The False Infinite (part 4)
The flight across the Atlantic had only taken about as long as her morning walk through the Old Presidio back home. Still, it had given Erika what she was sure had been plenty of time to formulate her strategy. Her lawyers (all fellow graduates of the ever-prestigious UC Berkeley Law School) had chided her for her insistence on showing up before the date of the summons and unannounced. What they failed to see, Erika saw with perfect clarity: this was politics, not law. She suspected that she was better than all of them at the law part, but she knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that she was better at the politics part. That’s why they sat in shiny offices downtown and collected fat paychecks, but she was the most powerful woman in the world, even after leaving office.
So engrossed in her thoughts was Erika, that it was not until the shuttle’s chief flight attendant came to let her know that her carry-on bag was available for her at the door that she realized they had arrived. Of course, she could have taken a private flight, but that would have ruined the element of surprise, giving the ICC a day’s notice, rather than the hour or so she had planned. It would not be, she thought, a long trip, and accordingly the carry-on bag was the only luggage she had brought with her. The ordeal would be over with by tea time and she would be on the return flight to New York in time for dinner and a show.
“Madam President, over here” a voice called out, as she stepped into the cavernous expanse of the aerospaceport concourse.
“Ah, Michel! So good to see you, mon amie,” she said, greeting her former attache with the customary kiss on each cheek. “But let’s keep any more ‘Madam Presidents’ quiet, if you don’t mind.”
“You’re making an unannounced visit to the EU? That’s rather unlike you.”
Michel had always been the most impertinent of her close subordinates, but in his case, for reasons she still could not quite explain, she found it oddly endearing.
“I’m a new woman, Michel, refreshed by the pleasant inactivity of an early retirement from politics, of course.”
“Je le croirai quand je le verrai,” he muttered under his breath.
“Well, don’t blink, then, because you’re about to become a believer when you see the new Erika Gonzalez on full display.”
“Why do I have the sneaking suspicion that the new woman will be very much like the old one?”
“Just show me to the train.”
The banter, then, was over. She and Michel proceeded to the rail station and boarded, settling themselves in the private compartment before any other passengers were allowed to board. The AU MagLev Network served its purpose well enough, but Erika never ceased to be impressed at how much better the EU system seemed to be, despite being only a matter of decades older. But then, it had taken the Americans so much longer to let go of their qualms about consolidation of government services into a central authority. Regardless, that was well in the past now, something that concerned the historians far more than people like her who actually worked the levers of global power.
They arrived in The Hague precisely on time and she was met at the station by one of her attorneys (whose presence on other business would not have alerted the ICC to Erika’s early arrival). From there it was a short ride to the ICC.
The rains of late spring had given way to the vivid bloom of early summer. Erika had been to the Netherlands only once before, many years ago, and it had not left a favorable impression for reasons she could not quite call to memory. Though the circumstances of her second trip to that country were not ones of her choosing, she was confident that her planned departure later that same day would do much to repair its standing.
Marceline was finishing the last bites of her lunch (served at her desk, as usual) when Luca knocked lightly on the door.
“Yes?” she called to the corridor, successfully disguising the exasperation in her voice. Her lunch, every one had quickly learned, was the closest thing to sacred that the Chief Deputy Prosecutor knew. Interrupting it, therefore, was an office sacrilege.
“I do apologize for the interruption, ma’am, but there’s something that requires your immediate attention.”
“Whatever it is, it can wait another quarter of an hour. Nothing is that serious.”
“I know, Madame Gagnon, and I would never interrupt you for anything, but, you see—”
“Just give me the shortest version possible.”
Luca ventured ever so slightly further into the office, swallowed hard, and took a deep breath before continuing.
“President Gonzalez is here.”
Marceline froze, forkful of pasta still in her hand, suspended halfway between plate and mouth, but only for a moment.
“Tell Madam President and her staff,” she said, setting her fork down slowly, remarkably betraying none of the adrenaline that had started pumping through her body, “that I will meet them shortly.”
Luca turned on her heel and hastily retreated from the room. When the door shut, Marceline let out a breath that she had not realized she had been holding. She told herself that she did not have to scramble. This was just like Erika Gonzalez to do the unexpected, but Marceline had not become the Chief Deputy Prosecutor for nothing. She dabbed at her face with a napkin, adjusted her shirt, and left to go downstairs.
Arriving at the spacious main lobby, where visitors to the ICC were ushered inside, she was unsurprised and equally displeased to spy the former president engrossed in a conversation on her phone. She seemed to have noticed Marceline approach out of the corner of her eye, but neither turned her head nor finished her conversation, choosing instead to hold up a single finger in Marceline’s general direction. It was a gesture that the young prosecutor knew was intended to put her in her place, to remind her that even as a former president with no official power, Erika Gonzalez was the one who remained in the position of dominance. That was all about to change.
“Ok, yes, au revoir. Very sorry about that, Marceline,” she said, ending the call. “The work continues and it appears I’ll be making a trip to Belgium when everything is finished here. I thought it was going to get so much easier when I left office, but it’s been very nearly the exact opposite.”
Her tone had that breezy air that so many politicians spent too much time trying to master; Erika was one of the very few who had achieved such a level of success in the endeavor that it was impossible to tell whether she was being genuine. Marceline knew the woman too well to be duped, but she was willing to play the game.
“I can only imagine, Madam President. I would have been glad to show you to my office, but regretfully, the building renovation continues. It would have been an uncomfortable arrangement for the two of us and quite impossible to accommodate all your attorneys. If you’ll please follow me this way, I’ll show to the conference room that I’ve arranged for our use.”
The two women marched down one of the many corridors that shot out from the central atrium like so many spokes in a wheel. The time it took one to reach the terminus of any one such hallway served as a reminder that the wheels of justice turn slowly. Or so Marceline had mused to herself much earlier in her career. In reality, rather than an intentional nod toward long standing principles of justice, it was nothing more than an architectural afterthought, belonging to aesthetic rather than philosophical concerns.
“I didn’t bring any of them with me, in any event,” Erika said, finally breaking the silence. “My attorneys, that is. No need for them to come—and pad their bills, of course—is what I told them. They gave up the idea pretty quickly.”
“Oh, I see,” was Marceline’s only response. She had, in fact, expected to deal with an army of lawyers from all corners of the globe at some point. That day would undoubtedly come, but for today the president’s arrogant act of isolation could do nothing but help, Marceline thought.
“How long has it been since we’ve seen each other, Marceline? You came across when I sent off the Tellustria Mission, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I believe that must have been it.” The frontal assault on the subject of the prosecution was not lost on Marceline.
Arriving at their destination, the younger woman gave way to the older and held the door for her to enter. Marceline had selected this room on purpose. It was, in fact, one of the best of all the conference rooms in the complex. Although the building itself remained more or less where it had been for ages, the new renovation had afforded only limited vistas of the North Sea. Through a wall of windows one could just make out the shoreline and, on that particular day, the strip of sandy beach was alive with activity. The human fascination with waterfront amusements had never ceased puzzling Marceline.
Erika seated herself at one end of the table, positioning herself in the only seat that easily commanded a view of the sea as well as the rest of the room. This too, Marceline had expected. At the flip of a switch on the wall, the windows turned translucent, hiding the ocean but admitting the mid-morning sunlight. Erika’s mouth twitched a tiny note of dissatisfaction, but she gave no other indication of having noticed the change.
“When was it before that?” Erika asked as Marceline sat down across the table from her. “It must have been during my university days, right? You’ve grown up so much since then—I hope you don’t mind my saying. I remember it: graduation day. We sat on that lawn and talked until it was dark. I can’t help but think about how everyone there that day has gone on to greatness. But none of my other students have done as well for themselves as you have.”
She paused as she leaned back in her chair, trying to gauge her former student’s reaction, but Marceline betrayed nothing.
“There are even bigger things in store for you, Marceline. I can tell. I have a nose for these things.”
Erika Gonzalez possessed a quality that was ever a rarity in politicians: she knew when to shut up. And so she did.
“I presume you’ve had the opportunity to read the statement of facts that came with the summons?” Marceline began.
“Yes. Well, most of it, I think. I can’t say that I read it from cover to cover if that’s what you mean.”
Marceline had expected to be met with condescension, but everything about the exchange so far indicated that her former teacher regarded her as an equal. Even that, however, could be little more than a ruse. If the former president came on strongly as the all-wise expert who must dumb things down for her unqualified questioner, she must have calculated that Marceline would respond in kind and remain on edge. A seemingly softer approach would do far more to get her to let down her intellectual guard.
“Well?” Marceline asked. She let the question hang in the silence. It was a technique Erika had taught her and she had become quite good at using it, she thought.
After a few moments with nothing but the sound of the ventilation system Erika raised her eyebrows, cracked a smug little smile, folded her arms across her chest, and sat back in her chair. She couldn’t have told Marceline any more forcefully “I know what you’re up to” than if she had screamed directly into her former protege’s ear. Erika knew the silence game and played it better than anyone. In fact, she and the commander of the Space Force Mission to Tellustria had once sat across from one another in the AU Presidential Shuttle for nearly half an hour in total silence. She had gotten everything she wanted and he capitulated on a few things she hadn’t even thought of before.
The former president proved to have the stronger will again when Marceline broke the silence with a question.
“Do you remember—it was a graduate seminar, I think—when we discussed the Americans’ willingness to finally adopt the Rome Statute and come under the ICC as part of the plan for the American Union?”
Erika made neither sound nor motion. But Marceline could tell, thanks to those same long hours of discussion, when her teacher’s mind was firing up all its reactors.
“How did you put it, again?” Marceline paused briefly, but knew there would be no answer. “I think you said something like ‘There’s about as much political will to haul Americans off to The Hague now as there’s ever going to be and no sheet of paper will change that.’ Was that it?”
A lesser figure than Erika would have been glaring by now; she was fuming, but kept it inside. Marceline, however, knew the buttons to push. She let the silence settle in again.
Several minutes passed before Marceline opened the folder she had been carrying with her, placed it on the table, and passed it across.
“You know what those are,” she asserted.
“It looks like a pile of rubble,” Erika sneered.
Marceline ignored the comment and continued: “Those are the cultural monuments discovered on Tellustria by the Space Force. They prove the existence not only of alien inhabitants, but also a civilization. Your mercenaries destroyed them and now there will be accountability.”
Erika snorted out the most condescending chuckle she could muster. “This? This is why you summoned me to come halfway around the world?” She shoved the folder back across the table. “Some grainy drone photos that someone stole off a computer—or just made up to get their informant’s bounty—and wild speculation about an alien civilization?”
Erika stopped, expecting, as her former student likewise had, that no response would be forthcoming. She pushed her chair back from the table and rose.
“Well, if that’s all, I’ll be going.” She started to head for the door. “The shuttle pilot planned our flight for a little later today and the beaches just look too nice—”
Marceline rose and keyed a four-digit code into the pad next to the door, which whooshed shut in an instant.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Madam President. I’m ordering that you be detained pending trial.”
The unconcerned look on her face and the breezy tone of Erika’s voice dropped abruptly.
“This will end badly for you.”
Erika slapped the door with her hand to punctuate her sentence, which had been like a blast of arctic air followed by a volcanic eruption. Marceline had wanted to draw her out and had succeeded, but she had wanted to do it without playing her trump card. Erika sat down at the table and composed herself.
“I want to talk to Hassan. Do you want me to wait here or can we walk together up to his office?”
“He’s not here,” Marceline lied, knowing perfectly well that Hassan Rahman, the Prosecutor himself—the only person to whom she was immediately and directly accountable—had returned to The Hague the night before. She pondered whether Erika was bluffing. “Wait here,” she said.
The young prosecutor stepped into the hallway, leaving Erika to her thoughts and to what the former president assumed was a bank of cameras and other surveillance devices. That was, after all, exactly what she would have done if the situation had been reversed; she’d have had her subject’s body temperatures and perspiration levels transmitted directly to her brain if she thought it would give her an advantage. The threat of incarceration, however, was a threat she had not anticipated. Manufacturing a hopeless investigation against the most powerful woman in human history certainly would have put anyone on the fast track to fame and power of her own, but an actual arrest—as if Erika were some common criminal or some sub-Saharan warlord from the ICC’s earliest days—was an overreach and a tremendous political miscalculation. Perhaps Marceline would not turn out to be the star pupil that Erika had once believed she would eventually become.
She drummed her fingers on the table as she waited, irritated that she was being held up from her other activities more than anything else. Nevertheless, she was optimistic that with every moment that Marceline remained away, the chances increased that the cause of her absence was that she was being verbally reprimanded for abusing her authority and potentially damaging the reputation of the ICC. A scandal of that sort would be just the sort of distraction that would suit Erika’s purposes very neatly. The investigation would crowd the newsfeeds for a few days, Marceline would be publicly disgraced, the controversy about the controversy would become the hot story, and then everything would return to normal after a quiet dismissal of the investigation. It would all be no more than a nearly imperceptible blip on the way to securing her legacy for good.
Marceline re-entered the room without saying a word and switched on the video screen that took up most of the wall opposite Erika. Hassan Rahman’s dour face appeared, though it was obvious that he was trying to force himself to smile. Marceline had persuaded him that he need not come downstairs in person, but was unable to persuade him that his involvement was unnecessary.
“President Gonzalez, it’s been too long. I’m sorry our seeing one another again comes under these circumstances.”
“Can we just cut the—” Erika censored herself with a great effort. If she’d only been in her private space at the Harris Room . . . oh, what she would have told him then.
“Let’s just get right to the point, Hassan.”
Marceline only half-suppressed a scoffing snort. She remembered that one of Erika’s recurring tactics was to refer to everyone, even her superiors, in the same informal way. It was completely unbecoming of someone with the former president’s position and influence, but Erika had never seemed to care, no matter how hard those around her cringed. It worked (or seemed to) and that was all she cared about.
“You and I both know that this fever dream of an investigation your upstart is stumbling after is going exactly nowhere and it’s arriving there at light speed. When the end comes, the only thing to be found will be a giant black hole that will suck in her career and maybe yours too. So why don’t you do the right thing here and take care of this so I can get back to the AU tonight and we can all just get on with our lives.”
Ever the diplomat, Marceline thought, Hassan Rahman was not a man who was easily provoked and he did not reciprocate Erika’s defiant air.
“President Gonzalez,” he began, placing a subtle yet noticeable emphasis on the title, “please believe me when I say that I can understand your frustration. Of course, the only concern of the ICC is to see that justice is served in all human endeavors. I assure you that we would never sanction a shoddy investigation that could lead to any miscarriage of justice.”
The Prosecutor paused briefly and Erika narrowed her eyes, trying to work out where he might have been going with that preliminary rhetorical fluff. Her invitation to get to the point had gone unheeded.
“I am afraid, however, that you are in no position to be making demands. My Chief Deputy Prosecutor has determined that there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation. I appointed her to her present office precisely because she has shown herself to be absolutely trustworthy in these matters. The investigation will proceed and please be advised that any further attempts on your part to secure the dismissal of the investigation outside the legal procedures of the Court will be dealt with accordingly.”
Both Erika and Marceline remained motionless, neither wanting to betray any emotion or reaction to the other.
“Nevertheless,” Rahman continued, “any suggestion that you should be remanded to custody would be premature. We will allow you to reside at any place of your choosing within the EU and your location will be monitored.”
“Fine. I’ll stay at my husband’s summer home outside Antwerp. My assistant will send you the location.” She continued, trying but failing to keep the sarcasm from dripping off her words, as she rose from her chair. “You won’t be detaining me for further interrogation? I presume, then, that I’m free to go? ”
The Prosecutor responded with a simple “Yes.”
The video screen, however, did not immediately turn off when Erika left the room.
“Come upstairs so we can keep talking,” Rahman said and only then did the feed switch off.
The earlier conversation in the corridor had been less than pleasant. The embarrassment to which she was subjected in front of the woman she once regarded as the ultimate hero made her dread the conversation that was to come after she rode the lift up to the Prosecutor’s office. The ride seemed much shorter than usual, but as she stepped off onto the building’s top floor she scolded herself for the last lingering bit of apprehension that clung to her thoughts.
She was no mere token appointment; she had earned her position and one day she would be sitting on the other side of the desk in the grandiose office to which she had been summoned. Her foothold in the halls of power was secure and only growing moreso. Head held high in defiance, she knocked twice on the Prosecutor’s door before entering. “Let him do his worst,” she thought.
“What was that?” Rahman began.
The tone, however, was far more fatherly than accusatory. He had always been that way and it tended to be disarming in a way that affected Marceline, so unusual it seemed, coming from a man in his position. She considered it, however, a weakness she would not replicate when her chance came.
“It was the opening act of the most important prosecution in the history of the ICC.”
“Oh,” was his only response.
“Think about what’s at stake here. First, it’s a prosecution of an American President. Yes, she’s out of office now and it can’t have quite the same sting as if they’d been caught back in the days when the United States wore every violation of international law like some bloody badge of honor, but it’s still significant. For too long, the ICC was the body that seemed to only go after African men. It nearly destroyed our reputation and this case can undo all of that.”
Rahman scratched behind his ear, but said nothing.
“Second,” Marceline continued, declaiming her argument almost exactly how she had learned to do it in law school. “Second, is that this case is a perfect vehicle for expanding the Court’s jurisdiction from here to the stars. We can show the world that they cannot escape our reach even if they succeed in fleeing the planet entirely.”
The Prosecutor leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers together and putting them behind his head as he gazed out the office’s ostentatious skylight. Marceline hated when Rahman did that. Not only did the posture make him look criminally casual, but it was his characteristic deep thinking position that was often followed by a raft of reasons her course of action was wrong or inadvisable or “not feasible under the current political climate.”
“Marceline, do you remember what I told you was the most important thing that the ICC does? It was the final interview before you were appointed to the Prosecutor’s office.”
“You said that ‘Justice, and only justice, will always be our highest aim,’ I think.”
“Precisely. Do you realize that the word ‘justice’ hasn’t left your mouth since the moment you walked in my door?”
He paused, allowing the point to reverberate in both of their minds.
“You’re right that this Court has had the reputation of a purely political organization for a very long time. I don’t know whether this case of yours will change that. But I will tell you this: the moment it becomes apparent to me that this investigation is anything other than a pursuit of justice, I’ll shut it down faster than you’ve ever seen me move.”
“I understand,” Marceline was able to get out, without too obviously gritting her teeth as she did so.
“I have to admit that, at a glance, I can understand why President Gonzalez would be upset. The evidence you seem to have up to this point seems a little thin. Can you assure me that you’ll shore this up before moving forward with a full prosecution.”
“You have my absolute guarantee on that. I’ll do whatever it takes.”