It was a very unhappy Kiri that sat down to supper about a week later. "It's infuriating," she stormed. "Worse than that, it's humiliating. It's not supposed to be possible. I even added my own encryption firewalls, and they still got past them."
"What happened?" I asked, rather alarmed. It seemed like way too many things were going wrong for comfort these days.
"Someone broke into her computer account," Will explained, eyeing her warily. "Apparently nosed through all kinds of secret files."
"Whoever it was now knows as much about the Futaba as I do," she muttered. "I can only hope it was just some prankster testing their skills. At least they didn't destroy anything."
"Rokun?" I suggested.
"I've considered that possibility," she said. "But why would he want information about the Futaba? There's no way he could build a copy without attracting attention. It's not that easy to accumulate large quantities of amorphous diamond." And that was the last we heard on the subject, although I had no doubt that she'd be exerting all of her formidable skills to track down the perpetrator.
Brinkman was also unhappy, for he'd recently been advised that Wisela, although no longer part of the research institute staff, had been hired as a "consultant" by the legislative committee overseeing the institute's funding, and he'd been ordered to provide her with access to the building. He'd done so, but warned her that she had no authority to give anyone orders. She'd smiled sweetly and replied that she wouldn't dream of it; she was simply pursuing a "routine investigation."
"Can you say 'witch hunt'?" he fumed. "Having her poking around is the last thing we need, especially now. Dammit, she has more lives than a cat." Apparently she was occasionally seen wandering the maze of corridors late at night, vaguely reminiscent of the legend of the Flying Dutchman.
A few days later one evening I answered a telecom prompt and found a distraught Senaria on the other end of the line, who told me that--well, I'll leave that part of the story to her. Anyway, we talked for a little while, and I told her what had happened with Rokun. It turned out it was the first she'd heard about it, and I suppose I should have been worried about giving away state secrets, but I knew Kiri and Will well enough to know that Senaria was considered family as much or more than I. In return, she asked about Rann and me, and we chatted a while longer, making small talk, until I could see that she was feeling better.
During this time I'd been put to work straightening up Rokun's office--not so much for the sake of tidiness, but in hopes of finding further clues to his disappearance. It took me about a week to organize all of his books, papers, and notebooks. I hadn't looked at his computer files since the accident, since I'd been keeping them pretty well up to date until then. I'm not sure what led me to go back in, unless it was to double-check one last time for anything I might have missed.
I was logging into his account from the second bedroom we'd turned into a study. The only light in the suite was the dim glow of the telecom, Rann having long since gone to bed. The familiar menu system I'd created appeared, and I felt a lump in my throat. This is business, I told myself sternly, and entered the command to bypass the menus and look directly at the file listings.
It took only a few moments to realize that something wasn't right. All the files I'd so carefully organized were still in their proper places, but there were a number of additional ones that hadn't been there before, dumped willy-nilly into the root directory. I scanned the names and dates, and all had been accessed since the accident. My pulse racing, I started up a utility that would create a keyword index from the new files, and waited impatiently for the few seconds it required.
Scanning over the resulting lists, it didn't take me long to spot such telltale words as "futaba," "gateway," "amorphous," and "diamond." There were of course many others, some common words, and others that I didn't recognize. One caught my eye; it was "rouaas." Where had I heard that word before?
I opened one of the files containing it, and the program that automatically launched turned out to be some kind of star navigation program, with coordinates, quadrants, and star charts. I opened another, and found myself viewing a very old folder containing reports of exploring and prospecting parties. There was also information on atmospheric composition, temperatures, and rock samples.
It was as I was about to close the file that I suddenly remembered where I'd encountered the word. It was my mother's voice that I heard echoing in my head.
Nobody pays a lot of attention to the third planet, since there's nothing much of interest there.
I logged off and debated what to do. Although it was well after midnight, and I knew Kiri and Will usually retired relatively early, I didn't feel right leaving the matter until morning. I glanced at my watch and realized that Brinkman was probably still working in his office. I could have called him on the telecom, of course, but the thought of a refreshing walk in the cool night air was irresistible, so I quietly slipped out of the suite and set out across the courtyard for the research center. I noticed a small flier parked above the grass in an alcove just outside one of the smaller side entrances, and idly wondered who it belonged to. I went on to the main entrance, nodding at the guard on duty.
I was halfway to Brinkman's office, puzzling over why there hadn't also been a guard posted by the side entrance, when someone stepped out of a corridor behind me just as I passed. I suddenly found a hard, knobby object pressed against my mouth, stifling my scream, as something grabbed my right arm and twisted it painfully behind my back.
Although immobilized, I was able to turn enough to see who had assaulted me. To my horror, I found myself looking at what might have been a human face, once. There was no doubt about it, it was Rokun; the outlines of the features were there, but the flesh was lumpy, shiny, hard-looking, like porcelain. Only the eyes still looked human. He was dressed in the ragged remnants of the same clothing he'd left the hospital in. The hand, for such it was, covering my mouth released its grip enough for me to croak out a question.
"Rokun," I gasped. "What do you want from me? It's Haley, remember?"
He pointed to his mouth, then ran a finger across his throat in an unmistakable gesture. I shut up.
He half-led, half-dragged me down several corridors, deserted at this hour. And then we turned a corner and came face to face with a familiar figure at the other end. "Wisela, run!" I screamed. Instead, she froze. I saw Rokun raise an arm and make an odd pointing gesture at her. An instant later there was a blinding flash and a muffled bang echoed back from the far end of the corridor.
For a moment I was blinded by the flash, and then, as the afterimages in my eyes faded and the pall of smoke lifted, I saw-- I saw--
I won't tell you what I saw. I'd rather not ever tell you what I saw. I remember my knees giving way, and everything spinning around me. I have a vague recollection of being tossed over Rokun's shoulder and carried like a sack of flour, and of shouts and moving lights. When my brain finally began functioning again, I found myself in the passenger seat of the small flier I'd seen earlier, with Rokun at the controls. I looked down to see the subdued lights of the city flowing beneath us at high speed. Then they disappeared, and there was only darkness below.
At first I thought we'd left the city altogether, then I saw more lights far ahead. Here and there below us a solitary street lamp shone dimly, probably for navigational purposes, revealing deserted, crumbling storefronts. I realized that this must be one of the areas that hadn't yet been rebuilt, even after several years of reconstruction.
I remembered Wisela, and shivered. Was it Rokun? Had some remnant of his mind, not totally overwritten, remembered the endless catalog of petty grievances built up over time, and exacted a horrible revenge?
Or was it the Virrin mind that had been responsible, acting in what it saw as self-defense? A human being might have been no more than a bug to it, and this bug could have spread an inconvenient alarm. A typical Virrin might not have thought twice about destroying it. And if so, why was I alive and in this flier?
We descended into an utterly black courtyard, enclosed by what had apparently once been apartment buildings. Producing a small hand torch, he illuminated the way to an entrance. Once inside, we proceeded down a crumbling hallway and through one of the many doorways on either side.
I found myself blinking in sudden illumination, surrounded by equipment of various kinds. Although my acquaintance with Deshtiran science was still sketchy, I recognized several pieces as being among those reported stolen over the past few months, and realized this must be where he'd been hiding out.
I took my courage in my hands, and ventured a question. "What do you want with me?" I quavered. "What good am I to you? What are you going to do with me?" (All right, so I ventured several questions.) In response he went to one of the keypads scattered around the room and typed in one word. I felt my blood chill as the Deshtiran characters appeared on a nearby telecom screen.
"Insurance," they read.
"Rokun," I began again hesitantly. He typed in a few more characters.
"No Rokun. Rokun gone."
He pointed at a chair in one corner, and I sat silently as he worked at a keypad for a good half hour. At one point I suddenly saw one of the other screens come to life, and much to my surprise found myself watching one of Kiri's televised speeches. As she spoke, Rokun (or whatever he was now) continued typing at his keypad. Several times I heard Kiri's voice change timbre in response to something he entered. Finally he seemed satisfied and switched off the speech.
Turning to me, he pointed at a doorway to another room of the suite, and I reluctantly entered. This room contained more equipment, and in one corner I recognized a replica of the gateway between the Futaba and its living quarters. Deftly running his fingers over its keypad, he elicited a flashing light in response, and then opened the handle. To my astonishment, I found myself looking down the long hallway of the Futaba's living quarters.
Stepping through after me, he closed the gateway behind him and pulled a small gadget from the remains of his trousers, pressing a button on its side. I heard an oddly distorted version of Kiri's voice* say "Futaba: unlock," followed a moment later by the Futaba's own voice.
"Programming unlocked," it said.
I think that's when I finally realized just how much trouble I was in.
There was only one logical reason for his actions, and that was to block Kiri out of her own gateways. That meant we were going somewhere, and I knew where, though not why. I also knew that there was no ship on Deshtiris even remotely capable of catching us. If we were going where I thought we were going, it would take them the better part of a day to catch up once we landed. A lot could happen in a day.
He finished keying commands into the gateway, and received a "Programming locked," acknowledgement in return. Beckoning for me to stay in the living quarters, he proceeded to the other gateway, the one leading into the Futaba itself, where he repeated the procedure, then disappeared into the ship.
I had to do something, I decided. Remembering the telecom in the living room, I tried it first. Not surprisingly, I found it disabled. I sat down in one of the luxurious chairs, fighting off panic. There had to be some way of letting them know where we were and what had happened, I thought.
And then an idea occurred to me. It was a desperate one, but worth a try.
It was several doors down where I found what I was looking for, the room full of computer equipment. To my relief I quickly located the software for accessing Earth's primitive Internet, as well as an ordinary US-style keyboard. It took only a few minutes to compose a message.
The equipment was utterly ruined, some of it literally melted out of shape and the rest still sizzling. With a sick feeling at the pit of my stomach I realized that I couldn't remember if I'd hit the Enter key or not. Well, I'd tried.
I curled myself into a ball on the floor and just lay there shivering for a very long time.
* A Deshtiran voice lock is never programmed to respond to an exact match of a person's "normal" voice, because there is no such thing. Just as no one signs their name exactly the same way twice, so neither can one ever speak the same phrase identically twice in a row. For this reason, a voice lock is programmed to respond only to those distinctive elements in a voice which remain unchanged, even if the person is speaking in a different tone of voice, or is hoarse, for example. A synthesized voice built only out of these unique elements may not sound at all similar to the actual person, but a voice lock programmed for that person will still respond. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|