Lord Engleston scowled ferociously, his nostrils flaring like those of a snorting bull ready to charge--an apt simile given his thick, powerful build.
"Your humor is in extremely bad taste, Holmes."
"There is no humor on my part, merely bluff on yours, Lord Engleston. You are the man responsible for the disappearing Alicia and therefore the indirect cause of the crash of the Stanburton."
"Damn it, Holmes, I'm your client!"
"The British Astronautics Bureau is my client; you are merely its representative. Besides which, it would not be the first time that a guilty person has sought my services."
"Sherlock, if you're going to be making charges like that, you'd better be sure of your facts," Lestrade warned.
"Ah, but I am."
"Prove it!" Lord Engleston bellowed, his face turning red with choler.
"Very well, I shall. I began the investigation with one obvious fact: there never was an Aliciaon the night in question."
"But there is an Alicia, Holmes," Watson protested. "We saw it."
"We saw the genuine cutter, Watson, but the control tower and fellow spacecraft did not. Was it possible for a spacecraft to simply vanish? Clearly not. Could it have been taken aboard another craft in mid-flight? Unlikely, given the difficulty of such a maneuver during takeoff or reentry, and made impossible by the fact that none of the other craft, excepting the Stanburton, came near enough to the Alicia's apparent location to permit such a maneuver. Could it have been destroyed? Again, impossible; an act of violence on that scale would have been detected. At the very least the military or intelligence apparatus would have been all over the investigation.
"I was thus forced to conclude that the Aliciahad never been physically present, and thus the point of my investigation became to solve not the disappearance but rather the mystery of how it had appearedin the first place. The most obvious solution--that the Aliciawas a data artifact created by hacking the spaceport computer system--was ruled out not only by the Bureau's electronic investigation, but also by the fact that at least three other spacecraft also reported the Alicia's existence."
"But that would mean that there was something there after all," Watson observed.
"Ah, but whatwas there? That is the question."
Holmes tapped his fingertips together.
"I was struck by a curious fact in reviewing the Bureau reports. All the records of the Alicia's appearance and disappearance depended entirely on the existence of transponder data. That is, we did not actually have sensor reports of the cutter, but rather logs of a transponder reporting its position and identifying itself as the Alicia to the control tower and other ships. Our talk with Mr. Martinez confirmed my suspicions. The flight-control transponder system is efficient in regulating aerospace traffic, but is wholly dependent upon the transponders themselves providing accurate data. Once I recognized that, the conclusion was elementary."
"A false transponder!" Lestrade exclaimed.
"Impossible!" Lord Engleston snapped. "Creation of a transponder demands approval from the international oversight authorities."
Holmes smiled thinly.
"Meaning that anyone wishing to create a false transponder signal which would fool onlookers--particularly the control tower--had to be certain that the signal would match the original as it was duly recorded in the international database. A forged digital signature, just as a hand-written one, must match the existing samples. The concept is, as I said, quite elementary. Just as obviously, the forger must have access to the original in order to create the copy. The original exists in only two places: the actual Alicia's transponder and the database."
"But even if an artificial transponder was created duplicating the Alicia's , its broadcast location would have to duplicate the course noted by the witnesses," Watson observed. "It would do no good to broadcast the signal from here, for example. The tower would notice that, unless its computers were tampered with."
"Which we already know that they were not. Precisely, Watson."
"Then what happened?" Lestrade asked, frustrated as always with the wait. No doubt, Holmes concluded, the Inspector's impatience was preventing her from following the chain of thought through to the next link.
"Simplicity itself, Lestrade. The imitation transponder was launched, following the path which was duly recorded for it. The tower operators, who run the spaceport traffic system based on transponder logs, merely assumed that the appropriate spacecraft was attached to it and acted accordingly, when in fact all that was there was the transponder and a broadcasting apparatus. I doubt that such a thing would occupy more than a space the size of a large suitcase?"
"Launched, you say?" Lord Engleston demanded. "Launched from where?"
"There is only one place it could have been launched from."
"The Prescott!" Watson exclaimed. "That's what you were pointing out before, Holmes. It was released simultaneously with the jettisoning of the booster cores, in order to conceal its existence in case something went wrong!"
"Very good, Watson; you have it exactly. The signaling device with fake transponder was launched, doubtlessly by pre-programmed control, and simply fell towards Earth, transmitting its artificial signal until it burned up on reentry, destroying the evidence. This was the cause of the Alicia's supposed disappearance."
"But in that case, Holmes, why suspect Lord Engleston? The Prescottis a Gold Lion spaceship, and the Aliciais the private vessel of Gold Lion's CEO."
"Quite so. Your argument, I may add, is even stronger than you think, when I point out that the result of the incident has been a critical blow to one of Gold Lion's major competitors--as, I suspect, it was intended to, although not in such a catastrophic fashion. Nor is it a coincidence that both the Alicia's original transponder and the Prescott were within the control of one man."
Holmes shook his head slowly.
"No, Watson. Can you see that gentleman dressed in a workman's coveralls, a case of tools at his side? How could it escape comment if a financier were to install a module on the exterior of the Prescott? No, I spoke of Raul Martinez, the corporation's chief spacecraft engineer. He possesses both the expertise and access to carry out the scheme. It was undeniably his hands that did the task."
"So you're backing down from that ridiculous accusation?" Lord Engleston barked.
"Not in the least. Martinez's hands, yes, but his was not the guiding will behind the scheme."
The bureau chief slammed his fist down on his desk.
"I swear, Holmes, that if I don't have an apology from you before you leave this room I'll have you in the dock for slander!"
"Your bluster is all too commonplace; I've heard it before from better men than you. Surely, for example, you will not deny that Mr. Martinez was formerly an engineer for the Astronautics Bureau before he moved to the corporate sector? Ironically enough, one of the expert investigators you used to examine the cause of mishaps in space travel?"
"How did you--?"
"One of the more depressing realities of our present age is the amount of data our government collects about the life histories of private citizens. The good Inspector consulted Mr. Martinez's citizen file to confirm my suspicions, but the idea had already been suggested to me by his own words. His glib explanation of the arrangements between independent powers for the maintenance of the transponder database had already told me that I was dealing with a man whose experiences extended well beyond the technical confines of his job."
"Well, so what if it is true?" Lord Engleston snapped. "It's nothing more than a coincidence. You can't tie him to me! Besides, so far all I've heard is a lot of theory. Where's your evidence?"
"I have no doubt that New Scotland Yard will be able to establish that evidence to link the two of you. Communications are not so readily concealed as they were in my day. But you are correct in one regard, Lord Engleston. At this very moment, I have more evidence against you than I do against Mr. Martinez."
"Against me? What are you saying?"
"Come, come, Lord Engleston," Holmes pressed. "When you came to me, it was allegedly because the investigation into the apparent Aliciahad reached a dead end, despite your best efforts, is that not so?"
"Of course it is. Do you think I want phantom spacecraft flying about disrupting traffic?"
"In this case, I am certain that you did. Or do you have some other explanation for why you did not take the most basic, the most obvious step that you could, and consult with Air Defense to see if they had noticed the Aliciaat any point on the night in question? Not even a rank amateur would have missed that elementary step. You, however, couldn't risk one of your sharp-eyed subordinates stumbling on the truth, and so you deliberately avoided taking that step."
Lord Engleston had leapt from his seat to meet Holmes face-to-face during the beginning of the detective's accusation, but the color drained from him as Holmes's words struck again and again like a lash. Shaking, he fell back into his chair.
"Nineteen innocent people, Lord Engleston," Holmes said, more gently. "Isn't that enough? You've achieved your aim, and I cannot think this was the cost you intended."
"His aim? What aim?" Lestrade exploded. "What could possibly be the point of creating a panic?"
It was not Holmes who answered, but the minister.
"Astra-Transit," he said with a sigh. "We knew they were cutting corners on safety, but we didn't have any evidence to initiate an investigation, so I decided to provoke a situation to give the Bureau an excuse."
"By killing nineteen people?" Lestrade was incredulous.
"It wasn't supposed to happen that way!" he almost screamed. "I never thought...I never believed that Astra-Transit's attention to basic maintenance could be so utterly abysmal! I'd hoped to cause an incident, but that such a complete disaster could take place from a simple wave-off..."
Lord Engleston sagged back in his chair and buried his face in his hands.
-X X X-
The astonishing speed by which information spread in the cybernetic age was demonstrated again for Sherlock Holmes by the fact that Lord Engleston's arrest was already being trumpeted by the news services by the time he'd returned to 221B. He'd silenced the electronic voices almost at once, preferring the melancholy refrain of his violin to the unceasing chatter of society. Watson, knowing his friend's moods almost as well as had the original, did not intrude for over an hour, merely remaining silent. Only when Holmes at last put the violin down did he endeavor to speak.
"Holmes, I hope I'm not disturbing you..."
"What is it, Watson?"
"It's only that...I don't understand how you knew Lord Engleston's motive for what he did."
"Oh, that?" Holmes shrugged. "Purely elementary. He as good as told me during our initial meeting."
"I see. And that's another thing, Holmes. If he was the guilty party, why did he hire you?"
"Insurance, perhaps--an attempt to make it clear to the world that the Astronautics Bureau was doing all within its power to solve the mystery of the phantom spacecraft. No doubt the idea of employing a man for whom the automobile was a new invention to solve a mystery involving space travel appealed to him. And then again..."
"Yes, Holmes?" Watson prompted after a few moments' silence.
"The human soul is a curious and immeasurable thing, Watson. One might speculate that Lord Engleston, having provoked the very tragedy that his scheme was designed to prevent, was torn between the lure of self-preservation and the need to confess his guilt, and so decided to leave his fate in the hands of a third party."
He picked up his violin again and nestled it into place between chin and shoulder.
"That, however, would be pure guesswork, and as you know, Watson, I never guess."
NOTE: For the curious, the original Conan Doyle fragment from which this story's idea was drawn comes from "The Problem of Thor Bridge," in which it states: "No less remarkable is that of the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew." This story is actually referenced as an "unfinished" tale which, while Holmes was called to consult, failed to arrive at a solution. Apparently, he did better when he got a second chance at the problem two hundred years later!