"Now Gandalf has the report on the Torus investigation."
The image speaking from the top of Gandalf's screen was that of John Ilbad, Director of the United Nations Intelligence Agency, sitting in his office several thousand kilometers away in the District of Columbia. Below Ilbad were four other faces, each of which belonged to a UNIA section chief: Blake from Policing, Othello from Technologies, Dax from Search, and Agamemnon from Personnel. Gandalf knew none of them by their real names, and their precise office locations were just as secret as his own.
Open Section's Chief Investigator cleared his throat. "This investigation has only been picked up by UNIA in the last twenty-four hours, so we have no clear conclusions yet. I'm going to start with a summary of the relevant events to date.
"During the past three months, there have been several incidents of burglary at Quintex and Ariane's jointly maintained robot stations in the Torus. Sixteen of these stations were raided by unknown parties, and miscellaneous pieces of electronic equipment stolen. The first incident was discovered on 12 May, when the supply depot in sector 83225 stopped transmitting its locator beacon. There were four more incidents in May, six in June, three in July, and two this month."
He pressed a button to send the relevant data, which he'd spent the past day organizing, to each of his colleagues, secretly glad they couldn't see his hand shaking. This was the biggest thing he'd ever reported on. "I'm sending a data pouch now. You can see the dates mapped out on panel one."
"Data on channel two?" asked Dax, tapping at her console.
"Yes." Gandalf swallowed a stutter and continued. "The dates marked in red coincide with various sightings of spacecraft near the stations in question. The clearest photograph-- you can see it on panel two-- was taken on 7 July by an independent telescope station in sector 88030, and it clearly shows an Allison Aerospace rocket drive. We've identified this vessel as the Vicious Guru, registered to Daniel-Ortiz Noek of Commitment City, sector 76327. Police records indicate he was reported missing on 9 June of this year.
"The five other vessels photographed have not been identified; they're all fairly common loneboat designs in the Torus. You can see them on panels three through seven. There have been twenty-one people reported missing in the Torus since the beginning of May, most of them private citizens with their own spacecraft. Daniel Noek has had no recorded contact with any of these people in the past year; we are still checking into his background.
"The last photographs in this series, panels eight through twelve, were taken by two Quintex security officers on 18 August, in sector 94305. They had found that the sector's supply station had been raided, had examined the site, and were proceeding away when their radar detected this ship. Image enhancement produced panels thirteen through seventeen, in which you can clearly see the Ariane Odyssey insignia and markings. Ariane has officially stated that it had no knowledge of any of its shuttles being used for illicit purposes, and all of its shuttles were accounted for during that time.
"On 23 August, Io Station picked up two stray objects in shipping lane Victor 774, identified visually as the corpses of two Ariane shuttle pilots, Gramble and Millen. Panels eighteen and nineteen. They had apparently been killed in vacuum by high-velocity projectile impacts. Ariane collected the bodies and delivered them to Star Ithaca, where autopsies were performed. Time of death for both men was calculated as being sometime on 16 August.
"However, Ariane video and audio records indicate that they had both been making scheduled stopovers at Mars and City of Light, sector 04120, through 21 August. Technologies has checked the surveillance disks--" here Othello grunted an acknowledgment-- "and confirmed that they are accurate and have not been tampered with. There are no other records of these men's whereabouts during that week, and they were on time for all their scheduled stops.
"This discrepancy has not yet been resolved," he noted, pausing to sip some water.
"Personnel is still investigating," Agamemnon said to fill the silence.
Gandalf nodded hastily. "Ariane reported three of its shuttles missing on the morning of 22 August, when they failed to report in at their respective waypoints. One of these was Gramble and Millen's boat. At 1100 hours that day, an Ariane convoy to the Project Skyscraper site, sector 49903, was attacked by three Ariane shuttles, presumably the same three which went missing that day. This information has not been made public.
"Four Ariane defenders were destroyed, five of those pilots killed, the sixth suffering second-degree burns over the right half of his body. Two of the eight frigates were seriously damaged, and an estimated three hundred million dalen in equipment and supplies was stolen. The attacking vessels retreated to the dark side of Saturn, where tracking stations lost them. The six Quintex fighters assigned to the convoy did not arrive until 1300 hours."
"Scheduling problems?" muttered Blake.
"Presumably," replied Gandalf, pausing for a moment. He saw his own concern mirrored in Ilbad's face. "The evening before that, work crews at Skyscraper discovered that three of its radio modules had been tampered with by one of the construction droids. The droid destroyed itself before it could be examined thoroughly. Skyscraper crews have checked the remaining radio units and certified that they are clean.
"On the afternoon of 24 August, both Jacob Quinn and Anthony Galza took open-ended leaves of absence from their respective jobs. The five Quintex security officers who had been assigned to the convoy escort, as well as the only surviving officer from the Ariane detachment, were also granted leaves of absence that day. At 1030 hours the next morning, four Quintex loneboats departed from City of Light, headed for Saturn. Their flight plans indicated they would be on full burn, one point five gee, for the entire trip.
"At 0045 hours on 26 August, Admiral Harlan Awokih of UNSF approved a reconnaissance mission to Saturn: one Baylor- class patrol boat with five Marines aboard. This vessel was, coincidentally, scheduled to arrive at the same time as the Quintex-Ariane group. We did monitor an encrypted transmission from Tony Galza to Fort Appleseed, Mars, half an hour before that approval was logged.
"At 1515 hours that day, a monitor unit at Skyscraper exploded, killing one of the workmen. Forensic analysis indicates that some sort of fusion device was triggered when the unit was opened. The remaining monitor units have been checked by Ariane and reported to be clean.
"At 1700 hours the same day, Michael-Tanner Anderson, one of the Quintex security officers assigned to the Skyscraper convoy escort, filed a legal suit against Quintex for breach of contract. He alleges that Jacob Quinn knew of a possible danger to the escort and neglected to inform the officers, in direct violation of their terms of employment. Quintex has made no public comment on the matter, but Search tells us the corporation is arranging a settlement out of court.
"Our information on the actual incident at Saturn on 27 August is rather sketchy. It seems clear that Galza called in a favor from Awokih, and the five ships were planning to search the dark side of the planet for the four pirates. For some reason, the pirates left their hiding place and began running several minutes before the chase group reached Saturn. Panels twenty through twenty-four describe this."
"Excuse me, Gandalf," said Blake.
Gandalf looked up from his notes hesitantly. "Yes?"
"Sorry to interrupt, but we do know what happened at Saturn. If I may?"
"How do we know?" queried Gandalf, starting to frown.
Blake cocked his head slightly, as he always did before launching into a monologue. "Jacob Quinn radioed a report back to New Montana half an hour ago, just before leaving Star Ithaca. He used his Etherless unit."
The frown deepened, then disappeared from Gandalf's face. UNIA had installed an Etherless module into Quinn's communications valise years ago, after he officially became head of Project Theory. The Etherless would, when activated, monitor all transmissions from the comm unit it was attached to and relay the signal information to Policing. Policing would then pick up the traffic, intercept the message, and immediately begin decrypting it. An Etherless pulse was treated as urgent information.
"I hope you're going to tell me you've spent the last thirty minutes decrypting it," said Gandalf, somewhat facetiously.
A smile jerked Blake's mouth to one side momentarily. "We're getting there. Quintex just upped their encryption keys to 1024 bits, but it looks like they're still using the Zimmerman riffs. 'Puter's just chewing on the last segment now, which is the final image data-- we have the written accounts already.
"One of the Quintex boats had a hardware failure just before they reached Saturn, and the AI broke radio silence to resolve its navigation fix. The pirates picked up the radio pulse, saw the five ships, and ran. The chase group pursued. They got a good look at the pirates; the three Ariane shuttles were there, and a fourth ship. Quinn included six images; I'm sending the first two on channel three." His audience blinked as they received the data. Othello's eyes became dinner plates. "Yeah. At this point, Quinn, McBride, and Jemison were all convinced they were dealing with a nonhuman species, and proceeded to follow Project Theory protocols for first contact.
"The chase group was within a few hundred meters of the pirates, about eight hundred thousand kilometers away from Saturn and out of the Solar plane, when the raiders broke formation. Jemison had transmitted a prime number sequence, and one of the Ariane shuttles returned the signal and slowed to intercept the chase group. The airlock on the shuttle opened, and a man in a spacesuit stepped out. Quinn's boat was close enough to take this photograph."
A face, grainy but clear enough to be distinguished, appeared on Gandalf's screen.
"That--" Dax began, then stopped.
Gandalf immediately called up his own files on another display, and sucked in a breath before meeting Blake's gaze again. "That's Gramble."
"Gramble was dead," Ilbad said flatly.
"I'll get to that in a minute." Gandalf nodded to Blake, who continued.
"Fortunately, Quinn recognized the face quickly, and signaled everyone to back off. Jemison's boat was almost two hundred meters away when the Ariane shuttle self- destructed; that's the flash that every scoper in the area saw. Fusion bloom. Knocked away all the boats in the chase group, and by the time they had stopped spinning the other three pirates were gone."
"Gone?" repeated Othello.
"According to Quinn, they couldn't find any trace of them. Neither could any of the scopers they contacted. They searched for two days, covered every piece of space within five A.U.'s, and found nothing. Defenders went into the rings on Saturn's dark side; nothing there. It's still a mystery."
"Well, we do know they're aliens." Gandalf nodded thanks to Blake, who acknowledged with a wink. "You've all seen the pictures on the news; I've included the originals from Quinn on panels twenty-five and twenty-six. Apparently Io Station found this corpse on 28 August, while scanning the same lane where Gramble's and Millen's bodies were found.
"All three bodies were at Star Ithaca that day. At 1320 hours, while an autopsy was being performed on the alien corpse, all contact with the hospital was lost. Tony Galza had been monitoring the autopsy via satellite, and immediately ordered Ariane 'fenders to investigate. You know what they found-- panels twenty-seven through thirty- three."
"You mean all three bodies are gone," said Dax.
"Along with most of Star Ithaca. And anybody who ever saw the alien, or Gramble's and Millen's corpses. They were picked up by a medical shuttle."
"Do you realize what you're suggesting?" Agamemnon blurted.
"I didn't suggest anything," replied Gandalf, calmly. "I didn't have to."
The Personnel Chief caught himself, then nodded. "Point taken."
"This is serious." John Ilbad smoothly took the reins from Gandalf, who leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "We know the opinions and speculations which have been making the rounds, on broadcast news and on the Net. There has always been tension between Earth and the Torus, and now there is a very real danger that it will escalate."
"Do we have a line on this?" Dax inquired.
"Not enough time." Blake's expression was half angry, half apologetic. "All we've got is what Gandalf has compiled, and Quinn's report. Our Saturn stations weren't close enough for any detail shots; same with the patrol boat. The Marines didn't even get to the airlock."
"And no physical evidence on the three corpses."
"Fusion blast. Didn't leave much."
"What's our angle?" Othello asked, directing the question at Ilbad.
The UNIA Director tapped his desk absently. "Quintex and Ariane are both victims. From the Torus, it looks like Quintex is out to get Ariane, with an agenda which supports Earth. Othello?"
"Quintex engineers the pirate threat to covertly attack Ariane. They raid their own supply stations to throw off the scent, then attack the convoy. Why?"
"Something we don't know," offered Agamemnon. "Company secrets?"
"Maybe," said Othello. "Something important. That accomplished, they turn the pirates into aliens, and use Project Theory to force greater UNSF jurisdiction in the Torus. Nobody suspects anything."
"Gramble?" Blake asked.
"Turncoat. Doubly expendable. Or the loneboat cameras were rigged. They were Quintex boats, weren't they?"
"Chancy," said Dax.
"Yeah." Ilbad waved off Othello's next comment. "And since we're not running this show, we can safely discard that entire hypothesis. Nobody else is going to convince Jac Quinn to pull a stunt like this." The Director smiled at Gandalf. "Now, from Earth, it looks like Ariane is trying to push Quintex out of the game. Dax?"
"Anderson's lawsuit makes Quintex look bad." The blue- grey eyes stared off into the distance, examining some faraway scene. "Like they don't respect Torie civil liberties. People start wondering about the Skyscraper sabotage-- Quintex had access, and maybe motive. Ariane is up-and-coming, Torie; and Quintex is Old Earth. Skyscraper is a big project."
"Why attack their own convoy?" wondered Blake.
"Confusion tactic. Quintex spotted one of their shuttles near a burgled supply station."
"They killed five men," said Agamemnon.
"Manpower is cheap. Success comes harder. So it looks like someone's stealing from Ariane. Galza gets his old friend Quinn to join him on a wild goose chase. He brings along some Marines to make it look good, and destroys the evidence before anyone else gets to see it. No bodies, no ships, but what else could it be?"
"That's pretty bloodthirsty," remarked Blake. "Destroy an entire hospital?"
"Galza's not a killer," agreed Ilbad. "And he has no good reason to want Quintex out. Unless this has something to do with the previously mentioned corporate espionage, of which we have no knowledge. Unlikely at best."
"Maybe he isn't running the show," said Dax.
"Who, then? Jenny Galza still says grace before every meal, and Gene Down can't bake a potato without making a Gantt chart first." Nobody debated Ilbad; he had succeeded in espionage because he knew most people better than they knew themselves. "Ariane is more likely to be stupid than conspiratorial."
"I'll look into it anyway." Dax didn't like anyone doing her job for her, not even the DI.
"Good. And the vanishing spacecraft?"
"Give me twelve hours," replied Othello.
"Good. In the meantime, we have no reason to disbelieve that there is a hostile alien presence of unknown size, strength, and intent, operating in our Solar System. Regular UNSF patrols will be mobilized and reserve telescopes will be activated. I'm sure the President will want to make a public statement this afternoon."
"You realize," Blake mused, "that we could be doing exactly what Quintex wants."
Ilbad shrugged. "We'll keep intrusions in the Torus to a minimum. UNSF has agreed to low-profile sweeps, and most of the work will be done by scopers."
"What about Quinn?" asked Gandalf.
The Director's eyes were cold. "We can't afford any bad press. He's on his own." A wry smile quickly warmed the face. "But I wouldn't worry too much about The Old Man."
Anthony Galza had never been overly concerned with women. He had grown up in an Italy still recovering from the Red Depression, where the foremost signs of power were plastic cards and bank statements. Relationships were only conveniences, or necessities of appearance, or temporary distractions from the true business of life. Believing all that he saw, he pulled himself up the ladder of acquisition for two lonely decades, finally arriving at Ariane Odyssey.
With a firm and promising future secured, he stopped fighting long enough to survey his existence, and found that he still wanted. He felt an inexplicable void in his life, but he could not define its edges or feel out its depth. It began to gnaw at him, challenging his confidence, contesting his ability to overcome adversity.
It attacked his happiness. It angered, frustrated, and confused him. For years he tried to exorcise it, trying every sort of recreation he could find, devoting to and detaching himself from a dozen religions in turn, going back to school twice, burying himself in his work. He found he could forget or ignore the emptiness well enough, but at the end of every day, it was waiting for him, ready to prey on him in that hazy time as he drifted into sleep.
Then one day, without warning, he met a woman named Jennifer, and the void was gone. He fell in love with her, and he knew it was right. He married her, and his life was complete.
For twenty-eight years they were happy partners, in love and in business; together they built the Ariane empire, alternately drawing praise and damnation, but always together. For twenty-eight years, it worked well, and Anthony thought they would never want again.
Then, while vacationing on Mars, Jennifer saw a mother and her child playing in the deserts, sunlight bouncing off the miniature pressure suit, an innocent smile beaming through the bubble helmet. At that moment, a void appeared in her life.
Anthony didn't understand, or perhaps he didn't want to. Conversations, debates, arguments, and outright battles ensued. The tension came and went, their love being strained like an elastic band. It was only a matter of time before it snapped.
He had pulled it that final distance before he left for Saturn, leaving her in silence, without even a polite farewell. And she was now repaying him in kind.
"Well?" he snarled at the image on his screen.
The spaceport duty officer had just completed four years with UNSF, paying off his ROTC debt, and had been lucky to get a job with Ariane. However, the honor of speaking to Dr. Anthony Galza was currently overshadowed by the fear of provoking him. "Our records don't show anything, sir. I'm still checking with the rest of the spaceport."
Galza took an angry breath and lowered his voice. "Okay, I want to know as soon as you find out, do you understand that?"
"I'm leaving this channel open." He stabbed at the console, putting the call on hold, and resisted the urge to put his fist through the wall.
Dammit, Jenny, why'd you have to do this? He stomped around the small office, taking deep breaths, trying to calm himself with the sterile scent of the hospital. Jacob Quinn and his personnel had arrived at Japetus several hours ago. Galza had made it back to City of Light in silence-- he had been afraid to ask about Jenny, and it would have taken hours to get a response anyway. He had settled for sleep instead.
When he reached City of Light, Gene Down had insisted on immediate medical treatment. Only after Tony had been pumped full of sedatives did anybody tell him that his wife was gone. He felt more frightened than angry by the time the drugs wore off, but ego prevented him from showing his fear, and he had more than enough rage to compensate.
For the past hour, he had been radiating fury, burning a stare into anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path, snapping rudely at people, gritting his teeth until his jaws ached. Nobody would get close enough to ask him what was wrong, but only one person could mollify his present mood anyhow. If he had allowed himself to think about it, he might have been surprised by how much he needed her at that moment.
The console beeped, and he rushed back to meet the uneasy face of the duty officer. "I'm sorry, sir. Mrs. Galza seems to have left City of Light."
Anthony took a moment to restrain himself, then asked, "Where did she go?"
"She didn't file a flight plan, but the deck officer saw her launching the Stannum Elizabeth."
That was the Galzas' personal yacht, and as such had been equipped with a number of nonstandard safety features. "Get the locator telemetry and relay it to Bartholomew Enninger."
Tony disconnected the call violently, almost breaking the keyboard. Then he flew out of the office, slamming an imaginary door, resisted the urge to shove his way through a crowd of tourists, found the flight deck, screamed orders until he was hoarse, and finally threw himself into the cabin of Bartholomew Enninger. A green-on-black display showed him the location of Stannum Elizabeth, and the engines whirred to life as he rushed through the pre-launch checklist.
What a week, he thought, shaking his head morosely. First I'm chasing pirates. Then I'm chasing aliens. Now I'm chasing my goddamned wife.
The radio buzzed. He flipped it on and exchanged confirmations with the control tower. Then the thrusters belched ionized fire, and he was nudged back into his seat; then deep black wiped the grey spaceport from his window. He activated the autopilot with a gentle keypress, closed his eyes, and tried to imagine happier times.
Every day, when June Bergan walked into the Io Station cafeteria for lunch, she invariably noticed the dozens of male heads that turned to follow her. She usually smiled at a few of them, careful not to appear to flirtatious or inviting, and sat with some female friends, trying to subtly inform all present that she was not interested and was not going to be interested, so just forget it. Most of them got the message, but that didn't stop them from looking.
Today, however, the mood was different. She stopped just inside the door when she noticed it: a slight drop in the noise level. Voices got a touch softer, people made smaller movements, and-- most of all-- the eyes that normally waited for her attention now shied away. The big shuttle mechanic who always grinned that toothy grin barely glanced at her, then returned to his lunch; it would have seemed perfectly natural, except that she had never known him to be so sedate.
As she walked across the room, navigating around tables to get to the service counter, she felt the coolness even more strongly. It was nothing really tangible, nothing she could point to as abnormal or blatantly wrong, but rather a mass of smaller things which should never have happened at the same time. People shied away from her, leaned into conversations instead of looking at her, and paused at strange places in their speech as she passed. Her uneasiness had become almost paranoiac when she reached the counter and recognized a friend.
"Hey, Larry," she said, relieved when her fellow scoper smiled in return.
"Hi, June." Her relief dissolved with his smile, as his eyes darted around the room.
The server drew her attention. She ordered a light lunch and turned back to Larry. "What is going on? I feel like I've got the plague or something."
He shrugged, fingering the countertop too intently.
"It's that Quintex officer," he sighed, eyes still downcast.
"Price? What about him?"
Larry half-turned, as if his body were wound up like a spring and it took great effort to move it any further. "He's Quintex. Tabowitz left several hours ago."
"Yeah. Galza called him away; he'd finished what he wanted to do anyway. Your point?" She craned her neck, putting herself into his field of vision. "You do have one, don't you?"
"You've been watching the news," he said, almost whispering, finally meeting her gaze. "A lot of people are talking. About Saturn. About Quintex."
"Yeah. Talk. That's all it is."
"No, that's not all." The server dropped a sandwich in front of him, which he snatched up quickly. "Look, I've seen the way Price acts around you, just be careful, okay?"
June grabbed his arm, preventing him from leaving. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Will you please let me go." His voice was a tight whisper.
She gripped tighter, and jerked him closer, spitting her words into his ear. "You know half the men on this station would love to sleep with me, and I deal with it pretty damned well, and I am no more interested in Price than I am in any of them, and nothing is going to happen. So you tell me why this is such a big jicking deal."
The grimace on his face caused a slight pang of regret. "Everybody on this station left Earth for a reason. And everybody here has very good reasons to stay far away from Earth." He picked at the plastic wrapping on his sandwich. "Quintex still means Earth to a lot of us."
She was surprised at how much the word stung. "`Us'? What the hell, I'm not one of you?"
He ignored her. "Project Theory wasn't exactly a regular contract job. Who knows what else is going on that we don't know about?"
"That's it?" She almost laughed. "`We don't know'? We don't know, so we choose to distrust the nearest person who hasn't signed a loyalty oath? Is this supposed to be reasonable?"
"It's happening." He wrenched his arm away, rubbing the place where she had attached her hand. "I think it's shameful and childish, yes, but I cannot do anything about it."
A moment passed, as he waited for an assent that the exchange was over. Once again, the outright absurdity of the situation hit her, but this time she also realized that it really was happening, and no effort of hers to offer rational alternatives would halt it. That thought was both infuriating and disturbing, but it was no more Larry's fault than it was her own.
"Go away," she sighed, too angry to offer an apology.
Larry managed one final, sympathetic look. "I'm on your side, June."
"Thanks. Go away."
He left, and the server dropped a plate in front of her. She raised a hand, stopping the man before he could move away.
"Could I get this to go, please?" The server nodded, produced a styrene box from below the counter, and skillfully maneuvered her lunch into it. She presented her ID card, waited as it was scanned and her account debited, then smiled politely and quickly walked out of the room, keeping her eyes on the door the entire time. It might have helped her forget the hostile mood, except that she continually searched her peripheral vision for the turned heads and furtive glimpses.
I should tell Price, she thought as she wandered down the corridor, not sure where she was heading. But the next suspicious face she saw reminded her of Larry's warning, and without wanting to, she reconsidered her decision. Reason managed to drag her back in a flash.
What the hell! She found herself at her quarters, entered, and locked the door while throwing her lunch on a table. I am not going to let this happen. Maybe that's good enough for Larry, but it's not jicking good enough for me. Everything that Quintex had ever done-- intervening at Hong Kong in 2002, starting the Automated Support Network, practicing controlled mining practices-- was more than enough to warrant trusting them a bit further. But the devil's advocate within her immediately countered that such a shining reputation made it the perfect candidate for a turncoat, and so seeded a dozen other interior debates.
She sighed, absently feeding herself. The alleged chicken sandwich was inordinately tasteless, and no amount of mustard seemed to help.
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.