1 – Light bender

Pluto’s Helmet

Story Parts:

“I did it, I did it.” The shout of triumph filled her heart and mind. She had to clench her hand over her mouth to ensure that it would all stay inside her, that not the slightest whisper could escape those bruised lips. “Listen to him. He thinks I’m gone.”

She smiled, even though it made the blood trickle again, its taste salty, like her tears. Leona wiped her face in a quick sweeping motion and then pressed herself flat against the wall again, fearing that somehow that movement may have given her away. But it did not. The falling of the chair, the fumbling over the phone, told her all she needed to know. For a moment she wished she could see his face. He was stumbling back in utter shock.

Finally, he recovered. His forehead suddenly drenched in sweat, he swept his long silver and black hair away from his eyes, and slammed the desk’s intercom unit on with his fist. “Security!”

“Dr. Tanner,” the comm guard replied instantly.

“Get me Condon.”

Seconds later, the chief security officer came across the channel. A flip of a switch put the communication into secured mode.

“Seal all exits. The girl’s loose.”

“Sir — where? How?”

“She ‘ported. Damn it, right in front of my eyes she teleported herself. She could be anywhere in the complex.”

“Or outside?”

“Damn.” That dismal thought had not occurred to him yet. “We don’t know her range… Scour the grounds – wing by wing, search inside; we’ve got to find her.”

“At once, Sir. Sir… we have applicants in today.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” He ran his fingers through a sweaty swatch of hair. Do whatever you have to.”

“Sir, you want her alive?”

“Yes, you idiot!” Tanner slammed off the comm button. His tall frame suddenly got very heavy. He leaned, half sat, on the edge of the desk. “She ‘ported — right in front of me, she –” The sinking feeling in his stomach mustered other unpleasant thoughts and the room felt suddenly very very cold. “How… How…?” He stretched his hand out before him, as if he could pull the answer out of the air. It was the same hand that had reached out for her a moment before. He pulled it back and the blood on his knuckles glistened accusingly, mocking him. “You idiot!” In two seconds he was out of the test room, headed for his quarters and fresh clothes.

“You’ve read too much McCaffrey, Doctor.” As the test room door slammed shut, Leona edged her way along the wall to the room’s private bathroom. She knew there were no cameras in there. Stumbling into the cloistered darkness, she finally allowed the dizziness to pull her down to the floor. “They won’t look here right away.” And she let go of the light.

*

In the natural darkness of nighttime, half a world away, Sergeant Quill Mnasen took a moment to pour himself another cup of coffee. He did not mind the moment of respite as the outworlder, who’d taken over the front two desks in his precinct, made her second report into the secured voice link.

“The date of the accident was registered as 35 local days ago.” The outworlder softened her voice, “No survivors.” The voice at the other end made a comment, and Zeta replied by twirling her chair around to face the third monitor and tapping a train of commands directly onto the screen. “Yes… It is odd that no estate closures have proceeded. No, there is no public record of their will. I agree. It’s standard for Namech – er – wills of this type to contain that clause. Maybe, because it occurred in foreign soil — Hold on. I have a correlation run coming through.”

The first monitor, just to her left, was logged on to the precinct’s front-end computer. She was using it as a dynamic memory manager. It announced the number of Terabytes it was about to swap. The center one, in front of her, was hooked by priority link to the planet-wide supercomputer. It responded by reducing to icons its remaining open files. And the third one, to her right, also on the local front-end, split itself into three post-processing fields. The processor on her lap, coordinating it all, hummed again.

Mnasen turned around and caught the eye of his staff leader just as the outworlder’s second screen kaleidoscoped into life. He grimaced a warning. A second later at least a dozen exasperated hands went up in the air across the room. Three chairs were slammed soundly against desks as their respective officers went again on yet another visit to the refreshment center.

“How much computer time this time, Sarge?”

“Beats me,” Mnasen glanced at the riffling arrays of numbers and colors flashing against the outworlder’s center screen. Virtually bouncing off her dancing fingers, the colored files logged themselves into processing queues in the rightmost monitor as they vanished, only to get immediately replaced by other patterns. Mnasen shook his head. “I just work here, son…” He grinned, less out of amusement than as an effort to allay his staff’s frustration.

With the captain on vacation, he was in charge of the precinct. All routine, it should have been — until the stream of facsimiles and phone calls started coming in at midday. By early afternoon it was clear that someone had pulled every possible string in the Serenan government bureaucracy to secure full cooperation of East Central Precinct. He was sure some Earth industrialist and his entourage were visiting East Central; probably looking for security assurances before investing in the move to Serena. Even though he had gotten less than four hours of sleep the previous three nights, he stayed at the main desk to greet them. And, finally, the outworlders arrived — all one of them.

Zeta Reti-Caret: not Earth-born yet traveling with full Earth privileges. Her transcript file claimed she was from Cressida, the water world in the Reticuli system. But she certainly was not a fish. Then again, how could he be sure? He didn’t know anyone who had seen one up close. Fish was just the nickname humans gave to the aboriginal sentient inhabitants of Cressida, even though everyone acknowledged they were closer to batracians than fish.

No, she couldn’t be a fish. Fish didn’t travel in space; the cost of adapting a conventional ship to handle all that fluid mass would be exorbitant. And without the buoyancy of fluid all around, gravity and acceleration spikes were deadly to fish. Besides, her skin was human warm at that first handshake, her smile captivating, and her manner disarmingly familiar.

But still, she was different. Mnasen’s trained police eye could not decide what her age was. Her face, her proportions, suggested a barely 20-year-old human. Yet, the definition of her arm muscles suggested an almost total lack of body fat, like an avid muscle builder in her late thirties, but then again that disagreed with the body curves that her one-piece knit jumpsuit revealed.

“I got it.” Her smoky voice snapped him out of his thoughts. A look at the wall timepiece verified that she had monopolized almost thirty supercomputer CPU minutes in this download. He had to suggest a temporary halt to her search, for the sake of his staff’s sanity.

“Miss Reti-Caret.”

“Hold on sweetheart.” She dismissed him with a quick smile and she resumed her comm link conversation. “Whitt, I found the answer! The airliner crash is still under investigation. There was some sort of explosion on board — it occurred in a sovereign state of the third continent. Although planet police have jurisdiction, the stability of the political environment is better served by allowing local control.” She was quoting directly from an excerpted news article that hung on a portion of her screen. “There has been unrest in that area for the past thirteen months… some sort of ethnic imbalance claim — even acts of terrorism.

“Yes, here it is,” a printed image slid down the center screen. “A local militant newspaper, The Farasan Freedomer, claims their group was responsible.” Zeta paused for a moment to react to her own words. “I know…” she held her earpiece in place as if to touch her contact’s hand, “senseless risk. And the girl was a Generation child.” She nodded firmly. “Yes! I have confirmed it. Her name was Leona.”

“Miss Reti-Caret!”

“I’m sorry, Whitt—” she looked up. Five other impatient police officers had been added to the circle of staring eyes. “I think I’m taking up too much time. I’ll call you back. Yes, I’m following up.”

The comm symbol vanished from the first computer screen and she immediately inactivated the correlation engines in terminals two and three. The staff leader gave a suspicious glance at the nearest desk terminal. The gray molasses had given way to a blinking cursor, rearing to go. A tap on the keyboard confirmed it, and the crowd of self-controlled police officers dissipated.

When they were all back to their desks, Zeta searched for a smile in Mnasen’s eyes until she found it and then she fed it with one of her own. “Sorry.” She started pushing the second and third computer consoles back to their original places. Undoing the connections to her interface processor, she restored the terminals to their baseline configuration. “But it’s the only way to compute these days.” Her own processor folded neatly into her yellow leather pouch.

“There are other databases, you know.” He said. That wasn’t a real alternative. Mnasen knew he couldn’t have denied her access after that barrage of official requests.

“None as thorough as planet-wide police.”

“None as critical,” he retorted. “We’ve got four unfinished murder investigations from Northeast district going on right now.”

“Three.” She didn’t let him react. “I replaced your phonetic estimator with my version. The suspect’s correct name in case file C…124t37a is Zhmidden. Passport travel log puts him in the central northeast district the night in question. The completed file is logged under —”

“Hey! What the – Who did this?” Mnasen’s staff leader was standing up and staring at the unsolicited report in his console.

Zeta just smiled and went on. “Of course, there is a 2% margin of error. I used three of the eyewitness reports and only ran primary correlation paths.”

Mnasen was speechless for two seconds and then he started to explode. “You have no business—”

“You gave me system access, Hon.” She reached forwards and wrapped her fingers around his gesturing hand. “Besides, I’ve got to do something while the machine grinds.”

Sergeant Mnasen exhaled a slow and controlled breath. “Miss Reti-Caret, I believe it’s time you called it a night.” He almost corrected himself as the timepiece on the wall reminded him that the sun was up. He had been up for thirty-two hours.

“Yes, sir!” She gave him a military salute. “Let me just log off from number one.” She tapped the screen’s upper right-hand corner and one by one the resident programs started logging out. Slipping her hands around his arm she started to lead him away from the desk, but something made him stop and look back. And there, among the programs logging out, was a train of chess boards. Each in turn flashed on and logged out. He counted ten of them; one of which announced a stalemate. The rest proudly displayed her name as victor.

“Chess?” His face became a ridiculous blend of exhaustion, incredulity, and outrage. “Chess? ON MY TIME?”

She was already two cautious arm lengths away from him. “I’ve got to do something while the machine grinds…” She followed that with a shrug of her shoulders and a neat pivot on her heels; and she was out the door.

*

The hunger pangs finally woke Leona up, with a startle. She hadn’t intended to fall asleep here — Here? The disorientation lasted only a couple of seconds. The bathroom door was still locked. Pressing her ear against the cold plastic surface, she could make out no one in the test room. And there was no light coming in under the door. So, it was safe.

She undid the lock and cracked the door just enough to look around. The tiny red light on the far corner told her the test room’s security camera was on. That meant it was later than she thought. The test center had been closed and secured for the night. “Good and bad.” At least she could get to the snack room without worrying about teachers or guards or Tanner.

But, the security system was on. That meant IR motion detectors guarding every exit from the building. She had never bent IR — How could she? She couldn’t see it. “Ah… but if I could see it – I bet I could.” She smiled defiantly and crafted the test set-up in her mind and then she logged that thought away to try it someday — when she was far from here.

“OK, time to eat.” She found that talking to herself, even in whispers, helped her stay focused. “Now: I know the combo to that door, because I have seen Tanner punch it in a dozen times. There is no camera on the outer corridor and no windows on this side.” Without another word, she clenched her teeth and commanded space to bend. At first it resisted but she pressed. And the touch of her mind pushed the fluid bubble outwards from before her eyes… outwards… firmly… past her shoulders… outwards and stretching… until it formed an ellipsoid that completely enclosed her young body.

The sudden stop sent a shimmering echo through her mind, the last vestige of outside light, and then the spinning sensation started. She could feel it, trying to make her precess like a top. She could hear it, roaring all around her like a windstorm. But she held on. “Boy, and they say there’s no Æther.” Now all that was left was to run blind for the door, find the row of buttons and punch the code in.

“Move, girl!” She called out to herself. The dizziness wasn’t helping her hunger pangs. She didn’t know how long she could keep this bubble up on an empty stomach. In two seconds she was at the wall and then the door. Her fingers identified the three rows of symbols and numbers. She bit her lip and started the sequence. “Star, star… five, twelve, fifty-two… open!” The alarm beeper sounded once and shut off. She pulled the door open, swung herself out and shut the door again.

Her heart was racing. If anyone was monitoring that camera, they could have seen the sudden flash of corridor light. She allowed the bubble to dissolve, and with working eyes, half-blinded by the light shock, she repeated the combination sequence on the outside security panel. “Now, no one can tell I was here.” And she ran for the snack room.

One and a half sandwiches and a gallon of milk later, the dizziness had subsided. Leona sat on the cold plasti-tiled floor of the snack room considering her options. In between bites she peeked out through the blinds into the night. From that window she had a clear view of the Institute’s sweeping south wing. The students’ rooms were on the second level; Tanner’s office was on the first. Just beyond it was the brand-new bio-cybernetics laboratory, almost completed.

The south wing’s entrance driveway was the shortest route to the public highway below. A mile east there was a refueling station and a public telephone, with long distance satellite access. With her credit card she could dial up the emergency number.

She knew it by heart. She almost started to recite it when her voice broke before the sudden onslaught of memories.

“Come on, Leona, tell Mommy the number.”

“But you know it already Maman…” she used to tease back.

“C’mon, Cheri, don’t give your Mozzer a hard time.”

“OK, Papa. The mnemonic is Earth.One.Namehaven. The Namekeeper is Whittaker of Earth.”

Then her Mom would hug her and give her the bon-bon bribe. It went that way ever since she could remember. “Earth.One.Namehaven…” she knew it by heart; she had learned it well. She had never thought she’d need to use it — until now.

The turn in thought, turned her mood, and set her jaw. She wiped off the tears. New ones, of anger, tried to take their place as Tanner’s first visit to their home flashed into her mind. She had trusted him. They had trusted him. “It’s all for her good,” he had said. “We must foster her gift. She is among the first of a new generation of mankind… And my Institute is geared precisely to encourage these kinds of gifts.”

“Why were we so gullible?” Leona shook her head, tossing around her curly red hair. “But maybe we weren’t.” She thought about it. She reviewed every mannerism, every careful phrase that she remembered coming from Tanner. And she had to conclude that he had woven his web perfectly. He certainly had not wasted his Doctorate in Psychology. They had been expertly manipulated.

The drop in Central University funds, the cut-backs in Government Chemistry research, the recession: Together they all had conspired to make it harder every year for Dr. and Mrs. Moniet to put away enough money for their daughter’s university education, and her trip to Earth. Tanner could not fathom why they wanted to send her to Earth for her education, but he knew full well the enormity of the expense. And he offered generous scholarship rewards for any time Leona could spend with his other pupils.

The others. For a moment she thought about them. Cathy, her roommate, had consistently scored high in the clairvoyance tests. And Rnasi did appear able to predict the outcome of dice rolls with more than average accuracy. There were supposed to be all sorts of “Talents”, as Tanner liked to call them, in this Institute of his; but she, Leona, was the only one with telekinetic powers. Or so he’d thought.

She glanced down at one of her sandwich crumbs on the floor. With a momentary frown she “pushed” and the tiny crumb rolled by itself, almost a full centimeter. “Bread crumbs and foam pellets — Kinetic indeed!” She laughed at herself and Tanner. “You fool. It was light, light pressure all along. I couldn’t move a pencil if my life depended on it.”

Pluto’s Helmet

Story Parts:

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