his spinster daughter.

Much to my relief the others were waiting by the shuttle. By the time we got there, I’d realized that I was going to have to take control of the situation and keep it.

“Good,” I said, sounding brisk and businesslike. “Everyone’s present and accounted for.” I pointed at the already open airlock. “Now if you will all get aboard we can get out of here.” Nobody moved, and a funny look passed between them. The Fritlanders shared small, identical smiles. Elvis shuffled her big flat feet and sang something like can’t get no uh huh hum in a low voice. Shelby looked mildly embarrassed. Clotilde would not meet my gaze, her expression almost guilty.

Dr. Xan laid a chubby hand on my arm. “We’re staying here, Tephillip.”

It took me a couple seconds to make sense of what he’d said, and another couple to make myself believe I’d heard it. “You’re what?”

“Staying here. Holding the fort, as it were.”

“Are you vulking nuts?” I wailed.

A calm smile. “I assure you that we are all in complete command of our faculties. Our decision is a logical one. Our consensus is that the vault has survived everything thrown at it so far, and should come through one more barrage unscathed.”

I shook my head in denial, disbelief and desperation. “No way! I order you to get on that shuttle right this instant!”

“I am afraid that’s logistically impractical, if not outright impossible. It is already carrying its maximum payload in artifacts. Shelby is quite the master at calculating payloads, you know. Our combined mass added to what is already aboard would take the craft far over its operating limit.”

I looked around. Sure enough the big covered piles were gone. Loaded on while Clotilde kept me distracted. I shot her a black look, and she at least had the decency to blush.

Inside I went from panic to anger to outrage to a weird sort of calm in three seconds flat. When I looked at Xan I was smiling myself. “So let me see if I have this straight,” I said. “I’m supposed to rescue a bunch of junk —”

Artifacts,” he corrected with a sniff.

“Artifacts, then. I save that stuff and leave all of you here to risk that vault surviving another barrage. The logic behind this being that if you and the vault survive, no harm done. If it doesn’t, at least all the incredibly valuable artifacts you put aboard instead of yourselves will be saved.”

They all nodded in unison. “You have an excellent grasp of the situation,” Dr. Xan said approvingly. “You are a most perceptive young man.”

“Thank you, sir.” My smile began showing less humor and more teeth. “I also happen to be a very pissed off young man, and I have an excellent grasp of one other thing.”

“What might that be?”

I pulled out the gun Captain Chandaveda had given me.

“This,” I said.

The response to this gambit wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be. Nobody looked particularly frightened—or even impressed. I knew the gun looked scary, so it had to be me.

“You wouldn’t shoot us, Tephillip,” Clotilde informed me in the tone you would use on a backward child. “Now put that thing away before you hurt someone.”

Now what? I asked myself, painfully aware of how fast time was running out. Once again my Academy training had let me down by not covering the threatening and/or shooting of passengers in a real depth. I stared at Xan, who radiated a calm confidence that I wouldn’t hurt the people I’d come to save. The problem was, he was right.

But my captain had sent me down to rescue him and these other maniacs, and I intended to complete my mission.

They always speak of inspiration striking. That’s what happened to me next. My brain gave a sort of hitch that made me blink, then I lowered the gun so its muzzle was pointed at the briefcase Xan carried.

“No,” I said in as menacing a voice as I could muster, “But I’m perfectly willing to blow your data all to hell.” His round face went pasty white. “You wouldn’t! This material is priceless and irreplacable!”

“So are all of you. So is my commission. So—” I jerked my thumb toward the airlock. “I suggest you get your over-educated asses in there this instant.”

Nobody moved.

I pulled the briefcase out of Xan’s hand and jammed the gun up against it. “I said move! ” While that didn’t exactly start a stampede, they didn’t dawdle either.

Once inside, I learned that not only had they filled the shuttle cargo hold, they’d stuffed the cabin section full of K’leven leftovers as well.

There wasn’t time to clear off the passenger couches, or to see if I had enough control over them to get them to toss some of their precious artifacts overboard. So I had Shelby lie down on the one bare patch of decking and the others sit on him. Once they were settled in, I put the manual restraint field on at full power to keep them out of my hair.

I had to climb over piles of stuff to reach the pilot’s chair. The briefcase went between my feet and the gun went back into my waistband, but I made sure it was within easy reach.

My first look at the boards told me that my problems were still far from over. The payload indicators were showing me big numbers in an ominous red, the hazard avoidance systems were flashing ultra-urgent warnings that several giant chunks of K’leven’s moon were hurtling toward where we were sitting, and my captain wanted to have a word with me.

“Here goes nothing,” I muttered, initiating lift. Then I opened a tacxline to the Gibbon. Captain Chandaveda’s face appeared on the screen. She looked somewhat aggravated.

“It’s about time, Ornish. I was beginning to think you’d gone AWOL. Are you having a problem down there, or did you just plan to hang around for a while and get stoned?”

“I’ve got a problem, ma’am.” The shuttle shuddered and began to lift with agonizing slowness. “The vulking Prezzies stuffed the shuttle full of junk from the vault.”

“Artifacts!” came a chorus behind me.

“I had to hold their data at gunpoint to get them to board. Now we’re so overloaded we can barely move.”

“Sounds like you have your hands full,” she commented with a marked lack of sympathy. “I’ll stop being a distraction. See you when you get up here.” With that she broke the connection, leaving me staring at a dead screen.

“Thanks for all your help,” I growled, searching my boards for some clue as to how to get out of this predicament. Then I looked again, hoping there was something I missed. No such luck.

Less than four minutes remained until impact, we were less than a hundred meters up, and while our rate of ascent might have made an arthritic vulture carrying off a dead heifer proud, all it was giving me was a sour, sinking feeling that my next flight would be on angel’s wings.

My fingers did a fast, sweaty flamenco, asking the shuttle’s computer a dozen questions.

I started getting answers I didn’t really want to hear. The shockwaves impact was going to cause would be far nastier than the shuttle’s shields and hull could withstand. To survive them, we had to be almost halfway around the planet or pretty much clear of the atmosphere. The fastest way to clear air was to go straight up—right toward the oncoming Rocks of Doom—and our present rate of climb just wasn’t fast enough to get us to vacuum in time. I compromised, peeling us off at a slight angle so we weren’t on a head-on heading.

The only thing in our favor was that escape velocity wasn’t a problem for the shuttle since it used gravitic propulsion. You just keep negating gravity until there isn’t any more. It was getting clear of that shockwave which was our deadline. One we were going to miss by a considerable margin.

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