“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.”



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.

“Fuchs?” The woman’s voice sounded genuinely puzzled. “He’s not here. He’s in exile. We wouldn’t—”

“No lies,” the man snapped. “We know Fuchs is heading for your habitat. We want him.”

Theo realized that something ugly was shaping up. Much as he hated to relinquish command of Syracuse— even though his “command” was nothing more than monitoring the ship’s automated systems—he reluctantly tapped the intercom keyboard.

“Dad, you’d better get up here,” he said, slowly and clearly. “Something really weird is going on.”

It took a moment, then Victor Zacharias replied testily, “What now? Can’t you handle anything for yourself?” There was no video: voice only.

“You gotta see this, Dad.”

“See what?” He sounded really annoyed.

“I think we’re sailing right into the middle of the war.”

“Ceres is neutral territory. Everybody knows that and respects it.”

“Maybe,” Theo said. “But maybe not.”

Grumbling, Victor said, “All right. I’m on my way.”

Only then did Theo notice that the blank display screen’s indicator showed his father was in the master bedroom. He felt his cheeks redden. He and Mom … No wonder he’s cheesed off.



Theo sat in the command chair, watching and listening to the chatter between Chrysalis and the strangely menacing stranger.

His father stepped into the control pod, dark face scowling.

Theo swiveled the command chair and got to his feet, crouching slightly in the confined head space of the

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