“Hang on, I’ve got my hands full of wires!”
Same old dad, thought Nadalia. “No rush dad, it’s just me,” she called through the door.
“Naddy? Door’s unlocked; you can come in. Mind the boxes on the floor, I’m in the back room if you want to come through.”
Nadalia opened the door and immediately wondered why she had chosen to wear a long, flowing diaphanous robe today. Her dad’s house, by itself, was quite spacious and open. There were no walls dividing the rooms, only thin wooden screens. However, since she had left home and her mother had passed on, her father had gradually filled most of the floor space with boxes and various bits of electrical junk. She made her way down the tiny gap between boxes with no small amount of difficulty, and found her father in the back room, with his head stuck in the back of a visual receiver.
“Hi Naddy, I found this in the scrap the other day.” He pulled his head out, along with a bunch more wires. “I’m going to see if I can fix it up,” he said, eyes lit up like stars.
“That’s great, but you realise even if you fix it, it still won’t work. Visual transmissions stopped years ago, dad.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” he said dismissively. “The important thing is that I will have fixed it. By the way, I have your birthday present in the other room. I know it’s a bit late, but since you were off round the world…”
“Did Mari tell you about me and Korian then?” Nadalia interrupted.
“That little furball you hang around with? No, I heard on the radio. There have been all sorts of crazy rumours about it, I’m loath to believe most of them. Anyway, come through,” the old man said as he led the way back through the boxes.
In the front room, a portable radio transmitter sat on the table with a bit of ribbon tied around it. “Fixed it up specially for you, Naddy.”
“Wow, thanks dad!” Nadalia hugged her dad before going to examine her present. “What frequencies does it cover?” she asked.
“It covers both mid and short wave, I improved the range of it as well, so it should broadcast across a larger area. I was just about to get some food in, if you like I can get enough for two and I can show you how it works?”
“Sounds good to me,” Nadalia replied.
When she got back home that evening, Nadalia found Mari listening intently to an emergency news broadcast. Mari was completely still, in contrast to the jumping shadows cast by the fire that had been lit in the hearth.
“…the cause of the crash is still unknown,” the news reader was saying, “however the death toll currently stands at fifteen, with eight more seriously injured.”
“Death toll? Mari, what’s happened?”
Mari jumped at her friend’s voice. “Nads, there you are, I was getting really worried. There’s been a massive crash on the road between regions two and three, apparently they’ve been pulling people out of the wrecks for hours.” She fell silent as the news reader continued:
“Many of the victims remain unidentified, though we can reveal that two of the deceased are the wife and daughter of politician Saphrax. The whereabouts of his twin sons is unknown at this moment, as it has been confirmed that they were not in the vehicle when it crashed.
“For those of you just tuning in, the main news - probably the only news –tonight is the major accident on the main road connecting regions two and three earlier this afternoon. Investigators at the scene are still uncertain of the root cause of the accident, but a general picture of events seems to be emerging from witnesses and the less grievously injured victims. We’ll go live to the scene via two-way link now. Investigator Rusarth, can you give us an idea of what happened?”
“I certainly can, Tsoline.” The investigator’s voice crackled slightly over the link. “The vehicle believed to have initiated the accident, which we’re calling car A for simplicity, was travelling north in the left hand lane. According to witnesses, it suddenly accelerated and then swerved across the road. A second car in the right hand lane, car B, managed to brake in time to avoid car A as it crossed the lane, but was clipped by the car behind it, car C. Cars B and C were then forced in opposite directions, B heading left and C heading right, into the southbound lanes. Car A, still going, was hit by another vehicle, car D, in the right hand southbound lane, and flipped onto its roof as it slid across to the next lane. Car D was forced into a head-on collision with car C, causing vast amounts of devastation to both vehicles. Car A, meanwhile, was hit in the side by car E in the left hand southbound lane. Another car, travelling behind car E, braked just before hitting cars A and E, but was rear-ended by the car behind it and propelled into the wreckage. I’m sure your listeners can imagine the damage caused here, considering average speeds on this road can reach over two hundred miles an hour.”
“Thank you, Rusarth, for that description. Is there anything else you can tell us before you go?” asked Tsoline the news reader.
“Not much, unfortunately. We’re working on the assumption that there was a problem with the first vehicle’s on-board computer, but until it’s safe to retrieve it we can’t say what or why.”
“Okay, well, thank you for your time. That was Investigator Rusarth at the scene of the crash on the main road linking regions two and three. If you’re just joining us, the main story tonight…”
Nadalia let out the breath she’d been holding while the investigator gave his report. “That sounded awful,” she said. “Mari? You okay?”
Mari was staring at the patch of wall just above the radio, apparently transfixed. “What? Yeah, I’m fine. It could have been a lot worse,” she said, gesturing towards the radio. “You know how fast people go on the main roads, how busy they get, in a way it’s lucky that more people weren’t involved.”
“I guess so,” Nadalia replied slowly, with a concerned look at her friend. Mari is definitely acting out of sorts lately, she thought. It wasn’t so much what she’d said, it was true that the accident could have been much worse, but the way she’d said it. Detached, almost cold. Mari, as Nadalia had known her for almost eleven years now, would have been shaken by the news. Instead, she seemed completely dispassionate and uncaring about the whole thing. What could possibly have changed her so much in such a short time?
“The real question is, what could have caused the problem in the first place?”
Mari’s rhetorical question seemed to hang in the air between them, as if an answer were about to fly in the window and attach to it.
“Damn it Melicia, stop making excuses! You screwed up, and that’s that!” Saphrax flung himself into a fussy, overly decorated chair and glared at her. “Why must you be so flaming impatient?”
“Because I got sick of waiting, sick of having to share you with that withered old hag!” Melicia shouted, glaring back over folded arms. She stepped forwards, so that her face was up lit by the single lamp that sat on the table.
“And that’s what caused you to completely abandon the plan? You were supposed to have the car veer off the road and hit a tree, on a minor road, with no-one else about! What happened to ‘not attracting attention’?” he asked pointedly. “Fifteen dead, eight more seriously injured. People are asking awkward questions already! What do you think will happen when they analyse the computer, find it’s been reprogrammed to control the car instead of assist the driver?” He leant forwards, staring at her across the dark room.
“Alright, I messed up!” Melicia admitted. “But I covered my tracks well enough, they won’t be able to trace any of it back to you or me. Besides, now your family are out the way we can carry on with the plan without interference. Hell, I make one mistake…”
“Two mistakes, Melicia. The boys weren’t in the car when it crashed, according to the news.”
Melicia looked nonplussed. “The reporters must have got it wrong. They were in the car when it set off, I know they were. I was watching.”
“Then maybe they stopped along the way, and the twins got out for some reason.” Saphrax thought for a few minutes before a cruel glint came to his eye. “We need to contact the media. The twins will know I’m behind this, and the investigators will soon know the car’s computer was tampered with, even if they can’t trace you. If I can plant the suggestion that the boys had something to do with this, any accusations they make against us will be discredited,” he said with a twisted smile. “That clears up both loose ends at once. With a little luck, I should be able to turn this to our advantage.”
Melicia smiled maliciously. “Brilliant plan, my love. I’ll tell Valamir to get in touch with the news stations immediately.”
Korian stepped back from the rickety old worktable that had once belonged to his grandfather. He examined his work critically. The faces still weren’t quite right, but if he did any more it would start looking messy. Besides, slight imperfections were part of the charm, he thought. A hand-made figurine of the two of them seemed ideal for a token of proposal. He was sure Nadalia would love it. Just as he reached for his communicator to call her, Alaric came bursting in.
“Korian, sir, I have the information you asked for on Saphrax, and some of his secret plans my agent obtained from inside his base. Did you want to go through it all now?” he asked, tail twitching animatedly.
“Not right now, Alaric, I’m in the middle of something important. Tell you what, leave the recordings on my desk and I’ll listen to them in a few hours.” Korian replied, distracted by his own thoughts. He glanced out of the panoramic window at the sunset, wondering how long his assistant was going to keep him.
“Sir, they’re not using recordings,” Alaric responded, whiskers quivering as he tried to keep his excitement in check. “They’re using written communication.”
“Written communication? That’s unusual,” Korian said, noticing his assistant was far more animated than usual. “Secret plans, you say? Most intelligent beings can read, even if they lack the opposable digits to be able to write. Are they using some sort of code? Come on, tell me what’s got you so excited.”
Alaric took a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself down a little. “I think they might be using an ancient language, possibly one used by the hemsepans.”
Korian was stunned. There were very few beings in the world who understood the ancient languages, and all of those who did were part of the religious hierarchy. “So that means…”
“Saphrax has at least one religious elder working for him,” Alaric interrupted. “There could be more to the recent uprising of religious groups than we first thought.”
“Alaric, I know you love mysterious historical stuff, but before you get carried away I want you to check and double check that writing. Make sure you’re right about it being ancient language. Besides, if it is, we’ll need someone to translate it for us so we know what Saphrax is up to. Go sort that out while I finish up here, we can talk about it later.”
Alaric agreed and practically flew out of the room to find an expert. Korian sighed and picked up his communicator to call Nadalia.
“Hi Nads, it’s me.”
“Hi Korian, what’s up?”
“Could you come over?” he asked. “I’ve got something really important to talk to you about.”
“Okay, I’ll be there in about half an hour.”
A little while later, Korian let Nadalia in and took her upstairs to his study. The setting sun cast long shadows through the room, making the pastel blues on the walls and carpets look darker. Before she could say anything, he knelt on the floor in front of her and held up the figurine.
“Nadalia, I love you. Will you accept this token as a symbol of proposal, and do me the honour of becoming my partner?”
Nadalia stood in shocked silence for a few seconds before accepting the figurine. “Of course I will,” she almost whispered, smiling as Korian stood and embraced her.