“...And once again ISAC guarantees full coverage for all parts of the hearing, except those which may reveal confidential information.”
“Yeah, which is pretty much all of it.” Rin grumbled to herself. Holding the remote out like a phaser, she silenced the babbling box. It was amazing how facile the coverage became without the audio. In the sudden quiet, Rin found that she had made a prolonged “pkchhhh” sound as she pressed the mute button. She clamped her lips self-consciously, but there was no one else in the hotel room.
The limo was waiting for her at the curb. Apparently the motor pool had decided to rent quite a few of them during the hearing. They were everywhere these days. The “clump” of the shutting car door sealed out the noise of the crowd. The ride to the Houston Convention Center was uneventful. As Rin was escorted into the building the crowd pressed to penetrate the security perimeter. The guards knew their work; They kept Rin and the crowds separated. The obvious half was to keep the crowds from reaching Rin. She tried not to think about the other half.
The hearing room was fairly small, all things considered. A couple nondescript desks at the front, maybe a fifty rows of fold-up chairs. It reminded Rin of the depressing business seminars she had attended in high-school. It was about half full now, but would undoubtedly be packed by the time the opening ceremonies began. In the main convention hall politicians and power brokers from all over the world were jawing it up. Everyone wanted to take advantage of the inquiry to have their say on whatever issue it was that they had hitched their career to. The proceedings themselves were just a locus for this maneuvering, a precipitation seed in the super-saturated international solution. Plus most of them couldn't get in to the event themselves, which just made the need to be “at the hearing” that much more pressing.
Rin was lost in thought, sitting in her uncomfortable plastic cushioned chair, when the opening ceremonies began. Fourteen different national anthems played, no doubt in a carefully considered order. There was probably a committee for the anthems alone. The entire setting screamed officious bullshit. Rin's mind wandered as the “Head of Something-or-other” began a speech. She decided “Head of the Committee for the Anthems at the Hearing of the International Space and Aeronautics Commission on the Destruction of the Armstrong and Associated Crew Testimonies for the Determining of Who will be Least Offended if Their Country's Anthem is Played Last” would just about top off a standard business card when you added a name and telephone number. No e-mail address of course. These people were much too busy and important to read e-mails.
The acoustic ceiling tiles reminded Rin of the Armstrong. They looked nothing alike, but the concept of “tiles” resonated. She would never see the Armstrong again. It had been a home for almost a year. Now it was abandoned, probably too radioactive to touch for another thousand years. She looked around and wanted to scream “Shut up!” at the portly bureaucrat droning on in the front of the room. Instead her dress hissed softly as she straightened it once again.
After the opening ceremonies they took a break for lunch. Due to security precautions, no one was allowed to leave the room, so plastic sandwiches were served in soggy wrappers. Maybe it was the other way around. Rin honestly couldn't tell at this point. They had all been instructed to not discuss among themselves, as this would be outside the “Spirit of impartiality we are striving to uphold during these proceedings.” Although nothing said during the hearings was legally binding, there was a feeling of gravity and order. Talking about how stupid all of this was seemed like a bad idea to Rin, so she kept her mouth shut.
The testimonies began that afternoon. Of course, the ground crew were called first. There were questions about the fuel and about the power plant. There was discussion over the preparation of the RAS-R system and how often the medical supplies were checked. At one point a technician began reading from a logbook, line by line with numbers out to four places. Apparently this crossed some unspoken line of ridiculousness and the technician was instructed to summarize. After that things went a bit more quickly.
When the quartermaster was called to testimony Rin sat up in her seat. As far as she could tell there was no “questions from the audience” section to these hearings. Well, damned if she was going to let this criminal walk away! Just as the interviewer was beginning to say “Thank you Quartermaster Scott, that will be all.” Rin rose to her feet. The proceedings stumbled gracelessly to a halt.
Into the silence, Rin ground out her accusation, word by word.
“The. Coffee. Was. Terrible.” She narrowed her eyes and delivered her deadliest glare, “Why?” Then she sat down.
A strangled rustle rose from the crowd. Something between a chuckle and a corporate cough of embarrassment. Rin's victim appeared genuinely startled. However, before he could respond the Head of Ceremonies cut him off.
“Crew-woman Rin, please refrain from interrupting the hearings. You may speak freely when you are called on. Thank you, Quartermaster Scott, for your patience. That will be all.”
The bleary transition to waking consciousness from whatever far realm to which souls flee in sleep. A few deep breaths, clearing the cobwebs from behind the eyes. Swinging the bare legs out from beneath the rippling sheets to make similar impressions in the cool morning air.
Sitting for a space on the edge of the bed, Rin reviewed the morning. She considered brushing her teeth, but decided against it. Then she felt mildly guilty for this decision, as she did every morning. The next step in the routine, after the pang of guilt had passed, was to get up and put on some clothes.
At this juncture she recalled the significance of the particular morning she was so absently attending to. The hearing. Her testimony. Not that it would make any difference. In her choice of clothes that is. Her formal attire was uniform, since it was composed of a single outfit.
Her active participation in the hearing was scheduled for “late” in the program, four days after the opening. Where the convention center had been bustling, now it was much more subdued. Not deserted by any means, but fissured into lonely oases of activity, strung together with caravans across the cavernous gulf. All the least dedicated leeches had gone home already, their schemes accomplished or burnt out to ice cold cinders.
The daily session opened. The daily call to order. The daily summary of the previous day's features, this time sporting the reading of the crew logs.
And then she was called forward.
Rising from her chair she felt the room swim around her. Whatever the past months had done to strengthen her body, she was clearly not up to even her former fitness. That, and perhaps the stress of the past few weeks. Laboring over preparing her testimony. Struggling with her relationship with her brother and father. Focusing on what had to be done.
Like right now, what needed to be done was walking.
She waited a moment more to steady herself, and then started off. Her feet were nearly silent on the short commercial carpet. The ever present odor of convention center wafted by, smelling of plastic and paint and too little air conditioning and the inevitable human side effects. Around her the ambient conversation dulled to a nearly imperceptible murmur. She was nearly to the first row of chairs now.
Someone started clapping. Curse them! They should have saved the energy until after her performance. Rin realized that is what her testimony had become in her mind. She was going to recite for them, a performance of her own perspective. The applause swelled as Rin mounted the small stage and neared the chair. It was a poor plastic thing, just like all the other chairs in the room.
Rin froze as she turned to sit. The crowd was all looking at her, and most were clapping. A few were even standing. Rin scanned their eyes, and saw none of the irony she had feared. They recognized what she had been through, even if they could not fully understand it. Rin gave a little wave and sat. The applause quickly died, as if itself relieved to be finished. The few standing took their seats. What had they been clapping for anyway? Did anyone really know?
This was it. The moment she had been preparing for. As she turned to sit a feeling of certitude washed over her. This was what she was ready for. Finally, a confrontation with the establishment, with the doers and makers of her woes. A showdown, perhaps, or at least a last stand. No doubt the feeling was mutual for many seated in the crowd.
Rin looked out over the sea of faces, perhaps more like a pond. They were somewhat less inspiring as an audience than she had hoped, especially now that the applause had ended. Maybe twenty rows of officials, aides, recorders, reporters, and others who had been called to testimony, or merely wanted to be there for the political blood-letting. Rin hoped to give them what they were looking for.
Of course, not all of them would be happy about what she had to say. If she had done her research, most of them were complicit, at least in a small way, with the crash of the Armstrong. It might not ever come to court. In fact, Rin strongly suspected that this was the highest “court” that her testimony would ever see. Still, she hoped it would make a few of them question their motives. Their aspirations. Their goals.
She also hoped they would let her go when it was all over.
She was shivering in a cold sweat now. The stress of the moment threatened, for a moment, to overwhelm her. But no, she was prepared. Focus on what you are going to say. Focus on what you know. Focus on the details. Focus...