4 – On the trail

Pluto’s Helmet

Story Parts:

Running in utter darkness from the dogs, Leona held her arms fully extended ahead of her, ready for the impact. “Where are you, stupid building?” She’d started counting by two’s to compensate for her racing steps. The wall should have been there ten counts ago. A carelessly tossed water hose gave her the answer by snagging her feet and sending her tumbling, head over heels, into the stuccoed roughness of the wall. Her yelp started a cacophony of howls and barks. Some of the dogs had sensed her out there. They had resisted going into the test center, but the humans forced them to search in there anyway. Now, after finding nothing, they were free, free to chase the scent.

Leona rolled on the grass. She had to come out of the darkness to see where she was. She had missed the side of the building. She was halfway down the north wall. No matter, she could run down the other side, to the other stairwell to the basement level. She got her bearings, but her apparition added sight to the smell. The first two hounds chanced to look up from the patch of grass they were examining. A growl and two yelps turned the whole pack into a coordinated mass of noise and teeth, heading straight for her.

She leaped to her feet and raced for the corner of the building.

“Hey! There she is!”

“Get those dogs, you fool — Tanner wants her alive.”

Someone started a motorcycle. Leona rounded the corner and almost made it to the stairwell when the first dog clamped its jaws on her right calf. She went down, rolling with her fall. And her full weight ended up slamming down on the stubborn dog’s chest. The second one howled as the first one yelped for air, reared back and lunged again. “NO,” her scream and her hands shoved twin bubbles at the dogs’ snarling faces. For one grotesque instant, headless bodies started screeching in panic. The terror of that utter darkness overpowered the bloodlust of the hunt. Even when they raced past her range, and recovered their heads, they kept on running.

The pack broke into confusion, but the motorcycle was making it around the corner. The driver spun to a stop to grab the leashes of two nearby dogs. Leona jumped to the stairwell, missed the handgrip and flipped over and down, straight down on her left ankle.

She slammed her hands on her mouth and bit her wrist against the spear of pain that shot up through her bones. Just a moan, not a scream, escaped her throat and, as she crumbled into a heap, her bubble went back up. And she was again in utter darkness.

The dogs led the man to the stairwell. He shone his flashlight down and all around and there was nothing to be seen, just the cement landing and the steel door to the basement, closed. “We lost her, Sir.” Leona could hear the second man panting as he reached the stairwell. He cursed, and he too shone the light down the stairs and along the whole edge of the building. “I don’t get it. How the —” the motorcycle driver vented his frustration in a stream of profanity, “How did she get away?”

“Never mind. I’ll tell Tanner. Get the facility ready. We’ve got visitors tomorrow night. Tell all the grounds’ staff that Tanner’s giving them a week off.”

Somewhere in the middle of those instructions, Leona passed out into the mercy of sleep.

*

“This is the address.” Quill Mnasen brought the surveillance van to a stop, two houses down the street from the temporary residence of Momé Semiano; the man who had driven the gasoline truck the day of the accident.

“Now what?” Zeta’s mind kept racing across possibilities.

“We wait. The background check gave nothing directly linking him to Camarin’s organized crime ring. We wait and listen to a couple of calls.”

“C’mon, his brother is a known mule for their drug operations; you said it yourself.”

“The man doesn’t have a record!”

“The man also just came planetside two months ago.”

Zeta’s protest made Habeni speak up: “InterCiv security is checking their database. Camarin’s traffic extends off world. They’ll get back to us.”

“Quiet,” the radio officer in the back of the van called out, “we’ve got an incoming call.” Everyone went silently to the back of the van and waited for a minute. “Nothing, a routine back call from a food delivery service.”

“Seems he’s ordering dinner in.”

“For how many?” Zeta hoped.

“Just one.”

She stared down the road. A brightly colored truck stopped at the traffic interchange. “Is the name of the joint, Zermelo’s?”

“Yes…”

“It’s over there, a block away; intercept it.”

Habeni complied immediately.

“What are you doing?” Mnasen reached for the Farasan’s shoulder but Zeta held him back.

“C’mon, wire me up. I’ll deliver dinner, start a conversation, you listen in. Maybe he’ll give himself away.”

Mnasen shook his head firmly. “This is police work. I can’t let civilians take risks like that.”

“The man doesn’t have a record, remember?” She spat his words back at him.

Mnasen considered protesting again but the firmness of her stare, the dark hue of her eyes, took him aback. “OK, just explore… don’t give anything away.” The surveillance van turned left in front of the delivery truck. Habeni dashed out with his security chief ID held up. Zeta clambered into the truck and picked up the thermo-blanket. By the time they repositioned themselves with all sensors aimed back at the house, Zeta was rapping at the door.

“Put the wire on the speaker,” Mnasen called back to the radio officer.

“Hi,” she was the first to speak as the door opened, her whispery voice almost a purr.

“Hello…” Semiano spoke interlingual with a characteristic Torian accent.

“I got your dinner,” her hand slipped up to his shoulder. “I noticed you didn’t order any dessert.”

“What is she doing now?” Mnasen peered out the window. Zeta was already inside the house. Someone was closing the door and clicked it locked.

“What’s that hum?” The radio officer tapped his earpiece.

Momé Semiano backed up until the back of his couch halted his retreat. She had set the food down somewhere – but he didn’t care where anymore. Both her hands were free and running up along his arms. He started to say something, but his heart was beating too fast. Her eyes drew him in, her skin was glistening… a perfume filled the room… her lips… her body pressed against his… He wrapped himself around her, oblivious to the manipulation of his body functions and then —

CC-CRACKK

Mnasen and Habeni nearly hit the roof. The radio officer flung his earpiece across the van. “She’s no fish,” Mnasen slammed open the van’s door, “she’s a damned eel. Call the paramedics!” He raced for the house, his gun drawn, and the Farasan right behind him. The momentum of his body split the side frame and smashed the door open.

The outworlder was on top of Semiano, straddling his belly; her left hand clutching his throat, her right hand firmly planted on his bare chest. The room was filled with a smell like myrrh. The man was whiter than paper. Her voice was savage. “Pulse, one hundred and ten and rising… Do you want me to go on or would you rather that I stopped it altogether?” Her clothes were soaked, her face was drenched, and the scent got stronger.

“Tanner —” the man blurted out of a stuttering jaw. “Tanner gave me the stuff.”

“Why? Why?”

“I d-don’t kn-now,” the man bit his own tongue. His body was starting to convulse. “I s-swear, I SWEAR!”

And she let go. The man shuddered once and then passed out with a groan. Habeni hurried around the outworlder, at least an arms-length away, to check the man’s pulse.
Mnasen shoved his gun away in anger.

“What the hell do you think you are doing? You’ve violated every right, every rule -“

“Damn the rules, Mnasen, I’ve got a Namechild out there who hasn’t contacted family or haven in over a month, who right now is either dead or worse in the hands of her family’s murderer.”

Mnasen clenched his jaw and stifled his anger. The outworlder shivered as a breeze ran through the house. “Here.” He handed her his jacket. She took her soaked shirt off and used it to wipe as much of the electrolyte as she could off her skin.

“I ooze when I get angry.” Her explanation, as she zipped up the jacket, was almost accompanied by a smile. But she stifled that and refocused her thoughts. “What do you know about the Tanner Institute?”

“A ten-acre estate in West Central, headed by Dr. Silas Tanner, Chemist turned Psychologist turned parapsychologist. The tour in Farasan was an international demonstration, a fund raiser.”

“It’s not a private school?” Zeta had not run down that path in her original search.

“He’s got tutors there. But it’s mostly a research facility into paranormal junk.” Zeta was visibly shocked. Mnasen went on. “It appears the girl was,” he stopped himself and corrected, “is his prize pupil, supposedly Telekinetic.”

As the paramedics took the man away, Habeni joined them near the van. “What’s the quickest way to West Central?” She asked him. The Farasan chief responded with the next scheduled tourist flight. “C’mon, think. There’s got to be something faster.”

Habeni started to shake his head, but then, “The Space Force. They have a landing field five miles east of the airport. They’ve been providing supply hops between here and the Base Construction site in the Batesian coast, every hour on the hour. The Batesian field has supersonic transport routes to West Central.”

Zeta climbed into the van and addressed the radio officer. “Get me a satellite link to D’nari – Space Force Orbital Station, please.” A minute later the radio officer handed her the comm transmitter. To the synthesized query Zeta replied, “DeBroglie, Jean Baptiste – 2nd lieutenant.” Another minute of electronic switching later the voice of a young man, perfectly official, came over the comm.

“DeBroglie here.”

“Reti of Cressida, I need haven for a child.”

“Yes Ma’am.” The reply was instant and there was a tangible change in the tone of his voice. “Farasan Islands of Serena, I’ve got a fix on you. Is the child with you?”

“Not yet. I need transport to West Central.”

There was an audible rattle of key strokes. “Does Whittaker know?”

“Yes, most of it. I’ve got local help, a Sergeant Mnasen. He will supply you with the file. Can you relay to Whittaker?”

“Yes Ma’am.” He paused for a moment; more keyboard rattle followed and then, “You’ve got transport. Next hop at Farasan port field has been directed to wait for you. I still have not gotten acknowledgement from the SuperT on Batesian, but it will be there.”

Zeta exhaled a long breath. “Thanks, JB.”

“My pleasure. You know there is haven planetside on D’nari.”

“I know, they are relatives.”

“Should I inform them?”

“Use your judgment. We don’t know the state of the girl.”

“I’ll read the file. Godspeed.”

“Reti out.” She turned back to the Farasan. “Thank you, Chief.”

“I’ll take you to the port field,” Mnasen offered. And he held back his questions. That interchange both amazed and perturbed him. The manipulation of the East Central government bureaucracy that had initiated this working relationship with the outworlder was more than the work of a local politician. All the bits of information he had gathered over the last few days hinted at this outworlder belonging to an enormous network, reaching back to Earth, with connections in every part of the Civilization Conference including its armed forces.

After he dropped the outworlder off, Mnasen went back to the Farasan security office and attempted to get help from West Central’s main precinct. Of course, his facts were few and his evidence hearsay or circumstantial. By midnight, he finally got a commitment for a warrant hearing by the next afternoon. But by then it might be too late.

He shook his head and pondered that thought. Yes, this network of the outworlder’s bothered his cynical side. If he was right, he had only scratched its surface… surely too much power… too much chance for corruption. But they got things done.

*

Daylight. The sun’s rays finally made it over the edge of the stairwell, prodding her back to consciousness. Her bubble had disappeared sometime during the night, but no one had been back for her. Every part of her body ached. There was dried blood on her pants where the dog had bit her and a dozen bruises everywhere else. But none hurt as much as her swollen ankle.

She propped herself up against the side wall, clenching her teeth against the pain. It almost made her sick to her stomach. A few breaths later she realized it wasn’t just the pain. The dizziness from the bubble still lingered on. “Food!” She slapped her pockets and her packs were still there. The crackers had almost been reduced to powder, but they were still there.

She ate quickly and started considering her options. Limping down to the refueling station was out of the question. Getting her things was of secondary importance. There was only one course available. If she could slip into Tanner’s main office she could dial out of the complex, onto the satellite link, and make her emergency call. After that, all she had to do was wait. They’d come for her… They would. They had to. But now, how to get to Tanner’s office?

The window to the basement that she had pried open was on the opposite side of the building. Even if she got to it, she doubted she could climb in with a broken ankle. “Maybe this door is open.” Using her good leg and hands, she stood herself upright against the wall behind her. It seemed an eternity before she felt she was balanced. Her stomach was not empty, yet she was still dizzy. She wondered how long she had held on to that last bubble; maybe she could do it for a lot longer than she thought, and this was the resulting hangover. She took in three quick breaths and started hopping forward. In two hops she was by the handle, trying it. “Locked. What else did I expect? Jesu, Jesu… I can’t give up now.”

The click from the other side of the door made her leap back. She pressed herself flat against the wall, held her breath and vanished. With another click and the turn of the handle, the door opened. A pair of voices preceded the squealing of the rusty hinge: two men, two guards.

She felt the door swing toward her. The doorknob started to press into her stomach and the two men stepped out. Leona slid herself out from behind the door along the wall, one ear on the men’s shuffling steps, the other on the door’s air-spring exhaling itself back shut. They were at the top, and the door had a breath left. She lunged forwards, thrusting her arm where the gap had to be, and, with a final gasp, the door slammed on her wrist.

She was in.

She had to let go of the bubble before the vertigo made her throw up. Maybe it was better to wait until nighttime, she thought as she shivered under a cold sweat. No. There was an advantage to doing this in daylight. Even if there were more people around, the security system was off. All she had to do was take it one step at a time. And she did.

Whenever she found an empty office or a broom closet, she would slip in, let go of the bubble and regain her bearings. She found herself getting sicker and sicker with each vanishing. But, if she stood still, she was able to hold on to the bubble for longer.

At a long pause, she remembered hearing something about visitors coming tonight. Had it been a dream? Maybe not. There was an awful lot of activity going on despite all the missing pupils. Maybe that was another potential way out, stow away in a vehicle. That was an option she had to keep open. But first she had to at least try to get to Tanner’s phone.

The phone. She thought about that as she rested against the concrete sink of the kitchen’s cleaning room. She had not phoned her cousins at D’nari after the accident. Dr. Tanner had offered to do it for her. It had been so much easier to let him do it, not to think then, not to deal with any of it. He had also said he’d contact the estate lawyers and have them come see her when she felt better. That never happened. The call to her cousins probably never happened either. Why?

The more she thought about it, the less sense it made; and the angrier it made her. If he hadn’t called anyone, what did they think? Did they think she was dead, that she too had been on the plane? What else could they think? Any Namechild with an ounce of brain left and in this kind of trouble, would have made the emergency call two weeks ago. She hadn’t.

Pluto’s Helmet

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