Chapter 15 - A Mystery On Our Hands

ELA-Prep, Sky Ring Library

Friday, July 18, 2498

"Next: Dominica Chard – anything new, or just the same old crap?"

On Friday afternoons, the Vice Chancellor held a brief round-table with a team from each grade level for discipline determination. It was Toki's least favorite part of the job.

"Not really. Most of the kids steer clear of her, fortunately. I'd like to see her put half as much effort into her class work as she does trying to establish herself on top of the pecking order," Master Undega said.

"I doubt that will happen. Getting other people to do her work for her is a power trip, and she's enjoying every minute of it." Izel Arredondo particularly disliked a sneak.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Bevin Rousseau did not bother to look up from the game on his pocket con. "I never have any problems with her anymore."

"Oh, like hell you don't," the counselor said, reaching for a doughnut from the tray. "You know she bullies Penelope Peterson into letting her copy her assignments."

"Have to be able to prove that, Izel," Toki said. "So far, Peterson's denying it."

"Besides, she knows I'm watching Penny now," said Bevin, tapping his screen rapidly. "She's switched to hitting up Jane Oshiro - damn, missed it..."

"If we can catch her at it, then we can address it. Since we have yet to do so conclusively," Toki tapped the file closed on the desk console, "we continue to give her Maintenance Time as needed. Just so you all know," he added, leaning back in his chair, "Dominica has been offered the use of an E.L. pocket con repeatedly, so don't let her play that card. Pencil and paper work is by her choice, at this point, but if she makes it past first term she will no longer have that option."

"She's trying to make it a point of pride, oddly enough," said Juniper Undega. "At least the lack of a pocket con puts her off the watch list as the source of the leaked images."

"We'd know if anything was coming in or out over a student's pocket con, hon," said Fitz, one hand idly stroking his wife's rounded belly. "It's got to be an intern, or maybe someone on the 'Eye on the EL' staff. The tabloids try this anytime a celebrity enters a child in the system."

"Doesn't matter who it is," Bevin muttered, "it's still a - no, no, NO! Damn! Missed it..."

"They do, Fitzy, but the timing is horrible," Juniper replied. "Now some low-level talking head on U.M. Today is claiming that all the publicity about the cancelled contract negotiations gave the kidnappers the cover they needed to get close to the boy."

"Idiots," the Math master snorted. "Blue - blue - where's the blue..."

"Oh, you can be sure the Chancellor had a word or two to say about that statement," the Vice Chancellor assured them. "Pure speculation!"

"It means they've run out of facts," said Izel. "Unfortunately, the general public takes that kind of speculation as fact."

"And it may be a fact," Toki replied. "It still doesn't mean the Dacianons are connected. The Internal Security department should have anticipated the additional attention from the press. Huckerby knew well in advance, and should have taken precautions," he added, taking the last doughnut. "These are delicious, Fitz."

"Thanks - the kids did a good job on them. Next week," Fitzroy added brightly, "we're making pemmican!"

"Really? I'll have to stop in..."

"Our problem in the mean time," Juniper sighed, "is that Caly Dacianon has been reacting with fists and feet to anyone who looks at her cross-eyed. She may have had more than sufficient provocation where Dominica Chard is concerned, but she got into it yesterday with a group of 7th graders who were just trying to get a rise out of her -

" - not to mention the elopement attempts," huffed Bevin. "No - no - not green, you idiot, I touched blue! Blue," he muttered, furiously tapping. "Crap!"

"I think we're all agreed that there needs to be a consequence," said Izel, "but I'm more concerned with the way she's been isolating herself lately - even from her Bowermates. It's just making the gossip problem worse."

"What are we supposed to do about that?" Bevin snorted, tossing his pocket con on the table in disgust. "I think we should consider blocking the whole damn 6th grade! Kids at this age have no sense of the consequences of their actions!"

"Bevin, enough, okay?" Izel held up her hands in frustration. "Of course children aren't mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions – that's why they call it childhood."

"Their frontal lobes haven't made those connections yet, Bev," added Juniper, retrieving the Math Master's console and patiently resetting his game. "Children's brains are wired differently than ours - that's why it's so hard to get accurate Reception on a child, or any Hindsight on them at all."

She handed the console back, and the older man hunkered back down.

"Speaking of," asked Fitzroy, "was Chava Aedsson able to isolate any blocks on that Constantinos girl?"

"Niko's sister? Not a thing, unfortunately," said Toki. "But it was worth a try." He rubbed a hand over his eyes wearily. "Chava is an extraordinary child, but she's only five. Besides, Mina Constantinos may not be blocked," he added. "This could all be a legitimate trauma reaction."

"In the meantime, we have a few more extraordinary children to cover. I'm sorry to say it," Izel said, "but I recommend Caly Dacianon for Friday night detention."

"I have to agree," Toki sighed. "Any objections? No? Done," he said, making the notation. "Next - anyone have any idea why Ulysses Manning is cutting his Function and Society class on Thunder Ring? Does he have a problem with Master Pakulski?"

"No! No - where's the blue one? Crap! Missed it..."

In the Athletic Center, Caly Dacianon's pocket con pinged. She tapped the message light, and read in silence.

"Next match," called the referee. "Take your positions!"

Without a word to her opponent, Caly stalked off the field. At the locker room door she ripped her targeting stickers from her keikogi and tossed them in the reclamation bin, jaw clenched.

Grounded… Caly had chosen hand-to-hand practice every free choice slot she had since her fight with Dominica. Tonight, she planned to issue her first challenge in the Alley. Tonight, she was going to make up for three weeks of whispers, of rolled eyes and curled lips; three weeks of ignoring every friendly overture from her Bowermates, whose sympathy she couldn't bear any more easily than she could the snide remarks of Dominica and her crowd.

"Ooooh, in a hurry, Lady Calypso?" cooed Dominica as Caly entered the commons room. "Don't want to be late for detention!"

Jane Oshiro giggled. "Oooh, good one, Dominica!"

It was all Caly could do to keep moving in a straight line.

"Shut up, Chard."

"I wasn't talking to you, Ferguson."

"Yeah, she wasn't talking to you…"

"Chard, Oshiro, you just bought yourself another hour each MT."

"What?"

Ryo stuck his tongue out.

"I saw that – you too, Ferguson," called Siboney through the kitchen hatch.

"She started it!"

"I did not!" Dominica shook out her hair and re-settled her headband, the pink crystals flashing a streak of prismatic light across Caly's path. "I'm out of here," she said, flouncing off towards her own Bower. "So long, losers!"

"And where do you think you're going, Chard? You still have three more bins to empty."

"Jane will do it. I have to get ready to meet Jayraj!"

"Oh, I say," huffed Vladimir Mavrakos. "That's hardly fair - Jane isn't even in Lotus!"

"Just let her go," the other Lotus boy, Aaron Tabashnikov said, rolling his eyes. "She just slows everything down!"

"I do not!"

Sib slid the kitchen hatch closed to shut out the bickering and put her head down on the counter. Her first term as an RA was not going as well as she'd planned.

"I am going to wring the necks of every last one of them," she groaned. "Are they all like this?"

"Pretty much." Honi slid a pan of rolls out of the top drawer of the TempraTop and overturned it into the breadbasket. "First term, at least. Things will settle down a little after wash-out."

Honani Walton was in his second year of internship. RAs were paired up that way, a second year with a first, for good reason – acting as surrogate parents for two dozen middle schoolers was every bit as demanding as most of the military assignments available to ELA-Prep graduates.

"Do many kids actually wash out?" Sib removed the last pan of fried chicken from the lower drawer and transferred the pieces to a serving tray. "No one did in my class."

"Fewer than probably should – these days, the E.L. needs anyone they can get. You got the salad dressing?"

"Right here. My Mom said they might have to change the no-recruitment policy and start calling up Declineds to fill all the openings."

"I doubt that'll ever happen – too big a cultural shift."

Honi tapped his con. "Ding, ding, ding! C'mon, piggies, time to hit the trough," he said, opening the service hatch. "Oh, for the love of - look at this," he snorted in disgust. "Raptor, get your lazy butts out here! Dinner duty means you set the table before dinner! C'mon, let's go, let's go!"

Caly let the water run over her, ignoring the dinner call. Once she'd figured out that the shower stalls offered the only real privacy in the school, she had quickly become the most hygiene-conscious child in her class.

Siboney was waiting for her at the study table with a tray when she emerged. "Don't worry about coming out. Herons just had air filter duty and they were the first ones finished." She'd made sure of that, herding the other three Herons through the job and making sure they changed clothes and got out of the Bower as quickly as possible. "No one likes to be stared at when they're in trouble," she'd reminded them.

"Thanks," Caly muttered, her throat tight. At least she wouldn't have to face the class again before going.

"Friday night detention is in the library at the Visitors Center," Sib said as she rose. "I'll run you up there after everybody else is gone. Full uniform, and bring something to do, or Master ten Haagen will give you something really boring to work on."

The Sherman Lone Elk Memorial Library in the Visitors Center, unlike the libraries in the school Rings, contained books. Actual, real, hardbound books – Caly had never seen so many in one place, even in the clearsteel cases lining the Heritage Wing of Artemis Manor. She would love to have spent the evening just looking at them, but according to the protocol scrolling across her pocket con they were off-limits to students on Detention.

Other students arrived, escorted through the carved wooden archway by their RAs. They were mostly older, and (from the color of their sashes) mostly from the more populated Rings. Many of them seemed to know each other; one took up a spot on the couch by the Reference Desk, sprawled out, and closed his eyes.

'Log into Detention at the Reference Desk by placing your thumb print on the screen next to your name,' a recorded voice repeated. 'Prohibited areas are marked on the central screen in red. You are required to remain in Detention for a minimum of 120 consecutive minutes…'

Two hours. Caly dropped her shoulder bag on a study carrel in an alcove by the Reference Desk, where she could keep her back to the wall. She turned the seats at the adjoining desks face outward, to block the way. Nothing could have said 'keep out' more clearly.

The Dean of Students checked the time on his console then tapped for amplification. "Take your seats, please. Off the couch, Mr. Franaszek," Master ten Haagen said, fixing the would-be napper with a deadly eye. "Find something school-related to work on, or work will be provided for you. You may study in groups with a damper on only, and only if your group remains on-task - yes, Ms. Yaeger, I am indeed addressing that requirement in particular to you," he said, standing over the shoulder of an older girl who was carrying on whispered conversation with her tablemate. "Do not act in any manner that will lead me to recommend that we spend any more time together than absolutely necessary. Do I make myself clear?"

Caly reached into the side pocket of her shoulderbag. She'd taken to keeping the data tab there, after Ayan found it beneath the Melodine.

Nothing. She felt around the bottom of the bag, then in all of her pockets - still nothing.

A cold knot of guilt and anxiety formed in her stomach. She had stolen that tab - she had deliberately taken something that was not hers, something she had never done before, even in her worst moments at Dionysius Point - and the theft continued to weigh on her. What if it had dropped out of her bag? What if she had lost it, before she ever had the chance to return it? She'd told herself over and over again that she would, once she'd had the chance to watch all the interviews.

Caly raised her hand. "Master ten Haagen?" she asked tentatively, when she had his attention. "I - I left something behind that I - I was - working on - could I - ?"

One elegant black brow raised on the high, dark forehead. "Could you what, Ms. Dacianon?" he asked, as everyone stared. "Could you leave Detention to retrieve your - whatever it is?"

There were sniggers from the older students.

Caly swallowed past the lump in her throat and continued stubbornly. "It's important - it's a project - for a class - "

"Amerigo?" Through the arched entryway strode Dr. Toki Bethancourt in a bright fuschia uni and running slips, the rest of the Sky Herons of the 6th grade, 3rd start, close behind. "Ah - there you are! Sorry to interupt, but it seems a few of my students would rather work on a class project with their Bowermate then go to Friday Night Freedom," Toki said with an easy gesture towards the alcove by the Reference Desk. He took in the wary face and the barricade of chairs with a casual eye. "I'm sure they'll be no trouble, if it's alright with you?"

"As long as they comply with the same restrictions as any other student in Detention, I have no objections," the Dean replied, eyeing the newcomers in their Friday night gear with an affronted air. "Certainly they look as if they could use practice for the inevitability of their less willing attendance."

"Don't mind him," the Vice Chancellor whispered, gesturing the three to go on. "He spent a good many Friday nights in Detention himself, thirty years ago." With a nod and a wave, he was gone.

"Take your seats and activate a damper." Master ten Haagen dismissed them with a snort, resuming the relentless pacing between the aisles that he would maintain throughout the evening. "This is not a social hour, Ms. Yaeger. I do not intend to remind you again..."

"Why are you here?" Caly blurted as soon as the blue glow of the damper enveloped their alcove.

"Three reasons," said Ayan, holding up three stubby brown fingers. "First, because we're Sky Herons, and we belong together. Second," she dropped one finger, "because when Elias told me about that tab that you used to keep under the unicorn statue, I told him I already knew about it and then we showed it to Ryo and then - "

"You what?" Caly jumped out of her seat, horrified. Elias had been interested in the interview they had watched together - had even talked her into backing it up so that he could see it from the beginning - but had never mentioned it again after that night. "You told them?" He turned on the green-eyed boy. "I trusted you!"

"No, you didn't, but you should have. Besides," he shrugged, "Ayan knows all about this Kokolos guy, and some of those other people, too. We've already watched the rest of the interviews."

"You - already - watched..." Caly was still stunned.

"Eh-hem." Ayan cleared her throat, still holding up one finger. "Third, because those aren't actors," she said, swinging legs too short to reach the carpet in the adult-sized chairs, "I know, because one of them came to my school, and he talked to me."

"And I knew they weren't actors, because I looked at the playback code and there was no prompting feed," said Ryo. "You have to have a prompting feed to sync to the director's notes."

"What are you talking about? What do you know about - "

"Ryo knows," said Ayan promptly. "His mom is an editor with Interplanetary Public Broadcasting."

"But - "

"So after that," Elias continued, "these two went all Hopper Team on me - "

"I did a search on the voice patterns," interrupted Ryo.

"And I ran an alias check with my Interplanapol ID," added Ayan.

" - and it looks like we have a mystery on our hands," finished Elias, swinging casually in the desk chair.

"Ooooooh!" Ayan shivered, "that's what Haji always says!"

"Haji?" Caly sat down, bewildered. "Haji who?"

"Haji - you know -" Elias rolled his eyes and looked away, a spot of red deepening on his red-brown cheeks. "Haji Tamburlaine. From the Hopper Team mysteries."

"Haji is Daring and Headstrong," said Ayan. Her voice put capital letters on the words. "And I'm Tallula Running Fox, the Spy," she added in an excited whisper.

"Whoa!" Ryo spun wildly in his chair, leaping to his feet. "And I'm swift and silent, just like Kofi Sifusi!"

A red warning glow suffused the damper field. Master ten Haagen turned and tapped his console. "Ms. Dacianon, your friends have just provided you with the gift of an extra ten minutes of Detention," he said. "The next time you exceed either the sound or motion limits, that gift will increase to half an hour. Do I make myself clear?"

"We were just - "

"I do not desire an explanation, Ms. Dacianon," the Dean cut her off, resuming his prowl between the aisles. "Merely compliance."

The red glow faded from the blue.

"Sorry," Ryo whispered sheepishly.

Caly looked warily from one excited (if chagrined) Bowermate to another. Ayan's hands were folded neatly in her lap, but somehow she still gave the impression that she would bounce out of her chair at the slightest provocation. Even Elias, as cool and calm as always, could barely suppress a grin.

Suddenly, she could stand it no longer. "I stole it. I stole the data tab. That little girl we saw in the Tech Lab that first day, she brought it to the office to leave it for someone, and I - " Caly lowered her head, deeply ashamed, " - I picked it up and walked away with it."

"Pay up, Ferguson."

"Aw, man!"

"Told ya she'd swiped it from a teacher!" Elias said, as his Bowermate tapped his wristband. "Ferg thought you'd brought it from home."

"You - you bet that I took it?"

"Cal, it's just a data tab - you picked up a data tab that someone left lying around. It's not that big a deal!"

"It's a big deal to me." Her throat hurt, and her eyes burned. Two fat tears spilled out and ran down her face. "I took something that doesn't belong to me," she said miserably. "We don't do that."

"'We'? Who's 'we'?" The other three members of the Heron bower looked at each other. "Oh - this is a royal thing, huh?" Elias said.

Caly didn't answer.

"Okay, then I guess it is a big deal. What do you want to do now?"

What do I want to do now? Caly took a deep breath, and wiped her face with her open palm, resolved. "I have to return it, even if they send me home. It doesn't belong to me."

"Do you know who it does belong to?" Ayan asked.

"Well - no, not exactly." Caly said. She hadn't thought about that. "That girl told the lady at the desk that it was supposed to go to somebody, but - " she tried, but for the life of her she could not bring the name to mind. "I can't remember who it was, and I haven't seen the girl around here for a while, either."

"Then let's figure out what the interviews are for. That could help us figure out who it belongs to, and then we can return it," Ayan said brightly.

"Yeah!" Ryo said, eyes wide. "Makes sense, doesn't it?"

"I don't know how much sense it makes, Ferguson, but if that's what Caly needs to do, then that's what we'll do. So...?" Elias looked at her expectantly.

"So? So what?" Caly demanded bluntly. "What are you all looking at me for?"

"We're waiting for your orders, of course," said Ayan, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. "You're Clarity Gupta - our leader."

Caly looked from one to the other. "You're insane. All of you."

"Told you she'd say that," Elias shrugged.

"Because that's what Clarity always says," Ayan continued unfazed. "Remember what Grandmother Gupta told her, in 'Harvest on Harskogur'? She said 'Every good leader starts out with some reluctance to lead.'"

"That's true," Ryo nodded. "I'll bet even Prince Tadashi - "

"Tadashi was never reluctant to lead," Caly said quietly. "He knew he was the best choice to head the colony on Mahana, and the best choice to be the first King of the United Monarchy, because he had trained all his life to serve - "

She stopped. Tadashi had trained all his life, with no expectation that he would ever be called upon to rule - just as she had. The tutors, the weekends at Camp Royal, the ceremonies in Unity Hall on Mahana, the lectures on holding yourself to a higher standard, the hours spent sitting in on boring committee meetings, making notes on her mother's pocket con - her mother hadn't needed her to make those notes.

With a strange clarity, she heard her mother's voice in her mind: No matter how this day ends for you, each of you has value for being exactly who - and what - you are...

And I am trained to be a leader, she thought, the realization hitting her. That is exactly who - and what - I am... "Right." She straightened in her seat, and enlarged her pocket con screen. "Okay, Hopper Team, show me what you've got."