Fifteen hours had passed since Anthony-Bettner Galza left City of Light. In that time, he had slept fitfully for three hours, woken up to messages from the City and Io Station confirming Stannum Elizabeth's position and course heading, and consumed an uninspiring breakfast of rehydrated steak and eggs. The remainder of the time had been spent contemplating what he could possibly say to his wife when he finally caught up with her.
Tony had known things were going badly, even before Jacob offered his outrageous theory about Jenny manufacturing the alien hoax. But admitting it was a different matter entirely, and the timing had been wrong. Weakness, uncertainty, compromise-- he could not afford to show any such things in a time of crisis, when his company was in jeopardy and his personal life automatically lost priority. Old habits were hard to break.
Had he stopped paying attention? Had he been so concerned with the bad press, the shuttle thefts, the problems at Skyscraper, that she might actually have fooled even him? It certainly was plausible; he had not gone out of his way to be especially approachable in the past month. He always had something to occupy his time, some excuse to avoid talking to her and run away, hoping that she would eventually concede. After all, the company belonged to both of them, and in the absence of children, it was the one thing which they both had to care for. Shouldn't it have unified them, without him having to do anything at all?
Again, even as he thought it, he knew he was wrong. She had given up on him, and might even have plotted to take away the thing that was keeping him away from her. Part of him found it ridiculous that she would value him so much, but another part was afraid that she did.
He glanced down at the radar display in the loneboat cabin. The Stannum Elizabeth had been refusing his laser hails, so he really would have to chase it down before he could talk to her. Glowing green numbers counted down the time until intercept.
Four hours. Tony shut off the screen. What the hell are you doing, Jenny?
"Gandalf, Blake. We have a problem."
"No, The Old Man's happy for now. It's Jemison."
"He's still on leave of absence."
"Yeah, well, so was Quinn. Jemison's been trying to break into UNIA central storage."
"Jick. What's he looking for?"
"I'm not sure. He tried, unsuccessfully, to crack flight records for the past six months; then he managed to get into special assignment personnel and started searching for activity in the Torus. He tripped an alarm on his way in, and we cut him off after figuring out what he was doing."
"Any other attempts?"
"Not on central storage. I'm checking with Luna and Mars. He's good, Gandalf; we barely managed to trace him back to New Montana."
"This doesn't make sense. Does he still think there's a conspiracy?"
"I wouldn't be surprised."
"And he's going to keep poking around until he knows for sure."
"Time for a little chat, maybe?"
"I'll meet you in an hour."
The whole time June Bergan was explaining her theory to Robert Price, the same thought kept popping into his head: Those are the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen.
As soon as it appeared, another thought would jump up and drag it back down into his subconscious, yelling, You've got other problems! Concentrate! But after a while the first thought figured out how to slip free, twisting around the grasp of its sentinel, and it danced around the front of his head, weaving in and out of his analysis of her speculations.
She made the presentation in a very animated fashion, leaning toward him and moving away and pointing to the wall screen and walking around the desk. He hoped she was too absorbed in her own thoughts to notice how he watched her every motion, admiring the bounce of her hair as it trailed behind her and the way she seemed to glide across the room. Perhaps she would interpret his rapt attention as concern regarding the alien problem. In any case, if he were questioned about it, that would be his alibi. She could hardly blame him for being too interested in her potential solution.
"So?" she sat down finally, eyebrows raised inquisitively. "What do you think?"
Price pulled the dancing thought backstage again, and cleared his throat before answering. "It is pretty incredible."
"That could be said of this entire situation, sir." Her eyes glittered defensively.
The forced respect in her voice pulled him all the way back to reality. "I fully agree. And nobody's been able to offer a better explanation, or one with more physical evidence." He tapped the desk, and the wall dimmed, then lit up with a Quintex logo. "We're going to tell Jacob Quinn right now. Are you ready?"
It took a moment for her to recognize his intent. "You want me to tell him?"
Price shrugged. "It's your theory."
"But-- I'm not even Quintex," she stammered, genuinely nervous. "I thought it would be more appropriate for you to-- tell him."
"Jacob Quinn is still on a leave of absence from Quintex. Officially, Frank Dao is running the company right now." He caught her gaze before continuing. "You will be speaking to the leader of Project Theory, who is concerned with only one thing: locating the aliens and, if possible, establishing peaceful communications. No commercial interests are involved. Project Theory operates under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Intelligence Agency, and, like any government agency, is bound by the articles of Interplanetary Law. That is the level on which you should interact with Jacob Quinn."
Bergan blinked twice, then nodded. "I understand. Sir."
Price attempted a reassuring smile, not quite succeeding because he was also trying not to leer too badly. "Sorry to lecture you like that, but I wanted to make the situation clear."
"I appreciate your candor."
He fingered the keyboard, while two thoughts waltzed madly around his head. "Ready?"
The communication with Jacob Quinn was concise and direct. Immediately afterward, Quinn retrieved his portable telecom unit, activated it, and dialed a fourteen-digit number which only twelve people in the Solar System knew. That conversation lasted much longer.
"Bartholomew Enninger to Stannum Elizabeth. Please respond. Over."
Tony Galza moved his finger off the send key for what seemed like the hundredth time. The green light indicating signal bounce glowed brightly, meaning that the other loneboat was receiving his signal. She was still listening. He just hadn't said the right thing yet.
"Jenny, I know you can hear me." His lungs suddenly felt empty, and he sucked in a breath. "I realize that I haven't been the best husband in the world lately. I will freely admit that I have been neglecting you, and that was a mistake. But I'm here now. Please, tell me what I can do to save this marriage. Tell me it's not too late.
He waited for what seemed like hours, listening to the static, straining his ears for any hint of a reply. He searched for something else to say, something to add, but all the words that came to mind sounded like pleas or desperate embellishments. He could say nothing else.
"You still don't get it, do you."
Tony's heart jumped, and his hand was halfway to the console before he realized she hadn't said "over." Jennifer Galza knew radio protocols as well as he did; she would not end a transmission improperly. So he waited, trembling, for an absolution which would never come.
"I can't tell you what you did wrong," she continued, her voice wavering, "because that wouldn't solve the problem. A few years later you'll ignore me again, and I'll have to remind you that I'm here by pulling another stupid passive-aggressive stunt. That's not what I want from you, Tony; I don't think that's what you want, either."
She paused again. His head swam, trying to digest what she had just shoved toward him. Obviously there was more to be dealt with than he had originally thought, but what was it? What had he missed seeing, hearing, understanding? What was she trying to tell him?
"You have to figure it out for yourself, Tony." He could hear her choking back a sob. "I'll be outside, on the hull, when you're ready to talk. Over and out."
Tony crashed forward onto the console. "Jenny! Talk to me, please, don't do this! Jenny!"
But the green light was dim, and she was already gone.
When Ashley-Bale McFarland, an old friend of Katherine Quinn, designed New Montana, she had included attitude jets all along the plane of the asteroid's long axis. She explained that these would be used to rotate the settlement, emulating the rotation of the Earth and creating a sense of day and night. The permanent residents were going to have enough trouble adjusting to the near-zero gravity and claustrophobic conditions, she reasoned, that Quintex could at least provide them with a sense of time.
Kyle Jemison understood and respected the reasoning behind it, but sometimes the axial rotation seemed unnecessary. Most other corporations-- including all the Japanese companies-- did not spin their asteroid settlements. While Jemison appreciated the gravity, there were also disadvantages. Astros had to be trained to track the sun instead of memorizing their bearings, and that often took weeks. And certain situations, like the one he found himself in now, were complicated by tedious recalculations.
The maintenance crew chief had agreed to put Jemison on his morning detail. Kyle had asked because he needed to feel useful, and he needed to prove that he was not totally crippled, that he could still do a decent day's work in zero- gee. He had suspected that the chief thought he was being charitable, and when the distress call came in, all doubt was removed.
One of the new arrivals from Earth had somehow blown a carbon dioxide tank while changing out the fire suppression system in one of the east hangar bays. The blast had propelled him out into open space, falling free without a jetpack or tether. The crew chief had volunteered Kyle for the rescue, and Jemison had smiled and nodded. He had expected there would be an object lesson somewhere along the line; he might as well get it over with.
He finished recalculating the return trajectory in his head five minutes before the stray astro came into sight, a small blue-and-white blob in the sea of shining dots. Kyle waved and switched his radio on.
"Ahoy there. Still breathing? Over."
The astro waved back. His helmet was silvered over, obscuring his face. "Yah, plenty of time to recover. Stupid move back there. Over."
"Accidents happen." Jemison nudged the joystick in his left hand, and he began rotating clockwise as he approached his target. "I'm going to hit you in a few seconds. Catch me and hold on, got that? Over."
He felt a slight bump as his backpack pressed into the other man's breastplate. Then hands closed around Kyle's arms, found the handholds on the jetpack, and pulled the rest of the man's body to Jemison's right side. He tapped at his wrist, changing the radio frequency.
"Control, Jemison; I have the stray, I'm bringing him home. Copy, over."
"Jemison, Control, roger that. Out."
Kyle turned his head and saw his own face reflected in the helmet. The compass in his head recalled that the sun was behind his right shoulder. So why hasn't his faceplate depolarized?
His new companion reached an arm across Jemison's chest, smacking the keypad on his wrist and turning the radio off before he could call for help. Kyle's other arm swung down for his sidearm, but was expertly intercepted and pinned to his stomach. The man brought his head forward and touched his helmet to Kyle's with a gentle clink.
"Thursday evening. How about a picnic on the Sun?"
It took Jemison all of one second to remember his reply. "Only if you bring the wine. I dropped my last bottle in the rain."
"What a pity. When does your mother arrive?"
"She's infirm and smoking in bed. You tell me."
Gandalf sighed and loosened his grip. "Sorry to startle you, Kyle."
Jemison wrestled his right arm free, shaking it before it became numb. "I thought you had minions to do this drat for you."
Gandalf shrugged. "This is too important. Blake caught you hacking into central storage."
"Yeah, I know." Images raced through Kyle's mind, as he tried to picture this Gandalf's face. The voice was calm and even, professionally disguised, without any hint of an accent.
"We can't have you compromising security like that."
"Look, I'd like to trust you people when you say there's nothing going on. A lot of Tories would. But the whole Project Theory declassing, the timing was bad. `Innocent until proven guilty' is not good enough anymore."
"That's no excuse." Jemison could almost feel a stare burning into his forehead. What color are his eyes? Pale, frigid blue? Bottomless black? "You know better."
"Think of me as a devil's advocate," said Kyle, with the slightest hint of a smirk. "I need to know. I need to have something to show everybody who still doubts."
"You know that's impossible." Gandalf paused, and Jemison thought he could hear teeth grinding. "Even if we give you access, the absence of a thing does not prove the existence of its opposite. People are still going to be suspicious; nothing can help that."
"Maybe I think there is a conspiracy."
The silence lasted longer this time, with Gandalf frozen in place. Jemison tried to keep his face still, but felt his collar growing warmer as he waited for a response.
"Come to Luna." The voice was more taut now, as if stretched to the limit of what it could say and straining to continue speaking. "I'll give you full access to see whatever you want. Whatever it takes to convince you. Everything at Paperless and on Earth."
Jemison shook his head slowly. "I can't do that. I go anywhere near Earth and I lose credibility, especially if I spend several days in the lion's den. I have to stay here, in the Torus." Where I'm not a jicking cripple trapped in a wheelchair.
"I can't give you access through the Net," Gandalf said. "We can't guarantee security."
"That's how it has to be. Everyone has to know, otherwise it's useless."
A sigh echoed through his helmet. "Then I guess we go to war."
The sun was behind Tony Galza when he pushed off the hull of Bartholomew Enninger and drifted to Stannum Elizabeth. In the vast interplanetary void, halfway to Jupiter, everything was a speck, a mote of dust on the lens of the universe; but to each other, the motes were all that mattered. He was an insect falling from one leaf to another, but in the realm of insects, his life was unspeakably precious.
Stars went by beneath his feet, and he imagined himself walking on that velvety carpet, like a mythic hero trapped in a constellation. He could see his shadow on the red-and- white hull, a dark grey blot covering the Ariane Odyssey logo, like a messenger trumpeting his arrival. Just over the curve of the loneboat's main engine pod, there was another white ellipse, bordering a black band which framed a familiar face.
She did not turn her head to acknowledge his presence when he touched down, magnetic boots loudly attaching themselves to the loneboat hull. His trek across the ten- meter length of the engine pod seemed torturous as he lifted one leg after the other, continually watching her for any sign of welcome.
You're not making this any easier.
Finally he stopped, two meters from where she sat. The sound of his breathing bounced around his helmet wildly as blood rushed back and forth behind his ears. He swallowed, easing the dryness in his throat, and saw glistening trails down her cheeks as she turned her head.
"Jenny," he said through the radio before noticing that the signal bounce was reading nil. She had neglected to turn her radio on, and was watching him patiently. He pointed at her, then tapped the side of his helmet. Your radio.
She shook her head, pointed at him, crossed her fingers, pulled her hands apart, made a circle at her chin. No. Are you ready to talk?
He felt his heart thudding against his suit liner as he asked the question he had been trying to avoid, and he could feel his hands shaking as he drew it in the void, spelling out a name. Jac thinks you made up the aliens. A hoax.
That was one thing she had not been expecting, and it took her a moment to decipher Tony's gestures. She laughed and signed, He's crazy.
Tony felt a wave of relief wash over him. He knew her face too well; she couldn't have faked that reaction. But he was still ashamed.
I almost believed him.
Her smile faded quickly. Why would I do that?
I don't know. His hand floated there for a while, palm outward, not sure where to go next. Maybe to take away the company. The thing separating us.
She shook her head, made a fist with thumb and pinkie extended, slammed it against the bottom of her helmet. Wrong thing.
He faced his palm downward, moved it away from his thigh. You want to have children.
Us! Her hand waggled violently, index and middle finger blurring into a half-circle. I want us to have children.
Their eyes met, one pair angry, the other desperate, both afraid. He raised both hands and swirled them around each other. I never thought about it. You never said anything until three months ago; why?
Another laugh, this one sad. I didn't know. I didn't think about it either, but when I did-- don't you think there's something missing? An emptiness in your life?
There was. He smiled. Then I met you.
It's both of us now. She sighed, fogging up part of her faceplate, then moved her hands slowly, deliberately. I endure what you and I have to go through for the company. But there's more to life than the company.
He nodded, the silence falling more heavily on his ears than any sound ever had. His right hand drifted up to the side of his head. I heard. I never listened.
What do you want?
I thought I wanted nothing. I had a successful business, a beautiful wife-- I just wanted everything to stay as it was.
You know that's impossible. She made an arc with her right arm. All things change.
But do they get better or worse?
That's up to us.
He looked into her hazel eyes, knowing that she could read his answer already. Me, a father... I don't know if I'm ready.
She stood up, boots scraping against the hull, and brought her hands together. Trust me.
His index finger traced a circle in front of his heart. Always.
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.