"Hard SF is often authentic but rarely this well written and Flynn's history looks on course for enlivening the genre with intelligence and subtlety." -Vector
Rogue Starby Michael Flynn
It is the early twenty-first century. There's a space station being built, and the first manned flight to the asteroids is in progress. The grand plan of Mariesa Van Huyten to give humanity a big push back into space, and in the process save the human race from terrible disaster, continues. And there are enemies who will kill to stop it.
It is the early twenty-first century. There's a space station being built, and the first manned flight to the asteroids is in progress. The grand plan of Mariesa Van Huyten to give humanity a big push back into space, and in the process save the human race from terrible disaster, continues. And there are enemies who will kill to stop it.
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Steel Dawnfrom Vulcan's Forge out of Sunburstmeasured herself against the rolling meadow, her legs stretching and her hooves rapping the hard-packed trail with each stride. Mariesa van Huyten clapped her knees tight around the filly's barrel, holding her seat easily on the trim English saddle. Her body flowed with the horse's pistonlike movements, seeking that mystic oneness of steed and rider. Grasses and stubble whisked against her kneeboots and jodhpurs, and the musty odor of mown hay and sassafras enveloped her like a mist.
The trail wound through the grasses toward the copse of trees at the base of Skunktown Mountain and Mariesa felt the filly's muscles bunch beneath her, anticipating the leap over Runamuck Creek. When Steel jumped, Mariesa's heart leapt with her. Small wonder that the ancients had given their horses wings!
Her cell phone signaled at the rise of the leap, nearly breaking her concentration, so that she came down hard in the saddle when Steel hit the farther bank. Cell-phone calls did not impress Steel, who had more visceral concerns, but Mariesa pulled up on the reins. Steel resisted, trying to take the bit in her teeth.
Yes, I'd just as soon keep playing, too. And the call might be nothing more than Harriet summoning her to dinner. Still…She played the reins, guiding her mount up the rising ground at the base of the ridge. Steel, taking the ascent, slowed to a canter, then to a walk. Finally, the filly whickered, shook her head, and bent to take some succulent morsel from the surrounding bushes.
Mariesa dismounted and walked a few steps to take the kinks out. Her thighs felt like iron bands; her seat, like concrete. The penalties of not riding more often. Harriet was right: she spent too much of her life behind a desk. Riding a tiger, she thought with amusement. She doffed her cap and ran her left hand through tawny, shoulder-length hair before tugging it back in place.
The entire estate spread out below her like a tabletop miniature. A toy house, plaster hills, shrubs made of lichen and toothpicks. A red-brick, neocolonial building perched atop a series of carefully landscaped mounds in the bowl valley at the base of the ridge. Silverpond was not the largest of her estates, but she had grown up here and she held it most dear. On the far side, trim, manicured lawn spread like an apron, enclosing the reflective pond that gave the estate its name, giving way slowly to a carpet of wild grasses and country flowers, and approaching finally the line of birch and hemlock that blocked the view of the wrought iron entry gate at Old Coppice Lane. Facing her, an ornamental garden and hedge-maze created geometric patterns of color and shape. There was movement among the rows of flowers: Harriet, her mother, tending to her roses, followed by the patient, ever-suffering Miss Whitmore.
Mariesa pulled her cell phone from her belt pouch and thumbed return call. She put her left hand at the small of her back and stretched. It felt good to stand upright.
"Yes, Sykes," she said when the butler had answered. "What is it?"
"You have a call from the White House, miss; from the president's appointments secretary."
Business or social, she wondered. "Very well. I'll return the call when I can use a secure line. Say, twenty minutes."
"I took the liberty of so informing the caller."
"Sykes, you are a marvel."
She shut off her phone and returned it to its pouch. "Come on, Steel," she said, "time to go home. Make heap big smoke with White Father."
Steel had moved off a few paces and was contentedly cropping the grass near the foot trail that led to the top of Skunktown. There was a gazebo up there, and a spectacular view, but Mariesa spared the trail no more than a glance. She had not made that hike in nearly two years, not since the divorce.
• • •
The south wall of the sitting room at Silverpond consisted of tall, leaded-glass windows running from ceiling to floor, providing a light excellent for an afternoon of reading or working; and, given its location at the far end of the L-turn in the main first-floor hallway, a perfect refuge for solitary relaxation. Mariesa could work on her scrapbooks in quiet and without casual interruptions.
The thick, black pages, with the photographs and clippings arranged neatly upon them, contrasted with the antique ivory of the reading table and matching rail-backed chairs. Newspaper and magazine articles, courtesy of the clipping service she employed, were stacked neatly by her left hand; an opened pot of mucilage paste and a brush applicator, sat ready by her right.
Directly in front of her, against the east wall, was a sideboard with a rack of decanters and glasses. To her left, a long disused fireplace and, on the mantelpiece above it, a clock of superbly awful design: a gold-and-white filigree of leaves, a horizontal pendulum, a bell jar enclosing everything. Just the sort of rococo extravagance that appealed to Harriet. Above the clock, a trio of wedding photographs graced the wall.
Turning the scrapbook to a blank page, she aligned the photograph of Tani Pandya along the faint silver gridlines, squaring it just so.
The chime of the clock on the mantelpiece distracted her, and she listened to the muted sound of the ticking for a moment, then realized that she had been tapping her foot in time to it for some while.
She tsk'ed impatiently and turned her attention back to the scrapbook. She dabbed the back of the photograph with paste and pressed it into the book, holding it firm until the glue had set. Of all the children from that first year at Witherspoon, Tani had been one of the last to blossom; but now the New York Times was praising her first novel, Taj Mahal, as "the definitive statement of the new immigrant experience."
Mariesa stretched her arms straight forward and flexed the fingers; then she stood and paced around the room a few steps to relax. Sitting too long on seats meant for the eye and not for the rear. "Not for the butt," Barry would have said. "Not for the ass," Ned DuBois would have said. She wondered briefly how Ned was getting along these days. About Barry, she no longer gave a damn.
Aside from that wretched clock, the house was deathly silent. Sykes must be below stairsready if he was called upon, but otherwise relaxed with a quiet drink and a slushy novel. Mother was still out in the garden with Miss Whitmore. The other servants had left for the day. At any rate, they were not stomping about the south wing of Silverpond.
Her pacing brought her abruptly face to face with the triangle of wedding photographs above the mantel. Gramper and Mathilde, looking proper beyond their years, held pride of place: he with his slicked down hair and she with her flapper's curl and a cloud of white, Belgian lace surrounding her dark, round, It-girl countenance. Grandmother seemed a little bewildered, as if not quite sure what had happened to her. Grandfather, Willem Riesse van Huyten, wore a morning suit and a curious smile of triumph that lifted the ends of his black, pencil-thin mustache like the wings of a bird in flight.
In later years, she remembered, he had let the mustaches grow into long, white, drooping things. They used to tickle when he kissed her.
The second photograph was of Piet and Harriet. Harriet, with a long, full, "Andrews Sisters" hairstyle, looked stunning in a flowing ivory gown that swirled around her feet like the foam of the sea. Harriet looked determined. Piet looked sober, for once.
The third photograph was of herself and Barry Fast. She considered it in silence for a moment, then reached out and took hold of the frame. Honestly. She did not know why she left it there. Obsolete documents are to be promptly removed from all points of issue. That was corporate policy, was it not? It was not as though she wanted to be reminded of him. Two years had not dulled the hurt, and every time she looked on his picture the pain stabbed her. And yet, she could not deny that he had happened, or pretend that five years of her life meant nothing. And removing the photograph would spoil the triangular symmetry of the display.
She had worn her hair shorter then: tight tresses, almost like a cap. And she wore a smile curiously similar to Gramper's. Nowadays, the hair was longer and grayer, and the smile less frequent.
Harriet entered the room, tugging at her gardening gloves, and Mariesa turned hastily from the array of wedding pictures and pretended to regard the clock, instead.
Harriet wore denim bib coveralls grass-stained at the knees. A smudge of dirt accented her right cheek. Her hair was a pure white that she no longer pretended to tint. She walked slowly to the liquor cabinet and sideboard, favoring her left leg.
"Mother," said Mariesa, "where is your cane?"
"I don't need it," Harriet answered. She laid her gloves on the sideboard and filled a glass with sherry from a crystal decanter. "The roses are not doing well," she said. "Too much chill in the air for July. I doubt I shall exhibit this year."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Mother. I know how much your roses mean to you. Have you had any luck with your new hybrid?" Mariesa edged swiftly away from the mantel until she stood once more by her seat at the table.
Harriet turned from the sideboard, double took when she saw that Mariesa had moved, and shook her head. "No luck." She took a sip of her wine and paused for a moment with her eyes closed. "Ah, that is warming."
Harriet complained of the chill more and more often these days. Granted, it had been a cool yearthose volcanoes in Japanbut not excessively so. Yet, Harriet had worn a sweater outdoors for nearly the entire summer. It bothered Mariesa in a way she could not quite fathom.
"What did the president want?" Harriet asked.
"Oh, who knows. A special seat at FarTrip Communications when the expedition arrives, I suppose. I'm to meet with him next week."
Harriet swallowed her wine. "I don't like that fellow. I never have. He doesn't understand money."
Mariesa smiled. "You mean his family hasn't had it for the necessary four generations?"
Harriet sniffed. "Your basic nouveau is too pushy. Breeding and manners come from stewardship, not from accumulation."
Mariesa had her own reservations about J. Clement Donaldson, but they regarded defects in his character, not in his financial history. She resumed her seat and took the next clipping off the pile, an account of a speech that Azim Thomas had given at a South Bronx high school graduation. Harriet watched while she pasted and mounted the clipping.
"I see you are still keeping up those scrapbooks," she said.
Mariesa pondered the comment, examining it for booby traps and hidden meanings, Contemplating possible replies. "I promised Belinda," she said finally.
"Ah, yes," Harriet said noncommittally. "Dr. Karr."
"We both thought I ought to maintain some involvement in the educational thread of Project Prometheus. Belinda sends me dossiers each year of the most promising students in her academies. Those from Witherspoon and Pitcher, since North Orange is so close by."
"So you keep a scrapbook."
Mariesa's eyes dropped to the black, rough-textured page.
"Belinda thought it important that I think of the children as individuals."
"Belinda knows best, I suppose." Harriet finished her sherry in one convulsive swallow.
"The scrapbook was my idea. These children were in that first Witherspoon class Mentor graduated after receiving the state charter." Children? Where had the years gone? They were children no longer, but in their midtwentiesan age of immortality and possibilities. A space pilot, a computer consultant, a novelist, a chemist, a Marine Corps hero, a rigging supervisor on the LEO construction project…
She flipped the pages backward until she came to a photograph of Roberta CarsonStyx, as she used to call herself. The picture was from the cover of her most recent poetry collection. Posed as Mona Lisa, wearing not a secret and provocative smile, but a manic, leering grin. A lovely young woman resisting the notion of her beauty. Half the poems in her last collection were thinly veiled attacks on VHI and the "brainwashing" at Mentor Academies. Mariesa touched the picture with a fingertip. She used to come to Silverpond to be alone and to think. She used to look to me for guidance. Silverpond had been the young girl's refuge. Mariesa could remember nights of companionable silence: herself, pressed to her telescope in the rooftop observatory; Styx, pouring earnest words and images into her tattered, black journal, sometimes reading her words aloud. Now, it was not so much the poems that hurt than that it was Styx who wrote them.
"They are my children," Mariesa said softly.
A clatter of glass. Mariesa looked up to see that Harriet had dropped her wine glass while replacing it on the sideboard. "Your children," she said, not turning. She picked up the glass and held it to the light, inspecting it.
"In a sense I have 'adopted' them. They are the 'odd ducklings' in Mentor's program. 'Rogue bodies,' whose orbits are off the ecliptic…" She paused when she saw that Harriet was not listening.
"The glass is chipped," her mother said, setting it aside. "Now Sykes shall have to discard it." She heaved a sigh and looked down, her hands resting on the handles of the sideboard, her back to Mariesa. There was silence.
"I always wanted grandchildren, you know," Harriet said after a time.
Softly, Mariesa replied. "Yes, I know." Remembering the blood and the pain and the weeks in intensive care.
Harriet stepped to the mantel and adjusted the wedding picture of Mariesa and Barry, which was hanging slightly askew. She stepped back and looked at the picture, hands on hip. "Sometimes," she said, "I miss that man."
"Mother, you astonish me! All you ever did was snipe at him."
"Yes, but after five years, I grew used to having him about."
Mariesa looked at the picture again. Yes, she thought. So did I. But she did not say it aloud.
Sometimes she wondered. If little William had livedif the baby had not died within herwould Barry still be here, with his cocky smile and his ready wit, with his tender caresses andyeshis steadfast support? Was it the child that drove her into the frantic isolation of her work and he into drink and the arms of another? Or was that only something that would have happenedthat had been happening imperceptibly, all along?
• • •
Pres. J. Clement Donaldson was a good-looking man, but then television had assured a long succession of such men in office: cap-toothed, blown-dry, and photogenic as a bald eagle in flight. His hair swept like wings across both sides of a high brow. A touch of gray at the temples for the appearance of dignity and a touch of the dye bottle everywhere else for the appearance of youth. Appearance was all. He could exude calm dignity as easily as folksy charm. His smile when he greeted Mariesa was perfect, and the grip of his hand struck just the right balance between firm and limp. This was a man who shook a great many handsand who smiled to order.
None of which necessarily made him a bad man, Mariesa reminded herself as she followed him through the White House. As chairman of Van Huyten Industries, she had met her share of presidents. The amiable but iron-willed Reagan; the eager, if unfocused, Clinton. Bush, the apparatchik with no vision whatever. Even (when she had been young and new to her position) James Earl Carter. Of them all she had found only in Jim Champion a man she had genuinely liked. Regarding Donaldson, she had yet to form an opinion; which, considering the man had held office for going on five years, was rather an accomplishment on his part. There had been a Teflon president and a Velcro president. Now there was a Rorschach president.
Donaldson had dressed casually in tan slacks and a red pullover sweater. He wore slippers on his feet. It was Saturday, he said. His day-almost-off. He led her on a meandering and apparently impromptu tour of the building, showing her sights that she had seen many times already. Pacing them at a discrete distance, an Air Force warrant officer carried a locked briefcase. Mariesa wondered if they still called it "the football" and whether its continual presence was now a sort of ritual, like the Mace and Scepter that accompanied the English king.
"This old house has lots of history," Donaldson said while they paused in the East Room. " Yessir, a lot of history." A trivial statement, so obvious that Mariesa saw no point in responding other than with an interested look. "Did you know Abigail Adams used to hang the family laundry in this room?" He looked pointedly around the elegantly appointed ballroom and laughed. "The family laundry," he said again with a shake of the head. "Then Lincoln quartered troops here during the Civil War. And Theodore Roosevelt's children used it as a roller rink." Another chuckle as Mariesa dutifully followed him across the parquet hardwood. The bright polish reflected them both, as if they were walking on glass. "I think the old place misses children most of all. This is a house of middle-aged men. TR and JFK were the exceptions. Usually, by the time a man is seasoned enough to live here, his children are teenagers; or grown and gone."
Mariesa had visited the White House before. She had slept in the Lincoln bedroom during Jim Champion's term. She had wondered then what it was like to live in a monument.
On the far side of the ballroom, Donaldson paused in front of the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington and shoved his hands into his slacks. "This painting," he said, "is the only item that survives from the original White House, the one the British burned in 1814. It's the only furnishing that has been here throughout the building's history. Sometimes…" Donaldson's voice died and he stared into the painting's solemn face, seemingly oblivious to Mariesa. When he spoke again, it was almost to himself. "Sometimes, when I look at him, I wonder if I'm worthy to live here."
Mariesa often wondered that herself, and so did 42 percent of the country. However, it was a nice performance all around. Mariesa did not for one minute believe that the mini-tour had been on the spur of the moment, or that Donaldson's commentary had been anything but scripted, rehearsed, and meant for her ears.
• • •
Donaldson escorted her to the Green Room, a small parlor paneled with dark wallpaper and decorated in the Federal style: elegant, but spare. Above the fireplace mantle hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in his sixtiesa younger man than the image the public most revered. On a side table sat a game board with smooth, round, black and white stones arranged in intricate patterns.
Valerie Kloch, the Secretary of Transportation, sat in a high-backed Heppelwhite chair, one of three grouped around a circular coffee table. She rose as Mariesa entered and extended her hand. They both pretended delight at meeting once again.
Mariesa accepted the seat that the president held out for her and settled in with a renewed sense of caution. She found a place for her purse on the floor beside the chair and positioned it carefully. She wondered why the president had asked her here. You never knew with this one. It might be nothing more than to wangle a seat at FarTrip Communications Center when the Bullard rendezvoused next month. Donaldson liked to be seen at important events. He liked to pose. He just didn't like to make decisions.
Maybe that was the secret of his success. Decisions always made someone mad. He had won his second term by a comfortable margin, but less so because the voters liked him than because they had no particular cause to dislike him. A careful man, and a lucky one, he had avoided both sexual scandal and economic recession by following the same simple rule: Keep Your Hands Off.
In response to some unseen signal, a White House steward entered with a silver tray bearing a tea service and British "biscuits." The young Filipino placed the tray on the coffee table, bowed politely, and departed. President Donaldson bent forward and lifted the teapot. "May I?" he asked.
"An honor," said Mariesa.
"The tea service," said Donaldson conversationally as he poured, "was a gift from the Russian people as a tribute to the new era of cooperation between us."
"It's very fine work," Mariesa said, accepting her cup.
"Did you notice," Donaldson went on as he serviced Valerie Kloch, "that the samovar is chased silver and bears the three national symbols? The bald eagle of America, the double-headed eagle of the Russias, and the globe-and-stars of Brazil. A fruitful partnership, and one due in no small measure to yourself."
"It was not entirely my doing," Mariesa demurred.
"Don't be modest," Donaldson insisted. He set the teapot aside and settled back in his chair, holding his own cup in one hand and his saucer in the other. "Your single stage to orbit vehicles…Ballistic transportation here on Earth…Satellite repair…It's no secret that one of my predecessors washow should we put it?less than enthusiastic about the program? At least in the beginning, you had to work without the support of your own government."
More like with my own government's obstruction. "Some of his advisors," Mariesa allowed, "were not convinced of the program's value." A polite way of saying hostile; and hostile for an odd potpourri of reasons. On the one hand, an antitechnology, antibig business bias; on the other hand, the protection of established, big business interests against upstart competition. And mixed in there, she had to admit, a genuine skepticism that had almost proved right. What made political bedfellows strange was that they snuggled together because they wanted to screw somebody not in the bed with them. Worst of the lot to Mariesa's thinking were those mercenaries who had infested the White House in those days, and who had used the controversy as a way to extort Mariesa's political support for the president's reelection. She could respect an opponent, but not an opportunist. Opponents, at least, were believers.
Donaldson was a different kettle of fish entirely. While not supportive, as Champion had been, neither was he obstructive. When it came to outer space, he was King Logand Mariesa was content that he remain so. Yet, she ought not to forget that many of the party stalwarts that Donaldson depended on had served that previous administration, and a sizable percentage still maintained their dark, ideological suspicions.
"Well," said Donaldson with a wan smile, "history has the final say, doesn't it? An idea may work out better than it sounded at first. Or it may ultimately fail even after an initial success." He glanced briefly at Secretary Kloch.
Someone's been whispering in his ear, Mariesa thought. But who? And what had they whispered? "A new business venture is always a risk," she said cautiously. "That's why it's best if the risk is limited. If a VHI venture fails, only VHI suffers. If a government venture fails, the entire country suffers."
Donaldson nodded slowly. "Maybe, though some would argue the point. You've heard the joke, I'm sure. 'when VHI catches cold, half the country sneezes.' What about your stockholders? Your employees? Suppliers who depend upon your companies' purchases? They suffer the consequences, too, without agreeing to the risk. Furthermore"he set his saucer on the table and his tea-cup upon it; though he had not, Mariesa noted, drunk more than a sip or two"as you have admitted, your success was not entirely your doing. You built on taxpayer-funded technology. And the public has the same right to a return on their investment as your private stockholders."
"What exactly do you mean, Mr. President?" Mariesa now set her own teacup on the table. Kloch had not even picked hers up, but sat stiffly in her chair with her fingertips to her lips and her hands folded as if in prayer, regarding Mariesa with still eyes.
Donaldson exchanged another glance with Secretary Kloch. "Valerie," he explained, "has some misgivings about the Shuttle external tank program that VHI and NASA worked out. She feels that NASA ought to receive a higher fee for delivering the tanks to your orbital construction site."
"Does she?" Mariesa turned her attention to the secretary of transportation. From the twist of the woman's mouth, she, too, had noticed Donaldson's sudden switch to third person. The problem with being a man who avoided personal responsibility was that it irritated your allies more than your enemies. "I thought an eight percent markup generous. Few private companies can boast such a profit margin."
"What you pay NASA for the tanks," said Kloch, speaking for the first time, "does not come close to covering their cost, and you know it."
"Valerie, the Shuttle used to jettison the ET and let it bum up in the atmosphere. Now, with an extra twenty seconds' boost, NASA releases the tank into orbit so LEO can rendezvous, attach boosters, and take it up to the construction site. LEO pays NASA the cost of the extra fuel and the extra depreciation on the Shuttle main engines, plus a fair profit; and assumes the risk of lifting the tank to its final orbit. NASA thought it was a good deal."
"You mean a sweetheart deal. Unfortunately, the former NASA administrator had some far-out notions and allowed his imagination to outstrip his common sense. He approved ventures because he thought they were 'neat,' without any thought for the cost to taxpayers."
"There is no cost to the taxpayer. If the LEO Consortium did not pay NASA to discard the ETs in orbit, NASA would discard them in the atmosphereand the taxpayer would receive nothing."
"NASA can secure more favorable terms elsewhere." That was delivered with a small smile of triumph.
Mariesa drew back. "Really. From whom?" Only LEO and Mir were using ETs; and the Mir refurbishment did not plan on using more than the two already called for. Wilson Enterprises and the other players were either partners in the LEO Consortium or they were waiting on the sidelines to see how the venture panned out.
"I shouldn't need to keep you informed of developments in your own markets, Mariesa," said Kloch. "But Pac-Orbita has expressed some interest."
The keidenran. The collapse of the Japanese "bubble economy" in the late nineties had sent the whole world reeling into the "Christmas Recession," and the Japanese national economy was still running behind the recovery curve. "If they are pricing external tanks," Mariesa said, "it is to bid the price up and slow LEO's construction, not to build their own station."
"So you say."
"See here, Valerie…"
The secretary of transportation put her hands on her knees and leaned forward. "No, you see here. My department is responsible for commercial space transportation under 49 USC 35. I intend for the taxpayer to receive the greatest return possible. It's one thing for entrepreneurs to explore new technologies and take on new risks. That's what you people do best. You are the 'scouts', and scouts have been traditionally less disciplined. But once proven, the new technology needs to be properly regulated, to protect the public interest. Need I remind you that the Office of the Secretary has the responsibility to approve each and every NGO-launched space mission?"
NGO, or Non-Government Organization, was Beltway-speak for "everything else in the universe." "That provision of the act was rescinded by President Champion," she pointed out. Not that Kloch needed reminding.
"By executive order," the secretary said. "It could be restored the same way."
Mariesa turned to President Donaldson, who dropped his gaze and looked uncomfortable. "We hope such a step will prove unnecessary," he murmured. "To clear each launch through the Office of the Secretary…Well, that could cause traffic delays and might complicate launch schedules."
Might complicate…It would bring both the suborbital and the far more precarious orbital trades to a screeching halt. Especially if Valerie exercised her discretionary powers to selectively delay launches by people she did not like. The secretary of transportation had traditionally been one of the least powerful posts in the government. Now, thanks to the space trade, it was potentially one of the more powerful; and Valerie Kloch had not scrambled her way up from Port,Authority commissioner to mayor to Cabinet to see such a potential go to waste. It was an open secret that she wanted NASA moved under her department and turned into something like a national flag carrier. Mariesa studied Kloch's face, looking for a clue, and saw…
Hope and triumph?
No, not quite. There was a certain wariness around the eyes. Hope, then; but not triumph. Valerie Kloch did not quite have Donaldson onboard.
Donaldson hated to make decisions. Mariesa had thought she would never have been glad of that fact; and even now she was only cautious. Donaldson's indecisiveness usually meant he was pulled in more than one direction, and Mariesa did not yet know what that other direction might be.
An awkward silence grew between them, until Donaldson, laughing with forced cheerfulness, clapped his hands together and rubbed them. "Well, we needn't make a decision right away. The price structure for delivering the external tanks to LEO needs to be revisited, that's all; but I don't know that selling ETs to the Japs is such a good idea, either. It might make more sense to shut the Shuttle program down entirely. Shuttles are far too expensive compared to Planks, rams, or even Black Horses."
"The Shuttle did deliver the entire Salyut module to FarTrip in one flight," Mariesa reminded him. "Nothing else can lift the size of a Shuttle payload." A few more flights. Then you can shut it down. Eight more tanks recovered to orbit and LEO could finish its station. But Mariesa did not voice the comment. Valerie had been right in one thing. It was costing the taxpayer money. Not the extra reaction mass to boost the tank to orbit, but the cost of operating the Shuttle, period. NASA had always flown at a huge loss. To encourage the government to keep them flying so LEO could pick up a few discarded components might be considered by some as more than just disingenuous.
"Oh, yes," Donaldson said, "there are quite a few options to be studied. It would be a mistake to act hastily." Valerie Kloch shot him a guarded look. The secretary wasn't getting what she had expected from this meeting. Ordinarily, that might have cheered Mariesa, except that Mariesa wasn't sure if she was getting what she wanted, either. King Log might just be a whole lot cleverer than he seemed.
Donaldson leaned forward and picked up his teacup. "I understand that FarTrip will reach its destination soon."
"August 23rd," Mariesa said, following his lead onto a new subject. That would be thirty-seven years, almost to the day, since she had seen the Firestar cross the heavens above the Grand Tetons and she had awakened to the threat of asteroid impacts. Sometimes, remembering how young that high school senior had beenshe had been skipped two grades in elementaryshe felt immeasurably old. Too many years had gone by; not enough years were left. The first orbital station was still unfinished, and the gigawatt power satellites were still paper models undergoing failure modes and effects analysis. And asteroids still whipped across the lip of Earth's gravity well every month. Sooner or later, one would curl in and strike. Another Tunguska only striking Manhattan or Rome instead of the Siberian wilderness. Or striking the ocean and sending a giant tidal wave to scour the shorelines. Or another like the one that had made Meteor Crater in Arizona.
Or another Chicxulub. Another dinosaur-killer.
And we might never even see it coming.
"I suppose you will be having a big celebration," Donaldson said, hinting not too subtly for the expected invitation. Valerie Kloch rose.
"Clement, I have some business to attend to over on Seventh Street. The impact statement for the Allentown Ballistic Port is waiting for my review." She was obviously disappointed at the turn the meeting had taken. The president rose to show her out and Mariesa stood, too, waiting awkwardly by her chair until Donaldson had returned. Okay, she thought. You've shown me the stick. Where's the carrot? And what did he want her to do?
The president smiled apologetically when he returned. "I'm afraid Valerie has very strong feelings on your use of the external tanks." He paused by the game board and studied it, rubbing his cheek.
"Not my use, Mr. President; but the LEO Consortium. Some of VHI's companies are members of the consortium. That is all."
Donaldson looked over in her direction and his smile broadened. "Oh, don't try to fool a fooler," he said. "I put together any number of stockholder alliances in my time as a Street-walker." He selected a black stone from a ceramic bowl and placed it on the game board. "That was my strong suit, you know," he said as he rejoined her. "Building coalitions.I've studied the structure of your consortium closely and found it…fascinating. The VHI bloc is not a majority, not even the largest bloc of voting stock; but no other likely coalition can assemble a majority without VHI's shares."
Mariesa retrieved her own tea and sipped it. It had gone cold in the mean time. "Really?" she said. She set her cup down again without asking for its replacement.
Donaldson chuckled. The folksy, down-home stump politicianand never mind the Bahamas tan or the Wall Street power broker in the twinkling eyes. Oh yes, a man who put off decisions; but not a stupid man. "Look at the Congress these days and you'll see what I mean. What's the breakdown in the house?" His uncertainty was rhetorical, meant to draw her in. Mariesa was confident he knew to the member how many seats each party held, and how tightly.
"There is a roughly equal split," she told him, "between the Democrats and the Republicans."
Donaldson nodded, as if she had passed her orals. "That's right. One hundred ninety-two elephants and one hundred eighty-nine donkeys. So it looks like the Big Two have nearly equal power, while Liberty with thirty-six and American with eighteen are out of the loop, right?" Donaldson leaned forward and wagged an admonishing finger back and forth. "But reality is more subtle. The Liberty Party swings as much power in the House as the Democrats or the Republicans, while the American Party is zippo, nada, zero. And do you know why?"
Mariesa smiled harmlessly. Teach your mother to suck eggs. Balancing stockholder blocs was something she had picked up at Gramper's knee.
"Why?" she asked.
"Because to build a winning coalition, to harvest that all-important fifty-percent-plus-one, the others must have Liberty on board. Unless the Democrats and Republicans join together. But they have too many hatchets to bury just for the dubious pleasure of freezing out Liberty. Since Liberty usually lines up with the Republicans on economic issues and with the Democrats on social ones, it's their agenda that gets a majority, more often than not."
Donaldson shrugged. "So, who gets 'always'? You compromise on some things to win on others. It's a matter of choosing your battles. That's why MacRobb can be so holier-than-thou. He doesn't need to compromise on anything because no one needs the American Party to build a winning coalition. Even if he does the old give-and-take and joins up with one of the Big Two, he just shifts the margin of defeat or victory. He can't change one into the other." Donaldson waved a hand. "The point I'm making is that an apparently small shareholder can actually be the keystone player. And you have positioned VHI in just such a way within LEO's board."
"Mr. President, even if what you say is true…"
Donaldson interrupted her, spreading his hands out wide, palms up.
"Don't get me wrong. I admire the artistry. And as I started to say earlier, I see more value in providing LEO with the tanks it needs than Secretary Kloch does."
Mariesa waited for a long, cautious moment. "You do," she said, not making it a question. Here it comes.
Donaldson bobbed his head. "Certainly, certainly. There are more important issues to deal with than who gets paid how much for a used fuel tank. For one thing, the American people are fed up with the barbarism in the Balkans. Massacres. Shelling of civilians. Concentration camps. Ethnic cleansing. They feel it is time to act!" A slice of the hand through the air, like a tomahawk chop. "It's time to put a stop to it."
"How do you propose to do that, Mr. President? Negotiations only work when both sides want to find a solution. The Great Balkan War has been growing for years. And the Non-intervention Act means you can't send in troops."
"Congress should keep its nose out of foreign policy," Donaldson snapped. Mariesa noticed that his smile became fixed when he was opposed. "But there is a way to intervene with no risk at all to American boys and girls. I play at go, you know…" A wave of the hand toward the sparely elegant game set. "It's the Oriental equivalent to chess; but while chess reflects crude Western values of maneuver, thrust, and attack, go reflects Oriental values of patience and position. It is a subtle game. Stone placements of no apparent value can become strategic time bombs as the play proceeds. I've been reading the old SDI study papers. LEO is the high ground, always prized by the military. Tremendous advantage of position." He leaned forward enthusiastically. "We can drop kinetic weapons from there nonnuclear, you see, but awesome energy. We can wipe out armored columns or warships with not much more than lumps of metal. Crowbars with just enough brains to recognize a target from the air."
Donaldson waited for her response, a pleasant, almost pleased grin on his face, as if he had discovered sex for the first time and did not yet suspect that others already knew. Mariesa found her voice after a long struggle. Good God, the man was serious!
"That sounds like…a major intervention."
"But it's not," he crowed triumphantly. "That's the beauty of it. Once the combatants realize that their position is untenable, they'll come to the negotiating table, where I can offer our services as a disinterested broker. Naturally, the weapons must be in place for the move to be credible; but they'll never be used. And once the crisis is past, they'll be removed."
At least until the next crisis. Cross your heart, no foolin'. The problem was, it would set a precedent. "LEO is designed as a commercial venture," she said. "The board would rather avoid military or political entanglements."
"The people want an end to the atrocities in the Balkans. The Greek navy's bombardment of Izmir was bad enough; but the Turkish siege of Salonika is pure camera-fodder. And now that Romanian forces have been committed south to support the Serbsthis is confidential, you understandthe Hungarian army is concentrating on the Romanian border."
"I agree, Mr. President, that the situation is distressing, but I fail to see how it is the business of the United States in generalor of LEO in particularto correct it."
A touch of color suffused Donaldson's neck. "Damn it, woman! People are dying!" The smile broadened until it seemed painted on. There was something very odd about a man who could talk about people dying with a smile on his face, even a phony smile.
"Congress will not allow the staging of weapons in"
"I am the commander in chief under the Constitution, not Congress. And I can swing Congress, if I need to. Those Republicans who are not rabid isolationists and those Democrats who are not brainless pacifists…" He leaned forward with his arms on his knees. "Plus Liberty," he added distinctly.
Ah…"The Liberty Party platform explicitly forbids such foreign adventures."
Donaldson smiled in irritation, as if he could not understand the relevance of a party platform to practical men and women. "They are worse isolationists than the 'Washingtonian' Republicans. But they might listen to their major backers."
"And might I point out that, whatever the United States Congress does or does not decide, LEO is an international venture? Even if I agreed to use the station as a platform for orbital weapons, and even if I could get VHI's board to agree, I doubt that Matsushita or Deutsches Bundesbank would go along. As for Energia…The Russians, if anything, favor the Orthodox side and would regard any intervention as anti-Serbian."
"They sat still for the Skopje mission," Donaldson reminded her.
"The Russians had already tried to stop the Serbs from attacking the UN peacekeepers. They wanted to punish the Serbs for not obeying Mother Russia as much as they wanted to pull the blue helmets out of harm's way. That doesn't mean they'll tolerate wider involvement by the West."
The president sat back in his Heppelwhite chair and placed his hands together under his chin. "I hear you. But foreign policy is still my bailiwick, I believe. I value your opinion, as I would that of any well-informed business-womanbut on business more than on politics. We have already agreed that VHI is the key player on the LEO board. If need be, you can force the issue. Otherwise…" He shrugged. "You still need additional tanks to finish the station."
Mariesa sat very still. This was far too decisive to be a Donaldson initiative. Someone else had sold him on intervention in the Balkansand specifically on intervention using space-based weapons. Mariesa did not object to space-based weapons in principle, but they no more belonged on LEO than antiaircraft batteries belonged in shopping malls.
"I will have to think about it," Mariesa said, rising from her chair. "And discuss it with my people."
Donaldson rose with her and extended his hand. "I quite understand." If this man understood anything, it was not deciding things right away.
When Mariesa reached the door, Donaldson spoke again.
"I hope you decide quickly. Every day you delay, thousands more will die."
Mariesa gave him a bleak look, wondering if he realized that that would be the case in any event.
• • •
Flying north out of National in VHI's executive jet, Mariesa reviewed her meeting with the president, jotting notes on her cliputer for later discussion with her staff. She had recorded the meeting, of course. The rodney was as small as magnetic spin transistors could make them, and that was very small indeed. As small as the clasp on her purse.
She glanced out the window on her left. The clouds on the horizon glowed fiery red, as if ignited from within. A wretched thing, to keep surreptitious recordings. But that sort of precaution was as routine as it was necessary in this age of dubbing and morphing. She could not imagine that Donaldson had failed to make his own recording.
After she had finished, Mariesa removed the earclip and sat for a while twirling the stylus between her thumb and forefinger while she studied her notes. This was Donaldson's secret, then. He avoided decisions by forcing others to make them. She would have to revise her opinion of the man.
Did Donaldson really think that U.S. ground troops could be kept out of it once he had struck from the safety of outer space? Both sides had to stand down for the gambit to work; and both sides were people who revered their holy martyrs. She did not believe for a moment that a mere threat would work. You have to show the cards to take the pot, Ned DuBois had once said. And once you were a player, you would get sucked in deeper and deeper. Probably the Navy, at first. Greek or Turkish gunboatsor both!would attack the Mediterranean Fleet. A decade of defense cutbacks made the fleet a tempting target. Was it a paper tiger or not? After that, no country that remembered Pearl Harbor could avoid the slippery slope of involvement.
If I refuse to cooperate, I am not responsible for the deaths in the Balkans. Donaldson cannot make it so. The Serbs were responsible. And the Croats. And the Greeks and Turks and Macedonians and Albanians and Romanians and Bulgarians and Bosnians. Now, maybe, even the Hungarians. And only God knew what the sides were. Maybe there were no sides. Maybe there were only a dozen one-on-one conflicts sharing the same pool of combatants. There were some fronts where the Greeks and Bulgarians fought side by side against the Turks, and others where they fought each other over Macedonia. Only the Slovenes, sitting in their mountains under an iron umbrella of Italian jets, had avoided being sucked into the spreading madness; and if anyone had noticed that the price was to become little more than an Italian province, they were far too polite to say so aloud. Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast had once been Venetian possessions, and who knew what wild, irredentist dreams were mulled in the corridors of Rome?
"Charlie Jim," she said, and her pilot turned his broad, flat face in her direction, looking through the open door from the pilot's cabin.
"What do you think of the Balkan problem?" she asked him.
The pilot grinned and shook his head so that the two thick braids by each ear danced. "Not much."
Meaning that he had a low opinion or that he hardly ever thought about it? Or both. Charlie Jim lived an uncomplicated life in which beer, airplanes, and women figured prominently, but that did not mean he was uninformed. "What do you think we should do about it?"
"You 'n' me? Leave 'em alone." He grinned again and turned his attention back to his flying. "You mean the whole damn U.S.A." he said over his shoulder, "I say stomp 'em flat or leave 'em be."
"I see. And what about the space enterprises? The Planks, Wilson's ram accelerators, FarTrip, and all the rest? What do you think of that?"
Charlie Jim did not answer immediately. The Pathfinder sailed up the Northeast Corridor in the growing dusk while, below them, Wilmington drifted behind and the lights of Philadelphia appeared on the horizon ahead. Mariesa could see Charlie Jim studying her reflection in the windshield of the plane. Their two faces seemed to hover like wraiths in the night sky outside. A curious illusion.
"Used to be," the pilot said at last, "when a young man wanted a name he'd go off with maybe a few friends on the red-stick path. Take a few scalps, maybe steal a woman or some horses. Just so he could say he done something big." Charlie Jim jerked his head to the purple heavens. "Found something big to do, where you don't have to scalp no one."
"Building space stations," she said.
"More 'n that," he said.
Another silence, longer this time, before Charlie Jim replied. And when he did, it seemed on another topic. "You know when you hattak tohbi came with your horses, we didn't have a word for 'em. For the horses, I mean. So folks scratched their heads and thought about it and then took two other wordsissi, which meant 'deer,' and ubah, which meant 'big'and they put 'em together and made a new word: 'subah, which meant 'a deer, only bigger.'"
Mariesa laughed and Charlie Jim turned around again in his seat and gave her a steady, dead-serious look.
"What you want to do," he said. "Ain't no word for that, either."
• • •
Mariesa summoned Prometheus to meet at VHI headquarters early the following week. They gathered in the boardroom, around the long teakwood table and under the ruff-collared, beaver-hatted gaze of old Henryk van Huyten, who hung at his place of honor above the door. The portrait, by Pieter Lastmann, always faced the chairman's seat. That had been one of Gramper's rules when he had run VHI, and Mariesa had maintained the tradition. A reminder of the generations watching her.
Mariesa sat flanked by John E. Redman, her chief legal officer, and Khan Gagrat, her chief financial officer. The CFO shaved his head and wore a hoop earring in his right earan unnerving sight at accounting conventions. At the far end of the table, directly under the portrait, sat her cousin, Christiaan van Huyten, president of Argonaut Research Laboratories. He was deep in conversation with Steve Matthias, Prometheus program manager and president of Thor Machine Tools. Chris listened intently while Steve talked, nodding from time to time with the gravest expression. Tall and angular, Chris bore more of the van Huyten features than Mariesa did.
"I shall have to revise my opinion of Donaldson," Mariesa told John E. while they waited for the others to take their seats. Everyone always took the same seats, she noted; just like in a schoolroom.
"I always told you," John E. replied in his soft, Virginia horse-country accents, "that you underestimated him." Redman's hair, which he wore collar-length, was swept back in the modern style and shot through with gray.
"First he showed me he had the power and the authority toNo. First he showed me he was a humble human being trying to measure up to his predecessors. Then he showed me he had the power and the authority to stop the construction of LEO by loosening Valerie's leash and reneging on the ET deal. Then he pointed out that he needed the Liberty Party to forswear itself to get congressional backing for his plan"
"Thinking whoever pays the piper calls the tune," said John E. with a smile.
"I pay Liberty pipers because I like the tunes they choose to play. There's a difference. Anson and Jenny and the others listen to what I have to say, but it's their party. Then Donaldson pointed out the pivotal seats VHI holds on the LEO board…"
"A pivot you carefully placed," the lawyer reminded her.
She sighed. "That doesn't mean I can move the world."
"Life would be much easier, if you could," Khan remarked.
"Easier for the rest of you."
One by one, the other presidents took their seats. Profane, bushy-haired and barrel-chested Will Gregorson, founder of Werewolf Electronics, grumbled preoccupied greetings as he made his way around the table. João Pessoa, from Daedelus Aerospace, looking haggard after the long flight up from Brazil, received a curt nod from Dolores Pitchlynn, who headed arch-rival Pegasus Aerospace. Gaea Biotech's Correy Wilcox slapped Steve Matthias on the back as he entered and pumped the man's hand in a fine simulation of friendship. Wallace Coyle, president of Aurora Ballistic Transport, was a chocolate teddy bear and probably the only man in the room who did not have a rivalor even an outright enemysitting somewhere around the table.
A curious mix, thought Mariesa, not for the first time. Gender aside, you cannot exactly call us "a band of brothers. " Her coalition. Presidents she had appointed. Presidents she had bought with their companies. Companies she owned, companies that other van Huytens owned. Companies the VHI Trust owned or held a controlling interest in. As Donaldson had so artfully pointed out, companies that jumped when she said frog. Employees, allies, and mercenaries; a volatile mixture. And yet together they had brought about the dawn of a new era. Some for career advancement, some for the potential profit. Some for the glory of touching the stars.
And some, like herself, because they feared the stars might one day touch them.
"Where's Belinda?" Mariesa asked. The president of Mentor Academies had not appeared yet.
"Belinda is ill," John E. said. "Nothing serious. She had Onwuka call and make her excuses."
Mariesa nodded. "Very well." Then, in a slightly louder voice, she said, "People? We may as well get started."
It was uncanny. It always startled her that, when she spoke up, others fell silent. It was power, of a sort; but it meant you had to fill the silence with words worth hearing.
"I take it you have all had time to read the summary I sent you. I need hardly remind you of its confidential nature. We must decide among ourselves what position to take to LEO's board, if Donaldson presses his request."
"Shouldn't Heinz Ruger and Hamilton Pye be here?" asked Dolores. Dolores held a seat on the LEO board, courtesy of the shares owned by her Pegasus Space Lines subsidiary. Ruger AG and Ossa & Pelion Heavy Construction were the other two VHI members of LEO.
"I asked Heinz to sound out our European partners, under the rose. And Ham pleaded pressure of work. They're lifting Number Four Tank this week."
"I wish he was here," complained Steve Matthias. "If anyone knows whether we can complete LEO without all the tanks, it's Ham Pye."
"I think we'd need a major reconfiguration," said Chris van Huyten. "We can't spin the pinwheel if the number of tanks on the spokes are unequal. And we need two tanks on each arm if we want to rent out Mars-level pseudogravity to the UN's Project Ares. That means back to design FMEA. Six months to a year's delay while we work up new drawings and plans."
"What makes you think we won't get the last few tanks?" asked Correy.
Gregorson rumbled before he spoke and ran a thick-fingered hand through the bushy mane that surrounded his face. "Werewolf" Gregorson, others called him, and so he had named his company. Mariesa had kept the nameand the manwhen she had brought him out of the jaws of creditors. He was a brilliant engineer, but numbers became slipperier for him when they had dollar signs in front. "I don't know what that man has in mind," he said in his deep bass. "I don't think 'Brilliant Pebbles' is ready for deployment, regardless what state LEO is in."
Dolores Pitchlynn rubbed her two hands against each other once or twice. "Could be it is, or could be it isn't."
Mariesa looked at her. "Do you know something, Dolores?"
The older woman shook her head. She had dark skin, tanned almost to leather, and hair bleached nearly white by the desert sun. She was not so much an unfriendly woman as one distant and hard to know. Her face seldom betrayed emotion. It might have been carved from the flint of the Mogollon Rim. "I have contacts here and there in DOD and TMDO, and sometimes you hear things. You know how it is. Somebody knows something and can't tell you, but they're just bursting with it. So you hear a little bit here and a little bit there and you put them together."
"God help us," said Steve Matthias. "That's all we need is to turn LEO into Darth Vader's Death Star."
"Don't blow it out of proportion," Correy said. "Donaldson just wants to use LEO for staging, right? So what's the big deal? I always thought a nonnuclear defensive shield was a good idea, anyway. Maybe this way we get a big infusion of American cash. Think what that would do to fund the rest of Prometheus."
"Damn it, Correy," said Steve, "Prometheus wasn't organized for that purpose."
"Were you there?"
A quiet, deadly reminder to Steve that Correy had been thereone of Prometheus's four original members. Steve, who had virtually blackmailed himself onboard, looked grim but made no answer.
"People," Mariesa said before the uncomfortable silence could become something else. "Let's line our ducks up, shall we? We need to reach a consensus on a number of issues and we need data on others before we can make any decisions." She nodded to her assistant, Zhou Hui, who sat unobtrusively at a side table near the bookcases. Hui activated her laptop and picked up her stylus, writing "Issues" on the compad. Mariesa knew without turning that the wall screen behind her displayed the handwriting as printed text. Compad input screens found scrawls hard to read, so schools were teaching Spencerian and Copperplate once again. "Cultivating a good hand" had become important. The revival of a nineteenth-century art by twenty-first-century technology amused Mariesa, on those occasions when she was in the mood to be amused.
"Seems to me," drawled John E., "that the biggest issue is our partners on LEO. Whatever the decision is, Motorola and the others have a stake in it."
"I have a feeling," Werewolf said, "that that man"he meant Donaldson; Mariesa could recall few occasions when Donaldson's name had sullied Will Gregorson's lips"that man will certainly call in Motorola, Boeing-McDonnell, and the others for the same heart-to-heart talk he had with Mariesa. If he hasn't already."
"Maybe he already has," Dolores said. "I received a very guarded phone call from Pete over at MacDac last Thursday. It didn't make any sense at the time, but now I wonder."
"We have international partners, too," John E. reminded them. "Even if all the American members agree, what will the Germans or the Japanese say?"
"Or the Russians," said Wallace.
"Or," said Joao Pessoa with a pointed smile, "the Brazilians."
"That's why I asked Heinz Ruger to make some inquires," Mariesa told the group.
"Does the government plan to pay us an adequate fee for the use of the facilities?" Khan asked.
"Bean counters," said Werewolf, to no one in particular.
Khan shrugged. "Military activity on LEO will decrease its usefulness and attractiveness as a business and industrial park. That constitutes a 'taking' under the law, and we are entitled to compensation. The Third Amendment may come into play, too."
"Could Donaldson argue 'national security' and exercise eminent domain over the American-owned portion of the assets?" asked Dolores.
Matthias rolled his eyes. "Oh, great. And everyone else would sit still for that."
"The legal justification is slim," John E. said slowly.
"I don't think he would go that far," said Wallace. "He isn't stupid."
Gregorson snorted. "Optimist. Besides, what makes you think he's the one actually calling the shot?"
"Yes," said Mariesa. "I wondered myself if the actual objective was to intervene in the Balkans or to intervene in the construction of LEO. We still have enemies in the administration."
"Bring back Champion," said Correy, pumping a fist in the air. The others chuckled.
"What is it, João?"
The president of Daedelus rubbed his nose. "Find out if the weapon system is ready. If it is, your Donaldson may be serious. If not, it may be, like you say, a ploy by some of his advisors to stir up trouble on the LEO board."
Correy grunted and waved a hand around the table. "Look what it's accomplished so far."
The chuckles this time were nervous.
• • •
When the meeting had broken up and the others had departed, Mariesa sat alone in the board room. The bustle of activity in the outer office came as an indistinct hubbub through the heavy doors. She sat with her hands balled on the tabletop and stared into a worried countenance reflected in the polish. A lee shore, Daddy would have said. Shoal waters. Piet had loved sailing and had loved taking risks. He would take his ketch close-hauled to the coastline, daring the wind to shift and help the waves push him onto the rocks. Harriet, who knew nothing of sailing, would complain about the sun or the rocking motion. Young Mariesa, who did, would hold her breath until Piet brought the ship onto the opposite tack and cut into the open sea.
Mariesa contemplated the action list on her compad screen, where Zhou Hui had captured the give-and-take in neatly tabulated notes. She could remember when Prometheus had been a much simpler matter: plots and plans and secret meetings. The old hand-and-fireball logo. She could remember even when Prometheus was nothing but a wild-eyed notion that she and Correy and Wallace and dear old Keith McReynolds used to kick around this very table. Sometimes, at still moments like this one, she could hear the buzz of their voices. Worried, intrigued, thoughtful, playing with the notion, poking it with a stick to see if it would stir.
What would an asteroid do to the Earth if it ever struck?
What can we do about it?
Not a damn thing.
What could we do about it?
Go somewhere else.
Swat it aside.
And so Prometheus had been bornof Wallace's fascination and Correy's cold calculation and Mariesa's trembling, barely reined terror. And Keith. She had never learned what had convinced and motivated that gentle old man.
She pushed back in her chair, tilting in a deliberately confident pose, and challenged old Henryk eye-to-eye. It's not your call, you old pirate. Henryk would never have started Prometheus; he only approved of sure things: like the Spanish Treasure Fleet off Cuba. Though Gramper, who resembled the founder in more ways than the set of a cheekbone, had pointed out that the Treasure Fleet had been no sure thing, either. Still, take a hardheaded, practical man like Henrykor like Gramper or cousin Chris or most of her presidentsand dangle a nice ROI on a stick out in front of them and they would take a few steps to grasp it. And a few more, and before they were quite aware of it, they could tiptoe their way into Low Earth Orbit.
Chris, Werewolf, Dolores, Joao…Each member of her alliance had a reason for joining Prometheus. Telecommunications. Satellite repair. Ballistic transport. Solar power. Exotic materials. To Belinda, the whole project was secondary to her desire to inspire her students. All important. All worthy. But none of it mattered next to the possibility that the sky might really fall someday.
The others knew of Mariesa's interest in asteroidsshe kept an observatory on the roof of her home and was active in SkyWatch, so it was no big secretbut only the inner circle and John E. knew that she had intended Prometheus from the start as a weapon to defend the Earth; and not even they knew what terror motivated her. Only two people had ever been that deep inside her.
She could send Dolores and Chris sniffing around Theater Missile Defense Organization. Someone else could bump heads with Ham over at Ossa & Pelion and decide whether Donaldson's scheme was even doable, given the current status of the station. Heinz could sound out Rukhavishnikov at Energia. But a group that size, while fine for spinning ideas and carrying out tasks, could not decide when to eat lunch, let alone a course of action. Only the pilot, feeling each tug of the sail, each pitch of the deck, could sense the right moment to put the helm hard alee. In the end, the decision would be hers and hers alone. Something she would carry with her for the rest of her life. And with Keith dead and Barry gone, there was no one at all with whom to share the agony of that choice.
Copyright © 1998 by Michael Flynn
Meet the Author
Michael Flynn is an Analog magazine alumnus whose fiction now appears regularly in all the major SF magazines. His major work of the 1990s was the Firestar series of novels.
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