The Relativity Bomb (Sic Transit Terra Book 3)
by Arlene F. Marks
Copyright © 2018 by Arlene F. Marks
"That is one very determined lady."
His attention snagged, Supreme Adjudicator Dennis Forrand leaned over his executive assistantís shoulder and took in the image on her light screen. A woman dressed in medical scrubs had stepped off the elevator and was now arguing with the guards at the floor reception desk. He didnít need to hear her voice to know what she was saying ó the stiffness of her posture, the staccato motions of her arms, and the storm warning on her face were all quite eloquent.
"Yeah, sheís feisty as hell," he said with a sigh. "She comes by it honestly."
The InfoComm buzzed. "Theyíre calling through, sir. What do you want me to tell them?"
"Tell them Iíve been expecting her," he instructed, already strolling back to his office.
A minute later the door to the anteroom flew open as though kicked and the visitor barreled through it. She paused and glared briefly in the direction of the assistantís desk, then swept past her without a word into the Supreme Adjudicatorís inner sanctum. This second door slid instead of swung, so she couldnít slam it shut behind her as she so clearly wanted to do.
Forrand gazed benignly at her from the other side of his large oaken desk.
"Doctor Caroline Townsend," he said in his most welcoming voice. "And what can I do for you today?"
Her hands curled into fists as she covered the distance to his desk in two furious strides and leaned ominously across it.
"You bastard!" she spat, then went on, thrusting each razor-like word at him as though hoping to draw blood, "You promised! You said that if I kept quietó You swore to me that my family would stay together. Well, Iíve held up my part of the bargain, but weíve just been posted off-world without our son."
"Drew is no longer Eligible. I told you that as long as you were all Eligible I could ensure that the Relocation Authority would not separate you. When Drew broke the law and lost his Eligibilityó"
"Heís only twelve years old. Heís a child! What happens to him when weíve gone? For godsakes, heís youró"
"Heís under my protection," Forrand declared, loudly enough to drown out the rest of her sentence. He rose from his seat and locked eyes with her, facing down her reproachful stare. "Just as youíve all been up until now. I give you my word, Caroline, heíll never lack for food or shelter. Your son will not come to harm. Now, I suggest you go home and finish getting the rest of your family ready to travel so you can make your scheduled flight to the transfer point."
"Thatís the other thing I needed to tell you." She was calmer now, but not by much. "Olivia is refusing to go with us. She says she wonít leave her little brother to fend for himself."
Forrand sank back down, scowling. "Youíre her mother. Order her to start packing."
"Iíd love to, but she ran out of the house shortly after we got the notice from the Relocation Authority and now I canít find her. I was hoping you would know where she is."
"Iím sorry, Caroline, I donít. However, I will do everything in my power to see that she is located. If I canít get her onto the same flight as yours, Iíll put her on a later one."
"And youíll take care of Drew." It wasnít a question.
"Your promises arenít worth as much to me as they used to be, Mister Supreme Adjudicator. Just make damned sure you keep this one," she warned. With that, Caroline Townsend wheeled and stalked out almost as angrily as sheíd arrived.
Forrand waited for the sound of the outer door closing. Then he swiveled his chair and rapped lightly on a wall panel behind him. "You can come out now, young lady."
The panel slid aside. A girl in her mid-teens emerged from the hidden compartment, straightening her clothing and patting her mop of short dark hair back into place. She marched to the other side of his desk, leveled cool gray eyes at him, and demanded, "So whatís the big secret? It has something to do with Drew, doesnít it? Something you didnít want me to overhear."
There was a lot of her mother in her, he mused. And her grandmother, come to that.
"No, angel, it doesnít. And since my biggest secret right now is you, standing in my office, letís just focus on why youíre here. It took persistence and ingenuity for you to get this far, so you must want something important. What is it?"
Olivia thought for a moment. "My mother says youíre the most powerful person in Americas."
"I could be described that way," he conceded.
"Then I want you to teach me how to be as powerful as you are."
"If you want to run the world," he told her, "you need to get on that short-hopper with your parents. Itís a lot easier to manage a hub or a colony than it is to control a planet like Earth."
"I didnít say I want to run the world," she corrected him sharply.
"I see. Well, youíre still talking about amassing a great deal of political clout, and powerful people attract powerful and determined enemies. Thereís been a target painted on my back for the past thirty years. Are you sure you want to live like that, constantly on yellow alert?"
"Are you sure Iím your biggest secret right now?" she shot back, crossing her arms over her chest and raising her chin defiantly.
Forrand permitted himself an indulgent chuckle. Then he said, "Before I agree to go along with this, you have to understand a few things. Power may seem attractive but it comes at a price, and itís always going to be steeper than you expect. Once your guard goes up, it stays up. Once youíre committed, thereís no backing out. Are you absolutely certain, at the tender age of ó what are you, sixteen?" She nodded. "Are you absolutely certain that this is how you want to spend the rest of your life?"
"Iíve been thinking about it for a long time," she told him, her voice sounding a lot older than sixteen. "Being Eligible seems attractive but it comes at a price too. If gathering political power is the only way for me to take back control of my life, then thatís what I want to do. And you may have a target on your back, but youíre still alive and kicking, so I figure youíre the best person to teach me how to do it."
Her gaze had captured his as soon as she began speaking. Now he sat back in his chair, studying her expression as he digested her words.
"What about Drew?" he asked softly. "You told your mother you wanted to protect him."
"Heís already taken control of his life by losing his Eligibility," she pointed out. "I know I canít shield him from the consequences of his choices. But heís still a kid, and heís going to make mistakes. I just want to be able to keep him alive so he can learn from them. Do we have a deal, Mister Supreme Adjudicator?"
Forrand smiled inwardly. Olivia was definitely her motherís child. "We have a deal. However, thereís one thing I want you to do first. I want you to sleep on this and give me your final answer tomorrow morning."
She said nothing, just crossed her arms over her chest again and regarded him sullenly for several seconds.
"Humor me," he said. "Iím giving you a cooling off period. Whatever your decision is, I donít want you to have any regrets about it later on."
"Fine, then," she snapped. "But Iím pretty sure you donít want me going back home, so where exactly am I supposed to do all this sleeping? Am I camping out in your office?"
Forrand pressed an intercomm key on his desktop. "Nothing that dramatic." A moment later his executive assistant stepped through the door. "Mrs. Delgado," he told her, "this young lady needs a place to stay overnight, and I was wondering whether I could impose on your hospitality."
"It isnít a problem, sir. Iíll have Estrella make up the spare bed."
"And someone will have to fetch her belongings from Clearmeadow Enclave and deliver them here."
"Already arranged. Iíve also contacted everyone on your list. Miss Townsend will be escorted to and from in secrecy."
"Hey, Iím standing right here," Olivia reminded them, impatience putting an edge on her voice. "Iím not just some parcel that youíre moving around."
"Indeed, youíre not," Forrand agreed. "What you are at the moment is a logistical nightmare, which I fortunately have the resources to manage. Meanwhile, thereís something else I want you to think about tonight. If your answer tomorrow morning is still yes, youíll need to pick a new name, one that youíre willing to live with from now on."
She stared a question at him. After a beat, he replied, "Anyone associated with me ó and anyone associated with them ó becomes a target. If youíre serious about keeping your brother safe, Olivia Townsend will have to die."
"You mean my parents will think Iím dead? Iíll never be able to contact them again?"
Her chin was wobbling, despite the determination that still filled her eyes.
"Not your parents and especially not Drew," he told her sternly, then added in a softer voice, "Sadly, itís part of the price I was talking about earlier. The easy part."
There were two individuals waiting in Forrandís anteroom when Olivia was brought there the following morning, and she didnít like the way either one of them was looking at her.
The young woman talking with Mrs. Delgado was tall and sturdily built, with plain features. A rope of braided brown hair fell over her shoulder and nearly to her waist. As Olivia stepped into the room, the woman turned and impaled her with an icy blue stare.
Meanwhile, a young man with short, dark blond hair had claimed one of the matched chairs against the far wall. Wearing a ganger jacket and sporting a crown-shaped tattoo on his neck, he was scanning Olivia up and down with a calculating smile that made her skin crawl.
Fortunately, she didnít have to endure their attentions for long. Scant moments after her uniformed escort had departed, she was ushered by Mrs. Delgado into the Supreme Adjudicatorís inner office.
Forrand sat watching her intently from behind his desk. His suit was rumpled, making her wonder whether heíd slept in it. Then it occurred to her that he might not have slept at all.
Breaking into her thoughts, he got right to the point. "Have you come to a decision?" he demanded.
"I have," she told him, managing to keep her voice steady. "I still want to go ahead with this."
He made an approving noise and pressed the intercomm key. "Send her in."
A few seconds later, the plain-faced, brown-haired girl strode through the door and took up a position beside Forrandís desk.
"All right, then," he said, addressing Olivia once more. "Your education begins right now. Before you can wield power, you need to understand it. Specifically, you need to understand its effects on the people who have it and on those who lack it. Youíve grown up with a great deal of privilege that youíve never had to earn. So, Iím sending you on an extended field trip to places most Eligibles never see or even think about. This is Angeli. She will be your companion, guide, and bodyguard for the next twelve months." He indicated with a gesture the forbidding-looking young woman to his left.
Oliviaís heart sank. A whole year? With her?
"The arrangements have already been made," he went on briskly. "All thatís missing is the name youíll be traveling under. I trust youíve picked one?" In the silence that followed this question, it felt to Olivia as if everything in the room was holding its breath in anticipation of her response.
Finally, she replied, "Juno Vargas."
Forrand considered this, then said, "Juno was the queen of the ancient Greco-Roman gods, and Adam Vargas was the primary architect of our current geopolitical system. Thatís quite a statement for a sixteen-year-old to be making. Well, Miss Vargas, I recommend that you get as much enjoyment as you can out of this excursion, because once your name is linked to mine you wonít be able to do much traveling."
He leaned forward and began speaking quietly into the intercomm. Meanwhile, the newborn Juno Vargas looked into the face of the woman who would be her guide and chaperone for the next year and saw a raised eyebrow and a mouth set in a hyphen of disapproval. However educational this trip might turn out to be, Juno very much doubted whether Angeli would permit it to be enjoyable. Forrand had probably selected her for that very reason. This "tour" was most likely intended to be a test of her stamina and commitment. All right, she decided grimly. She would pass his damned test with room to spare, even if she had to ditch her traveling companion and complete it on her own.
"Mrs. Delgado will be forwarding your bags to the first stop on the tour as soon as your new identity is official," Forrand announced. "Angeli has the itineraryÖ?" The young woman nodded once. "Youíll remember what we discussed," he told her, and she nodded again, her expression matching the sternness of his voice.
As Angeli preceded her out of the inner office, Juno glanced over her shoulder and saw Forrand sink slowly backward in his chair.
"So, that was the chosen one?" Forrandís remaining guest had been shown into his office as soon as the two girls had left the anteroom. Now, flopped down on one of the padded chairs to the right of the big desk, the ganger commented, "Twenty credits says she doesnít last a month in the boonies."
Forrand smiled thinly. He was the most powerful man in Americas. If this Tommy Novotny was everything he needed him to be, it wouldnít matter what the kid knew. If not, Forrand would make a commcall to the guards in the lobby. Novotny would disappear somewhere between the elevator and the front door, and any record of his visit to the building would be wiped clean ó and it still wouldnít matter what he knew.
"I think youíd lose that wager, Tommy. Sheís a lot like her mother, who can be stubborn as hell. That being said, Iíve decided to hedge my bet. Thatís where you come in. You and the Warrior Kings."
Tommy leaned forward. "Iím listening."
"Thereís a twelve-year-old boy, an Eligible who rebelled against the system and now has a juvenile criminal record. Sound familiar? Heís being evicted from the family home in Clearmeadow Enclave as we speak, and I promised his family that Iíd make sure he was protected after they went off-world."
"So, what? You want us to babysit this kid?"
"Not at all," said Forrand. "I want you to educate him. Take him into the gang and teach him everything you know about surviving on the streets. Donít let him get arrested. When heís eighteen, Iíll take him off your hands."
"And what do we get in exchange for providing this service, Mister Supreme Adjudicator?"
Forrand leaned over his desktop. "How old are you now, Tommy?"
"Only nineteen and already at the top. Youíre Rex Regum, the King of the Kings. But what have you got to look forward to? Another ten or so years of playing hide and seek with District Security before someone rats you out so they can take your place? Spending the rest of your life in and out of detention and watching your crew age around you? Itís not much of a future, is it?"
Tommyís expression hardened, as did his voice. "Make your point, Forrand."
"I want to offer you a second chance ó a new name and a fresh beginning. Youíre strong and youíre smart, Tommy, and you care about your crew. You must once have had ambitions that didnít include street crime. If you could erase the past and had access to large amounts of credit, what would you rather be doing with your life?"
Warily studying the other manís face, Tommy asked, "Are you serious?"
"Absolutely. I can set you up in whatever legitimate business you want, arrange for training for you and your current gang, give you all new identities. A clean slate. And all you have to do in return is keep Drew Townsend safe for the next six years and consider joining an organization that Iím putting together. Its purpose will be to protect the truth. Weíre going to gather, verify, and ó if necessary ó act on information that will make the various levels of Earthís government accountable."
"Youíre asking a bunch of criminals to help you keep a bigger bunch of criminals honest?" said Tommy with a grin.
Forrand gazed serenely back at him. "Can you think of anyone better qualified for the job?"
Still smiling, Tommy tilted his head in acknowledgment of the compliment. "So, you have big plans for this kid? What is he, the next in line for the throne after Miss Poutyface blows you off?"
"Possibly. It takes a special combination of qualities to aspire to that kind of power. Time will tell whether he has them. Right now, however, heís just a young boy waiting to be shaped by the world."
"And by the Warrior Kings," Tommy added after a beat.
"So we have a deal?"
"For the next six years and the fresh start for me and my crew," he confirmed, getting to his feet and extending his hand to be shaken. "About the rest of it, Iíll have to meet with the Kings and get back to you."
Forrand stood up to seal the agreement. "Fair enough. Theyíll need to pick new legal names for the database."
"Itís just as well," said Tommy. "I always hated mine ó Tomasz Boris Novotny."