A starship was moving slowly through space towards phase point, and the tug’s flight-path was taking it on a collision course. Bennett grabbed the controls and yelled at Ten Lee to abort the pre-program. She was already cutting the link. Thanks to her quick work, no sooner had Bennett gained manual override than he felt the tug respond.

The liner swelled before them. Bennett watched a knot of passengers gathered by a viewscreen, gaping out like fish in an aquarium. Their collective reaction mirrored his own sense of panic: they fell to the floor or fled as the tug hurtled towards them.

Bennett cried out and pushed on the controls, sending the Viper into a steep dive. The liner seemed to bob up and out of view, and for a split second Bennett almost allowed himself a sigh of relief. Then he saw before him, and impossible to avoid, a forest of antennae and guidance probes bristling from the underbelly of the starship.

They scythed through them, a series of sickening thumps conducted through the cabin. The tug yawed wildly, spinning out of control and hurtling towards the swollen cargo blister on the rear underbelly of the liner. For all their speed, the silver blister seemed to approach in slow motion, expanding before the Viper like a blown bubble. Bennett dragged on the controls, less from intent than sheer blind hope, and miraculously the liner vanished.

He was about to congratulate himself when something hit the Viper. One second they were drifting in the welcome void of space, and the next they were swatted by a terrifying and powerful force.

Bennett swore and stared through the viewscreen above his head, hardly able to believe what he was seeing.

The starship had phased out, washing the Viper in the molten backblast of its ion-engines. The temperature in the cabin was climbing alarmingly and Bennett felt his skin beginning to burn. The tug swirled out of control like a leaf in a hurricane, the jets incinerating the vessel’s paintwork and melting the viewscreen.

“Get the suits, Ten!” Bennett screamed, expecting the viewscreen to crack and the tug to depressurise at any second—and then the alarm sounded, an ugly, pulsing double note that almost deafened Bennett. The tug was floating, becalmed. The viewscreen held, a blurred mess of scorched plasti-glass.

The alarm dinned in his head and Bennett fought to control his breathing. He fumbled at the controls, trying to kill the noise.

Ten was scrambling around in the confines of the tug, attempting to find the suits.

Control was yelling: “What the hell were you doing, both of you?”

“The Viper rejected the rewritten flight-path!” Bennett yelled back.

The alarm cut off, to be replaced by the Viper’s calm, synthesised voice: “Cabin depressurisation. Advise immediate evacuation.”

Bennett felt his pulse quicken. “Ten! Those suits!”

“You were slow, Bennett!” Control went on. “You should have seen the liner long before you did, taken evasive action.”

“We were on an original flight-path, okayed by you! I wasn’t exactly expecting company!”

“That’s not the point—”

“And fuck you!” Bennett shouted. He turned to Ten Lee. “Where the hell are those suits?”

She was floating, twisted, behind the seats. She stared at him with a calm expression which, in the circumstances, he found maddening. She indicated the empty suit storage unit. “They aren’t here.”

“Jesus Christ…” Bennett said.

“Repeat: cabin depressurisation. Advise immediate evacuation.”

Ten Lee resumed her seat and regarded the monitor. “We have seven minutes before the tug breaks up, Bennett.”

His visor screen flared. He blinked and made out the hunched head and shoulders of Matheson, the flight manager.

“Hope you both enjoyed that little roller-coaster ride. I want a full report and systems analysis in my terminal in six hours, got that?”

“It was a program error,” Bennett began. “And what the hell are you doing to get us out?”

“I’m not bothered what the hell you think it was, Bennett. I need to find out what went wrong out there.”

“Hey—and who equipped this fucking pile of junk?” he began, but Matheson had cut the connection.

Ten, professional to the last, was reporting a list of damages back to Control. Bennett stared at her. She seemed calm, composed. Her voice was even, her expression neutral.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on not spilling the contents of his stomach.

“Major functions damage,” Ten Lee said. “The tug is inoperable. Control’s sending out a salvage ship.”

Bennett stared at her. “Christ, Ten, we’ve got five minutes to live and you don’t even bat an eyelid.”

She shrugged, regarding the screen of her visor.

“Okay, I know. You don’t fear death, right? You’re past all such fear… Well, just between you and me, I’ve yet to learn that lesson and I’m shit scared.”

He was aware of the tremor in his voice and shut up.

“Repeat: advise immediate evacuation.”

“How long before that damned tug gets here?” he said.

Ten Lee glanced at him and smiled, something mocking in the regard of her slanting eyes. “Calm down, Joshua. Panic can benefit no one.” She raised a small hand and pointed. “Look, the salvage ship is here.”

Bennett stared through the damaged viewscreen and made out the hulking silver blur of the salvage vessel as it slowly approached.

His visor flared and Matheson stared out at him. “Bennett, Theneka,” he said, something ominous in his tone. “This is just to tell you that you’re both suspended for ten days until we get to the bottom of this. Out.”

Ten Lee raised a hand, forestalling Bennett’s protest. “We have nothing to worry about. It was a systems error, after all. Calm down.”

Bennett lay back in his couch, closed his eyes and awaited the pick-up.


Rana Rao crossed the crowded foyer of the Calcutta police headquarters and paused before the plate-glass door. In the second before it swished open, she caught a glimpse of her reflection. The sight of herself in the trim khaki uniform often caught her unawares. She saw the girl she had been in her surprised eyes and thin face, and the woman she was now in her lieutenant’s uniform, and she found it hard to reconcile the two images. She sometimes felt guilty at the privilege conferred by the uniform; she wanted to tell people that she was nothing special, that she too had once been the lowest of the low.

She stepped through the glass door and stood beneath the red-and-white-striped polycarbon awning. Rain lashed down, drumming on the awning, bouncing off the slick tarmac of the busy road. The monsoon clouds piled over the city had brought a premature twilight to the afternoon. All along the wide pavements paan sellers, fortune tellers and laser beauticians switched on their orange glow-tubes and huddled beneath stolen scraps of polycarbon.

Rana looked up and down the street for her car. No doubt it was stuck in the traffic. Her driver was old and slow, which she didn’t mind most of the time. But today she had a meeting with a street-kid she was helping; she had arranged to meet her at a certain time and a certain place, and she knew from experience that street-kids didn’t wait around. When the whole city is your home, you move from place to place in search of the necessities of life: food and baksheesh.

“Rana-ji! Over here!”

The gnarled head of her driver emerged from the side-window of the battered patrol car, lodged in a line of stalled traffic ten metres away.

Rana was about to make a dash for the car when her communicator clicked in her inner ear. She twitched her lower jaw to activate the connection and snapped, “Yes? Lieutenant Rao here. Who is this?”

“Commissioner Singh.” The voice, weighted with forbearance, sounded in her ear. “Have you set off yet, Lieutenant Rao?”

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