Read an Excerpt
Book Four of the Asteroid Wars
By Ben Bova, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2007 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
ATTACK AND SURVIVAL
I wage not any feud with Death
For changes wrought on form and face;
No lower life that earth's embrace
May breed with him, can fright my faith.
ORE SHIP SYRACUSE: MAIN POWER BAY
"Don't touch that switch!"
His father's shouted warning made Theo Zacharias jerk upright. He banged his head painfully on the steel shelf that jutted out over the power bus recess set into the floor plates of the cramped compartment.
"You could trip all the breakers on the power bus," Victor Zacharias admonished his son. "The whole damned ship would go dark."
Fifteen-year-old Theo sat there surrounded by relays and circuit breakers, his knees poking up from the recess like a pair of folded ladders. He rubbed his throbbing head with one hand and glowered sullenly at his father.
"How many times do I have to tell you to be careful?" Victor demanded. "Do you have any idea of how many megavolts are in those circuits?"
"Twenty-two point six," Theo muttered. "You've told me often enough."
Victor offered a hand to his son and helped to pull him out of the recess. "I'll handle it," he said, climbing down to where the teenager had been.
"Yeah. Right," said Theo, thinking he knew what his father had left unsaid: Never send a boy to do a man's job.
Nearly an hour later Victor clambered out of the recess and hunched beneath the low overhead alongside Theo.
"That ought to hold until we get back to Ceres," he said. "Come on, Thee, help me put the deck plates back in place."
Theo skinned his knuckles wrestling with the heavy deck plates, but he avoided mashing his fingers, as he'd done once before. The fingernail on his left ring finger was still black from that one. They finished and crabbed out into the passageway, where they could at last stand erect. Theo stretched to his full height, several centimeters taller than his father. While Victor was thickset and bullnecked, his once-trim midsection had spread, stretching the fabric of his coveralls. Theo was tall and slender, but youthfully awkward, all gangling arms and legs. Victor's hair was jet black and thickly curled; Theo's was a light sandy brown, like his mother's.
"How's your head?" Victor asked gruffly as they started back toward the living quarters.
Theo rubbed the spot he had whacked. "No lump," he said. He flexed the fingers where he'd skinned his knuckles; the hand stung, but not badly.
"This old vessel needs a lot of tender loving care," Victor said, more to himself than to his son. "We've got to nurse her along until we put in at Ceres for a major overhaul."
Theo started to reply, but his mouth went dry. He knew what he wanted to say, but found that it wasn't easy to speak the words. At last, working up his courage, he tried, "Dad, when we get to Ceres ..." But the words dried up in his throat.
His father's expression turned hard. "What about when we get back to Ceres?"
Theo blurted, "I don't want to spend the rest of my life taking care of this rust bucket."
"Neither do I, son. I thought we'd spend a year or two out here in the Belt and then cash in. But it hasn't worked out that way. The years just seem to slip past."
Theo had heard the sad story many times before. "I don't want to be a rock rat all my life," he said.
"You don't want to be like me, is that it?" Victor asked, his voice suddenly sharp.
Feeling miserable, Theo replied, "It's not that, Dad. It's ... jeeze, there's got to be more to life than running around the Belt picking up ores and delivering them to Ceres, for cripes sake."
"Don't let your mother hear that kind of language. She expects you to be a gentleman."
"Yeah, I know," Theo sighed.
More softly Victor said, "Theo, this ship is our home. It's our whole life —"
"Your life," Theo muttered. "I want something more."
"I don't know. I'm not sure. I'm getting good grades in my science classes."
"High school classes over the ednet are a far cry from real science, Thee."
"The guidance program says my test scores are good enough for a scholarship."
"Scholarships pay tuition. Who's going to pay all the other expenses?"
"I can work, support myself. Selene University scholarships include transportation, at least."
"Selene?" Victor stopped in the middle of the passageway, forcing Theo to stop and turn to face him. "You want to go to the Moon?"
"Just long enough to get a degree in biology."
"And then what?"
"Maybe I could go to the research station at Jupiter. They need biologists to study the life forms there."
"Jupiter," Victor murmured, shaking his head. He clutched at his son's arm hard enough almost to hurt. "A biologist. At the Jupiter station."
"If I'm good enough to make it."
"You'll have to be pretty damned good," Victor told his son. Then he chuckled and added, "If you don't kill yourself first trying to keep this ship going."
Theo did not laugh.
ORE SHIP SYRACUSE: GALLEY
"Let's face it, Mom," Theo mumbled into his bowl of yogurt and honey, "Dad doesn't trust me. He thinks I'm still a kid."
His mother, Pauline, stood at the one microwave oven that was still functioning and smiled understandingly at her son.
"I don't think that's true, Theo," she said gently.
"I'm fifteen!" Theo burst. "Almost sixteen! And he still doesn't trust me with anything."
"Your father has an awful lot of responsibility on his shoulders," Pauline replied. "This ship, our lives ... there's a war going on out there, you know."
"And he doesn't trust me."
Pauline sighed, wondering if the microwave was functioning properly. Syracuse was an old, creaking bucket of an ore carrier. The family spent most of their time on maintenance and repairs, just trying to keep the vessel going on its lonely circuit through the Asteroid Belt. The galley was a tight little compartment, its bulkheads and deck scuffed and dulled from long years of use.
Theo sat hunched over his bowl, muttering unhappily into his unfinished breakfast. His sister Angela, sitting across the galley's narrow table from Theo, was slightly more than two years older; she was still carrying more weight than she should, still wearing an extra layer of teenage fat. Theo taunted her about it. She responded by calling her lanky, gawky brother "the giraffe."
When Pauline looked at her daughter she could see a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty waiting to blossom. We'll have to be careful about her once we put in at Ceres, she reminded herself. There'll be plenty of young men chasing after her.
"Dad's got enough to worry about, Thee," Angie said, in the authoritative voice of an older sister.
"I could help him if he'd let me," Theo grumbled.
"Like you fixed the leak in the fuel tank? Dad had to come down and —"
"Hydrogen's tricky stuff!" he protested. "It seeps right through ordinary seals."
"Never send a giraffe to do a man's job." Angela smirked.
"Like you'd do better, hippo?"
"Mom! He's calling me names again!"
"You started it!"
"Both of you, stop this at once," Pauline said firmly. "I won't have you calling each other ugly names."
The microwave dinged at last. As Pauline opened it and pulled out her own breakfast of steaming oatmeal, she said, "Let me talk to your father about this, Thee. Perhaps there's something that we can do."
Theo brightened a bit and sat up a little straighter. "I could pilot the ship into Ceres!"
"I don't know...."
"Dad lets Angie pilot the ship sometimes."
"I'm more mature than you," Angela said loftily. "You have to be reliable, you know."
But their mother smiled. "We'll see."
ORE SHIP SYRACUSE: MASTER BEDROOM
Pauline Zacharias looked into the mirror as she sat at her dresser. I'm getting old, she realized, studying the fine lines that were beginning to spiderweb across her face.
She had never been a beauty, not in her own critical estimation. Her jaw was too long, she thought, her lips too thin. Her gray eyes were large and Victor often called them luminous, the dear. But her hair. It was sorrowful. Dirty blonde. Victor called it sandy. It never behaved. Pauline had cropped it short, close to the skull, and still it stuck out all around in a sea of cowlicks. She tried to consider her good points: she was tall and her figure still slimly elegant. She had always strived to carry herself proudly, chin up, shoulders back, head erect. Now she was beginning to wonder if it was worth the effort.
Victor stepped into the bedroom and slid the door shut. The lock didn't catch at first; he had to jiggle it a few times.
"This whole tub is breaking down around our ears," Victor Zacharias muttered.
He was right, Pauline knew. Glancing around their bedroom she saw that the dresser and cabinets were badly in need of upgrading. Even the wall screens had developed an annoying little flicker. But the bed, she would never replace their bed. Victor had ripped out the compartment's built-in bunk when they'd first leased Syracuse, and he'd built a handsome oversized bed with his own hands. Painted the plastic paneling to resemble real wood. Made a mattress out of discarded elastic water bags. Their one luxury, their bed.
"We'll do an overhaul when we get to Ceres, won't we?" she asked.
"I was just talking to Ceres," he said, walking across the little compartment and kissing her absently on the crown of her head. "Three more ore ships have been hit, so prices are up."
"Three ships?" she asked, alarmed.
"Corporation ships, Pauline. Nobody's attacking the few independents, like us. Not even the mercenaries."
Ignoring her unspoken fears, Victor mused, "If we can get this cargo of ore to the market before prices dip again, we'll make a nice profit. Then we can overhaul the ship good and proper."
"Will we be able to afford a rejuve therapy, too?" Pauline blurted.
"Rejuvenation?" Victor looked genuinely shocked. "You? Why?"
She loved him, not least because her husband always seemed to see her through adoring eyes. He was short, barrel-chested, starting to get potbellied. That hardly mattered to her. His real strength, Pauline knew, was in his character. Victor Zacharias had pride, yes, but more than that he had intelligence. When she'd first met him, Victor had been strong enough to bend steel rods with his bare hands. What really impressed her, though, was that he was sharp enough to talk his way out of confrontations, clever enough to win fights without violence.
And he had that beautiful, thick, curly, midnight black hair. Pauline envied her husband's luxuriant dark ringlets. This many months out in the Belt, he had allowed his hair to grow down to his collar.
"I think it's time for a treatment," Pauline said. "I'm not getting any younger."
"Pah!" He dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "People back at Ceres think you and Angie are sisters."
"That's not true, Vic, and you know it."
"It is true," he insisted. "You just don't notice it."
"Nonsense." But she smiled.
He sat beside her, just one hip on the corner of the dresser's little padded bench, and put an arm around her slender waist.
"You're gorgeous, Pauline," he said into the mirror.
"Not as gorgeous as I used to be."
He raised his dark brows, then took a breath. "I think it's gilding the lily, but if you want a rejuve treatment when we get back to Ceres, go ahead and do it."
"We'll be able to afford it?"
He nodded. She leaned her head on his shoulder and he curled around and kissed her.
And slid off the bench, plopping onto the threadbare carpet. They laughed together.
Later, as they lay in their handsome waterbed together, Pauline said into the shadows, "Victor, Theo thinks you don't trust him."
She turned toward him, sending a gentle wave through the bed. In the darkened room she could make out the curve of his bulky shoulder, the outline of those raven ringlets.
"He wants more responsibility, darling. He's almost sixteen now —"
"And he's a terrible klutz," Victor said, chuckling. "All arms and legs, no coordination."
Pauline smiled, too. She remembered Theo's disastrous attempt to repair one of the galley's faulty microwave ovens. It was functioning poorly when Theo started tinkering with it. It was a complete loss by the time he gave up.
But she coaxed, "You could let him relieve you in the command pod now and then, couldn't you? Like you let Angie sit in. After all, the ship's cruising on automatic, isn't it?"
"We're on course for Ceres, yes."
"Couldn't Thee watch the panels for an hour or two? It would free you up to work on repairs. And it would mean so much to him."
"As long as he doesn't touch anything," Victor muttered.
"Maybe he could even work with you on more of the maintenance chores," Pauline suggested.
"I'm not sure I have the patience for that," he said.
"But you'll give him a chance?"
She sensed him smiling.
"He wants to go to Selene University and study biology," he said.
"Leave us?" She felt startled by the thought.
"Sooner or later," said Victor. "I can't keep him on this ship against his will. Not for long."
"But he's not even sixteen."
"He will be." Victor fell silent for a moment. Then, "I wonder what kind of a man he'll turn out to be. I've tried to teach him...."
"Give him a chance," Pauline urged. "Show him that you trust him."
"I suppose you're right," he said softly. "I'll have to give him a try."
ORE SHIP SYRACUSE: APPROACHING CERES
Syracuse was shaped like a giant wheel, with two long intersecting spokes bracing the rim: a pair of three-kilometer-long buckyball tubes running perpendicular to each other. The ship's control center was nothing more than a pod attached to the rim at the end of one of the spokes: The ship spun slowly through space, producing a sense of almost a full Earth gravity along the rim of the wheel.
"Now remember," Victor said to his son, "watch everything, touch nothing."
Sitting in the control pod's command chair with his father standing at his shoulder, Theo nodded unhappily.
"This is a big responsibility, son. I'm going to leave you in charge for a couple of hours."
To Theo, his father's heavy-browed, dark-haired face looked somehow menacing. Victor looked like a solid, sawed-off stump of a tree, his torso thick and powerful. He wore faded gray shorts and a sweatshirt, the sleeves cut off to show his hairy, muscular arms. Theo kept his own skinny arms hidden inside long sleeves.
The command chair in which Theo sat was wedged into a curving bank of screens that displayed every aspect of Syracuse's systems: propulsion, navigation, life support, logistics supplies, communications, emergency equipment, and the fourteen thousand tons of asteroidal ores held in magnetic grips at the center of the slowly turning buckyball tubes.
"We're on the approach course for Ceres. The controls are locked in, so you don't have to worry about navigation. Are you sure you can handle the responsibility of being in command?" Victor asked anxiously.
That's a laugh and a half, Theo said to himself. The ship's on automatic and I'm in command of nobody. Plus I'm not supposed to touch anything. Some responsibility.
Misunderstanding his son's silence, Victor said, "It's a dangerous world out there, Thee. There's a war going on."
"I know," Theo muttered.
"Ships have been attacked, destroyed. People killed."
"Dad, the war's between the big corporations. Nobody's bothered independent ships, like us."
"True enough," Victor admitted, "but there are mercenaries roaming around out there and out-and-out pirates like Lars Fuchs —"
"You told me Fuchs only attacks corporate ships," Theo said. "You said he's never bothered an independent."
Victor nodded gravely. "I know. But I want you to keep your wits about you. If anything unusual happens — anything at all — you call me at once. Understand?"
"At once," Victor emphasized.
Theo looked up at his father. "Okay, okay."
With a million doubts showing clearly on his face, Victor reluctantly went to the command pod's hatch. He hesitated, as if he wanted to say something more to his son, then shrugged and left the pod.
Theo resisted the impulse to throw a sarcastic two-fingered salute at the old man.
At least, he thought, it's a beginning. I'll just sit here and let him take over once we've entered Ceres-controlled space. It's a beginning. At least Mom got him to let me babysit the instruments.
Slightly more than an hour later, Theo sat in the command chair, his brows knitted in puzzlement at the fuzzy image displayed on the ship's main communications screen.
Syracuse was still more than an hour away from orbital insertion at Ceres. But something strange was happening. Theo stared at the crackling, flickering image of a darkly bearded man who seemed to be making threats to the communications technician aboard the habitat Chrysalis, in orbit around Ceres, where the rock rats made their home. The image on the display screen was grainy, the voices broken up by interference. The stranger was aiming his message at Chrysalis: Theo had picked up the fringe of his comm signal as the ore ship coasted toward the asteroid.
"Please identify yourself," said a calm, flat woman's voice: the comm tech at Chrysalis, Theo figured. "We're not getting any telemetry data from you."
The dark-bearded man replied, "You don't need it. We're looking for Lars Fuchs. Surrender him to us and we'll leave you in peace."
Lars Fuchs? Theo thought. The pirate. The guy who attacks ships out here in the Belt.
Excerpted from The Aftermath by Ben Bova, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2007 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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