Burning Earth

 

Prologue

Just because he's the Head Honcho Environmentalist in the known Universe he has to live six floors up without a lift?

Lauren paused at the second floor landing. Wow, she sure was in a bad shape, and wow, she sure wasn't twenty anymore... Alexander's Campaign Headquarters were downtown, in a building with no less than three lifts from the lobby, but she was about to see him at his home. Which was weird, but Robles had told her the guy was informal, and liked to have his closest staff comfortable in his home, making it all very cosy and friendly... Exclusive.

She had know this, as Alexander'd been the leading light of the Greens for ages now, the man who, they said, single-handedly made it into a party that was seriously trying to gain the Presidency. But she'd never met him; during her glory days in Washington he'd been campaigning up North, Michigan, Minnesota... And Canada, which might not have been as stupid as they'd all thought.

Well, hindsight's twenty/twenty. And to get Rosenfield to look further than Boston -- ANY direction... She thought Canada was a block of ice.

Yet another stair, and then she was on the fourth floor. Pause. Someone was walking up a stair ahead of her... She paused, her foot set on the next step up. Yeah, someone was walking ahead of her... But that someone was awfully silent. So was she, for that matter, but she'd grown up in a house with a very noisy stair, and as a teen she'd trained herself to walk without a sound... Coming home from all them political meets, of course.

Robles had handed her a stunner...

So maybe she was paranoid. Who could blame her? So maybe Robles was, too... call it a mass delusion. And Alexander insisted on living like a ‘normal' person... meaning he was a fool and deserved to get the bullet that must be coming his way.

But not on my watch.

She'd left her cosy job for this guy, a quiet life of endless papers on molecular structures... No way she would let someone get her new boss before she'd met him!

The quiet guy ahead of her didn't stop at the fifth floor, so she hugged the walls and pulled her stunner.

Now, if only I wore a black bodysuit, I'd be Modesty Blaise...

But she had on a knee -- length skirt with embroidered flowers... Very pretty with her red hair, but not something you'd choose for some serious karate... Had she known any karate, that is. Wow, this was what excitement and fear did to her; she started babbling in her head. She'd missed that those past years, when she'd just taken the easy way out and fainted in the face of danger. Well, not again. Barfing on the shoes of the Hero of America was something you did once.

Never twice.

Trying not to gasp aloud for breath, she reached the sixth floor just when the mystery man (or woman) rang the doorbell. Only one flat on that floor...

Don't open, or I'll kill you, she tried to send Alexander a mental message, but her ESP didn't seem to be working today... Well, it would probably be his housekeeper that opened, like in all those TV actions...
Before her mind started to sketch that scene, someone opened the door and she hauled herself up those final steps and raised her stunner.

He's got a real gun, she'd time to think before reflexes took over and she aimed and fired.

She nailed him before he had a time to shoot the tall man in the doorway, who must've frozen, as he didn't even shout. Only, nailed wasn't quite the word. Robles infuriating voice turned up in her head a split second too late, saying:

"You've a real lousy aim, so go for the torso, give you a nice big target... Don't go for the head! Only those who are absolutely the best can do that... the rest of ‘em makes the mistake of their lives..."

She'd aimed at the head, and now the guy ( a man, she saw), had a bad case of numb ear, and she had about three seconds left to live. The gun tracked her (he was going for the torso, she noted) but the suddenly un -- freezing bloke in the doorway shouted something and had the assailant lose focus for a second. She jumped him, managing to get him off -- balance, and then she ran to the man in the doorway, he was waiting for her, and they tumbled inside his flat and pulled the door shut.

A bullet hit the doorjamb but was stopped by the heavy wood.

Lauren turned to the man she'd rescued.

"Is there a panic button somewhere?"

He was staring at her, hair charmingly on end; maybe he'd been napping when the doorbell rang.

"Right... Right behind you," he answered, and watched her turn and hit it with a lot more force than necessary. As the alarm took off, she turned back to him.

"Mr. Alexander, " she said politely, "may I use your bathroom?"

Some reflexes seemed to be stuck forever, she thought, barfing in Joshua Alexander's, her boss and the future President of the United States (if she had anything to say about it), nice, white, toilet.

 

Chapter One

Three months earlier.

Lauren jumped of the bus before it had ‘exhaled' and hunkered down to the street level. It wasn't quite as good a landing as she'd hoped, her flashy sneakers weren't very springy and she had to take a tiny extra step so as not to fall.

Well, no harm done, just the ten thousand campus cameras and a busload of people saw it.

"You all right?" shouted the driver from inside the bus. So it hadn't been a tiny step.

"I'm fine, Danny, thanks for the ride!"

"You pay, I drive!" Danny righted the bus again, preparing to leave. Then, at the last possible instant:

"Thanks for choosing Greenlink, the Bus Company that Cares."

He had to say that at every stop, he'd told her a while ago. And with the voice rec, Danny's job was on the line if he skipped it.

Well, in a month people'll be so sick of it they'll discontinue the policy, she thought. But she didn't mind; if not for Greenlink, her conscience would never have allowed her to be driven to campus. And in Winter, it was so very hard being an environmentalist.

Not that a walk would hurt me.

Roosevelt University with its huge Campus (third largest in the world, they said), was designed by Thomas Laz, the man who was obsessed with Mars. Roosevelt Uni was his grand vision of what Mars City, the Red Planet's first ever city, should look like. Laz had passed away before man had set foot on his obsession, but Lauren always imagined he must be quite happy where he was resting; under the great oak next to the Observatory. On very clear nights, he had a fantastic view...

She entered the Sullivan Centre, her main workplace, and said good morning to Andy Porter, one of the guards. He knew her well, but still she had to do the palm -- retina scan. Well, who was she to complain? Andy had saved her life not too long ago; she wasn't about to object his orders.

Fifth floor, and the Environment and Ecology Department, Senior Staff rooms. E&E occupied seven floors of the building, being one of the largest departments at Roosevelt... And right now, thanks to the current Admin (politically appointed), one of the poorest.

If I cared, I could try and change that.

But no, no more politics. This babe meant to spend the rest of her life at some Eco Dept, writing papers about toxins. She'd said that to Trish just last night, when her best (and only) friend had called from Japan, where she was on tour. Trish had just shaken her head at that.

"Honey, you don't have to look for politics, politics just naturally come looking for you." Which was a Trish's typical way of telling her she was a fool to pretend she was out of the loop.

But she was. James Osborne had called her once a week for thirteen months now, only to be rejected by her voicerep.

No one poked a head out his or her door as she walked past, as per usual. Which suited her just fine. They hated her for getting a cushy, attractive, research position at E&E, jumping the queue. Well, she had the formal degree, and she was up -- to -- date on the latest research, so they couldn't say much... They couldn't say much to her face, at least.

She slammed her palm to the scanner by her door, a habit of hers. Crash, boom, bang. Watch out for Lauren the Loud.

The door slid up, she marched in, and there was a man behind the door. She saw him from the corner of her eye, gasped loudly, her knees sagged, and she brought her briefcase up to cover her face. She wanted to scream but she had no voice, she had no voice to scream and she had no breath and she fainted.

Lauren woke up thanks to the horrid smell penetrating even her unconscious darkness. Someone was holding her head, and something was pressing against her nose, something that smelled foul. It made her toss up her breakfast, and she reckoned it all landed on the man holding her. She declined to open her eyes.

"What did they do to you, to make you this frightened?" the man supporting her whispered. It wasn't really a question. She thought that the man surely knew exactly what they had done to her, she could tell by his voice.

"I'm... Who are you?" she whispered. She kept her eyes closed.

"Won't you try to sit up, Doctor McGillis?"

He didn't have what you'd call a nice voice, exactly. Businesslike, and careful, but not nice. Lauren equaled nice with gentle, and there was nothing gentle about his voice. But he wasn't an enemy, or not yet, at least.

She sat up, bracing her hands on the carpet, and opened her eyes.

Great, I've been floored by the man who saved America.

Which was a nasty way of putting it as she was being ironic and the truth was, he really had saved America... Only she didn't think it had needed saving.

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ," she said, pushing to stand, edging away from the hand that tried to help her. She saw his shoes now had a spattering of Continental Breakfast on them. "If you're here, someone must really hate me."

"I'm sorry?"

"Yeah, me too General. What did I do, piss of the President?" Must have, for them to send Uberhaupsturmgeneralissimo Francisco Robles to get her. But it made no sense. She had spent the last twelve - odd months away from the politics, after Ellis, burying herself in academia.

"Mrs. Winter didn't send me here, Doctor McGillis."

His familiar face, the very same face she'd sparred against so many times, across conference tables and desks and, once, in the middle of a war camp in a godforsaken desert. The blue eyes, almost hidden by thick, greying, eyebrows and a too -- large nose, were calm, assessing.

"Yeah? You want to enroll? Sorry, I don't decide those things. I have no say around here." She spoke lightly, despite lying through her teeth. Her skirt was wrinkled, and she smelled of fear, but she couldn't do anything about that. Or her shaking knees, for that matter.

"I left the Army eight months ago," said Robles. "I'm surprised you didn't know."

She sat down in her desk -- chair, and gestured at him to be seated. He didn't.

"I've been away from the world of politics for well over a year, and the Army was never, as you well know, at the top of my list."

"Oh, I know what you think of the Army, Doctor McGillis. I'm not here to argue ethics with you, however."

"I didn't think you were. I suppose you have a new boss, then?"

"Mm, yes. Would you care to guess who it is?"

"No thanks. Dad always said once an Army -- man, always an Army -- man, and with the Election coming up, there's only one horse the Army will back... And if there is one person on this Earth I have nothing to say to, it's James Eagleton III."

"You have been out of the loop, Doc." Now his voice was mocking, reminding her of all their past fights, when he'd wind her up, make her go ballistic with anger and frustration, and then just lean back with that cool smile and watch her lose the fight. Well, not this time.

She merely shrugged and got up to go to the sink in the far corner, to try and make herself presentable. Let him do the talking...

"It's Joshua Alexander."

He won this round too. She froze, mouth wide open, hands dropping to her sides. Blink. Blink.

"...Again. Could you... say that again, please?" she croaked.

"Joshua Alexander, leader of the Green Party. You know who he is. I'm surprised this department doesn't have him hanging on the wall."

"This is the Senior Staff floor. Check two floors below," she replied, not really paying attention. Joshua Alexander?

"You know, Doc, for a bright girl you really have no clue, do you?" he said. "I mean, you made up your mind years and years ago about what kind of people join the armed forces, and from that point, you acted like that was the all -- powerful truth and no chauvinist no -- brain military pig would ever work for the common good, so better diss all that Army crap right from the start! And then you proceeded to refuse any deal we offered you."

"You had your way many times," she spat, angry.

"Yes, but no thanks to you. We could have used a lot of what you refused us back when... last year."

She turned, and barred her teeth at him, in a smile that was pure animal.

"I heard you made do, General Francisco Robles."

"I made do," he shrugged, "and I'm not here to argue the past with you, Doctor McGillis. I'm sorry."

She raised her eyebrows. Did the old fox just say he was sorry? Better watch out, the sky is liable to fall down any minute now...

"Well well well... First, General Francisco Robles jumps me in my office, then he tells me he's not in the Army anymore, and by the way I should remember that the Army is capable of handling differing opinions, and then he says he's sorry. Wow. Oh, and I can't forget that he's working for Joshua Alexander, as Security Advisor I'm sure."

"Call it that, if you want." Another shrug. "I work for the man, I make sure it'll be real difficult popping him during the campaign... I help him gather the people he wants."

"Oh... Das war also des Pudels Kern... A job?"

"Do you good to get out a bit."

"Charmed, I'm sure... And what part of retired from the political scene did you and Alexander miss?"

 "He's awful persuasive, Doc."

"I'm not Green."

"You're an environmentalist at heart."

"So is half America, doesn't mean they vote Green."

"Mebbe this time ‘round, they will."

"Maybe. If you can swing Florida..."

Wait, what am I saying? Better cool this before I do something stupid...

"I'm out of politics, General, I have my life here now, at Roosevelt. And here I stay. I have a paper due next month."

"Toxins, I hear. Not so different from your old trade, after all..."

"This conversation is going nowhere very fast, General Robles. I wish you'd leave."

"He'll give you whatever you want, Lauren."

She blinked. He'd never called her Lauren before. And what an offer...

"Whatever I want?"

He shrugged.

"The man knows what he wants, Doc. He's ready to pay for it."

"Whatever. I'm out of the game, General, go find yourselves another genius somewhere... One political suicide was quite enough, thank you!"

She leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes. After a minute, he left and she heard the door close. When she opened her eyes, she found a card on her desk.

Call me. And a number.

Suddenly, she felt very much alone.

 

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