TC46

As Terel and Greidi took Exiler spiralling away from Jupiter they tried to teach their son Lahatiel and daughter Noriel as much as they could about flying the frigate. Once when Greidi had struck below to sleep, Turel explained to his offspring why it was important they learned the ropes. “We’re going out to see your grandfather Naseth, but it’s been years since either we or he has had the means to travel through space and truth be told I can’t be entirely sure he won’t try to take the ship. I don’t know what his financial situation is right now, you see. I plan to leave one or both of you aboard to give us more options if he tries something. Please don’t tell your mother I said this, she would never forgive me for doubting her father.”

Lahatiel and Noriel promised their father they would not say a word.

There were many captured asteroids in the outer reaches of the Jupiter system that orbited the planet as so many small moons, sometimes in retrograde orbits, but only tiny Green Rock had a greenhouse. An artificial black hole in its core created a full gee of gravity on the surface of Green Rock, but that gravity fell off so rapidly with distance that the asteroid could not hold an atmosphere for very long, unless the air was glassed in, as Green Rock was.

Unfortunately any glass house was vulnerable to people throwing stones at it. Hence the current proprietor of the Green Rock operation, Naseth, the father of Greidi, was ever in the market for armaments.

The Navy of Mastema had approached Green Rock twice before, and Naseth resorted to bluff to survive the encounters. The first bluff was a suicide bluff. Naseth told the approaching warship that if they came any closer his family would blow up the glass enclosure and eject the black hole, killing themselves in the process but ensuring that no one could ever use the asteroid.

The second bluff occurred after Naseth and his entire family had been captured by commandos and were already being taken away to be tortured. When Naseth was put under torment aboard the destroyer Chastiser, Naseth “confessed” to have arranged a timed blast take out their greenhouse. Since Chastiser’s commanding officer was ordered to gain Green Rock intact, Naseth and his family were returned to their asteroid alive, but with life-changing injuries from the torture. If Greidi had not been married off to Turel and still lived in the household of her father she would have been one of the victims.

Naseth knew the Navy of Mastema never gave up on their problems. He as well aware his only remaining option was to give up the asteroid, walk away from his life’s investment, and try to live somewhere else. But when Terel arrived at Green Rock in the Exiler to pay his father-in-law a long overdue visit, more opportunities presented themselves to Naseth’s mind.

Access to Green Rock was through a landing pad atop a tall glass-enclosed gantry where the gravity was only half a gee. Nuriel, following the wishes of her father, stayed aboard the frigate. When Terel and Greidi and Lahatiel descended the ladder they felt the weight begin to pile on. Then they were through the glass and in.

Naseth apparently had something of a nostalgic streak. Amid the two hundred acres of forest and gardens wrapped around the tiny ball of rock was a big lawn, with a white two-story farmhouse and an old gnarled moving tree from Barbelo, complete with a tire on a rope that the tree itself kept swinging.

Naseth was overjoyed to see his daughter again after many years, but Greidi was horrified to see that her father and indeed every member of her family had been maimed in some random but permanent way.

Under the artificial lights and heat lamps used to supplement the diminished and faraway sun they sat in chairs on that lawn, just Naseth, Terel, Greidi, and Lahatiel, and they had themselves a cozy chat. In the opening round, Terel offered the Exiler entire in return for sanctuary for himself and his family, although on second thought, looking at Naseth’s disfigurement, Terel wasn’t too confident that Naseth really could offer sanctuary.

“Unfortunately your ship is a liability to me, Terel. I know Asmodeus gave it to you long ago, but then later he repented of his gift, as you just indicated to me. You must know as well as I do that he will never stop looking for it.”

“In that case, sir,” Turel replied, “I offer the four fully armed and fueled Bulldog ship-to-ship missiles we found stored in the tubes aboard.”

“That will pay for such protection as I can provide for only two other souls, aside from my daughter of course, who is always welcome in my home.”

Terel smiled sheepishly, but then his smile changed a bit as he guessed the man’s game. “How did you know this was not my entire family, Naseth?”

“You wouldn’t feel right leaving the frigate empty,” Naseth said. “I knew because I would have felt right doing it myself. There’s no shame involved here, Terel.”

Young Lahatiel saw that Naseth was a tough negotiator, but now he saw an opening that could sweetened the deal and also answer the man’s concern about being caught with an imperial frigate. “I will take the ship far away from here, sir, if my father will also release Nuriel to me.”

Turel gaped at his son. “And where will you go, Lahatiel?”

“Directly to Palato of course. The High Lord Patriarch will be very interested to hear how his most honest and loyal subjects are treated by his own Navy here in his Jovian colonies.”

“Then you not only have my approval to take your sister with you, but you have my immense gratitude. I am thinking of the well-being of Greidi of course.”

“The boy will need more training to fly the frigate,” Naseth said. “We will help.”

After Lahatiel and Nuriel made their tearful farewells and departed Green Rock in Exiler their parents Turel and Greidi did well as they settled in to their new home. Green Rock was almost like a toy planet. There was no want for food. The inhabitants could work and play in the lush gardens of the sharply-curved surface under greenhouse glass that became the exact shade of the purple Barbelo sky by “day” and permitted one to admire the stars at “night” as the tiny asteroid rotated upon its axis once in 22 hours. Climbing trees was particularly fun, as one’s weight perceptibly dropped upon reaching the higher branches.

At times, Naseth took Terel and Greidi in the family runabout to visit other homestead rocks in the vast halo orbiting Jupiter willy-nilly, but this small vehicle was not powerful enough to land on and return from the larger Galilean moons, explaining his failure to visit Greidi on Europa for so long.

Terel knew the paterfamilias of some of these spreads, and wishing him well in his change of life they extended to him gifts that helped lighten the burden on Naseth. And there were scattered bits of news and rumors of what happened to the men they had cast off in Exiler Sidekick. Karayan was murdered as was expected. The lander was sufficiently small enough that it was sold to a Ganymede chop shop and reconfigured in such a way to make it absolutely unrecognizable as once belonging to the Navy of Mastema. It was also said that the three men burned through their shares from the sale of the lander and had already sold themselves into indentured servitude.

Though he didn’t know it yet, Lahatiel was free to lie with impunity to Asmodeus about what happened on Europa, for none of the survivors of Exiler would ever approach the Navy to contradict him, although such was not his intention.

But as the saying goes on Earth as it is in Barbelo, all good things must come to an end. Less than a month after Terel made Green Rock his new home the asteroid was attacked by the destroyer Chastiser, which was the same vessel where Naseth and his family and servants had been tortured. Naseth took great pleasure launching one Bulldog missile from the four he had obtained from Turel.

The crew of the Chastiser were blindsided. They did not expect a military attack from a mere greenhouse asteroid. The Bulldog split Chastiser neatly in two. The crew was killed almost instantly, but Green Rock was not completely out of danger. The pieces remained floating out there like two moons of Green Rock. The debris was sufficiently intact to allow the Empire to identify them should they came looking for their missing warship.

So Naseth, to his great regret, was forced to use two more Bulldogs to render the pair of burning hulks into glowing splinters. This gave the people of Green Rock a few more weeks of life as the Navy attempted to ascertain the fate of the destroyer.

But after that time Green Rock was attacked again by the cruiser Punisher. Naseth fired his last remaining Bulldog missile, but Punisher was fully alert this time, and the automatic close-in weapon system on the cruiser easily destroyed the missile with no harm to herself.

After that, the centerline 80mm gun on the cruiser began to rain shells down on the asteroid. First to go was the gantry that poked above the glass shell where the Bulldogs had been mounted, where and also where Naseth stowed the family runabout. Naseth and his large extended family, including Turel and Greidi, were stranded on Green Rock with no means to escape. More shells pierced the greenhouse itself, letting out all the atmosphere. That was a death sentence for Starkad and all his people. Unless there was a miracle, they would eventually run out of food.

With nothing left to lose, Naseth ejected the core black hole on a course straight for the hovering cruiser. As soon as the black hole was free of the electromagnetic coils in the asteroid’s center which had held it in place, Hawking radiation began to evaporate it away. It grew exponentially hotter and hotter as its mass decreased. This runaway process reached its climax inside the Punisher itself, as Naseth intended. The cruiser exploded into a billion cinders that scattered to every corner of the sky.

Turel, Greidi, Naseth and his family still remained alive deep inside the asteroid, but they were stranded with no way to grow food or escape. They could survive for a few months on what they had stored away, but the Navy quarantined the rock and kept salvagers away. The bill for taking out the greenhouse and turning it into a gigantic tomb was two ships of the line.