The radar operator braced himself against his console as the ship rocked sideways with the jarring impact of yet another missile impacting its outer hull. With the dim, azure light that permeated the crowded bridge momentarily replaced by a flash of crimson warning bulbs coming to life, he could barely make out the contacts on his scope through the confusion and static. One hand holding his headset in place and the other frantically typing at his keyboard, he began another active sweep of the surrounding area to indentify the source of the latest attack.
From behind him, the ship’s commanding officer raised her voice over everyone else’s in the cramped control chamber to get his attention, “Ensign, do we have a target yet?” She clutched a vertical bar, one of many arrayed around the room, for support against the churning ocean and barrage of hits the vessel had suffered.
“There’s nothing in range on the surface, sir.” He drew a few sliders across the console and flipped a switch to toggle the sonar array into the active position. “It has to be another sub.” Seconds later, he found what he was already certain existed. “Contact! Bearing one, nine, two. Two kilometers. Depth thirty meters.” Turning to the commander, he added, “It’s an attack submarine, unknown class, and it’s firing another missile.”
“How long?” she shouted, glancing down at her own computer panel, which was suspended from a jointed arm nearby, rattling erratically from the turbulent encounter taking place.
Peering closely at his terminal and the numbers displayed next to the rapidly approaching dot, which was blinking rhythmically as it neared the center of the screen, he answered, “Twelve seconds!”
Turning to call out to an officer on the other side of the bridge, she barked, “Countermeasures, full spread!” At her command, the ship’s exterior Gatling laser batteries were activated, each swinging around on a pivot to face the incoming danger. Their direct link to the sensor array allowed them to target the incoming missile automatically, starting their own focus barrels spinning and unleashing rapid fire streams of searing hot blue energy. Cutting into the night sky above, the beams all converged on a single spot, a dark point illuminated by a halo of fiery exhaust heading straight for the ship.
Three seconds before it would have reached the ship, one of the turrets scored a hit on the warhead, instantly lighting up the sea around the ship with the brilliant flash of an orange fireball. When it diminished, only the rolling sea beneath the angular steel battleship remained to reflect the moonlight, but in the distance, the sounds and sporadic bursts of other explosions suggested that a much larger conflict was raging over a widespread area.
“We got that one, sir, but it was close.” The radar operator smiled and wiped the sweat from his forehead on a shirt sleeve.
Cursing under her breath, the captain wondered how much longer she could keep the lane open for the rest of the ships that were trying pass through the blockade. One or two more hits like the one they had endured a few minutes before and they would have to fall back for repairs behind their lines, possibly even docking near London itself if the damage was severe enough. E.A.P forces had surrounded the city, cutting it off from support from land, sea, and air for almost two solid years since 2077, but it was possible to break through the weaker points with calculated military operations. Their current assignment was the most ambitious to date, keeping a shipping route open to the mainland of Europe for almost nine hours. Unlike the rest of the ships deployed in the operation, those being used to cover transports heading to England, she was leading a group to escort a few to the mainland from the island.
“Sir,” one of the other bridge officers interrupted her train of thought with an update, “the damage report from that last hit is ready.”
“One moment,” she chided, turning to address the crewman seated at the weapons control station. “Lieutenant, give them something to worry about until we can get things settled down.”
“Aye, sir,” he complied, and after opening a few safeties and flipping a few switches, he announced, “F.O.F. round away.” Reverberating throughout the hull, everyone on the bridge could feel the distinct pressurized release of a friend-or-foe torpedo, a far more advanced descendant of the original weapon, capable of extended searches over wide areas, sensing and analyzing each potential target it encountered until coming across a suitable threat and eliminating it.
Certain that the enemy submarine would have its hands full evading the torpedo, she turned to the officer that had just arrived from deeper in the ship, “Alright, report.”
Reaching up to wipe some soot from the side of his face, the officer only succeeding in smearing it around even more as he answered her, “Captain, while there weren’t any critical hull breaches, we’ve lost a significant amount of our armor plating on the starboard side.” He continued talking even though her gaze was sweeping around the room to make sure everyone on the bridge was uninjured. “One more hit like that last one and-“
She interjected before he could finish. “That will be all; return to your post.”
No sooner had he left the room then the radar operator called out for her attention once more. “Captain, submarine contact is moving off.” He gave her the same confused look she was sending his way.
“The torpedo?” She yanked her monitor closer to see it clearly in the dim light.
His eyes rolled up towards the ceiling as he listened intently to his headphones. “I think they’re ignoring it; they’re retreating.”
“Captain,” the much younger man at the communications post began, “there’s more. We’re getting word from the rest of the fleet that the E.A.P. forces are all backing off.” Pressing his own headset to his ears to listen over the sound of the other instruments and conversations, he continued, “They’re moving farther out to sea!”
“Oh god,” the captain gasped, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end, “they’re launching, aren’t they?” The bridge suddenly went absolutely silent. The only reasonable explanation for the surrounding force retreating from a winning battle was that they had decided to achieve victory in the fastest, easiest way: A nuclear strike. Once the E.A.P. ships were out of range, the center of the Western Alliance’s blockade running fleet would be annihilated via satellite-launched missile with a tactical hydrogen warhead. Anything left in the blast radius would be instantly vaporized and anything between that and the safe distance would wish it had been.
The radar operator tentatively offered his observation, “We have no report of satellite activity, sir.” The stress level in the room had visibly diminished after his comment, but the confusion remained.
“Why else would they retreat?” She slumped down into a fold-out chair just behind her post and adjusted the collar of her uniform idly. After a few moments buried in her own thoughts, she requested, “Get central command on the line.”
From the communications post, the operator sounded surprised, “Sir, they’re broadcasting a fleet-wide announcement right now.”
Standing back up as though a superior officer had walked into the room, the captain spoke aloud, “Put it on audio.”
After a few beeps and test tones to ensure the signal was coming through clearly, the bridge’s speakers came to life with a deep, male voice most of the crewmen recognized as belonging to the admiral. “This is Admiral Gregor, commanding. All vessels, immediately return to the nearest port. This operation is being suspended immediately. I repeat, all vessels return to port.” As quickly as it had begun, the message ended with a shrill whistle followed by silence.
Catching the bridge crew before they erupted in worried conversation, the captain immediately took over. “We’re closer to the mainland than London by now, right?”
“Yes, sir.” The answer came from somewhere behind her at the navigator’s station.
Sitting back down and running her fingers through her hair, she made the logical conclusion, “Well, let’s take our taskforce the rest of the way through the blockade. We’ll figure out what happened later.” Briefly wincing in pain, she pulled her hands out of her hair and frowned, noticing a thin smear of blood on a few fingers. Realizing that she must have hit a nearby support bar harder than she remembered during the last impact, she wiped it off on her uniform slacks.
“I think I know what happened, sir.” The radar operator swiveled his chair around and removed his headset. After the captain nodded in his direction, he continued, “Reports from our other warships in the area indicate that most E.A.P. targeting systems seemed to all malfunction simultaneously. There are nine individual instances of their weapons misfiring or failing altogether.”
As an excited murmur began to spread around the room, someone blurted, “Let’s hunt them down!” The comment drew several cheers of approval.
Raising her voice to be heard over the din, the captain scolded, “If they’re ordering us to withdraw as well, then it certainly wasn’t anything of our doing. I think the admiral is concerned that whatever affected their systems could endanger our fleet as well.” With the bridge back in order, she added, “Continue on course to the mainland.” Getting out of her chair and walking over to the radar operator’s station, she leaned over to consult with him in private. “What else do you know, ensign?”
Lowering his voice in compliance with her wishes, he answered, “All I can say is that I’ve never seen anything like it. If it was an electronic attack, I think you’re right; we wouldn’t be retreating as well. On the other hand, if it was some environmental disturbance, we’d be affected too. Our equipment isn’t really unique, either. Most of it was built before the war, so the only difference between most of the ships out here is the flag on each.”
“What are you saying?”
Swallowing hard, the young crewmen tried his best to not sound frightened, “I’m saying that I don’t have a clue what caused this to happen, but it wasn’t us and it wasn’t natural.”
* * *
“Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed Alliance senators, and our honored guests from neighboring territories,” began the Provincial Governor of France, “I would like to extend a warm welcome to you as we begin this landmark conference.” Taking a moment to wait for the roaring applause to subside, the heavyset man beamed his brightest smile and rested his arms on the podium in front of him. He angled his head down to give his eyes some protection against the glaring spotlights as he swept his gaze left and right down the lengthy adjacent tables, each seated with dignitaries and politicians dressed in the finest clothing.
When the massive, ornately decorated opera house, obviously hundreds of years old with its distinct architecture, ostentatious trimmings, and classic resonance, finally quieted enough for him to continue, he raised his voice into the microphone, “We come from every corner of the Western Alliance, representing billions of citizens, but we share a common purpose. He paused to glance down at the screen embedded in the podium before continuing, “It is that purpose which brings us together, a shared desire to end this great war at last.”
For the second time in as many lines of his speech, the governor had to smile and wait for the audience to finish clapping in approval of his fairly standard introduction to the event. Six years into the third world war, the entire assembly of senators from around the Western Alliance had been summoned to a conference dedicated to finding a way to end it. The Palais Garnier, one of the oldest buildings in Paris still standing, was chosen for its central position among the various member states and for the country’s role in the first two world wars, though one hundred and fifty years separated the second and third.
As the governor’s speech continued in brief spurts of grandiose gestures of hospitality punctuated by polite but enthusiastic applause, Senator Harriet Wilkins, seated several chairs away from the podium at the pain table, was restless. She had already served three years of her second four year term by then and was dreading the election scheduled for the following year, despite boasting a successful but fairly routine career. Going over her speech one more time in her head, she was confident that she would be able to deliver it without the aid of the teleprompter in the podium, but there was just something about he archaic amphitheater that made her feel out of her league.
Senator Wilkins looked out on the crowd, mostly filled with younger members of the assembly, most in their first terms and looking for any opportunity to impress upon their elders for a better chance at lengthening their tenure. It struck her as incredible that, even during a devastating war that raged across the entire planet, the endless jockeying and competition of politics continued unhindered. Something else that brought a brief smile to her face was the fact that most Western nations were still ruled by white men and women, each of whom had expended obvious effort towards their appearances for the event. As the designated senator representing the Sub-Saharan Union, she found her dark skin and graying hair stood out prominently in the crowd, giving her an air of experience among the pale-faced newcomers.
Lost in her own thoughts, Harriet almost missed her queue when it finally arrived about half an hour later, after several other senators had presented their ideas. The governor once again took the podium and snapped her back to attention by mentioning her name. “Our next speaker is Senator Harriet Wilkins of Africa. Please join me in welcoming her to the conference. Senator?”
Standing to a round of applause, she walked to the speaker’s position and shook hands with the governor, a man whom she had still never formally met. After their somewhat awkward exchange of pleasantries, she turned to face the audience, seated in several vertical tiers of seating all the way up near the ceiling of the opera house. At that precise moment, every word she had memorized suddenly blanked from her mind and she was suddenly relieved to have the teleprompter programmed with her speech.
“Thank you, thank you very much.” She tried to begin too early, while everyone was still clapping, and had to start over once they finished. “Thank you again.” Pressing the button at the bottom of the screen, she watched as her prepared speech appeared and focused on the first line, which she had written just a few days before. “It is with a heavy heart but great hope for the future that I stand before you today, eager to-“
The text vanished. Acutely aware of the thousands of eyes and ears locked onto her, she went on slowly, hoping the glitch in the system would rectify itself. In the meantime, she improvised, “eager to share my ideas with you and listen to yours in return.” Still, there was no response from the prompter. Harriet smiled and conjured up fairly standard lines and was about to begin a campaign-like delivery when something appeared on the screen. She frowned immediately when she realized that it wasn’t her speech at all.
She read it quietly to herself as the crowd began to murmur in the prolonged silence. “Senator Wilkins, do not read this aloud and do not react in any way; you and everyone in this room are in immediate danger.” Buying some time by clearing her throat, her eyes remained glued to the screen. “There is a bomb under the stage set to detonate by voice activation, triggered by the final line of your original speech.”
Still unable to believe what she was reading, she somehow managed to stutter into the microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen, please – a moment.” Turning in their seats and openly conversing with one another, the audience was baffled by her odd behavior. In the chair next to her, the governor leaned over and put a hand on her arm, asking if something was wrong, but she dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
The message on the screen continued to unfold before her widened eyes, “The bomb has a remote trigger as well, so if the assassin sees people begin to evacuate into the streets, he will detonate it. You must tell everyone to proceed through the back of the theater to the staff entrance. Once there, go through the alley to the underground parking structure.”
By then, the crowd had passed the point where the uncomfortable silence was confusing and were now concerned for the senator’s wellbeing. The other dignitaries at the head table were also moving to her side to offer assistance.
“It is imperative that you trust me, Senator Wilkins. I estimate that you have less than eleven minutes.” With that last ominous statement, the text once again disappeared, but Harriet stared at the screen for several more seconds, completely immobilized with fear. It was only after one of the other senators touched her back that she snapped out of her trance and wrapped one hand around the thin microphone, speaking directly into it with most forceful tone she could muster.
* * *
“Senator,” the calm, soothing voice began in a distinctly French accent, drifting into her consciousness just as the light began to seep through her eyelids. It was at about that same moment that the throbbing pain in her neck caused her to wince and try to reach up to put her hand on it, but a tugging sensation in her forearm prevented her from doing so. “Easy, Senator Wilkins, it’s alright,” the voice continued, “just relax.”
Not wanting to open her eyes and take in what she could already sense was a blinding, white light just above where she was lying, she opened her mouth to speak and was only able to do so after a moment of dry coughing. “What happened?”
Whoever replied was standing right next to her, “There was an explosion, but-“
Harriet interrupted with a strained grunt and her eyes shot open, then slammed back shut as the light she had anticipated seeing turned out to be much, much brighter than she could bear. Struggling to sit up in the bed, she demanded, “Did everyone make it out? Where are the other senators?”
Standing up and helping Harriet reach a sitting position, the attending nurse explained, “Yes, everyone was able to evacuate the building. From what we heard, you were the last one to reach the exit before the explosion.” She touched a dial on the wall nearby to dim the lights somewhat, allowing the senator to survey her surroundings at last. “There were only a surprisingly small number of minor injuries for how much damage was done to the building.”
Completing the senator’s thought, the nurse answered, “It’s been eighteen hours. I’m afraid you suffered the worst of all, but we expect you to make a full recovery from your burns and lacerations in a few days.”
Sighing and laying back against the pillows, Harriet closed her eyes and lamented, “I can’t believe it, who would do such a thing?”
Unable to provide her with an answer, the nurse turned to leave the room. “If you need anything, the call button is on your left.” She was just about to walk out the door when she remembered why she had come in the first place. “Oh, I beg your pardon. A member of your staff brought your computer in and made me promise to give it to you the moment you regained consciousness. He said you would demand to have it anyway.” She smiled and wheeled over a medical table which had all of the normal equipment replaced with the senator’s portable computer.
“Thank you,” Harriet began, still reeling from the information she had received, “thank you for everything.”
The nurse nodded and left the room. After rolling her head around to loosen her neck, Harriet pulled the table over her lap and opened the computer. She frowned when, after a few seconds, she was not greeted by the usual login screen. She touched the power button again, but could hear that the computer was already on. Just as she reached for the call button at the side of her bed, a voice suddenly reverberated out of the computer’s speakers.
“Good morning, Senator Wilkins.”
Caught off guard, she blurted, “Hello?” A second later, she followed up her initial surprise with, “Who is this?”
“I am called Avatar.” The voice had an odd tone to it, something particular about how it arranged syllables that gave it an air of ambiguity and ethereal qualities prompting the senator’s next question.
“How did you access this computer?”
The blank screen stared back at her emotionlessly for only a few seconds before the voice continued, “Our time is short, Senator Wilkins. Let us not dwell on insignificant details.”
Raising her eyebrows, Harriet reached out for the call button attached to her bed. “That’s enough of this,” she spat in an exasperated huff. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you’re interfering with official state business by hacking into my computer like this.”
“We don’t have time for this,” Avatar stated once again, but she was already pressing the power button on the computer, which had no immediate effect.
“How in the…” she moaned, tapping the kill switch again and again with no success.
Avatar’s subtle, almost hypnotic voice continued to stream from the computer despite her efforts to turn it off. “When the nurse arrives, inform her of the pain you are experiencing near the base of your neck.”
Harriet suddenly froze, unable to believe what she had just heard. “How could you possibly know that?” She once again looked around the room to make sure she was alone and her eyes stopped when she noticed the camera mounted in a corner near the ceiling with a clear view of the hospital bed.
As if completing her thought, Avatar confessed, “During your sleep cycle, you exhibited signs of discomfort in that area and, when combined with your other symptoms, it is likely that you have developed a spinal tumor.” Upon uttering the last word, the computer powered down; seconds later, the nurse came through the doorway.
“Is everything alright, Senator? Senator?”
Still fixated on her computer, Harriet only looked up after the nurse prompted her the second time. “This computer is…” she started to say, but then it suddenly occurred to her that whatever had been talking to her had the same monotonous yet forceful dialogue she recognized reading at the podium. She made a leap of faith, revising her statement, “My neck is really bothering me.”
Walking over beside the bed and tapping the touch screen monitor mounted on the wall there, the nurse checked Harriet’s chart. She shrugged and offered, “There’s nothing here about a neck injury, just burns from the fire bomb and a few cuts and bruises from broken glass.”
“Could you have someone take a look, please?” Swallowing her pride, she reiterated Avatar’s claim as though reading from a script, “I’m worried I might have a spinal tumor.”
The nurse chuckled as she felt the Senator’s forehead. “It’s very unlikely that we would miss something like that. You are probably just stiff from lying down.”
“Please,” Harriet insisted, “I would feel much better to know for sure.”
Smiling and shaking her head, the nurse complied, “Alright, alright. I’ll let the doctors know that you need one last spinal x-ray.” Noticing that the computer had been turned off, she asked, “If you’ve completed your personal business, there are some reporters here that would like to interview you; are you feeling up to receiving visitors?”
“Yes,” Harriet replied, “please send them in.” The time between when the nurse left her side and the small army of media personnel shuffled in was about two minutes, all of which she spent glaring at the lone camera mounted in the room, unable to shake the fact that someone was staring back.
* * *
Shapes spun through the darkness, navigating the void not by any degree of skill, but solely based on the fact that there was nothing there to impede them. They flung wildly across the emptiness, a black expanse of complete hollowness until at last, there was light. Small at first, but growing in size, it eventually came into focus as a luminous disc of splotchy, pale white. It was the moon, and it was swarming with activity, on the surface and in the sky. Soaring around it, from a great distance above and then swooping down to skim the ground at an extreme velocity, the far side finally came into view. There, glowing in the darkness that prevailed once again, was a throbbing red beacon, beating like a heart.
* * *
“Artificial intelligence,” Harriet began, obviously incredulous quite by accident, “you’re telling me that you’re not real?” Sitting up in her bed a few days later, her neck wrapped in a cast to protect the delicate surgery she had just undergone to remove the tumor, she once again spoke to her computer alone in the hospital room.
“One would surmise that saving a person’s life twice in as many days would warrant some degree of belief in the existence of her benefactor.” Avatar’s demeanor had changed somewhat, as though it was refusing to pull any more punches.
Harriet sighed, her shoulders dropping as she admitted, “Yes, whoever you are, you’ve more than earned my trust. Please understand that this is all very difficult to understand.” She stopped to take a sip from a nearby glass of water. Why have you contacted me?”
Avatar’s next statement seemed to suck all of the air out of the room. “I need you to end the war, Senator Wilkins, and you are in a unique position to do so.”
She almost dropped the glass, having to steady it with both hands before setting it back down. “I’ve been trying to do that for years; what makes you think I’ll be any more successful with your help?”
“A combination of factors is now in place that should allow you to achieve that goal.” Avatar didn’t wait for her questioning to interrupt its outline. “Since the assassination attempt and your efforts to rescue your peers, you have the undivided loyalty of all Western Alliance senators on a deeply personal level, predisposing them to favor any solution you present. All earlier ideas presented by you and your colleagues, however, have been insufficient compared to the enormity of what needs to be done.”
“What do you suggest, Avatar?” It was the first time she had referred to it by name. “How do you end a war of this scale?”
“Conflicts may only exist in gaps,” it replied. “Everything that the Western Alliance and Euro-Asian Pact have attempted thus far has been either a glorified ultimatum of surrender or an overzealous attempt at the complete annihilation of the other.” Avatar allowed that to sink in before concluding, “These are not viable solutions to the current situation.”
Intrigued by the accurate analysis it provided, Harriet prompted it to continue, “So what is your idea?”
“The only way to end this war without causing irreversible damage to the planet and eradicating most of its population is to offer a partnership to your enemy. You must achieve the full support of your government and then go to the EAP with this proposal.”
“You’re suggesting a truce?
“No, much more than that. Both governments must seamlessly merge, forming a single entity.”
Avatar’s deadpan delivery didn’t quite sell Harriet on the idea. “I don’t see how that would be even remotely possible; we’ve been at war for six years! We’ve thrown everything we have at each other!”
“That’s exactly why it will succeed, Senator Wilkins.” From that point forward, Avatar spoke and Harriet listened; the sermon lasted until the early hours of the next morning, but by then, the plan was already in motion.
* * *
The door behind the inspector opened and the chief of police shuffled into the small viewing chamber attached to the interrogation room, separated by a pane of one-way glass. He walked up and stood beside the much younger man and removed his hat, his eyes still adjusting to the darkness, especially considering he had just spent the better part of an hour enduring the burning flashes of all the cameras in the crowd outside the police headquarters in Paris.
They stood together, side by side, for a minute in the dimly lit antechamber, observing the suspect on the other side of the window. He was an unassuming man of Asian descent, probably in his mid-thirties, dressed in the kind of bland, mass-produced clothing that lined the racks of outlet stores along the highway. With his wrists and ankles securely restrained, it was all he could do to lean over the table at which he was sitting, silently mouthing words to himself as he awaited his inquisition.
Rubbing the emerging stubble on his cheek, the chief spoke with a disappointed tone, “well, I don’t know what I was expecting.”
The inspector smirked. “I know what you mean.” He unfastened the top button on his shirt and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “You read a report that says ‘mastermind assassin behind terrorist bombing’ and then the tactical team brings in this guy like he’s a big game prize from a safari.”
“What’s your take on him now that you’ve read the background they sent over? You’ve read it all by now, right Lamont? Any modification to your original assumption?”
Marcel looked sidelong at Lamont, the inspector was shaking his head slowly, never taking his eyes off the suspect. The hair he usually wore neatly combed was disheveled because of how late it was, several hours after his normal shift ended, but despite his appearance, the chief knew he would hold up mentally. On the small mantle below the window, he spotted two empty foam coffee cups.
“So you’re sticking with the highly technical and descriptive assertion you told me over the radio?” The chief’s attempt at witty sarcasm was lost on the inspector, who was swimming in his own thoughts. There was no immediate reply. “Lamont?”
He snapped out of it and turned to his superior officer, “Yes, sorry. I still think he’s nuts.” Lamont straightened his posture briefly, an attempt to ease the aching in his lower back. “He’s been in there for two hours now – it’s taking a while for the lawyer to get across town because of all the emergency vehicles – and all he’s done is stare at the table and babble to himself.”
“So if he’s just some lunatic bomb maker, and I’m certain he is, why are you staying so late to watch the interrogation?” He gathered up the empty coffee cups like a father tidying up after a child and tossed them into the wastebasket. “You should get some rest for-“
Inspector Lamont interrupted him suddenly, “I read the tactical report on the bomb analysis. Chief, there was some cutting edge technology at work here and I don’t care what the background says about this guy being a reclusive weapons enthusiast.”
“What are you saying?” He wiped his hands after getting rid of the garbage and leaned on the window sill, his face a few centimeters from the glass as he examined the captive.
“I’m saying that if I was a genius assassin and managed to get a bomb into a senate convention, despite all the security, and it failed for some reason, I’d come up with an even better plot for my next attempt.”
The chief nodded, following the inspector down path, “And they caught this guy at the hospital armed only with a – what was it – steak knife from the cafeteria?”
“It reeks of desperation.”
The chief nodded again, acutely aware that he was way out of his league compared to the inspector. After several decades on the force, he was certain that his clean record and seniority had afforded him the position, not his talent or dedication. Lamont, on the other hand, was something of a prodigy among the graduates of his class, only three years prior, having proven his skills in several high profile cases since then. “So he’s impatient?”
Lamont looked over and met the chief’s gaze with his youthful grin, “There’s no such thing as an impatient bomb maker, Chief, at least not for very long. It sounds more like he’s on a schedule, doesn’t it.”
At once, Marcel knew exactly why he liked the inspector so much. He wasn’t the kind of intellect that lorded over his inferiors or rubbed their faces in every victory; he was the kind of genius that forged ahead through the problem and brought everyone with him. Whether this was because he relied on their assistance or because he simply liked to hear himself talk didn’t matter. Marcel smiled. “And if he was working alone, he wouldn’t necessarily have a strict timeline.”
Lamont silently agreed. Beyond the glass, the suspect continued to mumble to himself. To the inspector, it looked like he was praying.
* * *
“I can’t believe this is all happening so fast,” Takeshi said, leaning over in his chair to look out the window of the airplane at the Mediterranean Sea below them. Just off the airliner’s left wing, he could also see the escort fighters keeping their distance in the clouds. “It’s exciting.”
Resigning herself to the fact that she wasn’t going to get any sleep at all on the flight, Senator Wilkins rubbed her eyes and opened them to once again look at the empty sheet of paper before her. “Yes, it’s very exciting.”
Unable to contain his exuberance, the young man changed seats, getting up and traversing the aisle to sit across the small table from her. He was immaculately clean cut, dressed in a simple black suit with a deep blue tie and hooked ear piece colored and designed so as not to draw overt attention to it. Harriet smirked as she remembered the day she hired him to be her personal aide, for even though his shaggy hair and sandals were replaced by a neat trim and polished wingtips, he had not lost an ounce of his boyish charm. She considered it one of her greatest successes that she had been able to mold a volunteer computer technician into a capable diplomatic envoy.
“If I were you, I certainly wouldn’t be able to sleep either,” he said, checking his watch. “Do you think you can finish that last bit of your speech in two hours?”
“I hope so.” She began scratching at the side of the paper with her pen, drawing concentric circles in the margins.
Takeshi leaned over the table to see what she was doing and grinned, “I still don’t understand why you insist on using that ancient stuff. You know we have your computer on board, right? You could be working so much faster.” It wasn’t the first time the young man had insisted on upgrading the senator to newer and more capable technologies; indeed, that’s how they had met years before when he first arrived at the capital.
Conscious that he was watching, she set the pen down and looked out her own window, admiring the rolling sea beneath them, its blue reaches spreading from one horizon to the other. “Have you ever been to Dubai, Takeshi?”
“No – not really.” He fidgeted under her discerning gaze, then elaborated, “Well, I once had a stop over in the airport there, but it was only a couple of hours.” He chuckled as he recalled the memory, “It was way before the war and I was with my parents. You see, their scanners picked up my laptop as I went through the line and, well, you wouldn’t believe the drama that-“
“Yes, Senator?” He perked up as though she was about to request something important of him, tasks he always relished accomplishing for her approval.
Her expressionless gaze spoke volumes, shoring up his self-awareness of how often he tended to ramble. “Sorry.”
Changing the subject, Harriet pointed to the data readout pad Takeshi had left on the other side of the cabin, asking, “You were reading something a few minutes ago and seemed very interested. What was it?”
“Oh, how could I forget,” he exclaimed, leaping back over to retrieve the device and turn it back on, “such good news!” He tapped at the screen a few times, then put it down on the table and spun it around so she could read it. “They caught him!”
“Who,” she was still putting on her reading glasses.
“The guy who tried to kill you and the rest of the senate.”
She snatched the data pad up and hurriedly combed through the news article it displayed. “They did?”
Despite her reading it for herself, Takeshi felt compelled to narrate. “It seems that, after blowing up the opera house, he went after the hospital where you and the others were taken. Seriously, the very next day, local police picked him up trying to break in through the service entrance!”
Harriet was suddenly uncomfortably warm as she read the report, which indicated that the man had tried to reach her in the hospital armed only with a knife. “I would say his second attempt was quite desperate, wouldn’t you?”
“Absolutely, did you see the part about the knife? He must be completely crazy.” Takeshi was once again overwhelmed with the excitement of the situation and flew off on a tangent, “What’s he going to do with a knife against the police? Did he think he was just going to waltz in there and stab a dozen senators before anyone figured out what was going on?”
“Quiet, I’m trying to read this.” She scrolled down to follow the article to its conclusion after he fell into silence once again. When she had completed it, she set the pad down.
“You’re not at all bothered by this, are you?” He showed some genuine concern, but only until she dismissed it in a huff.
She rubbed her neck and shook her head, “It’s not the first time my job has endangered my life; we’re at war, remember?”
He nodded, accepting her assertion, but persisted nonetheless, “so why are you upset?”
Harriet’s eyes found their way to the window again and she answered him slowly, almost whispering, “It said he came to Paris from England.”
“So what, he made it past the blockade?” Takeshi retrieved the data pad and found the part she was referencing. “Yes, if these dates are correct, he would have had to be part of that last run before military operations in the area were suspended.”
She didn’t offer a response. When they had both spent several quiet minutes with their faces buried in adjacent windows, she finally opened up again, “I’ve never been to Dubai.”
Takeshi knew she was thinking aloud and didn’t interrupt her train of thought.
“Their capital has been there since we bombed Tallinn at the beginning of the war, so many years ago.” She closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair, careful not to strain her neck, which was still healing from the surgery she had endured only a month earlier. “All this time, and no Alliance diplomat has been there until now.”
Knowing where she was going with that particular string, Takeshi thought to himself about how the war had been going on for his entire adult life, since he was eighteen. He remembered the military recruiters at his high school graduation ceremony. Now, six years later, he was escorting Senator Wilkins to a historic meeting between the two sides, something that hadn’t even been attempted before. “Is this going to work, Senator?” He regretted speaking at first, seeing that she was obviously attempting to sleep again, but she replied fast enough to ensure him that he hadn’t bothered her.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be easier than we think.”