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Seth
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Sometimes life was so fantastic that you just had to sit back and look at it to really see how great it was. That’s exactly what Seth was trying to do as he sat there with his friends and more importantly, his girlfriend. Seth wished he could float out of his body and just watch the evening as an outsider, a detached form hovering above and taking it all in.

For the first time in years he was truly happy. Six years was a long time to be in college especially if you were condensing an eight-year program into that time frame. Seth always was an eager person and he wanted to get on with his life and do something more than studying and working on graduate projects that would bring credit to his college first and foremost rather than the students working on them.

Not only did he want to start his career and feel like a real productive adult, but he hoped that when he was out of school he would be able to unwrap the last tentacles his parents had on his life. No longer would they be able to say that they were paying for his school so they had a right to be intrusive and overbearing. Sure, they could now say they had paid for his school so they had a right to do whatever obtrusive and overbearing parental thing that they thought that gave them the privilege to do but at least now he could hang up on them and not wonder if his tuition would still be paid for or if he’d still have a place to live come the next day.

Or at least it was almost ‘now’ that he could do that. So very close to the ‘now’ he was waiting for. That was the other thing Seth could be happy for tonight, he was offered a job today at the company he had been interning with for the last six months. Between the internship, his graduate project, thesis and girlfriend, Seth thought he was going to slip into a coma any second now just so his mind and body could get some rest.

The time he spent with his friends was so very important to Seth that he stayed out much later than he knew he should’ve. It was a tradeoff, stay out late and decompress mentally at the cost of being a little more tire tomorrow, or go home early and not decompress and still be tired with the added bonus of also being wound up the next day. As the old saying goes, ‘There will be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.’

So Seth stayed out as long as he could, making deals with himself along the way. If I stay out another thirty minutes, I’ll wake up a little later and just not shower. Another thirty minutes and I’ll just eat on the way to school. Another thirty minutes and I’ll just eat at lunch. And so on until he only got about three hours of sleep before he arrived at his lab the next day.

Usually Seth had a lot of patience for the undergrads that helped him with his project but today he couldn’t tolerate most of them. It almost seemed as though all of them were purposely trying to destroy their teleportation device. First some coffee spilled near a very non-liquid-friendly component. Then trying to start the machine up without first adding coolant to the tank.

And lastly, allowing a fly to enter the transport chamber before the initiation sequence. Not that the fly would cause a monster to be created as had happened in the old Earth movie about a similar project, but the fly would be destroyed when the teleporter started up and the chamber would have to be completely decontaminated before it could be used again. Decontaminating the chamber took almost a full day of work, something Seth was not in the mood for today.

Creating a functional energy/matter transporter had been a dream of scientists and engineers since the twentieth century. Early in the twenty-first century, scientists had been able to transport a single photon across large distances but that’s as far as anyone had been able to go with the technology. Seth’s working group was on the verge of changing that.

Seth always said that all of the technobable that explained how they were solving the problem didn’t matter. The fact was they were close to being able to transport as many photons as they wanted, to a relatively distant location of at least a few hundred kilometers.

Moving biological data any distance was still decades away from happening if ever. Moving actual life forms may never be possible based on current theories and information they had gathered during their experiments. But photons were going to happen and soon.

The atmosphere in the lab got so emotional and heated that Seth finally called it a day and sent everyone home. Not long after the lab was empty, he put together a rambling apology to everyone and emailed it before taking a nap at his desk.

The three hour nap was exactly what Seth needed. He woke up feeling refreshed and calm. When he reread his apology email he hoped everyone had been able to decipher what he meant through the jumble of words he had tried to make thoughts out of.

Seth showered and shaved in preparation for going into the office tonight. His internship would end and his career would begin in just over a week. He really wanted to get the transporter working before he graduated and left the team. Neither his job or future depended on it but it still meant something to him.

A lightbulb went off in his head, illuminating the entire latticework of the project. Seth stood still in the shower with his fingers frozen in his hair as he had been working in the shampoo. His job and future weren’t dependent on each other just as the primary focus beam and the reconstituting stream weren’t either.

But that was the problem, they had been working from the premise that they were in fact dependent on each other and the energy ratios were intertwined. Separate the equations and make the two parts completely independent of each other and they would be able to function as intended.

Seth stood there for at least another five minutes while he went through the equations in his head and reworked some of the mechanical engineering aspects of the project. A few more stops and starts later, Seth had finally finished his shower and started dressing.

A quick message to his team, “Sorry again about today, but I’ve got it. Tomorrow is the day!”

Seth finally made it to AeroTech and with only five minutes to spare. He was usually fifteen to twenty minutes early so while he felt late, he was the only one who noticed the time. Several hours later he was already on his fifth coffee run of the day. He didn’t know why everyone was so wired and working so hard but it was obvious that something was up.

Seth was getting caught up in all the excitement and couldn’t wait until he was a part of the inner workings and not just the errand boy. Some of the guys in the office knew that Seth was way ahead of the game and they tended to share things with him that they shouldn’t. Sometimes they even showed him things to get his opinion and even his help on solving problems.

Today things were a little bit different. Even the guys that trusted Seth and used his help before were being pretty tight-lipped with what ever was going on. He still got a few glimpses at some of the work floating around, it seemed like it was reference one of the company’s fighters being involved in an accident that killed two Marines, the pilot and gunner. Hopefully once he was a full member of the team, Seth would be able to help prevent accidents like this.

As Seth was setting down one of the coffees he caught a glimpse of some technical readouts from the flight recorder. When the engineer saw Seth looking at the data he quickly covered the pad and thanked Seth for the coffee, obviously dismissing him.

Even in that slight glimpse, something struck Seth as wrong. His interest peaked now, he started looking at every piece of information he could put an eye on. As each new piece of data was absorbed, the puzzle was coming together and becoming more clear.

At one point Seth was alone in the room with Jack, the lead project manager for the aircraft that had crashed. Jack was mulling over some of the information and seemed to be unaware that Seth was watching, waiting for the right moment to approach him and say something.

Finally Seth made his move, “Um, Jack.”

“What?” Jack looked up and seemed mildly annoyed at being disturbed.

“I’m not trying to butt in here, but I was thinking that maybe I could help. I’ve caught a few glimpses of the data and I know that I could be useful.” Seth stepped back a half step when Jack glared at him.

“Just what data HAVE you been looking at Seth?”

“Just bits and pieces as I’m bringing the guys coffee and stuff. I haven’t picked up or read through anything thoroughly. No one has given me anything if that’s what you’re asking.” Seth didn’t want anyone to get in trouble because of his curiosity.

Jack’s features seemed to soften just a little bit. “Look Seth, I know that you’ll be an actual employee in just a couple of weeks, I’m the guy who recommended you, but you’re not one now. And even when you are employed and you have signed all of the non-disclosure agreements, you still won’t have the secret clearance needed to deal with this situation.”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone that you let me help out. I just thought maybe you’d like to know how the fighter went down.” Seth was pushing now and he knew it.

Jack sighed, then touched a button on the conference room table. The button sent a command to the room’s control center and caused the doors to lock and the windows to become opaque so no one could see in. The room also initiated the counter-electronics measures that would keep anyone from spying on the room’s occupants in any of the known intrusion methods that were out there.

“If you speak even a word of this to anyone, your career will end before it begins. And no one else in the Coalition will ever hire you again.” Jack waved his hand to indicate the seat in front of Seth.

“Understood sir.”

“We already know how the fighter went down. We knew within the first hour of receiving the flight data. What we’re doing now is trying to figure out how to make sure no one else knows how it went down.” Jack rubbed the bridge of his nose, obviously exhausted.

“I don’t understand. Why are we trying to cover this up? Two soldiers died in the crash. Don’t they deserve the truth?” Seth was starting to wonder about the company he was soon to be employed by.

“Look, I don’t like it either but sometimes we have to look at the greater good. Those brave men are dead and nothing we do will change that. It doesn’t matter if we say the crash was our fault or theirs, their families will still get their death benefits and they will still be buried as heroes.” Jack sat back in his chair and waited for a response.

Seth was even more puzzled now. “Why would we say it was our fault?”

“Exactly.” Jack leaned forward again. “If we say it was our fault then we may lose the contract on the fighter project. Best case scenario is our fighters all get grounded for months or even longer while we do millions and millions of dollars worth of testing to show that this accident was an isolated incident. Which is exactly what it was. If we say it was operator error then none of that happens.

“Trust me Seth, if I thought our fighters weren’t safe, I’d recall them myself even if it meant my career to do it. Do you understand now?”

“No. I don’t.”

Jack was back to his exhausted look. “What part of it? Saving the company or saving our jobs?”

“I don’t understand why we would say it was our fault or theirs when it was neither.” Seth was truly lost and he could tell Jack was also.

“Well someone or something has to be blamed.” Jack thought maybe he was too tired to explain it well enough to Seth.

“Right.” Seth was wondering if Jack was so far gone that he was a little delirious right now. “But, how about we blame the person or persons who murdered the pilot and gunner.”

“Okay, now I’m truly lost Seth. Please tell me what the hell you’re talking about.”

“Look.” Seth reached for a datapad and was surprised when Jack didn’t stop him. Seth took a moment to find and pull up the information he was looking for. “Right here. It wasn’t an accident or user error. Someone added a line of code here. It changes the plasma intake tolerance levels. Not by much but it does.”

Jack looked at the code and wasn’t sure but thought maybe Seth was correct. “Okay. Maybe there is altered code but that doesn’t prove anything. You know that these pilots and crew chiefs have altered our specs in the past because they think they know better than us. This tolerance change wouldn’t cause the failure we’re looking at.”

“No. It wouldn’t.” Seth admitted. “But, couple that with this other line of code here, along with a slight physical alteration to the intake valve here…” Seth pulled up some detailed photos and scans of the wreckage.

“This isn’t looking good.” Jack was putting the pieces together now.

“This still isn’t the complete picture. I’m guessing there are several other line changes and maybe even some other physical alterations. I’d need access to everything we have to put together a proper synopsis and theory.” Seth looked Jack in the eye, “But I’m sure these guys were murdered. This was not an accident, theirs or ours.”

“But why?” More rhetorical than expecting an actual answer from Seth.

“Angry girlfriend or wife. Crew chief hated the pilot or gunner. Military or corporate espionage. Who knows? But we might be able to find out.” Seth started looking through more data since Jack didn’t seem to care now.

“If anything, I’d say corporate espionage. How many spouses have the ability to do this to a fighter jet?” Jack picked up his phone to make a call. “Keep working on this. From now on it’s just you and me, I’m sending everyone else home. I want to keep this close to the vest for now.”

Seth started making a work area for himself at the conference table while Jack notified the rest of the team that they weren’t needed anymore tonight. Seth was actually a little impressed with the story that Jack concocted to make it seem less odd that the most important project of the decade suddenly became not important at all.

By morning Seth had all of the pieces to the puzzle and put them together to show the sabotage the fighter had been subjected to. The only pieces missing were who and why? The how and when were perfectly clear. Jack sent Seth home and said that he would call later when he had more information. For now, Jack was taking this straight to the top, on his own.

Seth knew he couldn’t take another day in his own lab being this tired again. He sent out a message to his team and gave them the day off, explaining that he needed to take the project in a new direction but he was too tired from working on it all night. Without Seth in the lab with his new equations and ideas, there was no reason for anyone else to show up.

Seth fell on to his bed and was immediately unconscious. He woke up several hours later, a bit refreshed but still tired from two days of very little sleep. He had ten messages from his girlfriend, starting off friendly and then progressing through worried and ending up at angry. Where was he? Why hadn’t he called her? Was there someone else?

Seth tried to call her first but she didn’t answer. Unknown if she was busy or just mad, he left her a message trying to be as nice and penitent as possible. He then showered and checked his email for messages from Jack. Nothing.

Seth ended up eating dinner alone and watching some old movies from the comfort of his couch and boxer shorts. He was still recovering from a lack of sleep so he never really thought it was odd that he wasn’t receiving his usual texts or messages from friends and family. No email either. No electronic correspondence of any sort, not even SPAM.

The next day he finally realized that something was wrong. After waking up, showering and getting ready for the day he finally noticed the lack of contact with anyone outside of his apartment. Seth decided to head into the lab and check his accounts from the University’s data connection to see if that made a difference.

Seth left his apartment half thinking he would find the planet deserted as though he were in some sort of ‘last man alive’ scenario. That would certainly account for the lack of human contact he had yesterday. As he got to the street he saw that that theory was blown out of the water, the streets were just as crowded as usual and not a single zombie or alien mind control device was in sight.

When Seth got to his lab he did run into one problem, his access code wasn’t working any more. He tried it several times but the light stayed red and the automatic lock never clicked open. A moment later campus security showed up.

Seth smiled when he saw Dorris. “Hey there! I haven’t seen you in a while but I’m glad you’re here. Can you let me in? The lock is messed up and won’t let me in.”

Dorris looked a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry Seth, but I can’t let you in. I have instructions to take you to the Dean’s office.”

“Why?” Seth wondered if somehow not coming in yesterday and giving his team the day off had gotten him in trouble. This seemed pretty severe for something that he was pretty sure didn’t even violate any department or school rules.

“I don’t know, I really don’t Seth. But I have to. I was told you aren’t allowed to go anywhere but the Dean’s office.” Dorris put her arm out in the direction they needed to walk and Seth followed her silent instruction.

Three hours later Seth was standing at the edge of the University’s property with a letter of dismissal in his hand. He was told that all of his personal property that the University didn’t have any rights to, would be sent to his apartment within two weeks.

The Dean had told him that the school’s code of conduct clearly prohibited the use of illegal drugs. Due to the extremely hazardous nature of the street drug ‘Track Star’, along with the huge amounts of it found in Seth’s secure and private lab locker, the school had no choice but to dismiss him.

Seth did have an appeals process but the Dean warned him against using it. The Dean told Seth that the school was grateful for his work and would give him his degree along with not putting the drug infraction on his official record. After all, he was only a week away from graduation and they still recognized that he had earned the degree with all of his hard work. The Dean didn’t want Seth to have the rest of his life tarnished and just wanted him to get the help he needed. But if Seth appealed, then the drug use would become official and on the record. So Seth left without so much as a word.

Seth was still trying to figure things out when he found himself at the doors to AeroTech. The only thing he could do now was go talk to Jack. He wanted to make sure Jack heard the story from him first so he would know the truth. Seth would submit to any form of drug testing or lie detecting tests to prove that he had no idea what had happened at the University.

Seth put his security badge up against the reader and received the same red lights he got from his lab doors on campus. “Shit. You have got to be kidding me.”

It seemed as though the universe was repeating itself as Seth watched two security guards approach him from inside the building. When they reached the door, one spoke through the intercom, “I’m sorry sir but you need to leave. Your building privileges have been revoked. You have the legal right to stand outside of the building on public property, but we’d prefer if you didn’t. Thank you and have a nice day.”

Seth couldn’t believe what was going on. This was all bullshit but he couldn’t figure out why. Then his phone beeped, for the first time in almost two days. When he read the text message it was from his girlfriend. ‘Don’t ever contact me again.’ Ex girlfriend.

If Seth had been firing on all cylinders today he would’ve put it together sooner. The fighter crash. This was all a part of that. It had to be. The timing was to coincidental to be a coincidence.

Jack. Was he a part of this? Or was he being systematically destroyed just like Seth was? Jack hadn’t returned any of Seth’s communication attempts, but maybe he couldn’t. Seth was equal parts worried and angry; he didn’t have enough information to know which one he should totally be right now.

Two weeks had gone by without contact from anyone Seth knew. Luckily for him, his parents had been on the other side of the Coalition, for an ambassador function of his father’s, and hadn’t planned on making it back for his graduation anyway. So there was at least one story he didn’t have to come up with for why there wasn’t a graduation for him.

Seth had watched the graduation from a safe and non-trespassing location. When he got home he found a small torn piece of a newspaper stuck in the crack of his front door. Two words printed on one side, ‘I’m sorry.’

He didn’t recognize the hand writing, in fact he couldn’t remember the last time he had seen actual hand written anything. That was smart of the sender, it would be harder to track hand writing than a computer generated message. Probably from Jack, Seth thought.

It was time to come up with a plan. Seth knew he couldn’t sit around in his apartment forever, he was starting to run out of rent money for one thing. As far as he could tell, none of his newly acquired ill-repute extended beyond the University or AeroTech. It was time to find a job.

A week later Seth found himself in a Marine Corps officer recruiting seminar. By the end of the presentation Seth knew what he wanted to do. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to find out what had happened to the fighter crew or why, but maybe he could make a difference somewhere so it wouldn’t happen again.

And who knows, he thought, maybe one day he would be able to walk up to Gunnery Sergeant Mike O’Connor’s widow and show her proof that her husband didn’t cause the fatal accident that day. Maybe he would some day be able to give her that simple piece of mind.

 

Somewhere inside the Coalition Strategic Operations Command Center:

As the intelligence officer was perusing his morning emails, his monitor lit up with an emergency flash traffic message. A keyword search had hit the monitoring station just over eight seconds ago.

After checking the message he verified its contents, then opened the protocols database and matched the protocol on the keyword search with the one in the database. The protocols database match showed that the target of the keyword had a priority cancellation order. It also showed that this particular protocol couldn’t be enacted without verbal confirmation from the General.

The Captain contacted the General through a secure video link. “Good morning sir, I hope you’re not busy.”

The General was eating his breakfast. “Not at all Joe. How are things in your section?”

“Good sir, thank you for asking.” The Captain tapped a few keys on his console. “I’m sending you a FlashComm I just received a few moments ago. The protocols database lists the subject for cancellation but it also requires a verbal confirmation from you sir. In fact, it looks like you authored this specific protocol yourself.”

The General pushed his breakfast aside so he could use both hands on the computer. “Indeed I did Joe, indeed I did.” He read further down the message. “Well that’s a very unexpected turn, but for the better I’d say. It looks like Seth has dropped his quest for the truth in order to serve the greater good and join the Marine Corps.”

“Yes sir.” The Captain had no idea what this was about and most likely never would. He would just do his part and that part was dependent on whatever the General told him to do next. “When he signed up for Officer Candidate School, his name hit the keyword database and was flagged as an ‘Important Event’. I’m guessing it was because he signed up for the service, had he laid low and got a job with your average tech company, I don’t think he would’ve been flagged.”

“You’re probably right Joe.” The General made a few entries on his console and Seth’s file disappeared from both his screen and the Captain’s. “I’m having lunch next week near your office. My assistant will give you the details. It would be great to see you in person. Keep up the good work son.” The General ended the call ended without waiting for a response.

With the file vanishing from the keyword database, the Captain had his answer; do nothing. The Captain took a quick look at his schedule for the following week. It looked pretty clear, that would make things easier.

Another flash traffic message came through to his desk. Not related to the first one and this one had a cancellation notice that didn’t require secondary confirmations. Who was next on the list? Ralph was up in the rotation, time to put him to work.

The audio-only line went green showing a connection, “Hey Ralph! Thanks for the theatre tickets, my wife and daughter loved the show. I hope you don’t have plans for the weekend, I have a job for you. Ready for the info?”

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