F   R   E   E   F   A   L   L

Welcome to the 21st Century.

[Home] [ STORY ] [Notes] [Download] [Contact]

A.D. 2060


Leonard-Shou Gibbon McBride frowned.
        He was seated in the cabin of a Quintex Corporation patroller, a short-range, one-man space vehicle used for security duty in the Torus. The spacecraft was currently several thousand kilometers from Mars' orbit, near the edge of the sprawling asteroid field. A high-band distress signal had brought him and his partner here, and McBride could now see the source: a loneboat whose main power had failed, apparently in tandem with a hull breach which had sent the vehicle into an uncontrolled spin.
        The loneboat was rotating fast enough to pin the pilot down, which made its tangential velocity at least twelve or thirteen meters per second. The motion of its center of gravity was negligible, and unnoticeable since the patrollers had matched velocity with the loneboat. Stopping the thing with two single-thrust drives would be tricky nonetheless. McBride moved his patroller up next to the loneboat while his partner flanked it on the opposite side.
        "That's about fifteen meeps tangential," reported Kyle- Bartelt Jemison, waving to McBride. "Two gees. Must be a tourist."
        "Roger that." Any astro would have been able to make simple repairs, at least a velocity correction, under two gravities. McBride punched up a tactical model on his screen. "See if he's still conscious. Ask him to shut off his distress call."
        Jemison parked his ship and flipped on the radio. McBride saw the red light on his console wink off a few seconds later, as the computer painted numbers and velocity vectors across his tactical display. He transmitted the information to Jemison and switched on his secondary gyrostabilizers. The two patrollers began moving in a tight circle, matching their velocities to the loneboat's spinning.
        "Rock and roll," came Jemison's voice. He had already informed the loneboat pilot of their planned rescue attempt; the cancellation of the distress signal had been an acknowledgment. Two gravities of acceleration pressed him against the back of his seat, and the loneboat seemed motionless beside him.
        "Shooters locked." McBride glanced at his clock. "Now- now-now."
        Four silver lines glinted against the blackness of interplanetary space, connecting the two patrollers to the disabled loneboat. Electricity flashed through the cables as soon as the clamps secured themselves to the vessel's hull, and blue flame roared from the patrollers' main engines. The three vessels slowed together in a mechanical ballet, whirling against a backdrop of silver-spotted darkness.
        Suddenly, the cables between the loneboat and Jemison's craft came loose, and the patroller lurched away from the other two ships. The entire assembly's center of gravity shifted before McBride could shut off his thrusters, and his patroller swung around the loneboat, still attached by the cables.
        "Jick!" swore Jemison as he doused the alert klaxon. His patroller came to a halt, spun around, and headed back toward the other two ships.
        McBride felt a jerk as the loneboat slammed into his cables, and quickly re-vectored his thrust to counteract the unexpected but predictable spin. He managed to halt it in a matter of seconds, and it occurred to him that the sudden stop might have injured the pilot. The loneboat hull was intact, but the radio antenna had just been crushed.
        A few keystrokes, and McBride's cables silently unlatched themselves and drifted toward the loneboat. He could see the gaping hole, where a cargo hold had blown out, as the boat drifted past the patroller's underside. They would have had to make a personal inspection anyway.
        Jemison had reeled his cables back in, and now fired his maneuvering jets to come up alongside McBride, who was matching the loneboat's course again. "Cable failure. We'd better check the electricals when we get back."
        "Right." McBride reset his board. "The antenna's dead. Is his laser working?"
        "It's a she, and her cooling systems are out."
        "Looks like a house call. You or me?"
        "Hey, I've got a wife and kid," said Jemison.
        McBride chuckled and reached for his helmet.

        The blue-and-grey patroller shrank behind McBride. His ebony eyes focused on one of the cables trailing behind the loneboat, and he placed his hand over the thin shape, centering it behind his heavy white glove. It grew larger as he watched with quiet patience, thinking of oceans and beaches. He had left Earth ten days ago, and he had spent most of the preceding month lying on a towel in Rio De Janeiro. He smiled as he remembered the rest of his vacation.
        His hand connected with the cable, and he made a fist and curled his legs toward his body. Inertia tugged on him as he stopped falling. Then his other hand came up, and he pulled himself toward the loneboat itself, slowly tightening the graceful arc inward, towing a medical kit and toolbox. Every astro was part gymnast, part deep-sea diver, and part fighter pilot.
        A dull noise rang in his ears as his boots magnetically attached themselves to the hull, and he stood up to wave to Jemison. Two steps put him at the mouth of the compromised cargo hold.
        "Definitely blown out," McBride observed, shining his helmet light into the hold. He saw warped fragments of metal supports and partitions. "The interior is intact. Looks like a structural failure."
        "Roger that." Jemison studied the schematic being displayed on his screen, wondering what could have happened to the loneboat. Most hull breaches were caused by rocks or debris smashing into and through a vessel.
        "Wait." McBride leaned forward. Something whitish was reflecting light from parts of the mangled compartment. "There's ice in here."
        "Water?" Jemison began programming a crude simulation. "Coolant failure?"
        "Possibly. See if there was an airlock into that hold." The suited figure stood upright again. "I'm heading forward."
        Every step was a minor battle. McBride passed a registry number and the insignia of Ariane Odyssey on his way to the main airlock. The only sounds were his own breathing and the clanging of his boots against bare hull: the sounds of space. He began humming to himself. Jemison grimaced in anticipation of the inevitable singing. Thankfully, McBride turned his radio off first.
        Giant steps are what you take / Walking on the moon / I hope my legs don't break / Walking on the moon...
        Two verses and three key changes later, he was standing on the loneboat's passenger module. The cabin windows had been silvered over to reflect lasers and radar. McBride fished a wrench from his toolkit and rapped three times on the airlock's outer door. A moment later, yellow lights began flashing around the portal. He put away his wrench and took a step back, waiting for the airlock to cycle.

        "What the hell are you idiots doing?" the woman snapped as the inner door opened. McBride blinked, cradling his helmet under his left arm. "You nearly broke my neck!"
        "Sorry. Electrical problems." He made a visual inspection of the cabin, a somewhat cramped white box. "Do you require medical attention?"
        "I said `nearly.'" The pilot tried to stare him down with pale blue eyes, then shook her head briefly and extended her left hand. "No. Carolyn-Lane Leefield, Ariane Odyssey."
        McBride grasped the offered hand, noting that she was not ignorant of Torie custom. "Leonard-Shou McBride, Quintex Torus."
        They stared at each other for a scarce moment. Leefield was easily as tall as McBride, who had "grown" four centimeters since taking up residence in the Torus. Her lithe form still seemed stockier than McBride's, and her shoulder-length hair-- a pleasant shade of brown, Leonard thought-- was too long for her to be anything but an Earther. Nonetheless, McBride had been an Earther once, and he could appreciate the musculature. Leefield's annoyance momentarily dulled her alertness, allowing McBride's eyes to wander more than they should have.
        "Was that you singing outside?"
        "No. Maybe you should get your hearing checked..." McBride blinked. "How's the boat?"
        "My main power is out. Batteries will last another four hours." Leefield nodded toward the rear of the vessel. "I need to repair two generators and reset the reactor."
        McBride nodded and swung the toolkit behind his back. "Let's park this thing first."
        Jemison had slaved the other patroller to his own and finished running simulations. He transmitted the results for McBride and Leefield to see. "Assuming the hold was full of boiling water, it's possible that the cargo airlock blew out."
        Leefield sighed. "The hold was water-cooled. I blew out the airlock manually."
        McBride gave her a puzzled look. "Just for laughs?"
        "The cargo was destabilizing after I lost power. I had to get rid of it." She was obviously embarrassed, either by the fact of the accident or the circumstances of her rescue. McBride knew better than to ask what she had been transporting, or why the explosives had been placed so they would rip out the entire wall of the hold.
        "Should we be going after your cargo?" asked Jemison, causing McBride to wince. His partner still hadn't mastered the art of non-conversation.
        "The crates have their own homing beacons. The company will retrieve them."
        "Let's full-stop the boat, Kyle," ordered McBride.
        "Wilco." The channel closed with a snap. Leefield strapped herself into the pilot's seat as McBride pushed himself toward the other chair.

        "I tell you, something's going on."
        Six hours had passed since McBride and Jemison had finished repairs on the Ariane loneboat and returned to their home base on the asteroid New Montana. Transparent bubble domes and docking ports lined the exterior of the giant rock, which had been mined and hollowed out and was now home to several thousand Quintex Corporation employees and their families. The two security officers sat in a booth on the spaceward side of the company cafeteria, enjoying the view of the stars and steaming mugs of coffee.
        "Kyle, you're too paranoid for your own good." McBride shook his head, short black hair waving in New Montana's low gravity, and took another gulp of his coffee. The hot liquid rolled a tingling sensation across the surface of his tongue.
        "Think about it." Jemison leaned forward conspiratorially, his dark, African features gaining shadows. "That loneboat came from Mars. Where was it going?"
        "Jupiter. Ariane's got a new base on Io." The moons of Jupiter had recently become the latest fad in commercial ventures, and Ariane, as usual, was jumping on the bandwagon.
        "And what was it hauling?"
        McBride shrugged, resigning himself to his fate.
        "Something which began destabilizing when main power failed. She said that the hold was water-cooled. So the power plant runs an environmental control system for the cargo."
        "The only problem is," offered McBride, "anything that important would have its own backups, in the crates themselves."
        Jemison nodded, pausing to take a sip of coffee before continuing. "Unless they wanted her to lose the cargo."
        McBride squinted almond-shaped eyes at his companion. "Come again?"
        "Why assign an Earther to pilot a loneboat? Right now the trip takes about a week, at one gee, to get from Mars to Jupiter. A dozen things might go wrong in that time. Ariane's got plenty of trained astros; why not send one of them?
        "I'll tell you why," he continued before McBride could respond. "Either they wanted someone trained in espionage, or they wanted someone who would have trouble fixing a dead loneboat. Someone who would guarantee that the cargo was jettisoned into space."
        "What's the advantage of dumping your cargo several hundred thousand kilometers from your destination?" wondered McBride.
        "Maybe you don't really want the cargo to reach Jupiter." A slightly wicked twinkle had come into Jemison's preternaturally hazel eyes. "Maybe what's on the manifest isn't really what's in the crates, and you want to lose it for someone else to pick up."
        "So you're suggesting that Ariane is now into smuggling." The company had endured its share of scandals, but they had never done anything illegal. Anthony Galza was as well-respected and sometimes feared as Jacob Quinn, Quintex's own CEO.
        Jemison shrugged. "The only things I know of which would need to exist in a regulated environment are controlled substances and biological samples."
        "C'mon, Kyle," McBride sighed, "it was probably just breeder-grade plutonium. Calm down."
        A laugh rumbled from Jemison's chest, wrinkling the khaki fabric of his uniform. "Len, you just don't think about these things enough."
        "I think about them plenty. I don't take them seriously."
        "Conspiracies exist," insisted Jemison. "Sometimes, when something gets big enough to cover the sky, you begin to believe that it is the sky."
        "You miss clouds," McBride decided. Jemison had emigrated from Earth just over a year ago, to explore new employment in the Torus, and still fell into his old habits occasionally. His wife and daughter had assimilated more easily, presumably because they had not been thrust into a null-gravity vehicle and told to fly reconnaissance missions through mostly empty space.
        "I miss daylight," said Jemison. "You're trying to change the subject."
        "Yes." McBride reached a hand into his shirt pocket and produced a small piece of plastic. He slid it across the table with a smirk.
        "`Carolyn-Lane Leefield'," Jemison read aloud. "`Ariane Odyssey, Project Skyscraper.' Len, you old dog."
        McBride grinned and dropped the card back into his pocket. "Let's talk about... football."

        Three-quarters of a century ago, the Californian billionaire Madison Quinn died, bequeathing the family business to his only child, Katherine. Within two decades, she had merged Quinn Textiles with two technology firms, dubbed the conglomerate Quintex International, and married a dedicated stargazer. In the same time, the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration had completed its Phoenix orbital vehicle project, put Space Station Freedom into orbit, and sent two unmanned probes to Mars.
        The next half-century saw an enormous surge in the exploration of space. The European Space Agency became privatized and renamed itself Ariane Odyssey, after its most successful launch vehicle. Mir, the Russian space station, added three internationally managed modules and became the first permanent orbital spaceport. Quintex International expanded, becoming Quintex Corporation, and entered the computer and astronautics industries.
        Ariane Odyssey established the first manned base on Mars and began scouting the asteroids of the Torus for possible mining and settlement. Quintex established the first permanent lunar base, and helped NASA develop its Gryphon interplanetary vehicle. Dozens of private companies set up stations on the Moon, establishing the first major colony in the solar system. People began taking up permanent residence off the Earth.
        The assassination of General Secretary Samuel Gregory panicked the United Nations, which set up a lunar colony and relocated its headquarters in record time. Nearly all of Earth's industrialized nations signed the United Nations Space Fleet Treaty, turning a good quarter of the lunar surface into a base of operations for a military organization which answered to one planet but no single nation. NASA became part of UNSF, and the Treaty favored defense over exploration.
        Quintex constructed a Mars base within Ariane's biosphere. While UNSF built a navy, the two corporate giants collaborated to mine the Torus, also colonizing New Montana, New Burgundy, City of Light, and a host of other large rocks. Private companies developed a myriad of interplanetary spacecraft, expediting the spread of human civilization through the Torus. The asteroid belt had become the new frontier, and "Tories" soon gained a reputation for being independent, intelligent, and capitalist. People began saying, perhaps melodramatically, that the last days of federalism were at hand, and the future would belong to those who had escaped the cradle of Earth.

        The display blinked and lit up with the information Jemison had requested. McBride slid a data disc into the recording circuit, which hummed for a second. A green lamp winked on, indicating that the computer had finished printing their mission briefing.
        "Escort duty," Jemison read as McBride dropped the disc into one of his many pockets. They started back toward the other side of the hangar, where they had been working on their patrollers. "Four miners on a fringe survey. Looks like I'll get to finish that book after all."
        McBride wiped a hand on his blue coveralls. "Do you get the feeling we're being punished?"
        "Punished?" A knowing smile tugged at Jemison's mouth. "What could they possibly want to punish us for?"
        Everybody in New Montana remembered, of course. McBride and Jemison, Echo Section's best pilots, had gone temporarily insane and driven Quintex's prized VF-42 defenders within five meters of twelve asteroids during the company's last astronautics exhibition. Though several million people were suitably impressed by this demonstration, Jacob-Martin Taggart Quinn had immediately ordered the demotion of the pair. The CEO was highly protective of his company's spacecraft.
        McBride and Jemison had never been able to fully explain their actions, even after a formal inquiry and dozens of informal conversations. Of course, the doctors found nothing mentally or physically wrong, and the security office had spoken well enough of them to keep them with Quintex. Their current answer to any question about the incident was that sometimes, you have to do something crazy to make sure you can still tell the difference.
        They usually ate lunch alone.
        "I suppose we deserve it," sighed McBride as they reached the patrollers. "Damn stupid stunt."
        Jemison pulled open a hatch and paused. "Fun, though. And we thought of it all by ourselves..."
        "Well." McBride grinned broadly. "Where'd you put the new APUs?"
        "Port side, your ship." The shorter man sat down beside a cooling element. "So what's going on with you and Miss Derelict?"
        "Nothing at all." McBride swapped a new ancillary processing unit into his patroller's forward radar computer.
        "Those repairs took an awful long time," mused Jemison, opening a heat sink.
        McBride gave him a disapproving look. "You don't get out much, do you, Kyle?"
        "`Out' is a vacuum. You didn't talk to her?"
        "The conversation was limited to reactor cores and generator housings."
        "You planning to stay in touch?"
        "Do you know how much a call to Io costs?"
        "There's always E-mail." Countless communication satellites in the Solar System provided many services, not the least of which was sustaining the Internet. It still surprised some that Tories would support such a socialist system, but the fact was that it worked, and capitalists tend to be pragmatic as well as greedy.
        "Do you have a life of your own, Kyle?" McBride restarted the forward radar and watched its test lights cycle from red to yellow to green.
        "Yes, but it's not nearly as interesting as yours."
        "Ah, self-esteem problems too."
        Jemison waved an air filter at his friend. "When's the last time you fell in love?"
        "About ten hours ago. Is this conversation going to continue?"
        "No, thank you."


[Home] [ STORY ] [Notes] [Download] [Contact]   FREEFALL

Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.
Last modified: 28 Jun 1996