Io Station glittered in the fading sunlight, as it crossed the terminator into the moon's shadow. One telescope operator gave a low whistle as a particularly violent eruption lit up several square kilometers of the volcanic surface. The orbiting platform had a spectacular view of one of the most destructive wonders of the solar system.
Of course, there was also routine monitoring to be done. The robot stations on the surface were mainly for measuring seismic activity; most of the important things happened in orbit. Another scoper, fending off boredom, watched a long-dead actor stumble across the display screen in a flurry of dance. Her computer terminal purred softly to itself, calmly processing the billions of pixels which arrived from the telescope port every second. It had been programmed to record any anomalous flickers, glows, or glimmers which could not be matched to scheduled spacecraft or known astronomical phenomena.
June-Garner Bergan had thought living in the Torus would be more exciting than it had turned out to be. Adapting to the physical environment had been fun, but the job-- almost a year old now-- presented no more challenging than her previous occupation at Lick Observatory, and the Tories at Io Station were an arrogant bunch. Despite her obvious qualifications and dedicated acceptance of a zee-gee lifestyle, they still tended to sneer at her too-long hair and gravity-sculpted figure, and those who didn't sneer, leered. Some things never changed.
The terminal whistled loudly, causing June to start. Something large enough to be hazardous was moving into a shipping lane. She cursed whatever idiot it was who had forgotten to file an accurate flight plan, switched off the movie, and looked at the screen. Ten seconds later, she locked the telescope to track its targets and started taking photographs. Twenty minutes after that, City of Light received the first of the pictures. Within an hour, Anthony Galza had contacted Jacob Quinn to request another private meeting.
"We were going to follow the shuttles," said Galza, "but all three of them have disappeared. They dove into Saturn's rings and went cold."
"After attacking a convoy and killing five men? I should think so." Jacob-Martin Quinn tried to speak without showing the tension that had knotted his gut.
Anthony-Bettner Galza was half limp, floating in the aft compartment of the Madison Quinn like a diver at rest. Even in the weightlessness of space, he seemed to have an intense burden on his shoulders, and the lines of his face agreed.
"Here's the vid," he sighed after a long moment of contemplation. The wall beside him came to life with the image of an astronaut, the torso of his spacesuit ruptured, slowly wheeling before a background of stars. The self- sealing material of the suit had congealed around his heart, pulling his arms inward into a grim mockery of a hunchback.
"Dear God." Quinn had only seen a dead man like this once before, and that had been a construction accident. "One of yours?"
"One of ours." Galza paused the display. "Io Station recorded this last night, after the body drifted into a shipping lane and triggered the alarms. The operator had enough sense to turn a radio receiver in that direction after she found the position and range. She got two signals back.
"The first was this man, Harold-Donat Gramble." He gestured at the image on the wall. "He was the pilot assigned to the Zbigniew Neumad, one of the three shuttles which intercepted our convoy yesterday.
"Here is the second." Galza touched the wall, and the display changed to another dead astronaut, spinning in the opposite direction. His helmet had been cracked by some impact, and what was left of his head had frozen in the interstellar cold.
Quinn shuddered. "Another pilot?"
"Jonas-Pike Millen. The copilot of the Zbigniew Neumad."
"Your shuttles only carry two men," came the vocalized thought.
"We only put two men on them. Someone must have stowed away and killed them after they launched." Galza shut off the screen. "We checked our records. Gramble and Millen, and the crews of the other two stolen shuttles, have been checking in on schedule, up until yesterday morning, twelve hours before the attack. Visual and audio records all match. Whoever killed these two did it less than thirty-six hours ago."
"But there was a loneboat tailing Felicitas. Confederates?"
Galza chewed his bottom lip. "Both these men must have had some reason to suit up." A very limited number of things could make an astro put on a suit and wander outside the relative safety of his spacecraft. "Either a deception, or an emergency on the outer hull."
"Who would want to steal Ariane shuttles?" Quinn wondered aloud.
"I was hoping you might have an idea." Galza looked at Quinn intently. "Jac, how did you know they would attack the convoy?"
The question caused Quinn to blink. "I didn't know."
"But you had a good idea." The gaze hardened to a glare. "You put Jemison and McBride in the escort. I can see two reasons for that. One, they photographed the loneboat you showed me last weekend. Two, they investigated that dead relay station. There was information about one or both of those things that you didn't want to propagate unnecessarily."
This elicited a nod. "Keeping the loneboat photo quiet was a matter of professional courtesy. If someone had stolen that shuttle, and the same someone wanted to attack you, they'd probably use the same ships. It's going to be hard enough keeping six people shushed--"
"Why did you think they would attack us?" Galza hissed impatiently.
"They didn't steal the right things from the relay station." Quinn fixed his counterpart with a hard stare. "Power supplies, but only small ones and backup units. Computer parts, but not the main memory. And some scanning equipment."
"What the hell's so strange about that?"
"I'll show you the report, Tony, but you could get the same stuff in any electronics store. And for considerably less than it would cost to fly a ship to a relay station and sabotage it. Either they were unable to get it anywhere else, or else they specifically wanted Quintex equipment. But those components are standard for half the monitoring systems in the Torus. There are much easier ways to obtain it.
"But let's assume that piracy was the only way these people could get the equipment. What do they want it for? Studying Ariane technology? Building their own systems? They'd need more than one relay station could provide. And raiding the convoy, while it might be more dangerous, would be much faster than hopping around asteroids. Besides, if they did that, we'd catch on to them eventually. We had already found the dead station; they couldn't waste any more time."
Galza shook his head. "You've assumed far too much."
"But I was right." And if I know-- the thought came unbidden-- so must Jemison and McBride.
The CEO of Ariane Odyssey stared at the floor for a moment. "If you're right, they must have been monitoring our coded transmissions. They would have to be Ariane employees, but if they were, they would have easier ways to steal this equipment. Why not hijack the frigates directly from City of Light?"
"They may have been Quintex employees," Quinn said, in a low voice. "Or collaborating with someone who later double- crossed them. But all codes can be cracked, if you have the equipment and the initiative."
"And luck. I appreciate your objectivity, Jac, but it doesn't make sense. There's no reason for Quintex personnel to go to the trouble of stealing Ariane ships when it would be easier to commandeer one of your loneboats."
"Quintex doesn't run shuttles ten times a day from the Torus to Mars. That's a lot of space to lose a ship in-- it would be easier for someone who wasn't based in the Torus."
The two men looked at each other, neither one wanting to offer the inevitable conclusion. All the evidence they had pointed in no distinct direction, but they could not avoid the thought.
"What about the droid we found at Skyscraper?" Quinn probed, almost desperately.
"Could have come from anywhere. It was trying to tap into our monitor systems."
Another heavy silence ensued. Each man avoided the other's eyes, perhaps afraid of the reflection he might see there.
"Have you contacted the United Nations?" asked Quinn, finally.
"No." Galza folded his hands behind his neck. "It just doesn't make sense, Jac."
"Those wounds..." Quinn gathered his nerve. "They were vicious, Tony. Any astro would have cut their air supply. It's still murder, but a Torie wouldn't waste energy like that."
"Even if it was flatfoots, they should have known better! It's obvious that no Torie would blast someone's head open like that. It almost looks like a planned misdirection."
"No Earther would be that stupid, and neither Earther nor Torie would need to steal." Quinn shook his head morosely. This mystery became more inexplicable with every clue.
"I've sent ships to retrieve the bodies." Galza rubbed his eyes. "Maybe they'll tell us more."
"Tomorrow morning. I'll contact you."
Kyle-Bartelt Jemison's brown skin glistened under the soft lighting, which left reflections in the limpid pools of his eyes. The fingers of his left hand rested lightly on the table. His right hand held a novel which barely managed to keep his attention away from his unwilling companions.
To his left, Leonard-Shou McBride had closed his eyes and was either sleeping or thinking about Carolyn-Lane Leefield. As usual, nobody could tell.
Across the table, Golino and Anderson were playing chess on a hand computer, their respectively sand- and mud- colored hair ruffled lightly by the ventilators behind them. They had settled into a sort of routine: make a move, wait a moment, look around the table, glare at McBride and/or Jemison, think, repeat. Jemison had been ignoring them, and McBride had stopped watching after Golino lost a knight to an ancient Kasparov ploy.
On Jemison's right, at the head of the table, Warlow sat by herself, contemplating a new program she was working on for her patroller's main computer. The compiler was still returning errors around the middle of her image- processing function. She called up the manual entry on an esoteric signal-routing command and started reading again.
The five officers had been quarantined in Conference Room Three for the better part of two days, after being debriefed by three security chiefs, including Price, and spoken to by Jacob-Martin Quinn himself. Each astro had written two reports, one for public record and one to be kept by the security department only. The latter was, of course, more detailed, and had kept McBride and Golino busy for most of the last day. Everyone else had grumbled relentlessly.
For a Torie, who has chosen to live in the limitless expanse of outer space, any sort of confinement is akin to imprisonment. When his rights to privacy and freedom of choice are curtailed, the injury is even more deeply felt. Corporations like Quintex and Ariane provided a community of sorts, but in the end, every Torie was alone-- and liked it that way.
Being kept together was supposed to allow all five of the officers to share their thoughts, and to support each other emotionally. However, Jacob-Martin Quinn, no matter how much time he had spent in the Torus, still thought like an Earther. A Torie wanted to be alone with his thoughts, as he was alone for most of his life. He enjoyed his independence. There had been conversation, but eventually the one group of five had become five groups of one each.
Shortly after noon, the Madison Quinn docked at New Montana. Price met Quinn at the spaceport, and the two men went immediately into a conference with four other high- ranking Quintex officials. Two hours later, six copies of a verbose legal document were made and sent down to Conference Room Three.
"Good afternoon to you all," said Jacob-Martin Quinn as he sat down at the head of the table in Conference Room Three. Price followed him in and locked the door.
There was a pause as the five officers tried to gauge Quinn's expression. They had just received the contracts five minutes ago, and had not had time to read through the document. Most Tories were suspicious of legal obligations, since they implied a distrust between the parties involved. Every astro needs to be able to trust a partner with his life.
"You've all received the contracts," Quinn continued, placing a hand on his copy and opening it. "You'll have time to read through it later, but let me summarize what it says now.
"We're going to go after the pirates." Eyebrows went up around the room. "`We' being Anthony-Bettner Galza and myself. As you all know, UNSF will not intervene in civilian affairs, and there is no established law enforcement agency in the Torus. The UN JAG office at Sandburg, Mars has granted us investigatory authority in this matter." Quinn held up a single sheet of paper, imprinted with a holographic bar code and the digital signatures of the UN Attorney General and the UNSF commander in chief of Saturn sector.
"Anthony and I are taking leaves of absence to avoid any possible conflicts of interest. Jennifer Galza and Frank Dao will assume our executive responsibilities while we're gone. Obviously, we'll require some assistance-- good pilots, good astros-- but we don't want the information about these pirates to spread and cause a panic. There are two parts to the contract: in the first, you agree to abide by Quintex's judgment as to when this information should be made public. The second part is an application for a leave of absence from your jobs, with appropriate compensation.
"As you know, your contracts with Quintex do not require you to engage in activity which would be unnecessarily life-threatening to you, above and beyond the normal dangers of living in the Torus. Therefore you cannot agree to help Dr. Galza and myself as employees of Quintex. You will need to volunteer your services as private citizens. As CEO of Quintex, I can appropriate some equipment and supplies, but this will not be a company mission."
"Excuse me, sir," said McBride, breaking the rhythm. It got everybody's attention.
"Yes, Mr. McBride." Quinn looked at him thoughtfully.
"By sending us to escort the Ariane convoy, you've already violated the terms of our employment contracts." McBride ignored Jemison's glare.
"We didn't know the convoy would be attacked."
"But you had strong suspicions."
The CEO of Quintex folded his hands. "At any time after the distress call came in, you could have decided that the situation was too hazardous and declined to continue the mission."
"You were obligated to explicitly offer us that choice."
Now, Quinn smiled. "You're not stupid, Leonard. Are you planning to sue?"
"No," the other man replied, "but someone else might."
"We're prepared for that. Worry about something that concerns you." Quinn patted the contract. "I'll give you all some time to look this over. Let Mr. Price know when you've reached a decision. He has already signed.
"And," he said as he stood, "I would ask each of you to remember Hong Kong."
McBride's paternal grandmother had died in the Hong Kong Riots of 2002, less than an hour before Quintex security forces had broken the Chinese blockade and begun evacuating the city. He skimmed the contract again and signed, twice, as Quinn and Price departed. Jemison waited until the door had closed, then spoke loudly.
"What the hell was that all about?" he demanded. "Are you trying to get on the Old Man's bad side, or are you just stupid?" His eyes spoke volumes more.
"He's not my boss anymore, Kyle." McBride held up his signed contract. "Not for the next month, anyway."
"We don't have to do this," Anderson said, leaning forward. "The old man said it himself. We don't sign, there's not a damned thing they can do to us. Price'll probably give us some cushy patrol circuit so we can keep out of trouble."
"And get bored out of our skulls," sneered Warlow, pulling a pen out of her jacket. "We live here, Anderson. If we don't punish the criminals, who will?"
"You go ahead, Warlow." Anderson settled his bulky frame back into his chair. "I say it's Ariane's problem, we let them deal with it."
"How do you know they're just after Ariane?" prodded Warlow. "Maybe those shuttles were just easier to get at first. Suppose they come after Quintex?"
"Let 'em," Anderson spat. "We'll take care of them when we have to."
"You say that about heart disease, too, Anderson?" McBride asked.
"I don't have a martyr complex, McBride. I like to play it safe. You should try it sometime."
"I have. Didn't take."
Anderson snorted and shook his head. "Grandstanding! This is just another publicity stunt."
Nobody was listening to him. Golino frowned at the wall, holding his contract, as Warlow stood and walked to the door with her signed contract.
"Len," said Jemison as he scribbled his name, "don't ever have children."
"You'd worry too much." The pen paused over the second signature, then touched the paper in a blur of motion.
McBride placed a hand on Jemison's shoulder. "Have a little faith, Kyle."
"I'd prefer technology."
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.