The False Infinite (part 7)
She had played along much longer than it had been reasonable for anyone (even the bumbling functionaries at the ICC) to expect the former President of the AU to play along, Erika told herself as she boarded the plane. Perhaps Marceline expected her to sit in her room, counting every day with a tick mark chalked on the wall like something out of the melodramatic story-reels that played on an endless loop on half a dozen or more entertainment feeds. She neither knew nor cared how many days it had been, and, in a certain sense, it didn’t matter. Until given permission to do so by the Chief Prosecutor himself, she was technically forbidden from leaving the EU.
Most people wouldn’t think that the ancient proverb that “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” applied to a house arrest order issued by the ICC, but Erika was confident she had never been (and never would be) “most people.” For “most people” getting in and out of the EU without detection was impossible—or even just moving around within the AU, for that matter. She greeted the pilot and crew, buckled into her seat, and settled her thoughts by pondering what outfit and backdrop “most people” would find most appealing when this was all over and all the magazines wanted her picture for their cover stories.
Mere hours later she awoke from an unintentional nap and found herself strangely refreshed. Though she refused to acknowledge any sign that she was aging, it ordinarily took her several minutes for the fog of sleep to clear. But on that bright summer morning she awoke with a totally clear head. Confrontation had thrilled her ever since she was a girl on the secondary school debate team. She gathered her bag, said goodbye to the crew, and walked out into the terminal.
“Madam President, is there anything we can do for you today?” a flight attendant asked as she stepped into the concourse.
It had always reminded Erika of one of the few remaining Gothic cathedrals in the EU. It was ironic, she thought, that the largest aerospaceport on the East Coast of the AU (one that was named for the first Transhumanist-Antitheist Party Mayor of Washington D.C.) had such a religious look and even feeling to it. Whatever the cause of the feelings that the place invoked in her, she paused for a moment to stand in the middle of the early morning commuter crowd and take in several deep breaths. Perhaps this functional space built by and for the purposes of the AU was all the cathedral she had ever needed. The thought fueled her inspiration to do what she had come to do.
Remembering the flight attendant and her own whereabouts she said, “Yes, if you could fetch me a demi-soy double latte from the cafe, that would be delightful.”
The flight attendant furrowed his brow momentarily, as if he were about to protest that the errand was beneath his position, but he looked away just as he began to roll his eyes and said, “Yes, of course, ma’am.” Erika watched with no more than mild interest as he scurried off to do her bidding.
She expected that Carl Lennon’s reaction would be much the same (worse, actually) when she confronted him. Henrietta was sure to laugh her little gray head off when Erika described it to her. Everything that Heinrich had told her back in the EU confirmed her conclusion that the Minister of Science had been making major moves to position himself for the presidency. The election was still more than two years away, but if he had decided that she was an enemy who could do nothing but harm his ambitions, it would make sense that he would want to take her “off the board” as soon as possible. Her endorsement would help no one if she were to be marked as a criminal. Still, what her conversation with Heinrich hadn’t revealed was how exactly he had leaked the information, who it had been inside the Tellustria Mission that was working with him.
The flight attendant returned with her coffee. She took a sip and reassured herself of her power of persuasion. Erika didn’t need to know exactly who he was working with: it was enough to know that he must be the culprit. He was climbing the political ladder, but he wasn’t made for these battles like she was and she was fully confident in her ability to force him to give up the information. It was already over and poor Carl would never see it coming.
Taking a private flight would have allowed her to skip the mundane baggage collection line in any event, but as it was she hadn’t bothered to pack a bag. She’d be back on another flight to Antwerp before the cumbersome bureaucratic apparatus of the ICC had time to move. Erika sat down at a table near one of the windows that looked out across a large field to one of the half dozen landing pads that (between suborbital passenger flights and lunar ferries) kept the place buzzing with activity. She sipped her drink and took in the scene.
It was the Explorer and it appeared to have landed fairly recently. Hovertrams where speeding to and from the concourse, laden with crew and supplies and (she assumed) scientific samples. It was one more poignant detail in a journey that seemed to be full of them. The Tellustria Mission was her legacy and she was there, back in the AU, to insure that her legacy survived untarnished.
“Madam President,” came a voice from behind her.
Erika swiveled around in her chair, bracing herself for the self-proclaimed lucky traveler who was sure to make a fool of herself by fawning over the world’s most famous politician. Instead of finding an admirer struck speechless in the presence of her greatness, it was Erika herself who was at a loss for words. There, standing in front of her, was Marceline Gagnon, in the company of another face she had not seen in years, but immediately recognized.
“What brings you to the capital, Madam President? I thought you were staying in Antwerp.”
The initial shock had worn off, but Erika remained silent, fixing her gaze over Marceline’s shoulder at her traveling companion.
“I see that you remember Mr. Edson-Woods. He tells me that he worked very closely with you as Minister of Science on the xenobotany research plan for the Tellustria Mission, is that right?”
“That’s a leading question, isn’t it, counselor?” Erika shot back. “But if you’re here with him, then you already know the answer, don’t you?” She stood up and grabbed her coffee as if she was about to leave. “I’m sorry she’s sucked you into this, Paul,” she said, as if Marceline were absent. “You really were the best scientist for the job. There was no politics in it when I tapped you to go. I just want you to know that.”
Paul nodded, but said nothing.
“Now, if you two will excuse me, I have business to attend to before I return to Antwerp.”
“I think you should give us a few minutes of your time, Madam President. I think you’ll want to hear what Mr. Edson-Woods has to say about your pending matter.”
“I sincerely doubt it,” she said with a scoff. “I don’t suppose you’ll be the one to clap me in irons and haul me back to the EU yourself?” She put her coffee and her bag back down on the table and the other two pulled up chairs.
“Show her,” Marceline said.
Paul set the small case he had been carrying on the table and opened it, then turned it so Erika could see the contents for herself.
“I give up,” she said. “What am I looking at and what on earth do you think it has to do with me?”
“Madam President, that is a small sample of Triticum aestivum obscurum. My assistant and I have just been calling it ‘dark wheat’ for short.”
“Is that supposed to mean something to me? Marceline,” she said, turning to the younger woman, “Please tell me that you didn’t ask Paul to come all the way across the galaxy to show me some alien grass. Aren’t you embarrassed by now?”
Marceline avoided eye contact and Erika pounced.
“You could have gone on to great things. President of the EU would have been within your reach. All that’s gone.”
“Tell her, Paul,” Marceline said, without looking up.
“You’re right, Madam President. I did not come all the way back to earth to show you some bits of alien grass. The alien cultural monuments that I discovered during one of my early research excursions are gone; that’s true. But those monuments aren’t the only proof that Tellustria was—and still is, I believe—inhabited by intelligent alien life.”
“Paul, you know that’s nonsense.” Erika sounded confident, but the glare in her eyes told a different story.
“You see, Madam President,” he continued, heedless of her hostile interjection, “on Earth, wheat was one of the first agricultural plants that was domesticated and cultivated by humans. Truly wild specimens of the grain have been exceedingly difficult to find for generations, but the botanical distinction between wild and cultivated varieties is still known and studied by us botanists.”
He paused for a moment, holding a single sprig of the dark wheat up to the sun that was pouring in through the wide windows, with the Explorer looming in the background.
“That day of destruction is seared into my memory—the best evidence ever of non-human intelligent life destroyed in a heartbeat. It was devastating, sapping my motivation to continue my research. Then a man I’d never have suspected—and neither would you—helped me see that evidence that could not be denied and that no one would ever think to destroy had been right under my nose all along. So, Madam President, you and the Commander and anyone else may tell the press whatever you please, but you cannot deny facts: Tellustria was inhabited and dark wheat is going to prove it.”
“This?” Erika said, infusing in that single syllable more indignity than even she had thought possible. “That was a really long way of explaining the alien grass, but not much more than that, don’t you think?” Her would-be inquisitor had allowed her gaze to drift toward the opposite end of the long corridor, but still she avoided the president’s penetrating stare. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you, Celine!”
Marceline snapped to attention at the uttering of her college nickname.
“You think you’re going to put me in a cell on the back of some pictures of rock piles and some scruffy guy’s science fair project?
Before Marceline had a chance to answer both her and Erika’s secure handhelds chimed at the same time. They read their messages simultaneously (messages that were, in fact, identical) and looked up at almost the same time, Erika with a look of bewildered rage and Marceline with one of satisfied determination. It was, however, the former president who spoke first.
“Madam President,” Marceline interrupted, in her most commanding voice, drowning out the invective that was being hurled at her. “Pursuant to the relevant sections of the Rome Statute and its ratifying conventions I am obligated as an officer of the International Criminal Court to inform you that silence is your right during all periods of pre-trial detention. The officers will now escort you.”
An expression that Marceline had never seen in Erika flashed across her face: fear. For a moment, the one-time president appeared much older than before. Two officers from the aerospaceport police appeared at Erika’s shoulder at that precise moment, positioned as if she were a common criminal who might bolt for the nearest door at any instant.
Composing herself, Erika said, “Surely none of this is necessary, but I’ll go along with it.” Then, continuing in her most presidential tones: “We wouldn’t want to make a scene, now would we? I’ll see you in court, Mr. Edson-Woods. Perhaps you’ll find your razor before then.”
You can read the next part here or view a full chapter index here.