that you’ve accepted bribes from Captain Eeysmar to run for office?”
   “Mr. Sanper, why did you try and hide the trial you were in, with you as defendant, for child molestation?”
   Comet had to physically hold me down at that last one.
   It didn’t take long for Jonthan to get the gist of what was going on. “Before I answer any of your questions, may I ask how you… how this… ‘information’… came to light?”
   Turned out it’d been e-mailed t’ everybody last night, with supportin’ documentation, by a ‘friend of the people’. Those as checked the online data, they confirmed the trial.
   “Well, I’m going to categorically deny those accusations. I’ve never been arrested, or even accused of any crime. Though, I admit that at age six I did steal a chocolate bar on a dare. As to the bribes, well, Captain Eeysmarn is here. Why don’t you ask him? And as I’ve stated, it was I who approached him with an intent to run, not the other way around.”
   It was at that point that Comet cleared his throat, loudly. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have something to add that might clear up this situation.” They turned and looked at him. “To ensure the fairness of this campaign, and to ensure the sanctity and accuracy of our records, I’ve undertaken, with the permission of the captain and the aid of a neutral observer, to implement security precautions in the central records depot. At two-fifty-three am this morning, somebody altered those records.”
   “Do you have proof?”
   “I do.” Comet pulled out his own tablet—I never even knew he had one—and concentrated on it. “I’ve sent you all a copy of video surveillance recorded at that time. If you watch it, you can see somebody forcibly enter the site and upload something.
   There was silence for a minute or two, “And how do we know you didn’t plant this?”
   Comet stated, “Central records is still closed. Why don’t we all go down and get the clerk there to compare the online system with the hard backup, and see what happens?”
   There was argument, discussion, but the majority eventually went with us. We got there and waited for the place to open. Then the poor, harried squirrel clerk checked the archives… an’ sure enough, the soft backups was altered. Even better, the hard backups confirmed that Jonthan hadn’t never been on trial for nothin’.
   Comet wouldn’t let me say a word. All he said was, “Make of that what you will. I don’t know who did it, but the police have an APB on that rabbit, and we will get him.” At that point he dragged me away.
   When we got back to my office, what had been Darrvid’s, I asked, “Okay, Comet: Why didn’t you tell them Farnsworth was behind it?”
   “Simple, horse. If I’d said so, they might have figured that Jonthan, or you, had planted the records change. By saying nothing, we let them draw their own conclusions about who had the most to gain at this point by screwing Jonthan.”
   A day later, the rabbit’s body showed up on one o’ the external cameras: Shot through the head, fallin’ behind as we accelerated. There was no records as to which airlock was opened, but somebody must’ve, and recent-like, as we’d been under continuous acceleration.
   Of course, all Comet’s schemin’ hadn’t achieved much of anythin’. All he’d done was slow down the freefall of Jonthan. Damn bastard Farnsworth was holdin’ all the cards, and all five of ’em were probably aces.
   Comet just told me not to worry.
   A week later I sat in my office with Comet watchin’ the results. I’d voted for Jonthan, an’ I guessed Comet had too, though I never asked and he never said. It was damn close—the votes got counted three times, an’ the final tally said Jonthan Sanper won by a count of seven thousand, eight hundred and fifty-two to seven thousand, five hundred and ninety.

-= 28 =-

   The pundits didn’t believe it. Hell, I didn’t believe it! I had a sinkin’ feelin’… I asked: “Comet, what in God’s name did you do? Not a hope in a fusion driven hell that the vote was accurate.”
   “Looks like you were right this time, horse. The voting public does have a functioning synapse.”
   “Comet, that stinks worse’n a week-dead skunk. What did you do?”
Comet smelled all proud of himself. “Rigged the vote, of course.”
   “You what?” Scramblin’ to grab what morals I had left, I shouted, “Well, you just go down there and un-rig it!”
   Comet stood up, ears erect. “Like hell I will, horse! You’ve got a brain—use it! You want Farnsworth in power? He’d find some legal way to boot you out in a week, and then what’ll happen to us? You want to do everything all squeaky-clean, fine—you straighten out the vote. I’m sure that doing the right thing will be worth us ending up dead at his hands!”
   I knew he was right. Farnsworth was bad news—the way he’d run his campaign just proved it—and yet… Well, you just note that hell is paved with small steps of good intention. Was what I did worth it? I don’t know anymore. Even given what happened in consequence, I just don’t know. Damned if’n y’ do, damned if’n y’ don’t… “Comet—”
   “Horse, you tell the truth, and we’re all dead. You’ll have no rep, Sanper won’t either, and Farnsworth will have you out an airlock in a week. You’ve got a responsibility. A moral responsibility. Do the job only you can do, and let me worry about the rest.”
   Up to that point, my decisions had been forced. Acts of necessity, or so I rationalized them. But this one—well, this one was my own cold, hard choice. Sure, I say Farnsworth in charge would’a been a disaster. Given what th’ bastard did next, that’s nigh-on 100% certain, as good a bet as the sun risin’ in the mornin’. But the cold truth is… I didn’t know. Nobody did, ’cept maybe the damn ’roo hisself.
   Eyes closed, I nodded.
   My choice. My sin. My damnation.

-= 29 =-

   The strident bangin’ on my bedroom door finally got me out of a nice pleasant dream. “Horse, get up now!”
   It was two weeks after the ’lection. We’d zipped around Jupiter without no problems, then started puttin’ on the brakes. There was a few scientists who’d demanded I cut rotation as we passed near Jupiter so’s they could get better readin’s, but I said they’d have lots of time t’ view Saturn, and they’d just have t’ make do with what they could get. The search for the Doc continued, an’ still turned up nothing; leastways it kept the troops busy. Which may not have been the best of ideas. Farnsworth put on a right nice ‘gracious loser’ act—didn’t even contest the results—but I should’a just tossed the bastard out an airlock.
   I guess Comet decided he’d banged on my door enough as he shoved it open, the carbon fibre composite bangin’ against the wall.
   “I’m up—”
   “Well put some clothes on and let’s get going. Megan’s on site, and Farnsworth’s demanding to talk to you. Jonthan should be joining us.”
   Sittin’ up, I rubbed sleep from my eyes. It had been such a nice dream, runnin’ down the lane with Cæsar—“Comet, what the hell is goin’ on?”
   He tossed clothes onto my bed as he told me: “Nobody’s sure how, but Farnsworth took the environmental control room about an hour ago. Him and maybe eight others. They’ve sealed themselves in. Dan Hazelton, Phillip’s chief, has cut off everything else from the auxiliary controls there, and he’s continuing deceleration pending any orders from you to the contrary.”
   I scratched the back of my neck. “Hold it—le’me get this straight—Farnsworth took over the environmental controls!? How the fuck did that happen?”
   I struggled into some clothin’ as Comet answered: “Don’t know yet, horse, and yes, there were guards there. They’re both dead, shot through the head. So we’ve got Farnsworth on murder, if nothing else. Assuming he doesn’t kill us all first.”
   “What about the overrides?”
   “Don’t know how, but he’s killed them. Megan’s got people working on it, but she’s not confident. Don’t worry about grooming, we don’t have time for it. And I doubt a homicidal lunatic will care how scruffy your mane is.”
   After shovin’ the damn vest over my shirt, an’ before I could even put on shoes, Comet dragged me out, my bare hooves cloppin’ loudly. One of the few electric cars was waitin’, and it weren’t long afore we was on the monorail to the stern where all the primary system controls was clustered. From there, it was about a fifteen-minute walk to the primary environmental controls. We hadn’t hit Saturn yet, with all its lovely water, so The Rock didn’t have all its forests and plant life and suchlike; later on the controls would be an emergency backup, but back then they, and the caverns full of algae tanks, were critical.
   There weren’t too many people there; a couple of armed and armored guards, both of ’em wolves, their plasteel clamshells dull in the overhead fluorescents, along with a tech workin’ at the door, and Megan.
   “Shean! There you are!”
   I stretched a bit to work some kinks out. “Anythin’ new happen?”
   “Nope. He’s been in there, hasn’t said a word. We’ve taken the bodies away,” she motioned at the blood splotches on the wall, “but that’s about it. We’re not sure yet how he got the access codes. He’s been asking for—”
   I waved her to silence. “Never you mind. I’m here now, an’ we can get the bad news straight from his own bad mouth.”
   Comet handed me my tablet. He must’a grabbed it—I’d never been good when wakin’ up. Puttin’ on the mic and the headphones, I punched in my override and told the system to patch my voice into the Environmental Control room. “Farnsworth, what the hell you doin’ in there? It’s me, Shean Eeysmarn.” Nothin’. “Answer me, damn you! You got nowhere to go.”
   I heard the click-click of hooves and saw Jonthan come up, Megan motioned him to be quiet.
   “Ah, Captain,” Farnsworth’s voice crackled over my headphones. “Glad you could make it. I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
   I turned on the external speaker on the tablet so that the rest could hear what was goin’ on. “Just what the fuck are you doin’?”
   “Well, Captain, I’m simply removing a dictator from power, and returning freedom to the people.”
   Says the blackmailin’ scumbucket… But then, was I any better? “You really believe that crap?”
   “Of course I do!”
   “Farnsworth, there’s goin’ to be elections. I will either hold my position, or lose it, by the will of the people. Jonthan Sanper—”
   “Don’t you dare say that traitor’s name! You and he have conspired to keep you in power by fixing the election, and I’m taking the only steps I can to stop it.”
   “And just who you gonna put in power ’til things get put right?”
   “Why, the only person I can trust to handle such power competently: Myself.”
   I heard Comet cock his weapon, as part of me wondered how many people saw me as I saw Farnsworth.
   “And Captain, don’t you dare think of trying to retake this room. I’ve got canisters of cyanide at various locations. One button press and they go into the oxygen supply.”
   God… I held my hand over the mic. “Comet, Megan, get people searchin’ for those.” Megan was already sendin’ the orders. “Farnsworth, you do that, and you won’t have nobody left to lord it over.”
   “If it happens, it’s because you made it happen, Captain. What you’re going to do is to walk in here, alone and unarmed. Once inside, you’re going to broadcast that you rigged the election, and that you’re giving power to me.”
   “I—” I needed to gain time to get the cyanide found. “I’ll need some time to get to you.”
   “Can the crap, Captain. I may not know how to do it myself, but I know people who know how. You’re standing right outside right now. I give you five minutes to get your horse’s ass in here.”
   “You can’t go in there, horse!”
   “And I can’t not go in there.”
   “Shean,” Megan said, “talk to him, buy us time. He’s going to kill you afterward.”
   “Captain,” Jonthan’s voice was bitter, “you have to go in. I know him, and he is going to kill you. Probably me too. I also know that if you don’t go in, he’ll do what he says. Probably not all of them, just in a small area—as a demonstration.”
   “Horse, I won’t let you go in! As long as you’re out here he has no legitimacy!”
   “Comet, you shut up. This is my fault. I fucked up.” Comet turned away. Sure, we both knew he’d had to do it, but I approved it after the fact. “Well, fine, it’s my fault and it’s my responsibility to deal with it. Megan, you’re in charge. Jonthan, get far away—if he asks for you at least you’ll buy us some time as you make your way back.” I shucked off the vest. “Just let me deal with this. My responsibility.”
   Comet braced himself infront of the door. “I will not let you do this, Captain.”
   “Comet, get the fuck out of the way, you hear me? Right now! That’s an order!” I glared up at him, muzzle pointed forward, arms braced at my sides, as he looked down at me. A second passed, another, and then his ears fell and his tail slid down and between his legs and he stepped aside. “Thank you.”
   “The door is unlocked, Captain.”
   I looked around at everybody, and then reached and grabbed the handle, twisted it, and shoved the door open. Comet and his guards were raisin’ weapons. “Put them down now!” Then I clopped through the door and slammed it shut behind me.
   “Wise move, Captain.”
   Stoppin’, I looked around. There was only six of ’em—six sophonts t’ hold fifteen thousand hostage. Farnsworth was there, of course, in a conservative business suit. Of the five others, two was human, both male; one was a male wolf; another a second male kangaroo; and the last was a little black-furred vixen. All of ’em dressed in black, armored with vests, and carryin’ the same machine pistols I’d encountered on the day of the revolution.
   Farnsworth pulled out one of the chairs and motioned for me to sit as he crouched down on his legs and tail. I sat, movin’ slowly and carefully. “So, Mr. Farnsworth. You got a speech all prepared for me?”
   “I like that, Captain. Quick and right to the point. I do.”
   “You c’n still go through legitimate channels. Bring your grievances before Mayor Sanper and myself. We’ll listen, I promise. Even hold a referendum if that’s what you want.”
   “Legitmate channels? Like you did, Captain? I must admit that killing Mayor Guthurn was a stroke of brilliance.”
   “I didn’t kill him.”
   “Well, if you didn’t, one of you sure did. You needed something to spark the revolution, and he provided it. Hell, I was ready to kill him, too, but you acted too quickly for me.”
   How many people had been aimin’ to shoot Mayor Guthurn that day? Damn Doc and his schemin’! And where was he anyway?
   “You know, Captain, I’m just going about things the same way you did. Set it all up, apply judicious pressure, kill a sophont or two, and then benignly take power.”
   “What we did was completely different!”
   “Was it? How? Mayor Guthurn could have made the Company see reason if anybody could have. You could have given him a chance, and yet you didn’t. You saw an opportunity to take power, and you made it happen.”
   “I didn’t do anythin’ of the kind, you bastard! What you’re doin’, threatenin’ everybody aboard, is completely different!”
   “You know, Captain, I might have believed you, except for the way you gave your pet the election.”
   Damn that Comet! And yet, would havin’ this maniac in charge be any better?
   “Now, Captain, I have your speech ready. We’re going to record it, just in case you try something funny. You do, and two thousand people die.”
   “What’ll you say if they die, Farnsworth? Won’t look good on your resume, killin’ all those people.”
   “Oh, but it will! Because you and your lackeys planted the gas in case you lost control. I simply discovered it and forced you to resign. If one goes off, well then, I guess I have to shoot you to save everybody else. Such a crime.”
   My tablet beeped.
   “I’ve sent you your speech. Read it, out loud, and look in the camera.”
   Lookin’ down, I pulled up the e-mail and skimmed it. Lots o’ crap about me havin’ screwed up, me workin’ with the Brains t’ control New Ceres, to falsely earn the people’s trust. Good ol’ Farnsworth made me see the error of my ways, so I was resignin’, and givin’ him power to form an interim government as I was unworthy.
   “They’ll never believe this of me, you know.”
   “Yes, they will. Raven, put your gun on him—if he doesn’t start reading in thirty seconds, you shoot him in the leg.”
   There was a click, and I saw the black vixen aim her machine pistol at me. Raven, an odd name; maybe it was her colorin’. All furs are mammals, even the ones who didn’t make it aboard New Ceres. They’d tried birds, but no luck, same with reptiles… I forced my mind back on track. “Why the gun? You think the cyanide ain’t enough t’ force me to obey?”
   “Oh, the cyanide is after five minutes. Raven will shoot you in,” he checked his watch, “eighteen seconds. Better start reading.”
   “How do I know you won’t poison the people anyway, to frame me?”
   “I’m a ’roo of my word, Captain.”
   I spat at his feet, but his expression didn’t change. “Six seconds. And, just for that, the gas goes off in three minutes. Care to shorten anybody else’s life today?”
   I had a few choices then. I could capitulate, do what he wanted. He’d probably shoot me afterward, but it’d keep the most people alive. Or I could resist, get shot, get people killed, but give Comet and the others time to find and defuse the gas. Two thousand people vs. the loss of freedom…
   “What you goin’ to do once you have power, Farnsworth?”
   “Time’s up, Captain.” He nodded at Raven, and Raven took careful aim and shot a single bullet. There was a loud boom, and then mind-searin’ pain in my left thigh. If I hadn’t been sittin’, I’d’a fallen over. “You have two and a half minutes before two thousand people die, give or take a couple of hundred.”
   “You ain’t—answered my question. What’re you—going to do?”
   “What I’m going to do, Captain, is park us around Saturn—seems as good a place as any—and relax there. Keep everybody happy, and live off their praise. I’d say that’s a fair trade for keeping them safe from the Brains, and their lackey, Shean Eesymarn. Don’t you?”
   “An’ that’s all you’re goin’ to do?”
   “Two minutes. You’re a cruel sophont, playing with their lives like that. But, if it’ll make you happy: Yes, that’s all I’m going to do. Now speak!”
   I swallowed, he’d made my decision for me. Livin’ under a petty dictator was worth savin’ two thousand lives. He’d let them live, do what I was doin’ anyway. Savin’ the two thousand was what counted, lettin’ him kill them just so that I could stay in charge was a far greater evil. Clearin’ my throat, I looked up at the camera, and read Farnsworth’s speech. It made me feel dirty… but if that was the price of two thousand lives, so be it.
   When I finished, Farnsworth slowly clapped his hands together. “Oh, well done. Very well done! It’s really too bad I can’t trust you, Captain. And I can’t afford you as a martyr.” He motioned, and the wolf and the other kangaroo walked and hopped over and grabbed me by my shoulders and pushed me down. “I’m afraid that now it’s time to remove you from the equation. Raven, if anybody tries to interfere, shoot them.” She nodded. “So, Captain, what two thousand do you want to gas? The pilots? The entertainment district?”
   “Gas—you said you wouldn’t if I co-operated!”
   The bastard shrugged. “What can I say? I lied. Very well: The pilots and support personnel it s be the most likely to side with you anyway.”
   “God damn you!”
   “He’ll damn you, at least in the popular press.” Hoppin’ over to the main console, he examined it carefully. “Now—which button was it?”
   “Farnsworth! No!” The two struggled to hold me down even as I struggled to get up.
   A bang, loud and sharp, boomed out—then two more. Farnsworth took one slug though his shoulders, and another in his chest, and the last through his head. And I could see Raven holdin’ the smokin’ gun that shot him—
   The guards on me let go as the two humans shot at Raven, and she fired back. A loud staccato of rapid-fire death, then silence. Raven slumped to the floor; my two guards grabbed for their weapons.
   “Don’t,” I said. “It’s over. Shoot me now, and you’ll just die later. Your boss is dead, y’ don’t need t’ join him.” Ignorin’ the pain, I staggered over, limpin’, and held Raven’s head as she slumped to the floor.
   “He—he’s dead?”
   “As a doornail.”
   She coughed, blood and drool splatterin’ on my shirt. “Let Sanper see his plans, left them on the screen. Thought it’d help. Never—never dream—dreamed he’d go—kill so many—”
   “Open the damn door! Get a medic in here!”
   The wolf looked at the kangaroo, and then the ’roo hopped over and undid the door. Comet and his guards burst in. “Nobody move, everybody, hands up!”
   Raven grabbed me, dragged me to look at her. “He was right, you can’t,” she coughed, “can’t stay, either. People must—must choose. At least you—you’re—hon…” She slumped. Comet shoved me aside, but it was too late. She was dead.
   ‘Honest’. Was there any honesty even left on The Rock anymore?
   I’ve tried, how I’ve tried, t’ live up to her belief in me. For her. For my soul.

-= 30 =-

   The wolf and ’roo was arrested; Raven was buried; the cyanide canisters was found, carefully removed, and stored. As for me, I got bandaged up an’ left to heal. Physically, I was fine. Mentally, now that was somethin’ completely different. The whole thing with Farnsworth was my fault! Everybody’d tried t’ help, but in th’ end, the responsibility was mine. And I’d blown it. The elections for Captain was held as we approached Saturn. For whatever reason, nobody ran against me, damn if I know why. God knows there was other people who wouldn’t have screwed up with Farnsworth…
   My first action as elected captain was t’ hold a solar flare drill. It took far too damn long for everybody to get into the radiation shelters. Probably a good thing I’d made sure to keep our course as far away from Jupiter as I could get away with, so’s to avoid her radiation. The sun was near the low point of its cycle, so we hadn’t had a flare in over a year. It was more drills before I considered the results approachin’ acceptable. People didn’t like it, but the grumblin’ was mostly good natured.
   Time passed. I healed in body, but not in soul. I did learn to hide the scars fairly well, though.
   We didn’t get any good views o’ Saturn ’til we was almost in orbit; that’s what we got for deceleratin’ stern-first, and bein’ preceded by the clouds of the explosions what drove us. The orbit Phil and I settled on was near Rhea, some five hundred thousand kilometers from Saturn. We picked that moon since we knew it was mostly water, and we ended up in its orbit about fifty thousand kilometers behind. No way was our trajectory stable, as there was too much other crap around draggin’ at us. Sure, New Ceres could accelerate like a bat out of hell, but her maneuverability put the bathtub far, far in the lead. At last count, Saturn had thirty-seven moons, and there was an ongoing lively debate over whether some o’ them should be classified as moons, just as there’d been over whether Pluto was really a planet. Once there, we settled down and got to work.
   Ice was easy. Rhea was mostly made of it, and she had surface gravity two percent o’ Earth’s. We got most of the shuttles an’ crew busy minin’ ice, and most of the personnel aboard processed it into pure water. Nobody was spared. Control was as busy as it’d ever been near Earth as flights came and went. We let th’ astronomers grab one shuttle for science, and they sent back picture after picture indicatin’ who was the first to land on this moon or that. Comet refused to even think about letting me lead the visit to Mimas. Havin’ read the Arthur C. Clarke story Jupiter Five, I’d always wondered if Mimas was an ancient alien generation ship, what with its odd shape. Sure, I knew it wasn’t, but you can dream, right? The people who landed on it got the straight dope: It was just a damn big ball o’ dirty ice.
   One other shuttle got fitted out with a scoop an’ a tank, so’s it could skim Saturn’s atmosphere. We had plenty o’ oxygen, but helium-3 for the fusion plant was a big problem. I’d picked Saturn over Jupiter on account o’ Saturn’s atmosphere not only had a bunch of helium-3, but it was also a damn sight easier to get into and out of than Jupiter’s. Much less gravity, and no radiation hell. The shuttle made one trip a week, leaving New Ceres in a highly elliptical orbit; diving into the outer reaches of Saturn’s atmosphere, scooping what it could into the tank that replaced the onboard passenger compartment, and then making its way back out. I may have sucked at bein’ Captain, but I’d have loved to fly one of those birds… Dream on, horsie. I couldn’t take the risk—nobody would let me—so I had to satisfy myself with runnin’ through the toughest and most insane obstacle courses the simulators could come up with, along with high gravity practice in the centrifuge. Meanwhile, the pilots loved it; it was the kind of cuttin’-edge thing full of risk and danger they’d got into the business for. Once again, bein’ Captain screwed me.
   Other’n that, things kinda moseyed along at a leisurely pace. I finally made arrangements to get my tail back, and, as Nicholine said, they didn’t need the actual tissue. They just took a DNA sample, and then a few more—seems I’d took a mite o’ genetic damage over the years—and started growin’ the replacement. Nice and simple, an’ it’d be ready in two months. People settled down, ice flights slowed as New Ceres’ hollow interior filled up with water like her designers planned. People was gettin’ ready to stay in orbit about Saturn, and there weren’t nothin’ I could do to persuade ’em different. Even playin’ our ongoin’ vilification back on Earth over the internal news feed didn’t help, and Earth seemed to ignore our poking our noses at them with all the firsts.
   One day I was sittin’ in the Unicorn, in what had become known as The Captain’s Booth, eatin’ the best Rawlin’ had to offer. The view was finally pretty, the fountain in the park was active. Up in the sky, near the eye-searin’ brightness of the fusion tube, I could see a lake glowin’; a livin’ blob o’ blue-green, lookin’ like it was goin’ to fall. They’d planted trees, and the saplings was just pokin’ up through the ground. Mighty fine backdrop for a mighty fine burger.
   Rawlin’s special had proven out, once I had time t’ sit and enjoy it, so I dug into my Double Deluxe Bacon Mushroom Swiss Cheese Burger draped in mustard and garlic and onions and lettuce and everythin’ else and enjoyed the multitude of tastes.
   “You know, Comet, I still wish we coulda just arrested Farnsworth on—on somethin’. Suspicion of breakin’ laws durin’ the revolution, sedition, somethin’. We could have missed all the crap.”
   “Are you still beating yourself up for that, horse? Give it a rest. You did the best anybody could, while walking a line you set for yourself that nobody else would have a chance of managing.” Comet, he’d tried various things to get me out of my sulk, but nothin’ worked; he was tryin’ again. “Do you know why I joined the rebellion?”
   I blinked at the sudden topic change. “No…”
   “It was because of the lunar food riots. They had no clue about what caused the disaster, and the Brains had quarantined the lunar colonies. Nothing in or out, no people, no food. I still can’t really blame them; if that bacteriophage had gotten out, somehow gotten lose on Earth and destroyed all the crops there… well, the death toll would have been obscene. The logic doesn’t matter, though. I saw the pain and suffering, and anybody who could allow that didn’t deserve to be in charge of anything in my book. They did the logically proper thing, but not the morally proper thing.”
   “So… But…” I picked up my burger. “It might’a been legal t’ nail Farnsworth for sedition an’ conspiracy, but it would’a been immoral as all hell. An’ if I’d done it, I’d’a been right, but I’d’a also been just as legal an’ logical an’ soulless as the Brains.” Then I took a big bite. My sins were more subtle than that.
   Comet nodded. “It’s not an easy path you’re on. You staying in charge, sure, it makes sense, but people don’t like it. It smells like a plain old power grab. Even though you’re the best we’ve got, it still rubs people wrong. Let’s try another one. You wanted to know about me and Williarrrd?”
   Swallowin’ the mouthful, and lickin’ the grease and cheese off my lips, I answered, “Might as well.” Then I took another bite.
   Comet nibbled at the fries I’d pushed towards him—he just didn’t recognize good food when it was in front of him, poor bastard. “I met Williarrrd on Luna when he was serving security with Anderson-Babbage. They control all rights to gathering and processing the regolith in the Oceanus Procellarum, okay? Primary source of oxygen for all the lunar colonies, and the main source of helium-3 in the system,” he stated proudly.
   I nodded. Everybody knew ’bout that—modern fusion reactors was based on the helium-3/deuterium reaction. Deuterium, you can get that from water, no problem; but helium-3 is hellishly rare on Earth. Fortunately, solar wind’s been dumpin’ it on the moon for eons.
   “As for me, I was, well, the pet of a private prospector. Name of Alexander.”
   “You was a pet?”
   Comet glared at me. “You going to listen to my story, or not? After you’ve heard all of it, then you can think about what being a pet means.”
   I nodded.
   “This was a few years back. It was quiet then, nothing like the food riots a decade before. Me and my master managed to avoid most of them, staying out and trying to make a living, surviving off our own supplies. It was hard, though. We got out just as it was getting bad. I remember being nothing but skin and bones, and watching my master shoot bitches who just wanted to steal food for their cubs.
   “Anyway, I was out prospecting with my master. Small-time operation, I was with him more to keep him company than to help with the actual work. We were finding little things, nothing of real value. I was asleep in the tent, a plastic bubble extruded off the side of the hopper. Double layered floors and walls for insulation, next best thing to sleeping out in the open. Don’t know what happened, could have been any number of things, but something punctured the tent. I woke up, air whistling out, gasping and fighting to breathe. The Breath Sucker’s an evil way to die, horse, and don’t you let anybody tell you different. It’s not a clean death, not by any means. A part of me remembered my training and I pushed the panic button as the last of the air whistled out, the plastic tent settling down around me. I could feel the blood in my ears boiling, I could hear my heart pounding.”
   I nodded again, muzzle full. I’d never experienced the Breath Sucker, but I’d heard stories…
   “Not sure exactly what happened. The next thing I knew, I had something to breathe, but it was hard. I gasped and sucked air in and out, fast as I could, but I wasn’t getting enough. Turned out that I’d nearly died, most of my lungs were useless or flooded, I gurgled when I breathed. My master had put me in my suit, cranked it up to five atmospheres of pure O2, just enough for me to survive. He’d strapped me into the back and was trying to find some help as fast as he could.
   “You ever seen a hopper, horse? They’re little cars with big padded wheels. Called hoppers because they can use compressed oxygen, there’s such a surplus of the stuff as a secondary product of the regolith. Squirt out the gas and you can hop over obstacles; standard load is enough for four or five hops. Great fun if you know what you’re doing. My master was an expert, and that time he overrode the safeties. Burned everything we had—nearly put us into orbit. He’d contacted one of the big factory ships, huge corporate monstrosities that processed the regolith. That factory ship was the only thing within five hundred kilometers; Luna is a big empty place, pretty well nothing outside of Anderson and Farside. And Williarrrd was on board that ship, working security for Anderson-Babbage.
   “I remember laying there for a long time, fighting to breathe, my master telling me it would be all right. We came down hard, and something went wrong. I was thrown against my straps and lost consciousness, howling in pain…”
   “Go on,” I said, looking sadly at the last bite.
   “Williarrrd told me what he saw. He’d been sent out by the captain of the factory ship as security for the rescue party which was coming to meet us in their own hopper, he was there in case we were smugglers or something. They reached the landing zone just in time. According to Williarrrd, my hopper was falling from orbit, and the pilot, my master, was screaming and cursing something fierce. The hopper’s tanks were nearly dry, and he must have figured he’d have just enough to soften his landing to where he could survive. Well, my master was wrong in his calculations. Hopper fell down fast, glinting in the sunlight, and there was a big puff of dust just before it hit. Looked for a second like he’d gotten lucky, but then one of the front tires blew—Alexander and I had known for a while that it was getting worn. The hopper keeled over and rolled, bouncing and jostling over the dust. The cockpit hit a rock outcropping, thing—thing cracking open like an—an egg.
   “All Williarrrd and his party could do was wait until we stopped, and then drive over to see if there was any survivors.”
   Noddin’, I ate the last bite.
   “Williarrrd went out suited, the only one armed, along with two others. My master’s hopper was a mess. Didn’t take long for them to find him; the cockpit had shattered, and he’d been thrown clear. He’d had the poor luck to crack his helmet open on a rock and was dead long before anybody could reach him. Turned out his neck had snapped too, so the Breath Sucker just finished the job. It was a good thing that they checked out the wreckage of the hopper as they found me. I was still strapped in the cargo compartment that had survived.”
   I just raised an eyebrow as I licked my fingers. “So you was a pet, and you survived by luck. Good for you, but that don’t prove nothin’. At least you got your freedom out of it.”
   “Don’t you dare think that! I found out later that my master had taken his hopper, wired it to bypass the safeties, and gone to the only help he could reach. And, do you know the kicker? Alexander had intentionally crashed it so that the cockpit would absorb most of the momentum, keeping me safe. He gave his life to save mine.”
   I just looked at him. “You sure about that?”
   “Records don’t lie, and there’s no reason for them to in this case. Anyway, as I had no real skills, and my owner was dead, Williarrrd ended up adopting me. Told me that he couldn’t let me die after that. He manumitted me shortly after. He was never my master, at least not legally, but, he… well, he was. Just like…” Comet coughed and turned away. “Williarrrd kept me alive, held me through my mourning period.” Comet turned away, but I could see his eyes glistening. “Williarrrd was a good fur. He’d have liked to go the way he did.”
   You know, weeks of thinkin’ and bangin’ your head, knowin’ you’d failed, but not knowin’ why you’d failed—an’ then, when you least expect it, the solution hits you. “You told me this now ’cause o’ your master, you wanted me to think of him first as bein’ in the wrong, an evil son of a bitch. But he wasn’t. And I thought he was evil because he’d assumed control over you for no good reason. Kinda the reverse o’ me, ain’t it?”
   Comet nodded.
   “So, I got this job and did it, maybe better’n a lot of people. And it was all good ’til I told Farnsworth I was assumin’ total control for the foreseeable future. Up ’til that time, I’d had the captainship thrust upon me. I’d taken it because somebody had to and I was there. But at that point… I grabbed power. And that was when people stopped respecting me. That’s it, isn’t it?”
   Comet nodded again.
   “Oh God… I don’t deserve this. I can’t do it. I just hope the elections helped. Wish somebody else’d run…”
   He shrugged. “Give it some time, horse.”
   “Yeah… You know, Comet, I wish life was easier. I wish the Doc was here to take charge, or somebody—” I smelled more burgers cookin’. “Hey, Rawlin’!” It wasn’t long till his hooves came clickin’ over. “I’ll have another burger.”
   “Certainly! Just let me get it all topped up for you.”
   “Another?” Comet asked. “Are you insane, horse?”
   “The Captain is never insane! But… y’ think the election actually helped?”
   “I… Well, it’s something. Nobody ran against you. At least now you were chosen for the position by the people. You have to remember that it’s all about perception. You’ll get it right, you’ve certainly got it in you.” Comet sighed, tryin’ another french fry.
   “But everybody knows I usurped the position!”
   “Sure, but from what they’ve been told, you just made plans in case of disaster because somebody had to, and you took charge only when the situation forced you to. You didn’t usurp it to start with, you were forced into it. Farnsworth’s libels during the mayoral race messed up your rep even worse—but his little coup d’etat got people wondering what else he might’ve lied about. And now… well, the elections helped.”
   I wiped the grease off my muzzle an’ finished off my beer. “Thanks, Comet. I need people to tell me these things.”
   “Good thing you got me, then, horse! Well—”
   O’ course that’s when my tablet started buzzin’ an emergency signal: It was Megan, almost ready to scream. Seems they’d picked up a heat spike from Earth, a big one, and it wasn’t goin’ away. I gave the order and all the telescopes and instruments were yanked from the screamin’ scientists and pointed towards Earth. Then I called a meeting with Phil, Kirri, Megan, and Jonthan in the school, and requisitioned the holotank there. We’d need it to figure out what was going on once more information was gathered.
   That weren’t a long conversation, nohow; I signed off just in time t’ see my next hamburger comin’. I looked up at Rawlin’ through sorrow-filled brown eyes. “Rawlin’, can I have that to go?”

-= 31 =-

   “How can you eat at a time like this?” Kirri asked.
   We was all at the school. I’d spread napkins over one corner of the holo tank, what you might call an improvised plate for my burger. Anyhow, we were all there, Megan an’ Kirri an’ Phil an’ Jonthan an’ Comet and me. There’d been a lecture scheduled for this room, but only ’til I commandeered it, and we had the run o’ the place. Didn’t take long to bring up the video of what got launched.
   “Kirri, one thing you learn in space is that things take a while to happen. And there’s no way in Hell I’m lettin’ a good burger go to waste.”
   By the time everybody was assembled, we had some useful information. Of course, light-speed limit meant what we had was nigh-on three hours old. And it didn’t help that most of the telescopes was pointed at Saturn and her rings at the instant of detection. That changed mighty quick, and now we saw there was three separate objects—some kind o’ spacecraft headin’ our way.
   “Okay, what do we got here?” I motioned at the holo tank.
   Megan answered: “Looks like three ships bound towards us. Trajectory suggests a launch from the lunar mass drivers. You can see that they started in a line, and then spaced out a bit, adjusting their acceleration, so that they’re now in a wedge formation. Doppler shift suggests they’re accelerating on the order of twenty Gs.”
   “Jesus…” Phil whispered.
   “Looks like they’re headin’ straight for us too… Okay. How long’s it gonna take ’em with a mid-trip turnover an’ brakin’, an’ how long if they just keep comin’?”
   Megan pulled some numbers from the main computer on the bridge, and various potential courses appeared on the holo as it displayed the solar system, just Earth and Saturn though. No other planets on screen; they didn’t matter. “Looks like they’re heading on a straight line, not bothering with any slingshots. Mid-trip turn around, they’ll be here in about… forty-six hours. No deceleration, then about thirty-two hours. In that case they’ll pass us at about 0.08c, or about… two-point-four times ten-to-the-seventh meters per second.”
   “How the hell are they getting here so fast?” Kirri asked.
   Jonny answered before I did. “Physics. We accelerated at 0.1 G, they’re accelerating at twenty Gs. And they got a high boost off of Luna.” He furtively scratched at the velvet what still covered most o’ his antlers.
   “Ladies an’ gentlemen, it don’t matter how they did it. The question is, what do we do about it?” I took a big bite out of my burger. Nowhere near as good as fresh, but still scrumptious.
   “We could try boosting out now,” Phil said. “Can’t go very fast, with all the water aboard. I think I could push her to about 2 Gs, but God knows what that’ll do to all the loose water.”
   “Can we jettison it?” Megan asked.
   “Sure,” Phil replied. “We can dump it all in about half a day.”
   “There’ll be a hell of a row, what with all that work wasted,” Sanper put in.
   “Keep that for an emergency, Phil. If we do, the Brains’ll just know we gotta come back. Next good source is the Oort cloud, and I ain’t sure if we can make it in time.”
   Megan punched some numbers in. “That’d take us something like two months. We should have enough supplies.”
   “And how long would it take the Brains to get there?” Kirri asked.
   “Hmm… About four days at 20 Gs. That’s with turnaround.”
   “Megan, what’s the latest word from Earthside? Brains offered us anythin’ like surrender, or do they just want our heads on platters, or what?”
   “It’s been monitored closely. Nothing’s been transmitted directly to us; the only thing we get is the general news feed, and you’ve heard that crap.”
   “But why the hell would the Brains want to kill us!?” Kirri screeched.
   I ignored the vixen, same’s everybody else. “Megan, you got the frequency Thomas Foote called on? Send him a query—see if you can get terms or somethin’. Let’s see what our options are. And put one of the incomers on screen, the best shot we got, so’s we can take a look at her.”
   “You got it, sir.”
   The holotank flickered, and then showed a 3D image of one of the craft. The lines were fuzzy, indicating a lot o’ educated math-type guesswork. The craft looked a whole lot like what Captain Stapledon’d flown. There was a tiny nose section, sealed but for various instruments, no windows like a manned craft would’a had. It was longer than Stapledon’s, though, almost twice as long, an’ most of it fuel tanks. After the tanks there was a thin arm holding God’s own heat sink, and then the main engine, the brightness dampened. Couldn’t pick out details worth a damn, but it looked like there was somethin’ between an’ beneath a pair of tanks. Whatever it was, damn if I could make it out… well, that’s what computers was for. Told the machine t’ focus on that part an’ take its best guess. It took a bit… must’a crunched one holy hell of a lot o’ numbers.
   I pointed. “That’s your answer.” The shape was fuzzy, indistinct, but what could be seen of the silhouette suggested a missile.
   “Are you sure?” Kirri asked.
   “Looks like it to me,” Phil said. “If we assume standard Mk 15 fusion-tipped rockets, and maximum load, I make it 21 a ship. Jesus Christ—”
   “Sixty-three warheads—” Jonny whispered.
   “No way in hell we can intercept that many in a mass launch,” Phil finished.
   “Megan, you might as well try and talk to that Foote rabbit. Doubt you’ll get an answer though.”
   “Yeah,” Phil said. “Probably going for a mass launch; blow us to bits; and then claim that they asked for our surrender, we fought, and were regretfully destroyed. Nice and safe out here and out of sight.”
   “Gotta love Brains,” I muttered.
   Kirri glared at all of us, tail whipping back and forth in a blur. “No way would they do that! The Brains care for us.”
   “Then how the hell do you explain this, vixen!?” Comet tapped at the top of the holotank.
   “Hmmm…” Jonthan scratched his velvet again.“It looks like we can’t run, so we have to fight.”
   “More bogies detected!” Megan shouted out.
   “Can you put it up in the holotank, Megan?” I asked.
   She nodded. The tank flickered, then showed a tight cluster o’ objects. Most was just plain tanks, but there was an engine and long girder-like sections. Each of the tanks had huge radiators at its rear. As I watched, there was small flashes of light and tiny craft tuggin’ the pieces together, assemblin’ ’em into ships.
   “What the hell?” Jonny asked.
   Megan answered, “Telemetry suggests that the pieces were launched from various lunar mass drivers and are now being assembled into three additional ships.”
   “Were the others launched that way?” Phil asked.
   “Not as far as we know,” Megan answered. “And these new ships are far bigger than the old.”
   “Jesus Christ, look at those monsters!” Phil said. “How the hell can we fight the first wave, let alone those!? We don’t have the missiles, we don’t have the acceleration!”
   Frownin’, Jonny continued, “And that’s assuming they don’t have any other tricks. Who knows what else those things have aboard them?” He frowned for a second, lookin’ almost sick, and then he swallowed. “Cud picks the worst times… Maybe they’re just going to teleport those missiles inside our hull before detonation.”
   “That’s impossible!” Phil shouted.
   “So is a ship that can maintain 20 Gs of acceleration for four solid days, at least based on everything I’ve read. But they’re doing it. Who knows what else they can do?”
   Phil an’ Jonny went at it; they leaned forward and I could smell their anger barely coverin’ their fear. Jonny, he was a regular scent-factory, but then all deer was. Me, I just looked at the image. There had to be somethin’. Had t’ be… I could feel somethin’ itchin’ at the back of my skull. Grabbin’ a bite of hamburger to help me think, I watched as Kirri moved towards me. Comet glared at her until she backed off. There was somethin’… It popped into my head: The Cold Equations—”
   “Shut up!” Comet growled at th’ yammerin’ science-boys. “I think the Captain’s got something.”
   With an effort, Phil and Jonny turned and looked at me. The room turned huge and lonely in the silence. I swallowed, thoughts burblin’ out of control, every which way.
   “Horse, you said something about The Cold Equations?”
   “Yeah…” I looked at my burger gettin’ cold. Crap! “It’s a story, mid-twentieth century by Tom Godwin. Silly little thing, a shuttle gets sent to a colony with medical supplies, loaded with just enough fuel, but a little girl stows aboard to see her uncle on the colony. She’s gotta be jettisoned into space so the shuttle don’t crash.”
   “So?” Jonthan asked.
   “So, okay, we don’t know what the Brains can do. But we have to assume that they’re bound by reality just as we are. The point of The Cold Equations is that reality, space, physics, they don’t care ’bout our feelin’s. You break the rules, you pay. Sure, we know what we can do, we don’t know what the Brains can. But… they live in the same universe we do.”
   “They may have made some kind of fundamental breakthrough,” Phil said. “Some kind of Alcubierre Warp—wormholes—there are all kinds of theoretical possibilities.”
   “Maybe so,” I agreed. “But if they have, we’re toast! So, let’s assume not. Phillip, you’re in charge o’ the meteor defense. What’s the muzzle velocity on the mass drivers?”
   “Just under .8c.”
   “You got a day. Can you rig up some of ’em as close to c as you can get? At least 0.99, if y’ can swing it.”
   He looked at me. “Maybe…”
   “You have something?” Jonny asked.
   “Might do, if’n they’s bound by reality. Megan, you said they’d hit, what was it, 0.08c if they didn’t do a turnaround? If they still obey Newton’s laws o’ motion, they ain’t changin’ course, or at least not real fast.”
   Phil nodded.
   “So, what we do is send ’em a hail o’ pellets at a hair under c. We launch a couple hours afore they’re due t’ show up, to minimize their warnin’ time. They can’t get information any faster than c. Einsteinian relativity won’t allow it.”
   “Assuming you’re right,” Jonny muttered.
   “Damn straight. ’Cause if I’m wrong, we’re fucked! So the deal is, we fire our volley so they run into ’em at an angle, keep them maximally out of their drive exhaust. They can only turn so fast, and they can only vary their course so fast. We won’t give them the time.”
   “Could work…” Phil mumbled.
   I nodded. “If they’s runnin’ on anti-matter, we just need t’ puncture one or two of them tanks, break the containment fields, and boom. But we need somethin’ more…”
   Phil looked at the deer. “Jonthan, I’m going to need every single tech onboard, working non-stop. You’re going to have to okay it.”
   Jonny nodded.
   “Phil, can you mount one of yer super accelerators on a shuttle?”
   “I—sure—won’t look good.”
   “Yeah, well, looks don’t matter, as long’s it works. That’s our backup. One shuttle. We fly it to Rhea as tight against another as we can—or better yet, strap ’em together. The pair lands, one shuttle leaves, the other stays at our ice minin’ base. Earthside telescopes see one hotspot goin’ out, one comin’ back. The other shuttle, its heat blends in with the minin’ base heat.”
   “An ambush,” Comet said.
   “Yup. If the ships survive our primary attack, New Ceres dumps everythin’ we can at ’em and tries to run. Then another ship pops up behind ’em and opens fire. If all else fails, the ship could even try to ram the Brain ships. Best I can think of.”
   “Could work… What about the second set of ships?” Jonny asked.
   I shrugged. “First things first—we’ll deal with those when they come. Lookin’ at our data, well, I don’t see no missiles. I’m bettin’ they’re fuel tankers for the return trip.”
   Meanwhile Phil was talkin’ to himself, “I could strip out most of the cargo, add fuel, add more engines. I’ve got a bunch of solid fuel boosters left from when we spun up New Ceres. Give a hell of a kick, but there’s no way to shut them off. Won’t have time to set up a way to eject them.”
   “I’ll line up the pilots,” Megan said. “Ask for a volunteer.”
   They wouldn’t like this… I thought for a second, made sure my reasons was logical. They seemed to be, though I guess there was a bit of a need to do somethin’ involved in my decision. Hell with it, there was a lot of a need. I had t’ do this. I had t’ pay for my mistakes, and make sure it were done right. And there was guilt. Here was somethin’ I could do and not screw up. “No need, Megan. I’ll fly her.” And if I didn’t come back, I couldn’t fuck up again.
   “What? No way in hell, horse!”
   “Comet, you shut up. I have to. I’m the smallest pilot we got. And I’ve been in the simulator, the centrifuge. I can take the acceleration.”
   “But it’s only a few kilos!”
   “Comet, that little bit could be the difference between New Ceres survivin’, and her bein’ destroyed. And I can’t trust anybody else t’ ram the Brains if it comes to that. I know I will.”
   “We need you!” Kirri shouted.
   “Kirri, all of you, no you don’t need me. I made one tiny little mistake in announcin’ how power was goin’ to work, and that nearly cost us everythin’. You don’t need me. You got Jonny here to manage the science end o’ things, Megan to run the show, and Phil to keep it all workin’. The fact is, I’m best suited to fly the backup ship.”
   “I won’t let you do it, horse!”
   “Comet, shut up! You think I’m out for a joyride? Run the math—I’m best for this job! I got the physical qualifications, I got the trainin’, I got more experience than damn near anyone. I’m the one who’s spent days in the damn simulators goin’ through hell! We get one shot to stop this, and if we fail everybody dies. I’m one lousy sophont against fifteen thousand! Phil, get to work on those mass drivers, the portable one first. Get as many as you can ready in twenty four hours. If the ships don’t slow down, we use what we got; if they do, we get more online. Megan, for now, keep tryin’ to reach that Thomas.”
   “Maybe we should make up some fake messages—onboard panic, signs of riots and rebellion, general disinformation,” Jonny said.
   “Sure, can’t hurt. Don’t like lyin’ like that, but at this point I’ll take anythin’. Start broadcastin’ after the turnaround point.”
   “Shean, you know they might not make turnaround mid-trip. They could do so at three quarters the distance, do a flyby but not as fast.”
   “Good point. We’ll just have to play it by ear. I’ll have to launch soon, but we can hold off the pellets until they’re almost here. The less warnin’ they have, the better. And Phil, pump all the water you can into the tanks, into anythin’ you got. If you need to run, you’ll need all you can get.”
   Comet grabbed my shoulder. “Shean—Captain—I will not let you do this!”
   I shoved his arm away. “Comet, it’s done.” Everybody turned and looked at me, and I could feel their concern. “I got the best skill set, and the best physique for this. Y’all know it. Now you just shut up, or find me a G-suit or somethin’, and spin up the centrifuge. I ain’t done high-G flight in a while, and I’d better get back into it. Maybe if I keep busy, I won’t screw up again.”
   “Shean, you made a mistake,” Megan said. “Anybody could have.”
   “Well, they didn’t and I did!”
   “And you fixed it!”
   I snorted at her, and then put my hands on my sides and glared at them all. “The debate’s over. We got a day, maybe more. There just ain’t time to argue! Megan, dig up a G-suit for me, and get somebody to size it right. And…” I looked sadly at what was left o’ my cold, clammy hamburger. “Somebody throw that out, damnit. I’m goin’ for fifteen hours in th’ centrifuge, then five hours o’ sleep, and then it’ll be time t’ launch. Megan, work out some codes for basic messages—when to launch, order to abort, that kind of thing. Now, get to work!”
   They looked at me. Comet opened his muzzle to say somethin’ and then closed it. Jonny looked at me a moment, ears flickin’ madly, then he turned. And then Kirri and Phil.
   Comet just growled a bit, then turned away. “Follow me then, Captain. Just fucking hope you’re right.”
   I looked at him.
   “Last thing we need is for somebody to shoot you before your moment of self-sacrificial glory. Try and remember that when you get back. And you will come back, you hear me! Your choice, your soul, but you get back and I’m making sure you won’t pull this kind of crap ever again.”
   “I ain’t sacrificin’ a damn thing less’n there’s no other option!”
   “Sure. Just you remember that!” He stomped out, and I followed, giving the cold, forlorn hamburger one last look.

-= 32 =-

   The next twenty hours was mighty busy. I didn’t eat much, or drink. They dug up a G-suit for me, a heavy rubber thing that I almost needed help to squeeze into. I had no clue how more conventional-sized furs could ever manage. Damn thing pulled at my fur in all the painful locations, and it itched somethin’ awful! Not to mention how sweat pooled between the rubber and my skin, and there was nothin’ I could do about it. And I was goin’ to live in that thing for how many hours!? I thought on givin’ the job to someone else, but then I saw Comet, so I just glared at him and went on.
   Centrifuge tests proved I could stay conscious at twenty Gs for extended durations, up to twenty-five Gs for a few minutes. Better’n human, but that was a function of size, experience, and genetic background. God knows why they’d made us furs so resilient, but I guess the gengineers wanted to do it right. I finally peeled the G-suit off, and showered, before collapsin’ on a cot near the centrifuge. Comet woke me half an hour before launch and handed me one of Rawlin’s burgers. He looked like he had somethin’ to say… but he didn’t speak up. I sucked down the burger faster’n it deserved, then clopped to the nearest monorail and took it up to the shuttle bay.
   Phil was there, and he was right; the mass driver was a damn ugly thing. But it looked tough, and he swore blind that I’d break long before it did. Aimin’ was simple, just point and shoot. Given the muzzle velocity and distances involved, impact would be usually be nigh-on instantaneous. I had thirty seconds’ worth of ammo, and the mass driver’d push me back at 0.009G when it was operatin’. The transport compartment was empty, stripped out, and they’d strapped solid fuel boosters all around near the tail, flarin’ out slightly so’s not t’ burn the aft section. They were linked to two controls, each would fire up one half. With the drive, and both sets o’ boosters, Hermes was good for 18 Gs for a maximum of forty-five seconds.
   It was free fall in the shuttle bay, so G-suit or no, climbin’ inside the Hermes would be a snap. It’d been strapped to the top of the second shuttle—there was cranes on Rhea to lift it off. As for the other shuttle, its pilot was Daniel, a human. The rest of the pilots were there, lookin’ at me with envy, even the two horses in wheelchairs. Lookin’ back at them, I saw the same fire in their eyes.
   “Phil, can y’ stick normal mass drivers on the other shuttles? Rip ’em out and get ’em hooked up—as many as you can, without losin’ work time on the upgrades.”
   “I think so. I’ve got extra people, as there’s no room to work and only so many upgrade components.”
   “Well, do it. Might as well launch the rest of the shuttles, too; the more we got, the better our chances.” I looked at the pilots lined up. “You all get into the centrifuge and train! Best pilots get the flight, the rest stay on board and cheer ’em on. You got me?”
   “Aye aye, sir!”
   “Fine.” Clamberin’ up an’ in, I looked at Megan and Jonny. “Megan’s in charge during the crisis, I can’t risk them pickin’ up any transmissions. Jonny, I guess… well, give a pep talk or somethin’.”
   He nodded. “Would it be possible to get the signal from external cameras so people can see what’s going on?”
   “Talk to Megan. I gotta go. Good luck, everybody.”
   Comet looked at me, looked deep into my eyes. “You come back, horse. You got me?”
   “Get your ass back here in one piece so I can knock some sense into you!”
   Noddin’, I finished gettin’ into th’ pilot’s seat. The bay was evacuated, the doors were opened, and I sat there as Danny flew us down to Rhea. The trip was almost an anti-climax. I just sat there in my G-suit and strapped in. The pressure suit was nearby—it was designed to go overtop o’ the G-suit, and I’d struggle into it when the combat was closer. No sense gettin’ extra hot an’ itchy before the shit hit the fan. Landin’ was bumpy, there was a short runway but it was just rough-packed ice. Th’ thing was grooved and worn, even though we tried t’ smooth it out after each landin’ or launch.
   Like I said, I just sat in the cockpit as Danny unstrapped us an’ robotic cranes lifted me off. Danny gave an eyeball check that things was fine, an’ then I ran through a quick systems check before shut down. The machinery loaded more ice onto his shuttle—no sense wastin’ the trip—and I stared as th’ human took off. The shuttles had a tiny li’l VTOL capability; the most fuel-efficient way was to run up the engines, run the VTOL and accelerate simultaneously. I’d done it m’self, but only in the simulator, never for real. Based on what I’d seen and practiced, it wouldn’t be hard.
   Once Danny an’ Athena left, it was quiet. No sound, but for the faint crack and settlin’ of ice as oversized Zambonis levelled the runway. There was no wind, no atmosphere to blow around. I’d once heard an old recording of the winds on Titan; a sad howl of utter loneliness. Even without the sound, Rhea was just as bad. I switched on the radio receiver, New Ceres was sendin’ a coded beamcast down to me to keep me informed. Even if the Brains detected it, hopefully they’d just think it was to the minin’ base. I wasn’t worried on them decryptin’ the reflected waves, as they was just numeric codes to indicate when I should launch, how th’ attack were goin’, an’ if I should abort. Nothin’ more. Twelve codes total, all random unrelated numeric sequences.
   I’d brought down my tablet with a bunch o’ books, but I didn’t feel like readin’. After a while I unplugged my life support from the shuttle’s tank. Then I popped the hatch, lowered the ladder… and climbed down.
   It was odd: Here I’d been in space nigh-on seven years. I’d been on Earth, on High York, on New Ceres, but never another honest-to-god world—not even the moon. Sure, New Ceres was an asteroid, but it’d been changed too much. Rhea was untamed, natural. With my breath loud in my ears, I jumped the last little distance to the ground where my boots crunched into the packed ice. At 0.02 Gs I was practically in freefall, so I moved slowly, carefully turnin’ around until I was lookin’ away from the shuttle.
   Rhea was a tiny ball of ice, and the surface was just craggy outcroppin’s—ice shards, glitterin’ in the faint sunlight. Loomin’ above it, lookin’ ready to fall on me was Saturn, big and round and orange with darker strips runnin’ around it. It was fuckin’ monstrous—it filled half the sky—but it weren’t the friendly glowin’ blue of Earth. I couldn’t rightly see any rings; Rhea was in the ring-plane, so all I got was a thin line where they was. There was stars, cold an’ distant, but the same as I’d always seen them. Somehow, that made me feel better—not so far from home.
   My suit’s heaters kicked in, but it weren’t enough. I felt my hands an’ legs gettin’ cold, so eventually I clambered back in to the warmth of the shuttle. Hookin’ my air back up to the shuttle’s supply, I closed and pressurized the cabin, finally poppin’ my helmet to let warm, moist air in, filled with the comfortin’ scent of horses. After sippin’ some water, eatin’ some rations, I pulled up The Jupiter Theft by Donald Moffitt, and started readin’.
   I was sleepin’ when a coded signal came in, and I jerked awake. I missed the first few tones even so, but it was a recording. Turned out the first wave did turnaround at about two-thirds the distance from Earth. Seems they’d be zippin’ along at a fair clip when they reached us, but not so much as t’ shoot right on by. I sipped some water; pissed down the catheter; set an alarm for when I’d need to suit up, and a second for launch a half hour later; then I went back to sleep.
   I couldn’t sleep. More time passed… I finished the novel, looked out the window, eventually got out and topped off my suit’s O2 from the base’s supply, just in case I needed it—the station had plenty enough, they’d been crackin’ it from the ice. Time came to get ready. Strugglin’ into the pressure suit was a bastard, but I managed it. Then I switched my suit’s air to pure O2, to help with breathin’ during the acceleration. Got everythin’ set and ready to go a good ten minutes before the estimated launch time. I sat there, suited up an’ helmet closed, then I started another book: The Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, by Poul Anderson. Not much else to do…
   The earliest likely launch-time came an’ went—no signal. Fine; I waited, as our estimates had been well on the conservative side. Could be the Brains was jammin’ New Ceres, but if they were that woulda blocked out the null tone, which would’ve triggered an alarm on my end. So I waited, tryin’ to relax, scratchin’ various parts o’ my anatomy to very little effect.
   It’s an odd thing about waitin’. Later on, you say the time just passed, and you was calm and collected… but it never seems that way while you’re there. I don’t know about your experiences, but me, I’d gotten so drawn into Anderson’s magic that I totally lost track o’ time when I got the pre-launch code. At that point it took me only moments to clip the tablet I’d been usin’ in a safe place—yeah, safe even at 20 Gs—and run the shuttle systems through startup. I’d gone over the timin’ with Phil, and that was figured into when the launch code got sent. Waitin’ ’til launch, I hit the VTOL jets and lifted vertically. That was planned. New Ceres was still in orbit, there would’ve been an alert message otherwise, so I slewed Hermes around an’ set her nose t’ pointin’ straight at home… then I hit the main drive an’ kicked in half the boosters. She moved, by God! Shot off like a rocket, literally—damn near fourteen Gs—the acceleration shovin’ me back into my seat like a lead hand. My vision tunnelled, I felt the G-suit press tight around my legs an’ body t’ keep the blood in my brain. All around me the world shook and rattled, a roar growled through my bones. I fought and struggled to suck one breath into my lungs; it got shoved out in a whoosh that misted my helmet; and then repeat. Breath after breath after breath. One by one. Telemetry fed into my systems from New Ceres; now that I’d launched, there was no more reason t’ hide.
   The boosters cut off—I gasped as I could suddenly breathe again. Time t’ pay attention to the info on my helmet display. There was only one bogie—our .99c pellets wasted the other two in the first wave. The three ships to the rear hadn’t moved for shit, so they was weeks away. There was one bastard left, and New Ceres gave me a course and speed towards him. He wasn’t too far off; I hit the main engines at full, and rested easy (hah!) under 8 Gs o’ thrust. Then I watched. There was tracks for missiles—two sets of four—so how come he hadn’t launched the others? Damage during the trip? There was danger zones flagged on my display; regions t’ stay the hell out of, ’specially the spots New Ceres’ mass drivers was firin’ at, not t’ mention all those blips from the other shuttles. There were only three left, of which one had been disabled. Its blip was a lighter green, but it wasn’t under power. Turns out the Brains’d put two sets of mass drivers on their warship’s nose, angled so’s their arc o’ fire was about sixty degrees. The Brain on that ship didn’t fire so very often, but it damn-sure made every shot count. God knew how the Brains fit a driver into such a tiny space. The three shuttles we had left was stayin’ near New Ceres to supplement her defensive fire.
   Space combat ain’t like what you see in the holos. It’s hours o’ slow, graceful flyin’ punctuated by instants o’ flamin’ death. I was runnin’ about twelve kilometers a second; New Ceres was leavin’ orbit at 0.1 G, and she was up to about point-three klicks a sec. The Brain ship was cuttin’ across our orbit at right near two hundred klicks a sec—and she’d pulled well over thirty Gs slowin’ down t’ that speed. Thing was decleratin’ at—Jesus!—fifty Gs, and it’d still take somethin’ like five hours t’ stop. She was steerin’ straight towards New Ceres, or close enough t’ straight as makes no never-mind. It took the onboard a second to work out an interception course, and I turned the ship as indicated before touchin’ off my second set o’ boosters.
   Flight path calculations, they’re a question o’ bodies and proportional state changes. When I was headin’ t’ ram into New Ceres, it was a multiple body problem, with velocities changin’ all over the place, not to mention that Stapledon had about a two-meter window for his grapple. Here and now, though, it was a fairly simple two-body merge problem, with the parameters stayin’ fairly constant; not to mention that all I needed to do was just get vaguely in the neighborhood o’ the Brain ship. All in all, figurin’ my course was a piece o’ cake. As to the shuttles around New Ceres, it was a question of velocities. The Brain ship was so damn fast that the shuttles was only good for takin’ potshots at range, and if that’s all they was gonna do, why the hell not stay near New Ceres? Once I had Hermes’ nose lined up with the target, I sparked off my other afterburners. Got shoved back into my chair by another fourteen-G burn.
   “Shean, what the hell are you doing?” Megan’s voice burst over the headphones. “The situation is under control—you don’t need to take the risk!”
   She was right, I didn’t. I’d been backup in case all three Brain ships came in, somethin’ to distract them. So I ignored her voice, not that I had the breath to respond anyway, most of my effort was focused on dragging oxygen into my lungs.
   “We can handle the missiles, Shean! We need you here. You don’t need to be a hero!”
   The solid fuel boosters burned out as she finished speaking. There was just over a second time delay with New Ceres. Gaspin’ for breath, the oxygen whistling into my starvin’ lungs, I listened.
   “Shean, don’t do this! You made a mistake, fine, it’s done. It’s fixed. You don’t—”
   On my HUD, four missiles separated from the Brain ship and accelerated towards New Ceres.
   “The hell—I don’t—Megan!” Still runnin’ at 8 Gs, I changed my course slightly to lead the Brain ship. Radar put us about 20,000 klicks apart and closing fast. “S’pose—the bas’rd—tries’a ram—New Ceres!?” Pullin’ the trigger Phil had installed, I felt a stacatto roar rumblin’ through my bones as I fired for five seconds. The pellets passed too fast to be seen, the odd one burstin’ in a flash of actinic light as it exploded on contact with some interstellar particle.
   My acceleration hit 8.1 Gs when I stopped firin’, and I let the radar plot a cone of possible courses of the target.
   “Shean, he won’t! And if he does, we can handle it!” There was a burst of light in the distance as one of our mass drivers wasted a missile.
   “Shut up! I need to concentrate!” Sayin’ that, it hit me how stupid I’d been. I rolled Hermes a mite, lettin’ her nose spin in a tiny circle. Sure, it cost me a bit of acceleration, an’ so fuckin’ what? I weren’t never gonna outrun that 50-G sonofabitch anyway, so tradin’ a trickle o’ thrust for a cone of fire struck me as a mighty fine deal. Pullin’ the trigger, I let loose another five seconds worth o’ burst, an’ it worked better this time. More sparks of collisions. The Brain must’ve detected my fire somehow, as one of the remaining tanks was ejected and burst into a spark of light. My fire must’a tagged it, or he dumped it for use as temporary shieldin’. Another missile burst and died from defensive fire.
   Distance between me and the Brain ship was about 12,000 klicks. He changed his course slightly; on the display, it looked like a cone that’d intercept New Ceres. “Fuck!”
   “Shean! Abort, damn you! We can deal with it!” Another two missiles burst into clouds of light.
   Distance between me an’ the Brain ship was only 5,000 klicks. The light of his drive was bright like the flames o’ Hell itself; my window darkened until that light was the only thing I could see. I let off a ten-second burst, the sound growlin’ through my bones as I continued to accelerate at just over 8 Gs. Not so many sparks that time. There was enough fuel onboard to keep this acceleration up for another eighteen seconds.
   The Brain ship dropped off another missile, and a spark glowed in the distance as an already launched missile was intercepted and destroyed.
   “Shean, damn you—!”
   Distance was 1,000 clicks, our courses were still mergin’. Holdin’ down the trigger I fired my last ten seconds’ worth o’ ammo. Actinic sparks burst on my retinas even over the light of the Brain ship’s drive. Then there was darkness as my eyes adjusted—the light of the Brain ship’s drive died off, radar showed objects separating from the ship, pin-pricks o’ orange-red light sparked before my eyes.
   Another voice crackled over my headphones. “Uncle Eeysmarn!” Cæsar’s voice!?
   Tryin’ to turn, I saw orange-yellow light roarin’ around Hermes.
   “—Aphrodite, multiple impacts, drive down—”
   I grabbed the joystick, turned the ship, I could see the light of the RCS jets—
   “In God’s name Uncle, you have to listen—!”
   More bursts of light all around me. I got shoved forward against the straps, my breath forced out’a me. Hermes screeched around me, boards flashed red. Somethin’ blew and pressure gushed out of the cabin, puffin’ my suit outward.

-= 33 =-

   Blinkin’ my eyes, I shook my head. I was still strapped in my chair, all the indicator lights was red, and around me was… silence. Didn’t even know if the emergency beacon was goin’. First thing I checked was my suit pressure—no leaks. Next was my air: I was still plugged into the shuttle supply and had a good sixteen hours left. Only then did I look around.
   There was a flash in the distance, but what held my eyes was the gleamin’ silver o’ the Brain ship wedged up against the Hermes.
   Pullin’ the oxygen hose from my suit, and makin’ sure it sealed properly at both ends, I unbelted myself. I grabbed the ’mergency tool kit, secured a light to my wrist, an’ pulled out a coil of rope out from the kit. Then, after usin’ that there rope to tether m’self to the shuttle cockpit, I opened the hatch. Well, tried to, anyways. It wouldn’t open, so I braced myself and put all my weight against it, pressin’ my hooves against one wall. It gave without warnin’, and I shot through the hatch, managin’ to cling to the handle.
   For a moment I stared around, lookin’ at the stars, findin’ the glare of New Ceres’ drive in the distance. Another light sparked near it—might be a missile? Damn if I could tell. Hermes was pretty-near intact, ’cept that she’d got herself bent at a noticeable angle. The solid boosters were gone, just some of their brackets left. Movin’ quickly via the handles studded over Hermes’ surface, I pulled myself towards the Brain ship… towards Cæsar. The only sound was my breath. To my ears it sounded quick, hurried, loud. Occassionally there was a hiss of static in my ears from the radio, didn’t know if it was a short or garbled reception.
   It didn’t take long for me to reach the buckled and twisted metal of Hermes’ nose, with the bent body of the Brain ship twisted around it. Most of the Brain ship was gone, just the bow section remained. Thank God! That meant that all the supposed antimatter tanks was gone. My ears flicked at a phantom fly, tuggin’ at the headphones and skullcap that pressed down my mane. I was hot and sweaty, my fur itched under the G-suit, but there wasn’t nothin’ I could do about it right now.
   Another flash of light in the distance off towards New Ceres
   Holdin’ myself in place, I looked to th’ remains o’ the Brain ship. The fragment was about twenty meters long, and most of it was tangled and twisted metal, girders, bent plates, a sparkin’ wire that I kept an eye on. The front ten meters or so was pristine, just featureless metal. I pulled myself along the tangled mess, gentle an’ real careful-like, so’s not to catch my suit or gloves on anythin’. I stopped at the undamaged part. There weeren’t no handholds, nothin’. Pullin’ myself close until my helmet clinked on the surface, I could see a few pit marks, but nothin’ else. Sucker was smooth an’ shiny as a mirror; I could see myself in it, my muzzle oddly distorted by the curvature.
   Another flash o’ light. Then New Ceres drive cut off, leavin’ darkness.
   A panel on the Brain ship slid open. A tentacle slid out—a long coiled thing with a glistenin’ lens at the end. I think I screamed, shovin’ myself backwards, mindlessly flingin’ myself into space until the line jerked me to a halt. For a second I floated there, movin’ in an arc, my breath raspin’ in my ears, my blood pulsin’ in my throat. Managin’ to force a semblance of calm on myself, I slowly pulled myself back down the line, bobbin’ at the end of it like a catfish pulled out of a creek.
   Our combined wreckage was slowly rotatin’, and Saturn moved into view. As we was above the ecliptic, the rings spread out below me, endless arcs o’ color—I could even see shadowy spokes stretchin’ across them. Tearin’ my focus away, I got m’self back to the wreckage and grabbed tight onto a convenient strut, stoppin’ to catch my breath.
   First thing I spotted was the damn tentacle. It had stretched out maybe three meters, and it was lookin’ at me…
   “Uncle Eeysmarn? Are you all right? Did God protect you like he protected me?” The voice cracklin’ through my headphones was calm, relaxed, but I could tell it was my nephew.
   “Cæsar? That you? If this is a trick—”
   “No trick, Uncle. It’s God’s will.”
   “Don’t you damn well talk that way!”
   “Uncle, in—Uncle, are you all right? Are you injured?”
   “Nope, I’m fine. How’s about you?”
   “Support systems are undamaged, they’re well protected. I dumped most of the ship to survive; antimatter is too dangerous to play games with. I have some sensors, but no mobility.”
   “Any missiles still on course? Can you send ’em a destruct code?”
   “They’ve all been intercepted. There was never any real danger, Uncle.”
   “‘Never any…’ Yeah, right. Don’t you go lyin’ to me, boy.”
   “Go—It was fated that we meet like this. One last time.” The shiny, unbroken bit o’ the Brain ship rippled, and handholds oozed out of the metal. “Could you come closer, please? I can barely read you. We can talk and discuss our options.”
   Lickin’ my lips, I asked. “You sure it’s safe?”
   “Uncle Eeysmarn, I’d never hurt you.”
   I snorted. “You c’n say that, after firin’ off how damn many missiles at us? You was tryin’ to kill everybody on New Ceres, me included!”
   “It was necessary.”
   “‘Necessary’, my ass!”
“Uncle, please come closer. I can explain, and we can talk. There’s a short somewhere in my receiver, I can barely hear you. I’ll lead you to a direct plug.”
   “Uncle, please, trust me.”
   I looked around, looked down at Saturn. I pondered for a moment, then I sucked some water an’ pulled myself along. I could feel a bit of give in Cæsar’s handholds—they was a mite compressible, almost like rubber.
   “Keep going around… stop… move slightly to the stern… stop.” A hatch opened, revealing dense circuitry and a conventional plug.
   Keepin’ a secure grip with one hand, I released and yanked out the direct connection cable and plugged it in. The plugs matched—no real surprise there. “Can y’ hear me, Cæsar?”
   “Thank you, that’s much better. God—Uncle—”
   Holdin’ myself there, I looked at the body of what my nephew had become. “Cæsar, what the fuck you been doin’!?”
   I’d never heard a Brain speechless before.
   There was an audible sigh in my headphones, an intake of breath even though Cæsar no longer breathed. “Uncle, New Ceres was never in any real danger.”
   “You already said that. What the fuck do you mean!?”
   “Did you monitor how many missiles I launched in a cluster?”
   “I—Yeah, no more than four. I thought it was damage—”
   “No damage. Design.”
   I hung there, Saturn loomin’ over me. “Why?”
   “Uncle, we need New Ceres to take its passengers away from Sol, and never come back.”
   Lickin’ my lips, I sucked some more water, and then scratched at my side. Damn G-suit… I wasn’t angry; instead, I was strangely calm. Maybe it was Cæsar’s voice, maybe the fact that I was driftin’ through space, powerless, further and further away from New Ceres. “That don’t make no sense.”
   “Uncle… Blast! Uncle, we have a problem.”
   “Damn straight we do!”
   “No, Uncle, a bigger problem. I’ve been rerouting, and I’ve got most of my sensors back online. We aren’t in orbit; our trajectory is decaying. In about six hours, we’re going to fall into Saturn.”
   “I…” Math flashed through my mind, collision. I estimated the mass of the Brain ship fragment and it was only a fraction of the shuttle’s mass. Lookin’ around I confirmed there was no wreckage nearby. “Fuck.”
   “I doubt New Ceres can get a rescue here in time. They launched four shuttles, I calculate that’s all that were available for flight. Two were severely damaged by my weapons fire. No casualties, I made sure to take out the engines.”
   I snorted. “That’s civilized of you.”
   “Uncle, we don’t have time for this. I have no engines; do you have anything left?”
   “Don’t think so—everythin’ in my cockpit’s offline.”
   “It’s possible we could rewire your main trunk, past the short. How much fuel do you have left?”
   “Didn’t check. Somethin’ like five seconds at full thrust.”
   “That should be more than sufficient. We can’t risk a high level of thrust anyway.”
   I nodded. “Agreed. I’m goin’ to have to unplug. You got a remote camera I c’n take? I know the basics of the systems, but it ain’t my area of expertise.”
   “I know that, Uncle!”
   “Don’t you go patronizin’ your elders, you hear!”
   “I… Sorry, Uncle. Aha! Got a reroute for my reception, not great, but much better than it was. Anyway, if you’ll grab the camera, I’ll release the arm. It has limited radio transmission, but that should be enough.”
   “You sure you know what you’re doing, nephew?”
   “Uncle! It’s all on file here. They loaded me with everything.”
   Shakin’ my head, I pulled at the camera arm and snugged it to my belt. Then I began slowly makin’ my way back towards Hermes stern, or at least what was left of it. “Cæsar, you sure they’s no radiation danger?”
   “Yes. The only part that would be dangerous is the exhaust of my drive, and that’s long gone. You’re probably getting more here from Saturn than from me.”
   I pulled myself back onto the Hermes, and felt better. Didn’t even jump when the arm of the damn camera clanked against the hull.
   “Careful there! This isn’t indestructible, and it’s the only one I have left.”
   As I continued makin’ my slow way back I asked, “So, Cæsar. Is bein’ a Brain everythin’ you wanted?”
   “I… Uncle…
   “Take yer time, son. Time we got plenty of.” Soon enough, I hit the first access panel to the main control trunks; I yanked it open, had to work at it as the metal had buckled somewhat, and shone my light in.
   “Uncle, I can’t see it.”
   “Sorry.” Keepin’ an elbow wrapped around a handhold, I pulled the camera and arm off my belt. “Cæsar, can you still control this thing? Wrap it around my arm right beside the light?”
   “Great idea! Sure.”
   “Like you hadn’t thought of it already,” I muttered. Graspin’ the thing just back of the lens, I held it against and parallel to the light. “Wrap away, just not too tight.”
   “Acknowledged.” The arm suddenly came alive, silently coilin’ and writhin’ like a snake in a power socket, wrappin’ itself snugly around my arm. “How’s that, Uncle?”
   “That’s fine. Now, let’s take a look.”
   Pullin’ my elbow out from the handle, I grasped it, and then held my right arm so that the light, and what had been my nephew, could peer in.
   “Could you move it around a little?” I did. “Telltales are all good… The short must be further aft.”
   I tried to close the panel, but it wouldn’t latch, so I left it open and continued on aft. “So Cæsar, you was goin’ to tell me about Brainhood?”
   “It’s… different. Not what I expected. The exploration is everything they promised, but it doesn’t seem so important anymore.”
   “Don’t tell me you grew out of it?”
   “I… No, grew isn’t the right word. I’m not sure how to explain it.”
   “Try me.”
   “Uncle, being a Brain is different. I think in a different manner now. Fast—”
   “No! Just… different. I know so much, can think so much, can see so many connections. The universe is a place of wonder, Uncle, but whereas you see it with your eyes, I visualize it in my mind. I see it through math, through physical relationships. I know why atoms fuse in the solar core. I know why the planets move the way they do. I know it, and that’s how I experience it. Words don’t do very well.”
   “Don’t make any sense to me.” Stoppin’, I motioned down towards the rings. “How d’ you see Saturn? How d’ you see the rings?”
   “I don’t see them. I… Well, the camera can send me a digital map of what it sees, map it into the modified sensorium of my brain, and I comprehend it. I guess that’s the best way to put it.”
   “Do you see the colors, the beauty, the magic?”
   “No. I sense the particles, billions of them, locked in their orbits by physical laws. I sense the finer dust, trapped by the Saturnian magnetosphere, darkening and brightening into spokes.”
   “You understand, but you can’t see beauty. Don’t sound like much of a trade to me.”
   “You don’t understand. Uncle. You can’t!”
   I frowned.
   “You told me once that there’s beauty in math. That’s how I sense the beauty, the elegance, the harmonic balance of forces that blend together to create this jewel below us.”
   “I think we’re at the next panel.”
   I looked down and bitterness tinged my voice. “You’re right. But then, you Brains is always right.”
   “Uncle, what’s wrong?”
   I yanked the panel open, rippin’ off one of the hinges. Then I pointed my hand in so Cæsar, the Brain, could tell me what was wrong.
   “Please, Uncle: What’s wrong?”
   Holdin’ my arm steady, I tried to calmly answer. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? I’ve worked my ass off, done everythin’ I could to be the best I could. And now, look at you. You sign a contract, you spend a few weeks being sliced and diced, and all of a sudden you’re better’n I am at damn-near everythin’. How the hell am I supposed to feel about that?”
   “Uncle, I’m still your nephew. I’m still Cæsar.”
   “Are you? How the fuck do I know? You’re an alien thing. You think differently, you process the world differently. You tell me it’s just different, but I know it’s better. And then you tell me that I can’t know unless I do it. And there’s no way back!”
   “Uncle, you could still become a Brain.”
   “And just how you think you’re gonna manage that trick?”
   “Uncle Eeysmarn, I’m not trying to avoid the conversation, but we’re short on time. The panel here indicates that the trunks for the main drive are dead. There’s a short somewhere between here and the other panel.”
“Uncle—Shean, just shut up for a minute! You feel inadequate? How do you think I feel? Here I am, talking to the person I care for the most in all the universe. Not only does he hate me, but he hates what I’ve become. And, can I talk to him to try and heal the gap? No! Because I need him to survive, and there isn’t time to do this properly!”
   “You need me? For what!?”
   “Just how do you expect me to rewire the panel? Uncle, I care for you, deeply, probably more deeply than you think. I’m floating here, listening to you, and it’s tearing my heart apart. The person I care about, that I admire the most, is in an agony of self-denial and self-hatred. Uncle, we—us Brains—we’re just different. You’re right, we’re not human anymore. Some of us think we’re better, but most of us agree that we’re just different. None of which changes the fact that you and I are out here, together, and that we need each of us to do our part to get out of this. We’re not going to be able to risk much thrust, and that means we have to act now. What you, what we have to do, is figure out how to get control signals across the gap. The main trunks are dead. Fine. But one stern RCS trunk shows live at this junction. Since it showed dead, there must be a fault further back. But, we know its line is live to this point. What we are going to do is cross-circuit the connections. We will get power, and we will survive. And the uncle about whom I care the most in this universe will save me because he is a good person and would do no less for anyone!”
   “Maybe I should just let myself die so I don’t screw up again,” I whispered.
   “Uncle, what are you talking about!?”
   “What? You don’t know what’s goin’ on on New Ceres?”
   “And how would I know that?”
   “I—Cæsar—I’m—Ah, hell, you’re right. I’m sorry. Just tell me what to do.”
   “Okay.” He led me through the splicin’ of various wires. When we was done I asked, “You sure this’ll work?”
   “It will, assuming the internal wiring hasn’t been changed from factory specifications, and assuming there are no breaks further on.”
   I nodded. “Fine. Let’s get back and I’ll see if I’ve got any control.” I started back with Cæsar, or his camera, still wrapped around my arm.
   “Uncle?” Cæsar asked. “What did you do on New Ceres that makes you want to kill yourself?”
   I stopped. It was Cæsar, remember, it was Cæsar. But he was also a Brain. But, what could it hurt? “I made a mistake.”
   “I gathered that. Try talking about it, that often helps.”
   “It was on the way to Saturn. I said somethin’… said I’d remain in charge as I was the best suited. Then it all started fallin’ apart.”
   “Uncle, why did you say that?”
   “Why? Because I’m the best person for the job that I know of! Hell, I even said that I’d quit if we found someone better.”
   “Uncle, I… That may have been the most logical decision, but it wasn’t the right decision.”
   “And what made it any less right than the Brains’ decision to quarantine the moon, lettin’ nothin’ in or out?”
   “Uncle… Yes, you should know. Let’s test the drive and see if we can get into a stable orbit. I’ll explain then.”
   Reachin’ the hatch, I pulled myself in and closed it behind me. “You sure about that, Cæsar? You’re not goin’ to just change the subject or somethin’?”
   “Uncle… No. I won’t. You know as well as I that the sooner we make a burn, the better our odds are.”
   Pullin’ myself in, I shut the hatch, and sat down in the seat. One stern RCS light did show green. As I strapped myself in, I said, “I think we’re good.” Then I plugged myself back into the shuttle oxygen supply.
   “That’s a relief. I suggest we start with two or three minimal burns; I need to work out our geometry and mass centre. Then I can see when and how to burn. I need you to do exactly what I say the instant I finish saying it. Don’t try to second guess me—I’m going to be factoring in your reaction time to the timing.”
   “How d’you know that?”
   “I’ve got a copy of your original records.”
   “You know, Cæsar, it’s things like that what really make me resent you Brains.”
   “Is it? Or were you looking for a reason after you got involved in the rebellion?”
   I didn’t answer.
   It was Cæsar who spoke up first. “Ready for the first test burn? After your acknowledgement I’ll give the instruction to ignite the engine, it should just be the center one. Start the burn when I finish saying mark. You got that?”
   I forced down resentment. Cæsar was right, timin’ was everythin’, and he was just better at it. “Acknowledged, will start burn at 0.01G at your mark.”
   “Begin in 3—2—1—Mark.”
   Flippin’ the switch, I heard a faint faint roar that was almost overwhelmed by the creak and groan of metal.
   I shut the drive off. “You know Cæsar, I’ve never heard a Brain speak like that.”
   “That burn was at the worst point of our tumble—I had to stop you immediately. Ready to try again?”
   And so it went for about ten minutes, with six separate minimal burns. Cæsar stated that was enough.
   “So there’s a way we can stabilize our orbit?” I asked.
   “There is. It won’t be a good one, but it will be a lot better than what we have now. We’re going to need fifteen separate burns, each very precise. They’re going to be close together, and we can talk after. Is that good for you?”
   “Yeah, fine. Begin when ready.”

-= 34 =-

   It took about forty-five minutes, but we managed to get ourselves out of danger. Our orbit was still decayin’, but it would take years now before we’d impact Saturn.
   “Okay, Cæsar, we ain’t fixin’ to die right this second any more. Just what the hell is going on?”
   “Do you remember the concept of a Singularity? You introduced me to it.”
   “You mean the Vernor Vinge thing?” Vinge was a twentieth-century author; he proposed the idea in Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon the Deep. The idea is, knowledge an’ technology keep on accumulatin’, an’ eventually you get to where technological change is so damn fast that if’n you put it up on a graph, you get a vertical line. Mathematically speakin’, what you got’s a ‘singularity’. And after that, well, all bets are off! Ain’t nobody has a clue—nobody can have a clue—what comes next, on account o’ there’s just too damn much utterly new stuff gettin’ thrown into the mix too damn fast.
   “That’s it. For a long time, many of us Brains have suspected that Verne’s Singularity, or something functionally identical, is upon us. And its ramifications aren’t just technological, but also psychological and sociological.”
   I shrugged. “So you Brains’ve run into a puzzle y’ can’t solve. What’s your point?”
   “The point, Uncle, is that things are changing, faster than you realize. We Brains have done what we can to minimize it, but it is occurring—and it’s accelerating. We think a lot, and there’s a lot of physics and cosmology that we understand but don’t share.”
   “So you’re hidin’ knowledge from us inferior bumpkins? What right do you have!?”
   “The same right as you, Uncle! We see a problem, and we’re taking steps to deal with it. I repeat: There’s a growing number of us who percieve the Singularity approaching. Many of us fear it. Some of us have tried to stop it, but that’s only delayed it. About fifty years ago, a plan was proposed to move all the aggressive people off of Earth to a place where they were safely away from Earth, but still accessible if needed. With the coming Singularity, that plan was changed, and transformed into a plan to make sure that Terran civilization survived it. This, us, New Ceres, is all a result of that.”
   I could sorta-kinda sense the outline of the Brains’ plan, ticklin’ against my brainstem. “And… that means…”
   “The whole reduction of safety procedures, the subtle encouragement of limited prejudice on Earth, the lunar embargo, the encouragement of immigration to New Ceres. All of that, and more, was part of a plan to get the best and brightest and most open-minded off of Earth, and into a specific location in space: New Ceres.”
   “Okay, but why hide yer agenda? Why not do it openly?”
   “I haven’t gotten to the dark part, Uncle. The plan was to force the group to leave, not just Earth, but to leave Sol entirely. Go far, far away, as we have no idea what’ll happen when we reach the Singularity. By definition, we have no way to know. And we couldn’t tell you, because then you’d want to stay, to become Brains and see what happens. Those who wouldn’t want to be Brains would have a very low probability of surviving the journey. We had to manipulate a group of people to want to destroy us Brains, but not the Earth, and that would want to leave the system.”
   “We’re your experiment!? But we left—why the hell did you attack us?”
   “Uncle, you need to leave the Solar System. Go away, at least as far as Alpha Centauri, preferably further. The highest probability for successful colonization that we know of is orbiting Zeta Tucanae.”
   “It’s kinda ironic, but goin’ there was the plan I originally proposed.”
   “We knew. We also thought your execution was somewhat lacking, so we planned to attack you to force you to leave. The original plan had been for Mike to be killed leading a revolution, but you took us by surprise. And you solved the last problem we couldn’t solve.”
   “Two things you Brains couldn’t do?”
   “More than that, Uncle, but only two that are relevant to the situation at hand. One: We didn’t know about your rebellion. We’d flagged certain… anomalies… that were arguably suggestive of your true agenda, but everything you did was within one or two sigmas of normal, non-rebellion-related, behavior. Two: We couldn’t figure out how to get you to not go the route us Brains are taking. Fortunately, your revolution took care of that. And your revolting on your own solved the problem of how to get you to not go the route us Brains are taking. To find your own fork in the road.”
   “And so you manipulated us. Drove us to hate you, to plot against you, to resent you so much that we’d never contemplate creating our own Brains. You made sure there was no equipment on New Ceres to create Brains.”
   “Shean, there is. Mike had it, in case there was a desperate need.”
   “Doesn’t matter if he’s dead. Critical components of it would have been destroyed when he was killed.”
   “Okay. Fine. Just more lies to make us hate you.”
   “It was necessary, Uncle. Anyway, when you decided to stay around Saturn, we had to take action. As I said, we knew that you were in charge and—”
   “The fuckin’ bastards made you come!?”
   “No, Uncle. I volunteered.”
   “You trained me too well. Of all the Brains, I know you the best. And, I also know that I would do everything to keep you from getting hurt. There was nobody else I could trust with that task.”
   “Sounds familiar…”
   “It should. So I launched with two slave decoy ships, followed by repair and refueling ships. And you know the rest.”
   “Well, then. What now, Cæsar?”
   “Uncle, you stay here. Let them think you’re dead. They can go on their way.”
   “You want to kill me? I only got air for th’ next eight hours and fifty-two minutes.”
   “Uncle, I’m not stupid.”
   “We’ve developed a drug, it’s part of the Brain conversion process. It reduces mammalian metabolism to minimal levels; this is necessary so that the brain is as quiescent as possible during the operation. I have a supply with me. A supply more than large enough to inject you. After metabolic reduction, that nine hours of air will last you years.”
   “The repair ships will come, rendezvous with me, repair my engines, and I can take us both back to Earth. There you can become a Brain, get your own ship, and we can explore the system, and see what happens when the singularity comes. We can be together!”
   New Ceres doesn’t need you. You’ve done your part. They’ll think—”
   “Are they all right!?”
   “Instruments indicate that they destroyed all the missiles I launched.”
   “I have to warn you that there is only a 95% chance of this succeeding. You aren’t in the sterile and controlled environment of a lab. And of course there will be radiation damage from Saturn and the Sun.”
   “Cæsar, just shut up a—”
   A staticky voice burst in: “—lling Shean Eeysmar. If you can read ple—” More static as the voice faded out before fading back in. It took five cycles before I was able to piece together the whole message. “This is New Ceres calling Shean Eeysmarn. If you can read please respond. We need a signal to locate you for recovery—we can’t stay around long in case the approaching ships attack. Repeating…”
   “Uncle! They’re leaving! You can come with me!”
   “Don’t respond. They’ll think you’re dead.”
   “Stay with—”
   “Cæsar, shut up!”
   Silence, but for the fading in and out of Megan’s voice tryin’ to reach me.
   “Cæsar, you want me to become like you. You want me to become somebody capable of usin’ people like pawns on a chessboard for the greater good. I can’t do that! I don’t know how you can do that!”
   “What is the value of one sophont over billions?”
   “I know the math, goddamnit! It’s not the way I am though! It’s evil! And I taught you better than that!”With that, I disconnected from the shuttle’s oxygen supply and started pullin’ myself out of the control cabin.
   “What are you doing, Uncle?”
   “I’m goin’ to signal Megan and arrange to be picked up.”
   “And I’ll make sure that you’re unhurt. Cæsar…” I stopped for a moment to secure my safety line. “Cæsar, you made your choice. I wish you the best, really, and I’ll make sure they leave you and the other ships alone. But I can’t live the way you do. And they need me.”
   “They don’t!”
   “Yes, they do. Who knows what’s gonna happen?”
   “There are other competent people on board.”
   “But how competent? Cæsar, I don’t know you anymore. You may have an intellect far, far above mine, but you got shit for wisdom. I’m not much better off, but I’m learnin’. First thing I’m goin’ to do when I get back, is read some basic psychology books so I don’t screw up again.”
   “But you can stay with me—we can be together for centuries! We can see what lies in the future!”
   “Temptin’ offer… but the price is too damn high, Cæsar.” By then I’d reached the shuttle’s bow, and was lookin’ over the wreckage of Cæsar. Megan’s voice was much clearer and I switched the transmit to maximum emergency power on her frequency. “Megan, this is Shean, I’ve got your message. I’m fine for another eight hours or so, that’s when my air runs out. Can you pick me up by then. Megan, this is Shean repeatin’ message. I’m fine—”
   “Shean! You’re alive!”
   “Yeah, I am.”
   “We need you to keep transmitting so we can triangulate your location. Can you manage that?”
   “Not a problem. Don’t know what to say, so I guess I’ll just count. One, two—”
   “At least it won’t distract you, Megan. Now, where was I? Three, four—”
   I reached one hundred and eighteen before Megan burst out, “We’ve got you, Shean! One of our shuttles will rendezvous with you in about ninety-five minutes. You going to be good till then?”
   “I’ll be fine. I’m going to cut transmission to save power. Have the pilot call on this frequency when he’s close.”
   “Acknowledged, Captain. We’ll see you soon. New Ceres out.”
   “Uncle, is there anything I can say that will change your mind?”
   “I’m sorry, Cæsar, but no. You have your road, and I have mine.”
   He paused. “They told me this would happen.”
   “They did?”
   “The senior Brains in charge of this. But… I had to try.”
   “Of course.”
   “I need to ask you something then, since you’re going back. Mike was supposed to transmit a signal upon his termination; the action would be completely involuntary, rather like your autonomic functions. But we never received that signal. Do you know what happened to Mike?”
   Snortin’, I turned away, lookin’ at the stars. “Yes, I do, Cæsar. I shot him.”
   “You… what!?”
   “I did it. I hate the fact that I did, but I did. Blood called for blood. It ain’t somethin’ I’m proud of.”
   “In his vault.”
   “Impossible! If you had, we’d have received the transmission. Uncle, I don’t think Mike’s dead. You have to find him, and you have to make sure. I’ll give you his frequency—”
   “If he’s alive and he gains control of New Ceres, then everything will be for nothing! You’ll come back onto our path.”
   “If he knows the plan, why would he do that?”
   “I don’t know—but you need to make sure. You have to make sure!”

-= 35 =-

   Cæsar, well, there ain’t much more to say. His orbit was stable enough, he’d be fine until the repair ships could rendezvous with him. When they came to pick me up we left the Hermes and Cæsar. We could have salvaged her, but New Ceres was acceleratin’, and with the extra mass, we wouldn’t have the range to bring her home. I remember sittin’ there in the transport compartment, lookin’ out a window as Cæsar and the Hermes receeded behind us… I knew I’d never fly again, knew that I’d never see Earth or Cæsar or my family again. Then I resumed scratchin’ the itches left behind by that damnable G-suit.
   We docked with New Ceres without no problems; she was acceleratin’ at 0.1 G out of the system to give us some distance and time to think. Wasn’t even time to shower before they ran me a quick checkup to show I only had bruises, and then I grabbed them all, cloppin’ my way with Megan and Comet, who just glared at me, into the school’s holotank room. Jonny, Phil and Kirri was waitin’.
   I motioned everybody to seats. “Status, Megan?” The old reflexes came back and I had no trouble standing admidst the changing accelerations.
   “We have one operational shuttle, three that have been salvaged and are under repair. By some miracle we suffered zero casualties. By my order, New Ceres is accelerating for Neptune.”
   “Not Uranus?”
   “Uranus wasn’t in a good position, and there are ice bodies around Neptune we can use.”
   “Phil—any damage to New Ceres?”
   “None, sir. And let me say, it’s good to have you back.”
   Comet was still glarin’.
   “Jonny, you got any idea what people want to do?”
   He looked at me, and furtively scratched at one of his antlers. “There hasn’t been much time, but people are scared. Kirri suggested we hide the occurrence of the battle, but I refused. The people want to run, but nobody knows where.”
   “Phil, what shape we in for supplies?”
   “We’re full, sir. I didn’t dump the water, kept it as an emergency close-in defense in case everything else failed. We’ve got enough nukes on board to stay at this acceleration for about a year. Water, air, food… well, if we get the ecosystem going, we should be good for two centuries, maybe three.”
   “We need to talk to the Brains,” Kirri said. “Explain to them that this is a misunderstanding, that we want to come home—”
   “Anybody else think so?” I looked around at the silent faces. “Fine. The Brain pilotin’ the ship I rammed offered us a deal.”
   “A deal, sir?”
   I sighed. On my way back, I’d thought about tellin’ the truth. About how everybody had been used. The thought of how people might react made my spine run cold. So, back to lies and half-truths… A small step, a necessary step. And the last one. “They don’t trust us. They’re afraid that we might take action against them.”
   “We’d never do that!” Kirri shouted.
   “They don’t know that! How many nukes we got onboard, Phillip? How many of the pellets from those upgraded mass drivers would survive to reach Earth’s surface? As I recall, Einsteinian time dilation wouldn’t give them time to burn up. They want us gone! Gone so far that we can’t threaten them.”
   “And how far is that, horse?”
   “Out of the system entirely. They suggest Zeta Tucanae.”
   Megan was silent and pulled up the data we had into the holotank. “Shean, do you realize that it’s just over 28 light years away? Assuming six months at 0.1 G, we reach about 0.05 c; at that speed it’ll take us 560 years!”
   “Zeta Tucanae has the most earth-like planet detected by the survey,” I answered.
   “We don’t have enough resources!” Jonthan burst out.
   “And we ain’t got any choice, neither! If we don’t leave the solar system, utterly, with continuous acceleration, the Brains keep on sendin’ ships after us. Eventually they’ll get lucky.”
   “But how will we survive!?” Jonthan was standin’ and shoutin’.
   “There’s ice between the stars—the Oort clouds intermingle. We’ll just have to mine along the way. Findin’ one we can match velocities with, that’s gonna be a bitch. It also means we may have to slow down and take longer, damnit, but time is one thing we’re not short on.”
   “But… Zeta Tucanae, Captain!?”
   “You all know the Planetary Survey as well as I do! Sure, we can reach Alpha Centauri in a century, but then what? There ain’t nothin’ there other’n rocks an’ ice. If we stop along the way, the trip will take longer. Since we’re stuck inside New Ceres for th’ duration, we might as well go for what offers us the best hope of a livable planet!”
   They all looked at me.
   “Yeah, our choices suck. But if we do leave, the Brains have promised to call off all pursuit. They’ll also send us all the technical and scientific knowledge they have. Our choices are simple: We stay near Sol and continue to fight; we go and take out Earth, wiping out the billions there; we go to a near star and live in New Ceres forever; or we go for a new world. Which do you want it to be!?”
   There was silence, and only Kirri looked at me, fire in her eyes.
   “I’m hopin’ I learned somethin’ out there. Megan, plot a course around Neptune towards Zeta Tucanae. It’s as good a course as any right now. Jonny, you put it to th’ people, give them the stark choices. Let ’em vote. I’m not dictatin’ anythin’ unless we’re in a crisis—and we ain’t!”
   Kirri looked at me. “Shean, you’re lying. The Brains will take us back. We just have to ask.”
   “No Kirri, they won’t. And even if they would, the people on New Ceres won’t agree. But, fine, we can add that to the referendum. We can petition the Brains to return home, accept our punishment, give up our freedom, trust them to treat us well.”
   “Aren’t you trusting them not to go after us?” Kirri screamed.
   “What I’m trusting is self-interest: We leave for Zeta T, an’ there’s no money in takin’ us out. We’ll be gone, out of the game for six hundred years. Six hundred years ago people was still explorin’ North America with muskets! Who the hell knows where the Brains’ll be in that time? Who the hell knows if we’ll even survive? The cold fact is that if they do make some kind of fundamental breakthrough, FTL or somethin’ like that, then they can get to any place we want to go before we get there. In that case we’ll just have to hide in the Oort cloud. Still, I think we should take the chance. What’ve we got t’ lose?”
   “Horse, I’m behind you.”
   “And I, Shean.”
   “And I, Captain,” Phil finished.
   Jonthan sighed. “I don’t know what the people will say, Captain, but you’re right in that we don’t have a heck of a lot of choice.”
   I looked around. “Well, you all got your jobs, so go an’ do them. Jonny, you think I should comment on this? In my own words, I mean.”
   “Sure, Captain. You’ve got the presence, and your word carries weight.”
   “I’ll work somethin’ out then. Is tomorrow evening fine?”
   “Horse, I suggest two days from now.”
   “That so, Comet?”
   “Your tail is grown—you can get it implanted and have it for the speech. It’ll show that you believe in the future, and that you believe we can do it.”
   “I… Sure, it can’t hurt.” I looked around at everybody. “Well, get crackin’!”
   Kirri had already left, and I watched as everybody except Comet followed. “What do you think, Comet?”
   “I think it’s all we got. But first,” he grabbed me and spun me around t’ face him, “I owe you this.”
   And with that he slugged me. Hard. So hard that I was slammed back into the holotank. For a moment I stood there, holdin’ myself up against the tank, shakin’ my muzzle to clear it. Comet just looked at me, body alert and ready, but neither movin’ or advancin’. “What the hell was that for!?”
   “That, horse, was for scaring the shit out of me, and out of everybody else. Don’t you ever fucking do anything like that ever again! You hear me!?”
   I slowly nodded. “Or?”
   “I’ll slug you again until you get some sense into that thick skull of yours! You got me!?”
   Raisin’ my hand, I gingerly touched the bruise he’d raised. “I’m better now.”
   “You’d goddamn well better be, horse! Now, come along, we have a speech to write.”
   “But what about Kirri?”
   “I don’t know. I can’t arrest her. I guess I can have her followed, for her own protection.”
   “Comet, if she speaks against this, don’t stop her, it’s her right.”
   “It’s her right! I made one fuckin’ mistake—”
   “And now you’re going to make another?”
   “And now I’m gonna do it right. If she sways enough people so a majority vote to stay, then I’ll do what I can. There is no way in hell we can survive to reach another star unless everybody is willin’. And, given what happened earlier, it has to be this way. You got that?”
   “Let’s go back to my apartment. I need a shower, a burger, and then I need to write the speech.”
   “Good, horse. Lead on.”
   The next two days passed quickly. The speech was easy. Comet wanted to touch it up a mite, but I refused. It had to come from the heart, and makin’ fancy words wouldn’t help that. Gettin’ my tail back was easy. They just brought me in, laid me down on a cold table, knocked me out… and when I woke up my ass hurt like the dickens, and my tail was back. Of course I could feel it, but I couldn’t move it, at least not the way I wanted. That’d take time.
   And then it was time for the speech. This time it was in front of City Hall, same place Phil had gotten shot. I was as nervous as hell, but not for Comet’s reason. He was as nervous as I was that somebody’d shoot me, but I’d told him that if somebody wanted me dead that bad, well then we’d better let them get it done, ’cause they’d get me eventually. As for me, I’d never spoken in front of this many people before. Sure, just as many people had watched the funeral, but this was different. I could see them all standin’ there. Hell, it looked like just about everybody on New Ceres was standin’ there. My tail jerked behind me, I wanted to whip it back and forth, but sometimes it moved, and sometimes it didn’t. I ignored it, closed my eyes, opened them, and looked into the distance, focusin’ on the lights, focusin’ on the walls, focusin’ on anythin’ but the people.
   “I…” Ah, hell. Just concentrate. “You all know why you’re here, though I’m not sure why. I’m just somebody with their own opinion.
   “The choice we have is simple. We can stay here, fight again and again, and, eventually, we lose. There’s fifteen thousand of us, and twenty billion of them. We can try to go back, submit to their rule, admit that we were all wrong to try and live free, admit that we were afraid to live free.
   “Or we can go on the greatest adventure sophontkind has ever faced.
   “Not too long ago our beloved Mayor Guthurn stood here. He wanted to make peace with the Brains.” The crowd growled. “It’s too late for that now, as much as some of us’d wish otherwise. And, given what we face now, I believe that Mayor Guthurn would be standin’ here beside me, sayin’ what I’m tellin’ you now, but so much better than I’ll ever know how to.
   “I don’t know why you’re all here listenin’ to me. We all have work to do, lives to live, dreams to fulfill. I’ve started on mine, I got my tail back. Yeah, it seems a small thing to all of you, but to me it’s somethin’. It’s hope for the future, a statement that I’ll be my own person. That I won’t be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.
   “Why should we do this? Because it’s a dream. A dream that all of us children of Earth share. A dream that we can achieve, the greatest dream our race ever had.
   “Sure, it’ll be hard—it’ll be fuckin’ hard. But we’re good enough to take the hard choice against the easy one. The hard choice that gives us the opportunity to build a new civilization in the open, to live where we can look up at the skies, and see the stars. The odds are against us; most likely we’ll die cold and lonely in the void between the stars. And yet… what’s wrong with that? Better to die tryin’ to fulfill the greatest of dreams, than to whimper back to our masters provin’ that we’re too young to be out on our own.
   “Given the options, my choice is clear. I will not go back. I will not fight the losing battle. I will go for the dream. For the dream of my children fifty generations removed. For the dream of living free!”
   When I was finished the crowd roared, and my ears burned with embarrassment. It didn’t surprise me none that the vote was eighty-two percent in favor of going to Zeta Tucanae.

-= 36 =-

   Cæsar was right that the transmission was short-range, and I’d nearly given up hope of findin’ it. Comet was convinced I was insane. But then I got the signal.
   It was three months later. New Ceres was far, far beyond Pluto. The Brains had started transmission, and I’d directed it be received in an isolated system and examined and transcribed by hand. Maybe I trusted Cæsar, but the other Brains? Like hell! I wasn’t taking any chances. I’d adjusted to life with a tail again, even though I’d had to relearn how to sleep on my side, was still banging it into things, and I hated shampooin’ it. Still, it did make me look quite dashin’.
   “Oh my God—”
   “What is it, horse?”
   “I got it. By God, I got it!” I held the receiver so that Comet could see the needle registering the signal at the frequency Cæsar had given me.
   “You sure it’s not just a loose electrical cable or something?”
   “Seems too steady for that.”
   Comet cocked his machine pistol with a metallic kaclunk. “And I take it you don’t want to wait for backup?”
   I waved around at the pipes and rough stone walls. “What d’ you think?” We were deep in the storage areas near the bow. There’s miles of tunnels and caverns carved into the rock to store water, materials, fuel, supplies, parts of the shuttles, and who knows what else. Most of them had never been used after bein’ carved out.
   “I didn’t think so.” Reachin’ into the pack, he pulled out a second machine pistol and handed it to me. “This is yours.”
   “Now wait—”
   “You take it, or I drag you away and we send security in.”
   “But—You know what’ll happen if it’s known that Mike, a Brain, is still alive! They’ll tear him to shreds.”
   “Is that a bad thing, horse?”
   “It’s the wrong thing.”
   “Why did I know you were going to say that… Well, lead on. I’ll watch your back.”
   It took us another hour to figure out exactly where the signal was, as the place was a tangle of passages, storage areas, and crawl ways. Basically, whatever’d got carved out when they first entered New Ceres’ hollow interior.
   “I think it’s beyond this door, Comet.”
   “Fine. You stay here, I’m going in first, horse.”
   “Shhh! You shut up and you listen. I’m going first because I’m expendable, and you’re not. Yeah, I understand why we have to try and do this ourselves, and I understand that we probably won’t find anything but support equipment, but that doesn’t matter. So you’re going to wait here till I tell you to come in. And if I die or scream, you’re going to go and get help. You got me, horse?”
   “Yeah, I got you.”
   “Fine.” Comet carefully tried the door, but it was locked—and not with an electronic lock either, but an old-fashioned mechanical key lock. I watched as Comet pulled out two needles and began fiddling with it.
   “What the hell you doin’ there?”
   “I may not have been completely honest with you about my first master… Now, shut up and let me work. Hmm… Let’s see now… There. Got it.” The door clicked open. “You wait here, you hear me, horse?”
   I nodded, and watched as he pushed the door open and slipped in. There was light in the room. From inside I heard Comet’s voice: “Jesus Christ, Kirri, what the fucking hell are you doing!?”
   Kirri? Had she found the Brains first? Rememberin’ some caution, I peeked in. I could see Comet standin’ there, facing Kirri, and she was crouched behind one of the two Brain cylinders in the room, apparently nude, and holdin’ a machine pistol just like Comet’s. She was aimin’ it at him. Each of the cylinders glistened with frost, although the one Kirri was hidin’ behind had been polished along part of its surface.
   Two cylinders? Two Brains?
   I could see more equipment behind the Brains, a cluster of mechanical arms with cuttin’ blades at their ends, and thick tubes and cables glistenin’ with liquid comin’ from the ceilin’ and goin’ into the two Brain cases.
   “Comet, I really wish you hadn’t found me,” she said. “Now I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you.”
   “How the hell could you do that? It’s just so wrong!”
   “I did it because the Brains are better leaders than Shean or anybody else will be! And I did it because I love Mike!”
   “Kirri,” it was Mike’s calm voice, “You do not love me. What you do, what you were doing, not only is it a perversion of God, but it confirms your deep psychological need to be the Beta in your society.”
   Another calm voice— Doc’s voice! “Kirri, in God’s name listen to me. Let us call for help for you.”
   “Shean!” Kirri screeched. “You get your fucking tail in here right now or I’ll kill your lackey, you hear me!?”
   “Horse, you stay the fuck out! Go and get help!”
   “Shean, is that you?” Doc asked. “As God is my witness, I knew you’d come. Kirri is insane.”
   “Shean Eeysmarn, it’s logical, and God’s will, that you go and get help. Kirri won’t hurt Doc or myself. You’re too important to die. Go and get help.”
   For a second I thought about it. Leavin’ now to get help was the logical and safe course—the logical and safe course that would likely cost Comet his life. I couldn’t do it. Holdin’ the machine pistol at the ready, I called out, “Okay Kirri, you win, I’m comin’ in.”
   “Don’t you fucking dare, horse!”
   I moved in, slowly, rubber-shod hooves squeakin’ hollowly on the floor, and watched the room open in front of me. There was a massive coffin, maybe twice the size of the tallest sophont, that had been out of sight, I figured it was the Brain conversion machinery. Lickin’ my lips, I looked at the naked form of the vixen I’d once, maybe, cared for, and then asked, “Kirri, what are you doin’ here?”
   “Shean, you shouldn’t have rejected me.” Her tail was partially wrapped around one of the Brain cases. “Guess I should explain what’s going on…”
   I kept my gun leveled. “Guess you should, Kirri. So talk. Did you hide Mike? Did you kidnap Doc?”
   Doc’s voice spoke out: “By God’s will she did kidnap me, Shean.”
   “Don’t trust her, horse!”
   Turnin’, I looked at the other cylinder, the one away from Kirri. “Doc, is that really you?”
   “In the brain, so to speak.”
   “Kirri, why’d you do it?”
   “Shean—” She looked around, her muzzle pointin’ at me, and then at Comet, and then at the Brain I figured was Mike, “I—Mike told me to!”
   “What?” Comet and I both asked.
   “I merely suggested that God might look more favorably upon her if I died when the time was right, rather than when you burst in upon me with your concerns over Darrvid,” Mike stated.
   Pointin’ my gun towards Mike’s cylinder, I focused on it, aiming for the spot where mist was just beginnin’ to condense. “Mike, I—okay, fine. I wasn’t fully in control then. I admit it. Maybe—”
   “Captain! Look out!”
   The room filled with the stacatto roar of gunfire as Comet threw himself against me, his gun roaring at Kirri as Kirri’s gun roared at us. Pain lanced through my arm and I fell under Comet as he screamed in pain. I could feel the force of each bullet pressin’ against his vest, diggin’ into his chest; the scent of his hot blood filled my nostrils and I fired wildly towards where I thought Kirri was. She screamed, don’t know if it was from me, or from Comet, and her gun clattered to the floor, thunkin’ down on top of spent cartridges which rattled at its impact. Shovin’ my muzzle out so I could see, I saw Kirri on the floor, reachin’ for her gun, and I fired at her, sendin’ slug after slug into her naked flesh until she collapsed, her last breath gurglin’ out into the spreadin’ pool of her blood.
   There was silence, and I forced my finger to relax around the trigger of the empty pistol.
   “God works in mysterious ways,” Mike commented.
   I wiggled a bit from underneath Comet’s blood-soaked body and checked his pulse, his breath. Nothin’—as I’d expected. My lips started tremblin’ and my vision blurred; I gasped for breath. A part of me said this was how Comet would’a wanted to go, that it was his choice, that his acceptance of me as his master was his choice. I hadn’t even realized that before, but it made too much sense. Sure, he’d been free, but first he’d served Williard, and then he’d served me. It explained so much…
   “Shean, I sense that you’re wounded. Since God wants you alive, I suggest you bind your wound before you lose consciousness,” Doc stated.
   My eyes turned cold and I gritted my teeth. “That’s all we are to you! Pieces to move around on a board! And, if one dies, well then, there’s more where that one came from!”
   “Shean,” Mike said, “God has taken Comet and allowed you to live. It makes no logical sense to throw that gift away.”
   “Fuck you! Fuck all of you! Fuck your whole holier than thou attitude! Kirri was better than the best o’ you!” I struggled to breathe, the scent of Comet, of his blood, of his desperation, rich in my nostrils. And not a hint of fear, not a single trace. Tears spilled from me and I sobbed, moanin’, screamin’, cursin’. At least the damn Brains had enough sense to just shut up and let me work through it. I beat on the floor, kicked and clopped my hooves like a madman, lettin’ the pain of my wound slowly bring me back to myself. Still unable to see, I slowly wiggled out from under Comet, my clothes, my fur, soaked with his blood. My only wounds was in my left arm; crimson was oozin’ out and I decided not to touch it. I’d have to get it looked at later. Two bullets had gone in and at least one was still there. Drawin’ Comet’s knife, I pulled off my blood-soaked shirt and cut it into strips, and then wrapped it tightly around my arm. I rubbed the tears from my eyes, or tried to—all I really did was soak my muzzle in blood. Blinkin’ out tears, eventually, I was able to see again.
   “Has God given you enough time to talk sense?” Mike asked.
   “Can you two just can it with the fuckin’ God shit!?” I fumbled around and grabbed my machine pistol, the metal soaked in blood. Slippin’ out the empty cartridge, I slammed in a fresh one from Comet’s belt.
   “Shean,” Doc began, “we use the God shit, as you call it, because God exists.”
   That brought me up short. “You’re shittin’ me.”
   “No, Shean, we are not shitting you,” Mike stated. “The first Brains discovered that they could network, become a single gestalt entity. When they did that, they found that they could sense… something. A guiding and protecting hand—the hand of God. A source of goodness and hope, a kindly father watching his children take their first steps. Even now, we Brains, Doc, myself, can sense that hand looking over us.”
   I glared at the Brain-boxes. “If’n you’re right, this ‘guiding hand’ o’ yours might as well have shot Mayor Guthurn itself. You call that a ‘kindly father’? You’re insane!”
   “Shean, I didn’t believe it at first either,” Doc answered. “But it’s there. I can’t deny it. And, once a thing is proven, one must accept it. God exists, and He watches over us.”
   Wavin’ my arm around at the dead, at the blood, I screamed, “And He lets all this happen!?”
   “In God’s name, why haven’t we left Sol yet, Shean?” Mike asked.
   I blinked. “Huh?”
   “According to Kirri,” the Doc answered, “we’re still in Saturn orbit.”
   “Shean,” Mike said, “you have to leave. It’s God’s will.”
   “Stop it! Both o’ you!”
   For a moment there was silence except for the dripping of water slidin’ off their brain cases.
   Then I spoke up. “We left Saturn three months back. We’re long gone from Sol—somethin’ like 430 AUs out.”
   “Well, that’s much better,” said Mike. “I guess I can tell you things—”
   “Maybe so, but you best hush up for th’ moment. Mike, Doc, I met Cæsar at Saturn. My neph-
   “Cæsar Eeysmarn Santher?” Mike asked. “I knew he was going to undergo the conversion—”
   “Good for him,” Doc said.
   “Well, I talked to him at Saturn. He told me all about how you Brains set us up fifty years ago—first to get all us misfits out o’ the way, and then as a kind o’ backup plan for if the Singularity went wrong.”
   “So, Shean, did you order New Ceres to leave? Is there another revolt brewing?” Mike asked.
   “What the fuck has Kirri been telling you? I put it to a public vote, an’ the majority voted to leave. Was a mite dicey, even with the other choices bein’ to surrender to the Brains, or get ready t’ fight off assault after assault.”
   “Good for you, Shean. I just wish the cost hadn’t been so high,” Doc said. “As for you, Mike, it’s my guess that you’re still alive because you didn’t know the Brains had won.”
   “Shean,” Mike said, “you need to kill me.”
   “Excuse me?” the Doc asked.
   “When Kirri moved me, she removed the circuity I controlled that would end my life support. You’ll have to do it.”
   “Now just wait a God-blessed minute!” Doc said. “Nobody else alive knows we’re here; is that not right, Shean?”
   “Leave us here. We can advise you, help you out. We can be your secret weapon to help you succeed. Where is God sending us, by the way?”
   “They voted for Zeta Tucanae.”
   “Because of the known planet,” Mike said. “Same atmosphere depth, same O2 ratio from the spectrographic analysis, nearly the same spectral type of primary. I just wish we could figure out what the spectrographic binary—”
   “Shean, it’s best if you shoot me repeatedly. Make it look like violence—it’ll make your position more secure.”
   “God damn you all! You’re lookin’ at your own deaths in a logical, analytical fashion!?”
   “Shean,” Doc said, “everything boils down to logic. And it is more logical for me, for us, to stay here. We can help you!”
   “Shut up! Shut up, the both o’ you! Yeah, you could be a help. And then you’d become a crutch. And finally we go back down your route. An’ somewhere down the line, folk start gettin’ converted t’ Brains because that’s the way the society would be forced to go! No way in hell that’s gonna happen!”
   “Shean,” Doc said, “I think God needs you to look at this rationally.”
   “What the fuck d’y’ think I’m doin’, Doc!? You got any notion what happens when the Earthside Brains hit that Singularity? ’Course y’ don’t! Nobody does, not even you high-an’-mighty Brains. For all any of us know, you could both be swept up in some holy miracle that just happens t’ fry everythin’ around you, including New Ceres!”
   “That is a possibility, Shean, but it’s extremely unlikely,” th’ Doc said.
   I jus’ stared—couldn’t do nothin’ else for a moment… “I don’t believe the two of you! I ain’t nobody’s toy, I’m sick an’ tired o’ bein’ your pawn, and it damn-all ends here! I just got one question before I kill th’ both o’ you bastards: Which o’ you ordered Mayor Guthurn shot?”
   “I did, Shean. It was necessary for the rebellion, which, in turn, meant that it was necessary for the greater good,” the Doc said, calm an’ unruffled-like.
   “I did, Shean,” Mike answered, just as calm as the Doc. “It was mandatory that a rebellion succeed. Therefore, the Mayor’s belief in a peaceful resolution could not be allowed to continue. Had he succeeded, as analysis suggested he would, no rebellion would have occurred.”
   I stared at them both. “Good fuckin’ God… And neither o’ you got no apology? No remorse?”
   Not a word. Just the drippin’ of water. And then the Doc spoke: “Shean, what gives you the right to just execute us?”
   I stared at them. “What gives me the right? What the hell gives you the goddamn right!? I’m doin’ it because it has to be done. I’m here, it’s my responsibility, and I hope you both rot in fuckin’ hell!”
   Comet had ten clips on him. I put five into each of the bastards.

-= Epilogue =-

   So there y’ go. Figgered I’d leave this with you. It’s locked so’s only the Captain can access it. Do with it what you will; it’s more or less the truth, as best I could make it. Not much of a story, though. No heroes, no villains. Some good guys lose, some bad guys win, and some of the guilty remain unpunished.
   I ended up not wreckin’ the Brainifyin’ machinery—couldn’t see any reason to, and I was afraid we might need it some day. Ceasar was right about it goin’ down when Mike went, but if we need it bad enough to fix it, we need it real bad. I managed to sneak it out, gettin’ it around the blood and the bodies. You need it, you talk to me, because there’s no way I’m recordin’ that info. But if’n you do need it, that means you failed. You think on that.
   What about Earth and the Brains? Hell if I know. They started out beamin’ information our way, like they agreed to. But one day they just… stopped. That was the same time we picked up a burst of radio coverin’ the whole spectrum, from Earth. Since then, we ain’t heard nothin’. Damn if I know what happened. I think they hit the Singularity, but there’s no way to tell. And as for their God, well, I got no clue on that, either. Could be an actual deity, but I figure it’s the soul of all the races what lived before us, reached the same point, and had their own Singularity. By definition, we can’t know…
   Like Yogi Berra said: When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Well, we took our fork. As for the Brains’ fork, it done left the highway. Just like we got our own forks; you t’ lead the ship, an’ me t’ take it easy in retirement. The Doc left me everythin’, so I got a house, a fountain to watch, a statue o’ me in the west corner of New Ceres park to keep clean, and lots o’ books to read. I’m usin’ the house for me an’ the rest of my genus. We’re goin’ to raise the herd there. It’ll keep us busy.
   Other things… Phil’s buildin’ a pair o’ antimatter breeders outside the hull, opposite sides o’ the Rock. For the Orion drive, anti-matter’s just as good as any other explosive—it’ll let us get up to 0.1 c and we can make Zeta Tucanae in a touch more’n a century, ship time. If somethin’ goes wrong, we c’n always toss the reactors. Get Phil t’ brief you.
   It’s kinda sad, all things considered. The other pilots are in deep sleep, usin’ the Brains’ drug; maybe I’ll join ’em, wake up with ’em when we arrive. Maybe not. I made too many mistakes, and fuck if I’ll carry ’em into the future. But I ain’t complainin’; leastways I got a home o’ my own, better’n a room with nothin’ to do but stare at vid. Hey, I might even try some o’ that grass in the park. Doctors say it’ll be good for my digestion…

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