F   R   E   E   F   A   L   L

Welcome to the 21st Century.

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

A.D. 2060


        Among the varied bubbles and towers of business on City of Light, two friends were studying each other as only old adversaries could.
        "You understand this is not company business," Anthony- Bettner Galza said.
        "Yes, yes, yes, I understand." Jacob-Martin Quinn was fast losing his patience. "Now what is it you have to tell me?"
        "This information does not leave this room."
        "Of course," agreed Quinn, for the third time.
        Galza stood at his desk, arms folded across his chest, and nodded solemnly. "All right."
        He touched a panel which had been built into the desktop, simultaneously dimming the lights in his office and activating a wall screen. "These images haven't been catalogued, for security reasons. I can't tell you where they are, either, but you can probably guess."
        An asteroid glowed into being on the wall. The photograph had been taken while sunlight illuminated most of the side facing the camera, and though the range must have been extreme, the resolution was more than adequate. Quinn noticed this for the brief half-second before he recognized what had been built into the rock.
        "Mother of God, Tony," he said, unable to look away. "This is illegal."
        "It's a technicality of degree, Jac." Galza had sat down, trying to conceal his anxiety. He had known how Quinn. "Any astro can build his own loneboat and outfit it with all the armaments he wants--"
        "That's not true. And it's irrelevant." Quinn snapped his head around. "How many of these have you built? Where?"
        Galza had said everything he was willing to say. He stared blankly into the shadow which obscured Quinn.
        "Christus." The silhouette slumped down, cursing his own intelligence. "How the hell did you get the stuff through Customs?"
        "We didn't."
        "Why tell me now?"
        Quinn looked at his friend for a moment, then laughed out loud. "And McBride?"
        "No, that's her own project." Galza smiled cautiously. "But McBride isn't stupid."
        "And you thought it would be more gentlemanly to tell me yourself."
        "Jac, less than a hundred people know about this. I'm telling you this as a private citizen."
        "That line seems to get thinner all the time." Quinn pulled himself up. "How the hell are you keeping these things hidden?"
        Galza narrowed his eyes. "It's a big Solar System."
        Quinn stared back for a moment, considering his own position.
        "Okay, suppose I don't say anything now. What about later? If someone else finds out, then I look like a co- conspirator."
        "You make it sound like something bad."
        "Goddammit, Tony, it's criminal! There are ten different international laws against this, not counting the three treaties!"
        "This is for our own good!" Galza stood angrily, launching himself toward the ceiling in a slow arc. "Are you going to let the UN tell us what to do forever, Jac? When do we get to start making our own decisions?"
        "You assume that everyone will be as reasonable as you are," replied Quinn. "Are those things safe? Did you test them at all?"
        "Of course we tested them!" Galza slapped the desk, and the lights flashed on. Both men blinked. "Four gees for ninety seconds will take anyone well outside the safe zone. That's less than an old Space Shuttle launch. And the rocks are all solid."
        "How much power to the beams?"
        "Enough." The blue eyes were cold.
        "What about the plutonium?"
        "We take precautions, Jac."
        Quinn nodded, slowly. "I trust you, Tony. That doesn't mean I like this."
        "We might need them someday."
        "I hope to God we don't."

        A few hundred thousand kilometers away, four other people were finishing dinner and adding their voices to the low rumble of Void Palace, Huann Fa Point's most celebrated international restaurant. In fact, it was the only real restaurant in the Torus, with tables and waiters; most other eateries were automated or scaled down to accommodate the limited contiguous real estate.
        Kyle Jemison turned his gaze from a portly, well- dressed gentleman arguing socialism at a neighboring table and smiled at his wife. She grinned back, teeth gleaming white beside her dark skin. "Nothing to add, Kyle?"
        "Hmm?" He scanned the table. Leonard McBride and Carolyn Leefield were watching him with strangely expectant looks. "Sorry, I missed the topic."
        "Irrigating the Valles Marineris," Leonard said, straight-faced.
        Carolyn poked him in the ribs. "We were talking about Anderson."
        "Oh." Quintex security officer Michael Anderson had announced his intention to sue Quintex for a breach of his employment contract, based on the company's failure to inform him of the possible dangers in providing escort for the Ariane convoy to Skyscraper Point. "Old Man Quinn's going to settle out of court, isn't he?"
        "They're thinking about it." Leonard studied his water.
        "Thinking, hell." Kyle hurled himself into the conversation. "They can't risk Anderson leaking any information, intentionally or not. Quinn's going to settle for a few million and ship him off to a monitoring station past Jupiter."
        "Meanwhile, we're off to stake out Saturn." McBride winced at his own clumsiness, but he didn't want to lie to Kyle any more than strictly necessary.
        "Sounds like fun." Carolyn folded her arms and leaned toward Leonard, brown hair waving gently. He tried not to stare, but a smile tugged at Delia Jemison's lips as she noticed his failure. Her hand moved naturally to cover her husband's, chocolate on coal.
        "You know what we're going to find," baited Kyle.
        Leonard nearly sighed, though no one could tell it was a sigh of relief. "A bunch of bored telescopers?"
        Carolyn grinned involuntarily. "Aliens?"
        "What did you think? Flatfoots? Earth isn't stupid."
        "Not collectively," she agreed, "but there are some people..."
        "Even if they are, they wouldn't be this stupid." Kyle leaned forward, raising a finger to point at nothing. "Look, they stole three Ariane shuttles, and didn't bother to repaint them. That's dumb enough by itself. Then they attack a convoy being escorted by six 'fenders."
        "They killed five of those men," Leonard interrupted, darkly.
        "Yeah, but flatfoots don't think in terms of vacuum craft. Atmospheric vehicles are better if they're smaller; an F-24 can kill a cargo plane, no problem. But the way loneboats and 'fenders are flown, the fusion drive is the best weapon, and the bigger the better. We don't use missiles, because our ships are missiles. An Earther wouldn't think that way."
        "Shaky argument," Delia remarked.
        Kyle turned to give her an indignant look. "I thought you were on my side."
        She shrugged. "This is more fun."
        He laughed, put his arm around her, and planted a kiss on her temple. Leonard and Carolyn glanced at each other furtively.
        "Is that all you have?" Leonard asked.
        "One more point." Kyle's pale eyes, set in a brown face made even darker by the eternally sunlit Torus, moved over each of them as he spoke. "Why go to Saturn?"
        "So they can hide in the rings," Carolyn said, as if it was obvious.
        "No good!" He jabbed a finger across the table. "There are over two hundred telescopes observing the area around Saturn. The moons, the shipping lanes, the rings, you name it. It's the second most well-monitored planet in the solar system. Anybody who had bothered to research the Torus would know that we can cover every visible centimeter of any path from here to Saturn. We'll know exactly when and where those ships come out of the rings. They've trapped themselves."
        "Unless they believe they can escape us." Leonard raised his hands, palms upward. "We don't know anything, least of all what information or technology they might have."
        "How do they plan to escape four loneboats?" Kyle challenged.
        "They know how to fight," Leonard retorted. "Ariane learned that the hard way. Whoever they are, they've obviously been well trained in FVC." The art of Free Vehicular Combat was a relatively new one, with its adepts confined to the United Nations Space Fleet and the Torus.
        "The convoy wasn't expecting a fight." Kyle felt Delia's hand squeezing his. "We'll be ready."
        "I hope so," Carolyn said, softly.
        Kyle turned and looked straight into his wife's eyes, dark pools of reflecting tar. He thought of those same eyes, set in his daughter's face, staring down at him while Mary floated in the open area at the center of New Montana. He could hear her tiny voice, her burbling laugh; he remembered how gracefully Delia would catch Mary when she drifted away, trying to walk in zero-gravity. He knew how free and happy he'd been for the past five years, watching and helping his daughter grow up, slowly realizing how much she meant to him.
        He turned away, and there was a momentary emptiness in his face. Leonard noticed.

Tony Galza wanted to leave for Saturn as soon as possible, and so the chase party assembled at City of Light the next morning. Quinn, McBride, Jemison, Price, Warlow, and Golino arrived together, and Galza introduced them to Andrei-Kolchov Tabowitz, the only pilot who had survived the raid on the Skyscraper convoy. A cabin fire had scorched the right half of his body, and that side of his face was the pinkish color of artificial skin.
        The group moved their supplies into a cordoned hangar, where four of Quintex's newest loneboats had been assembled and were being upgraded by Ariane technicians. Triply redundant power systems, high-power lasers, and titanium shielding joined more mundane equipment being grafted onto the hulls. After stowing their crates in a storage area, Galza led his seven companions into an adjacent conference room for a briefing.
        "Our enemy fights well," Tabowitz told them in a steady voice. The wall behind him glowed with a tactical diagram of the raid. "They do not employ standard FVC tactics, but they use the same types of maneuvers. Here you can see the main thrust of their attack-- a classic hourglass convergence, coupled with slow thruster spins. The precision is remarkable."
        The briefing continued for an hour or so, as Tabowitz explained the exact details of the battle with a calm, professional attitude. Despite an unflinching voice, Leonard could see Tabowitz's hand shaking as he pointed to the paths cleared by dead Ariane defenders, and everyone took note of the fire burning behind his steel blue eyes. Tabowitz had resigned his UN Space Fleet commission-- he had been one of their first patroller captains-- to join Ariane's colonization vanguard, but he was clearly still a warrior in his heart.
        When Tabowitz had finished, they began to formulate a final plan of action. Leonard looked around and knew that Quinn and Galza would be the clear leaders of this expedition. Even though they had all been released from any professional hierarchies of rank, it was difficult not to think of Jacob Quinn as "The Old Man," who was responsible for most of the industrial development in the Torus. It was a comparable impossibility to see Anthony Galza as anything other than the Ariane Monarch, who had led their drive to Mars and beyond, against the protestations of many governments and philosophers. These two were legends in their own time, and the rest would never be equals.
        For a moment, McBride wondered if it was a bad idea for Quinn and Galza to personally go chasing after a hostile power of unknown size, origin, and intent. He recognized the misgiving as the result of several centuries of organized human society, with all its ranks and titles and chains of command. Each of the eight people in the room excelled in some skill, but was not totally ignorant in all other disciplines-- living in the Torus meant being fully cognizant of one's own abilities, since the tangled webs of social support which existed on Earth were notably absent.
        McBride knew the Old Man was a capable administrator, thinker, and leader, especially under pressure, but this was not the same game. Leonard wondered, as he studied his flight plan, if Jacob Quinn had ever killed anyone.

        "This is ridiculous."
        Tabowitz stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head but barely able to suppress a smile. Jemison, carrying several cans of paint, had climbed onto the loneboat assigned to him and Price, and begun throwing bright splotches across the length of the vehicle. A few meters away, McBride was painting green fire on the side of another loneboat.
        "Look," Jemison shouted down as he opened a can of neon blue, "we've got three hours until the launch window. Everything's been checked and triple-checked, and we're just waiting for the backup batteries to charge up before installing them. Besides, this is fun."
        Rivulets of glowing blue arced over the airlock door. "You could read a book," Tabowitz yelled in reply. "Or get some sleep. Something more productive than--" he waved his left arm-- "this."
        "This is art!" Jemison cried, throwing his arms up and letting the empty can fly across the hangar. As he headed for the rear of the loneboat, his boots tracked rainbow swirls through the already chaotic patterns.
        McBride looked up and chuckled. "Productivity is not necessarily measured absolutely."
        "I know." Tabowitz walked over to examine the emerald blaze. "I am used to military vessels-- grey, or black, or white. Nothing like these."
        "Ancient traditions." McBride switched brushes. "Space is much bigger than most people imagine. Radar is more dangerous than the possibility of a random visual sighting. These ships are too small to mark anyway."
        "True enough. It is merely unfamiliar. No Earther would go into battle in that," remarked Tabowitz, pointing at Jemison's fluorescent pastiche.
        "Think of it as psychological warfare."
        "Of course. They will think we are crazy."

        At 1030 hours, the chase party paired off and boarded their loneboats, seated in a launch corridor facing the outer solar system. McBride and Quinn boarded the first spacecraft, its nose now an ornate, beryl-green "Q" which trailed flames of a similar color. Warlow gave Jemison a strange look before entering the latter's mobile tribute to Jackson Pollack. Galza and Tabowitz spoke in low tones while approaching their vessel, which Tabowitz had decorated with geometric shapes in black and white. Finally, Golino and Price closed their airlock door, fitting it back into the middle of a roiling thunderstorm that enshrouded the hull.
        The hum of the air conditioners filled Jacob Quinn's ears as he buckled the safety harness around him and settled into the co-pilot's chair. McBride was starting the pre- launch checks, and Quinn examined the cabin again. It had been a while since he'd actually piloted a loneboat, and the modifications made to this one were slightly disorienting. The familiar bubble viewport curved above them, webbed with clear polymer struts which belied their strength. A daunting array of display panels and control surfaces covered the entire forward and side sections of the dash, with a large astrogation and monitor island situated between the two seats.
        Several panels had been replaced or moved, and Quinn noted that the technicians had marked these with luminescent nameplates. Behind them, the equipment lockers had been stocked with extra pressure suits, fire extinguishers, reactionless sidearms, and hand lasers. More spare and replacement parts filled the aft compartments, along with enough food to last them ten weeks. Galza wanted the loneboats to be as self-sufficient as possible; any contact with other stations in the Torus increased their chances of being detected by the enemy, and it might be a long wait once they reached Saturn.
        Quinn swiveled in his seat, fitting his hands over the touch-sensitive keypads built into the armrests. He wouldn't be using those. He might be the second richest man alive, but he had no illusions about his lack of manual dexterity. Elocution, on the other hand...
        "Is the AI on-line?"
        "Yah." McBride nodded and pointed to a small bump above the dash. "Voice command is activated by saying `Abby.' Stop." The console beeped twice, then thrice. "End every sequence of orders with `stop,' or `stop stop' for emphasis."
        "What if I'm saying `Stop the boat'?"
        "Parsing is context sensitive. She scans our speech continuously for meaningful phrases. We've come a long way since lex and yacc..."
        Quinn interrupted before McBride could give a lecture on linguistic theory and the history of computing. "Funny how we still personify vessels as female."
        "Not always." McBride flipped on the laser ignitor, and a familiar whine vibrated through the walls. "Vince and Rob's 'puter is Benjamin. And Dr. Galza's boat is the Bartholomew Enninger."
        Quinn shrugged as he checked the transponder. "We can drop the formalities, Leonard. I'm not your superior now, and Tony never was."
        Leonard looked at him, nodded. "Sure thing, Jac."
        Jacob grinned, feeling inexplicably free. "How's Golino?"
        "Better." Leonard studied the blinking navigation console. "Breaking up is hard to do."
        "Don't sing," came the swift warning. "And Kyle?"
        "I still wish we could have told him about--"
        Quinn raised a finger in warning. He didn't need to speak.
        Leonard sighed. "I don't know if he should be doing something this dangerous."
        "We need him, Len. He knows that. And why are you so fatalistic now?"
        "Just a theory," was the reply, which Jacob understood all too well.

        At 1100 hours, the Abigail Maitland drifted from City of Light's metal-ribbed underside, firing her fusion drive after moving a safe distance from the asteroid. Three other loneboats followed, each one illuminating a painted hull with ghostly blue as it accelerated toward Saturn. Kyle piped Wagner's Die Walkure over the common band, following it up with a Canadian polka. Tony Galza warned against any further outbreaks of questionable musical taste.
        The four loneboats grouped themselves into a deformed rhomboid, with the Benjamin Banneker heading the formation and Bartholomew Enninger bringing up the rear. Twelve magnetic fields wavered, and eight miniature stars glowed behind the spacecraft, pushing their acceleration to just over two gravities. Sixteen eyes blinked as their vision blurred for a moment, and eight minds braced themselves for the long calm before a possibly deadly storm.
        Over a billion kilometers away, six significantly different minds went about their business, blissfully ignorant of the impending confrontation. A blind, burning Sun, both unfeeling and benevolent, watched over them all.


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

Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.
Last modified: 04 Feb 1997