August 2, 2184
“I’m telling you, Boss, my brother-in-law says he saw the pictures himself. They are prepping missiles for launch.”
“Marty, the Terrans are not going to nuke the Colonies.” Edgar Wallace, senior supervisor of Industrial Platform (Low Orbit) 380A/X, shook his head and silently wished his assistant would stop listening to conspiracy theories. “If the newsnets had pictures like that, they’d be shouting it at the top of every broadcast.”
“They’re keeping it quiet,” Marty Cooper answered. “The Terran government has them all under control. But they have the pictures, believe me.”
“Not even Monroe would want to go down in history for killing forty-six million civilians. He’s a jackass but he’s not that kind of crazy.”
The console pinged and Marty checked the screen. He punched up the intercom and in a level tone said, “Transport on final approach, piloting control now transferred to our systems. Docking crew, confirm green lights on all receiving cradles. Estimate docking in fifteen minutes.”
He watched the screen as the various flags filled in green. Not just the dock itself, and the machinery that would immediately begin offloading its cargo, but the system of conveyors that would carry the materials throughout the platform, to the various factories waiting for their supplies.
380A/X was a midsized industrial platform, hosting 47 factories, technically separate though they shared both a common purpose and a common owner: EarthArc Shipping, which also owned the platform itself. 380A/X was half a shipyard: it couldn’t quite make every component of a commercial ship, but it could come close— and could probably do the whole job with a little refitting. The only step 380A/X didn’t attempt was final assembly: it could have, but EarthArc dispersed its products to around a half dozen other shipyards, some of them even down on the planet: there were still some things better done on the ground, such as assembling ships that couldn’t fly but were too big to carry inside ships that could. EarthArc produced a line of seagoing as well as orbital and suborbital container ships.
About half of 380A/X’s raw materials now came from the Moon, from the mines at Copernicus. But today’s transport came up from the ground and would be returning there after its cargo of raw materials got replaced by a shipment of parts to build a tourist cruise ship.
The screens now showed all green, and if Wallace had hoped his assistant would be diverted from his rumors, the hope was dashed when Marty returned immediately to the subject. “You don’t listen to Monroe’s speeches. The way he talks about the Colonies, I think he’s exactly that kind of crazy. I’ve got family on Galileo, you know, and I’ve been talking to my wife about her and the kids getting out. She’s got relatives at Paris Township, they could go stay with them.”
“And why would that be any safer, if the Terrans are planning to nuke all the offworlders?”
“Earth’s going to leave the factory platforms alone, it needs them. Paris has the biggest pharmaceuticals plant in the system, they can’t hit that. Anyway, it’s the O’Neill Colonies Monroe is obsessed with. Those are what he’ll target.”
“You’re crazy, just listen to yourself. One alleged image of activity around a planetside missile site, and you’ve got the Terrans’ whole strategy mapped out. It’s just conspiracy theories.”
Marty shook his head. “Your family’s on Uplift, right? That’s the lowest-orbit Colony, it’ll be the first one hit. You ought to pay attention to those theories, and get them out while you can.”
Losing patience, Wallace snapped, “And you ought to pay attention to your screens. You’ve got a twenty thousand TU container ship docking in ten minutes.”
# # #
Linda Ryder’s first thought was that Jenny looked frightened.
“So I guess you made it to graduation before Star City University closed down after all,” Jenny said. She smiled, but fiddled with her hair in a nervous gesture.
“And starting grad school in a couple of weeks,” Linda said. “I’ll still be working with Professor Schaller. Not so great for broadening my experience, I suppose, but since there’s really only one university up here I didn’t have that many choices.”
“You could have come down,” Jenny said. “I miss you, you could have come down to MIT like I did.”
“Yeah.” Linda kept her voice neutral. There were reasons other than academics for not heading planetside during the past year. Linda wished Jenny hadn’t been frightened into doing it last year. Maybe back then it seemed like the Colonies really might get shut down, but not any more. Jenny had to be regretting her decision.
But it would do no good to make her feel worse. “So how are things going at MIT?” Linda asked.
“Oh, good, good,” Jenny said quickly. “It’s really amazing. Right at the front of research, you know, but at the same time it’s so old, it’s got all this history, it’s a fascinating place to study. You really should think about transferring down here, you know. You should… you should maybe look into that right away.” On the com screen, her eyes darted briefly to one side.
Linda frowned, suddenly intent. “What do you mean? What’s going on?”
“Nothing, just… well, there’s a lot of resentment down here, you know, and worse since the secession—”
“Independence,” Linda corrected automatically. She knew the ground-based newsnets had been calling it “secession” in order to taint the Colonies with historical associations, and the habit of correcting the term had become almost automatic among offworlders.
“It’s understandable, you know, coming on top of all the harm the Colonies have done, getting rich by ruining the ecosystem—”
“Jenny, what are you talking about? You know as well as anyone what pseudo-scientific nonsense that Born to the Earth stuff is, and you’re from here, you sure as dust know we’re not rich. Why are you saying that?”
Jenny glanced off to the side again. “I’m just saying you should come down. You’re going to have to sooner or later, you know the Colonies can’t win. The Earth’s too big and the Colonies are— the Colonies are too fragile. If you know what I mean.”
“No,” Linda said, starting to feel oddly stubborn. “I don’t know what you mean. Tell me.”
“I can’t—” Jenny broke off, hesitated, then went on, “I mean you ought to come down. Transfer to MIT, or to somewhere else, but come down. And do it quickly, before—” She broke off again, this time with a visible start and another look off to the side, then finished in a softer tone, “—before it’s too far into the academic year, is all I mean.”
“Who do you keep looking at?” Linda said. “Who’s there with you? Are you sure you’re all right?”
Jenny shook her head. “I’m fine. I’m fine here. I did what I was supposed to do, I came down, no one here’s got any reason to— wait, let me show you something I’ve been working on. This is really interesting, I could maybe base a thesis project on it, it’s fascinating.” She fumbled offscreen for a moment, then held up a handscreen displaying a set of equations. She held it out to the camera, filling Linda’s screen. “I really should link the screens, you’d see better, but can you see it? This should let you know the kind of research we’re doing here.”
Linda frowned. It was a mass of nonsense. But before she could ask what Jenny was talking about, the screen suddenly blanked, only a Call Ended message left behind.
She tried calling back, but no one answered. She called into her screen’s video buffer and grabbed a freeze of the equations Jenny had shown her, and stared at them, baffled. They made no sense at all, just a jumble. What in the world was this about?
It took about a half hour of staring before it clicked into place. It was like a brainteaser, so obvious once she saw it that it was hard to believe she hadn’t seen it from the start, but it was actually very cleverly hidden. But Linda didn’t think until later of Jenny’s cleverness in hiding the message, at that moment she could only feel sudden, burning anger.
In the middle of the mass of fake math, Jenny had said:
Prison camp. Don’t come down.
# # #
“I want to know who leaked it,” Safreth said.
Lauren Cummings replied, “Add to the list of things my new Defense Department is going to have to invent: spooks. An intelligence agency. We haven’t really got anyone equipped to investigate this sort of thing, not yet. It could be the newsnets, they’ve got plenty of cameras of their own, and this isn’t one of the images we took so it wasn’t leaked from our office.”
Press Secretary Carol Tolbert said, “If one of the newsnets took the picture, they’d be posting it as their own, accompanied by loud blasts of a proud publicity trumpet, not calling it an ‘unverified image prompting wild rumors.’”
“The more likely possibility,” Cummings continued, “is the Terran government itself. They’re trying to scare us, or scare our population, by starting these rumors.”
Safreth stared at the satellite image of a planetside missile site. “Well it’s not a fake, it matches our own pictures, right?”
Cummings nodded. “Yes. But we don’t believe it means what it looks like.”
“Increased activity around a dozen planetside missile sites, that can’t mean anything good,” Safreth said.
“They aren’t nuclear, if that helps,” Cummings said. “Despite the rumors flying around, there aren’t any nukes left on Earth, haven’t been for a hundred years, and if Monroe wants to build new ones it’ll take longer than this, and won’t look like immediate launch prep.”
“They don’t have to be nuclear,” Arthur Norris, Chief of Staff, observed. “Conventional warheads would be plenty to shred the Colonies, they weren’t built to withstand that.”
“Everyone sit down and stop pacing,” Cummings said. “Mr. President, with respect that includes you. We don’t have an intelligence agency yet, but I’ve been talking this over with my team and we don’t believe there’s any threat of a missile attack from Earth.”
Safreth reluctantly settled himself down behind his desk. He still wasn’t used to the new office, which the newsnets hadn’t even come up with a shorthand name for yet, but in a strange way just sitting behind the desk suddenly made him feel more… well, presidential. Just knowing what the new office, and the administrative complex around it, had been set aside for.
“All right,” he said. “Convince me of that.”
Cummings nodded. “Look at what happened when the Terran commander, Armstrong, proposed destroying our lifesystems to force us to evacuate. Monroe denied the plan because it would mean losing those lifesystem materials to space, and he was adamant that it all had to be returned to Earth to restore the planet’s ecosystems. Now we all know that’s nonsense, but it’s consistent with everything the Born to the Earth party has said from the beginning. Either Monroe believes it, or else his real motive is to create a stalemate for ongoing propaganda. Either way, it doesn’t serve his goals to blow the Colonies to pieces and see all those materials, along with us, vented into space.” She looked around, making sure everyone was following the point. “What does serve his interest, especially if he really is a true believe, is a campaign to scare us— scare our people— into abandoning the Colonies and heading for the planet. My team believes that’s what this is. He’s got the military doing busy work around the missile sites, making it look like they’re prepping for launch, knowing the work will be easily seen from up here, and start just these kind of rumors.”
She leaned forward. “There’s more. This is only anecdotal, from my staff, but I’ve been hearing that people on planetside calls are getting fed carefully crafted hints that something like that is coming.”
“I’ve been hearing some of that, too,” Carol said. “Some of my staff, people I’ve got taking calls from concerned citizens and the like, are getting questions. I put it down to just part of the same rumors that are going around.”
“The common pattern,” Cummings said, “is that people say their planetside friends or family are acting like they’re trying to give a warning, but that someone’s preventing them from speaking freely. Since there’s been no such threat or announcement from the Terran government, that seems very unlikely to me: that a large number of people, with no connection to each other except for having offworld relatives, would all have gained access to some classified information that’s not generally known, and would all try to pass on the exact same sort of hints. No, that’s unlikely.
“You think they’re being coerced into it?” Arthur asked.
“Coerced, or deceived— a coordinated intelligence operation of exactly the sort we don’t have right now,” Cummings said.
“Not a very skillful one,” said Safreth, “if it’s so easy to see through.”
“But we wouldn’t be the target,” Cummings answered. “It’s all about starting rumors, conspiracy theories, circulating among our population. If we try to deny it, say by having Carol here issue a statement, it just lends it credibility.”
“Propaganda has always been Monroe’s one undeniable skill,” Arthur said. “It could be.”
“What if you’re wrong?” asked Safreth. “What if they are prepping a missile strike against us?”
Cummings hesitated. “Then, Mr. President, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do about it. Not in the short term, anyway. A missile doesn’t have to limit its acceleration to keep a pilot alive, and it doesn’t have to match orbits and dock with its target— just intercept it, at any relative velocity. Without those limits, a missile launch from Earth could hit the Colonies in Earth orbit within minutes, those at the Lagrange points or Lunar orbit in hours. And we have zero anti-missile capacity.”
“Change that,” Safreth said. “And Carol, get me a plan for counteracting rumors. We’ve got too many problems already to add a panicked population to them.”
TO BE CONTINUED