Space stretched toward infinity around the personnel shuttle Felicitas. Countless points of light burned steadily, as if staring down the entire human race with a wordless challenge. McBride stared back, lost in one thought or another. None of the other five people in the shuttle could guess what that thought was.
Jemison had given up trying long ago, and was currently engrossed in a novel which he had loaded into his hand computer. The four miners were all asleep, having spent the last three hours checking their equipment and trying to beat the computer at nine different variations of contract bridge. Chilled air drifted through the chamber, carrying with it the soft hum of the engines.
McBride felt a hand tapping his shoulder. He climbed out of his contemplation and turned to meet his copilot's gaze. "Yah."
"Do you have any idea what this means?" asked Jemison, offering the hand computer.
A passage had been highlighted. McBride read it and returned the unit with a smirk. "Kyle, you're incorrigible."
"Thinking about Miss Leefield?" Jemison inquired, without looking up.
"What makes you think I would be?"
"`Incorrigible'? You only talk like that when you're feeling good about yourself."
One of the miners stirred. McBride glanced back, then down at his console. "Looks like we're coming up on the waypoint."
Jemison put away his novel and took the controls, grumbling.
One pair of airtight boots landed on the paved surface, bringing with them the spacesuited body of Kyle-Bartelt Blue Jemison. He looked around, arms extended, turning at the waist, surveying the area between the landing pad and the relay station's main bunker. The reactionless pistol in his hand weighed next to nothing in the asteroid's fractional gravity, but its inertia still resisted his motions.
They had approached the station with their relay beacon activated and tuned to the automated landing frequency. Normally, the station's computers would have interfaced with the Felicitas' navigation systems and brought the shuttle down on autopilot, but there had been no signal coming from the asteroid. McBride had landed them manually while Jemison suited up and loaded his sidearm. It had been three months since he last fired it with hostile intent.
He stepped forward cautiously, still scanning the barren landscape for any sign of life. Unidentified vessels had recently been spotted around the populated sections of the Torus, usually near the robot fringe stations, but they had not disturbed any bases. The vehicles were definitely human; one Quintex telescoper had been able to photograph a loneboat with an Allison Aerospace rocket assembly. No one, however, knew who was driving these ships.
Or, no one wants to talk about it, thought Jemison as he took another step. Fine dust puffed around his feet as he continued toward the bunker, both hands clutching his weapon. Shadows fell across the harshly lit rock like spilt ink on a blank page.
McBride watched from inside the shuttle as the miners assembled their vacuum gear. The three men and one woman had received small arms training from Quintex, and everyone on the shuttle was a qualified pilot. Before his egress, Jemison had emptied the weapons locker and laid out holsters, pistols, extra magazines, and spare gas cartridges. McBride had promptly put his two magazines of nine-millimeter shells back into the locker. He knew he couldn't shoot straight to save his own life.
One of the miners, a wiry Martian-- the accent was unmistakable-- scratched his beard with one hand and snapped his holster into place with the other. "What's taking so long?"
"Just being cautious." McBride adjusted the gain on his monitor, brightening the image from Jemison's suit camera. He was currently examining the door to the bunker.
"The locks appear to be intact," said Jemison, freeing one hand to reach for the keypad. "I'm going to try the door."
He punched in the code which glowed on the interior of his faceplate, courtesy of a transmission from the Felicitas and a paper-thin display matrix. After a second, the light above the lock brightened from red to green, and the door began rolling aside. Jemison stepped back and brought his pistol up, steadying it with both hands.
Darkness filled the doorway. Jemison tilted his head, and the helmet-mounted floodlamp fought back the shadows. He saw equipment cabinets and immediately knew something was wrong.
"The inner door's been forced," he said, stepping forward, swinging his pistol back and forth.
"Don't move, Kyle. I'm coming out." McBride grabbed his helmet and gestured at the head miner. "You know how to fly this thing?"
"We'll bolt at the first sign of danger," promised the grinning Martian.
McBride and Jemison took fifteen minutes to secure the station. Jemison insisted that they search the entire building visually, and perform a sensor sweep for electromagnetic anomalies which might indicate explosives, monitoring devices, or other unwanted equipment. McBride let his partner put away the bulky scanning gear, and tried to access the main computer.
"No power." He flipped several switches, opened a panel, and flipped a few more. "Switching to batteries."
Jemison found a terminal and watched the screen as it sparked to life. "Great."
McBride sighed and trudged over. "Is anything working?"
"Not a jicking thing." A pair of gloved hands reached for an access hatch and popped it impatiently. "Scanners are dead. Telescope's locked in its dome." Jemison's eyes narrowed as he stared into the cabinet's innards. "And some idiot's ripped out half the computer."
Before he could re-open the toolbox, McBride extended an arm to stop him. "Wait. Where's the nearest rock?"
"About three kilometers. Why?"
"Someone doesn't want us to see something. Let's get out of here."
After they had departed the asteroid, radioed their findings to New Montana, and resupplied at another relay station, the Felicitas continued toward the mining colony. The remainder of the journey was uneventful, except for the fact that the miners came ten points short of winning a game of tiered-contract bridge against the computer. As McBride and Jemison began the return trip, Quintex notified the Felicitas that their report had been acknowledged and proper action was being taken. The pilots shrugged at each other, then switched on their telecom receiver, catching the end of an old motion picture followed by a newsfeed.
"I still think she should have stayed with Rick," grumbled Jemison as the movie ended.
"I'm not having this argument again."
The lead story on the newsfeed was about Project Skyscraper, Quintex and Ariane's joint undertaking to build a space station above the plane of the solar system. The station would be located on a chord between New Montana and Ariane's main settlement, City of Light: the two largest manned facilities in the Torus. The corporations would set navigation beacons on the path connecting those three points, providing a new and safer interplanetary trade route. The United Nations was still debating if and how it should regulate this project.
"Such a bland name, `Skyscraper,'" noted Jemison.
"I suppose you have a few ideas." McBride flipped to a financial report.
"`Blue Sky.' Definitely."
Date: Thu, 19 Aug 60 19:15:34 -0500 From: PRISM@beetle.oca.ariane.tor (Carolyn-Lane A. Leefield) Subject: Ships in the night To: "Leonard-Shou McBride" <email@example.com> Greets Leonard, Looks like we'll be seeing more of each other! I've been assigned to Project Skyscraper as part of the on-site management. Crew chief for the day shift, actually- I volunteered. Who wants to sit in a stuffy old office, right? You mentioned you might be also getting a new post. Anything worth telling? Love, Carolyn
A fierce glow illuminated the landing pad as the Madison Quinn lowered itself to City of Light, riding on pillars of cerulean flame. Thunder rumbled through the ceramic floor as the vessel touched down with as much grace as possible for something of its size and mass. Ariane Odyssey's honor guard, their helmet visors darkened by the light, strode forward and formed two lines on either side of the spacecraft's egress doors. The stylized "Q" painted on the loneboat's side split and disappeared as the irised portal rolled back, revealing the outer airlock doors.
Three seconds later, the lock finished its pressurization cycle, and steel alloy parted to reveal a man in his seventies, dressed in a simple blue blazer and marbled beige slacks. A forest-green collartie deepened the mahogany tint of his eyes, set in a strong face lined with many decades' worth of character. He carried a thin, black valise, which he transferred to his left hand as a white- suited attendant came to greet him.
"Welcome to City of Light, Mister Quinn," said the attendant as he shook hands with the CEO of Quintex Corporation. "May I take your bag?"
"No, thank you," replied Jacob-Martin Taggart Quinn, his speech carved by years of residency in the United Kingdom.
"We have a car waiting. This way, please."
It took ten minutes for the air tram to cruise from the spaceport to company headquarters, and the tubeway took them past several miles of the city, on both the exterior and interior of the asteroid. Jacob had seen it all before-- in fact, much of the colony looked remarkably like New Montana, except that lighting elements were far more prominent here. Ariane had built a menagerie of visible radiation, originally designed as a system of navigational beacons, but later becoming a distinct, stylistic emblem, like Quintex's blue-and-grey spacecraft markings.
His ears barely registered the continuous chatter of the attendant, who gave his name as Stobell. The valise seemed heavier every time it slapped against Jacob's legs, tossed by a tight turn or a slightly misaligned air column in the tubeway. Stobell provided an endless stream of largely useless information about City of Light's size, population, energy usage, tourist attractions, and history. The only words Jacob-Martin Quinn heard were "very excited about Project Skyscraper" and "lobster."
A veritable army of servants and aides greeted them at the Ariane Odyssey headquarters complex. Jacob found himself whisked to a bath chamber, where he made use of the mirror to ask himself what he was going to do about those new streaks of grey around his temples. After that brief morsel of privacy, he was guided to a sitting-room and told that Dr. and Mrs. Galza would be with him shortly. He smiled politely as the ornate wooden doors closed, and, understanding that he was supposed to admire the decor for a while, sighed and proceeded to do so. The Galzas' obsession with ceremony would always be a mystery to him.
The room was as big as a small hangar. Intricate frescoes covered the interior of the domed ceiling, depicting various historical figures and events. It took Jac a few moments to recognize them all. Christopher Columbus stepped onto a Salvadoran beach, waves lapping at his feet, the sun casting a long shadow onto the sand. Richard Byrd, nearly obscured by his coat and snow gear, planted a flag in the polar wastes. Joan of Arc pointed a sword toward heaven. August Caesar's fleet, their sails frozen in time, sailed toward Actium as Marc Antony fled. Lee and Grant stood face to face at Appomattox. Amelia Earhart smiled from the cockpit of the last plane she ever flew. Nameless astronauts, their suits bearing the Ariane Odyssey insignia, raised their arms as they stepped onto a Martian desert.
Books, shelved three meters high, lined two of the four walls. Quinn strolled past them, catching a few titles here and there: Plato's Republic, The Complete Grisham, Nietzsche and Mann, The Fire Next Time. The other two walls were display panels, currently showing Van Gogh's The Starry Night and a holograph of Michelangelo's David. As he stepped closer to examine the statue, it dissolved into a Chinese lion from the Forbidden City. It was public knowledge that Jenny Galza had arranged private display rights for several historical works of art from museums all over Earth, but Jacob never realized how much time and effort had been put into it.
A chime sounded as the doors opened again. Anthony- Bettner and Jennifer-Ford Galza entered, looking regal and refined. Quinn smiled through his embarrassment at being underdressed and extended a hand toward Tony, whose grin seemed to fill the room.
"Jac! How are you?" His tuxedo shone as if it had been polished, and his voice boomed like an orchestra. Eyes the color of a predawn Mediterranean sky peered out from a head chiseled to match his stocky figure. "It's been a while."
"Ten months, I think." Jacob's eyes drifted to Jennifer, who had chosen a modest but flattering emerald- green evening gown and piled her dark brown hair into a ruby- studded tower. He tried to remember her age and didn't believe he recalled it correctly. "How was the opera?"
She laughed, and Jacob thought there was something strange in the way Tony looked at her. "A reception for the Bosnian economic council. We like to dress up," said Jenny. "I see you have more important things on your mind."
"Er." Jac exaggerated a grimace. "Marvelous remodeling job."
Tony smiled with half his face. His public-relations facade was fading fast, as if he had lost the energy to maintain it. "Business is good. Hong Kong just sent us flowers. Oh, sorry we couldn't meet you at the spaceport."
"It's been very busy this past month," Jenny added after a pause. "So what do you think of our little settlement?"
"I'd hardly call it `little'," Jac replied. "City of Light is almost as large as New Montana."
"We'll outdo you yet," said Tony, falling onto an ornate, probably antique sofa. "A drink?"
"Just water, please." Jacob lowered himself into a chair.
Jenny frowned softly as she glided to the liquor cabinet and selected three glasses. "You're starting to sound like a Torie, Jac."
"Three years out here..." He sat down, watching her pour the liquids. City of Light's low gravity and exaggerated Coriolis effect made it an almost surgical task. "One learns to do without certain things."
Tony accepted a martini from his wife. "That's why we have transports, Jac. Bringing a bit of the old world to the new."
Jacob sipped at the contents of his glass. "Mineral water?"
"Only the best," assured Jenny, taking a seat beside her husband. "French. The export tariffs were horrendous."
"Alcohol is worse. And it dehydrates you," Jacob noted. "Bad thing when you're in open space for twenty days."
"But you don't spend weeks flying a boat, Jac," said Tony, staring into his drink. Jenny watched him. "We executives can afford to relax a little."
"Fate cares not for titles, my friend," intoned Jacob, theatrically. "When was your last certification on a loneboat?"
"Six weeks ago."
"Two." Jacob tapped his own chest with one finger. "Semper paratus, Tony. Never know what'll happen out here."
"Speaking of which," Anthony prompted, "you said you wanted to talk about the relay station."
"Yes." Quinn reached for his valise. "Since both our companies maintain the fringe stations, I thought we should discuss this latest incident in person."
"You're concerned about the loneboat sightings."
"I can accept random meteor impacts." A portable electronic notepad, not as bulky or versatile as a hand computer, emerged from the valise. "I won't abide pirates. We are all the authority there is out here, and it falls to us to maintain order."
"There haven't been problems before," said Jennifer.
"No." Tony put his glass down. "All we had before were full astros, but we've had to transport and train a lot more Earthers and Martians for Skyscraper. These people generally aren't as dedicated as the astros. They didn't come out here with the same mindset. I still wish we had fought the UN a bit harder, Jac."
"We've been over this, Tony." The Skyscraper Conference, held a year ago, had lasted nine weeks, with the companies' respective CEOs debating vigorously for most of that time. Jac had enjoyed the debates, but other people had insisted on getting real work done. "We need too many people, and we can't slow down our schedule." Five different shipping companies had already contracted to use the station.
"You remember the Holtz projections. A good bunch of astros can get the job done much faster than twice the number of Martians."
"Holtz?" Jacob squinted at Tony, then Jenny. She shrugged. "Martin Holtz could extrapolate the existence of God from the result of a coin toss. Most of our astros don't have the expertise needed for a project of this scale. And pulling five thousand people from all our other projects would be crippling."
Tony conceded the point. "Would it make a difference if these flatfoots didn't work out?"
"Don't say things like that. I'd hate to suspect you of something underhanded." Jacob offered the illuminated notepad, a touch-sensitive display surface surrounded by a grip frame.
Tony took the pad. Jenny peeked over his shoulder at a series of blurry images and said, "The loneboat sightings?"
Quinn nodded. Tony shifted in his seat, causing Jenny to move away.
"We've established that they're human. What are we looking at?"
"Those pictures were taken yesterday by the shuttle that discovered the dead station in sector 94305. The pilots thought that the ship might have been following them. It changed course and disappeared half a minute after they spotted it."
"So you think these might be the saboteurs?" Tony enlarged the image. "Does this match any previous images?"
"No." Jacob placed his hands on his legs. "We computer- enhanced the film. Take a look at panel six."
Jenny pointed at something. Tony muttered and touched the notepad. The display area shimmered, and a single spacecraft appeared. Tony drew a deep breath.
"I assure you, Jac, I know nothing about this." His eyes had darkened.
"But you will confirm that the loneboat pictured is an Ariane vehicle."
"Yes." The red-and-white hull imprint was unmistakable. He looked at his wife-- for the first time that evening, Jac realized. "It looks like one of our supply ships. We run ten of them a day between here and Mars."
"Has any of them disappeared or been stolen?" probed Jacob.
"Not that I know of."
"We would have been notified," Jenny remarked. "They carry supplies for this facility. We've been living here for months."
"Then," sighed Jacob, "it looks like someone's been moonlighting."
"Do any of these pictures show the registry number?"
"No. We already checked--"
A bell rang somewhere above them, and the doors parted to reveal a smartly dressed butler. Tony quickly turned the notepad away and acknowledged the elderly man with a gaze.
"Dinner," he pronounced thoughtfully, "is served."
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.