Chapter no 79

Quantum Radio

Maria climbed the opulent marble staircase, gripping the steel rail, the crystal chandelier buzzing overhead, her footsteps echoing around her.

At the top of the landing, there was a wide cased opening that led to a gathering room with a wet bar. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out onto a well-lit, manicured backyard. A pool spread out to the right, the water rippling slightly in the wind, the moon and lights from the tall security wall reflecting across it.

Maria realized she had stopped to gawk at it when Ty said, “This way.”

He was already marching down the hall, Kato behind him. They were less star-struck by the lavish home. In a strange way, that made Maria feel like even more of an outsider in the group.

Nora was waiting in an office with a simple white wooden desk with open legs. Two large club chairs sat in front of it. A couch, a coffee table, and comfy chairs sat in the corner.

A large laptop sat on the desk, the brand name SIEMENS stamped across the back.

“Get this,” Ty said, spinning the laptop around to face Maria and Kato.

“The operating system is called LinOS.” Ty pointed to the logo, which was a man’s face with longish hair and a faint smile. “As in Linus Torvalds. That’s crazy, right?”

Maria eyed the others. They were as lost as she was. “I’m not sure we’re following,” Nora said.

“You know, Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux. Didn’t any of you ever use Red Hat Linux or another distribution?”

The silence gave him his answer.

Finally, Kato said, “I’m not familiar. Why? Is there a login vulnerability?

Can you hack it?”

Ty shook his head. “No, I just thought it was interesting. Like Bill Gates might not even exist in this world. Linux—and its successor—clearly became the standard OS for consumer computers. Torvalds might be the richest person in this world.”

“Do you know him?” Kato asked.

Ty shook his head. “No. I don’t know him. I just thought it was cool. Let’s move on.” To Maria, he said, “Any idea what your password might be?”

“Valentina,” she said, almost without thinking. Ty keyed it into the laptop. “Wrong. What else?”

Thus began an hours-long process of Maria guessing passwords, Ty tapping on the laptop keyboard, and Nora and Kato sitting on the couch, bored. Finally, Kato rose and walked to the door. “I’m going to do a security sweep.”

Maria figured he was simply tired of sitting there playing guess the password. She didn’t blame him.

“I’m going to get food from the kitchen,” Nora said. “Any requests?” When Nora returned with sandwiches, Ty and Maria were still at it.

They had tried everything. Maria’s birth date. Favorite color. Father’s name (even saying it sent anger through her). She kept coming back to Valentina. Her mother’s name.

Kato strode in and laid a stack of crumpled pages on the desk. “I found these in the studio. They’re about the only papers there.”

The top page was a draft of a song that was partially completed. It had a typed heading and lyrics that had been marked through with a pencil. Handwritten notes lay between the lines and in the margins.

Maria read the title:

“A Hymn for The World After”

Holding her breath, Maria moved down the page, scanning the lines.

In the dark forest of our world I heard the drumbeats of war Beating in the night

Counting down to the end of all things And in the darkness, I saw a light

Twinkling in the night Shining all around me

Counting down to the end of all things

Reading the words gave Maria chills. It was her voice. Her rhythm. Lines like she might write, as though she had created this and forgotten it, as if she were an amnesiac retracing steps she couldn’t recall.

After Ty read it, he handed it to Nora. “Dark stuff.”

“It implies,” Kato said, “that this Maria Santos might know something about what the A21 rockets are carrying and what the Covenant’s plans are.”

The words hung in the air.

“Obviously,” Kato continued, “we should have the Pax spec-ops team interrogate her. I imagine she’ll talk after even light coercion—”

“No,” Maria whispered. She closed her eyes. “Please don’t.” She could feel all of them looking at her.

“I can’t explain it,” she said, “but please don’t harm her. Nothing traumatic. I know we have to hold her until this is over, but I just… I don’t want to be part of anything that could harm her enough to derail her life.”

Kato reached out and put a hand on her upper back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t really think about that. It was just instinct.”

“I understand. This is… all new. I know I don’t know her, and she’s not me, but—it’s hard to explain. I just don’t want her to be hurt.”

Kato jerked his head suddenly, pausing as if listening through his earpiece. “Surveillance team outside says someone is approaching the residence. On the sidewalk, dressed in a uniform. A female. Latin American. Looks to be in her fifties.”

Kato paused. “She’s at the door. She’s got a key.” To Maria, he said, “Get out there—to the foyer.”

“And say what?” “Get rid of her.”

Maria bolted out of the office and out onto the landing. She gripped the rail and was about to descend the curved staircase into the foyer, but stopped.

She looked almost exactly like the other Maria Santos, with a few small exceptions: her face was slightly more worn, with more worry lines and sun damage. It was nothing makeup couldn’t fix. The other thing was the look

in her eyes. Staring in a mirror, Maria had to admit that she had a sort of wounded, guarded look. And for good reason. In the photos scattered about this palatial home, this world’s Maria Santos stared out with a twinkle in her eye, the almost mischievous, playful glint of a woman ready to drink the world from a cup and howl at the moon.

Maria wasn’t that person, though she had been a few years ago. A friend or close acquaintance could tell the difference. They would be able to tell that something was wrong.

She lingered at the balcony overlook in the foyer, hoping the distance and darkness would hide the differences.

Below, the door swung open, and a heavyset woman shuffled in and immediately turned to close and lock the door. She was wearing a maid’s uniform and her hair was in a tight bun.

“Hi,” Maria called from above.

The woman jumped and spun, backing up into the door, a hand held to her chest. “Ma’am…” she said in Spanish. “You scared me.”

Maria held up her hands and answered in Spanish. “Sorry!” The woman eyed her. “Is everything all right?”

Maria spread her hands out, mentally cringing the moment she did it, knowing she was overselling her casual act. “Fine. All good.”

The woman nodded slowly. “I see.” “What are you doing here?”


“I mean. What’s… on your schedule today?”

“I was going to start the laundry and make you breakfast of course.” She studied Maria again. “Did you have trouble sleeping before your trip? Shall I make something different?”

“No. No, not at all. I’ve just been working.” “The nerves.”

“Yes, my nerves. Always before a performance.” “Are you still leaving today?”

Maria’s heart beat faster. “Yes. Still today. In fact, I need to focus on getting ready. Why don’t you take the day off? I need a little space to work and think.”

The woman nodded. “Very well, Miss Santos. Good luck, dear.”

With that, the woman left, and Maria exhaled so hard she almost collapsed.

Back in the office, she opened her mouth to speak, but Kato cut her off. “We heard. Leaving today.” He turned to Ty. “We really need to get access to that laptop.”

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