Blades shrugged. “That argument isn’t relevant any longer. I do believe the missile was released deliberately. We wouldn’t have done what we did otherwise. But there’s no longer any point in making charges and denials. You’d just better retrieve the thing.”
Hulse squared his shoulders. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Well, you can send a man to the Station. He’ll find the scooters lying gutted. Send another man over here to the Pallas. He’ll find the scoopships gone. I also took a few photographs of the autopilots being installed and the ships being cast adrift. Go right ahead. However, may I remind you that the fewer people who have an inkling of this little intrigue, the better for all concerned.”
Hulse opened his mouth, shut it again, stared from side to side, and finally slumped the barest bit. “Very well,” he said, biting off the words syllable by syllable. “I can’t risk a ship of the line. Of course, since the rogue is still farther away than your deterrent allows the Altair to go, we shall have to wait in space a while.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I shall report the full story to my superiors at home … but unofficially.”
“Good. I’d like them to know that we asterites have teeth.”
“Signing off, then.”
Chung stirred. “Wait a bit,” he said. “We have one of your people aboard, Lieutenant Ziska. Can you send a gig for her?”
“She didn’t collaborate with us,” Blades added. “You can see the evidence of her loyalty, all over my mug.”
“Good girl!” Hulse exclaimed savagely. “Yes, I’ll send a boat. Signing off.”
The screen blanked. Chung and Blades let out a long, ragged breath. They sat a while trembling before Chung muttered, “That skunk as good as admitted everything.”
“Sure,” said Blades, “But we won’t have any more trouble from him.”
Chung stubbed out his cigarette. Poise was returning to both men. “There could be other attempts, though, in the next few years.” He scowled. “I think we should arm the Station. A couple of laser guns, if nothing else. We can say it’s for protection in case of war. But it’ll make our own government handle us more carefully, too.”
“Well, you can approach the Commission about it.” Blades yawned and stretched, trying to loosen his muscles. “Better get a lot of other owners and supervisors to sign your petition, though.” The next order of business came to his mind. He rose. “Why don’t you go tell Adam the good news?”
“Where are you bound?”
“To let Ellen know the fight is over.”
“Is it, as far as she’s concerned?”
“That’s what I’m about to find out. Hope I won’t need an armored escort.” Blades went from the cubicle, past the watchful radioman, and down the deserted passageway beyond.
The cabin given her lay at the end, locked from outside. The key hung magnetically on the bulkhead. Blades unlocked the door and tapped it with his knuckles.
“Who’s there?” she called.
“Me,” he said. “May I come in?”
“If you must,” she said freezingly.
He opened the door and stepped through. The overhead light shimmered off her hair and limned her figure with shadows. His heart bumped. “You, uh, you can come out now,” he faltered. “Everything’s O.K.”
She said nothing, only regarded him from glacier-blue eyes.
“No harm’s been done, except to me and Sparks, and we’re not mad,” he groped. “Shall we forget the whole episode?”
“If you wish.”
“Ellen,” he pleaded, “I had to do what seemed right to me.”
“So did I.”
He couldn’t find any more words.
“I assume that I’ll be returned to my own ship,” she said. He nodded. “Then, if you will excuse me, I had best make myself as presentable as I can. Good day, Mr. Blades.”
“What’s good about it?” he snarled, and slammed the door on his way out.
Avis stood outside the jampacked saloon. She saw him coming and ran to meet him. He made swab-O with his fingers and joy blazed from her. “Mike,” she cried, “I’m so happy!”
The only gentlemanly thing to do was hug her. His spirits lifted a bit as he did. She made a nice armful. Not bad looking, either.
“Well,” said Amspaugh. “So that’s the inside story. How very interesting. I never heard it before.”
“No, obviously it never got into any official record,” Missy said. “The only announcement made was that there’d been a near accident, that the Station tried to make counter-missiles out of scoopships, but that the quick action of NASS Altair was what saved the situation. Her captain was commended. I don’t believe he ever got a further promotion, though.”
“Why didn’t you publicize the facts afterwards?” Lindgren wondered. “When the revolution began, that is. It would’ve made good propaganda.”
“Nonsense,” Missy said. “Too much else had happened since then. Besides, neither Mike nor Jimmy nor I wanted to do any cheap emotion-fanning. We knew the asterites weren’t any little pink-bottomed angels, nor the people back sunward a crew of devils. There were rights and wrongs on both sides. We did what we could in the war, and hated every minute of it, and when it was over we broke out two cases of champagne and invited as many Earthsiders as we could get to the party. They had a lot of love to carry home for us.”
A stillness fell. She took a long swallow from her glass and sat looking out at the stars.
“Yes,” Lindgren said finally, “I guess that was the worst, fighting against our own kin.”
“Well, I was better off in that respect than some,” Missy conceded. “I’d made my commitment so long before the trouble that my ties were nearly all out here. Twenty years is time enough to grow new roots.”
“Really?” Orloff was surprised. “I haven’t met you often before, Mrs. Blades, so evidently I’ve had a false impression. I thought you were a more recent immigrant than that.”
“Shucks, no,” she laughed. “I only needed six months after the Altair incident to think things out, resign my commission and catch the next Belt-bound ship. You don’t think I’d have let a man like Mike get away, do you?”