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The Drone Keeper - Progress Report
In the Meantime - Progress Report
Black Friday Sales
Catch up on a series
Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you.
The aircraft hovered above the broken ground when he neared the building site.
Continuing to hover, sensors scanned the ground. Then a ladder extended, and an eloquent female voice said at the same time as a neon notice appeared on the dash, "Uneven ground detected. Descend by apparatus."
Okay…. Steve looked out the window again and watched newly loosened debris blow like shrapnel in the breeze past emergency vehicle lights. "Is this…safe?"
"I don't understand the question. Repeat the question, please."
The door automatically opened as Steve stood after a hesitant beat and climbed down the twelve rungs as smaller objects took flight in the hurried wind roughly brushing past him. He felt a sudden spin coming on. Gripped the titanium ladder. Pulled his chest nearer. Held firm to steady himself. This can't be happening now. Not now. He held on. His weight like a rag on the rungs. His knees begging to buckle.
Two uniformed emergency workers watched from below. Neither offered help.
Was it the height that sent him into waves, or was it his dammed condition?
He opened his eyes. Peeked one look at his wrist. It wasn't an insulin issue.
"Sir, are you all right?" someone yelled below over the din.
Steve took one long breath through his nose, parted his lips, and let the air escape slowly. Then, without opening his eyes, he said, "I'm all right."
He opened his eyes and descended the rest of the steps.
When his feet hit the ground, the aircraft had already retracted the ladder and was flying away like a giant lazy bee when Steve turned around and found a man's hand held out to him.
"Hi, you must be Steve Glennings. I'm Jack, Detective Portes' assistant. He said to escort you to him. Your assistant Anabelle Shrewt said you'd arrive soon."
Without shaking, Steve scrunched up his face and said, "She did?"
Jack wasn't much older than thirty, a mere youngster by Steve's years, and Jack probably knew that because he looked at Steve as if he were having an Alzheimer episode. And he might be right.
The kid retracted his unshook hand as if he'd never meant the gesture and said, "Yeah, didn't you know?"
"No. She didn't say…", but he didn't finish his sentence. It didn't matter what Anabelle did or didn't do. At the moment, only the giant pile of rubble, behind Jack head, consumed his attention.
Jack turned too. "Amazing, isn't it?"
The statement struck as odd since it had happened merely an hour before, and it sounded as if Jack had been there during a month's long ancient excavation instead of a deadly explosion that happened in the last hour. Steve glanced again at the smoking pile. "I wouldn't call it amazing. I'm gawking because it didn't look so big from above. Are there any survivors yet?"
"One," Jack said. "And they're working on extracting your drone and a lifeform there."
Steve tore his eyes away from the carnage again and looked at Jack for a second time. "Lifeform? Are you saying the female was a droid or something?"
Jack didn't answer right away but started walking.
Steve started following.
"No… we're not sure, I mean. It's the term we use until a determination is made."
"You could have just said, 'We don't know.' That works, too." Steve reached into his pocket and popped another white tablet into his mouth. She was a human female if he ever saw one before. He knew the difference. And droids never showed up as a blue light on a screen. They were always purple. She was blue, just like her eyes. But at the same time, he wasn't about to argue semantics with the kid.
"What about the drone?"
"It's still in there. Come on, and I'll bring you to the detective. He wants to talk to you."
"I mean, was the array intact?"
"I'll let Detective Portes tell you about the rest."
Taking careful steps through the debris while also trying to watch out for his head, Steve stole glances at three workers hovering around a mound they'd covered with a metallic blanket. One made rude comments about a small blaze, a dead body, and the smell of cooked meat.
Steve shook his head, blew air swiftly from his nose in a quick burst as he craned his neck and refocused his sight on more workers higher up on the pile of the broken, crumbling building.
The suit man…he was up there too, in tiny pieces. What did he do? What was that black sphere he rolled to the ground? Immediately he'd thought of him as evil, and now Steve wasn't so sure how to label him. And who the hell blew up the building? So many questions he intended to answer before the day was through.
Steve heard his name called and recognized the voice from the detective he'd met earlier on a screen. "Yes," he held his hand out, "Steve, actually." He met the detective's gaze with his own as they shook and Steve noted in the firm grip, the man, not the detective, had been taught well at some point in his life. Few could say the same.
The detective leaned in then as the noise from the recovery operation gained in volume, "Follow me. I think we found something you might find interesting," he said in his ear and then led the way.
Steve followed him around the circumference of the demolished building. The aid followed them until they came to the opened end of a mobile investigation unit. "Step inside," the detective yelled, which caused Steve to stand still. He looked at the detective and then turned around and eyed his assistant.
The detective noticed his hesitancy and said, "We're not going to arrest you. Unless, of course, you did this."
Steve looked at him again and didn't grin.
"It was a joke."
"Uh-huh," Steve said. Since when were police funny? Never. That just wasn't their style. He didn't believe him one bit, but there was no use in running through rubble loaded with police drones. He wouldn't make it three feet before he fell on his face, stunned by their lasers. So if they were going to arrest him for whatever made-up crime, there was nothing he could do about it. Steve tilted his head to the side quickly one way and then the other and stepped up into the hovering vehicle.
"Go to the end there," the detective said, and Steve slid down the bench seat and allowed the detective to jump in after him. Then the doors automatically closed while they stared at the business end of the wall.
Steve scanned the various screens opposite the bench seat, "What do we have here?"
"That was the man you were supposed to escort to the exit of the building this morning. Charles James Kinney, correct."
Steve nodded. "Instead, he's bird food up there.”
They looked at him funny.
“Have you ever met him before?"
Surprised by the question, Steve jerked back. "What? No. And I didn't meet him this morning. My drone didn't even meet him before the explosion. So we…meaning my drone, never made it past the front desk checking in with blu…I mean, the assistant."
Telling himself, Do not raise your voice. Stay calm. Steve knew they were looking for tells. No matter what they said, this was an informal interrogation. But it didn't matter how he cautioned himself, it seemed his hands and mouth had a mind of its own. He suddenly found his finger was pointing at the screen, and he urgently said, "Why are you asking me if I knew this man personally? I'd never met him before in my life. As you observed from the footage, I voluntarily gave you, the only thing I saw was that Mr. Kinney was in a strange getup out of the past. He rolled a black sphere that I thought might be a bomb from his jacket sleeve right before the feed collapsed. Surely, you saw that. How in the world did you conclude that I knew him personally?"
"Calm down… I'm getting to that. I just have a few questions about your involvement before we discuss a few other things."
Steve put his palms up. Swallowed. "I was contracted to do a job by the company with company information, just like every day. I don't know the man. I only had his location, name, and an image of him. That's all."
"Yes, you said that."
"Then why am I being questioned? I only came to retrieve my property."
"Because we think the sphere was a shield not a bomb. It wasn't an incendiary device or a detonator. In all scenarios, he's somehow involved with the explosion. It can't be a coincidence." The detective replayed his drone's footage, paused on the sphere's image, and zoomed in. "Do you have any idea what that is?"
Steve watched the replay and kept his eyes on the black ball as it rolled off the tips of the man's fingers and into the abyss before the footage cut out. He took in a slow breath. "I'm baffled. Look, it can't be a shield because I deployed an array that protected both my drone and the receptionist by sheer proximity. And I verified that it was still in place before I left."
"I know you said that. Is there any way he also deployed a shield at the same time? If not, what else can this thing be if it wasn't a bomb or a shield."
Steve shook his head. "I think you're leaping. I don't know what that thing is, but the array would have negated its force if it was a shield. If you can recover the drone and interview the receptionist, they might provide some answers. She did know him. She said his name before it happened. You can see the expression in the footage. The drone will have some answers as well."
"That's just it. You realize I need your permission to hold your drone. We need our experts to check it out."
"Absolutely not. I am the expert. The drone leaves with me. I will fully cooperate with all findings I uncover, but, by law, you have no control over my intellectual property. We can stall the court system if you'd like, but I will win."
Calmly, the detective smiled and nodded. "I figured as much. I can't say I blame you."
"You have a human witness. Hopefully, she can provide some answers." Steve watched him for a reaction.
He nodded, but Steve also noted he didn't have anything to say about the woman. There was something odd there. Something they knew, and he did not know.
"Speaking of the receptionist. Did you know her before today?"
"No. Never met her in my life."
The back door opened then, and Jack said, "We're secure, sir. Both recovered."
"Thanks, Jack. We'll be there in a second."
Steve's mind drifted back to the screens. The image was frozen on his drone's point of view. Blue eyes, at the counter, behind her, the man, and the black ball. It wasn't an incendiary device. It wasn't a detonator. The only test real test he would perform would confirm if the alien device meant to deploy a shield, one his array would void anyway. That was a default reaction from a drone. Steve knew this because he’d programmed them early on to be masters of rock paper scissors. Anything they could do, drones could do better. He’d programmed them to protect their own. And then Steve's eyes drifted again to the suit man's face…that caring look in his eyes as he stared at the back of the blonde's head. Was he trying to save her from imminent death? If so, that meant that he knew he was about to die too. There was no way the man in the suit was innocent in all of this, but still, he had the feeling the man took all the answers with him, and they were scattered into tiny pieces all over the giant dump outside.
"Steve…" the detective called again.
Tearing his eyes away from the screen, he found the detective standing outside the van with Jack alongside him. They were both looking at him strangely.
"Yeah, I'm coming," Steve said and slid down the bench seat.
"Good, we're going to retrieve your drone and see if our witness has anything to say."
Jack said, "Just follow me."
Steve had the feeling he'd revealed a weakness. Maybe he'd zoned out too long. He wasn't sure.
"I'm right behind you," he said and then found himself high stepping through knee-deep rubble. Boulders and material all lay at odd angles as if they were traversing some alien land. Perfect sprang-your-ankle land. Smoke assaulted his nose. His breath was quick.
"Watch where you're going," the detective yelled back, and Steve didn't dare tear his eyes away from his next step because if he had, a twisted ankle was the least of his worries. Still, he stole a glance and saw a mobile medivac tent up ahead and caught a partial view of his drone laying a broken wing outside the tail end and then groaned. There was damage. He could see it from there. Dents in an un-dentable metal. How could he expect there not to be damage? And gosh, if the drone was damaged, then blue eyes…all flesh and blood, what kind of shape must she be in?
But as they neared, they heard a shrill of pain. Everyone ahead of him stopped in their tracks and they looked toward the tent. It was her. She was in there, and she was screaming for all she was worth.
CATCH UP ON A SERIES
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BUDDY BOOK MENTIONS
Until next week…be safe. AR Shaw