THE TORCH BEARERS
Overcoming adversity is nothing new to Chris Cooper. He did it as Mission Director for President Olivia Kane when the United States returned to the Moon and claimed the mineral rights to the Helium-3 deposits beneath the Shackleton crater. Now, as President, he must do it again.
For millennia, the Enferians have ruled the Galaxy with an iron hand, ruthlessly eliminating nascent civilizations that refuse to subjugate themselves to the totalitarian requirements of the Empire. The Nzuri, an advanced space-faring race much like humans, went to war with the Enferians and nearly won. Now, it is mankind's turn.
The sighting of an Enferian probe over Mars is followed 5.2 years later by a deadly attack on Olympus, the capitol and largest city of the red planet. Meanwhile, another probe is sighted over Beijing. Does that mean an attack on the Earth will follow in another 5.2 years? If so, the Earth is not prepared to defend itself, much less take the war to the Enferian's home world.
Can Chris mobilize the nations of the world to act? Will the Earth be ready for the next Enferian attack? Can it defeat the Enferians in the next Galactic war? Or will the Earth and all of its inhabitants end up like Bantu, the home planet of the Nzuri--a dust ring circling the sun? Find out in the thrilling third book of the Apollo Evolutions series.
Rainier Hotel, Seattle, WA
Chris Cooper slipped out a side door of the Rainier Hotel, Seattle’s newest and most lavish waterfront property, and hoped no one would notice as he made his way to the end of the pier leading to the marina. It was deserted except for a couple too busy making out to notice a bored partygoer in search of some fresh air. He figured he’d escape detection for a few moments, at least. After the speeches and the media interviews it was nice to be in a place where he could clear his head of all the political bullshit and just enjoy the moment. Besides, it was a beautiful spot with a postcard outlook on Elliott Bay and the Puget Sound. After so many years on the east coast, he’d forgotten how much he enjoyed the Pacific Northwest. Every moment here was a sensory banquet that nourished his body and spirit.
In sharp contrast with the wild celebration going on inside the Grand Ballroom, home of Cooper Presidential Election Headquarters, Elliott Bay was so still the voices of passengers on the Bainbridge Island ferry carried clearly from over half a mile away. They faded as the ferry slowly churned past Alki Point into the Puget Sound, a vast pool of ink, featureless yet menacing to the captains piloting the vessels across it. He’d been awed by the vastness of space in much the same way years before, during his first and only space walk outside the International Space Station. In retrospect, he had to admit “awed” really didn’t capture his feelings then. “Scared shitless” was a much more apt term. The thought brought a smile and an unfamiliar nostalgia over the long forgotten memory.
“I thought I saw you sneak out.” The voice belonged to Danielle DuBois, his wife. He’d been so wrapped up in his thoughts he’d not heard her approach. Now well into her sixties, she didn’t look a day over forty-five. She still had the nicest ass of any woman he’d ever seen and her shoulder-length auburn hair still gave her the fiery look that had drawn him to her so many years before. Who cared if color from a bottle helped maintain its youthful glow?
His mood brightened with her company. “I needed some air.” Chris was a natural introvert. Parties drained him of energy and after a while he had to take a timeout to recharge.
The breeze off Elliott Bay had a bite to it and Dani nuzzled close. “I don’t remember November being this cold.”
He wrapped her in his tuxedo jacket. “It was almost fifty years ago when we last were here. The Earth shifted on its axis at least three times since then.”
She laughed at his lame joke, one only another geek would really appreciate, but she’d grown to understand his quirky sense of humor.
He pointed at the crescent moon. “You never saw that back then either.” The lights of Tycho City were clearly visible. The crater was enclosed under a translucent dome made of carbon nano tubes, a Chinese invention, and was home to almost twenty thousand people.
“Do you wish you were still Mission Director?”
“I’d probably be working on the Titan expedition if I were.” The first manned landing on Saturn’s largest moon was making headlines as the farthest man had ventured from Earth. Had he not served as Chief of Staff to President Kane, the mission would have been his. But Kane had asked and he was not in the practice of saying no to the President, especially after she’d been so instrumental in making him a success. From there, the path to his own presidency had been too alluring for him to turn back.
Pointing to the ferry, now just a pinpoint of light, he said, “The ferry reminded me of how it felt to be in space.” He’d been to the International Space Station once and that was enough. He’d not fared well in zero-g, but his one and only experience outside the ISS, in open space, had left an indelible mark.
“I was just one man, a pinpoint of light like that ferry.”
She gave him a puzzled look. “My, my, you really were on a tangent. You must have been very insecure.”
He smiled, amused, and then turned serious. “You don’t appreciate the immensity of the universe until you’ve seen it from space.
“I’ve heard stories about other astronauts who had similar reactions.”
His voice turned to a whisper. “I felt the hand of God.” Aside from calling himself a Christian, he was not a religious person, preferring instead the ordered discipline of science and engineering, but there was no denying a force beyond anything he could possibly conceive had touched him that moment so long ago. At the time he was taken aback in awe and a little frightened, unsure what to make of it, all feelings quite uncharacteristic for a Mission Director. So he’d kept the whole thing to himself and eventually filed the memory in a remote archive where his conscious mind would be the least likely to stumble across it.
“I haven’t thought about that in years. I can’t imagine why it suddenly popped into my mind. Do you think I’m nuts?”
Dani kissed him on the cheek. “Not at all. God works in strange and wonderful ways.” The look on her face told him his words had touched her heart.
“Do you think it was God?”
“What else could it be?”
The two of them lingered on the pier for several more minutes until Dani broke the silence. “Did you see that?”
“What?” He’d been lost in thought, still wrapped up in the memory of his one and only space walk.
She pointed north. “That bright star blinked three times.”
Chris looked in that direction. He was pretty sure it wasn’t Venus. “It must be Arcturus or Vega. They are the two brightest stars in the northern hemisphere.”
It blinked again, three times.
“Did you see it?” she said. Her voice was tinged with excitement. “Could it be some sort of signal, like an SOS?”
Chris chuckled at her naiveté. “There must be some pretty big atmospheric disturbances tonight. Stars don’t turn off and on by themselves.” It was all an act, part of her thirst for life that never ceased to amaze and amuse him. She was always coming up with new and unusual glimpses of the world.
Putting on a playful pout she said, “I still think it was a signal. Anyway, I’m about to freeze my ass off.”
He laughed. “That would be a tragedy. I can see the headlines now: ‘World’s greatest ass bites the dust.’”
“Why, Mr. President, how kind of you to notice.” It was the first time she’d addressed him by his new title, a proud moment for both of them, and one he would remember and cherish the rest of his life.
He kissed her playfully on the neck and patted her behind. “I love it when you call me that.”
He took her hand in his and the two of them walked back to the main ballroom, briefly catching the eye of Jake Raptor, the leader of the Secret Service detail assigned to protect the President-elect. A red, white and blue striped banner above the ballroom door read, “Cooper for President.” Pasted over it was a placard bearing the words “We Won!” scrawled in what appeared to be lipstick. The sign and the thought of re-entering the scene inside made his temples pound. After rummaging through his pockets in search of a pain reliever, all he could come up with were antacid tablets, not much help.
“Here, take one of these,” Dani said, handing him a gel cap. The woman was a telepath. She always had what he needed.
As soon as the couple reentered the main ballroom, Congresswoman Bentley, the Speaker of the House, approached them with a young man and several photographers in tow. Known for her outlandish headwear, she wore a tight fitting skullcap crowned with what appeared to be a bird’s nest containing a red satin-covered egg. While it was without doubt frightfully ugly, Chris knew the headpiece would be touted as high fashion on the society blogs the next morning. He bit back a laugh and greeted the congresswoman warmly, giving her a polite peck on each cheek, befitting her constitutional status as the third in line for the presidency.
“Congratulations on your election,” she said with a forced smile. The congresswoman had to be in her late 70s. She’d butted heads with Chris more than once during the past thirty years, particularly over the funding for the Moon mission during Chris’ first time as Mission Director. After the discovery of the vast deposits of Helium-3 in the Shackleton crater near the Moon’s South Pole, however, she’d thrown her lot in with Chris and become a full-fledged supporter of a permanent American base on the Moon.
She’d also developed a taste for younger men and had no qualms about flaunting her power if it got her what she wanted in the bedroom. Unless he was extremely well preserved or was the beneficiary of some extraordinary cosmetic surgery, Chris put her escort in his early forties and clearly out of his element. He had the wide-eyed expression commonly found on a deer about to be impaled on the grill of a speeding pickup. No doubt he had other attributes that offset his obvious insecurities.
“Have you seen the latest Helium-3 revenue figures?”
Of course he had, but he wouldn’t deny her the opportunity to toot her own horn. “No, I have not.”
“Well,” she paused, her chest expanding in triumph, “They are 37% above the target.” She squealed with delight and Chris wondered if the young man had just goosed her. Several cameras flashed, capturing the moment for the congresswoman’s constituents.
“Terrific!” He wished like hell she would put a lid on it. The United States was the new Saudi Arabia of the energy world. The Chinese were hopping mad, and had filed a claim with the WTO alleging monopoly price gouging. Why rub China’s nose it?
Having completed her photo op, the Congresswoman’s attention quickly shifted to more pleasurable matters. Taking her consort by the arm she said, “Come along, darling, I’m thirsty.” The pair headed toward the bar, much to Chris’ relief.
“That pretty much takes the cake,” Dani said, her eyes fixed on the odd pair. She nudged him in the ribs. “Dimitri Molotov is headed your way.”
Molotov was the Russian delegate to the Confederation, the global economic alliance of the world’s twelve largest economies. Out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw the rotund Communist waddling his way across the room carrying a small silver tray with several shot glasses. With his more than ample midriff swaying from side-to-side with each step, he struggled to keep the tray level. By the time he wheezed to a halt, beads of sweat dotted his forehead and he was red in the face — a coronary waiting to happen.
“We must toast your victory, Mr. President.” Molotov handed Chris and Dani each a shot.
“How nice of you,” Chris said, accepting the toast. “But the inauguration is still two months away. I have to be sworn in first.”
“Ah, yes, I keep forgetting. It is so much easier in my country. The old President’s body is hauled away, the blood stains are removed from the carpet, and the new President moves in that afternoon.” The Russian roared with laughter.
“Your system does have its advantages,” Chris said with a sardonic smile.
“A toast!” The Russian curled back his botoxed lips to expose stainless steel incisors, no doubt relics of Soviet dentistry, and pounded his shot in one gulp. Judging by the redness of his nose this was not his first of the night.
Chris followed suit and bit back the fire that suddenly filled his throat and chest. He nodded in approval and placed the empty glass back on the tray. “Very smooth.” Smooth as rubbing alcohol.
Dani was less tactful. “That’s got quite a kick,” she rasped. Her face was flushed.
“Would you care for another?”
“No,” she said. “If I have another, someone might try to take advantage of me.”
Molotov pursed his lips. “Where did you find this heavenly creature, Mr. President?”
Chris shuddered to think what sort of perversions were running through the derelict’s alcohol-ravaged mind. “On a ski slope, believe it or not,” said Chris with a smile and wink to Dani. “She had no idea what she was doing, so I packed her skis down the hill while she slid down on her behind.”
Molotov laughed. “Followed by a few vodkas at the lodge, am I right?”
“More like the local beer, but you have the idea.”
“No one can blame you for wanting to make the most of the situation. Forgive me, my dear,” he nodded to Dani, “May I have a word with your husband in private?”
“Excuse me while I go powder my nose,” purred Dani, and headed for the bar.
“Wrong way,” murmured Chris. As if she’d heard him, she looked back over her shoulder and winked.
Guiding Molotov to a secluded corner of the ballroom, Chris said, “What did you wish to discuss, Dimitri?” The Russian was well versed in the innermost workings, and secrets, of the Asian Economic Sphere. Chris was genuinely curious where this conversation might lead.
“I thought you would want to know your old friend and colleague from the Mars mission showed up unexpectedly just a few minutes ago. He has urgent business he wishes to discuss.”
His old friend? Chris furrowed his brow. Molotov must mean Yang Zintao, the President of the Confederation, formerly President of the People’s Republic and the co-Director, along with Chris, of the US-China Mars mission almost twenty-five years previously.
“Any idea what’s on his mind?”
“Something to do with Helium-3 production quotas.”
Chris nodded. The ink on the year’s production goals for the Shackleton mine was barely dry and already China had a beef.
“Thank you, Dimitri,” he said with all the sincerity he could muster. The news came as no surprise — Yang was in the hip pocket of Beijing. He made small talk for a few minutes, and then bid the Russian farewell, claiming he had to find Dani.
“The pleasure is all mine,” the Russian said just as cordially as he took Chris’ outstretched hand in a grip as limp as a dead cod.
It only took Chris a few seconds to spot Dani on the other side of the ballroom near the elaborate ice sculpture depicting an eagle holding a salmon in its talons, surrounded by Chris’ campaign manager, Tony Haster, the senior Senator from the State of Washington, and Yang Zintao himself. Accentuated by a maroon floor-length evening gown, her auburn hair was radiant in the ballroom mood lighting, making the three gentlemen look like moths circling a flame. As he neared the group, Chris overheard part of their conversation.
“So you see,” said Dani, “The only way to catch king salmon is trolling with cut plug herring.”
“I’ve had pretty good luck mooching with a jig,” said the Senator. “Caught a 38 pounder off the mouth of the Columbia last year using my favorite ‘white magic’ jig.”
Catching her eye, Chris gave a subliminal signal for her to let him into the conversation. Stepping aside to make a space for him in the group, Dani said, “There you are, Honey. Did you get lost again?”
“Only on the way back,” he quipped, to the amusement of the other three.
“It is great to see you again, Chris,” Yang said warmly. Your lovely wife is as charming as ever.” It had been at least twenty years since he’d last seen Yang but his old friend still looked much the same, save for a bit of gray around the temples. His piercing brown eyes looked every bit as capable of withering anyone who crossed him. Chris remembered them well and had no desire to experience Yang’s fury ever again. Sadly, that was not to be.
“It is great to see you again, Mr. President,” Chris said.
“I was attending a Confederation executive meeting when I learned of the election results, so I decided to congratulate you in person.” The world headquarters of the Confederation, the global alliance of the world's twelve largest economies, was in Vancouver, British Columbia, just a short hop from Seattle by commuter jet.
“How kind of you.”
“It seems we’ve followed similar paths.”
“I hope our friendship will allow us to undo the damage done by your predecessor.”
“Damage?” Chris knew damned well what Yang meant. His predecessor, Juan Martinez, had made the most of the Helium-3 conundrum. It was the cleanest, most efficient fusion reactor fuel ever devised, but the only abundant source of it was the remains of an ancient comet beneath the Shackleton crater near the Moon’s South Pole. And that was controlled by the United States. The Martinez administration had profited handsomely from its virtual monopoly, by controlling the supply of Helium-3 to assure the highest prices possible. The United States had become for Helium-3 what the Middle East had once been for oil.
“Don’t play games with me, Chris,” Yang snapped. The Senator and Tony tensed in unison, caught off guard by Yang’s outburst.
“No need to get upset,” Chris returned smoothly. “I am a firm believer the Helium-3 market must be rational. Just check on my campaign platform.”
“We have to put up with President Martinez and the lame duck Congress before there is any hope for a change in energy policy. How long do you expect us to wait?” Chris realized Yang was about to make a scene. Why hadn’t he gone through the usual channels and set up a private meeting?
Dani broke in, “How is Wendy?”
Surprisingly, the question seemed to disarm Yang completely, and for a moment he seemed at a loss for words. Finally, he forced out a halting response. “Actually, she just visited our youngest son, Han, and his wife at Clavius. They’ve given us our first granddaughter.”
“How exciting,” said Dani. “We don’t have children of our own but I can imagine what a thrill it must be for her. I’ll bet she enjoyed her return to the Moon after so many years on Earth.”
“I’m sure she did,” Yang said almost wistfully. “The Moon is filled with memories for her. Wendy and I met and fell in love there.”
A comment like that was a little too personal, even for an election victory party. Chris found it odd for Yang to be so informal, especially with strangers present. Why the flip-flops from anger to sadness? Why was he wearing his emotions on his sleeve? Was something wrong between Yang and his wife? He couldn’t very well ask under the circumstances.
It took five more minutes of small talk before the Senator and Tony made polite excuses and headed for the bar, leaving Dani, Chris and Yang to talk about old times.
“I still remember the look on your face when I let it slip that Wendy and I were in love. You looked like I’d just dropped a hot rock in your lap.”
Chris laughed. “You did that on an open video feed. Half the world was watching.”
“That sort of thing happens all the time on the soaps,” Dani said, “but no one ever expected it to happen halfway between Earth and Mars.”
“I suppose so,” Yang said. A shadow cast itself across his features and his voice dropped to a whisper. “Those were magical times.”
Yang’s sudden display of melancholy caught Chris off guard again. He glanced at Dani and caught the quizzical look that told him she’d seen it also. Something was wrong. He’d known Yang and his wife too long to simply overlook it. “Yang, what’s happening? Is there something wrong?”
Yang scanned the room as if checking for eavesdroppers or listening devices. When he turned his gaze fully on Chris, his eyes were wet. “Wendy is dead.” He choked back a sob and lowered his head.
Chris started to hug his friend and then pulled back, not wanting to draw attention to them. Between the Secret Service agents covertly placed in the room and others watching via surveillance, their every movement was under a microscope. After an awkward pause he managed to say, “What happened?”
“When she found out she had terminal cancer her bucket list had only one item on it – visit her Moon-born granddaughter Malia. After a frightful ordeal she eventually made it to Clavius and got her wish. Unfortunately her fame preceded her and she was quickly drawn into the Moon independence movement and a bitter dispute between the Helium-3 miners and the Chinese mine operators.”
“I remember the NSA brief on some sort of uprising at a rally inside the Clavius mining settlement. The miners killed a senior Chinese official and several of his body guards. I recall the whole thing started when a gunman burst onto the stage and shot several of the speakers.”
Yang nodded solemnly. “Wendy was one of them.”
“I had no idea. It never occurred to me that Wendy might be one of them. As I recall the Chinese were withholding the names of the dead and injured pending an investigation. That was the last I heard.”
“I thought it best not to publicize her death. She was so popular among the miners I was concerned that news of her death would have been like pouring gasoline on a roaring fire. We leaked a false story about how she'd been taken to Earth for treatment.” Yang looked like he was on the verge of tears. “In just a short time, she touched the hearts of many. In the end, her death led to reforms and much needed improvements in the mines. She would gladly have traded all of the fame and notoriety for five more minutes with Malia.”
“My God, I’m so sorry,” said Chris. Aside from empathizing with his friend, the news of Wendy’s death hit him hard. She’d been the Nation's preeminent female astronaut and a member of the crews of both the Moon and Mars missions that vaulted Chris to the Presidency. After the Mars mission, he’d kept in touch with her for several years. Once she married Yang, moved to Beijing and had the two boys, however, he’d lost track of her. Her illness and sudden death were complete surprises. No wonder he couldn’t find the words to express how he really felt. The best he could do was a well intentioned but lame platitude. “Is there anything I can do?”
“I don’t know. I’m a total wreck. All I can think about is what I might have done better, how I betrayed her, what I would do differently.” Yang’s voice trailed off.
Chris glanced at Dani, appealing for help. Just as she had a thousand times during the campaign, Dani bailed Chris out of the awkward moment. She took Yang’s hands in hers. “Come stay with us for a few days. It will do you good.”
“I don’t think I can. Seeing the two of you here reminds me of her. I know she is gone but somehow I keep expecting her to reappear, like nothing has happened. When she does not, I feel like someone has carved out a huge chunk of my heart. I’m empty inside.”
Chris would never have expected Yang to open up in such a public fashion. The man must be devastated to care so little about exposing himself this way. It was completely out of character. Which was why Chris knew he had to find a way to help out his friend. After all, he told himself, if the tables were reversed Yang would do the same for me. So despite his desire for a few days of much-needed peace and solitude, he said, “Dani’s right. Tomorrow, we are headed for Palm Springs for a little R & R. Would you like to join us? You can relax and we can share war stories, play some golf.”
Yang started to warm up to the idea. “Since Wendy’s passing I’ve kept myself busy every minute. I guess I was avoiding having to face the fact she is gone. Seeing you two brought back all those emotions. Perhaps now is the time to start coping with them.”
“Then let us help you.”
“I can’t promise I will be good company.” Yang looked from Chris to Dani, searching for reassurance.
“No matter. Some quality time together will do us all good.”
“I accept your invitation.” His words were barely audible. He seemed to be on the verge of breaking. “I must go.” A newswire photographer appeared from nowhere, blocking his way. “With your permission, Mr. President.” Anxious to be rid of the interloper, Chris nodded. He had no idea the shot would end up one of the most widely viewed images of the decade.
The camera flashed and Yang hurried for the exit.
“The poor man,” Dani said.
The sight of his friend in so much pain tore at Chris’ heart. He felt strangely helpless. Not even the President-elect of the United States could bring Wendy back.
Clavius Mining Station, Moon
Seated on a park bench in the Commons, the largest gathering space in the Clavius mining settlement, Yang Jin, oldest son of Yang Zintao, was engrossed in the morning edition of the Luna Times. The news reports were all about the worldwide hysteria that had been triggered by the realization man was not alone. The crystal his mother Wendy brought back from Mars was far more than the glittering round stone that caught her eye while exploring a strange rockslide during a routine EVA on the planet’s surface. It was some sort of alien device, the product of an extraterrestrial intelligence. If his mother were still alive, she would be besides herself with anguish over all the heartache and fear she had caused.
Yang Jin cringed at the photo of the trashed remains of the Baldacchino di San Pietri, the 30 meter tall pavilion that once stood above the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica, one of several priceless artifacts destroyed in what now was being called the “St. Peter’s riot.” He was quite familiar with the works of Bernini, having spent his junior year in Rome studying Italian architecture, art history and Italian women. He’d admired the intricate bronze columns many times, and now they were nothing but a pile of twisted scrap.
Days after the world learned of the crystal and its extraterrestrial origins, over one hundred thousand faithful gathered in St. Peter’s square in Rome, seeking assurances from the Holy Father that Biblical references to mankind applied solely to humans. When the Pope declined to issue an encyclical pronouncement to that effect, claiming further research was necessary, the crowd went mad, overwhelmed the Swiss Guards and sacked St. Peter’s Basilica. Clearly things were getting out of hand back on Earth. Something had to be done to contain the growing alien hysteria.
If only his younger brother, Yang Han, had been more careful about security. Two weeks earlier, a copy of his preliminary analysis of the crystal, in which he opined it was of extraterrestrial origin, appeared on an obscure internet site hosted in Russia. Less than an hour later the document had gone viral and in less than a day the news media and internet blogs were rife with unfounded speculation, hysteria really, under the guise of providing viewers with the “facts.” Soon unemployed preachers, kooks and crackpots all over the world had a new cause, a reason to frighten people into spending their money for anything that offered security and protection from the aliens — bomb shelters, repellant, survival gear, the list went on almost indefinitely.
A few feet away from the park bench, irrigation water gurgled over a series of baffles into a holding pond bordered by a stand of lemon trees. How weird. Earth was in turmoil and here on the Moon life went on as if nothing had happened. Perhaps that was why he’d come to appreciate this particular spot. It was an island of tranquility in the midst of an artificial world, surrounded by the artificial light and recycled air of an underground network of workshops, residential quarters, and equipment bays.
Originally an open pit Helium-3 mine, the Commons was now protected from the vacuum of the Moon’s surface by a translucent dome reinforced with carbon nano tubes, the same material used in the Tycho City dome. It allowed natural light to filter through during the lunar day, nurturing the crops, fruit trees and vegetable gardens that dotted the floor and the terraced sides of the vast space. A network of irrigation channels, drip systems and grow lights provided nutrients and light. Along with the algae farms, the Commons produced almost all of the fresh fruit and vegetables needed to sustain the local population.
Yang Jin shifted his attention to the Times article on the American presidential election and what it might mean for the newly independent Moon colonies. What grabbed his attention, however, was the side bar on the relationship between the President-elect, Chris Cooper, and his dad.
The story questioned the widely held perception the two men were still close friends, going back to the joint China-United States Mars mission, before Yang Jin was even born. Quoting unnamed sources, the article reported a heated exchange between the so-called friends during the Cooper election headquarters celebration in Seattle the previous evening, evidently over Helium-3 trade imbalances. According to the article, Yang seemed very upset and left abruptly. The accompanying photo showed President-elect Cooper and his wife looking on with obvious concern and his dad struggling to hold back tears. The caption read, “President-Elect Cooper Clashes With China’s President.”
Looking up from his newspaper, Yang Jin wondered if Yang Han had forgotten about their lunch date. Caught up in the baby feeding schedule or immersed in his archeological research, his younger brother frequently lost track of time, making him habitually late for appointments and meetings. Accustomed to his unpredictability, Jin was about to write off the lunch date and fend for himself when Yang Han finally arrived, breathless from running the last few hundred meters from the auto-bus.
“Jin, sorry I’m late,” panted Yang Han. “I forgot what time it was.” As always, he spoke to his brother in English and addressed him by his given name, contrary to the traditional Chinese name convention, according to which the family name was followed by given name. In many ways, the boys were more American than Chinese, a testament to Wendy. Raising the boys in Beijing, she’d gone to great lengths to “Americanize” them. They spoke English at home, kept abreast of American pop culture and even followed American football and baseball. Four years at the University of Washington cemented the imprint process. When they returned to Beijing, Jin and Han felt like outsiders, too often the object of a disapproving look or a hushed rebuke. First Jin and then Han turned to the Moon as an escape, a new frontier where prejudice had no place.
“No worries,” said Jin sardonically. “I’ve been reading about Dad’s emotional breakdown.”
Jin handed him the flimsy. “Check out the article on page two.” Programmable thin film displays, or “flimsies,” had replaced paper on the Moon and in most places on Earth. For readers like Jin who were newspaper purists, the flimsy displayed text on both sides and had the look and feel of old style newsprint.
After a few minutes Han rolled it up and handed it back to Jin. “I feel sorry for the old guy. He’s not coping with Mom’s loss very well, is he?”
“He’s doing what he always has, burying himself in his work.”
“Maybe we should visit him before we take off for Mars.”
“We’ve got too much to do before we leave,” said Jin. “Besides, taking some time off to visit us will never occur to him. So don’t feel guilty.”
The advice was as much for himself as it was for Han. Yang paid very little attention to the boys growing up, preferring instead the rigors of political office. He’d been highly successful — witness his ascension to the Politburo and most recently appointment as the President of the Confederation. His success, however, had come at the expense of his relationship with Jin and Han. The fact was, there wasn’t one. Wendy had been the children’s primary care provider.
“How are you handling it?” asked Han.
“Hardly a day goes by without me thinking of her.” Just answering the question was painful. The weeks and months since her death had passed slowly and it was only just recently that he’d gone through an entire day without a nagging pain in his heart. Every now and then, however, a reminder of her would pop up unexpectedly, a piece of jewelry or an old photo, and the pain would return.
“Then why are you hanging out here, of all places?”
Jin glanced up at the terrace where Wendy had been shot while speaking to the protesting miners. “I guess being here makes me feel close to her.” He’d spent many sleepless nights going over his mother’s death, wondering what else he might have done to save her. But the sad truth was she was about to die from her cancer anyway and what she accomplished that day was her crowning achievement. The improved working conditions in the Clavius Helium-3 mines were testaments to her sacrifice.
“It still gives me the creeps,” said Han. “Can we go now?”
Onboard Chartered Jet to Palm Springs
Yang stirred at the gentle touch on his arm and for an instant imagined it was Wendy. His heart leapt and he opened his eyes. A young woman with a cheerleader smile knelt next to his seat.
“Excuse me, Mr. Yang. We’re about ready to land.”
Under other circumstances the attention of a beautiful young woman would have been quite flattering, even a little exciting, but today it was just another reminder of his loss. He took a deep breath and felt his heart begin to calm down, but as it slowed the gnawing ache returned. Wendy was gone.
“We’re about 50 miles north of Palm Springs.”
“Palm Springs?” His mind was still wrapped up with memories of Wendy.
She laughed nervously. “You’re on board a Gulf Stream that was chartered by President-elect Cooper. We picked you up at Boeing Field, just south of downtown Seattle. Do you remember?”
“Of course.” Yang could tell he was scaring the flight attendant. His memory was still hazy, but better to feign normalcy than risk being treated like the madman he obviously was.
“Great.” She sounded relieved. “Please check to be sure your seat belt is fastened.” She picked up his empty drink glass and headed back to the galley.
He made no note of how nicely her shapely body filled out the tight fitting uniform. He was too busy staring out the window, wondering what the hell he was going to do with his life. Just months before everything had been so good. His career had blossomed, Jin and Han were grown men starting fabulous careers, and Wendy was looking forward to being a grandmother for the first time. Then the damn cancer had turned everything upside down. Their marriage unraveled and Wendy stormed out, dead set on her trip to the Moon, when by all accounts of her doctors, she was in no condition to travel. In the end, the terrorist bullet killed her before the cancer did, but he still could not forgive himself for letting her go. Why hadn’t he stopped her?
The jolt from the wheels touching down told him they had landed. Better get a grip. Chris and Dani were old friends, not shrinks.
Clavius Mining Station, Moon
After lunch, a delicious concoction of mashed algae seasoned with locally grown herbs and spices, Jin rummaged through his wallet and pulled out several Luna Credits to pay the bill. Han leaned across the lunchroom table, his brow furrowed with concern. “I have some important news.”
Taking a cue from his somber look, Jin assumed the news was bad and jumped to the wrong conclusion. “The Bank has decided not to lend us the money.”
Han seemed surprised. “Whatever gave you that idea? No, this is far more serious.”
“What the hell could be more serious than that?” demanded Jin. The two of them had spent the past year scraping together enough capital to finance an expedition to the Vallis Marineris, the equatorial rift that cut across the face of Mars.
“I want to show you my latest findings.”
Jin knew that meant the latest findings from Han’s efforts to decrypt and access the data files stored in the memory crystal Wendy had brought back from Mars. He was anxious to learn if his brother would be able to decipher the crystal in time for the Mars expedition, or at least extract some useful information about the origins and nature of the beings who created it.
“I hope you’re being more careful about where you keep your report.”
“Of course!” replied Han indignantly.
Jin tested him. “So where is the crystal?”
Han beamed. “Follow me.”
A short walk and several flights of stairs later, he stood with his brother before a two ton steel door with massive hinges and lock bars that would make any bank proud. Inside, the crystal and its elusive data files were waiting to welcome them, just as soon as Han fulfilled the required security protocols.
Han entered the security code and positioned his eye in front of the retina scanner. “This ought to do it,” he said.
“Maybe you’ve got the wrong code,” Jin said.
Han repeated the process, clearly disgusted. “I hate all this security. It gets in the way.”
“Just be grateful someone else has taken care of it.”
“Why should I? My security was working just fine.”
Jin rolled his eyes. Han’s idea of security was a closed desk drawer. He didn’t understand the crystal was the Hope Diamond to anyone interested in, or worried about extraterrestrial life. Acutely aware of his brother’s propensities, Jin came up with the idea to entrust the crystal to the newly independent Moon colonies on condition Han was allowed to unlock its secrets. The Mayor of Clavius Station, Wei Kentou, had jumped at the opportunity, knowing full well being the custodian of the crystal would lend legitimacy to his administration, and ever since the priceless artifact had been locked away in a specially constructed vault fifty feet underground.
The access light turned green and the lock bars slid back to the whir of hidden actuators.
“What did you do?” asked Jin.
“I haven’t a clue,” Han said on his way past the open vault door. Nor did he care as far as Jin could tell. His brother lived in a thin but very deep slice of reality.
Jin hurried after him, careful not to step on several empty packages of ready-to-eat snacks lying on the floor. As he entered the lab, Han handed him a flimsy.
“What’s this?” It looked like a child’s first attempt at coloring, nothing but random smears and scrawls in all sorts of colors.
“I think it is the master data file.”
“This is a coloring book. Where are the zeroes and ones?”
Han had a good laugh at Jin’s ignorance. “There is no reason why another civilization would adopt a binary system like ours. I think what we have here is a data structure based on color.”
“You’re way over my head,” Jin said. “All I really need to know is when you’ll have it deciphered.”
Han pondered the question and made a few calculations. Finally he had to admit he couldn’t come up with a good answer. Jin tried to help.
“How many data files do you think are stored inside the crystal?”
“Oh, a couple of trillion perhaps.”
“And it took how long to get this far with one file? Six months?”
“I’m off to a slow start, so what?”
Palm Springs, CA
That evening, Chris sat across the dinner table from his old friend and watched him devour his second helping of paella, the Spanish rice dish that Carmen, the housekeeper and cook, made using her mother’s secret recipe. It was Chris’ favorite. After an afternoon lounging by the pool, followed by a bottle of Spanish red from the wine cellar, Yang seemed rejuvenated, almost jubilant, a far cry from the lost soul he’d encountered the day before.
“How do you prepare the rice like this?” Yang said between mouthfuls. “I’ve never had anything like it.”
“Saffron,” Dani said. “Plus a few spices.”
Yang cleaned his plate and leaned back in his chair, causing the wicker back to creak in protest. “I don’t think I’ve felt this good in quite awhile. Thank you both.”
“It was our pleasure.”
He sipped his wine and then looked pensive. “Do you think it will ever stop hurting? Hardly a moment goes by when I don’t think of her.”
“Time has a way of healing all wounds,” Chris said. “When my Dad died last year it was several months before I could think about him without feeling sad. I was like an amputee who still feels a severed limb; it was as if he was still around. I’d pick up the phone to call and then have to remind myself he was gone.”
“That’s exactly how I’ve been about Wendy. On the trip out here, I fell asleep and when the flight attendant woke me, I saw Wendy. It was so real.” Choking on his words, he thrust his face into his trembling hands, unable to go on.
The sight of this once proud man sobbing openly tore at Chris’ heart. He searched for the right words, a gesture, anything that would comfort his friend and give him peace, but other than platitudes nothing came to mind.
Fortunately, Dani had the presence of mind to actually do something. She moved to Yang’s side and took him in her arms. He leaned into her with his face pressed against her neck and shuddered with grief. For a long time she quietly held him, letting his wracking sobs run their course. When his breathing resumed a regular rhythm, she gently released her hold, separating herself from him.
Yang whispered, “Thank you.”
An awkward silence followed. Finally, Yang turned to Chris and said, “You are a lucky man.” His sincerity was palpable.
This was not the first time Dani had saved Chris from an embarrassing situation. In many ways she was his alter ego, the anti-Chris always there to step in and turn a negative into a positive. Had Wendy meant that much to Yang?
“I’m sorry for the emotional outburst. I can’t get the image of Wendy out of my mind. I keep thinking I almost did her a great disservice.”
“When we first married I was an avowed atheist and she was a Catholic. I knew it was important to her that we marry and raise our children in the Church so I went along with her wishes because I loved her and frankly it made no difference to me at the time. Looking back on our life together though, I now know my secular view of the world ate away at her faith like acid. It took years but in the end she stopped attending mass and drifted away from the Church all together. Had it not been for a chance encounter with a Jesuit priest, she would have died like I will, facing the blackness of nothing, surviving only in the memories of those left behind. As it was, her last words were joyous — she’d found the way.”
“If she found the way why can’t you?” Dani asked.
Yang frowned and shook his head. “If I have a soul it is the servant of time.”
Dani looked to Chris for support. He was the scientist, after all.
“Time and space can be altered — in wormholes, for example — so why can’t the soul?” he said, grasping at straws. He was out of his depth here.
“That is just speculation,” Yang countered. “What proof do you have that a soul is immortal?” Chris had the feeling Yang wanted something incontrovertible. He wished he had that kind of proof.
“I have the word of Jesus Christ,” Dani said, saving his ass once again.
“I’ve lived my life in a secular world. I will die there. If there is an afterlife where I am reunited with Wendy, I will be pleasantly surprised.” Yang’s words were tainted with bitterness. Chris wondered if he would have the courage to face death believing the soul does not survive in one way or another. Suppose Yang was right? He squirmed in his chair, uncomfortable with the whole idea.
Dani came to the rescue again. “Think about Wendy for a minute and the legacy she left behind.”
Yang smiled at the thought. “You mean the crystal?”
“Yes. It’s an alien memory device, right?”
“That’s right,” he laughed ruefully. “And I had it made into a pendant. If our son, Han, had not questioned its origin, the damned thing would be lying in her jewelry box.”
“But she discovered the crystal in the first place.”
“That’s true and the media made a huge deal out of it. The funny thing is, she picked it up as a souvenir when we were on Mars, just another shell on the beach so to speak. Neither she nor I had any clue of its real significance until Han did the forensic analysis.”
“And now things are out of control,” said Chris grimly. “Have you seen the papers today?”
The morning papers were full of stories and eye witness accounts of the tragedy in Rome. As if not to be outdone, arsonists set fire to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, severely damaging the venerable New York City landmark. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. From the briefings by the National Intelligence spooks, Chris already knew about several doomsday cults determined to destroy the world before the aliens arrived. One of them, the New Alliance, was growing rapidly and apparently was well funded by anonymous donors.
“Isn’t Han still working on deciphering the data stored in the crystal?” said Dani.
“Yes, and not only that, he is about to leave for Mars. He hopes to uncover more about the mysterious creatures who created it.” Talk of his son had perked him up. Yang suddenly became quite animated, no doubt relieved to have the spotlight on someone other than Wendy, and went on for several minutes, describing Han’s work.
Chris listened patiently, but it quickly became evident neither Yang nor his son had the answers to the burning questions of the day. He interrupted Yang mid-sentence. “How soon before Han has something definitive? The world needs answers. Without them, I dare say there will be more tragedies.”
Yang became defensive. “I’m sure my son is doing all that he can.”
“Suppose we bring the crystal to Earth and let our intelligence agencies try to crack it. With all the computing power at our disposal we ought to get answers much faster than one man working in a lab on the Moon.”
Yang scowled. “Han deserves an opportunity to be the first to study the crystal. His mother wanted it that way.”
Chris backed off, unwilling to force Yang to wallow in his grief. “Perhaps we should give him a little more time.” Aside from the obvious pain the conversation would cause his friend, Chris knew full well there would be little support inside the Politburo for any sort of initiative that might be viewed as lending credibility to the alien threat. Thus far, China had been relatively free of the alien-phobia sweeping through other parts of the world. And with the growing tension between the two countries there was little chance the Chinese would agree to allow the United States to do the analysis on its own. The conversation was at a dead end.
Apparently Yang felt the same way. He looked at his watch. “It is late. I must get some sleep. I have an early morning flight to catch.”
“Can’t you stay another day?” Dani said. “Another day of rest would do you a world of good.”
“Perhaps, but I have urgent business in Beijing.”
Assuming it had something to do with Wendy’s death or perhaps the boys, Chris was concerned. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
His comment seemed to catch Yang by surprise. “Oh, this has nothing to do with Wendy’s passing. I am resigning as the President of the Confederation and resuming my role as President of the People’s Republic.” His matter-of-fact speech did nothing to mitigate Chris’ shock and surprise.
“Whatever for? The Confederation united the world’s twelve largest economies and is about to harmonize the world’s monetary system. Those are monumental achievements. Why walk away from them on the verge of success?”
Yang’s answer sucked the air out of his lungs. “Because China is leaving the Confederation.”
“What! You can’t be serious. Without China there can be no Confederation. The world’s economies will Balkanize into the old trading blocs.” Chris couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Yang shrugged. “So be it.”
Chris fought to keep his tone civil. Yang was about to destroy the world’s economic system and he didn’t seem to care one bit. Had his friend gone mad? “You can’t allow this to happen.”
“To quote one of your American clichés, frankly Chris, I don’t give a damn. China’s balance of trade is a disaster. The loss of its Moon colonies has pushed it to the verge of an economic collapse. It can no longer afford to import virtually all of the fuel for its fusion reactors at artificially inflated prices. So long as the United States controls the supply of Helium-3, that will be the case.”
The room had suddenly taken on a distinct chill, in sharp contrast to the shirt sleeve temperature outside. The old Yang stood before Chris; the confident leader unafraid of anyone or anything. But this reincarnation was spouting nonsense.
“So much for the spirit of cooperation,” Chris said.
Yang was not about to recant. “I realize the mess we are in was not of your making, but unfortunately you are the one who will have to clean it up. Meanwhile, my country cannot afford to wait while you figure out what to do.”
“This all seems so sudden, so unexpected. Are you behind China’s plan to withdraw?”
No surprise there. The Politburo was not known for precipitous actions. That left one last line of argument. It was risky but he had to convince Yang to reconsider. The stakes were too high. “Is it possible your thinking might be influenced by Wendy’s death?”
“Of course not,” Yang barked. Chris winced. He had crossed the line. “Unfortunately, I let my grief overcome me last night but thanks to you I now see things clearly again.”
Dani chimed in, “They say the grieving widower should not make any major life decisions for at least a year.”
Yang’s features softened. “As your husband knows all too well, this mess has been brewing for many years. I just chose to ignore it. When Wendy passed, I realized it was time for me to put aside my personal ambition and do what is right for my people. It is what she would have wanted me to do.”
“Even if it puts China and the United States at odds?” Chris asked in frustration. Wendy had been an American astronaut when she met Yang. What on Earth made Yang think she would ever condone anything that would increase the chances of a conflict between the US and China? It was sheer lunacy. Was there nothing he could do or say that would change Yang’s mind, bring him to his senses, before he led half the world’s population off of a cliff?
“Our countries have been rivals for many years. With the exception of a few minor skirmishes they’ve avoided serious military confrontation,” Yang said.
“Thanks to a little luck and some inspired leadership.”
“A healthy rivalry is a good thing, not something to be feared.”
“Perhaps, but we’ve known each other too long for me not to say what you are about to do is crazy. Is there anything I can do as President to stop this?” It sounded like begging, but Chris was out of options. He had to stop this train wreck.
“I’m afraid not, unless you are ready to open the Shackleton crater to mining by all nations.”
That was never going to happen as long as former President Martinez and the conservatives were still in control of the Congress. Chris pursed his lips and met Yang’s steely stare in silence.
“I didn’t think so,” Yang said. He rose and embraced Dani. As he did, he whispered something in her ear and then he offered his hand to Chris. “I hope we can remain friends in the years to come.” His tone and body language said otherwise.
Then he was gone, headed to his room, followed by his ever-present personal assistant, Chu, a strapping man with a neck the size of a Douglas fir and a conspicuous bulge under his right armpit.
As the sound of Yang’s footsteps on the tile floor faded in the distance, Chris turned to Dani. “What did he say to you just now?”
“Don’t end up like Wendy.”
What the hell did that mean? he wondered. Was it a threat? A warning? Just what was his old friend up to? Had he gone mad with grief? Or was all this an act designed to set up the United States for a fall?
Chris groaned and flopped into the nearest chair. He had a bad feeling, like he’d just stepped into an elevator in free fall. The crux of the matter was timing and for the new Administration it could not be worse. Former President Martinez and his right wing allies in Congress would jump on Yang’s announcement as an excuse for sanctions against China. Tensions with China would only increase, making it virtually impossible to put through the international trade reforms that were central to Chris’ campaign platform.
What worried him the most was the American spirit. After years gorging on the wealth from Helium-3 he wondered if the American people could muster the will to stand up to a resurgent China. The alien-phobia only exacerbated the situation. It was a smoldering pile of shit. He prayed it would not burst into flame before the tensions with China were resolved.
Then there was former President Olivia Kane, the architect of the US-China rapprochement. Cooperation with China and the establishment of the Confederation were her legacy. The Pacific Space Elevator and the joint US-China Mars mission were monuments to her success. They were about to become artifacts of a bygone era, like the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. When she heard the news, she would eat him for lunch.
Onboard Tycho City Shuttle
Han took a deep breath and tried to look relaxed, but the excitement of actually being on his way to Mars had him feeling more like a twelve year old about to step on his first roller coaster ride. Granted, he’d ridden the local shuttle from Clavius to Tycho City many times before, except then Tycho City had been his destination. This time, the City was just a connection, a stepping-stone to Mars. From there, an orbital shuttle would ferry him to the interplanetary liner, Mars Enterprise, currently in orbit around the Moon.
Han felt a nudge and glanced over at Jin. He was pointing out the viewport at something of great interest apparently. Craning his neck as far as it would go, Han managed to get a glimpse of the incoming orbital shuttle just as it fired its main engines in preparation for landing. Unlike the local shuttle, which was really nothing but a flatbed cargo hauler that lumbered along at two or three thousand feet, the orbital shuttle was more what he’d expected a real spacecraft to look like, a large sphere atop four spidery landing legs and a powerful chemical thrust engine, probably liquid hydrogen and oxygen judging by the color of the exhaust plume.
“Is that the orbital shuttle?” His voice was an octave higher than normal.
“Sure is,” said Jin, sounding calm and relaxed. A veteran of several Earth-Mars transits as a backup pilot for the freighters that ferried construction crews and supplies for the Photos space elevator, Jin had all the answers. As the older brother with the good looks and magical charm, he was always the first to act and the last to think, always ready with a quip or wry comment, and never bashful about using his physical talents to get what he wanted.
Han adjusted his black horn-rimmed glasses for the tenth time. “I hope Gloria and Malia are safe and sound.”
Jin laughed. “It’s only been a couple of hours since you said your goodbyes.”
“I know, but I miss them.”
Jin gave an exaggerated eye roll. “You’re not going to whine all the way to Mars, are you?”
“Cut me some slack, bro. At least I’ve got two people who love me. Who do you have?”
Han was a techno-geek with rudimentary social skills, preferring the company of a million-year-old archeological relic to a live human any day, with one incredible exception. Han was married to Gloria, the one person who, for reasons he could never fathom, found him charming and quite witty, so much so she’d given him a daughter named Malia. Until Wendy showed up, he’d been quite content with his life in Clavius, a devoted husband and father and a respected professional. Once he’d uncovered the truth about the crystal, however, his passion for archeology had taken over. As unthinkable as it had been before, the journey to Mars and the spot where Wendy found the crystal suddenly not only made sense, it became an obsession. Fortunately for him, Gloria had noticed his change in attitude and given him her unqualified support, despite her fears he might never return.
The shuttle retro rockets fired, throwing him forward against the seat’s shoulder straps. The straps were loose, so he almost bashed his forehead against the back of the seat in front of him. When they finally engaged, they cut painfully into his shoulders. He’d forgotten to cinch them up. What an idiot! Embarrassed by the rookie mistake, he glanced around the cabin to see if anyone else had noticed.
Han counted six other passengers besides himself and Jin. All were dressed in dirty overalls with several days’ stubble, almost certainly miners headed for the nightlife and gambling found in Tycho City’s red light district. Evidently five of the six had begun celebrating before boarding. They were loud and full of mischief, making bets on the night’s conquests while making no effort to hide their flasks.
The sixth man, however, was not drinking and showed no interest in the others. Instead, he seemed intent on staring out a view port that had no view, blocked by other containers stacked on the transporter’s cargo deck. That struck Han as a bit strange. Even stranger was the scar on his left cheek, a zigzag gash that looked every bit like a botched suturing job. He was about to mention it to Jin when the retros fired again and the ship began its final descent to the Tycho City spaceport.
Cooper Residence, Palm Springs, CA
Yang arose before dawn anxious to leave his hosts and get on with his life. The limo that was to take him to LAX for the flight to Beijing would be arriving soon. He had not slept well, troubled as he was by mixed feelings from the night before. While he was grateful for the kindness extended by his friends, he also was a little angry at them. Contrary to their misguided suggestions he knew exactly what he was doing. He was not acting out of grief. The arrogance. He almost added “of the Americans” and then stopped himself. He must not let his “Chinese-ness” get in the way of their friendship; it was still very important to him. Both Chris and Dani shared memories of Wendy and for that reason alone would always hold a special place in his heart. But the pragmatist in him saw yet another reason to keep things smooth between them. A friendship with the American President could prove most useful.
A knock at the door was Chu with a cup of tea and the morning’s intel report, hand delivered courtesy of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles. Yang sipped the tea and instantly recognized it as his favorite, Earl Grey. The English tended to be pains in the ass but they did know how to make good tea. Next, he broke the seal on the dispatch case and pulled out a chip containing the day’s intelligence reports. He inserted it in his smart phone, entered the encryption code and gasped at the words that appeared on the screen.
“US Cuts Back Helium-3 Production.”
As he read the full text of the report once, then again, anger rose in his throat and his mind whirred with possible responses. One thing was certain; he would not stand by while the greedy bastards in Washington fleeced China any further. The time had come to draw a line in the sand, even if it meant a direct confrontation with the Americans.
What really irked him was Chris’ role in this travesty. Helium-3 was the juice that ran the country. Any hint of a production cut would require the personal approval of the President himself. Yang knew the President-elect had access to national security briefings, so Chris had to have known and deliberately kept him in the dark. Yang felt betrayed, duped and a little frightened. The walls of the room started to close in and, for a moment, he imagined himself under a giant magnifying glass with Chris peering at him from the other side. After all, the Americans were masters at getting inside your head. When water-boarding was outlawed as an interrogation technique, the CIA had come up with even more ingenious methods of extracting information, methods that were undetectable and untraceable. Was this visit part of some sort of covert interrogation? He rummaged around the room, searching for hidden cameras, microphones, anything suspicious. Nothing. Then he felt foolish and a little paranoid. He was no spy. What the hell did a bug look like? If his untrained eye had found one it probably was a phony anyway.
It was time to get the hell out of there. He triggered the self-destruct sequence on the intelligence report chip and tossed it in the toilet. Its contents erased, it would dissolve in a matter of seconds. He threw open the door to the hall and tossed his duffle into the arms of a surprised Chu. “Call the limo and tell them to get here NOW.” Chu scurried after him, fumbling for his phone. Moments later Yang burst into the foyer and stopped in his tracks. Chris stood between him and the front door. He wore purple jogging shorts and a faded gray tee shirt emblazoned with the words, “Washington Husky Football.” The bottom third had been cut off, exposing his navel and flaccid gut. Under more amicable circumstances, Yang would have made fun of the President’s attire but not today.
Chris turned his way. “Leaving so soon?”
“I must be going. Something quite urgent has come up.” Yang brushed past him and headed toward the front door.
“Dani isn’t even up yet and I know she wants to say goodbye.” Chris followed after him.
Chu opened the front door and Yang glimpsed the limo sitting in the driveway, his lifeboat, only a few steps away. His first thought was to keep going and be rid of the nagging unease that had settled on him. Chris’ mention of Dani, however, hooked him. In his haste to leave he’d given no thought to her. He owed her a debt of gratitude for all she’d done. Unlike Chris, she seemed to understand what he was going through. There was some sort of connection between them. “You’re right. I will wait until she wakes up.” He inhaled deeply and willed his heart to slow down. He told himself it would only be a short while and then he would be on his way.
Chris seemed relieved. “Great! Can I offer you some juice, maybe something to eat?”
“No. I am not hungry.” His words had an edge and Chris frowned, clearly taken aback by his blunt reply. Yang pushed down his irritation with the man’s insistence on maintaining this charade. Could he have been wrong? Had production of Helium-3 somehow been cut without Chris’ knowledge? He had to know whether or not Chris had deceived him. “Did you know your Energy Department just cut back on Helium-3 production?”
The blood drained from Chris’ face and his gaze shifted away.
Yang had his answer. “You bastard! You were behind it, weren’t you?”
“No. The production cut was approved by Martinez. There was nothing I could do to stop it.”
Yang didn’t buy it. “Bullshit! You’re the President-elect.”
“You have to believe me.”
Yang opened his mouth to tell Chris to screw himself but Dani interrupted.
Neither man had noticed her arrival. She stood at the other end of the foyer wearing a man’s black silk smoking jacket that hung to mid-thigh, highlighting her shapely calves and ankles. Yang felt his pulse quicken and tore his eyes away. “Chris can fill you in. I must be going.” Embarrassment replaced his anger and he turned to leave.
“Not so fast.” Before he knew it, she had crossed the floor, embraced him and kissed him on the cheek. “It’s been so good to see you. Please keep in touch.” Her hair smelled like lavender and for a moment he felt the warmth of her body against his. Memories of Wendy flooded back, followed by pain and sadness. He had to get out of there.
“Thank you,” he said, taking her hand one last time, caressing her palm with his thumb. She returned his gaze through wet eyes, as if she knew this would be the last time she would ever see him. Perhaps it was a look of pity. He didn’t know, but it would remain etched in his memory. Suddenly he felt totally and hopelessly alone.
Without another word, he walked out the door.
Tycho City Spaceport, Moon
The Great Hall was an architectural triumph, replete with floor to ceiling windows that soared over one hundred feet high and overlooked the Tyco City spaceport, but the majesty of the arched panels was lost on Jin as he stood in line at Mars Customs and Immigration. In the old days, before Independence, he’d breezed right past with his People's Republic of China passport. Now he had to line up with everyone else and wait his turn.
“There’s a guy behind us with a strange looking scar on his cheek,” Han whispered. “I want you to check it out but don’t be obvious about it.”
Jin’s patience was wearing thin. “What for?”
“He was with us on the ride over from Clavius.”
“He was acting weird.”
Jin sighed. “Very well, have it your way.” Pretending to admire the glasswork overhead he got a good look at the man and his most unusual scar. He was Asian, in his mid-thirties, and wore his hair very long. Jin got the feeling it had ceremonial or religious significance, although he couldn’t say why.
“It sure is a nasty scar.”
“Having a scar like that is no accident. Do you suppose someone carved it into his skin deliberately?”
“Perhaps.” With all the xenophobia sweeping China on account of the loss of jobs to third world countries, it would not be surprising at all if the man was headed for Mars to escape persecution of some kind.
Jin reached the head of the line and handed over his Luna passport to the Customs official. The officer, whose name was Ho Kengpao according to the placard posted next to the “On Duty” sign, thumbed through it, duly noting the six month tourist visa, and said, “What is the purpose of your visit?”
Officer Ho nodded, apparently satisfied, and stamped the passport. Then he motioned for Han to step forward.
Han did so as Jin waited for him a few feet past the Customs desk. A long moment passed.
“Passport?” said Officer Ho.
“Oh, yes, of course,” stammered Han, fumbling through his backpack. Jin couldn’t believe it. The two of them had stood in line a good half hour and his brother never thought to get his passport out?
Han dug through his backpack. Meanwhile, Ho was getting more and more impatient. He glanced at his watch and back at Han, then leaned to one side for a better look at the line forming behind him. From the dirty looks and body language Jin observed, it was apparent a number of people were very unhappy. Oddly, the man with the scar was not. He seemed unfazed by the rising chorus of curses and complaints.
Finally, a woman near the end of the line called out, “Please hurry! We’re going to miss our flight.”
Han dropped his backpack, spilling its contents onto the floor. Jin clenched his fists, willing himself not to leap forward to help his brother. He was already through customs; he couldn’t backtrack. One item in particular caught his eye. The light reflected off it in an odd way as it skidded along the floor. When he realized what it was, he froze.
Jin didn’t take his eyes off of it.
Neither did the man with the scar.
A moment later Han snatched it up and was about to put the alien artifact back into his backpack when officer Ho said, “Here, let me see that.”
Jin stiffened; their trip was as good as done. There was no way his brother could talk his way out of this. What possessed him to bring along the crystal in the first place? And then to leave it loose inside a backpack? What was he thinking?
“You mean this?” Han said sheepishly. He looked like a kid caught with a box of matches.
“Yes.” Ho held out his hand.
Han slowly handed over the crystal. Jin pictured a toilet bowl flushing.
“This is a most unusual piece,” said Ho, rolling the crystal on the palm of his hand. He seemed quite taken with it.
“My mother gave it to me just before she died.”
“Where did she get it?”
Jin’s throat clenched, cutting off air to his lungs. He wished for a quick and painless death followed by immediate vaporization.
Han did not hesitate. “She never told me exactly, only that it was from a place far away.”
“What exactly is it?”
Jin prayed Han would keep his wits about him.
“She didn’t know.”
“It’s beautiful. Cherish it along with your mother’s memory.” Officer Ho handed the crystal back to Han and stamped his passport. “And next time have your passport ready before you get to the front of the line.”
Jin resumed breathing.
Han passed the checkpoint and put down his backpack on a nearby table. “I have to put things back where they belong.”
“While you’re at it, why don’t you put the crystal in a zippered pocket,” hissed Jin.
Jin loved his brother but times like these made him wonder how he ever managed to earn a PhD.
Han quickly became absorbed in the task at hand and paid no attention as several people who were behind him in the Customs line hurried past on their way to the Mars departure lounge. Jin did his best to ignore the dirty looks and not-so-quiet curses directed at his brother. Finally, Han announced he was ready to go and Jin took one last look at the Customs desk, still not quite sure how his brother had made it past Officer Ho.
The man with the scar was at the front of the line.
“Next.” Officer Ho waved him forward.
The man stepped up to the Customs desk and presented his passport. It looked to be British.
“Purpose for traveling to Mars, Mr. Harris?”
Officer Ho stamped the passport and returned it.
“Thank you,” said Harris in the clipped accent that was the hallmark of the finest British boarding schools.
Jin tugged Han’s arm. “Come on. Let’s get going.”
Cooper Residence, Palm Springs, CA
Shortly after sunrise, after Yang had departed in the black limo that sported Chinese Counselor plates, Chris sat down with Tony Haster, his campaign manager and soon-to-be Chief of Staff, for breakfast outside next to the pool. He gulped down an egg and bean burrito, complete with jalapeño salsa, relishing every bite, while Tony, the staid New England traditionalist, dabbled at a bowl of oatmeal and an English muffin. The air was cool and crisp first thing in the morning at this time of year, but the slight chill didn’t register with either man’s nervous system. The forecast for the day was sunny, with a high of 72, a perfect day for golf.
“Did you get a chance to talk to Yang before he left?” Tony asked.
“Yes. He was pissed, claimed we’d cut back on production of Helium-3 to drive up the price. He sounded very determined to pull China out of the Confederation. I think he sees it as a vehicle for the U.S. to retain control “
“I’m afraid he’s right.”
“I tried to tell him Martinez was behind it.” How lame. “Can Yang pull it off?”
“Every indication is that he can and will. The Politburo is under tremendous pressure to make changes. Yang is just the man for the job.”
“What will Martinez and his friends have to say?”
“They hate Yang.”
“Will they do anything else between now and the inauguration?”
“Thanks, Tony. Keep an eye on Martinez and set me up for a meeting with Olivia Kane.” Chris vowed to enjoy his last day of vacation, preferably on one of the Valley’s premiere golf venues. It would be the last one for a long time.
Onboard Orbital Shuttle Stargaze
Two hours later Han strapped himself into his seat on board the orbital shuttle, Stargaze, barely able to contain his growing excitement. In a short time he would be on his way to Mars. Jin, on the other hand, seemed out of sorts and irritable. Other than a few cryptic comments, he’d not said much since they’d cleared Customs, even during the boarding process.
Unlike Clavius, where ships simply landed on the crater floor, the Tycho City spaceport had pressurized, below ground hangars where cargo and baggage were loaded and unloaded by ground crew working in shirt sleeves. An elevator raised and lowered the orbital shuttles for takeoff and landing. When it came time to board, therefore, the experience had been no different than boarding a commercial airliner on Earth.
Looking about, he was disoriented at first by the circular cabin layout. About two dozen seats were arrayed in a circle along a central passageway that, on the ground, ran vertically between the two passenger cabins to the cockpit at the top of the spherical hull. What struck him as odd was the seats faced outward toward the hull. The designers had been thoughtful enough to place a flat screen video monitor where a view port ought to go, but that did not alter the feeling that all of the activity in the cabin was behind him. It made him uncomfortable. Quite unintentionally, he found himself focusing on sounds and snippets of conversation that he wouldn’t ordinarily have noticed. One in particular caught his attention.
“Did you catch the news wire about China?”
“You mean the new President, Yang?”
“I guess he’s a popular hero there.”
“He better be. He’s got his hands full.”
“No doubt, but from the sounds of it he plans on kicking some ass.”
“You mean some American ass.”
Both men had a good laugh.
Han twisted in his seat and craned his neck around but they were seated on the opposite side of the cabin and he could not get a clear view of them. All he knew was one of them sounded Russian. He made a mental note to check the latest news feeds after they boarded the Mars Enterprise.
As he settled back into his seat once again, his eyes passed over some of the other passengers seated nearby, including an attractive young woman with spiky blond hair, a rotund man with retro black-rimmed glasses and a goatee, and a younger man with a long ponytail who looked familiar. Han stared at him a moment, trying to recall who he was. When he turned his head and stared back, however, Han recognized him instantly.
The man with the scar.
Their eyes met and Han felt himself wither. “Shit.”
“What is it now?” Jin said, irritated. He was fiddling with the controls to the flat screen.
“The guy from the Customs line is over there.”
“You mean the officer who almost arrested us for attempted smuggling?”
“No, the man with the scar.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him. He’s probably one of the construction workers on the Phobos space elevator. I doubt he’s had a bath or a shave for the past week.”
Han wasn’t so sure. Some zero-g wrench monkey should not be able to get inside your head in one look. Why was Jin giving him the attitude? “Look, are you pissed at me?”
Jin leaned toward him. “You’re damn right I’m pissed. Whatever possessed you to bring the crystal?”
“There might be something still on Mars that resonates with it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me first?”
“I was afraid you’d nix the idea.”
“You could have gotten us arrested! And God knows who else saw it rolling around on the floor.”
Han looked down. “I was in a hurry when I packed.”
Jin slumped back in his seat, shaking his head. “Next you’re going to tell me you didn’t tell Mayor Wei either.”
Han felt the blood rush to his face and said nothing.
“God help us,” Jin said. The ship trembled. The elevator was lifting it to the surface.
Han glanced in the direction of the man with the scar. Something told him the stranger had overheard everything, even though a stack of flimsies appeared to have his full attention.
Cooper Residence, Palm Springs, CA
Dani had other ideas for spending their last day of vacation. She wanted to drive to the world famous Cabazon outlet mall, a Mecca for bargain hunters about an hour’s drive to the west. She had no interest in shopping, however; her passion was fast cars. The speed limit on the stretch of I-10 between Palm Springs and the mall was 75 miles per hour, the highest in California. It was the perfect opportunity to give the new Audi coupe a real highway test. The problem was selling the idea.
Jake Raptor, the head of the Secret Service detail, nearly had a seizure when she unveiled her plan. “You’d be safer if you stood on the Cook Street overpass with a sign that read, ‘Shoot me.’”
Tony also had reservations. “That is about the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. How would it look if the First Lady-elect is pulled over for speeding?”
Undeterred, Dani took her case to Chris. She found him in the kitchen glued to a tablet computer. Glancing over his shoulder she expected to see the morning blogs. Not so. He was focused on a website that featured discounted last minute tee times at all the top golf courses in the area. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for a tee time.”
“You’re almost the President of the United States. Other people are supposed to do that for you.”
“This is how I’ve always done it.” Chris was tight with his money and never was one to put on airs. She doubted he would ever change, even in the world’s most egocentric job.
He pointed to the screen, obviously pleased with himself. “There. We can get an 11:20 time on PGA Stadium for half price.” He jumped to his feet and started for the door. “Grab your clubs.”
“Hold it,” she said. “Have you run this by Jake?” They’ll need to clear the course and set up a security perimeter. That will take all day. Have you forgotten who you are?”
“Of course not,” he said with a dramatic flair. “I’m Chris Cooper, avid but not overly talented golfer.” He gave her an exaggerated bow and then returned to the bar stool at the kitchen counter. He slapped his forehead in mock rebuke. “Jake came to me a month ago and asked if I would want to play golf. I blew him off. What a bean brain.”
“You’re not behaving like Presidential timber at the moment. More like a spoiled brat.” Only she could talk to him that way and get away with it.
“I’m not even President yet and already I’m sick of the image thing. I can’t blow my nose without someone noticing or creating a huge story out of it.”
“It goes with the territory. Anyway, it will only be for eight more years and then we can retire to obscurity and you can write your memoirs.”
“How exciting,” he said ruefully. She could almost see the black cloud swirling about his head. He was headed toward a real funk. Now was the time to spring her idea.
“Suppose we ditch the security people and the media and have some time to ourselves, just for a little while, not long enough to create a national security incident?”
He pulled himself out of the dark place. “Sounds interesting. What did you have in mind?”
Interstate I-10 Near Palm Springs, CA
An hour later Chris and Dani barreled west on I-10 in the new Audi coupe with Dani at the wheel. The gutsy 4.2 liter V-8 sung majestically as the speedometer crossed 90 miles per hour. The Audi streaked beneath a banner draped over the railing of the Cooke Street overpass, “The Aliens Are God’s Punishment.”
“People are going crazy,” said Dani, adjusting her mirrored aviator glasses. They made her look like a throwback to an Ian Fleming novel. Chris was wearing an aloha shirt featuring two bikini-clad blondes draped over the hood of a vintage woody, and a pair of white rimmed shades modeled after those worn by a famous rap singer whose name he could never remember. He’d picked them up at the Saturday flea market for $5. That was years ago, before anyone outside of the International Space Agency recognized him.
Ditching the Security detail had proven to be easy. They’d simply gone out to the garage on the pretext of sorting through some old boxes of clothes, kind of a spring-cleaning even though it was mid-November. There, they waited for a distraction to occupy the agents stationed outside the house. That came when a tour bus stopped in front of the main gate and several dozen demonstrators piled off chanting, “Fuel not fools!” a reference to Chris’ efforts to moderate American’s Helium-3 trade practices. Chris and Dani slipped out the rear entrance without being seen.
Moon Radio, the wildest and most controversial station on the air, blared from the sound system. Dani loved it, even though it was only broadcast during certain times of the month. It made the old satellite radio sound tame. Aside from the great content, the thing she liked the most about Moon Radio was the fact it was independent, free of government or self-imposed adherence to a particular political viewpoint. The DJ’s just let it fly.
“Mind turning it down a couple of decibels,” moaned Chris. “My ancient ears haven’t recovered from my misspent youth.”
“Sure thing,” she replied, turning the volume down. The music had given way to a news broadcast anyway.
“Wait, turn it back up!” Chris sat bolt upright. “Did I just hear Congress passed a resolution calling for revocation of China’s most favored nation status?” The loss of MFN status would expose Chinese imports to increased taxes and higher import duties. Unless the manufacturer cut its price to offset them, American consumers would have to pay more and China’s market share in the largest market in the world would decline sharply.
“Oh my,” said Dani, looking in the rear view mirror. A Highway Patrol cruiser was hovering just off the left rear fender with its blue lights flashing. Chris didn’t seem to notice. He was absorbed with the radio station selector, changing stations about every two seconds to try to find out more about the resolution.
“Nothing,” he said in disgust.
“Cut the ranting. We have a situation here.” Dani brought the car to a stop on the shoulder.
“What’s going on?”
A uniformed California Highway Patrol officer appeared at the driver’s side window. “Your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance, please, ma’am.” His right hand rested on the butt of an automatic pistol as his gaze darted from her to Chris and back. As she rummaged through her purse, Chris spoke up.
“Anything wrong, Officer?”
“Nothing, other than you were going 110 miles per hour.”
“I was just keeping up with traffic,” Dani said, still intent on finding the requisite documents from the chaos inside her purse. “I’ve got to clean this thing out someday.” Fat chance. “Here they are!” She handed her insurance card and license to the officer. He scowled down at her from behind his Raybans. What was he doing? Trying to get a look at her tits? She glanced down at her blouse. It was unbuttoned at the top; nothing risqué, but revealing. Still, the trooper’s awkward silence was making her feel self-conscious, even a little slutty. She glanced up again and noticed the nameplate pinned to his chest. “Is there something else, Officer Gonzales?”
“Oh, yes, of course. How silly of me. Can you get that for me, Honey?” She pointed to the glove box.
Chris grumbled in protest but did as he was told. It took a moment, but he eventually produced the vehicle registration and passed it to the officer. Gonzales took it without a word and headed back to his patrol car, no doubt to check on warrants. When he returned a few minutes later Dani had her story ready.
An experienced speeder, she felt no remorse whatsoever, other than for the fact she’d been caught. The trick was avoiding the ticket. If the officer was a soft touch she might persuade him to let her off with a warning. A few tears, a little begging, and an artful justification for her inadvertent “lapse” of attention. It was worth a try.
She went with one of her best stories. “Please officer, my husband and I just came from a funeral. We were both upset and I’m afraid I might not have been watching my speed as carefully as I should. It won’t happen again.”
The corners of Gonzales’ mouth turned upwards. “Was the deceased one of the Beach Boys?” He nodded at Chris’ shirt. In retrospect she had to admit the funeral story was probably not the right choice. The situation now called for her finest performance.
“Is there any way I can keep this off my driving record?” Dani murmured, removing her aviators. She gave Gonzales her best wide-eyed look of genuine contrition, guaranteed to make any man crumble with pity.
He glared back.
It wasn’t working.
Chris leaned over toward the driver’s side and said, “Officer, I am Christopher Cooper. I was just elected the President of the United States.”
Bending down to eye level for a close look, Gonzales stared at Chris, taking in his most un-Presidential shades and the two days of beard stubble. “And I’m Winston Churchill,” he said. Dani bit her lip, stifling a laugh.
Before Gonzales could go on, a black SUV roared past and skidded to a stop barely 10 yards in front of the car. Four armed men dressed in black SWAT gear jumped out and ran toward them.
“Get away from the vehicle!” one shouted, leveling a black automatic weapon at Gonzales.
Gonzales quickly retreated to his patrol car.
Jake Raptor got out of the SUV and walked toward the car. The sour look on his face said it all.
Jesus Gonzales, CHP
Interstate I-10 Near Palm Springs, CA
Jesus Gonzales sat in his patrol car and watched the commotion swirling about the Audi. In his twenty years as a member of the California Highway Patrol, he’d thought he’d seen it all; naked actresses, clowns, even inflatable dummies for the HOV lanes. He’d been mistaken. He’d just pulled over the would-be President of the United States and nearly been killed. The guys back at the station were going to have a field day with this one. It would take months to live it down.
A moment later, the driver twisted in her seat to face him, put on her aviators and waved goodbye as if they were lifelong friends. The SUV pulled back onto the highway, followed by the Audi. As the car sped off with a flurry of flying gravel, Officer Gonzales wished he’d arrested the arrogant bitch. He was sick and tired of politicians acting like they were above the law. But he had a wife, kids and aging in-laws depending on him. He was not about to risk a good paying government job with world-class benefits just to make a point.
Onboard Orbital Shuttle Stargaze
Close up, the Mars Enterprise was nothing like any spacecraft Jin had ever seen. With all the supply and service vehicles darting about like fireflies, provisioning the ship for another journey to Mars and back, the immensity of the ship was even more apparent. In terms of overall size, it dwarfed the Stargaze and the slow freighters he’d flown before. What really set it apart from conventional spacecraft, however, was the artificial gravity ring. Located midway along the length of the ship’s central keel, the gravity ring rotated around the keel at an angular velocity sufficient to maintain one quarter Earth gravity for anyone or anything on the inside of its rim. The concept was nothing new. Indeed, the Galaxy Hotel, the GEO-Ring’s featured spa and resort, had an artificial gravity ring of its own, but the Mars Enterprise was the first interplanetary vessel to have one. The ring housed ten first class staterooms, a gourmet kitchen and restaurant, a gymnasium, offices, and a quarter mile running track.
Too bad the staterooms with artificial gravity were five times the price of those without it. Jin had opted for the cheapest zero-g accommodations, the modern day equivalent of steerage. Their stateroom was somewhere in the bowels of the forward pressure hull. Han was going to be unhappy but it was all they could afford. At least their stateroom would have the benefit of radiation shielding. Aft of the gravity ring, everything was exposed, including the cargo containers, spherical storage tanks and dish antennas that dotted the keel. Better to be as far away as possible from the fusion reactor, generators and ion engines at the rear.
He nudged Han to get his attention after noticing his brother was engrossed in another video game instead of the live feed from the cockpit. “Take a look.”
Han hardly glanced at Jin’s display. “Watch it! I’m almost to the fifth level.”
Jin’s temper flared for a second. How could a stupid game be more interesting than a spacecraft, especially one as magnificent as the Mars Enterprise? Then he had to laugh. He should be counting his blessings. Han had found something to occupy himself and he’d stopped obsessing over the poor fellow with the scar. That had given Jin time to strike up a conversation with the spiky hair woman.
Her name was Desiree Denueve. She had the face of a fashion model and spoke English with a delightful French accent. When he asked why she was traveling to Mars he half expected her to say she was doing a glamour piece to promote colonization efforts, so he was more than surprised when she indicated she was a geologist with a PhD from the Sorbonne. Intrigued by the prospects of a beautiful woman with a brain, the 200 day passage to the red planet suddenly took on a whole new outlook and his imagination went wild. What could be more exciting than a shipboard romance? Sex in zero-g? Sex in one of the escape pods? He counted six nestled along the starboard side of the hull. There had to be more on the port side.
Just as he was beginning to get aroused, the clang of the docking latches and a mild tremor marked the end of the first leg of the journey.
“Are we there yet?” asked Han.
Kane Residence, Dana Point, CA
Olivia Kane was not one to let grass grow under her feet unless it was in her back yard and that was precisely where she greeted Chris. Dressed in a floral jacket with gray slacks, she was flanked by roses, bird of paradise and hibiscus. Astronaut wings glinted gold on her lapel, the same ones she’d worn in the White House almost twenty years before. Her exquisitely coifed silver-grey hair sparkled in the California sun, just as it had under the glare of the television lights in the Oval Office the night she announced America would return to the Moon. She extended her hand and gave him one of her patented smiles. “It’s great to see you again, Chris.”
“It’s been a long time, Madame President.” She had a presence about her, an aura of greatness. Knowing her was a privilege, a gift that humbled yet invigorated him at the same time. He wanted to genuflect and kiss her ring.
“Cut the Madame crap,” she laughed. “Just call me Olivia. After all, you’re about to be the President. Once you’re part of the club, it’s first name only.”
“Very well... Madame... er, Olivia,” he stammered. He felt very much her unequal.
She seemed to sense Chris’ discomfort. Gesturing to a small garden table and two cushy patio chairs, she said, “Come over here and sit. Have some lemonade.” Grateful for the chance to compose himself, he settled into one of the chairs and poured himself a glass. He leaned back, sinking into the abundant cushions, and took a sip while admiring the surroundings.
The house was situated on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean just north of Dana Point, giving it a sweeping view that extended from Laguna Beach all the way north to Pacific Palisades. Several charter boats worked the fishing grounds around the kelp beds a mile or so offshore, while sea gulls drifted effortlessly in the updraft from the cliffs. With the late afternoon sun hitting him in the face it felt good to just soak it all up for a few minutes.
Finally, Chris worked up the courage to speak. He’d been dreading this moment. “China is about to withdraw from the Confederation.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I’m afraid not. I heard it from Yang himself.”
Chris winced. The former President looked like a lioness ready to eat her young. He tried to explain. “Yang claims China is on the verge of financial collapse on account of imported Helium-3.”
“But why scuttle the Confederation? Without it, the world economy will fall apart and China will be worse off. You have to stop him.”
“I’ve tried. No use.”
“Don’t give me that crap. Find a way. Hell, when I asked you to take us back to the Moon you never flinched and you managed to do it on a shoestring. Now the country is awash in cash and you sound like you’ve thrown in the towel. Get a grip, Chris! The country needs you.” The words stung. Olivia had not lost any of her fire. The trouble was he knew she was right.
“Martinez is not making things any easier.”
“He’s behind the resolution calling for revocation of China’s MFN status. He wants China punished for halting imports of American mined Helium-3.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “I knew this would happen! He’s forced Yang into a corner. China may have a small stockpile but not enough to last more than a few months. Yang will have to retaliate somehow.”
“I’ve dealt with scoundrels, liars and thieves before but never an idealist like Martinez.”
“He won’t listen to reason and you don’t want to be the one to take him down. Too unpresidential. What you need is someone else to do your dirty work. There are lots of consumer advocate groups that would love to challenge the resolution. You just have to get the word out, through a suitable intermediary of course.”
“Does being President ever get easy?”
She laughed. “Have you been to the circus and watched the human cannon ball?”
“Imagine the cannon is sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon. As President you’re the cannon ball and believe me, no one ever checks to see if there is enough powder to blast you to the other side.”
“Or maybe the powder is wet,” he said. His presidency was off to a shaky start. What else could go wrong?
The answer was forthcoming.
SPLAT. A seagull crapped on his head.
Herald Tribune: BIG CHANGES IN CHINA
BEIJING: Yang Zintao, former Olympic Gold Medalist, People's Hero, and member of the Politburo, was sworn in a second time as President of the People’s Republic, before a cheering crowd gathered in Tiananmen Square. Over a million joyous onlookers attended the history-making event.
“Now is the time for change,” said Yang. “It is time to move out of the shadow of the Confederation.” Within the hour he tendered his resignation as President of the Confederation and signed China’s formal withdrawal. Founded only five years ago, the Confederation united the world’s twelve largest economies into a single trading sphere.
Representatives of the other members of the Asian Economic Alliance applauded Yang’s action. Representatives of Japan and Korea indicated their governments are seriously considering similar moves.
A White House spokesperson said, “China’s withdrawal from the Confederation is most regrettable. However, we are confident the unified world currency and other important work currently underway within the Confederation will continue. We thank President Yang for his service and wish him well in his new endeavors.”
“China’s ill-advised action will turn the clock back to a time when trading blocs and protectionism nearly destroyed the global economy,” said Paul Wiggins, Chief Economist for Goldman Securities. Similar concerns were raised throughout the financial community.
President Yang previously served as the President of the Confederation. He was instrumental in formulating several key initiatives, including the unified world currency. He also commanded the historic China-United States Mars mission that paved the way for exploration and settlement of the red planet.
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