"Umm," the shy private Baker stuck her head into his office, "Bernice, umm, Corporal Wagner says there’s a visitor for you, a Doctor Cherry Huang?"
"Who?" He was supposed to avoid doctors . . . Holy shit! Huang? Could this be Updike’s May Huang expert? "Escort Dr. Huang back here." He jumped the Mata Hari report back to the start, to the childhood he’d only skimmed. Plum Blossom Huang, AKA May Huang, AKA Mata Hari, born October 31st 2001 in Los Angeles California. With a twin sister named Cherry Blossom. He wasn’t a bit surprised to see the tall oriental woman that entered his office, but her beauty and poise froze him for a moment, then he circled the desk to introduce himself.
"Cherry Huang, I’m pleased to meet you, Major." She studied him with the ruthless curiosity he’d come to know from many doctors. "I understand my sister has surfaced again. How can I help you?"
"Well, rumors of her at any rate." Chuck told her. "The report I’m slogging through is quite thorough. What I mostly need is someone who can actually identify her."
She nodded sadly, "I haven’t seen May for forty years, but I spotted her in a crowd when I wasn’t expecting to see her. I think I’ll still know her."
"The person we suspect is going to be in the general vicinity of the President when he comes up to dedicate a ship," Chuck glanced at his watch, "In about 20 hours." The asian beauty sat up alarmed, "We have taken steps to keep her away from the President, but frankly . . . "
She nodded, "May has been getting around security systems for the fun of it since she was ten years old."
"Plum Blossum in Chinese is Mei hua. Our parents, in their first flush of welcome to the United States, named us in English. May thought the Chinese version was better, and insisted we start calling her that in High School. We tried calling her Who, but it never really stuck." She shrugged, "Our Dad died when we were teenagers, while we were still coping with the realization that we’d been messed with." She looked at him steadily, "I expect you know all about that."
"Yes, except I knew from birth, I grew up knowing what I was and why, and who did it." He glanced at the report, "You didn’t learn until puberty?"
She smiled ruefully, "Until the lack of puberty, to be specific. The extra testosterone the Chinese genengineers added for aggression messed up the normal development of female fetuses. Not that there were supposed to be any female fetuses."
"Well," He called up the tiny bits of vids he’d managed to scrounge. "I’m afraid our suspect is also very good at dodging vid camms. This is all I’ve been able to find, so far." He glanced apologetically at her, "In best policeman’s style I’ve mixed it in with some other vid clips. See if you can spot anyone that might be your sister." He sat back as the wall to his right lit up and the vid sequences played.
The Doctor watched them through three times, then sighed. "I need to see more. The woman with the black-and-white motif, is she your suspect?" He nodded, "She catches my eye, but I’m not really sure." Her lips curled into a rueful smile. "If she’s that good at not being recorded, I’d give it a strong possibility."
"Does it bother you, to help capture your sister? You must know that she’ll face the death penalty."
"I've had years to think about it. Better before she kills again than after." She said bluntly, "She’ll be caught eventually. With or without my help. I’ve come to terms with this a long time ago."
"Let me call my superior and see if she’s gotten any ideas or information since yesterday," He was sending the connection code as he spoke, and to his surprise got an immediate reply.
"Major, have there been any abnormalities with the ichimps or the Pure Gene Poolers out there?"
He blinked at the non sequitor and hauled his brains around for the new track. He buzzed Baker as he replied, ""The ichimps are doing their usual seasonal thing, the ones here left for Earth two days ago. Let me get an update." And as Brooke stuck her head around the corner repeated Updike’s question.
"The ichimps here are all gone and OOO cleared all of theirs out yesterday, I suppose they’re still in transit. There’s nothing new from the PGPers." Baker frowned a bit, "A few of them have gone on vacation too, though, now that I think about it."
"Mitchell, Hoelscher, Applegate and Schueller." She rattled off, not needing a reference.
"The serious ones." Chuck bit his lip, "The ones we thought might be currently active." His eyes slid to Updike on the screen, she was nodding.
"Some key people have dropped out in the last few days." She ran her hands through her hair. "And all of the ichimps on Earth have dropped out of sight. I don’t know if the CLF is up to something; the Davis Foundation isn’t returning my calls, I may have to send someone out to shake some answers out of them personally. In the mean time, we need to concentrate on the President’s space trip." she ran her hands through her hair in a frustrated gesture. "I talked to the head of the President’s security team myself, they know about the possibility of NSU being around, but the President won’t cancel." Her lips thinned, "He said the President seems to think that an assassination attempt by Mata Hari would boost his sagging ratings."
Chuck closed his eyes for a moment. "Politicians." He opened his eyes, no he was still in his office and it had not been a dream. "Can we exclude all of OOO’s employees from the ship? Would that work?"
"It couldn’t hurt. But they’ll need a skeleton crew aboard." She frowned, calling up more data, "by regulation fourteen people, double the absolute minimum to run the ship in an emergency. Surely we can monitor fourteen people?"
"Is that all!" Baker looked horrified, "I know the ship isn’t armed and all that, but fourteen?"
"Two Pilots, two navigators, two engineers, two environmental specialists, four damage control specialists, one medic and one officer to get underfoot, and pretend he knows what to do." Updike had heard Baker over the comm. "I think the officer is counted as the fifth for damage control. This is not the Navy, they’re not supposed to be under fire."
"Can we specify who the skeleton crew will be?" Chuck asked.
"Apparently we already have." Updike replied absently, her eyes to the side, reading off another screen "The permanent UESE crew has been onboard for several weeks, the skeleton crew was checked and is all cleared. Most of them, all but two actually," her brow furrowed, "are ex-SN. Good Heavens! Mycroft Perris! I didn’t realize he was back in space, he’ll be aboard, so the crew is actually a plus for us. Not a single OOO employee." She looked up suddenly, "I forgot, has Cherry gotten there?"
The elegant Doctor walked into the visual pickup field, leaning over Chuck’s shoulder. "Yes and I’ve seen the scant vid coverage." Shrug, "I think it’s probably her, is that enough to detain her for a DNA test?"
"Yes." Updike glowed, "I’ll get a warrant immediately, I’d really like to get her behind bars before the President gets to L5."
"Can you," Chuck tried to articulate a rather vague idea, "Keep an eye on the ichimp parties? Can you find them? An attack on them by the PGPers could be NSU’s cover for whatever she’s up to."
"Hmm, yes, some messy news for the media to drool all over, and split the upper level law enforcement people’s attention . . . it wouldn’t impinge on the President’s security situation though."
"True, it was just a wild thought." Chuck thought silently for a second. "Isn’t this a bit early for the ichimp season? I thought mid September through early October or something?"
Cherry leaned in again, "I caught an interview with an ichimp doctor, he said it was earlier than usual because of the relationship of the phases of the moon relative to the length of the days." She made an apologetic gesture, "It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but then I was still giggling over his name ‘Doctor Livingston’ for heaven’s sake!"
"Ooo, that’s one of the bad ones," Chuck agreed, "There’s also a Doctor No who’s an astronomer, and a Doctor Simon von Monkenstein who’s a physicist."
Cherry sat up suddenly, "Simon! Good grief," she turned to the vid pickup, "See if he’s doing anything. May probably wouldn’t involve him, but if ichimps are mixed up in this . . . "
"On it." Updike agreed, "I should have remembered that."
"What?" Chuck was baffled, suspecting that he should have worked harder at finishing that damned report.
"May bought a baby ichimp at an auction. Its mother was a house servant and the people didn’t want the expense of raising the baby. Instead of giving it to one of the charitable Free Ichimp societies they sold it. Him. Simon von Monkenstein." Cherry shrugged, "May always loved babies, she just adored Simon, but when she was caught at one of her thefts she had to abandon him."
"The one time they ever got her," Updike confirmed, "because she doubled back to try and get the kid. Not that she stayed caught, mind you."
"Yeah, she never came home again," Cherry said wryly, "Mother always blamed it on Dad and his criminal friends." She glared at the screen, "And you don’t want to know what she had to say about the government taking Simon."
"I assure you," Updike said, "She was not reticent about it. At all."
Cherry snorted, "How true. How many letters to the President got through my attempts at censorship?"
"I don’t remember the actual figure, it’s been a while since I’ve gotten deeply into the whole file. But I think it was well up in the double digits."
"Yikes!" Chuck breathed, "So this ichimp son of hers is unlikely to be with NSU, but if there’s anything fishy going on with the ichimps he might know about it?"
"The more I think about it, the less likely that seems," said Cherry, "He’s a professor at a Northern California University and has very little contact with ichimps. He married once, but it broke up a couple of years ago."
"The ichimp marti gras is probably nothing to do with NSU," Chuck frowned, "It’s just a matter of figuring out whether NSU’s after the President or using our focus on the President to pull something else. Is there anything else worth there price up here?" he asked Updike.
"Not that we can see." Updike admitted. "Your idea about Oleg Ori alarmed the analysts, however." Her lips twirked a bit, "They couldn’t decide if getting rid of him was a good idea or not. We’re watching her like a hawk, I’ve nearly flooded OOO with agents." She glanced to the side then nodded decisively, "The warrant has been issued, now we just need to get her somewhere she can’t slip away from."
"The President’s speech is tomorrow." Chuck pointed out, "Can you get her before then?"
"We’ll try." Updike terminated the call.
Chuck leaned back and studied the doctor. "Do you want to stick around and see what happens? If they arrest her on OOO station, I’ll probably go over personally to escort her."
"Yes, I’ll stay," she sighed, "to the end."
She spotted her quarry across the shuttleport concourse. Lurking behind a decorative non plant, she waited until he and his group had cleared security and headed toward the LEO shuttle gate. She slipped into the group and in between him and his ‘secretary’, with the practiced ease of a society maven. She twined her arm around his in a grip he couldn’t break without actual violence.
"Why, Richard Beringar, fancy meeting you here!" She gave him a hungry crocodile grin, and batted her eye lashes.
He quickly lowered the hand that had almost swung around to strike his unexpected attacker. "Ah, Doctor…Conehead?"
She stiffened, dammit, this man was going to answer her questions. She needed this interview.
"I believe," sniffed the secretary, referring to the data pad in her hand, "that this is Dr. A. C. Eonia, of the Los Angeles Underground Press. She writes about government corruption, and incompetence, with the occasional fluff article." Eonia looked at the short blonde in surprise, perhaps she really was a secretary.
"Goodness," Beringar smirked, "A fluff article about me? How flattering."
Her eyes narrowed, "Why no, actually I’m researching the Reverend Vorp and the Church of Earth is Eden."
Beringar and the secretary studied her from both sides. "Why don’t you walk me down to my gate?" asked Beringar, "I’m afraid I have to catch this shuttle, but we can talk for a few minutes."
"Actually, I’m taking this shuttle, also." Success!
"Actually, she seems to have the seat next to you, Beringar," muttered the secretary, studying her data pad. "That’s very good, I’ve never gotten into their system like that."
Eonia smiled, "It’s all a matter of who you know." They exchanged glances around her; why did they seem so wary? "So tell me about your cometary water project? Why did it draw so much controversy?" Beringar and the blonde exchanged another glance.
Beringar steered her toward their departure gate. "The Government claimed to be worried about a poorly controlled trajectory endangering the Earth, or the facilities around Earth. That’s why we moved the comet out, not in toward the asteroid belt, as we would have liked." The sign above their gate announced the departure countdown, just fifteen minutes away. "Dr. Eonia."
"Please, call me Ace." She smiled at him, as she ran her tickard through the reader and confirmed it with a finger print.
Beringar smiled back and handed her gallantly into her seat. He slid in next to her, the blonde on his far side. "The United Earth Government has been anti-space since its conception eighty years ago." He snorted, "What little change there has been to its policies has been negative. Apart from a tiny amount of manufacturing that could not be duplicated in a gravity well, they abandoned, discouraged, under funded and just shut down everything they could." He grimaced in memory, "In fact the government discouraged every space endeavor imaginable. Look at the Long Baseline Deep Space Telescope Array. One accident, and they shut the whole thing down."
"But there were people killed!" she protested, "It was very dangerous!"
"Honey, people die every day. No matter what transport you used to get to the shuttleport today, it was more dangerous than the LBA. Any factory on Earth has fatalities. Eighteen deaths is no reason to shut down a program that has so much potential to help the human race."
"We can use Earth or lunar based telescopes with much less risk." She argued.
"And with much less resolution." His voice held a passionate edge. "How can we" he broke off as the final chime sounded and the shuttle rolled away from the gate. It lurched twice shifting tracks to the main acceleration rail. It swooped so smoothly up the curve, she couldn’t tell when the engines took over from the magnetic accelerator as it left the rail.
He resumed speaking as the acceleration eased, "How can we study the planets of other stars without an array like that? We were just barely starting to collect information. We had less than six months of data, when they shut it down, forever!"
"Oh, surely you’re not saying that we should have fixed the LBA instead of researching rejuve?"
"Most," put in the blonde, "of the rejuve drugs require microgravity crystal growth methods for purification. Without space manufacturing, we wouldn’t have rejuve."
"Those are the reasons for near space manufacturing facilities. What possible reason could we have for wanting to know about planets light years away?" Ace could tell she had this fish hooked. All she had to do was reel him in.
"What possible," Beringar voice rose indignantly, "reason? Are you a member of the Church of Earth is Eden, yourself? Don’t you think mankind will ever reach for the stars? Don’t you think we should know as much as possible about possible planetary systems before we spend the time necessary to get there?" He took a deep breath to calm down. "The LBA ran preliminary scans on the twenty nearest stars, looking for planets. The plan was to analyze the data, and on the basis of that, do detailed studies of the interesting systems. The accident happened just before the government labs had finished the Alpha Centauri data set. It’s incredibly frustrating to know that there are four probably stony type planets at the right distance from the two larger stars, and be unable to find anything else out about them."
Ace wondered if she should divert him toward the cometary project, or let him run on. A surreptitious glance at her watch made up her mind.
"Surely any extra-solar exploration won’t be done for a few more centuries? Look at how much remains to be done in the solar system?" She watched his reactions carefully. "Wouldn’t the Asteroid Belt Confederation be a lot different if they had had a ready source of water and methane?"
"In the unlikely event it existed as a political entity at all, it would have ten times the population. The Earth Gov miscalculated badly, there."
She was pressed briefly back into her seat, as the shuttle maneuvered. Out the window (porthole?) an asymmetrical bright spot was just visible ahead of them. "I’d think a higher population would have been more likely, rather than less, to declare independence."
"The declaration was pushed through by a few old hermits, and carried by popular vote from sheer indignation in the aftermath of the comet project collapse. People don’t like it when they are forced to remain dependent, and all their profit evaporates in the effort to keep themselves alive. That comet would have given them a reserve of water, for fuel and oxygen, as well as methane to break down into fertilizer. There would be huge farms out there now, instead of a few hollowed out asteroids with domes and solar panels. The new immigrants would have had closer ties with the Earth Gov. They would have been more likely to ask for full member status than separate."
"I’m surprised," Ace redirected the conversation, "That when the government nixed your comet for the asteroid belt, you moved a comet out of the solar system. Why?"
"To show that we could control the orbit of something that massive. With no problems." He sighed. "Which whipped the Government into an absolute frenzy. Them and their tame cult." He eyed her narrowly. "So why this interest in the Reverend Vorp Wentworth?"
"Do you realize what a huge corporation the church is? There’s an inner cadre of ‘disciples’ that control all the church investments. They’ve never been investigated for insider trading, although time after time they’ve made killings in the stock market, buying before a company gets a big government contract, or selling before one becomes the cult’s latest victim. The inner circle, and for that matter a huge number of the outer circle, all get rejuve."
"That’s not uncommon, you know," put in the secretary, "Most major corporations include rejuve among the perks for management. Rejuve has been around for eighty years in one form or another." Her lips quirked in an odd smile.
"Only if you include the disastrous early experiments on the lifers in Attica Prison!" snapped Ace, "They didn’t realize how well they’d succeeded for another twenty years, when the few surviving old prisoners they’d pardoned, didn’t die. Then it took seventeen years for approval of the mass produced pseudoviral teleosplicers. Then another twenty years of highly controlled trials. The price is finally showing signs of coming down, but people like those Edenites wouldn’t have a chance at it, ordinarily. The Church saves their lives, literally. The lower echelons are fanatically loyal in hopes of earning ‘Eternity in Eden’," she smiled toothily at Beringar. God she loved being nasty! "Would you like a list of the eighty-four members who received rejuve shortly after Beringar Headquarters burned down with your father inside?"
Beringar’s interlaced fingers whitened, then relaxed. "No," he said very softly, "I don’t believe I would." His shoulder, stiff and tense, leaned into hers as the shuttle maneuvered into the docking collar, and he was slow to leave his seat and file out.
Low Earth Orbit Transfer Station number three had little in the way of amenities. It was the working mans’ station, a star shaped collection of docks, a hostel for those unfortunates that had to wait for their next ride, and a traffic control center. Beringar followed his entourage across two spokes and down the third before he spoke again.
"I know who’s responsibility the fire was. I know Vorp was the government’s agent in the matter. I’m not going to start a vendetta against the small fry. I don’t want to know who they were, lest I lose sight of the bottom line. I know what I’m doing is what my Dad would have done, had he lived. That is all that is important." He nodded politely to her. "Good day Dr. Eonia."
"Your Dad," her voice made that a touch sarcastic, "never expressed any interest in Venus." She eyed the men and women boarding the shuttle behind him. "That’s rather a lot of people for a three week trip, isn’t it?" They eyed each other warily, "What are you up to, Beringar? Want to tell me? Or I’ll bet I can find out for myself."
He hesitated a moment, turning to the secretary, "Where’s Monkenstein?"
She dodged back inside, for a moment. "He’s helping stow stuff back in the men’s bunkroom."
"Come aboard for a moment, and I’ll show you." Beringar slid into the shuttle ahead of her. She hesitated for a second, then followed.