Hulse nailed Blades with a glance. "Good day, sir," he clipped. "I have had to report a regrettable accident which will require you to evacuate the Station. Temporarily, I hope."
"As I told Mr. Chung and Miss Page, a nuclear missile has escaped us. If it explodes, the radiation will be lethal, even in the heart of the asteroid."
"What ... what--" Blades could only gobble at him.
"Fortunately, the Pallas Castle is here. She can take your whole complement aboard and move to a safe distance while we search for the object."
"How the devil?"
Hulse allowed himself a look of exasperation. "Evidently I'll have to repeat myself to you. Very well. You know we have had to make some adjustments on our launchers. What you did not know was the reason. Under the circumstances, I think it's permissible to tell you that several of them have a new and secret, experimental control system. One of our missions on this cruise was to carry out field tests. Well, it turned out that the system is still full of, ah, bugs. Gunnery Command has had endless trouble with it, has had to keep tinkering the whole way from Earth.
"Half an hour ago, while Commander Warburton was completing a reassembly--lower ranks aren't allowed in the test turrets--something happened. I can't tell you my guess as to what, but if you want to imagine that a relay got stuck, that will do for practical purposes. A missile was released under power. Not a dummy--the real thing. And release automatically arms the war head."
The news was like a hammerblow. Blades spoke an obscenity. Sweat sprang forth under his arms and trickled down his ribs.
"No such thing was expected," Hulse went on. "It's an utter disaster, and the designers of the system aren't likely to get any more contracts. But as matters were, no radar fix was gotten on it, and it was soon too far away for gyrogravitic pulse detection. The thrust vector is unknown. It could be almost anywhere now.
"Well, naval missiles are programmed to reverse acceleration if they haven't made a target within a given time. This one should be back in less than six hours. If it first detects our ship, everything is all right. It has optical recognition circuits that identify any North American warcraft by type, disarm the war head, and steer it home. But, if it first comes within fifty kilometers of some other mass--like this asteroid or one of the companion rocks--it will detonate. We'll make every effort to intercept, but space is big. You'll have to take your people to a safe distance. They can come back even after a blast, of course. There's no concussion in vacuum, and the fireball won't reach here. It's principally an anti-personnel weapon. But you must not be within the lethal radius of radiation."
"The hell we can come back!" Avis cried.
"I beg your pardon?" Hulse said.
"You imbecile! Don't you know Central Control here is cryotronic?"
Hulse did not flicker an eyelid. "So it is," he said expressionlessly. "I had forgotten."
Blades mastered his own shock enough to grate: "Well, we sure haven't. If that thing goes off, the gamma burst will kick up so many minority carriers in the transistors that the p-type crystals will act n-type, and the n-type act p-type, for a whole couple of microseconds. Every one of 'em will flip simultaneously! The computers' memory and program data systems will be scrambled beyond hope of reorganization."
"Magnetic pulse, too," Chung said. "The fireball plasma will be full of inhomogeneities moving at several per cent of light speed. Their electromagnetic output, hitting our magnetic core units, will turn them from super to ordinary conduction. Same effect, total computer amnesia. We haven't got enough shielding against it. Your TIMM systems can take that kind of a beating. Ours can't!"
"Very regrettable," Hulse said. "You'd have to reprogram everything--"
"Reprogram what?" Avis retorted. Tears started forth in her eyes. "We've told you what sort of stuff our chemical plant is handling. We can't shut it down on that short notice. It'll run wild. There'll be sodium explosions, hydrogen and organic combustion, n-n-nothing left here but wreckage!"
Hulse didn't unbend a centimeter. "I offer my most sincere apologies. If actual harm does occur, I'm sure the government will indemnify you. And, of course, my command will furnish what supplies may be needed for the Pallas Castle to transport you to the nearest Commission base. At the moment, though, you can do nothing but evacuate and hope we will be able to intercept the missile."
Blades knotted his fists. A sudden comprehension rushed up in him and he bellowed, "There isn't going to be an interception! This wasn't an accident!"
Hulse backed a step and drew himself even straighter. "Don't get overwrought," he advised.
"You louse-bitten, egg-sucking, bloated faggot-porter! How stupid do you think we are? As stupid as your Essjay bosses? By heaven, we're staying! Then see if you have the nerve to murder a hundred people!"
"Mike ... Mike--" Avis caught his arm.
Hulse turned to Chung. "I'll overlook that unseemly outburst," he said. "But in light of my responsibilities and under the provisions of the Constitution, I am hereby putting this asteroid under martial law. You will have all personnel aboard the Pallas Castle and at a minimum distance of a thousand kilometers within four hours of this moment, or be subject to arrest and trial. Now I have to get back and commence operations. The Altair will maintain radio contact with you. Good day." He bowed curtly, spun on his heel, and clacked from the room.
Blades started to charge after him. Chung caught his free arm. Together he and Avis dragged him to a stop. He stood cursing the air ultraviolet until Ellen entered.
"I couldn't keep up with you," she panted. "What's happened, Mike?"
The strength drained from Blades. He slumped into a chair and covered his face.
Chung explained in a few harsh words. "Oh-h-h," Ellen gasped. She went to Blades and laid her hands on his shoulders. "My poor Mike!"
After a moment she looked at the others. "I should report back, of course," she said, "but I won't be able to before the ship accelerates. So I'll have to stay with you till afterward. Miss Page, we left about half a bottle of wine on the verandah. I think it would be a good idea if you went and got it."
Avis bridled. "And why not you?"
"This is no time for personalities," Chung said. "Go on, Avis. You can be thinking what records and other paper we should take, while you're on your way. I've got to organize the evacuation. As for Miss Ziska, well, Mike needs somebody to pull him out of his dive."
"Her?" Avis wailed, and fled.
Chung sat down and flipped his intercom to Phone Central. "Get me Captain Janichevski aboard the Pallas," he ordered. "Hello, Adam? About that general alarm--"
Blades raised a haggard countenance toward Ellen's. "You better clear out, along with the women and any men who don't want to stay," he said. "But I think most of them will take the chance. They're on a profit-sharing scheme, they stand to lose too much if the place is ruined."
"What do you mean?"
"It's a gamble, but I don't believe Hulse's sealed orders extend to murder. If enough of us stay put, he'll have to catch that thing. He jolly well knows its exact trajectory."
"You forget we're under martial law," Chung said, aside to him. "If we don't go freely, he'll land some PP's and march us off at gunpoint. There isn't any choice. We've had the course."
"I don't understand," Ellen said shakily.
Chung went back to his intercom. Blades fumbled out his pipe and rolled it empty between his hands. "That missile was shot off on purpose," he said.
"What? No, you must be sick, that's impossible!"
"I realize you didn't know about it. Only three or four officers have been told. The job had to be done very, very secretly, or there'd be a scandal, maybe an impeachment. But it's still sabotage."
She shrank from him. "You're not making sense."
"Their own story doesn't make sense. It's ridiculous. A new missile system wouldn't be sent on a field trial clear to the Belt before it'd had enough tests closer to home to get the worst bugs out. A war-head missile wouldn't be stashed anywhere near something so unreliable, let alone be put under its control. The testing ship wouldn't hang around a civilian Station while her gunnery chief tinkered. And Hulse, Warburton, Liebknecht, they were asking in such detail about how radiation-proof we are."
"I can't believe it. Nobody will."
"Not back home. Communication with Earth is so sparse and garbled. The public will only know there was an accident; who'll give a hoot about the details? We couldn't even prove anything in an asteroid court. The Navy would say, 'Classified information!' and that'd stop the proceedings cold. Sure, there'll be a board of inquiry--composed of naval officers. Probably honorable men, too. But what are they going to believe, the sworn word of their Goddard House colleague, or the rantings of an asterite bum?"
"Mike, I know this is terrible for you, but you've let it go to your head." Ellen laid a hand over his. "Suppose the worst happens. You'll be compensated for your loss."
"Yeah. To the extent of our personal investment. The Bank of Ceres still has nearly all the money that was put in. We didn't figure to have them paid off for another ten years. They, or their insurance carrier, will get the indemnity. And after our fiasco, they won't make us a new loan. They were just barely talked into it, the first time around. I daresay Systemic Developments will make them a nice juicy offer to take this job over."
Ellen colored. She stamped her foot. "You're talking like a paranoiac. Do you really believe the government of North America would send a battleship clear out here to do you dirt?"
"Not the whole government. A few men in the right positions is all that's necessary. I don't know if Hulse was bribed or talked into this. But probably he agreed as a duty. He's the prim type."
"A duty--to destroy a North American business?"
Chung finished at the intercom in time to answer: "Not permanent physical destruction, Miss Ziska. As Mike suggested, some corporation will doubtless inherit the Sword and repair the damage. But a private, purely asterite business ... yes, I'm afraid Mike's right. We are the target."
"In mercy's name, why?"
"From the highest motives, of course," Chung sneered bitterly. "You know what the Social Justice Party thinks of private capitalism. What's more important, though, is that the Sword is the first Belt undertaking not tied to Mother Earth's apron strings. We have no commitments to anybody back there. We can sell our output wherever we like. It's notorious that the asterites are itching to build up their own self-sufficient industries. Quite apart from sentiment, we can make bigger profits in the Belt than back home, especially when you figure the cost of sending stuff in and out of Earth's gravitational well. So certainly we'd be doing most of our business out here.
"Our charter can't simply be revoked. First a good many laws would have to be revised, and that's politically impossible. There is still a lot of individualist sentiment in North America, as witness the fact that businesses do get launched and that the Essjays did have a hard campaign to get elected. What the new government wants is something like the Eighteenth Century English policy toward America. Keep the colonies as a source of raw materials and as a market for manufactured goods, but don't let them develop a domestic industry. You can't come right out and say that, but you can let the situation develop naturally.
"Only ... here the Sword is, obviously bound to grow rich and expand in every direction. If we're allowed to develop, to reinvest our profits, we'll become the nucleus of independent asterite enterprise. If, on the other hand, we're wiped out by an unfortunate accident, there's no nucleus; and a small change in the banking laws is all that's needed to prevent others from getting started. Q.E.D."
"I daresay Hulse does think he's doing his patriotic duty," said Blades. "He wants to guarantee North America our natural resources--in the long run, maybe, our allegiance. If he has to commit sabotage, too bad, but it won't cost him any sleep."
"No!" Ellen almost screamed.
Chung sagged in his chair. "We're very neatly trapped," he said like an old man. "I don't see any way out. Think you can get to work now, Mike? You can assign group leaders for the evacuation--"
Blades jumped erect. "I can fight!" he growled.
"With what? Can openers?"
"You mean you're going to lie down and let them break us?"
Avis came back. She thrust the bottle into Blades' hands as he paced the room. "Here you are," she said in a distant voice.
He held it out toward Ellen. "Have some," he invited.
"Not with you ... you subversive!"
Avis brightened noticeably, took the bottle and raised it. "Then here's to victory," she said, drank, and passed it to Blades.
He started to gulp; but the wine was too noble, and he found himself savoring its course down his throat. Why, he thought vaguely, do people always speak with scorn about Dutch courage? The Dutch have real guts. They fought themselves free of Spain and free of the ocean itself; when the French or Germans came, they made the enemy sea their ally-- The bottle fell from his grasp. In the weak acceleration, it hadn't hit the floor when Avis rescued it. "Gimme that, you big butterfingers," she exclaimed. Her free hand clasped his arm. "Whatever happens, Mike," she said to him, "we're not quitting."
Still Blades stared beyond her. His fists clenched and unclenched. The noise of his breathing filled the room. Chung looked around in bewilderment; Ellen watched with waxing horror; Avis' eyes kindled.
"Holy smoking seegars," Blades whispered at last. "I really think we can swing it."
Captain Janichevski recoiled. "You're out of your skull!"
"Probably," said Blades. "Fun, huh?"
"You can't do this."
"We can try."
"Do you know what you're talking about? Insurrection, that's what. Quite likely piracy. Even if your scheme worked, you'd spend the next ten years in Rehab--at least."
"Maybe, provided the matter ever came to trial. But it won't."
"That's what you think. You're asking me to compound the felony, and misappropriate the property of my owners to boot." Janichevski shook his head. "Sorry, Mike. I'm sorry as hell about this mess. But I won't be party to making it worse."
"In other words," Blades replied, "you'd rather be party to sabotage. I'm proposing an act of legitimate self-defense."
"If there actually is a conspiracy to destroy the Station."
"Adam, you're a spaceman. You know how the Navy operates. Can you swallow that story about a missile getting loose by accident?"
Janichevski bit his lip. The sounds from outside filled the captain's cabin, voices, footfalls, whirr of machines and clash of doors, as the Pallas Castle readied for departure. Blades waited.
"You may be right," said Janichevski at length, wretchedly. "Though why Hulse should jeopardize his career--"
"He's not. There's a scapegoat groomed back home, you can be sure. Like some company that'll be debarred from military contracts for a while ... and get nice fat orders in other fields. I've kicked around the System enough to know how that works."
"If you're wrong, though ... if this is an honest blunder ... then you risk committing treason."
"Yeah. I'll take the chance."
"Not I. No. I've got a family to support," Janichevski said.
Blades regarded him bleakly. "If the Essjays get away with this stunt, what kind of life will your family be leading, ten years from now? It's not simply that we'll be high-class peons in the Belt. But tied hand and foot to a shortsighted government, how much progress will we be able to make? Other countries have colonies out here too, remember, and some of them are already giving their people a freer hand than we've got. Do you want the Asians, or the Russians, or even the Europeans, to take over the asteroids?"
"I can't make policy."
"In other words, mama knows best. Believe, obey, anything put out by some bureaucrat who never set foot beyond Luna. Is that your idea of citizenship?"
"You're putting a mighty fine gloss on bailing yourself out!" Janichevski flared.
"Sure, I'm no idealist. But neither am I a slave," Blades hesitated. "We've been friends too long, Adam, for me to try bribing you. But if worst comes to worst, we'll cover for you ... somehow ... and if contrariwise we win, then we'll soon be hiring captains for our own ships and you'll get the best offer any spaceman ever got."
"No. Scram. I've work to do."
Blades braced himself. "I didn't want to say this. But I've already informed a number of my men. They're as mad as I am. They're waiting in the terminal. A monkey wrench or a laser torch makes a pretty fair weapon. We can take over by force. That'll leave you legally in the clear. But with so many witnesses around, you'll have to prefer charges against us later on."
Janichevski began to sweat.
"We'll be sent up," said Blades. "But it will still have been worth it."
"Is it really that important to you?"
"Yes. I admit I'm no crusader. But this is a matter of principle."