(Fiction) Rules

Ralph Goings painting

The technician at her feet looked up. “How does that feel?”

Nio lifted her left foot to examine the wide bracelet around her ankle. Tungsten slivers had been woven into the Kevlar to prevent tampering. They glinted as she turned her foot. A slim, flexible bulge on the bracelet’s outward-facing side held the electronics, accessible wirelessly or by a single recessed infrared lens.

“Feels tight.”

The tech ratcheted the pair of specially-shaped sprockets one click tighter and stood up. “Done,” he told the officers behind him.

The man in charge was Special Agent Roger Erving, who had flown in from New York after several days of negotiations. His office handled high profile cases and had originally investigated Sol’s death. He was neatly suited with a violet tie that complemented his dark skin. He was an inch or two shorter than average, but his piercing eyes and confident grip more than compensated. He wore a wedding band and a ruby-tipped class ring to a school Nio didn’t recognize. He spoke in a rich baritone, like a sports announcer or radio DJ.

“I’m not sure what Dr. Chang told you,” he said as the tech stepped away, “but your purview will be limited to assisting the Bureau in its investigation into the death of Albumin Sol Einstein. You are authorized to conduct no other business or activities while under remand, is that understood?”

Nio nodded.

Taboo by Les Baxter.

“Under the US Constitution and the laws of South Dakota, you are not obliged to admit guilt, and this agreement doesn’t infringe that right. However, it is an ‘at-will’ arrangement. It can be terminated by either party at any time. If we’re not satisfied with your progress, or if you’re not satisfied with how you’re being treated, just say the word and you will be taken into custody and returned to the Brown County Sheriff at the first available opportunity. Do you understand all of that as I’ve explained it to you?”

“What about Mr. Misery?”

“Any alleged crimes peripheral to this case are not your concern.” He glanced down to her socks like he just noticed she had no shoes. “You should’ve reported him to us.”

“Check your records, chief.” Nio crossed her arms. “I tried.”

Erving’s mouth turned down slightly. Before he could respond, the front door opened, and Del walked in wearing a suit, crisp white dress sneakers, and fancy lavender tie.

Nio nodded to herself slowly, like she should’ve known.

Erving raised a hand to him. “I believe you already met Agent Axl Quinn from the Bureau’s Minneapolis office.”

“Agent . . .”

His expensive Italian silk tie didn’t match the rest of his stiff-fabric suit

“Agent Quinn has been undercover in Aberdeen for the last six weeks. Wittingly or otherwise, you assisted the department with a very important case, which is the only reason I’m even contemplating this farce.”

“Why does the FBI care about some backwater in South Dakota?”

“The president has declared that the deep core program is vital to the nation’s strategic reserve. For reasons of history, countries with mineral deposits in Africa and South America prefer dealing with the Chinese over Europe or America.”

“Gee, I wonder why.”

“That leaves us with few options. There have been overblown reports in the media that organized crime have been profiting—however indirectly—from the program, which is already an environmental hot potato. We needed a win. Having handed everything over to the U.S. Attorney, Agent Quinn has some time on his hands. He’s going to be looking after you, reporting to me, for the duration.”

“A babysitter,” Nio said, sizing him up.

“What did you expect?” Erving asked.

Agent Quinn’s dark hair was trimmed short. His narrow eyes were constantly smiling even when, as then, his mouth wasn’t. He was recently clean shaven, judging from the razor burn on his neck, and noticeably handsome—in a very conventional sort of way. He was tall and his face was extraordinarily symmetrical. He looked to be in his 30s, which was plenty of time for an equally conventionally attractive woman to scoop him up, but there was no ring on his finger.

“Do you have any questions for me?” Special Agent Erving asked.

“When do we talk about my side of this bargain?”

“After you demonstrate your willingness to cooperate and produce results. I respect Dr. Chang’s position on this and understand where he’s coming from. But we’re the ones taking the risk here. You’ve been granted a tremendous opportunity. Make the most of it.”

“When do I get my personal effects?”

“That’s up to the sheriff. Anything else?”

Nio shook her head.

“Then my advice is to take the evening. Relax. Get used to being out of your cell. Agent Quinn will buy you dinner. Nothing too fancy,” he added as an aside. “You start first thing in the morning. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a plane to catch.”

With that, he nodded to the others in the room, who broke to go about their duties, and walked out the front.

“Looks like you get to take me to dinner after all,” Nio said. “You have some ID?”

The man she knew as Del looked incredulous, but he complied. He reached into the breast pocket of his coat and removed his credentials.

Nio studied them. “Axl Miguel Quinn.” She looked up. “Miguel?”

“After my grandfather,” he said flatly.

Standing next to him, Nio thought he seemed even bigger than before. He had to be at least six-foot-four. He struck Nio as someone who used to lead an active life but didn’t since joining the FBI. If he’d been married, Nio would’ve expected kids had entered the picture. If so, he didn’t have any pictures in his wallet. Maybe he was divorced.

She looked down at his bright dress sneakers. They were flawless.

He took the wallet back.

“How you gonna play it?” she asked.

“How’m I gonna play what?”

“Dirty Harry or Columbo?”

“Who’s Columbo?”

“Are those the case files?”

A cardboard file holder stood like an altar on a bare desk.

Agent Quinn nodded. “Most of them.”

“Most?” Nio took the lid off and started looking.

“Everything that could be transferred electronically from New York and printed. The physical evidence is in a locker somewhere.”

“Do me a favor?” she asked.

“What’s that?”

“Get some coffee?”

He snorted once. “Pot’s over there.” He nodded toward the corner. “I’ll see about your personal effects. Don’t get comfortable.” He pointed at her with a long arm. “We’re not staying.”

Nio scowled but didn’t look up from the files. Sol’s face peeked sideways from a manila folder. He looked different than she remembered. Like an adult. Mature. Respectable. He was a spitting image of his alter but had elected to forgo the iconic brush mustache and wild hair. He kept his neat. He had the same oval eyes she remembered, at once curious and maudlin. She sat down and turned the page.

More than any of them, Sol had followed in his alter’s footsteps. Mutiny had become a professional fighter, it was true, but in an entirely different sport. Sol became a physicist, and not just any physicist. He had picked up exactly where the other man had left off. He was trying to reconcile gravity with quantum mechanics. After completing his education at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, he became a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, located at 1 Einstein Drive, Princeton, New Jersey. It was, as the organization’s president said at his welcoming speech, a homecoming. The institute, which was funded by grant and charged no tuition to those accepted, was a place for big minds to ponder even bigger problems. Freed from the necessity of earning a salary, he taught only when he wanted to, which was rarely. His publications were rarer still and covered everything from virtual particles to spatial topography. He was unmarried and had no children. Since he was ethnically Jewish, he had made a few token attempts to get involved with the local synagogue, but nothing seemed to come of it. He had friends at the institute, where he was quite popular, but none of them were close.

Unlike her, Sol had kept in touch with the others, or so it seemed. Contact was sparse but consistent. The FBI had collected every call, email, or text sent or received from any of his devices in the weeks leading up to his death. One name immediately stood out. There was a reference code next to it, indicating the FBI had followed up. It took Nio several minutes to find the agent’s notes in the files. It had been a single, short call, so there was no reason for anyone to disbelieve the woman on the other end, who said that she and Sol had had a brief, pleasant conversation during which they made plans to see each other in the coming weeks. An entry in his calender confirmed that. Nio turned to a nearby PC and searched for Chancery.

“Chaz,” as the others had called her, had dreams since adolescence of running the world’s largest company. She was then settling for the 256th, a quantum computing upstart headquartered near Fermilab, just outside Chicago, where she was CEO. If Nio called and requested a meeting as herself, she knew Chaz would say she was busy. Instead, Nio called the company switchboard and asked for the CEO’s secretary, who explained that his boss was unavailable. Nio pretended to be disappointed and said she was a reporter with Vogue. She said she was going to be in town in two days and wondered if she could have a few minutes of the boss’s time for an article she was running on women in power. The secretary did his job and neither confirmed nor denied availability, but in so doing, did let it be known that the meeting was at least possible, which meant Chancery was scheduled to be in town that day.

“Thank you so much,” Nio said and hung up.

“Where’d you learn to do that?”

Nio turned. The once-fit Agent Quinn was leaning against the neighboring desk, sipping coffee from a paper cup. The other held a bundle of sealed plastic evidence bags. One of them was large and contained her puffy coat.

“For the record,” he said, “you’re not supposed to do that.”

“Lie? I promise I’ll never do it again.”

“Use the phone. Or access the internet. Not without permission. It was in the terms and conditions you signed.”

He tossed the bags on the desk. The smallest fell to the floor.

Nio picked it up. Inside was her opened letter, folded in half, and the local paper the sheriff had given her.

“Pack all this up,” Agent Quinn said. “If we hurry, we can get back before midnight.”

“Where we going?”

“Minneapolis, to start. We can’t stay in the sheriff’s hair. He’s got real police work to do. My office will be home base for now.”

“What about shoes?” She lifted her socks.

Agent Quinn scowled. “They didn’t get you anything?”

“Those little blue booties you wear at crime scenes.”

“Well, there’s a Wal-mart near the freeway.”

“Wal-mart?”

He dropped his coffee in a trash can and dug out his keys. “Come on, it’ll be fun,” he said sarcastically as he walked to the door.

The car was a rental, a squat sedan with minimal features. Nio tossed her coat and the box in the back and Agent Quinn started the car and headed toward the highway. The store had an old-style layout, which Nio preferred, versus the automated, ad-filled monstrosities that filled the cities. She settled on a pair of men’s hiking boots. They were cheap and uncomfortable, but the store had a size small enough to fit her. Agent Quinn waited in the aisle and made a few calls, but he never took his eyes off her for more than a few seconds. He tested the ankle bracelet while they waited for the stock boy to check the back. He made it beep in warning from the app on his phone.

Nio sat in the back of the sedan and went page-by-page through the case files. Seemingly every detail of Sol’s life had been captured, mostly by machine—not just emails and phone records but browser history, cell phone location data, social media posts and all his comments and replies, chat transcripts, credit card transactions, frequent shopper accounts, dating site logs, tickets and travel, medical records, even his gym attendance had all been scraped and compiled automatically. There was even a psychological profile assembled by algorithm that made obvious statements like “The subject was very organized” and “The subject did not appear to abuse drugs or alcohol.” Nio favorite was “The subject was a biologically male heterosexual who dated infrequently. No current romantic partner,” which the machine was able to infer not just from his dating site records but also his calendar and cell phone location history, wherein there appeared only rare meetings with a heterosexual female, none recurrent. Nio wondered how much of it a human had actually read. Still, she understood the necessity. There was just too much. Going through every bit of available data, even for the average person, was not only time consuming, the odds that a human would miss a relevant fact amid the volume of incidentals was extremely high. So law enforcement did the next best thing. They trained machines, not just to gather data but to plot the subject’s daily routine—when he slept, when he got up, where he ate, where he worked, regular places he visited—and then to look for exceptions. The machine also scanned for known triggers of “exceptional behavior,” such as the death of a loved one, termination of employment, large change in bank account, and so on. The summary report generated on Sol stretched to ten dense pages.

But Nio was fascinated by the details. She loved having a window into her brother’s life—his hobbies, his hangups, his favorite foods. Sol was a sushi nut. But pouring through it all, she was also sad. She didn’t appear in any of it. Not even once. It was as if they were complete strangers. She knew well that wasn’t Sol’s fault.

After two hours of silent driving, Agent Quinn had enough.

“Say it,” he said.

“Say what?”

“You’re mad at me.”

“No, I’m not,” she replied without taking her eyes from the files.

“Good, then tell me what you found.”

She snorted. “Nice bait and switch. What makes you think I found anything?”

“Because I’m a detective, remember? And you’ve had the same look of constipation on your face since Ortley.” He could see her in the rear view mirror.

“What’s oatley?”

“Town we passed about ten minutes back. So what is it?”

“Pictures,” she said absentmindedly.

“I can see that. Of?”

She turned one around. It was a photo of a handheld electronic device, black with yellow trim. An FBI numerical label card was next to it.

“You know what this is?” she asked.

“Looks like an infrared thermometer. Summers in high school I worked HVAC.”

“You fixed air conditioners in Minneapolis?”

“I grew up in LA.”

“Ah. That explains a lot.”

“Like what?”

“The shoes.”

“You want me to be Del again, is that it?”

“I liked him better. Do you know what these things are used for?” she asked.

“Taking temperatures?”

Nio turned another photo. “What about this?”

It was another black handheld electronic device, albeit rectangular this time. A V-shaped antenna poked from the top. A string of colored lights stretched across the rim.

“Radon detector?” Agent Quinn guessed.

“Why would a radon detector have an antenna?”

“I don’t know.”

“EMF,” she explained.

“Huh. Well, the guy was a scientist right?”

“Last one.” She turned another. “Call it a tie-breaker.”

“That’s a receiver for a wide-band radio. Long distance around-the-world kind of thing.”

“There’s a digital voice recorder also,” she said. “Here’s today’s pop quiz, Agent Axl. What do all of these things have in common?”

“They were found in our vic’s garage.”

“I’m serious.”

“I dunno. You can buy them at a home improvement store.”

“It’s ghost hunting equipment.”

He scowled. “What do you mean ghost hunting? Like on TV?”

“Yes. This is a bog-standard paranormal research kit.”

“What do they use the infrared thermometer for?”

“Test for cold spots. What about this?” Nio turned another photo.

“That’s easy. That’s a motion sensor. I have the same model on my house.”

“Are you sensing a trend?”

“Har, har.”

“Your people photographed everything, right?”

“I doubt they got the lint in his dryer, but yeah. I expect so.”

The interior of the car was quiet.

“Weekend hobby?” Quinn suggested. “Blow off steam. Impress the pretty undergrads.”

“He wasn’t like that.”

“When was the last time you saw the guy?”

“He wasn’t like that, Axl. Read the damn case notes if you don’t believe me.”

Quinn grit his teeth. “I have, lady. I’m trying to make an alternative suggestion that fits the facts and makes more sense than what you’re suggesting. Wasn’t this guy supposed to be one of the smartest people in the world?”

“Something like that . . .” Nio breathed, scowling at the glossy pictures in her hand.

“You hungry?” he asked after several minutes. “If we grab something quick, we can still make it back tonight.”

“You said that already. You got a hot date or something?”

“Some of us like our own beds.”

“No offense, Axl, but I’ve been in a cage for ten days. I’d like some real food and a good night’s sleep. We can be A-students tomorrow.”

“Well . . .” Agent Quinn examined a road sign as it passed. A grid of logos announced the meal options at the next town. “I hate to say it, but it looks like our options are fast food or pizza.”

“No.” Nio pointed to the yellow sign at the horizon.

“We are not going to Denny’s.” He gave her a look.

“We’re going to Denny’s,” she said. “Looks like you finally get to take me to dinner.”

They were shown to a booth at the front window by an overweight waitress with iridescent eyelashes and a motion tattoo of a small child, a son perhaps. The tall Agent Quinn stepped around the table and groaned in anticipation of stretching out, but Nio stopped him.

“No, not there.”

He looked blankly at the bulging red cushions of the booth.

She motioned to a nearby table. “We’ll sit here,” she told the waitress.

The woman shrugged as she moved the laminated menus.

Quinn was incredulous.

“Don’t ever sit at a table with two salt shakers,” Nio explained as the screen on the table turned on automatically and began playing commercials. Nio moved it to a nearby table.

Quinn examined the cluster of condiments at the back of the booth. The sweeteners were arranged by color and guarded jealously by a bottle of ketchup. The pepper shaker hid behind a triangular desert menu. Standing in front of the lot were a pair of salt shakers—identical except for a dent in one cap.

“Did something happen to him?” Nio asked the waitress. She stepped close to examine the motion tattoo on the woman’s arm.

A small child sat awkwardly on the floor near some presents—a birthday or Christmas. As the woman’s arm moved, the boy’s face brightened into a smile. It was slightly crisper than the tattoos of old, but it was considerably less defined than the photograph from which it had surely been taken.

“How did you know?” she asked, suddenly quite emotional.

“Not recently, I hope.”

“Two years ago.” She frowned.

Nio frowned in return and took the woman’s hand. She shook it in support. “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.” The woman tried to smile through the sadness before returning to the kitchen.

Nio pulled out a chair and took a seat, but Agent Quinn hadn’t moved. He turned back to Nio, who was reading her menu. He pulled out a chair and looked at the half-inch of speckled padding. He took a seat. It creaked.

“That some kind of superstition?” he asked.

“It’s not superstition. It’s science.”

“Is that right? So how does it work? Does it apply to pepper too?”

“Have you ever seen a table with two pepper shakers?”

Quinn opened his mouth to answer but stopped. Although he could imagine the scenario easily, strangely enough, he couldn’t recall ever actually seeing it. He studied the table in front of him the way an audience studies a magician after a trick. Then he turned his head to the rest of the room.

“What do you think has the most meat?” Nio asked, staring at the menu.

“What can I get you both to drink?” the waitress asked. She seemed out of breath.

“Coffee,” they said at the same time.

“Jinx,” she mumbled before walking off.

Quinn picked up his menu and glanced back to the pair of salts on the booth table.

“I don’t suppose you’re a certified Ally.” Nio pointed to a small logo at the bottom of the menu. “We can get 10% off.”

“I downloaded that app once,” he said. “I could never keep up.”

“What do you mean?”

“You keep your certification by answering questions that pop up from time to time. I kept getting them wrong. Every week it seemed there was some new person we were supposed to be mad at. I dunno. Seemed like a waste of time.”

Nio slapped her menu down and started pulling napkins from the container. “Get me the Denver omelette. I gotta pee.”

Agent Quinn looked down at the ankle bracelet and turned back to the table. “Don’t take too long.”

The waitress returned after a short gap and he ordered for the both of them. After a few minutes, he turned to the back, but saw nothing. He studied the floor tiles and wondered if he’d already screwed up. He gripped the table and was about to push himself up when Nio appeared in the hall, rubbing her hands together. She sat down and poured four creams into her coffee. The pair drank in silence.

The food came, and Quinn watched Nio shove the stuffed omelette into her mouth like a hyena.

“What’s in that?” he asked, staring.

“Meat,” she mumbled with a full mouth. She took another bite before she had fully swallowed the first.

“I can see that. What kinds?”

“Zau-zage,” she said, chewing. “Ham. I dunno.” She swallowed and took another bite. “Meat.”

He stabbed his fork into his salad.

“I didn’t eat meat for fourteen years,” she explained between bites.

“So now you’re making up for lost time?”

In minutes, except for the smears of grease, her plate was completely bare. Agent Quinn had half his salad left. He forced one more bite.

“So what’s your story?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Come on . . . Where do you live? What do you do? Why were you in Leavenworth for two years?”

Nio held her coffee close to her mouth. It was cold. “I got involved in something.” She took a sip. “I wanted to do something good. Then some people died and I got out.”

“I didn’t see anything like that in your file.”

“I have a file?”

“Everyone has a file.”

“Even Searan?”

“Who’s Sharon?”

“Searan. Our waitress. You didn’t see the name tag?”

Quinn stabbed his salad with his fork but did nothing with it. “No,” he answered her. “Searan probably doesn’t have a file. But you do. And I didn’t see anything about people dying. Just the prior. Two years in Leavenworth. But nothing about the case. What was that about?”

She set her coffee down. “Are you done?”

He looked at his salad. He pushed himself up from the table with a grunt and walked the way very large men do to the cashier.

“Nobody calls me Axl,” he said on the way to the car. “My grandma calls me Miguel. Everybody else calls me Quinn. Have since high school.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Axl.”

Quinn leaned on the roof of the sedan and looked across to Nio. “What is your problem? You been givin’ me—” He stopped. He looked back at the restaurant as if he just realized he’d left his wallet.

“Stay here.” Quinn shut his door and walked into the diner. He found the restrooms at the back and knocked on the women’s. When no one answered, he pushed open the door. “Hello?”

Inside, he found a very thin cell phone resting obliquely on top of the hand dryer, as if someone had left it there by accident. He took it and found the waitress, Searan, who was amazed. She had been running around the restaurant looking for it. She was confused by Quinn’s request to see if any calls had been made, but she complied.

There was one, but it hadn’t been answered. Quinn took a photo of the screen with his own phone.

“Thank you so much,” he said with a smile.

He walked outside, where Nio was leaning against the sedan. They both got in and Quinn started the car. He sat in silence for a moment with the engine running.

“So the salt thing was a con?”

“No,” she objected. “It was a distraction.”

Quinn wanted to argue, to challenge, but he couldn’t escape that it had worked.

Nio saw the look on his face. “It’s a biohack. Sort of. We all like to think we’re passive observers of the world, but we’re not. Our brains actively scan the environment, focusing on some things, ignoring others. You snapped out of it pretty quick.”

“Are you suggesting I should be grateful that you gave me an opportunity to demonstrate how smart I am?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You wanna tell me who you called?”

She didn’t answer.

“Suit yourself.”

They drove down the street to a block, two-story motel. Doors opened onto the pocked parking lot.

“Wow, the FBI goes all out,” Nio said sarcastically.

“Budgets. Wait here.”

After checking them in at the automated kiosk, Agent Quinn led Nio to the second floor. He opened a door and walked in as if it was his. “This is you,” he said, looking under the bed.

“Are you checking for monsters, dad?”

Quinn turned on the bathroom light on and peered inside. Then he walked to the phone and unplugged it.

“You’re seriously taking the phone?”

“It’s not complicated. You act like a child, I’ll treat you like one.”

“What if there’s an emergency?”

“I’ll be right next door. And just to remind you, if you get more than a hundred yards from me”—he held up his phone—“an alarm sounds on the bracelet and on here, which also has a map linked to a positioning system that tells me exactly where you are. I call local PD, they pick you up, and we take you back to jail, game over.”

“I’m here voluntarily, dickwad.”

“Don’t act like I’m overreacting. You’ve tried to trick me twice in the last five hours.”

“What was the second time?”

“Good night.” Agent Quinn walked out and closed the door, taking her room key with him.

Nio kicked off her boots and sat cross-legged on the bed, which creaked under her. The TV was at least 15 years old—only 4k—but at least it was wired. There was a browser, but it wouldn’t work with VPN. She could connect to a server but it repeatedly timed out. Nio signed up for a new encrypted email account instead. If anyone checked, they could see what she was doing but not the contents of the message or to whom it was sent. She wrote to Samizdat first and explained the situation as best she could in a few sentences. Typing meant tabbing through the on-screen keyboard with the arrows on the remote, which was excruciatingly slow. Nio tried to find Mutiny’s contact info but could only get her manager in Las Vegas, to whom she also sent an email, asking that her friend get in touch with Agent Quinn of the FBI’s Minneapolis office. She thought briefly about checking the forums to see if Mr. Misery had posted again but decided against it. If he had, there was nothing she could do about it anyway.

A minute later she changed her mind and started scrolling through recent posts to a popular darknet mod board. As usual, it was mostly full of requests—guys wanting to know how to make their penis glow in the dark or get jacked without exercising. There was constant interest in tweaks to a fat-burning protocol that would make it non-toxic. The few sequence files that were shared were pounced on and immediately pulled apart. Every so often, a scammer would post a file that, if sequenced and injected into the groin and armpits, was supposed to alter the glandular tissue and cause it to release pheromones that would drive women crazy. Few fell for it anymore, but in the early days, it seemed like someone was hospitalized almost every day, part of a spate of self-inflicted illnesses that resulted in various bans and restrictions worldwide.

Nio turned off the TV and laid back on the bed.

“Video . . .”

She sat up. Dr. Chang said Sol was giving a public lecture when he died and that several of the guests had been recording it. Surely someone posted footage of the death online. Nio grabbed the remote and found numerous videos of him, although those at the top, the most popular, were really videos of Manda that he simply happened to be in. Nio instantly felt left out. And jealous.

She clicked the first.

“And what are you working on these days?” the perky journalist asked as music thumped in the background.

Sol was trying to walk with Manda into a party or social gala of some kind. Miniature spotlights arced back and forth in the background. He was in a tuxedo and doing his best to move around the reporters without seeming rude. It wasn’t going well.

“A new theory of everything,” he said playfully.

He sounded older than she remembered. He was looking patiently down rather than at the camera, hoping it would be removed from his face.

“Can you tell us about that?”

“I’ve been looking at the universe as information rather than as geometry.”

Manda skillfully wove her slender arm under his and freed him.

Nio stopped the video and searched for his final talk. It was the sixth on the list of results.

“Sick bastards,” she said. “And yet . . .”

She hit play.

The snippet started in the middle. No one cared about what he had to say. They just wanted to see him die. He was in the middle of explaining the Bekenstein bound, a principle of physics that described the limits of information and entropy. Nio paused it. Standing before the podium, he looked so mature.

She got up from the bed and washed her face in the sink. She blew her nose and wiped her eyes. She stared at the drain and remembered another, in the floor of the maintenance closet at school. She was 13 and had run from one of the boys at school. He had tried to kiss her, and when she rejected him, he began calling her names in front of the others. Sol found her. It wasn’t hard. Anyone could have found her. The point was that he noticed she was gone. The point was that he bothered to look. He sat with her in the dark while she cried.

“We’ll always be different,” he said.

Now she was about to watch him die.

Nio leaned on the edge of the bed and started the video again. Sol stood at a narrow podium flanked by tables on both sides. Various academics sat facing the audience, but none were less than two meters from him. The hall itself was fairly small. Chairs were arranged in rows in the center. They were at most half full. She heard a sneeze as the audio began again. Sol explained how the total information a system could contained was determined by its surface area, not its volume. No one approached him in the moments before he fell. He didn’t touch the bottle of water that had been left for him on the podium, which was full and sealed. There was no gun shot, no knife strike, no laser burn, no spasm of poison. He paused as if searching for a word. There was some shuffling in the room, and then he began speaking again. He gripped the podium and in mid-sentence, his head wobbled, his words turned to gibberish, and he fell, knocking over the podium on its way to the floor. There were shouts and exclamations. The camera moved away, as if whoever held it had jumped to their feet.

The video stopped. Nio rewound and watched it again.

And again.

And again.