Lois McMaster Bujold, "FALLING FREE"

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16

Chapter 3

Andy stuck out his tongue, extruding the blob of creamed rice Claire had just spooned into his mouth. "Beh," he remarked. The blob, spurned as food, apparently exerted new fascination as a plaything, for he caught it between his upper right and lower left hands as it slowly rotated off. "Eh!" he protested as his new satellite was reduced to a mere smear.

"Oh, Andy," Claire muttered in frustration, and removed the smear from his hands with a vigorous swipe from a rather soiled high-capillarity towel. "Come on, baby, you've got to try this. Dr. Yei says it's good for you!"

"Maybe he's full," Tony offered helpfully.

The nutritional experiment was taking place in Claire's private quarters, awarded her upon the birth of Andy and shared with the baby. She often missed her old dormitory mates, but reflected ruefully that the company had been right; her popularity and Andy's fascination would probably not have survived too many night feedings, diaper changes, gas attacks, mysterious diarrheas and fevers, or other infant nocturnal miseries.

Of late she'd missed Tony, too. In the last six i weeks she'd hardly seen him, his new welding instructor was keeping him so busy. The pace of life seemed to be picking up all over the Habitat. There were days when there scarcely seemed to be time to draw breath.

"Maybe he doesn't like it," suggested Tony. "Have you tried mixing it with that other goo?"

"Everybody's an expert," sighed Claire. "Except me . . . He ate some yesterday, anyway." "How does it taste?" "I don't know, I never tried it." "Hm." Tony plucked the spoon from her hand and twirled it in the opened seal-a-cup, picked up a blob, and popped it in his mouth. "Hey—!" began Claire indignantly. "Ben!" Tony choked. "Give me that towel." He rid himself of his sample. "No wonder he spits it out. It's Gag Station."

Claire grabbed the spoon back, muttered "Huh!", and floated over to her kitchenette to push it through the hand-holes to the water dispenser and give it a steaming rinse. "Germs!" she snapped accusingly at Tony.

"You try it!"

She sniffed the food cup in renewed doubt. "I'll take your word for it."

Andy in the meantime had captured his lower right hand with his uppers and was gnawing on it.

"You're not supposed to have meat yet," Claire sighed, straightening him back out. Andy inhaled, preparing for complaint, but let it go in a mere "Aah," as the door slid open revealing a new object of interest.

"How's it going, Claire?" asked Dr. Yei. Her thick useless downsider legs trailed relaxed from her hips as she pulled herself into the cabin. Claire brightened. She liked Dr. Yei; things always seemed to calm down a bit when she was around. "Andy won't eat the creamed rice. He liked the strained banana well enough."

"Well, next feeding try introducing the oatmeal instead," said Dr. Yei. She floated over to Andy, held out her hand; he captured it with his uppers. She peeled off his hands, held her hand down farther; he grasped at it with his lowers, and giggled. "His lower body coordination is coming along nicely. Bet it will nearly match the upper by his first birthday."

"And that fourth tooth broke through day before yesterday," said Claire, pointing it out.

"Nature's way of telling you it's time to eat creamed rice," Dr. Yei lectured the baby with mock seriousness. He clamped to her arm, beady eyes intent upon her gold loop earrings, nutrition quite forgotten. "Don't fret too much, Claire. There's always this tendency to push things with the first child, just to reassure yourself it can all be done. It will be more relaxed with the second. I guarantee all babies master creamed rice before they're twenty no matter what you do."

Claire laughed, secretly relieved. "It's just that Mr. Van Atta was asking about his progress."

"Ah." Dr. Yei's lips twitched in a rather compressed smile. "I see." She defended her earring from a determined assault by placing Andy in air just beyond reach. A frustrated paroxysm of swimming-motions gave him only an unwanted spin. He opened his mouth to howl protest; Dr. Yei surrendered instantly, but bought time by holding out just her fingertips.

Andy again headed earring-ward, hand over hand over hand. "Yeah, go for it, baby," Tony cheered him on.

"Well," Dr. Yei turned her attention to Claire. "I actually stopped by to pass on some good news. The company is so pleased with the way things have turned out with Andy, they've decided to move up the date for you to start your second pregnancy."

Tony's face split in a delighted grin, beyond Dr. Yei's shoulder. His upper hands clasped in a gesture of victory. Claire made embarrassed-suppression motions at him, but couldn't help grinning back.

"Wow," said Claire, warm with pleasure. So, the company thought she was doing that well. There had been down days when she'd thought no one noticed how hard she'd been trying. "How much up?"

"Your monthly cycles are still being suppressed by the breast feeding, right? You have an appointment at the infirmary tomorrow morning. Dr. Minchenko will give you some medicine to start them up again. You can start trying on the second cycle."

"Oh my goodness. That soon." Claire paused, watching the wriggling Andy and remembering how the first pregnancy had drained her energy. "I guess I can handle it. But whatever happened to that two-and-a-quarter-year ideal spacing you were talking about?"

Dr. Yei bit her words off carefully. "There is a Project-wide push to increase productivity. In all areas." Dr. Yei, always straightforward in Claire's experience, smiled falsely. She glanced at Tony, hovering happily, and pursed her lips.

"I'm glad you're here, Tony, because I have some good news for you too. Your welding instructor Mr. Graf has rated you tops in his class. So you've been picked as gang foreman to go out on the first Cay Project contract GalacTech has landed. You and your co-workers will be shipping out in about a month to a place called Kline Station. It's on the far end of the wormhole nexus, beyond Earth, and it's a long ride, so Mr. Graf will be going along to complete your training en route, and double as engineering supervisor."

Tony surged across the room in excitement. "At last! Real work! But—" he paused, stricken. Claire, one thought ahead of him, felt her face becoming mask-like. "But how's Claire supposed to start a baby next month if I'm on my way to where?"

"Dr. Minchenko will freeze a couple of sperm samples before you go," suggested Claire. "Won't he . . . ?"

"Ah—hm," said Dr. Yei. "Well, actually, that wasn't in the plans. Your next baby is scheduled to be fathered by Rudy, in Microsystems Installation."

"Oh, no!" gasped Claire.

Dr. Yei studied both their faces, and arranged her mouth in a severe frown. "Rudy is a very nice boy. He would be very hurt by that reaction, I'm sure. This can't be a surprise, Claire, after all our talks."

"Yes, but—I was hoping, since Tony and I did so well, they'd let us—I was going to ask Dr. Cay!"

"Who is no longer with us," Dr. Yei sighed. "And so you've gone and let yourselves become pair-bonded. I warned you not to do that, didn't I?"

Claire hung her head. Tony's face was mask-like, now.

"Claire, Tony, I know this seems hard. But you in be first generations have a special burden. You are first step in a very detailed long-range plan for GalacTech, spanning literally generations. Your actions have a multiplier effect all out of proportion—ak, this isn't by any means the end of the world or you two. Claire has a long reproductive career scheduled. It's quite probable you'll be getting back together again someday. And you, Tony—you're tops.

GalacTech's not going to waste you, either. There will be other girls—"

"I don't want other girls," said Tony stonily. "Only Claire."

Dr. Yei paused, went on. "I shouldn't be telling you this yet, but Sinda in Nutrition is next for you. I've always thought she was an extraordinarily pretty girl"

"She has a laugh like a hacksaw."

Dr. Yei blew out her breath impatiently. "We'll discuss it later. At length. Right now I have to talk with Claire." She thrust him firmly out the door and keyed it shut on his frown and muffled objections.

Dr. Yei turned back to Claire and fixed her with a stern gaze. "Claire—did you and Tony continue to have sexual relations after you became pregnant?"

"Dr. Minchenko said it wouldn't hurt the baby."

"Dr. Minchenko knew?"

"I don't know ... I just asked him, like, in a general way." Claire studied her hands guiltily. "Did you expect us to stop?"

"Well, yes!"

"You didn't tell us to."

"You didn't ask. In fact, you were quite careful not to bring up the subject, now that I think back—oh, how could I have been so blind-sided?"

"But downsiders do it all the time," Claire defended herself.

"How do you know what downsiders do?"

"Silver says Mr. Van Atta—" Claire stopped


Dr. Yei's attention sharpened, knife-like and uncomfortable. "What do you know about Silver and Mr. Van Atta?"

"Well—everything, I guess. I mean, we all wanted to know how downsiders did it." Claire paused. "Downsiders are strange," she added.

After a paralyzed moment, Dr. Yei buried her suffused face in her hands and sniggered helplessly. "And so Silver's been supplying you with detailed information?"

"Well, yes." Claire regarded the psychologist with wary fascination.

Dr. Yei stifled her chortles, a strange light growing in her eyes, part humor, part irritation. "I suppose—I suppose you'd better pass the word to Tony not to let on. I'm afraid Mr. Van Atta would become a little upset if he realized his personal activities had a second-hand audience."

"All right," Claire agreed doubtfully. "But—you always wanted to know all about me and Tony." "That's different. We were trying to help you." "Well, we and Silver are trying to help each other." "You're not supposed to help yourselves." The sting of Dr. Yei's criticism was blunted by her suppressed smile. "You're supposed to wait until you're served." Yei paused. "Just how many of you are privy to this, ah, Silver-mine of information, anyway? Just you and Tony, I trust?"

"Well, and my dormitory mates. I take Andy over there in my off hours and we all play with him. I used to have my sleep restraints opposite Silver's until I moved out. She's my best friend. Silver's so—so brave, I guess—she'll try things I'd never dare." Claire sighed envy.

"Eight girls," Yei muttered. "Oh, lord Krishna ... I trust none of them have been inspired to emulation yet?"

Claire, not wishing to lie, said nothing. She didn't need to; the psychologist, watching her face, winced. Yei turned indecisively in air. "I've got to have a talk with Silver. I should have done it when I first suspected—but I thought the man had the wit not to contaminate the experiment—asleep on my feet. Look, Claire, I want to talk with you more about your new assignment. I'm here to try and make it as easy and pleasant as possible—you know I'll help, right? I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

Yei peeled Andy off her neck where he was now attempting to taste her earring and handed him back to Claire, and exited the airseal door muttering something about "containing the damage ..."

Claire, alone, held her baby close. Her troubled uncertainty turned like a lump of metal under her heart. She had tried so hard to be good. . . .

Leo squinted approvingly against the harsh light and dense shadows of the vacuum as a pair of his space-suited students horsed the locking ring accurately into place on the end of its flex tube. Between the two of them their eight gloved hands made short work of the task.

"Now Pramod, Bobbi, bring up the beam welder and the recorder and put them in their starting position. Julian, you run the optical laser alignment program and lock them on."

A dozen of the four-armed figures, their names and numbers printed in large clear figures on the front of each helmet and across the backs of their silvery work suits, bobbed about. Their suit jets puffed as they jockeyed for a better view.

"Now, in these high-energy-density partial penetration welds," Leo lectured into his spacesuits's audio pick-up, "the electron beam must not be allowed to achieve a penetrating steady-state. This beam can punch through half a meter of steel. Even one spiking event and your, say, nuclear pressure vessel or your propulsion chamber can lose its structural integrity. Now, the pulser that Pramod is checking right now—" Leo made his voice heavy with hint; Pramod jerked, and hastily began punching up the system readout on his machine, "utilizes the natural oscillation of the point of beam impingement within the weld cavity to set up a pulsing schedule that maintains its frequency, eliminating the spiking problem. Always double check its function before you start." The locking ring was firmly welded to its flex tube and duly examined for flaws by eye, hologram scan, eddy current, the examination and comparison of the simultaneous x-ray emission recording, and the classic kick-and-jerk test. Leo prepared to move his students on to the next task.

"Tony, you bring the beam welder over—TURN IT OFF FIRST!" Feedback squeal lanced through everyone's earphones, and Leo modulated his voice from his first urgent panicked bellow. The beam had in fact been off, but the controls live; one accidental bump, as Tony swung the machine around, and—Leo's eye traced the hypothetical slice through the nearby wing of the Habitat, and he shuddered. "Get your head out of your ass, Tony! I saw a man cut in half by one of his friends once by just that careless trick."

"Sorry . . . thought it would save time . . . sorry ..." Tony mumbled.

"You know better." Leo calmed, as his heart stopped palpitating. "In this hard vacuum that beam won't stop till it hits the third moon, or whatever it might encounter in between." He almost continued, stopped himself; no, not over the public comm channel. Later.

Later, as his students unsuited in the equipment locker, laughing and joking as they cleaned and stored their work suits, Leo drifted over to the silent and pale Tony. Surely I didn't bark at him that hard, Leo thought to himself. Figured he was more resilient. . . "Stop and see me when you're finished here," said Leo quietly.

Tony flinched guiltily. "Yes, sir." After his fellows had all swooped out, eager for their end-of-shift meal, Tony hung in air, both sets of arms crossed protectively across his torso. Leo floated near, and spoke in a grave tone.

"Where were you, out there today?"

"Sorry, sir. It won't happen again."

"It's been happening all week. You got something on your mind, boy?"

Tony shook his head. "Nothing—nothing to do with you, sir."

Meaning, nothing to do with work, Leo interpreted that. All right, so. "If it's taking your mind off your work, it does have something to do with me. Want to talk about it? You got girl trouble? Little Andy all right? You have a fight with somebody?"

Tony's blue eyes searched Leo's face in sudden uncertainty, then he grew closed and inward once again. "No, sir."

"You worried about going out on that contract? I guess it will be the first time away from home for you lads, at that."

"It's not that," denied Tony. He paused, watching Leo again. "Sir—are there a great many other companies out there besides ours?

"Not a great many, for deep interstellar work," Leo replied, a little baffled by this new turn in the conversation. "We're the biggest, of course, though there's maybe a half dozen others that can give us some real competition. In the heavily populated systems, like Tau Ceti or Escobar or Orient or of course Earth, there's always a lot of little companies operating on a smaller scale. Super-specialists, or entrepreneurial mavericks, this and that. The outer worlds are coming on strong lately."

"So—so if you ever quit GalacTech, you could get another job in space."

"Oh, sure. I've even had offers—but our company does the most of the sort of work I want to do, so there's no reason to go elsewhere. And I've got a lot of seniority accumulated by now, and all that goes with it. I'll probably be with GalacTech till I retire, if I don't die in harness." Probably from a heart attack brought on by watching one of my students try to accidentally kill himself. Leo did not speak the thought aloud; Tony seemed chastized enough. But still abstracted.

"Sir . . . tell me about money."

"Money?" Leo raised his brows. "What's to tell? The stuff of life."

"I've never seen any—I'd understood it was sort of coded value-markers to, to facilitate trade, and keep count."

"That's right."

"How do you get it?"

"Well—most people work for it. They, ah, trade their labor for it. Or if they own or manufacture or grow something, they can sell it. I work."

"And GalacTech gives you money?"

"Uh, yes."

"If I asked, would the company give me money?"

"Ah ..." Leo became conscious of skating on very thin ice. His private opinion of the Cay Project had perhaps better remain just that, while he ate the company's bread. His job was to teach safe quality welding procedures, not—foment union demands, or whatever this conversation was sliding toward. "Whatever would you spend it on, up here? GalacTech gives you everything you need. Now, when I'm downside, or not on a company installation, I have to buy my own food, clothing, travel and what-not. Besides," Leo reached for a less queasily specious argument, "up till now, you haven't actually done any work for GalacTech, although it's done plenty for you. Wait till you've actually been out on a contract and done some real producing. Then maybe it might be time to talk about money." Leo smiled, feeling hypocritical, but at least loyal.

"Oh." Tony seemed to fold inward on some secret disappointment. His blue eyes flicked up, probing Leo again. "When one of the company Jump ships leaves Rodeo—where does it go first?"

"Depends on where it's wanted, I guess. Some run straight all the way to Earth. If there's cargo or people to divide up for other destinations, the first stop is usually Orient Station." "GalacTech doesn't own Orient Station, does it?" "No, it's owned by the government of Orient IV. Although GalacTech leases a good quarter of it."

"How long does it take to get to Orient Station from Rodeo?"

"Oh, usually about a week. You'll probably be stopping there yourself quite soon, if only to pick up extra equipment and supplies, when you're sent out on your first construction contract."

The boy was looking more outer-directed now, perhaps thinking about his first interstellar trip. That was better. Leo relaxed slightly.

"I'll be looking forward to that, sir."

"Right. If you don't cut your foot, er, hand off meanwhile, eh?"

Tony ducked his head and grinned. "I'll try not to, sir."

And what was that all about? Leo wondered, watching Tony sail out the door. Surely the boy could not be thinking of trying to strike out on his own? Tony had not the least conception of what a freak he would seem, beyond his familiar Habitat. If he would only open up a little more . . .

Leo shrank from the thought of confronting him. Every downsider staff member in the Habitat seemed to feel they had a right to the quaddies' personal thoughts. There wasn't a lockable door anywhere in the quaddies' living quarters. They had all the privacy of ants under glass.

He shook off the critical thought, but could not shake off his queasiness. All his life he had placed his faith in his own technical integrity—if he followed that star, his feet would not stumble. It was ingrained habit by now, he had brought that technical integrity to the teaching of Tony's work gang almost automatically. And yet. . . this time, it did not seem to be quite enough. As if he had memorized the answer, only to discover the question had been changed.

Yet what more could be demanded of him? What more could he be expected to give? What, after all, could one man do?

A spasm of vague fear made him blink, the hard-edged stars in the viewport smeared, as the looming shadow of the dilemma clouded on the horizon of his conscience. More . . .

He shivered, and turned his back to the vastness. It could swallow a man, surely.

Ti, the freight shuttle co-pilot, had his eyes closed. Perhaps that was natural at times like this, Silver thought, studying his face from a distance of ten centimeters. At this range her eyes could no longer superimpose their stereoscopic images, so his twinned face overlapped itself. If she squinted just right, she could make him appear to have three eyes. Men really were rather alien. Yet the metal contact implanted in his forehead, echoed at both temples, did not have that effect, seeming more a decoration or a mark of rank. She blinked one eye closed, then the other, causing his face to shift back and forth in her vision.

Ti opened his eyes a moment, and Silver quickly flinched into action. She smiled, half-closed her own eyes, picked up the rhythm of her flexing hips. "Oooh," she murmured, as Van Atta had taught her. Let's hear some feedback, honey, Van Atta had demanded, so she'd hit on a collection of noises that seemed to please him. They worked on the pilot, too, when she remembered to make them.

Ti's eyes squeezed shut, his lips parting as his breath came faster, and Silver's face relaxed into pensive stillness once again, grateful for the privacy. Anyway, Ti's gaze didn't make her as uncomfortable as Mr. Van Atta's, that always seemed to suggest that she ought to be doing something else, or more, or differently.

The pilot's forehead was damp with sweat, plastering down one curl of brown hair around the shiny plug. Mechanical mutant, biological mutant, equally touched by differing technologies; perhaps that was why Ti had first seen her as approachable, being an odd man out himself. Both freaks together. On the other hand, maybe the Jump pilot just wasn't very fussy.

He shivered, gasped convulsively, clutched her tightly to his body. Actually, he looked—rather vulnerable. Mr. Van Atta never looked vulnerable at this moment. Silver was not sure just what it was he did look like.

What's he getting out of this that I'm not? Silver wondered. What's wrong with me? Maybe she really was, as Van Atta had once accused, frigid—an unpleasant word, it reminded her of machinery, and the trash dumps locked outside the Habitat—so she had learned to make noises for him, and twitch pleasingly, and he had commended her for loosening up.

Silver reminded herself that she had another reason for keeping her eyes open. She glanced again past the pilot's head. The observation window of the darkened control booth where they trysted overlooked the freight loading bay. The staging area between the bay's control booth and the entrance to the freight shuttle's hatch remained dimly lit and empty of movement. Hurry up Tony, Claire, Silver thought worriedly. I can't keep this guy occupied all shift.

"Wow," breathed Ti, coming out of his trance and opening his eyes and grinning. "When they designed you folks for free fall they thought of everything." He released his own clutch on the wings of Silver's shoulderblades to slide his hands down her back, around her hips, and along her lower arms, ending with an approving pat on her hands locked around his muscular downsider flanks. "Truly functional."

"How do downsiders keep from, um, bouncing apart?" Silver inquired curiously, taking practical advantage of having cornered an apparent expert on the subject.

His grin widened. "Gravity keeps us together."

"How strange. I always thought of gravity as something you had to fight all the time."

"No, only half the time. The other half, it works for you," he assured her.

He undocked from her body rather gracefully—perhaps it was all that piloting experience showing through—and planted a kiss in the hollow of her throat. "Pretty lady."

Silver blushed a little, grateful for the dim lighting. Ti turned his attention momentarily to a necessary clean-up chore. A quick whistle of air, and the spermicide-permeated condom was gone down the waste chute. Silver suppressed a faint twinge of regret. It was just too bad Ti wasn't one of them. Too bad she was such a long way down the roster of those scheduled for motherhood. Too bad . . .

"Did you find out from your doctor fellow if we really need those?" Ti asked her.

"I couldn't exactly ask Dr. Minchenko directly," Silver replied. "But I gather he thinks any conceptus between a downsider and one of us would abort spontaneously, pretty early on—but nobody knows for sure. Could be a baby might make it to birth with lower limbs that were neither arms nor legs, but just some mess in between." And they probably wouldn't let me keep if. ... "Anyway, it saves chasing body fluids around the room with a hand vac."

"Too true. Well, I'm certainly not ready to be a daddy."

How incomprehensible, thought Silver, for a man that old. Ti must be at least twenty-five, much older than Tony, who was nearly the eldest of them all. She was careful to float facing the window, so that the pilot had his back to it. Come on, Tony, do it if you're going to. ...

A cool draft from the ventilators raised goose bumps on all her arms, and Silver shivered.

"Chilly?" Ti asked solicitously, and rubbed his hands up and down her arms rapidly to warm them by friction, then retrieved her blue shirt and shorts from the side of the room where they had drifted. Silver shrugged into them gratefully. The pilot dressed too, and Silver watched with covert fascination as he fastened his shoes. Such inflexible, heavy coverings, but then feet were inflexible, heavy things in their own right. She hoped he'd be careful how he swung them around. Shod, his feet reminded her of mallets. Ti, smiling, unhooked his flight bag from a wall rack where he had stowed it when they'd retreated to the control booth half an hour earlier. "Gotcha something."

Silver perked up, and her four hands clasped each other hopefully. "Oh! Were you able to find any more book-discs by the same lady?"

"Yes, here you go—" Ti produced some thin squares of plastic from the inner reaches of his flight bag. "Three titles, all new."

Silver pounced on them and read their labels eagerly. Rainbow Illustrated Romances: Sir Randan's Folly, Love in the Gazebo, Sir Randan and the Bartered Bride, all by Valeria Virga. "Oh, wonderful!" She wrapped her upper right arm around Ti's neck and gave him a quite spontaneous and vigorous kiss. He shook his head in mock despair. "I don't know how you can read that dreck. I think the author is a committee, anyway."

"It's great!" Silver defended her beloved literature indignantly. "It's so, so full of color, and strange places and times—a lot of them are set on old Earth, way back when everybody was still downside—they're amazing. People kept animals all around them—these enormous creatures called horses actually used to carry them around on their backs. I suppose the gravity tired people out. And these rich people, like—like company executives, I guess—called 'lords' and 'nobles' lived in the most fantastic habitats, stuck to the surface of the planet—and there was nothing about all this in the history we were taught!" Her indignation peaked.

"That stuff's not history, though," he objected. "It's fiction."

"It's nothing like the fiction they give us, either. Oh, it's all right for the little kids—I used to love The Little Compressor That Could—we made our creche-mother read it over and over. And the Bobby BX-99 series was all right . . . Bobby BX-99 Solves the Excess Humidity Mystery . . . Bobby BX-99 and the Plant Virus ... it was then I asked to specialize in Hydroponics. But downsiders are ever so much more interesting to read about. It's so—so—when I'm reading this," she clutched the little plastic squares tightly, "it's like they're real, and I'm not." Silver sighed hugely.

Although perhaps Mr. Van Atta was a bit like Sir Randan . . . high of status, commanding, short-tempered. . . . Silver wondered briefly why short temper in Sir Randan always seemed so exciting and attractive, full of fascinating consequences. When Mr. Van Atta became angry, it merely made her sick to her stomach. Perhaps downsider women had more courage.

Ti shrugged baffled amusement. "Whatever turns you on, I guess. Can't see the harm in it. But I brought something better for you, this trip—" he rummaged in his flight bag again, and shook out a froth of ivory fabric, intricate lace and ribbony satin. "I figured you could wear a regular woman's blouse all right. It's got flowers in the pattern, thought you'd like that, being in hydroponics and all."

"Oh ..." One of Valeria Virga's heroines might have been at home in such a garment. Silver reached for it, drew her hand back. "But—but I can't take it"

"Why not? You take the book-discs. It wasn't that expensive."

Silver, who felt she was beginning to have a fairly clear idea of how money worked from her reading, shook her head. "It's not that. It's, well—you know, I don't think Dr. Yei would approve of our meeting like this. Neither would—would a lot of other people." Actually, Silver was fairly sure that "disapprove" would barely begin to cover the consequences should her secret transactions with Ti be found out. "Prudes," scoffed Ti. "You're not going to let them start telling you what to do now, are you?" But his scorn was tinged with anxiety.

"I'm not going to start telling them what I am doing either," said Silver pointedly. "Are you?" "God, no," he waved his hands in horrified negation. "So, we are in agreement. Unfortunately, that," she pointed regretfully at the blouse, "is something I can't hide. I couldn't wear it without someone demanding that I explain where I got it."

"Oh," he said, in the blunted tone of one struck by incontrovertable fact. "Yeah, I—guess I should have thought of that. Do you suppose you could put it away for a time? I've only been taking my gravity leaves on the Rodeo side because all the shuttle bonus berths at Orient IV get nailed by the senior guys. Well, and you can log a lot more hours here I faster, with all the freight hauling. But I'll have my shuttle commander's rating and be back to permanent Jump status in just a few more cycles."

"It can't be shared, either," said Silver. "You see, the thing about the books and the vid dramas and lings, besides being small and easy to hide, is that they can be passed all around the group without being used up. Nobody gets left out. So I can get, um, a lot of cooperation when I want to, say—get away for a little time by myself?" A toss of her head indicated the privacy they were presently enjoying.

"Ah," gulped Ti. He paused. "I—hadn't realized you were passing the stuff around."

"Not share?" said Silver. "That would be really wrong." She stared at him in mild offense, and pushed the blouse back toward him on the surge of the emotion, quickly, before she weakened. She almost explained further, then thought better of it.

Best Ti didn't know about the uproar when one of the book-discs, accidently left in a viewer, had been found by one of the Habitat's downsider staff and turned over to Dr. Yei. The search—barely alerted, they had scrambled successfully to hide the rest of the contraband library, but the fierce intensity of the search had been warning enough to Silver of how serious was her offense in the eyes of her authorities.

There had been two more surprise inspections since, even though no more discs had been found. She could take a hint.

Mr. Van Atta himself had taken her aside—her!—and urged her to spy out the leak for him among her comrades. She had started to confess, stopped just in time, as his rising rage tightened her throat with fear. "I'm going to crucify the little sneak when I get my hands on him," Van Atta had snarled. Maybe Ti would not find Mr. Van Atta and Dr. Yei and all their staffs ranked together so intimidating—but she dared not risk losing her one sure source of downsider delights. Ti at least was willing to barter for what was in effect a bit of Silver's labor, the one invisible commodity not accounted for in any inventory; who knew, another pilot might want things of some kind, far more difficult to smuggle out of the Habitat unnoticed.

A long-awaited movement in the loading area caught her eye. And you thought you were risking trouble for a few books, Silver thought to herself. Wait'll this shit gets on the loose. . . .

"Thank you anyway," said Silver hastily, and grabbed Ti around the neck for a prolonged thank-you kiss. He closed his eyes—wonderful reflex, that—and Silver rolled hers toward the view out the control booth window. Tony, Claire, and Andy were just disappearing into the shuttle hatch flex tube.

There, thought Silver, that's it. I've done what I can—the rest is up to you. Good luck, double-luck. And more sharply, I wish I was going with you.

"Oof! Look at the time!" Ti broke off their embrace. "I've got to get this checklist completed before Captain Durrance gets back. Guess you're right about the shirt," he stuffed it unceremoniously back into his flight bag, "what do you want me to bring you next time?"

"Siggy in Airsystems Maintenance asked me if there were any more holovids in the Ninja of the Twin Stars series," Silver said promptly. "He's up to Number 7, but he's missing 4 and 5."

"Ah," said Ti "now that was decent entertainment. Did you watch them yourself?"

"Yes," Silver wrinkled her nose, "but I'm not sure—the people in them did such horrible things to one another—they are fiction, you say?"

"Well, yes."

"That's a relief."

"Yes, but what would you like for yourself?" he | persisted. "I'm not risking reprimand to gratify Siggy, whoever he is. Siggy doesn't have your," he sighed in remembered pleasure, "dear double-jointed hips."

Silver fanned out the three new book cards in her |lower right hand. "More, please, sir."

"If it's dreck you want," he captured each of her hands in turn and kissed their palms, "it's dreck you shall have. Uh, oh, here comes my fearless captain," Ti hastily straightened his shuttle pilot's uniform, turned up the light level, and picked up his report panel as an airseal door at the far end of the loading bay swished open. "He hates being saddled with junior Jumpers. Tadpoles, he calls us. I think he's uncomfortable because on my Jumpship, I'd outrank him. Still, better not give the old guy something to pick on . . ."

Silver made the book cards disappear into her work bag and took up the pose of an idle bystander as Captain Durrance, the shuttle commander, floated into the control booth.

"Snap it up, Ti, we've had a change of itinerary," said Captain Durrance. "Yes, sir. What's up?" "We're wanted downside."

"Hell," Ti swore mildly. "What a pain. I had a hot date lined—er," his eye fell on Silver, "was supposed to meet a friend for dinner tonight at the Transfer Station."

"Fine," said Captain Durrance, ironically unsympathetic. "File a complaint with Employee Relations, your work schedule is interfering with your love life. Maybe they can arrange that you not have a work schedule."

Ti took the hint, and moved hastily out to continue his duties as a Habitat technician arrived to take over the loading bay control booth.

Silver made herself small in a corner, frozen in horror and confusion. At the Transfer Station, Tony and Claire had planned to stow away on a Jump ship for Orient IV, get beyond the reach of GalacTech, find work when they got there; a horribly risky plan, in Silver's estimation, a measure of their desperation. Claire had been terrified, but at last persuaded by Tony's plan of carefully thought-out stages. At least, the first stages had been carefully thought-out; they had seemed to get vaguer, farther away from Rodeo and home. They had not planned on a downside detour in any version.

Tony and Claire had surely hidden themselves by now in the shuttle's cargo bay. There was no way for Silver to warn them—should she betray them to save them? The ensuing uproar was guaranteed to be ghastly—her dismay wrapped like a steel band around her chest, constricting breathing, constricting speech.

She watched on the control booth's vid display in miserable paralysis as the shuttle kicked away from the Habitat and began to drop toward Rodeo's swirling atmosphere.