Of course, the doctors told her that he had not suffered, that it had been a quick and painless death. That made it no easier for her to accept, but she thought it seemed to allow the doctors to sleep better at night.
Or am I just angry? Carolyn-Lane Leefield nodded numbly as the words filed into her mind, and forced a polite smile before the surgeon drifted away into Project Skyscraper's temporary hospital module. One of her crew had been killed, and she didn't know why or by whom. She would have been prepared for Leonard's death-- though she would have been no happier, at least it would have made some sense. Harry had done nothing except get too close to someone's booby trap. He had done nothing wrong, nothing offensive, nothing hostile, and still he had died.
Her hands shook as she made her way back down the main corridor of the half-completed station, missing every other handhold. A storm of emotions tossed unanswerable questions around inside her head. Len, tell me you're coming home, please, you can't go, not so soon...
The fear she felt was worse than any grieving would have been, since she could never come to terms with the intangible. Carolyn had a way of dwelling on things she could not control and wondering how she might deal with some imagined tragedy or another, usually involving somebody's death. Her work had occupied her mind for the past few weeks, but now the old habit was returning, and she could see Leonard's face much too clearly.
Death had never made sense to her. She had lost a parent and a sibling to outer space, and venturing into the Torus had been her way of confronting the anger and fear brewing within her. Both deaths had been accidents, without moral foundation, and she had struggled to understand why her father had been taken from her, and why her brother had later joined him. Her world had made sense before that; she had been taught right and wrong, and she was twelve when her father died, too young to know how cruel life can be. But she learned that soon enough.
David-Gann Leefield had been killed by a construction robot which had malfunctioned and caused a space station scaffold to collapse, crushing fifteen people. Howard, Carolyn's brother, had been a passenger on the only Ad Astra cruiser ever to crash into an asteroid, due to an intoxicated pilot. She had joined Ariane Odyssey as an Earthbound consultant, quickly moving up the ranks to manager, and when Project Skyscraper was made a reality, she had become too attached to let others take it out of her hands. So she talked to the company psychiatrists, went through months of training and simulations, and endured her mother's endless wailing.
It had taken only a week for her to realize that the stars were in her blood, and she would never be happy living on a planet again. She had nearly been overcome with nausea on her first day in zero-gravity, aboard Ariane's slow boat to Luna, but she endured and adapted, clinging madly to memories of her father and brother. About halfway through the trip, she realized that she had come into space as an act of defiance, to show that she could survive here, that she was not trapped in the cradle of her birth. Where there was no reason, she had supplied her own.
She had vowed to never again let death cloud her vision. How could she have forgotten that? Her pale reflection scolded her from the faceplate on her pressure suit helmet. Life-- and outer space-- had been hard on her, cold and unfeeling and chaotic, but it would not break her. When she stepped out of the airlock, the familiar, chiseled face had returned, and her eyes only once wandered upward in the direction of Saturn.
Jack Harlanni and Moran Gupta were waiting for her at Quad Alfa Zero Two Nine, their faces matching their dour, sluggish movements. The two men had removed all the panels covering the mass of circuitry and wiring that formed the quad, one of the corners of the unfinished station's frame, revealing dozens of interconnected equipment modules. A blackened smudge covered most of one panel, dangling to one side and attached to the quad by a thin cable. Leefield stopped its spiraling and examined the blast residue.
"Fusion bomb," Gupta reported. "Very small. Easily concealed in the radio module."
"Everything else looks fine, chief," added Harlanni.
"Good. Check it again." She pushed the panel aside and pulled herself in.
"We'd have to take all of Alfa Zero Two off line for anything more thorough."
"Yessir." Harlanni switched his suit radio to the control band and gave the order.
Gupta maneuvered himself to the other side of the quad, using the surrounding framework as a handhold. "Why would anyone want to do this?"
"What, bug our radios?" Harlanni reached his arm deep into the quad, searching for the power switch. "I can think of a dozen flatfoot agencies who wouldn't think twice about it."
Leefield looked up from her perusal of the quad. Bug the radios? Who said anything about eavesdropping devices? And who said anything about Earth?
"I was talking about the explosive," said Gupta cautiously, studying the other man.
The power supply cut out, and Harlanni pulled himself back up, eyes flashing. "What the hell do they care about us?"
His gaze wandered, meeting Leefield's, and she found herself looking deeply, searching in vain for the source of his hatred. She couldn't order him to stop thinking conspiracy, and even if she could, there would always be more like him, whispering and pointing fingers. Not knowing what else to do, she made a mental note to mention it to one of the administrators. Suspicions were a destabilizing influence, and rumors could flare into violence.
"Let's take it apart," she ordered, extending her arm between the two men.
Too much light. Too bright. Sun? Sun-- hot. No heat.
Breathing. No suit. Not in space.
Ai! Much too bright.
Gravity. How much? Move arm... oh, jick, don't move arm.
Damn. That hurt. Legs? Move legs... can't...
What was I thinking?
Right. Gravity. Feels light... Asteroid? Which one? Big, has to be...
We were at Saturn...
The ship... the-- alien-- Target One...
This isn't-- what happened? We must have been rescued... Somebody...
I'm alive. Must be a hospital. Sounds! Listen for sounds.
Drat, must be Recovery. Quiet as a jicking tomb.
Tomb. Yeah, hilariously ironic.
Talk-- maybe somebody'll hear--
Dammit, why do they wait until after you wake up to give you water?
Maybe I should try the arm again...
Jick jick jick.
Len, you'd better be alive...
"I'll be fine."
Jacob Quinn frowned, in an almost fatherly way, and his eyes dropped back down to the sling which held up Leonard McBride's broken left arm. The older man was, in some way, thankful for the distraction: Leonard had just charmed his way out of Recovery, and wanted to join the conference now forming among the surviving, ambulatory members of the chase group. Since they had landed at Japetus, Tony Galza had spoken little with his voice but volumes with his glares, and Tabowitz and Price had been excitedly discussing the aliens' tactics. Golino had suffered a mild concussion and was being forced to stay in bed. UNSF was debriefing the Marines in another section of the military base.
"You need rest, Len." Stay out of this, Jacob tried to say with his face.
"So do we all. Why should I get special treatment?" You need me on your side, Leonard managed to convey through a thick grin.
Jacob sighed. "Try not to bleed on anyone."
He led the way down a well-lit corridor to a small lounge, apparently not often used by the hospital. Leonard imagined it was probably a staging area for security forces during visits by government officials or other Distinguished Guests. Anthony Galza sat next to a comm station sunken into one wall. Price and Tabowitz were gesturing at a map displayed on the facing wall, which Leonard quickly identified as a schematic of the encounter with Target One. The rest of the room was hospital white, and even the pale plastic furniture seemed empty.
The three men turned to look as Quinn and McBride entered. "Leonard's been allowed to join us," Jacob announced. Price nodded, Tabowitz pulled up another chair, and Galza turned his glare on a new victim. McBride feigned ignorance briefly, then beamed an impish grin in response.
"How is your arm?" asked Tabowitz.
"I've had worse," Leonard replied slowly.
"We've been discussing the incident," Price said, either unaware of or already numbed to Galza's seething hostility. "From a tactical view. Andrei thinks that Target One was a pulled punch."
"It's an old expression; comes from boxing," explained Price uselessly. None of the other men in the room had written a doctoral thesis on The Organized Societal Sublimation of Instinctual Aggression in Great Britain, A.D. 1882-1914. "Boxing. A twentieth-century sport. Two guys with gloves, in a ring-- forget it.
"Pulling a punch means you don't put the full possible force into the blow. You pull your fist back before it connects, so the impact isn't as hard."
Leonard concluded, "They could have done more damage."
Tabowitz nodded vigorously. "Yes. They could have incinerated the entire chase group if they had wanted to. Simply fill the shuttle with deuterium, disconnect all the safety features on the fusion drive, and ignite the engine."
"They could have done it. So why didn't they?"
Leonard sighed thoughtfully. "Either we surprised them, or they didn't really want to kill us all, or they didn't know how to do it."
"The last option is out. They know how to pilot the shuttles. They must know how the technology works," stated Tabowitz.
"And I don't buy the surprise theory." Price leaned forward. "They must have known we'd be coming after them. They wouldn't have been that stupid."
"The thing is," Jacob interjected, "we're still talking about them like they were human. They're not. `Stupid' is only applicable in a human context, as a comparison of humans to other humans."
Price raised an eyebrow and looked at McBride. Tabowitz rubbed his chin.
Quinn rolled his eyes and continued. "We ought to be thinking about more basic things. Why they were here at all, what they were trying to accomplish."
"How about where they went?" came Galza's gravelly voice. "That's pretty basic."
The other four men turned around slowly. Jacob said, "I've got every telescope available looking for them. No word yet."
Eerily misplaced laughter emerged from the Ariane CEO, and he stood up with a jolt, swaying slightly and favoring his left leg. "Jesus, Jac, practice what you preach. They're not human. Let's stop talking about human behavior, human technology, human psychology."
"Alright. Talk." Quinn's look was both challenging and encouraging, in that peculiar way which no one else could imitate. Leonard remembered it well from the long nights at Project Theory.
Galza began pacing, with a noticeable limp. "We're not going to find them. Did you take a good look at that ship? No thrust ports, no exhaust vents. It couldn't have been using a simple rocket drive. But why not?" His cobalt blue eyes, their gleam bordering on madness, turned to pin his seated audience. "You're not going to find a more efficient drive system than plain old action-reaction, pumping hot gas out of a long aiming tube. At least, not in normal space."
Leonard frowned. "You think it was an interstellar vehicle?"
A fist connected with the wall, bouncing off to become a finger pointing at McBride. "I know it was an interstellar vehicle! That ship is gone, into hyperspace or subspace or whatever, maybe even home already. I don't know where exactly, but it is gone, and so are the other two shuttles. We should be sweeping that area with radiation and particle scanners, though it probably won't make any difference because we don't know what the hell we're looking for."
Tabowitz cleared his throat. "Respectfully, why-- how do you know this?"
Galza nodded and reached into a pocket, producing a small data disc. He shuffled over to the wall screen, each step causing his right leg to scream with pain, and pushed the disc into a receiving slot. A few more presses on the wall, and the navigational schematic disappeared, replaced by a digital reproduction of a photograph taken less than two hours earlier.
"You're kidding," Leonard blurted after recovering his voice.
"No." Galza actually smiled, albeit crookedly and a bit too broadly. "Io Station found it on the same trail where Gramble and Millen were floating. A hunch, you might say. We recovered it six hours ago, and it's at Star Ithaca right now, still frozen. I'd like to order an autopsy, but I thought I'd ask you Project Theory types first. You did write the proverbial book on first contact, didn't you?"
There was still a hint of scorn in the last question. Jacob Quinn chose to ignore it and concentrate on the image before him: A bipedal organism-- just under two meters long, according to the measuring stick next to it-- sporting a large green head studded with dark brown spots and two bulging, reptilian eyes, shocked into opening at the moment of death and now glazed with ice. The alien was encased in a wrinkled orange spacesuit, not unlike standard UNSF suits except for the three-fingered gloves, unnaturally long and double-jointed legs, and unfamiliar lettering down the left side of the torso. There were no other markings on the suit.
Jacob squinted at the sight, trying to remember what it reminded him of. Then it came to him-- the alien looked like a giant toad. An anthropomorphized amphibian. He found himself imagining the parallel evolution on the alien's home planet, possibly with even less land than Earth, species living in an environment totally dominated by water. But land would offer the best opportunities for toolmaking and other construction, for building a civilization which would eventually develop space travel. Amphibious life forms would have the advantage, being able to move between their watery cradles and their futures on dry ground. That much, at least, made sense; but what that civilization was, and how it had grown, remained a mystery.
The creature was half again as wide as an average human; it measured nearly a meter and a third at the shoulders, which also doubled as the neck, or lack thereof. Its head seemed to flow directly into its barrel-shaped torso, almost exactly like a frog's, but the arms were more articulated, better muscled and apparently able to bend around the entire torso forwards and backwards. The left glove had been removed, revealing two unwebbed fingers and one opposable thumb, the latter marking it as superior to all other, thumbless, unremembering, uncivilized animals. The legs were thick, all the way down to the large, flat feet, and there was the hint of a tail extending from its backside. All the signs of a long and hard-fought evolution.
Silence fell over the group for a while. Only Leonard McBride had even a vague concept of the chaos which would ensue when the information left the room.
"This is our enemy," Tabowitz said quietly.
"Well, I don't know about that," Leonard remarked. "`Enemy' is such a human concept."
Galza laughed as Quinn gave McBride a dirty look.
"Do you think he's jumping to conclusions?" asked Jacob.
"Off a cliff," replied Leonard, his eyes fixed on Kyle Jemison's sleeping form. The nurses had found him awake an hour ago, tried to convince him to stay in bed, and finally sedated him again. McBride was still trying to decide how he would tell Kyle the bad news.
"Interstellar vehicle... but that was an alien life form," Jacob muttered, mostly to himself. "Tony couldn't have faked that. Why would he want to?"
"True enough. So what now?"
"We tell Gandalf, first of all." Quinn stood up and walked over to his briefcase, which was resting on a table by the window.
"Shouldn't he be dead by now?" Gandalf had been the United Nations Intelligence Agency supervisor for Project Theory, and McBride remembered him as being around eighty years old when the Project first started.
"Gandalf isn't a person; it's a position." Jacob retrieved his portable telecom unit and brought it back to Jemison's bedside. "He was eighty-seven during the Project, and he's fifty-two now. He'll probably be thirty in a few years."
"Are we going to tell anyone else?"
Quinn looked up from the telecom handset, brow furrowed. "Eventually."
Leonard nodded. "UNIA won't like that."
Jacob stopped tapping at the keypad. "Yes, and they'll try to issue another directive to prevent it. We'll defeat it. Now don't give me that look, Leonard; we're doing this by the book. It's too important."
"Yes! Which is exactly why we can't keep it a secret."
"Alright." Jacob sat up and sighed. "Suppose we go to CNN and give them the whole story. Project Theory, the clones, the incident at Saturn, Tony's photos, all of it. There are still people who believe in flying saucers and pyramids on the Moon, and this whole thing will get out of hand. They are going to start talking again, about Roswell and Area 51 and all the other nonsense--"
"And if we suppress this, or allow it to be suppressed, we are doing exactly what those people are so paranoid about." Leonard leaned forward across the bed. "It's the truth, and everyone deserves to know it."
"The public is not prepared to deal with this sort of thing."
"And we're all children again. Listen to yourself, Jac! This is exactly the sort of elitist attitude that we moved to the Torus to avoid. We're all equals out here; that's the point of being here."
"You are arguing principles. I am arguing a situation."
"You're evading the issue."
"Sensitive information needs to be controlled or there are problems."
"And important information needs to be made public. We don't know where those aliens have gone; they could be hiding behind Saturn again for all we know. They could be at Earth or Venus or on the far side of the Sun. Everybody in this Solar System deserves to know the truth."
Jacob made a fist with his left hand. "People could die otherwise, right?"
Leonard waited until Quinn looked back up. "There's too much at stake. Gandalf said the Top Secret rating was only for the sake of expediency. Did he lie to us?"
"Is the sky black?" Jacob sighed, and there was defeat in the sound.
"I will make this whole thing public, with or without your support. Those files can be all over the Torus before UNIA blinks. But I'd rather not have to fight you, Jac."
The two men stared at each other for a long moment, breaking apart when Kyle shifted slightly. Leonard watched as Jacob reached over to turn off the light above the bed.
"Sh'ang G'ang." Quinn shook his head, smiling and thinking of a dead relative. "Call New Montana. Write it up and prepare to send it out to every news service who'll carry it."
"That would be all of them, I think," quipped Leonard, grinning and heading for the door. "Give Gandalf my regards."
Jacob grumbled as he punched his long-distance and encryption codes into the telecom.
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.