In space, there is no definitive "up" or "down." This lack of a reference state tends to have a disorienting effect on untrained persons, as the first interplanetary passenger transport operators quickly discovered. Within a short time, most commercial spaceliners had adopted the practice of constant acceleration, so some sense of gravity would be maintained for the duration of the voyage, with the exception of a few minutes' weightlessness at the turnover.
Even trained astronauts are usually only prepared to deal with normal situations, which they have done by rote hundreds of times over. The human mind was not built to control muscles in the absence of gravity, where the smallest motion is magnified by inertia; emigrants to the Torus invariably spend several months adapting their hereditary reflexes to the new environment. Most of the injury accidents reported in outer space are the results of misjudged or overpowered maneuvers.
So Leonard McBride was not surprised when Carolyn Leefield seemed clumsy that night, trying to deliver a passionate kiss while unbuttoning the front of his uniform. She failed to notice her tendency to keep pushing him away, and he decided to let her speculate as to his constant groping at the small of her back. Her eyes glittered like gems in the darkened cabin.
It was well past two in the morning, Skyscraper time, when she stirred beside him, brushing a mass of brown hair from her face. He watched quietly, having spent the last hour pondering the conversation they were about to have. Her eyelids fluttered cautiously, expecting sunlight, then opened to reveal limpid blue circles around deep black wells.
"Hi, handsome," she whispered, turning to face him. "You tired?"
He smiled gently. "Nah."
"Good." Her arm snaked across his chest, and her cheek glided up his shoulder.
"We should talk."
His urgent tone doused any ideas she might have had. Sighing, she pulled herself up to his eye level, rustling the sleeping bag. "You want to know about the incident this afternoon."
"And you want to know about the aliens."
"You first." A yawn punctuated the request.
Leonard shrugged, buoying her upwards. She reached an arm out to push herself away from the ceiling, then conveniently wrapped it around him as she returned. "Jac Quinn knew there was going to be trouble. He was thinking about it on the way to Saturn, and we discussed it at Japetus. He can't be head of Quintex and head of Project Theory at the same time; the connections with UNIA could make things even worse than they are now."
"He's not going to give up Quintex," breathed Carolyn, intentionally tickling his ear.
He ignored it with herculean effort. "No, but he knows I'm going to go with the Project. And in his absence, I would be assigned to head up any and all field investigations."
"You?" A grin opened her mouth, but his somber, downcast eyes closed it again. "I didn't know you were so well respected."
"I'm not." He tilted his head, smiled crookedly. "I tend to annoy the hell out of people I don't immediately get along with. Jac and I both know this thing will fall apart if he's not there; the Project is his baby. It always has been. If these people were Intel or Fleet, we'd be fine, but they're not. We need Jac to hold it all together."
Carolyn snuggled against him, frowning. "Why aren't UNIA and UNSF doing anything to help you? I thought they'd be blanketing this mess."
"They're doing as much as they can. UN only has seventy or eighty ships on active duty, and maybe thirty more on reserve, half of which can actually be launched right now. They believe the aliens are out there, but they also have to deal with the Torie situation, which is much more immediate, and that spreads the Fleet pretty thin."
"I didn't know it was that bad. It's just talk, isn't it?" She cringed even as she asked, knowing that she wouldn't like the answer.
He took a breath, then sighed. "Do you have Bravo security clearance?"
"Bravo Three." The darkness obscured her squint. "You can check--"
"I trust you. Remember that accident at Benfu colony yesterday?"
"It wasn't an accident?"
He told her in a slow, even voice which belied his horror.
David-Riordan Sanchez had never killed a man before. He had considered the possibility while serving in the Army, but he had always thought that it would be at a distance, using a gun or a missile, and that he would never have to face his enemy. Technology had even made killing easy.
But as he pulled his hands away from the guard's neck, and blood fell with a dreamlike sluggishness to the floor, and the man's dead eyes stared upward, shocked, almost as if seeking some final absolution, David Sanchez began to cry. The sound echoed off the metal walls of the airlock which stood between the base entrance and the only spacecraft on the asteroid which UNSF had named Benfu. It varied from a wail to a low, sobbing moan in the minutes before somebody ran into the doorway from the base.
"David! Jick, are you okay? Here, give me that knife, take this, the safety's here, shoot anyone in a uniform, we've got the last of these bastards cornered, it's almost over!"
As quickly as the voice had appeared, it vanished again, and David Sanchez found himself holding an automatic weapon, its matte black finish now reddened where his hands were, and he dropped it, trying but unable to scream. He staggered around the small chamber, eyes scanning wildly, searching for something familiar from his life, but there was nothing. He had given up his life for this, and now... They had killed his wife, and he had killed one of them in anger; but whose fault had it been, really? Did anybody know?
Mazursky, the tall Lunan who couldn't have massed more than eighty kilos and was too proud to admit his failure at prospecting, had started it all-- or had it been Yarbro, the beady-eyed Major who had herded them off their shuttles and onto Benfu, who had given them the scintillating propaganda speech about the UN's colony program, the presentation which had brought tears to Nancy's eyes? Or maybe it was Jannik, the grey-bearded miner who danced through the air with incredible grace, who shouted at everybody all the time, angry at everything and violently intelligent. Or Kurt, or Garamond, or Chun, or any of the dozens of others... or maybe it had been all of them, afraid to admit their hatred individually but made collectively stronger by their mutual confinement.
Negotiations inevitably turned into arguments, compromises were limited to the cafeteria menu, and the suspicions raised by the alleged alien threat only worsened things. Jannik had been the first to lash out, during a particularly bad labor dispute, but the guards hadn't been far behind. Before long, their nonlethal antipersonnel gear had been traded for deadlier sidearms, and then the colonists knew where to find the weapons, too.
Sanchez barely remembered the past few hours, except for Nancy's death-- that he could still see all too clearly, her last breath was still ringing in his ears, some of the blood staining his shirt was hers, and that was strangely comforting. Everything else was a confused muddle of screams, shouted directions, killing and being killed, a tense and uneasy peace which had finally collapsed when neither side wanted to accommodate the other any longer.
And if one asteroid, comprised of thirty colonists from various parts of the Torus and twenty UN soldiers and administrators from Earth, could not hold itself together, would the Torus at large fare any better in the end? Perhaps it was just a matter of control, of freedom, as Mazursky had always said-- or maybe it was economics, like Chun tried to explain at the last appropriations council. Sanchez never knew who to believe; it all sounded so reasonable until the next argument came along...
He suddenly realized that he was hearing voices, words intermingled with the gunfire and the unintelligible noises, and the voices were not familiar. In a daze, his hands found the rifle he had dropped a few minutes before, and when he stood again, he saw its twin staring him in the face. The sound reached his ears a fraction of a second before the bullet sailed between them.
"Apparently one of the soldiers was still hiding out in the command center," Leonard continued, painfully aware of Carolyn's nails digging into his chest. "In a last burst of heroism, he recognized that the colonists were heading for the shuttle, and help would arrive too late. So he blew the reactor nearest to the hangar, which also happened to be the oldest one on Benfu, making for a very plausible story to release publicly. A terrible tragedy. That's why UN's pretty nervous about the Torus right now. Would you mind letting go before you draw blood?"
Carolyn loosened her grip, blushing faintly. "Sorry. Len-- you're talking about a cover-up. This is going to make things even worse."
"They've only delayed it. Intel is treating this as a military matter, which gives them a day or two before the newsnets get restless. The distress signal was coded and masked, so nobody else would have picked it up; and it's still plausible that they would take a while to make any sense out of that wreckage. The blast took nearly half of the asteroid with it."
"It's dishonest, and if anyone ever finds out--"
"Do you think it would be better if they came right out and said it?" he snapped. "`Oh, nothing big, the colonists and guards just sort of killed each other'? How the hell is that going to help?" He shook his head abruptly. "Drat, listen to me. I was just lecturing Jac on this a couple days ago, and now I take a totally contrary position."
"I assume that was a different situation," she offered soothingly.
"Maybe. I talked him into getting Gandalf to declassify Project Theory. Jac probably would have done it anyway; he just needed a little push. This is--" He frowned. "I'm not as willing to risk as much on this."
"Well," she said, rubbing his forearm, "it's out of your hands anyway."
"Go to hell."
I'm there already, he opened his mouth to say. But she was gone, the door slamming shut behind her. He hadn't realized how long it had taken him to form that thought-- how much time he'd spent contemplating what hell really was.
There were so many depictions to choose from, and none of them was truly frightening. They were all either preachings from the past, told by superstitious peoples to spread the word of some god, or metaphorical ramblings made up by philosophers to support some thesis. Not real. Not like this.
Kyle touched his right armrest, feeling the cool surface of the control pad, and slid his finger backward. The wheelchair whirred beneath him, moving as he commanded; a few more motions and it turned him slowly until he faced the door, wondering where Delia had gone. Had she retreated to the sunlit gardens, where tomato vines reached to the transparent ceiling on the south side of the asteroid, or was she simply walking down the hall, crying into her hands?
Some spiteful part of him said, What do I care about her pain? I'm the one who should be crying my damned eyes out. I'm the one who'll never walk again.
Oh, hell, not now. He turned to look at his daughter and found that he didn't have to force a smile. "Hi, Mary."
She wasn't smiling, and he knew that was bad. Mary Jemison, the girl who bounced down corridors and drove teachers crazy with her hyperactive glee, in a somber mood? Something terrible must have happened.
It did, Kyle thought. It happened to me. And now I'm making everyone else suffer for it.
A sudden calm rippled over his mind, in that second before Mary spoke again; he remembered why he had wanted to marry Delia, why he had wanted a child. Because there were so many things that he hated and feared, that he could do nothing about, and at least a family would never be so far away that he couldn't reach out and try to explain it all. That was what he had wanted, and what he had worked so hard to make, and he had nearly forgotten it.
"Where did Mommy go?"
"I don't know." He tapped at the controls beneath his hand, bringing himself beside Mary and opening his arms. She climbed up into his lap and laid her head on his shoulder.
"Why were you shouting at each other?"
I hate this part. "It's my fault. I wasn't feeling well."
"I thought your legs didn't hurt." Mary looked up at him, puzzled.
Kyle smiled in spite of himself. "They don't. But it hurts here--" he tapped at his chest-- "because I can't ever move them again."
Mary frowned. "Chest pains? Shouldn't you see a doctor for that?"
A sluggish laugh fought its way out of Kyle's throat. "No, that's not what I meant. I mean I feel sad-- and angry-- because I'm paralyzed."
"Oh." Mary thought about it for a moment. "So you didn't yell at Mommy on purpose."
"No." I'd never do that.
"I understand," proclaimed Mary with a nod.
Kyle grinned. "Let's go find her."
"What took you so long?" June Bergan turned as Larry Dell entered the operations booth, and stiffened when she saw the bruise on his face. "What happened?"
"All these questions," chuckled Larry as he sat down at his console and logged in. "Everybody's got questions."
June pushed her chair across the small room, her mind whirring. "Meek" could have been Larry's middle name; he did little to offend anyone. She craned her neck to examine his injury, and angrily placed a hand on his shoulder when he turned away.
His reaction could not have been farther from her expectations. He knocked her hand away, grabbed her collar with both hands, and pulled her upward, nearly choking her. A genuine fire blazed behind his eyes, but she could see that the anger was not directed at her.
"I'm putting in for a transfer," he said, "and I think you should, too."
He let go, pushing her away slightly. June remained still for a moment, fearing that she might set him off again. He went back to his console, stabbing at buttons and sifting through radar records, and when he seemed calm again June repeated her question: "What happened?"
He sighed. "Nobody knows what happened. That's the problem."
"Goddammit, stop jicking around!"
Her outburst seemed to satisfy him. "A couple of Tories in a service bay. They don't like us Earthers, you know."
"This is ridiculous."
"You expect too much," Larry snapped. "Most people don't have time to worry about whether what they're doing is right."
"Oh, hell." June stood, walked back to her console, and started typing. "I don't have time for this. Give me a window on your display."
Larry sighed as he pushed the buttons which would allow June to send data to his screen. A few seconds later, a graphic of the Solar System appeared, showing several locations marked with dates and times.
"Very pretty. What am I supposed to get out of this?"
June glared at him. "I've been plotting those unidentified sensor blips, and the pattern wasn't making any sense until this afternoon. Did you hear about the incident at Skyscraper?"
"The vanishing astronaut?"
"Channel Twenty-Seven ran it this morning, with a map marking the location of Skyscraper. I've been using the same type of graphic for this tracking project, but I suddenly realized they were mapping along the same radius as the Saturn disappearance. So I punched in the coordinates, and the two points are in a plane almost perfectly parallel to the ecliptic."
A frown creased Larry's brow, obviously a result of his effort to guess June's point before she told him outright. "You think the two events are connected?"
"Yes! It's a pickup ship, Larry!" Her eyes twinkled hopefully, but he shook his head. "Did you read the reports on the Saturn incident?"
"Summary only. I wasn't that interested."
"Remember how the alien ships accelerated out of the ecliptic plane? Now, why didn't they cause a bigger explosion and destroy the whole chase group? They were putting themselves into position to rendezvous with this other ship!" She began typing on his keyboard. "I plotted all the points and ran the extrapolation again, with new parameters. This new simulation actually makes more sense.
Colored lines appeared on the screen, connecting the dots into an ellipse. June rotated the graphic to make the shape more distinct. "It's orbiting perpendicular to the ecliptic plane, with a very high eccentricity. The foci are somewhere in the Oort Cloud. That's probably where it was launched, and where it drops its cargo."
"So you're hypothesizing that this thing accidentally picked up the astronaut at Skyscraper?" said Larry slowly, studying the screen.
"It makes sense, doesn't it?"
"Why aren't you telling this to Price?"
"I will. But I don't trust anyone I didn't go to college with."
Larry chuckled briefly. "I'm flattered."
"Do you believe me?" asked June, almost pleading with him.
He shrugged. "Nobody saw anything at Saturn or at Skyscraper. This ship would have to be moving pretty damned fast. Anything it ran into would be pulverized."
"They must have some way of damping the impact."
"Like what? It's got to be moving at--" he scanned the information dotting the screen, squinting as numbers rolled around his head-- "Jick! Nothing could survive that collision."
"Exactly. I have no idea what kind of technology they have. Maybe gravity generators, maybe force fields. But it must be something far beyond any human technology. Don't you see? Larry, this is the proof we need!"
"That the aliens are real!" June watched his face, searching for some support, and Larry felt a rock in his stomach. He knew he was going to disappoint her.
"There's no more trust out here, June. Your reasoning is based on the premise that the information from Project Theory and Ariane Odyssey is accurate. A lot of Tories have no reason to believe any of it."
"Then we'll convince them." He could see she was angry, but it only made her more determined. "We know where that pickup ship is. All we have to do is intercept it and bring it to Mars. They can't refuse to believe that."
Larry smiled, ignoring the soreness in his cheek. "I hope you're right."
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.