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Trust Territory

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Trust Territory


  Janet and Chris Morris



  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

  Published by Roc,

  an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

  Previously published in a Roc hardcover edition.

  First Mass Market Printing, April, 1993 10 987654321

  Copyright © Paradise Productions, 1992

  All rights reserved


  Printed in the United States of America


  The Ball

  Between Mars and Jupiter, beyond Threshold, humanity's artificial port and portal to the stars, Spacedock Seven sat like a discarded Tonka toy on a street comer.

  Joe South's spacecraft was nearly alone in the traffic lane as he approached Spacedock Seven. The whole area was cordoned off as off-limits to civilian traffic, because of the sphere parked there. People in the know out here called it "the Ball."

  The mysterious sphere at Spacedock Seven was laced with scaffolding that made it look, in STARBIRD's monitors, like some Christmas ornament tangled in metallic icicles.

  Captain Joe South, late of U.S. Space Command, leaned back in his spacecraft's acceleration couch, pulled down his own suit's visor, and said, "Birdy, give me a close-up, realtime, of what's going on out there." He designated the resolution he wanted and STARBIRD's artificially intelligent (AI) expert system imported the relevant flight-deck data to the heads-up display on his helmet's visor.

  Good enough, considering that South and his ship, STARBIRD, were both antiques, "Relics" five hundred years behind the times. Only Birdy, his AI, had so far been retrofitted up to twenty-fifth-century specifications.

  South's newly augmented milspec display was light-years ahead of the capability he'd had when he punched out of an experimental spongespace jump to find that "home"—the early twenty-first century—was five hundred years in the past and "now" was the world of his own future.

  Still, he was adapting. Making points with the local government of Threshold, the United Nations of Earth (UNE) installation out here between Mars and Jupiter. He'd gotten himself assigned to this Top Secret program, hadn't he? He'd gotten into the Threshold Customs Service, hadn't he? He'd gotten title to STARBIRD, the spacecraft that had once been an experimental "X-class" test vehicle but now was just an antique. He'd gotten his ship, if not himself, aftermarketed into some kind of serviceability.

  He ought to be damned proud of how far he'd come in six months of living in Threshold society. But he wasn't. He was uneasy. And he knew why.

  The silvery ball displayed on his helmet's heads-up gave him the willies. Sometimes it changed colors. Sometimes it reminded him of things he didn't want to remember. Sometimes it seemed about to open up and show him all of its secrets. But most of the time it just sat there, seamless, smug, and inscrutable, reminding Joseph South of his exploratory mission to nowhere.

  Joe South had jumped X-99A STARBIRD into spongespace because his country had asked him to, and done a flyby of an unexplored solar system then designated X-3. He was—had been—a test pilot. He didn't resent outliving his whole culture as a result of living through that test flight. You didn't become the top-rated test pilot in your time by playing things safe, or by kidding yourself about the risks of your job.

  But South had seen things out at X-3 that bothered him. And nobody in this century would talk about X-3 with him. He hadn't been able to get anybody who was cleared to look at his report to discuss it with him.

  X-3 was classified. So were his memories of what had happened to him there. So were his goddamned dreams. And so was this sphere of silvery metal that changed colors sometimes, and that had seemed to open up before South's eyes, once.

  Joe South had taken the salvager who'd found the Ball out to its quarantine site at Spacedock Seven, and the Ball had opened up for South. Or seemed to. He couldn't corroborate what he thought had happened to him there. Not even Birdy's scans had recorded the event.

  The seamless Ball had opened up and South had seen inside it. Or thought he had.

  He'd seen . . . things ... he wasn't supposed to have seen. Things like sad-eyed aliens that nobody would admit existed. Things like lavender sunsets and ringed planets in the midst of a world he'd supposedly never set foot on. Things that were connected, somehow, to the mysterious sphere that had become, even in Threshold official documents, "the Ball."

  South resented the fact that Mickey Croft's Threshold government thought it could classify his dreams and his memories along with his test-flight log of STARBIRD's trip to X-3. He resented it more than he resented the fact that, coming home and finding home relativistically displaced by five hundred years, he'd become a charity case, until the Ball turned up.

  And he resented the Ball most of all, because it made him sweat when he looked at it, even through his heads-up display.

  On his helmet's visor, the Ball was small. It should have been less imposing, reduced to manageable proportions. But nothing made that image manageable for South.

  When you had a personal demon that was a physical reality, not a psychological phantasm, you had to confront it. So he was out here confronting it. He was nearly nose-to-nose with the image on his heads-up. But he'd been closer. He'd been right alongside the Ball. He'd touched it.

  Now even looking at it made his stomach churn. Over the scaffolding surrounding the Ball technicians in white space suits crawled, purposefully, busily, like warrior ants in Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suits. The United Nations of Earth government called the suits Manned Maneuvering Units (MMUs), not Extravehicular Mobility Units (EVMUs) as they'd been designated in South's time.

  Everything was different here in the future. Just different enough to make everyday life a minefield. Just different enough that he still couldn't bring himself to accept that he was stuck here. But for now he had to live here. He had to adapt, like Birdy had. But Birdy was an Artificial Intelligence. South had hired an aftermarketeer to give Birdy whatever additional capability she needed.

  He couldn't retrofit himself. He had to learn to live in this world the old-fashioned way: by hard work, by trial and error, and by making survivable mistakes.

  Getting involved with the Ball project was one of those mistakes, South was nearly certain. But he hadn't known any better, and now he was enmired in a classified project that had him rubbing elbows with heavies in the Threshold government.

  He couldn't have avoided becoming involved, even if, then, he'd known all he knew now. Which wasn't much.

  South had ferried the old salvager known as "the Scavenger," Keebler, out to view the Ball, because Riva Lowe from Customs wanted it that way, and Riva Lowe's way was the only way he was going to secure title to his ship.

  Now that he had title to STARBIRD he could get the hell out of this part of space, go somewhere among mankind's three hundred colonies throughout the stars—once he could figure out where to go and how he'd make a living once he got there.

  Once he'd finished with this Ball business, that is. South was stuck here, with the classified information in his head, until the sphere gave up its secrets or somebody closed the project. Somebody like
Mickey Croft himself, the UNE Secretary General.

  Sometimes South felt as if he were one with the Ball, imprisoned in its scaffolding, with all of those techs poking and prodding at it, milling about on it, and scurrying in and out of the science station constructed there.

  "Birdy, give me a patch through to the science station. To Remson, if he's there. Or to his XO." Vince Remson was a Special Assistant to Threshold's Secretary General. Remson or his executive officer would know what all the activity today signified. The Ball was now South's job. He'd never wanted this kind of job. He wanted to fly spacecraft. Riva Lowe had promised South that someday he'd be able to pilot again— not just his own spacecraft, but test craft and sponge-capable craft.

  Until then he was a Customs jock, with a restrictive security clearance that gave him some clout but put him on a long leash.

  The stars were as far away now as they'd been when he and Birdy pushed that first button and punched the X-99A through the skin of spacetime in search of eternity.

  Birdy burbled to herself, then connected South to Remson back on Threshold: "South, where the hell have you been? The Scavenger's on the rampage. He's barricaded himself in the science station. Maybe he'll listen to you. Otherwise . . ."

  The comlink buzzed in South's ears. Otherwise? The Threshold bureaucracy was very tough. The Scavenger, Keebler, had discovered the Ball and towed it in. By rights it should have been his, according to the Salvagers' Guild to which he belonged.

  But Threshold had confiscated the Ball and now it was classified government property. Just like Joe South.

  South said, "I'm nearly there. Keep a lid on. Customs Special STARBIRD, out."

  Then he jacked his acceleration couch upright and watched while Birdy, on command, negotiated the sensitive spacedock procedure with her fellow Spacedock AI.

  You didn't fly these twenty-fifth-century spacecraft, you gave them suggestions. When South had been flying testbeds in his native time, the most dangerous portions of any flight were always takeoff and landing (for aircraft and single-stage-to-orbit vehicles) and parking maneuvers for orbiting vehicles.

  Now those procedures had been freed from human error. The AIs did all that. You just chewed your nails and watched, or filed your reports, or played with your sensoring packages. Hell of a note.

  This time South needed the interval to figure out what he was going to do about Keebler. Keebler, a filthy old reprobate with greasy gray hair and green-scummed teeth, shouldn't have been out at the science station in the first place.

  Whoever'd decided he could be ought to have his butt kicked.

  South watched the docking schematics that Birdy put up to comfort him, so that he'd feel like part of the process, and tried to come up with a plan for enticing Keebler out of the science station.

  Under him, the retrofitted STARBIRD waltzed toward the precise coordinates of the tube docking assembly as if Birdy had been doing it all her life.

  Maybe he couldn't have made that matching orbit manually, not without destroying lots of expensive spacedock equipment. He hit an auxiliary function and used his helmet's redundant gear to patch through to Threshold Customs while Birdy talked to Spacedock Seven Control.

  When he got his comlink he was put through to Riva Lowe right away. That security clearance he had, and Remson's name, opened lots of doors.

  He could see her sharp-featured, exotic face on a window centerpunching his visor display, if he wanted. He wanted.

  She couldn't see him, because he didn't want her to. He said, "Director, we've got a mega-mess out here. Keebler's holed up in the Ball science station."

  "I know, Commander South." She liked to call him that. It reminded them both of how much she'd done for him. "Have you any ideas?"

  "Better than talkin' him out with promises, the way you did me when I first got to Threshold? Nah. How about I tell him he can expect to have the Ball back when we're through with it?"

  It was a long shot. Threshold didn't tend to bend. It broke you over its knee when it had to, instead. South had seen that for himself.

  Riva Lowe's tiny image chewed a stylus. Her intelligent eyes narrowed. "If you must, I suppose, you can tell him that. Just don't give Keebler any time frame. No ammunition he can take back to the Salvagers' Guild. As a matter of fact, maybe you'd better tell him that he can have access to the Ball when we're done with it. Not possession. It's government property, remember."

  So was South, or so it seemed to him most of the time. He almost told her that he could see Keebler's point. But it wouldn't do any good. He said, "I'll do the best I can. But you've got to back me up."

  He knew that Lowe was lying to him when she said, "Of course I will. We're as good as our word. You know that."

  He got off-line just as Birdy finished docking procedures with an audible thump. Then a chime told him his lock was mated to Spacedock Seven's.

  Air pressure in the tube leading to the habitable hub of Spacedock Seven was, according to Birdy, nominal.

  Inside Spacedock Seven's main concourse, three Customs officials and two ConSec (Consolidated Security) types waited for him. South ordered, "Just take me to him. I'll do the best I can. But I'll want plenty of backup."

  The Customs guys peeled off, and the ConSec officers half ran beside him to their little space-to-space cruiser.

  The wonder of Spacedock Seven's huge hub was already lost on South. You can get used to anything.

  The space-to-space cruiser had kinetic cannon, A-potential grapples, and lots more armaments that were going to be useless in this situation.

  UNE peacekeeping forces didn't tend to get aggressive.

  They stood around and flexed their muscles and, generally, it worked. Whether it would work with old Keebler, the Scavenger, South wasn't sure.

  He'd never even seen a hand weapon on Threshold, so he was startled when one of the two cops pulled something that had a pistol grip out of a console compartment and slid it across the cockpit bumper to him. "Know how to use that?"

  "Nope." He slid it back. "Get Lieutenant Reice out here, will you? If he's available. If anybody's going to start shooting anything in that science module, I want it to be on good authority—and that's Reice, not me."

  No way was South going to discharge any weapon anywhere near the Ball. His instinct on that point was unshakable.

  And Reice and South had an understanding of sorts. Reice had been the contact officer who'd brought South and STARBIRD in to Threshold in the first place.

  The little cruiser disengaged from its slip and headed for the Ball. South could see the sphere, larger and larger, in the realtime monitor.

  The closer they got to it the less South wanted to go there. It was all he could do to keep his seat. His suit couldn't cool him with his visor up.

  So he sat and sweated, in an uncomfortable, contagious silence broken only by the ConSec pilot's attempt to contact Reice.

  Come on, Reice, South prayed silently. Get out here. We can't let this thing get out of control. We can't.

  The closer South got to that silver sphere from nowhere the more certain he was that something terrible was going to happen if they didn't get Keebler out of there, under control.

  They didn't know what they were dealing with here. Threshold didn't. Secretary General Croft and his assistant Remson didn't. Riva Lowe didn't.

  Even Joe South didn't. So the Scavenger sure as hell didn't. But Keebler, the Scavenger, was sure that the Ball was going to make him rich and famous, and the crusty old codger didn't care about anything else.

  But Joe South, approaching the silvery ball, found that he cared desperately about getting the Scavenger out of that science module and away from that mysterious sphere—alive.


  A Funny Feeling

  The science station was a prefab module, thin-skinned and no place for a fracas. Reice dumped the schematics and floor plan from the ConSec cruiser Blue Tick's display console and got into his combat EVA suit while his ship parked herself by
the science station.

  Reice checked everything twice: his life support, his com systems—including his visor's capability to display data on its heads-up that was patched through from Threshold to him by Blue Tick—and his weapons.

  Funny, there hadn't been many times Reice could remember when he'd wondered if he had the right weapons. Usually he chased smugglers, dope addicts, or common criminals. For that kind of action he generally needed his ship's KKDs and electromagnetic weaponry.

  Handheld kinetic and electromagnetic weapons just weren't part of normal ConSec duties. Consolidated Security for Threshold might need the occasional sniper rifle, but you didn't usually go in for close-quarters combat when that combat was bound to be inside the thin skin of some sort of life-supporting module.

  Reice finally chose a pistol that shot calmative flechettes (in case the Scavenger wasn't fully suited) and a pocket infrasound generator that would handle things if Keebler was suited up, even if he wasn't using his com system. For good measure Reice took an HPM (high-power microwave) gun about the size of a sawed-off shotgun.

  If he had to use the HPM gun, the Scavenger would never be the same afterward—if Keebler lived long enough to be any way at all afterward.

  Damned fool Scavenger. Reice should have known something like this would come of everybody's being so polite where Keebler was concerned. Even the crazy old white-hole fisherman should have realized that you can't keep possession of an alien artifact that might well be the first indication of a superior civilization—not if you're a civilian.

  But too late to say, "I told you so." Even if there were a couple of people Reice would have liked to say that to. He toggled through his suit's capabilities one more time, ported his ship onto remote so that he could control everything in it from his heads-up display (HUD), and stepped into his two-stage air lock.

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