Ali said, "Both! We do have some of those strawberries left, don't we? If anyone ate them someone is going to die!"
Jessa said, "I hid them." She took a bowl out of the crisper, the wrapper said "Cauliflower." No one had touched it. She fished a carton of heavy cream from behind a large milk jug. Then she excused herself. "I've got to get my display case ready before my little one wakes up, Ali, I didn't have time to do it yesterday."
Ali dipped a berry into the cream and savored it. "We have a little while before everyone starts waking up."
Glen realized that was the last privacy they'd have, he and McQueen and Vansen would have to leave from the fairgrounds to get back on time. He could still almost hear the desert breeze. And that tumbleweed -- he laughed.
Ali asked him what was so funny, and when he told her, she almost choked on her coffee. That was one they wouldn't tell anybody....
Before long everyone started waking up, laughing and joking, hurrying to get ready and get some breakfast. Within an hour everyone had piled into a caravan of farm trucks and they were on their way to the fairgrounds. Ali and Heather rode with Glen in the humvee, Heather was excited about that.
Before they reached the fairgrounds, the road was crowded bumper to bumper. It was still early, but getting hot, when a volunteer in an orange safety vest directed traffic into the parking lot. Shane slowed to a crawl. "Sir, keep an eye out for kids running around the back of the hummer in case I have to back up -- I can't see real well back there!"
There was a deuce and a half truck on their bumper, Glen couldn't see that well himself. He just hoped no one was dumb enough to try to run between the two vehicles. He handed Heather to Ali and moved back to the rear of the vehicle to get the best view. Somehow they were directed into a parking space without having an accident.
McQueen had never been to a fair before, and he wasn't sure what to expect. It looked like everyone on Ganelon was there, from the number of cars and farm trucks in the huge flea market that was the center of the fair. Some of the people from Brown's Station put down the tailgate on their truck and climbed in under the canopy. They spread the embroidered shirts they had been making in their spare time out on a blanket on the tailgate. A crowd of people with money and things to trade gathered around. Another man set up a small table and put out his leatherworking tools, he would take orders to make belts with people's names on them. Another man who made sandals stopped at the table and the two were soon busy arranging a trade. All around them, more and more people were pulling in and setting up to sell their wares.
Alison said, "Not everyone is here yet, it's still early. I have to go to the pavilion, the large building at the end, for the co-op convention. I'm giving a speech right before lunch. But I don't want the rest of you to waste your leave with that boring stuff -- please, enjoy the fair, and meet me at noon in the big green and white striped tent for lunch."
Ty and Shane took their cue and headed off to see the sights. Glen stayed behind. "I'd like to stay with you, if it would be all right. We haven't had much time together, and I have to leave so soon."
Alison smiled. "Are you sure you won't be bored?"
"Every summer I went with my parents to the fair at home. I grew up listening to them talk about catfish and shrimp futures. This is like home for me, Alison, in a lot of ways."
When she looked up at him, he realized she had heard every layer of meaning in that sentence, and a warm answer to every one of them shined brightly in her eyes. Now he had a place to call home. Out there in the darkness between stars he would always know there was a window with a light shining to guide him back where he belonged. But all she said aloud was, "Good, you can help me keep Heather out of trouble. I need all the help I can get with that."
He laughed and looked into those eyes for a long moment. Then he grinned at Heather. "I might need her to help me keep out of trouble."
Heather squealed with laughter when he pulled her pony tail. She wriggled out of her mother's arms and skipped along between them with one hand in each of theirs.
Shane soon found that it was just like any county fair back home, with games and plenty of good things to eat, exhibits and sideshows and all variety of amateur entertainment. A whole area was set up with rides and VR attractions for children and adults alike. This gathering was serious business for the people who lived in the isolated mining camps and agro stations, as they traded their goods and hired new people for the next season. But it was also a time to meet old friends and show off new babies, to have some fun and forget about working for a while. Now, the narrow lanes between the tents and pavilions were filled with a swirling crowd and the fairgrounds rang with shouts and laughter. Later, quieter activities were scheduled in the shade during the midday heat.
It was quieter in the Pavilion, the conference center at the end of the fairgrounds. Alison sighed and took a moment to enjoy the air conditioning as the doors slid closed behind them. Ross recognized Jack Bright from the night before. Alison pointed out several of the other station owners who were members of the co-op.
"Heather's going to get bored with this real quick."
Ali grinned. "The children's area is on the other side of the curtain, Glen, there's plenty over there to keep her occupied."
Heather yelled, "Candy apples!" Some of the other parents attending the meeting laughed at that, and grinned at Alison.
Ross took the little girl's hand. "Then candy apples it will be."
Alison turned when she heard a familiar voice. "Ali, have you got a minute?"
"Marc! I have until they call the meeting to order. What's up?"
Sederis looked different in jeans and a plain blue shirt -- it seemed he shed a lot of his corporate formality with his suit jacket and his briefcase. "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Ali, but there's been some more trouble. Somebody shot the windows out of a bus on its way from the city to the beach yesterday."
Ali pushed her hat back. "I heard about that, Marc. If you're asking me what I know about it, the answer is nothing. It's the last thing we needed when it's time to start thinking about putting the next crop in the ground! I was hoping this other fire would put an end to the current round of wrangling back and forth."
"Me too. It was perfect timing -- just when that mess had started to settle down, now here's something else to get everyone all stirred up."
"Well, this time, it's your people we have to worry about getting stirred up. You know how a lot of my people feel about corporate politics, but no one has any use for someone who'd do something like that. We all know the law and the political process are going to take their course, and the war effort is the most important thing right now. No one needs to do something this stupid."
"Ali, out on the stations, you can go a week without laying eyes on an NB. The tensions in the city don't hit you where you live. It won't take much more to fill the streets in the IV section of town. And my people are afraid. That's a bad combination."
Alison reached out and gripped Sederis' wrist. "We both know Ganelon, Marc, and we know each other. We've both poured too much blood, sweat and tears into this colony to allow anything to threaten it. You keep the pressure on your police and I'll keep after our county sheriffs. We will find out who's behind all this. Once the people see that no one on either side of the Strip is above the law, that will defuse a lot of the anger and the fear."
After a moment, Marc Sederis turned his hand to grasp her wrist as well. In a gruff voice, Sederis warned, "Be careful, Ali. This thing has escalated from a couple of trash fires to contaminating medicine, and now shooting. For all I know, next they could try to do one of us in and blame it on the other!"
Alison nodded. "I know that."
A woman with a clipboard pushed her glasses up on her nose and hurried over to them. "Ali, Marc, are you ready? The meeting comes to order in five minutes!"
Ali smiled. Eleanor Bealle was a natural-born geologist who had married an InVitro prospector, they were now doing quite well for themselves as mine owners. Eleanor bridged a lot of gaps between both societies. Ali had got to know her pretty well in the last year, and Eleanor --well-schooled in faculty politics from her academic career -- had taught her a lot about the practicalities of making an organization work. Now Eleanor was expecting her first child at the age of forty, and their roles had reversed -- Ali was the experienced mother and Eleanor was the nervous first-timer.
"We're ready! How are you feeling?"
"Oh, my back hurts!" Eleanor sighed.
"How far along are you?"
"Hang in there, just a couple of more weeks to go," Ali encouraged. "Did you finish the nursery?"
"Finally, Joe got the last of the painting done last week."
Ali stuck her head around the massive curtain dividing the convention center. On this side, the co-op meeting was in progress; on the other, there were all sorts of activities for toddlers and young children -- set up in the only large air-conditioned building on the fairgrounds. Ali spotted Glen, towering above a crowd of little runabouts. He had obviously lost track of Heather in the confusion. Ali spotted her little one, happily devouring a candy apple and smearing the sticky red coating all over herself. Laughing, she pointed the child out to Glen and turned around to climb the stairs to the stage.
A few steps away, Sederis was having a hurried conversation with one of his assistants. He turned from the assistant with a grin and followed Ali onto the staircase.
The next couple of seconds expanded into a lifetime. Ali clearly saw a puff of smoke come up between the boards in front of her. She halted, and Marc Sederis ran into her from behind. Then the stage floor erupted upwards, flinging the two men who were already up there out into the crowd. Ali and Marc were thrown backwards off the stairs. Ali's head hit the wall and the whole room spun in crazy circles for a few moments. When her eyes refocused, she could see people scrambling frantically through a cloud of dust. Lots of them were bleeding and several people were starting to stampede for the exits.
Marc was helping Eleanor. She was holding her stomach but gesturing that she was all right. Ali could see their mouths moving but she couldn't hear anything. It seemed strange that there was no sound...at the time she didn't realize that the explosion had temporarily deafened her, instead it seemed to her as if the whole world had gone silent.
Heather and Glen...!
Ali scrambled to her feet and rushed through the curtain. Glen was on his knees, cradling Heather in his arms. Ali saw a lot of blood and screamed as she ran over there. The candy table had been flung like a dollhouse toy. There were injured children everywhere, crying and screaming for their mothers. Ali realized Heather's jeans legs were shredded and soaked with blood. Glen looked up at her, the look of guilt in his eyes stabbed her to the soul as he indicted himself, "I was supposed to be watching her!"
"You were, Glen, it wasn't your fault! Let me see her." Ali could barely hear her own voice, but she reacted quickly. Heather was breathing and her pulse was good. The danger was the bleeding. Ali found that her legs had been hit with several large nails. She shut down her horrified speculations about how that could have happened and just did what she needed to do to stop the bleeding. Then she turned to Glen, he had been cut by flying debris and stunned by the explosion but the injuries seemed to be superficial.
McQueen scrambled beside them and wanted to know what happened. He waved Vansen off, she was needed to help with the other wounded. She veered off toward a concentration of injured children, shouting orders and getting rescue efforts organized. Paramedics, firefighters and law enforcement started to trickle into the area, and because no one else was in a condition to do it, Vansen directed their efforts towards those most in need of rescue. It was a good ten minutes before anyone had time to try to figure out exactly what had exploded.
By then, Jessa was there. Her first thought had been Jonathan, he was screaming bloody murder and nursing an earache but other than that he was fine. The paramedics finished with Heather and started to take her to the hospital. Jessa put Jonathan in Ali's arms. "Take him to the hospital with you and get his ear looked at, I'll take care of everything here!"
"Are you sure--?"
"Go on! You probably ought to get a doctor to check you out too, but anyway, you belong with Heather right now."
Marc Sederis made sure Eleanor Bealle got a ride in that same group of ambulances and told a still-hesitant Alison, "Go on, there are enough people here to clean this mess up. Call Eleanor's husband when you get there."
Alison allowed herself to be persuaded, secure that Jessa would take care of station business here.
Someone called, "Is Mr. Sederis on site? Marc Sederis!"
"Here!" He homed in on the sound of the voice. Jessa, McQueen and Ross followed.
The stage area had been blocked off with yellow police tape. The shouting had come from inside this restricted area. A tall man in a suit with a gold badge pinned to his jacket stepped out. "Mr. Sederis, I'm Detective Matt Adams, with the homicide division of the Homestead County Sheriff's Department. I'm sorry to have to tell you that we have a couple of fatalities, one of them we need to identify. He was wearing an Agropoint jacket, so we think he may be one of your employees."
"Tim? I was just talking to him before the explosion, he's my administrative assistant --" Sederis scanned the crowd. His expression changed from anxiety to relief. "No, there he is."
"None of your other employees were in the area of the stage?"
"Not to my knowledge. Tim Rutledge was the only one who came out here with me."
"Would you mind having a look? I'll warn you, sir, it's bloody."
"This way. Watch your step and stay on the tape. The city police bomb squad is on their way out here, and we don't want to disturb the scene any more than the paramedics already had to."
McQueen said, "It was a pipe bomb, wasn't it?"
"We don't know yet, Mr...?"
"Lt. Colonel TC McQueen, sir, United States Marine Corps. This is Commodore Glen van Ross, the commanding officer of the USS Saratoga."
"If I'd known we were getting VIPs I'd have told them to dust off the red carpet. We appreciate your help here. Do you have an interest in the investigation?"
McQueen replied, "My niece was one of the children hurt in the explosion."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Colonel. All I could do is speculate until the bomb squad gets here, but -- you've got a hell of a big bang and you've got nails. I'm sorry but I'm going to have to ask you to wait over here, please."
Ross said, "Another five seconds and Ali would have been on that stage."
McQueen's eyes darted around the cordoned area. "So would Sederis," he replied. "Looks like the damage was fairly contained, the stage and those candy tables in the kids' area. As bad as it was, it could have been worse. A more powerful explosive could have filled the whole area with nails."
Ross said, "It smells like plain old blasting powder to me."
"There are a lot of prospectors working claims up in the hills around here," McQueen said. "Plenty of places to steal blasting supplies, and you could get nails and a piece of pipe anywhere."
The commodore nodded. "Anyone could have done this."
They waited a few minutes until Sederis and the detective came back. Sederis looked shocked and angry. "I don't know what you're implying, Detective, but I've known Stan Giraldo for years! He would never have done something like this!"
The detective replied, "All I know is that a bomb went off and we found your chief of security right next to it. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to come down to the sheriff's office and answer a few questions."
"Are you forgetting that I was just as likely to be killed as anyone else? I should have been on that stage!"
"Why weren't you?" The detective countered.
Sederis shook his head, trying to sort out the chaotic memories. "I -- was right behind Ali. Something startled her and she stopped on the stairs. I ran right into her. I'm not sure what happened after that ... the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor."
Ross said, "That's one way it could have happened. Sounds pretty damn convenient to me. I have to ask myself who stands to benefit from this."
Sederis turned on Ross. "Is that an accusation, Commodore? Because if it is you'd damn well better have some proof. I lost a good friend today. It seems just as likely to me that I was the target and some InVitro extremist was behind it -- they'd stand to benefit too and they wouldn't mind putting some nat-loving traitor out of the way at the same time--"
Ross went for Sederis' throat. Sederis broke the choke hold and slammed his elbow into the older man's ribs, forcing him back a few inches. Fists started flying. McQueen grabbed Ross and hauled him back, taking a couple of good solid hits from Sederis while he was breaking up the fight. Seconds later, Adams pulled Sederis off.
The detective yelled, "This is gonna stop or I'm throwing the lot of you in the cooler until we sort it all out!"
McQueen said urgently, "Sir -- think about it -- maybe having everyone at each other's throats was the intention all along."
Breathing hard, Ross relaxed in his grip as he started thinking instead of reacting. When McQueen was sure his friend wasn't going after Sederis again, he let the Commodore shake his hands off his shoulders.
Sederis insisted, still angry, "I'm telling you, Detective, Stan didn't have anything to do with this! You find out who murdered him and framed him, and you'll find your bomber!"
McQueen gave the executive a long measuring look. Ross' SEAL training made him a formidable opponent in a fist fight. He had rarely seen the Commodore lose his temper like that. Their bar-brawling days were several years behind them, and even then, that had usually been all in good fun. The last time he had seen Glen go for someone's throat like that, it had been a pirate, and the pirate had ended up dead. Yet Sederis had been holding his own -- and he hadn't been trying to get out of the fight, he had been giving as good as he got. There was more to Marc Sederis than they knew yet. It would pay to find out.
Adams was saying, "That's what we're all trying to do, right? Let's you and I go on down to the office and see what we can piece together about Mr. Giraldo's activities."
Sederis nodded. "All right, Detective."
By then the bomb squad had arrived. Ross said, "I need to get to a secure phone and have a talk with Admiral Langdon."
"With your permission, sir, while you're doing that I'd like to have Marcy see what she can find out about Mr. Sederis."
"By all means -- I have a lot of questions about him myself," Ross replied. "Have Shane get with Jessa. My guess is that Jessa knows her way around Ganelon as well as anyone. If there are any extremist groups operating here, she probably knows people who know other people. I'd like to hear their side of this."
"Yes, sir. If they weren't involved, and I doubt they were, they might have an idea who was."
"Right -- and they might be more willing to cooperate with us than they would be with the local law enforcement," Ross added.
Rear Admiral Meredith Langdon, commanding officer of the USS John F Kennedy, had already heard preliminary reports of the explosion when Ross' call went through to her office. She still did a double-take when she saw him, still dirty and bloody in spite of a clean-up attempt with a wet rag. "Glen! Were you in that explosion?"
"Let's say that I was in the immediate area, ma'am."
"I'm hearing twelve stories. Give it to me from the top."
"Are you familiar with the fairgrounds?"
"I've been there a couple of times."
"They had the pavilion building divided up, there was an agricultural co-op convention on one side of the curtain and they had the other side set up with kids' games and so forth. I was visiting Alison Brown, and while she was at the convention, I was watching her little girl."
"She's McQueen's sister, right?"
"I thought I recognized the name. I was the one who put through the paperwork to get the Browns out to the Saratoga when the little girl was sick, that's why I'd heard of them. Are they all right?"
"Alison was knocked off her feet and struck her head when she fell, but I think she's all right. Heather got hit by a lot of nails, it tore her legs up pretty badly."
Langdon shook her head. "Damn... what's the situation with casualties?"
"Two dead. One of them was the Agropoint chief of security, a man named Stanley Giraldo. Either he's the bomber, or someone went to a lot of trouble to make it look like he was. The other man was one of the members of the co-op committee, I didn't hear his name. The paramedics told me that almost forty people were taken to the hospital, but I haven't heard anything yet about their conditions."
"You're sure it was a bomb?"
"There's nothing official from the bomb squad yet, Meridith, but I'm sure. I smelled blasting powder."
"This could be all it takes to pull the lid off hell down there.... Glen, you're already in the middle of this -- get me that terrorist."
"It would be my pleasure to deliver him in pieces, ma'am."
There was fire in Langdon's eyes. She had grandchildren Heather's age. "As long as the biggest piece is still talking, that's fine with me. Report back to me as soon as you have anything -- I want to hold a press conference ASAP to calm the people down, and I need to be able to tell them something!"
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