“Shouldn’t we go via station?”

“Of course. But there’s a hitch in the pre-programming.”

“Think you’d better check it with Control?”

“I’ll put a query in, but it could take hours to locate the operator. I could rewrite the sub-routine…” She regarded Bennett, her expression blank as she considered her options. “Hokay, I’ll contact Control, explain the situation and request clearance to do the rewrite.”

She tapped her visor down and linked with Control.

“Systems analyst Theneka here. Viper-class code 45/7a. We have a problem, Control…” She outlined the situation while Bennett watched the orbital archipelago drift by.

Minutes later Ten Lee lifted her visor. “Control’s okayed the rewrite.”

She pulled the com-screen down from a padded recess above her and ran quick fingers over the touch controls, rewriting the program.

Bennett considered the potential disaster the systems glitch might have caused. In years of working in high orbit, the closest he’d come to a possible life-threatening situation himself was when a micro-meteorite impacted with an air tank and cut off the supply. For an hour it had been touch and go as to whether he could get back to station before his existing air gave out. He’d made it, but only just.

He’d considered himself lucky. Every year saw the loss of at least one tug crew. More often than not the fatalities were the result of human error—both on the part of pilots and engineers—sloppy workmanship caused by apathy and complacency, the it’ll-never-happen-to-me ethos that was bound to affect crews who had worked in space for years without mishap.

Ten Lee pushed the com-screen back into the ceiling. “Control have vetted and passed the rewrite, Joshua.”

They slowed on the approach to Terminal 2, a great silver-ringed construction the periphery of which consisted of a hundred docking bays. Ground-to-orbit ships drifted across the hole in the middle of the doughnut, collecting goods manufactured in orbit to deliver to the cities of Earth. It was the most spectacular sight in space, Bennett thought. Twenty-four hours a day, cargo ships came and went like so many bees at a hive, a constant sunlit flux of arrival and departure. Way below the station, dwindling into the vortex, the ships were no more than tiny specks of scintillating dust; up close, the cargo ships manoeuvring and docking inside the ring-station could be seen for what they really were, vast streamlined shuttles the size of towerblocks. For the first five years of his tenure with the Redwood Corporation, Bennett had piloted these leviathans on their journeys to and from Earth, before the repetition had become monotonous and he’d requested a transfer to inter-orbital work.

He turned the tug and backed towards the delivery bay. Ten Lee directed the operation of unloading the containers, each one disappearing into the terminal to be loaded on to a cargo vessel. One hour later she gave the thumbs up and Bennett eased the tug from the terminal.

As they moved away, he asked Ten Lee about her name.

A brief sigh was the extent of her protest. “It doesn’t mean anything, Joshua. My mother wasn’t very imaginative—she ran out of names for her children after the first five, so the rest were called Six, Seven, Eight, Nine… I was her tenth.”

Josh peered at Ten Lee in the gloom of the cabin, but her expression was serious as she stared at the passing station.

“My mother was religious, so I got Joshua,” he offered. “Christian fundamentalist.” She had died when Bennett was seventeen, three years after the death of her daughter. She had never recovered from the shock of losing Ella.

“My mother,” Ten Lee responded, surprising him, “worked all her life to overthrow the government of Rocastle’s World. She was a writer. She wrote political pamphlets exhorting revolution. When the change came, she taught Buddhism. I trained at the Bhao Khet Space Academy and piloted sub-orbital freighters for ten years before coming to Earth.”

“Ten years?” He shook his head. “How old are you now?”


“Hell, I had you down as twenty.”

“If that’s meant as a compliment, save it for the girls on the station.”

Bennett lifted his hands in a gesture of helpless innocence.

“Age is an irrelevance,” Ten Lee went on matter-of-factly. “What is important is experience, and how one interprets and uses that experience in this incarnation.”

“In this incarnation?” Bennett said.

She stretched out her stick-thin arms and yawned. “This is my final incarnation in the physical. Upon my death I attain the void. This life is merely a means to prepare myself for that state.”

Bennett fell silent for a time. To change the subject he said: “Why did you come to Earth?”

“I needed new experience. My Rimpoche—my teacher—suggested that my fate was elsewhere. I should follow an outward path. Outward even beyond Earth.”

Bennett nodded. He had met many colonists in his years on the station, most conforming to character types and belief systems prevalent on Earth. Occasionally he came across humans so strange that they seemed almost alien in their idiosyncrasies.

The Viper banked around the curve of the orbitals on automatic. Bennett closed his eyes and contemplated the end of the shift and his three-day leave.

He would visit his father in hospital in Mojave Town, more a courtesy call to salve his conscience than a genuine display of sympathy or concern. Every leave he made the short journey to the private clinic that had been his father’s home now for the past year. He was not so much ill as merely old. He was over a hundred, and it seemed that everything was failing at once. Expensive and expert medical care kept his vital organs ticking over, but the quality of his life was diminishing fast. He spent most of his time hooked up to some mindless virtual reality entertainment, and seemed to resent his son’s intrusion. Bennett never looked forward to their futile, stilted dialogue. They had nothing in common other than a mutual experience of resentment.

His father had waited until his retirement before starting a family—an afterthought to his major concern of amassing wealth. Even then, he had spent much of his time immersed in business matters, regarding his son and daughter as a distraction from the more serious matter of accumulating saleable assets. The laughable irony was that his father had lost most of his savings with the collapse of a string of dubious financial investments months before his final hospitalisation. Now the old bastard was fading fast after a life of futility, and the hell of it was that Bennett could not help but feel guilty for his lack of concern.

After visiting his father he would call on Julia, and try to assess the current state of their relationship.

He opened his eyes as the Viper altered course. They dropped from the plane of the orbitals, the radiant white light of the Earth, spinning hugely to starboard, filling the tug with unaccustomed illumination. The Burgess manufactory was situated below the orbital chain, an ugly silver rectangle producing the catering supplies for the interstellar liners. Five minutes later they docked and began the loading process.

Bennett watched Ten Lee as she stared at the read-outs on her helmet screen. She was washed in the stark light of Earth, and he was made aware again of her diminutive size and frailty. Involuntarily, he recalled the image of his sister, her thin body wasted by the lymphatic cancer that finally killed her.

The pick-up was through in twenty minutes. They collected ten containers and moved slowly away from the manufactory. They climbed past the orbitals and Redwood Station, and headed “up” towards the phase point. Bennett stretched, savouring the thought that soon he would be in his berth on the station, showering before taking the ferry to Earth.

“Joshua…” Ten Lee said.

At the same time, Control spoke in his headset. “Bennett. What the hell’s happening out there?”

“Joshua,” Ten said again. She was sitting up on her couch, frantically running fingers across a touch-pad on her lap, staring intently into the screen of her visor.

“What is it?” Bennett said, a sick feeling in his stomach.

“I don’t understand this,” Ten Lee said. “The Viper has reverted to the original program.”

Control’s shout almost deafened Bennett. “Jesus Christ, man! Watch out for that bastard liner!”

He stared through the viewscreen, the improbability of what was happening slowing his reaction time. He felt a stab of disbelief—this was surely impossible.

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