I’m a mobile ultrasound tech which means that I spend a lot of time in a company car, a car that has issues not the least of which is a broken CD player. I can finagle a connection to my iPod using an FM radio adapter, but most frequencies only remain free for thirty miles or so. The air waves around Cleveland are jam-packed with crud. My solution, NPR. Lots and lots of NPR. I drive around in a haze of news, interviews, quiz shows, anecdotes and science trivia. I don’t absorb much of it, but every so often a piece or two will stick. It’s the audio equivalent of throwing pasta at the wall.
Yesterday, my brain glommed onto a nice sticky piece: an author interview, a debut mystery novel. They were talking about editing. Four to five drafts. 100,000 words. Writing yourself into a corner. Recovering. Trimming. Polishing. Submitting to a competition. Woo! Go girl! You’re inspiring! Awesome! But I have no idea who you are. I don’t even know the name of your book. Aaaaaand it’s impossible to find anything on the NPR web site. Or rather when you use search terms like “mystery” “author” or “debut novel” you get EVERYTHING. Still, I feel obligated to say a big “Thank-you” to Ms. Mysterious Unknown Mystery author. Your interview was timely. I wrote myself into a corner by having two of my protagonists captured at the end of the last scene. Now, I could have created a big action sequence in which Persephone breaks her friends out, but my heart wasn’t in it. Instead, -insert sad tuba noise- the government just lets them go. It helps to know that other writers recover from dead ends and plot diversions. Otherwise, I’d be tempted to cry and wring my hands a lot.
Persephone toweled herself off in her rental room and browsed the net for affordable legal services. No one should ever have to shop for lawyers before eight cycles after sun up although she supposed that it wasn’t the worst thing that had happened to her today. Nearly breaking her legs on someone’s fire escape had been marginally worse. She considered contacting one of her exes. He was an attorney that had helped her out of some previous trouble, but they weren’t on great terms anymore. He’d wanted her to give up her work, even went so far as to offer her a secretarial position. She’d been polite at first. Said that she wasn’t cut out for a corporate job, but he kept pushing. She eventually told him that she wasn’t interested in giving hand jobs under the desk for a living. He said, “That’s not what secretaries do”. Persephone replied, “Not officially, but my mother worked that job.” That was the end of that relationship.
She was browsing through her other legal options when she got an incoming call on her goggles. It was Arch’s private line, but assuming he was still in custody, the call might be traced. She started a security algorithm that would distribute her signal through several com towers. That should make it marginally more difficult to trace, but she still shouldn’t be on the call for long.
“Persephone?” Arch sounded pretty calm for someone who had just been arrested.
“Why didn’t you get out? I told Japeth to get you out.”
“We got to the lobby, but the place was crawling with agents.”
“Where are you?”
“And you’re wasting your one phone call on me?”
“I’m a celebrity. They gave me two.”
Persephone was vaguely curious if she had been the first or second call that he placed. She didn’t ask. “What do you want?”
“They wiped the copies I scanned. They want yours.”
“What are they offering?” Persephone asked.
“Me. My father negotiated a deal with them. If you hand over the copies, they’ll let me out.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. Persephone gritted her teeth. The man apparently hadn’t bothered to intervene on behalf of his lover.
“Her too. She’s just up on accessory charges. Harboring known fugitives, that kind of thing. Oh and eXime will write off their civil suite if you agree to pay damages.”
“Who’s in the room with you? Tell them they can’t track this call. I have a scrambler.”
“Agent Hixton. And they’re not trying to trace it. They know your background well enough not to try.” Arch paused for moment and then continued. “He said he’s happy you didn’t injure yourself falling off that building.”
So Mr. Good Cop was a Hixton. She’d definitely underestimated him. Agent Hixton hailed from a long line of agents extending all the way back to the first Old Sol settlers. The east city station itself was named after a distant Hixton family member who had been instrumental in quelling the metal riots and re-establishing order more through force of personality than force of arms. The whole family was still politically powerful and many of them filled New Regime posts.
“I need to think about this.” She had already decided to hand over the files, but there was no reason why they couldn’t be copied again.
“Oh. Agent Hixton asked me to tell you that if additional copies surface, you will be arrested, tried and executed for treason.”
On that note, she hung up on the call.
Eventually, Persephone surrendered her copies of the files as requested. It just didn’t seem worth it to have to keep moving every two days to keep government off her back. She met Agent Good Cop at Hixton station, a domed building fabricated from the nose cone of one of the third wave transports. A statue of the original Hixton glared at her from the roof, but was too far away for her to catch the family resemblance. The current agent Hixton thanked her for being reasonable, then ushered her into a conference room where a government IT tech was waiting. They instructed her to remove any ‘legally obtained, personal or business files’ from storage. They wiped and completely reformatted the drive on her goggles. They’d already expunged the network in print from Arch’s end. The IT guy fiddled with the hardware for a moment and then handed the goggles back to Persephone.
“Let me guess. They’re going to emit subspace field harmonics now? Just to scramble any backup copies I might have on other devices?”
The IT guy gave her a blank look then a smirk. “Yah. Absolutely.” Apparently he missed the sarcasm and was now convinced she was an idiot.
Agent Hixton’s smile was a bit more genuine. “Ms. Roe. There won’t be other copies, correct?”
“What’s so special about them anyway? I get accused of treason, you guys chase me for days and now it’s all fine? It doesn’t make sense.”
“The files represent a threat to Colony Security. Independent of them, Ms. Roe, you are nothing.”
Persephone clenched her fists, but kept silent. She needed Agent Hixton to keep talking. Tell her something that might make sense of all this. She couldn’t let her ego get in the way.
The Agent responded to her tension by backpedaling. “I misspoke. Quasi-legal operatives like yourself actually serve a useful purpose. In a small way you and others like you help drive competition. It keeps companies on their toes.”
“Competition? Is that what you call the eXime strike on Albion Tech Tower?” The news zines had covered the incident. Thirty people had died along with Arch’s brother.
“Trade wars were integral to the success of the Colony, particularly in the aftermath of the metal Riots. But I suppose we’ve become marginally more civilized since then. eXime will pay reparations and withdraw from the racing circuit. It is likely that that wing of eXBioform will cease to exist. And you Ms. Roe will go back to whatever it is you do.”
What she did was find information, usually for pay. Unfortunately, she wasn’t thinking financially any more. Instead she was thinking about how best to show this bastard (and perhaps the whole colony) that Persephone Roe mattered. Arch’s idea of spinning off a company to develop space capable craft suddenly sounded like a fantastic idea. Only the name Arch had picked wouldn’t work. They couldn’t just call the thing Q and A enterprises. There had to be a P in there somewhere.
Days later, Persephone had still been unable to contact Arch. He hadn’t returned phone calls. He had appeared on the video news broadcast of Quentin’s funeral. The service had been held at the Cathedral of the New Ark. The cameras had captured the family stepping out of an elongated black tread car. Arch emerged first wearing a charcoal grey suit open over a black dress shirt. He held up an umbrella for his father and sister. The cameras zoomed in for a shot of the grieving father. Other than the dark skin, Mr. Albion didn’t look much like Arch. He was bald, a bit stopped, and wore his trade mark metal rimmed glasses (rumored to be titanium salvaged from the first colony ship). He pointedly ignored the umbrella, stepped around Arch and walked up the cathedral steps. Arch’s sister hesitated, but followed her father’s lead. Arch stood by the car with the umbrella open until the rest of the family had reached the top step. Then he snapped the thing closed and followed. Behind him a cordon of Jasperite renta-cops held back a restless crowd. There were a few shouted condolences, but also at least one thrown bottle. The news drones panned the crowd looking for more drama, but when it didn’t materialize the station switched to a brief statement of regret from xBioform, followed by explosive footage taken from unrelated company trade wars.
Other than that appearance at the funeral, Arch had vanished. In fact, if it hadn’t been the news broadcast, Persephone would have assumed that the feds had reneged on their promise and hadn’t released him. Persephone kept watch on the Albion Complex and even spent hours at the race track where she learned that Arch wasn’t the only thing missing. The entire eXime team was gone. No blondie, no black H-craft. She spent a couple of hours walking the stands and watching the other brightly colored machines skim past like a bunch of dragon flies. She chatted with fans, asked if they knew what had happened to the ultra-fast, but strangely shaped H-craft that had been so much fun to watch. The word on the street was that there was some kind of lawsuit between Albion and eXime and that eXime had gotten the worst of it. That’s what Agent Hixton had predicted, but it had certainly happened quickly. Considering her line of work, Persephone often felt paranoid, but thinking of the agent just made that sensation that much more oppressive. She kept scanning the crowd and thinking that she saw faces she recognized. For example, there was that woman in a black t-shirt leaning over the Albion pit. She had very striking bright orange hair that Persephone was sure she’d seen before. Just in case she was an agent, Persephone gave her a wide berth and left the stands.