Douglas Best felt groggy as the shuttle banked on its final deceleration turn over Africa. He never came directly to Earth from Jefivah, not when he had himself sedated during wormhole transit. He would instead come through the hypergate network over Mars then take an EM shuttle to Earth to sleep it off. By the time he arrived, the sedative would have worn off, and he would be ready to face his job.
Beneath him, the Indian Ocean grew closer, clear water reflecting blue skies and not a hint of the toxic sludge every extra-Solar child was taught clogged Earth’s seas. Around him, the sky shifted from misty white to deep blue as the shuttle descended toward distant Hong Kong. No smog or yellowish gas marred the air. Best had to face it. Every school child in the Compact had been lied to about the cradle of humanity. The place was clean.
Relatively speaking. Even with obvious damage done by humans and nature over the millennia, Earth looked pristine compared to his native Jefivah with its abandoned farms, rural metal shacks and derelict farm equipment, its colorless cities, and the unremitting gray skies of a years-long winter now just ending. Here winter held sway only in the northern hemisphere, summer just to the south of where he was. Around the equator, however, it was always warm, if not necessarily dry. In a few weeks, the seasons would begin to shift in each hemisphere, a pattern altered somewhat on occasion but never interrupted since the early Stone Age.
The shuttle circled an island near Hong Kong proper called Chek Lap Kok, a name that sounded almost Tianese to Best’s ear. Hong Kong’s spaceport occupied the island and parts of the nearby mainland. Best marveled at it. The spaceport had started as an airfield in the World War Era and remained Earth’s oldest major spaceport. Jefivah’s own primary spaceport looked like it was still waiting for supply ships from Earth and Mars to bring food.
The shuttle changed direction, and Chek Lap Kok disappeared from view. Best rang the pilot. “Lieutenant, why are we not landing?”
“Orders from the Navy,” said the pilot. “Sorry, Delegate Best, but apparently someone needs to see you urgently.”
“Is this person aware that I am a delegate to the Compact Assembly, and that our session begins tomorrow morning?”
“It’s not that far, sir,” said the pilot. “We’re going to Macau.”
Macau. Where was that? Since his appointment to the Assembly, Best had made it a point to memorize the major cities near Quantonesia, which sat in Hong Kong Harbor. He did not remember Macau.
But he soon saw it. Even by day, the city glowed with thousands of wall-sized video displays. It did not so much resemble a city as it did an overcrowded hologame. The city itself looked as crowded as Quantonesia, all giant towers looming over plascrete canyons. And not a single airfield visible. Did aircraft and space vehicles land outside the city?
The shuttle approached an extremely tall, flat-roofed building adorned with the video ads and the logo of Caesar’s, an Etruscan chain of hotels. Elsewhere, Caesar’s was a stuffy tribute to the culture that inspired Etrusca’s founding. The chain prided itself on its conservative, low-key atmosphere. Here, it looked like a ninety-story billboard for Macau’s gambling and vice industries. The shuttle hovered over the roof of the building.
“Can’t land,” said the pilot. “The shuttle would collapse the roof. But I’m only half a meter up, so just watch your step as you get off.”
“What about my luggage?”
“Taken care of. I’m to send it on ahead to your apartment in Quantonesia.” He triggered the hatch. “Good luck, Delegate Best.”
With that, Best realized he had been dismissed.
And summoned. By whom, he could not say.
The woman who greeted Best inside wore a hijab and a very flattering floor-length dress. Caliphite attire, he guessed. Somewhat rare on Earth as the more observant Muslims he had seen here dressed more utilitarian. If this woman were truly Caliphite, then that hijab would disappear the moment work ended for her, and she would be at a wine bar or a night club blending in with the rest of the locals.
“Delegate Best,” she said, “I’m Sarai Gaddar. I work for Dasarius Interstellar, but I am assisting Admiral Austin on this investigation. Would you come with me please?”
“Austin?” He knew of a Quentin Austin, who was supposed to face a trial in the Security Council, but all that changed after the Gelt failed to take Anacreon. “Would this be Force Admiral Austin?”
“Rear Admiral,” said Sarai. “He’s been promoted.”
That answered that question. And didn’t.
She led him to a penthouse suite. Inside, no lounging or frolicking occurred. While outside the windows, holograms and building-sized videos advertised everything from legal sex for hire to first-class vacations on and off world to premium rejuvenation therapies, inside, Naval officers scurried about from holographic display to holographic display. They looked down at their palms and their tablets, tapping away to make the holograms inside change to whatever text or graphic they needed. Beyond this melee, a man in a white flag officer’s uniform stood with his back to Best, a two-dimensional chart spread out on the wall. He manipulated it to look at different aspects of it. He turned as Sarai and Best approached.
“Delegate Best,” he said, “thank you for coming.” Sure enough, Quentin Austin now sported two stars on his collar instead of the one he wore when he last spoke before the Assembly. Austin had classic Nordic features, light blonde hair, blue eyes so light they were almost gray. He also had paler than normal skin, marking him as a native of Demeter. And never mind that Austin had lived on Earth for more than twenty years. It seemed that frozen world had become an enemy of humans’ naturally occurring melanin.
“Well,” said Best, “it seemed a good idea to follow my pilot’s lead.”
Austin gestured toward a small room and nodded at Sarai. “Let’s talk in private.”
Best followed him, and Austin closed the door behind him.
“I apologize,” said Austin, “for the cloak and dagger routine. But I’m not really supposed to be here. Fortunately, Mr. Germanicus has a vested interest in what I’m about to tell you, so he graciously setup this operations center for me to use while I’m ‘not on Earth.'”
“So this meeting…”
“Never took place.”
Lovely. The name Germanicus might have implied private industry meddling in the affairs of government and military, but this arrangement wreaked of Cybercommand, everyone’s least favorite branch of the service.
Well, Best’s least favorite, anyway.
“Have a seat,” said Austin. “Can I get you something?”
“Will I be staying long?”
Austin shook his head. “I’m actually here on other business, and the Fleet Admiral wants it kept off the Martian delegation’s radar.”
Pricks, Best automatically thought at the mention of Mars. He hoped it hadn’t shown on his face, but Austin’s slight smile told him otherwise. “So what can I do for you, Admiral? Please bear in mind the new Assembly session begins tomorrow. I have to meet with our senior delegate so he can give me instructions I plan to ignore anyway.”
Austin chuckled. “You sure you’re not Navy?”
“Two years in the Border Guard on Masada,” said Best. “Enlisted.”
“Anyway, I want to talk to you about something we discussed last time we met.”
Oh, no. “Juno.”
Best’s eyes went to the stars on his shoulders. “You think someone whispered into the right ears and made the Martians’ temper tantrum go away after your failure to kick the Gelt off Amargosa.”
“Not so much their tantrum,” said Austin. “Remember, I have a son on Amargosa, so it was in my best interests for that operation to succeed. No, someone decided it was best to get me away from Juno before I could say something they didn’t like. They have friends in the government. That’s for sure.”
“You have a position, Mr. Best, that I cannot ever possess. The Marilynist Temple considers you their Prophet, thanks to you procuring them their own colony.”
Oh, dear God, why is this still following me around? “I am aware of the Grand Dimaj’s little marketing gimmick. Of all the religions that have sprung up since the dawn of the interstellar era…”
Austin shrugged. “At least they’re not blowing things up like the Cubists.”
“But they worship that… that…” He couldn’t get the vision of their goddess out of his head, a pale blonde euro woman whose statues depicted her in a flowing white dress that billowed up around her hips, revealing her long legs.
“She was an actress,” said Austin. “You know that as well as I. She died long before anyone even thought of making her a goddess.”
“I once heard there was a cult to some hillbilly singer during her time, back on Earth during the First Cold War.”
Spreading his hands, Austin said, “Well, this one has some power on your homeworld. And their influence is growing. I am also aware that you had your own issues with Juno. I would like to hand the investigation of that company off to you.”
This was all Best needed. Bad enough that he had been relegated to committees on milk price controls and Compact monuments and heritage. Now he had to cram this in with everything else? Vanever, Jefivah’s senior delegate, would never let him hear the end of it. “Admiral, may I remind you that I am a delegate to the Compact Assembly? I have work to do.”
Austin turned and projected a holo display from his palm tatt. It displayed what could have been an org chart, but it was chaotic and messy. “This is the actual corporate hierarchy of Juno. As you can see, it’s a jumbled mess, but the accountants at Dasarius have identified five false layers of deception in it, one in which the late Walter Pope actually reported to his own assistant.” He tapped his wrist and several sections of the org chart disappeared while the rest reorganized. “At the center is a man named Gene Klament. No photo, no bio, other than he was born in the Midwest in 2012 OC.”
Best whistled. “Must have seen a lot of rejuve treatments.”
“One of the first to be rejuvenated. The treatment was still in experimental stages when he was a child. We don’t even have a genome on file for him. There are only seven people in all humanity that old. Five live on Thule.”
“One is Tol Germanicus, CFO of Dasarius. The other is Klament. But at the moment, this is all we have of Klament.”
“Can I ask you something?” From the look on Austin’s face, Best could tell he already knew the question. Best asked anyway. “If Dasarius owns the company that owns Juno, why not simply shut it down?”
Austin gave a roll of the eyes that suggested Best would not believe what he was about to hear. “Dasarius is one of a handful of entities large enough to be its own constituent authority within the Compact.”
The term “constituent authority” always annoyed Best. He wondered why people did not just say “world,” except that the largest members of the Compact took up all or part of a star system while the smallest was a mere continent on a world occupied by another “constituent authority.” It didn’t make the term any less annoying.
“I suppose,” continued Austin, “if they bought rights to a planet and chartered it themselves, they would be. Anyway, the problem with an entity that large is they own so many smaller entities that the people at the top sometimes don’t know they own it.”
Best closed his eyes. “But Juno seems to be operating independently. As though it’s more than a company. Like a movement or something. They want this war with the Gelt.”
Austin blew out a slow breath. “Unfortunately, I’m no longer married to Tessa Dasarius, or I could ask her.”
“Again,” said Best, “I’m a delegate. I tend to get noticed when I move around.”
“True,” said Austin, “but you’re also the Prophet. And the Prophet gets noticed for reasons both good and bad.” He smiled. “I think you’ll find the High Normaj of Earth rather cooperative. She’s not your ordinary religious leader, certainly not the typical Marilynist.”
Right, thought Best. She’ll probably want to invite Carolyn and me to an orgy and have it streamed for the rest of the Temple. High Normaj “inducts” Prophet and wife. He considered handing the First Minister his resignation.