Located on the White House premises, just across West Executive Avenue from the West Wing, is an imposing structure, a grandiose architectural monstrosity Mark Twain once referred to as “the ugliest building in America”.
Situated within the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, among a host of other executive branch agencies and staff, is the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office. It is an ornate space four times as long as it is wide with an elaborate high ceiling and Victorian-flavored ornamentation.
Three distinct zones, each with its own specific atmosphere and utility define the space. At the formal business end resides one of two twin Belgian black marble fireplaces, ornamental bookends to the room.
Parked at a practical distance from the hearth is the desk Teddy Roosevelt himself favored for his own use when it was crafted a hundred and twenty-some years ago. Passed down from there, it has since become a hallmark of the Vice President’s station. Here the nation’s second in command might pose for a pithy 4-V sound byte, pen a biting phrase or two for a speech, or wrestle with his memoirs.
This area is currently unoccupied.
Dominating the extended central section is a conference table, a massive ornamental slab of some dense hardwood, like a wooden aircraft carrier’s flight deck buffed to a warm gloss. It will accommodate over a dozen people with ease. Those so assembled might perhaps enjoy, with sufficient elbow room for all, an elaborate working lunch as affairs of State are deliberated and the current stats of fantasy sports teams are discussed, the merits of either debated with equal fervor.
This space too is devoid of activity.
At the far end of the room, an odd quartet of individuals are arrayed in front of the second black marble fireplace, its hearth aglow with a convincing simulation of firelight. This, the more informal section of the room, is where real decision-making is most often conducted, relative, that is, to whatever business of State shuffles down to this level.
Bettencort, bloated, red-faced, and perspiring, holds down his own chair suspended above the carpet on a blue haze.
Seated at a respectful distance from the President’s second is a pair of military men as unalike as two men in uniform might possibly be.
A square-shouldered granite block of a fellow whose attire and insignia identify him as a general in the United States Air Force, challenges the antique davenport supporting him to sustain its structural integrity against his bulk and the constellation of decorations obscuring the left breast of his uniform coat. The cut of his dress blues only accentuates the impression of mass, as does the pink flesh blossoming from the collar of his shirt, further constricted by a cruel necktie.
He slouches into the cushioned enfoldment with a forceful inhalation and sips from a tall, sweating glass, careless of the quantum contest taking place beneath him between artistic woodcraft and gravity.
In counterpoint, a man in the uniform of a Russian Army colonel is seated to his left in a sturdy, straight-backed chair. His hands rest on his thighs and his mien, though solemn, has a feral intensity.
The last occupant presents a gangly stick figure poised behind the Vice President. An advisor of some kind by his placement. His dour demeanor and anachronistic wire-rimmed glasses accentuate an already prevailing sense of out-of-place-ness.
The general’s voice is throttled somewhat by the constraints of his clothing. “They would certainly be my first choice in the matter. Their technological preeminence is unquestionable, despite the fact their acronym is a joke they themselves obviously don’t get.”
“I don’t get it either,” Bettencort says. His voice is a tattered thing, the deep, rasping product of two packs of cigarettes a day chased with a generous allotment of bourbon at day’s end. It is a strict regimen requiring determination, persistence, and considerable expense in more than monetary measure.
“Wile E. Coyote,” the General huffs with an implied confidence this will clarify everything.
Bettencort’s blank stare suggests it does not.
“You know, Road Runner. Beep beeep!”
“It’s a cartoon.”
“Before my time,” Bettencort shrugs. He looks to his lean-featured advisor, who offers a subtle negation.
“Never mind,” the general says.
The Russian officer maintains an expression of studious disinterest. Woolard shifts in his seat to address the man.
“My point is, Colonel, why involve the upstart, with all the inherent risks that choice entails? ACMe’s proven beam augmentation technology can make your problem vanish literally in seconds. No muss, no fuss, home in time for supper.”
The Russian’s voice is, in stark contrast to the American officer’s commanding wheeze, a clear, cool instrument. He sounds as though he is explaining a simple concept to a child.
“As you are aware, General Woolard, my government does not allow the power-generating satellites to orbit above our nation. No, comrade General, we have agreed. The upstart, as you say, is our first, best hope to successfully resolve this situation with discretion. I am certain you will agree that discretion is a close second in priority to safety. Would you not?”
Benn, Denny, and Braden watch as Bettencort rises and approaches them with a top-heavy gait, offering an outstretched right hand.
“Eric,” he rasps with practiced cordiality, “thank you for taking my call. You look well.” He pumps Eric’s hand with brief enthusiasm. “But then, you always do, don’t you?”
Eric’s tari returns the handshake with warmth. “Good to see you again, Phil.”
“Just you, Eric?”
“You know I don’t have an entourage. Besides, I thought we were just going to have a friendly, private chat. You know, just you and me and—oh, look! You have distinguished guests.”
He regards the two men in uniform with his trademark smile. “Gentlemen,” he says and turns back to Bettencort. “It’s your dollar, Phil. Woo me.”
Bettencort provides introductions.
Rather than resist the predations of gravity, General Chester T. Woolard, member of the Joint Chiefs, remains on station on the davenport. He acknowledges Eric with a tall glass lifted in casual salute.
Colonel Vassily Chernovich has risen to his feet. He displays the self-assured bearing of a professional soldier and allows the handshake with his introduction.
“Eric Gerzier,” Chernovich’s accent makes an exotic guacamole of Eric’s name, “I have been instructed to convey my government’s recognition of your many humanitarian accomplishments and to ask for your help with a complicated situation. I am told your discretion is… what is the word? Unassailable.”
Standing aside and disregarded, the stick figure considers Eric with a mortician’s stare.
The environment’s interface provides Eric a comfortable chair opposite the Colonel and he allows himself to settle into it, inviting the Russian to be seated also. He leans forward to address Chernovich as if the other participants to the meeting were decorative.
“There’s a twenty-five ruble word I don’t hear very often. I’m intrigued by that almost as much as I am this unscheduled get-together. How can I help you, Colonel?”
“Up to this time, my government has not endeavored to pursue a working relationship with you, although we are, of course, aware of your many impressive successes. I am told, our scientists have already duplicated many of them.”
“That would be encouraging,” Eric says.
Chernovich spreads his hands, palms up. “I have been authorized to open a dialog with you and your government has generously agreed to facilitate by arranging this meeting.”
“Technically, Colonel, it’s not my government. I’m Canadian.”
The gravel train of Bettencort’s voice rolls out on square wheels. “Of course, this is not an issue of nationalistic posturing and I’m deeply grateful we could intercede to enable us to act together in the best interests of all concerned.”
Woolard’s jaw is set, his mouth a hard line, and his sidelong glance at Bettencort holds no warmth. He opens his mouth to say something, lifts his glass instead and takes a sip, content for the moment to wage a silent war against the durability of antique furniture.
“One week ago, we uncovered the existence of a facility in Siberia built during the first cold war, one we had believed to be decommissioned and abandoned long ago. It was not abandoned. It was sealed, buried, and deliberately forgotten. With it, a stockpile of biological agents of unknown variety. We sent in a team to assess and inventory, three technicians, two mechanicals. They found the entire facility staff long dead.”
“What little we know suggests twenty-six years. Less than twenty-four hours later the mechanicals were still operational, but our technicians were also dead.”
“That’s a long time for a bug to remain virulent.”
“As we have ruled out an almost inconceivable level of human error by trained professionals, the “bug”, as you say, is able to penetrate the most advanced protective equipment we have at our disposal. Whatever is in there is beyond our experience. This is why we have come to you, Mr. Gerzier.
“In the past,” Chernovich says, “this kind of thing would have been handled in secrecy. There was a time, given the nature of the situation, a small nuclear device might have been detonated at the site, the collateral damage absorbed as an unfortunate by-product of a bad situation not allowed to become worse. Of course, while there are still some who would prefer to conduct affairs in the old way, those days are gone. Given the scope of recent treaties, alliances, and domestic circumstances, probably for the better.”
Eric nods again. “Containment?”
“Airtight, so far. The airlock systems have been monitored and augmented since the entry.”
Phantoms in the midst of this gathering, Benn leans against Braden’s seat. Braden rests his elbow on Benn’s shoulder and looks on as Denny frames a rectangular space between his hands, vaguely luminous, populated with an array of options.
Eric’s tari removes a foldie from a vest pocket. “Colonel, I’m providing a link for your use. If you will have your people transmit rendezvous coordinates and details regarding the facility’s layout, construction, and surrounds, I can have a team on-site within twelve hours.”
Chernovich appears nonplussed.
Perhaps he had anticipated, had Gerzier agreed to assist, days, not hours for the enigmatic recluse to prepare a response. This unexpected level of urgency seems to match his own. He looks on as Eric’s fingers trace cryptic symbols across the quartered surface of the foldie.
“You and any observers you wish to include will be welcome to join my team on the operations platform. Isolation, neutralization and disposal protocols will be outlined for your approval before implementation, of course.” Eric holds the foldie out for him to take.
“Of course…” The colonel’s stoic mask has slipped. He appears troubled, but accepts the foldie with his face in place once more.
“What is it, Colonel?”
“We have not spoken of payment.”
Eric’s famous smile radiates unguarded from his face.
More cynical witnesses to this exchange might expect this to be the when the proverbial hammer falls. How astronomic could his fee for unconventional services rendered be, one might speculate.
If Chernovich harbors similar skepticism himself, however, he does so behind a composed facade. Given the dire nature of the circumstances, any price might be deemed reasonable and it is obvious he has been given sufficient latitude to negotiate on behalf of his government’s interests.
“I am not interested in payment,” Eric says. “The fact you’ve asked for my help is all the compensation I desire. I am exhilarated by the prospect and the challenge your situation presents. I need nothing more. Besides, we are, after all, neighbors on this island. Are we not?”
Chernovich appears uncomprehending. “Island?”
“Earth, tovarich.” Eric’s gesture around the opulent room suggests the broader context. “Beyond and despite the virtual nature of current surroundings, we exist together in a tenuous environment on the living skin of a single grain of sand hurtling through space. The tragic results of taking this gift for granted surround us, challenging us to survive the consequences of our species’ irascible nature and cumulative stupidity. I am tasked to help restore balance in any way I can. This you have asked of me is something I can do. For you. For all of us. Neighbors. Do you understand?”
“Nyet,” Chernovich begins, hesitates. “I mean, I understand what you are saying. I do not understand you.”
There is something in the Russian’s staunch demeanor that wasn’t there a minute ago, a transcendental glimmer, as though he had glimpsed a vision of distant, unforeseen possibilities. “I will look forward to meeting you there. Perhaps we will share a drink together.”
“Vassily, I am truly sorry. As much as it would be my honor to meet you in person, my current responsibilities and condition will not allow me to accompany this mission, although we will undoubtedly meet there in vee. I will count on that.
“I assure you, my representatives on-site reflect my own values and commitment. I have absolute confidence in their abilities and that of their teams and I assume full responsibility for their conduct and outcomes. You may rely upon them to conduct themselves with the utmost regard for the safety of your people and the integrity of your nation’s interest. You have my word.”
Chernovich nods acknowledgement.
“And you have my link,” Eric says, standing as Chernovich does so, extending an open hand to the man. “Feel free to contact me anytime.”
A firm handshake lasts a moment or two longer than professional courtesy demands. Chernovich releases it. A nod, a few words of acknowledgement and closure to Bettencort and Woolard, a touch behind the ear, and the Colonel’s avatar is gone.
“Well, that was some happy horseshit.”
General Woolard seems to be simmering on a low flame. There’s a look of distaste on his jowly, bulldog face and his moustache, trimmed to a regulation width and length, bristles.
“What’s his problem?” Benn’s delicate inquiry to no one in particular.
“He doesn’t like the Russian,” Braden says, “or that Eric took such a high road. More to the point, Eric gave the colonel a personal link, one he himself doesn’t know and his near-infallible military-grade interface wasn’t able to record it. He’s really pissed about that.”
“Not that it’s any of his business.”
“He believes it is. So, it is.”
Eric regards the General with a smile, then turns away to address the Vice President.
“I will personally contact NASA, Phil, as we’ll be utilizing our existing protocol for disposal of the extraction and containment module. Your regular liaison team will be welcome aboard the platform as well, although you’ll want to mobilize them to the rendezvous site with haste. I promised the Colonel twelve hours. We will lift in an hour twenty.”
Bettencort nods his concurrence and levers his bulk from the chair with a low groan. “Mr. Folt, would you please send out the call and urge all due haste?” He doesn’t wait for his aide’s acknowledgement. “Thank you,” he appends to the stick figure’s unhurried deresolution from the room.
There is in Bettencort’s posture and expression, as likewise in Woolard’s attitude, a certain unspoken anticipation the unseen bystanders cannot fail to recognize and Eric, himself poised to depart the meeting, hesitates.
“I see there is something further on your minds, gentlemen,” Eric says.
Bettencort clears his throat and opens with a painted smile. “I believe we may have…” he seems to be searching for just the right words and his face shows it.
He clears his throat again with a phlegmy rattle and begins anew. “It seems we have inadvertently mishandled the specimen you generously provided for us to evaluate. I’d hoped we could…”
“Mishandled,” Eric says. “Inadvertently.”
“Yes. An unfortunate…”
“Let me save you a few syllables, Phil. The short answer is, ‘No’.”
Woolard’s scowl not only precedes Bettencort’s by a couple seconds, but it has a deeper, more hostile texture as well, a detail not lost on the gallery observing from the periphery.
“Nine years ago,” Eric says, “as the so-called ‘End Times’ brought the civilized world to a stand-still, I approached your predecessors with a proposal. I offered to revamp, in one clean, affordable sweep, both the obsolete national power grid and your long-outmoded transportation infrastructure, do away with all environmentally catastrophic modes of energy acquisition and delivery and make it practical to provide for the basic needs of all citizens—and I mean ALL citizens, not just the ones with substantial means and the correct affiliations.
“It was a modest pitch, one I hoped would find concurrence and endorsement. At that time the value of the plan I set forth was either misunderstood or, more likely, was diverted by those with vested and opposing interests. Those you currently represent contrived then to restrain me and my enterprises in a variety of creative ways, including an organized campaign to discredit my products and processes and demonize me.
“That it was decided then to contract with Advanced Concepts Methodic for their proprietary focused-beam and ‘black-box’ Q-line technologies to sate your ever-increasing energy demand, is not what distresses me. Nor do I care that you’re paying them a premium price for power generation. That’s your business. Their energy is clean and that’s something, although dangerous beyond imagining if misused, as I’m sure General Woolard will agree.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Woolard says.
“And another company was awarded the lucrative contract for trac-road development up and down the East Coast. A subsidiary of ACMe, if I’m not mistaken. And I’m not.”
A brief parade of micro-expressions on Bettencort’s face confirms a bullseye.
“I know they couldn’t have under-bid me,” Eric says without pause, “and their process is based upon the model I submitted to the committee. Why they were not subject to the same obstructive measures employed to encumber my own negotiations and further hinder my enterprises in this country is hardly a mystery.”
Bettencort harrumphs his throat clear and says, “It is not uncommon, nor unlikely, that the creative minds of businesses engaged in similar disciplines will approach a project in like manner. As to the determination of the committee…”
But Eric has moved on. “Meanwhile, Japan, Canada, and the UK noted the shill media’s distressing lack of credibility, and chose to rely instead upon their own empirical evidence. They accepted my proposition. The Left Coast states, almost as a single entity, over-ruled a good deal of the deliberate obstructionism and in a move that, at the time, seemed almost revolutionary, contracted with me for the same kind of forward-looking development they saw us deliver elsewhere.
“Practically limitless power generation, clean, sustainable and, beyond a modest initial investment, absolutely free, solves a legion of messy problems pretty much all at once. You couldn’t have missed it. I know very few have, in fact, because requests for similar assistance have flooded my calendar.
“When you and President Bascomb took office, I renewed my proposal. The ACMe subsidiary providing the trac upgrade having fallen behind schedule by a significant margin and the tragic augmented-beam accident in Iowa suggested you may be open to a practical alternative. I provided you with a working G-cell to assess its potential and demonstrate its practicality and efficacy, not to mention the immediate fiscal and environmental benefits of my offer.
“I was disappointed to discover a hasty summit was convened to block all such efforts.
“History, that of the last half-century in particular, is rife with examples of innovators who challenged those you serve and were either paid off to desist or were silenced in less subtle fashion. Regardless of how their advances might have improved the world, faced with financial ruin, character assassination, or just plain assassination, those still able to do so capitulated to external pressures beyond their ability to withstand.
“The thing is, Phil: you’ve seen my profile. You know enough about me to know I’m not likely to fold up my tent and just disappear into obscurity.”
“No,” Bettencort says, “that does not appear to be your style.”
“That those you serve chose to obfuscate and impede rather than commit to that same sense of national confidence and well-being our other clients now enjoy… well, that has disappointed me.”
Bettencort’s frown has bunched up his fleshy face in an almost comical representation of a man approaching the limit of his anti-depressant medication. His voice is a grinding of stones and his tone indignant.
“You’ve mentioned ‘those I serve’ three times now in a manner that can only be construed as dismissive. I’m not certain what you’re implying, but I serve the American people, Mr. Gerzier.”
“That has a patriotic ring to it and at some fundamental level, I believe YOU believe it, but the American people—those not lulled into happy stupefaction in vee—know better. After all that’s transpired from the so-called End Times to now, you and President Bascomb serve at the pleasure of a cabal, the obscenely wealthy who answer to no one. I can see that doesn’t sit well with you and I’m sorry to be the one to say aloud that the Emperor is naked, but there it is. The look on your tari’s face right now tells me you know it to be true, as well.”
Bettencort’s expression denotes a violent civil war taking place between his outrage at this repudiation of his nation and office, and begrudging recognition of Gerzier’s accurate indictment of a system the Founding Fathers would abjure. His years of experience in the discipline of diplomacy are striving to arbitrate between the two before a reflexive, wrathful response ends all opportunity to cajole this visionary wild card into cooperating with them. There exists still a particular high-stakes objective before them and Bettencort is practiced in the wisdom that the first “no” doesn’t always mean “no”. He’s reaching out for the words that might mitigate this charged situation.
Gerzier’s mellow voice strikes a moderating tone before the Vice President can craft a suitable conciliation. “Perhaps we could discuss this together in depth when we both have more time and less vexation. What do you say, Phil?”
“Yes. That sounds practical. I expect it will be an engaging conversation.”
“Bottom line,” Eric continues, “ACMe’s clean energy is better than dirty energy and I applaud them for their remarkable innovations, although that particular science could easily be turned to dangerous, asocial purposes.”
General Woolard remarks through tight lips, “It’s hard not to notice your own technology is ‘black-box’ as well, isn’t it?”
“It is. And it too could be put to use with devastating results in the wrong hands.”
“As you’ve pointed out,” Bettencort interjects, “we contracted elsewhere for restructuring projects on the East Coast circuits. I honestly believe, however, the inevitable fusion, if you will, of your two competing technologies will become a symbol of cooperation to inspire further such ventures. Your contribution to that project has been phenomenal, I must say. Your progress on the West Coast arterial and capillary routes is far ahead of expectation and we anticipate full national conversion should be complete in five more years.”
Eric’s tone is conversational without condescension. “Without the paralyzing bureaucracy of myriad state and federal agencies, many apparently at cross-purposes, and the near-crippling efforts of entrenched industries threatened by these rapid shifts in form and function, my teams could have helped you complete the project in half that, but I do understand your desire to provide employment, and there is a certain undeniable sense of pride in finishing a job oneself.
“What concerns me more immediately,” Eric says, “is that some high-level decision-maker, despite my very strict stipulation against tampering with my power cell’s containment, chose to disregard my admonition. Someone was able to crack it open, were they not?”
“That was unarguably a mistake, Eric.” Bettencort casts an indecipherable glance at Woolard. “I want to assure you that more reasoned heads now have the President’s ear. As you know, public opinion regarding the proposal to incorporate ACMe’s beam technology on a national scale has swung the other way, suggesting that, while expedient and beneficial in many regards, the perception of dire risk remains high among the voting citizenry.
“The success of your efforts on the West Coast and elsewhere has brought your work and your remarkable vision into sharp focus among the constituency. The President is reevaluating your proposal and hopes very soon to renew negotiations with you.”
“I am elated to hear that, Phil, and look forward to reestablishing a dialog.” Eric holds up a cautionary hand. “However, I warned from the start that any attempt to deconstruct my device would negate its functionality. Apparently, it was believed that my technology could be successfully reverse-engineered and its potency utilized in a more… strategic fashion. And now, your boss has urged you to solicit a replacement.
“The presence of General Woolard in this conversation suggests as well that you’d like to ask me for additional considerations. Could that be my achievement of a non-ballistic vehicle launch capability, or perhaps it’s the energy dispersion field generation that has captured your attention? I expected the disclosure of these advances would prompt a certain level of attraction, but I will tell you this, gentlemen, and hear me well.”
Eye contact in virtua is a subject of great debate still within the circles that are able to discuss such phenomena in focused, clinical terms. Something indefinable crosses the gap between taris in their separate realities as Eric holds first, the general, then Bettencort in his gaze.
“I will NEVER allow weaponization of my technology. Understand that and all future interactions between us will proceed with far less friction.”
Woolard huffs himself to a more upright posture, a motion that elicits a groan of complaint from the divan as he addresses the man.
“Mr. Gerzier,” he intones, using what some would consider a ‘rural American’ phonetic pronunciation of the name, “the gee-whiz technology you’ve introduced in the last few years is, by far and away, some of the most important work of the millennium. No one would argue that. I’m not saying this to blow sunshine up your ass, son. I mean it. I don’t know if you’re a genius or a magician, or what. I just want you to think about the humanitarian implications of working with us, instead of this passive-aggressive antagonism that seems to suffuse your interactions here today. We’re not your enemy, you know.”
Eric says nothing.
An undignified bout of butt-cheek lifting and repositioning allows the general to withdraw a thin, palm-sized fragment of smooth, grayish material from a deep coat pocket. It might be metal, or plastic; the only thing certain is the jagged contours it presents, certain indication that it is a fragment of some larger object.
He lays the shard onto the immaculate virtual surface of the coffee table between them.
“You may not be aware of how much force was required to provide me with this splinter,” Woolard says.
“I not only know precisely how much force was needed,” Eric replies, “but how long you had to sustain it in order to fracture the material’s matrix in this manner. I’m impressed that you had the means to do so. I trust no one was injured. What did you find within?”
“You know what we found, and what we didn’t find. You also know why we had to inspect it, although at the moment, that’s not my primary concern.
“As much a mystery as the interior represents, the material you’ve used to package your power cell is, by itself, an extraordinary development. The body and vehicle armor we could create with that alone could save tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives. Your field-effect umbrella, or whatever it is, as a purely defensive mechanism, has the potential to save hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions more. Surely you can appreciate that. If you’re the dedicated humanitarian your publicists make you out to b… “
“When you say ‘purely defensive’, General, a little alarm goes off in my head. I know better than anyone what kind of destruction my technology could foster when the best defense is determined to be a harrowing offense.
“You know how you save thousands of lives, General? You stop putting people in harm’s way. Your attempt to invoke my compassionate temperament is transparent, sir. You are a man of war. When you’re not actively engaged in warfare, you’re planning a war. I am not a man of war, and you cannot manipulate me with fealty to a mentality that has produced nothing but world-wide distrust, hatred, suffering, and genocide among people no different from each other beyond the constraints imposed by their history and geography.”
“You… ” Woolard cannot suppress his laughter. “You can’t be that naïve, son. Geography is the least of the differences between our enemies and us.”
“Where were you born, General? South Carolina?”
“And your mother, Shirley, used to make the best pork sausage in Beaufort County.”
Woolard’s puffy face, ruddy by nature, has grown a dangerous pink, accompanied by a scowl so deeply drawn it signals either an imminent eruption, or an infarction. “God damn it, man!” he whispers. “Is there some kind of point to this?!”
“If you’d been born in Iran, you’d be a Muslim and your mother would likely be stoned to death for making her famous sausage. Born in Israel, you’d be practicing Judaism and your mom would be slow-cooking cholent instead. India or Nepal… Hindu, probably. Goat sausage maybe—maybe no—depending on your local custom. Poland… strict Catholic. The sausage’d be okay, except on Fridays. Sri Lanka? Buddhist and a vegetarian. Born in the Maldives… it wouldn’t matter what you believe or what you like to eat. The only thing that matters is: how long can you tread water?”
Woolard opens his mouth to rebut.
“It is about geography, General; the local and historical imperatives of discrete cultural slices on the same rock and the intractability of residents of one slice or another to agree with each other, or with you. Those who insist the game is ‘us’ against ‘them’ will never be satisfied with anything less than the total annihilation of their perceived enemies. That mindset, supported by those who will profit from the conflict, guarantees neither side will stop short of mutual extinction.
“The last man standing will not be the ‘winner’, General. We’re all the same kind. Always have been. But until you’re on board with that, I can do nothing to help you.”
The davenport gasps in relief as the general finds his feet and leans toward Eric like an impending rockslide. “Son, I wish I lived in a world where unicorns fart rainbows, too, but the heartbreaking, God damned truth is this: there are forces around us that would gleefully crush us all out of existence for no other reason than because they believe they can. You think you can change human nature by satisfying basic needs? I thought you were smart—tragically misguided, perhaps, but at least smart enough to understand the difference between them and us.”
“Maybe it’s because we disagree reflexively,” Eric is saying, “with certainty, but without a shred of real understanding, about what happens to us after we kill each other, that we are compelled to continue killing each other. Whose God is mightier? Whose Gods are amenable to bribery and whose will be glorified by the slaughter of lesser beings, creatures arguably without worthy souls or redeeming value?
“All of that falls away at some point, though, and it becomes a simple contest of who can be the best killer, regardless how we dress it up on Sunday. Do you think any of that makes some kind of difference in the face of unpredictable weather patterns, storms of unparalleled intensity, rising sea levels, geological upheaval, exponentially increasing shortages of food, water, shelter, and affordable power? Or, Gods help us all, another wave of gonji?
“I’m told we stopped that last one pretty good,” Woolard says.
“Really? You consider that solution a ‘pretty good’ one?”
“You’d rather have seen gonji sweep down the Left Coast, I suppose.”
“Your fear of these threats is understandable; your choices in the face of them are not. These things I’ve mentioned are just the things you might still be able to do something about and even endure. What about threats beyond your ability to influence: the imminent emergence of Vulcan, for example? You don’t have enough men and guns to stand against what may prove to be an extinction-level event, General.”
“You’re right about one thing,” Woolard says. “Survival is what we do. Better than anyone. The ‘Great Vulcan Scare’, however, is nothing but wild speculation by a bunch of crystal-waving freaks and transparent fear-mongering by people with something to sell. I hear this same unsupportable drivel from attention whores every God damned day and now here you are spouting it right in front of me. I don’t know; maybe all you are is a gifted salesman. I’m not currently in the market for any half-baked pseudo-science and New Age gibberish.”
Eric’s expression is incredulous. “So, you believe the solar anomaly is an example of what? Salesmanship?”
Woolard’s face is taking on the appearance of a magenta cauliflower. The Vice President is face-palming. There seems no way now to silence or minimize Woolard’s inflamed exposition, or to salvage the situation gone now terminally awry.
“There’s not a shred of proof anywhere,” Woolard rumbles onward like a tank, “that this Vulcan phenomenon possesses any kind of threat beyond a temporary electromagnetic inconvenience. Meanwhile, I have very real, immediate threats to deal with; threats to our nation’s security—and yours, too, if you’d pull your head out of your ass long enough to look around you—threats to freedom-loving people everywhere. Right now! That’s what motivates me, Mr. Gerzier! That’s why we need your technology, to save lives! Whose side are you on anyway?!”
Benn’s sigh sounds like an attempt to expel exasperation. “I guess they’re right,” he says. “You can’t argue with an idiot.”
“He’s not an idiot, Benjamin,” Braden says. “He’s afraid.”
“Afraid? Him? Of what?”
“He’s afraid of Eric. Of us. Afraid of what we can do that he, with all his resources, cannot duplicate. That, and the fact of Eric’s lack of cooperation with the general’s agenda. He perceives us as another in a series of threats that define his days and keeps him awake at night. One he’ll likely have to deal with very soon, and he doesn’t know how. That’s what frightens him. We are beyond him and he knows it.”
Woolard is breathing hard and seems to realize his angle of attack has been less than productive. He resumes his seat with an amorphous sound, part relief, part objection from the sofa. He adopts a reasonable tone. “I don’t think you understand how much we’re willing to pay you to share your technology with us.”
Eric’s eyes widen, raising eyebrows. “Really? Now we’re talkin’. Is it a lot?” His open face is alight with credulous, childlike innocence. “It sounds like a lot.” He produces a foldie from his vest pocket and hands it to Woolard.
The general receives a nod from the Vice President, sketches a figure on the matte surface with a blunt fingernail and returns it to Eric with an expression of optimism, difficult to maintain on a bulldog’s face.
Eric inspects the amount, whistles through pursed lips, and turns his face up to catch Woolard’s eyes again. “The United Arab Emirates offered me nearly ten times that much. They’ve apparently got more money than Allah. I’m surprised your intelligence community didn’t already tell you that before you tried to lowball me right out of the gate.”
The general darts a meaningful look at Bettencort, who reaches for the foldie, but the medium is withdrawn before his fingers can close upon it.
Eric’s voice is patient. “I told the UAE the same thing I’ve already told you and will tell you once again. We welcome agreements for power generation, water and air purification projects, trac development, CleanSweep deployments for disaster relief, humanitarian aid and restoration, yada yada, but we do not do warfare.
“You see, from the inception of my enterprise, General, my fundamental purpose, my core intention, has been to be of assistance on a global, rather than nationalistic scale, wherever I am able. I believe I’ve already made my position clear, but in case I have been unintentionally vague, please allow me to reaffirm my stance.
“I will not, under any circumstances, ever allow my enterprise to involve itself with the tools of warfare. I don’t care what you’re offering. I don’t need your money. I will gladly provide clean, free, sustainable energy and the benefits of my company’s innovations for peaceful civilian use, but any attempt to subvert my company’s products for militaristic goals will result in cancellation of contract, severance of services and, if deemed appropriate, dissolution of product.”
Woolard explodes. “What the sugar-frosted fuck are you talking about? Dissolution?!”
Eric plucks the shard from the table, holds it up between his thumb and middle finger. His fingers snap. No prestidigitation, no eye-grabbing special effect, no debris. The fragment is just there and then it’s not there.
If Woolard has made an effort to keep his eyes from bulging, it is only marginally successful. The virtual reflection of what he’s been assured is the strongest material on Earth has just been reduced to digital vapor with no exertion whatsoever, despite the strict physics of this secured Federal node that should have disallowed any such phenomenon.
Benn and Denny exchange quizzical glances and Eric returns his attention to Bettencort.
“Mr. Vice President, I know your boss is campaigning for re-election and you’d like to ride his coattails to a second term. Personally, I hope you do; you have an honorable streak that’s earned you some enemies you didn’t have before. So will this meeting you facilitated with Colonel Chernovich. That was well done and thank you, Phil.
“Also, your boss has handed you the dubious responsibility of acquiring my cooperation in this understandably awkward circumstance.
“Please tell President Bascomb he’s welcome to contact me personally to discuss new terms. Meanwhile, you may consider the inert G-cell in your possession and all remaining scraps of its containment to be your souvenirs of a poorly-conceived misadventure. I have a team to put in the air to Siberia, gentlemen. Always a pleasure, Mister Vice President.” He gives Woolard a wink and his signature grin. “General.”
His tari blinks out.
Bettencort stares into the space vacated by the celebrated ascetic. He is considering the ways this meeting could have concluded more favorably.
An afterimage of Eric Gerzier’s tari strobes in place for a few seconds, just as it had appeared upon his outro, and the general’s avatar, preparing to launch into a colorful review of the meeting just now concluded, finds itself standing again without having consciously determined to do so.
For the next half minute, the entire virtual envelope is awash in static. The interruption causes the room, with all its elaborate detail, to flutter like an ancient zoetrope, shredding the imaged participants and their exclamations of alarm.
The effects and the attendant disorientation fade as continuity is restored in stages. The general’s tari flickers back into its seat and then standing once more.
“What was that?” Benn asks.
“What the Hell was that?” demands Bettencort’s rock-gargling baritone.
“Solar pulse,” both Braden and Woolard reply in unison.
“You mean that ‘temporary electromagnetic inconvenience’ you mentioned earlier?” Bettencort rumbles. “Jesus, that was a deep one!”
He stabs a finger at the chair where Eric had been sitting as if painting it with a targeting laser. His shout sparkles with residual static. “I want that smug sonofabitch on a full-scale terror watch starting yesterday!”
“Oh, for Christ sake, Chet. Don’t get your boxers in a wad.”
“Don’t ‘Chet’ me, Phil! I am heart-attack serious! I want twenty-four seven, deep, full-spectrum surveillance on every move that smirking, foster-Canuck, groid prick makes! I want him pinned down like a bug on a board!
“Enforced inspections of all craft and crew. Quadruple documentation. Sanctions. IRS up their asses with a four-vee proctoscope on the end of a fishing rod. Better yet, invoke ND double A! Drag them all into hard confinement and sweat the…”
“Stand down, General Woolard!” Bettencort’s rasping bark sounds painful. “Don’t you forget for another goddamn minute who you’re talking to! You’d better prepare yourself. The full four-vee of this meeting will go to Bascom. When he sees how you pissed away our one chance to get Gerzier on our side he’s…”
“Were you in the same room?! We were NEVER going to get him on our side. You heard him as well as I did. He kissed Chernovich’s ass and told us to go fuck ourselves.”
Bettencort’s sigh has phlegm in it.
“Gerzier’s made a lot, and by that, I mean a metric shit-ton, of very powerful, very influential friends, affording him a certain level of insulation. Regardless, not every agency is disposed to extend unlimited dispensation to him. An unnamed agency already conducts round-the-clock, deep surveillance on each of his holdings, though little good it does us.”
“Why is that?”
“If he’s on the island, we can’t tell. If he leaves to one of his other holdings, there’s no way to know. He doesn’t have to be a master of disguise. He’s a ghost. Same as in vee.”
“What does that mean?”
“I hear noises that AsReal can’t keep track of him either.”
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. They’re not talking about it. Go ahead and speculate. The point is, we’ve got every resource at our disposal working around the clock every day to find some kind of leverage. The shield around him is as impenetrable as the one around his island. Or the mountain.”
Woolard seems deflated. “I’m a God damned member of the Joint Chiefs. How come I was never advised about any of this?”
A new voice, reedy and unpleasant to the ear, answers from one of the side entrances. “Need-to-know, General. Above your pay grade.”
Folt, long-limbed and razor-thin, positions himself within the envelope of Woolard’s personal space. His manner exudes an aura of confidence disproportionate to his station. He stands a head taller than the general and there is, in Folt’s aspect, not the merest suggestion of deference to, nor respect for, the general’s prestigious rank and power.
Woolard stares up into Folt’s face and says without inflection, “So, why are you telling me now?”
“I’m not. This conversation never took place and when you leave this room, you’re never going to speak of it again. Gerzier is not your concern. We will tend to him when the time comes.”
“Well, good luck with that.”
Bettencort has turned his back to the pair and, instead of disconnecting, lumbers back along the lengthy runway of the room toward his ceremonial desk. His chair, slaved to his person by an intangible umbilical, glides behind.
Woolard watches the Vice President’s plodding progress. A sharp finger-snap brings him back to the moment and Folt’s unblinking, prismatic stare.
“You’ve been asking the wrong question, General.”
“Have I? Tell me a better one.”
“How was Gerzier able to alter the power cell containment fragment you yourself mirrored and brought into vee with you?”
Woolard’s forehead crinkles, puckering the pink flesh between his eyes, and a frown causes his jowls to droop. He blinks at the thought and says, “He shouldn’t have been able to do that.”
“An impressive deduction on your part.”
“How DID he do that?”
“See? That’s a much better question, isn’t it? You may go now.”
“You may go. Now.”
Woolard scowls into Folt’s Adam’s apple for a long moment, executes a creditable about-face, and takes a couple steps toward the nearest door before pausing with a confounded expression. He mumbles something, presses a bratwurst-size finger to the node behind his ear, and is gone.
Folt exits a moment later. Save for the Vice President’s tari, oblivious at the far end of the long room, the space is the abode of phantoms.
“Well, I’ll be darned if that wasn’t worth sticking around for,” Benn says. “Who was that guy?”
Denny’s tari rests a hand on the leather-clad shoulder of Braden’s avatar. “Go ahead and take us out, my friend. We’re done here.”
The Vice President’s ceremonial office is redrawn with a smooth fade-in of the greatroom turret, its surrounding transparency, and the endless gray ocean churning beyond.
“Eric,” Denny says to the air, “Please replay the last minute of that exchange at two-up and cancel audio. Zero on Folt’s face for me. Good. Freeze that.”
Denny steps in close to Bettencort’s aide, reaching up to frame the man’s features with his hands.
Folt is bald. His nose is a beak and his wide mouth is set in a grim line compressed between the thinnest, colorless flesh worthy of the term ‘lips’. Also, the man’s eyeglasses are odd, not the old-school polycarbonate lenses they initially appeared from a distance. Whatever they are, they exhibit a subtle honeycomb pattern. Discernible behind them are what appear to be leaden gray eyes.
“Let’s not guess. Find him for us, Eric. We need to know what we’re up against.”
Eric’s reply takes a few seconds longer than expected. “Initial search criteria return nothing but a stock bio for one Folt Remertson. I’m going to have to excavate a bit. I’ll ping you.”
“Thanks, Eric,” Denny says. “By the way, that was a startling piece of street magic you performed for the General. I was impressed, as were they all. I can’t help thinking you had help with that.”
Benn leans in close to Braden. “You don’t think you tipped our hand a little, do you?”
The dwarf swivels his seat. “They needed it. They were starting to believe they had us figured out. Close to making dumb decisions because of it. Now they don’t know what to think again.”
“I agree with you,” Denny says. “Let’s focus on the task. The fact Chernovich’s government is willing to make this overture is momentous. I intend to make their problem go away without fireworks or fanfare. Eleven hours fifty and counting down.”
The dwarf slips his goggles back into place and says, “Gotta run,” taps behind his ear and is gone, yet his face beams from the open virtual portal framed in Denny’s hands. “I’ll check in when we’re in position,” he says.
His image cross-fades back into Mr. Folt’s hatchet-faced portrait.
Benn’s peering over Denny’s shoulder. “He’s such a show-off.”
“You’d be too if you could do what he does.”
“No I wouldn’t. I’d be an insufferable pain in the ass. Like now, only turned up to eleven.”
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