Lois McMaster Bujold, "FALLING FREE"

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Chapter 4

The dim cargo bay seemed to groan all around Claire as deceleration strained its structure. Buffeting, accompanied by a hissing whistle, vibrated through the shuttle's metal skin.

"What's wrong?" gasped Claire. She released an anchoring hand upon the plastic crate behind which they had hidden to double her grasp of Andy and hold him closer. "Are we sideswiping something? What's that funny noise?"

Tony hurriedly licked a ringer and held it out. "No draft to speak of." He swallowed, testing his eustachican tubes. "We're not depressurizing." Yet the whistle was rising.

Two mechanical ka-chunks, one after the other, that were nothing at all like the familiar thump and click of a hatch seal seating itself properly, shot terror through Claire. The deceleration went on and on, much too long, confused by a strange new vector of thrust that seemed to emanate from the shuttle's ventral side. The side of the cargo bay to which the crates were anchored seemed to push against her. She nervously put her back to it, and cushioned Andy upon her belly.

The baby's eyes were round, his mouth an echoing "o" of bewilderment. No, please, don't start crying! She dared not release the cry locked in her own throat; it would set him off like a siren. "Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man," Claire choked. "Microwave a cake as fast as you can ..." She tickled his cheek, flicking her eyes at Tony in mute appeal.

Tony's face was white. "Claire—I think this shuttle's going downside! I bet those bangs were the airfoils deploying."

"Oh, no! Can't be. Silver checked the schedule—"

"It looks like Silver made a big mistake."

"I checked it too. This shuttle was supposed to be picking up a load of stuff at the Transfer Station, then going downside."

"Then you both made a big mistake." Tony's voice was harsh and shaking, anger masking fear.

Oh, help, don't yell at me—if I don't stay calm, neither will Andy—this wasn't my idea. . . .

Tony rolled over on his stomach and levered his body away from the thrusting surface of the—the floor, downsiders called the direction from which the vector of gravitational force came—and crept to the nearest window, pulling himself alongside it. The light that poured through it was taking on a strange diffuse quality, diminishing. "It's all white—Claire, I think we must be entering a cloud!"

Claire had watched clouds from orbit above forl hours, as they slowly billowed in the convection of Rodeo's atmosphere. They had always seemed massive as moons. She longed to go look.

Andy was clutching her blue T-shirt. She rolled over, as Tony had, palms to the surface, and pushed up. Andy, turning his head toward his father, reached out with his upper hands and tried to shove off from Claire with his lowers. The floor leaped up and smacked him.

For a moment he was too stunned to howl. Then his little mouth went from round to square and poured out the vibrating scream of true pain. The sound knifed through every nerve in Claire's body.

Tony too jerked at the noise, and scrambled down from the window and back toward them. "Why did you drop him? What do you think you're doing? Oh, make him be quiet, quick!"

Claire rolled onto her back again, pulling Andy onto the elastic softness of her abdomen, and patted and kissed him frantically. The timbre of his screams began to change from the frightening high-pitched cry of pain to the less piercing bellows of indignation, but the volume was just as loud.

"They'll hear him all the way up in the pilot's compartment!" Tony hissed in anguish. "Do something!"

"I'm trying," Claire hissed back. Her hands shook. She tried to push Andy's head toward her breast, standard comfort, but he turned his head away and screamed louder. Fortunately, the sound of the atmosphere rushing over the shuttle's skin had risen to a deafening thunder. By the time the noise peaked and faded, Andy's cries had become whimpering hiccups. He rubbed his face, slimy with tears and mucous, mournfully against Claire's T-shirt. His weight on Claire's stomach and diaphragm half stopped her breath, but she dared not lay him down.

Another set of clunks reverberated through the shuttle. The engines' vibrations changed their pitch, and Claire was plucked this way and that by changing acceleration vectors, none as strong as the one emanating from the floor. She spared two hands from comforting Andy to brace herself against the plastic crates. Tony lay beside them, biting his lips in helpless anxiety. "We must be coming down to land on the surface."

Claire nodded. "At one of the shuttleports. There'll be people there—downsiders—maybe we can tell them we got trapped aboard this shuttle by accident. Maybe," she added hopefully, "they'll send us right back up home."

Tony's right upper hand clenched. "No! We can't give up now! We'd never get another chance!"

"But what else can we do?"

"We'll sneak off this ship and hide, until we can 1 get on another one, one that's going to the Transfer Station." His voice turned earnest with urgent pleading as a puff of dismay escaped Claire's parted lips, j "We did it once, we can do it again."

She shook her head doubtfully. Further argument I was interrupted by a startling series of thumps that I shook the whole ship and then blended into a low continuous rumble. The light falling through the window shifted its beam around the cargo bay as the shuttle landed, taxied, and turned. Then it winked out, the cargo bay dimmed, and the engines whined to an equally startling silence.

Claire cautiously unbraced herself. Of all the acceleration vectors, only one remained. Isolated, it became overwhelming.

Gravity. Silent, implacable, it pressed against her back—she struggled with a nasty illusion that it might suddenly cease, and the thrust it imparted slam her into the ceiling above, smashing Andy between. In an accompanying optical illusion, the whole cargo bay seemed to be chugging in a slow circle around her. She closed her eyes in self-defense.

Tony's hand tightened warningly on her left lower wrist. She looked up and froze as the outside cargo bay door at the forward end of the compartment slid open.

A pair of downsiders wearing company maintenance coveralls entered. The access door in the center of the shuttle's fuselage dilated, and Ti the shuttle co-pilot stuck his head through.

"Hi, guys. What's the big rush-rush?"

"We're supposed to have this bird turned around and reloaded in an hour, that's what," replied the maintenance man. "You have just time to pee and eat lunch."

"What's the cargo? I haven't seen this much hopping around since the last medical emergency."

"Equipment and supplies for some sort of show they're supposed to be putting on up at your Habitat for the Vice President of Operations."

"That's not till next week."

The maintenance man snickered. "That's what everybody thought. The VP just flew in a week early on her private courier, with a whole commando squad of accountants. Seems she likes surprise inspections. Management, naturally, is overjoyed."

"Don't laugh too soon," Ti warned. "Management has ways of sharing their joy with the rest of us."

"Don't I know it," the maintenance man groaned. "C'mon, c'mon, you're blocking the door ..." The three of them clattered forward.

"Now," whispered Tony, with a nod at the open cargo bay door.

Claire rolled to her side and laid Andy gently on the deck. His face crumpled, working up to a cry. Claire quickly rolled onto her palms, tested her balance. Her right lower arm seemed to be the one she could most easily spare. She scooped Andy back up one-handed and held him under her torso.

Plastered against the planet-ward side of the cargo bay by the dreadful gravity, she began a three-handed crawl toward the door. Andy's weight pulled at her arm as though a strong spring were drawing him to the floor, and his head bobbed backwards at an alarming angle. Claire inched her palm up under his head to support it, painfully awkward for her arm.

Beside her, Tony too achieved a three-handed stance. With his free hand he jerked the cord to their pack of supplies. The pack, stuck to the downside surface as if by suction, didn't budge.

"Shit," Tony swore under his breath. He swarmed over the pack, gripped and lifted it, but it was too bulky to carry under his belly. "Double-shit."

"Can we give up yet?" Claire asked in a tiny voice, knowing the answer.

"No!" He grabbed the pack backwards over both shoulders with his upper hands and rocked forward violently. It came up and balanced precariously on his back. He kept his left upper hand on it to steady it and hopped forward on his right, his lower palms shuffling along under his hips. "I got it, go, go!"

The shuttle was parked in a cavernous hangar, a vast dim gulf of space roofed by girders. The girders behind the overhead lights would have been an excellent hiding place, if only one could swoop up there. But everything not rigidly fastened was doomed to fly to the one side of the room only, and stick there until forcibly removed. There was a lopsided fascination to it. ...

"Oh ..." Claire hesitated. Leading from the hatch to the hangar floor was a kind of corrugated ramp. Clearly, it was designed to break down the dangerous fight with the omnipresent gravity into little manageable increments. "Stairs." Claire paused, head down. Her blood seemed to pool dizzyingly in her face. She gulped.

"Don't stop," Tony gasped pleadingly behind her, then gulped himself.

"Uh ... uh ..." In a moment of inspiration, Claire turned around and began to back down, her free lower palm slapping the metal treads with each hop. It was still uncomfortable, but at least possible. Tony followed.

"Where now?" Claire panted when they reached the bottom.

Tony pointed with his chin. "Hide in that jumble of equipment over there, for now. We daren't get too far from the shuttles."

They scuttled along over the downside surface of the hangar. Claire's hands quickly became smudged with oil and dirt, a psychological irritation as fierce as an unscratchable itch; she felt she might gladly risk death for a chance to wash them. Claire remembered watching beads of condensed humidity creeping by capillarity across surfaces in the Habitat, until she'd smeared them to oblivion with her dry-rag, just as she and Tony crept now.

As they reached the area where some pieces of heavy equipment were parked, a loader rolled into the hangar and a dozen coveralled men and women jumped off it and began swarming over the shuttle, organized confusion. Claire was glad for their noise, for Andy was still emitting an occasional whimper. Fearfully, she watched the maintenance crew through the metal arms of the machinery. How late was too late to surrender?

Leo, half suited-up in the equipment locker, glanced up anxiously as Pramod swooped across the room to fetch up gracefully beside him.

"Did you find Tony?" Leo asked. "As gang foreman, he's supposed to be leading this parade. I'm only supposed to be watching."

Pramod shook his head. "He's not in any of the usual places, sir."

Leo hissed under his breath, not quite swearing. "He should've answered his page by now ..." He drifted to the plexiport.

Outside in the vacuum, a small pusher was just depositing the last of the sections for the shell of the new hydroponics bay in their carefully arranged constellation. It was to be built before the Operations Vice President's eyes by the quaddies. So much for Leo's faint hope that screw-ups and delays in other departments might cover those in his own. It was time for his welding crew to make its debut.

"All right, Pramod, get suited up. You'll take over Tony's position, and Bobbi from Gang B will take yours." Leo hurried on before the startlement in Pramod's eyes could turn to stage fright. "It's nothing you haven't practiced a dozen times. And if you have the least doubts about the quality or safety of any procedure, I'll be right there. Reality first—you people are going to be living in the structure you build today long after Vice President Apmad and her travelling circus are gone. I guarantee she'll have more respect for a job done right, however slowly, than for a piece of slap-dash fakery."

For God's sake make it look smooth, Van Atta had instructed Leo urgently, earlier. Keep to the schedule, no matter what—we'll fix the problems later, after she's gone. We're supposed to be making these chimps seem cost-effective.

"You don't have to try and seem to be anything but what you are," Leo told Pramod. "You are efficient—and you are good. Instructing you all has been one of the great unexpected pleasures of my career. Be off, now, I'll catch up with you shortly."

Pramod sped away to find Bobbi. Leo frowned briefly to himself, and floated up the length of the locker room to the comconsole terminal at the end.

He keyed in his ID. "Page," he instructed it. "Dr. Sondra Yei." At the same moment a message square in the corner of the vid began to blink with his own name, and a number. "Cancel that instruction."

He punched up the number and raised his brows in surprise as Dr. Yei's face appeared on his vid. "Sondra! I was just about to call you. Do you know where Claire is?"

"How odd. I was calling to ask you if you knew where I could reach Tony."

"Oh?" said Leo, in a voice suddenly drained to neutrality. "Why?"

"Because I can't find her anywhere, and I thought Tony might know where she is. She's supposed to be giving a demonstration of child care techniques in free fall to Vice President Apmad after lunch."

"Is, um," Leo swallowed, "Andy at the creche, or with Claire, do you know?"

"With Claire, of course."

"Ah."

"Leo ..." Dr. Yei's attention sharpened, her lips pursed. "Do you know something I don't?"

"Ah ..." he eyed her. "I know Tony has been unusually inattentive at work for the last week. I might even say—depressed, except that's supposed to be your department, eh? Not his usual cheerful self, anyway." A knot of unease, tightening in Leo's stomach, gave his tongue an unaccustomed edge. "You, ah, got any concerns that you may have forgotten to share with me, lady?"

Her lips thinned, but she ignored the bait. "Schedules have been moved up in all departments, you know. Claire received her new reproduction assignment. It didn't include Tony."

"Reproduction assignment? You mean, having a baby?" Leo could feel his face flushing. Somewhere within him, a long-controlled steam pressure began to build. "Do you hide what you're really doing from yourselves with those weasel-words, too? And here I thought the propaganda was just for us peons." Yei started to speak, but Leo overrode her, bursting out, "Good God! Were you born inhuman, or did you grow so by degrees—M.S., M.D., Ph.D. . . ."

Yei's face darkened, her accent grew clipped. "An engineer with romance in his soul? Now I've seen everything. Don't get carried away with your scenario, Mr. Graf. Tony and Claire were assigned to each other in the first place by the exact same system, and if certain people had been willing to abide by my original timetable, this problem could have been avoided. I fail to see the point of paying for an expert and then blithely ignoring her advice, really I do. Engineers . . . !"

Ah, hell, she's suffering from as bad a case of Van Atta as I am, Leo realized. The insight blunted his momentum, without bleeding off internal pressure.

"—I didn't invent the Cay Project, and if I were running it I'd do it differently, but I have to play the hand I'm dealt, Mr. Graf. Blast—" she controlled herself, almost visibly wrenching the conversation back on its original track. "I've got to find her soon, or I'll have no choice but to let Van Atta start the show ass-backwards. Leo, it's absolutely essential that Vice President Apmad get the creche tour first, before she has time to start forming any—do you have any idea at all where those kids may be?"

Leo shook his head; an inspiration turned the truthful gesture to a lie even before he'd finished it. "But will you give me a call if you find them before I do?" he pleaded, his humble tone offering truce.

Yei's stiffness wilted a bit. "Yes, certainly." She shrugged wryly, a silent apology, and broke off.

Leo swung back to his locker, peeled out of his work suit, donned coveralls, and hastened off to track down his inspiration before Dr. Yei duplicated it independently. He was certain she would, and shortly, too.

Silver checked the work schedule on her vid display. Bell peppers. She floated across the hydroponics bay to the seed locker, found the correct labeled drawer, and withdrew a pre-counted paper packet. She gave the packet an absent shake, and the dried seeds made a pleasing rattle.

She collected a plastic germination box, tore open the packet, and coaxed the little pale seeds into the container, where they bounced about cheerfully. To the hydration spigot next. She thrust the water tube through the rubber doughnut seal on the side of the germination box and administered a measured squirt, and gave the box an extra shake to break up the shimmering globule of liquid that formed. Shoving the germination box into its slot in the incubation rack, she set it for the optimum temperature for peppers, bell, hybrid phototropic non-gravitational axial differentiating clone 297-X-P, and sighed.

The light from the filtered windows plucked insistently at her attention, and she paused for the fourth or fifth time this shift to weave among the grow tubes and stare out at the portion of Rodeo this bay's angle of view allowed her to see. Somewhere down there, at the bottom of that well of air, Claire and Tony were crawling now—if they had not already surrendered—or managed to make it to another shuttle—or met some horrible catastrophe. . . . Silver's imagination, unbidden, supplied her with a string of sample catastrophes.

She tried to crowd them out with a firm mental picture of Tony and Claire and Andy successfully sneaking onto a shuttle bound for the Transfer Station, but the picture wavered into a scenario of Claire, attempting to jump some gap to the shuttle's hatchway (what gap? from where, for pity's sake?) forgetting that all such tangents were bent to parabolas by the gravitational force, and missing the target. Silver thought of the peculiar ways things moved in dense gravitational fields. The scream, chopped off by the splat on the concrete below—no, surely Claire would be holding Andy—the double splat on the concrete below. . . . Silver kneaded her forehead with the heels of her upper hands, as if she might physically press the grisly vision back out of her brain. Claire had seen the same vids of life downside, surely she'd remember.

The hiss of the airseal doors twitched Silver back to present reality. Better look busy—what was she supposed to be doing next? Oh, yes, cleaning used grow tubes, in preparation for their placement day after tomorrow in the new bay they were building to show off everybody's skills to the Ops VP. Damn the Ops VP. But for her, there'd be a chance Tony and Claire might go un-missed for two shifts, even three. Now . . .

Her heart shrank, as she saw who had entered the hydroponics bay. Now, indeed.

Ordinarily, Silver would have been glad to see Leo. He seemed a big, clean man—no, not large, but solid somehow, full of a prosaic calmness that spilled over in the very scent of him, reminiscent of downsider things Silver had chanced to handle, wood and leather and certain dried herbs. In the light of his slow smile, ghastly scenarios thinned to mist. She might yet be glad to talk to Leo. . . .

He was not smiling now. "Silver . . . ? You in here?"

For a wild moment Silver considered trying to hide among the grow tubes, but the foliage rustled as she turned, giving away her position. She peeked over the leaves. "Uh ... hi, Leo."

"Have you seen Tony or Claire lately?" Trust Leo to be direct. Call me Leo, he'd told her the first time she'd "Mr. Grafd" him. It's shorter. He drifted over to the grow tubes; they regarded each other across a barrier of bush beans.

"I haven't seen anybody but my supervisor all shift," said Silver, momentarily relieved to be able to give a perfectly honest answer.

"When did you last see either one of them?"

"Oh—last shift, I guess." Silver tossed her head airily.

"Where?"

"Uh . . . around." She giggled vacuously. Mr. Van Atta might have flung up his hands in disgust at this point, and abandoned any attempt to wring sense from so empty a head as hers.

Leo frowned at her thoughtfully. "You know, one of the charms of you kids is the literal precision with which you answer any question."

The comment hung in air expectantly, as Leo did. The picture of Tony, Claire, and Andy scooting across the shuttle loading bay flashed in Silver's mind with hallucinatory clarity. She groped in memory for their prior meeting, where the final plans had been laid, to offer up as a half-truth. "We had the mid-shift meal together last shift at Nutrition Station Seven."

Leo's lips quirked. "I see." He tilted his head, studying her as if she were some puzzle, such as two metallurgically incompatible surfaces he had to figure out how to join.

"You know, I just heard about Claire's new, ah, reproduction assignment. I'd wondered what was bothering Tony the last few weeks. He was pretty broken up about it, eh? Pretty . . . distraught."

"They'd had plans," Silver began, caught herself, shrugged casually. "I don't know. I'd be glad to get any reproduction assignment. There's no pleasing some people."

Leo's face grew stern. "Silver—just how distraught were they? Kids often mistake a temporary problem for the end of the world, they have no sense of the fullness of time. Makes 'em excitable. Think they might have been upset enough to do something . . . desperate?"

"Desperate?" Silver smiled rather desperately herself.

"Like a suicide pact or something?"

"Oh, no!" said Silver, shocked. "Oh, they'd never do anything like that."

Did relief flash for a moment in Leo's brown eyes? No, his face puckered in intensified concern.

"That's just what I'm afraid they might have done. Tony didn't show up for his work shift, and that's unheard of; Andy's gone too. They can't be found. If they felt so desperate—trapped—what could be easier than slipping out an airlock? A flash of cold, a moment's pain, and then—escape forever." His single pair of hands clasped earnestly. "And it's all my fault. I should have been more perceptive—said something ..." He paused, looking at her hopefully.

"Oh, no, it was nothing like that!" Silver, horrified, hastened to dissuade him. "How awful for you to think that. Look ..." She glanced around the hydroponics bay, lowered her voice. "Look, I shouldn't tell you this, but I can't let you go around thinking—thinking those fearful things." She had his entire attention, grave and intent. How much dare she tell him? Some suitably edited reassurance . . . "Tony and Claire—"

"Silver!" Dr. Yei's voice rang out as the airseal doors slid open. Echoed by Van Atta's bellow, "Silver, what do you know about all this?"

"Aw, shit," Leo snarled under his breath. His piously clasped hands clenched to fists of frustration.

Silver drew back in understanding and indignation. "You—!" And yet she almost laughed; Leo, so subtle and tricksy? She'd underestimated him. Did they both wear masks before the world, then? If so, what unknown territories did his bland face conceal?

"Please, Silver, before they get here—I can't help you if. . ."

It was too late. Van Atta and Yei tumbled into the room.

"Silver, do you know where Tony and Claire have gone?" Dr. Yei demanded breathlessly. Leo drew back into reserved silence, appearing to take an interest in the fine structure of the white bean blossoms.

"Of course she knows," Van Atta snapped, before Silver could reply. "Those girls are in each others' pockets, I tell you—"

"Oh, I know," Yei muttered.

Van Atta turned sternly to Silver. "Cough it up, Silver, if you know what's good for you."

Silver's lips closed, firmed into a line; her chin lifted.

Dr. Yei rolled her eyes at her superior's back. "Now, Silver," she began placatingly, "this isn't a good time for games. If, as we suspect, Tony and Claire have tried to leave the Habitat, they could be in very serious trouble by now, even physical danger. I'm pleased that you feel you should be loyal to your friends, but I beg you, make it a responsible loyalty—friends don't let friends get hurt."

Silver's eyes puddled in doubt; her lips parted, inhaling for speech.

"Damn it," cried Van Atta, "I don't have time to stand around sweet-talking this little cunt. That snake-eyed bitch that runs Ops is waiting up there right now for the show to go on. She's starting to ask questions, and if she doesn't get the answers pronto she'll come looking for 'em herself. That one plays hardball. Of all the times to pick for this outbreak of idiocy, this has gotta be the worst possible. It's got to be deliberate. Nothing this fouled up could be by chance."

His red-faced rage was having its usual effect on Silver; her belly trembled, her vision blurred with unshed tears. She had once felt she would give him anything, do anything at all, if only he would calm down and smile and joke again.

But not this time. Her initial awed infatuation with him had been emptied out of her, bit by bit, and it startled her to, realize how little was left. A hollowed shell could be rigid and strong. . . . "You," she whispered, "can't make me say anything."

"Just as I thought," snarled Van Atta. "Where's your total socialization now, Dr. Yei?"

"If you would," said Dr. Yei through her teeth, "kindly refrain from teaching my subjects anti-social behavior, you wouldn't have to deal with its consequences."

"I don't know what you're whining about. I'm an executive. It's my job to be hard-assed. That's why GalacTech put me in charge of this orbiting money-sink. Behavior control is your department's responsibility, Yei, or so you claimed. So do your job."

"Behavior shaping," Dr. Yei corrected frostily.

"What the hell's the use of that if it breaks down the minute the going gets tough? I want something that works all the time. If you were an engineer you'd never get past the reliability specs. Isn't that right, Leo?"

Leo snapped off a bean leaf stem, smiled blandly. His eyes glittered. He must have been chewing on his reply; at any rate, he swallowed something.

Silver grasped at a simple plan. So simple, surely she could carry it out. All she had to do was nothing. Do nothing, say nothing; eventually, the crisis must pass. They could not physically damage her, after all, she was valuable GalacTech property. The rest was only noise. She shrank into the safety of thing-ness, and stony silence.

The silence grew thick as cold oil. She nearly choked on it.

"So," hissed Van Atta to her, "that's the way you want to play it. Very well. Your choice." He turned to Yei. "You got something in the Infirmary like fast-penta, Doctor?"

Yei's lips rippled. "Fast-penta is only legal for police departments, Mr. Van Atta."

"Don't they need a court order to use it, too?" inquired Leo, not looking up from the bean leaf he twirled between his fingers.

"On citizens, Leo. That," Van Atta pointed at Silver, "is not a citizen. What about it, Doctor?"

"To answer your question, Mr. Van Atta, no, our Infirmary does not stock illegal drugs!"

"I didn't say fast-penta, I said something like it," said Van Atta irritably. "Some sort of anesthetic or something, to do in a pinch."

"Are we in a pinch?" asked Leo in a mild tone, still twirling his leaf; it was getting frayed. "Pramod is substituting for Tony, surely one of the other girls with babies can take over for Claire. Why should the Ops VP know the difference?"

"If we end up having to scrape two of our workers off the pavement downside—"

Silver winced at this echo of her own ghastly scenario.

"—or find them floating freeze-dried outside somewhere up here, it'll be damned hard to conceal from her. You haven't met the woman, Leo. She has a nose for trouble like a weasel's."

"Mm," said Leo.

Van Atta turned back to Yei. "What about it, Doctor? Or would you rather wait until someone calls us up asking what to do with the bodies?"

"IV Thalizine-5 is a bit like fast-penta," muttered Dr. Yei reluctantly, "in certain doses. It will make her sick for a day, though."

"That's her choice." He wheeled on Silver. "Your last chance, Silver. I've had it. I despise disloyalty. Where did they go? Tell me, or it's the needle for you, right now."

She was driven from thing-ness at last to a more painful, active human courage. "If you do that to me," Silver whispered in desperate dignity, "we're through."

Van Atta recoiled in sputtering outrage. "Through? You and your little friends conspire to sabotage my career in front of the company brass and you tell me we're through? You're damn right we're through!"

"Company Security, Shuttleport Three, Captain Bannerji speaking," George Bannerji recited into his comconsole. "May I help you?"

"You in charge here?" the well-dressed man in his vid began abruptly. He was clearly laboring under strong emotion, breathing rapidly. A muscle jumped in his clamped jaw.

Bannerji took his feet off his desk and leaned forward. "Yes, sir?"

"I'm Bruce Van Atta, Head of Project at the Habitat. Check my voiceprint, or whatever it is you do."

Bannerji sat up straight, tapped out the check-code; the word "cleared" flashed for a moment across Van Atta's face. Bannerji sat up straighter still. "Yes, sir, go ahead."

Van Atta paused as if groping for words, speaking slowly despite the jostling urgency of thought apparent in his tense face. "We have a little problem here, Captain."

Red lights and sirens went off in Bannerji's head. He could recognize an ass-covering understatement when he heard one. "Oh?"

"Three of our—experimental subjects have escaped the Habitat. We interrogated their co-conspirator, and we believe they stowed away on shuttle flight B119, and are now loose somewhere in Shuttleport Three. It is of the utmost urgency that they be captured and returned to us as quickly as possible."

Bannerji's eyes widened. Information about the Habitat was under a tight company security lid, but no one could work on Rodeo for long without learning that some kind of genetic experiments on humans were taking place up there, in careful isolation. It usually took a little longer for new employees to figure out that the more exotic monster stories told by the old hands were a form of hazing, practiced upon their credulity. Bannerji had transferred in to Rodeo about a month ago.

The project chiefs words rang through Bannerji's head. Escaped. Captured. Criminals escaped. Dangerous zoo animals escaped, when their keepers screwed up, then some poor shmuck of a cop got the job of capturing them. Occasionally, horrifying biological weapons escaped. What the hell was he dealing with?

"How will we recognize them, sir? Do they," Bannerji swallowed, "look like human beings?"

"No." Van Atta evidently read the dismay in Bannerji's face, for he snorted ironically. "You'll have no trouble recognizing them, I assure you, Captain. And when you do find them, call me at once on my private code. I don't want this going out over broadcast channels. For God's sake keep it quiet, understand?"

Bannerji envisioned public panic. "Yes, sir. I understand completely."

His own panic was a private matter. He wouldn't be collecting the fat salary he did if Security was expected to be all extended coffee breaks and pleasant evening strolls around perfectly deserted property. He'd always known the day would come when he'd have to earn his pay.

Van Atta broke off with a grim nod. Bannerji put in a call on the comconsole for his subordinate, and placed pages for both his off-duty men as well. Something that had the executive hierarchy pouring sweat was nothing for a newly-promoted Security grunt to take chances with.

He unlocked the weapons cabinet and signed out stunners and holsters for himself and his team. He weighed a stunner thoughtfully in his palm. It was such a light little diddly thing, almost a toy; GalacTech risked no lawsuits over stray shots from weapons like these.

Bannerji stood a moment, then turned to his own desk and keyed open the drawer with his personal palm-lock. The unregistered pistol nestled in its own locked box, its shoulder holster coiled around it like a sleeping snake. By the time Bannerji had buckled it on and shrugged his uniform jacket back over it, he was feeling much better. He turned decisively to greet his patrolmen reporting for duty.