The False Infinite (part 2)
Back in January I posted a portion of a new science fiction novella, The False Infinite. If you didn’t catch that sneak peak, you can read it here:
I’m making the rest of the story available at “The Tidewater Papers” first to paid subscribers, but if you like the previews, click over to Amazon and get the rest in ebook, paperback, or hardback along with some of my other short fiction (including one all-new short story). Free subscribers will get access to these six weeks later.
The room was hers. It ought to be, considering how much she and her family had paid for it over the years. But that night, as the last of the staff exited, leaving Erika Gonzalez with only her thoughts to keep her company, this little enclave in the bowels of the Harris Room felt more especially hers than ever before. She sunk back into the comfortable chair and closed her eyes as she let out a deep sigh, one that seemed as if she had been holding it in since the first day of her political career.
The staff had left her a bottle of their newest red wine, supposedly made from grapes cultivated from a hybrid varietal that was created exclusively under the domes of the lunar colony. As she swirled it in her glass she pondered just how different it could actually be from the bottles of wine that had been generously flowing earlier that evening at the reception after the opening of the Erika Gonzalez Presidential Library. If it had been left up to Erika she would have skipped the whole affair and perhaps would have skipped construction of the library altogether.
Before she could put the glass to her lips, however, there was a light tapping on the door. The tapping was followed almost immediately by the entry of a petite, gray-haired woman who looked more suited for some medieval piece of advertising (“mail-order catalogues,” Erika remembered from a university anthropology class) than for the most exclusive private women’s club on the west coast of the American Union, hundreds of years after anyone expected “pretty little housewives in pearls” to amuse themselves with “state of the art” dishwashing machines and other such “wonders” of “modern domestic life.”
“I’m not interrupting you,” croaked the woman, blurting it out as something more like a command than a question.
“Of course not, Henrietta. I was just about to try this new wine from the lunar colony. Would you care for a small glass?”
The woman held her hand up in front of her face, tinkling the ice cubes in a glass that contained something too dark and too brown to be the new lunar wine.
“Oh, dearie, no—excuse me, President Dearie—I watched the first five minutes of that opening ceremony and had to reach straight for the good stuff.”
Erika chuckled and reached for her own glass as Henrietta seated herself in the nearest chair. She tossed her hair, braided halfway down her back, over her shoulder and took a sip of her drink.
No one talked to Erika that way—no one, that is, except for Henrietta Drummond. The old woman had (at least in her own mind) earned the right. The heiress to one of the largest tech fortunes in history, she had never been content to rest on her laurels. She could have been where Erika was now, but chose a different path, preferring to exert influence through more indirect, but no less effective means. She had married well too, a fact that never seemed to be omitted from any of her conversations with Erika. Her husband, Lionel Drummond, had been dubbed “the John Smith of space exploration” by some news outlet and it had not been meant as a compliment. Nevertheless, the achievements that had earned him the ignominious moniker gave both him and his wife access to the halls of power and they had not failed to take every opportunity afforded them. For him, it had meant appointment to countless government boards and advisory committees and even a successful run for European Parliament.
For Henrietta it had meant none of those specific things, but it had meant being on her husband’s elbow at all the most important times. Erika had long since learned that any suggestion that Henrietta had missed her chance to make a name for herself was met with disgust. “It counts more to be the one making the headlines than it does to be the one only named in them, dearie,” she would always say, never failing to tack on what she must have thought of as a term of endearment. Henrietta (for she would accept no nicknames) was the closest thing Erika had to a mentor. When she spoke, even the most politically-powerful woman in the world was compelled either to listen or to bare her own soul. In truth, however, Erika felt a sense of relief rather than compulsion: Henrietta had been more of a mother to her than even her own mother had ever truly been. A friend that sticks closer than a mother, she thought, or however that old saw went.
“What do you want to know?”
“Well, if you watched the first few minutes then you already have a good gauge on how the rest of the event went. The speeches were disgustingly glowing in their praise of me; I hardly recognized the person they were talking about. I, of course, had to give a speech also and it was short, just like you suggested. I think it went over well enough.”
Henrietta polished off the last of her drink before asking “And after?”
Erika took a sip of her wine before continuing. The lunar wine seemed to have something of a bitter aftertaste, fitting for what she was about to describe.
“The reception was held on the veranda outside, which, for all the shortcomings of the library, is really quite lovely. But that was the evening’s only redeeming quality. They let anyone with a cryptowallet into these things, apparently. All the worst sorts: greasy solar cell business magnates who think they’ve made it to the big time, videostreamer political influencers who think clicks on their videos mean anything real, and on and on. They line up to get in my face and tell me how much I’ve meant to them and I just have to stand there and take it from these people who don’t even realize how utterly unimportant their individual lives are. If someone had told me about all of this before I got into politics . . .”
“Oh, the poor dear, she’s all worn out from having to mingle with the unwashed masses.” Henrietta threw her head back and let out a sound that was half laugh and half shriek. “Maybe I will try some of that moon stuff you have there. Pass me a glass.”
Erika dutifully obeyed and tried not to show any change in expression as Henrietta poured herself a glass of wine too full for a woman even half her age. She took a large gulp of the stuff before declaring, “This is dreadful,” and then proceeded to drink even more. “What about that lurker? What was his name? The upstart new Minister of Science.”
“Carl Lennon? Yes, he was there,” Erika replied. “He seemed to be mere inches away every time I turned around. He’s just persistent enough to make a perfect nuisance of himself to me, but not so much as to backfire on his plan. Anyone with half a brain knows he’s angling for the presidential nomination and he knows well what my endorsement would do for his prospects. I wasn’t that obsequious when I was climbing the ladder, was I?”
“You, dearie? Of course not!” Henrietta paused, but Erika knew that more was coming. “But it would have been a lot harder for you if men didn’t melt into puddles in the presence of your cover girl looks!”
Henrietta always seemed to be very amused any time that she could bring up Erika’s looks. For her part, Erika always tried to pretend that she didn’t hear. She had gotten where she was because she was the consummate politician. She maneuvered her way to the top; she hadn’t slept her way there.
“So the lurker was being his usual self, but what did he say? He’s an odd duck, but he’s more astute than you give him credit for, Erika.”
When Henrietta addressed her as “Erika” rather than “dearie,” she knew the old woman was having a serious moment.
“He came back around to the mission on Tellustria several times. It’s well within his duties as Minister of Science, of course, but it seems to me that there should be other things in the front of his mind. That mission is on a fifty-year plan, not a five-year one. The political gain to be made from it was at the outset, not in the mundane middle years.”
Henrietta was almost to the bottom of her glass of wine when Erika saw her cut her eyes toward the door.
“Don’t just stand out there, young woman. Come in here.”
“Yes, Mrs. Drummond,” came a timid voice from just outside the half-open door. Erika saw that it was the young girl with the canary-yellow hair who usually worked at the front desk who stepped into the room. Her name escaped her at the moment.
“I’m sorry Madam President,” she began, the uncharacteristic quiver in her voice betraying her uncertainty. “I told them you wanted to be left alone, but—”
“Nonsense, girl!” Henrietta said, cutting her off. “The President has a standing request that I be admitted to see her at any time. Now, if you’ll excuse us—”
But then it was Henrietta who was the one to be cut off.
“Begging your pardon, Mrs. Drummond. We didn’t expect anyone else to be here.”
As two men stepped into the room, simultaneously all the oxygen seemed to be sucked out of it. It had taken half a dozen lawsuits and a special ordinance from the San Francisco City Council to maintain the status of the Harris Room as a women-only club, but they had done it at long last. Erika knew it must have been years since even so much as a male janitor had set foot inside their buildings. Now two well-dressed men had not only entered the building, but were tromping into her private room, totally uninvited. There was no way to understate just how irregular it was.
“Perhaps it would be better to do this in private, Madam President,” said the second man.
The front desk worker had already left the room, no doubt terrified at the prospect of losing her job and her reputation and a myriad of other items in the parade of horribles her mind had dreamt up in the last few moments.
“No, I think whatever business you have here can certainly be discussed without causing any further inconvenience to Mrs. Drummond, who is, as you know, rather elderly.”
Henrietta glared at Erika, dutifully playing the part of the offended, infirm matron.
“All right,” said the first man who, Erika now noticed, spoke with a slight accent, though she could not pinpoint its origin. Without asking he placed his briefcase on the room’s only table and fished out a stack of papers.
“This, Madam President,” he said as he handed her the document, “is a summons to appear before the International Criminal Court. I have a receipt to sign and then we’ll leave. Naturally, we’re obligated to tell you that a failure to appear on the date in the summons will result in the issuance of a warrant for your arrest.”
Good to their word, the men left after Erika had affixed her signature and fingerprint to their secure handheld. A copy, they had assured her, would be sent to the secure database of her choice.
Sinking back into her chair—and pouring another ample glass of wine—she flipped open the file and began to read, wondering indignantly what was the point of serving physical papers on her like that. Then again, as a politician, she almost had to admire the theatrics of it. Almost.
Henrietta watched as she read, scanning Erika’s face for any clues, but she betrayed nothing. She finished reading and passed the papers to Henrietta, letting out a long sigh as she did so.
“You know, dearie, sometimes it helps me to just let out a good swear word—the nastiest one you know at the top of your lungs. Go ahead. No one will say anything.”
Erika chuckled. “No, I’m not angry. This is funnier than anything else. Read it.”
“I could make up something about misplacing my spectacles, but let’s just cut to the chase and you summarize it for me.”
“It’s a war crimes investigation. They’re investigating me—or indicting me, I’m not entirely sure, not that it matters—for war crimes supposedly committed at my direction as part of the Tellustria mission.”
“Well, dearie, that’s . . .” the older woman trailed off and stared into her wine glass.
Erika laughed in spite of herself. “Why, Henrietta, I do believe this is the first time in my life I’ve ever seen you speechless.”
“I never was one for gallows humor; you know that.”
“But that’s just the thing. There’s nothing there. This is just someone at the ICC who got hold of some grainy pictures they know nothing about and who’s going to try to make their career on my name. They’re going to be disappointed, I assure you.”
“I’m sure, you’re right. Who is it? Anyone we know?”
“I didn’t even bother reading that far since the whole thing is perfectly ridiculous.”
Henrietta flipped to the last page of the file and handed it back to Erika, pointing to the bold signature at the bottom.
“Marceline Gagnon. Well I’ll be—” Then Erika took Henrietta up on her earlier advice about obscenities.