The False Infinite (part 5)
The cafeteria on the Tellustria Mission base (it bordered on a capital offense to refer to it as the Tellustria “colony”) was almost empty at that time of the evening. Most of those on the day shift came early for dinner, even though the window for service was two hours long. Paul, however, preferred to wait until most others had eaten and gone back to their quarters. It usually meant that the selection of available entrees was limited (and they were not particularly lavish to begin with), but that was a cost he was willing to bear for relative peace and quiet. That evening as he scooped into a slab of what he took for some kind of artificial meat substitute, he was closely examining some pictures he had taken earlier that morning—so closely, in fact, that he didn’t bother to think about what kind of meat was being replaced and whether the substitute was a believable imitation.
As exciting as it still was to discover new plant life (and that seemingly every day), the specimens he was examining that evening were one of the first alien species that he and Danny had catalogued. Tentatively dubbed Triticum aestivum obscurum (he hadn’t been able to come up with anything more creative than “dark wheat”) it bore more than passing resemblance to the earthly cereal grass with which humans had been familiar for so many millenia. In fact, after having passed a small amount through a mill and performed some preliminary tests, Paul was moderately confident that in the kitchen it would perform very similarly to earth grains. The present set of regulations and implementing orders from the Space Force Command, however, foreclosed the possibility.
For a military group that had relied on propulsion technology that only a handful of people fully understood to carry them farther away from the cradle of humanity than most people had ever thought remotely possible, Paul was struck by the extreme degree of caution they imposed that prevented his borrowing some space in the kitchen to bake a loaf of bread or fry up some pancakes. Central planning showed itself to actually be the enemy of planning yet again.
“What’s that you got there, Chief Gardening Officer?” a gruff voice asked, breaking Paul out of his contemplation.
“Just some pictures,” he said, looking up into the broad face he recognized as one of the construction workers who was extending the main road that ran outward from the primary base.
“Of what?” the man asked, seating himself opposite from Paul. A curious choice, Paul thought, given the abundance of tables that were either completely empty or were already occupied by workers more likely to make conversation. Paul found little to talk about, even with his fellow scientists.
“Well, I’ve been calling this ‘Tellustrian Dark Wheat’” he said, rotating his tablet and sliding it over to the man.
“Oh yeah, I can see it,” he said, picking up the razor-thin display to get a closer look. “It reminds me a lot of the stuff that grew on the farms that were all over the place where I used to live. Can you eat it, though?”
“Well,” Paul began, before silently convincing himself that it was no time to launch into a lecture on the inherent inefficiencies of the statist bureaucracy. “We don’t quite know yet, but it looks promising.”
“Man, that would be great, wouldn’t it? I could just about kill for a loaf of warm, freshly baked bread. The dehydrated stuff we get will stop a stomach from growling, but it’s nothing to write home about.”
Paul glanced down at his own meat slab and said “You’ve got that right.”
The two men shared a laugh. Paul noticed, as the other man slapped the table, that he had some grime under his fingernails. It was one of the ever-growing series of ironies he had encountered on this journey that despite reaching the stars after so many centuries of merely imagining the possibility, the trip still required men to get their hands dirty working on machinery.
“I’m Paul, by the way,” he said, extending a hand. The other man wiped his hand on the sleeve of his coverall and grasped Paul’s in a firm grip. The contrast between the scientist who worked in a laboratory and the man who made engines run could not have been more clear.
“I’m David.” He added an adamant “rom Minnesota,” almost as if it were a requirement.
“It’s good to meet you, David. More than in passing, I mean.”
The two men passed most of the rest of the meal in relative silence, exchanging bits of on-base gossip that they’d come across. Paul had had far less to share in that realm.
“You know,” David said, as he was finishing the last bites of what was meant to be a dessert, “I misjudged you. If you ever have any trouble with getting your carts where they need to go and such, just talk to me. I’ll take care of it. Good night, then.”
With that, he rose from the table and made for the tray recycler. Perhaps, Paul thought, a friendship had been formed over those nondescript helpings of meat substitute.
Later, after recycling his own tray and leftovers and returning to his sleeping quarters, Paul’s mind went back to the dark wheat and the inability to try everything he wanted to try. Nevertheless, despite his frustration, Paul contented himself with the fact that the problem he was trying to work out in the meantime was actually far more important.
He was about to give up for the night when a thought struck him out of nowhere—not out of nowhere, really, for he just as quickly realized that it had been because of something David had said: “It reminds me a lot of the stuff that grew on the farms that were all over the place where I used to live.” The epiphany gave him a second wind and it was only the sound of his alarm telling him to get up for his next work shift that finally broke his concentration.
Antwerp in the summer had never been Erika’s favorite place. The weather was pleasant enough, but the ceaseless procession of tourists was more of an inconvenience than she thought anyone had the right to ask her to bear. Still, she could only imagine what it must be like to live in Paris or Berlin in the high tourist season. Fortunately, she was able to avoid most of the bustle by simply remaining at home, and, technically, that’s what she was required to do in any event.
The terms of her confinement (for she refused to call it “house arrest”) were very general. Although her travel permits had been suspended, essentially forcing her to remain on the European continent, her actual activities were not substantially limited in any noticeable way. Hiring a drone-taxi to take her to Milan to do some shopping, for instance, would have aroused no suspicion. But shopping was the last thing on her mind. She had convinced herself that she had been betrayed and she could not allow such a thing to pass without holding the traitor to account.
“Taxi service to Brussels,” she told the integrated home computer as she finished dressing. A short run had been just what she had needed to clear her head. The mere act of getting out of bed had been more than enough to raise her rage to a white hot heat, but that would only distract her from what she needed to do. A few miles around the Belgian countryside proved to be just the tonic to sharpen her focus.
The drone-taxi arrived a few minutes later. She tried unsuccessfully to mute the automatic safety messages after she climbed in and verified her destination with a palm scan. “Straight to your inbox, little Marceline,” she said to the empty passenger compartment, wondering how much time the ICC staff were actually devoting to tracking her activities. The vehicle took off vertically from the residence’s landing pad, and Erika hardly noticed either the force or the noise. The short flight likewise passed uneventfully.
She could have landed directly at the Executive Office Building for the European Parliament, but had elected, rather, to put down at the City Centre Landing Station. It would require hiring another ride and a few extra minutes, but would prove worth it when she was able to catch her quarry unawares. Ambush was, after all, one of her favorite tactics.
There was a small park just across the street from the entrance to the building. She seated herself on one of the wooden benches, finding the area mercifully free from vacationing foreigners—office buildings were not one of Brussels’ main attractions—and waited. It would only be a matter of time; these meetings always let out at the same time for the midday meal.
While Erika waited she went through the various scenarios in her mind and replayed how she would respond to each one. But she knew what was likely to happen with the man she had come to see. After only a few minutes of waiting, people began to trickle out and she spotted him. Rising from her bench, Erika crossed the street and walked briskly to meet him head on.
“Heinrich, I’m so glad I could catch you!” she said, startling the man out of his lunchtime walking routine. He would have kept walking on, right past her, if she had not said anything, so set in his ways was the old man.
Heinrich Sleitheim had been the Science Minister for the EU for as long as Erika could remember. He may well have held the position when she was still figuring out long division. She had been sure to make him the dearest of family friends when she served as Science Minister for the AU and doing so had paid off more than a few times in her political career. Was there one last favor he could grant her? One last bit of useful information or a penetrating insight?she wondered.
She strode beside him, linking her arm through his. “Erika, this is quite a surprise. You’ll walk with me to the cafe, won’t you? You know the one I always visit?”
“Of course, around the corner and down two blocks. It would be my pleasure.”
They exchanged pleasantries and enjoyed the midday sun on their way. As they walked Erika was reminded of something Henrietta had told her often (especially in recent years): “You know, your body keeps aging, but your mind doesn’t really do that. Even when your body is old, you’ll still feel young up here.” Perhaps that held true for some people, but Heinrich was not one of them: his mind and his body remained in a state of fitness that utterly belied his many decades of government service.
Erika was reminded of this fact when they took their seats in one of the cafe’s handful of outdoor tables, assembled somewhat haphazardly on the sidewalk and spilling into the street. Rather than collapse down to the chair as if gravity had reached up and yanked him, he let himself down into the seat as if his knees were no older than those of the captain of the local university football team. It didn’t seem entirely fair that the rich and powerful were the first to get the bio-reconstructions and enhancements that would keep Heinrich going for who knew how much longer, but then, he was the Science Minister. If it hadn’t been for his direction at the top of the scientific community . . . well, that was hardly worth thinking about.
“Erika, you didn’t come to Brussels just to watch me dip cookies in coffee. Why are you here?”
“You’re very perceptive, Heinrich. You see—”
“We’ve known each other too long for you to start with flattery. Just cut to the chase. I know you’re here because of the investigation at the ICC; that place leaks like a cheap hovertram.”
Erika took a sip of her tea before she started again, eyeing the old man a little more closely. He stood to gain nothing by helping her and they both knew it. Still, she felt that she needed to give him a reason.
“The investigation is a farce, of course.” Erika paused briefly to gauge his reaction, but Heinrich merely took another bite of his cookie. “But they wouldn’t have even started down this trail to nowhere if someone hadn’t leaked them some information. They think they know what they have, but—”
Heinrich stopped her by holding up his hand. He chewed the last bit of his cookie and washed it down with a healthy-sized gulp of his coffee.
“I don’t want to know any more than that. At least let me keep deniability. I suppose, however, that you need my help to root out the leaker?”
“That’s where I hoped to arrive eventually, yes. Now, from your point of view, I can see why there wouldn’t seem to be much incentive, but I’ve been thinking . . .” She paused to allow his imagination to start filling in the blank with all the things she could do for him.
“Thinking about what?”
“Well, of course we both know that being able to move in our powerful circles always comes at a price. And of course this would be a tremendous help to me.”
“Yes, of course, Erika. But it is just precisely because it would be a help to you that I want to do what I can. You know that you are like a daughter to me. I count your successes as my own and that is all the thanks I ever need.”
Erika kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but after several moments she began to think that it never would. “Well, all I can say is that I appreciate it very much, Heinrich.”
Internally, however, she was more than a little distressed. Had she really never noticed that this man had helped her and guided her for altruistic reasons? Or was this merely a new facade of helping her as cover for doing something kind for someone else? She could not tell and it was the inability to tell that galled her most of all. Even a minor slip in her ability to read people and situations could be fatal to her mission.
“Do you remember,” he began again, “when I told you that I knew you would go on to great things?”
“Remind me,” she said, attempting to avoid an open admission that she had forgotten any such episode.
“It was at the summit in Copenhagen. I don’t remember the exact name of the thing. No matter,” he shrugged. “Something about the scientific opportunities of interplanetary colonization, anyway. You were the Deputy Minister of Science at the time.”
Erika had, in fact, been only an aide to the Deputy Minister, but she had done all the real work and felt no need to correct his memory on that point.
“You were passionate about sending a crewed mission to the planet—we didn’t have a name for it, you remember—but it was more than mere passion. When you first arrived I was sure you’d turn out like so many others that had come before you: full of piss and vinegar, but with no staying power. But then I saw you in action. You were ruthless; no thing or person was going to get in the way of your goal. Yet you were so, well, likeable—there’s really no other word for it. Men and women both let down their guard and that’s when you would just plow right over them if you thought you needed to.”
“Have I learned anything since then?”
“You learned a lot even by the time the summit adjourned. If you hadn’t, I never would have pulled you aside like I did. I took a risk, you know, with all the cameras and reporters watching. I say you were likeable, but we both know that that was for public display. You had made enemies, powerful ones. I couldn’t stand by and let you be destroyed politically when you were picking up the tasks that I knew I would have to set down before long.”
It had been a pretty long time already, and yet here he still was, Erika thought. He also overestimated, she was sure, just how necessary his allyship had been. She had little doubt that her path to success would have been virtually as smooth as if he had allowed her enemies to attack early and often. That was a counterfactual and Erika didn’t care enough to let the scenario play out in her mind. She was here now, doing what she had always planned to do—with the temporary exception of this ICC thing—and that was the only thing that mattered.
“But back to business,” he said, wrestling his mind out of its reminiscence. “I presume you already have a culprit in mind?”
“Indeed, I do. But first let’s order you another coffee.”
Erika dutifully waited for the beverage to arrive. She continued waiting and watched as Heinrich allowed the wisps of steam to float up into the sticky summer air before he took his first, tentative sip. He set the cup down again and Erika said, “Now tell me what you’ve been talking about with Carl Lennon lately.”