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Lois McMaster Bujold, "FALLING FREE"

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Chapter 5

Leo paused outside the airseal doors to the Habitat's infirmary to gather his nerve. He had been secretly relieved when a frantic call from Pramod had pulled him, shaking inside, away from the excruciating interrogation of Silver; as secretly ashamed of his relief. Pramod's problem—fluctuating power levels in his beam welder, traced at last to poisoning of the electron-emitting cathode by gas contamination—had occupied Leo for a time, but with the welding show over, shame had driven him back here.

So what are you going to do for her at this late hour? his conscience mocked him. Assure her of your continued moral support, as long as it doesn't involve you in anything inconvenient or unpleasant? What a comfort. He shook his head, tapped the door control.

Leo drifted silently past the medtech's station without signing in. Silver was in a private cubicle, a quarter-wedge of the infirmary's circumference at the very end of the module. The distance had helped muffle the yelling and crying.

Leo peered through the observation window. Silver was alone, floating limply in the locked sleep restraints against the wall. In the light from the fluoros her face was greenish, pale and damp. Her eyes seemed drained of their sparkling blue color, blurred leaden smudges. A yet-unused spacesick sack was clutched, hot and wrinkled, in an upper hand.

Sickened himself, Leo glanced up the corridor to be sure he was still unobserved, swallowed the clot of impotent rage growing in his throat, and slipped inside.

"Uh ... hi, Silver," Leo began with a weak smile. "How you doing?" He cursed himself silently for the inanity of his own words.

Her smeary eyes found and focused on him uncomprehendingly. Then, "Oh. Leo. I think I was asleep for ... for a while. Funny dreams ... I still feel sick."

The drug must be wearing off. Her voice had lost the slurred, dreamy quality it had had during the interrogation earlier; now it was small and tight and self-aware. She added with a quaver of indignation, "That stuff made me throw up. And I've never thrown up before, not ever. It made me."

There were, Leo had learned, the most intense social inhibitions against vomiting in free fall, in Silver's little world. She would probably have been far less embarrassed at being stripped naked in public.

"It wasn't your fault," he hastened to reassure her.

She shook her head, her hair waving in lank strands unlike its usual bright aureole, her mouth pinched. "I should have—I thought I could . . . the Red Ninja never told his enemies his secrets, and they drugged and tortured him both!"

"Who?" asked Leo, startled.

"Oh . . . !" Silver's voice flattened to a wail. "They found out about our books, too! This time they'll find them all. . . ." Her lashes clotted with tears that could not fall, but only accumulate until blotted away.

When her eyes widened to stare at Leo in a horrified realization, two or three droplets flew off in shimmering tangents. "And now Mr. Van Atta thinks Ti must have known Tony and Claire were on his shuttle—collusion—he says he's going to get Ti fired! And he'll find Tony and Claire down there—I don't know what he'll do to them. I've never seen Mr. Van Atta so angry."

Leo's set jaw had ground his smile to a grimace. Still he tried to speak reasonably. "But you told them—under drugs—that Ti didn't know, surely."

"He didn't believe it. Said I was lying."

"But that would be logically inconsistent—" Leo began, cut himself short. "No, you're right, that wouldn't faze him. God, what an asshole."

Silver's mouth opened in shock. "You mean—Mr. Van Atta?"

"I mean Brucie-baby. You can't tell me you've been around the man for what, eleven months, and not figured that out."

"I thought it was me—something wrong with me ..." Silver's voice was still small and teary, but her eyes began to brighten with a sort of pre-dawn light. She overcame her inner miseries enough to regard Leo with increased attention. "... Brucie-baby?"

"Huh." The memory of one of Dr. Yei's lectures about maintaining unified and consistent authority gave Leo pause. It had seemed to make great sense at the time. . . . "Never mind. But there's nothing wrong with you, Silver."

Her regard was sharpening to something almost scientific. "You're not afraid of him." Her tone of wonder suggested she found this an unexpected and remarkable discovery.

"Me? Afraid? Of Brace Van Atta?" Leo snorted. "Not likely."

"When he first came, and took over Dr. Cay's position, I thought—thought he would be like Dr. Cay."

"Look, ah ... there is a very ancient rule of thumb that states, people tend to get promoted to the level of their incompetence. So far I think I've managed to avoid that unenviable plateau. So, I gather, did your Dr. Cay." Screw Yei's scruples, Leo thought, and added bluntly, "Van Atta hasn't."

'Tony and Claire would never have tried to run away if Dr. Cay were still here." A straggling species of hope began in her eyes. "Are you saying you think this mess could be Mr. Van Atta's fault?"

Leo stirred uneasily, pronged by secret convictions he had not yet voiced even to himself. "Your s—, s—," slavery "situation seems intrinsically, intrinsically," wrong his mind supplied, while his mouth fishtailed, "susceptible to abuse, mishandling of all sorts. Because Dr. Cay was so passionately dedicated to your welfare—"

"Like a father to us," Silver confirmed sadly.

"—this, er, susceptibility remained latent. But sooner or later it's inevitable that someone begin to exploit it, and you. If not Van Atta, someone else down the line. Someone ..." worse? Leo had read enough history. Yes. "Much worse."

Silver looked as if she were struggling to imagine something worse than Van Atta, and failing. She shook her head dolefully. She raised her face to Leo; eyes like morning glories, targeting the sun. The target, struck, jerked out an involuntary smile.

"What's going to happen now, to Tony and Claire? I tried not to give them away, but that stuff made me so woozy—it was dangerous for them before, and now it's worse. ..."

Leo attempted a tone of bluff and hearty reassurance. "Nothing's going to happen to them, Silver. Don't let Bruce's snit spook you. There's not really much he can do to them, they're much too valuable to GalacTech. He'll yell at them, no doubt, and you can't blame him for that; I'm ready to yell at them myself. Security will pick them up downside—they can't have gone far—they'll get the lecture of their young lives, and in a few weeks it'll all blow over. Lessons learned," Leo faltered. Just what lessons would they learn from this fiasco? "—all around."

"You act like—like getting yelled at—was nothing. "

"It comes with age," he offered. "Someday you'll feel that way too." Or was it power that this particular immunity came with? Leo was suddenly unsure. But he had no power to speak of, except the ability to build things. Knowledge as power. Yet who had power over him? The line of logic trailed off in confusion; he turned his thoughts impatiently from it. Mental wheel-spinning, as unproductive as philosophy class in college.

"I don't feel that way now," said Silver practically.

"Look, uh . . . tell you what. If it'll make you feel better, I'll go along downside when they locate those kids. Maybe I can kind of keep things under control."

"Oh, would you? Could you?" Silver asked with relief. "Like you were trying to help me?"

Leo felt like biting his tongue off. "Uh, yeah. Something like that. "

"You're not afraid of Mr. Van Atta. You can stand up to him." Her eyebrows quirked self-deprecatingly, and she waved her lower arms. "As you can see, I'm not equipped to stand up to anybody. Thank you, Leo." There was even a little color in her face now.

"Uh, right. I better hustle along now, if I'm to catch the shuttle going down to 'Port Three. We'll have 'em back safe and sound by breakfast. Think of

it this way; at least GalacTech can't dock their pay for the extra shuttle trip." This even won a brief smile from her.

"Leo ..." her voice sobered, and he paused on his way out the door. "What are we going to do if . . . if there's ever anyone worse than Mr. Van Atta?"

Cross that bridge when you come to it, he wanted to say, evading the question. But one more platitude and he'd gag. He smiled and shook his head, and fled.

The warehouse made Claire think of a crystal lattice. It was all right angles, stretching away at ninety degrees in each dimension, huge slotted shelves reaching to the ceilings, endless rows, cross corridors. Blocking vision, blocking flight.

But there was no flight here. She felt like a stray molecule caught in the interstices of a doped crystal wafer, out of place but trapped. In retrospect the cozy curves of the Habitat seemed like enclosing arms.

They huddled now in one empty cell of a shelf stack, one of the few they had not found occupied by supplies, measuring some two meters on a side. Tony had insisted on climbing to the third tier, to be above the eye level of any chance downsider walking along the corridor upright on his long legs. The ladders set at intervals along the shelves had actually proved easier to manage then creeping along the floor, but getting the pack up had been a dreadful struggle, as its cord was too short to climb up and draw it up after themselves.

Claire was secretly unnerved. Andy was already finding an ability to push and grunt and wriggle against the gravity, still only a few centimeters at a time, but she had a nasty vision of him falling over the edge. Claire was developing a distaste for edges.

A robotic forklift whirred past. Claire froze, cowering in the back of their recess, clutching Andy to her, grabbing one of Tony's hands. The whirring trailed off into the distance. She breathed again.

"Relax," Tony squeaked. "Relax ..." He breathed deeply in an apparent effort to follow his own advice.

Claire peered doubtfully out of the cubicle at the forklift, which had stopped farther down the corridor and was engaged in retrieving a plastic carton from its coded cell.

"Can we eat now?" She had been nursing Andy on and off for the last three hours in an effort to keep him quiet, and was drained in every sense. Her stomach growled, and her throat was dry.

"I guess," said Tony, and dug a couple of ration bars out of their hoard in the pack. "And then we'd better try and work our way back to the hangar."

"Can't we rest here a little longer?"

Tony shook his head. "The longer we wait, the more chance they'll be looking for us. If we don't get on a shuttle for the Transfer Station soon, they may start searching the outbound Jump ships, and there goes our chance of stowing away undiscovered until after they boost past the point of no return."

Andy squeaked and gurgled; a familiar aroma wafted from his vicinity.

"Oh, dear. Would you please get out a diaper?" Claire asked Tony.

"Again? That's the fourth time since we left the Habitat."

"I don't think I brought near enough diapers," Claire worried, smoothing out the laminated paper and plastic form Tony handed her.

"Half our pack is filled with diapers. Can't you—make it last a little longer?"

"I'm afraid he may be getting diarrhea. If you leave that stuff on his bottom too long, it eats right through his skin—gets all red—even bleeds—gets infected—and then he screams and cries every time you touch it to try and clean it. Real loud," she emphasized.

The fingers of Tony's lower right hand drummed on the shelf floor, and he sighed, biting back frustration. Claire wrapped the used diaper tightly in itself and prepared to stash it back in their pack.

"Do we have to cart those along?" Tony asked suddenly. "Everything in the pack is going to reek after a while. Besides, it's heavy enough already."

"I haven't seen a disposal unit anywhere," said Claire. "What else can we do with them?"

Tony's face screwed up with inner struggle. "Just leave it," he blurted. "On the floor. It's not like it's going to float off down the corridor and get into the air recirculation, here. Leave them all."

Claire gasped at this horrific, revolutionary idea. Tony, following up his own suggestion before his nerve failed, collected the four little wads and stuffed them into the far corner of the storage cubicle. He smiled shakily, in mixed guilt and elation. Claire eyed him in worry. Yes, the situation was extraordinary, but what if Tony was developing a habit of criminal behavior? Would he return to normal when they got—wherever they were going?

If they got wherever they were going. Claire pictured their pursuers following the dirty diapers, like a trail of flower petals dropped by that heroine in one of Silver's books, across half the galaxy. . . .

"If you've got him back together," said Tony with a nod at his son, "maybe we better start back toward the hangar. That mob of downsiders may be cleared out by now."

"How are we going to pick a shuttle this time?" asked Claire. "How will we know that it's not just going right back up to the Habitat—or taking up a cargo to be unloaded in the vacuum? If they vent the cargo bay into space while we're in it . . ."

Tony shook his head, lips tight. "I don't know. But Leo says—to solve a big problem, or complete a big project, the secret is to break it down into little parts and tackle them one at a time, in order. Let's—just get back to the hangar, first. And see if there's any shuttles there at all."

Claire nodded, paused. Andy was not the only one of them plagued by biology, she reflected grimly. "Tony, do you think we can find a toilet on the way back? I need to go."

"Yeah, me too," Tony admitted. "Did you see any on the way here?"

"No." Locating the facilities had not been uppermost on her mind then, on that nightmare journey, creeping over the floors, dodging hurrying downsiders, squeezing Andy tightly to her for fear that he might cry out. Claire wasn't even sure she could reconstruct the route they'd taken, when they'd been driven out of their first hiding place by the busy work crew descending upon their machines and powering them up.

"There's got to be something," Tony reasoned optimistically, "people work here."

"Not in this section," Claire noted, gazing out at the wall of storage cells across the aisle. "It's all robots."

"Back toward the hangar, then. Say . . ."his voice faltered, "uh ... do you happen to know what a gravity-field toilet chamber looks like? How do they manage? Air suction couldn't possibly fight the gee forces."

One of Silver's smuggled historical vid dramas had involved a scene with an outhouse, but Claire was certain that was obsolete technology. "I think they use water, somehow."

Tony wrinkled his nose, shrugged away his bafflement. "We'll figure it out." His eye fell rather wistfully on the little wad of diapers in the corner. "It's too bad..."

"No!" said Claire, repelled. "Or at least—at least let's try to find a toilet first."

"All right. ..."

A distant rhythmic tapping was growing louder. Tony, about to swing out on the ladder, muttered "Oops," and recoiled back into the cubicle. He held a finger to his lips, panic in his face, and they all scuttled to the back of the cell.

"Aaah?" said Andy. Claire snatched him up and stuffed the tip on one breast into his mouth. Full and bored, he declined to nurse, turning his head away. Claire let her T-shirt fall back down and tried to distract him by silently counting all his busy fingers. He too had become smudged with dirt, as she had; no big surprise, planets were made of dirt. Dirt looked better from a distance. Say, a couple of hundred kilometers. ...

The tapping grew louder, passed under their cell, faded.

"Company Security man," Tony whispered in Claire's ear.

She nodded, hardly daring to breathe. The tapping was from those hard downsider foot coverings striking the cement floor. A few minutes passed, and the tapping did not return. Andy made only small cooing noises.

Tony stuck his head cautiously out the chamber, looked right and left, up and down. "All right. Get ready to help me lower the pack as soon as this next forklift goes by. It'll have to fall the last meter, but maybe the sound of the forklift will cover that some."

Together they shoved the pack toward the edge of the cell, and waited. The whirring robolift was approaching down the corridor, an enormous plastic storage crate almost as large as a cubicle positioned on its lift.

The forklift stopped below them, beeped to itself, and turned ninety degrees. With a whine, its lift began to rise.

At this point, Claire recalled that theirs was the only empty cell in this stack.

"It's coming here! We're going to get squashed!"

"Get out! Get out on the ladder!" Tony yelped.

Instead she scuttled back to grab Andy, whom she'd laid at the rear of the chamber as far as possible from the frightening edge while she'd helped Tony shove the pack forward. The chamber darkened as the rising crate eclipsed the opening. Tony barely squeezed past it onto the ladder as it began to grind inward.

"Claire!" Tony screamed. He pounded uselessly on the side of the huge plastic crate. "Claire! No, no! Stupid robot! Stop, stop!"

But the forklift, clearly, was not voice-activated. It kept coming, bulldozing their pack before it. There were only a few centimeters' clearance on the sides and top of the crate. Claire retreated, so terrified her screams clotted in her throat like cotton, and she emitted only a smeary squeak. Back, back; the cold metal wall behind froze her. She flattened against it as best she could, standing on her lower hands, holding Andy with her uppers. He was howling now, infected by her terror, earsplitting shrieks.

"Claire!" Tony cried from the ladder, a horrified bellow laced with tears. "ANDY!"

The pack, beside them, compressed. Little crunching noises came from it. At the last moment, Claire transferred Andy to her lower arms, below her torso, bracing against the crate, against gravity, with her uppers. Perhaps her crushed body would hold the crate off just far enough to save him—the robolift's servos skreeled with overload. . . .

And began to withdraw. Claire sent a silent apology to their oversized pack for all the curses she and Tony had heaped upon it in the past hours. Nothing in it would ever be the same, but it had saved them. The robolift hiccoughed, gears grinding bewilderedly. The crate shifted on its pallet, out of sync now. As the lift withdrew, the crate skidded with it, dragged by friction and gravity, skewing farther and farther from true.

Claire watched open-mouthed as it tilted and fell from the opening. She rushed forward. The crash shook the warehouse as the crate hit the concrete, followed by a booming shattered echo, the loudest sound Claire had ever heard. The crate took the forklift with it, its wheels whirring helplessly in air as it banged onto its side.

The power of gravity was stunning. The crate split, its contents spilling. Hundreds of round metal wheelcovers of some kind burst forth, ringing like a stampede of cymbals. A dozen or so rolled down the aisle in either direction as if bent on escape, wobbling into the corridor walls and falling onto their sides, still spinning, in ever-diminishing whanging pulses of sound. The echoes rang on in Claire's ears for a moment in the stupendous silence that followed. "Oh, Claire!" Tony swarmed back into the cell and wrapped all his arms around her, Andy between them, as if he might never let go again. "Oh, Claire ..." His voice cracked as he rubbed his face against her soft short hair.

Claire looked over his shoulder at the carnage they had created below. The overturned robolift was beeping again, like an animal in pain. "Tony, I think we better get out of here," she suggested in a small voice.

"I thought you were coming behind me, onto the ladder. Right behind me."

"I had to get Andy."

"Of course. You saved him, while I—saved myself. Oh, Claire! I didn't mean to leave you in there ..."

"I didn't think you did."

"But I jumped—"

"It would have been plain stupid not to. Look, can we talk about it later? I really think we ought to get out of here."

"Yes, oh yes. Uh, the pack . . . ?" Tony peered into the dimness of the recess.

Claire didn't think they were going to have time for the pack, either—yet how far could they get without it? She helped Tony drag it back to the edge with frantic haste.

"If you brace yourself back there, while I hang onto the ladder, we can lower it—" Tony began.

Claire pushed it ruthlessly over the edge. It landed on the mess below, tumbled to the concrete. "I don't think there's any more point in worrying about the breakables now. Let's go," she urged.

Tony gulped, nodded, moved quickly onto the ladder, sparing one upper arm to help support Andy, whom Claire held in her lowers, her upper hands slapping down the rungs. Then they were back to the floor and their slow, frustrating, crabwise locomotion along it. Claire was beginning to hate the cold, dusty smell of concrete.

They were only a few meters down the corridor when Claire heard the pounding of downsider footcoverings again, moving fast, with uncertain pauses as if for direction. A row or two over; the steps must shortly thread the lattice to them. Then an echo of the steps—no, another set.

What happened next seemed all in a moment, suspended between one breath and the next. Ahead of them, a grey-uniformed downsider leaped from a cross-corridor into their own with an unintelligible shout. His legs were braced apart to support his half-crouch, and he clutched a strange piece of equipment in both hands, held up half a meter in front of his face. His face was as white with terror as Claire's own.

Ahead of her, Tony dropped the pack and reared up on his lower arms, his upper hands flung wide, crying, "No!"

The downsider recoiled spasmodically, his eyes wide, mouth gaping in shock. Two or three bright flashes burst from his piece of equipment, accompanied by sharp cracking bangs that echoed, splintered, all through the great warehouse. Then the downsider's hands jerked up, the object flung away. Had it malfunctioned or short-circuited, burning or shocking him? His face drained further, from white to green.

Then Tony was screaming, flopping on the floor, all his arms curling in on himself in a tight ball of agony.

"Tony? Tony!" Claire scrambled toward him, Andy clamped tightly to her torso and crying and screaming in fear, his racket mingling with Tony's in a terrifying cacophony. "Tony, what's wrong?" She didn't see the blood on his red T-shirt until some drops spattered on the concrete. The bicep of his left lower arm, as he rolled toward her, was a scrambled, pulsing, scarlet and purple mess. "Tony!"

The company security guard had rushed forward. His face was harrowed with horror, his hands empty now and rumbling with a portable comm link hooked to his belt. It took him three tries to detach it. "Nelson! Nelson!" he called into it. "Nelson, for God's sake call the medical squad, quick! It's just kids! I just shot a kid!" His voice shook. "It's just some crippled kids!"

Leo's stomach sank at the sight of the yellow pulses of light reflecting off the warehouse wall. Company medical squad; yes, there was their electric truck, blinkers flashing, parked in the wide central aisle. The breathless words of the clerk who'd met their shuttle tumbled through his brain—. . . found in the warehouse . . . there's been an accident . . . injury . . . Leo's steps quickened.

"Slow down, Leo, I'm getting dizzy," Van Atta, behind him, complained irritably. "Not everybody can bounce back and forth between null-gee and one-gee like you do with no effects, you know."

"They said one of the kids was hurt. ..."

"So what are you going to do that the medics can't? I, personally, am going to crucify that idiot Security team for this. ..."

"I'll meet you there," Leo snarled over his shoulder, and ran.

Aisle 29 looked like a war zone. Smashed equipment, stuff scattered everywhere—Leo half tripped over a couple of round metal cover plates, kicked them impatiently out of his way. A pair of medics and a Security guard were huddled over a stretcher on the floor, an IV bag hoisted on a pole like a flag above them.

Red shirt; Tony, it was Tony who'd been hurt. Claire was crouched on the floor a little farther down the aisle, clutching Andy, tears streaming silently down her ragged white mask of a face. On the stretcher, Tony writhed and cried out with a hoarse sob.

"Can't you at least give him something for pain?" the security guard urged the medtech.

"I don't know." The medtech was clearly flustered. "I don't know what all they've done to their metabolisms. Shock is shock, I'm safe with the IV and the warmers and the synergine, but as for the rest of it—"

"Patch in an emergency comm link to Dr. Warren Minchenko." Leo advised, kneeling beside them. "He's chief medical officer for the Cay Habitat, and he's on his month's downside leave right now. Ask him to meet you at your infirmary; he'll take over the case there."

The Security guard eagerly unhooked his comm link and began punching in codes.

"Oh, thank God," said the medtech, turning to Leo. "At last, somebody who knows what the hell they're doing. Do you know what I can give him for pain, sir?"

"Uh ..." Leo did a quick mental review of his first aid. "Syntha-morph should be all right, until you get in touch with Dr. Minchenko. But adjust the dose—these kids weigh less than they look like they ought to—I think Tony masses about, um, 42 kilos." The peculiar nature of Tony's injuries dawned on Leo at last. He had been picturing a fall, broken bones, maybe spinal cord or cranial damage. . . . "What happened here?"

"Gunshot wound," reported the medtech shortly. "Left lower abdomen and . . . and, um, not femur—left lower limb. That's just a flesh wound, but the abdominal one is serious."

"Gunshot!" Leo stared aghast at the guard, who reddened. "Did you—I thought you guys carried stunners—why in the name of God—"

"When that damned hysteric called down from the Habitat, yammering about his escaped monsters, I thought—I thought—I don't know what I thought." The guard glowered at his boots.

"Didn't you look before you fired?"

"I damn near shot the girl with the baby." The guard shuddered. "I hit this kid by accident, jerking my aim away."

Van Atta panted up. "Holy shit, what a mess!" His eye fell on the security guard. "I thought I told you to keep this quiet, Bannerji. What did you do, set off a bomb?"

"He shot Tony," said Leo through his teeth.

"You idiot, I told you to capture them, not murder them! How the hell am I supposed to sweep this—" he waved his arm down Aisle 29, "under the rug? And what the hell were you doing with a pistol anyway?"

"You said—I thought—" the guard began.

"I swear I'll have you canned for this. Of all the ass-backwards—did you think this was some kind of feelie-dream drama? I don't know whose judgment is worse, yours or the jerk's who hired you—"

The guard's face had gone from red to white. "Why you stupid son-of-a-bitch, you set me up for this—"

Somebody had better keep a level head, Leo thought wretchedly. Bannerji had retrieved and bolstered his unauthorized weapon, a fact Van Atta seemed to be unconscious of—the temptation to shoot the project chief shouldn't be allowed to get too overwhelming—Leo intervened. "Gentlemen, may I suggest that charges and defenses would be better saved for a formal investigation, where everyone will be cooler and, er, more reasoned. Meantime we have some hurt and frightened kids to take care of." Bannerji fell silent, simmering with injustice. Van Atta growled assent, contenting himself with a black look toward Bannerji that boded ill for the guard's future career. The two medtechs snapped down the wheels of Tony's stretcher and began rolling him down the aisle toward their waiting truck. One of Claire's hands reached out after him, fell back hopelessly.

The gesture caught Van Atta's attention. Full of suppressed rage, he discovered he had an object on which to vent it after all. "You—1" he turned on Claire.

She flinched into a tighter huddle. "Do you have any idea what this escapade of yours is going to cost the Cay Project, first to last? Of all the irresponsible—did you con Tony into this?" She shook her head, eyes widening. "Of course you did, isn't it always the way. The male sticks his neck out, the female gets it chopped off for him. . . ."

"Oh, no. ..."

"And the timing—were you deliberately trying to smear me? How did you find out about the Ops VP—did you figure I'd cover up for you just because she was here? Clever, clever—but not clever enough. ..."

Leo's head, eyes, ears throbbed with the beating of his blood. "Lay off, Bruce. She's had enough for one day."

"The little bitch nearly gets your best student killed, and you want to stand up for her? Get serious, Leo."

"She's already scared out of her wits. Lay off."

"She damn well better be. When I get her back to the Habitat ..." Van Atta strode past Leo, grabbed Claire by an upper arm, yanked her cruelly and painfully up. She cried out, nearly dropping Andy; Van Atta overrode her. "You wanted to come downside, you can bloody well just try walking—back to the shuttle, then."

Leo could not, afterwards, recall running forward or swinging Van Atta around to face him, but only Van Atta's surprised, open-mouthed expression. "Bruce," he sang through a red haze, "you smarmy creep—lay off."

The uppercut to Van Atta's jaw that punctuated this command was surprisingly effective, considering it was the first time Leo had struck a man in anger in his life. Van Atta sprawled backwards on the concrete.

Leo surged forward in a kind of dizzy joy. He would rearrange Van Atta's anatomy in ways that even Dr. Cay had never dreamed of—

"Uh, Mr. Graf," the security guard began, touching him hesitantly on the shoulder.

"It's all right, I've been waiting to do this for weeks," Leo assured him, going for a grip on Van Atta's collar.

"It's not that, sir ..."

A cold new voice cut in. "Fascinating executive technique. I must take notes."

Vice President Apmad, flanked by her flying wedge of accountants and assistants, stood behind Leo in Aisle 29.