Passing Strangers

Characters: Tomás Darquin

“Antonio Metter?”

The voice came rolling into his left ear through his wrist comlink on the nighstand by his bed. He hadn’t hit the reply button, and yet there was the voice, filtered and low, gentle but menacing.

“Antonio Orlando Metter?”

Metter snatched up his wrist-link and stabbed the reply key to hang up. And then the vidcom in the next room came online, the screen a blue void, the volume flooding the whole apartment with the same gentle mystery menace.

“It’s 0600 hours, dogface. Time for your wakeup call.”

Metter reached for a robe and brushed out his page boy hair with one rapid pass of his free hand. “Computer!”

“Nah, that’s okay, I got it. Didn’t wanted anyone to interrupt our little trip down memory lane.” It paused. “Gosh, Metter, you look nervous. I guess there are some memories you’d rather stay away from, huh?”

My God, Metter thought, it’s watching me. The fist holding the front of his robe shut turned white.

The voice over the vidcom snickered, sighed as if it was savoring Metter’s fear, a connessieur with a glass of quality vintage dread. “I’ll make it a little easier for you and come out point-blank.”

Then the voice turned cold. “Beverly Mills.”

Despite himself, Metter gasped.

“Tonisha Xbrigni.”

The names struck him hard, like bullets made of ghostly matter.

“Harrel Shephard. He shot himself, did you know that?”

Metter fumbled into the nearest chair, too stunned to look where he was going. Whoever was on the line, this person might as well have been pulling a verbal trigger till the gun ran empty.

“Aolani Quintain. That one took a little digging to find.”

Metter let his face fall into his hands. It was a sick pun, said without amusement or mercy.

The voice didn’t even stop. “You’ve been a busy little toad, haven’t you. I made the mistake of looking into one of them–just curiosity, what kinda family did so-and-so grow up in, that kind of thing– and guess what two and two came out to?”

“To… to me.” Metter pointed to himself with shaking fingers.

“No,” the voice answered, quickly turning bitter, “a lot of people you messed up, a couple already messed-up kids, one or two dead kids, and then you. A name that kept appearing wherever they were. Lots of dead kids and suffering all over the world, here and there, but no way to connect it all to you. Unless they started on the assumption it was one guy. The law knew what you were, what you done, but not who or where. And the statute of limitations has run out on a couple of them, but as you can tell, I won’t let that stop me.”

Metter slammed his fist into the wall behind him, needing to hit something. “Who the hell are you?”

His tormentor paused for a moment. “A song you’ll never get out of your head. Oh lookie! Visitors!”

The front door flew open with a crash. At the sight of police bolting in by the handful, Metter screamed. His digital conscience didn’t make a sound, not even laughter.


 

In the streets outside his house, reporters already lay in wait with cambot units hovering nearby, at the ready. Metter’s arrest had been perfectly timed as far as they were concerned; just in time for the local breakfast time demographics. A feeding frenzy of newsanchors converged on the police escort hauling Metter out into the sharp morning light, bombarding him with questions as the cameras zoomed in on his humiliation. And his videographic crucifixion had only begun.

Taren Kerezman climbed deeper to the heart of the frantic swarm, mike in hand, poised to catch the slightest utterance, just in time for the police to take Metter out of range and into a squad groundcar marked in gunmetal shades of grey and blue. Fuming, Kerezman demanded from his cam-operators a clear, long, dramatic head shot of Metter through the car windows before the cops drove him away. Even when they returned with good news, he grumbled. His crew quickly offered him a few minutes to himself before they shot his narration angles, and to their relief, he accepted with a nod and stomped away.

He stopped behind a shadowed corner, leaning against the bricks forming it, rubbing his forehead just as his comlink gently trembled against his wrist. He slapped the ringer back on, too tense to put up with the silent mode’s weak shudder on his skin, and hit the reply key. “Kerezman.”

“Gosh, you sound awful cranky.”

“You promised ISN–promised me–an exclusive. Every damn reporter for a hundred kilometers was here.”

“Uh uh, I said you had first crack. I can’t help it if the word on the street got it to everyone about the bust.”

“I thought you were the word on the street.”

A chuckle came over the wrist-link. “Whaddya know, I am! Got me there. Look, you got to scoop everyone else, so what’s the problem?”

“You lied to me!”

“Only if letting you fill in the blanks is lying, numbo. Now didn’t one of your people used to say there’s no such thing as an objective journalist? Maybe you should’ve listened to him.”

Kerezman grinned to himself. Those words had his friend Dan Randall written all over them. Obviously this Deep Throat wannabe had done his homework.

“What’re you smiling about? A second ago, we were mad as hell.”

It took a moment to sink in, then Kerezman froze. He tried to get a glimpse of something on one of the rooftops nearby, then turned from side to side. “Where are you! I know you’re close! Or maybe you have some–”

The sensation of familiar glances stopped him in his tracks. A few meters down the street, his cambot crew were huddling together to watch him crouch and spin in place like a trapped animal.

He could hear his informant snickering over the open comm-channel. “Funny thing about snitches and turncoats. In the back of their minds, they keep expecting someone to watch them, betray them, turn them in, just as they did to someone else. All you have to do to make ’em paranoid is make ’em think someone is watching them. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword, as the Bible says.”

Kerezman retreated back behind the street corner, speaking into his link. “All right, what is this about. What do you want?”

“You’ve already given it to me.” He paused as if expecting a reply…or was it for dramatic effect. “I had four objectives. To nail Metter, completely ruin him, destroy his anonymity and any chance to hurt anyone else again. That’s done. Second, to put your credibility out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

“Why me?”

“Because, Mr Kerezman, you’re on the rise–or were, when Clark was still calling the shots. You make a good example since tying your feet together won’t mess up ISN much.”

Kerezman nodded to himself, wearing a grim and understanding smile. Could be a Marsie, he thought, or one of Sheridan’s people. “A little revenge of yourself?”

A sigh came over the comlink. “Not really. Some things just had to be done. You weren’t interested in doing any of them. I was.”

“You said…you were after four objectives.”

“Well, number 3 is easy. If you want your credibility back, you’ll need one hell of a story. You’ll need me. You know now I can get you one–”

“Or invent it,” Kerezman grumbled.

He heard an amused snort. “Oh, and you don’t?”


 

Darquin tapped a key on his link, closing the channel. He reached for the cable leads jacked into the phone socket in the guest room, quickly pulled them loose to make sure no one could follow his signal all the way there. After a moment to catch his breath, certain that he’d waited long enough, he wired his hand-link back in.

“Comm system?”

“On-line,” his link sang back.

“E-mail dictation: Hi, the passcode is ‘time goes, time goes by too soon.’ Hassle accomplished, mission complete. My pal’s on the hook, but so’s yours, so expect an earful. While he and I were chatting, I hacked into ISN and got what you wanted. Just like you thought, there’s a handful of reporters still scattered throughout the Earthgov prison system. Names, locations, a few security codes, everything you need.” Despite himself an evil smile slid across his face. “My love to Vienna Haswell; I always thought she was the cutest anchor you guys ever had. Good luck. We live for the One, we die for the One. End message. Attach Breakout file, encrypt, send.”

He pulled the leads again, this time for good, disconnecting the lines from his comlink, winding them around his other hand before he put them back under his Anla’shok duster.

We were talking, passing strangers. 
Moments caught across an empty room. 
Wasted whispers, faded secrets 
Quickly passes, time goes, time goes by too soon.
     – Ultravox, "Passing Strangers" 1980

Phoenix–“Passing Strangers” (C) 1999 Joe Medina

Babylon 5 (C) and ™ 1998 Warner Bros.