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The explosion was utterly silent.
Vargas hung in emptiness and saw the red finger of the rocket's flame lance out and find Carstairs. The shell hit the astronaut's jet backpack and exploded into a meteor shower of shredded fabric, metal and flesh. The young Venezuelan flinched inside his space suit, expecting the blast to knock him tumbling. But in the vacuum of space there was no blast, no sound. Just a surreal nightmare, hanging helplessly in weightless horror as Carstairs' helmeted head, severed from its trunk, spun past spewing blood into the black emptiness.
“It's a trap!” one of the others was yelling. Vargas heard it as a terrified screech in his helmet earphones. “Get back! It's a trap!”
But Vargas could not move. He was frozen, paralyzed with shock and sudden numbing fear.
The big Russian ore freighter hung in space, a massive sphere, a fat ovum, with the four needle-shaped flitters hovering close by like eager sperm cells. It was supposed to be easy, Vargas thought. A simple hijacking, like all the others. But instead of ores from the Moon, this Soviet freighter was carrying Russian troops armed with rocket-firing rifles.
A Trojan Horse. There had been no warning, no hint of danger. Vargas had piloted one of the four flitters from the space station Nueva Venezuela to intercept the freighter. It was supposed to have been unmanned, a drone ore carrier coasting from the Gulag mines on the Moon to the Soviet factories in orbit near the Earth. Dan Randolph had sent them out on missions like this half a dozen times.
But the spherical freighter had cracked open like a giant clamshell and disgorged two dozenarmed cosmonauts. Their first shot had blown Carstairs apart and frozen Vargas where he hung unarmed and feeling very naked, between his own flitter and the advancing Russian troops.
They were asking no questions, showing no mercy. Two more of Vargas' companions were blown apart by rocket rounds. One of the flitters took a hit in its middle and its propellant tanks blew up in a brilliant soundless flash of flame.
“Get back to the ship!” Njombe's deep voice roared in his earphones. “Get the hell out of here!”Vargas tried to blink away the searing image of the exploding flitter. His eyes burned and watered. He knew that he had to turn himself around, get away from the freighter and its space-suited soldiers. But he could not make his hands move, could not even flex his fingers. He was drifting toward the Russians, as the screams and curses of dying men filled his earphones.
A second flitter exploded as a rocket hit it. Vargas could see a space-suited figure suddenly flash into a smaller burst of flame as debris from the shattered spacecraft ripped into the oxygen tank of his backpack. A long agonized scream rasped in Vargas' earphones.
“I'm burning. . . . Helllp. . . .”
Another rocket shell reached out unerringly, trailing red fire like a malevolent meteor, and blew the thrashing man apart.
The sudden silence seemed to crush the breath out of Vargas. His chest constricted. He could feel his heart trying to burst through his ribs.
“Vargas! Move it! Get back here, boy!”
Njombe's voice broke the shell of ice that seemed to encase him. He looked down at his hands, past the thick metal rim of his helmet collar, and saw that they were shaking uncontrollably.
“Come on, Paco! Move it!”
With every ounce of strength in him, Vargas forced his hands to stop shaking, forced his fingers to touch the buttons on the control arms of his jet backpack. But as he looked up, he saw the third flitter blow up. The Russian troops were swarming outward now, leaving the concealment of the freighter's shadow and jetting out into the sunlight. Their space suits were a light tan, Vargas saw; a part of his mind noted quite calmly what trivia the senses can observe in the midst of terror.
There were only two other astronauts left floating weightlessly between the freighter and the last remaining flitter, and the Russians were streaming out after them. Vargas turned himself around, the jetpack thrusters puffing out microscopic bursts of cold gas. Another astronaut sailed past him, racing at top speed for the last remaining flitter where Njombe waited, still bellowing into his radio microphone for them to hurry.
Vargas turned his head to find where the other man was, just in time to see a rocket shell reach him. He was one of the newcomers to Dan Randolph's little band of pirates, younger even than Vargas himself. A fellow Venezuelan. In the flash of a second before the shell detonated, Vargas had just time enough to register the kid's face, eyes wide with panic, mouth gaping, lips peeled back to show every tooth, legs churning uselessly in a mad impersonation of a man being chased by something horrifying. The flash of the shell's explosion blinded Vargas momentarily; everything turned hot white, then black. Something thumped against him and set him spinning, tumbling, head over heels, as the jetpack's thrusters struggled automatically to right him. Vargas squinted through painful eyes and saw what had hit him: an outstretched arm, the fingers of its dead hand reaching out in useless supplication.
The jet thrusters finally stopped Vargas' spinning, but he saw through the expanding cloud of blood and gas that had been a man just a moment ago that the Russian troops were flying toward him at full speed. Faceless behind their tinted helmet visors, they looked like robots: deadly, merciless killing machines. One of them propped the butt of his rifle against his hip. Vargas turned and tried to flee.
As if in a nightmare, he felt trapped in invisible quicksand. He could barely move. Far in the distance he could see Njombe standing inside the cockpit of the last remaining flitter, its transparent bubble of a canopy open, the space-suited Kenyan waving both arms over his helmeted head, roaring at them in his native tongue. Ahead of himself, Vargas could see the other astronaut, the white metal of his jet backpack glinting in the harsh sunlight, its main thruster emitting a steady sparkling white plume of cold gas. Vargas did not know who the man was; he could not see his face.
Turning his head, the young Venezuelan saw the Russians gaining on him. No matter what he did, they were coming closer and closer. The one in the lead, the one with the rifle at his hip, was pointing it straight at him. Vargas saw the ugly muzzle of the gun yawning darkly, saw the flash as the Russian pulled the trigger.
The rocket leaped toward him. Instinctively Vargas ducked, pulling his head down inside the fishbowl helmet. The rocket lanced past him, missing by a good twenty meters, and he felt an overwhelming flood of relief.
The explosion flashed the other astronaut into flame as Vargas turned his head. It must have hit the man's legs, because he had time to scream hideously before he died. Vargas wanted to clamp his hands over his ears but knew that it would do no good.
He raced for the flitter, for Njombe standing there like a beacon to guide him, for the safety that only the spacecraft could give.
If Njombe loses his nerve, Vargas thought wildly, if he kicks up the rocket engine and clears out before I reach him . . .
There were no others left. All the others were dead. The only way out of this carnage, the only way back home, was to get to the flitter and rocket out of here.
“Come on, Vargas!” Njombe urged. “Faster, man, faster! They're on your tail!”
Another rocket round flashed past him, a silent messenger of death. Vargas knew this one was not aimed at him; they were shooting at the flitter now, trying to destroy it.
Njombe was hunkering down into the pilot's seat, Vargas saw. Working the controls. The flitter jerked suddenly sideways, then lurched and pitched nose down. Vargas heard a babble of Russian voices in his earphones. More rocket trails lanced out toward the spacecraft. Njombe was maneuvering frantically, trying to avoid their shots without lighting up the flitter's main engine and zooming away. Desperately, he was trying to stay close enough so that Vargas could reach him.
A hundred meters away. Vargas' hands stretched out toward the spacecraft without his willing it, without his realizing that other hands had reached toward it scant seconds ago, in vain. Another rocket sizzled past, missing Njombe in the cockpit by millimeters.
Fifty meters. Njombe jinked the spacecraft slightly to the left as still another rocket round flashed harmlessly past. It seemed to Vargas as if he had spent his whole life trying to reach the flitter, straining to get to it yet unable to close the distance.
A rocket-driven shell hit the tail end of the shuttle and exploded. Not a big explosion. Not the kind of eye-searing flash of flame that a hit in the propellant tanks would have made. Merely enough to cripple the flitter, to make it a useless junkpile of beryllium struts and bulbous titanium tanks.Vargas' breath caught in his throat. It was finished. There was no way to get back now. He saw Njombe stand up in the cockpit again; the plastic canopy was still tilted back, the Kenyan had never closed and secured it. Raising his gloved hands over his helmet, Njombe showed that he was ready to surrender.
“Na zakluchene,” said a Russian voice in Vargas' earphones. As the Venezuelan coasted close enough to the flitter to touch the struts of its midsection, a rocket shell exploded against Njombe's chest. Vargas' helmet was sprayed with chunks of bloody flesh. He gagged and felt bile rising in his throat.
“Na zakluchene!” he heard again as he fought down the burning, retching horror. Through the blood-smeared visor of his helmet he saw the Soviet soldiers hovering all around him, some twenty meters away. And he suddenly realized what na zakluchene meant: “No prisoners.”The final rocket shell exploded squarely on his helmet.