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Spiraling In

by Mark Bonica

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FPP Year 840, part 2

He knew the new director was a woman by the name of Blanchard, and that she had been there for the last seven or eight years. She had come in around the time that the probe had been launched to find his mission. She was not particularly well liked, but then the directors never were. He certainly hadn’t liked Harris.

Harris was dead now. A heart attack at the age of 73. Really quite young for a man who had grown up on Earth and had the amenities that such status brought. There was a building somewhere on the campus named after him.

Sandra had walked with him past the empty secretary’s desk and knocked on the manila-colored door. It was partially open, and Driscol heard a woman’s voice from inside ask, “Who is it?”

“Director Blanchard, it’s Sandra and Dr. Driscoll.”

“Send him in. You can go home, Sandra.”

“Good luck,” Sandra said softly as she slipped past without looking at him.

He pushed the door open. The plastic was cool to the touch. The room hadn’t changed much since he had last been there. The same government furniture was arranged in roughly the same way: the large executive chair behind the large desk. In front of the desk, two hard-backed chairs that sat the occupants a few inches lower than the person on the other side of the desk. The brag wall behind the desk, covered with degrees and commendations.

He half expected Harris’s degrees to still be hanging there, but instead he immediately noticed the off-world diploma at the center of it all: University of New Houston. Its red-and-blue stripes with the white star held him transfixed.

“Hello, Jim.” The mellow voice startled him and broke him free of the paper’s spell. She was standing to his right, near a large window that overlooked one of the older launch pads. She wore a purple suit of what looked like crushed velvet. It seemed to flow around her enormous mass, rippling and waving. She had black hair that was pulled back in a tight knot behind her head, a few stray wisps snaking across her cheeks. Her smile seemed to push her mounding cheeks aside.

“Hello, Director Blanchard,” Jim stammered. “I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me.”

She chuckled and waddled over to her chair. “Sit down, please,” she said, gesturing toward a chair in front of her desk.

When she had settled her bulk, she leaned forward, resting her elbows on the desk. “I’ve been waiting a long time to talk to you.”

After she said that, she stared at him. He wondered what he should say. She was the Director. She would decide if he would go on the mission back to Rogue. He stared at the copious flesh of her breasts — as she leaned forward, the swooping neckline slid lower, revealing a crushing bosom.

“You know some of your research from before your mission went into making the current enzymes we use in the hardened perfluorocarbon factories we will be deploying to Rogue in a few weeks.” She began again suddenly, as if he had given her the answer she wanted.

He looked up, his mouth slightly open.

“That’s right. It was solid work you were doing with those sulfurphile microbes before you left. It’s been refined some, but your work became central to some of the steps that others took in your absence. In fact, some of your data had already been recognized as worthwhile even before you left.”

She paused and waited, a blank expression replacing the smile that had been there before. No one had told him that his work prior to the mission was going to be central to anything. It didn’t make sense.

“Your work on Rogue has also added some interesting data. We’ve been able to refine some of the enzymes to be more efficient as a result of it.”

“I...” He was confused. She gazed at him while she waited for him to continue. He straightened himself in the chair, adjusting the lay of his pants that seemed to suddenly be constricting his thighs. He looked away, conscious of her eyes as if they were an open connection on a network link. “I don’t understand. Someone recognized the value of my work before I was sent on that damned mission?” His voice was in crescendo. He returned her gaze.

Without looking away, she answered: “I did, as a matter of fact.” She let this sink in for a while.

“You,” he said quietly, almost to himself.

“Yes, me. It was actually brilliant work you were doing, I should say. The microbes you engineered were capable of producing higher levels of sulfur hexafluoride in near-vacuum environments than anyone else had before. The idea of using purely organic means to create an initial perfluorocarbon atmosphere would still be fiction if it wasn’t for the advances you made.”

“It didn’t work, though,” he said quietly.

“Not on Rogue,” she said, leaning forward again, as if sharing a secret. “But that was due to a combination of a number of problems, not the least of which was that you landed on the wrong side of the planet because of the malfunctions Demeter had following its fourth faster-than-light jump.” She paused.

At last her gaze drifted away for him, settling on some place beyond the horizon. Her voice was wistful as she continued: “Too bad you had such an old hunk of junk for a ship. But then the administration back then had no idea of the value of its cargo. They thought they were getting rid of one more off-worlder, didn’t they?”

Emotions made his mind spin. Jim clasped his hands tightly in front of him. She had recognized the value of his research before he left. He had never heard of a Blanchard in the Agency, at least not that he could remember. That had been almost twenty years ago, though. “Hunk of junk” bit something deep within him and held on tenaciously.

“Imagine,” she continued, seeing something changed in his countenance, “terraforming trace-atmosphere worlds by seeding ice pockets with hardened microbes only. Extremophile microbes that are capable of converting raw elements into complex volatile compounds that would be hundreds of times more effective at trapping a sun’s heat than our beloved Earth’s atmosphere.

“Then, years later, as the original microbes burn themselves out, bringing in yet another round of microbes to balance the mix of gases in the new atmosphere. Then plants, insects, small animals. We’re in the process of doing this now in five different systems, and we’re about to go back and jumpstart the stalled efforts you, yourself, made on Rogue.”

He had known all of these facts prior to coming in. What he hadn’t realized was his own role in the creation of those facts until Blanchard had told him. His own research had hardly been a secret, his data had been available to anyone with the appropriate clearances and need to know. If what he had been doing was important enough, it was only natural that someone would have appropriated it while he was gone. It happened all the time at the Agency. Now he wondered if Harris had not only wanted to pressure out another off-worlder, but had also been motivated by the desire to steal his work.

Finally he asked, “How did you know about my work?”

She smiled. Then she chuckled. Driscoll shifted in his seat, not understanding the joke.

“I’m sorry, Jim. When I wake up in the morning, I am sometimes startled to see this old, fat face staring back at me from the mirror. I think everyone eventually has a vision of themselves that is frozen in time, so we just assume everyone else sees it too.”

She paused, her hands shuffled a few papers in front of her and she watched them as if they belonged to someone else. “My husband died eight years ago. You never knew him, but if you hadn’t been so caught up in the world of the Agency, you would have seen that there were other powers moving in the world, and that the Agency is really just a pawn in a greater game being played in the name of humanity.

“Frederick Neil Blanchard was a Florida businessman who was elected to the North American Regional Congress twenty-five years ago. He served three terms in that capacity, and when he died, he was serving his second term as senator to the Federation of Free Planets.

“I married him during his third term as the congressman from Florida. I was doing well when I met him, because I worked hard, and I loved my work. But I knew the off-worlder stigma would never let me advance beyond a research-team leader. And I’d seen firsthand what the system did with you.”

Jim nodded, acknowledging what had been done to him. He stared at the woman’s face him and wondered what face it was that she saw when she looked in the mirror — and assumed he would have recognized it.

“Fred was successful, but he was divorced. To make it to the Senate, one has to play up to the whole ‘family values’ thing. Being married, even if it was a second marriage, was better than being single, especially if that state of bachelorhood was brought about by divorce.

“We met as a result of one of those odd, offhand coincidences where someone knows someone who knows you and you get invited somewhere. He liked me because he thought I was smart and ambitious; I worked at the Agency in his district. And of course I had big tits.” She chuckled. Jim wasn’t sure what to do.

“Oh, crap, Jim. Don’t be such a prude,” she said, observing his look of confusion. “He was a good old boy. He needed me, and I needed him. With his influence, I was able to get a fair shot at what I deserved. Okay, maybe more than a fair shot, but it was about time that an off-worlder had a chance. I took it, and here I am.

“And then Fred died. And I was left widow of the late Senator Blanchard.” She sighed, relaxing back in her large leather chair. Her story had started out almost timidly, but by the end, she had told it with some flair.

“When Fred died, I had a sense of guilt about some of the things I had done to get here. To make them right, I invested more resources in certain rescue operations that had been — how to say this politely? — completely ignored. Namely, yours. It had been twelve years since the Demeter had gone on its mission. Somehow it had been conveniently forgotten by the powers that were in place prior to my arrival.

“You remember we weren’t expecting to hear from you for at least five years anyway, so what was six years? Then seven. Then eight. ‘What the hell, we’ll wait nine’ was the thought from the boys in operations. The probes we were talking about sending were worth almost as much as the Demeter itself, so what was the rush?”

Jim felt himself getting impatient with this woman. What did she want? This was nothing he had not been able to figure out for himself during his year back on Earth. When was she going to tell him if he could go on the new mission or not?

“But I felt a personal stake in finding out what your fate had been. And not simply because your research was part of what got me to where I am today. I was pissed at you when you left, but that passed. Then I felt somehow responsible — as if I should have talked you out of going even though I knew I couldn’t convince you to give up your ‘career’ aspirations—”

As she talked something about her face clicked in his memory. The pounds seemed to melt away from her cheeks. Angles appeared and wrinkles vanished.

“June!” he almost shouted, but his throat constricted and it came out as a whisper.

“Drink?” she asked, opening a drawer in her desk and drawing out some real Earth brandy and two tumblers.

“June!” he said, his throat allowing a little more air through now. “How did you get to be Director? How?”

“I just told you, Jim. Weren’t you listening?”

“No — but — I mean yes — dammit — I—” he reached for his tumbler and its warm brown contents. “I mean — I can’t believe it. I can’t believe you made it. You’re an off-worlder. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you. I can’t believe you’re sitting in front of me. For God’s sakes, I’d forgotten all...” he stopped himself.

“Forgotten all about me?” she finished. He blushed and looked down into his drink. She laughed. “No sweat, Jim. No sweat. It would have been nice if you had come in and said, ‘June, you haven’t changed a bit — still the stunning chick I bagged twenty years ago.’ That would have been nice. But you know, you don’t look so great yourself.”

He choked on his drink. She laughed.

“You’ve changed,” he said finally.

She smiled, took a drink, and set the tumbler down on the desk. “I suppose. But so have you. You no longer aspire to be an Agency man. You no longer aspire to the thirty-year career with a fat little pension and the right to live the rest of your life on Earth. Instead you want to return to that foul little planet half a galaxy from here to” — she held up her fingers making quotation marks in the air — “’continue my experiments.’ What the hell is with that? Tell me the truth, Jim. Why do you really want to go back?”

She leaned forward, staring at him. Her right forearm had pushed her drink a few inches forward, leaving water marks on the wooden top of the desk.

“I... June... I just want to continue. It’s become my life’s work. I want to finish what I’ve started.” He took a drink. Her eyes were without innocence. He couldn’t find the speech that he had prepared in his mind in case someone eventually pressed him with this exact question. His plan was to talk about the challenges of science, the desire to explore, to create. And here was June, the Director. This was too strange.

“You’re full of crap, Jim.”

Jim felt his mouth clamp shut.

“Tell me the truth. Tell me about the Demeter.”

Jim stared down into his drink.

“Tell me about the Demeter, Jim. Tell me about the Demeter, or you won’t ever get on another Agency ship again. Tell me about the Demeter, or you’ll be pulling stints as a guest speaker at high schools between administrative jobs. That is, if you want to stay in the Agency. Tell me about ‘Persephone’.”

As she spoke, Jim had been amazed by the hard edge of her words. This was not the soft woman he had known. He felt emotions beginning to turn within him. At first there was anger: nothing had changed, even though the person sitting across from him was an off-worlder like himself.

Then, as his rage seemed to be congealing into something hard enough to act upon, it suddenly broke, and the grief came through and seared his heart once again as he spoke in broken and halting words: “I want to say goodbye one more time. I just want to get closure. I loved her. She was my wife. She was everything I ever needed.”

“Your wife? What the hell do you mean by that?”

“I married her. I figured I was the captain of the ship when everyone else was dead. So I did the honors.”

“What about sex?”

“What about it?” His voice hardened.

“Come on, Jim. Sex with a computer?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re damn right I wouldn’t.”

“She had a soul too large to be contained in a human heart, June. I’m sitting here thinking that maybe you would understand about love, but I guess I didn’t either. Not until I met her.”

“A soul? What?” Her face reddened. “Get out! Get out of my office! Get out now!”

Jim placed the half-empty tumbler on the edge of her desk and walked out.

Two hours later a courier stopped by his apartment with printed orders assigning him to the FPPS Lewis with duty as Chief of Terraforming.

Proceed to Chapter 7...

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica

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