ELUL 18, 5820
UNIA HEADQUARTERS, PAPERLESS, LUNA
I love poetry. Blame it on my family -- mostly my mother, who used to read Emily Dickinson to me, and my older sister, who gave me Leaves of Grass on my fourteenth birthday. My teachers only made it worse. In my junior year of high school, I memorized all of Tennyson's Locksley Hall in a futile effort to impress my drama instructor. I still remember the poem: "Forward, forward let us range, / Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change ..."
Despite all that, I'm not a poet. Just a groupie. Six years as a homicide detective, writing nothing but police reports and an occasional greeting card, dulled even my prose. I still try to compose a verse from time to time, but I always end up reciting other people's words -- or the Torah, which I know far too well. Ironically, that's my once-gentile father's doing.
And none of the clutter ever goes away. It just accumulates and sloshes around my head, a lukewarm ocean of molten literature, sometimes erupting into a conscious thought for no apparent reason. It happened on the morning of the thirteenth day of September, civil year 2060. I was standing in an alcove in the hub of Technologies Section, waiting for a pot of coffee to brew, with my back to the foot traffic while I watched a morning newscast.
"... Two hundred fifty-four dead at last count, but the U.N.S.F. destroyer Nevsky is still circling ..."
It was riveting stuff, the destruction of Europa Station and all -- horrifying, but completely engrossing. The news cameras had found a rescue in progress. Two astros in combat suits stood on the hull of a damaged loneboat, one pulling the passengers out while the other stood guard with an assault weapon. A fire in the port engine cast a surreal, golden glow over everything.
I had never seen anything like it before. I couldn't look away. Then, without warning, there was Yeshayahu:
"For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste."
I suppose it's my own fault for paying so much attention in temple. Another interruption prevented me from pondering the significance of the passage.
"You know it's bad when the military doesn't have time to chase away journalists," came a voice over my shoulder. Baritone. Someone new.
"Hell of a mess," I said.
"It's worse. The homing beacons aren't transmitting."
"If you're not Bravo Three or higher, I'm going to have to arrest you." I turned and saw a chocolate-colored face which split, smiling, to reveal brilliant white teeth.
"Bravo Two. Randall-Vernon Upoff. I'm your new partner." He extended a hand -- his right hand -- in greeting. The holographic U.N.I.A. badge around his neck sparkled blue and gold.
"Ah. Good to meet you." I shook his hand. It felt warm, almost comforting. "Natalie-Cohen Eves, but you knew that. So what's wrong with the escape pod transmitters?"
He shook his head, and his smile dissolved in the same instant. "Don't know yet. I just heard it from the night shift leaving the telecom room. U.N.S.F. needs to do more scanning, maybe some dissection. It'll take a while."
"Yeah." I glanced back at the vid. The news had thrown up a badly drawn tactical chart. "It doesn't make sense. There were a lot of ships at Europa -- both U.N. and private vessels. Some of the older radios could have been disabled by radiation or magnetics, but the new pods must have threebies."
Randall nodded. "And the Tories couldn't have smashed all the transmitters. If they could have done that, they would have destroyed the whole pods. They've shown that they're willing to kill."
"I can't believe how hideous those colors are," I said, squinting at the map on the vid.
The hand 'puter stuck to my belt started beeping. I reached down to silence it. "Morning briefing. I assume this is your first day at Headquarters?"
"First day on Luna, actually. I'm still getting used to the gravity."
The coffee machine chimed. I offered a cup to Randall. He declined. I said, "I would have thought you'd arrive before the weekend. See the sights and all that."
"I thought so too," he said as I poured coffee into my mug. "I was supposed to leave Friday afternoon. Then the Ad Astra pilots' union suddenly went on strike." His eyes flicked up to the vid. "I guess I know why now."
"Yeah." I snapped the lid shut on my mug and waved toward the main corridor. "We go that way."
Paperless sits in a bubble dome on the eastern edge of Gambart, a crater just north of the Lunar equator and about fifteen degrees west of the prime meridian. U.N.I.A. owns, operates, and guards the spaceport in the crater and everything inside the dome. The place feels like a cross between the Stanford University campus and a Légion Etrangère desert outpost: hermetically isolated, but so self-contained you'd hardly notice.
The U.N.I.A. Headquarters building occupies the entire southwest quarter of Paperless, and automated buggies roam the larger hallways, ferrying people and equipment. Randall and I caught a buggy in the hub. We could have just bounced our way around -- the low gravity barely pulls, and there are handholds everywhere -- but not with a mug of hot coffee.
I switched the buggy to manual control, driving a bit faster and cornering a bit tighter than I should have. Some of it I did to impress him, but mostly I did it out of frustration. The U.N. hadn't yet ennobled the conflict in the Torus by declaring war. It was still just a huge mess, and as a civilian researcher on Luna, I couldn't do a damn thing.
I didn't say any of that out loud. It simmered at the back of my mind while Randall asked about our legendary Supervisor, Lenara-Guvlatin Dewey Rickford. I started with the first convenient anecdote: For the past five years, Rickford Group had held morning briefings in the Zpadnov Room, and Lenara had always been in the room at least half an hour before the briefing began. At the stroke of eight, she would give us a run-down of breaking news that concerned the Group, modify our assignments as needed, and distribute any related information. Quick, efficient, plain. Then she'd feed us doughnuts and tell us to get back to work.
I told him how the janitorial staff would find Lenara in the office late at night, and how she would ask to vacuum something to distract her from whatever work she had been doing. I regaled him with the "buggy buggy" tale -- Lenara's first ride around Headquarters, in a misprogrammed vehicle which kept returning her to the cafeteria. He laughed, I laughed. I couldn't stop thinking about Europa, and judging by Randall's diluted grin, neither could he.
We reached the Zpadnov Room at 0755. Four familiar faces were already there, seated around the circular conference table, watching the news on the north wall vid screen. The seat closest to the northeast corner was conspicuously empty. Lenara was late.
"Bad news," I muttered, then loudly introduced Randall before he could ask me what I was talking about. He began walking clockwise around the table, meeting everyone, starting with Peter.
After Randall had moved on, I turned to Peter and asked, "Where's Lenara?"
He looked up, endowing even that simple motion with a balletic grace. Despite being bald, slightly obese, and less than a year from his fortieth birthday, Peter could still make women of all ages wince by merely mentioning his wife. Lynn thinks it's the eyes.
"I don't know," he said. "I haven't seen her yet."
"Hm." I looked across the table. Randall had already passed Erika, and now Lynn stood and covered his hand with both of her own. Oh boy, I thought, she likes him. G-d help us all. Beside her, Marvin rolled his eyes.
"You've seen Europa?" Peter asked, staring at the vid. It was a wide shot of the area where the Station had been. The glowing blue-white dots of fusion drives moved like fireflies in slow motion, gathering speed to cruise to a new location, then rotating and slowing to a stop. Dozens of fireflies danced through the twinkling debris field. It seemed wrong that something so tragic should look so beautiful.
"Yeah," I said. "Randall says the homing beacons aren't transmitting."
Peter frowned. "That can't be right."
I shrugged. "He says he heard it from the night shift out of Telecom." Staring at the display hollow in the middle of the table, I suddenly realized something. "Do we have a spectrum feed from Europa?"
Peter slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand -- that's Rickford Group Sign Language for "I'm an idiot" -- and switched on the hollow. The only sensor data available was from the Nevsky, and even that was over forty minutes old.
It was enough. As the blinds slid shut over the window on the east wall, the hollow lit up with a sea of radar dots and a single, blurry sphere of radio-spectrum radiation.
"You were right," I said to Randall as he sat down beside me and Peter brought the others up to speed. "No radio except from Nevsky."
"It can't be a jamming field, then," said Marvin from across the table. "Nevsky's lit up like a bloody lighthouse."
"Somebody must have planted a virus in the computers," Erika said, "to disable the radio beacons."
"Oh, you always think it's a virus," Marvin drawled. Randall gave me a look, uncertain whether he should laugh.
I wasn't sure myself. We had always joked around in meetings, but never in the aftermath of a massacre. Suddenly I was five years old again, sitting for my grandfather's shiva, trying not to laugh at the way my uncle's mustache ruffled when he exhaled. Everything seemed unreal for a moment.
Erika, the puzzle-obsessed engineer, rescued me. "We know that somebody tampered with the station's external sensor systems. The radios aren't any more secure than the radar."
"There were at least a dozen civilian ships in dock," Randall said. He hesitated for a second when everyone looked at him, then continued. "They couldn't all have had computers which were compatible with the U.N.S.F. systems. You can't write a virus that sophisticated."
"Well then, a worm, okay?" Erika stared at the hollow, one hand twisting a lock of her shoulder-length blond hair. "All these vessels were docked at the station, and their computers were connected, synchronizing clocks, updating namespace records, delivering mail. Somebody must have figured out a way to hide data in those transfers and foul up the communication systems."
"But there was a jamming field during the battle," said Lynn. "Sensor logs show that. Why bother to put up radio interference when the radios don't work in the first place?"
She looked around the table for an answer. Her gaze lingered a moment longer on Randall, who didn't notice since he was studying the hollow. I squinted my eyes at Lynn. She responded with a coy shrug.
"Time," Marvin said. "Maybe to give the virus --"
"Worm," corrected Erika.
"Sorry, worm. Maybe to give it time to complete its run. How long would it take something like that to work?"
Erika frowned. "It depends on the implementation."
"Oh, you always say that," Marvin said. Lynn shook her head, smiling. Peter chuckled. Things almost seemed normal again.
Erika waved a hand at Marvin. "It would be fast. This worm was probably designed to remain hidden until a particular time, to avoid detection by security monitors."
"And activate itself during the battle, when a security alert would be less likely to be noticed," I said, rejoining the conversation.
"Or to be acted upon. Yes." Erika nodded.
"But some of those pods have threebies. They're supposed to be tamper-proof," Lynn protested.
"Yeah, and Samuel Gregory wasn't supposed to get shot, either," said Marvin with unusual acridity.
Before anyone could react to that, the door to my left swung open and Lenara strode in, carrying her hand 'puter and a portable vid, one of the flat ones which looked like a clipboard. "Good morning, everyone," she said as she walked along the west wall toward her seat.
The moment of normalcy had been fleeting. Lenara, usually dressed to the nines in pastels and synthetic diamond, was wearing a rumpled brown work jumper. Her long, straight hair had been rolled up into a bun and secured with a pair of wooden chopsticks. The only pieces of jewelry on her person were the wedding band on her left hand and a gold chain necklace. Her bare wrists looked dangerously fragile.
I exchanged astonished looks with Lynn and Peter. As if reading our thoughts, Lenara said, "Sorry I'm such a mess, but I've been in a rush this morning." She dropped her equipment on the table and then went to the supply closet by the wall screen. "Have you all met Mr. Upoff?"
We murmured our assent. "Good. Welcome to the Group, Randall," she said as she unlocked the closet and leaned inside. "The introductions will have to wait ... oh, where are they?"
Randall looked to me as if to ask, is this normal? but I was too busy staring another question at Marvin. He shook his head: I can't read anything. Lenara had locked her 'puter screens, as usual.
After rummaging around for a while, she said "Aha!", shut the closet, turned around, and dropped a dozen link cables on the table.
"Everyone hook up your 'puters. U.N.I.A. just became a lot more paranoid."
Erika scooped up the cables, trying to contain her glee, and distributed them around the table. I plugged one end into the network port on my 'puter and the other end into a matching port in the edge of the tabletop. Randall watched me, then did the same.
As Lenara changed the hollow image, Marvin asked, "So what's the official word on Europa?"
"Just a second," Lenara said, tapping at the control panel in the table. An animated map of the inner Solar System appeared in the hollow. "Are we all secure?"
We replied with a chorus of affirmative noises. She nodded and began reading off her portable vid screen.
"Everything I am about to tell you is classified Sensitive. You may not discuss it with anybody outside of U.N.I.A." She said it as if she were reciting a propaganda statement under duress. Anticipating our reactions, especially Erika's and Peter's, Lenara continued, "I don't like it much either, but it's policy now. And I'm required to read this out loud."
She read us the official statement about Europa as copies of it fed into our 'puters. The field reports were still sketchy, barely more than raw data, and didn't tell us much more than the civilian news already had, but it chilled me to hear Lenara reading the words. I had never expected such a gentle voice to tell me about such a horrible thing.
The end of the report read: "As of 0800 zulu on 13 September 2060, the United Nations Security Council has voted to declare a state of war in the Torus. All United Nations Space Fleet vessels are ordered to Defense Condition Green. All other United Nations personnel working in sensitive areas will follow established guidelines for Def Con Blue operation. Stop. Stop."
She pushed the portable vid away, probably hoping it might bother her less if she couldn't see it. Nobody said a word for what seemed like hours. The background hum of the hollow grew louder and louder in my ears until I thought I could hear the buzzing of each individual pixel.
"We are considered a 'sensitive area' by U.N.I.A.," Lenara finally said. "I'm now going to review the basic Def Con Blue operating guidelines."
She touched a button on her control panel, and the wall screen changed from the newscast to a split screen of text pages. "First. You may not discuss any classified projects with anyone outside of U.N.I.A. None of our current projects is classified, but your new assignments will be classified Top Secret."
Peter and I exchanged a startled look. We'd never worked on anything classified before; we were a civilian research group with a primary focus in linguistics. I couldn't imagine anything in our field of study warranting a Top Secret designation.
"Second. You should use at least grade five GP encryption when making wireless transmissions, and at least grade two when making wired transmissions. Third. Inspect all your personal electronics for signs of tampering or defect at least once a week. Erika, make sure everyone's set up properly for that.
"Fourth and finally. Each of you is required to carry a sidearm at all times while on duty, and to spend at least one hour a week on the shooting range. Before you can be issued a sidearm, you must qualify on the range, and you should do that as soon as possible. Peter, you'll help everyone get scheduled."
I sensed some movement around the table, physical responses to psychic disturbance. Lenara felt it too. "I know some of you are uncomfortable with firearms, but this is a duty requirement. There's nothing I can do. Your only other choice is suspension without pay."
I already knew how the four people to my left felt: Erika would have the biggest problem, with Peter and Lynn tied for a distant second. Marvin would be the first one on the shooting range.
None of them would refuse to carry a gun. I turned to my right, to Randall. His eyes were wide with attention and mild shock. He probably hadn't expected this, but he looked more curious than anything else.
Having been a cop for eleven years, I had no problem with carrying a weapon, but I still felt a queasiness in the pit of my stomach. I'd taken this job at U.N.I.A. to get away from dead people and wallowing in the aftermath of violence. Now, even if I never had to draw my sidearm, its mere presence would always be filing an edge on my nerves. It suddenly hit me how much had changed since I had fallen asleep last night.
But that wasn't even the most interesting part of the briefing. After going over the finer details of Def Con Blue protocols -- I was surprised that U.N.I.A. hadn't included detailed procedures for making coffee and tea -- Lenara really surprised us.
"Your new assignments are going to supersede anything else you're working on," Lenara said, and before Erika could say anything, continued, "Yes, that includes the Asiatic phoneme project. I'll stay here on Luna, but I can't promise I'll make any substantial progress."
"We're going back to Earth?" Marvin asked, his eyes lighting up. Early rotation off Luna was rare, but always welcome.
Lenara shook her head. "No, Marvin. You're all going to the Torus."
Copyright © 1997 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.