“So, as you can see Miss Reti-Caret, there is no cause for further concern. We have enough manpower on the case now that I’m sure we’ll be done with the investigation in less than a week.”
The Farasan Sea-and-Sky Port chief of security was eager to please: too eager, too confident. Zeta ventured it was all a face-saving show. The presence of a planet police sergeant in his district, asking about a month-old case, had to be embarrassing.
“Chief Habeni, I’m sure you and your men will be most thorough,” Mnasen started to speak as he searched for the right tactful words. That week estimate would not be acceptable to a certain police captain.
“Yes, Chief,” Zeta reached out and held the Farasan’s hand with both her hands. “But since we’ve come all this way… Isn’t there anything we can do to help?” Chief Habeni frowned pensively as if he were seriously considering that offer. “Isn’t there any piece of information missing that we can help you dig up?”
“No, no… we have everything we need.” He nodded sharply, and he was lying. The tiny change in the conductivity of his palm was perfectly clear.
“Except what?” She asked directly, catching him off guard, and a hmm led to a haah and then he answered.
“Well, we haven’t found the airliner’s black box, yet. But right now, this very minute, I have a team of frogmen out there searching the bay.”
“The explosion was over the water?”
“Yes, yes. That’s why it’s taken so long to retrieve the debris. We put top priority on the bodies – to end the awful waiting for all the families. But salvaging the wreckage takes time.”
Still holding on to his hand, Zeta went on the attack again. “How big did you say your frogmen team was?”
“Four… er… well, counting the radio officer here, an integral part of the team, you know. He logs their findings.”
Zeta rolled her eyes. “How many actually in the water?”
“One man keeps the boat and the supplies. And the other two alternate on shifts, Ma’m.”
“Where did it go down? Show me.” The Farasan led them out onto the pier. They walked halfway to the end and then he pointed out the small motor boat bobbing on the waves about two miles off shore. “Are you sure it’s there?”
“Yes, sonar soundings have shown that most of the rear of the aircraft landed in that area.”
“How big is the black box?” To her question the Farasan held out his hands about half a meter apart and then motioned its length around. “Metal?”
“Yes, of course — anodized to survive the sea water.”
“Good,” she smiled. “I’ll be back.”
The outworlder dashed back to the office, scooped her travel bag, and disappeared into the ladies’ room. Minutes later, she was back out, and Mnasen had to remind himself how to breathe again. She was wearing a one-piece swimming suit, made of a bluegreen fishnet. Its weave varied from top to bottom, from very loose at the neck strap, to medium past her breasts, to a tight almost clothlike weave as it swept down her navel and hugged her hips.
Zeta noticed the Farasan averting his eyes. And as she stopped by Mnasen to hand him her sandals, she drew closer and whispered, “I hope my attire doesn’t offend any local moreés.”
He moistened his lips and consciously focused his eyes on hers. “No… I think you’ll be fine — They do make allowances for outworlders.”
She gave his arm a squeeze and estimated his heart rate; then she smiled innocently at him. “Good.”
As she stepped toward the edge of the pier, Mnasen noticed that the suit plunged down from around her chest to the small of her back, leaving her back muscles fully exposed. And right where the shoulder blades ended, two muscle-skin flaps stretched open. Before he could say anything else, she dove into the waves below.
She did not resurface. Mnasen shook his head and thought about fish that are not supposed to leave their planets, or look like that. After a couple of deep breaths, he turned around to the Farasan. “Ah… Chief, you’d better tell your officers there’s some help on the way.”
She was back two hours later. In the meantime, Mnasen had collected all local news articles dealing with the tragedy that had not made it into the planetwide databases. Zeta brought back the black box and a large piece of curved, double-walled, panel, one edge of which had been melted. She was delighted to see the stack of old-fashioned printed papers on the table. As soon as an assistant took away the black box, she sat down to scan through them.
She read incredibly fast, mouthing memory notes to herself as she concluded each article. Mnasen was hypnotized by her rhythm and transfixed by the two little “mouths” on her shoulders. He hadn’t noticed them before; they were just at the base of her neck, next to her clavicles. They kept pace, opening and closing with her inaudible comments. Zeta felt his staring, turned and realized what he was looking at. She grinned and flexed her shoulders, making the mouths open wide.
“Gills… you know?” She pointed at one of the mouths, “Input”, and turned slightly so he could see the corresponding shoulder blade, “Output.” And the muscle flap under her shoulder blade flexed open for a moment.
“You are a fish after all?”
“Nah… I’m just a slightly modified human.” Mnasen’s expression made her go on. “No, no. I’m not a hybrid. I don’t think humans will ever be able to mate with Cressidans. I am a genetic mossaic; an anthroichthomorph.”
He was still speechless.
“My father is Dr. Ethan Caret, the geneticist.”
The name of the Interciv Nobel laureate clicked a half-dozen memories in Mnasen’s mind. On his first off-world tour, he had served on the Civilization Conference’s security detachment to the Science Council of ’78… at the time of the controversy. “I remember that, almost twenty years ago — Dr. Caret claimed he’d achieved self-reversible encryption.”
Zeta was pleased at the extent of Mnasen’s knowledge. “He wasn’t lying. It’s true. If I don’t want my children’s children to be water breathers, a slight modification of the prenatal environment will switch the mossaic genes to double recessive.”
“Amazing. That would make human genetic engineering —”
“Legal again.” She smiled, “which it is not… You are right. That’s why I was born in Cressida. By the treaty of ’58, Civilization Conference legal jurisdiction on matters of population health does not extend into the Cressidan local space.”
“But, twenty years — he hasn’t been heard from in twenty years.”
“Humans didn’t have faith in him and he had a job to do.”
“Let’s say it this way: Don’t be surprised if someday soon a ship docks at your space port, fully manned by air breathing Cressidans.”
“Ma’m, Sergeant, the recording is ready for your review.” The attendant’s voice returned Zeta’s attention to her case. She almost regretted the interruption. Maybe after this investigation was over she could get Mnasen to give her a tour of his world.
They went over to the communications’ room and listened to all the tower-to-cockpit cross-checks. Only one ground comment stuck in Zeta’s mind, for it was the only item out of the routine. They were delayed almost half an hour after refueling, by a malfunction in the gasoline truck’s umbilical attachment. It was stuck to the plane. They had to cut the hose to disengage it. After that everything else went fine and final cross-check led to a flawless take off.
The copilot rattled off the altitude readings. From their rate of ascent, they were taking a rather steep climb. The Chief explained that it was a noise abatement flight path, inland almost straight up and then around to the coast. They leveled off as they crossed over the coast and then the radio interference started. It sounded exactly like static.
“St. Elmo’s fire? How can they build up static at that altitude… in this humidity?” There was no thundercloud activity in the area. The pilot made exactly the same comment; the horizon was clear for miles around. Nevertheless, he decided to make an altitude change. The whine of the engines picked up again and so did the static. Then came a scream, a shout at a reading in a gauge, an “I see it, I see it. Shut it down”, followed by desperate clicking of switches, a fist pounding on a console, and then a shriek that ended it all.
In the sudden silence Zeta found her heart racing. She reached for the back of the chair to hold on. Mnasen noticed the sudden drop in color of her face and he held on to her other arm. “It’s almost like being there, isn’t it?” he said softly. She thanked his arm with a squeeze of her hand, and stepped toward the case of the black box, mulling something in her mind. The deep furl in her forehead suddenly gave way to the shock of realization.
“Chief, where was the explosion, what part of the plane?”
“Witnesses on the ground disagree, Ma’m. Some say there were two explosions, some say only one. We got a very detailed description from a young girl on the jetway. She said that there were two flashes, like fire in the engine exhaust, before the underside of the airplane burst.”
Zeta ran back to the office. She came back holding in one hand the curved panel that she had brought up, and in the other, her shirt. “What is this?” she asked.
The Farasan held it up and hesitated for a second.
She went on. “I brought it up because of the melted edge. I figured it must have been closest to the explosion. Can you tell me what part of the plane it was?”
The radio officer spoke up, “The only components that I know that are double-walled like that are the fuel tanks.”
“That’s what I thought… But —” she set it down and scrubbed every trace of sea water from its concave side. And then pressing her hands side by side on its slick surface, she went on “it’s not conductive.”
She brought her fingers closer together and still got no current to flow. “I tell you, this polyaniline is not conducting. Look,” she turned it over and found a crack in the paint on the convex side. Peeling back a swatch of the urethane she held the part up for them to see. “See? That’s the color polyaniline has in its conductive state.” Then she flipped it over so they could see the inside again. “This stuff is in its leuco state. See? It’s bluer. it doesn’t conduct.”
Mnasen had to agree that there was a difference in the tinge, the outside a deep emerald, the inside a duller blue. But how—? A moment later the radio officer returned from the calibration lab, ohm meter in hand. His measurements confirmed it.
“What does it mean?” Chief Habeni was desperately trying to keep up with her train of thought.
“Static build up!” The stress in her voice was directed at herself. “It was virtually an all composite aircraft, almost no metal. And you are not using graphite, yet. You have to use some sort of conducting polymer – polyaniline, probably the sulfonated self-doping kind – to coat all the surfaces that need to be conducting. You need it to ground your electrical systems. It helps cut down on EMI. And it is absolutely critical in the fuel system. Without it, the fuel rushing through all that plastic tubing can build up a tremendous electrostatic charge.”
“And if it breaks down—” Mnasen understood.
“When it breaks down, the spark ignites the fuel.”
The Farasan took it all in with wide-eyed amazement. “Ma’m, that’s incredible. It was an accident after all.”
“No,” she was firm. “Polyaniline is a stable compound. It doesn’t change state spontaneously. Come on!”
Tossing her shirt on, she jogged out of the office complex, across the street, to the international terminal. “Excuse me, excuse me.” She worked her way through the waiting crowd of tourists, mostly men, who graciously parted for her. To the first objector, she pointed behind herself and said, “I’ve got planet police on my tail.” She made it to the customs inspection desk.
“OK, Hon,” she patted the inspector on his shoulder, “tell me what I’ve got.” And she tossed the piece of structure on the moving belt leading to the sniffer. Thirty seconds later, the report was in the hands of the inspector.
“Minute traces of gasoline and other solvents… nothing to worry about. You can have it wrapped and put in with the luggage.”
“I just need the printout, thank you.”
By the time Mnasen and Habeni caught up with her she was on the way back, holding the one-page print out. “We’ve got carbon, we’ve got gasoline… salt… and a dozen more things that I don’t know what they are. You got a chemist on staff, Chief?”
“N-No, but there’s a local university. You can use my videophone.”
“What are you looking for?” Mnasen could not decipher any of the other chemicals in the list either.
“I don’t know, but whatever inactivated the polyaniline had to leave a trace. If we find out what it is, we can find out its source.”
Chief Habeni made the preliminary introductions to the dean of the university. As he waited for the head of the Chemistry department to reply, Zeta browsed through the rest of the stack of newspapers. She went right to the bottom of the stack, scanning title headings and pictures. The word ‘funeral’ caught her eye, just as the professor came to the screen. “Quill,” she addressed the sergeant by his first name without taking her eyes off the headline, “could you ask him the questions?”
Mnasen took the list and started explaining.
“WHAT? OH FOR GOD’S SAKE —” The outworlder cut into the conversation. “Sorry, Professor,” and she switched off the connection.
“What are you doing?”
She slapped the article into Mnasen’s hand and addressed the Farasan chief. “You’ve got satellite hook-up on this thing?”
In a moment she had her processor out and interfaced between the comm line and the keypad. The priority digit on the screen shot up to 10. “… One… Namehaven… Whitt, Whitt! Are you there?”
The image came in. From the bounce log on the upper corner of the screen, Mnasen could tell she was going through enough relay stations to reach Earth. The man at the other end, dark-haired with a solid layer of silver over his temples, spun in his chair in surprise.
“Zeta, this is not a secured channel!”
“Damn the protocol, Whitt. She’s alive!”
“But the airline reports you relayed—”
“She didn’t get on board. She saw the explosion from the jetway. Look.” Zeta snatched the page back from Mnasen and held it up to the transmit viewer. “The photograph of the funeral for the Tanner Institute members who died in the crash. Look at the names. There she is, in the center, next to the tall man with long hair, with his arm around her. The caption says Leona Brillouin.”
“But you were looking for the Moniet family.” Mnasen protested.
“Her mother’s maiden name. Did anyone bother to correlate the boarding passes with the number of bodies found?” Her retort was sharper than she intended.
“Zeta,” Whittaker’s normally impassive face was starting to show alarm. “It’s been over a month, and she hasn’t contacted us or her relatives in D’nari.”
“I know — Damn it, and I’ve wasted three days. I could have been looking for her.”
“Do you need help?” Whittaker scanned the console at his right. “You’ve got a nephew of DeBro in the Space Force Station just outside D’nari.”
“I’ll tell you if I do. I may have all the facts already. I just need to correlate in a different direction. But, yes, you can help — If you wanted to turn sulfonated polyaniline back into its leuco form, how would you do it?”
“All sorts of things will do that… Ammonia, for instance but it’s reversible once the Ammonia evaporates.”
“Give me a permanent one.”
“An organic base.”
“Soluble in gasoline; that wouldn’t affect engine performance.”
“NMP. It’s an old standby industrial solvent; mixes with gasoline just fine.”
Zeta took the print out from Mnasen. “N-methyl pyrrol…, there it is! Thanks, Whitt. I’ll call back.” And she switched off the comm channel.
“The gasoline?” Mnasen was logging on to the nearest terminal.
“I told you that whatever it was, it had to come in from the runway side. That half hour delay could have been intentional to give the NMP extra time to work.” Zeta had her processor back in her pouch by the time Mnasen had the gate-log on his screen.
He spun his chair around. “Habeni, the gate-log here says that the gasoline truck’s driver that day was a Momé Semiano.”
The security chief pulled out the gas company’s file. “Yes, here he is; new hire. But the weekend is not his shift. It should have been old Creb.”
“Call them up, while I run this Semiano through police central.”
For a few seconds Zeta just watched as the two native police officers chased the facts down. It all fit, but the question still hung in her mind: Why? And why did Leona disappear? The first thing Zeta had done when she arrived planetside was to check the Moniet residence log. No one had entered, no one had even logged a new message for visitors in over a month. But Leona was somewhere, somewhere on her own. Alone and barely fifteen. Zeta had been that young once herself. Sometimes the choices you make at that age are not the wisest. “Where are you, Leona?”