His name used to be Luis-Naru Zapata Esposito, but for the past seventeen years nobody had called him anything but Gandalf. Once he had read the Tolkien books to understand the origin of the name, but they had told him nothing about why the UNIA believed a Gandalf to be necessary. If he was supposed to be the analog of some all-powerful wizard of Middle Earth, with great magical powers and an even greater understanding of the world, somebody was grievously mistaken. Nothing could have been further from how he actually felt.
Being assigned the Open Section had been an unwanted burden, and the only real reason he had ever seen for the section's existence was to placate all the crazy people who still believed in ghosts, gremlins, and other assorted supernatural phenomena. Aside from Project Theory, which had really only been a thought experiment, all the cases he handled had too little or no evidence to support any conclusions. For all he knew, most of them were fabrications, either intentional or the products of trauma or overactive imaginations, and he could hardly care less. He was happier running lasertaps on interplanetary smugglers.
It was just as well that such a skeptic was the one to receive Jacob-Martin Quinn's telecom call. The late summer day had been long and slow, and the Earth was just dipping behind the hills surrounding Paperless when Gandalf punched one of his many decryption codes into the desk.
"Jacob!" he said with a genuine smile. "Haven't seen you in a while. I understand you had some trouble out by Saturn."
"More than you can imagine," Quinn replied. "Are you sitting down?"
Twenty minutes later, the wheels in Gandalf's mind were turning fast enough to power the entire UNIA building's electrical grid. Jacob asked one final question and waited for an answer as Gandalf listened distractedly, studying the brecciated visage on the screen: sixty years of life's myriad moments colliding and staying together, forming a rocky collection of thoughts, emotions, failures, and triumphs. The lines had multiplied and grown deeper since the days of Project Theory, as time eroded away all the superficial distractions and affectations, baring the surface of the soul. A human Grand Canyon.
Esposito's predecessor had known, almost three decades ago, to let Jacob-Martin Quinn run the show, and the man now sitting behind the great wooden desk hesitated only because he was contemplating that face, wondering if people saw the same resolve when they looked at Gandalf. And he wondered if life in the Torus really was so different from life on Earth.
"Yes," he said, finally. "I'll call you back."
Quinn smiled, his face wrinkling like a worn pressure suit. "Thank you."
The image faded from the polished desktop. Gandalf touched another button, and a woman's face appeared before him. "Sir?"
"Get me the President and John Ilbad, please, Gail. We need to declassify Project Theory within the next four hours."
A billion kilometers away, two friends were saying as little as possible to each other.
"You want the bad news first?" Leonard asked quietly. He had asked to be the one who told Jemison about his condition, not because he would enjoy it, but because he needed to see how Kyle reacted. Jemison could hide his feelings well, but not around McBride alone. They had been through too much together.
"Sure. Get it over with," said Kyle, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
McBride looked at his friend for a moment, contemplating the cool, unfocused stare that he managed so effortlessly. Jemison's dark skin and dark nature tended to hide the most influential parts of his personality from view, but those translucent eyes had betrayed him on more than one occasion.
"You have a spinal injury." Leonard watched as Kyle blinked, nearly flinching. "The doctors don't know how bad it is yet, but they say there will probably be some paralysis below the waist. Your right arm is fractured in three places; you have whiplash and eight broken ribs. There was massive internal bleeding, but they operated and it's fine now. Also, you look like Adam."
Kyle turned his head slightly, restricted by a neck brace. "Adam?"
"Victor Frankenstein's Adam."
A hoarse laugh escaped Jemison's chapped lips. "So what's the good news?"
Leonard barely smiled. "We made contact."
"I really loved him, you know."
Quinn nodded. "I know. These things happen."
Golino sighed, folded his hands. The hospital staff had only allowed Quinn into the room two minutes ago, warning him to keep the conversation short. Jacob was guiltily rushing Vince through the pleasantries, silently apologetic but needing answers. The past week had been harrowing for the whole chase group-- those who were still alive-- but even more so for Quinn, since he knew more and had more questions than any of the others.
Vince started talking, eyes downcast. "We just sort of drifted apart. First it was only small things-- living arrangements, stuff like that. But it was getting worse. Then the attack on the convoy. And Michael wouldn't sign on the chase group. But I, I couldn't leave it like that. We just didn't agree."
"When's the last time you talked to him?"
"Just before we left for City of Light. I tried to talk to him. He didn't have much to say to me; I guess he was angry, too. Like I was leaving him or something. But it was just-- I had to go. I'm an astro. I'm a Torie."
"He was born on Mars."
"Yeah. What do you need from me, anyway? It's just a lawsuit, right?"
Jacob opened his mouth and paused. "He can make a lot of trouble for the company, even though he's not going to win. I'm wondering if he's thinking clearly right now."
Golino frowned and cocked his head. "You think he's being coerced."
"I think he's got more sense than this."
"Why?" Vince raised a hand, touching his bandaged head. "Who?"
"That's what I'm trying to determine." Quinn sat back in his chair. "I've talked to most of the security staff. They tell me Anderson was loud, more often rude than not, outspoken, very strong-minded, and tougher than he needed to be."
A smile rippled across Golino's drawn face. "He had a lot of opinions."
"But he never filed a single complaint against the company before this. Price says he mouthed off in the cafeteria about poor maintenance, bad food, company politics and such, but he was only blowing smoke. He knows he's being treated fairly; he's just a talker. Am I right?"
"Yes." Golino studied the bedsheets intensely. Quinn could see the smile fading.
"So why in God's name would he file this lawsuit against Quintex? He can't win; he'll barely break even on the settlement after paying the legal fees." Anderson had hired an expensive team of lawyers from a well-established and tenacious Italian firm. "The best he can do is to tarnish our reputation, and why would he want to do that?"
"Because somebody else is forcing him to." Golino finished the thought, nodding.
Quinn took a deep breath. "What do you think?"
Golino turned toward the far wall, then back again, eyes glittering. "I don't want to believe it, but he-- you're right, he wouldn't-- I don't--"
"It's okay." Jacob pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and offered it.
"I know, it's not my fault." Vince wiped his eyes. "And I couldn't have done anything, I know, I know, I know. I feel too, that's the problem isn't it."
He finally looked at Quinn, and the older man found what he needed. "We'll talk later."
Golino nodded as his employer rose and left the room, then sank back into his bed, feeling unspeakably alone.
McBride found Quinn leaning against a corridor wall, perusing an artist's conception of Argyle Naval Space Station, complete with a UNSF battleship in dock and two squadrons of VF-33 fighters streaking by in formation. Leonard could tell by the wearied, glassy expression that Jacob was not happy. Quinn always did his best to hide his more sour moods, especially around people he didn't know and who might be journalists of questionable moral nature. He had developed the habit after years of living in the public eye and being unforgettably slandered more than once.
"What's the score?" Leonard asked, joining Quinn against the wall.
"Aliens, one. Us, zero." Jacob took his right hand out of his pocket and looked at it. He had not been seriously injured in the explosion, and thus had not slept at all in the past day. The coffee was starting to affect him.
Leonard massaged the back of his neck. "Well, I think we've got 'em demoralized."
Quinn chuckled, then took a thoughtful breath. "Golino doesn't know anything about Anderson's lawsuit."
McBride turned to squint respectfully at The Old Man. "Theory?"
"Theory," Jacob said. "Anderson is being coerced or persuaded to bring this lawsuit against Quintex. If there's enough bad press about it, we will look like the villains, especially if you're looking from Earth. Distrust of Quintex, and Torus-based businesses in general, increases."
"Theory," offered Leonard. "There are now no eavesdropping devices in any of the Skyscraper radio modules, but the suspicions remain. Many people are already wary of Earth because Skyscraper is the first major interplanetary commerce project which hasn't involved the UN. Torie businesses begin to deal less with Earth and more with other Torie companies. But not Quintex."
A frown creased Jacob's forehead. "Theory. These two situations are connected by a common perpetrator. Somebody in the Torus who wants to ruin Quintex."
Leonard returned his eyes to the painting. "Theory. The perpetrator stands to gain substantially if Quintex is forced out of Project Skyscraper. And the perpetrator has created a red herring which will mislead both Earth and the Torus by an astronomical margin."
"My God, Leonard." Jacob shook his head incredulously. "This could make the Gregory assassination look like a teenage prank."
Leonard shrugged, tight-lipped. "Then again, it could just be an incredible coincidence."
"My God," repeated Quinn. He rubbed his hands and began pacing. "Look, we have no proof of this."
Jacob stopped, facing McBride. "And no reason to distrust Tony."
Leonard nodded. Quinn considered telling him about Ariane's asteroid-based lasers, but decided against it. Tony Galza had no reason to distrust Jacob Quinn, either.
"For God sake, what the hell are we thinking? There's an alien on a slab at Star Ithaca. They're doing the autopsy now. And a dead man waved at us yesterday. This is ridiculous."
"Yeah. Crazy." McBride grinned at their collective, overactive imagination. "Is it really that hard to believe that there are aliens out there?"
"Not for us," Jacob said, meaning the three Project Theory alumni.
"But we were just now spinning conspiracy theories. We were thinking about it even though there was no evidence to support it; in fact, there's very solid evidence to support the contrary position. It was irrational."
Jacob folded his arms and shrugged. "Old habits."
"I guess. Maybe it's still too difficult to believe, too unfamiliar. We know all about human nature and greed and corruption, and nothing about these Frogs."
"`Frogs'?" Quinn asked.
"The aliens." Leonard ignored the strange look he received. "It was easier to speculate about things of which we already had some knowledge. More information. And we want the universe to make sense, any sort of sense. Evil is less chaotic than random chance."
"Yeah." Quinn chuckled. "Thank God Kyle isn't here."
Shuffling sounds approached the pair, and suddenly Anthony Galza charged around the corner, out of breath. "Jacob!"
Quinn hesitated for a split second. "What's wrong?"
"We just lost contact. With Star Ithaca. In the middle of the autopsy."
Jacob turned for an instant, making eye contact with Leonard, then jogged down the hallway behind Galza. McBride followed after a moment's contemplation.
A fiery plume of sulfur reached upward from the surface of Io, as if trying to grasp Ariane's prized space station, which was just passing over the volcano at a leisurely pace. Robert Price resisted the urge to pull away from his window, reminding himself that the shuttle surrounding him was as well protected as anything could be from the eruptions below. Beside him, Andrei Tabowitz began establishing a guidance link with Io Station's navigation computer.
Jupiter's giant, reddish disk slowly disappeared from the forward camera view, eclipsed by the gaping maw of the station's hangar bay. Four computers chattered to each other silently, trading numbers over the laser and metal bridges which connected them, translating meaningless streams of ones and zeros into thruster control commands. Ariane transport Samuel Gregory came to rest gently, its landing pads touching down on the hangar bay floor, inheriting the inertia of the station at large.
Price and Tabowitz let out a collective sigh and glanced at the chronometer. It took ten minutes to pressurize the bay after the outer doors closed. Half an hour after that, the two men had debarked the shuttle, met with the director of Io Station, and been led to a room where they tiredly waited to meet June-Garner Bergan.
"No way. How many gees?" Price muttered, looking over one of Tabowitz's hypothetical situations. They had been speculating on the current location of the vanished aliens.
"Ten gee. Amphibians-- they may be able to stand great pressures. Like under water," the Ariane officer explained. Price made a doubtful noise.
The door opened with a soft hiss, and both men stood, mindful of some ancient tradition. June-Garner Bergan paused for a moment at the door, bright green eyes darting around the small room. It was an interior compartment, close enough to Engineering that she could hear the main reactor humming away, but otherwise one of the most well- protected places on the station.
The two men standing before her were both approaching middle age, and wearing that mildly suspicious look common to all high-level security officers. She had often been told that her youth and fair complexion conspired to give her an aura of naïveté, and now made a conscious effort to appear mature and intelligent. Older men, especially those in positions of authority, had too often tried to take advantage of her.
"June-Garner Bergan?" Tabowitz asked. She nodded. "Good afternoon. Please sit down. I am Andrei-Kolchov Tabowitz, Ariane Security; this is Robert-Gill Price, Quintex Security."
Bergan extended her left hand to each of the two men in turn, then took a seat facing them at the small white table occupying the center of the room. Tabowitz and Price sat down, and the former started tapping at a hand computer.
"We understand you are the scoper who found the bodies of pilots Gramble and Millen."
"Yes, sir," she said tersely, wondering what they wanted.
"Don't worry, you're not in trouble," Price said, with what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
Bergan looked at him curiously. "I wasn't told why you wanted to see me."
"That is because security is of greatest concern in this matter." Tabowitz directed convincing blue eyes at Bergan, who blinked as she noticed the seam in the middle of his face where the artificial skin began. "Before we proceed, you must agree to the terms of secrecy specified in this waiver."
She took the offered hand computer and scanned the short body of text. "You can't tell me anything until I sign this?"
Tabowitz started to answer, but Price held up a hand. "That depends. Ask us something."
"Does this have anything to do with Project Skyscraper?"
"Does this have to do with the Ariane convoy that was attacked last week?"
Price glanced at Tabowitz. "Yes."
"And that mission to Saturn?"
Bergan chewed her bottom lip for a second. "Is this going to endanger my life?"
Price stopped smiling. "You'll have to sign first."
"Excuse me, sir, but that's not very equitable."
"Look, Miss Bergan, we just need some information from you, and your recollections will probably be most useful if you understand the context in which you are being asked to recall them. Any participation beyond that is completely voluntary, and we will probably request that you stay here in any case, for reasons which will become clear if you sign the security waiver."
Both men stared at her intently, and not for the same reason that most men stared at her. June considered her options briefly. She knew Tabowitz had been a UNSF commander before joining Ariane, and it was rumored that he had resigned to avoid an investigation which would probably have led to a court-martial. Talk of his military harshness frequently made the rounds of lunchtime conversation, but he had also inspired a new respect for Ariane's security forces in the Torus. Meeting his gaze, she decided that it would be best not to cross him for now.
Tabowitz inwardly breathed a sigh of relief as Bergan pressed her thumb down on the waiver and began typing in her encryption key. He could see that she was a strong woman, the type he had been involved with all too often as a midshipman at Baikonur Spaceport, and he had hoped she would not prove difficult. Fighting aliens was more than enough for him right now.
When she had finished signing it, June pushed the palm- sized computer back across the table. Tabowitz picked it up and entered his own password, checking the code that she had just entered against the private key on file at City of Light, then verifying the thumbprint. He nodded at Price.
"Thank you." Price tapped at his own hand 'puter, and the wall beside him lit up to reveal a display screen. Lines and numbers appeared in the glowing rectangle. "After you found the two dead pilots, Ariane Security on this station began searching the shuttle route between Mars and City of Light. They used a three-degree line of sight from the point where the two bodies' backtracked trajectories intercepted the shuttles' flight path. Ten hours ago, they found this."
The image of the alien corpse flashed onto the screen, and Bergan's eyes widened predictably.
"It appears to be an extraterrestrial life form of some sort," Tabowitz continued. "Dead, of course. This body was transported to Star Ithaca, where the other two bodies had already been autopsied and pronounced seven days dead."
Bergan blinked twice, remembering. "But the shuttles didn't go missing until Wednesday."
"Yah. We don't really know what's going on." Price pointed at the alien on the wall. "Most of our answers are probably locked up in there."
"Were," corrected Tabowitz, and Price nodded morosely. "The autopsy on the alien began one hour ago, at 1300 Zulu time. At 1320, during the autopsy, we lost all communication with Star Ithaca for unknown reasons. At 1335, Ariane 'fenders found the remains of the station."
Price changed the picture again, and now the wall displayed four images. "These are the four largest sections of what was formerly Star Ithaca. Preliminary reports say the damage looks like some sort of nuclear device, probably a hydrogen bomb. Who the hell knows. No survivors."
Bergan was unable to look away for a moment, but she finally pulled her gaze over to the two men. Their faces were quietly disturbed. "You think the alien--?"
"We do not know what to think." Tabowitz reached over and stabbed at Price's keyboard, turning off the screen. "However, the alien seems to be our most likely suspect. Star Ithaca is a privately owned medical facility. No human would have reason to destroy it."
"Right now, we're proceeding on the assumption that the alien somehow self-destructed during the autopsy. You know of the recent Quintex-Ariane excursion to Saturn..."
Bergan nodded, half her mind wandering. Aliens.
"You'll be fully briefed later. For now, let's just say it's clear these aliens are not friendly. We saw their ship at Saturn, along with the three stolen Ariane shuttles, one of which was destroyed yesterday."
Tabowitz shortened the story. "The aliens are gone. Their ship and the two remaining Ariane shuttles have disappeared. All available telescopes have been assigned to search duty, including the units on this station, as you know. We had to replace the regular crews with security personnel--"
"Wait," blurted Bergan, holding a hand up. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, mentally sorting the barrage of information she had just received. "So you're telling me that these aliens are responsible for the deaths of Gramble and Millen, and they attacked you at Saturn, and one just blew up Star Ithaca, and now they've disappeared?"
"They also used the stolen Ariane shuttles to attack the Skyscraper convoy. And yes, that's the current hypothesis."
Bergan laughed nervously. "Sorry, sir, it's just a lot to be told in five minutes."
"We understand." Tabowitz almost let a smile invade his stony face.
"So-- what information do you need from me?"
"You've been scoping the Mars Trailing area for the past month, right?"
"Yeah. We rotate every six weeks."
"We want to figure out what happened to Gramble and Millen. When the aliens switched them for clones or brainwashed them or whatever, if at all. We'll look through the logs, but if you remember anything peculiar that you saw, we'd like to know about it."
Bergan moved her head up and down very slowly. "They somehow stole three Ariane shuttles without anybody noticing. And two of the pilots are dead-- what about the other four?"
"That," stated Tabowitz, "is yet another question we must answer."
"You should probably talk to Larry Dell, too. He had the Mars Trailing rotation last month."
"We plan to," Price said flatly. Bergan realized that they had probably thought of it hours ago, and furiously tried to stop blushing.
"You're still looking for the aliens?"
"Yes. We would like you to join the search after we are done here."
She nodded agreement. "What did the alien ship look like?"
The wall went blank, then showed a bumpy grey egg with fins. Price noticed that Bergan's frown seemed slightly disappointed.
"There were a few blurs on the scope, week before last. Tuesday and Wednesday morning," she recalled. "I didn't think much of them at the time, there's so much junk out here-- but you may want to take a closer look."
"Good." Tabowitz poked at his hand 'puter. "We will start there, and investigate other sightings if you recall any."
A minute later, Bergan found herself staring at an old telescope picture, trying to remember what she had thought of it when she first saw it. The grey patch in the middle of the screen could have been almost anything, moving at high speed across the telescope's field of view. Millions of objects shot through the Mars Trailing area every day, most of them between camera frames and many of them too small to see from Io.
Sometimes, June found her job totally absurd, but other times she believed it was totally necessary. At the moment, she had the distinct impression that it was both at once: absurdly necessary. She made a mental to explore that conclusion further, as Price's voice brought her back to the task at hand. Bergan knew it was going to be a long night, but she could never have imagined how dark the ensuing days would be.
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.