pod. Gangling, awkward Theo had his father’s deep brown eyes, but the sandy hair and tall, slender build of his mother. There was the merest trace of a light stubble on his long, narrow jaw. His denims were decorated with decals and colorful patches.”What’s got you spooked?” Victor asked in a heavy grumbling voice as he lowered himself gingerly into the command chair. He had injured his thigh months earlier while loading Syracuse’s cargo of ores from one of the rock rat miners deeper in the Asteroid Belt. The leg still twinged; Victor had scheduled stem cell therapy when they arrived at the Chrysalis habitat.

Gesturing to the main display screen that covered half the curving bulkhead in front of them, Theo replied, “Take a look.”

But the menacing stranger had apparently cut his communications with Chrysalis. To Theo’s dismay, the main screen showed nothing more than a standard view of the approaching asteroid and its environs. At this distance Ceres was a discernable gray spheroid against the star-spattered blackness of space. Circling in orbit about the asteroid, the habitat Chrysalis glittered light reflected from the distant Sun: a Tinkertoy assemblage of old spacecraft linked together into a ring to make a livable home for the rock rats. They had built the makeshift habitat to escape the dust-choked tunnels that honeycombed Ceres itself.

Radar displays superimposed on the screen showed the images of nearly a dozen ships, mostly ore carriers like Syracuse or massive factory smelters, in orbit around the asteroid; their names and registrations were printed out on the screen. Two other ships were visible, as well. One was labeled Elsinore, a passenger-carrying fusion torch ship from the lunar nation of Selene. The other had no name tag: no information about it at all was displayed on the screen. From the radar image it looked like a sleek, deadly dagger.

Victor Zacharias scratched absently at his stubbled chin as he muttered, “By god, that looks like a military vessel—an attack ship.”

“She’s not emitting any telemetry or tracking beacons,” Theo pointed out.

“I can see that, son.”

“They were talking to Chrysalis before you came in,” Theo explained. “Sounded threatening.”

Victor’s blunt-fingered hands played over the comm console. The main screen flickered, then the image of the bearded man came up.

“Attention Chrysalis,” he said in a heavy, guttural voice. “This is the attack vessel Samarkand. You are harboring the fugitive Lars Fuchs. You will turn him over to me in ten minutes or suffer the consequences of defiance.”

Theo said to his father, “Lars Fuchs the pirate!”

“The rock rats exiled him years ago,” Victor muttered, nodding.

The voice of Chrysalis’s communications center said annoyedly, “Fuchs? God knows where he is.”

“I know where he is,” Samarkand replied coldly. “And if you don’t surrender him to me I will destroy you.”

His image winked out, replaced by the telescope view of Ceres and the spacecraft hovering near the asteroid.

Victor began to peck intently on the propulsion keyboard set into the curving panel before him, muttering, “We’ve got to get ourselves the hell out of here.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Before the shooting starts.”

“Chrysalis is unarmed,” Theo said. “They don’t have any weapons. Everybody knows that.”

“We don’t have any weapons either,” said his father.

“But they wouldn’t shoot at an unarmed ship. That doesn’t make sense.”

“You hope.” Victor’s fingers were flicking across the controls.

Turning a massively laden ore ship is neither a simple nor a quick maneuver. It takes time and lots of space. Theo glanced at the control screens and saw that Syracuse was slowly, painfully slowly, coming about.

Something flashed on the main screen.

“He’s fired on her!” Victor shouted.

Theo saw a red-hot slash cut through the thin metal hull of one of Chrysalis’s modules. A glittering cloud puffed out and immediately dissipated. Air, Theo realized. The module seemed to explode, shards of metal spinning out dizzily. And other shapes came tumbling, flailing into the airless emptiness of space. Bodies, Theo saw, his heart suddenly thundering, his guts clenching. Those are people! He’s killing them!

“Stop!” screamed a voice from the habitat’s comm center. “Stop or you’ll kill—”

The voice cut off. Theo watched with bulging eyes as invisible laser beams from the attack ship methodically sliced one module of the habitat after another, slashing, destroying, killing. A cloud of spinning debris and twisted bodies spread outward like ripples of death.

“You’ve got to do something!” Theo shouted.

“I am,” his father replied. “I’m getting us the hell away from here.”

“Something to help them!”

“What can we do? You want to join them?”

As Syracuse slowly, ponderously turned away from its approach to Ceres, its telescopic cameras maintained their focus on the slaughter of the Chrysalis habitat. Module after module exploded soundlessly, corpses and wreckage flung into space.

Tears in his eyes, Theo leaned over his father’s broad shoulder and shouted into his face, “You can’t just leave them there!”

His eyes fastened on the carnage displayed on the main screen, Victor told his son, “The hell I can’t! I’ve got to protect you and your sister and mother.”

“You’re running away!”

Victor nodded bleakly. “Just as fast as I can get this ore bucket to fly.”

Theo glanced up at the main screen once more, then down again to his father’s grimly determined face. He saw beads of perspiration on his father’s brow; his knuckles were white as he gripped the chair’s armrests.

“But there must be something we can do!”

The bearded man’s image appeared again on the main screen, sharp and steady. “Ore ship Syracuse,” he said, “just where do you think you’re going?”

Theo’s blood froze in his veins.


Are you harboring the fugitive Lars Fuchs?” asked the stranger, his voice dagger-cold.

Victor replied evenly, “We’re inbound from the deeper Belt, carrying fourteen thousand tons of ore.” Then he added, “No passengers.”

“How do I know that’s the truth?”

“You’re welcome to come aboard and see for yourself.”

The dark stranger lapsed into silence, apparently deep in thought. Theo thought his eyes looked strange, their pupils dilated wider than he had ever seen before.

“Damn!” Victor growled. “The intercom’s down again.”

“We just fixed it yesterday,” Theo said.

“Not well enough.” Victor leaned on the comm console’s mute button and whispered urgently to his son, “Get down to the habitation module and get your mother and sister into suits. You suit up too.”

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