Garret made an extra trip by the company lunchroom, twice, before he managed to accidentally bump into Linda McBride there. He peeked in and saw her sitting alone at one of the otherwise empty tables. She was wearing a very tight light-blue tank top under a very loose darker blue flowered blouse that was open down the front. Under a wide black belt she had a short pleated skirt that matched her loose blouse. Garret couldn’t help but notice how with her legs crossed, the short skirt showed some attractive legs under it. And in her usual style, the neckline on the tank top made a deep vee. She was every bit as attractive today as she was every other day, he thought.
He looked both ways down the hall to see if anyone would notice his being in the lunchroom so late. Seeing no one, he was emboldened. He walked in trying to look nonchalant and surprised to find her there. “Oh, hi. I see you’re taking a late lunch, too,” he said, hoping it sounded more natural to her than it did to him.
“Mmmmph,” she tried to clear her mouth of the bite she had just taken. When she did she said, “Oh. Garret. You startled me.”
“I’m sorry. I guess it is pretty dead in here right now, huh?”
“I’ll say. I thought I’d be the only one taking a lunch from 2 to 3 in the afternoon. So what have you been working on that pre-empts lunch?”
“Uh. Actually, I was just so engrossed with my work that I didn’t see the time. I work on a flexible schedule, being salary, so I just happened by. Just lucky I guess.”
“Lucky for me,” Linda smiled. “I was afraid I’d have to eat lunch alone.”
“A pretty girl like you should never have to eat alone,” Garret quipped lightly.
Linda stopped eating and looked at him a second, then she laughed. “Wow, Garret. Was that a pick-up line I just heard? From you?” He turned red and she laughed again. “Oh, relax. I’m glad that you notice me,” she smiled widely looking him earnestly in the face. “You’re usually so prim and proper. What makes you change your tune?”
Man, Garret said to himself. I hadn’t realized how confident she is of her good looks. “Well, uh . . . To be honest, Linda, I’ve ‘noticed you’ for quite a while. I just . . . uh, was . . . not sure how you’d respond if I tried to be friendly.”
“Are you saying I’m not friendly?” she asked a little sharply setting her sandwich aside. When he stuttered, she laughed musically and said, “Garret! I’m teasing. I can tell you really are an engineer. You don’t get out much do you?”
“Uh, not really, I guess.” He hung his head embarrassed.
“Don’t worry. I think that it’s sweet that you don’t. I guess that means, you really are interested, or you wouldn’t have ever said a word to me, huh?”
He looked up at her. She was looking at him with evident interest and amusement. Although he wasn’t sure he was comfortable with her being amused, he was certainly happy that she was smiling and giving him her complete attention. “Well,” he said. “I don’t usually make a habit of pestering beautiful women who may be annoyed that I’m interested.”
“Oh, my!” She feigned surprise, but she laughed her musical laugh again. “Now I’m beautiful? Well! I guess I am now officially interested back, Mr. Sawyer.”
He wasn’t really close, just near, but he could smell her perfume. And her tank top kept distracting him when she moved. Wow, she was really a hot chic, he thought to himself. He raised his eyes and saw she had caught him ogling her breasts. He turned a brighter shade of red than before. But he saw that she was still smiling, and not at all bothered by where his eyes strayed.
“So, Garret. Are you going to ask me out? Seems I recall a little rain check I owe you.” She tossed her hair making him wonder how all this could come in one package.
“You know, I really would like to take you out and talk some. Get to know you.”
She cocked her head sideways a bit, “I think I’d like to get to know you, too, Garret. I think I’d like to get to know you much better.”
Garret wondered vaguely who was picking up who, but he could care less. “How about some drinks, and then dinner at Frecheta’s? Then afterwards, maybe we can see a movie or . . . something,” he finished lamely. 'Or something'? Idiot, he told himself.
“I’d love to have some drinks with you. And Frecheta’s? Going all out on the first date?” She was smiling at him with a calm assurance that he found magnetic. “And afterwards . . . yeah, we can do a movie, or something. I kind of think I may like the ‘or something’.”
Oh, man! This is not happening to me! This lady is really something that’s for sure. “Uh, yeah. Me too. Listen, Linda. What time can I pick you up tonight?”
“Tonight? Oh, Garret. I’m sorry. I can’t tonight.” Garret felt the wind leave his sails. “But, you know, if you’re willing, I can meet you after work tomorrow night. I’ll be sure to make it up to you, too. What do you say?”
Garret was elated again. He was even less sure who was picking up who now, but he was sure that he could care less. “Uh, sure. Sure, Linda. I’m sure that tomorrow night will work out fantastically.”
She laughed again. More music, he thought. “Keep your motor running, tiger. I’ll make sure I’m ready right at six. Sound good?”
He grinned, he knew, like an idiot. “Absolutely.”
She leaned in close and whispered, “Oh. I have to go, Garret. We’ve got company. See you tomorrow? Bye.” She didn’t wait for his reply. She got up and quickly left the room.
As she did, Garret saw who the company was. It was Jeremy Rudstein. He felt a cold chill. Jeremy didn’t look happy. Garret got up and started to pass Jeremy to get to the door.
“Don’t go around me, Garret,” he snapped. “This isn’t break time!”
Oh, shit. Here he goes. “I just stopped for a minute, Jere. I get an afternoon break and this was it.”
“I bet you’ve been in here for an hour messing around with that girl.”
Garret felt the heat of his anger rising in his face. He tried to defuse the situation. “Now, Jere. I’m salary. I get paid the same whether I work 40 hours a week or 80. And in the last week or two, it’s been nearer the 80 than 40.”
“Maybe,” Jeremy growled. “But she isn’t salary, and you were clearly keeping her from doing her job. Seems to me it looks like you may have been sexually harassing her.”
“What!” Garret exploded. “You’re lying. We were just talking. Ask her.”
“She’s still in probation, Garret. I don’t have to do anything about her. I can fire her for any reason at all, or for no reason. Then you’re on the hook. Even if you prove it wasn’t harrassment, you’ll be a marked man.”
“Leave her out of this, Jeremy. She hasn’t done anything. I don’t know what you have against me, but leave her alone or else.”
“Or else what, asshole? You smart aleck brainy types suck. You went out of your way to make me look bad at the staff meeting, and now you’re gonna pay.”
“You’re one sick puppy, Jeremy. Get out of my way.” With that he pushed Jeremy to one side. To his surprise, Jeremy grabbed him and swung him around. Defensively he swung his arm up to block an anticipated blow. His elbow caught Jeremy in the nose and he reeled back, his nose bleeding. “Oh, shit,” was all Garret could manage. Now, he was really in trouble.
Jeremy dabbed at the blood running down his face, but he got a feral grin on his face. “Now you’ve done it Sawyer. I got your ass, now. I’m gonna get you fired for assault.” He thrust his face in Garret’s.
Damn, he’s right. No one’s going to listen to me upstairs. They’ll make an example of me just to keep anyone else from considering slugging one of them. Garret was really angry now. And screwed, he knew. Jeremy stood there with his chin jutting out grinning evilly. Oh, hell. I’m fired anyway, he said to himself. With that, he cold cocked Jeremy Rudstein. The look of surprise on Jeremy’s face just before his lights went out was almost worth the trip downtown to city jail with the police officers.
The tea was a bitter, Chairman Zhou thought as he sipped it politely. Sitting at the small table, it occurred to him that it was a good thing they were not in the Ming Dynasty, or the bitterness could have meant that he had just consumed a poison. He sighed. The green tea would make him jittery later. At his age it didn’t take much caffeine to feel the effects. He felt his heart flutter a bit. His atrial fibrillation was the greatest reason that he restricted his caffeine. His heart would periodically race wildly. So fast that the blood would not pump, but remain in his heart pooling. This presented a danger of clots, his doctor told him, hence the blood thinners he took in addition to his heart medicine, in addition to his blood pressure medicine, in addition to his prostate treatments, the list went on. Getting old is not for the faint of heart, he thought morosely.
He’d been forced to travel across the City to meet here in the Overseas Chinese Affairs Offices. Ostensibly this was an office of the Beijing Municipal People's Government, but Guoanbu, commonly known as the Ministry of State Security,or MSS, had taken over one floor. They used it in to coordinate their economic espionage with the more legitimate trade relations with the outside world. The offices were as usual spare and utilitarian, but warm and dry which was good in a Bejing winter. The Forbidden City and the Palace Museum lay just south and east of this location. His trip here had been slow due to the hour of the meeting. It was rush hour in Bejing. The traffic congestion was terrible. He recalled the city as a child. Its streets were full of bicycles, not cars, and the air was much cleaner then.
He looked at his watch. The other two were late. This seemed discourteous to him, but he refrained from any show of frustration. Showing that a discourtesy had its desired effect would simply reward the offender. He would not show weakness, but it had been noted in his mental book of slights. Zhou’s book was full of these minor offences. Eventually he assured himself, he would return the slight, but in a way that would not make him appear to have been at fault. This was something he was very good at. It had helped his rise in the Party and in Guoanbu.
I have been in the MSS a long time, Zhou thought sipping more tea. He even vaguely remembered seeing Chairman Mao Zedong as a very young child. He’d grown up in primary school with his own Little Red Book. He’d gone on to enter the People’s Liberation Army, the PLA, while still in his late teens. After spending time in Tibet quelling the uprisings there, he’d been assigned to the brand new Ministry of State Security in 1983. He remembered when Liu Fuzhi, then the secretary general of the Political Bureau of the CPC, the Communist Party of China, had personally toured the freshly opened headquarters of the new secret service. Liu had assigned Ling Yun as its first minister of Public Security. Ling died after just a couple of years with the Guoanbu and was replaced by Jia Chunwang who set his mark on the organization.
Shifting his aching bones, Zhou smiled as he thought of his first wife, Yeri. Then frowned as he recalled she’d died about the time that Chairman Jiang Zemin founded the Chinese National Security Council. This brought about the ‘Rise of the Shanghai Gang’ who systematically took over the secret service. Zhou congratulated himself for at least the thousandth time for joining them. By the time of Jiang's retirement in 2003, he had stuffed the cabinet with all his own men. The subsequent powers spent years co-opting and purging this group. Of course, Zhou had switched allegiances, several times in those years. Proof he told himself of his ability to weather the Chinese political turmoil. He always seemed to move at just the right time.
He looked up at the noise of people entering. Speaking of time, his two counterpart chairmen had finally arrived, and together. He raised an eyebrow, usually they all kept a respectful distance from each other, each having their own interests in the Guoanbu. And at times, struggling in minor ways that cost lower ranking men their careers, or even occasionally their lives. He wondered if they were conspiring together. Tiew and Woo were bundled in heavy grey wool coats against the chill. As they removed their jackets, other assistants materialized and helped them out of their coats and led them to join Chairman Zhou. They were offered tea as they were seated and Zhou politely refrained from speaking until they were comfortable.
Tiew spoke first, “You pardon, Chairman Zhou, for not being on time.” Zhou nodded to acknowledge his apology but did not grace him with forgiveness..
“Our Mr. Chiang Heung has told the bureau some more interesting information he has acquired. He has discovered though his arms dealers that India has become aware of the alien craft. He says that the RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing), which as you are aware is India’s secret service, is bandying the information about so broadly, that he doubts it will remain a secret for much longer.” Zhou frowned very slightly. Tiew had been repeatedly insistent about the value of Chiang. Zhou softly ground his teeth. Had he missed some new plot? He resolved to have his staff check into this agent from Hong Kong. The Taiwanese Tiew had tried several times to increase his hold on the triumvirate. This could signal another attempt. Someone from Hong Kong, like Chiang, could harbor old animosities and be a threat. Animosities much as the ones he himself held dear, he thought. Zhou sighed but continued to listen. The bamboo will bend when the panda climbs it, but will spring back when he is gone, he told himself.
Tiew went on, “Chiang passed on other information on the Afghan Islamic Republic and conflicts on their Iranian border. With Iran still in disarray, criminals and smugglers will do anything to get products out of Afghanistan these days. If you check the data summaries you’ll see that the Persian Intelligence branch of MSS has also sent in confirming reports to Chiang’s.”
Zhou calmly smiled at Tiew and agreed that he had heard similar reports. He knew they all three had. Tiew’s news was a poor excuse for he and Woo to be travelling together where Zhou’s surveillance could not listen in. Zhou had his post today because his uncle had been head of the General Office of the Central Investigation Department from 1976 till August 1982. Back then, when Premier Zhou Enlai died, Tiew was in the Central Taiwan Affairs Office. One of Tiew’s bureau chiefs had taken advantage of the mourning period to accuse Zhou along with his uncle of earlier clandestine attempts to move against the Premier. Evidence was created and Tiew’s chief informed against them both.
The results of a prolonged investigation found that Zhou and his uncle were innocent, however that had cost his uncle the chance to be considered for the post of Minister of MSS. The very post the three of them now held jointly as the triumvirate. Of course Zhou had actually been guilty of the crime, but not his uncle. It had taken every bit of his political pull and wrangling to keep them both from being executed, or disappeared. He still remembered Tiew’s role in supporting the investigation. Well, Tiew had moved a bit too hastily, and Zhou had waited patiently all these years bearing in the appearance of complacency his loss. But he had Tiew’s name at the top of his little mental black book of slights.
Zhou shook himself out of his musings. Tiew was still talking with Woo listening seriously.“… and so the French know of the ships and have resolved to send their new planetary probe straight at the aliens to try and communicate. The other European States have been in a quiet turmoil over France’s acting unilaterally and hijacking the probe for their exclusive use.”
Zhou cut in. “ Let us agree to supply our contacts in the French opposition party with enough damning proof of the Prime Minister’s arbitrary actions.” The other two nodded in agreement, although Tiew at first seemed ready to say something. “I must excuse myself, gentlemen. My old age makes my bones ache when I have been in one position too long,” Zhou said. They may realize that comment was directed at their tardiness, or maybe not. He didn't care. He motioned a young man in a dark suit forward to the table. “My attaché will cover the rest of the routine details of this meeting.” And I will go and find out everything about Mr. Chiang and his connections to Tiew.
The President climbed down the stairs from Air Force One to the tarmac. It was good to be back again. Even though it was a fairly short trip, the politicking was getting old. He looked down at the base of the stairs. Bob Farington was standing beside the stewardess there. That couldn’t be good news.
When he got to the base of the steps, he thanked the stewardess and shook her hand then he waved at the crowd of cameramen and people who had come to see him arrive. He continued to wave as he leaned over to Bob and said softly, “You have something to tell me?”
Bob took his elbow and walked with him to the big black limo as he kept waving to the crowd. Quietly he said, “I’ll brief you in the car.”
After they got in the limo, Bob began. “Jim, we have a report just in from the astronomers. They may have found the aliens.”
“So our bogey finally showed up?”
“More like bogies, sir.” Bob cleared his throat. “A Russian astronomer found them first. Sakarov of all people! Then, Hazarian in Flagstaff sent in a report. Seems like everyone has figured out how to find them at once.”
“More than one ship?”
“Yes sir. The current estimate varies from 12 to 25.”
“That many?” The President said with surprise. “How did they manage to find them?”
Bob grinned. “You know how we talked about those ships being stealth? With radar and light deflectors, or absorbers, that prevent almost any detection. Only the sheer size of the ships is what finally exposed them. They realized that since these things are black bodies, they couldn’t be detected directly. It seems that a black body will still block starlight coming from behind it. So the astronomers began watching for any observations of stars being occulted in the area of our sighting. Occulted means having their light blocked. They were detected by watching for stars that winked off as the ship passed in front of it.”
“Well, that’s really something,” the President said admiringly. He wasn't sure he'd have had a clue as to how to find those things if they were that stealth. "Good trick."
“Yes sir.” He went on, “There are plenty of stars out there. All we had to do was wait till an alien ship passed in front of a few. As the astronomers watched, a number of stars in one small area blinked.
“So! We've found them. That’s important,” the President said with excitement.
“The real importance Mr. President, is that the winking stars were not occurring in one straight course.” Seeing the President did not understand, he went on. “So they decided that it appears that most likely, we are going to be dealing with more than one ship. As the astronomers kept looking and checking the blinking stars, they did some calculations and it turned out there were at least a dozen winking stars spread out so much that no one ship doing could possibly be doing that. There appears to be a cluster of winking stars occurring all in the same area at once, and they’re not on the same course. The astronomers realized we had to be dealing with a number of more ships than just one.”
“That’s pretty smart thinking. So if we keep watching the blinking stars, we can actually start to track them now.”
“And we have been, sir. We found that they are moving in towards us and there seems to be little doubt that they’re in a high speed cometary type of orbit that will bring them in close behind our moon in a few weeks. We think that is intentional for added concealment. Why they are adding even more concealment on top of their stealth ability is a mystery still. Some of our advisors felt these moves appeared ominous.”
“Military, I suppose?” the President asked.
Bob just nodded. “We’re redirecting the Hubble telescope onto them. If there is anything to be seen, that is going to be our best chance now that we know exactly where to look.”
“Great, Bob. You are all doing a fine job.”
“One more thing Mr. President. NASA thinks we may have lost one of our probes that we’ve sent to the outer planets.”
Veta, opened the door to the cubicle she shared with Enet as quietly as possible and listened hoping she was asleep. Hearing nothing, Veta tried to slip into the room in silence. But she’d just spent the late cycle in the canteen with the Grounders drinking annoul, a fermented drink made from the algae vats. She staggered and leaned against the wall. The Grounder’s way of welcoming a new member was to get that clone as severely inebriated as they could. Veta wished again that she’d left earlier. She tried again to sneak across the room to the storage bins, but when she headed straight, her body veered severely left of its own volition. Veta stumbled into the console and several mementos on the desktop fell making, to her ears, a terrible clatter.
“Veta? What are you doing?” Enet cried. Suddenly Enet was there, staring at her angry and accusing. “I knew it! You join the Grounders and now you start to act like one.”
“Enet, don’t be so angry,” Veta slurred. “Ish not that way.”
“Fool. I should expect this much of a Warrior who wants to get herself killed. Joining the Grounders was one thing, Veta. Letting them turn you into one of them will ruin your chances for Ship-Mother.”
“Thash a long way off, Enet.” Veta noticed her mouth worked less well than she’d hoped. From Enet’s frown, Veta knew Enet had noticed as well.
“Longer and longer from the way you’re acting. I don’t know why I waste my time with you. You don’t care what I think or how I feel. You just go off being a stupid Warrior over and over.”
“You are just upset because I spent any time at all away from you. You can’t ever be comfortable alone. You have to have me entertain you every day.” Veta knew guiltily that she’d brought this fight on herself by coming home in this condition. Still, intoxicated, Veta poured out all her pent up grievances. Being in this condition just gave Enet an excuse to be righteous as well as angry and hurt. She was never fair.
“Entertain me? Every day? Oh, so I never am entertaining to you, am I? Am I just a mass around your neck? How can you treat me this way? Am I just a pleasue clone to be cast off after one dalliance?”
“Enet. Stop this. You are hysterical. You are acting irrationally.”
“Irrational? I’ll show you irrational. I’m relocating back to my berth in Tech Section. With that, Enet whirled away and stomped back to the sleep cubicle and violently slapped her hand against the door controls. “Oh excrement. She’d going to hold this against me for a long time.” Veta sighed, “Well, guess I’m sleeping on the floor.”
De Havaland sat at his impeccable desk and stared at the data sheets that accompanied the latest of Randall’s reports. Despite Randall’s blunt aggressive American mannerisms, he had turned out to be a virtual genius at finding the alien visitors. Although that unsettled De Havaland’s sense of propriety to have such a person become the shining star of his observatory, at least he had gotten credit for the first findings.
De Havaland reached over to where his single shot of 100-year old Scotch Whiskey sat. He took a gentle sip. At this altitude, alcohol would have a greatly intensified affect, which was why he metered out his “medicinal” doses so carefully. But this report had him worried. He kept poring over it looking for a fatal flaw that he was sure had to be there.
Randall had started finding alien ships, and then found more, and then just kept on finding more. James had held onto this report for almost a week now. Afraid to pass it on, and afraid to hold it any longer. There had to be a mistake in Randall’s methodology, or something. To keep finding ships! It was bad enough to get the repost at the beginning of the week and see the number he had found. But since then, he had just continued all week finding them. And once he knew how to watch for them, he got even better at finding them. As he got better he kept finding more! And smaller ships as well as big ones!
De Havaland held his head in his hands. He knew he had to pass this along, but he was so conflicted. It had to be wrong. It had to be. And if he passed it along, he’d be a laughing stock for having fallen for that obnoxious American student’s mistakes. But, if he didn’t pass it along, and another astronomer beat him to releasing these findings, then he’d be upstaged again. Confound Ammad Hazarian for being so damned good at his astronomy! But if it wasn’t him, it would be that McKinney. Or, he felt his panic rising again, God forbid it were that Russian Popov. Popov was famous for finding planets around far-flung stars. It they were really there, then Popov would be sure to find them and release a report to his Russian masters before Dehavaland could get his in.
Oh, he moaned. Prestige in Astronomy was so elusive and so fickle. He could be renowned today and next week nobody. Who would have thought that some junior grad student working his thesis on the side would make the discovery of a century. He took another sip of his whiskey and saw that the glass was empty. Confound it. What a time to have the spigot run dry! He looked at his bottle. It lasted a long time up here, using only a shot here and there. Surely a second, once, wouldn’t hurt. He poured it to the brim of his little glass, a little more than his first carefully measured dose. Then he set the bottle down and took a drink.
He looked at the report again. He was sure that if he ran the numbers one last time, he’d find the mistake. He was a senior astronomer with a world-wide reputation, how could he keep missing Randall’s error? “Damn,” he murmured. “Clarice will have to send this tomorrow if I can’t find the error.” Just a bit more, he thought and sipped his drink again.
If Randall was right though, that Hazarian would be finding the same thing anytime. After all, he’d disproved Hawking’s last theorem. He was a threat to DeHavaland’s right to fame. How could he be right so often? I am as perceptive as him, he thought giddily. Or was that, he? The English escaped him just now. Where was that shot glass? Well, just a sip from the bottle and he’d put it away. Yes. But first, one more look at that blasted Randall’s notes. None of it made any sense.
After another hour or so of pouring over the calculations, he sat back distraught. He still couldn’t find the error. Twice he thought he had it, but he found only his own errors. He was getting fuzzy. Must be he’s tired. He reached for the bottle again, only to find it empty. Had he drank it all? DeHavaland buried his face in his hands. He hiccupped and began to cry. It wasn’t fair. There were too many. He ruffled through Randall’s calculations again. There’s too many of them. Too many. Why are there so many?