The False Infinite (part 6)
Interplanetary travel turned out to be something less than the adventure that Marceline had imagined it would be. To her relief, however, it turned out to be rather a bit shorter in duration than she had expected. That gave her more time for her investigation and so was worth the violent bouts of space sickness that racked her digestive system. Whether she had successfully concealed her discomfort from the crew and the other passengers (made up almost exclusively of a new crop of AU Space Force recruits) she was not quite sure. Before she had very long to obsess over that question they had arrived.
All of the information about Tellustria was filtered through government channels and, consequently, untold layers of censors. The accounts of first arrival, therefore, read like a typical press release that had been adapted from a dry military after action report. Works of literature they most certainly were not.
As a result, Marceline was all but totally unprepared for the experience of stepping out of the encapsulated environment of the ship and into alien air for the first time—no alien ground being immediately available since it had been converted to a sort of tarmac for the landing pad. Later, after her return, Luca asked her to describe the experience, saying, “Of course, I understand if it’s too vague to describe with words.” Marceline had paused before answering: “Actually—and I don’t think I totally grasp this myself—I think it’s almost the exact opposite. What I saw and felt when I stepped off the ship is too exact and definite a thing; it’s the words that are too vague. Does that make sense?” Luca merely shrugged.
A private (or corporal or some other rank she only marginally recognized) brought her bag and laid it at her feet as she stood gazing into the distance. A deep, baritone voice jolted her out of contemplation.
“Madame Gagnon, your quarters are this way. We have to clear the landing pad quickly. I can take your bag for you if you like.”
“I can manage, but thank you . . . I’m afraid I don’t know your name. I’m sorry.”
“Mission Specialist Liaison for Public Relations Eddy Dinwiddie, Ma’am. I’ll be your ‘guide’, so to speak.”
“Thank you. I hope ‘Specialist Dinwiddie’ will suffice?”
“Of course,” he said, as they began to walk toward a neatly-organized grid of buildings.
The young man’s voice, Marceline thought, matched almost nothing else about his appearance. Upon first hearing him, she had expected to turn and look up into his face, but rather was forced to cast her gaze slightly downward, finding that he was, perhaps, as much as 15 centimeters shorter than herself. In addition, he was what she could only describe as very plain—not ugly, per se, but decidedly homely. Even his walk failed to exude confidence and it began to puzzle Marceline that such a person would ever be called upon to work in public relations. The mystery, however, was removed when they arrived at her room and he slipped by referring to the Mission Commander as “Uncle Grant,” rather than by his rank. Nepotism, it seemed, had slipped the surly bonds of Earth (as the old saying went) right along with all the equipment and personnel. She concluded that some things would never really change, no matter how far humanity expanded its reach across the heavens.
The “Unlikely PR Guy” (as she cataloged him in her brain) left her with instructions on how to access her itinerary on the room’s frustratingly small console screen. She noted the first few items, including her meeting with “Uncle Grant” (who was otherwise known as Mission Commander Dinwiddie) and disregarded the rest. She was going to do her investigating her way; no one would dictate terms, even if this was nominally a military mission.
Half an hour later she found herself seated in what she thought must have been the most atypical room on the entire planet. Her temporary quarters would have been cramped even for a maintenance closet back at the ICC, she thought. The corridors and doorways she passed through on the way to Dinwiddie’s office had likewise been strictly utilitarian; she was skeptical about just how much utility they provided given their dimensions. The Mission Commander’s office, however, had turned out to be something altogether different. In many ways it reminded her of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office back in The Hague. Wide, double doors opened into a capacious room in which the centerpiece, set against the far wall of tall windows, was a desk that seemed almost larger than life. “Unlikely PR Guy” held the door as Marceline entered and she noticed that he conspicuously tried to avoid eye contact with the man who rose from behind the desk to greet her.
“Ah, you’re here! Come in, please, Madame Gagnon. I had Eddy bring us in some refreshments earlier.” He gestured toward a pair of sofa-like seats, between which was a low table that appeared to be carved out of some kind of nearly black wood she had never seen before.
“I suppose I should introduce myself,” he said, before offering a polite bow and the half-salute that had become customary between AU military officers and foreign dignitaries. “I am Mission Commander Grant Dinwiddie. It’s an honor to have the Chief Deputy Prosecutor of the ICC pay us a visit.”
“Thank you, Commander,” Marceline said, returning his gesture and seating herself on the edge of one of the sofas with her back to the door. “I am afraid, of course, that the purpose of my visit is far from a social call or a pleasure tour.”
“Naturally, naturally. The notification from your office, however, didn’t give us much in the way of detail. I gather that you are here on some kind of investigative matter, but can you tell me more than that?”
“I can certainly appreciate your desire to keep up with what’s going on at your base, Commander, but I’m not at liberty to discuss the details of the investigation. I’m sure you can understand.”
“Of course. We certainly want to give you our full cooperation and I simply assumed that I would be able to help you better if I had at least a general idea of what you were looking for.”
“Yes, and better able to cover up for the President too,” Marceline thought. “To begin with, I’ll need access to the Transparency and Accountability Reporting System to identify the witnesses that I need to contact.”
“Ah. I’m afraid that’s just about the only area where I can’t help you. I have no access to the TARS information. Can’t really be effective for accountability if the top brass are allowed to look at who’s reporting what—or so they tell me. To be completely honest, I don’t even know what kind of access you might be able to get. For that you’ll have to talk to my security chief. I’ll just send her a quick note that she should expect to see you soon?”
“I would appreciate that. Thank you.”
Marceline and her host exchanged other pleasantries for the next half hour or so. He supplied her with some “behind the scenes” details of the latest scientific work going on, but it was nothing she probably could not have found out on her own with a little digging. Exploring the Tellustrian crust for rare earth metals turned out not to be quite the dramatic saga that the Mission Commander must have made it out to be in his own mind.
They rose in unison when she decided to take her leave. “And allow me, please, to reiterate that you do have our full cooperation. If you need anything at all, you know how to contact me.”
“Yes, thank you,” Marceline said, though internally a doubt about the contents of the “quick note” to the security chief lingered in her mind. If she were going to stonewall an investigation, it would have made a lot of sense to put on a convincing outward show of cooperation.
Before she could fully develop a strategy for breaching any potential walls, Unlikely PR Guy had escorted her to the office of Chief of Mission Security, Lieutenant Commander Venus Huntington. From her university days Marceline remembered that planetary names had become something of a fad in America for a time. The scientific and technological leap to interplanetary travel had generated quite the interest in space, but it had not, in her experience, run parallel to a corresponding increase in the quality of her fellow students. Out of the many “Venuses” and “Jupiters” with whom she had shared a classroom or lecture hall over the years, none had left an impression through the force of their intellectual qualities. Thus it was that, quite involuntarily, she entered the office with a noticeable air of condescension.
“Madame Gagnon, please come in. I am Lieutenant Commander Venus Huntington. The Mission Commander says that I might be able to help you?”
Marceline seated herself across from the security chief in the room’s only other chair. Compared to Dinwiddie’s office, the room into which she had just stepped was downright bare. It puzzled her that a person of such seeming importance would be effectively stowed away in a corner.
“Yes, thank you, Lieutenant Commander. I don’t know to what extent the Mission Commander has already made you aware, but the International Criminal Court has initiated an investigation based on information received through your base’s anonymous reporting system. I’m here to follow up on that initial report.”
“He informed me, yes, but didn’t seem to want to get into the details. He often takes that approach to these matters, allowing him to focus on the big picture of the mission. Nevertheless, I gather that your investigation must be the one involving President Gonzalez that we’ve seen on the newsfeed?”
“Former President Gonzalez and yes, but I’m not at liberty to say much more than that.”
“What can I do to help?”
“I need to speak with the informant. Can you pull that information from the TARS database?”
The security chief rubbed her forehead, drawing Marceline’s attention to the faint crows feet beginning to form around the woman’s eyes. This had not been her first mission for the AU Space Force, but she seemed to be pondering whether it might be her last.
She looked up and said, “I’m afraid not.”
Marceline was about to unleash her indignance, but caught herself when Huntington held up a finger. With her other hand she typed in some sort of code on her handheld device before speaking again.
“We can speak freely now. This office is monitored by probably as many intelligence agencies as you could care to think of, but a little bug and a little code give us a couple minutes where it’ll seem like static to them, so listen carefully. I can’t look up the name. That takes a signed order from the Minister of Science and—well, that’s not going to happen. Every time I pull information from that system it's logged and I don’t have a way around that. In your case, none of that really matters because everyone knows who made that report. There’s only one human on this planet with the guts to do it: Paul Edson-Woods, the lead xenobotanist, not-so-affectionately known as Chief Gardening Officer to most of the rest of the mission.”
Huntington swiped a map of the base from her handheld to the display screen on the wall beside them.
“You can find him here,” she said, pointing out his laboratory, “or, more likely, in the field. I suggest you be discreet.”
She held up her finger again, punched more numbers into her handheld, and continued.
“As I said, Madame Gagnon, I’m very sorry that you came all this way and that I couldn’t be more helpful. Let me show you out and assure you that we wish you nothing but the best in the pursuit of your investigation.”
They rose in unison as the security chief extended a hand toward the door. As Marceline reached the threshold, Huntington grasped her by the back of her upper arm and as Marceline turned to look back, Huntington looked directly into her eyes and said, “Good luck.”
The next morning, Marceline set out to the xenobotanist’s lab and found that he was already out in the field to collect samples. She checked out a cart in her name and, with a little persuasion, was able to convince the garage manager to let her take a look at the screen that showed the locations of all the carts that were out for use. She noted the last location of Edson-Woods and mentally plotted a course for getting there as quickly as possible.
The alien landscape was hard for Marceline to describe even in her own mind. Pulling out from the vehicle garage onto the main road that ran away from the base, the vast plain that seemed to go on forever reminded her simultaneously of a desert and of the finely manicured lawns she had seen in picture books of old European country estates. Yet somehow it was not quite either of those things—at least not in the sense that she meant them. She came over a low rise in the road and could just spy in the distance the inky sea of trees that had been dubbed “the Black Forest.” Technically, the forest lay beyond the destination that she had charted for herself, but it was into that sylvan darkness she must go to reach her true destination.
The drive took the better part of an hour and when she arrived she was disappointed to see only Edson-Woods’ cart, but not the Chief Gardening Officer himself. Marceline parked her cart next to his and stepped out onto ground that was at once confusing and fascinating. She was no xeonbotanist, but still the spongy softness of the ground captivated her attention. Squatting down, she scooped up a handful of what appeared to all intents and purposes to be dirt as plain as any one might find back on earth, but the sensation under her feet was far more like what she would have expected if she had been on top of the fluffy mattress of a fancy Paris hotel. She bounced on her heels slightly, testing the novel phenomenon.
“We haven’t quite figured that part out yet,” said a voice from behind her.
Startled slightly, she whipped around on her heels, but lost her balance, tipping over onto the forest floor.
“Danny, can you help her up? My hands are full,” came the voice again.
A hand reached out to Marceline, assisting her back to her feet. She began to dust herself off, but was surprised to find that all but a few isolated clumps of the “dirt” had already fallen back to the ground.
“Weird, right?” asked the man who had helped her up. He appeared to be about Marceline’s age, but was considerably taller and lankier. Close-cropped blonde hair was so light that it almost disappeared in the sunlight. “I’m Danny by the way—oh, I mean, Mission Specialist Assistant to the Chief Science Officer for Xenobotany Daniel McArdan.” He added a polite “Ma’am” as an afterthought.
“Thank you for your help, Mission Specialist. Perhaps you can help me with something else? I’m looking for your direct superior, Chief Science Officer for Xenobotany Edson-Woods. Is he working nearby?”
“That’s him right over there, ma’am. But we weren’t expecting any visitors.”
“Oh, I’ve forgotten to introduce myself, haven’t I? My name is Marceline Gagnon; I’m the Chief Deputy Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court.”
Danny’s eyes got noticeably larger as he began to understand the situation. “Well, I have some work to finish up, but if you need anything I’ll be just over there.” Even as he said it, Marceline could tell that what he had really wanted to say had been something more like “I hope I never have to speak to you again for any official reasons.”
Marceline approached the cart where the man she had gone there to see continued working along steadily, paying her no attention at all. It appeared that he was loading up some kind of plant samples that he had been collecting. In her mind, he didn’t fit the description of the chief officer of anything for such an important scientific expedition. He must have been in the neighborhood of fifty, she judged, owing to his salt-and-pepper hair that covered his head, though it had thinned out only a very little. Gray stubble covered his chin, causing Marceline to wonder how he could get away without shaving for what looked like a week (and to wonder how lax military regulations had become on Tellustria). She could not have said why, but for some reason she had imagined he would be taller; as it was, he seemed to stand no taller than her own 1.7 meters. Yet in spite of his unimpressive stature and his slow, deliberate movements, she was struck by the sense that he could have moved very quickly if the need had ever arisen (not unlike a cat waiting to pounce).
“Are you Paul Edson-Woods?” she began.
“Indeed, I am,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the last few samples he was loading into the back of the cart. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“In fact, yes, there is. As you may have heard me tell your assistant—”
“Yes, I heard. You’re here from the ICC. I should have known the system wasn’t really anonymous,” he said, sliding a small tub of soil to the back of the cart with a little more force than seemed necessary.
Marceline ignored the jab at the system and continued. “If you would just spare me a few minutes of your time, it would go a long way toward justice in this case. I think that’s what you want; I know it’s what I want.”
“Look, uh, Madame . . .”
“Gagnon,” she helpfully supplied.
“Right. Here’s the thing, Madame Gagnon. I have a lot of work to do here, as you can see. I already reported what I thought needed to be reported. Make your case out of that and let me get back to science; that’s why I’m here.”
Marceline reminded herself that she had not come that far to be brushed off so easily. “I know that you know what a significant case this is. It only ends at the top, with Erika Gonzalez herself. We have to show that everyone is subject to the same laws.”
“We? No, there is no we here, Madame Gagnon.” Paul rubbed his brow then scratched his chin before letting out a long sigh and going back to his work. “Danny, is this all of them?”
“Yes, boss,” the younger man called from a short distance away.
“I’ll stop by your laboratory when we get back to the base. Even if you don’t care very much about doing the right thing for the sake of justice, perhaps you’ll feel a little sympathy for someone who has to answer up the chain of command, so to speak.”
It was a weak hand to have to play, she knew, but Marceline was determined not to leave her mission without something to show for it.
“Do what suits you, I suppose, but just don’t keep me from doing my work. That’s all I have left to hope for on this planet and that’s all I really want. I don’t stick my nose in other people’s business and I’ve been regretting that report ever since the day I filed it. It’s just—” He cut himself off and looked down at the ground before continuing. “Just give us a couple hours to get back and unload and catalogue these samples. Can you at least do that for me?”
“Certainly, Teammate Edson-Woods,” Marceline said with her best “smile for the newsfeed cameras” smile.
Paul took a breath as if he were about to say something, but then let it out with an almost imperceptible sigh and went back to his work.
A few hours later, Marceline again found herself at the office/laboratory of the Chief Science Officer for Xenobotany. This time, however, it was quite different. Where before she could only peer in through thick glass to a dark room, she now found a room alive with activity and with the most concentrated mass of alien life she had so far encountered—all of it, naturally, plant life. She noticed this time that the far end of the lab appeared to be some kind of greenhouse, separated from the rest of the work area by sheets of translucent plastic that reminded her of the material used in the nursery on her uncle’s vineyard back in the Loire Valley. As she entered, she saw that the corner to her left was taken up by a small desk that was disheveled out of all proportion to its size with papers (diagrams and drawings, or so they appeared) and small jars of soil. A portable electron microscope (the same sort Marceline remembered using in her few required science classes at university) sat in the middle of the desk, ready to examine some sample that was impossible to make out in the absence of closer examination.
Edson-Woods and his assistant emerged from the greenhouse area and began washing up at a small sink, taking no notice of her. When they finished, Paul greeted Marceline and shuffled a stack of papers from the desk to the floor, seating himself on the edge and offering Marceline the chair. “Danny,” he said, “we’re done for the day. You can head out and I’ll close up when Madame Gagnon and I are done talking.”
A few minutes later they found themselves alone and Paul started to say, “Now Madame Gagnon, as I said—”
She cut him off, though somehow it didn’t seem rude when she did it.
“Why don’t I go first, Paul? Do you mind if I call you ‘Paul’?”
He shrugged and waited.
“As I started to say earlier today, we both know that there has been an injustice committed here on Tellustria. As much as it lies with me, I want to see that that injustice is paid for. Now, in your report, you said that you were certain that the structures that were destroyed were, in fact, structures that could only have been built by intelligent life, is that right?”
Paul stared at the floor and rubbed the back of his neck before speaking.
“Madame Gagnon, I’ll answer any questions you care to ask me—though my gut tells me that’ll bring nothing but pain. I have nothing to hide, mind you, but it would be the pain of magnifying the most inconvenient parts of what I already go through on a daily basis here. Before we talk, however, I need you to understand a few things.”
“Of course,” Marceline said.
She would have said anything at that point if she had thought it would keep him talking. In the back of her mind, however, she had no idea where he was going and that was a position no prosecutor ever wanted to be in. Rather, it was the very fear she thrived on creating in others.
“You’re a lawyer, so I know you’re supposed to be good with words, but the way you’re talking about all this makes me sick to my stomach. Structures ‘were destroyed.’ There ‘has been an injustice.’ You want to make sure ‘that injustice is paid for.’ Maybe all that passive voice works in a legal brief; I have no idea. But to me—to someone who saw all the destruction—it stinks like the latrine.”
Marceline pursed her lips and half-suppressed a scowl, but she didn’t interrupt his rant.
“We’ve jumped across the galaxy, sure, but we still haven’t quite figured out how to make a toilet smell like a bed of roses. So please spare me the ‘things were done’ nonsense. No. Some of the men and women that I came here with gave orders to other men and women to destroy the remnants of an alien civilization—some of the only evidence of life on this planet—and not only did they carry out those orders, but they did it without hesitation. You’ll leave all of them alone because they were ‘just following orders’ and there’s no one out here to tell us we’re the villains in the story.”
“That’s a pretty cynical view of what I’m trying to do, don’t you think, Paul?”
“Maybe it is. But I’m long past the point of denying reality just to avoid being called a cynic.”
“So where does that leave us? You said you would answer my questions.”
“And I will, but I want you to understand one more thing.” Here he pointed back toward the greenhouse area. “There are potted plants back there—most of which will die in a matter of days because I’m still learning how to take care of them—that mean far more to me than your brand of so-called ‘justice.’ I’m under no delusion that there will be anything like real justice that comes out of your case—out of your court—but if it’s the best that I can get, I suppose I’ll just have to take it.”
At first, Marceline was speechless. This was not at all what she had expected out of someone who took the trouble to become a whistleblower in the midst of the largest and grandest space expedition humanity had ever proposed or attempted. What could have radicalized him and embittered him so thoroughly was lost on her. For the moment, however, it didn’t really matter. She filed her curiosity away for another time and refocused her attention on the task at hand.
“I think I understand,” she said, as sincerely as she could and she very nearly meant it.
Paul slapped his hand on both legs. “Let’s get it over with, then. What else do you want to know?”