illustration by Avi Katz
When Daniela woke up she saw Jupiter glowing brightly in the sky. Or was it Venus? She would be able to tell if she could find her binoculars. Jupiter would have its four Galilean moons ranged around it and Venus would show a phase. Sometimes, while out camping in the Negev, she had been able to see, or think she saw, those distinguishing marks with her naked eye. But everything was blurry now. She felt for the binoculars, which should be here beside her in the tent, but she couldn’t find them. B, her little brother from hell, must have taken them. Whenever she needed something badly, it turned out that he’d run off with it. She tried to lift herself up on her elbows to see if B was with her in the tent, but her head suddenly went woozy and she fell back down on her back.
“It’s ok,” a friendly voice said. “Take your time.”
Daniela glanced to her right and saw a woman who looked like a Fox News anchor sitting in a wooden chair next to her. She herself was lying on a cot. What she’d thought was a planet was in fact a naked light bulb. The walls were bare. She knew the scene from countless movies. And now she remembered the raid on her lab at Georgia Tech. She was the planetary geophysicist who had come in from the cold.
“My name’s Cindy,” the anchorwoman said. “I’m really sorry we had to bring you here. Rich, your research partner, and your grad students are just fine. You’ll get to see them in good time, after they all wake up.”
“CIA?” Daniela asked. “NSA? FBI? Shin Bet?”
“YKVK,” Cindy said. “But that’s just a moniker. The real name is ineffable. Far more secret than all the others.”
“Why am I here?”
“Before I explain all that, tell me about your summer trip to Israel.”
“I went to see my family. It’s where I’m from.”
“Just your family?”
“Friends. Professional colleagues.”
“We know that you met with a Mossad department chief.”
“Of course. He’s my little brother.”
“We know that. Did you discuss your work with Boaz?”
“We call him ‘B.’”
“We call him Boaz.”
“In a general way. He’s more of a poet than a scientist.”
“We’ll want to know more about that. In the meantime …” Cindy handed Daniela a towel, a plush white robe, and a toiletry set and pointed at a door to the right. “Take a shower, freshen up. Just keep in mind that there are cameras everywhere.”
After her shower, Cindy arranged a massage and some reflexology for Daniela and then let her soak in a Jacuzzi for fifteen minutes before leading her into a small conference room. Rich, Jennifer, Marion, and Matt were all there, dressed in identical robes and looking fresh and relaxed. Next to each one sat their YKVK minder. Several other men and women, looking confident but empathetic, turned to greet them as they entered. The room was state-of-the-art, with three rows of sparkling clean semicircular pear-wood seminar desks fitted with integral swivel chairs upholstered in rusty orange. Looking up, however, Daniela noticed that all the light bulbs were bare. Cindy escorted Daniela down to the presenter’s dais in front, where she found her laptop already plugged in, hooked up to a Barco, and ready to go (“We know the password, of course,” Cindy smiled).
Daniela glanced up at the screen behind her and saw that her computer seemed to be projecting a photograph of a rubber raft at sea, overloaded with despairing women in headscarves, grim-looking men in drenched and faded button-down shirts, and children in what looked like makeshift life-vests manufactured out of blocks of Styrofoam packing. Puzzled, she looked at Cindy, who said, not to Daniela but to the entire room: “Yes, a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photo from Daniela’s hard drive, enlarged and computer-enhanced by us.”
The minders and YKVK agents looked happy and self-important. The scientists looked at one another. Rich hesitantly raised his hand and Cindy nodded at him.
“Sorry, I don’t want to be difficult,” he said, looking nervously at the light bulb above him, “but I think there’s a mistake. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter takes pictures of Mars.”
“Indeed,” Cindy said, smiling the kind smile that Daniela now decided she must have spent months practicing in whatever training program her organization put her through.
“But this is an ocean. And these are Syrian refugees.”
Cindy turned to Daniela. “Daniela, maybe you could just briefly summarize for us the results of your most recent research project.” And, picking up a remote control from the desk in front of her, she switched to a fuzzy photo of the Palikir crater and spectral graphs with colored lines.
“Well,” said Daniela, trying to get her thoughts together, “we think we’ve discovered proof that water is flowing on the surface of Mars.”
“Salt water,” Cindy corrected her.
“Yes, salt water,” Daniela agreed. “We’ve analyzed spectral data from a spectrometer on the orbiter. They demonstrate the presence of hydrated salts at four locations where photos show narrow streaks of low reflectance on the sides of craters, which look a lot like they were created by streams of some sort of liquid. But there’s never been any solid proof that that’s what they were or what, if any, liquid might be making them. The hydrated salts are called perchlorates, and they form when salts interact with water. They have a clear spectral signature. It would seem to be direct evidence that water on the Martian surface is interacting with salts of different kinds in the soil and creating a briny flow.”
“And this has never been seen before,” said a man in the back with a booming voice.
“Well, it’s the first time this kind of analysis has been done,” Daniela said.
“But it could be that the water is new,” the man said.
“I doubt it,” Daniela objected. “We presume that things don’t change that fast on Mars.”
“Unless,” the man said ominously, “someone changes them.”
Cindy clicked the remote and the picture of the refugees on the life raft returned. “What did Boaz say when you told him about your spectral analysis work?” she asked.
“He put on one of those deadpan expressions of his and said, ‘Don’t go there,’” Daniela recalled.
“But you didn’t listen to him.”
“He’s my little brother.”
The man in the back got up heavily, revealing an unexpected paunch, and plodded up to the dais to face the others.
“I’m K,” he said by way of introduction. “From The Kastle.” He emphasized the K, breathing heavily, as if the walk down to the dais had been a major exertion for him.
“That’s YKVK headquarters,” Cindy explained.
“I’m going to be very brief,” K said. “Because most of what we know you don’t need to know. This week at the UN, President Obama was approached by the foreign minister of Terra Sirenum. You know Terra Sirenum?” He turned to Daniela.
“It’s an albedo feature on the Martian surface, not far from Palikir.” Daniela tapped a few keys to bring up the NASA Mars Map. She pointed to a bit of rough terrain next to the huge Newton Crater, inside which Palikir nestled.
“That’s what you think. It’s a country,” K said.
“They’re the cutest little things,” Cindy cooed. “They have three noses and five cheeks that you just can’t keep from pinching.”
“And they want to know why the hell Syrian refugees are suddenly landing on their shore. And how the fuck they suddenly have a shore. See, this ocean suddenly appeared in Palikir a couple months ago.”
Daniela stared at the map. “That’s ridiculous,” she said.
“We think it’s the Israelis.” K looked at her sternly. “And don’t start giving me that crap about how the Israelis get blamed for everything. Who else has the know-how to teleport not only a large body of salt water but also entire fleets of refugees to Mars? Why do you think Boaz told you to lay off?”
“That’s impossible,” Rich called out.
“We think they use quantum teleportation, neutrino modulation, something like that,” K muttered. “Like I understand this stuff. I studied modern European literature.”
“You see,” Cindy said, beaming just as if she were a fourth grade teacher telling a mother that her son had gotten a hundred on a particularly tough spelling test, “we think that Israel is trying to improve its geopolitical position and stabilize the situation to its north by helping Europe solve its refugee problem while at the same time providing for the massive depletion of Syria’s population. And you know the Mossad, they always look for the most complicated and high-tech way to accomplish every mission. But, of course, Washington can’t afford to alienate Terra Sirenum, now that Putin is putting out feelers to Deadelia Planum after the natural gas discovery at Bob Fossae. Not to mention the humanitarian embarrassment once the papers get wind of it and start publishing satellite photos of desperate refugees who’ve been shunted off to another world.”
K handed Daniela her cell phone. “We need you to call Boaz and tell him that YKVK is on his tail and he’d better call the whole thing off. And then we’ll send you and your friends here back to your lab to monitor that it’s being done.”
Cindy leaned over and pressed the long 4 that autodialed Boaz’s number. She also put the phone on speaker.
Boaz’s voice appeared, somewhat tinny, as someone had programmed the phone to automatically translate his speech into English. “Can’t talk now, sis. Doing something important.”
“What?” Daneila asked, as she always did.
“Secret,” Boaz said.
“We know all about it,” Cindy said brightly.
“It’s Cindy from YKVK.”
“Particularly scatological expletive relating to female anatomy,” the translation module informed them. “You got Daniela!”
“Not good thinking to do an operation on your sister’s turf,” Cindy advised.
“They say you need to drain the brine and bring the refugees home,” Daniela said.
“Believe me, they’re safer on Mars.”
“That might be true,” Cindy acknowledged, “but they’ll have trouble fitting in.”
Boaz sighed. “Oh, all right. But don’t go blaming Israel when the rafts suddenly land at Lesbos.”
“We won’t,” Cindy promised.
“I know you will.”
“We know you know we will.”
“I know you know that we know that you know …”
“Cut it out,” K ordered.
“No tricks, B,” Daniela advised. “The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is watching.”
“I told you we should have gone for Pluto,” Boaz called out to someone on his end. “And fuck the bleeding-heart attorney general. A little cold never hurt anyone. People adjust.” He hung up.
“You did a great job,” Cindy grinned.
“There’s just one thing you guys seem to have forgotten,” Daniela said.
“We know!” Cindy said. But there was a look of doubt on her face. She glanced at K and asked: “Don’t we?”
“What would that be?” K intoned suspiciously.
“He’s my little brother and he never listens to me.”
K pulled Cindy over and they had a whispered consultation.
Cindy gave Daniela a peck on her cheek. “It’s been so great working with you but I have to run,” she said. “We need to abduct some psychologists who know how to handle little brothers.”
“You won’t find any,” Daniela warned.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. No mission is impossible for YKVK.”
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