It was half past ten when a quarter-rested Mnasen returned to the precinct. By the time he reached his desk, the furtive looks and disguised smiles of his officers managed to set him on edge. But before he could make his staff leader explain, his intercom buzzed on.
“I think someone wants you, Sarge,” the staff leader patted Mnasen on the shoulder. “Have a good time fishing.”
The intercom buzzed again. “YEAH, this is Mnasen, what is it?” His tone was not cordial.
“And this is your Boss! Would you please come into my office, NOW.”
Mnasen spun around and almost fell over his chair. Through the partition glass he could see his captain — Back from vacation? As he reached the door, he saw the outworlder in there too; and he wasn’t sure what to brace himself for. Captain Clen was extremely well composed for someone whose first true vacation in five years had just been cut short.
“Sergeant,” he smiled without mirth. “It seems that the Mayor, the Governor, and every Council weenie this side of the President, highly recommend that you handle this matter personally. You and Ms. Reti-Caret are to take the noon flight to Farasan, where you will render every ounce of official help you can muster to conclude this investigation in a timely manner.”
“In your timely, and thorough,” his eyes snapped to the outworlder condescendingly, “performance of your duties, you will remember that we are presently undermanned at this precinct… and that you are the only ranking officer that can fulfill my duties in my absence, should the need arise. Is that clear?”
“When do you anticipate your thorough investigation to be concluded?”
“Within forty-eight hours, Sir.”
“Good answer. Dismissed.” And he turned to the outworlder, bowing and motioning towards the door. “Ms. Reti-Caret.”
“Thank you, Captain Clen.” Zeta caught up with Mnasen and wrapped both her arms around his arm. “Don’t worry, Hon. I just needed some local help. And your name figured prominently in my report as being most resourceful and capable.”
Mnasen stopped at the refreshment center and gently disengaged her arms from his. “Miss Reti-Caret,” he paused to pour a cup of coffee. “This kind of recommendation, I do not need.”
As agreed, they met onboard the jetliner. Mnasen was pleasantly surprised to find himself seated in First Class. The outworlder was comfortably sitting cross-legged on her own First-Class lounger, which she had rotated to face his. She was wearing shorts. Her interface processor lay across perfectly muscular legs. The steady stream of data scrolling through her screen had almost all her attention. She managed to give Mnasen a brief smile and then she went back to her screen.
He wished he knew more about her. The search he batched overnight came up practically empty. In fact, too empty. No records existed of Zeta Reti-Caret ever having incurred even the smallest vehicular infraction — no credit records, and not even any medical records. The public records on her were limited to registries of participation and victories at almost every chess tournament in the Civilization Conference. Apart from that, the only other interesting bit of information he found was tied to her passport; and that only because interciv epidemiological laws required trips of more than ten parsecs to be logged at the Civilization Conference’s General Institute of Health, for at least ten years. According to those records, nine years ago, she had spent nearly eighteen months in Onossi.
Civ Con debated long and hard before they accepted that world, with its self-proclaimed theocratic government, into the Conference. But their energy transport technology was desperately needed by the Space Force. So, in the end, Civ Con made allowances for the host of trade and communication laws the Onossians refused to abide by and agreed to enact some unusual ones. The Onossians traded their technology freely in exchange for judicial primacy. Their Court system, rumored to be the most severe in the Conference, had final appellate authority in all Civ Con.
It was certainly not a vacation site. It would have been an unusual sojourn on anybody’s record. For a seventeen-year-old, girl, on her own, it was unheard of. Maybe he’d broach the subject somehow.
As he refocused on the present, his eyes sought her eyes. Her expression of intense concentration made him decide to let that somehow become a someday, and he just sat back and admired the dance of her hands. She never used a keyboard. She made all inputs directly on the screen with a touch of her fingers; just like she had done at the precinct. It was a fascinatingly smooth operation: fingertip angle and rotation, pressure, even proximity to the surface all appeared to have a different effect. Mnasen had never seen any capacitive touch sensors that responsive. In fact, it was because of their typical clumsiness that he never ordered them for the precinct computers.
That train of logic suddenly stumped him. “How the —? We don’t have touch sensors.” He started to vocalize his objection but then he decided he’d rather not know how she did it. He decided she probably brought her own hardware and installed it into the desk computers.
“I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?”
“No, no — Well, yes. Here.” And he handed her a data disk. “I have a friend in the Farasan peace-keeping unit. He piped their latest records down to my home terminal.”
Zeta beamed with a huge smile. “See! I told you you were resourceful and capable.” In two finger strokes the data was pouring onto the screen. Gentle flicks of her finger parceled it into five separate stacks, according to content. A minute of silence later, her young forehead got furled by a frown; and her eyes seemed to turn darker.
“It doesn’t make sense. Your data confirms it.”
Mnasen arched his eyebrows to prompt her on. She swung her legs down and leaned closer to him, holding her processor so he could see its screen. “Here’s a frequency table of the terrorist activity in Farasan and its neighboring states for the past thirteen months.”
At her touch a histogram with three-dimensional perspective filled the screen. The x-axis indicated the type of target attacked, the z-axis gave the number of attacks in a given month, and the y-axis showed time discretized into thirteen individual month units. “As you can see, airports and aircraft were favorite targets early in the dispute. But, as time has gone by, almost all targets are either mass transport vehicles or government official residences. And here’s the reason.”
Her finger shrunk the graph into a corner and popped up a news article. “The Farasan council shelled out two million credits to install the latest and greatest in sniffer technology: fully templated Langie Mass Spectrometers. There’s no way you could get 1 ppm of any toxic, explosive, or otherwise mildly irritant substance past those babies. So, even if the terrorists decided to break with their pattern and attempt to get an explosive on board, how could they do it?”
Mnasen leaned back in his lounger and nodded at her logic. “My friend says they are starting to check their security screen’s programs.”
“I saw that. Yes, someone could have reprogrammed the templates but that takes system access and a lot of time; to make sure you don’t mess up the air calibration. His report doesn’t show the system ever giving false alarms before or after the day of the accident.”
“OK, what do you propose?”
“I usually just go for the obvious.” She set her processor down on the side table and conscientiously logged out her analysis program and five chessboards. Sitting back in her lounger, cross-legged again, she brought her hands together and started. “The Farasan passengers were all moderates according to your report. So it seems unlikely that the explosion was an aborted hijacking or the work of a self-proclaimed martyr. The only foreigners on the flight were the first half of the Tanner Institute party. None of them had a criminal record or previous association with any of the Farasan factions. So there is no terrorist motive and probably no terrorist means to get a bomb on board at Farasan International Airport.”
“Fine, what about its original point of departure?”
“Nussenzvieg Local Airport, a private field with even more stringent security measures. Before that, it was cleaned and refurbished at the Federal Depot.”
“There was mention of radio interference in the report,” Mnasen offered, as a support of the terrorist hypothesis.
“Yes, that one is puzzling. Their operating assumption is that the bomb was detonated remotely via a radio signal– I’d like to hear the blackbox recording myself.”
“Maybe it was an accident after all; a lightning strike to a poorly sealed gas tank seam.”
“That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw the bit about the radio interference. As St. Elmo’s fire builds up before the strike, you’d hear a lot of static on all channels. But I checked the weather reports. The Farasan Islands are at a tropical latitude, and they do have the highest isokeraunic levels of that whole area, but the sky was clear, cloudlessly clear, that day. Besides, the airliner wasn’t that old.”
She paused to recollect the data she had read. “Yes, almost full composite shell. All parts are coated inside and outside with a polyaniline-based conducting paint. The joints are double coated. If lightning had struck, it should have just skimmed across the surface: in at the nose, out at the tail.”
Mnasen rubbed his chin in wonder. This beautiful outworlder put most of his detectives to shame. “Ok, you still haven’t told me your hypothesis.”
“All I know is that no one could have gotten through security and planted an explosive on board. And, since teleportation machines do not exist, if there was a breach, it had to be from the landing strip side, not from the passenger side.”
“I am sure they have started interviewing all the loading and docking personnel,” Mnasen assured her. “But then again, you said it yourself, Why? What would have been the motive?”
Why? Why? That question kept echoing inside Leona’s mind as she stuffed a pair of cheese and crackers packages into her pants’ pockets. The question reminded her of her lip. It wasn’t tender to the touch anymore, just a little swollen. Why did he change? He had always been so gentle, almost doting. She’d never even heard him raise his voice before. Yes, his obsession with this psychic talent stuff sometimes bordered on the eccentric but that was the prerogative of genius, wasn’t it?
Double Doctorate in Physics and Chemistry — a third one in Psychology… She was his prize pupil, he always said. That trip to Farasan was all to show off her talent: incontrovertible proof that the mind could move matter – puny as it may be, but move it nonetheless. He always had great plans for her, he used to tell her. He took every opportunity he had to introduce her to important people, future contacts, potential investors… down to the last minute.
That’s why she was alive, and they weren’t. Her eyes welled up again and she swallowed hard against the knot in her throat. If he had not stopped on the jetway at the call of his name, if he hadn’t pulled her back to introduce her to the Sheir of Virada, if he hadn’t said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll go with the rest of the crew on the next flight’, she wouldn’t have missed her flight. Did the stewardess take her message to her Mom and Dad? Did she tell them, ‘I’ll be on the next flight. I love you?’ or did she forget. It would have been her last ‘I love you—’
In a flash, the rest of the memories rushed upon her: the sound of the jet taking off, the sharp ascent and the turn to the right, the leveling off over the coastal mountains… and then the ball of fire. She shut her eyes but she couldn’t shut out the echo of the explosion, the shock that ripped through her heart like a spear of ice, or the sickness — the gnawing sickness that folded her knees as she saw the flaming pieces showering over the horizon.
She could not remember how long she had cried; just that there had been a steady hand at her side all the time, Dr. Tanner’s. She accepted his offer to come back to the Institute until her nearest off-world relatives could be notified. The return to routine was a welcome prospect. Except, pretty soon, it was not routine anymore.
He insisted she try harder. She tried harder. He replaced the foam pellets with glass marbles. She stared and stared all day, all night, tried every possible exercise imaginable, and still she could only barely budge them.
“I CAN’T DO IT!”
“YES YOU CAN, YOU LITTLE B -” That first time, his hand went up but then he held himself back. Instead, he swept his long black and silver hair out of his face and repeated his theory again; as if saying it over and over again would make it be true. “All matter is made of the same stuff. It all has mass, it all moves along geodesics of curved space-time. All you are doing is putting a dent in space and the foam pellets fall side-ways into it. That’s all. All you need to do to move the marbles is make the dent deeper. Deeper!”
He walked away from the table that day without hitting her. But she wasn’t that lucky the next day — or the next. Why? Why? Why this obsession with her? On Monday he sent all the other kids home for the summer — all except Leona.
Monday night, unable to sleep, she had gone back to the little bits of foam; and she realized how she was really doing it. It wasn’t kinetics… it was light all along. She experimented with it again on Tuesday but she didn’t tell him. He was away on business all day. By Wednesday she had discovered how to make the bubble; and her escape plan was fashioned. She just had to get better at it and then she could get away from him — finally.
Still, the question, born of that violation of trust, nagged unyieldingly at her mind: “Why me?”
She took in a deep breath and cleared her mind of useless memories. “It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? As soon as I get my stuff, I’m out of here, forever.” She had her steps clearly mapped in her mind. Fully rested and fed, she could probably hold the bubble for at least twenty minutes before the dizziness turned into stomach-wrenching vertigo. Two nights ago, under the pretext of doing her laundry, she had pried open the last window of the south wing dormitory’s basement laundry room. With a slide down the laundry chute from her quarters it would have made a viable escape route. Now she was going to use it to get back in.
For a moment she questioned the prudence of that decision. But she knew she couldn’t leave her things behind, not the photos, not the books, not the embroidered camisole that her mother had given her for her fourteenth birthday. One last swallow, one last rub of her hands, and she was ready.
In one step she cut through the security system’s IR beam, slammed the door open, and snapped on the bubble. The intruder alarm screamed out. Fifteen seconds and as many yards of wall later, the maintenance building came alive. Her cringe of doubt was automatic. She knew the roof searchlights would go on and sweep the grounds in the direction of the test center. The worry was needless; the bubble held. Nothing came in and nothing went out. The twin light beams cut right past her to the wall behind her, as oblivious to her existence as she was to theirs.
She was almost halfway around the test center’s wall when she heard the men calling to each other. She pressed on. The garbage bins would provide a good temporary hiding place to shed the bubble and regain her bearings. If she was right, it would be a straight walk across the open field to the edge of the south wing. That would be tricky but she could do it. Then all she had to do was find the basement’s last window.
The smell of the garbage bins told her she was there before her hands had reached the metal of their gates. Her fingers found the broad hinges and she pulled herself up to the top. From there down it was a long five seconds as she kept waving her feet around to make sure there was no debris under her. Finally, she was hidden and she could let go.
The shadows around her seemed as bright as daylight for a fraction of a second, until her eyes adjusted to the natural darkness. The voices finally reached the building. There were at least two guards with portable comm units. As soon as they told the security center that they were going in to check, Leona stacked two wooden crates from the pile in the corner. Standing on them she could see over the bin gates.
She had been right. It was a straight line from there to the south wing. Then the left wall would lead her to the basement window. Easy enough. But could she walk 300 meters in a straight line in total darkness? She felt her heart speeding up with anxiety. She told it to quiet down. She could do it; she had to do it.
With the bubble back on she climbed over the gate and slid down to the grass. She centered her back on the gate’s padlock. For a final check that she was facing directly forwards, she brought both heels back against the metal doors. Then she started counting steps.
“There’s no one here, Sir.”
“Anything broken into?” the crackling voice over the comm unit asked.
“No,” came the reply. And Leona smiled as every step took her farther and farther from the voices. The next comment was something about Tanner but Leona didn’t catch it. She was too involved in counting and keeping herself straight. “One hundred… Two thirds to go…”
Suddenly there was another sound. A car, no, more like a cargo truck, was driving up. She stopped and planted both feet firmly in place. Then she allowed her face to turn until she could gauge the general direction of the sound. The vehicle was following the road up from the driveway. Her heartbeat tripled as she realized her full vulnerability. She was right in the middle of the open field. If they drove onto the grass, they could run right over her, and she’d never see them coming.
Panic started to choke her throat until she shoved it away with a forceful flash of reason. “Come on, girl, there’s at least two hundred meters between you and that wall. How much of that do I occupy? At most a meter… And that truck? Give it three… What’s the chance that it and I will occupy the same parcel of ground at the same time? Less than one in a thousand.”
With that mathematical assurance, she went on. The closer the sound got, the louder she tried to make her mental counting. Thirty steps later, her forehead was drenched with sweat and then the truck stopped. She didn’t. There were more men out there now, shouting remarks instead of using comm units; cursing at being roused in the middle of the night.
“Tanner wants, Tanner wants – There’s no one out here, I tell you. Yeah, yeah. I got the dogs.”
Dogs… that can smell…