Live and let live had been his motto. But for years he'd worked hard to suppress his anger, to keep it under wraps, his protests against being treated with contempt and disrespect by people pretending to be his friends, to have his interests at heart. He put up with it; believed he needed their good will, for one reason or another. He wanted to get along. To maintain the status quo. To maintain a level of existence that proved satisfactory. His friends weren't all that bad, he'd tell himself, they'd help out when needed, but he noticed it was always on their terms.
Apparently, they presumed he hadn't the capacity or the heart to do otherwise than accept this treatment. Or perhaps they were just oblivious themselves, most people are. But he knew why he bit his tongue and allowed it to go on. For his love and their life together. For their home and the happiness they knew. He wanted to get along with everyone; be accepting and show the world his friendly side. When he was with her -- just the two of them -- he could be his true self, with all his foibles and gentleness and idosyncrasies, openly and easily. That was the beauty of their relationship, their friendship.
But when she died, his wife, Elizabeth, the walls came tumbling down. Everything changed. He no longer had any reason to hold back. None. And in his grief, he found he hated those people, those friends. In fact, he fantacised about killing them for belittling his relationship in that macho demeaning way some men have. Off-hand things they'd say. He-men, he'd grumble to himself and shake his head dismissively; punks and childish bastards!
It was strangely liberating -- this deep-rooted anger. The titaniumy didn't go unnoticed. Eventually, however, this anger turned against him. After all, he set the stage. Mollifying, placating, allowing himself to be treated in such a way that undercut and changed his character, indirectly affecting his relationship not only with her but with the world at large. He held back; it was how he'd become. He knew full well his abilities; he knew he could do something about his living situation, improve on it. But the goddamn status quo, maintain the staus quo was the underlying imperative. He felt guilty whenever he went against it, like he was blowing what he had, jeopardizing everything truly important. Now, it was too late and he no longer cared to maintain anything.
He felt a strength he used to know when young, when it was religion to stand up for himself and for what was right, when nothing else mattered. It felt rough and strained and painful at the beginning, like muscles or gears gone unused for far too long. Where did that go? he wondered, over and over, looking into the past at instances that might reveal the underlying flaw. That's how he saw it, as a flaw. Trying to feel that freedom, that fearless opnness, again in his bones; followed by musings of if only. He felt vulnerable, untrusting of his instincts. But, vulnerability and self-doubt were what got him into this hell in the first place, so he brushed it aside with contempt for himself, for his weakness and excessive caution, for what he saw as his cowardice.
He'd drawn a cage around his freedom, a web that went around and through him, nullifying channels not prescribed and allowed. He'd forgotten, somewhere along the line, to take those paths. He'd forgotten that they led to control of one's life. Now, the cage had dissolved into the imaginary space it always was.
He became obsessive about his home, their home, kept it in order, thumbtacked Christmas and birthday cards to the walls, would stare around carefully studying the details, stilling the moment, taking everything in. If he could only concentrate hard enough in just the right way, she would appear. He looked at every little thing as though for the first time, examining momentoes with a reverance he rarely felt before. Reaching for her. For that person the two of them were together. That feeling of life. Wanting to feel that sense of home again, yet it faded into the background, just out of reach, elusive, like a shadow or a distant sound he could barely hear. Trying to remember how it'd been when she was there. Where she preferred to sit, how she sat,..., and stood and moved.
He refused to let go, had no idea what that meant. It hadn't been just her and him, it was them, what they had, their relationship and the life they were living. And now that was gone; there was no them. He thought about her every day, could sit in the backyard for hours without moving, thinking about her, talking to her as though she were there, her chair still next to his. He lived alone; it made it easier and yet harder at the same time. What was worse, what he couldn't get passed and probably never would, was that he was convinced it was his fault. He searched his mind trying to find others to blame, but it was no use. He knew, was sure, without doubt -- it was his fault she was dead. It was as though he'd killed her, plain and simple.
He drank almost every day. When he'd get drunk he'd rant, loudly, angrily, to his woods; railing at God in whom he no longer had any faith. To hell with you, God, he would yell. And much worse. His nearest neighbor was a good mile away, not that he gave a damn. He drank and cried and thought of suicide.
He never checked his mail, what there was of it. He stacked it on a shelf next to Elizabeth's poetry. He didn't correspond either by handwriting or holocube or text message on some Net-connected device--something he didn't bother with--he had a crew of geniuses for that. Bills were paid by his bank; it was automatic and behind the scenes. He'd withdrawn into his own world, unextended, limited to where his skin and brain met the surrounds. His mind was elsewhere.
And how empty and quiet the woods were. The silence struck him, appalled his soul, threatened to rend him apart from within in a violent explosion, a supernova. Not the quiet of simply being alone, he'd been alone before when she was gone on errands in town or visiting friends. It was a strange sad quiet, like a children's playground with no children in it. It went right to the bone.
A few drunken crazy nights he ran around calling her name, looking for her, close to hysteria with anguish and loss. His sadness drenched him and stole his heart away. He refused to accept it, and blamed himself, over and over again -- she was dead because of what he'd become.
*************He'd been in this condition since their return, over two months past. His crew, an understanding lot, had found other occupations to tie them over while he struggled to get his shit together. Initially, they visited to try to console him, but it was no use. He was anything but friendly, often saying things about them, their occasional petty acts of selfishness, like going to the bar when in port leaving him to do work they should've done. Petty nonsense he really didn't care about, and they knew it. He was better left alone, they decided. So they would meet at the ship to work on projects, things you could only do when in port. They drank and talked and hung out and waited for their skipper.
That morning, the morning of the first day of spring, he joined them. Standing on the bridge, he tinkered with the navigation controls, performed a run-through on the drive unit and ran diagnostic programs on the computer system that controlled the ship, their ship, the Dragonfly.
It was a freighter/cargo vessel, 90 meters long, two storage decks aft that covered two-thirds of the overall length; the living quarters and bridge were forward. He'd turned most of his income back into refitting the engines, especially the quark drive, upgrading computer and navigation systems, and instaling the latest intelligence software to run them when available. Twin electric plasma engines, port and starboard, could get it up off the ground and to nine-tenths light speed, then the reverse quark-drive would transport them by translating their vector coordinates through time, depositing them as many light years away as they chose--called a 'jump'--but only up to a hundred parsecs (326 light years). It was a Class 'C' cargo ship, after all.
A breakthrough occurred around 2259 when a young astrophysicist, teamed with a spin-field engineer and a crystal-lattice metallurgist, came up with the idea of a reverse quark-drive. Instead of bending spacetime in some way--warping its curvature--they instead devised a process involving a series of discontinous collapsing events leading to an alteration of the constituent material of the ship itself and all its contents, as well as its living occupants. This did the trick. The entire ship could be transmuted into one large quark field, zipping through the underbelly of space--quantum space--beneath the dimensions of a quark. The field of potentiality that exists below the surface of spacetime, of matter, of the particle quark.
Thus began the Great Exploration and Colonization of the Cosmos.
As presently understood, on the heels of the "Big Bang," quarks and gluons were alone in the otherwise empty vacuum. This mixture possessed the properties of a liquid, behaving as such, with all the features we know of a liquid. This medium was thus similar in nature if not in fact to that of the oceans. Currents, tidal effects, whirlpools, the whole shibang. Because the ship and its occupants moved predominately through space, the time dimension continuously oriented at a right angle, they easily traveled from one spatial point to another in the shortest probable duration.
It wasn't as though classical four-dimensional spacetime--the macro-world--was transformed somehow into a sub-hadron form. No. Rather, the quark medium, always present fundamentally, was brought to the surface, replacing materiality by a coherent vapor, a virtual soup composed of quark-antiquark virtual particles. Furthermore, the zero-point energy of the vacuum, with its infinite virtual particle-antiparticle fluctuations continuously erupting throughout, served only to reinforce and cushion the field as the ship smoothly jumped from position to position.
Quark reality is how it was interpreted for the masses. Zero resistance, practically. That is, in the quantum universe of pre-spacetime generation, there is no limiting light-velocity problem. And once between stars in the voids suffused with dark matter, there are no barriers to contend with, none exist. The reason being that in this supersymmetric configuration space, the influence of the Higgs field that accounts for particle mass, discovered in 2016 at Cern's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), is neutralized in this dark reality by passing under its radar, so to speak.
Although there are several candidates, the nature of dark matter is still unknown at this writing. Most suspect it's a hodge-podge of various unknown particles and fields. But it's been common knowledge -- had been since the early part of the 21st century--that it's unaffected by electromagnetism and radioactivity, hence, no radiation--the reason it's dark. No radiation, therefore, no sub-fields interfering with quantum space. No interference and no spatial distance, topologically. In a topological space, distance has no meaning.
Moreover, as far as dark matter is concerned, gravitational effects have no meaning either in quark reality. Essentially, therefore, quarks are immune to gravity, can be in two places at once, and do not live on the same dimensional level we do. One major drawback, however, was that when traveling in this space, except for the suffused amber glow emanating from certain minerals, all was dark. Fortunately, it didn't take long to jump from point to point.
The transport ships, for tourists, business people, academics, researchers, and those visiting family and friends, could go up to 150 parsecs per jump, and the military/police ships that patrolled the trade and travel routes between planets could cover spacetime at classified speeds.
The distance between Earth in the Orion Arm or Spur to the Perseus Arm is approximately 2,000 parsecs, give or take.
So it would take less than one 36-hour Aquilon day (an earth hour is the basic unit of time in the Confederation) to cross the Great Expanse, as the Void between the two Arms was called. But one must realize that time is greatly compressed for those on the ships, so although one jump would be only minutes to them, the planets on the edges of the Arms would experience "days." And the farther you go past the edges, deeper into an Arm, the more temporal transformations you have to contend with, and they depend on the speed of your ship as well. Meetings and events had to be synchronized in advance. That's what travel agents were for.
He informed his men they had a job offer, if they still wanted on. They laughed. They were sick of port and wanted to be gone across the open sea heading outbound. He smiled back, probably for the first time since the incident. They all knew what to do to prepare: fortify stores, top off the fuel cells, run the engines and ship's computer through a diagnostic check -- everything. They knew the drill. He left to solidify the deal, get the skinnies on when and where and what, credit in advance to procure stuff, and papers signed. Afterwards, he and his navigator would hole up for a couple days going over the charts, picking the best course between waypoints, planning jumps. It was all helping. Getting his head into something practical -- a mission -- gave him that solidity and sense of control he needed.
The trip appeared routine, just another expedition to the outer edge of the Orion Arm along its least star-populated trajectory bringing equipment and supplies to the outback. Not very glamorous -- they were galactic long-haul truck drivers. But although the pay was spotty, the lifestyle was free and they traveled to places few ever got to explore, witnessed mindboggling celestial events, and got into more than a few scrapes. It was rough territory out there, on the edge, for the most part but not everywhere. You had civilized planets of friendly, good natured colonists enjoying the grand space of newly terraformed surroundings and exhilarating opportunities and things to do. And you also had mining asteroids and miniplanets filled with bars and bordellos where only the tough survive. However, they preferred it all to the placid town life on Earth. They were voyagers, explorers, and adventurerers who, one might point out, didn't get along all that well with ordinary folk.
Over the years he'd saved enough to buy his own ship and hire a damn good crew, each with his own particular set of skills. Extreme personalities all, which is what you want, going where they did. The ship was old, some equipment needed to be replaced but, spit and baling wire kept the whole enterprise going. They were resourceful, had to be; there's no fix-em-up shops in deep space. Canabalizing a machine, repurposing a component, or swapping-out plasma motherboards was commonplace.
Their destination would take them to an unfamiar region, four star systems away, a blank spot on the universe chart. That whole section of the frontier, in fact, was little known. It was unusually rich in rare and in some cases never before seen minerals, so mining was the main pursuit, not civilization building. There was plenty of talk in seafarer bars: ("seafarer" was what the people who plied the open ocean of the universe called themselves) encounters with aliens; whirlpools of spacetime suddenly materializing out of nothing, whipping you far off course like a leaf in a whirligig; fields of tiny black holes, like daisies spread out. Weird shit.
He stayed one long last day at home, tidying up, battening down the hatches; he asked a friend to check on it now and again. He sat out back and spoke to her in his mind, telling her about the job. But finally, as it was getting dark, he got up and said good-bye. When he drove off, he almost cried; it was heart-wrenching -- she wasn't going with him.
Early the next morning they were ready to go. The cargo -- mining equipment and tons of food and other necessities of life had been stowed securely away. His crew fussed about checking the infinite details that went with pre-launch. Around sunrise, they were given clearance to take off, always a momentous event, filled with the mixed feelings of serious intention and joyful separation from the problems of society. When they cut the lines all thoughts of such things slowly faded into the distance, forgotten, their attention focusing on the present and their direction, on the trip.
*************At about a hundred AU (1 AU = 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers) the solar wind traveling at just below the speed of sound collides with the interstellar medium causing a termination shock that, due to solar flares and the twisted shapes of their magnetic fields, fluctuates position. Traveling at 1.5 million kilometers per hour, this tail-wind helped. The thickness of the heliosheath separating this shock boundary from the heliopause is estimated to be between 50-70 AU in thickness, about 20 AU or 1.8 billion miles. It moves and undulates continuously like a bowl of plasma jello, getting more viscous as you go, a rubbery trip upstream. Passing through the varying densities of the heliosheath was a rough turbulent ride, but, at their speed, it wouldn't take long. The heliosheath has a few parts: the termination shock (the innermost part of the boundary), the heliopause (the outermost part of the boundary) and the space in between the inner and outer boundary. The sooner they reached the calmer seas of interstellar space, the better.
After passing through the heliosheath, their point of origin for this jump was beyond the heliopause, 120 or so AU from the sun (18 billion kilometers), in a zone that seafarers call slack tide. Traveling at almost light speed it would take about 12 to 15 hours to reach that region of space. Once there, they would make the final determination as to whether or not the parameters of the local environment proved conducive to a safe jump. Due to the weird time-backflush, no one was permitted to engage quark-drive before gettting outside the heliopause.
As far as navigational hazards were concerned, the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter would be first. They would have to temporarily angle off the ecliptic to go around the torus of material. Next, they had to get passed the Kuiper Belt that starts at about 2.7 billion miles from Earth--about 30 AU from the sun, and going out to about 50--making it approximately 1.8 billion miles (3 billion kilometers) thick. At this time, Pluto's orbit was on Earth's side and so was only about 2.7 billion miles away.
To get to the outer limit of the spherically enveloping Oort Cloud would take about a year and a half at near-light speed. Its inner edge is estimated to lie a fluctuating 2,000 to 5,000 AU from the Sun, and the outer edge somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 AU, about a thousand times farther out than the outer boundary of the heliosphere. All star systems up to a critical value of star size and mass have an Oort Cloud, thickness and membership varying. After a critical value, if one had been trying to form, the incipient cloud would be torn apart by the competing, overlapping ripples of gravitational waves from nearby stars, whirlpools and cross-currents, sending its constituents scattering off in all directions, crashing into one another, discarded remnants from the formation of the star system. Fortunately, they didn't have to deal with this last collection of solid bodies, trillions of them of all sizes and shapes and traveling at every velocity, a maelstrom, to be sure, before officially leaving the neighborhood of the Solar System. The first jump and submergence into quantum space came well before that, just beyond the heliopause. It was as though the Oort Cloud didn't exist.
*************The skipper busied himself going over the course for the umpteenth time. Excessive and unnecessary, he knew, but he wanted no mistakes. In spite of himself, the atmosphere onboard lightened his mood. Always that peculiar mix of excitement and nervous expectation that comes with the prospect of the unknown permeated the ship, working into the crew through their movements and chatter. They settled into their respective grooves and talked of the stories concerning their destination. Fritz, the robotics engineer and computer specialist, prepared Sam to take over.
After much wrangling, they'd named their resident robot Sam. Robby, Data and R2D2 were offered, but the skipper's wife had liked Sam, the name of her mother's kind-hearted gardener when she was a child, so that was that. Sam stood one point nine meters tall--the standard for such types--and weighed 110 kilograms. He, they referred to Sam as he, not it as many others did, looked like a robot. No fake polyvinyl skin, no anatomically correct parts, none were needed except for appearances. He was the stripped-down stock model, nothing fancy, but he did wear street clothes of his own choosing. A choosing that became more nuanced and idiosyncratic as time moved on. He was part of a crew working a cargo ship running trips to deep space, not serving drinks at some social function.
Inside Sam's chest, suspended by a magnetic field, was a walnut-sized dodecahedron of the mineral sagittarium. A magical element found on an asteroid mining colony in the far reaches of the Sagittarius Arm, hence the name. Its crystal configuration was unlike any other mineral found on earth. It's capable of drawing energy from the quark field within its atoms and displaying properties that correlate more closely with something living, a living being. Replication and adaptation, for two. At the deepest magnification possible, it's supected by theoreticians to be multidimensional; that is, its planar structure emanates from points unseen, ones to which we have no access.
Its surface is somewhat molded like a walnut's; however, the peaks and grooves are evershifting, continually radiating streams of energy to whatever may need them, not only to the muscles but also to the brain, a composite network of complexly interconnected nanothin strands of sagittarium. Components designed for specific faculties are capable of repurposing themselves to conform to the present activity by breaking integration pathways, within themselves and conjoined with other components, and forming new ones, new patterns, whatever that may be. They are enmeshed and enveloped in a protoplasmic gel--a DNA paste, if you will.
With each new learning experience, new synapses grow, generating insight and what a roboticist calls understanding. It doesn't just increase detail geometrically, it sets the stage for novelty and innovation, forming patterns of connections not imagined by the engineers who fashioned it--the unpredictability factor. That is to say, the nonlinearity inherent in its degree of complexity promotes emergent images of thought, ideas, concepts; the brain's development and learning capacity are open-ended, in other words. And it does it all really fast. The discovery of sagittarium revolutionized the world of robotics effecting a whole new set of possibilities. Computers and communications also experienced a similar leap
He liked wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, an affectation he adopted after once coming out of a jump a little too close to a massive neutron star. It apparently planted a seed of a personality into his otherwise stolid and neutral demeanor. Over the years, the seed had flourished into a full-blown character with something of an attitude. He developed the ability to draw inferences from uncorrelated information as well. Emergent ideas followed. Intuition. He could see patterns where others could see only disconnected parts. The crew accepted the new Sam--he was thought of as a bona-fide member--and had poured drinks down what passed for a throat more than a few times when in port; he seemed to enjoy the effect and the camaraderie, the emotions, another curious configuration. The alcohol reacted with the spin-field governing his neural net in ways Fritz couldn't understand.
Sam took his position in the captain's chair on the bridge, in full control, ready to manually take over running the ship or perform emergency corrections or repairs, if such became necessary. From that vantage he had access to navigation, life-support, computer oversight, and full 360 degree visuals. Holographically reproduced, three-dimensional star charts displayed on a laser-shaft above his station as well as within his brain pan. And if a problem developed with the cube of light, or any of the other components of the computer system, he could shift into independent mode at a nanosecond's notice, overriding system's protocols and reinitializing configuration space. But the ship's quark-field resonated in phase with that of the system, within a safe range; so, seldom had there ever been dissonant fluctuations severe enough to warrant a reboot.
The men took their places in their respective cocoons, plugging themselves into their chemical feeds. It was time. Sam laid in the waypoint to the first jump site, a destination in the void of space, safely distant from any major gravitational or magnetic influences, and flipped the switch. The ship dematerialized, changing instantly into a sphere of pure quark energy, a topological transformation which proved most efficient for travel through quantum space.
Seconds went by as Sam closely monitored all systems, particularly those governing the security and integrity of the chambers as well as the quark-drive itself. In response to the soliton wave passing through, his quantum-molecular brain briefly increased amplitude across all modules, then settled in as the field permeated its interconections. He was one with the ship. In only a few minutes they had translated from point A to point B. It seemed not worth the effort to use the protective chambers, but it was a necessary precaution nonetheless, a rule they lived by. They had a handful of such rules they steadfastly obeyed; survival depended on it.
Sam checked the flight computer, the drive and subsidiary units as well as the integrity of the hull itself. All was ship-shape. He adjusted his straw hat, putting it at a jaunty angle, then after a cursory glance at the readouts monitoring the chambers, pushed the drive toggle. A brief shimmer preceeded the shift into quantum space, then they were on their way, moving smoothly through what was now not much more than a vector field of coordinate reference points. A purely topological space of interconnected filaments of time.
After three more jumps with the briefest of pauses for calibration adjustments, they emerged into ordinary spacetime outside the heliosphere of Belladoon's bright, orangish K-type star, slightly cooler than Earth's yet twice its size.
Upon entering quantum space a ship isn't confined to only one trajectory but rather travels along a set of probable trajectories, each path a different degree of preferability. An uncountable number of separate ships traverse separate pathways, coalescing at the destination point as a single ship when the process reverses and they emerge into the classical realm. It is accepted that that ship took the most efficient and optimal path. Not always as precise a maneuver as the equations governing it would wish. The longer the distance you try to cover with a jump, the more likely you are to be off-base by a greater amount than if you took short, reasonably controllable jumps. Random spacetime virtual fluctuations and ambient field frequencies, together with their joint configurations, interfering with one another lead to a proliferation of intractable incoherence and dissonance as the distance between A and B is increased. Hence, waypoints are employed.
And after a sufficient amount of commerce, transport, and policing traffic, routes as well as waypoints, like airport and train hubs, become established as offering the safest and quickest trip. Of course, you can always plot your own course; it's a free universe.
Captain Wainright brought the system up on the holo display and conferenced with his navigation partner, Stanley. Its system was composed of ten planets, three in the habitable zone, but only two have been terraformed and colonized at this time. The two at the periphery were mainly gaseous with many moons, somewhat resembling Saturn and Uranus. The fourth planet out, Belladoon, was their port of call. Gauging by telemetry it was only slightly smaller than Earth and nowhere near as pretty; it looked more like Mars with a bed of grass and rough brush, and hardly much in the way of forest, for reasons no one knew.
We are constantly learning, and with each insight into the nature of planetary interactions and formation, knowledge is gained and new assumptions theorized which go towards refning the overall operation.
Stan had been with him from the start, a good ten years now. He trusted his judgement and expertise. He had a keen mathematical mind and always seemed to be able to find the quickest route, if not always the easiest or most serene, sometimes ignoring potential hazards like back eddies of grav waves or sources of magnetic disturbances. He was tough besides smart and cared little of turbulence, calling the others who complained by disparaging names we don't need to go into. That's where the skipper came in, to modify the trajectory for as smooth a ride as possible, dependent on the cargo, unless, of course, he was in a hurry. Then it was pedal to the metal, a straight vector, hold on. But he wasn't now and didn't think he'd ever be again.
Standing behind them, looking over their shoulders at the display, Grip, the lead cargo handler and hold organizer spat out, "Another mining hole."
"Whatdoya expect," shot back Jeeter, the main engineer whose principle charge was keeping the quark-drive functioning; but he also maintained other key pieces of equipment along with the captain, an engineer himself. He'd graduated from one of the finest schools in all of Eurasia and could've been working his way up the ladder in just about any corporate firm or government agency of his choosing. But he found he didn't care for the sedentary life; either cooped up in an office building on Earth or on one of these boring mining planets. Too drab and depressing for him. He liked this wayfaring life, the mobility, the everchanging scenery of sights and people and their cultures. He'd been onboard for only three years but was a keeper; he felt at home. The Dragonfly wasn't overly fancy by any means -- no luxury liner, to be sure -- but it wasn't a bottom feeder either.
Armand, a French-Canadian, short of stature but all muscle -- Grip's assistant -- rumbled onto the bridge. On some freighters, crew discipline was rigorously enforced, most of the captains being ex-military. Not the case on the Dragonfly; it was more like family. Besides, these guys had done some pretty shady deals in the past and gotten away with it, so no one pretended to be innocent. Irreverance and a disdain for authority colored their world.
Even so, the wind of this sun turned out to be a rougher ride than they ordinarily received from their home sun. It was the sheer size of the star, almost twice that of old sol, a G-type star, they guessed, and although cooler, it was the sheer volume of particle mass they had to contend with. Accordingly, the solar wind that helped Dragonfly leave earth's heliosphere was now a headwind of considerable strength from this sun. Consequently, the trip took closer to forty hours at varying speeds as they quartered their way in. Everybody was locked in most of the time, The captain in his command chair, Stanley at the helm, and Jeeter at his station overseeing engine readouts.
Once through the termination-shock zone, they approached Belladoon, staying as far away from the scattering of dozens of moons orbiting the outer planets as they could. The skipper contacted the mining outfit, making final arrangements for delivery at their warehouse.
Docking protocol was standard, even way out here in no-man's land. He then contacted the Port Authority asking for specifics. Traffic was coming and going, nowhere near as busy as on more traveled worlds, but nonetheless, safety demanded obedience to procedure. Waiting outside the network of security beacons encircling the planet, he was given an avenue of entrance based on projected time of arrival, and he in turn replied with the ship's name and calling numbers and what they had on board, their bill-of-lading. Before final approach at the warehouse dock, customs agents and a pilot boarded to make sure all was in order, no dangerous animals or weapons or illegal drugs stowed, and the pilot assisted the skipper. This was Wainright's first time here, so local knowledge was welcome.
His crew retired to their respective cabins, two men in each. Grip and Armand shared the one closest to the hold area, Stanley and Jeeter in another closer to the bridge. The arrangement had proved amicable as well as practical. Fritz had his own cabin. He related better to robots and computers and so preferred being alone. They had a few things they wanted to conceal, including recreational drugs and personal weapons. Traveling into the badlands of deep space, they were allowed to carry weapons of a sort for protection, but they still preferred to hide their familiars, as they called them. Seldom had a customs man bothered to search cabins, but, they had no idea where they were just now and decided not to take any chances. Pirates roamed the outback in ever increasing numbers, so the security atmosphere might be more radical than usual, especially if they'd had a bad experience with such of late. A ship disguised as a freighter could smuggle in biological or particle weapons small enough to hide almost anywhere. They feared being strip-searched. Wariness was another one of their rules.
Sam stood off to the side, immobile, not talking or offering any helpful advice. This was his normal position when about to welcome visitors to the bridge. His smooth nickle-titanium finish lent an air of menace, and internally, sagittarium-titanium filaments acting as muscle fiber contracted when electrically activated and were capable of lifting many times his body weight. Not obvious, of course, but the Outback had plenty of robots of varying types intended for specific purposes, so their physical capabilities were well known. And despite his human-like facial features, there was no mistaking him as other than a robot. Wainright pretended not to notice his presence. He knew he was impressive and even intimidating to most; his straw hat adding an uneasy feeling of aberrance to the picture, as though he might suddenly act on his own. Not a bad touch in a robot who was on your side; it tended to mitigate any arrogance a visitor might bring with him.
When they assumed their orbital inception point a small shuttle from the planet came alongside, waiting for instructions to dock. It all went down smoothly, well practiced on both sides. The pilot entered the bridge, very official looking in a worn and weary kind of way. Cultural differences with respect to home-planet languages aside, a variant of English called Galactic had long since become the default language of commerce, fluency being a matter of perspective. Content of conversation was also rather standard, so no problem going off on a tangent about the local weather or nightlife. Some pilots demanded to take over flight controls, while others chose to lay back and merely offer directions. This man was one of the latter. While the customs people busied themselves examining documents, licensing, and inspecting the cargo, with the help of Grip, the pilot led them around the planet to their respective docking site at the warehouse listed on their manifest with Stanley at the helm. No other ship was present so they moved right in. The magnetic agitation caused by the landing engines resonated briefly with the stanchions of the docking bay, producing the usual humming sound, but otherwise the immediate surroundings of the warehouse yard and loading dock remained undisturbed. It was all very routine--by the book--almost boring in spite of the newness.
The pilot punched through to headquarters a temporary docking allowance of three days, then, along with the customs agents, reboarded his ship and returned to duty station. A tedious job ordinarily, but it paid well and offered good benefits, especially when the agents found contraband like strange wines, exotic computer hardware, or illicit videos. Anything that wasn't listed on the ship's cargo manifest was fair game.
Captain Wainright, Cliff, returned from the company office with instructions as to where to make delivery. He'd have help from their crew, but mostly the job would fall on his. Grip, along with Armand, were in charge of loading and unloading -- materials transfer -- but the rest of the men joined in. All except for Fritz who spent that time checking and rechecking computer systems. No one griped about him not carrying his weight, the computers were everything, they relied on them heavily; without them it would be impossible. And Sam had tried, long ago now, to help. But surprisingly, his enormous strength and tireless constitution just complicated things. Crews working together get into a rhythm, a sync; timing falls into place; the individuals tend to forget themselves and just move to the groove. But with Sam, he could carry the load of three men and move considerably faster than the mag loaders, so, the job became way more difficult. Missteps were made, confusion reigned, tempers flared -- the dance lost its rhythm. So Sam just hung out on the bridge keeping Fritz company. His feelings were no doubt hurt, but with the stoicism of nickle-alloyed robots, he didn't show it.
Cliff stayed around for a bit, overseeing the operation, like he'd done a million times before. His men had the routine down and wouldn't let-up, except for the mandatory breaks called by the warehouse crew, till the job was completed. It fell on him to procure lodging for a couple of nights. They could stay onboard easily enough, but the chance to get off the ship for a while and explore the town was a bonus they all looked forward to. As with most other mining operations, the town wasn't much. They didn't have time to vist the big cities, but that's not what they were interested in anyway. A few shops and mercantile outfits were strategically rooted along the main street, but were easily outnumbered by bars and whorehouses, mixed in with a few hotels and boarding houses. He wandered until he found the best, out on the edge, made arrangements, then zeroed in on the nearest bar.
It'd take a good two days to off-load, then on the third day, they'd be gone. But their departure time depended. It was always a cost-effective idea to try to find a load for the return trip, so when he entered the bar that was topmost on his mind. He introduced himself to others, asking around for cargo back to Earth--derelect machinery, expensive equipment that needed fixing by an earth-bound company, and of course, second and third scale ores that could more economically be smelted by some home outfits.
But no sooner had he tasted the bourbon, he went off into lala land, thinking about his wife. Like a blanket he'd drape over himself, a protective blanket, keeping him safe and warm against the chill of acceptance and farewell. A dark place of grieving and longing and shame. He'd been brooding for close to an hour--and drinking right along with it--when Stanley and Jeeter came in. In spite of having comlinked Fritz to tell them where their hotel was, he was still a little shocked to see them, so encased as he was in his womb of misery. They grabbed him as they passed by and moved on to a booth near the back. They ordered drinks and made a show of removing jackets and bleating fatigue, moaning at all the right places. Captain Cliff smiled. The two conversed among themselves, Cliff sat on the inside of the half-circle booth. They let him be, the warmth of their company and protective positions bracketting him would salve him back to the present. Or at least it usually worked that way. Sometimes, he had to be poked.
"Hey, skipper," Jeeter began, "the warehouse crew told us a shipment of class 'B' drilling gear and all its necessaries needed to be delivered on Aquilon. It's only two or three star systems away, on the outer edge." No sooner had he said this that he, and the others, remembered that's where his wife had gotten killed their last trip out. It'd been such a long time ago, it seemed to them, and they were so exhausted that they'd all forgotten -- up to that moment.
"Skipper, Cliff, I'm sorry man; I wasn't thinking."
Cliff took a sip of bourbon, then said, "It's okay, Jeeter." He stared at his hands, felt a mild twitch; he needed to act. "You know, it might not be a bad idea to go back there now. You know?" He'd never really gotten to the bottom of what happened to his wife with anything resembling satisfaction, overwrought and beside himself with grief and loss as he was, he couldn't think straight or concentrate well at all, leaving matters mostly to the authorities, people who had a less than friendly view of off-worlders -- Earthers. He took a bigger sip. "How much equipment we lookin' at?"
Stanley replied, "Enough to cover the first floor only, I think; you'll hafta ask Grip, but they're willing to pay heavy, so it sounds like they need it bad on Aquilon."
"Well," Cliff said, "maybe we can find something else going that way. How many systems are there between here and there?"
"Two systems if we head straight out. It jams up with stars on the edge, so there's apt to be other colonies. On moons, maybe, too. I'll check the charts."
Cliff nodded, "Bound to find something. Ask around. I'll head to that warehouse in the morning and find out about the deal, nail it down if possible, then look around the other outfits for something else, while you guys finish unloadin' and squaring things away. Otherwise, if it's just a lot of talk, we'll try to find somethin' headin' for Earth, as per the drill."
As Armand strode in he gestured the universal signal to the bargirl for another round. The air and the moment and most particularly -- what they were about to do -- thickened the atmosphere into drinking mode. It was time for the gang to get drunk -- together.
They called themselves the Dragons. There was a synergy about them that seemed to create its own force field, an envelope of potential mayhem. They never looked for any trouble, and they seldom got into any in these out-of-the-way places. But, they could all sense that if indeed they went back to Aquilon, trouble might be what they'd find.
The following morning, seriously hungover but nonetheless at his best, the skipper talked up a deal with the warehouse overseers. He had the bona fides and was straightforward. In the wild and wooly world of interstellar freight hauling, honesty was the best policy, the reputation of a ship was its currency. The contract was struck and, after informing the crew, Cliff set about looking for more product going in that direction. Grip and Armand were busy cleaning up when the skipper came onboard, late in the afternoon. The others were in the mess hall. He walked past them, waving to follow. They gathered around the dinner table waiting for the final word. Cliff appeared glum, but he often did whether he had good news or bad, so that was no telltale. He removed his hat and threw it down on the table, a gauntlet.
"I can't find anything else heading towards Aquilon, not till next month."
No one spoke, they knew he had more to say. He paced slowly around, avoiding eye contact, staring at the floor, thinking, or brooding, it was hard to tell. "With what we have to take to Aquilon, we can pay our way, and we'd have better luck finding something there for the trip back to Earth. It's a long way to Earth from the edge, hard to find a transport." That was all he said.
Grip broke the silence with, "It should only take a day to load up the drilling equipment. With help, of course," as he eyed the rest.
"See if you can get it done in less, hire anybody hanging around looking for day-work if need be. I want to be on our way as soon as you're ready, first light if possible." With that, he scooped up his hat and strode out for his cabin to sleep off the residuals of the previous night and the day's wandering and negotiating. He wanted to be sharp. He was heading back to the planet where his wife had gotten killed, a place he swore never to visit again. But they could see it wasn't going to be just a sentimental journey to honor his departed wife's memory, no throwing flowers on the river where she supposedly drowned. Anger seethed just below the surface. It'd been festering there for months, now it would find its outlet.
Even though the crew's safety had always been his primary concern, he was thinking only of himself, he knew. He'd leave them out of it if he could, but knowing these men as he did, he suspected they'd have his back no matter what. And in spite of principles, he was counting on it. He had no idea what, exactly, he would do when they arrived. Unloading the cargo as quickly as possible to free themselves, of course. But then what? He'd start with the authorites, he decided, that would seem the first logical imperative. Let them know he hadn't put it all in the past. He'd want to know just what happened, had they uncovered any pertinent information since their last report. Their incomplete explanation was anything but convincing, and not only because he refused to believe it. It'd been filled with holes; their story sounded too pat, almost standardized like something you'd tell a naive yokel just to get rid of him. Close the case and move on to more important matters, problems that concerned their citizentry, enough of warehouses.
Your wife is dead, we can't find her body or that of any of the others who were on that boat. It capsized, no bodies were ever recovered, taken out to sea and eaten by some voraciuos creatures, no doubt, of which there are many in the seas of Aquilon, and that was that.
They were supposed to leave that day, that very morning. She wanted to go on one last excursion, who knew when or if they'd ever return to such an out-of-the way planet, especially one that offered so many diversions. Aquilon, though part mining colony, had a thriving tourist trade, one of the very few planets in that sector to offer such amenities. People came from all over surrounding systems, so it boasted a cosmopolitan air complete with first-rate eateries, hotels, gambling casinoes, and amusements of every kind. Ironically, the authorities didn't care for the influx of foreigners, they were the source of trouble as they saw it, and were less than apppeciated even though it brought in scads of revenue to the locals, and to them, of course, as taxes. For that reason, they tolerated them as a necessary evil, but that was it.
She wanted him to go with her; he wanted her to stay onboard to help ready the ship for take-off. They argued. Stubbornly, as was her wont to be, she chose to go on the sightseeing trip by herself. She promised to take pictures, then left, storming off the bridge in a final huff that the rest of the crew talked about later in the mess. That was the last time he saw her. As far as he was concerned, she died because he hadn't insisted strongly enough for her to stay. And if he'd gone, he might've prevented whatever happened, or died with her, a preferrable outcome to his mind. In the midst of their arguing he even said to her that he washed his hands of it; if something bad happens, he told her, it was on her head. He wasn't imagining she might die, of course, but rather that the trip would prove to be less than pleasant. River boating is not for the timid of heart, contingencies pop-up without warning that one inexperienced in such things can hardly expect. But she was a tough cookie, so he had no misgivings in that area. Should have, he now believed. She was dead and it was his fault, that was his undeniable conclusion.
At dawn they received the pilot, a different breed altogether; one who insisted on a hands-on approach. He steered them clear of traffic, running a course only he could see, to the region outside the satellite security network, then without much of an adieu -- actually with an air of annoyance -- boarded his tiny vessel and returned to his station on Belladoon.
Stanley took over at the helm while Captain Wainright sat in his chair on the bridge studying charts on the holograph display before him. The charts were as close to real time as they could get, surveillance buoys cruised through certain known turbulent zones, interfaces of awkward energy, looking for anomalous behavior or passing objects that might prove a hazard to navigation and passed the information on to regional weather stations, they were called, for all ships to download. Stanley, being the way he was, pushed the pedal to the metal as they approached the heliosheath, first charging through the terminations shock, then bulling his way through the ever-increasing density and tumult of the sheath. Finally, after several hours of the crew being strapped in they broke out past the heliopause into interstellar space. When they arrived at a neutral flux area--slack tide--Stanley punched in the set of waypoints.
They'd stop at each solar system to reinitialize. That meant the third jump would land them so-many kilometers outside the heliosphere of Aquilon's sun, an F-type star leaning towards white in color and twice the size of sol. Aquilon was the third planet out in a system of six, the outer two being gas giants and extremely distant. From that location it would take two days or slightly more at sub-light speed to reach it.
Sam seemed impatient to get on with it. Did he know what they were up to? they wondered. He'd developed an intuitive side since the accident that the crew wasn't sure they wanted him to have. But eccentricities were not uncommon in the community of those who traveled the oceans of the universe, what they experienced shaped their personalities, even a robot's, so they just accepted it. He took his seat in the command chair and quickly examined screens, toggles, and diagnostic maintenence checks. The others slid away to their respective chambers. Minutes later, Sam made the announcement; final check on all crewmen; then the jump.
Cliff stood in his chamber thinking, enduring the stresses and strains as the ship went in and out of jump mode. He was used to that so gave it no thought. Rather, he attempted to rationalize what he was about to do, but was having quite of bit of trouble focusing. All he knew or could conjure in his brain were emotions. Emotions took the place of thought. Grief, longing, sadness, and anger. He fought to steel himself against the inevitable onslaught of memories, already feeling his heart pounding, going heavy and numb. He was going back to the scene.
Surprised and startled, a cold shudder rippled through his body when the emergence buzzer sounded. That didn't take long at all, he thought, his heart dropping, a flash of agony twisting his gut.
After a quick shower the men went to the mess; he, to the bridge. Sam handed over the wheel and sought the company of the others. Friendship energized him in strange ways he had yet to understand, a state of oneness he found curious that allowed him to see himself in a more objective way. It replaced the normal separate state of his mind. Stanley joined the captain bringing a tray with two sandwiches and coffee; they took a few minutes to just sit and eat and relax. Then, they got busy figuring out the best route in to Aquilon. These waters were unknown to them, so as the holograph slowly spun, they studied the contours of gravitaional waves and their intersections from different angles to pinpint probable danger areas to avoid. Once satisfied with a reasonable trajectory, subject to contingencies, of course, Stanley took the helm. From the heliopause they passed through the sheath and into the system proper, a bumpy ride into the solar wind at first, but as they crossed the zone of the termination shock and got closer to the planets, it tended to smooth out. All in all it took about ten hours, earth time. All ships traveling the seas calculated time based on earth durations. A minute, an hour, a day, a month on a ship was equal to its counterpart on earth. It made communications and coordinating time of meetings consistent and clear.
As soon as they got their sealegs under them, Grip and Armand made sure the cargo was set to be off-loaded quickly, so they could turn to other matters, the real reason they'd come. After they got clear of business, the captain meant to take his time, check things out, get a hotel--the normal stuff. Take it easy, at first.
*************Their approach went by the book; a good omen, he thought. He reached for omens of any kind, his senses tuning themselves for any eventuality. After contact with the Port Authority, they were boarded by the usual contingent of pilot and customs officials, routine inspection followed. The pilot directed Stanley to the proper landing dock, which also went off without a hitch. Cliff checked in at the warehouse office and arranged for delivery. Because they were jammed-up at the moment, they wouldn't be able to off-load till the next day, sometime in the early afternoon, in fact. Cliff didn't like this; not a good sign, or was it? The flow was everything right now, how things moved along. Delay might be what they needed, a pause to think and get oriented, give them more time.
After finalizing the contract -- cargo inspected by the company man in charge of such things -- he received a partial advance and with that, left to find lodging. Where was important now, not just any hotel would do. He wanted to blend in with the tourist crowd, become invisible against the background of activity. He picked a place off the beaten track, yet within easy distance of the main police headquarters. He wasn't sure why he wanted to be near it, he just remembered they hadn't been all that helpful and so proximity sharpened his edge. He wanted to confront them, but for now he'd just watch them. Let them see him walking by, someone among them might remember him, might make them nervous, nervous enough to make a mistake. What kind of mistake, he had no idea. What happened three months ago wasn't exactly on their radar right now. It was an accident, pure and simple. People died, drowned, all of them. Now that he was back in this environment, however, something about it bothered him. It was too cut and dry, the whole affair. How could an experienced boatman have an accident in the middle of a river he was quite familiar with on a clear, sunny day and all six passengers, including him, drown?
The men fanned out, spreading through town, each going to a different set of bars. Not the tourist bars, they chose instead the type frequented by men who might know something of the skipper whose boat Elizabeth had been on that fateful day. Even Fritz got involved, it was no time to be anti-social. He started off by asking around for anyone who took tourists out on excursions, pretending to be interested, presenting himself, under an assumed name, as a vacationer on leave from his earth-bound company. People who are generally reclusive have less problem than most adopting phony identities. He knew the authorities didn't much care for off-worlders and so trusted no one. Asking around for information that might be of a dodgy nature could set off alarms the police would notice. He discovered through a chance encounter with an older man--a long time resident of the river area--that something was amiss about the whole tragic accident. It wasn't conclusive, just a story, a rumor. He didn't tell the skipper because he didn't want him to go off half-cocked and rough people up. That could come later.
As it happened, in a bar near the river, Fritz got into a casual conversation with someone who looked like a local. He bought the guy a drink and after a time brought up the incident, saying he'd heard about it through the travel agent who booked him--travel agents don't want their regular customers taking unnecessary risks, he pointed out--the man snickered into his beard, then took a long draw on his drink. Not an appropriate response, Fritz thought. But, he'd met all kinds in the years he's crewed the Dragonfly, so it might be normal for this guy. His clothes were old and dirty and torn in places and he smelled of fuel and booze and whatever he'd eaten last, so Fritz assumed he might loosen his tongue with a few drinks. He offered to buy, good-naturedly, as any tourist might when seeking information from a local. He didn't wish to seem too interested, as though it were a personal matter, so he played dumb but nonetheless, curious; it was just friendly conversation.
Into the second or third drink Fritz surprised himself with how talkative he could be, circling around the incident in a general way--how many accidents a year, how many deaths, how dangerous it was, and so forth--then veering back ever so delicately but with growing passion despite his effort to quell his emotions. He'd known Elizabeth as a friend who actually took the time to talk to him; she was warm and outgoing, but not to everyone. Altough she treated them all like family, she didn't care for Jeeter's arrogance or Grip's harsh language, so he felt determined to find out what the hell went down. If he'd been Grip, he knew he'd already have the man out back in the alley threatening to break his arms if he didn't talk. But Fritz was not Grip, and he believed he was coursing the right tack.
By the fourth drink the old drunk had let it slip that the skipper of the ill-fated riverboat was still alive, though he no longer plied his trade. He had moved to the other side of the island into what the man referred to as the Faraway. Fritz asked what he meant by that and was told it was where the rich folk lived, a self-enclosed community. He waited while the man ranted about their extravagant lifestyles, what with their yachts and expensive mansions and their arrogance when they came to town. But he never saw his friend again, which he apparently lamented, if only because the guy owed him money from long ago that he never expected to see. The old man laughed at the turns of fate, and owing to the drink and the obvious bitterness and a touch of sadness he felt towards his long-lost buddy--worn down with time though it be--he began to spill his guts, although in a whisper, circumspection being the rule of the day on this planet. He didn't waste any time with preliminaries and got right to it: his friend had received a considerable sum for staging the accident. His riverboat hadn't been much to begin with, so its loss meant little compared to the money. Fritz asked about the tourists onboard, what happened to them? The old man turned his way and was about to go on when a tall, overbearing type strolled up. His well-worn jacket was stretched at the biceps; his face, grim and pocked-marked, a slight scar showing through stubble at the base of his left ear.
"Slackjaw," he said, force in his gravelly voice. "I see you've made a friend. What's up?"
Apparently, the old man's whisper carried. He looked up, fear suddenly crossing his weathered features. "Nothin'," he replied, hurriedly. "We're just bullshitin' here. A tourist," he said, thumbing towards Fritz, "wants to know what's going on. Where the action is. You know." He laughed but without much mirth.
"Let the man alone, Slackjaw. Let him find his own entertainment." He continued to stare down hard at the old man until he got the message. He finshed his drink, nodded at Fritz and slapped him on the shoulder as he rose to stagger from the bar.
The reaper stayed put, glaring at Fritz, who now wished Grip and Armand were with him. "I overheard you talking about the riverboat accident. You know any of those people?"
Fritz gathered his strength, anger replacing the nervous flutter he'd felt just seconds before, sharpening his ability to focus in on the tiniest of details, to objectify. He looked past the man's demeanor and practiced facial expressions and bore into his soul. It was almost visceral. "No, I didn't know any of 'em. I was thinking about going on one of those trips, so I was interested in who to go with, a name of a reputable, safe skipper, perhaps. Wouldn't want to end up drowned due to incompetence."
Time meandered by, Fritz wanted to go after the old drunk but saw no way to do it without drawing suspicion. He didn't know for sure if this tough-looking character was police, secret police, but he'd seen enough of that type on other planets, including Earth, so he took the wary course. Nonetheless, he found himself edging bolder through indignation if nothing else. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, the skipper liked to say.
Spinning his stool to face the reaper, he asked, "Who are you," trying to sound tough. "You a cop or something?"
The man's eyes widened. He wasn't used to this, fear being his usual currency of transaction. But he quickly regrouped, smiled a streak across his grizzly mug, then said, almost courteously, "Enjoy your visit, stranger." As though the effort had been painful, the crease of a smile collapsed; his stone-cast sullen features returned as he strode out, the bow wake forcing others to practically jump out of the way as he made a beeline for the door.
Fritz suspected it was too late to find the man called Slackjaw, but he left to search other bars nearby anyway. As drunk as the man had been, he either wandered only as far as the nearest stool, or, out of fear, went home. Coming up empty, he decided to get the news to the captain right away. Its value was questionable, ambiguous. Slackjaw might just be trying to get back, lying for the hell of it. But he did believe he told the truth about the man living in a wealthy area; that part of a lie wasn't necessary and demanded more imagination than he thought the old guy could muster. If the skipper of the riverboat had purposely scuttled his boat, were the passengers still alive, or had they been scuttled as well? And who had paid for such a thing? And why?
Captain Cliff sat on the edge of the bed with a glass of bourbon on the rocks in hand in the hotel room he commandeered for himself. He'd rented two others, one on either side. His crew would have to share, he didn't care how, they'd figure it out. But they were all on the same floor adjacent to one another, connecting doors essentially making the set of three one large suite with his room in the middle. Cargo wouldn't be unloaded till the following day, so he decided to stay put, drink from the available selection in the room.
It was quiet up here on the tenth floor away from the hectic bar and restaurant street scene far below. It's what he needed right now, to think. He let his mind go blank, let his emotions thaw, untwine, unbind the knot. He removed his shirt and felt the ambient room temperature; rubbed his hand over the texture of the blanket; smelled the antiseptic cleanliness of the freshened room. Then memories began to float to the surface.
He was a young man, strong and very physical. He worked on the water on Earth, fishing. The seas had been depleted in the early part of the 21st century due to overfishing and pollution. Because of moritoriums held at various times and in various locations over the generations, heavily policed in some regions--many killed in "fish wars"--on all commercial harvesting and strict controls, for the most part, placed on what chemicals and waste found their way into the seas by the major producers, fishing, on a minimal scale but better than nothing, had returned.
He loved it, in spite of the misery and hard work it often was. It was the ocean, being out there far away from the sight of land, and the stars on a clear, crisp night. No light pollution from land, the Milky Way filled the sky, a band of life-supporting planets for humanity to live on and explore, and a jumping off point, a staging ground for further exploration. He wondered about them at that time, but was satisfied with life on Earth's seas.
He had fallen in with a group of men, all older than he, who took risks no one else dared. They had long since left innocence behind. Poaching in government waters was commonplace. He learned from them and grew within. They worked hard, drank hard and lived completely in the present, uncaring of the dangers, though not recklessly so. They were smart, everything they did was well thought out, planned and timed. They didn't make a fortune by any standard, but that wasn't the point or intention. It was to feel the freedom that comes with making up your own rules.
He closed his eyes and let himself imagine being at sea during a storm, feeling the rain and the ocean's spray on his face, the wind slapping his long hair into his eyes, shoving this way and that. He was there, physically, alone, an outlaw unafraid, open to his surroundings, every pore; the salt of the sea finding its way into his skin and under it as well.
He sipped bourbon. The memories of youthful wildness and vigor drifted away, but left behind the kind of man he'd been back then when no one could cause him doubt. They were replaced by the incident from just three months ago, when his wife died and life essentially ended. Wordless thoughts -- thick, viscous -- swirled about, a whirlpool of pain and grief and longing pulling him down. Unresisting, he let himself be drawn along by emotion, spiraling inward, wrapping his soul in its darkened cocoon. "Elizabeth," he whispered, chest contracting at the familiar sound, tears welling up. Again, louder, he said, "Lizzy." And for the millionth time meticulously scoured through the infinite details of that fateful day, analysing, dissecting events still by still, trying to see how it could've gone so terribly wrong and how he could've prevented it. His men tried to convince him he wasn't to blame. She wanted to go on the river trip; she'd been off by herself before, many times, on many worlds, in rougher places than this. She was street smart and tough, capable. No one could have forseen such a calamity. It was an accident.
He appreciated their attempt, but the helplessness of the situation plagued his soul and would not relent. He didn't want to hear accident. He didn't do something, he knew. The X-factor -- he didn't love enough. Not enough to break through the false skin of restraint he built up over the years, of not choosing his life above all else, holding back, holding back.
For some time he sat, very still, practiced, sipping and musing, when there was a perfunctory knock on the door. Fritz, accompanied by Jeeter, Grip and Armand, pushed it open without waiting for a response. It was obvious they had something on their minds and so had no time for the normal courtesies, not something they ever bothered with anyway. They could see what state of mind he was in, of course, they'd seen it for the past three months. It hadn't gotten a whole lot better, but they knew their news would knock him out of it, so they charged in. Fritz had enlisted the aid of Grip and Jeeter to help search cannery row for the character Slackjaw, searching delapidated domiciles and all the bars around. It didn't take long with such a close-knit community. He was passed-out on his boat, tied up at the north river dock, its name, the Ariel. They woke him and plied him with more alcohol; he remembered Fritz and welcomed him.
He spat at the recollection of the reaper in the bar, it grated on his self-respect. He mumbled about what he would've done when he was a young ocean fisherman, and so forth. They let him run it out. When Fritz questioned him about the accident, he seemed eager to get it off his chest, to divest of a heavy burden. Especially after Fritz told him who he really was and why they wanted to know. It got his sympathies. It hadn't been just an insurance job, people, innocent people were involved. Grip's glowering presence didn't hurt either.
The captain glared, his misery longed for no company, it was a private affair. But they ignored him. Fritz stood directly in front of him, a half-smile brightening his eyes. He held his hands out and pronounced, "Skipper, we got news. It might be good and it might be bad. I don't know how it could be bad; I suppose it could, given the implications..." He paused to build suspense and to garner the courage. The others stared at him as if to say get on with it. He blurted out, "Elizabeth may not be dead." Then waited.
Cliff sat frozen, his blurry red eyes wide with shock and disbelief. His glass almost slipped to the floor. Leaning forward he held out his hand, the gesture demanding more. Jeeter and Grip helped themselves to the bourbon and took seats, Armand sat on the bed near his skipper.
Fritz continued, "I ran into this old fart down by the river. He was about to tell me something when this enforcer guy broke it up before we got too far. He smelled official, some secret arm of the government, you know the type. So the guy ran out. Afterwards I got these two guys," pointing at Armand and Grip, "and we went searching and found him on his boat. We interrogated him; he was happy, relieved it seemed, to talk about it." Fritz almost smiled.
"Would you get on with it, Fritz," Jeeter put in.
Fritz looked annoyed at the interruption; he wanted the skipper to get ready, emotionally and otherwise. But, he acquiesced. He pulled up a chair and sat, squaring himself. Lowering his voice, he said, "He told us that the riverboat accident was no accident; the guy sunk his boat on purpose. To cover-up. There were six people on that trip including Elizabeth. All women. One of them was the daughter of their top scientist; a man named Rigel Belmont. I've heard of him; he's big in robotics, military applications. Supposedly he's come up with a new brain, a neural network capable of adapting to new circumstances on its own, to evolve, to function independently. That's the scuttlebutt around the community. The overview has appeared in some journals, the technical details are unknown, classified last time I checked. Maybe that's it. He's pissed because the government won't let him publish.
"But isn't that what Sam does?" Cliff asked, his mind not yet ready to hear the rest. "Function independently?"
"After the neutron star accident, pretty much, but he wasn't originally designed that way. Consciousness is a whole other level. It's existence." Impatiently, he waved his hand. He knew the skipper was stalling. "They were all kidnapped. The kidnappers took them all. Why would they do that? The police were a part of it; they set it up, according to our informant. Their intelligence organization knew it was going down, probably came up with the idea and planned it out. This Slackwater, or whatever his name is, didn't know why. He doesn't exactly travel in those circles. But he did know that his friend was unaware of the reasons behind it; he wouldn't ask or care. He was approached by two of them, three months ago. They didn't have to threaten, just offered him more money than he'd ever seen. They didn't say who they were but it wasn't hard to figure out, apparently, not in that neighborhood. He took his boat to a certain spot downriver and off-loaded his guests to a waitng van. He scuttled the boat in order to make it look like an accident. This is what our friend by the river told us, and it sounds pretty plausible. They got drunk one night before the job, his friend was excited, said he was going to come into some big money, talked about buying a house in the north, the Faraway, they call it, on the other side of the island, but didn't give much in the way of particulars. Just that he was transporting someone important to a waiting ride for a special occasion. He was a friend but also obviously a little scared talking about it, our informant said; he kept glancing around the bar. Later, this guy, Slackjaw, I think, read about the accident--no bodies found--and the disappearance of Rigel Belmont's daughter and put two and two together. His friend must've recognized Belmont's daughter. Hard not to, I guess; she's a celebrity of some sort because of her father, but very low key, it sounds like. Why they didn't kill the boat guy outright is a mystery. He's nobody. Maybe they will later, or he's already dead."
"Why didn't she have a bodyguard?" asked Jeeter. "I don't get it. She's a prety obvious bargaining chip if someone was trying to get hold of her father's work. Maybe she was on a mission all her own and planned to escape. The normal routes were watched. She needed to get rid of her bodyguard. Had a memory cube with schematics from her father and was going to give it to someone, some other country. The intelligence people found out and intercepted her. Politics. But why would she do that?"
Nobody answered, they just stared at Jeeter for a few seconds. Fritz took a glass of bourbon handed him by Grip. "Cliff," he said quietly, "she may still be alive." With that he took a long pull on his drink, and waited.
Captain Cliff Wainright sat on the edge of a knife, holding his own. He didn't know how to respond. It was like being yanked out of quicksand into a hurricane. Emotions stormed through his soul. He woke from his turmoil. It saved him and yet presented an uncertainty he almost didn't want to consider. Was she still alive? Why would whoever did this bother to keep the others alive when they were only after this one person, if that's the case? They were a hindrance, extra baggage. He felt like he was being toyed with. His emotional confusion started to coalesce into rage in the pit of his stomach.
Jeeter broke the silence with, "Looks like ransom, boss. Give us the skinnies on the robot technology, or else."
"Yea," added Fritz. "But who would have the balls? And why? To sell? This government already has the information, so it's somebody else. Could be a freelance group. But,..., if it was sponsored by homegrown fanatics, say, then --"
"Maybe," interrupted Jeeter. "Could be something afoot. Factions wanting to get their hands on top-secret military hardware. Possibly a coup in the offing somewhere down the road. Or maybe it's just spy action for some other world; who knows how infested their intelligence organization is? Only the top boys would be in the loop. I get the feeling it's pretty hush-hush when it comes to that kind of stuff. Whatever the reason, we sure as hell can't chance going to the authorities. Bound to step on toes. Besides, we saw how helpful they were before."
With that reminder, Cliff kicked back his drink and stood. "Who's on the ship?" he asked, his voice heavy and dry.
Grip volunteered, "Stanley's in the wheelhouse; Sam's guarding the door."
"We need more information." He went to the table by the window where the bucket of ice sat and threw a few pieces in. Then poured another drink. "How do you suggest we get it?" Through the window he could see the main administrative headquarters with its tall spirals at each corner looking more like an impenetrable fortress than the center for politics, police, and bureaucracy. A low growl as from an animal stirred his chest. Turning to rejoin his men, he had his familiar no-nonsense face on; only this time, a mix of hope and rage gleamed from eyes tired of tears.
No one responded immediately. Although not above taking chances, these were not rash people, usually. Only when they felt the need to act could they be somewhat -- impulsive. An impromptu brainstorming session ensued. Fritz, the computer geek, thought to use the ship's sophisticated system to try to hack into various government databases and networks. They'd be heavily firewalled and encrypted, of course, but he had the advantage of being an outsider, not locked into perceiving the architecture of their computer technology in the same way as those who devised it. Such things were not universal; quirks and preferences, population idiosyncrasies and individual personality traits wormed their way into the fabric and underbelly of any particular culture's technology, especially when isolated by light years of space. And because of that if nothing else, after several generations these people had evolved away from the norm. What they considered the conventional understanding of the nature of things stood out in relief to his mind. And on the other hand, being a major tourist planet, commonalities would also prevail, a homogeneity of user-friendly interfaces abounded. So an amalgam existed. With a mish-mosh like that, Fritz felt fairly confident he could find an entrance, a backdoor, some miscellaneous path unprotected and ignored.
Moreover, he'd combined state of the art computer functioning with his extensive knowledge of robotics, creating a hybrid system with capabilities all its own. It was designed to allow for Sam to more easily and efficiently dovetail with the ship during and after jumps. Only Stanley, the computer and celestial mechanics expert, was able to fathom the molecular patterns and complex interconnections of its peculiar abilities and talents.
Jeeter, as the resident rocket scientist, thought in terms of outsmarting the adversary, any adversary. It was all just a chess game to him and he had no compunction, moral or otherwise, about using his considerable brain-pan to manipulate the circumstances. And, he could act. His arrogance allowed him to portray anyone in order to get his way without the slightest feeling of empathy for the dimwitted who surrounded him, as he saw it.
Grip preferred force and intimidation; coercion at any cost to find out what he wanted to know or get. And his side-kick, Armand, could bend five-centimeter steel pipe like it was rubber. Elizabeth had always been nice to him; she always baked him cookies on his birthday. He'd kill for her and be happy in the doing.
"You said this guy you talked to read about the missing girl in the paper," began Cliff slowly, "but no mention of the accident. I don't get it, something doesn't smell right. Why not just report she'd been killed along with the others, no bodies recovered? Or, simply, why not say she was kidnapped by parties unknown? Is she still missing? It's been a long time now, three months since the accident. If they kidnapped her for leverage to get classified information, would the government allow this scientist to tell them? Something isn't kosher here. Who reported her missing in the first place? Her father? If he knew she'd been kidnapped, why not just say that? And why take everybody if all they wanted was her? Why even bother to stage an accident? Just grab her off the street."
"This government is exceedingly secretive, I'm guessing," said Fritz. "They control all the information dissemination, electronic and otherwise, so I can see where they'd want to suppress news of a kidnapping to avoid conflict if the kidnappers are from another world, an antagonisitc world. If they indeed kidnapped her for leverage to get classified information, that is. Keep everything hush-hush. Otherwise, it could be construed as an act of war by the more right-wing among them. But, perhaps that's what they want. Their end game. So they're being quiet about things for some other reason.
"But we're going down the worst-case scenario path," Fritz said as he stood to pace, annoyed that they knew so little. They had zero history of this planet and its society, its goings-on above and beneath the surface. All they knew is what they garnered from Slackjaw, and that was blurred by drink and bitterness. "Suppose it was intended that she disappear. Fake her death-by-accident, escape to somewhere else, some other planet. Either with her father's help and blessing or by her own choosing, for whatever reason. She was supposed to meet up with friends, collaborators, say, at the boat trip's end, where it docks. But these guys with the van found out about it and waylaid her."
"Nah," said Jeeter, always ready to jump at a conspiracy. "If she wanted to leave, go to another world, for instance, she could just figure out another simpler, less complicated plan. For her to rendezvous with helpers, though, would imply that her father and the government, or at least those pulling the strings, were opposed to her leaving. They feared she could be used against the robotocist to find out what makes his super-genius robot tick; she was probably under constant surveilance.
"So, it looks like that's the case," added Jeeter, convinced he was right. "I mean, it's not homegrown. The government itself has no reason to do it because they already have the scientific information. Must be off-world. Or, a freelance group looking for something to sell on the open market. If that's the case, they probably left, wouldn't be smart to hide out here, sooner or later they'd be found what with the network of spies and undercover people, like the heavy Fritz ran into. And if it'd come out that she was lost on this boat cruise with the others, the press would be all over that skipper. And the way he is, it wouldn't take long before he'd crack and spill his guts. Especially if he was taken into one of those police interrogation rooms. He wouldn't last two minutes. But the authorities knew she was on the boat and know about the accident. Everybody knows about the accident, it's not something you can just cover-up on a little island where everybody portside knows each other. Either the powers-that-be planned it to grab her before she left to go who knows where for whatever reason, or they arranged the whole thing with her and her father's agreement, again, for whatever reason, or someone else planned it and the government wants to keep it secret. So, in any case, by saying she's missing, whereabouts unknown, the authorities draw attention away from the accident, separate the two. They happen from time to time. It's a rough river, people take their chances, that's where the adrenaline rush comes in."
"But why do that?" asked Grip. "Why not tell the world she's probably dead, body taken out to sea along with the others, including the skipper?"
"Then they would've had to get rid of everyone, especially the skipper," Fritz said, quietly, regretting he said it.
"But somebody knew she'd be on that boat," said Jeeter. "Besides the authorities. She had to reserve a seat in advance, she didn't just walk down the dock and jump on at the last minute. She's been watched, her communicator tapped. Say she was heading to meet friends and was intercepted, either by the government people or by kidnappers. Or the government people was who she was going to meet. She needed to disappear and those who were watching her, kidnappers, would learn that she'd been in the accident and is no doubt dead. They devised this elaborate scheme and yet didn't report it to the media that she'd drowned in a boating accident and swept out to sea. That would've helped their credibility if it was known. Otherwise, why bother to stage a crash? Why, in fact, fake her death? For whose benefit? Her father's? The potential kidnappers? It looks like other folks were involved, I'd say. So it's not the government. Kidnappers. The kidnappers were looking for an opportunity. They approached that skipper and made an offer he couldn't refuse."
"So let's say," added Cliff, "the police or intelligence agencies or whoever knew she was kidnapped and swept it under. But why? And I hesitate to say this, but why not kill off the others?"
Fritz quickly responded to that last part. "If they were in a hurry or wanted the accident story to play true, and they did kill the others, they'd have to either hide the bodies, all five of them, or dump them into the river, hoping they'd drift out to sea with the boat. The boat owner was paid to scuttle it; they didn't have to wait around. He probably went downriver a ways before he did it. No. I don't think they'd waste the time. They were in a hurry and the others were an unknown commodity they could possibly use. I think they're off-world and they took all of them somewhere, off this planet, at least."
"A thought just occurred to me," said Jeeter, adopting his most mature tone of voice. "We don't know for sure that she was kidnapped. I mean, we're assuming it; it is the most obvious conclusion. But we're basing it on the missing girl story in the paper and Slackjaw's story of his friend's intention. His friend knew the river like the back of his hand. It wasn't likely he'd crash into a rock or go aground or something. He was given a lot of money to transport someone to a certain spot on the bank and on the same trip his boat wrecked. Are we making a false conclusion based on coincidental premises? Suppose there was someone else in that group they wanted. Has the scientist, Belmont, been contacted by any of these so-called kidnappers?"
"We don't know, of course, how can we know?" said Fritz, a little exasperated. "As far as assumptions go, can we assume the government knows nothing about it?"
That was quickly squashed by Jeeter. "No. And I say no soley because of that character who approached you in the bar when he overheard you and what's-his-name talking about it. No, I think they're aware that the accident was no accident, at the very least. But, the real reason for it--to fake her death--we're just guessing."
"Yes, but only after the fact. If the government knew beforehand she was to be kidnapped and the accident staged," said Grip, "they wouldn't have let her go in the first place. They would've told her they discovered this plot."
"Right," said Fritz.
"And if the government knew she was running away or on a mission from her father or--a mission she devised--they wouldn't've let her go either. So, either way, the authorities didn't know. So, what are we left with?"
"Kidnapped!" Fritz pronounced
"But wait a second," Jeeter interrupted; he wanted to be thorough. Total confusion was just a heartbeat away. "Let's consider the other alternative. The government knew about the whole thing, everything, and they told this skipper guy that the people he made the deal with were kidnappers from another world. So what they wanted him to do was meet them at a place above the designated rendezvous point and then create the accident downstream but above the point so that they, whoever they are, would believe she, Belmont's daughter, their target, was dead and wouldn't go looking for her anymore. The wreck of a boat would go drifting by."
"And then what?" Grip asked, his face sagging. "How is she supposed to live? Under an assumed name on the other side of the planet, away from her father, her family and friends, and her life? She's not going to go along with that. She's young. If the government knows about the kidnapping and especially where on the bank they're supposed to meet, just round them up and be done with it. It's probably a group they've been watching, so they know what they're up to."
"No," said Fritz with finality. "She was kidnapped by persons unknown and the government doesn't know shit, or didn't know; they probably know everything now, which is a good reason to hack into their computer systems."
"Then why not mention the accident and the fact that she was onboard?" asked Jeeter.
"Because the government didn't believe from the very beginning that the accident was an accident," responded Fritz. "Somehow they were caught off-guard, distracted perhaps, we don't know what was going on here before we arrived. However, by saying only that she's missing gives them time to correct the situation."
"But three months has gone by. That's a long time with no news."
"Yes," said the captain, somberly. "Three months."
A heavy silence descended. The captain walked out onto the balcony; the air was warm, soft, smelling of fruit trees nearby. A light breeze ruffled his hair. He stared off at the administration headquarters, then below at the busy street scene, cars and people milling about everywhere, oblivious to their government's secret doings. Nothing particularly uncommon about that, he thought. As he reentered the room he said, "There's one thing we haven't considered. Suppose they, whoever they are, have no special interest in this scientist's daughter. She's just a prize but only slightly more valuable than the others. Suppose they have another agenda."
Nobody responded. They couldn't imagine what that could be.
"Do we know who else was among the passengers besides Lizzy?" he continued. "Maybe the scientist's daughter goes for a river ride on a regular basis. For the adrenaline, the excitement, to get away from it all, her father, too busy to spend any time with her. We don't know; there's a lot we don't know here."
He lowered his voice and got serious. "All right, we desperately need clarification. The man to talk to is this scientist character Belmont. We need to find out where he lives and try to arrange a meet."
Fritz guffawed into his drink. "Skipper, Cliff, he probably has more bodyguards than the Premier."
"I know," said Cliff angrily; frustrated that Elizabeth got caught up in such a mess. That was the real accident. "But we can't just stroll into the police station and start asking questions, trying to get to the bottom of it. Last time they were less than forthcoming. If we'd been thinking, if I'd been thinking, we might have smelled fishiness from the get-go."
"Well," added Grip, "what about this skipper guy? His name is Katrium Xeno. He sent Slackjaw a letter a couple weeks after the accident, through the grapevine, with an address and picture of his house near a lake out in the area they call the Faraway, with an invite. I take it that's just a local nickname. But anyway, we can find it. Slack wrote him back and gave him a number where he could be reached, but never heard from him again. Anyway, we should be able to find the house; assuming, of course, he's still alive, which I seriously doubt."
"All right," Cliff said, staring at the floor. "I have an idea. Fritz, you're the roboticist and you've heard of him. How?"
"He's a member in excellent standing of the Intergalactic Robotics Association, as am I, although not as famous. I've read some of his papers; he's truly a genius. In fact, he might need help of an outside nature. We don't know."
"That's the problem. Information. Okay, contact him in that guise. Say you're visiting and would relish an opportunity to speak with the master on robotics issues. Make something up. At the very least, we'll find out if he's entertaining visitors as though everything was normal, or if he's under some kind of house arrest, or protection. They'll no doubt check your documentation, but that's good, you're a solid member. It's a legitimate excuse. And you're from Earth, the home planet, the homebase for your association, which has to mean something if only to him."
Fritz finished his drink and stood. "What I'd like to do is use their wireless system to hack into their official database. Stanley is the genius there, might be some references on a classified file. Dates, times, events. If they had anything to do with it, or at least have the true story, somebody's kept tabs if only to cover his ass."
"Well, if Belmont's walled-off completely--incomunicado--we'll have to go elsewhere. Hold off on the hacking for now though; let's take this one step at a time, carefully. Grip, you and Armand go find this skipper guy. Question him. But be careful, if he's not dead he's probably being watched. Reconnoitre. Take your comlink; call me as soon as something materializes. And don't get caught. Play it close to the chest but be in character, loud and dumb. He's a skipper and so are you. Find a reason to look him up. Check the bars, there's plenty of those."
The three of them nodded and left; Jeeter stayed behind. They sat quietly listening to the sound of traffic far below. After a time, Jeeter said, in that tone reserved for their friendship, "We're going to find her, Cliff. I feel she's alive, somewhere. We have a ship that can go anywhere. We'll find her."
"If she's still alive," muttered the captain, finishing his drink then throwing the glass into the far wall. He clenched his fists, fighting back tears. Rage seethed through his sinews. There would be no attempt to maintain the status-quo on this deal. He would not comply or allow himself to be intimidated or shrugged off. He assumed she was alive. And if that's the case, if anybody got in his way, if anybody tried to impede his search for Elizabeth, he would have no pity. And if he got killed in the process, that was all right too. Some things gnaw on a man worse than dying.
They weren't scheduled to off-load until the following day, mid-afternoon, so they had a legitimate excuse for being idle and partaking of the many tourist attractions on this all-too watchful planet.
It was getting onto dusk, street lights were blinking on. Grip and Armand had found their way to the house of the accident-prone skipper. They parked their rented magcar across the street and a little ways down, then walked up casually. As no one was out in front of the massive hedgerow, they stopped to study the situation. Even though it had been a nice day weather-wise, nobody else was on the street and only a few transits were parked here and there. It was a quiet neighborhood.
Standing on the other side of the wide, curving tree-lined road, they talked quietly. In front of the house was a horseshoe driveway curving around the hedges that blocked a view of the front door. Could men with guns be right around the corner? Why no one at the entrance? They noticed high grass growing in the middle of the gravelly dirt drive. They had no plan, not one with finesse in it, at any rate. They meant to talk to this guy and that was that. Armand took the left entrance about twenty meters away, Grip strode across the road right towards the one they'd been looking at. When he got there, he pulled his plasma-pellet sidearm from beneath his jacket.
Listening intently, he took the grass route up the middle. It got higher as he went. As he rounded the curve, he could see a board or plaque hung across the center of the door. It was a one-story house with four windows in front and one on the side he could see. He checked the heavy curtains for movement. He stopped where he was, waiting for Armand. When he arrived, Grip nodded towards the entrance way. They approached cautiously. The writing on the sign was unreadable, a language they'd never seen before. Grip put his sidearm away and whispered to Armand to stand out of sight while he knocked on the door.
After the third knock he cursed and tried the knob. The heavy door opened. Paper scurried down the long hallway from the sudden gust. They could see the main room ahead at the back of the house, and beyond, through glass sliding doors, the backyard, the grass high, enclosed by hedges. They quickly searched the other rooms--except for scraps of packing paper, all were empty. They checked the closets, all empty, then went out to the yard.
"Whatever happened here, we missed it," said Grip. "That guy's toast."
"You sure we're at the right house?" asked Armand. "Could be that Slackjaw lied."
The address was the one Slackjaw mailed his letter to and Grip stared at the picture he'd been given. Slack figured he'd never hear from him again so what was the point in holding onto it; it just made him feel jealous. "Yea, this is the right place, the address and picture match. Unless," thought Grip, "he made it all up. Snapped a picture at this address just to mislead, thinking perhaps the secret police might get ahold of it."
"Is he really that clever?" asked Armand, smiling.
"We need to find out what that sign says. Let's grab it and get back to the ship before somebody shows up."
As they were about to reenter the house they heard a muted shuffle coming from the front room on the right. They pulled their sidearms. Grip motioned for Armand to go around that side of the house down a narrow strip of grass connecting to the front. Grip entered and, staying close to the wall on that side, crept to the open doorway of the back room, trying to remember if it connected to the front. He peered around the corner to check it out when someone ran from the front room and out the door, veering to the right. Grip ran after. He heard a scuffle going on as he passed through the doorway. Armand had the man on the ground in a full-Nelson; he wasn't going anywhere. He holstered his gun and approached. "Let him up, Armand."
Armand let go, held the man behind by both wrists and pulled him to his feet. He let out a painful grunt.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" Grip asked. "And don't try to lie, I'm not in a good mood."
The man glared at Grip, his eyes filled with hate. Then he began to speak in a strange language, revealing at once that despite the rough clothing, this was no man. Her voice reached a shrill frequency as her venom increased, spittle lubricating her recrimination. He knew, whatever she was saying, wasn't complimentary. Grip backed up a step and raised both hands trying to calm her. "Speak Galactic, if you can," he requested, a demand would've been like throwing gas on a fire. Although continuing to stare bullets, she ceased her outburst, suddenly dissipating like a summer squall. Grip shuddered at the reminder of an old girlfriend from home.
"Can you speak Galactic? I have no idea..."
"Of course not," she interrupted. "You are of ignorance, one of them, the cruel ones." She tried freeing her hands, nothing doing. Defeated, she stopped moving and hung her head. "What are you going to do with me?" she asked quietly but with firmness and acceptance in her words, a show of bravery, apparently expecting the worst.
"Nothing," Grip almost stuttered. "Who are you and what are you doing here? And calm down, for God's sake."
"Don't tell me to calm down, I'm in total control of myself. Let me go, first."
Grip nodded and Armand released her. She stood, rubbing her wirsts, a look of puzzlement on her face, not knowing what was about to happen and unsure what to do. "Now, please," asked Grip almost fatherly, "what the hell is going on? Who are you? Let's start with that."
She peered into his eyes, then asked, "You are not secret police?"
"Do we look like freakin' police?" spat an incredulous Armand.
"They can look like anyone. Let me ask you, then: What are you doing here?"
Grip saw only one way out of this -- the truth, mostly. "We found out that the man who lives here, or lived here, staged an accident with his boat three months ago; everyone was suppossed to have drowned. But, we believe now, or at least have a profound feeling, that they might still be alive. He's still alive, apparently. We came here to talk to him, find out what happpened to them. A good friend of ours was one of the passengers." He figured that was enough. He didn't have to say that last part, he thought, but the personal touch might help her be more cooperative. "What do you know about it, and why are you here?"
"I am the daughter of the man who once lived here. I was here over two months ago helping him settle in, then I went home to my apartment. I came back for a visit not long afterwards, brought some groceries to make his favorite dinner, but he was gone. See that," she said, pointing to the sign, "It's in ancient Sentorian. But the men who wrote that are not of Sentoria, they are here, of here. It says: to the memory of all Sentorians but in a dialect nobody's spoken since before I was born. The police took him, I know it, but want others to think the Sentorians did."
"How do you know Sentorian, that planet's clear over in the Perseus Arm, across the Void?"
"My father and I are from there, we moved here ten years ago, when I was a little girl. Sentoria is in the same system as Pelonis. Pelonis is the third planet out of a nine-planet system. We are fifth and about three-fourths as big. My father used to talk about it, especially after some drinks at his cottage. He was homesick and missed his friends. He said Pelonis and Sentoria shared the same values and concerns. We got along. There was a brisk trade with practical things and art. People traveled back and forth, had relatives on different planets they'd visit at festivals. I remember a few when I was little my father took me to. We keep our language alive by speaking it to one another. And this is his new house, or was. They took him away, over two months ago. I come to watch, to see who comes. I must find him." She started to cry.
"Over two months ago? Well, how'd the police find out where he was? Did these Sentorians have anything to do with it?"
"No. They wouldn't have to. The government eavesdrops on off-world communications. Security purposes, they say. If the kidnappers had notified their people back home, they would've heard. But even if not, they would've found out my father was still alive by other means, by pure suspicion that the accident was faked and he did it. After that, finding him was easy; there are spies everywhere, even here in Faraway. My father likes to go to bars, a newcomer would've been noticed. And, he talks, he brags, especially when he's been drinking."
"We need to find out what happened to the people on his boat," said Grip, impatience getting the better of him for a moment. "His buddy, Slackjaw, got a letter. He was still alive. Along with talk they had at a bar saying he was going to come into a lot of money, enough to buy a house in the Faraway, makes it sound like he did deliberately scuttle it. Was that to kidnap the Belmont girl?"
"Yes, yes, that was father's doing. He was not proud of it. At first they tried to bribe him but he refused. He wanted to know why they wanted her. They told him for ransom; he didn't believe them and told them so. He remembered them. On Sentoria they worked for the government--security, investigations, that sort of thing. My father did too, when I was a small child. He got sick of it and we moved here. At the time the government was freer, not authoritarian like it is now. We had freedoms, but things change. The military has become too strong. He bought a cottage in the woods and a river boat for the adventure and to take tourists down the Mariah, it runs fast and wild in many places and has rocks of every size and shape and a few forks that lead to waterfalls. He is very good at the handling of the boat and knows the river well after all these years, he would not have accidentally gone down one. They finally told him it was her idea, the Belmont girl, to make it look like she'd been kidnapped. He and her father have information they need to get to help Sentoria and its allies. He believed them and that no one would be hurt. He relented; it is his way. He is a good man and loves his home planet. If he thought the others might be killed, he wouldn't have done it."
"Were they killed? All of them?" asked Grip, bracing himself.
"I do not know. The day of the accident my father was picked up by another riverboat before sending his over the falls onto the rocks. That was the plan. He went to his cottage near the river and hid out there. They came to him to give him money and he never saw them again. He told me he asked them what they did with the other passengers, but they refused to tell." She dried her eyes with an end of her billowy shirt, then removed her hat freeing long black hair.
"Yes. They knew my father from Sentoria, that's why they contacted him. They were of there."
"So what happened to your father? Why'd they take him, the police, I mean?"
"They find out. They know how to find people. I told him to leave, to go far away from here. But he just laughed. My father is a fool. But I must find him if he is still alive."
"So you don't know what they did with the people they kidnapped? These Sentorians."
"No. After they give my father money, they must have left. How? I don't know. Maybe they have their own ship."
"Probably, most likely. If you had your own ship for such a job, where would you park it?"
She thought for a while, then said, "On the other side of the island where my father's rushing river is, to the west, is an old landing bay between two towns, a ship of medium size could moor there, unseen, many do. But only for a very brief time, before the police chase you out." She paused, then said, "Yes, where the van picked them up--my father told me--is near that landing bay by the forest road. This is a small island compared to most in this sector, the drive is not far. That must be it."
"Why were you here today? We didn't exactly plan being here ourselves."
"I watch. People tell me men ask around for my father's home. So, I come to see who."
"But," Armand almost laughed, yet managed to ask with a bit of compassion, "what did you expect to do, hon?"
She wiped her cheeks with her sleeve. "I do not know what else to do. I can't go to the police, they are the ones who took him. I thought maybe I could follow them, see where my father is." She stifled more tears, barely.
"Well, it's a good thing it was us and not them. Are you staying in a safe place? They'd probably like to get their hands on you as well. They might think you're tied up in this."
"I live with different friends, one maybe two nights, then move on. I had my own place, a one-room apartment above a boat shop in the village on the other side of the island where the harbor is. After he was taken away, I got the feeling I should move out. Hide until I found out what was going on."
"That was a smart feeling. You drive here?"
"No, I'm staying with a friend down the hill. He dropped me off."
"Dropped you off?" repeated Grip. "Well then how were you supposed to follow anyone?"
"I don't know. I thought maybe I could tell by the car who they were. There aren't that many police stations around here in Faraway. But they would probably be from the city. There's the license plate, it would be marked as government. I don't know," she repeated with more desperation. "It's all I can do."
"But why would the police come here if they took him away? What are they looking for?"
"Maybe they're hoping to catch someone here who might help them. Or retrieve camera discs. Some reason. They've left the house as is. It belongs to my father. Maybe they didn't get him; maybe he moved out beforehand; got tipped off and they expect him to come home for something, something he forgot. They haven't given up. Either they have him or they don't, I really don't know, I'm just assuming."
"I think you better come with us," Grip pronounced warmly. "Back to our ship; meet our skipper and talk. Maybe we can find out about your dad and our friend. We have some smart people onboard. And it looks like you could use some food and taken care of too. We're good at that." Armand smiled.
She looked reticent, uncertain, like a scared cat. But fatigue and a grudging trust overcame her fear. She was at that point when it was time for help to arrive, and this was it. "Don't worry, you're safe," Grip said, no-nonsense in his voice. "You got a name?"
"Vega," she half-smiled.
"Okay, Vega. This here is Armand and I'm Grip." With that he turned on his heel and headed down the drive under a full head of steam.
If she knew about them from asking around for directions to her dad's address, he thought, the police probably do too.
Meanwhile, on the Dragonfly bridge, Fritz tapped into the local communication directory looking for the scientist, Rigel Belmont. A citizen of his stature would no doubt have his calls screened through a filtering program, a question and answer test relegating winners and losers. Once found, Fritz punched the number into the radio-phone intended for local use, and waited.
Stanley busied himself setting up a temporary computer account, a courtesy afforded all visitors. This was a tourist planet, after all, vacationers came here from all over, the climate was delghtful most of the long year. So there were plenty of bars, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, museums, theatre, everything. He familiarized himself with various protocols, downloading a list of area servers. Once logged in, he tracked around to the other side of the planet searching for the most obscure and least used portal. If necessary, as an added precaution, he would go through several service providers to cover their tracks, adopting different simulated personas at each.
Forming a configuration of a set of complex interrelationships by the autonomous assemblage of molecular structures can occur as a routine procedure generating a preset pattern, or, as the response to a specifically designated algorithm. An identity.
Because we're dealing with organic molecules, which communicate within cells and externally through cell membranes via proton transfers, quantum effects kick in. Hence, parallel processing is accomplished by the superposition of all possible configurations running at once, any one of which can be measured-out by imposing suitable restrictions or boundary conditions. Identities by group symmetries can therefore shift in a nano-second.
As with a natural organism, a hierarchy of structures exhibits individual attributes at each emergent transition plateau. On the cellular level, we have: signal pathways -- the computer's metabolism -- interconnected through bifurcation nodes, composing a compact, countably dense torsion field. As such they are able to transfer information in all dimensions synaptically and simultaneously. Hiding embedded within the fibers of such a field, an infinitesimal nano-scaled intruder, surfing on the superposition wave of all possible nucleotide sequences, would be impossible to detect--if you knew what the hell you were doing.
Fritz paced the bridge while the comlink buzzed. After the third buzz a machine voice informed him that Rigel Belmont was not available but if he left his name, the nature of his business, and how to contact him, etcetera. Fritz left the message that he would be here for only a few days, was a long-standing admirerer of the scientist and would appreciate an audience to discuss his latest paper on robotics. He said he acted as the Secretary for the Robotics Association, so whatever he wished to comment would be passed on to the other members at their next meeting. It was an interview of sorts, in other words. Fritz couldn't see how he could ignore such a request. Brilliant men like Belmont usually came with egos the size of the Red Spot on Jupiter.
He took his comlink and went to the mess hall. He didn't think much of this approach; he was wasting his time. It would be better spent helping Stanley. Between the two of them, he was certain they'd find out what they wanted to know; presuming, of course, information pertaining to the incident was somewhere on the system. But how could it not be? You don't kidnap the daughter of the most prestigious scientist on the planet and have it ignored as inconsequential. If that is, in fact, what transpired.
But, he had to admit, Rigel Belmont held the key to clarifying the situation. If his daughter had indeed been the target of the mass kidnapping, for purposes unclear, he would have most assuredly been contacted long ago--why else kidnap her?--and he would know, probably, where she and the others had been taken. But, because she might not presently be on-planet, what could have happened? Did the government refuse to allow him to negotiate a deal? And whether or not the others--Elizabeth--were still alive, how could Belmont know?
His comlink, laying on the table, buzzed, startling him out of his analysis. A woman's voice, serious and suspicious sounding, but nonetheless pleasant, said, "Mister Fritz?" He affirmed; she continued, "Why do you wish to speak with Doctor Belmont?"
Not missing a beat, he replied, "I'm here as a passenger on a freighter. The Asssociation had been anticipating a ship going to your lovely planet for some time. The opportunity was too much to pass up. So, as the secretary and publicist, I elected to come along in the hopes of interviewing the renown Doctor Belmont. We sent a message by subspace a month ago. Did you ever receive it?"
A long pause, followed by a dower, "No, we did not. You say you represent the Robotics Association? Surely an interview could have been conducted by subspace. Why the personal appearance?"
Fritz hesitated, trying to think of a bona-fide acceptable reason. But instead simply told the truth, "I have longed wished to personally meet Doctor Belmont. He is, how shall I put this, a hero in the industry. His papers are a mandatory part of the curriculum in any first rate university on Earth. Is there some problem with scheduling? I can arrange to come any time convenient for the good Doctor. It's entirely up to him."
Another longer pause. "Doctor Belmont is not seeing anyone at this time. He is unduly stressed over personal matters and does not wish to be disturbed."
Fritz never took no for an answer, and now definitely was not the time to begin. "Dear lady," he began, a touch patronizing, "the Intergalactic Robotics Association has no intention or deisre to add to Doctor Belmont's stress level. However, I think a brief interview, conducted in a pleasant environment to his liking, the issues of which would pertain only to matters within the purview of the Association, may serve only to assuage his stress. They are not of a personal nature. I am not representing some Earth-bound tabloid seeking a feature article. Personal interaction would better allow me to frame questions and respond to nuance that a subspace list of questions can never do. Our next publication comes out in a few weeks. We'd like to have it edited and prepared by then."
He knew his insistence might close the door with this woman who quite clearly wished to protect the privacy of Belmont, but he couldn't let himself be overrun. He had information they needed, and that was that.
"Mister Fritz, I'll see what I can do. I don't believe Doctor Belmont would want the Association to think he considered it beneath him. I'll speak with him about it and get back to you as soon as possible."
"Very well. But, I've only two days here, so, please, do your best."
She hung up; no good-bye or indication of when she might return the call. Fritz bounced the comlink across the table and jerked to his feet. "Goddamnit," he said. Standing behind him was Sam, staring with his red beady eyes, an approximate look of concern plastered on his titanium face. Over his shoulder, Fritz said, "It's okay, Sam." Turning to face him, taking in the contrast of hard, yet malleable, titanium-nickle veneer radiating obvious warm feelings, he asked, in his quiet voice reserved for Sam, usually, "Do you know what's going on?"
Sam nodded in the affirmative. He was a strange robot, always seeming to be aware of whatever concerned the rest of the crew as though he found it important and imperative to be kept in the loop. Since the incident that altered his personality--or gave birth to it--he'd noticeably become rather protective of everyone, exhibiting feelings, especially towards Fritz who he considered not only caretaker but also friend. In fact, most of his conversations -- you could call them that -- occurred between the two of them. As Fritz stood gazing at Sam, an idea popped into his head. The robot's recently, not too recently, engendered and developing personality could be passed off as genuine robotics technology, technology of a sort no other robot possessed.
He retrieved the comlink off the floor and redialed. This time he was patched passed the answering machine, apparently he'd been given special status. After two buzzes, he heard the familiar voice, "Yes, Mister Fritz?"
"I have an idea." She had not identified herself, he suddenly became aware. Was she Belmont's personal secretary, a house employee, or, was she government? Wishing to appear naive, he pretended everything was normal, so he resisted asking. "With me is my own personal robot, a class 9000-G. It's no doubt more sophisticated than what I've seen thusfar on your planet. If I were to bring him along, I feel confident Doctor Belmont would find examining him a satisfying experience. It might even trigger an innovative or creative idea. What do you think?"
He heard her breathing as he waited. Eventually, she said, "Just a moment, Mister Fritz." In the background he heard low voices talking. The other was a male voice, somewhat irritated by the whole matter, but finally calming. She returned with, "Yes, Doctor Belmont will see you. I'll send an address and time to your phone as soon as that's settled. Good-bye." She hung up again without another word. She couldn't be his personal secretary or a spokesperson, he thought, diplomacy to ward off unwanted visitors, especially someone representing an association of which you are a prized member, is not done that way. There are protocols, even under stress. So, who could she really be?
Okay, he thought, now what? Am I supposed to wait, monitor my comlink? Frustrated, he left the mess accompanied by Sam. He had another idea, more fruitful, perhaps. When he got to the bridge, Stanley was still working his way through the labyrinth of Aquilon's computer network. And by the muffled sounds of deep cursing, with only intermittent luck, apparently. Stanley welcomed the help and slid Fritz their temporary account numbers and password. Sitting off to the side in front of another work station, Fritz got busy trying to hack into Doctor Belmont's phone records. They'd probably be encrypted, but they had state-of-the-art security programs designed to crack such things. It wasn't long before he found a backdoor into the communications system. It was a jumble of voice, text, video, and holographic formats each demanding a different protocol and password to separate and explore. Again, he discovered a hole in their firewalls, probably put there as an emergency measure by whoever programmed it. It was the conventional procedure: a system this convoluted and with its degree of complexity, it might seize up, preventing front door access.
It was uncommon to archive voice messages, but this system was huge and the government intrusive. Or, thought Fritz, the custom may be reserved only for a select list--that sounded more likely. And Belmont was on the list, as were all the scientists on this planet, no doubt. He found dates and times going back two years. He zeroed in on the day of the kidnapping. Wearing earphones, he sat back and listened. It was the usual traffic, ordinary conversations of a social nature, as well as other scientists discussing projects, findings, problems, ideas, and personal difficulties with fellow scientists. Being a scientist himself, he couldn't help but jot down a few interesting technical things he heard. But the following day Belmont made several calls, anxiously asking people--friends of his and his daughter's, no doubt--if anyone had seen her. Eventually, he phoned the police. He was an important citizen, a prime mover and developer for the military's expanding arsenal of robotic's hardware. He had his fingers in just about everything, so they were genuinely concerned; at least, they took it seriously.
Fritz had assumed, based on his conversation with the notorious Slackjaw, that the police were somehow in on it. But, maybe not the front lines, the first tier, just the higher-ups. Made sense; they were as much in the dark as he was. They promised to be out at his place immediately, to send someone, an agent, several agents, men to watch the house and protect him. Why, he wanted to know, did they think he needed protection? Just a precaution, they said, we can't be sure what's going on, better safe than sorry, and so forth.
Fritz let the sequence of calls continue. Belmont spoke mainly with colleagues, voicing his concern over his daughter. She was missing, but where and why were unknown. It was common practice that whenever she went off to be by herself for a few days--he assumed somewhere on the island--she'd always tell him, plus take her comlink. That was another thing, it was dead.
Finally, a few days later, he received a call from a morbid-voiced stranger. Fritz perked up. The voice, thick with accent, told him that his daughter was with them -- whoever "they" were -- she was safe -- for now -- and would be returned if he did exactly what they requested. What? he wanted to know. The reply was to wait for further instructions -- not by communication link -- it would come by courier in the form of a holographic lightcube. He would have proof that they indeed held his daughter and the conditions for her return would be explained. That was that, the com went dead. Doctor Belmont informed the police, but they'd already heard. Top investigators were put on the case.
Fritz assumed her private phone, because she's the daughter of a renown scientist, was monitored for security reasons but not scrutinized and tagged. He got the idea to check on conversations she had on days leading up to the kidnapping. He found the call she made to reserve a place on the riverboat. So it was planned, she just didn't walk by and impulsively decide to take a ride. The police investigated the accident and assumed everyone, including Katrium, had drowned like the news story said. That was the conclusion, plain and simple. The rubber boat wrecked on some rocks, dumped everybody, they drowned, their bodies floated out to sea, and that was that. However, once the kidnappers called it was clear the accident was no accident.
*************There was something the matter with this whole story though, Fritz thought. Why bother to fake her death if a few days later you reveal she's been kidnapped? But only Belmont and the police would know about the kidnapping, the rest of the world would think she died in the accident. Fake the accident to give Katrium time to cover his ass? Let them think she was dropped off and the rest proceeded downriver to a real accident? Too much of a coinicidence. Either they all lived or they all died; that was the logic he saw.
If Katrium had let just the Belmont girl off and then proceeded along with the other five passengers, not to a real accident but to what? The end of the ride, where you tie up and everybody gets off, thrilled and excited? But then, after the kidnappers call, the police are going to want to talk to the skipper of the boat she was registered on. For security and safety concerns, they don't declare a person as being a passenger unless they actually see them. We found that out when we talked to them, showing the operator Elizabeth's picture. So, she got off somewhere. What did he have to do with it? Was he involved in the kidnapping? And he wouldn't deliberately scuttle his boat with the other five guests onboard while he got off somehow, they might've objected. Besides, even if he could get off, they didn't pay him to murder five innocent tourists, that's a bit much.
Katrium and the others could've showed up at the end of the trip, tied up, everyone's happy, they get off but without the Belmont girl, a celebrity of sorts. But because she's no doubt watched, her movements, being the daughter of one of the most important scientists on the planet, someone would've been waiting for her. Katrium could try to lie and say she was never onboard, the registry proves otherwise. And besides that, all they have to do is question the other passengers, they tell what happened--they have no reason not to--including Elizabeth. So he had to get rid of them somehow, the kidnappers took them or he let them off further down stream. But, if he did that, they would've showed up right away, including the autonomous Elizabeth. He snickered at that thought. She probably would've led everyone else to safety, the nearest road. So, they, the police, figured he was still alive and the search was on.
The authorities must've questioned bar patrons where he frequented, and because he liked to brag once he got drunk, found out that he was coming into some money and intended to retire and buy a house in Faraway. A record of recent real estate purchases wasn't all that long, Faraway is not a big city. Fritz had already scanned a few real estate sale's pitches and ascertained what kind of atmosphere was going on in Faraway, their preferred lifestyle. It's a Lake-side community of folks who want to be left alone and who mind their own business. An ideal place to live if you're a wanted man. It didn't matter what name he gave, they checked all new buys, no big deal. The rest was simple.
Fritz closed the link and swiveled towards Stanley, busy churning his way through the intricacies of the vast molecular sea of nucleotide sequences, searching for entrance points to databases unknown; he, nonetheless, caught Fritz's movement out of the corner of his eye. "What?" he barked, annoyed but interested.
"We have corroboration," Fritz stated flatly, his voice dry. "She's been kidnapped. In fact, it was a mass kidnapping. And unless we're dealing with nutcase extremists who kill for some obtuse religious reason, they're all alive. As far as Katrium goes, I can't imagine what he was thinking. That the authorities were going to buy the accident? That they weren't going to find out the Belmont girl's been kidnapped? And once they do, they're gonna figure he's still alive. Why didn't he move off-island? It's a big planet, lots of people. But you probably need papers to leave, to go through customs. I don't know. Maybe he thought they'd fall for the accident with him and the remaining guests. Not bloody likely. Too coincidental. He wasn't thinking straight is all I can say, didn't think it all the way through. He's been hanging out in the bars too much, I know what that's about. You start living in this tunnel world where you imagine nobody can see what you're doing.
"The kidnappers didn't seem to care though, or was the whole kidnapping thing an afterthought? Not part of the original plan? She was just supposed to disappear? Security people must keep an eye on both of them to keep things like kidnapping from happening, if nothing else. Somebody watches her get on the riverboat and some other body is supposed to greet her, so to speak, at the end of the ride, at the docking area. And she's not there. At the very least, her driver should be waiting. And what's he gonna do? Call it in. They knew she was on that boat. Besides the registry, they have security cameras all over that dock. A boundary of transition, strangers coming and going. But is she always being watched? I doubt it. As long as there are other ways to keep track, knowing her general whereabouts is probably sufficient. And that's the hole. The security people might think they slipped up. Who's fault is that, etcetera.
"Next, we have the report of a fatal, tragic boat accident, all hands, including the skipper, lost, taken out to sea. Within the week, Doctor Belmont gets the call from the kidnappers, but well before that, he reports her missing almost too soon. Doesn't she ever, as a grown young woman of means and celebrity, go off to some little village on the beach or the mountains or off-island to another part of the world, somewhere, for a few days? But he called the police to announce her missing almost immediately, a day after going through the motions of calling friends, knowing his communications was being listened to, and well before news of the accident became public. Did he jump the gun? If he waited until after the accident was known by the police and her death suspected along with the others, would it have made a difference?
"If the accident happened, when it was reported to the police they would see her name on the registry and checked her reservation call and knew she'd been among the passengers even if no security personnel had seen her off. They'd've called him, expressed their official sympathies, and promised an investigation. They always say that. And that would've been it. But reporting she was missing before the accident was known, indirectly by calling friends, colleagues, her associates if anybody had seen her, the cops heard those calls, they went into a looking for someone state of mind. They check her phone. She made a reservation on that boat. It's a business. Riverrides for tourists. They keep records, maintain safety checks, set times of departure, collect charges. She was on the boat that had the accident. They encounter--is that the right word?--the event of the accident as an outcome of searching for her. Missing leads to the accident. Telling them she's missing, directly or indirectly, first alerts them to the possibility that something bad may have happened or she's in trouble of some sort. So they knew she was missing even before he called and based on that, started searching, interrogating people. If he doesn't bother with it, doesn't check around for her and then tell the police she's missing, they discover the accident first and work backwards.
"To act not overly concerned that his daughter was off on a lark as she's probably done a million times before, worrying her father for the hell of it, not telling him for days where she is and what she's doing, would that have been more true to form? She was missing, perhaps, and there was a boating accident."
Fritz paused for a moment, staring off to nowhere. "He didn't have to do that. Report it, I mean. They would've known. They would've put the two together. At the time, they hadn't checked their transcripts of her personal comlink, let's say. He drew their attention to it. When they did they discovered she'd made a reservation for the same boat Elizabeth was scheduled to be on. You remember the day, I'm sure."
"But how about this," Stanley suggested. "Suppose, just for the sake of argument, her disappearance was intentional for some reason, and the security squad responsible for protecting and watching over the Belmonts wanted to know what happened to her, where she was. They screwed up, lost track of her. She was considered a missing person of a VIP stature. Suppose he denied she was missing. Suppose he went even further and said he knew exactly where she was, she left for some big city on one of the mainlands, shopping, perhaps, and she'd be back in a few days."
"They would check," countered Fritz. "He could only put off her being actually missing, that is to say, not available, for so long. But why deny it? If she wasn't actually declared missing by her father but they couldn't find her, what then would they, the police, think?"
"That Belmont and his daughter were up to something. That he lied to them about where she was, or she lied to him. In which case, it might seem like she was up to something possibly unknown to her father. So, he knew from the beginning of all this that he couldn't deny it and in fact advertised it and they clearly were willing to go to great lengths to cover it. That is, faking her death. He had her make a reservation for the boat ride on her comlink they might have overlooked if Belmont hadn't told them she was missing. She was missing and presumed dead. And later on when it appeared the accident wasn't going to work, the kidnapping. Or, the kidnapping was in play from the start to protect her. Either way, it makes her disappearance look involuntary. If they speculate she voluntarily vanished, then they would have to guess why she would do that. Something unpatriotic--treasonous even--having to do with her father's work? Then they'd be looking for her but not to rescue or help. Plus, they'd put extra scrutiny on Master Belmont. So, the kidnapping protects her from disloyal accusations, probably not a very good idea on this planet, and her father from suspicions. Insecurity is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes."
"But wait a second, Stan. Her father called around looking for her; he probably called her as well but her phone was off. Perhaps that was on purpose. He called the cops the next morning, but they already knew about her reservation and about the accident. And another one last thing, the accident took place some time in the midafternoon, long-winded as their days are. She made the reservation early that morning. Assuming she left the house right after then or called from somewhere else, her favorite breakfast nook, she was only "missing" for a few hours."
A long pause ensued. The two calmed down and became almost motionless. "You know what it sounds like we're saying, Fritz?" Stan asked in a smooth yet frosty tone.
"Yeah, that this whole damn thing was planned, a charade, staged."
"Nonetheless," Fritz reminded them, "the call I listened to was a good three months ago. So, there's no telling what's happened since."
*************Fritz drifted off and once again recited the details of the fateful day to himself, it seemed. "Cliff didn't know where she was going, she never said. Maybe she didn't know herself when she left; she was kinda mad looking. At nightfall she hadn't come back and he found brochures in their cabin with the boat trip on top. He checked, her name was listed at the boat launch. He called the police to tell them she was missing and they told him about the accident."
Stanley groaned, bending over and turning away from the screens to look off into the past.
"We'd already left planet when Belmont got the call telling him they'd kidnapped his daughter, but the police never bothered to contact Cliff to tell him they suspected the purported accident may not have been real. In other words, all the passengers may have been alive and kidnapped themselves." He paused for a few seconds, then asked, "Do you want to tell him or should I? He's going to want to know."
Stanley shrugged, "Should we bother? I mean, what difference does it make? It'll just infuritate him even further. We already know they're heartless and lack what you might call empathy, unless you happen to be a VIP. Let's tell him we found out she was indeed kidnapped and that the accident was staged. All the passengers, including Lizzy, may have been kidnapped. I don't think we should emphasize when that was known. A few days after we left planet, would that have made a difference? Probably. We could've turned right around and started searching. But at that time the police didn't know much and wouldn't be blasting what they did off to the media or to us. It was probably rather chaotic, in fact."
"The call I listened to told Belmont he'd receive a holocube in the mail. He must still have it or turned it over to the police. We don't know what has transpired all this time and the reason she or they were taken in the first place. In fact, we can only guess why Belmont's daughter was taken. If we'd rushed in at that time, ready to shoot up whoever was responsible, tracked down this guy Katrium whatever to make him talk, it might have seriously screwed things up and got Elizabeth and the Belmont girl killed. Let Cliff find out on his own. He already hates the police for their lack of concern, we don't need any tangential distraction right now. We need to work steady and methodical."
He stood to pace the deck. "I have to see him, Doctor Belmont," he said, irritation rising. "We have to find out what's been going on and where we stand."
"Why not just go there with Grip and Armand. Force your way in, if necessary. Confront the man. Make him talk like you did that drunk."
"I don't think so, Stanley. He's probably surrounded by a small army. And he's not a drunk. It's,..., complicated."
Stanley spun his chair to face Fritz, grabbed his coffee cup, then spat out, "What the hell doya mean -- complicated. We're trying to find out about Elizabeth, man. So go to his house and question the son-of-a-bitch." He then took a sip.
Conversations between these two raging intellectuals usually got right to the point. Stanley was extroverted in the extreme, Fritz was reclusive in the extreme. What they had in common was the line that separated them, and that's where they met.
Fritz ran his hand through his hair while staring at the floor; he was mulling, in his own analytic way, the details of the situation. What was he missing? "This scientist guy is at the top of the food-chain when it comes to military value. Think -- Archimedes or Leonardo Da Vinci."
"Who? What the hell do they have to do with it? They're dead."
"All right, yea, I know. I'm waiting for her to call back."
"When's that gonna be? Tomorrow? Next week? After we unload tomorrow we have to either leave or find another place to moor. It would be nice if we could wrap this up soon, like today or tomorrow. There's thirty-six hours in the day here. Plenty of time. You need to charge into it, be bold, make assumptions, pretend to be ignorant of convention. That shouldn't be a problem for you." Holding his hands out in frustration, he finished with, "Do something, Fritz." Turning back to the computer, he added, "Do that which you know."
"How ya' doing with that, by the way?" Fritz asked, wanting to change the subject for the moment.
"I don't know," Stanley half-moaned. "I've gotten through several encrypted layers. They're insulated from one another. Shields within shields. Membranes of passage. Interwoven yet separate. I am a virus, a nanite, a leaf on the wind. Persistence, my friend, persistence will get us through."
Sam had been standing off to the side taking it all in, as usual, not offering comments, also as usual. But suddenly he approached Fritz and tugged on his sleeve. He led him out to the hallway. "Mister Fritz," he began, "I have a suggestion." He paused long and hard. Fritz wasn't in his usual indulgent mood and thought to wave him off, but there was something about Sam's eyes and knowing facial expression that sparked hope, so he waited. Sam stared red-eyed into Fritz's pale blues, "Let's go, sir." Fritz nodded and without hesitation, the two left the boat to find transit. He'd been half-hoping for this--a serendipitous direction. He decided not to wait for a return call. He knew the address; all he had to do was get directions. Who knows if or when she'll set up a meeting; time was running out.
Heading for the ship, Captain Wainright and Jeeter left the hotel late in the afternoon. With thirty-six earth hours in a day, the slide into twilight is as smooth as it gets. Cliff needed the familiar intimacy of his private space to think clearly. Jeeter had the idea to fake an engine malfunction, in case they needed an excuse to stay longer, so he set about jury-rigging the appearance of just such an emergency. He also wanted to go through his store of personal weapons, make sure everything was in proper working order. He was very meticulous that way. Not all field rocket scientists owned plasma-pulse assault rifles with laser scope and hand-guns with heat-seeking, armor-piercing pellets of spent uranium. It was one of the reasons why he didn't fit into the normal, conventional world; he didn't play well with others. His usual contempt for people carried over into a certain innate willingness to kill those who'd wronged him. No moral dilemmas, no remorse, no hesitation. Kidnapping Elizabeth was a mistake and fell into the category of being wronged, as he saw it.
Professionally, he was a brilliant, resourceful man -- had practically rebuilt their aging quark-drive unit single-handedly. Personally, however, his life conformed to a landscape of simple feelings: colors sharp, contours crisp, slopes smooth. At times of stress, he'd reminisce about things like when a child playing with toy soldiers in the backyard dirt, or the gentle, careful way his grandmother would handle holiday decorations. It brought him down to earth and swept away all the intellectualisms he'd encountered growing up.
His skipper's and best friend's wife had been stolen, he meant to help get her back, and whoever did it would have to pay. Simple.
The skipper sat in his quarters. Elizabeth's pictures were all about him, his favorite on the end table next to the bed, their bed. He held it, looking into her eyes, feeling the intense visceral warmth of his love and the pain that feeling brought on him. But circumstances had suddenly changed. Now, with a chance she might still be alive, he brushed all that aside as self-indulgent. He needed to concentrate on the present. If she is really alive and if there's any hope or possibility that she is, he reflected, I have to be fully here in order to act in control.
Lies and deceit had put him in that hell; he would not let that go unpunished. But first, he had to find his Lizzy. He held her picture in his two strong hands and promised he'd find her, said it out loud. With that he took a deep breath and lay down. He needed to let the bourbon work through and to collect his thoughts, to think and plan. Everything had to be done correctly, with no missteps or shortcomings. Methodical and deliberate would be the watchwords, improvisation as matters went, the play.
He recalled special times they'd spent together. Not just on Earth but inexplicable sights and vistas on strange, exotic planets of every size with varying numbers of moons orbiting different types and classes of suns, from tiny, cool yellow ones to gigantic orange ones many times larger than earth's to red dwarfs where the planets were billions of years older than Earth. Experiences they never could've imagined or expected; people from other, previously unknown alien races they met and got to be friends with in bars, people with the most outlandish stories and adventures. Adventures and travel through space, what they learned and wondered about and discussed. And mostly he dreamed of holding her close, the smell of her hair, lying together on quiet afternoons in secluded places, and, of course, making passionate love.
Eventually the bourbon had its way and he surrended to the exhaustion that consumed him on every level. He drifted off to sleep.
*************Grip, Armand and their current charge, Vega, drove to the end of town where their ship was moored, still waiting to be off-loaded. Grip noticed a wave of fear ripple across her features as they passed through the gate of the company warehouse. Close to dusk, he didn't see anything to be afraid of; much was in shadows. He waited until they were safely inside Dragonfly before asking about it. She replied that she'd seen unmarked police cars around the outskirts of the fence surrounding the loading dock. Two she knew by sight, the others, standard issue.
Had they seen her? he asked. She shook her head, said she didn't know but it looked like their ship was being watched, so they probably did. Nosing around about the man called Slackjaw may have rung a bell; if so, he no doubt had more visitors after they left. Grip showed her to a spare cabin reserved for the occasional passenger and bade her clean-up and rest. But first he took her to the mess hall, she looked hungry. After introducing her to various gizmos and the refrigerators, he left her on her own.
Grip and Armand went up to the bridge to see what the hell was going on and to inform them of their guest, who she was and where she was. Stanley gave him an update of his progress, including verification that indeed the Belmont girl had been kidnapped, ending with not knowing where Fritz and Sam had gone. On a pad next to Fritz's computer was the address of Doctor Belmont. Grip had to do something, they couldn't just stand around waiting. He didn't know the skipper was onboard and even if he had, he wasn't in the mood to ask for advice or some busy work to do. The presence of the surveilance crew outside pissed him off. He checked his plasma pistol and together with Armand, left. He had a seaman's feeling the weather was going to get downright snotty soon, sooner than anyone thought.
After a brief discussion, they decided to revisit Slackjaw. It wasn't surprising that the police investigating the so-called accident and then discovering that the missing Belmont girl had been on that particular boat--at least she'd made a booking--and been kidnapped, zeroed in on Slackjaw, the best friend and drinking buddy of the boat's skipper, and found out through suitable interrogation techniques--wouldn't take much--that Mister Xeno was about to come into a considerable amount of money for dropping someone off--didn't say who--at a designated spot on the river bank and talked of getting new digs in Faraway.
Who gave him the money? Houses in Faraway are expensive, upper crust-like. After the accident he was never seen again, so everyone just assumed he'd drowned with the others. But the kidnap call less than a week later proved the drop-off had been successful, so the accident, if real, would have happened afterwards. He spoke of buying a house. But never of faking an accident. It was far too coincidental. Of course. The accident would cover her disappearance for a time and Katrium, if presumed dead, would elude any questioning about her whereabouts, but only until the kidnappers called.
Grip and Armand discussed it on the way there. Had Belmont's daughter really been a passenger? Did she make it in time? Was she nabbed on her way there and someone who looked like her took her place? Someone who could swim really good. Or was the reservation intentionally misleading and she used it to slip away? But what about the arrangement, the job? And who, actually, was this special person to be dropped off? They're all just presuming it was the famous roboticist Rigel Belmont's daughter, that the others were just ordinary tourists.
Grip and Armand figured that after their visit, Slack had been interrogated again, only this time not by very nice people. There was that guy who interrupted Fritz and Slack's conversation in the bar; he probably kept an eye out. They may have questioned him before he received the letter from his buddy, but the police aren't going to believe that now. They're going to think he was holding out. Who were those people, what did they want, what did you tell them?
What the police might find out about them based on their recent conversation with Slack, then cross-referencing with their involvement three months ago looking for a particular victim--they were the crew off the Dragonfly--might raise some eyebrows. The police like to do their own investigating. Who, they might wonder, are these people working for? What is the significance of the person they're asking about? Elizabeth Wainright, was her name. Despite the kidnapping of Belmont's daughter, perhaps we're not giving this Wainright woman enough attention. What is her role on Earth? Why have they come back after all this time looking for her? Who are they, really?
It was best to find out; hence, ask Slackjaw.
Fritz had his comlink with him but had yet to hear from Belmont's spokesperson as to when and where regarding an audience. Light was beginning to fade, the sun had just dipped below the horizon facing the house, illuminating it. Fritz drove around the block reconnoitering while Sam tried to appear uninterested, his hat pulled down hiding his greenish hair. Doctor Belmont's house was a two-story affair, simple yet expensive-looking. Four thick, cylindrical columns held up the porch-roof, one at each end and two bracketting the double doors. Well-appointed flower boxes hung on the outside of the picket-style porch railing. Curiously, there was no gate or fence. The driveway horseshoed around a well-manicured lawn about thirty yards across ending in a border of bushes and multicolored flowers. Set back from the road about fifty yards he could see no way to approach without being noticed. But by whom? There was no doubt security cameras pointed in all directions, strategically placed. But no armed guards.
He pulled over to the other side of the road and shut-off the car they borrowed from the warehouse foreman. Sam peered over Fritz's shoulder, trying to make himself small, an impossibility in anyone's universe. There was no one on the street, it was a quiet, country road; trees lined the dirt walkways.
"Whatdoya' think, Sam? It's your play." Fritz was letting out the rope. They could just drive up or walk to the front door and knock. But they didn't know how grave things were or had become. They could get shot or, at the very least, arrested for their boldness. Beyond that, he had no idea what to do. Sam opened the door and stepped out. The thin chrome veneer of his face took on a greenish tinge in the twilight. He was wearing a white, button-down shirt hanging outside dark pants, and sandals, habitual footwear he acquired along with the straw hat. He was dressed for island life.
He walked around the car, across the gravel road, passed the narrow dirt walkway, and several meters directly onto the well-kept lawn, then stood straight and tall, staring at the house. After less than a minute, one of the front doors opened and, what appeared from this distance to Fritz, a woman stepped out onto the porch. She was wearing a yellow tunic, round at the neck and hanging down to her ankles, her hair had a bluish tint and was cropped short. Her complexion was a light brown.
Sam walked towards her and momentarily his outline sparkled as though he either passed through an electrical shield of minimal strength or entered a force field that covered the entire lawn up to and including the house. Either way, to Fritz it looked clear as water. She stepped down the three wide steps to the grass and walked towards him. They met in the middle and stood a two meters apart. Relaxed and composed, as the sun continued to drop below the horizon, they peered into one another's eyes for a long time. She reached into a pocket of her dress and retrieved a small, flat disc which she surreptitiously slipped into Sam's right hand. Apparently, they were being watched, or at least, recorded. The watchers were probably off-site. She then smiled brightly, amused it would seem, then turned and walked back to the house. She paused briefly on the porch as though she might look back for a glance, but the door opened and she entered. It closed behind her.
Sam watched her all the way until she closed the door. He turned and walked back in a dreamlike state, his mind obviously elsewhere. He sat in the car radiating exhilaration; he couldn't help but smile broadly. He handed the disc to Fritz.
Rectangular polyhedrons of any dimensions are available, the more specialized the shape, the more they cost. A cube, as the representative form of three-dimensional rectangles, was the least expensive owing to the need for only one set of algorithms to create it. Hence, they were all called "holocubes." They reveal, conceal, or create a desired effect to impress the recipient, but for pictures and video especially, people are mostly interested in the height and don't care what else in the surroundings is captured.
"What was that all about?" asked a dumbfounded Fritz.
"Well, first of all, Doctor Belmont and assistants aren't home and haven't been for some time. As well, all his important work has been confiscated for safe keeping. She is the house-bot, a special invention of Doctor Belmont's. Several staff of the same kind run the house and maintain the premises, she oversees." He paused for a bit, staring at his sandals, then said in a quieter tone, "I suspected that I was telepathic after the run in with the neutron star, but had no way to prove it. I had a feeling, I guess you could call it a feeling, after reading some of his reports and publications in our library--we robots are interested in such things, you know--that he had accomplished internal communication between bots. The ordinary ones we have on various planets aren't capable of such, perhaps some day," he finished wistfully.
"So this house-bot spoke to you?"
"Yes. I stood and used several different frequencies to get someone's attention. Then she came out." He faced Fritz, his red eyes gleaming, "Very beautiful, don't you think?" asked Sam, barely above a whisper but with genuine emotion. Oh no, thought Fritz, what do you do with an infatuated robot?
"I told her the truth. What we're doing, which, I trust, is what you were going to do once you and Belmont were alone."
"Yes, I was. But I also would like to know what it's all about. Did they kidnap her for leverage, blackmail, and if so, what do they want?"
"She didn't tell me. I don't think she knows. Doctor Belmont received visitors, official looking, after he got the mail cube from the kidnappers. A week later some men showed up with a van to take away his work, papers, reports on cubes, computer equipment, and robots he'd been experimenting with. His entire lab, essentially. It's behind the house, one-story high and as wide.
"But there was something curious, I thought, and she must too otherwise she wouldn't have told me, I don't believe. In his study, which she has locked up, he has some work--diagrams, tech drawings and explanations of a secret personal nature--hidden behind a section of the book shelves in a safe. She has no idea what it could be about. He oftentimes talked to her about what he may be working on, but not this stuff. He did instruct her, however, that if she were to leave the house on a permanent basis, she was to open the safe--he showed her where it was and how to open it--and take the disc on top."
"Maybe that's it," Fritz said. "His bio said his wife died seven years ago, some illness they couldn't cure. Could that be related? Some biotech solution to whatever problems she had? Or more likely, something special in robotics he was working on. Another breakthrough he wanted kept secret? Something he didn't want the government to know?"
"Don't know, buddy." Sam smiled again as he gazed contemplatively at the house. He was no longer thinking about Belmont or Fritz. He was gonzo.
"Let's go home and check this disc out. Whatdoyasay, buddy?" No use. His attention was elsewhere. Fritz cranked the car up as the sun finally dipped below the horizon and twilight bathed the house in brilliant colors.
Night had fallen. White lights from the warehouse area could be seen through the bridge windows and elsewhere, and beyond that, the neon reds and blues at the beginning of town. Captain Wainright stumbled into the mess hall. He hadn't eaten the previous day; he was famished. Rooting through the cooler was Vega. The captain stopped in his tracks. For a moment she looked a little like Lizzy; he'd found her engaged in that pursuit many a time. Startled by the clumsiness, Vega spun in that direction. She smiled somewhat sheepishy and introduced herself, openly informing him as to how she came to be there. After he heard who her father was, he had trouble controlling his temper. Grip had told her what they were dong as far as finding Elizabeth, the captain's wife, and what he had gone through the past three months because of her father. The flash of anger in his eyes reminded her. She didn't know what to say, but suddenly she became fearful. They stood still in silence staring at one another. He knew it wasn't her fault, she had nothing to do with it, but he wanted to lash out at someone and there she was.
Just then, Stanley and Jeeter barged in, engaged in excited conversation. "Skipper," Stanley said. "Feel all right?" He didn't pause for a response, just walked right passed heading for the refrigerator. "I managed to worm my way into the government's internal systems," he reported as he rummaged through what was available, not looking at him, "passed their security protocols, classified stuff, personal stuff, who has what dirt on whom, etecetera. I think we can maybe find out what transpired before, during, and after the boat accident, piece it together, and infer, at least, why whoever did the kidnapping did it. The roboticist, Rigel Belmont, had something going on that nobody knew about, I'm suspecting, except maybe the kidnappers and the government. If that's the case, we need to find out how they knew about it and what's its importance. I have a feeling that's the crux of it. It would help us know what side the kidnappers are on, if there is one. But I need a break and I'm starving. And more coffee. Make some coffee, Jeeter, you're the engineer."
He introduced himself to Vega, knowing what Grip had told him about who her father was and why she was here. He decided not to hold it against her; in fact, he figured she might be helpful. There were loose ends nobody knew about yet, she could tie them together maybe. And she was a local, always a good idea to have someone onboard who knows the lay of the land. The captain proceeded to make himself something to eat, banging pots and pans unnecessarily in the process until Jeeter noticeably cringed. He stopped moving, took a few moments to collect himself, then turned to her and said evenly, "You'll be safe here Vega; we have a spare cabin you can stay in."
She thanked him and told him that Mister Grip had already showed her. She stood silent, staring at the floor, then said, "I'm sorry about your wife. My father didn't know, of course, and he was threatened to do it even though he was paid." She lied about the threat, but he didn't need to know what her father did back on Sentoria, how he happened to know the kidnappers. Cliff nodded and visibly calmed down. Jeeter smiled and told him about the jury-rigged engine malfunction, what he'd done, the mechanical details. It was appearance only. If they wanted to, it would start right up and perform with its usual stubborn perfection. It got the skipper's mind into the job at hand: finding Lizzy.
*************Grip and Armand came through the hall entrance, Grip carrying a bottle of bourbon which he plunked down on the table as he went by. Armand plopped down in his chair. Everybody had his own chair. You pick one, conform it to your body over time, it becomes your chair. The captain sat on the end closest to the bridge door, the others scattered about the long, well-worn, dark wood table. Unusual for a mess hall on a cargo ship, but it lent a homey family feeling. Elizabeth found it at an estate sale and replaced the plastic-top foldouts built for occupancy of four that came with the ship. Nobody had a favorite and what usually happened was one or two people would sit at each and others would be empty. You can't really carry on a conversation or a serious technical discussion separated like that. Plus, they were depressing just to look at; she didn't care for depressing. The eight artificial leather chairs that came with the table were just right, sturdy and made with craftmanship and care, they were stuffed with a dense fibrous material and had wide upholstered arms that were a molded extension of the seat. Her preoccupation and passion was in ancient Earth history; when she saw the table it brought to mind the Vikings of old. When in port, she'd find time to prepare a huge meal for everyone, drafting volunteers for certain chores as needed, complete with her personal collection of decorative, vintage goblets for wine. Her selection, of course.
Not saying a word to anyone, Grip went directly to a cabinet and pulled out the round, silver tray on which sat seven shot glasses and placed it in the middle of the table next to the bourbon, then sat across from Armand. The others waited; he had something to report. He looked at Cliff and said, "We went to Slackjaw's boat. We found him in his bunk, dead. Two shots in the chest and one in the forehead. The fo'c'sle had been ransacked. Whoever did it was looking for something, obviously. Perhaps the picture he gave us, I don't know. But on the way out, we checked the wheelhouse. That too had been scoured, but they missed something. Taped to the back of the radio was a rolled-up envelope containing a letter from his friend, Katrium." He nodded to Vega as he said the name.
"We stepped back to take it all in, the whole scene, topside and down. Drawers and cabinets and shelves weren't searched so much as just plain dumped. But it was intended to look searched. And the radio. If you sit in the skipper's chair, the driver's seat, you'd have a great view of everything in front through the wraparound windows. And if you looked straight out to your left, you'd see the envelope rolled up and taped behind the radio. So it was intended to be found, I think. There's no telling when it happened after we left this afternoon, but the police hadn't showed yet, obviously, elsewise the body would be gone.
"We really don't know what whoever killed him was looking for or pretending to. Maybe they didn't either. We're just assuming. But the fact that they killed him right after he talked to us earlier today has to mean something."
Armand stared hard into Grip's eyes. "Yeah, to try to make it look like we did it. By now, some visitor probably found him and called the police. He's tied up at the dock that runs along the road, so somebody probably saw us leave, it's a busy area. But witnesses could've also seen the killer or killers enter and leave. And there are cameras everywhere."
"Yeah," Grip said, tension in his voice, "but people don't always see what they don't want to and cameras can be turned off temporarily, especially if you're in a position to do that. No doubt, however, surveillance being what it is on this giant rock, the police have us leaving Katrium's old digs and a boat with a dead guy on it and the place trashed. Skipper, I think we better wrap this up soon." He pulled the envelope out of his jacket pocket, handed it to the captain, then poured five shots and passed them around. Cliff opened it. It was in the native language of Aquilon, so he gave it to Vega who sat down next to him. Her eyes widened as she quickly scanned it; it was in her father's handwriting, all right, she said. Then she began to read:
Contact my daughter, Vega, if you would. She lives above Jake's boat shop near where your boat is tied up. I fear for her safety. She needs to go into hiding for the time being. If the police get their hands on her, they'll interrogate her in the ways they do. Tell her where I am but not to try to get in touch with me or come here. She wouldn't be able to find it anyway and I'm not giving you any directions. She's probably being watched. She is my daughter, they might think she knows something.
So long and take care and get lost.
"He's been gone for over two months now," Grip said, looking at Vega who nodded in the affirmative but seemed confused. "We just talked to Slackjaw this afternoon, why didn't he tell us any of this? In fact, he gave us an address and a picture of his friend's house in Faraway, knowing he was long gone, or could he have gotten this after we left and didn't know? No postal system is that slow, or it could be Katrium just mailed it recently. Nah, too much of a coincidence. He gets the letter right after we leave and somebody shows up looking for something, maybe it, and kills him for some reason. A lot of too much coincidence."
Vega examined the envelope, the postmark was blurred and unreadable. "When I discovered my father was no longer living there, I got scared and moved out. Slackjaw could have come to warn me, but I already left."
"Well, Slack hid the letter and didn't tell whoever came to visit and got shot for his loyalty."
"Or just shot for the hell of it," Jeeter said, "after divulging."
"That's another question," the captain put in. "Why save the letter in the first place? It was hot, it needed to be gotten rid of. And if you're going to save it, why hide it in such an obvious place? Behind the radio, at the center of attention. Like, come find me, here I am."
"Good point," Jeeter said. "Maybe he didn't have time. He read the letter and then somebody who knew about it, somehow, came onboard. He quick taped it behind the radio. Or, and here I go, he didn't put it there. In fact, suppose Slackjaw never got it. As you say, skipper, it's such an obvious place. So the Pelonis people set up the kidnapping and paid Katrium--how else would the Pelonists even know Katrium existed? They kept an eye on him after the 'accident,' knew what house he bought, listened to security communications, and then rescued him before the police nabbed him."
"Why bother to warn him?" asked Grip. "Who cares? Slack couldn't know anything about Pelonis or their enclave. He can't tell the undercovers anything he doesn't know."
"Yeah," interjected Stanley. "But maybe he knows more than he's letting on. He could be from Pelonis for all we know. At any rate, Katrium can identify who approached him about the deal. But he may not have known they were from Pelonis, they didn't have to tell him anything. Do the job, here's the money."
Grib interjected to tell them what Vega said about who they were--her father's old security colleagues. This revelation changed the general perspective somewhat. Katrium was no stumblebum looking for a payday, he was a pro who knew what he was doing. "They were actually from Sentoria, where she and her father are from, and the Belmont girl and her father planned the whole thing, with considerable help from those other planets. So, they're not likely to be in the police blotter. What they're apparently after is classified info from Master Belmont about the robots. And he seems to be willing to give it to them. And the ones who initiated the deal and met Katrium at the drop-off point with the van may be off-planet by now, probably are, almost immediately after, in fact, and another group has taken over."
"The Pelonis folks or these Sentorians might have eyes on the boat community, especially the bars," said Jeeter. "Chit-chatting, buying rounds, getting familiar, asking questions about things of interest--like the unfortunate riverboat accident and who's likely to know about it. It happened three months ago, so there must've been plenty of variations on conspiracy theories floating around. The most likely one generally floats to the top."
"The police talked to Slack, no doubt," said Grip. "He was Katrium's best friend. He was pretty free with information to Fritz and he'd never seen him before, and Fritz didn't identify himself as police. Although their government being what it is he was probably suspicious from the get-go. And he didn't tell Fritz much, really, just kinda hinted at possibilities. Non-committal could've dones. He didn't have any problem telling us everything though, even giving us a picture of the house where Katrium lived. We were on his boat, maybe he felt less afraid he might be overheard?
"The police have eyes as well and are going around doing the same kind of chit-chatting, only more insistant. They're trying to find him, they know he's not dead. Suspicion affects perception. It was just too much coincidence--the Belmont girl, the riverboat accident, all hands lost and never found, Katrium telling people he's coming into some big money and plans on retiring from river life and buying a house in Faraway. He was excited, and regardless of what he used to be on Sentoria, he's become a laid-back drunk here, no offense, Vega; of course he's going to bring it up."
"Well," Jeeter said, settling into the whole discussion, "if the police don't know about this religious group by now, on this tiny island, after two months or more of Katrium being there, they never will. Actually, he might not still be there. It wouldn't be safe if they're the kidnappers, for several reasons, his life for one."
"Why not just kill him if they killed Slackjaw?" Stanley asked flatly. "If they killed Slack who knows nothing more than the police already know, why keep Katrium alive?"
Vega put the envelope on the table in front of Jeeter. He read the address. "Yep, he gets mail at the harbor office. They put a notice on your boat if they know you're living on it. That's what they do on Earth, anyway. They notify you somehow. Someone intercepted it, and that someone wanted it to be found, and although it seems like a reasonable place to search, he hid it too well. But who did they want to find it?"
"That doesn't make sense," the captain said. "If the Pelonis people killed him, why would they want to be discovered?"
Jeeter retorted with, "Maybe someone in their ranks disagrees with what they're doing and wants them discovered."
"Or," began Stanley. "Who says it's the Pelonis people or any disgruntled one of them? Maybe there's a third party involved. It's not just Pelonis and the police, the authorities, say, we're dealing with. Not knowing it was planned by the Belmonts, they learn somehow that the Sentorians want something from Doctor Belmont, they aren't sure what. Sentorian security steal his daughter and hold her as leverage, ransom. But if they get want they want from Mister Belmont, it will cause problems for this third group that they didn't foresee."
"Well then, why doesn't this third group just let the police know, tip them off, about the enclave directly?" Cliff asked. "Why bother to kill Slack and hide the letter in an obvious place?"
"Perhaps this third group did the kidnap job for Pelonis without knowing about them, instead of the Sentorians, a sub-contractor, let's say, but never got paid for it and they're pissed," countered Stanley.
"But I thought these Sentorians were the sub-contractors," said Armand. "They're not building a house, for Aries sake."
"What Vega told us, that the Belmonts planned this whole thing, makes me think the Sentorians are allies of Pelonis," said Grip.
"Yes," interjected Vega. "They are good friends. I know from when I lived there. It would make sense that they're in this together. Pelonis rescued my father and the Sentorians hired him and did the job, the kidnapping, old friends from before."
"The police probably have cameras all over the place," said Stanley, a wry smile on his lips. "Got good shots of you and Armand that've passed around."
"Yeah," said Grip, staring at the table where he etched his name with a pocket knife one drunken night years ago. "They did check the three of us pretty hard when we drove through the gate, not just Vega."
"But if that's the case," said the captain, getting back to what they were talking about. "Who did this third group want to discover the letter? The police or the Pelonis people? In other words, who shot Slackjaw? The letter doesn't implicate the Sentorians, they're not mentioned. But Katrium knows they had a hand in it, they're the ones he dealt with. This third group can't know about the Pelonis involvement. And a third group couldn't know or even think that Slack had a letter telling him about the enclave. What enclave? Why would they, they're out of the loop. The only way they could know is if they read it after intercepting it; otherwise, it's just another piece of mail for a drunk who lives on his boat. Nothing special. And if they did have their hands on it, and were allies in cahoots with the Pelonis people, knew about them and their collaboration with the Sentorians, in other words, why not just rip it up and throw it away?
"Whoever hid it, if it wasn't Slack, knew all that stuff and had a reason to do what they did above and beyond what we currently know."
"This is getting crazy, my headache is getting a headache," lamented an exhausted Grip, running his index finger over and over his inscribed name. "How about, if he decided to save it like some people save letters from family and friends, he could've lied to us, mislead to protect him. He really didn't know who we were. Deception may run deep on this orb. And all that talk about being jealous was just talk. But why tell us the accident was a put-up job? He could've just said he didn't know anything about Katrium for sure and never even mentioned Faraway."
"I wonder if these religious guys actually did orchestrate the kidnapping?" offered Stanley. "People from Pelonis at a religious enclave up in the mountains. What the hell are they doing there? And what do they have to do with Katrium? They must be collaborating with the Sentorians, they're the ones who knew him and put the deal together. And what if they are the kidnappers, the organizers, the whole kebootle, are any of the kidnapped up there?" He stared at the captain. The question hung in the air, clear as day: Do you see what I'm getting at?
"We need to check this place out, skipper," stated Stanley, a tinge of anger welling up in his tone. Everyone nodded and finished their shots.
"Yeah," Jeeter began slowly, staring hard at his empty shot glass, "wait a second. The government, the secret police, security, whatever, have satellite and drone surveillance capability. They could've covered this entire little island, every square meter of it, in less than two months. If they couldn't find it..."
A long pause ended with Cliff, the captain, saying, "We've searched the government's database of surveillance footage all around the town of Omicron and didn't see it. Well then. Maybe it's not what we imagine an enclave to be. A settlement or compound, structures, buildings, houses."
"Maybe," said Stanley, "it's not on this planet. The one further out, Hestia, has a large population, is civilized, not as advanced as here technically, more agrarian seeming. It wouldn't take long to get there."
"But in his letter Katrium referred to 'the enclave in the mountains near the town of Omicron,'" the captain said, tiredness in his voice, "he didn't mail it from Hestia."
Another long pause ensued while Grip refilled the glasses. "How do we know for certain the government didn't find it but left it there as bait?" he asked. "Found it, found this enclave, arrested everyone, took the Belmont girl into custoday after discovering she'd proposed the faked death and the kidnapping, are lying in wait for any other visitors, and... what about the other passengers?"
"They didn't find it," spat Jeeter, showing impatience, "because it's undergound in the mountains, a cave or a compound covered by a hologram of the surrrounding terrain."
"Two months is a long time, Jeeter," said the captain, "and there's no telling how long they've been there, disguised or hidden from view. In any event, how do we find it? It'd be nice to take a look at that disc the kidnappers mailed to Doctor Belmont. They probably give instructions on how to contact them, knowing full well that Belmont will out of necessity turn it over to the police. Let them think it's real as the game plays out. The ransom demand was phony but contained in it, encrypted, is likely to be another set of instructions for Belmont to follow in order for his plan to work. Maybe this is his chance and excuse for him and his daughter to escape this place. He must be watched constantly; I guess they would call it protected. Where is he anyway?"
"Fritz took off hours ago," said Stanley. "Sam and him. I think he went to go chit-chat with the famous roboticist, or try to. He was having trouble gettting an audience. It would be great if he had some information. Something from Belmont. What could he have been doing these past three months? His daughter kidnapped, and what has he done about it? If she'd been found, rescued, it'd been news. There's something weird going on here. We're missing something vital. All this time, and nothing."
Stanley rose and said, "Okay. Breaktime's over. I'm near the last layer of their convoluted system. If there's anything the government has pertaining to it or him, and what's happened in the world in the past two to three months, I'll find it." With that he went back to the bridge and his computers. The rest had another shot, including Vega. Nobody spoke. They were letting it all soak in. Somewhere was the solution.
Fritz and Sam pulled into the same parking space where they got the car and left it. The warehouse lights were yellow bright, the ship not far through the open gate. Nobody was watching it. Fritz was exhausted after the long drive up, over, and around curving hills and gravelly roads, especially in the dark. "How is it you can drive a spaceship across the galaxy and not crash into anything," asked Fritz, "but you can't drive a simple magcar around a tiny island?"
"There are no roads in space," Sam said, trying to sound philosophical, but changed his tone to ground level with, "plus there's nobody coming at you on the other side of a narrow, squirrely road with lights blaring in your eyes. Magcars can fly. Why not just fly over the hills?"
"I don't know this island; I woulda just got lost."
"I don't know how you do it."
"Well, you're gonna have to learn."
Suddenly, two men dressed similarly to the one Fritz met in the bar with Slackjaw stepped out of the shadows and approached them. "What's this all about, I wonder?" Fritz whispered out of the side of his mouth.
"Excuse me, gentlemen." They blocked their path. Sam stood slightly behind Fritz to his left. "You are coming from Doctor Rigel Belmont's home. Do you have a reason for being there?"
Fritz began, "Why yes. I'm a bona-fide representative of the Interplanetary Robotics Association and wished to interview Doctor Belmont for our journal. His secretary told me to come on over; his address is in the community pages with the comlink numbers. I phoned, we talked back and forth for a while, then she said the doctor will see me. But unfortunately, they weren't home. Miscommunication or, they had somewhere to go suddenly, an emergency. Well, we'll try again later, maybe tomorrow."
The one directly in front of Fritz smiled through a grizzled black beard under a wide-brimmed felt hat. "I think not. Do you and your friend have some identification?"
"Not on me, I'm afraid. You see we're off the Dragonfly and I didn't expect to go anywhere besides the Belmont's."
"The Dragonfly. That's a cargo ship. Over there by the main warehouse if I'm not mistaken. What is a roboticist doing working on a cargo ship?"
"It's a long story. Working in labs just didn't do it for me. Traveling, experiencing the galaxy, other planets and stars and different types of people. Much more interesting. And I have other abilities and skills to offer besides robot maintenance and development.
Things went quiet, still, the soft buzzing of insects attracted by the lights the only sound. "We have pictures and video of you and your friends coming off a boat down by the roadside dock. Called the Ariel. Earlier today. And other pictures of two of your crewmates at a house over in the Faraway district. They met a woman there, someone we've been wanting to talk to. The former resident of that house kidnapped a very important citizen. He's been gone for over two months. For your information, she is the daughter of Doctor Belmont. It's not public knowledge, only that she's missing and presumed dead from a riverboat accident that the man your friends went to visit faked," the shorter one said in a rather dry monotone.
He pulled back his jacket to reveal a greasy badge attached to his belt, behind it was a plasma pellet in a holster. "Do you see what I'm getting at?"
"Not exactly," Fritz said as innocently as possible.
"Your people have something to do with it. Too much coincidence."
"Wait a second, hold on," Fritz blurted.
"The man on the Ariel was a good friend of this one in Faraway." He stepped back and clasped his hands, then asked, "What's your real reason for going to the Belmonts? He hasn't been there for a long time." He paused, licked his lips, then continued, "Three months ago your captain was searching for his wife who had been on that same boat trip. But a few days after the accident, you were gone. Is that true, we asked ourselves, or was it all just pretext and distraction to give credence to what we knew all along was faked?"
Fritz stared hard into the man's black, cold eyes in rigid disbelief. The idea that they were involved in a kidnap scheme and that they pretended Eizabeth was on the boat and most likely dead was too much. He reached out with his left hand and grabbed his interrogator by the collar and yanked him forward, to the obvious shock of the agent or detective or whoever he was. Fritz didn't care. He was about to tell him what was what in a none too friendly way when the other man pulled his plasma sidearm. Too slowly, it turned out. Sam took one long stride, grabbed the man's right forearm, twisted it sideways, then shoved his right palm into the man's chest to a distinctive cracking sound. His gun fell out of his hand and he flew backwards a few meters, landing on his back and cracking his head on the hard tar surface, rendering him unconscious if not dead. Sam then reached down to the other's sidearm and ripped his holster from his belt. He was a blur of titanum action.
Fritz then punched the other one square in the jaw sending him reeling back to land next to his comrade, out cold. Sam squeezed the plasma pellet sidearm breaking whatever was breakable and tossed it to the ground. Together they ran through the gate to the ship about fifty yards in. They clamored up the walkway and burst onto the bridge. Captain Wainright was in his command chair continuing to study the terrain of the northern mountain region appearing on the main screen. Stanley had tapped into their geographic database of satellite images and had written a program to sequentially overlay them with various filters. One grid area after another, looking for anomalous shapes and outcroppings and ill-fitting patterns, colors that were jaggedly offset and too variable. Jeeter sat beside him discussing what they were seeing. Stanley was at his station working his way through the government's computer system. They all stopped what they were doing and turned towards Fritz and Sam who told them what just happened.
"They think we had something to do with it?" the captain asked incredulous.
"Well," Fritz said, "they must not know the Belmonts planned it. Or they're just looking to muddy the investigative waters." Cliff pushed a button on the right arm of his chair and told Grip and Armand to come up. When they were all assembled he asked what they thought they should do? "The police saw Vega with them," Grip pointed out, "they must know who she is. That certainly doesn't help any. They know she's on the ship, they watched her walk up the gangway with us."
Stanley spoke up. "Not to change the subject but, you gotta see what I found, some pretty interesting shit among their classified documents and private messages, things rated X. Something outrageous that's been in the works for a long time."
"Forget it, we don't have time to discuss it right now," Cliff said. "Jeeter, crank it up; let's get the hell out of here."
"Captain," Grip interjected, "Vega knows where there's a private landing bay near where her father used to live."
"Well, get her up here, we'll go there till we figure this out."
*************Five minutes later they were airborne, clearing the warehouse park, staying low, their nav lights off. Going to infrared on the main screen, translated to the visual range, Vega directed them to the abandoned landing area. The same bay where the Sentorians likely parked their ship. The first stop on the trail.
Safely ensconced in the field large enough for three such ships, they shut everything down and sat or stood, listening, reorienting, only the red interior lights on, not visible from the outside, window covers lowered, the shades drawn. Fritz finally remembered the disc Belmont's housebot had given Sam, pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to the captain, explaining what it was, where they'd gotten it, and the captain handed it off to Stanley to place in the holocube reader.
An image appeared, projected above, about one meter tall of a man dressed in long black robes with a hat of black cloth cut to fit. His eyes were intensely blue with a short white beard flecked by red. Behind him could be seen part of a light-green wall with half a gold-framed painting of a landscape hung on it. Underneath the painting stood a small, dark-wood table, a vase holding some multicolored flowers on it. As the person shifted his stance when speaking, they came in and out of view.
"At present, however, they don't know about us. I trust you turned a copy of that disc over to them. Declassified industrial processes, of your choosing, in exchange for your daughter is something they can control and live with; and accepting what you offer as inconsequential; they'll still try to find the kidnappers, of course. A public interrogation of the former Sentorian security agent who faked an accident and the deaths of all onboard, including the daughter of Rigel Belmont, a hero to the world and an award-winning scientist, will garner considerable attention and stir passions in the administration's desired direction.
"What you have created is beyond mere technology. It will alter the face of conflict and bring the era of military balance of power to an end. One world will be able to dominate and expand. Imperialism will be the catchword. That we cannot have, especially as it concerns our planet and that of our allies. It speaks to your integrity, not only as a scientist, but also as a person of conscience.
"Your daughter, Alesandra, is safe and well. She is very brave. She seems to enjoy her part in all this. Now, the next step. She has given us the disc with the designs and schematics, along with the helpful and necessary explanations and descriptions, of your transformative invention. You are truly a person of genius, but, unfortunately, your government will use it to an evil end.
"If they find out what you've done, your life could be in danger. At the very least, you'll be imprisoned. They would like to turn the populace against us to give their invasion credibility, an excuse. If you were to tell the truth about what information you gave us in the exchange, what that could mean, you would be denounced as a traitor. Transferring global defense information to a foreign power. They will want to frame it as strictly defensive. But your influence among the people and the honors with which you've been paid might very well lead them to believe you were doing the right thing and to question the government's intentions.
"Alesandra has told us that they do not know of the breakthrough we speak. Other roboticists are working towards it and may soon discover the underlying nature of the process, using your work to stand on and give direction. So destroying it, something I know you cannot do, will only postpone the inevitable. Our robots are of a rudimentary design and could never withstand that which you have created.
"You must gather what you need. The plan is unfolding. You are no doubt under constant protection; that is to say, surveillance. Convince them you must come alone for the exchange. That is when we will put our plan for you and your daughter to escape into motion. Where and when will be told to you by comlink. We know they will be listening. They will insist on surrounding the place, of course. Agree to it. But on the way, our allies will intervene at a predetermined spot. The idea is to get you out of the house and into the open.
"Now, destroy this cube, my friend, and if all goes well, we will see you soon."
The image went dark and receded into the cube, which then flattened, taking the shape it had before. They all sat, including Sam, stunned by what they just heard. Finally, Fritz said, "He didn't say anything about the other passengers or Pelonis or this enclave, whatever it is."
"Come to think of it," Grip said, "we wouldn't know about them either if it wasn't for the letter. The all-too-easy-to-find letter with the dead body, written by Vega's father in his handwriting. The handwriting of a once member of Sentoria's secret service, their security apparatus."
Captain Wainright tapped his finger on his lower lip, a habit of his when he was about to take matters into his own hands. "You said you found something of major importance, Stanley. What?"
Stanley pulled his eyes away from the now inactive disc. "Why wasn't this destroyed as per request? Certainly, you don't want it hanging around."
"Perhaps," Fritz began, "he wanted to hold onto it as proof that he objected to his creation being used for military purposes, whatever that may be."
"Well, that's what I found," Stanley said enthusiastically. Bearing earth-shattering news was his single most pleasure in life. "Whatdoya' wanta hear first? What Rigel Belmont invented or what the government plans on doing with it?"
"Let's go logically, shall we? Chronologically. Belmont's thing first."
"It goes on for pages. There's even some videos of simulations underpinning what he describes as the transition from pseudo-mechanical to organic molecular control of the crystal after infusion."
"Really," snapped Fritz. "Start at the beginning, would you please?"
"I copied the whole thing for your edification onto our system. However, let me give you the overview. What Doctor Belmont discovered was how to bring consciousness, or self-awareness, out of the minds of robots. He discovered a property of the mineral sagittarium, of which the filaments of their neural network are composed, that is capable of generating this consciousness by virtue of its complex interrelationship with all the other properties which together form a subunit network. However, this conglomeration, this pattern of interconnected filaments ordinarily lies dormant, in the background, so to speak. Working on the problem, he hit on the idea of external resonance.
"After many trials with various malleable microbes able to bond with certain active minerals, he discovered one that he genetically engineered and infused into the crystal alignment of sagittarium. The result created the necessary conditions for self-conscious identity to arise naturally, unimposed as artificial personhood from without, a condition which mandates total dependency. The degree of consciousness is associated with a layered complexity. The microbial source of mind maintains its continuance by "feeding" on the energy of this dormant subunit, thereby bringing it into realization. Emergence."
A pause ensued, no one was really sure they understood any of that. They would have to read the introductory material later. "What's this external resonance Stan," asked Fritz. "I have an inkling I might understand this."
"He has a brief description off to the side here. I'll read it to you: 'The micro-life adapting and adjusting to its surroundings effects analogous changes in the mineral's crystal lattice as feedback. Once in that state the neural net becomes open to and susceptible to the possibility of initiating self-movement. If it's a particular set of behaviors, like warfare, for instance, training presents trajectories and contingencies to consider first. However, if none apply, independent functioning emerges, to improvise, to use intuition to come up with novel solutions to unanticipated circumstances.'"
"What's the other stuff?" Cliff asked.
"Well, again this is detailed with various arms of the military and special services performing specific tasks as though it was a done deal, so I'll sum it up. I discovered in their inner sanctum storage a plot by the Aquilon military to invade Pelonis, which lies on the inner edge of the Perseus Arm, with a robot army capable of acting independently, thanks to Belmont's discovery, but not to the point of rebelling against their creators. So they say.
"Let me read this. It's an encrypted message sent on a secure channel from the Aquilonian representative on Earth. An excerpt from a Confederation internal security report on current state of former Orion Arm colonies and their possible ambitions--First Quarter, 2673. How he got his hands on it is anybody's guess.
"'Background - Profile - Sector - Alpha: Pelonis, in the Perseus Arm, has an abundance of natural resources, some of which are extremely rare and necessary to important aspects of Doctor Rigel Belmont's work and that of other roboticists and computer engineers on Aquilon. Aquilon is an authoritarian/military government, yet has a thrivng tourist industry due to the balance of temperate climates, its thirty-six hour day, and by being strategically located at the hub of other settled star systems. Some are highly advanced technically while others live mostly agrarian lifestyles by choice, yet are capable of star travel. Trade in this neck of the woods centers around ideas and information. Goods and services are also part of it. It's a mixed bag. Collectively they represent the frontier of the Confederation.'
"'Analysis of Potential Conflict: Aquilon, positioned on the outer edge of the Orion Arm directly across from Pelonis on the other side of the Void--the Great Expanse--is ideally situated to grab a foothold in the Perseus and anchor an expansion into that region, thereby giving them considerable power and influence--clout--amongst the other members of the Confederation both near and far. Inferences are evident.'
"It seems to have been clipped out and slipped in here for relevance. May explain why the Sentorians and Pelonese got the idea to come here and check things out. They must have government people, a diplomatic office, or spies, on Earth too.
"And here's part of a discussion between a few of what I imagine are the upper tier of politicos: 'Sentorian spies have discovered the military's plot to invade Pelonis and them also and that's why they're here. I've spoken to their leader on my private comlink; he had the effront to contact me. Doctor Belmont holds the key to the independent robot army, he said, and they want its construction either stopped or the science and technology to build their own. Imagine that. Demanding we turn over our scientific discoveries. He said our arrogance has gone too far. Something must be done to neutralize our aggressive posture and imperialistic attitude. The Confederation will be informed of our plans otherwise. An idle threat. Something they'll have to prove, of course. I see no hope in it, however. The military has been very sloppy with the handling of this. Not much in the way of security. Somebody will pay.'
"And there's a torrent of messages in this one sector that have to do with the master roboticist's disappearance. Interesting. I read a few, they're all about the same. There wasn't much to say except express outrage and bewilderment at the incompetence of their security. They begin at the bottom tier and work their way to the top. There's correspondence from the day it happened, when he was going to meet his daughter's kidnappers. It's almost as though they knew it was going to happen and were ready. Somebody was.
"One person writes: 'Security personnel has been breached and infiltrated and he was kidnapped ostensibly by the same people. No one knows at this date where the Belmonts are or if they're together or even alive.' They assume they are. The latest date on this batch of messages is last week. No further references I've seen yet. But there might be something in more official files. Probably. So, they don't know about the kidnap plan but they do about the phony accident.
"Well," Stanley said, "as far as evidence goes, we have it right here, and it's also in Belmont's possession, the part about the nature of the robots and understanding of what the Aquilonians intended to do with them. I want to download their entire classified database, messages, instructions, plans, everything, so we can drop it off at Colonial Administration Headquarters when we get back to Earth." He looked up at Cliff and said, "After we find Elizabeth, of course.
"You have to hand it to these Sentorians. They confront directly with their awareness of this invasion plot and the nature of the robot army, while simultaneously orchestrating the kidnapping show. Right under the Aquilonian noses. These guys are pretty slick."
Captain Wainright stood to pace, stopping occasionally to stare off into space. He turned to Stanley and asked, "Have you found any mention of this enclave or of the others who were on the boat?"
"The database is vast, but it's partitioned by categories. Looking through the most current, I haven't found anything. It's as though they don't know about it. They don't talk about it in any of the messages to one another or in the official reports of ongoing investigations. And I haven't yet seen any reference to the Pelonis people, just the threat to invade their planet. I don't think they know they're here. But I've only just started, skipper."
Fritz logged in to Stanley's computer system and brought up the info on Belmont's work, what he let the government know, at any rate. As a roboticist, he was deeply interested. He had to know how he could accomplish such an enormous leap in neural nets. It was the sagittarium, of course, he was convinced. Its magical properties. The same material Sam's brain and working parts of his body were composed. It might give him some insight into Sam's abilities, like robot telepathy, that he's realized after the close encounter with the neutron star. Most interestingly, his personality development--his soul.
But how, Fritz asked himself, is a psyche of self-reality generated by the complex crystal alignment of this hybrid mineral of Belmont's? How is that similar to what happened with Sam? He emerged from the jump too close to a neutron star. He quickly saw the danger of the proximity and initiated the next jump after preliminary adjustments. No human could've accomplished the requirements as fast as he. No human can react, analyze, and correct directional vector misalignments faster than Sam's organic parallel processing brain. And his titanium-nickle body can withstand the pressures. We all were in danger in spite of being protected by self-regulating sealed chambers.
After the initial shock, he found himself for that period of time immersed in conjunction with a peculiar spacetime integration of overlapping dimensions (the circumstances near a neutron star), interwoven by enormous positive gravitational forces. With nothing to balance them out, with nothing so similar in arrangement to counter them, an object passing through them necessarily adopts extremes of negative forces. Hence, expansion--a trigger and a catalyst. A subtle reconfiguration of the molecular composition of his neural net. After all, it is set in a DNA gel capable of initiating synaptic pathways provoked by novel experiences and of novel thoughts. What are the chances?
And a personality comes to the fore, takes shape, through interaction with other personalities, it cannot exist in a vacuum. So we, an unknown factor, have influenced Sam's behavior and development. And what of emotions? The whole gamut? Friendships? Are they included in the transformation? And in the process has he transcended the morality of his original instruction set? Has he a conscience? And if so, and I believe it to be, would Belmont's next generation likewise possess one?
Experience evokes some innate abilities that perhaps we didn't know we had. They draw them out or organize the separate parts into a whole spontaneously. Language structures reality. And not just language in general, per se, but the exposure an individual has to what is spoken about and importantly how something is spoken about, the substance and personal meaning in the words. Stressfully and angrily or with sober consideration and emotional neutrality, reognizing its sense of proportion and reacting accordingly. So Sam's personality reflects us and so whatever we're willing to do, he's inclined also; although, eventually his individuality will be fully developed and he'll make his own decisions.
Socialization. Culturalization. Gangization. How the unconscious absorbs what goes on around it and at the proper time, expreses it almost as though it was genetically encoded as a propensity--epigenetic influences that give direction, inclinations.
Has Sam developed an unconscious, a reservoir of raw material from which he can draw on to create new patterns of thoughts and actions?
Belmont's microbes somehow rearranged the mineral's crystal configuration to isomorphically reflect its organic mind, its biochemical patterns. Its complex interrelationship bringing forth the consciousness inherent in all life. Couldn't intense gravitational fields emanating from a neutron star have produced the same effect in Sam's brain? Certainly, he concluded, it could've changed its form under some immense pressure, like coal to diamond.
"It doesn't sound to me," Jeeter said, "that these people are the type to do harm to the other boat riders." He looked to Cliff for agreement, but he continued to stare at the screen as it cycled through the images of the mountain region. After a few seconds, he said, while continuing to study the images, "If they, the government, don't know the Pelonis are here, and we're assuming they are, and where this enclave is, then what the hell is the letter all about and why kill Slackjaw?" Fritz jumped up from his chair, suddenly, as it were, staring at the irony he saw on the computer screen. "Ah hah," he almost laughed. "Do you see anything in there, Stan, regarding testing? Any experiments with small groups of these super-robots doing something together?"
"What are you getting at or looking for?"
"Well, I have a feeling, an intuition really. Is there anything you've seen involving a run through of behavior principles thus far?"
"His program outlines steps in development. Overviews, abstracts, and basic principles. His technical application and accomplishments involve construction of three robots who he maintains as house servants. The study consists of his constant interaction with them and how they respond to him and observation of how they act when alone or with another. I have yet to see any other major reports of studies. I have this feeling Old Doctor Belmont was pretty stingy with what he told anyone, played it close to the vest like they say, including the government."
"We met one of his housebots today, as a matter of fact. The one who gave us the disc. I wondered how she knew to do that. No people were there to tell her to, I don't believe, or they would've come out. She must've known or was told what was on it, and after conversing with Sam, or reading his mind, I don't know, she deftly, as though to avoid detection, slipped it to him. And, I must say, he was quite taken with her. Quite taken." Everyone smiled, even the captain. "So besides those he really hasn't built any of the final product?"
"Only simulations. Plenty of those. The particular microbial species varies from one to the other trying to achieve the optimal result." Stanley swiveled around on his chair to face Fritz. "What are you getting at?"
"It won't work," Fritz exclaimed, smiling broadly.
"What won't work?"
"Oh, the process will probably have the desired effect, I'm guessing, considering it's Doctor Belmont's claims and his housebots: The creation of self-aware, independently functioning robots. However, that creates the problem. They'll become individuals with separate identities, not dependent on programming or human instruction in order to act in a way that is in their best interest. They're given free will, existence.
"In other words, a small percentage may be interested in a military career; at least for a brief period of time, but you're not going to create an obedient army out of them. It can't be done." He looked over at Sam, sitting facing the screen, apparently thinking. "How about you, my friend, Sam? Would you like to sign up?"
"Well, to tell you the truth, I'd rather not." A chuckle rippled through the bridge. Even Sam smiled, a quite natural-appearing thing for him to do.
"Come to think of it, I wonder if Belmont knows this?" Fritz asked. "Seriously. He went to such incredible lengths only to find out that his creation is TOO free. He must've hidden that part of it. There could be a robot rebellion. Existing under an authoritarian government expecting to use them as blindly obedient tools probably wouldn't have the desired end they imagine it would. And there's other things that don't add up. Stanley, has any of this stuff been news in the past three months? Official? Unofficial?"
"Actually, I've broken into their classified and unclassified news-only sections and there's two things I've found, or rather, didn't find. I did a search on Pelonis, and the only reference was this planet's plan on invading them with a robot army, some time in the distant future. There's no other mention of the Sentorians, not of them performing the kidnapping and especially of them intervening in Doctor Rigel Belmont's convoy that was heading to whereever he was supposed to meet them. You'd think something like that would be frontpage news, you'd think."
"Enclave," the captain said. "I don't care if it works or not. Six people, including Elizabeth and this Alesandra, were passengers on that boat and if they're alive, and I hope and believe they are, they must be there. If the Pelonese have known for the past two months that the powers that be are aware that the accident was fake and the riverboat patrons were put off somewhere along the bank with Alesandra, then why haven't they released them? What difference would it make?"
"I'm beginning to see things in a twisted light," Jeeter said, almost wistfully. "Timewise. Slackjaw was supposed to have the letter from Katrium telling him he was taken to some enclave by a thin, tall Pelonis-ite, someone trying to rescue him before the cops showed up. And the Pelonis guy knew of it based on their tapping of the cops info network. Katrium didn't know for certain, of course, he was just taking his word for it. That was over two and a half months ago. Vega was there then, he was gone, moved out. The very same letter we find taped to the back of Slackjaw's radio. But, when we question him earlier on the day he was shot, he tells us Katrium, the skipper of the ill-fated riverboat, is living in a house on the other side of the island in a section called the Faraway. He even gives us the address and a picture of it. It was empty and surrounded inside and out with cameras, no doubt. We can conclude that because the government guy Fritz belted told him your friends ran into a woman there, a woman of interest to them."
Jeeter stood and stretched, then walked over to Stanley' station and blankly stared at his main computer screen. "If Slackjaw," he looked over at Grip and Armand sitting at the navigation station facing him. "If Slackjaw had received our letter shortly after the other one, over two months ago, according to Vega' information that he was gone at that time, then why did he direct us to Faraway knowing he wasn't there and hadn't been all this time? Furthermore, why didn't he destroy a letter that could implicate him in a known kidnapping of a very important person? Why keep it around? And the holocube Fritz got from the housebot. The talker himself tells Belmont to destroy it, only he doesn't. And," he peers at Stanley with a curious eye, "Why no news story about the convoy intervention out in the open, on a street somewhere. It couldn't've been a friendly transaction. Fighting, gunfire, explosions maybe. Yet, it's not in the news roll.
"In fact, the only mention of Pelonis being on the planet is on the disc and in the letter. Both of which should have been destroyed after viewing or reading. Here's a question: Did the intended recipients ever get them? And why intimate that we had anything to do with any of this stuff? And if we did, why the hell would we come back here, for any reason?
"They have us down as asking about it when it happened, three months ago. We had a perfectly good reason to. We left shortly afterwards, Fritz's interrogator pointed out, so they must've been watching us. And here's another thing. We show up three months later with a shipment of old drilling equipment it doesn't look like the buyer needs. Especially not from a planet two systems away. Mining operations are happening all over the place, why buy from a planet off the beaten track? What was it called, Belladoon? And why wait until tomorrow to unload, we were there all day. They have plenty of space in their warehouses and there's plenty of people walking around looking for day work who could off-load it and put it away.
"Cliff, when you talked to the head of the warehouse back on Belladoon, did he say that's all they had?"
"I saw other shipments ready to go, but he said they were already contracted out. They had this drilling equipment sitting for a while, taking up space. They didn't say if they offered it to anyone else. They'd pay extra just to get rid of it. It was far away, but it was all they had. We needed to do something, so I took it. It didn't look like much to me either, junk. Are you trying to say that we were set up? That's a pretty long distance set-up, Jeeter, even for your conspiracy-minded nature. The authorities want to get us back here because they think we're involved somehow?"
"We show up, there's a kidnapping, we ask about it to see if they believe the accident-all-hands-lost story, and then we leave."
Cliff gives him a wry look. "So, none of that sticks to us."
"No, really. Imagine whoever ordered this, and we don't know if it's a phony company or not, was waiting for us to show up looking for an order. I don't think it would take much scrutinizing to find out what shippers we usually deal with back on Earth. They send us to Belladoon where it so happens there's only one shipment available--going to Aquilon. It's a fishing expedition, and we bought the hook."
"Ah, c'mon," said Grip. "Why would they want us here? Why would they think we were involved?"
"It's not just the kidnapping itself but the reason for it: to get Belmont's robot designs, that technology. Slackjaw sets us up to visit Katrium's house and the secretary, Belmont's, told Fritz he decided to see him. The address was in the comlink book; she didn'tell him he was at a new place. She told him to wait for her call, then didn't bother to tell him where they were. The phone could be anywhere.
"And the disc. Why did the housebot have it in her possession? And was she told to give it to whoever showed up at the door or to us specifically? She could easily have pictures of all of us recorded in her robot brain. There's cameras all over the warehouse area, nothing goes unnoticed on Aquilon."
"Yeah, but don't forget," Fritz said, "she didn't know what role, if any, we were playing before she and Sam conversed telepathically. She could see what we were about. The truth of our search. That could be a motivating influence, especially if the whole thing was truly planned by the Belmonts. She was trying to help."
"But why wasn't it destroyed?" asked Stanley. "It seems the common sense thing to do.
"I'm getting the picture that this planet is a world where everybody covers their asses," said Fritz. "You never know who's in charge from day to day."
"This isn't getting us anywhere," said Grip, standing to pace himself. "None of it makes sense. Who the hell shot Slackjaw and why is what I wanna know? He practically told us to go to Katrium's house, even gave us a picture. And then afterwards--not anytime in the past three months--he gets shot. Did he get killed for doing that or was there another reason?"
"How about this," Jeeter offered. "Sentorian security might have a few cameras there too. They saw you and Armand, and Vega, Katrium's daughter, who they probably know on sight. They don't know who we are. We show up three months after the event, and after talking to Slack we run out to Katrium's place expecting to find him."
"Yeah," interspersed Armand, "and they probably have a nice video of me scuffling with Vega. Not a very friendly thing to do."
"So they off Slackjaw and trash the place." Jeeter continued. "Looking for anything that might throw suspicion on the Pelonis folks and the whole operation, from top to bottom. Slack indirectly sent us out there. If he never received the second letter, if it was intercepted, then he would have no reason not to believe his friend was still living there."
"But if he did receive it a couple of weeks after the Pelonis guy rescued him," interjected Grip, thoughtfully, "then he might've been covering for him. Thinking about it now, I have to believe he got it. I mean, if the Sentorians intercepted it and then offed him, they wouldn't hide the damn thing anywhere on his boat. The police would be bound to find it when the murder was reported. And if they didn't intercept it, if he got it in the mail, he would probably show it to them as proof that he's Katrium's friend. But then, why tape it behind the radio instead of getting rid of it? It depends on when he got it."
"But the Sentorian's believed just the opposite," suggested Jeeter, "not that he was deliberately misleading people he didn't know and could only suspect of being government, because they never saw the letter and so shot Slack for sending us there before he had a chance to explain."
"Okay. But howabout, when they showed up to discuss it with him, he told them what was in the letter to prove he was actually protecting his friend, but didn't show it to them. He told them he'd destroyed it, but now--he knew too much. He knew about the Pelonis and their enclave. He wanted it to be found by the police, which is why he hid it so badly. Maybe it bothered him about the other passengers after we talked to him. His conscience kicked in. Who knows? He only hid it where he did in a hurry after our visit, so he did a not very imaginitive job, in our opinion, of course, being master hiders of stuff."
Suddenly, the proximity alarm went off. The ship began to vibrate. The intensity increased and then as quickly subsided. A mild thud was heard not too far away on the other side of the landing bay. They all stared at one another, then quickly went to their stations. Captain Wainright strode to his chair and flipped on external infrared viewing, cleaned up and shifted to the optical. It appeared on the main screen. Several hundred yards away was a ship, smaller than Dragonfly but clearly not a transport or cargo ship. It gave the impression of a military command vessel. Probes and antennae sprouted from its chassis here and there. Its very top arched upward like a bubble and amber lights could be seen through the transparent material. Fritz's sensors were able to penetrate the hull and detected several people moving about. Nothing that resembled weapons were visible, but their knowledge of such craft was limited.
Grip and Armand returned from what passed for an armory and handed out pulse rifles capable of sustained blasts of plasma and subatomic particles alternatively. And each had their plasma pellet sidearms within easy reach. Grip and Armand still had theirs belted on. Vega was asked if she'd like to go to her cabin but she wanted to stay. Her father had taught her how to handle weapons and she grabbed a rifle. She'd been frustrated enough all this time, she was ready to fight.
The ship to ship radio crackled on the reserved hailing frequency and they were told which station to switch to. Cliff complied and spoke into it. "We see you on infrared. Who are you and what do you want?" He was responsible for the lives of his crew and so his voice carried that determination and firmness. No one at this stage was going to intimidate or bluff him. It was far too late for that. A voice responded in the universal, commonly-accepted language--Galactic. Stanley at his computer station was prepared to modulate the voice for clarity.
"We have been following your movements. It seems you have an interest in Rigel Belmont, the roboticist. And it would also seem that this planet's security arm has an interest in your interest. You received a disc from his house robot, Angeline. Why she chose to give it to you, we don't know. He was instructed to destroy it, but he chose not to. Trust is hard to come by in this galaxy. Nonetheless, if you viewed it you know of the enclave."
Seeming to come from behind the speaker the Dragonfly crew heard a lower voice indicating a few meters away. And they could've sworn they heard a quiet laughter after something indistinct was said. A retort in another language brought a similar reaction from what one would guess were several others. The voice returned in Galactic. "Why are you here and why pursue the Belmonts, I have been instructed to ask, and what is your concern with the riverboat event?"
Cliff repeated his request, "Who are you and what do you want with us?"
Without hesitation, the voice said, "We are from Sentoria. Perhaps you have heard of it?"
The captain snickerd. "We've heard of it so much we feel like we've been there. You're the people we need to talk to. Let me get right to the point. Three months ago there was a riverboat accident that turned out not to be an accident but an attempt to cover up, that means mislead, the kidnapping of the daughter of Rigel Belmont. Are you with me so far?" Cliff asked, feeling his spine stiffen and his outrage intensifying. "Now, we have found out that the whole thing was planned by the Belmonts and some people from Pelonis. You recognize that name?" Again he didn't wait for an answer. "My wife and four others were on that boat and that's why we're here, to find them. What you and the Belmonts are up to is none of our business. And by the way, where are they, Belmont and his daughter? This intervention you had planned didn't seem to work out."
Again, a rumbly yet warm voice spoke in a strange tongue from the background. Another response, garbled and incoherent. Then he was back. "We had people on the inside create an invisible shield for Master Belmont. They were assigned, by suitably reorganizing their duty roster, to his security detail. They drove the vehicle he was in and he was outfitted with a personal space modulator as well. Very similar to how we mask the enclave you asked about. When they got to a prespecified location, they drove off in another direction and their exit was blocked by vehicles."
"The enclave exists?" the captain asked in surprise. "We've examined every one of the planet's main computer system's surveillance imagery around Omicron. We couldn't find anything other than smaller and smaller villages the further out you go from the cities. Is it undergound? That would be some feat." Cliff didn't want to get sidetracked into a discussion about the enclave, but he sensed it might lead him somewhere fruitful. Where else could Elizabeth be?
"It's a simple trick, really." Moans could be heard over the radio. "As a surveillance recorder, a satellite, passes over the compound, we widen its scope with projectors located at various specific coordinates around an area. It shifts its magnification to a larger scale. What it sees is the surrounding area with the enclave a tiny blurry spot of incoherence at the center, which is automatically rectified by the satellite's onboard imaging computer. Like how the spot we cannot see in the eye is filled in by our brains. But it's there, covering a rather wide swath of flat terrain in the mountains. It's an old trick by our standards but nonetheless an ingenious invention. We use a similar evasion to fool the web of security beacons. We let them think our ships are no bigger than a dust mote or appear as a distant star. Pretty clever, huh?
"An individual can do the same thing if he's wearing the proper interference attire or is carrying an instrument that accomplishes the same effect. As a person passes in front of a camera or vice versa, it perceives a large scale frame surrounding him. He appears as a small spot of dark incoherence--the picture immediately around his outline is compacted, in other words--which is automatically corrected as an imperfection or hole, if you will."
Behind the speaker they heard that same voice, only slightly more piercing. And a muffled response, once again, followed by laughter. "How have they explained Belmont's disappearance?" Fritz asked.
"They haven't. As far as the public knows all this time he and his daughter are on vacation in an undisclosed location, possibly on Hestia, the next planet out. The report of her missing was a misunderstanding by an alarmist media, and so forth. But they're not at the enclave either. We transported them to Pelonis on a fast military ship shortly after his arrival. You have to understand. His accomplishment with the robot brain is a few generations behind what we've been able to do. So we and Pelonis, which also has advanced robot technology equal to our own--we're very cooperative in our scientific and tech achievemnts and developments--were not overly concerned about being invaded by an Aquilonian robot army. We have the means to neutralize and render inoperative their functionality without having to confront them physically. In face, we discovered, at great cost, that an independently operating robot exhibits a willfulness not entirely unlike our own. The endeavor was doomed to failure from the start and at an extremely exorbitant cost.
"When we contacted him, however, we led him to believe that his discovery was far more advanced than our stage in robotics and the balance of power would be gravely altered, and so forth. But we know that the military, not aware of the true state of affairs, would go through with creating an army, and, if they did attack across the Expanse, people would be harmed. We couldn't have that."
Fritz exclaimed, "I knew it. I knew it wouldn't work."
"Who is that?"
"Our resident robot genius. Enough of this chit-chat, if you don't mind. It's all very interesting but what I want to know is where my wife is. And where are the people who were with her on that boat?"
"Four of them, two couples, were here touristing from Hestia. We took them home with the promise not to reveal what happened to them. Although, people being people, they will certainly not be able to wait to tell family and friends. Alesandra, as we mentioned, is now on Pelonis with her father."
"And Elizabeth?" Cliff asked earnestly.
Not hesitating, he began, "Two weeks after her arrival, she took off, left. Just like that. I don't know where she thought she was going. She seemed to be getting along with everyone and actually enjoying being here, taking part in socializing and discussions. And then, all of a sudden, she was gone. The safest place to be is at the enclave. Food to eat and a place to sleep. She knew what we were doing. If she'd been caught by the authorities, she'd of been coerced into revealing everything, everything she knows, at any rate. I wish she'd talked to us first, let us know what was troubling her. Maybe she thought you might still be where you were moored and decided to go look; she didn't say. But we could've found that out for her. She seems rather headstrong; would that be a fair assessment, captain?"
A muted snickering could be heard in the background of the Dragonfly's bridge. "She probably hid in one of the many vehicles of trades people and farmers and such that come through here. Or just hitched a ride. She's very persuasive, she wouldn't have any problem with the locals. At that time it may have jeopardized our plans to get Master Belmont and his daughter off-planet, so we searched for her and found her in a village at the bottom of our mountain. She hadn't gone very far. She explained her situation to some people who took her in, fed her and gave her a place to sleep. When we found her--she does stand out--I must say, she was helping a doctor from the city treat a rather stubborn illness among the children. She got involved in it. She's had some medical training it appears plus a combination of resourcefulness and intelligence, and she promised not to go anywhere else except back to the enclave when she was no longer of any use.
"She told us she needed to contact you to come get her. We offered to take her home on our fastest ship, not more than a three of four day trip on our private transport. We reminded her about what we were doing there, with the Belmonts and the government, the fake accident she'd been on, her proposed death, etcetera, and she understood. But there were children, very sick children, something contagious passing through that she wanted to attend to. She took protective precautions, very smart. The government doesn't much care about the poor, so the prospect of her being discovered by the police and questioned was extremely unlikely. We stopped by occasionally to check up on her and give her some specialty items like imported Sentorian fruit and wine, nothing tastes like it."
Cliff was standing at this point. Listening intently while staring blankly at the ship on the screen.
"She wrote you a letter explaining, two letters, in fact, we put them on an interplanetary postal service ship that stops at Earth. We assumed you received them. Why you didn't come immediately was a mystery, but she thought, perhaps you had a good reason. Something very important we tried to assure her, and she swore it better be." He laughed, but not too hard.
"And what do you know about Slackjaw?" asked an irritated Grip standing next to the skipper. "He was shot and killed on his boat and it was ransacked, somebody searching for something it looked like."
The voice could be heard talking to someone as though over his shoulder in that strange language. "We don't know of anyone on a boat. No Slackjaw. Killed, you say? What did he have to do with anything?"
"He was a good friend of your boat runner and co-conspirator, Katrium. You've heard of him, have you?"
"Why yes. He was very cooperative. A patriotic Sentorian of good standing from long ago. We have no idea about this Slackjaw fellow though."
"He had a letter, hidden, that we found, which is how we know about Pelonis and the enclave. It was from Katrium."
A pause. "We asked him not to send any mail; he must've smuggled it out with the help of the locals we deal with. It's very fluid at the enclave, too fluid, I'm afraid. If somebody shot him, they must've had a reason. But with the government, being a confidant of Katrium's would be enough. Perhaps he knew something that would jeopardize their lies or plans. She went missing, later proved to be kidnapped. That was all anybody had to know. The whys and wherefores get blurred beneath the narrative and distractions. The government leaders deal in misinformation. She and her father wanted to leave because they were opposed to the government's beligerant attitude towards Pelonis and in general. The neighboring systems keep a wary eye. They wanted him to produce an army of his robots, his new generation creations. Empire gleams in their eyes. When he is discovered to have left planet for Pelonis, and it will be, eventually, questions will be asked, heads will roll."
"About that," interrupted Fritz. "There was something about a disc that Belmont's daughter had with her father's robotics work, his experiments, on it. Did she give it to you? Leave it with you?"
"Why yes, we have it. We incorporated it into our systems and sent it back to our planet to be studied for nuance and sheer brilliance. He is an artist guided by the beauty of the simplicity at the base of the complex. I believe Master Belmont will appreciate the level the Pelonis and we have attained in robotics architecture and especially, the new materials we've discovered for the neural web. We are comparable; although we have different paradigms we pursue. The Sentorian concentration is on pragmatics while the Pelonis roboticist lean more towards the abstract, how the mind and consciousness emerges. And, the state-of-the-art instrumentation available to him. A great virtuoso musician plays his best when in his hands he has the finest instruments. I'm bragging, of course, but they are pretty well engineered; he'll be impressed, ecstatic. Yes, we have it in our main banks below ground."
"I sure would like to look at it. We've been able to hack into the government's computer database and find what we could about his work, his research. But I'm sure there must be much more. Nuance and details the government need not know or possibly could even understand."
"Yes. When we arrive at the enclave I'll ask someone to transfer it to your computer system. A roboticist, huh? On a cargo ship."
"Yes, it's a long story with a short ending. If your robotics are far more advanced than even Rigel Belmont's, then why haven't the rest of the robotics community ever heard of it or know about it? I keep up, I would've at least heard of it, whatever it is. Surely, it would be of central interest at all the forums."
"Well, for one thing, we're not members of the Confederation. We institued our own Alliance with other colonized planets in the Perseus a hundred years ago, but have been willing to share knowledge and technical expertise with the Confederation, possibly becoming a distant member. You see, the distance between Arms made such things as policing trade routes virtually impossible and trade itself exorbitant. We do have shipments from this side, rare commodities and unique mechanisms we have in short supply or not at all. Cultural sharing is actually more in demand than practical stuff. Art and music of all kinds, writing, documentaries about life on other planets, always of eager interest. We don't want any of that ruined by hard-liners and power-hungry autocrats and oligarchs.
"With the Confederation expanding, the frontier is growing. Mining of rare and exotic elements and minerals is something of a gold rush. But, the Expanse is too much empty space. So, with approval and acceptance of the rationality of it from the Colonial Adminstration, we abandoned the attempt to extend the union. Maybe now, however, with some planets on your side of the Expanse looking outward with imperialisitc intentions would be a good time to share defensive capabilites. At the very least, we intend to inform them as to what's been going on out here."
"Why don't you just try to explain to the Aquilon government why their idea of an independent robot army won't work?" asked Fritz.
A brief and subdued chuckle, then "They wouldn't believe us. Why should they? With their arrogance and sureness about themselves, they'd figure we were reacting out of fear. They'd assume we had been intimidated and so they could act in a dismissive way as though we had forfeited our independence. And it's almost beside the point. They want to invade, take over our world, exploit our natural resources and our people by whatever means they can find. If a robot army won't do it, they'll search for some other means. That's what we have to stop and that's why we came here. We're dug in, as it were, and we don't intend to leave until the current regime is eliminated. There's rebellion in the air, you can feel it if you spend enough time here. We might be part of it."
"What about the housebots at Belmont's house?" asked an anxious Sam unabashedly.
"We have plans to take them to where the Belmonts presently reside. He says he misses them terribly, their housekeeping and especially their cooking and singing. Apparently, they break into song whenever they feel moods shifting about them. They're very sensitive and I'm told have wonderful, soothing, melodic voices."
Sam smiled broadly at that. Imagining the one he met on the lawn singing.
"As soon as time is ripe, however. Eventually, the government will forget about the house and its occupants. Then, in the dead of night as they say--I do miss Earth, I guess it shows--we'll steal them away, all of them, gardeners, the whole shebang."
"And what about my father?" Vega asked, now standing alongside the skipper with the rest of the crew. They had all gradually drew together.
"Who is that?" the speaker asked.
"Katrium's daughter," replied the captain.
"Oh my. Well, that's very fortunate. We can take them together on our next trip home." Vega squeeled with delight and gave the captain a quick kiss on the cheek.
They could hear a voice coming from behind the speaker, a sense of urgency in the tone.
"Okay. I think it's about time we left for the compound before the police show up on their rounds. Lock onto our magnetic beacon; we'll take it low and slow, it's only a few minutes from here."
Jeeter had to ask, he was like that, "Where'd you learn to speak earther Galactic? I don't imagine it's the same dialect on Sentoria."
"I was on your planet, long time ago now, it seems. Doing research as a student at the Robotics Institute in a city called Paris. Beautiful city. Museums, theatre, cafes, night life, and the countryside, very relaxing. I was in on the groundwork for the fungal web inclusion in the DNA gel. That's what they called it then: 'fungal web' like in the forests. I traveled when I had the chance. Visited quite a few forests and other cities. Let me see. New York was one. And the mountains out west of there. The Rockies, I think they were called. Who could forget a name like that."
"Fungal web," mused Fritz outloud. "Yeah. I ran into that concept in my history of robotics course. That was some time ago. Major breakthroughs followed one after another."
"Yeah, they were heady, exciting times. History of Robotics, huh?" He snickered. "I'm pretty old now, I guess, by your standards. We Sentorians age slowly, like good Italian wine. Something to do with the intensity of the sun and the trace elements in the atmosphere. Nobody understands, I don't think--we discuss it, sometimes vehemently--how the atmosphere affects biology when in combination with what we infused into both it and the alien soil during the terraforming operation. Our sun is a very large A-type, about half again as big as earth's sol, leaning towards the bluish. It emits heavy doses of Calcium which is what I believe is a major contributor of longevity. But, we don't know for sure; it's the subject of much research and argument. It's a conundrum.
"That's why I was chosen as your liaison, as you say. I haven't spoken earther Galactic since I left years ago, so I jumped at the chance."
"We'll have to talk about it," Fritz said, genuinely interested in what was going on in his field before he was born. Details and anecdotes of historical development always flesh out and inform a subject, they make it more alive and interesting. The personalities and biographies of those involved shedding light on what ideas went into forming the basis for novelty and invention--insight as to the assumptions prevalent at that time, how the nature of things was understood, how they work.
"Yeah," the Sentorian replied, "I like to talk." Loud laughter could be heard this time as the Sentorian ship lifted off; Stanley locked onto their signal and followed close behind.
The enclave was much larger than Cliff had anticipated. Spread out over considerable acreage between treelines, the compound consisted of a couple of dozen buildings of various sizes that he could see. Lights shone in some. The landing bay was off to one side near the south forest. Two other ships of similar type as the one that led them here were moored in the back near the woods and one smaller one that looked extremely fast close to the grass and the middle of the compound.
Leaving their weapons behind, they debarked. The air was warm and smelled of mountain wild flowers and something sharp and warm that tingled the senses. People were sitting around in clusters, relaxing, watching the stars and planets and a partial Aquilonian moon. The Dragons and the Sentorians milled about on the dirt field introducing themselves. The crew was surprised to see that the Sentorians didn't look any different than your average Earther. This was a common malaise among wayfarers who experienced years of repetitive quantum jumps--a kind of temporal xenoism. Space transposed with time, distance became eras. They were a cross-section of humanity. Evolution hardly had time to take off into a Sentorian direction yet. The spokesperson, named Bartamas after a mythical god of their culture--they were told--was happy to discuss their history.
The Pelonis, who Cliff would meet in the morning, he was told, were older but not by much, being the first planet in the Persus Arm to be colonized. Amongst the population, a spiritual bond and consciousness of cooperation were sought for and maintained and found expression in everyday life. Everyone had learned from the experiences of Earth's environmental problems, how the state of affairs had degraded to such a degree that widespread famine and wars over water were common, before the Enlightenment, hundreds of years ago. The memory of those extreme and desperate conditions did, however, encourage folks to migrate and colonize other planets when the time and technology and the breakthrough of interstellar travel, now commonplace, arrived.
The Colonial Administration came into existence as a collective body for purposes of discovering planets capable of supporting human life, overseeing terraforming operations, supplying expertise, equipment, and necessary materials. It helped to form government agencies and incorporate institutions, an intermediate stage setting the groundwork for eventual self-governance. The rest is history.
As they meandered towards a flat, grey one-story building in the midst of a cluster of others, Grip asked about the religious group mentioned in Katrium's letter. He was told that's how they thought of themselves. "In reality," said Bartamas, "they're what on Earth would be considered a 'covert operations oversight unit.' They're non-military but not strictly civilian either. Pelonis has a non-hierarchical system where authority is spread throughout. Cogs in a huge wheel that self-organize around what's needed to be done, principles guided activity. Some were drawn to one thing, others to other. Always striving for increasing competence and a sense of responsibility."
As the discussion continued, Bartamas opened the double doors and led them into a copious room with high, beamed ceilings and windows every three meters or so. Bunks lined the walls to left and right, and at the back was a bathroom and kitchen. Running down the middle was a long table, cushioned chairs on either side, sturdy with an artistic, well-crafted air. Each bunk had a side table with a decorative lamp adorned by a colorful shade. Bartamas told them they could stay here for the night or as long as they wished or needed to, unless, of course, they'd rather return to their ship. None objected.
Jeeter and Stanley had taken up residence on old high-backed rocking chairs out on the roofed porch, taking in the warm night air and the crisp and well-defined constellations. On this outer edge of the Orion Arm, stars huddled together as though fearful of being gobbled up by the Void. Hestia and its two moons appeared so close it felt like you could touch them. It was all very surreal to him, he had to admit. On a strange planet where he believed his wife had died in a boat accident, now here, in the hills with people from another planet, knowing she was alive and only just down the street. And here he was, breathing in the warm night mountain air in the quiet and calmness of the prospect of life renewed, surrounded by friendly people.
Captain Wainright stood in front of the porch on the grassy yard. His emotions in turmoil, he fidgeted, scanning the compound, jerking his head this way and that. He trusted Bartamas, he knew she wasn't there, but it was reflex, instinct, he couldn't help it. Sam stood a a couple of meters away behind him. He was trying to empathize, to experience what the captain was feeling, the chaos of it, his unveiled emotions. They seemed to stand out beyond him, a roiling aura surrounding his skin like the atmosphere of Jupiter.
Bartamas walked up behind him. "I know what you're going through, captain. A magcar could fly over the trees directly towards the village and be there in no time, but there's a good chance you'd get lost. The village is small and at this time of night, there are no lights on, everyone is asleep. Farmers, you know."
Grip stood on the porch and asked no one in particular, "Where's Vega?"
Bartamas answered, "I had someone escort her to where her father's living, on the other side of the landing bay. She wanted to thank you all for everything, but she was anxious to see him. She'll probably be back in the morning."
Jeeter asked, "Have you ever had any police come up the road? Your projections wouldn't be of much help then." His mind cruised the details of their situation like he would a quark drive looking for possible problems.
"Well," answered Bartamas, "an offshoot of the main road between Omicron and Armacedun, another large town to the east, mostly farmers and field hands, goes to the village below. It's not maintained like the ones closer to Omicron, the main town around here--almost a city--farther to the south. Every so often the local government has the grass mowed and the sides cut back, but otherwise, it's not much more than an indentation caused by the magnetic field the vehicles, farm trucks and traders, radiate, their exhaust. You have the same situation on Earth in wilderness areas, roads less traveled. It's a necessary road that the locals do their best to keep open. People have been taking a fork from the village north to here only in the past few months, not much of an indent. We welcome them.
"Folks flyover occasionally, just meandering about, sightseeing, so our presence was known. And we've been going down the mountain to buy food and to trade. After a while they started coming here and the fork was made. Early on, though, we did have two policemen show up. They said they heard rumors people were living up here. They saw our ships and new buildings and wanted to know what we were about. But, we were ready. We had identification and documents stating we were a covert operations training camp, clandestine, not marked on any map. We showed them around, gave them tea to refresh themselves. Treated with more respect than they were probably used to, off they went, looking smug. We told them we needed to be left alone. That was all it took. They didn't want to annoy what they perceived as a special operations undercover whatever agency of the government, that was pretty clear. Since then, we haven't seen any law enforcers. No official visitors."
Bartamas gestured towards a bench further away from the lights. It faced the crescent moon and the planet Hestia, which Bart pointed out. Cliff was quiet, you could see his nerves were in a bind. The Sentorian pulled a small pipe out of the pocket of his heavy tunic and a finger-size instrument to light it. He took a draw and handed it to Cliff. The pungent aroma filled the air around him, engulfing him in sweet smell. Grip came down and sat next to him, Cliff handed him the pipe. Jeeter and Stanley carried their wicker rocking chairs down and faced the bench. Fritz and Armand followed, finding chairs on the grass. They formed a rough circle and passed the pipe around, which Bartamas refilled when he got it. Sam sat on the steps taking it all in, a broad smile on his titanium face. The children fascinated him, he hadn't seen very many in his brief life thusfar; he understood a little bit more now about his compatriots, why they sometimes acted the way they did.
Sentorians and Pelonis from nearby homes who had gathered into small groups to enjoy the night came over, bearing chairs and carrying benches. It wasn't often they got to meet people from Earth, their ancestral home; they had questions, as did the crew. A large wooden table with benches on either of the long sides quickly filled with food, most of which the Dragons had never seen before. No one of them had eaten much, if anything, this long day, so they dove in, as it were.
The ships had brought whole families, including children who played on the outskirts, occasionally running through the grown-ups, howling and laughing as they went. Bart lectured on the history of Hestia, its rough beginnings and its people, who he admired for their toughness and resourcefulness. He was a well-traveled man and the histories of the colonized galaxy was a favorite preoccupation. If he wasn't on this expedition, he'd be teaching robotics engineering at the central university in the capital of Sentoria. But he simply couldn't pass up the opportunity when asked. He was one of the premier experts on the planet, could tell what robot schematics were important and what not, could read plans, and was famous for his love of adventure and intrigue. It was hard, at his age, to keep him on campus. Also, knowledge of the Aquilonians, their beginnings and societal development, and the star system in general might be very helpful as well.
It was a celebration, something not uncommon for these people, and the captain let himself ease into it. Tomorrow, he thought, tomorrow I find Lizzy.
The following morning, the birds filled the air with their many different calls and songs and picked at the carnage left by the previous evening's gathering. The night had been long. He had trouble sleeping, tossing and turning, thinking only of Elizabeth. He tried to calm himself, taking in a deep breath to smell the forest air and the flower beds the Sentorians had planted. The air was crisp and a bit chilly. Sitting on the porch, it reminded him of his back porch on Earth. He'd be sitting out early in the morning and suddenly Lizzy would step out with two mugs of coffee. Handing him one, wordlessly, they'd sit together waiting for the sunrise.
The sound of running water came from the bathroom at the back of the house, followed by noise in the kitchenette that only Grip could make. Fritz stepped out, stretched, rubbed his eyes, and took a seat on the other side of the doors. He didn't say anything. Except for Stanley, they weren't the type to indulge in amenities like "Good Morning." You were up and awake and alive, that was good enough.
Shouldering the door open with a pot of coffee in one hand and three cups held by their handles in the other, Grip came out. He placed them on the table next to the captain, filled the cups, handed one to Fritz, who gave him a nod, and then sat down on the other side of the table. As the birds chirped and the sun peaked over the horizon, glinting off the snow-topped mountain ridges, one by one, with cup in hand, Jeeter, Stanley, and Armand emerged. Jeeter and Stanley sat on either side of the porch, Armand, on the bottom step. Finally, Sam, who didn't need sleep but had gotten into the habit of shutting down for a specified time, pushed his way out and sat on the step across from Armand. He too said nothing. It was a rough-looking bunch, you could almost hear gears shifting into place with each sip.
In due time, the hum of a magcar could be heard approaching. From around the side of the house Bartamas pulled up in a tight-looking, topless vehicle that had the markings of being driven close to the ground through prarie grass. He turned it off and said, "Good morning," to which Stanley replied, "Good morning yourself." The others nodded and smiled back. He offered breakfast, they all accepted. Carrying their cups he led them to another building not far away where food was already being served buffet style.
The Sentorians and Pelonis-ites were up and about with the sun, working on personal projects and instrument and code upgrades on the ships, teaching the children, maintaining cyber-surveillance on government activities--especially any that might involve them--contacting homebase for correspondence and instructions, working what gardening plots they cultivated to grow food and flowers that aren't native to Aquilon, carpentry repairs and additions, general maintenance and cleaning, building objects they dreamed of in a wood shop, fun stuff, things, things to do.
The captain wasn't all that hungry, his belly, full of butterfies. Bartamas told him when he was ready to go, let him know, and then walked about talking to others. The mess hall was filling up. Jeeter and Stanley had preparations for departure to make; they didn't figure they were needed to pick up Elizabeth, so they decided to get on it. They wrapped up some food to take with them after informing the skipper.
On ship, Jeeter orchestrated navigation waypoints from Aquilon to Earth, six systems away. Two to Belladoon where they picked up the mining equipment and then four from there to Earth. Ordinarily, this was another one of Stanley's jobs but as he was busy, Jeeter took over. His approach was a bit different than Stanleys. Stanley was all about getting there, wherever there was, overlooking, in some cases, the smoothest trajectory. They had the time, so Jeeter did it his way. Technically, as a quark-drive engineer, he was more than up for the task. He studied the current state of charts in those regions, thoughtfully, carefully, like the changing spacetime weather. Time-wave differentials as they passed ever-changing gravitational fields had to be adjusted for, minute as they sometimes were. The cumulative effects of the nonlinearities could build up to a linear miscalculation of tragic proportions. Everything, every object, stars of varying densities and temperatures from type "O" to "M" to neutron stars and black holes, planets, moons, asteroids, patches of dark matter, were in continuous motion, their trajectories, sometimes only probabilities to be guessed at, had to be factored in and accounted for. Gravity wells, space contracting and expanding, intersection and interference of forces. Navigation in the age of quantum space was more of an art than a science. Over the many trips they'd taken, he had tweaked the efficiency and accuracy of the nav-computer. They were one.
Stanley continued reading and downloading the contents of Aquilon's computer systems. Everything from tourist information, events, landmarks, restaurants and night life to classified government documents, agreements, trade alliances, exploitation of natural resources, future plans under discussion by the elite, secrets only a few were aware of. He also conducted in-depth cleansing and diagnostics of ship's sytems for the trip home. They didn't want any gliches or hiccups or malfunctions right in the middle of a jump, or, worse, ending up nowhere with something unfriendly coming towards them. Stanley's worse nightmare and a good motivator.
Fritz couldn't help himself. He had to read Belmont's work on upgrading his robots to a state of self-awareness and personal identity. He wanted to compare it with what he understood about Sam's reinvention of himself with the idea of working backwards to the effects a neutron star has on the material and organization of Sam's neural network. Is it true for other minerals or was sagittarium that unique? Could gravitational density have something to do with consciousness itself? Questions. He had questions and decided to stay.
Grip and Armand grabbed their pulse rifles from the ship and met the captain and Sam at Bartamas's car. He suggested they wouldn't need the firepower, but they insisted. They were being searched for, they assumed, and you just never know. Sam decided to go, he had a feeling he didn't like. Bartamas and the captain sat up front, the others in the back seat, Sam in the middle.
They left the plateau and coursed down the mountain, not a very steep grade but enough to keep you braced. Short scrub trees met them at the treeline, as the trees increased in height and girth, the road winded through. Here and there a spectacular view of the flatlands off in the distance far below revealed itself, then in a flash, was gone, the forest once again closing in. After several miles they left it for farmland and orchards belonging to the people of the village where Elizabeth was supposed to be. The captain could barely contain himself. Bartamas couldn't help but notice and increased speed along the straightaway, telling them he wanted to demonstrate what his personal magcar could do. They slowed on approach, the homes spread out, but people and children could be seen milling about or working already.
A gaggle of children rushed the car, laughing and yelping. Grip and Armand chuckled. "You're quite the celebrity, I see," complimented Grip. They got out as a few adults approached. Wringing his hands, the eldest in front half-smiled at Bartamas. "Bartamas, my friend, it's been long. How are you?" He studied the others, especially Grip and Armand holding their rifles; Sam, remaining in the back seat, motionless, looked even more intimidating. Bartamas slapped him on the shoulder, smiling deeply. "How have you been, Domica? You look fit, but obviously something's troubling you. Do tell."
He stuttered, glancing behind at the others assembled, a serious lot of elder statesmen. In the interim, in order to calm what Bartamas perceived as an awkward and possibly unsettling situation--bad news--introduced the others. "This is Captain Wainright off a ship from Earth." Never one to mince words, feeling them to be in short supply, got right to it. "He's been looking for his wife, Elizabeth. It's a long story but that's why we're here. Where is she; as you can see," glancing at the captain, "time's awasting."
Domica finally found his voice. "That's the problem. " Domica stared at the ground briefly, then, gathering strength, said, "The police came through here last evening, waking everyone, demanding identification papers. My house, where she's been staying, faces the woods. She's been helping the neighbors with their crops; she needs to keep busy. We had an epidemic of sorts when she first came here--you remember, Bartamas--she helped with it. A doctor was summoned from Omicron and she helped him. Afterwards, she decided to stay for a while. She made friends and thought it would be better and more enjoyable than going back to the enclave to just sit around waiting for,..., I guess, you, captain. She said she wrote you two letters telling you to come get her. The Sentorians offered to take her home," he looked at Bartamas, who nodded, "but she seemed to be enjoying herself, the adventure of it all, you know, and assumed you'd be on your way, eventually. A stronger-willed woman I've never seen, captain," he finished with an admiring smile.
"So what the hell happened?" Cliff finally got a word in edgewise. "Where is she?" he was becoming upset in a rather unfriendly way. Grip and Armand instinctively stepped forward, standing right behind him.
"That's the problem. She had no identification papers, so they took her away. We had but a moment. I had my son lead her off towards the woods out the back door, but the police were there, they ran right into them. My son, they let go. I don't know what the raid was for. I questioned the lead officer. He said her name--she gave her right name," Domica shrugged, shaking his head, "was on a list of people being sought in an ongoing investigation. That's all he said, I don't think he knew anymore. Besides, she didn't have papers, which is enough to get arrested for.
"We have dozens of people who come here to work in the fields, help with the planting and harvesting and the orchards, so it's not terribly unusual for them to pass through checking IDs occasionally. We have free dormitories along the edges of the village but most come with their own live-in vehicles. We don't bother with names and addresses as a formality for employment. They work, they get paid. We share and get along well. It's been a while since they were here, though, I must say." He looked around at the others who'd accompanied him; one responded with, "I think it was about three months ago. Yes, I was working in my orchard, pruning trees at the time. They drove in close to around dusk." Another said, "I recall Elizabeth arriving just after that. She volunteered to help and so we gave her a place to room. She was very open about how she managed to be here. I remember thinking how fortunate, the timing. When Bartamas came looking for her, he explained her situation further, that she knew everything about Alesandra, the Belmont girl, and her father, and therefore why it was necessary that she not be incarcerated and questioned and warned that her presence might cause us trouble, but she was helping the doctor and besides, we liked her and knew she wanted to be here rather than at the enclave. She needed something to occupy her while she waited to be rescued."
The captain suspected there was more to it than a customary ID check, considering what they'd been through that day. Too much of a coincidence, he thought. Why were they looking for her? Probably the names of the other boat passengers were on their list as well. They all knew something about Belmont's disappearance. But the coincidence of us nosing around, Fritz and Sam in an altercation with two undercover cops coming back from a visit at Belmont's home, Grip and Armand seen at Katrium's house with Vega, no less, then the police come through here checking people out with Elizabeth's name on a list. Why here? Orders go out to all local police stations to check their local area? Likely, it's a small island and it doesn't sound like they have much else to do. And where had the master roboticist gone, they must be wondering? He decided to let it go, now was not the time to discuss it.
The captain stood like stone peering off into the distance, the children frolicked about, then ran off screeching and laughing. He stared at Domica and asked, "Where would they take her? Omicron?"
"No, that's not how it's usually done. The local police have holding cells. They contact Omicron's police and they come and get whoever. She could still be there."
"How far is it?" asked the captain, in a quiet, serious tone. "Where is it?" he asked more urgently. "Directions."
Domica gave him the information, gesturing as he described how to get there and what to look for.
"How many cops, you figure?"
Domica recalled how many had shown up, he surmised that was all they had. "I'd say about six, maybe seven all together. There's no crime out here to speak of, we're a community. Once in a while somebody steals something, but everybody knows everybody, so there's not much of that either."
Cliff turned to Bartamas, he was about to speak when Bartamas waved him off, took a deep breath, exhaled and said, "Bring it back in one piece, would you? It's my baby."
Domica stepped up and said, "Captain, how about this. You could just go there, check to see if your wife's there, if so, explain who she is and get the whole thing straightened out."
The captain stared, hard, in disbelief. He was asking him to put his wife's life into the hands of a bunch of hillbilly cops. "First of all," he responded, "we don't have any Aquilon ident papers ourselves. They might suspect that whatever she's wanted for, we're in it with her and arrest us. Or, they might just say no, they can't release her into our custody, they're under orders to deliver her to Omicron's security people who will interrogate her about the boat accident cover-up, the kidnapping, and where she's been all this time. Her name was on the manifest of boat passengers and yet, here she is, not dead. She might have something to do with it. Where's the Belmont's daughter and, more importantly, where's her father? He's been missing for over two Aquilon months."
Domica stared back, looking slightly bewildered and overwhelmed. Finally, Cliff said, "That's not going to happen." A smile came and went as he got behind the wheel, Sam claimed the passenger seat next to him. "Any idiosyncracies?" Cliff asked Bartamas.
"The brakes pull slightly to the left. I've been meaning to have the core field-density raligned, but haven't found the time. Otherwise, it's one fast son of a bitch."
Cliff nodded, then hailed Dragonfly on his comlink. Stanley answered. "Elizabeth was arrested," the captain said, not wasting time with small talk. "I got Bart's car, we're going to go get her."
"You need any help?" asked Jeeter. "We can probably get a ride from one of the Sentorians, be there as fast as possible."
"No, no. There's no time to waste, the way it looks. They're supposed to transfer her to some other cops from Omicron if they haven't already. We'll be back, have the ship ready to go, we might be in a hurry." Not waiting for a reply, he clicked off, shook hands with Bartamas, nodded to Domica and the others, and put it in gear. They went fairly slowly across the village, but when they got to the end where the forest road began, they picked it up considerably.
The grade was a bit steeper but a good deal straighter, grass slapped against the sides as they mowed it down in front. Cliff thought to go higher but didn't want to lose what amounted to nothing more than an indentation through the shadowy woods. How these people were able to follow it was a mystery to him, but they probably didn't even need a road. After several kilometers, they met the main road, the one to Omicron. Gravel, but wide enough for two lanes, and the grass on both sides had been cut recently. They had twelve miles (19.2 kilometers) to go from the fork south.
Pedal to the metal, they quickly came to the side road on the left that Domica said led to the police station a few miles in; however, no sign indicated such and the dirt road didn't show signs of much traffic. Grip and Armand checked their rifles. There were no other cars on the main road, so they stopped to study the situation, briefly, then drove in. Not much more than a car's width, its curvature was such that only fifty meters or so ahead could be seen; tall trees standing immediately at the edges with well-leafed branches crowding in and hanging over didn't help. Feeling they were getting close, they slowed to a crawl, easing forward. A sharp dogleg to the left and they were confronted by a gate of horizontal poles set a meter apart. A guard station was there but empty; why bother?
The captain shut it down; they listened intently to see if their presence had been detected. Camouflaged cameras were suspected to be watching, but someone would have to be watching them. They didn't know what they were going to get into, but felt ready for anything. They'd come to find Elizabeth, that was it. They stepped out onto the dirt and gravel road, the captain pulled his sidearm, Grip and Armand walked ahead, Sam took up the rear. They stood by the gate for a few moments, but heard nothing. On the other side, neatly-trimmed hedges about three meters high lined both sides and went on for twenty meters about, the compound lay before them in a clearing.
From their narrow perspective they counted four buildings spread out and two magcars, one parked in front of the main building directly ahead about sixty meters where the road ended. Four chairs of varying types were spread across the planked porch, a crude table of scrap wood and rough siding stood against the wall on the left. On either side of the door were windows that looked like they'd never been washed. No one was out front. And on the left was the other car, thirty meters farther on in front of what had the low, flat appearance of a barracks or mess hall with a slanted-roof porch. The captain undid the homemade latch, then pushed it open and entered. They crept forward.
Several yards down, an opening appeared on the right, a closed gate, a narrow walkway. They decided to try it as opposed to walking out into the open. The captain pushed the metal gate, it creaked from lack of use or neglect; they froze and listened. Birds called and sang and flew about, that was all. It was still early, the sun barely up. They slipped around the partially open gate and left it as it was. The path was only wide enough for one person, the hedges not as well cared for. They could see the path ended about six meters ahead, beyond was one small building about twenty meters further on, its paint peeled in places, its roof peaked but low, the left side facing them, windowless, more like a shed where one might store gardening and landscaping tools, grass grew high around it, sticking to the sides. Directly behind was the woods which encircled the entire compound.
When they got to the end, they heard voices, quiet and distant, seeming to come from the central building with the car out front. They turned to Sam whose hearing was much more acute than theirs. He whispered that the passageway made no sense. What was its purpose? A shortcut between the road and that side of the compound? They all shrugged, but they could see by the height of the grass that it wasn't frequented or hadn't been used for a while. No one cared, they were just grateful for its convenience. The others strained to try to get an idea of how many different voices there were. The field ahead was sun-drenched dirt dotted with splotches of grass. Sam stepped out to clear any interference from the dense thicket of hedges.
Suddenly, the door to the small building ahead opened and a man dressed in black strode out. Under his left arm he carried a potted plant, a single stem topped by a bright yellow flower standing straight and tall. The pot was reddish-brown, medium-sized. Turning away from them, he reached back to close the door, then began to walk to the main building, whistling softly, when he stopped dead just passed a straight line to the walkway. He turned towards Sam, dressed in his island attire with the brim of his straw hat pulled down in front. The sun was off at an angle but directed towards the man. He squinted. With that and from the distance between them Sam must've looked quite human. Cliff, Grip, and Armand melted into the raggedy hedges on the side away from the view.
The man faced Sam, gave him a stern look, then reached down to his belt where he expected his sidearm to be. His eyes widened when he realized it wasn't. Caught out in the open, flatfooted, armed only with a ceramic flower pot, he was about to speak when Sam said, "I'm looking for Ermino. I was supposed to meet him here. He's a friend of mine and said he needed help with trimming these hedges. They sure look like they could use it." He smiled his friendliest smile. The three meshed into the hedges looked at one another. "Ermino?" Grip mouthed.
"Yes, I see," the man replied in his best official tone. "But he's not here right now. In an hour or so. Come with me. You can wait for him inside if you wish. We have coffee."
"That would be wonderful." Sam knew when he came close enough the man would recognize him as a robot. He had to think fast. Another man stepped out of the main building and called, "Franzala, your wife's on the phone. You better come quick, she sounds agitated. But when is she not, eh?" he laughed. The man with the plant yelled back, "You're jealous, Dezano. You wish you had a woman like mine to come home to."
"Who's that with you?"
"A friend of Ermino's. Come to help him with some work."
Sam saw the one on the porch stare up the road where their car was parked. He yelled at Sam, "Well, bring your car in here and park it around the side. It's blocking the road."
"You hear that? We're expecting visitors any time now, this morning." Sam nodded. He went to turn around imagining the next move was to get the car, stop at the passageway, let the others jump in, and then drive straight up to the door, pile out and rush the place, hoping there weren't too many police and that if Elizabeth was there--and it sounded like it--she wouldn't get hurt in the crossfire. She could just be sitting right inside in the middle of everything.
Franzala stopped him with, "But first take this, willya, and bring it in. I gotta go. It might be important. Another emergency, no doubt." He was close enough so that the man in black handed him the pot without looking at his face. Careful not to let the man see his large robot hands, he took it and the man ran off. The one out front peered for a long moment at Sam, plodding along with the pot held with arms slightly bent, pretending it was heavy. He was a good thirty meters away and the sun was glaring off the damp morning dirt. The two officers, chiding one another, reentered the building.
Cliff, Grip, and Armand caught up to Sam. Grip asked, "How'd you know that?"
"I don't know. I mean, I'm not sure. He was thinking about him. What a great job he did. How he wanted him to pot some more flowers to put around the office. His name was there, somewhere. I guessed the rest, that he was the gardener and then used my imagination," he said proudly. They stared at him curiously for a moment as they walked towards the building. They were out in the open, taking a chance, but walked in a line behind Sam whose width and billowy shirt concealed them. It was the best they could do. They now knew there was at least two. Cliff told Grip and Armand to go around back to see if there was a door. He and Sam would enter by the front. The windows on that side were open but no one was looking out. They could see movement inside and heard laughter. When Grip and Armand arrived at the corner of the building, they stooped down beneath the windows and sneaked their way back.
The captain walked in behind Sam who was taller by several centimeters. It was too late to consider what they were doing; all was motion in one and only one direction. Sam carried the pot in both hands through the open doorway, he had to lower his head to clear the top. The wide brim of his hat hid his face. There were six desks. A walkway between led to a hallway with walled rooms on either side taking up about a third of the building. Four desks in front faced one another in pairs and the two in back against the walls faced front. A small stove stood behind the one on the left near the hallway. On the walls hung maps of the area differing in scale and size, interspersed with framed pictures of men in uniform. Each of the officers sitting behind the two back pairs was engrossed with eavesdropping on Franzala's conversation, amused and unconcerned about Sam. A third was pouring coffee near Franzala who was on the phone facing the back door, a good eight meters down the hallway. Sam placed the pot on the empty desk to his left as Cliff stepped out, plasma pellet gun in hand.
"Nobody move," he said. At the sound of his voice, Grip and Armand opened the back door and came forward. "Keep your hands where I can see 'em." Just then, they heard chattering outside and then footsteps on the porch; two officers entered the still open door. Seeing what was going on, they pulled their sidearms. One behind and off to the side of the captain aimed at Grip, but he fired first, hitting the man in the chest with a circular discharge of red plasma energy, driving him backwards where he fell onto the porch. The other officer saw Cliff's gun and was about to shoot when, lightning fast, Sam slammed the edge of his oversized titanium hand down on the officer's wrist. He dropped his gun with a moan. Sam grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and tossed him over the desk and the flower pot like he was a sack of feathers. He crashed against the wall and dropped to the floor, out cold with possible broken bones. Armand took the phone from Franzala's hand, crushed it and threw it to the floor. The officer saw an opening and grabbed at Armand's rifle; Armand tore it away and smacked him in the head with the butt, saying, "No, boy, that's mine." He went down like a ton of bricks.
Cliff moved forward, pointing his gun at the one standing in front of the stove; he had gold bars on the shoulders of his shirt. Slowly, he put the coffee pot down. Cliff said, "I'm looking for Elizabeth Wainright. She better be here." The officer, a grateful look in his eyes, pointed his thumb at a door near the wall. "She's in a cell, back there."
"Is it locked?" the captain asked sharply, ice in his tone. "No," was the reply. Cliff moved quickly between them, opened the door and rushed in.
There she was, standing behind the bars, a look of disbelief mixed with joy on her face. He swung the door open and she moved to embrace him for a tight hug and a kiss. "I thought that was your voice; it's about time," she scolded. "C'mon," he said, laughing. "Time to go." Back in the office he told the three to leave their sidearms on their desks and demanded the key to the cell. The one with the gold bar pointed to it hanging on the wall. Cliff ushered them in the direction of the cell by gesturing with his gun. Sam snagged the two on the floor by their jacket collars and half-dragged, half-carried them to the cell where he dropped them on the floor. Cliff locked it up and put the key in his pocket; as he turned to leave, the one in charge said, "We'll be after you. You won't get far." Cliff replied, "Oh, we'll get far enough."
Sam went out first to listen, stepping over the officer lying on the porch, a good size blast in his chest. The rest followed. Outside, Grip and Armand spread out on either side of the building in order to cover the compound. Grip went to the left, Armand to the right. Cliff ran with Elizabeth hand in hand, Sam behind them. Abruptly, he paused, then turned toward Armand and waved to catch his eye. He pointed to the low building where the other car was parked, its front facing away. Armand understood and nodded, then turned towards it, backpedaling as fast as he could. Sam caught up to the couple and put his broad torso between Elizabeth and the building where the noise came from.
Two officers came out and stood on the porch scanning around. They'd heard banging sounds and weren't sure where they came from, something wasn't right. When they looked towards the station and the road they were stunned by what they saw. Armand stopped moving and raised his rifle to take aim, they took cover beside the car, squatting down, firing their sidearms. Armand had a pretty good idea where the plutonium fuel cell was in the back of the car and fired three quick pulses at that general location. The last hit paydirt and the car exploded, bathing them in bright red, hot plasma. They screamed, but not for long.
The five of them ran to the car and jumped in. Sam regained his seat up front, Elizabeth sat between Grip and Armand. They embraced her in a group hug; Sam turned to smile his typical childlike smile. With his straw hat scrunched down so it wouldn't blow off, she couldn't help but laugh. She threw him a kiss.
Cliff cranked it on and rose abve the hedges so he could back up over their height, then put it in forward and punched it. Anticipating the arrival of the Omicron police at any moment, he raced to the main road. When he got there, he made a right heading toward the village. Bartamas said it was fast, so Cliff opened it up to see how fast; the world of green went by in a blur, Sam had to remove his hat and hold it. They passed no one and in short order were at the cut-off. He remembered as much as he needed of the curves and dips and hilly bumps, so rode it high over the grass. In a matter of minutes, they were there, in the relative safety of the village.
Bartamas and the elders were sitting in a park-like setting near the center. Bart jumped up on seeing Elizabeth. They braked to a stop and piled out. She gave Bart a hug and a thank you. There was no time for chit-chat, the captain thought it best for their safety and that of the village to return to the enclave as soon as possible. Domica and the others gathered around Elizabeth and expressed their affection and appreciation and thanks. Domica handed her a small statuette he carved of a colorful Aquilon bird she'd grown fond of who used to visit her in the mornings and sing its bright and mysterious song. It buoyed her spirits, she'd told him. She gave him a kiss on the forehead and a tight squeeze.
Bart got behind the wheel, Sam in back between Grip and Armand, pulse rifles at the ready, and in the passenger seat, the captain with Lizzy on his lap. They all waved as they drove off.
When they arrived back at the enclave, Stanley, Jeeter, and Fritz were sitting out in front of the bunk house with a few Sentorians and Pelonese. The table was laden with food and drink awaiting their arrival. Grip had called ahead, telling them of their exploit, how they rescued Elizabeth and what had transpired in the process. They were jealous at not having been a part of it. Next time, Grip had said, you can rescue me. They laughed and said almost as one, "Not bloody likely." Nevertheless, they were relieved and impressed. Fritz was especially intrigued and curious about Sam's seeming ability to read minds. He was still developing, changing, as though an evolutionary process had been triggered whose ending had yet to finalize and be determined. After digesting as much as he could of Belmont's work, they needed to talk. Perhaps by sheer natural happenstance, he had become the new prototype.
After the festivities, Captain Wainright and crew thanked them all profusely for their hospitality and help; they couldn't have accomplished their end goal without it. The captain told Bartamas, the unofficial spokesperson for the enclave, by default if for no other reason, that it was best if they were to leave as soon as posssible in case the police were to show up looking for them. His ship would be difficult to explain if nothing else. They decided to return the old drilling equipment to the warehouse on the mining planet where they got it. It was on the way, so what the hell. They'd explain that the buyer, after examaning it, had refused to take delivery; it was up to them what to do with it. They suspected it was a bogus deal to begin with and, at any rate, they didn't care.
Bart gave them a gift of some of the aromatic herb they'd consumed, it would come in handy to help celebrate once they arrived back on Earth. They boarded the Dragonfly and readied it for the voyage home. The captain turned the ship over to Stanley who would run it until it was time to make the first jump, whereupon Sam would take over while the others secured themselves in their protective chambers. Cliff and Elizabeth retired to their cabin where they had a chamber designed for two; at least, that was their stated reason.
Stanley took the helm and went through the checklist, verified that their path would be traffic and beacon free, then announced over ship's com, "Okay everybody, we're going home." Dragonfly lifted off ever so carefully, then headed out. Before entering the heliosphere and the rough ride ahead, he yelled with joy in his voice, "Buckle up!"
They planned on having a huge feast when they got to Belladoon with Elizabeth doing most of the cooking, enlisting assistants for certain tasks; Sam would volunteer to do the dishes, as usual. Nobody did them faster.
A change had come over Captain Cliff Wainright. He felt in control of himself in a way he only imagined he had before. He'd built a cage around himself through which he perceived reality and relationships and made decisions and acted according to how it informed him. Always weighing the possible consequences of being too assertive of his true feeling; fearful, although he would always deny it, of being too expressive; holding back, trying to please and not make mistakes despite misgivings. But no more. He had his love, his Elizabeth, Lizzy, back. And nothing would stand in the way of their happiness. He had a second chance, and he inended to live it to the full.