32. Person of Interest

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

“So you have no idea where these came from?” the officer said. “No idea how you came upon four bags of privileged Lakiran food supplies, designated for Humanitarian personnel only?”

Naema didn’t respond.

“I have a theory,” the officer continued. “How ‘bout you stole them?”

Her silence was angering him, but if she so much as opened her mouth, she might vomit. And what would there be to say? That she didn’t steal them? That they were gifts from a wanted fugitive?

“This is what really pisses me off about you people,” the man said. “We come here. We try to bring some order to this medieval anarchy warzone you all live in. We give you free food, protection, and medicine, all while dealing with the euro-rebel fucks you all hide. But it’s never enough for you pidgin trash, is it. You steal. Not from the military, but from the Humanitarian League. What kind of gratitude is that?”

He paused as though expecting an answer.

“We’re going to find out what you know, so unless you want your entire family ending up in permanent internment, I suggest you cooperate. Now, how did you get that food?”

“I… it’s not mine.”

“No. No, no.” He waggled a finger at her. “Don’t pull that bullshit with me. We have witnesses saying you were handing this shit out like Christmas. According to them, you got that food from a job.”

Sonna. That was the story Naema gave to her neighbor. Maybe Sonna volunteered this information, or maybe the exemplars took it from her. Either way, Naema couldn’t even find it in herself to be angry. She just wanted to be home, with her family. She would eat nutrient-enriched cassava paste every day for the rest of her life, and she would enjoy it.

“Look,” said the officer. “We already have you. What you can do is tell us everything you know, and maybe… maybe your family won’t be joining you in camp. Do you want your little brother working at a machine assembly line for sixteen hours a day for the rest of his short life? You want your mother sorting reclamation garbage till she drops from exhaustion? No? Then talk.”

They would pull apart any story she made up. If she told the truth, and gave up Tan and Josephine, they might let her family go, even if she would never be free again. Or if she held out long enough, Josephine might save her, somehow. That’s if Josephine figured out where they were keeping Naema before they shipped her off to wherever. That’s if Josephine even realized they are keeping her. Maybe Josephine was waiting for Naema at home. And this is all assuming Josephine wasn’t dead. She could be one of those bodies that were in the street, cleaved in two by a swipe of a railgun sheer. There may be no help coming.

“It was me,” she murmured.

“What?”

“It was me. I took the food.”

“From where?”

“The CivMan building in North Harcourt.”

“How did you get in?”

“I snuck in.”

Bullshit. How did you get in?”

“I said I snuck in.”

“That building is a goddamn fort. A full security suite and a standby team and a supply lockup opened under military supervision. No one would let a black like you near the building. You’re telling me you snuck past all that?”

“I climbed in a window.”

“…A window. No. You know what? Tell me. First step. You’re standing in front of the building. I’ve been there before. I know the layout, so walk me through it.”

“I snuck around to the side and climbed up the brick.”

“Which side?”

“The left. Facing the building.”

He looked distant as he visualized this. “Okay? Then you climb up to a window. Is it near the front or the back?”

“The front.”

“And what room does that put you in?”

This was already beyond her knowledge. She’d waited outside while Josephine had gone in. “An office.”

“So the second floor?”

“Yeah.”

Wrong.” He yelled it, almost triumphantly. “You’d still be in the atrium. Just admit it. Someone helped you. Who is it?”

“No one.”

“Stop playing this bullshit on me. You could not get into that building alone. If you don’t give me a name now, you and your street trash family are going to be working reclamator lines for the rest of your lives.”

A knock came at the door. It opened. An exemplar stepped in. She was female, not quite white. Maybe Brazilian, but Naema didn’t know her whites very well. Before the exemplar closed the door, Naema saw in the hall the other exemplar who interviewed her earlier.

“Christ. Finally,” the officer said. “Did you just get in?”

The woman nodded. “Exemplar Regina. Like me to take it from here?”

The officer motioned as though to say be my guest. He pulled his seat to the side, making room for Regina.

The exemplar placed down her plaque and sat. Looking at Naema, she said, “Look me in the eye.”

Naema did so.

The silence lasted for many seconds. Regina showed no indication on her face, then she glanced at her plaque in a way Naema was growing familiar with.

“Pardon me, Captain.” She turned to the officer. “Can I have you look me in the eye?”

“Me? What for?”

“Just for a moment.”

“I…”

“Captain.” She only asked to be polite.

The officer conceded. They locked eyes.

“Hmm,” She looked down at her plaque. After consideration, she got up.

“Where are you going?” the officer asked.

“I’m afraid I won’t be any help to you. My plaque has malfunctioned.”

What?”

“I’ll send a request for another exemplar to relieve me.”

You were the relief. What the hell is this? I just need you to read this girl. How is this—”

A speaker system cackled. A voice sounded in the room. “Would you two come in here?”

Both the exemplar and the officer glanced toward the mirror wall. Without a word, they left. Then silence. Naema hadn’t realized anyone had been watching from behind the mirror. How many people were in there? One other? Two. Was there a crowd? Try as she might, the only sound she could hear was the gentle noise of the ventilation shafts overhead and the occasional footsteps outside. It was an awkward wait, knowing that people were scrutinizing her from just a few feet away, but it didn’t come as a relief when several footsteps collected outside the door. It opened, and three people came in. The captain, and both exemplars. They all sat across from her.

Exemplar Regina spoke first. “Are you doing anything to subvert our exemplar privileges?”

“What? I… don’t know what you mean.”

“Do you know what exemplars are capable of?”

“No.”

“We have techniques to detect thoughts of individuals and to sense their presence from afar. For both myself and Exemplar Marcus, these abilities malfunctioned before we were gained any information about you. You’re telling us you have no idea what could be causing that?”

“No.”

“She’s lying,” the officer said.

Regina held up her hand to silence him. “You told Captain Lofthouse that you stole those food supplies from the CivMan building in North Harcourt. Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“When was this?”

“Two days ago, and yesterday.”

“It’s a lie,” Lofthouse said.

Again, she cut him off. “Are you aware that there is an exemplar posted at that building? Exemplar Castillo?”

“No.”

“Well, there is. Part of why Captain Lofthouse is so skeptical about your stealing supplies from there is because we exemplars can sense people around us, and we can sense when people are up to no good. If you actually had broken into that building, Castillo would have sent people to arrest you.”

“That’s why she didn’t do it,” Lofthouse insisted. “She had help.”

“She could have, actually,” said Exemplar Marcus. “Because two days ago, Exemplar Castillo suffered a malfunction with the empathy feature of his plaque. So he wouldn’t have been able to sense her. He’s back in Porto Maná right now getting it replaced.”

Captain Lofthouse paused. Naema could tell he was seeing the same connection the exemplars already had. Josephine had been right. Her power actually drew attention to her.

“But… she wasn’t there,” he said. He was thoughtful now, no longer the ornery tyrant condemning Naema. “She doesn’t even know what the inside looks like.”

“But she might have been nearby,” Marcus said. “My empathy failed around four this evening. Isn’t that about when you brought her aboard?”

Lofthouse nodded slowly.

Regina spoke. “Mine failed in the hall shortly after I came aboard, on Deck 2, the hallway from the starboard sector hangar leading to the detainment center. How far away would you say that is from here?”

“I don’t know. A few hundred feet.”

“Four hundred maybe? That’s about the range of our empathy.”

The captain caught up. “So she’d only have to get near the building to help whoever was stealing that food for her.”

Marcus shrugged. “Possibly. It doesn’t matter anymore.” He rose. The others did the same. Together, they headed for the door like they were breaking for lunch. None acknowledged Naema. “The Exemplar Committee will be taking over her case. Until then, have her moved to maximum confinement. She’s now officially a Person of Interest.”

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