"What did you say?" she asked Lance.
"Keith couldn't take it. Don't blame him, really. I'm pretty intimidating," Lance said, pleased to have an audience.
"No, about Kerberos," Pidge said.
Lance frowned, mentally running through what he'd just said. "Uh... Keith was at the Kerberos launch? He knew one of the people on the mission. Made him think he's a big deal, but where is he now?" He threw his arms wide.
"I don't know," Pidge said. "Where?"
"I don't know," Lance admitted. "I just know where he isn't, and that's here, because he got booted out."
"When did that happen?"
"Right before you got here," Lance said. "Look, the guy's got talent, everyone knows that, but he'd plateaued," he held his hand flat at the level of his eyes, "and I was gaining on him-" he tilted his hand upward.
Pidge tuned him out again. She had her own thoughts to mull over. Keith had been at the launch. So what? Nothing went wrong at the launch. She'd been over the files a dozen times. Whatever had happened had happened after the ship landed on Kerberos. This Keith guy probably didn't have any information and she didn't have time to sit around boosting the ego of another Lance. She made a small note and moved on.
A couple of weeks later, after two hours of logging radio transmissions that were barely distinguishable from white noise to the naked ear, she went through her files again, hoping that something, anything might stand out as a clue. She stopped on the photo of Kerberos crew and this time, instead of looking at her father and brother, she stared at the tall, brown-haired man with an easy smile. Takashi Shirogane, the pilot.
With a few keystrokes, she brought up the launch photos shot by the official Garrison photographer. She'd been too busy saying goodbye to Matt and her dad to notice anyone else, but now she saw that Officer Shirogane didn't have any family there to see him off, just a couple of fellow officers from the Garrison and one cadet in orange and white, with floppy black hair and violet eyes. Shirogane had his hand on the boy's shoulder and the boy - well, Pidge thought if she'd been standing next to him at the time, they'd have looked very the same. Proud, and excited, and very near to bursting into tears now that the moment had come to say goodbye.
He deserved to know the truth. It didn't matter if he could help her. He needed to know it wasn't pilot error.
Finding his school record wasn't difficult since she had already hacked the Garrison database. She checked Lance's classes for the previous semester and there was only one Keith. She pulled up his file.
Keith had no family. His father was deceased and there was no mention of his mother. Prior to the Garrison, he'd lived at a youth home. She clicked on Disciplinary Actions in order to see what he'd been kicked out for, and gave a low whistle. "Wow, you're not a people person, are you." The question wasn't why he'd been kicked out, it was why he'd been allowed to stay. He had to have someone speaking up for him. Maybe Shirogane.
While Keith's file was a surprisingly interesting read, it didn't tell her where he was now. He was eighteen, so he hadn't been sent back to the youth home. His name wasn't on any house or apartment leases locally, though that could be because he was renting a room or subletting. There weren't any employment records listing his name. He did have a bank account with some money he'd inherited from his father, which was likely what he was living on. She followed that trail and finally got a lead; bank records said he usually did his shopping in town on Sunday evenings. Most people at the Garrison returned to their dorms and apartments around then, so the town was quiet.
The next Sunday evening, Pidge bought a smoothie and planted herself on the patio of the cafe across from the grocery store. She sipped it as she skimmed through classwork and kept a sharp eye out for Keith. When she saw him go into the store, she packed up her laptop and waited for him outside.
Keith left the store walking briskly and Pidge hurried to catch up with him. "Hi," she said. "Can I talk to you a minute?"
"I don't want to buy cookies and I'm not signing any petitions," Keith said, not looking at her. He increased his pace and she had to break into a jog to keep up with him.
"That's not what - slow down!" she panted. "I want to talk to you about the Kerberos mission!"
He swung around and stopped abruptly, blocking her path. "Why?" he asked. He was coiled, tense, like a snake ready to strike if she made the wrong move.
Pidge skidded to a halt. "Because it wasn't a crash and I'm trying to prove it."
He folded his arms over his chest. "If you're one of those nuts that thinks the whole thing was faked-"
"I'm not!" Pidge protested. "I don't! I was at the launch! I'll explain, but can we sit down somewhere? It's a lot."
"Who are you?" Keith asked.
"I'm Pidge. Holt." she said. "Sam and Matt Holt are my father and brother."
He narrowed his eyes and looked her over, then nodded. "Okay."
Keith packed his groceries (mostly protein bars and energy drinks) in the back of his hoverbike and they went to a pizza place. They got a table in the back and went through the motions of ordering pizza and sodas. When the waiter left, Keith leaned in and said, "Explain.”
"When I saw the report that said pilot error caused the crash, it didn't make sense," Pidge said. "Takashi Shirogane is the best pilot in the Garrison. It's why my dad picked him." Keith nodded, lips tight. "I thought maybe there'd been a hardware failure and that's what they were trying to cover up. But look!" She tugged her laptop out of her bag, ignoring when the bag fell over and a few pencils spilled out. She snapped the computer open and pulled up a video file. "Look!" she said, jabbing her finger at the screen.
Keith shook his head. "I don't see anything."
"Exactly!" she said, a louder than intended. She glanced around quickly and lowered her voice. "That's the crash site. Look at the datestamp."
Keith did. His eyes widened. He grabbed the laptop and twisted it towards himself so he could get a better look. "There wasn't a crash," he said.
"No," Pidge said.
"It wasn't Shiro's fault?" His voice was quiet, desperate.
"No," Pidge said.
Keith ran his hands over his face and when he looked at her again, his eyes were damp. "We need to tell someone," he said.
"I tried!" Pidge wailed. "No one will listen to me. And there's more."
"What?" Keith asked.
"I think they're alive," Pidge said, lowering her voice again. "I think they've been kidnapped."
"Alive?" Keith looked like he'd been punched. He sucked in a breath. "How? We all saw them get into the ship."
"I know," Pidge said. "This is going to sound nuts, but I think they were kidnapped after they got to Kerberos."
"Yeah, that does sound nuts," Keith said, but he frowned, considering it. "You're saying aliens kidnapped them."
"Yes," Pidge said. “I've built a radio and I'm receiving frequencies that are not coming from Earth."
"My dad used to say there was more outside this world then anyone knew,” Keith said, mostly to himself. “How can I help?" he asked Pidge.
"I don't think there's anything you can do," Pidge said. "I just thought you should know it wasn't pilot error."
"Thank you," Keith said softly. He started to say something, hesitated, frowned, and plunged forward. "I found something in the desert."
Pidge blinked. "Aliens?"
"No," Keith said firmly, then, "I don't know. Maybe."
"As long as you're certain," Pidge said dryly.
"After I was kicked out of the Garrison, I felt... lost, I guess, but something drew me out to the desert. It lead me to some cave paintings," Keith said.
"Cave paintings?" Pidge said. "That's pretty cool, but I don't see what it has to do with anything."
"I've read up on archeological studies of this area and they're nothing like the other primitive art locally," Keith said.
"So you're thinking aliens," Pidge said, her voice heavy with skepticism.
Keith glared at her. "I wasn't, until now. But they're there for a reason. I must be drawn to them for a reason. If this is happening after the Kerberos mission, maybe that's for a reason, too."
"Can I see them?" Pidge asked.
Keith nodded. "When do you have a few hours free?"
"Not until Saturday," Pidge said.
"Around ten? I'll pick you up?" Keith suggested.
"It's a plan," Pidge said. She offered her hand and Keith shook it.
"These are amazing," Pidge breathed. She touched the head of a lion, then looked up at the other carvings around her. “What’s that? Some kind of single-cell organism?” She pointed at a circle with a jagged pattern around the edge and lines radiated off it.
“The sun?” Keith suggested, his voice uncertain. “Like a robot version?”
“A robot sun,” Pidge said. She gave him a skeptical look.
“Or a regular sun,” Keith defensively. “I’m not an art expert.” They both studied the circle for a minute. “It’s a portal,” Keith said finally. “Look at the lions flying around it.”
Pidge nodded. She took out her data pad and snapped pictures. “These must be centuries old. Can you imagine if someone had wormhole technology before we even invented the wheel? There must be so much we can learn from them!”
"I've got more information back at my place,” Keith said. “Mostly maps, some photos, and a lot of notes."
"Can I see?" Pidge asked.
"Um, yeah, I guess," Keith said. "Come on."
They mounted the hoverbike and Keith turned it west. It was beautiful out in the open desert and the wind whipped Paige's hair around. She took a deep breath, enjoying the air away from the musty, people-thick air of the dorms and the synthetic processed air of the simulators. Just the dust and the sage and the - the skunk. She coughed. Yeah, that was a skunk. But they passed it quickly. She wondered if she could learn to drive one of these.
"I usually take a shortcut," Keith called back to her.
"Okay," she said.
"Hold on," he said.
"Wait, what?" Pidge asked. She grabbed him around the waist.
"Trust me!" he yelled, and they plunged over a cliff.
She screamed."You're going to kill us!"
He pulled the hoverbike up smoothly just before they would have hit the ground and kept on going.
"What was that?!" Pidge gasped.
Keith glanced back and gave her a smug grin. "Little trick I learned from Shiro." He parked the bike beside a small cabin and offered her a hand to help her dismount. She felt shaky from the adrenaline rush, but was glad to see that her hand was steady.
"Come on, I'll show you what I've got," Keith said.
What he had was a wall full of maps and other information, with photos connected to the location they'd been taken by colored yarn. "What do the colors mean?" Pidge asked, running her finger along a red one.
"Oh, I just used what I had handy," Keith said.
"You didn't color code," Pidge said, trying to keep the judgement out of her voice.
"I didn't plan to show it to anyone else," Keith said.
Pidge put her hands on her waist and frowned at his wall. "How often do you hear things?"
"I don't hear them, I feel them," Keith said. "And... all the time. It's like something's pulling at me."
"The aliens?" Pidge asked.
"You're the one who said aliens," Keith reminded her.
"The lions look like robots," Pidge mused. She tapped her finger against her chin. "You're being psychically drawn to cave drawings of a robot lion?"
"You listen to aliens on your radio," Keith snapped.
Pidge lifted her hands defensively. "Just trying to make sure I have accurate data." She turned around to look at Keith. More accurately, Keith's forehead.
Keith raised his eyes and touched his forehead. "What?"
"Maybe I could measure your brainwaves!" She grinned, dashed over to her backpack and started pulling out equipment.
"Wait, no, hold on-" Keith protested.
"It's totally safe. I’ll show you by using it on me first. I have to calibrate it anyway." She examined her supplies. "Hm. Do you have any suction cups? And rubber gloves? Oh, something to hold it all together on your head. A colander? Not metal, though." She examined a battery. "No, too much power. Do you have a potato?" she asked brightly.
An hour later, Keith and Pidge were sitting on the floor in the living room. Pidge put the contraption on her head. It started to slide down her face, so she taped it to the side of her head with electrical tape. Keith looked at her and sighed. "Yeah, we're all sane here."
"Hey, psychic robot lion boy, this is science. Where's the potato?" He handed it to her. She plugged two wires into it and typed on her laptop. "Okay," she said, after a few minutes. "There's our control data. Your turn."
Keith eyed the device with a great deal of suspicion, but he gently took it off Pidge's head and placed it on his own. Pidge adjusted a few wires that had come loose with the movement. "What do I do?" Keith asked.
"Think about your lions. See if you can tap into what's coming into your brain. Focus," Pidge said.
Keith closed his eyes. "Patience yields focus," he murmured, and his brow creased with pain.
"Okay," Pidge said, after a few minutes. Her voice was strange. "Let's try it again."
"Why, what's wrong?" Keith asked, opening his eyes.
"Probably nothing," Pidge said. "Clear your mind this time. Don't think about anything."
Keith closed his eyes. "I think that's impossible."
"Think of something mundane, then. Try counting."
Keith counted under his breath. "One, two, three, four, five, six..."
Pidge frowned at her laptop. "Okay," she said after a few minutes. "You can take it off now."
Keith did, setting it aside carefully. "What's happening?" he asked.
Pidge hesitated. "This is not my area of expertise. It's possible I did this wrong."
"What is it?" Keith asked.
Pidge turned the laptop screen toward him. "Here's your scan," she said, then hit a key, "and here's my scan overlaying it. Your brain is running at a different frequency than mine. I don't think you're hearing - feeling - aliens. I think you're sensing something I can't. Like a dog whistle."
"Is that bad?"
"Probably not?" Pidge didn't sound certain. "There's some variation with different brains. I bet someone at the Garrison would know more. I can ask around."
"No." Keith looked at the chart on the screen. "What does it mean?"
"It means whatever you're feeling, it's real. You didn't just stumble on some ancient graffiti. Something's calling you."
"Who? What?" Keith asked. "Why?"
"I don't know!" Pidge said. She threw up her hands. "Maybe you're an alien." Keith glared at her. "Joke, jeez." She sighed and flicked the screen off. "It still doesn't help me find my family." She flopped back on the rug and stared up at the ceiling.
"Or Shiro," Keith reminded her.
"Or Shiro," Pidge said, then sat up. “Let’s start with a technology upgrade.”
"What am I doing with this?" Keith asked, looking at the radio parts on the table.
"Attach the wires," Pidge said. "Red goes to red, green goes to green-"
"Got it," Keith said, and set to work. "You really think you'll be able to hear the aliens over this?"
"Should be," Pidge said. "I'm receiving data frequencies already. This should boost the signal so we can hear any verbal messages." She had her soldering iron set up on Keith's coffee table and was soldering circuits into place. He sat across from her, connecting wires.
"Iverson mentioned you again yesterday," Pidge said.
"Did he," Keith said flatly.
"Did you really punch him?" she asked.
Keith twisted a blue wire into place. "Yes."
"Because of what he says about the Kerberos mission?"
"I wish I could punch him when he starts in on that," Pidge grumbled.
Keith eyed her. "Have you ever thrown a punch?"
"No," she said. "But it can't be that hard."
"Stand up," Keith said. "Come over here." She did. The tiny living room didn't have much open space, but there was room by the door, away from the coffee table. Keith held up his hand, palm out. "Hit my hand," he instructed.
Pidge hesitated. "I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't," Keith said. "Hit my hand."
Pidge bit her lip, then swung her right fist at Keith. She missed his hand and clipped him in the ear. Keith yelped and cupped his ear with his hand.
Pidge threw her hands over her mouth. "Ohmygosh! I'm so sorry!"
"I'm okay." Keith smiled and held up his hand again. "Hit me." This time she socked him lightly in his palm. "Better," he said. "But you need to put your thumb outside your fingers, or you could break your thumb." He held up his fist to demonstrate. Pidge moved her thumb. "Good. Now, you have to move your arm straight forward. If you swing wide, they'll see you coming and have time to duck or block." He showed her how to strike and she practiced until she could push his hand back a few inches. "You need to hit harder," Keith said. "The dorm gyms have punching bags. You can practice there."
"How'd you learn to fight?" Pidge asked.
Keith shrugged. "Kids picked on me, so I taught myself." He sat down at the coffee table again.
"And they stopped picking on you?" Pidge went back to her circuit board.
"No," Keith said. "But I punched them when they did." He twisted the last two wires in place. "I think I'm done."
"Let me see it," Pidge said. She leaned over and prodded a few wires. "That should work. As soon as this solder's cool, I'll assemble it." She blew on the solder. "I don't think I'm actually going to punch Iverson. I want to be able to enroll under my own name when my dad and brother are back."
"I bet they'd let you in if your dad insisted," Keith said. "You know he was the one that convinced Admiral Sanda to make Shiro the pilot for the Kerberos mission?"
"I didn't know that," Pidge said. "Why wouldn't she want him to be the pilot? Shiro's a legend!"
Keith hesitated. "She had doubts about him," he said. "Your dad never did."
"Do you blame my dad?" Pidge asked, tensing.
"No!" Keith exclaimed. "This was Shiro's dream. I think if he'd known what would happen, he'd've done it anyway." He gave her a small smile. "You can't talk him out of anything once he sets his mind to it, and believe me, people have tried."
Pidge carefully touched the solder. It had cooled and solidified. She started assembling the radio. "You know you can reapply to the Garrison next year?"
Keith shook his head.
"You can," Pidge insisted. "You've only got a category 2 expulsion. You could pass the written and the flight tests, couldn't you? My dad would write you a recommendation when he gets back. I know he would."
"No," Keith said. "Iverson's the one who expelled me, so he has to approve my application and that will never happen." He sat back on the rug and pulled his knees to his chest.
"Don't you want to fly?" Pidge asked.
"More than anything," Keith said, his voice rough. He closed his eyes and lowered his chin for a moment, then shook his head with a jerk. "I guess I could fly passenger jets or something.” Pidge thought of the cliff dive and suspected that Keith would be a poor choice for commuter planes. “Let's just get Shiro home and find out what the lions mean.”
Pidge nodded. "Okay." She tightened the last screw on the radio, connected it to her laptop and turned it on. It let out a burst of static. Pidge lowered the volume and started typing on her computer. The radio blipped through different tones of static. Keith frowned, watching the tiny lights on the radio.
"Wait!" he said, holding up his hand. "Go back two channels." She did. Tapping quickly on her keyboard, she brought the sound up. It wasn't just tones and pulses anymore. There were voices. Keith and Pidge shared a smile. "Can you make it clearer?" Keith asked.
Pidge tapped again. They could hear the rhythm of speech, now, murmurs broken into syllables and consonants, but static rolled over it, knocking even these sounds out of range. "No," she groaned. "Come on!" Keith watched as she pulled up another software program and split the audio. “Okay, this should isolate the speech.” They watched the progress bar and Pidge clicked Play when it finished.
The result was static-free, but still garbled speech. Pidge dropped back against the couch and let out an exasperated shout.
Keith rubbed his hand over his face. "Okay," he said in a measured voice. "What's wrong? What do we need to fix?"
"There's not enough range!" Pidge said. She glared furiously at her computer screen. "If I had the frequencies from the Kerberos mission, I might be able to make this work, but they're only in the flight records and those are part of a closed system. I'd have to get physical access, but they've got heavy security on the airfield and I'll never get by!" She threw up her hands.
Keith thought this over for a moment. "What about the satellite dishes on the South Tower. Could you wire up to those?"
"Yeah, if I could fly," Pidge said, with heavy sarcasm.
"I can get you there," Keith said.
"We can't take the hoverbike into the airfield. The guards would shoot us down and ask questions later," Pidge said.
"No, there's a maintenance ladder on the back. I- I go up there sometimes to watch the shuttles launch."
"Really?" Pidge frowned. "I could clone a badge and attach your photo to it. That'd get you on base."
Keith nodded. "We shouldn't have any trouble getting from the student dorms to the South Tower. When do you want to do it?"
"Tomorrow night," Pidge said firmly. "The sooner, the better."