By the middle of the 22nd Century, the great space colonies of High Earth were already under construction, Luna was inhabited mostly by immigrants from the devastated planet below, Mars was being mined mainly by criminals and transportees, Jupiter was beginning to be tapped for fusion-fuel, Callisto was inhabited, and Galilean enterprises were building a habitat beneath the ice of Ganymede—all because of the rapid development of the fusion drive, which changed interplanetary travel from a journey of months and years to a journey of weeks and months. A few asteroids were being mined for precious materials and water, and a handful of entrepreneurs had built colonies in which to live and work the Belt. One of these was the ill-fated Eagle’s Nest.
Asteroid tracking was still mostly Earth-centric. As Karil said, all they wanted was to make sure some comet or meteor didn’t go all Cretaceous on their ass. The object that struck the Eagle’s Nest was scheduled to be tracked by the fledgling Galilean Object Directory, or GOD, but it came in undetected from the outer Solar System, slingshot past Jupiter and into the Belt and struck the colony a glancing blow which destroyed many systems and sent the Eagle’s Nest on a new orbit toward the Outer System. This was the first mass casualty of the Interplanetary Age and for some fifty years no-one knew where the colony had gone. But as they say in the Galilean, sooner or later every orbit is a Jupiter orbit.
Karil and Loris were awakened by Atalanta saying, “Auntie Em is at the lock.”
They scrambled into their clothing, ordered their date of the previous evening to stay quiet in their cabin, and opened the hatch. The middle-aged woman with the iron-gray hair and the steel blue eyes was standing in the corridor.
“Permission to come aboard?” she asked formally.
“Of course, Em,” Loris said. “What brings you here? You could have called us into your office.”
“It’s more secure here. Hello, Atty.”
“Good morning, Auntie Em,” the ship crooned. “It’s so nice to see you. I’ve started the coffee. If it’s morning for you, Karil would be happy to pour you a cup. Or if it’s evening for you, something stronger.”
“Coffee would do fine, Atty. Loris, would you do me a favor and send your girlfriend home? She really can’t hear this.”
“Sure thing, Em.” Loris went into the cabin and in a moment a remarkably pretty girl came out, holding her clothes in front of her, kissed both Karil and Loris, and left. She was not the only person in such dishabille in the Rim District that morning. Atalanta shut the lock and put the ship in acoustic lockdown.
Auntie Em joined them at the table in the mess and sipped her coffee with satisfaction. “Is it Terran?” she asked.
“From a particular mountain slope in High South America,” Loris said. “The mountain was created specifically for coffee-growing.”
“How do you get it?”
“We smuggle it, Ma’am. Out from under the noses of Earthforce.”
“Spoils of Cold War?”
“That’s about it. Would you like to take some back to your office?”
“I wouldn’t say no. But right now I have to get to work. Do you remember the Eagle’s Nest?”
“First big space disaster in the Belt, about fifty years ago,” Loris said.
“The resulting embarrassment made the Galilean Orbital Directory what it is,” Karil added. “Helped the Galilean become a rival power to Earth instead of a wild frontier town.”
“We’ve found it,” Auntie Em said.
Karil and Loris looked at each other.
“Where?” Loris asked.
“Out in the Centaurs. About halfway between Jupiter and Saturn. We’d been concentrating our search out among the Trans-Neptunians, but that was wrong. This means that it’s been receiving some decent sunlight all this time. We think it’s entirely possible that some of the systems on board might still function or could be repaired. What’s more, now that we know where it’s headed, we know it’s on its way back.”
“Back? To the Belt?”
“Actually, it’s coming right down Jupiter’s throat. Space traffic in the whole Galilean System could be disrupted. I’ve already sent Atty the details. You’ll have a long time to study them. I’m sending you out to board it and try to control its orbit if you can. No-one is to know until we’re in complete control.”
“We’re honored,” Karil said. “But why us? Doesn’t Jovian Traffic have…?”
“Because you are my best Spacer Team. Don’t let it go to your heads. And Atalanta is fast and powerful. And if you should happen to disappear, no-one will be surprised.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“First you will go to the University of the Galilean on Callisto to pick up Doctor Madeira. She’s the Solar System’s foremost expert on the disappearance of the Eagle’s Nest.”
“I hope she’s familiar with space travel.”
“She qualifies on shuttles. The way you fly might be somewhat frightening, but not that unfamiliar. This is the only scientist capable of repairing and taking control of the Eagle’s Nest systems, how to deal with any survivors, etc.”
“Survivors? After fifty years?”
“Or their descendants. They tell me that it could have had sufficient solar power to keep people alive, even though they were unable to communicate. So it’s a possible rescue-mission as well as a discovery-mission. Quite a feather in our cap if it’s true. Particularly since it was in a portion of the Belt that was under Terran control at the time and they would be entitled to salvage if they got there first.”
It all comes down to that, doesn’t it, Karil thought.
Atalanta descended to the icy surface of Callisto just outside Galilean University at Valhalla Dome and nosed into the indicated visitors’ berth. Karil and Loris swung out of the forward hatch and found a young woman sitting on a trunk amid a pile of cases under the great echoing dome.
“Is this Doctor Madeira’s luggage?” Loris asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“Will the Doctor be along shortly?” Karil asked. “We’re on a tight schedule.”
“I’m Doctor Madeira. What’s so strange?”
“Sorry.” Loris covered for the poor boy. “It’s just that you’re so young. We thought you were the Doctor’s assistant.” Looking closer, Loris noted the Hispanic features, the glossy black hair, the lovely and expressive brown eyes. She should have known it was the Portuguese-descended Madeira. Loris strode down the ramp and offered her hand. “We just thought that someone who had spent an entire career studying a fifty-year old event would be bit older.” What was this girl? Twenty?
“Well, I get that a lot. My grandfather was one of the crew but was injured and hospitalized off-colony when the incident took place. He was obsessed with the Eagle’s Nest and collected all the news and data and speculation. I picked up his files after he died and did my PhD on it. I was fifteen. The fact is: I grew up as certain as he was that some people might still be alive out there, lost and unable to communicate, and might even have descendants.”
“Well, Galilean Security thinks you just might be right. But even if not, the colony might be headed for another disaster in the Jupiter corridor, and we’re out to change that.”
Karil and Loris picked up the huge trunk, one at each end, and carried it up the ramp. Doctor Madeira was surprised by their strength until she remembered that they were born under Terran gravity. She loaded herself down with several bags and followed them. In a few minutes, they had everything stowed in one of the cabins and the hatch irised shut. Doctor Madeira followed them onto the bridge and strapped into one of the passenger couches as Loris strapped in behind the helm and Karil slid down into the astrogator’s well. Lights and screens winked on all around him.
“This is Atalanta,” Loris said. “You’ll be talking with her a lot. She has all the information known to you and to Security.”
“I’m so glad to meet you, Doctor,” Atty said in her dulcet voice. “I’ve enjoyed reading all your papers on the subject of the Eagle’s Nest. The scholarship is impressive. It took me at least ten minutes.”
Madeira reacted like everyone did to Atalanta—first surprise, and then a broad smile. After a few seconds, she was conversing with Atty as if she was a human being, and that would never change.
The ship retracted from the lock and lifted off the ice on a cloud of fusion plasma, then turned and sped off across the battered moon’s surface toward the great image of Jupiter on the horizon. As she had done so many times, she raced toward the gas giant, Loris’s eyes on the radiation counter, and then banked and curved around the planet until, at the precise time, the engines dopplered up into thunder that shook the bulkheads and she was racing toward the outer Solar System, Jupiter shrinking swiftly behind her.
The Doctor reacted once again as everyone did—first a touch of fear, and then an open-mouthed gaze at the glories of Jupiter’s cloudscape below, and finally a childlike grin of pleasure as they reached interplanetary velocity. She looked at Loris and down at Karil in the mirror and saw that they were grinning too. How many hundred times, she wondered, had they experienced this on how many planets? It was still a visceral thrill to them and it would never grow old. And all the time, the crew of three were following the same complex mathematical formulae, borne in Atalanta’s super-fast brain, displayed by Karil’s sensitive fingers on the keyboards, and felt physically by Loris’s hands on the helm and butt in the seat as if she was riding a thoroughbred mare.
Doctor Madeira sat on the jump-seat next to Karil as Loris looked down on the screens. Her fingers flew over the keyboards so expertly that even Karil was impressed.
“There was not a lot of monitoring of colonies in the Belt at the time,” she said, “and the Belters were just fine with that. So it wasn't until Eagle’s Nest went suddenly incommunicado that a search was begun. Some debris and bodies were found near their last recorded location and the authorities gave the colony up as lost. But my grandfather was not satisfied.
“Only parts of the bridge and the bridge-crew were found and his conclusion was that a space-rock of some sort had struck the bridge, destroying the communications array and several other critical systems. That explained the sudden loss of communication. The impact would also have thrown the colony off course. Its last-known orbit and several variations were extrapolated and seemed to point to the trans-Neptunian as its aphelion. Atty, can you display the document we were talking about?”
A message from the Eagle’s nest appeared on the screen. “This was the last message from the colony to my grandfather in the hospital, not long before contact ended. As you can see, they seem to have detected an interesting asteroid but didn't want to go into detail. Just before he died, my grandfather was able to identify the asteroid, since discovered and claimed by others. He believed that the Eagle’s nest had changed course to rendezvous with this asteroid just before the impact, so the previous course was no longer relevant.
“I discovered that the colony might not have been diverted out toward the trans-Neptunians at all but put on a new course with the aphelion among the Centaurs, between Jupiter and Saturn. This meant—one—that the colony was bathed in more sunlight than we thought and any undamaged systems might still be functional, and—two—that it had reached aphelion and was now on its way back toward Jupiter. The Galilean authorities are very interested in this and want to add it to the Galilean Object Directory as soon as we can confirm the location. They believe we have found it and, thus, here we are.”
The vast area between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, both of which are cluttered with moons and debris-fields, is relatively empty, though it is inhabited by those strange hybrid objects, half comet and half asteroid, called Centaurs. They tend to have open orbits and to wander around the Solar System like the wild creatures whose names they bear. Charyklo has a ring and Chiron has both an atmosphere and rings. Chiron is perhaps the most famous, named after the great teacher of Jason, Asclepius, and Achilles. Others are named Pholus, Phorcys, Amycus, and Nessus, who was responsible for the death of Heracles.
“Recently,” Atalanta said, “they named one Rhoecus, which I find offensive, since he tried to rape Atalanta and was dispatched by one of her arrows. I should protest.”
“Atty’s little joke,” Karil remarked to Doctor Madeira as they sat together studying the details of the Eagle’s Nest architecture. “Her jokes are very literate, but a little obscure sometimes. She’s read practically every book in every language and tends to forget that not everyone has.”
“Fortunately,” Loris said, “Karil is here to explain it all.” She said this in the dry, wry tone of voice that Madeira had come to call sarcastic/affectionate, which Loris reserved for Atty and Karil and no-one else. Karil had a particular kind of voice for Loris too, she had noticed. Hearing it, you would think he was trying to seduce her, but the fact was, he had never tried such a thing and never would. Madeira had attempted to figure out their complex relationships with their mutual lovers but gave up on it. She chalked it up to a Ganymede thing. She realized, of course, that she was studying them, like she studied everything else in her life, but she found them fascinating.
They approached the colony and matched its velocity. Atty’s scans appeared on the screens next to the original plans of the interior. It was a Bernal/O’Neill hybrid design—basically a small Bernal Sphere but with a cylindrical center about a mile wide instead of a sphere, with mirrors similar to that in an O’Neill Island Two design, though smaller. It would be big enough to support the small population of a Belter colony, rotating 4.6 times in an hour to produce one sixth gravity—close to that of Luna, Ganymede, Callisto, and Titan. The design had become very popular in the Belt.
The damage to its vernier system was appalling but the solar-power collectors seemed undamaged, and so did the radiator fins. In space, without these, human beings might either freeze or die of their own body heat. But the asteroid’s impact had clearly stopped the artificial gravity spin of the landscape and anyone alive inside would have been weightless all this time. Madeira was not sure whether human beings could adapt to those conditions on a permanent basis. Her hopes of finding survivors alive and thriving after fifty years were beginning to seem slim.
Atalanta drifted slowly down its length. Green foliage was pressed against the quartz solars, hungry for the sun’s distant light. Of course, there was no reason why a tree could not grow to great heights in zero gravity as it need not support its own weight, but how would the roots be anchored? And how would water behave in such conditions?
Madeira suddenly cried out in surprise as a face was pressed against the quartz, apparently watching Atalanta drift past, but she quickly realized it was the face of a monkey. Perhaps lab monkeys had escaped and found a way to survive among the foliage. Some monkey species, she realized, live in a kind of null-gravity world and never come down to earth. She supposed that the trees could provide food for them, but could human beings live that way too?
“We must get inside,” Madeira said. “I must study that environment.”
“Of course you must, Doctor,” Loris said. “Atty, are there any functional hatches?”
“There may well be, Loris. But we may have to open them manually.”
“Then we’ll open them manually. We’re here so Doctor Madeira can study the place, and so we can repair enough systems to alter this orbit. The sooner we get started, the better.”
“Thank you, Loris,” the Doctor said. “And perhaps you should call me Vina.”
“I am kitted out as an exploration ship,” Atalanta told Vina. “Without opening the hatch, I can tell you what the conditions are on the other side, even if the colony has no functioning communication system. And if no electrical power, I can provide it locally.” There was a beep or two and numbers appeared on the screen on the inner hatch.
“There is atmosphere, very close to Earth Normal, though without adequate radiation it is quite hot and quite humid, like that of a Terran equatorial rain forest. No sign of poisonous gases or more than normal radiation. I would say it is safe to open the hatch. Shall I do so?”
“Yes, Atty,” Loris said.
They were in Atalanta’s forward lock. The outer door of the lock irised open and the outer hatch of the station’s lock opened immediately afterward.
Karil, Loris, and Vina, in free-fall like the colony itself, pulled themselves through with their hands and punched open the dial on the remaining hatch. It opened and a sudden breeze ruffled their hair as the atmospheric pressure adjusted. It was indeed warm and wet inside, and the breeze rustled the leaves. All they could see, in fact, were leaves. In the distance they could hear the call of birds. It seemed very inviting, but where there is life, there is danger.
“I believe we should close this hatch while you get ready,” Atty said. “There will probably be rats.”
“Right,” Loris said. “Close the hatch.” Rats were a problem everywhere that human beings ventured. They took ship all over Earth and when humanity went into space, the rats accompanied them. Every inhabited moon, planet, asteroid, and colony had its share. Here, Loris figured they could probably fly. The hatch irised shut and the intrepid trio began their preparations.
Doctor Madeira would take her computer tablet containing the plans and history of the Eagle’s Nest, to which she would be adding constantly, as Atalanta would not be able to follow them any great distance without a comm system inside the colony to tap into. Usually, when Karil and Loris ventured off-ship, she was able to communicate with them on the local electrical grid. Here, the grid was dead until Doctor Madeira could find the colony’s bridge and repair it.
Karil and Loris would take canteens of water, some food, and weapons. They disappeared into their cabin and came back in what they called their jungle togs—stout boots, cut-off shorts, and T-shirts. Vina looked at them with surprise and pleasure. The outfits flattered their muscular arms, washboard abs, and powerful legs.
“We spend a surprising amount of time on Earth,” Karil said. “They don’t call it Hothouse Earth for nothing. Shipsuits would protect us in some ways, but they’re designed to react to sudden decompression and the quick adding of a helmet, not Terran conditions. The last thing their designers thought of was to allow us to sweat. Besides, this is pretty common hand-me-down clothing on Earth, doesn’t mark us as Spacers, and shows at a glance that we can protect ourselves.” Vina could believe that.
“Your spaceship lab-wear is not going to do it for you, Vina,” Loris added. “You’d better let me dress you.”
“I could help,” Karil suggested, with a grin.
“No, you can’t.” Loris laughed. “You’d be having her try on six different outfits so you can examine them all.”
She took Vina into the cabin while Karil arranged for the armament. When they returned, Vina was wearing an outfit similar to Loris, but instead of denim-color or pale blue, it was in varieties of beige, which looked quite attractive with her dark brown hair and olive skin. In her lab-wear, Karil had not realized how long her legs were, how flat her stomach and how curvaceous the rest of her, and the ponytail suited her to a T. But he was careful to make no comment.
“Standard firearms would be useless here,” he said. “The kick in zero gravity is a bitch. Lasers are the thing. They’ll cut through bulkheads as well as foliage. On Earth, we would have machetes, an old and reliable technology, but swinging one here would become even more tiresome than on Earth because every swing would twist your body and you’d have to adjust to compensate. But fortunately, our favorite weapons will work fine here.”
Karil fitted a steel bow over his head and shoulders, which was small enough to hug his body, and Loris helped him strap a quiver of arrows on his back. “As long as I can find somewhere to brace my feet,” he said, “the arrows will fly straight as a laser to the target.”
Loris had her telescoping fighting-staff on her back. “On shipboard,” she said, I can train with this in no-grav, where the staff behaves in a completely different way. In a gravity field, I stand there and it just rolls off my body, but in no-grav it’s more like I’m riding it. Strange sensation.”
“What do you expect to fight?” Vina asked.
“We have no idea,” Karil said. “That’s the point. We already know there are birds and likely rats, and you saw a monkey. How big do they get, reproducing over half a century in zero-gee? According to the records, there was a research lab. Did they have snakes? Could they have gotten out during the damage? And there was an eagle’s aerie, wasn’t there? The colony was named after it. The population was mostly Portuguese, Spanish, and Moroccan. My Arab relatives on High Africa were crazy about hawking. I should think an eagle would enjoy this place, with plenty of birds and rats to feed on. They’ll be cats too, for the same reason. They’re practically an aerial species to start with. We’re preparing for the jungles of Earth without gravity. We should feel right at home. Pretty sure that’s why Auntie Em assigned us.”
One thing Karil did not mention: if human beings had reproduced here, how human would they be, fifty years later?
Karil and Loris strapped on commando knives and laser-holsters, and Vina had a backpack filled with her computer tools, plus a nasty-looking dagger, just in case. Ready for anything, the trio clung to a stanchion as Atalanta opened the hatch. Then they swung into the strange, fragrant, noisy landscape and pulled themselves along a nearby-tree branch into the luminescent green depths. The hatch shut behind them to keep out the rats. From somewhere deep in the colony came the scream of an eagle.
They crept deeper into the foliage, clinging to branches, careful not to slip off lest they drift into weightless distress. Birds fluttered about them, disturbed by their presence. They noticed nests everywhere, containing eggs and brooding adults, some noisy with chirping fledglings. The nests were not like those of Earth; they were spherical and completely covered in thorns, except for a tiny opening through which the parents could pass food inside or pass droppings outside. If not for the thorns, monkeys could easily reach inside to steal eggs and chicks, or rats could squeeze in. The human trespassers were always driven away by the chittering and attacks of the parents. Other nests were more like those common on Earth—holes in tree-trunks and limbs almost sealed up by dried mud. Obviously, there was a source of water--ponds or streambeds--nearby.
Soon they found a main source of drinking water for the colony, and as a result they were able to orient themselves by the direction of sunlight through the quartz panels. The colony interior was illuminated by three transparent panels running from one end to the other. Before the asteroid strike, covers had closed over these at scheduled night, but that system was broken. And the system designed to keep the surrounding mirrors pointed toward the sun was also down. But the colony tumbled slowly and light could still shine into it. Once they had found one of the transparent panels, they could follow it in a straight line to the forward end where the bridge was located, like that of a ship. If the bridge was inaccessible because of damage, there was a secondary bridge.
The discovery of the panels revealed some of the Eagle’s Nest’s secrets. The transparent panel they came upon was now the bottom of a stream. The moisture in the air would condense onto the glass wherever it was in shade and evaporate where it was in the sunlight, creating a constant flow of water, clinging to the glass, from the cold places to the warm places. The water was clear and clean, as they could see from the birds and small animals drinking or bathing in it. Suddenly, the birds and small animals vanished as a big cat came out of the foliage and drank, legs tucked up under its body, using its rotating tail to keep it vertical over the water to cancel the slight movements imparted by its darting tongue. It noticed them and disappeared into the foliage just as quickly as it had appeared.
Keeping in the foliage themselves so as not to overheat in the sunlight, they headed in the direction they knew to be forward, swinging from tree-limb to tree-limb. But before they reached the bridge, they were startled by a movement and saw a human being emerge from the trees. They stopped, struck speechless.
It was a woman, dark-skinned with long black hair worn in a braid on her head and dressed in little more than a kilt. She held a hollow gourd in her hands and dipped it in the water, then plugged it with a cork of some sort when it was full. As she turned, she caught sight of the armed strangers and cried out something unintelligible. Another figure appeared from the foliage and placed himself between her and the strangers. He was very tall and dressed in a loincloth of some sort. He had a spear in one hand and a war-club tucked in his belt.
Instantly, he jammed his foot into a crotch of two branches to anchor himself and drew back the spear to launch it in the strangers’ direction. Karil drew his laser and proceeded to cut the metal tip off the spear. It spun off into the foliage, leaving the man holding a useless stick. The effect on the native was remarkable. An expression of utter shock came over his face, but he grabbed his war-club. Loris drew her own laser and sliced the club into two flaming pieces. The message was clear: you cannot harm us. Suddenly, the man was gone. He had grabbed the woman and vanished. Clearly, the newcomers would have no chance of catching them in the foliage, even if they wanted to.
“We must follow them,” Vina said. “They’re what we’re here for.”
“No,” Loris said. “First we have to find the bridge. If we can repair the systems, we can find the natives easily. Atty can even record their language. These two are alert and frightened now and soon the whole tribe will be, and we might not be able to deal with them without hurting them. You don’t want to do that, do you, Vina?”
“No, Lor. You’re right.”
“Cheer up, Vina. You’ve found descendants of survivors of the Eagle’s Nest Disaster. Let’s see what info we can gather.”
They moved on, but Vina kept up a monologue about the natives. “Can you imagine what they went through? Space sickness to start with, fluid accumulation, then bone loss, muscle loss, low blood pressure, loss of visual acuity, long-term osteoporosis…” She noticed that no-one was paying attention and blushed when she realized that these two would know a hell of a lot more about the dangers of weightlessness than she ever would.
They followed the stream to the forward end of the colony, but there was no access to the bridge. The hatch was locked and through the window they could see that the outside hatch was open to space and the bridge was entirely missing, except for a few twisted beams. It seemed obvious that the disaster barely missed being even worse. The entire colony could easily have been destroyed.
Vina pulled out her tablet and they checked the way to the secondary bridge. Of course, it was at the other end of the colony, adjacent to the storm cellar, the place where the population could batten down in case of solar storms. It was as far as possible from the forward end, which would receive the most dangerous radiation along with the most solar energy.
They turned to leave and found themselves surrounded by monkeys. They were as big and powerful as chimpanzees and possessed impressive fangs. Discovered, they began to howl and shake tree branches in a threatening manner. The din was terrifying and they began to move closer to the humans. There was only one course of action. Karil and Loris drew their lasers and proceeded to kill the closest, biggest, and most threatening apes. The lightning bolts flashing into these stalwarts’ chests, and the sight of them tumbling away as blood-red smoke poured from their bodies, had the desired effect. The rest of the troop broke and fled, screeching and swinging away through the trees.
“I think the message that we’re pretty dangerous is loud and clear,” Loris said. “But the message that we come in peace may be lost forever.”
They tried to retrace their steps toward the stream but became disoriented. They happened upon a great spherical pool of water covered in a rippling scum of soil and seedlings. Trees grew from it and curved off into the green distance.
“Do you see this?” Vina said excitedly. “In zero-gee, water droplets in the air come in contact and grow into bigger and bigger pools. Seeds land in it and sprout. Trees in constant sunlight grow and spiral off in various directions as the colony tumbles, creating this three-dimensional forest that supports the escaped animals and the human survivors.” She was so excited that she kissed them.
“Great,” said Loris. “But let’s find our way back to the stream.” They found it and moved on toward the secondary bridge, swinging through the trees just off the stream and reaching it without incident, except for the rats. A veritable army of rats rushed toward them through the branches. They put down their heads and clung to the trees as the squeaking tide washed over them. But clearly the creatures were headed for the bodies of the dead apes, for they paid no attention to the explorers. At the secondary bridge, Vina punched in the code her grandfather had taught her and the hatch opened. Then she closed it behind them and strapped into the seat before the console.
The machine began to hum and lights flashed on. Vina began to sing a lullaby, judging by the tune’s peacefulness, in what the others assumed was Portuguese. Systems began to switch on and light up.
“I woke it up,” she said. “Factory reboot.” Images of the interior of the colony appeared on screens above them, though some remained blank. On one of the screens, they saw the natives in their bower, an avenue cut in the trees through which a breeze was blowing.
“They must cut channels through the growth,” Vina said. “You can’t let yourself fall asleep in zero-gravity without some sort of air circulation. The carbon dioxide you expel will gather about your face and choke you.” Karil and Loris knew this, of course; that was why Atty was always breathing.
“Good afternoon, Doctor Vina,” Atalanta said. “I’m so happy to have contact with you again.”
“So are we, Atty,” Loris said. "Do you think you will be able to take full control of the colony and guide its orbit?”
“I’m studying the problem now,” Atty said. “I see no reason why not. Everything in the bridge archive was downloaded to this one automatically. It was created to be a backup. It only remains to be seen if the verniers are functioning.”
“Karil and I can replace the verniers in an EVA, if necessary,” Loris said. “As long as we’re sure we won’t get a spear in the gut when we come back in.”
“Speaking of which,” Atty said, “the conversation in the camp is getting vociferous. I can hear them and believe they are arguing about you.”
“I don’t suppose you understand what they say.”
“Well, it has only been fifty years, so the language has not changed much from a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, with a bit of Arabic. I shouldn’t think it would be difficult to learn. But here they come.”
On the screen, a gathering of natives wearing a particularly impressive collection of bird feathers left the home camp and were swinging through the trees. Their grace in zero-gee was impressive.
“We should go out and meet them,” Loris said.
They exited the bridge and hung outside. Inside, the iris was open and they left the humming, static, and lights on, to impress the natives. They waited. Vina was in the rear, holding her tablet that buzzed and hummed constantly, and Karil and Loris were in front of her, obviously guarding her. They held their lasers in their hands, pointed down at their side, and waited.
“Look how tall they are,” Karil said as the party emerged from the foliage. “Two generations of no gravity whatsoever.”
The delegation hung facing them, very impressive in their avian finery. Their leader spoke.
“I know what he’s saying,” Vina said.
“Yes,” Atty’s voice came from the tablet, “they’re thanking you for killing the apes.”
“And we’re being invited for dinner,” Vina said.
“Oh, good,” Karil said. “As long as it’s not us for dinner.”
“Stop it,” Loris said. “Everybody bow your head. We all know what a bow means.” They did so and Vina called out an Obrigado. Karil and Loris holstered their lasers, Karil adding a little show-off spin around his finger. The leaders were pleased. They left, and their guests followed them, trying their best to match their grace in swinging through the trees.
“I wonder what’s for dinner,” Vina said.
“I don’t know,” Karil told her. “Bird, squirrel, iguana, rat? I’ve eaten all those.”
“I’ve eaten dog,” Loris snorted, “but it was him or me.”
The encampment consisted of a spider-web of vines stretched across the open glade from one pocket of forest to another. There was no roof and no floor, though there was a stove of some sort—a metal storage drum in which a wood-fire was burning. It hung from vines in the middle of the web and some youngsters tended the fire. Their job, it seemed, was to keep it turning so the smoke spiraled out of the glade and into the forest. If left alone, an open fire would quickly choke in its own smoke. The village had a name, judging by a sign attached to a prominent branch over the entrance: Vina Madeira.
Loris looked at her inquiringly and Vina said, “That was the main vineyard on the island. I was named for it. I guess that’s a good sign.”
Karil and Loris marveled at the ingenuity of the natives, who had not only survived a stunning disaster, but had coped with the results and made a society of it. The food was passed around and Karil still did not know what animal it was, but it was quite delicious. There was entertainment as well, which largely consisted of free-form dancing mixed with aerial gymnastics. Having grown up in a colony that ranged from Earth-normal gravity at the circumference to zero-gee in the center, Karil had seen his share of weightless athletics, but these people were brilliant at it. Karil saw an eagle flying by in the distance and thought that the show he was watching compared favorably with the eagle in terms of beauty and grace.
Loris was perched next to Karil and he found her looking at him strangely.
“What?” he asked.
“Why do the children gravitate to you?”
“I don’t know. Are they?” Karil looked around and discovered that he was surrounded by them.
“I’m used to seeing it on Mars,” Loris said, “but you’re famous there. Here, they’ve never seen you before, yet here they are, gathered around you, laughing at the faces you make and you’re not even talking to them because you don’t know the language.”
“I don’t know, Lor. I’m animated and I laugh at things. I guess kids respond to that.” He leaner closer to Loris. “Lor, I grin and you glower.”
“I don’t glower.”
“Yes, you do, Lor. I love you to bits but you’re scary. It works very well for you in a fight, but it doesn’t endear you to children until they get older and start to admire you for your beauty and power.”
“He’s right,” Vina said with a laugh. “I love your beauty and in a fight, the place I’d want to be is right behind you, but you still scare me a little. But when I first laid eyes on Karil, I thought this journey might actually be fun.”
Karil turned to the little girl hanging in front of him, jerked his head toward Loris, and mugged perplexity. The girl broke into peals of laughter.
Out in the center of the glade, a rather bulky man appeared and bowed to all, then pulled a hand-carved nunchaku out of his belt and demonstrated a series of startling jiu-jitsu moves as he floated in the air, the movement of the clubs causing him to rotate. Loris was impressed.
“Look at him,” she said. “A big man like that brilliant at jiu-jitsu. Shows what a little zero gravity can do.” She stared, her face aglow with admiration. She noticed the girl looking at her and mugged astonishment. The girl laughed. “I see,” Loris said.
The big fighter was making the rounds, challenging everyone, but got no takers. Loris guessed he had already beaten everyone in the village. Then he presented himself to Loris.
“Uh-oh,” she said.
“It’s obviously all in fun, Lor,” Karil said. “You know you can give him a run for his money. I doubt if you can hurt him, but you might beat him.”
“We’d get a lot of respect,” Vina laughed. “No pressure, of course.”
Loris shrugged, hauled herself down the vine into the open, slowly detached her fighting-staff and banged it on a tree-limb. A whisper went through the crowd as it telescoped to its full two-meter length. The challenger laughed and displayed his nunchaku skills again. Loris could not believe he wasn’t beating himself black and blue with the damn thing.
They went at it, in a demonstration such as Karil had never seen before. They were both floating in air and every movement imparted other movements until they were slowly rotating, belaboring each other and blocking each other as if the staff and the nunchaku were dueling sabers. Several times, the man tried to use the nunchaku to wrap around the staff and pull it out of Loris’s hands and she countered with a complex move until they separated. She did her best to beat him about the face but he countered the move, and every time he tried to wrap the chain around her neck, she thrust it away.
The little girl turned to look at Karil and suddenly her eyes went wide with fear. He turned and saw an eagle diving out of the skies above him, talons outstretched before it. Instinctively, he ducked, but the eagle grabbed the child by the arms and zoomed over the crowd, carrying off the screaming toddler. On Earth, an eagle might be able to snatch a young lamb or even a baby, but here the child literally weighed nothing.
Without a thought, Karil wrapped a vine around his ankle to anchor himself, shrugged off his bow and snatched an arrow from its quiver. In one swift movement, he nocked the arrow, drew it back and let fly. The arrow thudded into the Eagle’s back and it died instantly, letting go of the child. Both continued to move along their trajectories. A half-dozen audience members took off after the child, swinging through the branches, and one snatched her out of the air, then passed her to a woman who was obviously her mother. A great hubbub arose in the clearing, mostly amazement and appreciation of Karil’s instant response, though Vina’s heart had been in her mouth when she saw him taking a bead on the rapidly departing eagle, so close to the child.
There came an angry voice and one who was apparently a vizier of some sort appeared, carrying the dead eagle in his hands. There was shouting and angry argument.
“What’s that?” Karil asked.
“That’s the priest demanding that you be punished for killing a sacred eagle,” Vina said, “and that’s the girl’s mother, who seems to think the death of an eagle is preferable to seeing her daughter torn apart by eaglets.”
“I see,” Karil snorted. “It’s a religious controversy.”
“It goes on, some say your move was extremely reckless, some think it would have been better to send a team to rescue the girl from the nest and others reply that she would already have been dead when they got there, and someone says the orphaned eaglets should be rescued, adopted, and trained to hunt for the tribe.”
“A fractious bunch, aren’t they?”
“I think this is how they worked things out after the strike, and they had plenty to work out. How to cope with a whole new world with new laws of nature, forming some kind of government, and eventually reproducing.”
Suddenly, the arguments stopped. Loris joined Karil and Vina and they looked up. A human figure a good twenty meters tall hung over the forest. It was semi-transparent and flickered a bit around the edges. The visitors recognized it as Vina’s grandfather and so, apparently, did most of the natives. The man’s picture would probably be everywhere in the colony as an honored ancestor. He spoke in the natives’ language and Vina did her best to translate for Karil and Loris.
“He apologizes for leaving the colony before the impact and wishes he had been here to help them in the difficult work of building a society. But he did what he could in exile. He trained his granddaughter Vina Madeira and sent her with two chosen representatives of the Galilean Worlds to bring the people of Eagle’s Nest back to civilization. He hopes the people will set aside their differences and work together to help this come to pass. He is proud of how they managed to create a cohesive society against difficult odds. There will be more difficulties but the people will soon be out of danger.
“Nice work, Atty,” Loris said.
Atalanta was attached to the colony with powerful magnetic grapples. She came equipped with these because some kinds of cargo were too big to fit in her holds. She was wired directly into the now-restored electrical system of the Eagle’s Nest and to all intents and purposes her drivers and verniers replaced those of the colony. Atalanta was fast because her drivers were powerful, but she could sacrifice speed to move great mass. That of the colony was much greater than that of Atalanta but moving it just that little bit to alter its orbit was well within her power. Doctor Madeira remained with the natives to explain what was about to happen and calm them as well as she could while Karil and Loris took their familiar places on Atalanta’s bridge.
Every minor change in the colony’s orbit would create a few seconds of artificial gravitation affecting the twisting forest of growth that filled the colony, and there would be alarming sound and movement all around them. Doctor Madeira’s suggestion that they all be fastened into acceleration couches for their safety fell on deaf ears. They were the People of the Trees and would ride them all the way. Besides, there were now too many people on board for the few emergency couches available.
Madeira spoke into the comm. “All right, Lor. Everyone is secured to the main trunks.”
“Copy, Vina. Atty, let’s go.”
Atalanta released a puff of vernier gas and the colony slowly began to move. The forest creaked and rustled, but the Nesters kept silent so as not to frighten the children. The colony turned slightly, and when it had shifted into the proper position, there came another correction. Again, there was a creaking and the branches swayed, scattering leaves in a green storm. There arose a cacophony of screeching and birdcalls and the animal life of the forest was thrown into terror. A wave of rats rushed over them. Birds wheeled and dove in consternation. Eagles circled above. Apes in a panic swung in all directions. Children began to cry and the adults did what they could to comfort them.
“Okay,” Loris said. “The orbit has been slightly changed. We're on our way to Jupiter capture and moving at a good clip. We may need to make more corrections later, but for now we’re in the clear.”
Vina told the people, many of them her actual relatives, that the ordeal was over for now. There was some damage to the forest and even to the village—a few vines broken—but their precious stove remained in place and life returned to normal. There would be some alteration because the colony’s uncontrolled tumble had been corrected, but sunlight was still needed to bathe the forest. Karil and Loris had repaired the mirror motors, knocked out of operation by the impact, and the day/night cycle had returned to the Eagle’s Nest. Continuously increasing sunlight flooding into the colony would raise the temperature dangerously and it would need to cool down for a time each day. The first time the mirrors began to close was a source of consternation to humans and animals alike, but both got used to it.
When darkness came, the birds stopped singing. The children found the darkness weird and wonderful and their parents struggled to keep them close. But there were emergency lights in the cylinder which had been repaired and there was some illumination. The shadows of the trees in the light reminded Karil and Loris of a moonlit night on Earth and seemed rather romantic. Karil wondered if this was why Vina began to spend more time with them, until she finally decided to spend the night. They were delighted because Vina was already familiar with making love in zero gravity and did not need to be taught the required skills as most of their lovers had been.
Lying in their arms in the bed-sack, hung on the bulkhead, she listened to them regaling her with their adventures on Earth, Mars, and Titan, which Karil made somehow both terrifying and hilarious.
The day came when Jupiter appeared in the starlit sky. Another course correction needed to be made, but it went off without a hitch. They were surrounded by Galilean Security cruisers whose job it was to clear their trajectory of ships and other hazards. Jovian Orbit Insertion and the Ganymede Gravity Assist would be somewhat problematic and involve several tiny course corrections. Once again, the populace strapped themselves to the trees and rode out the creaking and groaning and the calls of frightened forest life, but they had the always astonishing view of Jupiter’s glorious cloudscape to distract them.
Auntie Em suddenly appeared on the main bridge-screen. “Loris, there have been several volcanic eruptions on Io. A cloud of particles is spiralling into Jupiter and the radiation profile of the Corridor has changed drastically.”
“Here it is,” Atty said, and the radiation profile appeared on the screens.
“That’s not good,” Loris said. “Not good at all. Vina!”
“Io is up to its old tricks. We can’t avoid dangerous levels of radiation. You have to get the Nesters into the storm-cellar. Now!”
“Are you sure, Loris? These people feel safe in their trees.”
“They’re not safe by a long shot. We can close the mirrors but it’s not nearly good enough. The storm-cellar is hardened against radiation. That’s what it’s for.”
“Please, Vina,” Atalanta said. “People could die.”
Vina sighed. “Okay.”
“Do it quickly,” Karil said. “We’re about to make some sudden course-corrections. The whole damn forest could come down on them. So much for safety in the trees.”
Vina turned to the elders and then to the parents. She did her best to explain the danger, but they were puzzled until a sudden small course-correction made the forest groan and growl like a great beast. A whirlwind of leaves erupted about them and the birds began to scream in terror. Rats appeared in droves, racing through the branches. From the sky, the eagles cried out.
The parents grabbed the children and swung off in the direction of the storm-cellar. The mirrors began to close and darkness fell. The artificial illumination winked on and then began to flicker ominously.
Another course correction made the branches seem to writhe out of their grasp as if their beloved forest had turned against them. Vina surprised herself with her sudden skill at swinging from limb to limb with a terrified child clutching at her body, its face buried in her breast.
The door of the storm cellar irised open and the horrified Nesters poured through. It shut behind them with a bang and they huddled in terror, listening to the forest tear itself to pieces and the entire colony creak like a collapsing house. What would happen, Vina thought, if some tree-trunk went through a solar, opening the colony up to space?
Then the sounds died and the shaking stopped. The hatch irised open and revealed the once-grand forest as a swirling mass of splintered wood and stripped leaves drifting by. But it would re-grow someday. Many animals must have died but many had no doubt found safety in holes and in the dense undergrowth and would come out eventually, as all life on Earth had done after every extinction event of Terran natural history.
Loris’s and Karil’s faces appeared on a screen. “Are you all right, Love?” Loris asked.
“I’m all right,” Vina said, wiping away her tears and kissing the sobbing child in her arms. “Thanks to you.”
The mirrors opened and they found themselves in orbit about ancient, unchanging Callisto, where the Eagle’s Nest would remain, safe from radiation and continually monitored by the entire Jovian establishment. After half a century of isolation in deep space, the poor natives found themselves inundated with doctors, engineers, scientists, historians, and the Press. Vina and, to their chagrin, Karil and Loris, became celebrities as well, though Galilean Security managed to keep most of their undercover background out of the news.
“Auntie Em is here,” Atalanta said. Karil and Loris dressed quickly and met her at the hatch.
“Good morning, Em,” Loris said. “Have you run out of coffee?”
“No, Lor. I have agents on High South America now, spying on the Terrans and posing as Terran coffee importers. Would you bring Vina out. I’d like to speak to all of you.”
Vina came out of the cabin, buttoning her pajamas, and they all had coffee.
“Your work has been exemplary,” Auntie Em said. “Especially yours, Atty.”
“Thank you, Auntie Em.”
“The Eagle’s Nest is in stable Callisto orbit now, well outside the radiation zone, and the systems aboard are completely repaired, even above what Atty has done. It’s still in zero gee because the residents couldn’t survive otherwise, and their forest is slowly repairing itself. But the next generation will be educated and trained on Callisto and they will be able to walk on planetary surfaces someday. A hospital section is being built at the central axis of the colony so the older residents will be able to live out their lives while their children and grandchildren live on the circumference, which will be at one-sixth gee like Callisto and Ganymede and most of the Belter colonies.
“Our scientists are having a wonderful time studying them. Our previous zero-gee objects of study have mostly been geriatric or handicapped patients, but this is an entire eco-system that evolved for weightlessness. Some say the knowledge may be helpful for interstellar travel some day because living without gravity could extend the human lifespan. Anyway, I just wanted to report to all of you and I knew Vina would be here.”
Loris looked at her inquiringly.
“I know everything, Lor,” Auntie Em said. “Get used to it. I realize you Free Traders like your autonomy, but you have no idea how many times we learned that someone was out to kill you and I put a stop to it.”
Vina made Karil and Loris dinner that night—a Carne de Vinho e Alhos with Madeira sauce, using a fortified Madeira wine produced by the Cantiero method. It was sweet and nutty with notes of caramelized fruit. This was said to have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wine and even Karil was impressed.