Lectra (Short)

Lectra

By

M.A.Harris

Copyright 2011 M.A. Harris.

 Rif  Gibbons walked towards his aircraft with the confident gait that they’d taught was so important in ‘Captain’s’ school.  The passengers could see him from the waiting room, and he was on display, giving weight to the line’s propaganda that all their pilots were fully trained and experienced.  Though the ad agency had to carefully ensure that they didn’t give the impression that the pilots actually did anything as dangerous as actually flying the aircraft!  That would make most passengers change their routing to a saner line.  After all, no one flew for the thrill of it or the speed these days, flying was mostly about nostalgia and the view these days.

The aircraft that Rif was flying today was a Quadong J17, a traditional flying wing design.  It was set up as a fifty seater with ten private cabins and two leading edge observation lounges as well as a tiny, or as the ads said cozy, tailcone bar.

He’d be ‘in command’ of it for a series of sections that took them out of New York across the continent and then out to Oahu, where Rif would have exhausted his flying hours for the week.  There he’d part company with the Lectra and hit the beach, he had some time scheduled in Hawaii, waiting for a new week and a new assignment.

Rif ran his eyes over the fuselage-wing and even went so far as to touch the landing gear struts and the various aerodynamic appendages that hung down within reach.  Truth to tell he felt better when he’d done the ‘physical’, even though he knew intellectually that the embedded sensors would detect something wrong long before his poor human senses would… assuming that the sensor net worked…and that was why there were still humans in the loop, even after all these decades.

He tapped his wrist display, “Drop the stern lift would you Rose?”

“You’re standing under it Rif, you up for suicide today?”  His assistant replied dryly.

Taking a couple of steps forward Rif responded, “Satisfied?”

“Coming down, Ginger and Frank are loading the commissary if you wanted to know.”

He sighed, ‘his’ assistant was a snide know-it-all when deep linked to the aircraft’s autonomic systems.

The lift carried him up into the body of ‘his’ aircraft.  He stepped out into the tailcone bar with its curved rear facing couch and the five stool bar.  The faux wood and brass ambience was that of a three hundred year old Irish pub.  A bit of a stretch for nostalgia since Ireland had been part of the teetotal Eurabian Conglom for the better part of a hundred years now.

There was a rattle and a smiling face appeared through the tiny hatch into the bar space, “Hey Rif! Good to see you!”  Frank Smith was one of the two stewards on today’s flight; they’d flown together many times over the years.

Rif smiled back, “Hey yourself Frank, how are the supplies and our cooks?”  He grinned crookedly.  The ‘cooks’ were the automated commissary with its robostoves and store of frozen food packets.  But it was amazing what the system could whip up.

“Good to go sir, eighteen hours, fifty civs, no problems!”

“Forty four at last count and seventeen point six four hours, keep your statistics straight, you are the purser you know!”

Frank shook his head, “No I’m not, that’s Ginger this flight, I decided to trade off, didn’t want the stress this time, don’t need the stipend.”

Rif blinked, then understood and grimaced, “Coward.”

The steward held up his hands, “Don’t you know it!  The great Artiste puts his one and only child into our hands for a flight to meet Gramama in Hawaii?  I ain’t going to be in the way when little lovey throws a fit and the big man demands that heads roll.”  He tenderly massaged his neck, “I like my head right where it is thank you very much!”

With a sad shake of the head Rif went through the door and into the passageway forward.  There he went through the tiny hatch and up the narrow and steep steps to the flight deck.   He squeezed into the ‘captain’s’ seat and glanced around.  The instrument panel was so simple it took him only a second to scan it and decide that the flight systems were ‘green.’  It was ironic that the flight deck of a 22nd century aircraft would be familiar to a pilot of a late 20th century aircraft, the electromechanical ‘failsafe’ controls were designed to be used by someone with very minimal training … the most basic fallback mode possible. 

In reality Rose was his link to the aircraft system…allowing him to ‘manage’ it to the limits that a ‘captain’ was allowed to these days.  Rose was his personal link to the aircraft, ‘she’ allowed him to control the routing and altitude, within strict limits, and let him communicate with the outside world, all without having to use the horrifically antiquated manual controls on the flight deck, in fact he could ‘fly’ the aircraft from anywhere aboard.  He took his time tapping through the basic systems but even doing that it only took him twenty minutes to finish the checks. 

It was all redundant; Rose had told him the Quadong was ready to go before his feet had touched the ancient concrete of the hardstand.

“Where’s Ginger?” Rif asked quietly as he went down the steep steps out of his cramped little ‘office’ high up in the aircraft’s nose.

“Next to the hatch, one minute to open ramp.”  Rose’s tone was sharp, Rif ignored her.

“Hello Ginger.” he said softly as he stepped up behind the steward who was standing in the nose foyer.

Ginger smiled over her shoulder; she was a beautiful creature, even in this modern day, when nanosurgery made humanity almost boringly good looking.  The steward made an effort to keep in shape and she was young enough to have that ‘something special’ that a young and still enthusiastic person could have.

A melodious voice spoke out of the air, “MidAtlantic Airlines is happy to announce the boarding of flight 2212, next stop Chicago in the Midwestern Alliance, with further stops in Denver, San Francisco, the GigaPlatform City of London and terminating in Oahu. Please make sure your travel documents are in order since we will be landing outside of US jurisdiction in Chicago and the GP City of London.”

The ten foot wide hatch had pulled in and slid up and out of the way as the voice spoke, leaving Ginger and Rif facing the broad boarding jetty.   First on the edge of the jetty was a small group, a small rather round man and a MidAtlantic manager with a tight uniform, tighter figure and even tighter smile.  It was only on second glance that you saw the third person in the group, a tiny, elfin featured little girl, huge eyes staring around her father’s leg, her tiny hands tightly grasping the material of his pants.

The manager type stepped forward, executed an almost ballet-like half turn, and artfully angled a hand in Rif’s direction, “Mr. Woods, Miss Woods, this is Captain Gibbon, the flight manager; he’ll be showing you to your cabin, won’t you Captain?”  The smile could have been etched into her face as much emotion as it radiated.

Rif let his own mechanical smile slip a little into irony, “Certainly Ms. Pollock,” he’d caught the name on the badge thrust outwards by the sharp mound of her breasts before she had turned away.

He turned his eyes down and let his smile warm up; he winked at the little girl, “I’ll be very glad to take you and your dad to your cabin.” 

“Five Port.” Rose whispered the cabin number into his ear.

Big eyes looked through Rif, a big hand came into view to take one of the tiny hands, “Very well Captain, please do, I don’t like standing out here!”  The rough voice was very familiar.  Cal Woods had made his name as a tri character actor when Rif was a young man.  These days he was a producer of semi-scripted live action plays, using a mixture of living actors, i-actors and complex real time special effects to wow audiences.  Obviously it wasn’t making him ultra rich since he was flying ‘line’ instead of hiring private.

Rif looked up at the elder Woods, “If you would come this way.” He turned as he spoke.

Cal Woods had the face and figure of either a cherubic jokester or bad tempered storekeeper, both parts he’d played to perfection in various tri programs.  He’d played other parts, even an action hero once or twice.  He’d married the most stunning of his leading ladies and withdrawn from the hurly-burly of acting to take up directing, supposedly quite successfully though Hollywood wasn’t the money machine it had been in its heyday a century and a half ago..

The little girl, eight or nine if Rif remembered correctly, hung next to her father, whose hand engulfed hers.  She showed no interest in the Lectra’s interior, apparently she didn’t watch tri very much, most kids her age were asking all sorts of questions and constantly wanting to race off to investigate one thing or another.

They walked through the twenty seat port side lounge cabin with its row of leading edge windows that currently showed the face of the terminal building in boring detail.  The cabin was the end one, the largest though it was a bit oddly shaped and low ceilinged because the wing thickness was starting to fine down out this far.

Rif stepped back and waved Woods to the door, while Rif had a master-key it set off all sorts of privacy alarms when he used it.  The director keyed the door and pulled his daughter round to his other side as he approached it. 

The actor-director shooed his daughter through the door then turned to smile at Rif, though the smile never reached his eyes.  “Thank you Captain, could you please tell your stewards not to bother us until we land in Chicago?”  A depreciating little grimace, “We were up late last night, all the excitement you know, this is her first Lectra flight…we’ll probably sleep till Chicago, have dinner on the leg between Chicago and Denver.  And you do know that I will be staying on in Denver and my daughter will be flying on to Oahu?”

“I’ve been briefed Mr. Woods, your daughter will be in good hands, my purser, Ginger Suzuki will be making her comfort a special duty – and of course I’ll be around if she needs anything.”  Rif turned his smile to the little girl, who was standing in the shadow behind her father.  Her huge eyes seemed to look through him, and then she turned to look away.

“Bashful wouldn’t you know?  Seems odd in our family doesn’t it?”  Woods smiled crookedly, and stepped back, starting to close the door, “Thank you for the escort captain, if you’ll excuse us we’ll get ourselves ready.”

“Certainly sir.” The end of the reply was to a closed door.

Rif frowned then shrugged, he’d met ruder celebrities in his ten years as a Lectra pilot.  And he’d had to deal with much worse during CivWarII, senior officers often thought that the only way to project command presence was to be rude, especially when they were panicking.

As he walked back towards the center section Ginger’s voice spoke, “Rif, all the passengers are on board, count’s forty six, two last minute additions, both heading for Chicago.  I’ve checked their ID’s we’re green there, cargo tells me the holds are sealed and ready to go, Frank says the commissary is green.  We’re ready to go from my department.”

Rif sub vocalized, “Thanks Ginger; Rose, I assume you’ve checked mass distribution?”

“We’re fine Rif; traffic control’s been alerted that we’re going to be departing on time.  I’ve gotten upfeed from power control; we’re on the schedule en route.”

“No share pulsing over Saint Louis this time? We almost made a couple of passengers sick last time on that route?”

“The repairs to the powertanas are supposedly holding well, the Midwest Alliance government’s still trying to get funds to build permanent replacements for the one’s blown at the end of CivWarII.  On another note the weather looks good, a couple of storm lines but nothing severe, should provide the passengers with some spectacular cloud scenery but I doubt we’ll have to ask them to buckle up, the lidar and active flight stabilizers are all showing green-green, I did a couple of non-standard tests to make sure.”  Rose sounded smug, especially at the last.

Rif met Ginger in the entry foyer; Ginger had already closed the hatch.  She smiled at his approach, “All set in Five Port?”

He shrugged, “Almost human is our Mr. Woods, but yes and he asked not to be bothered until Chicago, told me they’d be dining on the Denver leg and reiterated that he’d be leaving us to our devices in Denver.”  He hesitated, frowned, “Any word about his daughter being sick?  Rose, that’s to you as well.”

He got two no’s and an enquiring quirk of Ginger’s eyebrow, Rif shrugged, “Don’t know, seems very quiet for a nine year old.  He did say they’d had a bad night…pre-flight jitters you know!”  He grinned crookedly at that last.  Why anyone thought flying was dangerous these days was beyond him, the only ‘accidents’ these days were caused by terrorists of one ilk or another.  The last ‘real’ air disaster was a matter of historical record, May 9th 2089.

She smiled back, shrugged in reply but looked at her wrist display, “We should be pushing back Captain?”

Rif sighed, “Rose, we’re ready for pushback.”

“One minute to scheduled time, want to go early Captain?”

“Go on the tick Rose, no use getting anyone’s knickers in a twist.”

“We are go for pushback on schedule.” Rose said softly.

Ginger tapped her wrist display, drew in a breath and started into her pre-flight spiel, “Passengers of flight…”

Rif made his way up to the flight deck.  The Quadong had all but imperceptibly started into motion before he made it into the tiny cabin.  The aircraft was taxing away from the terminal before he was strapped in and ready.  An aircraft commander was required to be ‘at the controls’, if not in control, at only two points in a flight, takeoff and landing.

As they taxied forward the runway underneath glowed, a reaction of the light chips mixed in the surface to the microwave energy being beamed up into the belly of the aircraft.  Unlike the Rif’s strike fighter with its ramgas power packs, a modern electric jet airliner, a Lectra, didn’t generate its power onboard but depended on power beamed from terrestrial or satellite powertanas.

Lectra’s were now ubiquitous in the air, once the system was perfected for drones in the mid 21st century it had taken less than thirty years for it to supplant the conventional CO2 spewing oil burners, uprooting the senescant European and American aviation industry in the process.

The takeoff run was short and the climb out steep though utterly smooth.  The completely composite Quadong belied its appearance of stolid weight, massing less than a mid 20th century airliner of equivalent passenger capacity even though it had many times their volume, and cargo capacity.  Of course, not having to carry fuel along helped immensely.

The flight quickly settled into routine.

Twenty minutes after takeoff Rif was in the starboard lounge chatting up a pretty passenger.  Though he was officially on duty neither he nor the line interpreted that very strictly, he was here for the mental comfort of the passengers, and as part of the company ‘motif’, living on the flight deck was pointless.  One of the ‘perks’ of Rif’s job was the uniform and access to the well off passengers, especially youngish female passengers.  Anyone on a Lectra wasn’t in any tearing hurry and were looking for a tiny bit of, safe adventure during the trip.  Rif was happy to oblige on that last count.

This time Rif ‘struck out,’ the young lady was just interested in flirting, and bound for Chicago anyway, an hour in the air was quick even for Rif. 

The stopover at the Port Lake off the Chicago lakefront was uneventful; the landing smooth, the exchange of passengers and cargo quick and the takeoff fast and steep. 

However Rif stayed on the flight deck the whole time, as was his habit, he had bad memories of Chicago, near where he’d been born and grown up, where his parents were buried, killed by one of the devastating super plagues that had triggered CivWarII.  He held no hatred towards the Midwestern Alliance, the Middies, but they had destroyed too much of his childhood and killed too many friends, as well as one lover, during the war.  He still didn’t trust the Middies, though even that might be silly.  They’d lost the war even in winning their independence, they were quickly falling behind socio-economically; and some said that they’d soon be begging to be let back into the Greater American Federation that their secession had molded out of the old North American Free Trade Zone, which was now jousting with China and Eurabia on the forefront of the world’s economy.

Leveled out at flight level twenty heading for Denver Rif came out of his retreat.  Ginger met him in the foyer, “Woods would like to have you eat with him and a couple of business companions Rif.” 

Rif blinked, “He does?”

She grinned, nodded, “He’s got special provisions in the commissary, apparently one of the other guests couldn’t make it at the last moment, and you’re his fill in.”

He shrugged, “Good on him I suppose, you know when he’s serving?”

“About twenty minutes.”

“Rose, would you let Mr. Woods know I’d be glad to have lunch with him.”

“Wilco Rif.”  Her voice wafted from on high.

Port Five, like its mirror Starboard Five, could be actively configured for business meetings, a love nest, or any one of several dozen other choices.  When Rif entered he was unsurprised to see it set up as a business suite, a partition dividing the cabin into a private sleeping area and small meeting area, or in this case eating area.

 “A welcome Captain Gibbons.”  Cal Woods was looking a lot more rested and relaxed.  He quickly introduced the other pair who had been standing chatting when Rif entered.  Rif glanced around, “Your daughter is all right I hope Mr. Woods?”

Woods smiled easily, “Emily’s still napping, she’s bored by daddy’s business meetings.”

There was a click and the door to the sleeping compartment opened a crack, “Daddy, could I have drink of water?”  The young lady in question was standing half hidden behind the door, rubbing sleepy eyes; Rif could see a light blanket swirled onto the floor behind her.

Her expression took on a bit of animation, “Oh hello Mr. Reid!”

Garrison Reid, a famous man in his own right smiled in return, “Hello yourself Emily, good to see you again.”

She nodded, gave a little girl harrumph, frowned prettily, “You weren’t onboard when we took off were you?”

The adults all chuckled at the way she put it, Reid replied, “I was in Chicago my dear.  I’m going to Denver with your dad.”

She sniffed and nodded, looking up with a pretty smile as Cal Woods brought her a small water globe, she looked out at them, “Good night.”  The door closed with a click.

“A beautiful young lady Cal.”  Reid said with a sigh, “Makes me miss my children when they were that age.”

Woods laughed, though Rif caught a flicker of something odd in their host’s expression as he waved them towards the table already set for their meal.

The conversation wandered broadly, though most of the time it circled issues of the arts and politics of North America.  They did spend some interesting time talking about the New Jerusalem Colony Company.  The company’s starship, Hope’s Star, was nearing completion in lunar orbit.  The flick ring components were already on their way to Kuiper Station.  There was a lot of excitement about the first interstellar colonization, though there were a fair number of naysayers, not to say some who’d taken it in their head that the Company was somehow a threat to some cause or another.  Rif resisted telling them that Ginger Suzuki their steward was a full shareholder in the company and had a position aboard the starship.  She had tried to talk Rif into buying in once but he was happy enough where he was, a new home fifteen light years, and fifteen years, away held no real interest other than intellectual for him.

Time passed quickly with such interesting companions, Rose’s voice in his ear came as a surprise, “Rif, approach control at Port Denver has just given us a landing slot, forty minutes till wheels down, you should be breaking it up.”

Woods and his companions were all surprised at the time as well and Rif found himself walking towards the center section in less then two minutes.  Another pleasant memory to add to a wealth of others he’d built up over the years.

The turnaround at Denver went smoothly.  After takeoff Ginger reported that she’d checked on Woods daughter, the little girl was curled up in a big chair in what had been the dining area reading and watching the world stream by below.

 Night was gathering as the Quadong climbed out of San Francisco.

Rif was standing by the clear center panel of the leading edge window as the galaxy of stars that defined The City of London formed up on the horizon.  The Giga Platform was one of six floating city states that had been built, or in some ways grown, over the last century.  The Giga Platforms, each several miles long and about half as wide as they were long, were self contained and self supporting, the complex topology of the superstructure was covered by parks, orchards and farms, and there were hydroponics farms in the bowels of the platform as well.

Each GP was its own city state, City of London was the biggest though the second youngest.  It had a population of almost a hundred thousand and all the stories that came off said that it was a near utopia, though there were many who doubted that; Rif was one of them.  The GP’s were the modern equivalents to the tax haven islands of the 20th and 21st centuries.  Most of those havens had long since been adsorbed by one or another of the Congloms, now there were the GPs.  The GP governments were all parliamentary, on the surface, but voting citizenship was tightly controlled.  And as big as they were the GP’s were still tiny as nations went, and there was no ‘backcountry’ so they were easy for a modern police force to control.  Rif suspected that things got bleak for anyone who crossed the power elite aboard one of the huge structures.

Rose spoke in his ear, “Approach control says the private Lectra that’s been blocking the terminal has cleared for takeoff.  We can land at our convenience.”  That last was snide; Rose didn’t like ‘her’ schedule being upset by mere ‘civilians’, particularly a private Lectra.

After the terminal cleared the landing, the turnaround and takeoff from the GP all went very smoothly. 

After the usual glass smooth takeoff the Quadong entered a climbing turn, circling the GP so they could pull power from City of London’s powertanas until the geostationary power satellite could take over. 

After the satellite had taken over Rose pointed their nose towards Oahu and began to climb for high altitude, at seventy thousand feet he felt the aircraft accelerate to near the speed of sound.

“Four hours to Oahu, Rif.” Rose said quietly, “You should take another nap.”

“I’ll check in with Frank and Ginger then take your advice, is Port One still open?”

Rose sighed, “Yes Rif.  You do know you are supposed to sleep on the flight deck don’t you?”

“I won’t tell if you won’t Rose.”  Rif said as he turned to back down the steep ladder.

“I won’t but you are on company time, the company keeps track of you and it will not take a genius to connect a non-revenue use of the cabin and your location somewhere other than on the flight deck during a rest period.”

Rif sighed in turn, he knew all of what she said and though he was tempted to push the rules sometimes this wasn’t one of them, he’d mainly been goading Rose, and he was pretty sure she knew that, the AI knew him much better than any human wife ever would, “You win Rose, I’ll be back up here in half an hour.”

The only response he got was a disembodied sniff.  He grinned, things were normal when Aircraft Rose was being sniffy with him.

Things started to get very abnormal as he stepped through the tiny hatch into the foyer. Ginger met him, her face white and drawn, “Rif, we need to talk.”

He smiled, tried to get her to relax, “Fine, what about Ginger?”

She shook her head, glanced around, at the couple of passengers walking nearby, she jerked her chin at the door he’d just come through, “Not here, in there please Captain.”

His heart began to beat faster and he experienced the feeling of losing several hundred feet of altitude without warning.  He tried to keep this from his face as he nodded and turned, “Fine, do I need Rose to record this?”

“I’ve already got my Ginny recording, but yes I suppose Rose should as well, and it needs to go into the log.”

Rif had a hard time not swearing at that.  Something was seriously wrong.

The tiny vestibule with the stairs on one wall and the door on the other was barely large enough for the two of them to stand facing each other.  He let Ginger see his ‘serious face’ then, “What’s happened.”

For a moment her guard remained up, her face stiff and calm, then in an instant it crumbled, tears streamed down her cheeks, “Oh god Rif!  I don’t know what happened, I really don’t!  I checked on her after San Fran, and going into the GP, I even looked in while we were on the ground.  But she’s gone…I can’t find her.”

This passed over Rif’s head for a moment then his knees wanted to turn to water, “Emily Woods, you’re saying Emily Woods’ gone missing?”

Ginger had by this time lost the ability to speak, she simply nodded.  Rif couldn’t help himself, he grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her a bit, “How can that happen, didn’t you have the door set to signal if she opened it?”

The steward still couldn’t say but she nodded her head fiercely and Rose chimed in, “Rif, the door was signaled, the only time it opened was when Ginger went in to check on the Woods girl.”

Rif dropped his hands, took a deep breath, “What other access is there to that cabin Rose?  Air ducts, commissary hatch, cargo pass through, the toilet?”

“All of those as you know Rif, but all are locked and sensored, none show unauthorized cycling.  The air ducts and waste ducts are too small for even a small human to use.  The commissary hatch was activated to deliver a meal during the stop at City of London.  The cargo hatch was cycled once to bring a bag up from the baggage hold just before we landed on the GP.”

Rif hesitated, “Ginger, get down to the cargo hold; see if she somehow made it through the hatch without setting off the alarm.  I’ll go search her room again.”  He squeezed past her, ignoring the warmth that the forced moment of intimacy generated in him.

Before he opened the door, on the spur of the moment he turned and brushed the crown of her head with his lips.  “Whatever happened it wasn’t your fault Ginger, hold onto that thought.  She may be in danger, we have to find her, but this has nothing to do with anything you did or did not do.”

The door to Port Five was beeping softly; a small red light blinking by its’ lock.  Ginger had used her master on the door when Emily hadn’t answered.  The beep deepened to a squeal when Rif used his master-key on it, Rif ignored it and stepped in closing the door firmly behind him.

“Emily?” he called out quite loudly.  Silence.  “Miss Woods?”  Nothing.

He moved around, checking the space, the modiform chair that the girl had been using was still in place, a large reading panel lay on the floor next to it.  There was no place to hide in this room as formed currently.  “Rose, has the configuration of the room changed since Ginger last saw Emily Woods?”

“Not much, there was a side table where the food was set up but it’s been retracted.”  A hesitation, “That wasn’t long ago; I didn’t know there was anything wrong so I didn’t stop the service bots cleaning up.”

“The food was ordered when?  Can the servicbot records show how much was eaten?  When was the last communication out of this room?  Can you trace a call from the girl’s comm?”

“As I said the food was delivered while we were stopped on City of London, Rif.  The food was only partially eaten…there was a cycling of the waste duct a little after the food was delivered.  The local node routed a call to this room just before that.  Standard routing, no track back possible without a warrant, the call went to the girl’s comm.”

“Any of the modiform furniture storage cubbies big enough for a little girl to hide in?”

“Not with the furniture in it.”

“What about the chair’s storage unit?”

“Opening now.”  The flooring next to the chair rippled and pulled back to reveal shiny metal, the door flipped up.  Rif went on his knees; the space was tiny, and empty.  He let go his breath, glad she hadn’t been in there, even tiny Emily wouldn’t have fit…not alive.

He got to his feet, glanced around, “Store the wall Rose”

The partition rippled and was suddenly a metal lacework that accordioned and pulled back out of the way.  The bed on the other side was fully made, its bedclothes as tight as a drumhead, the maidbots were very good at that sort of thing.  

There was a gaping but shallow hole in the floor in front of the bed, the bed’s storage cubby that Rose had opened, it was empty. “What about inside the bed form? Plenty of volume in there?”

The bed peeled apart with a rip as one of the sheets caught on something.  There was nothing there, under the bed was a small travel bag, its top open to reveal little girl clothes.  Ginger had probably checked there.

“Store everything Rose.”  There was a quick scuttle as two maidbots unfurled from holes in the wall and scuttled to pull the sheets off the bed.  The chair lost its look of old leather and wood, revealing itself as a metal mesh with stick thin supports which folded and furled in a few instants, slithering back into the cubby which closed.  In a minute the room was bare white and silver metal, the outlines of the various cubbies and access panels all visible.  The only shapes breaking the bleak smoothness a toilet and against one wall, two suitcases and the reading panel

A quick glance up showed that as Rose had said the air ducts were far too small for Emily to have used.

He went down on his knee beside the commissary hatch.  “Open the commissary hatch Rose.” 

The hatch flipped up and out of the way to reveal a tiny compartment.  “The commissary access runs under the floor right; this is an elevator, right?”

“It’s a platform; there are interlocks to prevent the hatch into the room opening if the platform isn’t in this position.  They are hard wired; I cannot override them Rif.”

He reached in and pressed, as much force as he could exert the platform didn’t budge, for all he could tell the floor was solid.

Rif leaned back, “Fine, what about the cargo access?”

“Uses the same tunnel Rif, and the same access.”

“Understood, open it anyway.”

He got no joy out of that, though he realized that Emily might have fitted into the tiny chamber.  He glanced around; the only objects in the room now were the two suitcases.  He pulled one over and pushed it in.  “Rose, are the sensors detecting the suitcase?”

“Yes Rif.”

“Damn it, do you have a visual down the tunnel Rose?”

“I do, that’s access denied volume, and the autonomics track everything in that space all the time.  There is nothing down there; she did not get out that way.”

“Drop the suitcase into the tunnel; let me see the vid feed Rose.”

“I have to close the hatch Rif.”

“Do it.”

“Your hand is in the way…I realize what you are trying to do, I cannot override the safety.”

He gritted his teeth, pulled his hand back, “Do it.”

The door snapped closed and there was a whisper of sound.  Suddenly a section of the wall appeared to be a vid screen though Rif knew it was a direct feed into his eyes.  He ‘saw’ the bag drop onto the floor of the tunnel, the colors were odd, he realized that there was no light in the tunnel, he was seeing via some kind of synthesized imagery generated somewhere in Rose’s, or the Quadong’s, crystalline ‘mind.’

He rolled to sit on the floor, “Bring the suitcase back up to the cabin Rose.”  He drew his legs up and dropped his chin onto his knees, “Ginger, anything down there?”

Sudden sound of breathing in his ear, “No Captain, nothing.  I’ve had Ginny sweep everything, gone everywhere myself, she’s not here…”  There was desperation, near panic in her voice, though she was keeping control somehow.  She gulped, “We need to turn around and go back Captain, she must have gotten off when we were on City of London, somehow.”

“Wait one Ginger, Rif out.”  He sat there staring at the wall thinking, flipping things through his mind.  After much more than a minute he rolled to his feet and walked to the front wall, looked down through the transparency into the moonlit glow of the sea far below.

“Captain, are we going back?”  Ginger’s voice whispered across the breadth of the aircraft.

“Not yet Ginger, go get yourself a drink, see if Frank can get you a good sherry.  That’s an order Ginger.”  He pitched his voice low and warm for that last.

“Rif?” her voice was near to breaking.

“The sherry Ginger, and remember this is not something that’s your fault.”

“R…”

“Ginger! Sherry! Now!  You are off duty for at least fifteen minutes, no calls.  Rif out.”

He stared out into infinite darkness for a long moment, then Rose spoke softly, “There is no standard protocol for this but the closest I can find is Man Overboard and there the practice is to turnaround as quickly possible to get back to the site of the last sighting.”

“I’m standing in that site Rose.  It doesn’t matter where the shell is; there is no way Emily Woods got out of this room, even less this aircraft.”  No answer, Rose was after all a computer; she had even less imagination than the ultra grounded Ginger.

There was a buzz. “A call coming through for Emily Woods comm Rif.” Rose said softly.

Rif jerked to look at the suitcase.  He moved towards it, looked down into the smaller of the two; saw the comm, a flip phone form, now a centuries old icon, still used for children’s comms.  Next to the comm was the dress he’d seen Emily in first, and next to that the nighty he’d glimpsed later.

An idea floated into his mind, “Mass balance?  Rose, review the mass balance at City of London.”

“Reviewing…uhm, what am I looking for Rif?”

“The passenger jetty and the cargo lifts all weigh things and feed it to mass balance.  If Emily Woods got off the ship there should be a discrepancy of, what? Thirty pounds? Somewhere, somewhen?”

Silence, then, “Your logic is flawless as far as I can tell Rif.  As I think you had already guessed there is no discrepancy.  In fact there is not a thirty pound discrepancy during the whole flight, waste holding tank flushing even balances.  Emily Woods is still aboard.”

Rif looked out into the darkness, didn’t reply, stood thinking in silence.

There was another buzz, “Another call to Emily’s comm Rif.”

He ignored it, “Ginger?”

“Rif?”

“You follow the tabloids; I seem to remember something about Katrina Woods a few months ago?”

“Ehh…uhm, huh?” Ginger mumbled.

“Focus Ginger, Katrina Woods.”

“Yes, I know…uhm; well she’s been in and out of the rags for years, even before she was Katrina Woods.  She’s got a temper and when she’s drunk she loses control.  About six months ago it got out that she had been in some kind of rehab.  She, they, met the press as she was leaving, loving husband, loving daughter, all one loving family.  She swore that she had learnt how to control her temper and drinking and was going home again.  No one had known she was in, let alone what for.  There were rumors that she’d done something pretty horrific and it had been hushed up, but whatever hush money was paid must have been effective, not a peep from anywhere, then something else came up and she dropped out of sight after that.”

“Rose can you show me vid from that press conference?”

An image appeared floating in space a few feet in front of him, a picture of a willowy blonde who some might consider beautiful, next to the broad, stubby Cal Woods, smiling cheerfully for the masses.  And between them was Emily, a little younger, a little smaller, an elfin smile on an elfin face, eyes sparkling, darting here and there with bright interest.

“Rif, what’s the matter, why aren’t we going back to City of London?”  Ginger asked, her voice much firmer now.  His mouth twitched faintly, the sherry had done its job, it was all psychology, the small amount of alcohol would have had no time to affect her yet, if it ever would.

“We’re not going back Ginger, Emily didn’t get off there…she never got off.”

“She’s still aboard, you found her!”

He shook his head into the darkness, “No, I didn’t Ginger, I couldn’t have, we couldn’t have.  You see Emily Woods was never aboard.”

“What!”

“I’ll tell you later. Rif out.  Rose, block my comm for now; continue to record me to the log.”

A buzz sounded in the darkness.

Rif reached down, looked at the flip phone display, the name Cal Woods appeared.  He grimaced in sadness.  He flipped the phone open.  “Mr. Woods.”

Silence, then, “What is going on?  Who is that?  Is that you Gibbons?  What are you doing with my daughter’s comm?”

“You know very well what I’m doing with her comm, Mr. Woods.”

“What do you mean?”  But the explosion was weak, shivering.

“I’m sorry about what happened Mr. Woods, I’m sure that you would have done anything in god’s universe to prevent it.  But I cannot let you slide the suspicion, blame, destruction onto me or my crew.  That’s almost worse than you trying to protect your wife after all that’s happened.”

“What?”  It was a whine, not a call to arms, not the powerful Cal Woods, but the terribly hurt father to Emily and husband to Katrina.

“You did a good job, but you don’t know enough about modern airliners.  Everything is weighed going on and off, everything balanced so the control system knows exactly how to react to gusts the lidar sensors detect before they reach the fuselage.  Otherwise we couldn’t let people wander around aboard all the time.  I know that Emily never got off this aircraft.  I also know that she never left this room, that her clothes are all neatly folded in her suitcase along with her comm.  The only non-sensor locked exits are the air-ducts and no human, not even Emily, could escape that way.”

“You’re mad, some madman has her!” Bluster building in Woods’ voice, but fear as well.

“I can have things checked Mr. Woods, I think we will find that nothing was eaten in this room after you deplaned in Denver.  Nothing drunk, not even any air breathed.  Emily was here only as a pale ghost that you left to damn me and my crew.  You work in reality action shows, dangerous reality action shows, people get hurt in them quite often, but that’s unintentional, for the real dangerous action you use maniform stand-ins, robots that can reconfigure themselves to look like almost anything, almost anyone, even a child, and that can disassemble and reassemble themselves.  Somewhere onboard this aircraft is something that used to look like your daughter, now it looks like something else, but knowing what to look for the police will find it quickly enough, it won’t have a chance to escape and dispose of itself which I would guess is its current programming.”

“No…”

Rif drove on, “That’s why she was so shy, seemed so stilted, tired, dull, you had programmed her to make sure that no one would try and touch her, and you made sure than no one had a chance to touch her.  That would have ruined the illusion.”  His voice was rising, hammering in his own pain and rage, he pulled himself up, it was enough.

Drawing a deep breath he went on more quietly, “I am so very sorry about your daughter Mr. Woods, I am sorry that your wife killed her.  But you cannot keep protecting her.  I have to imagine you’ve been paupering yourself to protect her for years now, but somehow you never believed she’d be dangerous to Emily, until it happened.”

Silence stretched out, then a wheeze a sob, a great tearing sob, then, “Oh god…oh my good god, my Emily…my dearest, my sweetest Emily!  My poor damned Katerina!  How? How could I lose them both?”  The voice was drowned by deep tearing sobs and then the comm went silent.

Rif dropped the comm back onto the clothes and walked to the transparency that looked out into the depths of forever.  For a long moment he looked down onto the shimmering surface of the Pacific so many miles below.  Then he looked up and up, towards the stars, stars that were blurred by tears.  He felt that he had lost something precious, and in a sense he had.

He should call Ginger, tell her, but he knew he couldn’t, not now, not without breaking down.  Emily had never been here, never been within a hundred miles of the great Quadong Lectra and yet he knew that her pale gray ghost would haunt him forever.

Time passed and the tide of emotion faded.  He moved away from the transparency, as he moved a soft tone sounded, Rose letting a link through, “Rif? This is Ginger….Rose told me.”  Her voice was thick with tears as well, he knew she’d be haunted as well.

He sighed, “I know, I know.  That poor little girl, she never had a chance, and that retched bastard would have gotten away with protecting his wife by ruining us if I hadn’t realized what he’d done.”

Ginger sighed, “Glad it was you on the spot Rif, thanks.” And the line closed.

Rose spoke, “The police have just arrested Woods, something got out and someone from the house just blabbed to a paparazzi that Mrs. Woods has been in an institution for the criminally insane for several weeks.”

Rif walked to the edge of the deck again and looked out with his hands clasped behind his back.  Maybe he should think about his life, maybe that piece of him that had died in the war, the impulse to do something, be something, matter to someone, wasn’t completely dead.  The stars were opening up and maybe, just maybe he should be thinking about leaving this sad old world for a new frontier.  

He’d have to think about it, maybe he’d talk to Ginger about it some more.

 The End

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