"Don't you believe in furniture?"
Jacob Quinn's mouth cracked into a familiar smile as he led Jennifer and Anthony Galza through the foyer of Quintex's corporate headquarters. Many people had complained about the spartan interior decoration of New Montana. "The Pilgrims didn't bring many amenities with them on the Mayflower."
"The Pilgrims were religious fanatics who contributed substantially to the genocides of several Native American races," grumbled Tony Galza, who correctly looked as if he hadn't slept in several days. "And there is no treacherous gulf separating you from your homeland."
"Okay, bad analogy." Jacob gestured toward an open door attended by armed sentries. He followed the Galzas into the conference room and locked the door manually, dropping the electronic key card into his pocket.
"You'll have to excuse Tony." Jenny gave her husband a look which was half sympathy, half warning. "He's had a rough week."
"I know. Hopefully, we can straighten things out before I leave."
Both husband and wife watched, properly stunned, as Quinn sat down at one end of the polished wooden table. Tony promptly fell into the neighboring seat, at the head of the table, while Jenny placed herself across from Jacob and said, "When?"
"You must be joking." Tony pointed to the stubble on his chin. "I've been losing sleep because of all these rumors and accusations, and I know Quintex isn't faring any better. This Benfu thing has the newsies in a feeding frenzy, Torie skirmishes have doubled in the last three days, and you're leaving?"
Jacob shrugged, shoulders tense. "We know these aliens are real, even if nobody believes us. But we still don't know why they were here. They might come back, and if it happens in the middle of this chaos, we will be in no position to defend ourselves."
"And if they don't come back?" Jenny leaned forward onto the desk. "You're not going to abandon this company."
Quinn blinked at that, remembering all the history that had preceded him, all the sacrifices his family had made for four generations to build the corporate empire he now commanded. His father had pushed Quintex into the Torus, flouting government authority; that anger was for Aunt Katherine, who was buried in a helicopter at the bottom of a Hong Kong harbor. Before that, Grandpa Madison had resisted the labor unions, and Great-Grandfather Gregor, the good capitalist and upstanding citizen, had nearly been killed by agents of a vengeful Sicilian family. None of them had ever thought of anything but the company, and neither would Jacob. It was in his blood.
Tony nodded, agreeing with his wife. "What is your scheme today, Jac?"
The once and future king of Quintex grinned.
"This is John Ilbad; you are on an insecure line."
"John, Gandalf. Update."
"Where are you? The reception's horrible."
"Dark side of the moon. Just got back from trying-- unsuccessfully-- to convince Kyle Jemison that he should join our team. He's going to cause some trouble at the Aurora firewall."
"It's the other attacks that worry me. How's the Fleet?"
"Four more ships deployed: Halsey, Harpy, Justinian, and Kantrell. They've diverted patrollers Archimedes and Baltimore for the Project Theory expedition."
"There would have been more, but the Torus--"
"I know about Torus. More than eight sectors to a ship, even in the population centers. How many face-offs yesterday?"
"Twelve. No firing."
"But the one at Raumer's Gate came damn close. Torus is a powderkeg, and Benfu was the first spark. We need every ship we've got."
"We need to find those aliens."
"Aliens which might be gone already and planning to stay away. Torus is going to blow up sooner or later; we're just waiting to see when it'll happen."
"If you want to be pessimistic, think about what happens if those aliens do come back. They've obviously got technology far superior to ours."
"Point taken, but we have to deal in reality. UNIA doesn't pay me to chase geese. The most immediate danger facing us is the possibility of a full-blown war in the Torus."
"You don't believe that."
"I'm a pessimist."
"You mind some advice?"
Kyle Jemison shrugged, absently staring past his friend's right shoulder. Leonard McBride seemed to have no wardrobe other than his various Quintex-issue uniforms, with all their attendant emblems and insignia. At times it was rather distracting. "Go ahead."
"Be a moving target," Leonard said, leaning back on the vinyl couch. "Never stay logged in for more than thirty minutes."
"That's how long it takes to get a reliable traceroute. Anarchy does have its advantages."
A weary smile bent Kyle's face. "And I thought you were going to try to talk me out of this."
Leonard said nothing for a moment, studying the currents of anxiety which ran below Kyle's filmy, obscuring visage. "Somebody else try already?"
Kyle suddenly remembered how dry his throat was, and swallowed. "Yeah."
"They scare you that badly?"
He shook his head, staring at his feet. "No, not threats. Speculations."
A nod. "I've never been in the thick of it before; it's never happened this close to home. It's pretty jicking scary. And I wonder what the hell I'm doing, trying to hack into Intelcore looking for something which, if it is there, which it probably won't be, will just make things worse."
"But you have to try."
"How can I prove the absence of a conspiracy? How do I convince twelve billion people that there really is nothing there?"
"It shouldn't be too hard after we capture the Frog ship."
"Oh good, I'm Plan B." Kyle chuckled, looked up. "Keep a small heart, friend."
Leonard stood and walked forward, extending his left hand. Kyle gripped it tightly, as if he could communicate the years and memories which connected them through his fingertips.
"`Beauty is truth,'" recited McBride, "`truth beauty.'"
Jemison smiled. "`That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'"
"You crazy old bastard! Don't you dare launch that boat!"
The words were still ringing in Jacob Quinn's ears as the Project Theory expedition cleared the spaceway, moving farther from the ecliptic plane, closer to the trajectory of their target, now designated Foxtrot Papa. "Frog," Leonard McBride's nickname for the aliens, had stuck at UNIA, and "Frog pickup vessel" thus shortened to FP, which had to be recited over radio using the phonetic alphabet. Of course, this linguistic convolution also helped to obscure the true meaning of the term from any eavesdroppers. Just one more elitist patch cluttering up their collective sleeves.
A sizable protest had formed in New Montana's main hangar bay that morning, just before the Project Theory launch was scheduled. Some of the protesters believed that Jac had something to do with fabricating the alien hoax. Some of them thought the aliens were real. All of them disagreed with Jac's decision to go with Project Theory, leaving control of Quintex to Acting Chief Executive Officer Jennifer-Ford Galza.
He had anticipated such a response after the declassification of Project Theory, but he had underestimated the degree and severity of it. The hulls of the four loneboats in the hangar had already been well dented by projectiles when the Project Theory team arrived, flanked by an armored security detail. A minor struggle had ensued as every person in the crowd simultaneously began cursing Jacob Quinn, shouting epithets which ranged from mild to vehement and included everything in between. Several of the UNSF officers had drawn their own sidearms in warning, an action which only seemed to further aggravate the mob.
Somehow, mostly due to the security team's constant pushing and shoving, they had all made it to their respective spacecraft-- UNS Archimedes, UNS Baltimore, Robinson Crusoe, and Francis Drake-- watched security forces clear the hangar, fired the engines, and departed. Jac had found himself looking through Crusoe's rear camera, expecting to see an angry mob setting the asteroid on fire or something similarly violent. But there was only the shimmering mass of New Montana, as serene as ever, receding into the distance. They were safe now; nobody knew their itinerary, and UNSF had cleared the spaceways for their transit to Foxtrot Papa's orbital plane.
It was amazing, he thought, how the Project Theory team had managed to stir the entire Torus into such a frenzy in less than a week. Certainly, it was unintentional; it was purely by virtue of their discoveries, but that made little difference to the general populace. The messenger bearing possibly unpleasant news learns to examine his cargo before delivering it. However, Jac had decided that the truth-- the whole truth-- was more important than his own reputation or public image. He had chosen to risk the sacrifice rather than bear the consequences of the mistake he would otherwise have made.
Perhaps it was a luxury, that he could consider such weighty, epoch-shattering philosophical issues. The crowd in the hangar, and the bulk of the Torus' remaining populace, was certainly intelligent enough to do the same, but they all had other concerns. Keeping their single loneboat in good repair. Cooking that evening's supper. Paying the bills on time. Scheduling that next mining run with the contractor. And from that quotidian point of view, the situation would seem very much different: Jac Quinn running away while the Torus falls apart? Giving control of Quintex to a possibly hostile corporation? These were sure signs of madness.
Yet it was all perfectly sensible. Ariane was no more a part of any conspiracy than Quintex was; Jenny as CEO would help to make that clear. The real danger would be the various factions of the Torus joining together against Earth and the United Nations. Jac could still do more to help, but there were more perilous things to consider, things which no one else seemed to be worrying about.
He was acting in the best interests of his company, his nation, his planet, and his species. The truth had exploded in his face, and having seen it, he could not blind himself to it. A war in the Torus could be mitigated or prevented; UNIA and UNSF were reliable agencies, and Tories were not bloodthirsty idiots. Soon, when they had intercepted Foxtrot Papa, everybody would understand, and the common threat of alien invasion would unite the human race, just like in one of those century-old science fiction films.
Jacob sighed, idly wondering if there might be some resolution to this dilemma which did not involve any extremes. Robert Price knew the sound by now, and minded his console.
The four ships separated soon after leaving New Montana, each heading for a different point along Foxtrot Papa's probable trajectory. Archimedes set a course for the outer Solar System, reaching Saturn's orbit that evening. Its UNSF crew turned on every passive sensor available on the compact patrol vessel, plus a single active radar.
A digital timer, calibrated to a cesium clock on Japetus barely a week earlier, counted down the seconds and imperceptible fractions of seconds until Archimedes would intercept Foxtrot Papa's position. The patroller's engines burned steadily, slowing the craft to a reasonable velocity. Foxtrot would be heading in the other direction, and too large a velocity would decrease the accuracy of their measurement.
At 2237 Zulu time, the alien ship passed through Archimedes' radar beam. The signal bounced back and struck the patroller's antenna, and the monitor officer gave a low whistle before reading the numbers aloud. The captain blinked as the computer automatically retransmitted the data to the other three human spacecraft. Foxtrot Papa was right on schedule.
Jacob Quinn had insisted on placing Andrei Tabowitz aboard UNS Baltimore, to oversee the launching of the radio probe. Not that Quinn distrusted the military, or doubted their proficiency; he simply wanted to foster a camaraderie among all the participants in this expedition, and avoid any possible confusion if a crisis should arise. Tabowitz appreciated the reasoning, but failed to appreciate the action itself.
Every crewman on Baltimore was aware of Tabowitz's resignation from UNSF, and they all suspected that he would have been jailed if he had remained in the service and allowed the investigation to continue. There was a peculiar tension in the recycled air, a mixture of awe and fear and disdain, which kept everyone quiet as they waited for their rendezvous.
As on Archimedes, an impeccably precise, triply redundant electronic timer signaled the approach of Foxtrot Papa. On cue, a hatch opened in Baltimore's outer hull, and carbon-dioxide jets propelled a radio probe into Foxtrot's path. The timer neared zero.
Barely a second later, the probe vanished from sight, and every eye in Baltimore went to a scanner display. One officer yelped as he saw the probe's signal spike, going off the top of the chart on his screen, and then collapse to nothing.
Slow minutes passed before the data landed in Drake's computer, several million kilometers away. June Bergan read it over, then read it again, and then once more, her heart pounding. Old Man Quinn and Rob Price were set to go up next, intercepting Foxtrot in person, and she couldn't help feeling a bit scared for them-- for all of them, if anything should go wrong.
The probe had stopped transmitting. Had it been destroyed? But it had continued for a fraction of a second, long enough for the ultra-accurate computers to notice and graph; and the signal had spiked, which was not likely if the probe was being pulverized by a projectile moving too fast to be seen. Even Baltimore's thousand-frame-per-second camera had caught only a grey blur.
And it couldn't have moved out of range; the probe transmitter had been modified. They would have been able to hear the damn thing on Pluto. So what had happened? Had the Frogs turned off the probe? How could they have moved that quickly? And why would they have turned up the signal first? It had all happened too fast anyway, it was impossible--
Suddenly, she understood.
"A what?" Price squinted at her.
"Time compression field." June was talking to all three ships, and her heart was still pounding. "It's the only thing that makes sense. When the probe entered the field, it began transmitting at an accelerated rate, causing us to see a stronger signal. The Frogs noticed it immediately and shut it off. And it wasn't destroyed on impact because the field would dampen inertia at its outer edge."
"Explain, please," Tabowitz said, frowning.
"Okay." She took a breath, let it out slowly. "Time flows faster inside the field, which surrounds the whole ship, all of Foxtrot Papa. Suppose Foxtrot runs into an object. That object is in normal time. When it enters the field, it is still moving at that rate, which is now slower relative to the flow of time inside the field. Therefore it covers less distance per unit time, therefore it has less momentum, therefore less inertia. A momentary discontinuity, but that's enough."
"Even so, to survive a crash at that speed..." McBride began, slowly.
"The flow of time inside the field would have to be roughly ten orders of magnitude higher than normal," completed June. "I know this sounds crazy, but it's the only logical explanation."
"That is debatable," muttered Tabowitz, loud enough for all to hear.
"We have no hard evidence of this," Archimedes' captain stated.
"I suggest we abort the expedition," said June.
A sudden hush fell over the comm channels. After a tense moment, where everyone looked to everyone else for some indication of a general consensus, Jacob Quinn spoke.
"We'll continue with the interception as planned." His face showed an almost unnatural serenity. "UNIA formulated the same theory last week."
June's face reddened. "And no one thought it was important to mention this?"
"They came up with a lot of ideas; that's what they do. We had enough to think about without reteaching physics to everybody. This changes nothing, except for alleviating my fears of being smashed to dust before we can attempt communication."
June opened and closed her mouth twice before she was able to force any words through it. "Sir, with all due respect, we have proof now. This indicates a much higher level of technology than we had previously thought. It would be reasonable to assume that their weapons are similarly advanced."
"As well as their intelligence."
"They nearly killed your entire flight last time!" she spewed before she could catch herself. Price's eyes widened in shock.
Quinn's expression had hardened, but he still managed a sincere, forgiving smile. "They could have. They didn't."
McBride snapped his fingers. "They were clones!"
"What now?" Tabowitz sighed.
"Gramble and Millen," continued McBride excitedly. "The Frogs could have hijacked the shuttles, cloned the pilots, and returned the ships in time to make their stopovers at Mars. Time certainly wouldn't have been a problem, if they can adjust the intensity of that compression field."
"The pilots might still be alive," said Tabowitz.
"But how did they control the clones?" wondered Price.
McBride shrugged. "I guess Jac'll have to ask them that."
Quinn nodded. "We proceed as planned. Under the circumstances, there is no other choice."
June pressed her lips together, trapping any further outbursts.
Robinson Crusoe had been firing its engines for eight hours, longer than any of the three rockets had been designed to operate continuously. The vessel would still have only a fraction of Foxtrot Papa's velocity at the intercept point. A large, parabolic net, three times the diameter of Crusoe, extended forward and below its nose-- just in case there was no time compression field. Inside, the two occupants checked their safety harnesses as the air conditioners whirred madly.
Jac Quinn glanced at Rob Price, who grinned nervously and gave the thumbs-up sign. Quinn returned the gesture.
"Down the rabbit hole," he quipped.
UNS Baltimore had communicated the current situation to Mars Leading Trojan, and the UNSF Commander there had taken all of five seconds to make her decision. Two more ships had been diverted from Mars perimeter patrol to meet Crusoe at its intercept point. This activity attracted the attention of several private citizens and newsnets, who speedily circulated their usual gossip.
As a result, nearly eight hundred human and electronic eyes were watching as the glowing red digits on the timer reached zero, and Crusoe vanished forever.
Leonard McBride had an eerie sense of déjà vu as he ordered the full active search. He remembered Nina Warlow's death, and how Kyle had cried in the hospital, recalling the sight of her body burning next to him in that crushed loneboat cabin. A thin hope that Jacob Quinn had fared better lay across Leonard's mind as he directed the search parties.
Three UNSF patrol boats circled the area around the intercept point. Another patroller was attempting to make the fifth interception, which the Project Theory team had calculated but hoped never to use. Archimedes and Baltimore were heading to the south side of the ecliptic plane, to see if they might catch Foxtrot passing through the other half of its orbit. A lone Torie prospector had been persuaded, by appropriate monetary compensation, to search the fringes of the Oort cloud.
Foxtrot had never passed Drake's position. Full active scans had shown nothing in the area; they had already combed a conical area enclosing twenty billion cubic kilometers. McBride doubted that the last patroller would find anything at the fifth intercept point, and he had nearly given up on the radar scans. The Frogs were gone, probably for good, and they had taken Jacob Quinn with them.
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.