The blue glow of the vid blanketed Delia Jemison's face, carrying images of European turmoil to her tired eyes. She had been standing in the same place for five minutes, facing the screen above the kitchen counter, seeing nothing, feeling claustrophobic and trapped. White walls failed to fool her, mirrors were a bother to polish, and this sturdy apartment, while regally spacious by Earth standards, constantly reminded her that she was trapped inside several hundred meters of solid rock. Mary would begin to notice, in a few years, when she would inevitably start wanting her privacy and freedom. It happened, sooner or later, to all children; Delia's sister, a mother of three, took every opportunity to assert this fact and to offer her brood as shining examples of it.
Of course, Monica still lived on Earth, in the dizzying urban jungles of California, where every part of society shoved and pulled at all others, sweeping up impressionable young minds in the never-ending struggle to win a prizeless contest of lifestyles. Most people never escaped, but Delia had. She had found something good which would be constant in her life, someone whom she knew would never leave and would not change with the perfumed winds of fashion. Kyle, the astronaut, the Torie, the man with the transparent eyes, the father of her child, the one who had taught her the constellations, the promise that she never doubted.
And now she sat at the empty table, sobbing quietly into her hands, remembering the night of their honeymoon and every night after that. A thousand whispered words brushed her consciousness, each one recalling a touch, a kiss, a caress in the dark. He could make her laugh with a single grimace, and she could tell him everything with a wave of her hand. They knew each other so well, but there was still much they could talk-- and argue-- about: the marriage had so broadened both their worlds. Nothing to hide, no corner unlit.
Why "Blue"? She had asked him that, and he had answered, albeit after three years of prodding. He had been too polite to question her past, but she had told him just the same, wanting him to know and understand. The years she had spent on the street, orphaned and hungry, had not been wasted; she appreciated everything she now had that much more. Loneliness had given way to a companion for life, and that boundless Torie hope had replaced her youthful cynicism. Her entire life had gone from disastrous to more perfect than she could have imagined.
Delia forced herself to halt the stream of memories. Things would never be the same again, not after her conversation with Kyle, not after his paralysis. The serpents had finally invaded her hard-won paradise. She didn't blame him; she knew she couldn't. He could have refused to go with Quinn and Galza, but if she knew him at all, she understood his convictions. Whatever else he was or had been, he was a Torie now, and life had never been more precious to him. No, she couldn't make it his fault, but she worried about how Mary would take the news that her father could never walk again. Monica had always said that children understood less than they were capable of, and Delia wondered if her sister was right.
She switched off the vid and dragged herself to the bedroom, into the obscuring darkness. Mary could be told in the morning. And maybe then it would all have been a nightmare, and she would wake up in Kyle's arms, warm and safe forever, back in the dream she knew. That desperate hope lulled her to sleep, and the weight of the truth kept her there until dawn.
"You're not seriously going out there again."
Leonard stared at the screen, absently examining every detail of Carolyn Leefield's face. He had never really looked at her eyes before, and only now noticed just how pale they were, like silver-flecked robin's eggs. This unhurried inspection continued as he replied in a casual tone.
"If we find anything, we'll have to."
"Why you?" She was trying, not very successfully, to hide her concern. "Isn't UNSF going to take over the investigation?"
His eyes lingered on her lips as they threatened to curl into a pout. "There have been some complications. I'd tell you, Carol, but--"
"Security. I know." The mouth closed, pressed into a hard line. "I've been watching the news, but I still haven't a clue what's going on."
"I'm coming to Skyscraper," Leonard said after deciding that her hair color was best described as burnt umber, with occasional patches of hazel starting to form around her forehead and ears. The influence of the Sun was something every Torie had to live with.
Carolyn blinked, then half-smiled. "Len, you're a nut."
"I love you too." She deserved to hear it in person.
Gandalf chewed his breakfast slowly, pausing to examine each piece of omelet before stuffing it into his mouth. The morning news flashed before him on five screens, three of them closed captioned, in English and Mandarin. He swallowed and reached for his glass as yet another picture of Jacob Quinn appeared beside a comically solemn newscaster.
"...and some government sources allege that Quinn pressured the United Nations into supporting the Top-Secret Project Theory..."
"Dream on," Gandalf snorted. Jacob Quinn had been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the Project by the previous Gandalf, an emeritus professor of physics at Stanford University whose father had once been head of SETI. Quinn had paid off a large personal debt by stepping in to calm the squabbling Project members, and eventually became immersed in the work they were doing. Only recently had he begun prodding UNIA to expand the Project to a practical research and development program.
Of course, that would no longer be necessary. The incident at Saturn had already thrust Theory into the spotlight, and the United Nations was being forced to make it a primary concern. Not that they would have ignored it-- Gandalf had read all the reports, from Quinn, Galza, the Marines, Japetus, and a dozen other stations in the Torus, and there was no denying that these aliens posed a serious threat to the Solar System. They had killed most of an Ariane security escort led by a former UNSF captain, and the disappearance of the ships at Saturn indicated a technology well beyond humanity's. Even John Ilbad, the eternal skeptic, had been unable to conceal the worry in his voice when Gandalf spoke to him about declassifying the Project.
One of the news stations returned from a commercial break. A thin man, reporting live from Huann Fa Point for no apparent reason, spoke animatedly of rumors that Project Skyscraper had been sabotaged, and of Torie suspicions that Earth was the culprit. It was a largely unfounded hypothesis, as the reporter admitted, but as Gandalf watched he made the connection which Quinn and McBride had discarded the day before. He was about to do the same when another synapse fired, and the picture in his mind sharpened to crystal clarity.
Having been in the intelligence business for all of his adult life, Gandalf knew the game of misinformation intimately well. He had been trained to see through and around a situation from every possible angle, and he was now seeing evidence-- albeit thin-- of a monstrous deception. Whether it was true or not, there would be trouble.
The half-finished breakfast skidded across the desk as Gandalf waved the vid screens away and brought up the communications console. He smiled briefly as he rang John Ilbad, knowing the Director of Intelligence was still asleep. Most mornings at UNIA were hectic, but today, Gandalf would be the one causing the noise.
"Bad coffee." Tony Galza made a face and pushed his cup away.
"Try the tea." Jacob Quinn stared down at the table, perusing its imitation marble surface.
"Hot water," sighed Galza. "I'll suffer in silence."
Another white-coated resident shuffled past them, yawning and scratching at the day-old shadow on his face. Quinn's hand moved reflexively to his own chin and confirmed that he, too, was starting to look like a long-haul miner. His beaten zee-gee jumper added to the illusion, making him just another Torie, only temporarily trapped in the gravity of Japetus.
Galza, on the other hand, still looked like a visiting Earther, despite his matching facial hair and crinkled uniform. Nothing could hide his build, and the bulky physique which aided him on Earth's surface did him a disservice in the microgravity of the Torus. It would take several months of consecutive residence in the Torus to thin him down to a believable musculature, but he was unwilling to abandon the planet of his birth for that long. Jacob had always thought it ironic that Tony admired Tories so much-- like an art dealer admiring a painting.
"Tony, we have to talk," said Quinn suddenly.
The statement caught Galza by surprise. "Sure. Go ahead."
Quinn swept his eyes around the cafeteria and counted six other people, none of whom was within earshot. "You realize this whole alien thing is pretty incredible."
"Yeah. I still have trouble believing it, myself."
"Exactly," breathed Jacob, leaning forward. "Some people aren't going to believe it at all."
Tony frowned, starting to focus his thoughts. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean some people would rather believe--"
"That we made all this up?" Galza coughed up a laugh. "If they're that stupid, they can believe whatever they like."
"Think about it." Quinn thrust a hand forward. "We lost the body. Everyone who ever saw the alien died at Star Ithaca. Gramble's and Millen's bodies were also there; they're gone too. The convoy was attacked by Ariane shuttles. Less than a dozen people actually saw the alien ship, and none of us saw the corpse firsthand."
Galza gritted his teeth as he moved forward, challenging Quinn. "You are accusing me of faking this whole thing?"
"No." Jacob returned the burning stare with equal conviction. "I know you too well, and I can tell you're not lying. You're not that good an actor."
Tony relaxed somewhat, but continued to frown. "I don't understand."
It was a stupid, crazy thought, but Jacob had to voice it. "I personally don't believe this. But if I can think of it, so can a lot of other people. And sooner or later somebody's going to put it on broadcast news, and it's going to look very bad for you."
Galza understood. "Jenny."
Quinn studied the face and, satisfied that he was seeing the truth, said, "We both know this is totally preposterous."
Tony nodded blankly.
"Oh, jick," spat Quinn. "Jick!"
"I don't know," Galza whispered.
"Jennifer!" hissed Jacob, holding back his anger. "Your wife, remember? The one you've had for thirty years? What the hell do you mean, you don't know?"
"It--" Tony blinked and sucked in a sharp breath. "We-- haven't--"
The words stopped coming, and Jacob resisted the urge to throw the contents of his cup into Galza's face. They didn't need to cause a scene.
"Jick," he repeated tersely.
Sunlight bounced off the array of solar panels, several hundred square meters in area, and momentarily blinded Carolyn Leefield. She cursed as she reached for the keyboard on her wrist. Leonard was arriving in less than two hours, and she wanted to finish this assembly job before then. The radio clicked in her ear, hissing softly as ambient radiation invaded the frequency.
"Dammit, Gary, secure those mirrors! Over." She saw Hanson waving back at her while his partner, Gastronov, stabbed at a floating control console.
"Sorry, Chief, auto controls are out. We're moving these sheets manually. Over."
"Like hell you are, we've got three more modules coming in and we need this thing on auto. Get the console from Radio Two Hotel and fix this one later. Out."
"Wilco, Chief. Over and out."
Leefield looked down, made sure her module was on course to the storage yard, and turned her head back upward. Gastronov had relinquished the faulty console, which was now tucked under Hanson's arm. He pushed off a support strut, one of the few out here on the edge of the station frame, and began drifting toward the Radio 2H module. Ten meters away, another astro glided downward from a parked supply shuttle, guiding a cargo module and waving with his free hand.
Hanson had raised his hand to return the greeting when he abruptly disappeared. Leefield blinked, and then realized that the other astro and his cargo were also gone. Gastronov reacted first, pushing himself out on the same path that his partner had taken.
Leefield slapped her radio on. "Hanson!" she shouted. "Hanson, respond, over!"
Gastronov reached Radio 2H, turned around, and headed back. "Chief, there's nothing here. They just-- vanished. Over."
"People don't just vanish!" she snapped, still staring at the patch of empty space where Hanson had been. The shock of the disappearance had not set in yet, as she was still searching for a rational explanation for it. And some part of her mind reminded her that people did vanish: they died, they left, they forgot. It was depressing, but at least she understood those phenomena.
She cursed as she dialed her radio to the Control frequency. This was going to require at least three more reports, which meant that much longer before she could be with Leonard. As much as she enjoyed her job and appreciated its importance, sometimes she just wanted to spend an evening being nothing more than a woman in love. There had been too much excitement lately-- the sabotaged radio modules and the incident at Saturn, plus the general headaches of zero-gravity construction. Her life had become less and less her own.
Carolyn knew, speaking into her suit microphone, that the evening would be marred by this new mystery. Leonard would certainly want to know all about it. A wry smile dimpled her face. She'd have to do some work to attract his attention to other things.
A rough hand shook June-Garner Bergan's shoulder. "C'mon, wake up."
"Erhh." She lifted her head from the table, rubbing her cheek and noticing that she had fallen asleep on top of her hand 'puter. Her face would be red for the next hour or so.
Robert-Gill Price smirked as he saw the keys imprinted on her cheek. "Becoming one with the computer?"
"Ha ha." Bergan punched up the last thing she had been working on, telescope records for Mars Trailing 115-603, and saw that Tabowitz had already taken care of it. "We're done, then."
"As much as we can do for now." Price sat down opposite her, offering a bag of dry cereal and a ball of milk.
Bergan took the food gladly. "Thanks. So what's the news?"
"We plotted those grey blurs." A graphic appeared in the middle of the table screen. "Depending on how we extrapolate, it might be the same object orbiting in a plane perpendicular to the ecliptic, or two or three separate objects passing through at acute angles." Lines of twenty different colors illustrated his meaning.
"Not much help," sighed June, chewing on some cereal and wondering if Price actually liked the stuff. She knew there was much better food to be found in the station cafeteria.
"Do you believe these aliens exist?" asked Price without warning.
Bergan squinted and finished swallowing her mouthful of milk. "Why?"
He avoided looking at her for the first time since he'd arrived. "An honest answer, please."
Wondering if this was another security test, June said, "Of course. Why would you lie to me?"
"I wouldn't. Suppose someone lied to me."
She set her food down. "He'd have to be a damned good liar."
Price smiled briefly and turned his head toward her. "As of this moment, we have no evidence that any of this trouble was caused by aliens."
"What about the pictures? The camera footage?"
"Those could have been faked."
"And Quinn and Galza?" Bergan suddenly realized that her heart was thumping. "They were both there. And you were there."
"Yeah." Price nodded solemnly. "Quintex and Ariane."
"So you're saying--" She stopped as her thoughts overtook her words, in a tidal wave of realization. "And people actually believe this?"
"If not now, they will." He patted the table, and the wall screen flickered to life with a current news report detailing the continuing investigation of sabotage at Project Skyscraper, placing heavy emphasis on the tensions between Ariane Odyssey and Quintex Corporation. Mention was made of the unconfirmed reports of first contact near Saturn, which had come only after UNIA publicly declassified Project Theory. This was a Torie news channel, and the anchor spoke every other word with a doubtful narrowing of her eyes.
After watching for a few minutes, Bergan shook her head. "It doesn't make sense."
"It makes perfect sense. Quintex is old, which means it's tied to Earth. Ariane runs everything from Mars, and their entire business has always been space exploration. Who are Tories more likely to trust?"
"Paranoia!" June pointed an accusatory finger at the screen. "This is just sensationalism, and I can't believe you're taking it seriously. It's going to blow over in a week."
"If people hadn't been dying, I'd be inclined to agree," said Price, in a cool, controlled voice. "We're all ruled by fear. Being afraid means knowing who your enemy is, and we can't survive-- we can't defend ourselves-- without knowing that. It's plain biology that we know there must be something to fear, so we keep looking for it."
"Look, these are Tories," Bergan stated. "They're not stupid, and they're not irrational."
"Yeah, but you're a Torie, and look at you." Price switched off the screen. "Emotional. Passionate. Courageous. Your heart leads your head."
June shook her head violently, ignoring the thinly veiled flirtation and restraining a smile which might be misinterpreted. Price hadn't had time to notice how the older Tories at Io looked down on newbies. "That's not the point," she said.
"It is." Price waved a hand toward the far wall. "Earth and Torus have never been the best of friends. Basic ideological differences. Tories exist because of new philosophies that didn't get along with old philosophies. There was a physical distance for a while, but that's gone now. We're all the same Solar System, and we've been bumping into each other more and more."
"But we're not enemies," she protested. "Tories have no reason to hate Earth, or Quintex. And vice versa."
"You may not personally, but plenty of other people do." Price shrugged. "The UN isn't everybody's friend, especially when it comes to commerce regulations. Torus has always been a self-governing capitalist state, but Quintex doesn't believe it's totally self-sufficient yet."
Bergan nodded. "And socio-economics is a single word, yes, I've heard it before. You're saying somebody wants to ruin Quintex. Who? Not Galza."
The security officer remained still. Obviously he wanted to hear her opinion, and Bergan had to take a breath before giving it.
"Galza's not in control." She was unaware of her mouth hanging open. "Somebody else is doing this. People start talking, Galza looks bad, he goes away, and Ariane..."
Price nodded morosely. "It's the logical conclusion, isn't it?"
"This is speculation," Price said quietly. "No evidence. We don't know anything."
He shook his head and almost smiled. "First people think it's humans-- pirates-- raiding our stations and attacking the convoy. Nobody knows who it is, or why they're doing it. Then we go to Saturn, and it's aliens. Nobody knows where they came from, what they're doing here, why they assaulted us. Now we come home, and it's humans again. And we still know nothing."
Bergan nodded glumly. "Reason proceeds in the absence of fact."
"You think this is outrageous?"
"Do you believe in aliens?"
Her face looked like it had been carved from solid rock. "Yes."
"Good." Price grinned. "Now we just have to find them."
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.