Lieutenant Commander Ibrahim Nayazov regarded Shenta with calm suspicion. The man should never play poker. His every emotion was written on his face. Even without the bio readouts that indicated the man’s stress levels and the likelihood he was lying, Ibrahim knew he wasn’t being completely honest.
The problem was, he liked the man. Shentah was definitely agitated, but although the three or four different versions of his story didn’t quite mesh, Ibrahim had the distinct impression that the man was essentially honest. Part of that was due to the lies…Shentah was definitely not used to lying and he did it rather poorly. The inconsistencies in his story were trivial, but enough to cast suspicion. It was enough to hold him. If he’d simply claimed that he was working outside the station when it suddenly moved, leading to some kind of malfunction, they might have let him off with a warning. But he’d admitted to targeting the command module specifically to get a message to the Captain.
“Chief, the extended search shows no record of his ident anywhere in human space,” Ensign Bojarczuk reported. They already knew the Chʼil Awoshí had no record of him. Claiming he was from the new disc, that was not unusual. The module would not have to submit a citizen manifest until twenty-four hours before they joined.
“Well, it looks like we’ll have to take you at your word for now,” Ibrahim said. “Until Istanzia answers our inquiries.”
Shentah’s face flushed red and he looked down for a moment. “What did you tell them?” he asked.
Ibrahim shrugged. “Just the facts. That you collided with the command module wearing a suit and pack that match the ones some of Istanzia’s crew have been observed wearing. That, other than running low on oxygen, you are unharmed. That you claim to be from Istanzia.”
“And they refuse to answer?”
“They neglected to answer.” Ibrahim shrugged. “Yet. Lots of the smaller modules are like that. They don’t have someone on call to answer the station when random citizens go joyriding around in nothing but a suit,” Ibrahim paused, “Or a cube pod.”
It still bothered Nayazov that it had taken tracking so long to notice the cube. They couldn’t tell where it came from, although it had to have been somewhere within the Chʼil Awoshí, or from Istanzia. Nothing else was close enough, unless there had been some kind of modification that allowed the pod to travel all the way from Luna or from a lower Earth orbit.
His link vibrated and he glanced at the byte. Ibrahim was watching him, as if he was waiting for something more incriminating to be discovered.
Ibrahim brought up the image of the body on the wall frame. “Anybody you know?” he asked casually, looking down at Shentah.
Shentah stared. There was no doubt he recognized the body. Ibrahim wondered whether he’d try to lie about that. The body was surprisingly intact, considering it wasn’t wearing an EVA suit.
“Mackerie,” he said, his voice a rasp. Either he was good at producing tears on demand, or he was genuinely upset by the sight of the body. He was visibly shaken, choking back tears.
“His name is Ronan Mackerie,” Shentah said, his voice cracking. “He was my friend.”
Ibrahim glanced at the bio readouts. Of course Shentah was agitated, but exactly why was still a mystery. What did he know about his friend’s ill-fated trip in the pod?
“Any idea how your friend got a pod, or why he would drive it into the station?”
Shentah bobbed his head in a gesture Ibrahim didn’t recognize. “Mackerie is…was…” his voice seemed to stop, and he closed his eyes for a moment. “Mackerie was discontent. He often talked of doing something to get the attention of the Chʼil Awoshí.” Shentah looked up at Ibrahim, his expression angry. “All our communications went unanswered.”
“What communications?” Ibrahim asked.
Shentah scoffed, or at least made a sound like it. His body language was foreign. Ibrahim could read his face but not his tics. “Countless attempts to tell Tumbleweed what was happening in Istanzia! Pleas for intervention. For those of us who wanted to leave!”
“Sal!” Ibrahim said to the air, then awaited an answer.
The bearded cartoon visage of security’s AI appeared on another screen. “Is there a question?”
“Access the submissions from Istanzia. What does the citizen agreement stipulate regarding freedom of the inhabitants to come and go?”
Sal went into his thoughtful pose, stroking his beard, then answered. “There are six sections that address the flow of peoples within and through the module, as well as from the module to the station and back,” he said. “The relevant clause stipulates that citizens must remain aboard the module during the building phase. As per Chʼil Awoshí regulations, once joined, citizens are free to leave their module and explore the station. However there is a procedure for returning that may be considered prohibitive.”
“Prohibitive as it, if there is anything they don’t like, once we leave we may never see our families again,” Shentah said.
“I can understand requiring citizens to stay on board during the transition,” Ibrahim said. “They can’t risk the entire project failing or being postponed just because someone didn’t do their job, or deserted at an inopportune moment.” He scratched his chin, missing the beard that used to be there. “There are people who take advantage of colonial or corporate groups just to get a free ride to Tumbleweed, just to go their own way once they’re here.”
“Mackerie and I joined the colony in good faith,” Shentah insisted. “We thought we were joining a group with like-minded ideals, and a governmental structure that would allow for the lifestyle we wanted. We were willing to put in the work to reap the rewards promised.”
Shentah shook his head. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” he said. “The housing selections were nicer than most others. And even though it’s only a disc, it was…it is being built to be entirely self-sufficient.” He bobbed his head again. “Or, as self-sufficient as possible. Attaching to the station has obvious advantages.”
“Sal,” Ibrahim waited for the cartoon figure to raise its eyebrows.
“Is there a question?”
“What communication has there been between Istanzia and the Chʼil Awoshí?”
“That is a large amount of data. Would you like me to summarize?”
“Specifically, messages outside the official channels, asking for help.”
“That is a large amount of data. Would you like me to summarize?”
That surprised Ibrahim. Of course, “all communication” would return a large search result, but pleas for help? How could they have gone ignored?
“Summarize, specifically regarding method of transmission.”
“Of over six thousand messages that fit your specification over the weeks since Istanzia’s first components arrived, they are spread over almost one hundred forms of communication. The most common are social media—”
“Wait,” Ibrahim interrupted Sal. “Could most of these messages be categorized as comments on the wind?”
“Yes,” Sal replied. “Sixty-four percent of the messages mention the lack of snack foods. Thirty-eight percent mention dissatisfaction with the selection of potential sexual partners in the population. Twelve—”
“Stop,” Ibrahim commanded, then spoke to Shentah. “Did anyone register an official complaint? Did you—”
“Official?” Shentah asked. “We sent detailed messages to every module and every department of government within the Chʼil Awoshí!”
“You…” Ibrahim shook his head. “You do realize what happens when you send the same message out to that many people?”
Shentah’s back straightened and his brow furrowed. “That’s how we make sure you know how important it is. Surely, at least one message should hit the right person. Surely…”
Shentah stopped mid-sentence. Ibrahim rubbed his forehead. Shentah didn’t seem to be unintelligent, but could he really be that naïve?
“When you send the same thing out to a large audience, it gets flagged,” he explained, watching Shentah for signs that the man was pretending to be innocent.
“Trash. Spam. Random advertisements or nonsense.” Ibraham read Shentah’s face. The man didn’t believe him. He was defensive.
“But that doesn’t make sense…how could so many messages be ignored?”
Ibrahim had only had a few conversations like this in his life. The nature of free communication was second nature to most people. The exceptions were those few who had grown up in places where communication wasn’t so free. “Shentah,” Ibrahim asked. “Where did you live before you joined Istanzia’s colony?”
“I was born in the Free Republic,” he said. “But my parents moved us to the peninsula when I was thirteen.”
Ibrahim had heard of the “Free Republic” although he wasn’t sure he could point to it on a map of Earth. Obviously, Shentah expected him to know what peninsula he was talking about, but Ibrahim had no idea. It wasn’t important. The “Free Republic” was an ironic name. It was neither free nor a Republic.
Ibrahim stared hard at Shentah. He felt sympathy for the guy. He wasn’t prepared to go to space. Whatever problems Istanzia might have, and he intended to look into that further, he hoped Shentah’s naiveté was the exception, not the rule. An uneducated populace was dangerous.
“Shentah,” he said, not exactly sure where he was going with his thought. “If I release you, where will you go?”
Shentah looked surprised. He stared a moment at the image of his dead friend on the screen. “I…” his voice cracked again. “I have no idea.”