by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
part 1 and part 2
appear in this issue.
Chapter 12: John F. Kennedy Welcomes You
Toni passed smoothly back through Irish departure controls and was soon on board the Airbus A330, relaxing in his luxury seat in business class and relishing the unlimited complimentary champagne.
He was well aware of the small amount of time he would have to spare in New York City, and was praying to no-one in particular for an on-schedule departure and arrival, and a minimal entry delay at Kennedy Airport. As the huge machine left the ground, he thanked whichever gods were listening for being with him at this stage of his journey at least, and he set his watch back a further five hours.
Up on the Mater, the Captain ordered the resetting of their own Earth clock. All systems were once again “Go” for the double task of tracking Toni and the radimote across the Atlantic, while simultaneously moving the star-craft itself out of the African orbital parking lot and back into its previous bay in the Central American. The Captain was hoping, as always, to avoid being caught out and having to pay for their already-long stay.
Since they had set their orbit a little beyond that of the Earth’s many geostationary satellites, there was negligible risk of collisions, of course. No — she just had to trust that these extra uses of their drive systems, for the special re-positioning manoeuvres, in addition to the continuous readjustments needed to keep the Mater, too, in its artificially “stationary” orbit, would continue to remain totally undetected on Earth.
Her trust was well placed. Throughout this complex operation, the star-craft’s navigation, drive and stealth systems would perform their tasks to perfection once again.
It was the on-board power systems which would let her down.
* * *
Toni’s generous travel arrangers had not been asked to extend their patronage to include a reservation of the expensive adjacent seat for occasional radimotic use. So he had been joined on the flight by an immaculately dressed Irishman, who had at once set to working intently with a sheaf of business documents and a small computer. After a polite ‘Good afternoon’ as he sat down, he had given Toni no further attention.
Toni was a little disappointed with this situation. He had had an inkling and a vague hope that Carla might join him in the virtual flesh, if the opportunity should arise. But that was clearly not possible now. And even if she didn’t show her face, but simply tried to chat with him, unseen, it would have to be rather a one-way affair, or this businessman would get very annoyed with the spectacle of Toni whispering back to himself.
But Carla and Quo were entertaining rather different plans, and were awaiting their moment.
Two hours into the flight, after finally eating something to absorb the free-flowing alcohol, their Illuminator had closed his eyes and dozed off. The un-made Carla, who had been watching him closely through the adjacent window, shifted her position from the external fuselage of the Airbus to the comfort of Toni’s lap, and smoothly initiated Doman congress.
Good evening, Toni. No, please don’t get up. Continue to relax ...
I told you I would be talking to you next in America, but there are one or two things we have neglected to mention over the past two days. And there is something it would be best for you to forget.
‘I’m not really up to speed on any of this yet, Quo.’
Everything is fine. And it will all become clearer.
Please listen carefully. We know from experience that you will be asked to fill out a short form before the plane arrives in New York. This is standard procedure for European citizens, including those from Spain, who wish to make a time-limited visit to the United States. It is called the Visa Waiver Program.
You will need to declare to the authorities that you are simply taking some vacation, to get away from the hothouse pressures of the Conservatorio — we have already sorted that out for you with your tutor, Toni — and that you will be staying in America for no more than three months ... hence your return air ticket.
‘OK, I think I understand all that ...’
Good. Now, it will also be necessary ... oh, just one moment please, Toni ... ah, I fear you must bear with me for a little longer ... please remain in your seat ...
Those aboard the Mater had become used to suffering bad luck during their first few weeks of Earth observation. Sometimes it had been nobody’s fault. Often they had fallen victim to human errors of judgement, and worse. Occasionally even they themselves had miscalculated the way things would go.
And they had needed time, in the very early days, to calibrate their fixing receivers in their planned efforts to minimise the “worry impact” on Earth of those three major energy bursts. Despite their eventual success on that front, impact a-plenty there had indeed been.
But the star-craft’s sophisticated systems had never failed them. Until today.
Quo had paused in her briefing of Toni because she and her colleagues had just recognised that a brief central power surge on the Mater had caused the radimote support systems to switch automatically over to a backup circuit.
The very short but finite period of such a switchover, which happened from time to time and was not considered to carry any significant operational risk, typically caused a minor rise in the level of the top-up energy feed to the radimote. The result, as normal, was a slight and instantaneous increase in the excess energy bleed-off from the invisible core capacitor of the radimote itself.
Having established clearly in her mind that the hiccup she had noticed was a perfectly standard one, Quo felt quite happy to continue with the suspended briefing.
I am sorry about that, Toni. Where was I? Oh yes ...
In Dublin, you clearly overheard Carla’s telephone conversation with Jeff Dean, about an apparent meeting between the two of you in Venice, last month. Now, to remove the confusion which I know this has caused you, and to avoid any future difficulties associated with your memory of the past few weeks, you will at once forget everything that you have just heard about those events in Venice ...
An excess energy dissipation of the sort which had just occurred was invariably confined to the small, room-sized extent of the radimote sphere, and the temporarily higher energy loss always remained well below the attention-triggering levels of any Earth-based monitoring systems.
But it was stronger than the radiation from any mobile phone or electronic game, and was more than enough to disturb the delicate circuits of a commercial jetliner, especially when emanating from a seat very close to the cockpit.
The First Officer reacted to the warning alarm at once, ran quickly through an emergency checklist, and satisfied himself that no harm had been done and that all systems were working correctly, following the sudden burst of interference. The Airbus Captain, carefully watching the execution of this procedure as he continued to monitor the flight itself, concurred with his colleague’s decision, and agreed “Alert Over.”
While the First Officer set about writing up his incident report in the flight log, the Captain called the Purser and requested an urgent visual “Check and Record” to be followed by an immediate announcement that, for reasons associated with adverse weather conditions, passengers must at once switch off all electronic devices, and under no circumstances operate any such equipment for the remainder of the flight.
Quo meanwhile remained happily unaware of such alarms.
Next, Toni, you will need to take a taxi from the airport direct to Mr Dean’s apartment ...
The Purser had issued a rapid coded communication to the crew, and within sixty seconds they had walked the entire aircraft and made discreet notes of the seat numbers of all passengers using such devices. The business class steward had recorded the very real laptop working hard for the gentleman in the seat next to Toni, but had paid no attention to the sleeping young Spaniard himself, and could not possibly have noticed the virtual laptop which had caused all the trouble.
Now, Carla will join you for that taxi ride. But when you arrive at Jeff Dean’s front door ...
The Purser’s loud and dramatic announcement suddenly intruded into Quo’s own communications, and she stopped in mid-flow to allow the radimote to pick up all the details. As soon as Carla the Handler had put two and two together and drawn the obvious conclusion about the cause of the on-board scare, they agreed that Toni’s briefing should be suspended until it was completely safe to proceed. So there would be no further radimote operations for the duration of the flight.
Carla was mildly disappointed with their joint decision. She too had been hoping to get much closer to Toni again, once all the practical business had been done. He might have been obliged to forget about their earlier romantic times together, but she certainly hadn’t ...
Nearly two hours later, when Toni awoke from his long snooze, blissfully unaware of any of this excitement, he found his taciturn travelling companion working only with business papers and no laptop, and looking even more unapproachable than he had at the start.
Toni privately reconfirmed his earlier decision never to disturb the man. Instead, he pulled out his CD player and a good book, and passed the next hour reading, with his favourite singer’s music ringing in his ears for a few minutes until an observant steward firmly requested him to switch it off at once.
* * *
At seven o’clock Eastern Daylight Time, the First Officer was pleased to report to his passengers that today’s westerly winds had been lighter than average, and that they would be landing a good fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. ‘Great,’ thought Toni. ‘Second target met.’ And he was even happier when he discovered that business class passengers were able to disembark with priority.
He soon found himself near the head of the initial immigration queue. Things improved still further when an official began to move down the line, checking boarding cards against a clipboard list, and inviting all those who had been operating electronic equipment at the time of the incident to kindly move to a separate queue for special processing. That nicely removed five or six of the very important people ahead of him, including a now highly aggravated Irish businessman. This was going so well!
He reached the head of the queue. The Immigration Officer called him forward, and he presented his passport and green form. The computer system was consulted, an eyebrow was raised, and a button was discreetly pressed.
Only seconds later, with Toni still blithely awaiting the return of his passport and short-stay visa, a voice spoke gently from just behind him.
‘Would you care to step over here for a moment, please, sir?’
He turned and discovered that the voice belonged to a small lady wearing a very smart suit and flanked by two much larger gentlemen and a heavily armed police officer.
‘Oh no,’ he blurted out, ‘... not again!’
Another eyebrow was raised, and this one’s owner decided to allow her mark just five seconds to co-operate before raising the stakes. Just in time, Toni decided for himself that co-operation would definitely be the best course of action.
* * *
They had sat him down in a small, over-illuminated room, devoid of furniture save for a grey metal table and two upright chairs. A large mirror adorned the wall facing him. He was fuming inside, and had already consulted his watch twice, but after realising how ill-advised his first outburst might well have been, he had decided to keep his mouth firmly shut until specifically invited to open it.
In a small room behind the two-way mirror, several people were impassively readying themselves to observe proceedings. And from the corner of the interview room itself, Carla was watching too — more unseen than any of them, and harbouring far greater personal concerns.
The lady in the suit had finished studying Toni’s papers and the contents of his wallet, and was consulting a sheet of computer printout.
‘Señor Murano, my name is Sarah. Do you require an interpreter?’
‘No, I don’t!’
‘As you wish. What is the purpose of your visit?’
‘I wrote that on the green form you’re looking at.’
‘Please tell me in your own words.’
‘It’s a pleasure trip. I’m taking time out from my studies.’
‘Have you visited the United States before?’
‘I would have expected you to know that already.’
‘Have you visited the United States before?’
‘When did you decide to come here?’
‘Well ... on Saturday.’
‘That’s a very a sudden decision for such a trip.’
‘That’s when I decided. The time was right.’
‘And you went via Dublin?’
‘Because I wanted to see Dublin.’
‘Where will you be staying tonight, before you fly on to Columbia?’
‘With a friend of a friend in Manhattan.’
‘Name and address?’
‘His name’s Jeff Dean. But I can’t remember his address. It’s in my wallet ...’
‘Yes, I have it here.’
‘Well, there you are then!’
‘Señor Murano, we are not convinced that you should be granted entry to the United States.’
‘Because of your record.’
‘I don’t have a record! I’ve committed no crimes!’
‘I have not mentioned a criminal record. But our information shows that you were apprehended as a terrorist suspect in Spain, only four weeks ago. Is this correct?’
‘Yes, but ...’
‘And that immediately after your provisional release you fled to Italy, where you were apparently kidnapped and held hostage for two weeks. Correct?’
‘Yes, and ...’
‘And that you were then secretly smuggled across two European borders and inexplicably released, back in Spain. Correct again?’
‘But that you have insisted on no further police action in the pursuit of your criminal kidnappers. Home run, Señor Murano?’
‘What? Look, this is ...’
‘Finally, there was an inexplicable incident of major electronic interference on board your flight this afternoon. Tying up rather well with the circumstances of your detention in Bilbao ...’
‘Perhaps you now understand our mild reservations on the subject of your application for an entry visa?’
‘No, I don’t. I’ve read the green form declaration, and I’ve signed it ...’
Toni stopped speaking, surprised he had not been interrupted yet again. Silence reigned. It was clearly his turn now. The anger and frustration he had eventually experienced with the Spanish authorities, back at that Bilbao café, had returned and was rapidly multiplying ten-fold.
‘Listen. I have committed no offence. Ever. Yes, the police and the military questioned me a few weeks ago in Bilbao, but it was all a huge misunderstanding. Yes, I was kidnapped, by people who must have been involved in whatever it was the police were worried about. Yes, they kept me hostage, but they looked after me well, and they brought me home again, and they didn’t harm me. And yes, my parents want to forget about it all, and so do I. And the Spanish police have closed the matter. I’m innocent and I’m free. This is the Land of the Free, I believe, and I demand to be allowed to enter it, under the Visa Waiver Program agreement which exists today between Spain and the United States of America!’
In the corner, Carla was silently applauding like a Doman demon.
‘Time out, Señor Murano,’ said Sarah. ‘Please remain seated.’
Leaving Toni in the hands of his three guards, she stood up, opened a door to the left of the mirror, walked through, and closed it behind her.
‘Clean as a whistle,’ was all she felt it necessary to say to the spectators.
Her senior officer shook his head and murmured ‘I don’t like it. Too risky. This is 2003, dammit. I say hold him or send him back.’
To his right stood a Service lawyer. He was also shaking his head.
‘Too bad, Ted. You’re dead right: it is 2003. There’s suspicion and there’s grounds. We have no grounds. It’s dead-end street. You hold him, nothing else comes up, and you have to release him tomorrow or Wednesday. Send him back and you’ll have a major diplomatic incident on your hands — the file says his father’s a big-time architect and some kind of part-time priest! Like he told Sarah ... the Spanish police have already dropped it. And the Italians — hey, c’mon! You say you don’t like the security risk. Well, I say it’s non-existent. The financial risk to the Service is far greater. He’s got his rights on his side. He looks like a very rich kid, with all that cash in his wallet and no qualms about dropping out of school. He gets a top lawyer and we’re all over the floor ...’
‘Yeah, I know, Sam. Dammit, I know — “Litigation Rules.” It’s always your call, these days. I just want it on record ...’
‘Whatever, Ted. But get real, and let’s move on.’
‘OK, dammit, OK! I think you got your instructions, Sarah.’
In the baggage hall, Toni’s case was circulating small and almost alone on its huge carousel. He picked it up and entered the Customs area. He was immediately stopped, and his luggage was methodically searched.
Ted Ranovitz, senior immigration officer, who had personally ordered this final check, watched the process at close range from start to finish. Nothing, dammit. Nothing. It would’ve been good to be able to hold the kid for possession of several Janis Ian CDs, but ...
Toni zipped up his case and looked at his watch once more. Despite all that had just happened to him, it was only just after nine o’clock. It had already been a very, very long day, but there was still hope for some time on the town. He headed for the final entry control point, declared yet again the purpose of his visit and his immediate destination, and walked in a daze out of the terminal building and down towards the big, welcoming yellow taxis.
To be continued ...
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd