BY: R. L. GEORGE
By the year 2060 the world’s population has been drastically reduced by a proliferation of wars and diseases and, because one disease specifically targeted males, females are now the vast majority. And thus begins the ultimate battle of the sexes. With women in political control, society has become nearly idyllic—but only for the female sex. A faction of men is determined to return to the old ways, which ended in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Peace now reigns in the new society, so how can women stand up against men who will use violence to regain control? Is it even possible for peace to prevail against weapons of mass destruction?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In A Thousand Reasons by R. L. George, Clara James is a journalist for an e-newspaper in 2060. It’s a dystopic world after a bio-nuclear war has killed off a large percentage of the world’s population, leaving less than a billion people on the planet, most of them women. The world government is also women, and a group of men rebel, trying to regain control, since men have become second-class citizens due to their violent nature. But the rebels have nuclear weapons left over from the last war, and the women, with their belief in peace at all costs, do not. But just how far will men go to avoid being ruled by women?
The book is long, nearly 600 pages, but with such a complicated story, it would be hard to tell it in less. The plot is strong, full of surprises, and the ending is killer. A fascinating book.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: A Thousand Reasons by RL George is the story the ultimate battle of the sexes. In the year 2060, after nuclear war eliminates most of the world’s population, women greatly outnumber men. Blamed for the war, because of their hunger for control and wealth, men have been removed from power and women now run the world. Unfortunately, they treat men much the same way women were treated when men were in control, so the men are naturally unhappy with the situation. Since the population of women is so much greater than that of men, most women are homosexual, turning to each other for love and sex. The majority of the men on the planet are also homosexual, and the few heterosexual men left are suspected of being terrorists. When our heroine Clara James, a master journalist for an online newspaper, is contacted by the Aegis (the equivalent of our CIA) and asked to write a fake article for her newspaper as bait to expose a group dangerous rebels, she is drawn into a world of intrigue, deception, and danger.
On a par with George Orwell’s 1984, A Thousand Reasons is incredibly thought provoking, a clear statement on where our civilization is headed if we continue on our current destructive paths. With interesting characters who are very realistic, a complicated plot full of twists and turns, and a totally unexpected ending, the story is a great read.
The clock ticked and Clara could not swim to consciousness, could not get out of bed. Too stressed to sleep well, too tired to wake up and earn that paycheck. The nature of her work held no meaning for her–she was a grocery clerk, or a mechanic, or she took pay to stare at a computer screen until her eyes dried like raisins…
What was her job? It didn’t matter. It was all about paying the bills.
Had she come awake? She continued struggling against her malaise, because if she didn’t work, she wouldn’t be able to buy food, and the only water safe to drink would be unaffordable to her. Without money, how could she expect to keep a roof over her head? She would be forced to live outside, hungry, thirsty, and impoverished in a world rich with resources. If she joined the ranks of the indigent, it wouldn’t matter if she suffered, starved, became ill, even died. Without money, she was no one.
She begged herself to wake so she could force herself to earn cash or credit, to earn as much as she could, however she could, because if she had no money, she would have no life at all.
Clara opened her eyes and saw she had slept later than usual. She remembered dreaming about a life where currency had been the basis of the most base fears, and the remains of the dream tapped her nerves eerily–not because it had been a nightmare, but because, until recent history, it had been a daily reality for the human race.
In Clara’s lifetime, people only took an occupation for the pride and pleasure of it.
Master Journalist Clara James entered the offices of the electronic newspaper News West, and when she glanced at the wall of clocks, her eyes automatically found her own place in the world:
Fifth Continent, West Coast, Tuesday, July 13, 2060, 10:09 a.m.
She had arrived an hour later than her usual starting time, and the young receptionist, a journalist apprentice named Erica, teased her about it. “Where have you been, Clara? Half an hour ago, Jackson Pike took over one of your best stories.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll probably make a mess of it.”
Clara gave her a tolerant half-smile and headed toward her office. Erica followed, but stopped to lean against the doorframe as the master journalist took her seat. “Jackson knows how to write a perfectly acceptable article,” Clara said. She pulled her hair into a long, loose ponytail and activated her computer video terminal.
“Who would want acceptable settling?” Erica pressed her fingers between her eyebrows and shook her head. “I mean, well, settle for…Never mind. You’d think he’d have more talent, being one of the few men left on the planet.”
“He should have more talent because he’s a minority?”
“I’m talking about natural selection. Those men who have survived should be more…I don’t know…everything. More talented, more intelligent, possibly even more graceful. They should provide more hope for their sex.”
“Isn’t there always hope?” asked Clara, lightly drumming the end of a pen on her desk.
“Yes, but there are always throwbacks, too.”
Jackson Pike himself appeared, like an apparition, next to Erica in the doorway. The baggy, drab clothing he always wore exaggerated his thinness and the stark paleness of his skin. The lower area of his cheeks was drawn in as if he continually sucked at them, yet his cheekbones appeared swollen, and his eyes protruded distractingly. Otherwise, his chin faded weakly into his neck, and his lips were so narrow and stiff that his mouth was little more than a short slit.
He walked to Clara’s desk, holding out a sheaf of hempaper. “Morning, Clara. I need someone to take over this coasterrail story, and Maizie recommended you.”
Clara reached out, but before she could touch the papers they fell from Jackson’s hand. With varying aspects of patience, embarrassment, and amusement, the three people in the room watched as the pages slid over the edge of the desk to the floor. A flatulent sound escaped Erica’s lips, and without another word, she returned to the reception area.
“Sorry about that,” said Jackson, waiting while Clara knelt to retrieve the papers.
“It happens.” Clara returned to her seat and held out the jumble of pages, her face expressionless. “They’re a mess, now.”
“I’ll get them back in order.” Jackson ineffectually tapped the edges and corners of the stack on Clara’s desk. “These are all the notes I have so far. I’m passing it on because editing wants me to take over that big math-language story.”
While Jackson fumbled, Clara glanced at her computer video terminal, which had chirped the announcement: Messages.
Jackson started to speak again, but stopped when Clara abruptly sat forward and scribbled something on the hempad in front of her. The CVT screen was at the wrong angle for Jackson to read the electronic mail, but Clara saw him leaning forward to try. She sat back in her chair and looked up, catching Jackson off guard. He thrust the papers at her again and knocked over her penholder with a clatter. Clara watched him curiously, but he returned the look with an open-eyed candor.
She righted the penholder and accepted the notes. “I’ll check this out as soon as I’m finished with my mail.”
“You got something interesting this morning?”
“Maybe.” The screen in front of Clara had already recaptured her attention. “I don’t exactly know what it’s about, yet.”
“Okay. Well, I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Mm hm.” Clara scrolled through the list of her remaining messages, thoughtfully tracing her mouth with the fingers of her free hand.
For a moment longer, Jackson stood watching her skim the words on her CVT screen, staring with an intent focus that effortlessly excluded him. “Don’t give a thought to my math-language story,” he muttered. “No, really, I want to do it. You’re too high-wired to report on the boring crap.”
Clara chose to ignore him but Erica heard him from her desk in the reception area. “You report,” she called out. “Clara writes.”
Only the barest pause interrupted Jackson’s exit from the room. He smoothed his hand over the thin hair he wore combed across the top of his head and strode toward his own office.
The words Clara had scribbled on her hempad were: The Aegis??? Now that Jackson had gone, she called up the message again and said, “Reply.” The face of a young woman appeared–an apprentice on phone-duty. “You’ve reached the Aegis. May I help you?”
“This is Clara James from News West. I’m returning a call from Master Frankie Milan.”
“I’ll get her.” The image of the apprentice faded out, and within a few seconds, the face of another woman appeared on the screen. Deep-gazing gray eyes looked out from under dusky blonde bangs, which fell loosely over the lower edge of her darker eyebrows. High cheekbones accentuated the wide, square, strong-jawed face, which barely softened when the woman offered a respectful smile.
“Clara James,” she said. “Your dissertation made for quite a book. You deserved your early master’s.” Frankie Milan spoke with a precision that made Clara suspect a mild Euro accent.
“Thanks. Have you located any of the remaining seven men?” The question was an assumption based on Milan’s greeting. Clara’s book, titled Divine Enterprise, had been published four years previously. In it, she had listed nearly two hundred names of men who had committed horrible crimes against humanity during the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. The Aegis had researched the list of names after the book’s publication, and within the first year, they had been able to locate proof of death for most of the men, with only sixteen names “assumed alive.” Nine of those criminals had been located and tried in the World Court, but seven men were still unknown factors.
The Aegis master shook her head. “This isn’t about them, not necessarily. Would you be able to meet for lunch today?”
“Do you have a story for me?”
“You’ll get the details when we meet.”
“Excuse me, but I’m going to have to cut this call short. Can you meet me for lunch?”
A solid block of curiosity landed on Clara’s chest. “Absolutely.”
“I’m calculating that a super-speed-rail will have me on the West Coast by 12:30.”
“See you then, Woman Milan.”
“You can call me Frankie if I can call you Clara.”
The connection abruptly ended and Clara folded her arms. Throughout more than three years as an active master journalist, the mysteries she encountered had ranged from enlightening to intriguing, and from pleasant to playful. Secrecy from the Aegis was another matter altogether. The Aegis–named for the mythical Athena’s shield–protected the people of the New World against men who wished to return to the old ways.
In 2038, it became known that a faction of heterosexual males had been abducting women and children to repopulate their God-fearing–or more appropriately, Bible-following–societies. The Aegis was formed, and before the end of 2039, the organization had recovered hundreds of victims from the Slavic area of the Second Continent.
The captured perpetrators had pleaded desperation and had shown true remorse. They had requested that they be allowed to relocate to the clean air edges of the old Middle East–now known as the Middle East of the Second Continent–where they hoped to “repopulate themselves naturally.”
After a long, global discussion, the first World President, Nina Everly, had agreed, on the condition that they never again use violence or deceit to further their ideals.
From all appearances, the men had complied and had lived the following twenty-some years in quiet separatism.
It was Clara’s best guess that her meeting with the Aegis master might concern those men, but she couldn’t see why Frankie Milan wouldn’t have mentioned that during the CVT call. There would be no need to hide any information that would soon be printed in News West.
Erica tapped on the doorframe and Clara distractedly waved her to a chair. The small-bodied redhead sprawled into it. “Can I work with you on an assignment?”
“Nothing jumps to mind.”
“Have you looked at Jackson’s notes, yet, about the coasterrail?”
“Oh, right. Maybe you can help with that.” Clara drummed her fingers, one time, on her desk. “Do you know if Dobson’s Home-Restaurant needs any supplies?”
“Ginna Dobson is all set for the week. Why, do you want to have lunch there?” Erica’s tone carried the sound of an invitation.
“Yes, I’ll be having a meeting. I’m going to walk down and schedule a private room right now, before she fills up.” Clara came to her feet and picked up Jackson’s notes. “On my way back, I’ll take a break and look over this information. I’ll be back before noon.”
“Okay,” said Erica. “I’ll be having my desk at lunch–I mean–” She stopped and dropped her gaze while Clara walked out of the office. Erica followed quietly, and when she arrived at her desk, she tapped the solid hemp material. “A little garlic salt, I can get some flavor out of this.”
Clara turned back at the front door. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” Erica said, trying to hide her blush.
With a small wave, Clara walked out into the day.
She was able to sign up for the last available private room at Dobson’s Home-Restaurant. She checked the list of requests for supplies and saw that Ginna Dobson was indeed stocked. Signs of a great master cook: not always easy to get seating, and plenty of goods provided by the locals.
Lunch wouldn’t be for more than an hour, which gave Clara time for a walk to a nearby park. The summer sun shone pleasantly on the West Coast of the Fifth Continent, and the air was sweet with late flowers that grew along the walkways. Clara found a soft bench in the shade of an oak tree and read through Jackson’s notes. Immediately, she could see why he’d been taken off the coasterrail story and assigned the drier one about mathematics.
The standard rail system was highly functional. Lead rails were built into every fifty meters of the magnetized track and would drop down on command from the passenger of a solar-powered vehicle, otherwise known as a “sunvee.”
Once the sunvee was on the lead, the automated rail drew it into position, and the passengers were whisked away at speeds anywhere from 50 to 600 KPH, depending how far and how fast they wanted to go.
The leads also switched “lanes,” moving sunvees to alternate, parallel rails to accommodate the different speeds.
The coasterrail designer had hinted that the sunvees on his rail would be capable of traveling near the ‘super-speed’ of 600 KPH, but as the name implied, it would be like riding a roller coaster.
Jackson had asked about safety, and Clara read the direct quote of the designer’s reply: “It’s safe because I’ve increased the magnetic pull inside the rail core, and that will hold the vehicle to the rail while it’s in the loops. The extra magnetism also helps to draw the sunvee up the steep inclines, but it abruptly releases, and the sunvees will speed freely down the drops.”
The next question Jackson had come up with was, “Why wouldn’t people just go to a Rides park if they want loops and drops?”
The designer had responded, “On my rail, the driver of the sunvee will have the option of controlling the speed, but at a rides park, there’s always a computer in control. The coasterrail can break up the monotony of a long sunvee trip.” Clara flipped to the next page and saw that Jackson hadn’t bothered to hide the designer’s frustration when he transcribed the next quote. “Mn. Pike, don’t you want to ask about how much fun people are going to have on this thing?”
Clara made some notes about a fresh take, returned to the News West offices, and handed the papers to Erica. “Want to do an interview?”
“I’d love to!”
“Great. You have all the information you need. Get together with the designer and let him talk–it’s obvious he’s fired up about the project. He wanted to tell Jackson about the thrill of it, but it looks like Jackson was only seeking flaws. Find out why people who ride these coasterrails are going to feel like they’ve had a shot of adrenaline.”
“Got it. This is going to be great.” Erica’s sun-pinked skin reddened. “Thank you. I was hoping you’d let me–um–” Her blush deepened. “You know. Work with you.”
Clara brushed her fingers over her lips, hiding a smile. “You don’t need to buzz me when Frankie Milan gets here, just send her in.”
Maizie Calloway, the founder and head editor of News West, walked into Clara’s office ten seconds before Frankie Milan arrived. Maizie, a sensuous, robust, curly-headed blonde, wore a nearly constant half-smile on her face.
“Having a good morning?” she asked Clara, but then Frankie Milan stood in the doorway before Clara could answer.
“Maizie,” Clara said, “this is Wmn. Frankie Milan.”
The Aegis master lifted her left hand, shoulder height, to press her open palm with Maizie’s right, and then Clara’s.
“Do you have something important, or can it wait until we get back?” Clara asked Maizie. “We were about to leave for lunch.”
“I only dropped in to say hi.” Maizie followed them to the reception area, where Erica was preparing to leave for lunch.
The two tall women gave her a friendly wave as she spun her terminal to face outward and activated the touch-sensor on the screen. A bold-font sign appeared: “Lunchtime, please leave message,” while the rest of the screen was set up with icons showing the names of the people in the building and their departments.
“Enjoy Dobson’s,” Erica said.
Maizie made a similar comment, but Clara only offered a fleeting smile as she followed the broad-shouldered Aegis master through the door.
The lead journeyor at Dobson’s greeted Clara and asked after her housemates, Izzy and Jess.
“They’re happy and healthy, thanks. Vincent, this is Frankie.” While Frankie touched palms with the heavy-browed, long-chinned man, Clara took in the large, common dining area and its fifteen occupied tables. “I was lucky to get a private room.”
“You must have timed it well. Follow me.” Vincent led them to the hallway and opened one of five doors, flipping the customer sign.
“When are you going to get your master’s?” Clara asked him. “You already have the talent.”
“Thanks, but it would be hard to leave here.”
“Why would you have to leave?”
“Make space for the next journeyors. You know. I should let other people have an opportunity to learn from the best.”
“Ginna may be one of the best, but I’m sure there are people who would want to learn from you, too. Too bad you’re on table duty today.”
He lifted his hands in a small shrug and then gestured toward the seats at the table. While the women sat, he pulled back the outer curtains of the window, leaving a sheer, fine webbing of material closed against the glare of the bright day. “Do you have any food allergies?” he asked Frankie.
“Would you like to try our Eurasian pasta? It’s with asparagus in a white sauce, and we serve it with salad and fresh bread.” When both women gave their approval, he asked, “Want to start with some iced tea?”
Again, both women nodded, and Vincent left them alone.
“Would you mind if we get right to it?” Clara said to Frankie, the moment the door clicked shut. “I’m pretty curious.”
Frankie folded her hands on the table. “The Aegis would like your help.”
“Help? I thought you had a story for the e-paper.” With only the hesitation of a breath, Clara added, “Help you with what?”
“We need to find some people.”
Vincent came back and they watched him set up a pitcher of tea and a plate of sliced lemon, along with two tall, frosted, ice-filled glasses. After he’d poured and gone again, Clara asked, “Who are you trying to find?”
“A large, dangerous group. We’re assuming they’re men.” Frankie drank deeply, her hard gray eyes watching Clara over the rim of the glass.
“Dangerous in what way?”
When Frankie quietly responded, her subtle accent–which Clara had decided was Germanic–all but disappeared. “We believe these men have spent a number of years gathering forces, and we have every indication that they intend to try and take the world back.”
There it was. Frankie Milan, Aegis master, did indeed have a frightening secret. Clara licked her lips, sipped some tea, and swallowed. “You’re saying these people want to force the New World to revert to the old ways?”
“We don’t have details about their intentions, not yet, but we do suspect they want to initiate another war.”
“War? Good Mother Earth.” The antiquated word felt to Clara, when she spoke it, as if she was trying to hold back gorge at the base of her tongue.
“Yes,” Frankie said. She pulled out a smokeless, popped the tip to activate it, and took a long draw. “They have enough people for troops. We’re thinking they’ve built a population of close to a million.”
“A million? The educated guess is that there aren’t more than ten million men left on the planet. You’re saying one out of every ten men wants to challenge the current state of the world? Wants to fight women?”
“That number includes men, women, and children, but you’re right, we’re guessing the fighters are all male. We hope to talk them out of fighting us, of course, but that leaves us with the problem that they’ll most likely want to control us.”
“They’d fail. The estimate of the female population worldwide is closer to 800 million.”
Frankie drew again on her smokeless, sucking a mint flavor around the tiny ball of nicotine that had been chemically warmed in the center of the tube.
“Not all women agree with our world government,” she said. “If this group goes public, say for recruitment purposes, their numbers could drastically increase.”
“Just how many people do you think would want to revert to a violent society?”
“Not a lot, I’d hope, but the past has shown us how large segments of any population can be galvanized by political ideals.”
Clara was finding it difficult to accept the severity of the situation. Nobody could have come to a place of real power, could become such a true and serious threat, without more forewarning than this.
“Do you have any idea who started this group?”
“We have our suspicions.” Frankie sipped her tea again, looking at Clara, who looked back at the intelligent, warm gray eyes. Frankie set down her glass. “What we’re after now is confirmation of our suspicions.”
“Do you think some of the men from Divine Enterprise are involved?”
“I can say that during the last three years, since the men we did find were tried and sentenced, there has been an extraordinary rise in disappearances.”
“Disappearances? Do you mean abductions?”
“No, ‘disappearances.’ Violent men, post-rehabilitation. Heterosexual couples. Orphaned children, with recurring overly aggressive behavior, have been adopted by people who can’t be found anymore. Entire religious factions–gone.”
“Why hasn’t any of this been reported?”
“None of these people stole away under dark of night. They told those they left behind they were going and wouldn’t return. They’ve never been heard from again, in hundreds of thousands of cases.”
“You’re telling me hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared in the last three years, and there hasn’t been any kind of buzz about it?”
“No. I’m telling you it has accelerated in the past three years, which is why it came to our attention. After we noticed it, we expanded our research to all disappearances in the past twenty years. Using the numbers we found, along with the probability of procreation in whatever place they’re hiding, we came up with our final estimate of close to one million. Part of that number comes from the assumption that they’re very interested in…‘filling their quivers.’”
Clara scratched her nose on the rise just at its bridge. Her thoughts tried to tumble, but she captured another question and asked it. “What makes the Aegis think these people have the capability to disrupt this world?”
“We’re convinced they have munitions. Big weapons.”
Moving carefully, Clara lightly grasped the front edge of the table and stared emptily, thunderstruck, at the hempcloth beneath her fingers. “I thought materials that could be used for munitions were closely monitored by your organization.”
Vincent came in with salads and asked if they would need anything else before the main course. Clara barely saw him.
“We’re fine,” Frankie said, but it was obvious she didn’t mean it, and the server left them alone.
Frankie slid her salad plate to the side and folded her arms on the table. “We have always kept track of those materials. But metals, chemicals, electronics–they’re used for all types of products. Supplies can be accumulated in small amounts and stored until the weapons are ready to be assembled and used.”
A breath of air, like a “tsk,” escaped Clara’s lungs, but Frankie continued. “Of course, since the gathering of materials might have been going on for decades, they’re probably able to manufacture a lot of products on their own, by now. They’d be able to build their own equipment, or rebuild whatever equipment they found lying around.” She took a breath, stopped, and focused carefully on the stricken woman sitting across from her.
Clara could feel the corners of her lips pushing down in a frown, and although she had let go of the table’s edge, she had clenched her hands in her lap. “This is nightmarish.”
“Are you okay?” Frankie asked, in a low voice. “This is pretty hard to take, I know.”
“Hard to take? What you’re saying implies that someone is going to threaten mass murder in order to gain power over this planet. Are those the people who should run the world?”
“They may not be mass murderers. We’re hoping they’ll talk first, make threats later.”
“You’re hoping. How could it have come so far?”
Frankie ran a hand across her long bangs, pushing them to one side, but they fell back over her eyes. “To be honest, it never occurred to us that anybody would actually be able to subversively gather enough of an army–and the weapons–to threaten the rest of the planet.”
Clara felt no small measure of shame for the naiveté of her gender. “I don’t see how this could have happened. It seems so ignorant of us.”
“A moment ago, you were having difficulty believing there were enough angry men to threaten the New World’s majority. A lot of us have been lulled into that attitude.” Frankie tried to take another draw from the smokeless, but had to click the tip again to rewarm the nicotine.
“What is WP Brown saying about all this?” Clara asked.
Each World President was the official head of the Aegis, and the current WP, Elizabeth Brown, was no exception. “Publicly, nothing,” Frankie replied. “We hope to quietly infiltrate this group, learn what we can, and sabotage their efforts. We can’t let them know we’re on to them.”
“But what is the WP saying privately?”
“The obvious: the Aegis has to make this our sole priority and find answers. We’re keeping her informed, but we’re the best people to deal with the situation. Of course, we pass all decisions through her, and we’ll respect all suggestions that occur to her or her advisers.”
Clara shifted in her seat. “What ideas do you have about where this group is hiding?”
“There are plenty of possibilities. Based on the overall male and heterosexual factors on the Second Continent, we’ve wondered if they might be there somewhere. Possibly even in the Middle Eastern section.”
“Wouldn’t that be…I don’t know…obvious?”
“That’s what gives us pause. But the weather is better than it is in old Siberia, and they’d be too easy to find in old Europe.” Frankie lifted one shoulder and let it drop. “I’ve also thought there could be some sort of biblical reasoning. I have nothing to support such a connection. It’s just a feeling.”
After a few seconds of visualizing an old map, Clara said, “They wouldn’t be able to hide on the coastal areas of the Second Continent. It’s too open.”
“They could be in a landlocked area, like old Iraq or Afghanistan, or maybe they’re in Asian lands. Vast tracts of those old countries have never been repopulated. They might be somewhere on the First Continent, but somehow I don’t see Old Africa as their style. Could be they’re settled on the Fourth, where there’s plenty of room to get lost in the outback.”
“Why don’t you do some sweeps, search with satellites or something?”
“Reconnaissance satellites from the first part of the century were disassembled or destroyed, remember? And yes, we could build new ones, or use drones, but the Global Privacy Act ties our hands. Paranoia about the loss of privacy outweighed the benefits of tools like drones and scientific reconnaissance satellites.”
“Well,” Clara said. “The definition of ‘paranoia’ runs along the lines of delusion, but in fact, there was no real privacy in the Old World. I’d hardly call our ancestors ‘paranoid.’”
While Frankie tipped her head in acknowledgment, the door opened, and Vincent reappeared. “Neither of you have touched your salads.” His full brow lifted, showing an indulgence in his eyes that belied the tone of his words.
The women looked at their plates in surprise.
“He’s right,” Clara said. “Try this. You’re in for a treat.”
“Lucky it wasn’t soup,” said Vincent. “It would have been cold by now.” He added, good-naturedly, “Don’t insult my craft, women.”
“Give us ten more minutes,” Clara said, “then bring on the main course.”
He closed the door. Frankie pocketed her smokeless, took a bite of the salad, made a sound of astonishment, and took another bite. “This dressing is exquisite.”
Clara absently chewed her own forkful. “You’re certain these men have weapons?”
“We’re not positive. That’s something we need to confirm.” Frankie took a short sip from her tea and dug into the salad again. “We have our suspicions because an Aegis journeyor began re-examining import/export activities during the past five years. She found that a significant number of the sensitive materials delivered worldwide were sent under suspicious circumstances. For instance, a number of the recipient industries turned out to be temporary. They no longer exist.”
“What weapons do you think they have?”
“I should wait until after we get the main course. I don’t want to spoil your appetite.” Clara let her exasperation show on her face, and Frankie reluctantly laid down her fork. “The materials I’m talking about can be used for the manufacture and maintenance of nuclear warheads.”
“Shit.” Clara’s shoulders trembled with disgust. “This just gets better and better, doesn’t it?”
Frankie retrieved her fork and took another bite before she responded. “During the destruction and dismantling of all munitions in 2037, there were arguments about the exact number of nuclear warheads that had been scattered around the planet. Some people were convinced that the inner lands of certain continents still had hidden bombs, but supposition wasn’t enough to keep the searchers going back into those bad-air zones.”
Barely noticing the dressing she already knew was “exquisite,” Clara took an occasional taste of her salad, not raising her head as she listened.
“Needless to say,” Frankie continued, “the people we’re concerned about have been extremely secretive. We’re worried the only reason we’ve become aware of them now is because they’ve reached a heightened level of confidence. We take this to mean they must be close to initiating their plan, whatever it is.”
“Frankie.” With an air of resolve, Clara lifted her eyes and asked her next question: “What can we do if they actually try to attack us?”
Frankie set down her fork again and stared back. Clara held her gaze. The moment stretched to the point where Clara started to ask her question again, but Frankie said, “We have the laser installations, the ones built after the asteroid threat of ’44. If the aggressors have nukes, they’re most likely intercontinental ballistic missiles–ICBMs. Anything smaller wouldn’t be intimidating enough to make the whole world give in to them. If they did actually fire ICBMs, we’d be able to laser those out of space. Unless they’ve already taken that into account and have found some way around our only defenses.”
The two women sat quietly with those words hanging in the air. Vincent arrived with the pasta, a freshly baked sourdough round, and a split of wine. “I recommend this wine with your main course,” he said, ignoring the weighted energy in the room. “Its grapes came from original, French root stock, never grafted.”
Forcing out a small smile, Clara gestured that he pour. He opened the bottle, poured, and both women sampled the wine.
“This is extraordinary,” Frankie said.
Clara agreed, but Vincent didn’t leave. He stood by the table with his arms crossed until Clara lifted her fork and indicated that Frankie do the same. After the two women tasted the pasta and hummed their pleasure, Vincent offered a somber nod. “I’ll tell Ginna,” he said and left them alone again.
When he had gone, Clara took in a breath, held it a moment, and re-centered herself. She started to speak, but Frankie said, “The food here is unbelievable. What are these little chunks?”
“And these are bean sprouts, aren’t they? I never would have thought bean sprouts would work with a Euro pasta.”
Clara allowed that a first experience at Dobson’s could be captivating, so instead of asking another question, she simply commented, “I can’t believe anybody would want to start another war.” The dirty sound of the word made her grimace, and she tried to replace its echo with that of another. “Don’t they like peace?”
No answer came–any response could only have been speculation.
Frankie sat back and patiently touched her napkin to her lips.
“Will you answer one more question for me?”
“How do you think I can help?”
With a small nod, Frankie said, “Okay, I’ll tell you.”
A genuine smile transformed Frankie’s face. It pushed a roundness into the square jaw, a small dimple appeared on one cheek, and her gray eyes softened to an amiable blue. “I wasn’t going to bring that up again until you did. You might not have wanted to get involved after hearing the details.”
“I want to do whatever I can. Regardless of the details.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.” Frankie dropped her napkin and sipped her wine. “Your personality showed in your dissertation. I have to say, though, it isn’t easy for me to ask women to become involved with our organization. It can be dangerous, and I have too much respect for women to want to put them in danger. Besides, I’ve already decided I like you, and I don’t want you taking any risks without being very clear about what we’re up against.”
Clara looked away, trying to hide a passing flush of embarrassment, and when she looked back she saw a curious amusement in the Aegis master’s eyes.
“How much longer are you going to drag this out?” Clara asked.
“We want you to write a ‘news’ story.”
“Well. Let me guess. Bait?”
“It’s because I read a lot of fiction.”
“Have you ever written it?”
“For this cause? Yes.”
“Then you and I are going to put together a special article.” Frankie checked her watch. “I need to take care of some other things today, but do you have anything pressing at your office tomorrow afternoon? Around one o’clock?”
“I can’t imagine anything more pressing than this.”
“I can’t either–except maybe, at the moment, this pasta.”
Without any further interruption, the women finished their meals and wine. Rather, Frankie finished eating, but Clara simply stopped, after a while. The journalist sat distractedly tapping one tine of her fork on her plate. She dropped the fork and tapped her fingers on the table. “Well,” she said when she saw Frankie was about finished with her meal.
“I should head back to News West. And I’m sure you have a lot to do.”
“I do.” Frankie pushed her chair back from the table but sat a moment longer, still watching Clara.
“Well,” Clara said again, and then she pushed back from the table, too. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
The women stood and reached to press their palms together over the table. Clara dropped her hand, took in a breath as if to speak, but only gave a quick nod, and was out the door.
© 2016 by R. L. George