It had been a rough day in the lab. The Mars bomb had been close to ready. Walker had said he had a problem with the ethics of it and planned to go to the authorities. NASA, the EPA, whoever might have jurisdiction. After fifteen months of work, he’d suddenly grown a conscience.
“You can’t do that,” she’d said.
Walker had begun disconnecting cables to the experiment. “It was all good in theory, a nice try, but it’s got to be done considering all the elements. We can’t risk it.”
Carmen had pushed him away.
“It’s not an experiment without a control,” he’d said, pushing back. He’d kept unplugging.
“You’ll wreck it.”
“It needs to be—” His sentence got cut off as he stumbled back, her stylus sticking out of his right eye.
“See,” McLeod said, “we know Richard Walker.”
“I got him to the hospital,” she said. “He got fixed up.”
“And while he was healing? What did you do?”
Carmen sighed. “That’s when I launched it.”
“With Proto-dyne. A failing company in Chapter 11 with nothing to lose. A multi-payload rocket out of the Marshall Islands.”
“All of that is public knowledge. I went to jail for it.”
“But how long would you have gone for if Walker had talked? Attempted murder would have been pretty easy to sell to a jury.”
“He was complicit. If he’d talked, he would have gone to jail, too. Maybe not for long, but his credibility would have been shot. In our line of work, nobody hires scientists who scuttle their own projects.”
“Which is why he has his own company now.” McLeod glanced back at the low-slung Lexus. “And it’s doing very well.”
Carmen was confused. “Richard Walker wants to send something to Titan?”
“And he’d like your expertise.”
Intriguing. “I get to wear goggles,” she said. “I don’t want him thinking of payback.”
McLeod laughed. “We thought you’d be interested.”
She nodded. “We’re getting saturated out here.”
“We don’t have far to go.” He headed back for the car and pulled the driver’s seat forward so she could get in.
Knowing she was going to regret it, she followed.
“Hey,” Mick called.
“It’s all right,” she called back. “I’ll see you later. I’m going with them.” He was going to be mad. He’d come out in the rain to pick her up.
Couldn’t be helped. She had to know what Walker was up to.
Maybe put a stop to it.
The little black car purred along like a high-altitude glider, with the speed of a jet. The narrow back seat was cramped, but it wrapped around her snugly. It smelled of showroom spray and new leather, as if they’d just driven it off the lot. Walker must be doing well. He’d always had the smarts and entrepreneurial skills to do something with his brains. He didn’t need to worry about becoming unemployable. Clearly.
“Where are we going?” Carmen said as they came into the city. She’d thought that Mick might have followed, but his old car wouldn’t be able to keep up with this low flyer.
“Other side of the city,” McLeod said. He swung the car through the freeway ring interchanges, sticking mostly to the 100-plus lanes.
“Shouldn’t you be briefing me on the way?”
“You’ll find out all you need to at the site.”
“So why are there two of you?”
The woman glanced around. “Seriously? After what you did to Richard?”
“That was a long time ago.”
The woman looked back at the driver. “I told you we should have cuffed her.”
Carmen sighed. “What kind of delivery vehicle is he using? What’s he done about the pressure and the cold? And the methane?” Mars had lots of carbon dioxide, but ultra-low pressure. Meanwhile Titan’s atmosphere was mostly nitrogen but had plenty of methane, with an effective sea-level pressure greater than Earth’s. The Mars bomb wouldn’t work, even with severe adaptation.
“Not talking?” she said.
Nothing from the front seat.
“He must have had to redesign it from the ground up.”
“Something like that. You should just shut up until we get there.”
Carmen sighed and looked out the sliver of window by the seat. The IBM tower had been rebranded with ATlaS. In the time she’d been away, IBM had pretty much gone bankrupt and upstart-startups, as they were called, were taking over everything.
The rain grew heavier and Carmen sat back, trying to keep comfortable in the restrictive space.
After a half hour they pulled up outside a suburban home: a standard three or four bedroom place, painted blue, with energy fins arrayed across the roof like the spines on a sea urchin. A lot more of them than on any of the other houses. That would be just like Richard, drawing more power than anyone else.
The woman flipped her seat forward to let Carmen out. The rain had thinned to a mist.
“I don’t know your name,” Carmen said.
“No you don’t,” the woman said. She closed the car door and started up the house’s front walk.
“Don’t mind her,” McLeod said. “She’s probably jealous of you and Richard.”
“She wants to stab him too?”
“Most likely. Come inside please.”
The woman had already gone in and was holding the door open. After hanging their jackets on a rack, they ushered Carmen into a warm living room. There were plush armchairs around a coffee table, with a fireplace at one end, flickering with an electric fire. Magazines on the table, a Wyeth over the mantle. The room smelled of carpet shampoo.
“I suppose you’d like a real coffee, no?”
Carmen turned and saw Richard standing in the other doorway. He had a beard now, and was dressed in a dark blue collared shirt and tan Dockers. His eyes looked identical.
“That had been my whole plan,” she said.
“I’m sure. Come through, I’m just firing up the Wega. Cappuccino?”
“With cinnamon and chocolate.”
The other two took seats. McLeod picked up a magazine and flicked through, but the woman just kept watching Carmen.
Walker had a table in his kitchen, the whole top lit up with designs. Carmen went to look.
“That’s our problem,” he told her. He went to the coffee machine and operated knobs. The machine buzzed and whirred.
The schematics showed something like the original unit she’d sent to Mars. There was a base unit with the power cells and numerous chambers for the biologicals and mediums. The top half housed the expanding bubble and some other equipment she didn’t recognize. Were those solar cells? In the legend there was an annotation suggesting it was an experiment based somewhere in Nevada. It was obvious to her that it wasn’t. She remembered the whole period when she’d wrecked Mars. Ecological terrorism, they’d called it. What responsible scientist would even consider running that kind of experiment without any kind of control? But there was no spare Mars to use as a control. It had been an idea that had been around for a few generations. Seed Mars with tolerant genetically modified organisms and see what they did.
At the time she’d sent her three units up, no one had tested any of the laws protecting the sanctity or purity of the little planet. Scientists and ecologists alike had been outraged. There were demands to put a stop to it, to send up explosive devices to blow up her efforts, to cauterize the planet before the units caused irreparable harm.
Of course, Mars was far too far away, with limited launch windows, to do anything about it. Two years had passed before anyone really knew, and it would take another two years to get a mission there, assuming they could put together something to wipe out her growing colonies of moss and algae.
Even Carmen hadn’t expected—or hoped for—the amount of growth her little mutant plants managed. They weren’t going to be terraforming the world in record time, but they had spread rapidly. The transmissions from the original unit showed a mossy mat spreading out across dozens of square meters of the ochre surface.
Of course the unit itself helped to sustain things, extracting oxygen from the thin atmosphere, and sending burrowing pipes deep into the surface to bring up water to keep the life moist.
Meanwhile, the hardy little plants and microbes had kept spreading. In prison she followed their progress with the limited external access to the net she was allowed.
Before anyone had been able to get together any kind of mission to incinerate the sites, the plants had seeded, sending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of spores into the Martian atmosphere. Most wouldn’t take, of course, but enough did to change Mars forever.
She had contaminated the whole planet. In a way, she regretted it, regretted that so many people felt the planet should be investigated thoroughly before any attempt at anything like terraforming took place. As far as she was concerned, humanity needed a backup planet. Nothing was going too great down here. All she’d done was kill the argument. Now ESA and JSA and NASA and the like could throw their resources into really generating a habitable world. Figure out how to drop some comets into it to thicken the atmosphere, and start some colonies.
Really, Carmen knew she was misty-eyed and idealistic, believing anything like that would happen.
“Well?” Walker said.
Carmen looked up at him. He was going to try to do the same to Titan, a place far more likely to house life than Mars. That would really rile up all sorts of people.
“You could get into a lot of trouble for this,” she told him. It had been a mistake to come. What had possessed her?
“I’m aware of this. Take a look at screen three.”
“I’m not interested. I’m glad you’re okay after everything, but it’s time I got on with, oh, anything other than this.”
The coffee machine quieted down and he turned to hand her a frothed cup. Carmen took it and sipped. Bliss. After three years. She closed her eyes and inhaled the aroma.
Walker made himself a cup and returned to the table. He waved it over by a couple of screens. “There. See this?”
“That’s a simulation?” She drank again, this time taking a mouthful. Exquisite. She could feel her resolve breaking down. He had always known how to get to her. Well, almost always.
“Yes. See how we get to day three and things start going haywire?
“What changes on day three?”
“They get cold. They want oxygen.”
“You’re running it with Titan conditions?”
Walker just raised his eyebrows.
Carmen sighed. “Not as stupid as it sounds. How many generations are you looking at for adaptation?”
“Fifteen. So that’s a month. It’s really slowing us down. I’ve only got resources for five units, so we have to wait a week to tinker with results.”
“How long have you been working on this?”
“Since you were sent away.”
Three years. They’d probably made over a hundred cycles with the set up. “Have you been running computer simulations?”
“Sure. Thousands. And the models are very good, but there are still variables slipping by us.”
“It seems like a lot of work to run through on the chance you might sneak under their radar and actually land it on Titan successfully.”
“You thought it was worth it.”
Carmen shrugged. “Titan’s not Mars. And they’ll be a whole lot more vigilant now, won’t they?”
Walker sighed. “It could have worked out between us, you know.”
Carmen looked away from the diagrams. She’d already figured out half of what they were doing wrong. “You have quite the imagination, don’t you?”
Walker smiled, as if he was the one in control.
“One dinner at Martine’s does not make for any potential,” she said.
“They did have great lobster, though.”
After years of overcooked and undercooked slabs that passed for food, she closed her eyes, almost able to smell the lobster. He was manipulating her now, trying to get her on-board with his own half-baked scheme.
“Why do you pull each one after three days? Some systems must still be working.”
“Absolutely, but in most cases going way off target. And we have to recalibrate anyway. When we let it run on, the ecosphere survives, and would continue to be self-sustaining, but not outside the bubble. It’s close, every time, but not close enough. We tweak the potassium, the phosphorus. Copper, aluminum. Everything.”
“Cadmium? With that you’d—”
“Trust me. Everything.”
“Then I’m no use to you. Take me home.”
“I’m only asking for another five minutes of your time.”
“I was going out for dinner,” she said, adding quickly, “with my brother.”
“Ah, yes, Mick. What’s he been doing while you’ve been away?”
“Leave him out of this.”
“You know he’s outside waiting? Dithering over what he should do, I’m guessing.”
Carmen inclined her head. “He followed us?” Someone had given him the address. She knew who.
“Apparently. The car’s log would lead me to believe there was no tail. He was left behind at the first corner, yet now it would appear that he’s come along and is parked outside.”
“Good. He can take me home.” Carmen glanced back at the schematic, regretting the look immediately. Walker already knew she was intrigued and she was only helping to confirm it. He would prey on that.
“You’re sure you don’t want to contribute something here?”
“Tempting. Perhaps after you’ve been to prison you might find yourself considering things more carefully. Such as things that might get you thrown back behind bars.”
“No one’s going to jail here.”
“If you can help it.” Carmen didn’t think he had quite the capacity to cover every avenue the authorities might use to track his activities. It was just too broad of a sweep.
“Give me a minute and I’ll show you to your car,” Walker said. He turned and slipped out the other kitchen door, heading deeper into the house.
Carmen looked back at the table. They had mimicked the design too closely. Mars was cold, but Titan was much colder, and had much more complex variables to deal with both in the atmosphere and at the surface.
Of course, she knew a whole lot more about Mars than she ever had about Titan. After the bomb, bringing flora to the red planet, her name was now synonymous with Mars. If it hadn’t been for recent events in Asia—the sacking of Beijing by the Japanese—and the central African monsoon, there would have been a dozen reporters waiting at the prison gates, thrusting microphones in her face.
Perhaps that was arrogant.
The requests for interviews had tapered quickly after the first few months. She’d had barely any requests in the last year.
Walker had the umbrella section far too small, to begin with. That was obvious. And it looked like they’d increased the insulation, which just made the organisms soft. And they were using hormones. Everything was like try-hard amateur stuff.
On the table display she found the history menu and called up some of their earlier designs. The first ones were just plain copies of the Mars bomb, with a couple of minor tweaks. At least it was clear they’d made some good progress.
Rotating through the latest developments, she came back to the current design. If they just changed some of the medium make-up they might be able to feed the developing cells more effectively. What they needed to do was create an in-situ methane gobbling algae and let the rest take care of itself.
Leaning on the table, Carmen pushed herself back. She was getting too caught up in it.
Walker still hadn’t come back from whatever it was he’d gone to do. Carmen picked up her coffee, sipped again, savoring the aroma and taste.
What she needed was a week in the Caymans. Snorkeling, hiking and waterskiing. After that, then maybe she could consider getting back into some kind of work.
Probably factory janitor work for all the science departments that might be willing to take her on.
Downing the rest of the coffee in a single gulp, she set the cup on the display table and went through to the living room. McLeod was still feigning reading the magazine and the woman continued staring back at Carmen.
“You didn’t look away once, did you?” Carmen said, heading for the front door.
The corners of the woman’s mouth moved into a fractional smile. “Not for a moment.”
“That’s really odd,” Carmen said. “I’d get that checked if I were you.”
“My ride’s here, so I’m going.”
He put the magazine aside and the woman stood.
“I don’t think you understand the situation,” he said.
“I surely don’t. But then, neither do you. What he’s up to is going to really tick off a whole lot of people.”
McLeod shrugged and stood. “Titan is a better option for habitation.”
“You really think that?” Carmen retrieved her coat. “Do you know how far away it is? It takes a year to reach Mars.”
“Not with the new rockets,” the woman said.
Carmen laughed. “Right. Shave off two weeks. And your trip to Saturn is a couple of months shorter. So it might not take a whole five years to get out there.”
“Walker’s got access to something much faster,” McLeod said. “He can deliver the package in under a year.”
“You should stick around,” the woman said. “He’s paying well.”
Carmen laughed. “I really don’t think so.” She zipped up her coat. Now she wanted to get someplace warm and dry and public. Eat a good meal.
Walker came back into the living room. “Leaving?”
“I can’t contribute anything. That’s all behind me. I just want to find something useful to do. Something legal.”
“I can offer you indemnity.”
“I very much doubt that.”
“We’re going ahead with or without you,” the woman said.
“It just takes a little longer without,” McLeod said.
“You could make a lot of money.”
“Oh,” Carmen said. “So tempting.” She opened the front door and stepped out into the rain. She really had been tempted. Who was going to hire her now anyway? Perhaps it would have been smart to have accepted, taken the risk, to at least be doing something stimulating and challenging for a year or two. There wouldn’t be any real risk until Walker launched his vehicle and she could have done some interesting research. Titan was fascinating. So cold, but so rich in organics. The potential to create a separate, self-sustaining biosphere was extraordinary. There were those who still thought—as some had done with Mars—that, despite all the extant research, there was some chance of there being native life on the planet, or the chance that it might evolve. They ignored the fact that humanity’s survival down here was far from assured. Wasn’t it a responsibility to spread out through the system? Perhaps someday beyond.
“Hey,” Walker called to her as she headed along the front walk.
Carmen hesitated, turned.
“I guess I’ve got to respect that,” he said.
She nodded, the porch light in her face. “It’s solid science,” she said. “It’s a good idea, but I just can’t afford to be involved. If you’d been inside, you’d understand why.”
“I’ve been to prison,” he said. “I mean, only two months. A DUI when I was a kid. I had an assault charge pending. Hit a cop. Guess they wanted to teach me a lesson.”
“I didn’t know.”
“It was expunged. The whole fresh-start deal. But it doesn’t mean I have some sense of what you experienced. A couple of months is nothing like three years, but I get it.”
“But you still asked me,” she said.
“You’re my first choice.”
“And even knowing where you might end up, you’re still willing to take the risk?”
“Risk is always balancing a potential gain against a potential loss. Look at the gain here. Maybe they’ll send me to jail, but someone else will always take up the reins.”
“I guess they will. Goodbye, Richard.”
“Yeah.” He stepped down from the stoop and came up to her, put his hands on her shoulders and then gave her a hug.
“Okay, that’s weird,” she said. “I put your eye out and—” she broke off, aware of who was listening.
“It’s fixed,” he said. “I’m over it. Anyway, a hug doesn’t mean we’re dating.”
“You’ll do fine,” he said.
“I guess.” Oddly, she felt herself warmed by the hug and put her arms up around him in return.
After a moment he broke away. “Your ride’s waiting.” He pointed across the front yard.
Mick’s car was parked along the curb, in the dull amber wash of a streetlamp.
Carmen took a step back. “I guess I’m flattered you asked. I’d kind of expected something.”
“You never made contact while I was away. That was a clue you were up to something.”
“You’re not making sense,” he said, rubbing his chin.
“If you’d been doing something legitimate, I’m sure you would have been in touch. A visit, a letter. A phone call.”
“I guess I’m busted then.”
Carmen laughed. “See you ’round.” She headed down the walk again, then couldn’t resist, and turned to say, “I might come visit you.”
“Ah, I guess you think that’s funny. You’re very bleak, you know.” Walker went up the steps and back inside.
Carmen was still smiling to herself as she reached Mick’s car. She pulled open the door and leaned in. “I guess we can go find a Denny’s now?”
“Uh. Okay,” he said. He shifted in the seat and put his finger on the ignition. “What was all that about?”
The car started and Mick eased them out into the road. He didn’t ask any more questions as they accelerated through to busier streets. Carmen sat thinking. It all would be on remote, but she was so tempted to go and work with Walker. Imagine, a whole world to play with. Properly. So far away, such a challenge. It would make Mars look like child’s play, and the potential was so much greater.
Too bad she’d agreed to entrap him. Kind of.
As they got out of the car at Denny’s she saw the Lincoln pull into the lot.
“Let’s get a table quick,” she said. She wanted at least some semblance of doing something free and everyday before she was caught up in the web again.
The waitress ushered them to a booth. Carmen ordered a flame-grilled Midwest tender steak with triple cheese, barbeque and mesquite sauce, fries, seasonal vegetables with butter and a green salad. “And a real coffee,” she said as the waitress took the still-closed menu.
“Of course, honey.”
“And my brother will have the same.”
“Hey,” Mick said, “I wanted—”
“Let’s just make this fast,” Carmen interrupted.
“Fast it’ll be,” the waitress said, taking Mick’s menu.
“What was that about?” Mick said as the waitress departed.
“Them.” Carmen was facing away from the door and she jerked a thumb over her shoulder without looking.
Mick stretched and looked. “The FBI?”
Carmen smirked. “Something like that. Two of them?”
“Yeah. They look like twins.”
“Coming our way?”
“Hello Carmen,” the first man said as they came up to the table. “That went well.”
Carmen didn’t reply. She reached inside her shirt and pulled out the recording panel. The filmy sheet was the size of her splayed hand, raised in the center and with a series of overlapping spirals. It should have recorded everything: audio, some imaging through the fibers of her shirt, even temperature and location. “Pretty smart little gizmo for what it is,” she said, handing it over. “But you must have got it all anyway?”
“Transmissions are not admissible,” he said. “We explained that. It has to be the direct recordings.”
“But you listened in, of course. So you know you got it all.”
“He’ll be going away,” the second man said. His voice was identical to the first guy’s. Must be something to do with their training.
“We thank you for your help. Please enjoy your release. And I’m obliged to remind you that it is a parole. You have to report to your P.O. next week.”
“All good, there,” Carmen said. “Glad to be of help.”
The men departed.
Carmen felt herself relax, surprised by how much of a weight had been on her.
Mick leaned forward. “What was that about?”
She smiled. It really did feel good. “Remember Richard Walker? My collaborator? He helped with it all, but he didn’t take any of the rap.”
Mick laughed awkwardly. “I remember. You talked about him a lot to begin with.”
“Guess I did.”
“This was revenge?”
The waitress arrived with their coffees. “Just be another few minutes on those steaks,” she said.
“Thanks.” Carmen looked back at Mick. “Absolutely. I got an early parole so they could do this. They knew he’d make contact. Just didn’t know when. They arranged to give me the wire on my release. Suited me.”
“I thought you liked Richard? Had a thing for him?”
“Had being the operative word.”
It was so satisfying, knowing that he was going to pay the dues he should have when she’d been sentenced.
And it left a gap. Titan was a far better idea than Mars. More distant, more challenges, but she figured there was a far better chance of success.
With everything she’d seen on his display, she had a real head start. Especially if he was put away.
The waitress came with their meals. “Sorry if they’re just a tad overdone,” she said. “I can tell you’ve been looking forward.”
“I really have,” Carmen said, glancing down. “Mine’s just fine here.”
“Likewise,” Mick said. He had his fork and steak knife and was already cutting.
“Well you enjoy now.” The waitress left her slip and went back toward the kitchen.
Mick looked up at Carmen. “So,” he said with steak in his mouth. “What’s your plan now?”
Carmen smiled and started cutting. “First, I’m going to really savor this steak. After that, well, I’ve got some ideas.”
The trick was going to be not so much working out how to seed Titan, it was going to be staying out of jail. She figured she knew how to do that.
The steak really was very good.