Jilltramin Park was a small oasis in a sea of office buildings. Henry sat nervously on the edge of the middle fountain of five that made up the focal point of the park. It was a warm sunny day, a perfect day to be out of the office and having lunch alfresco. He had brought a light lunch to both conceal his intentions and hopefully calm his upset stomach. He constantly looked around the park, hoping to identify a person he’d never seen before, periodically nibbling at his sandwich.
Filling the park were Quesonte government agents, Soufte government agents, and a platoon of detectives and plainclothes cops. It was a popular place for people to eat lunch, especially on such a nice day. The park was busy with activity, making it even harder for the undercover crowd to try to predict who Ralph was. However, because of the surveillance tapes, they knew one thing more than Henry did: Ralph was a woman.
Atop a nearby building, facing away from the park, Evinrude scanned the vicinity with binoculars. “Uh sir, the park is on this side of the building,” Evinrude’s aide, Michele, nervously pointed out.
“I know.” Evinrude lowered his binoculars and turned toward the park. “My God, look at all the people following this guy — us, the Souftes, the cops. Is there anyone in the park not following him?” he asked sarcastically.
“What are you talking about, sir?” Michele looked over the edge of the building into the park.
“Look around the fountain.” Evinrude pointed out, “Henry is the only civilian sitting there. And every parking space around the park is filled with a white van or unmarked squad car. Why are surveillance vehicles always white vans?”
“Hmmm?” She scanned the people filling the park. “So, why are you looking the other way then?”
“Well, that way is covered. It’s like Streator is the light being shone in an anar’s eyes. I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of the hand in the dark that sneaks in from behind.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” Michele was confused by the anecdote. “What?”
Evinrude turned his attention back to the streets outside the park, as his aide kept a vigilant watch on the park. He commanded, “Have Mr. Streator meet me at Al’s Pub and Grub this evening.”
“Yes, sir.” She entered a note in her digital planner.
“Just let me know when something happens in the park,” Evinrude instructed.
Henry bit into his sandwich, growing more frightened as he waited for his rendezvous. Weaving in and out of the bustling crowd, a bicycle delivery guy zipped his way through the park, dodging pedestrians like an old pro. He stopped in front of Henry.
“Are you Henry Streator?” he asked.
“Yes?” Henry answered cautiously, looking up at him.
“I have a package for you.” The delivery guy handed him an envelope and held out an electronic clipboard.
Henry slowly took the envelope and stared at it quizzically.
“I need you to sign, please.” The delivery guy shook the clipboard impatiently.
Henry signed it sloppily. As he was doing so, all the agents who occupied the ledges of the other four fountains took notice and began talking into their lapels or shirt cuffs. Henry looked up and thought he saw everyone looking at him, but they all returned to their fake routines before he could be sure.
The bicycle delivery guy thought he noticed them, too, but shrugged it off. He looked at the signature begrudgingly and rode off, zipping in and out of the crowd as quickly as he had come. He passed a large hedge at the edge of the park and was so abruptly set upon by ten officers (including Dash and Desi) that his bicycle kept rolling along the sidewalk without him.
“Where did that package come from?” Dash demanded.
“It came to our office by mail.” He tried to shake his captors loose, but they held him tight. “Is this really necessary?”
“When?” Dash was inches from the deliveryman’s face.
“This morning.” He backed away from Dash. He turned to one of the men clutching his arms. “Is he always this intense?”
“How did you know who to deliver it to?”
“It came with instructions,” he enunciated slowly, showing his contempt for authority.
“Did this not strike you as odd?” Dash persisted.
“Do you know how many affairs are going on in this city?” he retorted. “This was one of the more normal requests. Really, you guys need to chill out. Grab yourself a nice alkaline or carbon.” He was trying to incite a reaction from Dash or Desi by referring to the 9-volt battery addiction some androids secretly struggle with, but it didn’t work. Dispassionate androids aren’t easily provoked.
Back at the fountain, Henry opened the envelope to find a phone. He stared at it. It wasn’t the way he had hoped to contact Ralph, but it would do. Suddenly the phone rang, and he jumped.
The undercover agents around him also jumped, but Henry was too involved with the phone to notice. All the agents noticed that they were being obvious and tried not to be, which made them more obvious.
“Hello?” Henry said cautiously into the phone.
“Henry Streator?” Ralph’s voice sounded strong and confident.
“Yes,” he answered.
“I understand you’ve been trying to reach me.”
“Is this Ralph?” Henry asked.
“You’re a girl!”
“I know,” she said flatly, trying to hide her irritation at Henry’s surprise that a woman was in a male-dominated career.
The sound of the fountains made eavesdropping difficult. All the undercover agents moved closer. The crews in the surveillance vehicles frantically searched for the cell phone signal. The water was so loud that their parabolic microphones were useless, as were the microphones they had planted around the fountains,
Ralph continued, “I commend you on your choice for a meeting place.”
“Thank you.” Henry felt a little relieved.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
“The job fell on the wrong day.”
“Hmm. According to your correspondence, it was to happen on the seventh of this month.”
“No, no, no. The seventeenth of this month,” he corrected.
“Oh my,” Ralph responded. “That is inconvenient. But I am looking at the letters right now, and it does state the seventh quite clearly. I’ll be glad to send you the originals.”
“No!” Henry said. “That won’t fix anything now.”
“What is it that you need?” she asked.
“I need the stuff back.”
“If I return the items what kind of compensation am I looking at, then?” Ralph asked. “The agreement was for me to keep the articles as payment.”
“Yes, but one of them belongs to a very important client,” he answered.
“Is that why you’re being followed by an army of people?”
“What do you mean? I haven’t been followed.” Henry looked up and around and noticed that everyone at the fountains had moved closer to him. “Well…I….”
“Actually, I need to end this conversation before it is traced,” Ralph told him. “I will contact you at a later date.”
On top of the building, Evinrude had anticipated the difficulties caused by the noise of the fountains and had come up with other options. “Are we triangulating on the cell phone signal?”
“Yes, sir. The moment it rang.” Michele busily worked on her handheld, getting the information as quickly as possible.
“Try and tap into it, too,” Evinrude commanded.
“We’ve almost got the signal tapped, sir,” she declared.
Evinrude observed many people along the surrounding streets, most of them on their phones. His binoculars were computer-enhanced with a readout that identified each and every person. If he so chose, he could then bring up their entire history. As Evinrude perused the locals, he happened to catch a glimpse of an attractive woman standing outside a small bistro, talking on her phone. He paused for a moment to appreciate her symmetry. Another reason not to look in Henry’s direction, he thought. Since he had paused on her, the woman’s information started to load.
Parents: Ralph and Marsha Rivadavia
Before Evinrude could take note of the information, it was interrupted by the flash of a tight leather miniskirt. Heather Nicoles passed into view. Evinrude’s primal instinct kicked in, and before the blood could recirculate back to his brain, his field glasses were following her toned, muscular thighs down the street.
It was hotter that day, and she wore less. The miniskirt’s hem sashayed in time with Heather’s hips, teasing that at any moment, more could be revealed. The soft leather clung so tightly and defined her curves so accurately that Evinrude noticed the dimple in her right cheek.
Evinrude lowered his binoculars and looked over at his aide, who was focused in the other direction. He asked, “Were we at least able to track the signal then?”
“Oh yes, we are tracking it right now. But it seems to be on the move, so we’ll need some people on the street because the satellite positioning won’t be accurate enough.”
A Quesonte surveillance team in one of the white vans followed the global tracking transponders and directed two of their men on foot to a city block a mile away from the park. The two men searched the street, but the signal kept moving.
“It’s on the next block now,” the Quesonte agent on foot repeated the information from his headset to his partner. The two ran after it.
“She must be in a car,” determined the second man.
“Okay,” he replied to the surveillance team and informed his partner, “The signal has changed direction. It’s heading south now.”
The two Quesonte agents ran along the sidewalk, trying to keep up. They looked over and saw Fred and Frank coordinating with their surveillance team, tracking the same phone signal.
“Now, wait a minute.” Frank came to a stop, panting. He asked Fred, “If she is in a car, we wouldn’t be able to keep up on foot, right? But she hasn’t gotten very far from us.”
“She’s on a bus!” they concluded simultaneously.
They looked ahead and spotted a blue city bus, advertising extreme swimming on its billboards, as it turned the corner and headed west. They received information from their surveillance team, “The signal has just turned west.” Fred and Frank looked at each other and smiled.
The two Quesonte agents across the street came to the same realization, looked at each other and smiled.
The four noticed each other and bolted as if a shot had fired from a starter’s pistol.
Both pairs of running agents called back to their counterparts, following in the cars, “She’s on that bus!”
Two separate cars pulled out from behind the four running men, in a race all their own. They surrounded the bus at its next stop, the Quesontes in front of it and the Souftes blocking the rear. Inadvertently the two enemies had just worked together. All of a sudden, there were eight men circling the bus and flashing badges. Sure enough, no one was escaping from this bus.
Caught up in the seizure of the bus, the adversaries continued to work together. They blocked the exits and searched each passenger, the bus driver, and the bus itself, finally turning up a pair of cell phones taped together and stuck to the underside of the back bumper. Most recently, one had dialed the number of Henry Streator’s cell phone, and the other had received a call from somewhere else. The connection had been terminated before they could even begin a trace on the second phone. The registrations on the phones were of no use since they were both prepaid burner phones.
Away from all the drama downtown, Ambassador Drakewood arrived alone at an inconspicuous building. Having driven himself in an ordinary car, he parked in a garage under the building, then entered the building through a small elevator.
Ambassador Calloway had already arrived in much the same manner and was waiting patiently in a corner of the room. The room was a small square, furnished with only a circular table and two chairs. A single light beamed down from the ceiling, illuminating the table.
The two dignitaries had arranged an unsanctioned meeting. Neither office knew of their whereabouts or agenda. It was truly mano a mano, real macho politico at its best, the main event that would settle, once and for all…the fate of Ladascus.
“Drakewood,” Calloway greeted stiffly.
“Calloway,” Drakewood coldly responded.
“You’re late, Drakewood.” Calloway used an obvious tactic that merely glanced off his opponent.
Drakewood coolly countered, “The traffic around Jilltramin Park was unreasonable, Calloway.”
Both emissaries were in good shape for a confrontation of this caliber; they both had skills to be respected. Drakewood may have shed a few pounds, but he was definitely the heavyweight. Calloway, lighter and leaner, could go the distance and was also capable of dishing it out. He was at his most dangerous once he had worn down an opponent. Drakewood, on the other hand, was a big man and could take almost anything. But he
liked to do it in one blow and be done. It looked like the making of a good rumble.
The two able-bodied bureaucrats circled the negotiating table. Calloway quickly took a seat. Drakewood stalked his man, calculating, then smoothly moved into the other chair. They put the stare on each other, ready to go toe to toe.
Drakewood opened the dialogue. “I have a way to use the Earthling to end our political quagmire.”
The well-placed proposition drew Calloway in. “I’m listening.”
Drakewood followed up with, “We can lift the trade embargoes, freeing up commerce, and expand trade.”
The combination landed, staggering Calloway; he did not see that coming.
Drakewood unleashed another salvo, “We could put the Maxwell Treaty to rest.”
Calloway fired back, “What about Ladascus?”
Drakewood didn’t anticipate this rebuttal. “What about it?” he jabbed blindly.
“It seems to me we are overlooking a resource that we could develop to our benefit.”
The vicious reasoning caught Drakewood unguarded, a dangerous mistake for him. Drakewood paused, hoping to slow the pace down, recoup, and size up his adversary.
Calloway, not afraid of deliberation, pressed further. “The Ladascans are very good, if not the best, at logistics. We should not squander that knowledge and expertise.”
Drakewood, rugged plenipotentiary that he was, continued to talk the talk. “I believe we are both after the same thing.” After sparring a little, feeling Calloway out, he decided to bring down the hammer. “I created a dummy corporation that is poised to step in as soon as trade restrictions are lifted. We can fit them in there.”
A phantom punch and Calloway was dumbstruck; he had no idea of the amount of groundwork Drakewood had prepared.
Drakewood, coming on strong, tried to end it quick. “I will need a Soufte partner.”
Calloway, floating like a viceroy and berating like a magistrate, took advantage of the opening and landed hard with, “Equal partners, of course.”
“30-70,” Drakewood backpedaled, the tension heightening again.
Calloway, never allowing his opponent a moment’s rest, advanced with, “50- 50,”
Drakewood, knowing he needed Calloway, but hating getting backed into a corner, lashed out, “40-60,”
“50-50,” Calloway, pummeling him, refused to back down. “Or Soufte is not in!”
“Okay,” Drakewood acquiesced, humbled and trying not to lose any more ground. “It’s agreed.”
“So, how does Joe fit in?” Calloway relaxed as tensions eased.
“Easy, we use the media hype surrounding the Earthling and say he has just negotiated peace between our nations,” Drakewood explained. “Our staff will heighten the media blitz. We have him give a public speech. He’s a hero. We’re at peace. Yadda yadda, everyone is happy.”
“I’ll have my people contact your people.”
They got up, came around the table, shook hands as worthy adversaries, and departed.
Later that afternoon
In the cold darkness of deep space, a small, white, elliptical disk traversed the emptiness, traveling along at an unknown rate.
“The speed actuators on these hyperdrive ships never work,” Alfia complained, tapping on the instrument panel. In that instant, the alarms went off. Red lights flashed. The cockpit started to fill with smoke. Alfia could barely maintain control.
Déjà vu, Joe thought.
“Explosive decompression in the engine bay, we need to override,” Alfia yelled over the alarms.
“They’re up here!” Joe pointed to a panel above their heads.
“What?” Alfia couldn’t hear him over the noise.
“The overrides,” he yelled. “They’re up here.” Joe opened the panel as he had seen Fred do before and stared at the switches. “The only thing is I can’t read these symbols.”
Alfia reached up and flipped a switch. The normal lights flashed on, the smoke began to clear, and the simulator stopped shaking and returned to its normal upright position.
Alfia remarked, “You were remarkably calm.”
Joe responded, “Been there, done that.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Fred, Frank, and I crashed in a ship just like this.”
“You guys crashed?”
“Officially, it was a controlled, rapidly spiraling descent utilizing the Ladascan surface to negate our forward momentum,” Joe explained. “I sure hope you’re a better pilot than they are, because this little exercise hasn’t increased my confidence in this ship.”
“Well, that’s why we’re here. I need a little practice, and I want you to get comfortable with this ship. I won’t have you freaking out on me!” she warned. “It’s no fun when someone freaks out in the middle of deep space at hyperdrive speeds. No fun at all. So, I want you to know what may happen and how you need to react.”
“I can appreciate that. How long will the trip take?”
“About eighteen hours.”
“Wow, I was trapped in the engine compartment for that long?”
“Okay, so if everything goes according to plan,” Alfia explained. “We simply take off, get to a safe distance for the jump into hyperspace, program the coordinates and trajectories to Earth, sit back, and have a long conversation.”
Joe watched as she worked the controls. “So, eighteen hours in close quarters, and we hardly know each other. You’re either very brave or packing a gun.”
“Yes, I am,” she said dryly.
He thought for a moment and then decided, fair enough. “How does hyperspace work?”
“Not sure, really, it has something to do with aether. It connects everything in the universe together. It fills space but doesn’t. It’s not there but is. It doesn’t affect anything but does.” She noticed Joe’s perplexed look. “I don’t get it aether, I mean either.”
Joe thought for a moment, absorbing the information. “I didn’t think anything could go faster than light?”
“Nothing can go faster than light. That is true. And that’s where aether comes in. Aether is nothing, and nothing can go faster than light. So, to continue, if you get sick on takeoff or landing, the barf bags are in here. I don’t want to have to clean up any messes. If explosive decompression happens in a ship this size you reach around” — Joe, deathly afraid of being a hindrance, paid close attention as she continued — “grab your sunisa, and kiss it goodbye.”
Joe and Alfia sat in awkward silence until a light blinked on in Joe’s head and he got the joke. “Oh yeah, right, got it. Haha.”
“No, really! That’s catastrophic. No surviving. Good thing it’s instantaneous, no suffering.”
“How likely?” he asked.
“A one percent chance,” she answered.
“So, one out of every one hundred hyperdrive flights is doomed,” Joe calculated. “That sounds like a high percentage. What number are we?”
“Space travel is dangerous,” she stated bluntly.
They spent several more hours in the simulator. No bathroom breaks, just like the trip. She taught Joe about the basic systems in the ship, some of the symbols on the controls, and what he could and couldn’t touch.
Case #: 010313584508
Reporting Officers: Dash #4323530 and Desi #8354011
Dash entered his report: Detectives Dash #4323530 and Desi #8354011. Postal Distribution Center interview: Department of Missing Letters supervisor, Marsha Rivadavia.
Boring! Desi thought to Dash as they walked down the corridor to the Department of Missing Letters office.
Are you reading my report? Dash, surprised, thought back.
You honestly think that’s better? Desi tried to incite an argument.
It will be when you have to read hundreds of them, Dash lectured. Remember, just the facts.
Dash and Desi arrived at Marsha’s work area in the back of the postal center and walked to her desk.
Marsha peered at them over the top of her glasses.
Dash introduced himself. “I’m Detective Dash, and this is Detective Desi. We’re from the Thirty-Third Precinct, and we would like to ask you a few questions. Can you tell us how your job functions within the rest of the mail process?”
“Sure.” Marsha was never happy to explain the obvious, and rather tired from her long night out with Joe, but she went on anyway. “My staff and I receive letters that are pitched out of the router, that machine over there.” She pointed to a big archaic machine, on the other side of a glass window that separated her department from the sorting machines. “The letters accumulate in a hopper here, and we each get the painstaking, slow job of barcoding each letter so that it reaches its destination.”
“Why would a letter be pitched out of the router?” Desi asked.
“Illegible handwriting and incomplete addresses, mostly. Some misdirected mail, and stuff that just ends up on the floor. Sometimes we don’t have much to go on, just a name. Elizabeth here can read anyone’s handwriting.” Elizabeth looked up from her desk after hearing her name. “We believe she’s psychic. It’s amazing what she can read.”
“So, what happens to it then?” Desi made photographic notes as he observed each worker,
“Whatever we can fix easily, we encode and send on its way. The others we may have to investigate further, even to the point of opening a letter to discover where it goes or where it can be returned too. The items we can do absolutely nothing about we burn to protect the customer’s privacy.”
“What if you find something of value in the envelope?” Dash began pacing deep in thought.
“Did you see that half-million-credit Surruc Aprev sitting outside?” Marsha asked.
“What?” Dash and Desi uttered simultaneously.
“Just kidding, that stuff is auctioned off online. You can get some of it if you want.”
“We are looking for a particular letter.” Dash had his hands clasped with his index fingers extended together and the tips resting on his chin. His lips were pursed.
“I surmised this wasn’t a typical field trip.” Marsha straightened her arms, pushing against the desk as she leaned back in the chair to stretch out her tired back. “What letter are you looking for?”
“One addressed to ‘Ralph.’ Do you recall any such letter?”
“Going to need a little more than that, we go through 80,000 letters a day. It’s rare that one would stand out, unless it was something really bizarre.”
“This letter came into this facility and disappeared.”
“You’re not helping.” Marsha sighed. “You are welcome to look through our mail, but I’ll have to have a postal employee with you. When did it get here?”
“Sunday night,” Dash said.
“We don’t pick up mail on Sunday. And a three-day weekend to boot!”
“It was a special pickup,” Desi informed her.
“Yeah, right, how did you determine that it came here?”
“We put a tracking device on it, and we traced it to here. Then the tracking device stopped.”
“What kind of tracking device was it?”
“A silicon strip, are you familiar with them?”
“Yes, actually,” Marsha informed him. “We do get a lot of police, federal agents, and private investigators of all kinds. You should know that. Narcotics, guns, live animal smuggling. In fact, the police don’t use silicon strips anymore. You should have already known that, too.”
“It wasn’t our tracking device,” Desi was happy to get a word in. “And why don’t we use silicon tracking devices anymore?”
“Big Bertha over there. She smashes them every time.” Again, Marsha pointed through the office window at the oversized, archaic routing machine. “Outdated machine. But until it breaks down completely, they won’t replace it. Budget restraints, you know. So that’s where your signal stopped. Where your letter went from there, I don’t know. You do realize that if it came in here on a Sunday night, it could be anywhere in the mail process.”
“No, it reached its destination,” Dash said.
“Then case solved!” Marsha responded loudly, and the entire room applauded and cheered.
“No, not quite.” The cheering died out quickly as Desi continued. “Its destination wasn’t where it was addressed to.”
“But yet it made it there? To its proper destination, not its addressed destination?” Marsha looked at them both.
“Yes,” they both answered.
“Then why are you looking for it?”
“Because we’d like to know what that destination was,” Desi admitted.
“You don’t know?” Marsha became confused.
“But you know it got there.”
“Yes,” they both answered again.
“So, your letter got to its destination, even though you don’t know where that is, and that’s why you’re looking for it,” Marsha summed up.
“Yes.” Dash tried to explain, “We are following its trail to find out what the destination of the letter actually is, so we can find out who it went to.”
“Even though you know they already have it.”
“Yes,” they both answered again.
“Whom was it addressed to?”
“Ralph.” Dash had stopped his pacing.
“Oh yes, you said that already. Ralph who?”
“And have you talked to Ralph?”
“We don’t know who Ralph is.”
“But you know he has your letter?”
“How many 9-volt batteries have you two had today?” Marsha insinuated.
Homer squatted over a six-inch deep hole overlooking a valley, watching the sunrise while writing in his journal.
Homer’s Log Day Five
I have noticed that I prefer a somewhat flat rock with a rounded edge. Not too sharp, not too dull, enough leverage to handle a sturdy product, enough edge to make a clean wipe of things, and yet soft and gentle on the tush. I’ve apparently connected with a side of myself I never cared to know existed. Joe always said there’s nothing like watching the sunrise as you’re squatting over a six-inch deep hole. I understand now.
“Excuse me, son,” a forest ranger said as he came upon Homer squatting over his epiphany. “Are you Homer Bergman or Joe Ritz?”
Homer buried his head in his hands, totally embarrassed. His voice muffled by his hands, he answered, “I’m Homer.” He looked up and sighed. “I’m also embarrassed and elated. Oh my God, I’m saved!”
“And where is Joe Ritz?” the ranger asked.
“Abducted by aliens.”