Case File 8 - The Boy That Wasn't Missing
Part 1 of 3
I didn’t even get a chance to finish my coffee before Chief Thumbold called me into his office. Even though his summons left me annoyed, I forced my face to stay neutral as I entered the Chief's office. I took a seat on one side of the low couch that faced the Chief’s desk. Ned was already leaning against the filing cabinet like he was expecting a casual chat. I made eye contact and he smiled at me.
“Yo, Flo... Flo yo, Flo yo...” Ned’s words trailed off as I gave him my best unimpressed stare—the kind I saved for my boys when they misbehaved, so I was well practiced.
“Oh, come on Ned, you have to be sick of that by now.” I used a flat tone.
Ned grinned—a mischievous expression. Tormenting me would remain high on his agenda. “Never.”
“Detective Diamond, sit down and shut up.” Chief Thumbold scowled. He was just as sick of Ned’s silliness as I was. But I didn’t harbour any sympathy for him—he’d saddled me with Ned as a partner and kept me from finishing my morning coffee.
“Sure thing, Chief... I’ll take this seat here right beside Flo-yo.” Ned flopped down beside me, his weight nearly launching me off the couch. He looked at me and grinned.
I sighed. “Ned. Enough.”
“Alright, you two, we need to focus on the case at hand. Susan, bring up the feed.” Chief Thumbold drew our attention to him.
In the air above his desk, a holographic image formed of the inside of one of Indigo Station’s emergency airlocks—the kind that were kept locked by the station AIs unless there was some sort of issue.
A little boy with a mop of dark hair stood in the airlock gazing out the door to space. Beside him, the light at the door flashed red indicating an active override. That door was about to slide open, blowing everything inside into the void.
My throat tightened. “Oh shit, is that a child in the airlock? Wait, it’s about to vent. Susan, send an emergency override—”
Chief Thumbold raised his hand and cut me off. “It’s not live, Detective Rubin.”
The boy turned towards the camera and grinned—the same grin my boys used to give me when they were knowingly about to do something bad.
I frowned and crossed my arms over my chest, reminding myself that whatever had happened in that airlock was already done.
“Did the boy get sucked out into space?” I asked.
Chief Thumbold rested his forearms on his desk. “That’s what I brought you in for—”
This time, I cut him off. “Susan, run facial recognition on that child.”
From the speaker in the wall, Susan said, “This child’s facial features do not match anyone on this station.”
I frowned. That child needed to be identified. “I’ll manually check, bring up the missing children reports. Let’s start with boys between 7 and 9.”
“I cannot comply. All male children between 7 and 9 are accounted for,” Susan’s generated voice remained as emotionless as ever. She was one of the more boring AIs that I’ve ever encountered—but then she was selected by a bureaucratic committee looking for efficiency over personality.
Chief Thumbold pursed his lips. “Stop before you go to far down that gravity well. As much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, Detective Rubin, you need to give me a chance to brief you on the facts. This isn’t a case of a missing child. Susan, zoom in on the child’s face.”
Ned stood up to get a closer view. “Huh, that kid looks familiar.”
“That’s because he’s been appearing in station video feeds and even personal photos for the last six months. Susan, bring up the station schematic and overlay the locations where the boy has appeared,” Chief Thumbold said.
A map of the station replaced the video feed.
This time, I stood to get a better view. The cluster of red dots formed a distinct pattern. “He keeps appearing around Docking Bay 11, maybe he lives nearby?”
“After the footage of the airlock, I sent out a patrol to go door to door. Rest assured, no child is missing.” Chief Thumbold leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Of course, no child is missing. As I already said, they are all accounted for.” Susan actually sounded annoyed—maybe there was hope for her code yet.
Ned flopped back onto the sofa and started scrolling through something on his datapad.
“Dirty circuits! Check this out. The kid photo bombed my husband and I at the circus in Docking Bay 11.” Ned held up his datapad so we could all see the photo.
Ned and his husband both held huge pink fluff balls of cotton candy in front of themselves, hiding the lower halves of their faces. In the space between their heads was another head in the background.
I pointed at the third head. “Can you zoom in on that?”
Ned swiped his datapad, and the image appeared in the air over the chief’s desk. “Is that better?”
“Susan, is that the same boy?” I asked.
“My algorithms have determined that the boy in the airlock and the boy in the background match to 97.36% certainty.”
“Great. Cross-correlate the time stamp on Detective Diamond’s photo with station security footage,” I said.
Chief Thumbold leaned forward. “Hold on, Detective Rubin, I’m not finished briefing you on the case. We’ve already determined the boy isn’t real. He’s an artifact in the network around Docking Bay 11 and his first appearance coincided with the circus being set up.”
“So, the kid’s a wacky photo bombing program? Sounds fun,” Ned said with a grin.
I frowned. “It sounds like this case should be assigned to IT.”
“I need the two of you to investigate the origins of this boy. IT hasn’t been able to isolate the code. There may be a rogue hacker at work here, and you need to find them before they move on to more than just photo bombing Ned’s pictures.”
Twenty minutes later, Ned and I stood just inside the main doors to Docking Bay 11. Somehow, on the walk over here, Ned had once again acquired a spicy cricket taco. I shuddered at the scent—even a whiff was too spicy for me.
Ahead, the big top tent reached up almost to the ceiling, changing the space from something industrial to something way more fun. A group of children raced by us, laughing as they went.
“We had a good time,” Ned said between bites.
“Who did?” I looked around, trying to pinpoint all the security cameras in the space.
“My husband and I, when we came last week.” He started walking forward, wiping spicy-cricket-taco residue off his hands and onto his pants as he moved. “The animatronic camels were the best.”
Not for the first time, I cursed having him as my partner under my breath. Then I strode out to catch up with him. “We gotta stay focused.”
“Yo, Flo, I know.” He burst into giggles. “I didn’t even mean that rhyme.”
I sighed. “Where were you when you got photo bombed?”
“In the back, just next to the food stands.” He headed straight into the tent and turned right.
The crowd inside was nuts. That amount of people in such a small place made my skin crawl—it was worse than the trams during rush hour. People were going all different directions, creating the kind of chaos that haunted my dreams.
Ned didn’t seem bothered as he moved straight through the crowd—the crowd parted for him—must be the spicy cricket smell to his breath. I followed in his wake.
Past a series of carnival games, he exited the tent into an open area ringed by food stands. Everything from pretzels to doughnuts to funnel cakes were on display—sugary treats guaranteed to spike one’s insulin. It was a wonder the station’s medical arm hadn’t shut the place down.
Ned stopped next to an oversized cotton candy machine. “We took the picture exactly here.” He gestured as though taking a selfie.
“Right.” I looked around. The wall to the docking bay rose up directly behind the food stands. It didn’t take long for me to spot the safety projector halfway up.
The projector was supposed to project a hologram to direct people out of the docking bay in the event of an emergency. It was also supposed to be turned off and only activated by the station AIs if needed—just like the airlock in the video the Chief had showed us.
“Yo Flo, I’ve got a plan,” Ned said.
Just as I turned to glare at him, he snapped a picture of the two of us.
“What the...” My words trailed off as I realized what he was doing. “Is he there?” I leaned in to see the photo.
Sure enough, the boy was—sticking his tongue out at us.
“The kid’s got a sense of humour,” Ned said.
“I guess we can confirm someone has hacked into the station’s emergency system.” I eyed the safety projector. “Let’s head down to Station Control. I want Susan to examine their error logs.”
“Sure thing, Flo yo.”
“Again, enough of that.” I headed off into the crowd, back the way we’d come.
to be continued…
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