Over one billion years ago, two varieties of intelligent life evolved on a medium-sized planet orbiting a yellow sun in the Milky Way galaxy. The two species, both bipedal, developed tools and civilization, and eventually met each other while exploring the same desert continent. They discovered war, and as their aggressions escalated over the centuries, so did their technologies. In a cataclysmic final battle, one species fired a fusion-inducing device into the planet's sun. Barely a handful of spacecraft escaped the orbiting weapons platforms before the sun went nova, three local years later.
The fleet of spacecraft which escaped were completely self-contained, equipped to sustain several generations while they journeyed toward an unknown destination. The pilots set a course for the galactic core, in the hopes that the denser star population would yield a habitable world before the ships exhausted their internal resources. Hundreds of years passed, and by the time a suitable planet was found, the inhabitants of the fleet did not want to leave their vessels.
No one on any of the ships had ever lived on anything other than a spacecraft, and the notion of living on a planet had become alien to them. They mined the worlds of the star system for their metals, restocked their ships' supplies of flora and fauna with new specimens, repaired their usable ships, and built new vessels to accommodate a larger population. When they were done, they fired another fusion inducer into the sun, and rode the shock wave of the nova even further into the galactic core, seeking other points of interest.
The light from that exploding star spread quickly, eventually thinning to less than one photon for every cubic light-year, each particle hurtling into the void at the speed of light, their velocities bent only occasionally by a black hole or a particularly dense neutron star. Several lifetimes later, a single photon angled into the Sol system and struck the faceplate of a Quintex astronaut, who had no idea of the history behind his increasing entropy.
Other light sources glowed all around him as he fitted another piece of scaffolding into place. At the center of the web-like structure floated the marker buoy, blinking bright red and continuously broadcasting a navigation beacon. Technicians had replaced its three sets of batteries every four months since a year ago, when Ariane and Quintex had decided on this site for Project Skyscraper and launched the grayish object into a solar orbit. For months, it had been a lonely cry in the measureless dark, but now it was the center of more attention than it deserved.
Robot mechanics putted around the dully glinting frame, finding the radio markers which human astros had set and replacing them with equipment boxes. Skyscraper was already a fully functional radio relay station; soon it would also be rigged for laser communications. The bustle of activity made it impossible for any single person or machine to keep track of every addition to the still-growing skeleton. A single droid had fallen through the interplanetary void several weeks before, when the only watchers around Skyscraper were dumb keeperbots, and joined the mechanical population in waiting for their masters.
Now, as the droid reprogrammed a communication module and radioed its success back to its own master, an astro noticed the strange transmission. He called a colleague over to the droid, which had begun drifting away from the scaffold. When they reached the robot, its innards had been melted into an unrecognizable mess. They removed the module which had been tampered with and found two more similarly compromised. Several hours of inspection later, they concluded that the remaining modules were intact. They were wrong.
"You won't believe where we're going," said Jemison as he sat down and placed a hand computer on the table, next to McBride's meager lunch. "Is that all you're having?"
"I'm trying to lose weight," McBride lied. After reading the computer display, he said, "You're right. I don't believe it."
Robert-Gill Price shared an ancestor with Jacob-Martin Quinn, his current employer. However, since the ancestor in question was related only through a rather embarrassing and later arduously concealed extramarital affair, neither man knew this bit of trivia. Jacob Quinn had met Price only twice, the first time when Price was hired and the second when he had requested that McBride and Jemison be discharged for negligent conduct while piloting Quintex spacecraft-- namely, the company's new VF-42 defenders. Quinn and Price had then shared a protracted conversation, which resulted in McBride and Jemison being demoted one pay grade and rank.
After that last meeting, Price had gained a slightly perplexed but healthy respect for Quinn. Thus there were no objections when Price received the personnel roster for his escort detail. Twelve one-man patrollers, six each from Ariane and Quintex, would accompany an Ariane transport convoy on its way to Skyscraper Point. It was more ceremony than anything else, but with the new evidence of pirates in the Torus, both companies had begun to tighten their security measures. Price would be leading a group of five officers, including the infamous McBride and Jemison.
Since the orders had been circulated, five hours ago, all three remaining members of the escort party had come to Price with complaints. Anderson and Golino arrived together, to reiterate their lack of respect for the two rogues, and wonder aloud as to why they hadn't been fired outright after that incident with the VF-42's. Price had smiled thinly, nodded, and sent them on their way. He didn't need to explain anything; they just wanted to make sure he knew how they felt.
Warlow had come alone, and had spoken in that quiet but forceful voice of hers. Price had almost been persuaded to tell why McBride and Jemison were still with Quintex, but settled for weaving a tale about their skills overshadowing their insubordination, especially since it had been their first offense. She had left the office with a marginally less suspicious look on her face.
Price sighed and locked the door behind Warlow. No matter how trusted his officers were, rumors were impossible to control on an enclosed settlement like New Montana. The fact that Jacob Quinn had told Price meant a great deal, and he was not about to contest the decision of the second richest man alive. Orders were orders.
Seven hours after the six Quintex fighter craft left New Montana, they received a distress call from the Ariane convoy.
"Any ship within range, this is Ariane frigate Kilimanjaro." The voice cut into each officer's mind like a garrote. "We are under attack, repeat, under attack by unidentified vessels! We need help! Any ship within range..."
Price punched up his tactical display. They were still three hours from their rendezvous, at a constant acceleration of half a gee. "Golino, McBride, pull ahead at two gees, cycling to three. Open a channel when you get there, and keep it open."
The two pilots radioed their acknowledgment and fired their reheat thrusters. Behind them, the remaining three fighters slowly increased their acceleration to a full gee.
Four hours later, it was over. Three unidentified loneboats, running without navigational telemetry, had intercepted the Ariane convoy and disabled four of their fighters before the escort could respond. The fact that the security forces were unaccustomed to open combat in interstellar space worked in the attackers' favor. Their fusion drives finished off the last two Ariane fighters, and two of the eight Ariane frigates had been heavily damaged before the Quintex detail arrived.
The doomed security escort's messages had prepared Price's team for the enemy's tactics, but they arrived too late. The pirates had escaped with several million dollars' worth of parts and equipment, and caused many times that amount in damage, not counting loss of life. Golino and McBride had arced off in pursuit. Price assessed the situation and ordered them back.
"Sir, we can catch them," protested Golino.
"And then what?" Price watched rescue crews pulling in an unconscious Ariane pilot. "One of those fusion reheats could take out both of you in half a second. Turn around. We got some good photos."
McBride closed the channel. "He's right."
"Yeah," Golino grumbled. Since when do you give up this easily?
The term "loneboat" was a misnomer. Loneboats could easily accommodate up to four people for several days, and would sustain one person for up to a month. It was the fact that these ships spent most of their days alone in the interplanetary voids that had given them their name. Smaller, truly one-man craft were called "defenders," or just "'fenders," mainly because they were usually security ships, but also because they seemed to be constantly defending themselves from the hazards of space.
Skyscraper's gravity ring was still under construction. McBride met Leefield at her loneboat, parked a good kilometer from the heart of the seemingly continuous activity. This position offered a clear view of the entire structure, which was slowly taking shape and starting to look like something an intrepid child might have built out of wire, matchsticks, and pencil erasers. The absence of gravity was every architect's dream, and it showed.
"We meet again," Leefield said by way of greeting. McBride noted that her smile had become less sarcastic.
"Is that a professional comment, or a personal one?"
She shrugged. "I hear we had some excitement at the rendezvous."
"Yes." McBride began peeling off his pressure suit. "What is your rank here, anyway?"
"Crew chief, Bravo shift. We're installing gravity systems. That's Delta shift out there now, installing the auxiliaries." She gestured toward the bubble above her cockpit, the largest viewing portal in the loneboat. "The convoy lost three hundred million in ships and equipment. What happened?"
McBride frowned. "I didn't know those 'fenders were so expensive."
"Nothing but the best." Leefield settled herself against a wall. "At least it was all insured. That'll take the edge off it, but still..."
"They surprised your escort. Nobody was expecting to be attacked." McBride stowed his suit in a closet. "Why should we? Looting relay stations, flying without telemetry-- that's stupid, but not dangerous. We thought they were petty criminals, and we'd catch them eventually."
"They hit us just when we were expecting nothing." She stared at a chronometer. "But our escort should have been better prepared."
McBride said nothing, remembering Price's words. You won't tell a single person, any of you. Galza will deal with his people, but no Quintex personnel other than the six of us knows anything of this. Let's keep it that way.
"Well," said Leefield, finally, "how about some dinner?"
Jemison sulked in his fighter, sipping at a ball of orange juice. At least we know why The Old Man wanted Len and me on this detail. He and McBride had snapped that picture of the Ariane shuttle tailing them last week, on the way back from the mining colony trip, and Price had ordered them to keep it quiet. No doubt he had then taken it to Quinn, who trusted McBride and Jemison to see what he could not. That's why he and Len were still here, after all...
The radio buzzed. It was Warlow, currently parked a few hundred meters from Jemison. Anderson and Golino had moved to Skyscraper's outer perimeter, replacing the lost Ariane security forces, and were circling like nervous watchdogs.
"Still envying McBride?" Warlow asked, with a wry smile.
"I'm married," replied Jemison.
"So you are." She paused, studying her controls. "What do you suppose the Galzas are doing about now?"
"Running around in little circles, probably."
"Kind of a fitting irony, though." Warlow glanced at a passing mechanic. "After all, Ariane did oppose the hiring of Earthers for this project, and now..."
"Warlow," Jemison warned.
"I know, I know. Forget it."
The conversation moved on to other subjects, and eventually ended when Anderson called for Warlow to replace him on patrol. Jemison watched the 'fender slip out of its assigned space and arc gracefully above the station, disappearing into the darkness.
It was hard for all of them, not talking to anyone about this latest development. They'd probably spend hours in the same room, all six of them, debriefing each other and speculating on what would happen next. The pictures would have come in by then, and they could all confirm what each wanted, in some way, to deny. But the pirates had been using Ariane shuttles. McBride and Golino had clearly seen the paint schemes, and engineers would easily be able to identify hull shapes and other unique details from the photos. Ariane didn't sell its shuttles to other corporations.
By tomorrow afternoon, it would be a severely protected fact. That made it no less a fact, but put a heavy burden on its keepers. He must have suspected, Jemison thought. The Old Man must have suspected that the pirates would attack. Why?
The answer came sooner than he thought it would.
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.