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A.D. 2060


        "You lie." McBride's image leaned forward. "See you and raise forty."
        "I'm out," sighed a pixelized Golino, tapping his keyboard.
        "Me too." Warlow folded and looked over at Jemison, who was alternately eyeing his hand computer and the console screen.
        "Maybe next time," he finally said, putting down his 'puter.
        "Great poker face, your friend," murmured Warlow as Quinn raised another fifty.
        "What, McBride?" Jemison nodded. "He's got a hard shell."
        "But soft on the inside?" grinned Warlow.
        "Not exactly." Jemison shook his head as Price doubled the pot loudly. He didn't have a chance. "Honorable. He's got strong principles."
        "We all do."
        "Life. Integrity. Faith. Endurance."
        Warlow frowned, her dark eyes glinting under the red- tinged lights. "What?"
        Jemison nearly smiled. "Did you know he's a widower?"
        "No, I didn't." Another card was electronically dealt to each of the four remaining players.
        "They met when he was in college. She was twenty- three; he was twenty-two. She built computers; he was studying astronautics. They dated for almost a year before he proposed. Then she told him she was dying of cancer. He thought for a week and proposed again. She accepted.
        "The doctors said she had three years. He finished school; they got married and moved to Florida. She placed at Canaveral and he entered the astro school. That's where I met him." Jemison chuckled. "I thought he was a real jerk at first. Always cheerful about something, always telling people to look on the bright side. I didn't know about Kathy.
        "Two years later, she was hospitalized. He cut his classes in half to be with her. They were in love, Warlow. You could see it when they were together-- they were made for each other. It wasn't fair. Hell, I was furious when I found out she was sick. I told him as much-- told him he had a right to be mad as hell at the whole world. But he just smiled and said it wouldn't help, that he couldn't darken her days like that.
        "She died a month before he graduated. He finished up at school and asked me if I wanted to get an apartment together. We did, in Tallahassee, after both being hired by Quintex. I didn't know why he asked me until later.
        "A week after the funeral, he broke down completely. Went crazy. Oh, he was fine at work, but once he got home, he just let himself lose it. I guess he knew I'd be able to stand it, that I understood what he had been feeling when she was dying. He refused to show her the anguish. Didn't want her to feel responsible for his pain, any more than he was responsible for hers. I can't imagine what it did to him, keeping it bottled up like that. I know what it did to our furniture.
        "But, after a month or so, he calmed down again. I'm sure he still gets mad every once in a while, but it doesn't consume him like it did then. It uses up something inside of you, you know? Like the bitterness has to burn away, but after that, there's none left to burn. He lost the worst part of his anger in those four years."
        "And that makes him a better man?"
        "No." Jemison smiled as McBride collected his winnings. "But it does make him different."
        The console emitted a staccato beep. "Update from Saturn," reported Warlow, switching her monitor to a communication display. The poker game ended abruptly, over Golino's protests.

        Decoding the information from the laser pulse took nearly ten minutes. Each of the four loneboat computers processed the signal independently, performing parity checks, translating the ciphertext into a plain data stream, running another parity check, then sending it to the communication program. That portion of the system spawned another process to laser its version of the plaintext to the Benjamin Banneker, which compared all four messages, filtered out the discrepancies, corrected any errors, and sent a final document back to its peers with appropriate notations as to possible transmission faults.
        Leonard McBride watched as the computer painted a glowing map of Saturn and its moons on his screen. Numbers faded in and out of being as the view rotated, indicating points which reflected radar in ship-sized quantities. The robot monitor stations did not carry the proper software for statistical analysis, so the Abigail Maitland was calculating flight paths to determine possibly synthetic objects.
        "That point wasn't there before," said Jacob Quinn, pointing.
        "Looks like a transient." Leonard tapped his keyboard, isolating the data from that sector for the past twelve hours and feeding it to NumberCruncher.
        Output from NC scrolled down the screen. Another keypress turned it into a graph. "It's not in Saturn orbit."
        "Check local space."
        More sounds came from below Leonard's fingers as he connected to a distant library site. Information on objects detected in Saturn's orbital path leapt across the void and into NC's input pipe. A new graphic sprang up on the display.
        "Just another rock," Jacob sighed, seeing the stray asteroid's path from the outer solar system.
        "They don't seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere." NC finished analyzing the last data pulse and reported its negative findings. "Maybe they've got a base in the rings."
        "We would have seen them building it."
        "Unless it's just a freighter. Or somebody at Saturn is also in on it."
        "It doesn't make sense," sighed Jacob, sinking back into his seat. "Why go to all this trouble for a bunch of spare parts?"
        The console squeaked. "Message from the Enninger."
        "Jac." Galza's face appeared, frowning. "We should talk."

        "Admiral Awokih called back," continued the CEO of Ariane, now speaking through the display in Quinn's sleeping quarters.
        Jacob stared passively at the screen. "And?"
        "You know I don't like this, Jac." Tony Galza's image flickered, as if in time with his annoyance.
        "I would love to discuss politics with you at a later date. What's he sending?"
        "One Baylor-class patrol boat out of Ares Point. Registry number Alfa-Five-Four-Nine-Nine; twenty officers and crew, plus Marines."
        "How many?"
        "Five. Loaded at Mars Leading Trojan." Even the voice glared.
        "I don't want to hear it, Tony." Jacob looked away, searching for an object he could pretend he needed to pick up and examine closely.
        Tony, of course, was not in the mood for subtlety. "We can handle this ourselves. We don't need to run crying to the UN every time something goes wrong. How the hell do you think that makes us look?"
        "That's why you called in a favor from Awokih, isn't it?"
        "You think this won't get around? Those Marines are going to start yapping about how a bunch of astros can't handle themselves--"
        "Look, if you want to call them off, go ahead. I'd just like you to think about what we're getting ourselves into here for a minute."
        "Tell me." Tony leaned back in his seat, folding his arms.
        "We don't know what we're going to find out there. It could just be a bunch of pirates who got lucky last time, taking the convoy by surprise like that. Then again, it could be something more dangerous. I'm not willing to risk my life or anybody else's on that unknown."
        The stare continued for a while, then ended as Tony shrugged and placed his hands back on the desk before him. "Alfa 5499 will catch up to us tomorrow afternoon."
        "Good. Anything else?"
        "As a matter of fact, yes." A sigh drifted over the radio. "I'd like you to consider the complications this military escort might cause. We don't have any authority here; we're not even ordering our own people around. If anything gets out of hand, the Marines are going to try to muscle their way in and take over our operation."
        "We're still native Earth citizens, and we've got more money at our disposal than any Marine will see in his lifetime. They're not going to mess with us."
        Tony nearly smiled. "You can be ruthless sometimes, Jac."
        "They don't want trouble. We don't want trouble. They're going to trail us all the way to Saturn and not get involved with anything they don't have to, because UNSF has enough problems without getting two major interplanetary corporations on its bad side." You can bet the CO screamed that in their ears for half an hour before blastoff.
        "And if it is-- something besides pirates?" The hint of a smile faded. "You think they're just going to hang back while we make contact?"
        Jacob shrugged. He should have put McBride on Galza's boat, but Quinn could trust nobody else with his own life in the current situation. "If it comes to that, let me handle it."
        "If it comes to that, we'll probably be dead."
        "Half full, Tony. The glass is half full."

        The cabin door slid open with a soft hiss, and Jacob Quinn pulled himself through the opening. He missed the console handhold on the first try, and Leonard stretched out an arm to stop him from falling backwards in the one and a half gravities.
        "Thanks," muttered Jacob. His mind was still in the rear compartment, thinking about the military care package which would arrive in less than twenty-four hours. The entire rendezvous was not very far from a gargantuan conflict of interest and a long investigation by a United Nations board of inquiry. Private citizens could always depend on military assistance, but he and Galza would never have been able to get a Marine escort without being the CEOs of the two most powerful companies in the Torus. If anything went wrong, they would both be in very hot water. And Quinn didn't want to play his hole card unless he had to.
        Well, at least I'm worried about being in court rather than being dead. "What've we got?"
        Leonard stared thoughtfully at the screen before him. "Situation Three, I think."
        Blood chilled around Jacob's heart. He looked over at Leonard and was greeted with a sad, understanding gaze.
        "Let me see it."
        The autopsy reports from Star Ithaca scrolled past, rows of letters and numbers recording the final resting states of Jonas Millen and Harold Gramble. Jacob skimmed past all the technical data on solar radiation, blood coagulation, pressure suit material decay, and other gory details. His eyes leapt straight to the summary information.
        "A week." His jaw tightened, and his voice along with it. "How could they have been dead for a week, when they had been checking in to City of Light and Ares Point for six of those days?"
        "The only cloning facilities out here are on Mars," offered Leonard. "Hanju Hospital. They confirm it'd take at least six months to grow a clone that could pass for the original person under that kind of visual surveillance. But that doesn't cover personal interactions."
        "Two hours in dock every day," Jacob recited to himself. "Radio calls home. Signing for cargo transfers. Piloting a shuttle. How long had these two been with Ariane?"
        "Four months for Gramble. Three and a half months for Millen."
        "Jick!" Sinewy hands floated up to cover his wince. "This is going to raise hell back home."
        Leonard was frowning. "Whoever it is, there's still no motive."
        "We'd better find one. Call it Situation Two and get Kyle on the radio. Encrypted."

        Lights glittered all over the mass of Skyscraper Point. Most of them were navigational beacons, some of them were welding torches, others were floodlamps. As Carolyn Leefield looked down the length of her perch, a girder assembly paralleling the long axis of the station, she was taken by how the points of white seemed to blend into the distant stars. Her hands mechanically brought the sensor array up to her chest while her mind wandered through a garden of lonely thoughts about Leonard McBride.
        The speaker behind her left ear started beeping. She grumbled and adjusted the box in her hands, hoping she'd accidentally set something wrong. Her scanner was the master unit for Skyscraper's central section, which meant it received periodic reports from every automatic scanner within a one-kilometer radius. The signal poking at her eardrum indicated that a monitor unit had detected unscheduled electromagnetic activity, which could be due to any number of oversights, malfunctions, or trespasses. All the possibilities were sure to inconvenience Leefield at best, and at worst would require detailed security sweeps, delaying construction even further.
        She stared at the radio indicator inside her helmet until the padding at her temples detected a lack of eye motion and switched on the microphone. The indicator went from red to green. "Alfa section, this is Leefield. I'm picking up an unauthorized transmission in the north half. Does anybody see anything? Over."
        "Lyn, this is Harry." She turned her head upward, looking into the maze of cylindrical habitats which comprised the central living quarters. "I'm not getting anything on my scanner. Looks like the monitor's on the fritz. Want me to check it out? Over."
        "Please," Leefield replied congenially. "Anybody within sight of the storage lockers? Over."
        A silence ensued as everybody looked around them. "Roger that, chief; I'm about five meters away. Over."
        "Bless you, Ingrid. Pick up a replacement when you're free and fly it up to Harry. Over."
        "Wilco, out."
        Static filled Leefield's helmet for a split second, followed by Harry Stephan's concerned voice. "Chief, there's something strange here--"
        A deafening crack strangled the words, causing Leefield to jerk with pain. A monotone indicating signal interruption filled her helmet, and her entire body flew away from the girder she had been standing on. Her eyes remained focused on her destination while her hands deftly pushed off supports and habitat modules. More voices crawled from behind her ears, but the only thing she heard was the silence where Harry-Drake Stephan had been speaking.
        She nearly overshot her mark, managing to hook a boot around one of the millions of handholds lining the construction site. Pain thundered up her leg for a moment, then was forgotten. Harry floated in space, turning slowly, his chest visible through the charred, half-shredded spacesuit. The only traces of the monitor unit he had been examining were some scattered debris and heavy black marks on the surrounding metal framework.
        The voices became intelligible again. A gloved hand drifted over to slap the wrist-mounted keypad and activate the microphone.
        "Leefield here. Harry's dead. The monitor exploded." Cold oxygen filled her lungs. "I'm bringing the body in. Gupta, Harlanni, get up here and take this quad apart. I want a report in one hour. Out."
        As she drew the dead man close to attach a tether, she could only think morbidly: how easy it is to kill an astronaut. And she was in love with one.

        Golino had been fidgeting since the ships left City of Light, and Price was slowly reaching the end of his patience. His companion had turned on, fiddled with, and turned off every single electronic device in the Benjamin Banneker at least once, and had similarly gone through most of the mechanical gear as well. Now Golino was busy setting up a countdown clock, complete with coordinate readouts and graphics, even though they were less than an hour away from Saturn.
        Robert-Gill Price considered himself a reasonable man. When McBride and Jemison pulled their stunt with the VF- 42's, Price had suppressed the urge to throttle both of them as soon as they landed. When his wife asked for a divorce, he had generously given her the car and half the credit from the sale of their house. But he made no alimony payments, and he still kept a close eye on McBride and Jemison.
        "Vince." Years of training kept the word from being a shout.
        "Yessir." Golino, thankfully, stopped typing.
        "You don't have to call me `sir'," said Price, debating whether he should fake a smile. "You mind if I turn on the vid?"
        "No, go ahead." The countdown program went into storage, Price spoke to the computer, and the screen blinked as a video signal was piped to the display. He tapped his keyboard until he found the all-news channel. The announcer finished a report on the growing tensions in Central Europe, then moved on to a breaking story on Project Skyscraper. A familiar face flashed onto the screen, and Price barely heard the name spoken before he cursed and reached for the radio. Golino became as still as he would be for the duration of the trip.
        Jac Quinn had been napping, and McBride had just woken him when Price called. They switched on their vid, and Quinn digested the news in silence.
        Michael-Tanner Anderson was going to sue Quintex for breach of contract, for failing to inform him of known dangers on the Ariane escort mission. A spokesman for the corporation-- one of his three top lawyers, Quinn was glad to see-- gave an official statement of "no comment at this time." Acting CEO Francis Dao was conveniently unavailable.
        Well, at least we can get it over with now, Jacob thought. His greatest worry had been that Anderson would do nothing for the moment, waiting until Quintex had to bargain to contain a public relations nightmare. Now they could settle out of court for a moderate sum, which would be a small cost compared to the possible breach of security-- but if Anderson said anything to the news media, Quintex could then prosecute him for violating contract. Quinn smiled. He had once spent four years in the infantry, and he much preferred the strategies of civilization.
        He nodded to McBride and began dialing a call to New Montana. It was a mere formality-- Quinn had worked out all the details with the legal staff before leaving-- but he wanted to make sure there were no surprises. He could look forward to enough of the unknown when they reached Saturn.


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Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.
Last modified: 31 May 1996