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Locally, in the valley far from Tokyo that she had left long ago, it was known as yamatsumi-sou, which means "flower of the mountain spirit." It was like a small lily, with tapering, yellow petals warmed on the upper surface by a blush of violet. According to legend, it was found only in those particular hills on the north side of Honshu--a visible expression of the deity that had dwelt around the village of kimikaye-no-sato and protected its inhabitants since ancient times, whose name was Kyo. When the violet was strong and vivid, it meant that Kyo was cheerful and in good health, and the future was secure. When the violet waned pale and cloudy, troubled times lay ahead. Right at this moment, Kyo was looking very sorry for himself indeed.

The old woman's name was Chifumi Shimoto. She hadn't seen a yamatsumi-sou since those long-gone childhood days that everyone remembers as the time when life was simple and carefree--before Japan became just a province in some vaster scheme that she didn't understand, and everyone found themselves affected to some degree or other by rules borrowed from foreigners with doubtful values and different ways. How it came to be growing in the yard enclosed by the gaunt, gray concrete cliffs forming the rear of the Nagomi Building was anybody's guess.

She saw it when she came out with a bag of trash from the bins in the offices upstairs, where she cleaned after the day staff had gone home. It was clinging to life bravely in a patch of cracked asphalt behind the parked trucks and, having barely escaped being crushed by a piece of steel pipe thrown down on one side, and smothered by a pile of rubble encroaching from the other. Although small, it looked already exhausted, grown to the limit that its meager niche could sustain. The yard trapped bad air and exhaust fumes, and at ground level was all but sunless. Leaking oil and grime hosed off the vehicles was turning what earth there was into sticky sludge. Kyo needed a better home if he was to survive.

Potted plants of various kinds adorned shelves and window ledges throughout the offices. When she had washed the cups and ashtrays from the desks and finished vacuuming between the blue-painted computer cabinets and consoles, Chifumi searched and found some empty pots beneath the sink in one of the kitchen areas. She filled one of the smaller pots with soil, using a spoon to take a little from each of many plants, then went back downstairs with it and outside to the yard. Kneeling on the rough ground, she carefully worked the flower with its roots loose from its precarious lodgement, transferred it to the pot that she had prepared, and carried it inside. Back upstairs, she fed it with fresh water and cleaned off its leaves. Finally, she placed it in the window of an office high up in the building, facing the sun. Whoever worked in that office had been away for several days. With luck, the flower would remain undisturbed for a while longer to gain strength recover. Also, there were no other plants in the room. Perhaps, she thought to herself, that would make it all the more appreciated when the occupant returned.

She locked the cleaning materials and equipment back in the closet by the rear stairs, took the service elevator back down to the ground floor, and returned the keys to the security desk at the side entrance. The duty officer checked her pass and ID and the shopping bag containing groceries and some vegetables that she had bought on the way in, and then let her out to the lobby area where the cleaners from other floors were assembling. Five minutes later, the bus that would run them back to their abodes around the city drew up outside the door.

The offices in the part of the Nagomi Building that Chifumi had been assigned to had something to do with taxes and accounting. That was what all the trouble was supposed to be about between the federal authorities and others in faraway places among the stars. She heard things about freedom and individualism, and people wanting to live as they chose to, away from the government--which the young seemed to imagine they were the first ever to have thought of. It all sounded very much like the same, age-old story of who created the wealth and how it should be shared out, to her. She had never understood it, and did so even less now. Surely there were enough stars in the sky for everyone.

She had a son, Icoro, out there somewhere, whom she hadn't seen for two years now; but messages from him reached her from time to time through friends. The last she had heard, he was well, but he hadn't said exactly where he was or what he was doing--in other words he didn't want to risk the wrong people finding out. That alone told her that whatever he was up to was irregular at best, very likely outright illegal, and quite possibly worse. She knew that there was fighting and people got killed--sometimes lots of them. She didn't ask why or how, or want to hear the details. She worried as a mother would, tried not to dwell on such matters, and when she found that she did anyway, she kept them to herself.

But as she walked away after the bus dropped her off, she felt more reassured than she had for a long time. The flower, she had decided, was a sign that Kyo still lived in the mountains and did not want to be forgotten. Kyo was a just god who had come to Earth long ago, but he still talked with the other sky-spirits who sent the rain and made the stars above kimikaye so much brighter. Chifumi had remembered Kyo and helped him. Now Kyo's friends among the stars would watch over her son.




With its unique molecular attributes and peculiar property of becoming lighter as it freezes, it could have been designed as the ideal solvent, catalyst, cleanser, as well as the midwife and cradle of life. Besides forming 90% of offworlders' bodies, it provided culture for the algae in their food farms, grew their plants and nurtured their animals, cooled their habitats, and shielded out radiation. The demand for water across the inner parts of the Solar System outstripped that for all other resources.

Callisto, second largest of the moons of Jupiter and almost the size of Mercury, is half ice--equivalent to forty times all the water that exists on Earth. Mining the ice crust of Callisto was a major activity that the Terran authorities operated exclusively to supply the official space-expansion program. One of the reasons for the Space Command's maintaining a permanent presence out at the Jovian moons was to protect the investment.

Enormous lasers carved skyscraper-size blocks from the ice field, which a fusion-powered electromagnetic launcher catapulted off the moon. Skimming around the rim of Jupiter's gravity well, they then used the giant planet as a slingshot to hurl them on their way downhill into the Inner System. As each block left the launch track on Callisto, high-power surface lasers directed from an array of sites downrange provided final course-correction by ablating the block's tail surface to create thrust. A crude way of improvising a rocket--but it worked just fine.

Or it had done all the time up until now, that is.

The robot freighter Hermit, arriving from Ganymede, was just on its final, stern-first approach into the surface base serving the launch installation as the next block out was starting to roll. One of the CYA-173/B bolts securing its high-pressure pumps sheared under the increased loading when power was increased to maximum to slow down the ship. The bolt head came off like a rifle bullet, disabling an actuator, which shut down engine number two. Impelled by the unbalanced thrust of the other two engines, the Hermit skewed off course, overshot the base area completely, and demolished one of the towers housing the course-correction lasers for the mass launcher just as the block lifted up above the horizon twenty miles away. As a result, two million tons of ice hove off toward Jupiter on a trajectory that wasn't quite what the computers said it ought to be. The error was actually quite slight. But it would be amplified in the whirl around Jupiter, and by the time the block reached the Asteroid Belt, would have grown to a misplacement in the order of tens of millions of miles.

If the cause of the accident was ever tracked down, Al Quentin wouldn't be around to be fired over it. He had started a small business of his own in Tokyo, importing Old-West memorabilia from home.



The Turner Maddox was back on station and accumulating crates for the first of a new series of consignments. Its drives had been overhauled, computers upgraded, and an improved plasma stabilization system fitted to the launch driver. But there was a strain in the atmosphere that had not been present in earlier times. Five more consolidators had disappeared, every one without trace.

It had to be the feds, but nobody knew how they were locating the collection points, or managed to attack so fast that nobody ever got a warning off. All the consolidators had adopted a stringent policy of moving and changing their operating locales constantly. They were deploying more sophisticated defenses and warning systems. They pooled information on suspected inside informers and undercover feds. They gave dispatch data for incoming consignments as separately encrypted instructions to each subscriber to avoid revealing where the trajectories would converge. Yet they were still missing something.

Cassell looked around the familiar confines of the operations deck. The retrieval crew were at their stations, with a crate from a new subscriber called Farlode Holdings on its way in. Icoro had graduated now and was standby pilot this time--he was okay, Doyle had decided after having him tailed for a period and commissioning a background check. A new newcomer, Ibrahim Ahmel, born in an offworld colony--he said--was about to try his first live retrieval. Not everyone had come back after the break, and taking on more new faces was another of the risks that they were having to live with. Hank Bissen had quit, which was surprising. Cassell hadn't judged him as the kind who would let the feds drive him out. And then again, maybe he'd simply banked more money from the last few trips than Cassell thought.

The other major change was the outer screen of six autodrones toting needlebeams and railguns that Doyle had invested in, currently in position two thousand miles out, transforming the Maddox operation into a miniature flotilla. It brought home just how much this whole business was escalating. Cassell liked the old days better. What did that tell him about age creeping up? he asked himself.

Ibrahim was nervous. He had done okay on the simulator, but had an ultra-high self-image sensitivity that tended to wind him up. This was going to be a tense one. Cassell was glad to have Icoro there as standby, cool and relaxed behind a big, wide grin as always.

"Remember what you found on the sim, don't cut the turn too sharp as you run in," Suzi said from Ibrahim's far side. "It makes it easy to overshoot on the lineup, and you end up losing more time straightening it out downrange than you save."

Ibrahim nodded and looked across instinctively to Icoro for confirmation.

"She talks too much," Icoro said. "Just don't over worry. You're not going to lose anything. I'll cut right in if it starts to drift."

"How did you make out on your first time?" Ibrahim asked.

"I goofed most miserably," Icoro lied. Ibrahim looked reassured. Suzi caught Cassell's gaze and turned her eyes upward momentarily. Cassell just shrugged. A screen on each console showed a telescopic view of the crate, still over fifteen minutes away, being sent from one of the drones. The colors of the containers that it was carrying showed one to be holding metals, one light elements, a third silicates, and two kerogen.

"It's coming in nice and easy, rotation slow, " Icoro commented. "Should be a piece of cake."

Suddenly the raucous hooting of the all-stations alert sounded. Doyle's voice sounded from Suzi's console--he had taken to being present through all operations on this trip.

"We've got intruders coming in fast. Cassell to the bridge immediately!"

Ibrahim froze. Suzi and Icoro plunged into a frenzy of activity at their consoles. Cassell had no time to register anything more as he threw himself at the communications rail and hauled up to the next level. As he passed through the communications room, he heard one of the duty crew talking rapidly into a mike: "Emergency! Emergency! This is Turner Maddox. We have unidentified incoming objects, believed to be attacking. Location is . . ."

Seconds later, Cassell was beside Doyle on the bridge. Displays flashed and beeped everywhere. Fuigerado was calling numbers from the sector control report screen.

"How many of them," Cassell asked, breathless.

Doyle, concentrating on taking in the updates unfolding around him, didn't answer at once. He seemed less alarmed than his voice had conveyed a few moments before--if anything, puzzled now. Finally he said, "I'm not so sure it is 'them'. It looks more like only one . . ."

Cassell followed his eyes, scanned the numbers, and frowned. "One what? What the hell is it?"

"I'm damned if I know. The signature isn't like any ship or structure that I've ever seen."

"Range is twenty-five hundred miles," the Ordnance Officer advised. "Defenses are tracking. It's coming in at thirty miles a second."

"I've got an optical lock from Drone 3," Fuiguerado called out. "You're not gonna believe it." Doyle and Cassell moved over to him. "Have you ever seen an asteroid with corners?" Fuiguerado said, gesturing.

It was long, rectangular and white, like a gigantic shoe box, tumbling end over end as it approached. Cassell's first fleeting thought was of a tombstone.

"Fifteen seconds from the perimeter," the OO called. "I need the order now."

"We have a spectral prelim," another voice said. "It's ice.

Solid ice."

Cassell's first officer turned from the nav station. "Trajectory is on a dead intercept with the inbound Farlode crate. It's going to cream it."

"Do I shoot?" the OO entreated.

Doyle looked at him with a mixture of puzzlement and surprise. "Ah, to be sure, you can if you want to, Mike, but there's precious little difference it'll make. A railgun would be like bouncing popcorn off a tank to that thing. Your lasers might make a hole in a tin can, but that's solid ice."

They watched, mesmerized. On one screen, the miniature mountain hurtling in like a white wolf. On the other, the crate trotting on its way, an unsuspecting lamb. Maybe because of their inability to do anything, the impending calamity seemed mockingly brutal--obscene, somehow.

"That's somebody's millions about to be vaporized out there," Cassell said, more to relieve the air with something.

"And a percentage of it ours too," Doyle added. Ever the pragmatist.

"Dead on for impact. It's less than ten seconds," the nav

officer confirmed.

Those who could crowded around the starboard fore-quarter port. There wouldn't be more than a fraction of a second to see it unaided. Eyes scanned the starfield tensely. Then Cassell nudged Doyle's arm and pointed, at the same time announcing for the others' benefit, "Two o'clock, coming in high." Then there was a glimpse of something bright and pulsating--too brief and moving too fast for any shape to be discerned--streaking in like a star detached from the background coming out of nowhere . . .

And all of a sudden half the sky lit up in a flash that would have blinded them permanently if the ports hadn't been made of armored glass with a short-wave cutoff. Even so, all Cassell could see for the next ten minutes was after-image etched into his retina.

But even while he waited for his vision to recover, his mind reeled under the realization of what it meant. He had never heard of Farlode Holdings before. That inbound crate had been carrying something a lot more potent than ordinary metals, light elements, and kerogen. And a half hour from now, it would have been inside the cargo cage, just a short hop away from them.

So that was how the feds had been doing it!

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