The Flip of a Coin
Chapter Four: Odd Things
“What do you mean, you escaped?” Captain Kitewhetu asked Shentah, who was still sitting on the floor, sipping extra oxygen from the med tech’s mask.
“Istanzia isn’t what you think it is.”
The statement was flat, and he did not elaborate. Haleola tamped down her own suspicions. The new disc had conformed to every requirement the Chʼil Awoshí stipulated, even choosing a name appropriate to the theme of the other modules in Discworld. She depended on logic and facts, not intuition, and thus far Istanzia had given her no reason to doubt they were anything but what they said they were, a small community that wished to live under their own governance without fearing threat or domination from any Earth nation.
“Were you on the craft that collided with the station?” Commander Dalrymple asked. It was a good question. It didn’t fit with Hal’s planned interrogation, but she let it stand.
“Was I in the cube?” Shentah repeated, then paused a moment. “No, I was not. I came from Istanzia.”
Her first officer opened his mouth, but Hal cut him off before he could speak. She had a specific line of questioning in mind, and it didn’t include input from her first officer. “Commander, please return to the bridge and ensure that Lieutenant Ning is safe and sound. Designate an appropriate replacement for the remainder of his shift, then take him to the conference room and debrief him. I expect the two of you to collate all the information as it comes in, so you can brief me when I’m done here.” When she was done, she’d have to report to the governor. There were certain to be many people wondering just what was going on.
Fortunately, Dave didn’t argue with her. She liked that he often did; it was part of why she’d chosen him as her first officer. He was also the kind of officer who knew when to stop arguing, which was equally as important.
Hal glanced up at Nayazov, her chief of security, who was quietly observing the interrogation. He was behind Shentah. She was fairly certain the strange man hadn’t seen the chief yet; he was more concerned with his oxygen.
“You may have noticed that, even though more than half of Istanzia’s population is now inhabiting the disc, not a single person has shuttled over to Tumbleweed yet,” Shentah said, only looking up for a brief moment at the end of his sentence, then breathing from the mask again.
She had noticed. It was one of the things that gave her pause, although it was not entirely unheard of. Some groups simply preferred to keep to themselves, relying on the station only for the most basic infrastructure. It was unusual, not suspicious.
“And this is notable because….?” She let her voice trail off. She wanted him to volunteer as much information as possible.
“Does not the Chʼil Awoshí have a law that stipulates anyone may leave any module of their own free will at any time?” Shentah asked.
Hal nodded. “We don’t have many overreaching laws, but that is one of them.”
Shentah let out a sound that might have been a snort or scoff. Hal wasn’t sure. “Yes. Well, there’s no law saying a module has to let you back in again once you leave.”
Now, that was reason for suspicion. Some of the corporate modules kept close tabs on their employees, but not letting them come home if they left? That was ridiculous. No module was completely self-sufficient. Some came close, but they all relied on Tumbleweed’s infrastructure as well as all the bonuses that came along with it. Like any city, entrepreneurs had found a million niches to fill, from the taco trucks to the gambling halls. Moving freely from one module to another was integral to the Chʼil Awoshí’s success.
“So, by ‘escape’, you mean you left, knowing they might not let you back in,” she said. Shentah bobbed his head sideways. Hal interpreted that to mean that the statement was accurate but not precise. “And what, exactly is it that inspired you to take such drastic measures?”
Shentah looked up at the small crowd in the airlock, including those with weapons trained on him. “Captain, if we could speak in private…”
Hal made a soft tsking sound and turned to her yeoman. “Do I have any openings coming up in my schedule?” she asked. This was looking more like a single man wanting attention. If he had anything to do with the cube he wasn’t being forthcoming about it. She wasn’t going to storm over to the new disc and demand they state their intentions and answer to this man’s accusations. Yes, there would probably be inquiries…polite ones. At an appropriate time. By the appropriate people, not necessarily the Captain herself.
“You’re booked for at least the next ten days, sir,” Ajaana answered, with just a slight note of sympathetic disappointment in her voice.
“Ah. Well then. Chief Nyazov will hear you out,” Hal said, gesturing to the chief, who stepped forward and extended a hand to Shentah.
“If you’ll come with me?” the chief said, his face a mask of polite sternness.
“Captain, I must implore you…”
Hal ignored him as she turned away and walked back toward the bridge. She couldn’t set a precedent that any deegize who flew himself into the command module deserved an audience with the Captain. Nyazov was very efficient at gleaning information. He would distill everything for her and make a full report later.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Hal asked her yeoman “Is Odwalla demanding my attention?”
Ajaana made the same sideways bob with her head that Shentah had made. “Yes, she has requested you come to her office,” Ajaana said. “But it is a polite request, and it has not been repeated.”
“Really?” she asked. “Her predecessors were much more demanding.”
Ajaana raised an eyebrow.
“’Demanding’ being the polite term,” Hal said with a smirk.
Hal spent the time it took getting to the governor’s office assimilating as much information about the incident as possible. There were far more questions than answers, and the governor was certain to add to that.
“Captain Kitewhetu,” the secretary greeted her when they reached the governor’s office. “Please go right in. Governor Odwalla is expecting you.”
Haleola nodded to her yeoman and went in to face the governor alone. Newly elected to the office, Odwalla was still somewhat of an enigma. Hal had met with her on a few occasions, but most of those were formal and brief. This would be the first meeting regarding any kind of incident.
“Captain Kitewhetu!” the older woman said, standing to greet her. Her red hair was piled in a loose bun on her head, with generous wisps of gray escaping in every direction. “Thank you for coming. I hope this incident is not as serious as it seems.”
“Any unexpected maneuver, no matter how small, is regarded as serious,” Hal answered. She wasn’t sure how much Odwalla understood about the way the station worked. She’d lived on the station for twenty years, but unlike Hal she hadn’t been born on Tumbleweed.
“Of course, of course,” Odwalla said, gesturing to a seating area with two floral-print couches facing each other. That was different from the previous governor. He’d had a pair of leather chairs in front of a fireplace. Odwalla had replaced the fireplace with a vis-window with a view of Earth. “Now, I have the inters, and we know there was a small craft approaching the station before the move.” She paused and picked up a delicate china cup from the low table between the couches. “I assume the incidents are related?”
Odwalla’s secretary came in with a tall glass on a tray. “Yes. The craft did not respond to hails. Patrol attempted to bludger it out of the way. The bump was insufficient, and the craft had to be destroyed.” She nodded a polite thanks to the secretary and took a drink. Cucumber water. Either Odwalla or the secretary knew exactly what she would like. She took another sip. It had a definite Earthy taste, as if the cucumbers had been soil-grown, not hydroponic. Much more expensive, and not to Haleola’s taste.
“And moving the station?” Odwalla asked.
“Although the craft was destroyed, the debris was still a danger to the station.” Hal cringed. That wasn’t exactly true. Ning had made the right call, if a bit late. Debris from something that small might have caused damage to some fragile antenna or other delicate equipment outside the station, but it wouldn’t breach the hull or endanger any lives unless someone happened to be working outside the station. There were usually at least a dozen, and sometimes as many as a hundred maintenance personnel in suits or patrol vessels around the station, not to mention any number of private citizens who might be working on a particular module. The odds of someone being at the wrong place at exactly that time were very small.
Still, there was the secondary explosion.
“The inters say there was a secondary explosion,” Odwalla said. Her face was perfectly composed with exactly the right degree of concern. Hal felt compelled to answer her, even though she’d already planned to fill the governor in on everything she needed to know. It was disturbing. Hal was used to a governor who demanded instant answers, not one who drew those answers out of her.
“Security has patrols investigating the wreckage and damage,” Hal said. “They are also questioning the man who flew into the command module.” Haleola was fairly certain that detail wasn’t in the inters yet. It was recent, and it didn’t necessarily involve the station as a whole. If Shentah did turn out to be just a random attention-seeking individual, that part of the incident would be buried in the daily reports as no more significant than a solar flare or protest over the price of Martian potatoes. She wanted to share something before the governor specifically asked about it.
“Someone flew into the command module?” Odwalla asked, sounding not as surprised as she should have. “I assume you mean an individual in a suit? Or was he in a pod?”
“A suit,” Haleola said. “One I didn’t recognize. Definitely not station personnel.”
“Do you have an image?”
Hal brought up a still from security and bent her wrist so her link could project it onto the white table.
“A red suit?”
“Yes,” Hal said. “Have you seen any like this?”
Odwalla shook her head. “It could just be his personal suit. Where is he from?”
“He claims to be from Istanzia,” Hal answered. “But tracking doesn’t show anything coming from the new disc in several days.”
“They do seem to be rather distant,” Odwalla said. “Both literally and figuratively. They’re supposed to be attached soon, aren’t they? Don’t most modules usually maneuver closer by this time?”
“Their distance from the station is at the far range of what I’d consider normal,” Hal said. “But it is strange that they haven’t initiated spin yet.” She cringed inwardly. She hadn’t meant to bring that up. It was insignificant. Odwalla seemed to be able to draw details from her without her realizing she was doing so.
“That is unusual.” Odwalla opened a drawer under the table and took out a frame, setting it so they could both see. “Let’s see if we have any scenes from construction.”
In a few minutes they were looking at an image of the half-finished disc, with red-suited workers clearly visible. “Well, that is interesting,” Odwalla said.
“They do look similar,” Hal said. “Possibly identical. I’ll forward this to security.” Hal was fairly certain that Nayazov’s team had already made the connection, but she sent it anyway.
“Now, the other thing we need to talk about is the complaints, and what kind of reassurances we can give—”
Odwalla stopped mid-sentence as her secretary interrupted them. Haleola’s link vibrated sharply four times.
“Excuse me Madame Governor, Captain…” the secretary said. Yeoman Abels was right behind her. “They’ve found a body.”