Chapter One

The Problem Children

Comptroller Vereker was new to the job of running the Deep Space Mining Colony on Carnoc. In fact he was so new that he fancied he could hear the squeak of its newness every time he turned around too quickly. Exactly one week ago, his predecessor, Comptroller Rothwell, had departed from this very office on his regular monthly visit to the planet surface. Then Glacier Ridge had exploded and his was one of the names on the horrendously long list of victims.

So, Arden Vereker, the next in line had found himself unexpectedly wearing the shoes he had coveted for so long. But a great many problems came with the longed for promotion, all connected with the event that had put him here in the first place. Four of those problems were now sitting in the ante room next to this office. Once the Colony's only orphans they were now among too many; with their foster parents, David and Cilla Cresswell being another two names on The List. So many people had been lost in the tragedy no one wanted four extra children.

The problem was that Comptroller Vereker was not a very nice person. He thought he was, and he tried to be, he had even had his office decorated in what he fancied was a homelike way, but he just did not understand other people. The only things he understood were profit, business and more profit. So as he gazed at the monitor on his office wall which showed all four of the children, two boys and two girls, he only saw problems to be solved, not people who had just lost their whole world and needed comfort.

His eyes rested on Sebastian and Terri Fielding, their father had been killed in a shuttle accident on Raykas, the year before that their mother disappeared one day on a routine Jump to the surface of Raykas, sat next to them was Mike Thorn, he had lost his parents and almost his own life as a result of a particularly virulent virus that had swept the Colony eight years ago, and then Anne Parker, abandoned by her mother eleven years ago now. One of the loaders had found her lying near a puddle of ore runoff near the storage sheds, four years old and almost dead.

Looking from blank face to blank face, faithfully reproduced on the screen, he sighed and glanced down at the sheaf of papers in front of him which constituted the small report on each that he had requested.

Sebastian's name headed the list, at seventeen he was the oldest, and the one in charge by all accounts. Very tall for his age with a lithe, muscular build he had nut brown hair that was slightly too long and darkly tanned skin. His intense blue eyes had a disconcerting way of fixing on the person who was speaking to him and he generally made Vereker feel profoundly uneasy. There was something odd about the boy, he rarely spoke and his school reports showed him to be of almost frightening intelligence. When he did speak, his words were always considered and to the point.

Then there was Terri, his younger sister by two years. She had similarly high marks at school, possessing such an intuitive grasp of computers that she had been barred from the Colony mainframe after an unfortunate incident when she had been challenged to adjust the timing on the Colony lighting system. Vereker remembered her standing on the strip of carpet in front of this very desk he stood at now, explaining herself to Comptroller Rothwell, a petite little girl with a cap of dark brown hair, elfin features and navy blue eyes that could stare at you for ages without blinking.

His eyes slid to Mike Thorn, fifteen years old and shorter and stockier than Sebastian, with hazel eyes and rounded features. Vereker could spot him in a crowd very easily with his thick, light blonde hair and broad shoulders. He had what his teachers called a runaway mouth, and Thorn had a comment about absolutely everything.

Then there was Anne Parker, fourteen years old, a striking girl with tawny hair and incredible green eyes that seemed to look right through you. She had a habit of retreating into an odd fantasy world whenever she felt under pressure, a fact that worried all adults who met her.

Comptroller Vereker looked away from the screen and up at the large digital readout on his office wall. This was something he had installed since becoming Comptroller. It showed the time in every mining Colony run by the M-Cyn Corporation. Right now it was showing that the man he was expecting was ten minutes late.

Outside the office, Sebastian was very aware that they were being watched. He could feel the presence of the cameras all the time, like an itch that couldn't be scratched. Terri and the others often teased him about it, but he knew that he was right all the same. He glanced at her now, reaching across and taking her hand gently. Her face, already pale seemed almost transparent just lately and her usually bright blue eyes dull.

"All right?" he asked quietly.

"Not really," she replied, but squeezed his hand, jerking her head towards the camera on the wall. "I wonder what he wants?"

"To tell us that we have to be sent back to Earth I expect," Sebastian said clearly, deliberately not looking at the camera.

"I'm not," Anne said defiantly from her corner. Sebastian looked at her with some concern. Anne had always hidden from reality in her elaborate fantasy worlds, but since the deaths of David and Cilla she had become obsessed by the idea that her mother would return for her when she learned of the tragedy.

"What do you mean?" Mike said harshly. "What makes you so special?"

"Cut it out," Sebastian said mildly. "How many times do we have to have this conversation, Mike? Leave it."

Mike glared, but subsided, deferring to Sebastian as always. Terri had always found their verbal sparring amusing before, but now Sebastian sounded sharper than usual and Mike more abrasive and she was scared that they were on the verge of an argument that would split their little group up, when all they had left now was each other.

The door leading into the corridor slid open and a tall blond man walked in just as Anne opened her mouth to speak again. Terri knew that she had seen him before, but she couldn't for the life of her remember where. He glanced at them all briefly before walking across to the Comptrollers door, which slid aside to let him in just as he reached it. They all looked at each other as the door closed, and then Comptroller Vereker stood there looking at them all with his pale grey eyes.

"You had better all come in," he said calmly, and stood aside for them to pass him.

From the moment the door closed behind them, Terri could see just from the decor that they were all possibly in a lot of trouble here. All of the office buildings within the Colony were purely functional. An effort was made with posters, personal mugs and the odd scrap of curtain material culled from Earth, but they were what they were. Work spaces, no more, no less.

Comptroller Vereker's office appeared to be panelled in light oak wood, which she knew had to be a holo effect, because she had been in here only three months ago for yet another 'disciplinary chat' and it had just been an ordinary white walled room then. Behind his large, fancy desk a fire burned brightly and this had to be a holo-fire. The only fuel available on Carnoc was Miridian ore, and you didn't put a naked flame near that in an oxygen atmosphere if you valued you life. The chimney breast around the fireplace was a particularly nasty looking pink faux marble and the brightly polished fender appeared to be plastic masquerading as brass. Terri noticed this in particular because the tall man who had walked through the ante room earlier was sitting on a chair next to the fire, one booted foot resting on the fender, bending it slightly under his weight. She still had the oddest idea that she knew him and stared hard at him for a moment, taking in his broad shoulders, muscular build, short cropped blonde hair and ore stained coveralls. He returned her gaze serenely, gave her a calm nod and turned back to the Comptroller.

Her brother Sebastian was leaning on the fancy brushed steel desk that was obviously the office centre piece, he had pushed aside several fake perpetual motion machines to do this and Terri decided that not only the office was a rather unattractive fake, the man sitting in it, pretending to be so sympathetic was a fraud too.

"You've taken away our accommodation," Sebastian was saying as calmly as he could, although Terri could feel the tension in him from here. "Now we have nowhere to live."

"You are no longer entitled to family accommodation," the Comptroller said in smooth, firm tones, pushing a sheet of hard copy across the desk so that Sebastian could see it. Terri could see the entwined silver and blue letters of the M-Cyn logo from where she stood, but not what was printed underneath. "The Colony Charter, chapter two, paragraph seven subsection three clearly states this. You now all come under section twelve, the Single Status rule. Spaces have already been allocated to you in the male and female dormitory blocks."

"I see," Sebastian said tightly. "David and Cilla have only been gone for a week and now you've thrown us out of the only home any of us have."

"I have no choice in the matter," the Comptroller spread his hands, the sympathetic expression still firmly fixed on his face. "Space is at a premium within the Colony, especially family accommodation. As you know, there are no other foster parents on Carnoc and no other families have either the room or the credits to take you in. In view of the problems caused by the accident at Glacier Ridge I had no choice but to reallocate your quarters to another family."

"Accident!" Mike snorted, making Terri jump.

He had stayed by the door when they came in, one hand near the access panel, all ready to leave. Anne stood next to him, no expression on her face, green eyes as blank as they had been since the moment a week ago when the Comptroller and the Padre had come to tell them about the Glacier Ridge explosion. Mike stepped forward now, he looked furious and Terri noticed that the man sitting behind the Comptroller had straightened up and was watching closely. She remembered suddenly where she had seen him before. The Colony on Carnoc was a small one, and everyone was on nodding terms with everyone else. If her memory served her correctly, he was a loading technician in the ore shed's planet side, hardly the sort of person you found just sitting in the Comptrollers office.

"More than two hundred people killed and you call it an accident?" Mike snapped. He was level with the desk now and Sebastian laid a light hand on his shoulder which Mike shook off irritably.

"In view of the tragedy," the Comptroller gave Mike a sharp look. "We have had to make other arrangements for your welfare."

"Which are?" Sebastian had finally succeeded in pulling Mike back, giving him a quelling glare when he looked as if he were going to say something.

"Option one I have already given you," the Comptroller said. "We have arranged accommodation for you in blocks twelve and thirty-seven. You will continue to be educated on a part time basis at the Academy and for the rest of the time you will be taken on at Technician level in the ore sheds on Raykas. Any pay you are entitled to will go towards the cost of your meals and accommodation until you reach the age of eighteen."

Terri couldn't believe her ears. She had known things were going to be bad, but this was worse than anything she could have thought of.

"You're wasting our talents," she said, as calmly as she could. "That's hardly in the best interests of the Colony is it?"

"I don't need a fifteen-year-old girl to tell me how to run this mining operation," the Comptroller said tightly. "From what I have read in your reports none of you are exceptional talents in any way. You may be a computer genius, Miss Fielding, but you ignore rules and regulations and you do not have the development and maturity necessary to do things the way they should be done." He looked at Mike. "You, Mr Thorn, have been a discipline problem since your parents died, hardly a valuable addition to the colony to my way of thinking." He glanced at Anne's blank face and shook his head slightly before looking back at Sebastian. Terri could feel the anger emanating from her brother, and see it in the rigid lines of his face and the glitter in his blue eyes.

"Perhaps you could give us option two," he said coldly. "Before we waste any more of each others time?"

Comptroller Vereker looked slightly taken aback, but he turned and indicated the man sitting behind him. "Very well," he said. "My other thought was that you could go back to Earth, where you can continue your education. Under ordinary circumstances this would not be a realistic alternative as the Colony is only re supplied once a year and this is not scheduled now for another ten months. But Mr Garton here just happens to be returning to Earth and he has offered to take you all back with him."

"What's in it for him?" Mike demanded, looking pointedly at the man who had been sitting behind the Comptroller. He got up slowly and came around the desk, folding his arms and facing them calmly.

"I go where the money is," he said evenly. "And call me Tobin. Mr isn't a title that sits easily with me."

"We teach our young people respect for their elders," the Comptroller said stiffly.

"No doubt you do," Tobin said in amused tones. His bright green eyes swept over them all, paused thoughtfully on Anne, looked mildly at Mike who was still glaring at him, then he shrugged. "Look, kids, I'm easy. If you want a ride back to Earth, then meet me at the North Lock, docking bay twelve by five thirty Colony time." He nodded at the Comptroller and turned to go.

"We're the collateral for getting your ship out of dry dock, aren't we?" Sebastian asked suddenly. Tobin halted by the door, turning and giving him a keen look.

"Partly, yes," he nodded. "The Comptroller here has offered to waive the fee if I freight a load of ore back to Earth and take you four back with me. But, like I said, I'm easy. I've already been assured that if you don't want to go then the ore load is enough to get me out of dutch."

"When do you leave?" Terri asked quietly. She still wasn't sure of Tobin, but he certainly looked as if he could be trusted more than Comptroller Vereker.

"I have clearance for an eight thirty drop to Raykas surface," he said matter-of-factly. "Then I go once the ore is loaded into the tanks. You kids aren't the only ones who lost everything when Glacier Ridge went up. There's nothing left for me here."

"And nothing for us either, it seems," Sebastian said bitterly. He glanced across at Mike, who shrugged, then looked at Terri. She slipped her hand in his, noticing that Anne still looked as blank as ever. "We'll get our stuff together, Mr Garton."

"Tobin," he said, very firmly. "Good, then meet me at the docking bay. I could use some help in prepping the ship for take off."

"Well, I'm glad that's sorted out," the Comptroller said briskly. "If you speak to Fiona on the way out, she will give you your release papers and arrange for your Earth Entry Permits. We can fast track everything for you."

"I'm so glad that someone is happy about this," Sebastian said sourly. "What are we supposed to do when we get to Earth?"

"Fiona will give you everything you need," Comptroller Vereker seemed to want them out of his office now that everything was arranged. Terri looked at him as they walked towards the door. He looked complacent. They had obviously taken the decision he wanted them to take. She wondered whether to mention this thought to Sebastian but she guessed that he already knew when she looked up at his face.

"I'm not going," Anne said calmly as they waited for Fiona to get their papers together.

"You want to stay and do part time school work while working yourself to exhaustion in the ore sheds then?" Sebastian said.

"But if I go, then my mother won't know where to find me," Anne said patiently, as if explaining to a child. "I'd rather stay here and wait for her, thank you."

Terri looked helplessly at Sebastian, who shook his head rather grimly. Mike walked over to Anne and grasped her shoulders, giving her a brisk shake.

"Anne, don't be stupid," he said intensely, pushing his face close to hers. "You know that we can't go and leave you here."

"I'll be fine," her smile was bright and brittle, ready to break at the edges and Terri groaned inwardly.

"Please don't do this, Anne," Mike pleaded.

Fiona came back in with a sheaf of documents, looking curiously across at the strange tableaux that Mike and Anne made. "Is everything all right?" she asked.

"Fine," Sebastian took the package and swept everyone out of the room, ushering them down the corridor. "For goodness sake, Anne," he said.

"Trouble?"

They all jumped, Terri giving a little gasping scream. Leaning against the water cooler at the bend in the corridor, looking supremely relaxed, was Tobin.

"Just a little," Sebastian said, glancing at Anne, who was looking stubbornly mutinous.

"Look," Tobin said, standing up straight and facing them all squarely. "There's a café in the next building. Why don't we go and have a coffee and a chat? If you're going to come with me, we'd better get to know each other."

Anne seemed about to refuse but Sebastian grabbed her arm and nodded. "Good idea," he said.

Anne started to protest on the way over to the café but everyone ignored her. Tobin looked at her every now and again, taking in the bright red spots of anger on her cheeks and the thin, straight set of her lips. Once they were inside, Sebastian forced her bodily into a chair.

"Just sit down and listen to the man," he said firmly.

"He could be anyone," she protested in a fierce undertone, glaring at Tobin as he ordered drinks at the counter.

"He is anyone," Terri pointed out.

"Anyone who is going to get us out of this," Mike added.

"Right." Tobin came back to the table, dumping down the tray of coffee and making them all jump. He passed around the plastic cups, waited while everyone chose sweetener and whitener then picked up his own, looking directly at Anne.

"What?" she said defiantly.

"Just what is your problem?" Tobin asked bluntly and Sebastian snorted laughter at the outraged look on Anne's face, managing to turn it into a cough.

"Say we do all go with you," Anne said coldly. "How do we know you're going to Earth? How do we know that you're not just going to sell us or something?"

Mike started to laugh, Sebastian kicked him under the table. Tobin nodded, giving her a long, considering look, then he reached into the map pocket in the leg of his coveralls and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He extracted one and passed it over to Anne.

"Can you see what that is?" he asked.

Anne read through it carefully, then looked up at him, a puzzled expression on her face. "It's a contract," she said. "Between you and M-Cyn."

"That's right," Tobin said evenly. "Properly signed, witnessed and embossed with the M-Cyn logo. It requires me to freight five thousand units of Miridian ore from Raykas to Earth by the date specified. My payment for that job is five hundred units of ore plus the cost of redeeming my ship from dry dock here on Carnoc. It is totally unbreakable and legally binding."

"How is that any kind of guarantee?" Anne said bitterly.

Tobin sighed and plucked the contract out of her hand, rolling it up with the rest of the papers and replacing it in his pocket.

"All right, girl," he said flatly. "You can trust me to deliver you all safe and sound, back to Earth for three very good reasons. One, that contract with M-Cyn. You do not under any circumstance's renege on a contract with the Corporation, not if you value your life, and that of your family and your friends. I will deliver that load of ore, where that contract tells me to and by the time it states or I will be in more trouble than I have ever been in my entire life.

"Two, when the nice Comptrollers secretary was preparing your Earth Entry Visas she would have informed the authorities on Earth that you are all minors. There will be people waiting for you at the other end. And three, the good Comptroller will no doubt check that you have arrived safely. He strikes me as the kind who likes to tie up all the loose ends."

Terri watched Anne's face, fascinated by the way her cheeks turned from red to white, then back to red again as Tobin spoke.

"I'm still not going," she said defiantly, picking up her coffee.

Mike muttered under his breath, burying his face in his hands, Sebastian picked up his own drink, looking mildly across at Tobin.

"Anne," Tobin said quietly. "Your mother won't be coming for you, so it's no good you waiting here for her."

Anne jerked as if she had been shot, her cup tipping. Mike snatched it up just as it would have fallen onto the floor, slopping coffee all over the table.

"How do you know that?" The skin around Anne's lips was white, drawn tightly against the bone. She looked terrified and furious at the same time.

Tobin was giving Anne such a look of compassion that Terri knew it had to be more bad news and she reached out blindly for Sebastian's hand. He caught hers in a tight grip and she waited for Tobin to speak.

"Elizabeth Parker died ten years ago," he said, very quietly. "There was a pirate raid on the satellite where she worked. Everyone at the station was killed when an oxygen seal was ruptured by small arms fire during the fight. I'm sorry."

For a moment Anne said nothing, then she stood up so violently her chair tipped over. Terri thought that she was going to say something then but she simply shook her head and walked out of the café with faltering steps, her face so pale it looked like an empty glass.

"I'll go after her," Mike said. He looked grey and ill suddenly and Terri realised that hearing about yet another senseless death after all the hammer blows of the past week had taken its toll on them all. "Are you really sure it was her mother?" he asked Tobin.

"Very sure," Tobin said. "It was widely reported at the time it happened and the Comptroller confirmed it to me himself yesterday. It's in Colony records if she cares to look."

Mike looked at him for a long moment, then turned and went out of the door.

"Why didn't anyone tell her before?" Terri said fiercely, swallowing hard on the tears that were threatening.

"They were scared of pushing her over the edge, I think," Tobin shrugged, stirring at his coffee with a white plastic spoon. He didn't look quite right himself, and there were lines of strain around his eyes and mouth. "You do know her psych evaluation has her down as delusional?"

"Yes," Sebastian nodded. "But how did you know?"

"Comptroller Vereker was very forthcoming." There was a tight, bitter note to Tobin's voice. "Look. I really do mean you no harm. I'm simply going back to Earth and I was asked to take you with me. That's it. No hidden agenda."

"Fine," Terri got up, glancing at her brother. "We'll meet you at the docking bay, Mr Garton."

"One vacuum case each, no more." Tobin warned them and stood up himself, striding out of the café and turning a corner out of sight.

It took Terri and Sebastian some time to find Mike and Anne. They finally tracked them down in the hydroponics sheds, both of them huddled in the roof space where the water pipes came in. Mike was propped up against the huge cold water pipe, his feet on the steam pipe that provided the heat for the sheds. Anne sat with her back to him, shoulders rigid.

"We only have a couple of hours," Sebastian pointed out. "We should be packing."

"I told you, I'm not going," Anne said in a muffled voice.

"Yes you are." Sebastian wormed his way into the small space, squeezing past Mike and wedging himself in next to Anne, who turned away, doing her best to ignore him. He reached out and caught her hand, pulling her so that she was so close to him she had to look up. "Listen to me, Anne, because I'm only going to say this once. Vereker wants us out of here. Off Carnoc and out of his life. If we stay, he will do his best to make our lives a living hell. I don't think that the part time education bit will last very long. We'll join the slave labour crew down in the ore sheds, catch Tag from breathing in ore particles because the issued masks are inadequate and we can't afford to buy the proper ones, and spend the rest of our lives here as charity cases because our lungs are cut to ribbons and we can't work. If we're lucky enough to reach our thirties, one or all of us will die drowning in our own blood because of Tag. Is that what you want for the rest of your life?"

"No," Anne shook her head. Terri could see that she was crying, the tears making clean tracks down her now dirty face. Sebastian hugged her tightly, smoothing her hair gently.

"Come on," he said softly. "Let's go and get our stuff together and get out of here. Carnoc has gone bad for us now. Can't you feel it?"

Terri watched as he coaxed Anne out of the roof space and down into the sheds and persuaded her to clean herself up with a piece of the fibrous blue cloth that was provided in all the washrooms to dry your hands with and then talk her into packing her few possessions. She would never understand how her brother got what he wanted out of people, it was as if he worked magic over them. But she was grateful that he could. She could feel herself just how bad Carnoc had gone for them. Only she suspected that for Sebastian and herself, it had started going bad the day their mother had stepped through the Jump Portal here at the Jump Station on Carnoc, and completely failed to come out at the other end...anywhere in the galaxy.