Consciousness came upon John-Litton Gant abruptly, as his slowly spinning body rotated his face into sunlight again. A stab of pain from the left torso jerked sore muscles into motion, and the spacesuited figure began pitching to, a freefalling human pendulum in the interplanetary void.
He tried to turn his head, but his cheek was stopped by the padding in his helmet. The sound of his breathing suddenly grew louder in his ears, and his nostrils registered the sterile scent of canned oxygen. Day-old memories drifted groggily to the surface of his mind.
Twenty-eight hours before, he had been working EVA at Raumer's Gate, the jewel of the inner Torus. Mitsubishi had captured the hundred-mile-long asteroid thirty years ago, fitted it with mass drivers, and maneuvered it into an orbit keeping pace with Jupiter. Every two years, the asteroid came to lie on a direct path between Mars and Jupiter, and what the freighter captains then saved in fuel costs and time, they paid in transit and docking fees to Mitsubishi.
This summer had proved to be especially lucrative. Half the Torus was in a state of rebellion by the end of August, and refusing to transport goods to the Jovian colonies. Five times the normal traffic of supply shuttles from Mars was passing through the Gate. The captains grumbled about the abnormally high duties, which had been hiked beyond the seasonal crest, but they were also raising their own resale prices for the valuable food, water, and electronics in their cargo bays. Capitalism ruled the Torus, and everyone knew it.
Nobody had closely examined the Martian shuttle, Grandiloquence, that had landed then. There were too many ships going too many places in too much of a rush for security to slow them all down. Regulation was bad for business. Nobody had scanned more than cursorily beyond the shielded hold which allegedly held two hundred tons of water for delivery to Europa. When the shuttle's captain disappeared, a single sentry had been dispatched to check the vessel.
Mitsubishi executives had not been concerned with the rising tensions in the Torus. Raumer's Gate is neutral, they said. No one has any reason to attack us. Jupiter needs the supplies, Mars and Earth want the business, and Tories respect us. That face-off two days ago? A fluke. Nothing to do with us. We're safe.
The bomb hidden inside Grandiloquence had vaporized the entire spacedock. Shock waves from the blast had cracked the station's main reactor housing, and a miniature star had blossomed inside the heart of the asteroid. Every living being on Raumer's Gate was dead or unconscious within ten seconds of the detonation.
Now, more than a day later, John Gant was heading away from the Sun at several thousand kilometers per second, slowly and experimentally moving each part of his body. He found four cracked ribs, a broken leg, and countless bruises, but he was still alive, and his spacesuit was intact. His radio and computer had not been so fortunate.
After establishing his relative safety, he began reviewing the situation. He had no idea in what direction he was moving, and without instruments, no way to tell. For all he knew, he could be heading away from the ecliptic plane and already outside the sphere of human communications. That particular scenario was, in fact, quite likely; the Solar System proper occupied a preciously thin disk of planetoids.
His oxygen tanks were half full, according to the gauges which might or might not be correct. If he recycled the air in his suit and breathed shallow, he could stretch it out to twenty hours or so. But even if he was still in the Torus, he was a single man with no radio signature. The chances of his being spotted visually or thermally and subsequently rescued were astronomically small to begin with. Given the time limit, it was more likely that his radio would spontaneously repair itself.
John Gant made his decision quickly. After eighteen hours, when he began choking on his air, he took a final look at the void around him and wept at its cruel glory. Then he broke the seal on his helmet, and felt his face boiling under naked sunlight just before his heart exploded.
"Len," said Jenny Galza, "you have to see this."
Leonard McBride stepped onto the hangar deck with a thud, too tired to remember that New Montana was spun for gravity. "Can't it wait?"
"You don't want it to wait." She shoved a hand computer at him as the rest of the Project Theory flight debarked, grumbling about various mental and physical discomforts.
"This is gibberish," said Leonard, scanning the display. "What am I looking at?"
"We received that transmission from somewhere outside the Solar System two hours ago. It was repeated ten times and then stopped. Take a look at the last line."
He looked. The last line read: Encrypted by Jacob- Martin Quinn.
Jenny shrugged. "Decipher it yourself."
Leonard retrieved Jacob Quinn's public key, started the decryption, and waited. Under the General Privacy system, every UN citizen had a code key pair, one private, one public, each at least thirty-two symbols long. Information encrypted with the public key could only be decrypted using the private key, and vice versa. The public key was freely distributed and could be used by anyone, but only the owner of the pair knew the private key. Cracking a GP-encoded message by brute-force methods had been proven to be mathematically intractable seven years ago.
Jac Quinn's message emerged as plaintext in less than a second. Leonard read it and forgot to breathe.
We will return.
"Jick," he whispered.
"They're safe. That's something, at least."
The hand computer hit the far wall with a ringing sound that froze everyone in the hangar. Jenny stared at Leonard with shock and fear.
"This is meaningless." He held up his palms. "They can read minds."
"What?" Sixty people were now listening intently.
"The Frogs. They cloned Gramble and Millen. Did you ever watch the tapes from the supply runs? Everything perfectly normal, completely human. So either the Frogs can telepathically control minds, or they can read minds and program their clones accordingly. But then we saw Gramble in a loneboat at Saturn, even though his body was on a slab at Star Ithaca. One of those two bodies must have been a clone." His stare bored into Jenny's hope. "They can jicking read minds. They could easily have faked this message."
She took a breath. "Wouldn't they have tried to be more convincing, then? Included personal references, things that only Jac and you or I would know about?"
Leonard laughed hoarsely. "Too obvious. If we already know they can read minds, what's the point trying to convince us otherwise?"
"Or maybe it's just Jac, being his usual, concise self."
"We will never know." Leonard turned and walked toward the elevator. "Even if Jac comes back someday, we'll never know if it's the real Jacob Quinn."
The elevator doors closed with a hiss. The crowd began mumbling again. Rob Price walked over to Jenny Galza and handed her the slightly dented hand computer.
"I wouldn't put too much stock in McBride," said Price. "He's had a long couple of days."
Jenny shook her head. "That's the thing. Even after this ordeal, he makes perfect sense."
Price shrugged, looking elsewhere. "I think he's spent too much time around Jemison. The paranoia is starting to show."
"I'm not sure that's a bad thing."
Kyle Jemison knew as much as anybody in the Solar System about cryptography. He had studied linguistics and computer science at the University of Chicago, and later served as Project Theory's communication expert. His Ph.D. thesis had been an extensive study of criminal uses of data security in perpetrating the Samuel Gregory assassination. The parties responsible, who had never been caught, had used legal and civilian means to thoroughly embarrass the intelligence agencies of fifteen nations. Espionage had never been the same since then.
While researching his thesis, Kyle had combed every library on Earth and the Net for relevant information. He knew the General Privacy algorithm inside out; he could code it from scratch in six different programming languages. He had memorized the four transmissions which had made it possible for Samuel Gregory to be killed by a single bullet fired by an unknown assassin. The Bannon Commission Report had concluded that it was impossible to track down the parties responsible, but Kyle had always been suspicious of that dismissal.
Not included in the Jemison thesis was a ten-page bundle of questions which the Commission had seen no point in investigating. The only answers Kyle had been able to find were speculations from the Net, wild conspiracy theories and reactionary dismissals. After a while he had despaired of ever finding the answers he wanted, and surprised himself by qualifying for the astro school at Cape Canaveral. The questions had been filed away with the rest of his thesis materials.
He now fingered the yellowed sheets, an anachronism in this paperless age, and smiled from ear to ear as he spun his wheelchair around. "Delia!"
A brown face framed by dark curls appeared around the corner. "Yes, darling?"
"We're going to be famous again."
His wife's eyes darkened for a moment. "Not again?"
"Remember Samuel Gregory?"
"Who doesn't?" Delia Jemison stepped forward cautiously, wary of her husband's maniacal grin and grave insinuations. "Don't tell me you've finally solved the case."
The smile faded slightly. "I didn't have to. UNIA did it fifty years ago."
He waved at the terminal behind him. Delia nearly fell forward onto the desk, reading intently.
"It's not April yet, is it?" she said after a moment.
Kyle shook his head.
She turned her frown to face him. "How did you find this? I mean, how did you--"
"They gave it to me." He nearly laughed, but coughed instead. "They wanted me to find this. I was looking for evidence of an Earth conspiracy against the Torus, and I'll never be able to prove that there's nothing to find. So they gave me this."
"To throw you off the trail."
"No. This is the toughest encryption I've ever seen; the only reason I got through is because I know the back doors. But Gandalf has been dropping hints like crazy, leading me straight to it. He wants everybody to see this."
Delia nodded. "Because there is nothing to find."
"And this proves it. Jick. If UNIA was going to protect anything..."
"Is it going to work?" She carefully placed a hand on his shoulder.
He stared at the terminal. "I don't know."
"It's too late."
Andrew-Li Onato, Captain of the UNS Oracle, watched with cold eyes as the UNS Castellan burned in space, bleeding oxygen through her main rockets. Hordes of multicolored Torie loneboats buzzed around the two battleships, firing lasers and throwing kinetic shells. The remains of a converted passenger liner bulged from Castellan's crumpled broadside. Onato could see silvery escape pods, painted to reflect laser and radar, falling away from the disintegrating battleship.
It had only been Onato's second live combat in twenty years of service, and his first as Captain of the Oracle. He had known that Torus was highly volatile, and a single wrong move could bring disastrous consequences. Everyone knew that. Oracle and Castellan had been patrolling Seat Of Honor, following their now week-old routine, and the Tories had suddenly attacked. Onato was sure that some UNIA analyst would later try to explain the political inevitability of the incident, but only the Tories knew the real reasons behind their actions. Was it Benfu which had pushed them over the edge? The newly unearthed information on the Samuel Gregory assassination?
"There she goes."
Castellan's main fusion reactor burned itself out in an angry flash of white, as if to say: You don't win that easily. The blast scorched several Torie loneboats which had ventured too close and blinded most of the rest. Onato seized the opportunity to attack, ordering a wide volley of laser fire and self-guided kinetics. He wondered how the Tories had ever thought they could win this battle. Oracle and Castellan were old, but they each carried more weaponry than the entire Torie strike force combined. Only surprise had allowed the spaceliner to ram Castellan at the start of the battle. His ship moved forward through the chaos, extending cables to catch escape pods even as it repelled the attacking vessels.
"Zero-six-zero seconds to perimeter."
Safety, such as it is. Onato wondered if he would feel safe again before he died.
The skirmish at Seat Of Honor was nothing compared to the first battle of the war. Newly inspired by the Gregory assassination, Torie dissenters began flooding the Net with encrypted communications-- schedules for secret meetings, cracked passwords to government computers, recipes for illegal weapons systems. If three disgruntled United Nations Security Council members could conspire to assassinate the General Secretary using public cryptosystems, surely a few million angry Tories could start a revolution the same way. Gandalf had gambled and lost.
UNIA managed to intercept and crack some of the weaker ciphertext, but the anarchy of the Internet made it impossible to trace communications back to their origins. Decoys outnumbered actual messages by fifty to one. Even if they had been willing to endure the backlash, the United Nations could not shut down the Net-- it was, by design, impossible to destroy. On the thirteenth of September, a Monday, over a hundred vessels converged on Europa. They ranged in size from loneboats to cargo freighters, and they filled the sky around Jupiter with deadly colors.
UNSF had placed a small monitoring station into orbit around Europa thirty years earlier, replacing and adding equipment as the decades swept by. Within five minutes, the Torie armada had reduced the station to debris, removing Europa's main communication link, and begun attacking the spaceport. The five UNSF and twelve private ships in dock tried to fight, then run, both to no avail. The attacking forces formed a sphere of ships surrounding the port, and slowly constricted the formation, like a balloon collapsing inward, suffocating their target.
Two hours later, UNSF patrollers arrived from neighboring sectors. They were an hour too late. The Tories had destroyed every manmade object at Europa and stolen a caravan of water tankers, adding insult to injury. Water was precious in the Torus, but a few thousand tons of it was not worth three hundred human lives.
Images beamed through the chaos of battle had shown several corporate logos scattered through the enemy fleet: Oricon, Quintex, Anasazi-Gerber, PepsiCo, Ariane, others. Official denials flashed onto the Net, but not faster than the rumors and accusations. Every opinion imaginable surfaced in the vast, roiling, electronic sea.
The Tories are right. UNSF was lax. Earth is trying to establish a police state in the Torus. Quintex is helping them. Ariane is helping them. It's not that hard to paint a loneboat. Quintex is fighting Ariane. Quintex and Ariane are conspiring against the Torus. Elvis is alive. Quintex and Ariane are fighting UNSF. The Frogs are a sign of the Apocalypse. Trust no one. Join the revolution.
Watching from New Montana, Jennifer-Ford Galza felt the weight of a presumably dead Jacob Quinn on her shoulders. She knew what she had to do, and just as she was sad to keep waiting for a child, she was determined to have a better world to show her offspring.
When Leonard McBride awoke on Tuesday, Carolyn Leefield was already gone. He found a note waiting for him on the computer, slipped into his pressure suit, and left their quarters.
She waved as he floated down to meet her at Skyscraper's new docking ring, a monstrosity of jerry-rigged components. Jennifer Galza had publicly announced her intention to form a neutral coalition in the Torus on the fourteenth of September, and in the next seven days, twenty other corporations had joined Quintex and Ariane to form the Liberty In Tranquillity Alliance. Their Charter, drawn up with surprising speed by a conference of lawyers, had been flashed onto the Net three days ago. The Alliance would dedicate itself to preserving order in the Torus, maintaining neutrality and trying to end the war peacefully. Reactions were mixed, but none was hostile. The warring sides had better things to fight.
Skyscraper Point, fortuitously placed outside the Torus proper, had been appointed the Alliance's meeting place, and as such had to be made compatible with all Alliance spacecraft. That included accommodating Lockheed-Marietta's docking collars, Oricon's fixed-rate gas exchange filters, and a dozen other proprietary equipment designs. Such things were already on the construction plan, but had not been scheduled to be added until several years later, after Skyscraper had proven its usefulness and Quintex and Ariane had more bargaining power. Construction, which had been slowing toward completion, again proceeded at a frantic pace.
"More overtime?" said Leonard, his voice buzzing on the open radio channel.
Carolyn smiled pleasantly, gesturing at another astro. "Oricon wants to bring their cruisers in tonight. We need this dock to pretend like it's working."
"Whose bright idea was it to build hexagonal docking collars anyway?"
"They were probably just trying to spite everyone else. Jack! Watch your flank!"
He blinked and tensed before he realized that she was talking to one of the astros, who quickly swiveled to avoid a flying plastic crate. Various panels, cables, tanks of sealant, and uniformed crew had been orbiting the docking ring for the past week. Somebody above him moved an arm in wide circles. "Hey, Len, pass this down?"
Leonard nodded. A squarish box, as wide as his torso, sailed down at him. He caught it with both hands and turned to see another astro flapping his palms. The box descended slowly, then was caught by two techs and guided into a receiving slot. Warning lights lit up on the box, and high- pitched tones sounded briefly over the radio.
One of the techs glanced over the displays on the box, then nodded to his partner. The other tech pulled off one side of the enclosure, revealing a round lens mounted on a thick, black rod. Another panel, with a large circle cut in its center, was fitted over the box and welded into place.
"Go on Lima Nine-Two." Harlanni gave the thumbs-up signal. "Ready for test, Chief. Over."
"Roger that." Carolyn winked at Leonard. "Dock traffic, this is Crew Chief. Prepare for live, repeat, live test of Lima Nine-Two at grid square zero-three-zero. Repeat, all stop in grid square zero-three-zero. Acknowledge, over."
"Roger that, Chief." "Wilco." "Somebody catch that dog!"
"Thank you, Mister McBride." She elbowed him gently. "Rock and roll, Jack. Over."
"Roger. Lima Nine-Two is live, now-now-now." Harlanni touched a control panel, then pulled a small, transparent globe from the side of the box and threw it away from the station. Sensors inside laser mount L92 tracked the object, obtained a lock, and fired an invisible beam into the center of the vessel. Within a second, the water became vapor, cracking the safety glass and sending small droplets in all directions.
"That's good. Lock it up. Dock traffic, Lima Nine-Two is down. Grid square zero-three-zero is clear, repeat, grid square zero-three-zero is clear. Chief out."
Harlanni caught the target, now a shattered sheet of glass and plastic, and stuffed it into a pocket. Leonard looked up along the long axis of Skyscraper, trying to pick out the weapons, then back down at Carolyn. Her eyes, the color of acid-washed denim, watched him as he walked over and placed a hand on her arm. The spacesuits were insulated, but unseen warmth passed between them.
"Carolyn," he said, "will you marry me?"
She clinked her helmet against his. "I thought you'd never ask."
They dimly heard cheering over the radio.
Copyright © 1996-1997 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.