We’ve got a great new story from David Walton about the aftermath of a war in Taiwan and what happens to families torn apart by it.
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by David Walton
Christine Gray hardly knew the woman whose life she was about to destroy. She’d met Chen Kit-ken on two occasions, neither time long enough to register more than dress and hairstyle. Yet today, in front of this scandal-loving crowd, she planned to ruin her.
It wasn’t something Christine wanted to think about. Instead, she concentrated on a mental check of her appearance: eyes confident; smile thin, as if at a secret joke; body erect; arms relaxed. She breathed steadily, waiting.
And finally, Kit-ken arrived, slipping into the room through a side door. No announcement, no trumpets, no steward striking a gong, and yet, in a sudden ripple of turning heads, she arrested the attention of everyone in the room.
Her microspin would have attracted their stares even if her body hadn’t. Millions of micros flashed in tightly-programmed ellipses a millimeter from her skin, giving the impression of a clinging, coruscating crimson dress streaked with living swirls of blue and green. Kit-ken smiled a dazzling smile, seducing every aristocrat, CEO, and petty billionaire where he stood.
Then she saw Christine, standing next to Chen Jiunn-Wei. Her husband.
The room quieted like a theater crowd when the lights go dim. Christine looped her arm around Jiunn-Wei’s and stared calmly back at his wife, breathing rhythmically as she’d been trained. As if afraid of being caught in a crossfire, guests standing in their line of sight backed away. The nest of reporters in the corner frenzied, a dark cloud of microcams spilling from their midst and gathering in the vaulted ceiling above.
Kit-ken advanced toward them. Her expression was meant to be dismissive, but the astonishment had crept into her eyes. It would be inconceivable to her that she, a pureblooded Taiwanese, daughter of an aristocrat, could have lost her place to an American. Which is what Kit-ken would consider her, although she’d been born right in Taipei. Christine’s striking combination of Asian eyes and very blond hair had meant ridicule as a child, and exclusion from both racial groups—each side thought of her as belonging to the other. But as she grew older, men began to find the exotic combination attractive. Which meant the women hated her all the more.
Kit-ken refused to look at her. “Who is she?” she asked Jiunn-Wei.
“You do not have the right to ask questions.”
At his words, all the pretense in her expression slipped away, leaving only fear. Knowing what came next, Christine pitied her.
“Nor do you have the right to wear my clothes,” said Jiunn-Wei.
He touched a button at his belt. At once, the shifting waves of color on Kit-ken’s dress froze. Starting around her legs and flowing upward, the micros detached and fell in a growing avalanche, until the entire garment slid from her body like so much colored sand.
Christine smiled a small, satisfied smile, trying to make it look as though it had slipped through her composure. What Jiunn-Wei Chen was doing to Kit-ken infuriated her, but she had to seem pleased. Anyone in the room would expect her to have been anticipating the moment for months.
Kit-ken’s composure collapsed with her clothing. Before marrying Chen Jiunn-Wei, she’d posed naked for several major magazines, but now she covered herself with her arms, whimpering. She tried to run, but the pile of micros around her feet resolidified, cementing her ankles together, and she fell awkwardly to the floor.
Jiunn-Wei laughed. Christine could see he wasn’t really amused; it was a calculated laugh, as programmed as the micros in Kit-ken’s dress. As soon as the billionaires and their government flunkies copied his laughter, Jiunn-Wei readopted his perpetual frown.
He turned to leave, but Christine held his arm, in a calculated move of her own.
“Please, don’t leave her like that,” she pleaded.
It was the right thing to say. Jiunn-Wei smiled briefly, squeezed her arm, and touched his belt. The micros binding Kit-ken’s feet slid away, releasing her. Pursued by giddy reporters and a swarm of microcams, she fled.
Christine stroked Jiunn-Wei’s arm, catching his eye and sharing a private amusement. She disciplined her mouth to smile and her eyes to dance, breathing slowly and regularly. Nothing in her expression or manner betrayed her deep and unwavering hatred for him.
Beth Walker, Chief of Corporate Security, watched Christine Gray from the corner opposite the reporters.
“She’s a spy. No question.”
Surprised by her comment, the young security officer standing next to her failed to hide his disbelief.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
“Wu Chichang, sir. Madam.” He bowed.
Beth smiled at his confusion. “Let me show you something, Chichang.”
She led the officer out of the main hall into a conference room. After shutting the door, she pressed a cube of micros to the blank wall. The tiny machines spread out flat on the wall to form a large rectangle which then sprang into color, each micro shifting hues according to signals from her belt to form a high-resolution video feed from one of the security microcams, as if a large window had opened up into the banquet hall beyond.
She replayed a portion of the feed from several minutes earlier, zooming in on Ms. Gray’s face.
“Watch her smile,” she said. “It’s like she’s enjoying the best moment of her life.”
Chichang’s brows lifted. He said tentatively, “Well, isn’t she?”
“And with just the perfect amount of pity for the girl she’s replacing.”
“Ms. Walker, I don’t understand.”
“It’s exactly what you’d expect to see. Exactly. Nobody’s face is that predictable. No one feels exactly the emotions they should. She’s putting them on.”
Chichang shook his head. “There’s no way she’s a spy.” He seemed to have recovered from his surprise, and was beginning to resent her intrusion on his watch.
It was a response Beth was seeing more and more. Taiwanese all over the island were starting to begrudge the American presence, military or otherwise. The war was long over; what were all these foreigners still doing here? Her subordinates increasingly viewed her presence the same way, which forced her to get tougher, more authoritarian. The security needs of a mega-corporation like Chen Industries required all her energies; she couldn’t do her job unless her subordinates respected and followed her. They didn’t have to like her. The younger officers called her “The General” behind her back, an allusion to the high-handed commander of the American liberation forces. Chichang probably had a wild impression of her from those stories.
“Anyone can be a spy,” she said. “Everyone’s a spy until proven otherwise. Remember that.” She smiled to show him she wouldn’t bite. “When you’re my age, you’ll be just as paranoid.”
But Chichang didn’t back down. “Ms. Gray was a Ward of the Corporation,” he said. “She’s been taught from birth to view our competitors as enemies.” He held up one finger. “That takes care of motivation. Besides that, she’s under 24-hour surveillance, has zero opportunity to communicate with enemy agents, and has never been outside corporate holdings in her life.” He held up a second finger. “That takes care of means.”
Beth just smiled, half-listening to another report coming through her earpiece, fingers flying over the controls on her belt, maintaining the security of a corporate empire. It would do no good to argue with Chichang. He’d almost certainly been a Ward of the Corporation himself, like most of the younger employees at Chen Industries. With the Corporation as his legal guardian, raised by professional parents to respect corporate ideals and loyalties, he couldn’t conceive how someone else raised that way could become a spy. Beth, however, at two months shy of 60 years old, could not only remember her own biological parents—she’d actually raised a daughter of her own.
But she wouldn’t think of that. The only way she’d survived the last six years was by not thinking of Mariana. Beth’s husband, a submarine commander, had been one of the many casualties of the Taiwan War, leaving her alone with her only daughter. And then Mariana, too, had been taken from her. Beth had faced that double-grief by submerging herself in her work, only escaping the flood of misery and anger by drowning herself in a different one.
Beth shook herself. She wasn’t going to get caught in that mental spiral now. She forced herself to concentrate on the security officer in front of her, who was young enough to be her grandson. He had a lot to learn, but he’d raised serious objections, ones she would have to overcome before she could officially accuse her boss’s lover of treason.
“I’ll find the motivation and means,” she promised. Then she added, “But if you want my job someday, you’d better develop some intuition.”
Alone on the garden rooftop of Chen Jiunn-Wei’s armored skyscraper/fortress, Christine stood motionless, facing west. Below her, the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait stretched gray-blue toward the Chinese mainland. Some said that, since the war, the water had a crimson hue at dawn and dusk.
The Chen skyscraper rose like a solitary spire from that strait, perched on one of the smaller of the Penghu islands. Christine turned east, looking across the Penghu Channel, past the American warships that still patrolled there, past the main island of Taiwan, out over the wide expanse of the Pacific to the horizon.
Then she closed her eyes. Although the sun had not yet risen, she pictured it rising in her mind, imagining its rays radiating through her body. She breathed from her abdomen in deep, cleansing rhythms.
Finally, she began to move, raising her arms in a wide circle as she inhaled—the first step of the Surya Namaskar, the salutation of the sun. Her microclothing was ideal for yoga, since she could hardly feel it hovering above her skin. Tension seemed to flow out of her, clearing her mind and heightening her senses.
As she pressed her palms together over her head, she heard footsteps. Someone else had joined her on the roof. She held the pose, listening. Then, as she exhaled, her heightened senses detected a slight warmth from the micros in her clothing. Someone had altered them.
She opened her eyes. Chen Jiunn-Wei stood with his back to a ginkgo tree, scowling as usual. The ornamental plants and trees hid the solid construction beneath, a building supposedly strong enough to withstand a cruise missile. No explosive, micro, virus, or even a pulse of electromagnetic radiation could pass through the palace’s defenses. Which was why it irritated Jiunn-Wei when she came up here, out of its protection.
She looked down at herself, still holding her pose and breathing rhythmically. What had been a simple brown shift had turned subtly translucent, showing hints of her body through the pattern.
“Much better,” said Jiunn-Wei. Ignoring him, Christine bent from the waist to grasp her calves.
“Why must you perform this barbaric sun-worship nonsense?” he said, pacing. “At least the last one stayed in bed past five.”
Christine smiled thinly. He was learning. Yesterday, he’d referred to Kit-ken by name, and she’d punished him by not speaking the rest of the evening.
“It’s how I keep myself healthy,” she told him. “Yoga brings the mind and body to a higher awareness.” She stepped forward with her right leg, touching the mat with both hands while her left leg stretched back. “That’s so I can be more sensitive of your feelings.”
Jiunn-Wei growled something unintelligible.
“And predict your legendary mood swings,” she added, lifting her arms over her head and holding the pose.
He circled her, exploring her with his eyes. “What was that part about bringing the body to a higher awareness?”
She dropped her arms and stared him down. “Yoga teaches that sexual indulgence depletes the life force,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “The most advanced yogis practice celibacy.”
Finally the scowl broke, and he laughed. “You do nothing but torment me. Come back to bed.”
She continued toward the next position, saying, “Now, now, my love, self-control.”
She knew how to play this game. The only way to keep his interest was to satisfy him on her agenda, not his. Only when she allowed it, and never as often as he wanted—that kept him hungry for her, and let her time their trysts to suit her own purposes.
“Maybe someday I won’t bother with the clothes,” she said. “Then you’ll appreciate yoga a little more.”
But the old scowl was back. “I’m dining at Ba’shai tonight,” he said. “With some important clients. You’ll join me?”
“I’ll expect you at seven.”
She watched him go, her face and emotions disciplined, her breathing controlled. With each movement she cleansed the stain of him from her mind. An incessant little voice in her mind asked: Why are you enduring all this? Is it really worth it?
She silenced that voice, as she always did, by concentrating on those images that sustained her through sex with a man she despised. She thought of her mother, on their last day together, as they walked through the empty streets in the early morning. Her usual infectious laughter had been missing as she confessed what was going on at work, and her fears of what would happen to her if she interfered. Though Christine begged her not to go in, she went anyway, thinking that, at the worst, she’d lose her job.
Later that day, Chen Jiunn-Wei had murdered her.
“No dice,” said Chichang in Beth’s ear. “It’s the standard Surya Namaskar; you can find it in any yoga book. Trust me, I’ve looked. She follows the steps perfectly.”
Beth slapped the controls of her pod in frustration. “You see my point,” she said. “If the steps varied, they could be her means of communication—our competitors could pick up the movements on their overhead satellites. You said she does them perfectly?”
“Yes, it’s part of the mental discipline. The steps even tell you when to breathe in and out, and as far as we can tell, she does it all by the book.”
“Chichang, I know you don’t believe me. But keep looking. We’ll catch her.”
Beth killed the connection. Her pod hurtled along deep under the Penghu channel, away from the Chen skyscraper, following its preprogrammed course toward Chiayi, Taiwan.
It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Chichang. He was a top performer, clever and ambitious enough to pull high-visibility assignments. But she had a few years experience on him, and he relied just a little too much on technology. That was why, without telling him, she was going to redo his background check on Christine Gray.
She’d already double-checked all the document links in the report, and made a few calls to old schoolmates and teachers. Everything Chichang had done checked out. The original report demonstrated careful, scrupulous work. But in this age of high technology, agents too often ignored the personal element. That was why, at the risk of being thought a dinosaur, she’d left her cozy, computerized office to make a few personal calls.
Christine’s mother answered the door, a round, middle-aged woman with dimples and graying red hair.
“What newspaper are you from?”
“What magazine then?”
“No, my name is Beth, I…”
“Good, good. Come in. Rude reporters always coming around about Christine, sending their little micro-whatsits through my windows—took a golf club to the last one. Missed, though. Broke my best lamp. Coffee?
“No, nothing. I…”
“A soda pop then? Or water. You must have something.”
Beth sighed. “Water then.”
She dropped into an armchair while Mrs. Gray fussed over her drink in the kitchen. The walls overflowed with stick-figure artwork and photographs of kids, the excess spilling onto the furniture in the form of sports trophies and arts-and-crafts knickknacks. The house was typical of the many professional homes in Taiwan geared toward American children, professing to give a joint cultural experience, but in reality leaning far to the West. Beth picked out Christine easily in a field hockey team photo, with her blond hair and Asian eyes, taller than her peers and striking even at that age. The pictures reminded her of Mariana, who had adored sports, especially swimming. Beth jerked her head away, suppressing the memories, and concentrated instead on a display of the Grays’ various parenting awards and diplomas.
“Oh, don’t mind those,” said Mrs. Gray, bustling back in with, not just water, but a tray of crackers and cheese, tiny sausages, and slices of fresh melon. “Have to look professional you know, to stay in the business.”
“Surely you’re not still parenting?”
“Oh no, heavens no. Bob runs a little bookstore now, and I work as a consultant sometimes, for hard cases.” She glanced up at her credentials. “It’s just that after thirty years, I wouldn’t know what else to put on the wall.”
“Mrs. Gray, I’m not a reporter, but I am here about Christine.”
The other woman’s smile tightened, and Beth rushed to explain.
“She may be in some trouble, you see. She…”
“I’ll say she’s in trouble. Throwing herself at that man, and with her test scores! Though I must say I’m not surprised.” Mrs. Gray leaned in conspiratorily. “She’s a half-breed, you know.”
Beth tried hard to keep smiling. She’d been about to spin a fiction about mixups in security records, but Mrs. Gray’s apparent prejudice opened a new avenue.
“Did you see evidence of her Asian side coming out in her childhood, then?”
“Funny you should ask. She always kept to herself. That’s a very Asian trait, you know. Hardly ever cried or shouted at anyone. Held it inside. Really the only time was when her mother died.”
Beth blinked. “Her mother? You mean her genetic mother?”
Mrs. Gray clapped a thick hand over her mouth. Then she grinned. “I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. They kept it a great secret. But I knew.” She shrugged. “It happens more often than you’d think. Mothers want to find their genetic children, so they track down the surrogate, and can sometimes find the child.”
Beth wasn’t really that surprised. The tight corporate control over reproduction was hard for many women to take. If she’d been young enough to have children, who knows? She might want to find her baby, too.
“Did they see each other often?” she asked.
“Oh, yes. Christine and Beth used to take early morning walks every day before Beth went to work.”
“Beth? That was her mother’s name?”
“Yes—that’s your name, isn’t it? Funny. But I’m sure that wasn’t her real name. Just what they told me. They were like twins, those two. Spent every free moment together. Until the accident, that is. Christine took that hard. Her mother was killed in an accident at work, you see. Must have been five, no, six years ago now. It was weeks before we found out what had happened. Her mother just stopped coming.”
“How did she react when she found out?”
“Oh, it was incredible. She threw things around the house, exploded for the smallest reasons, and cried almost constantly. We couldn’t handle her. She seemed to think the Corporation had killed her mother on purpose, you see. Pretty common grief response.”
Beth hardly dared breathe. This could be it—the motivation, a reason for Christine to hate the Corporation. Surely if her mother had been killed by some corporate negligence, her death covered up…
But even more astonishing were the coincidences. A woman calling herself Beth who was killed in an work accident six years ago? Beth looked back up at the pictures of Christine. The resemblance between her and Mariana began to seem more significant than just age and build.
What if it had been Mariana? What was more natural when taking a false name than to choose your mother’s? Although her analytical mind rejected the theory as merely coincidental—accidents happen all the time, she reminded herself, and the name Beth was not uncommon, even in Taiwan—her heart had already accepted it as truth. Christine Gray was her granddaughter.
Alone in her bedroom, Christine unscrewed the lid off of a bottle from her makeup case. Instead of the mascara the label advertised, the bottle was filled with micros she’d never before used. She cued a microspin program, and as she poured the micros out in front of her, they flowed into pattern around her body, directed by signals from the thin belt at her waist.
The new dress left her back completely bare. The micros cascaded from her shoulders in an endless, colorful waterfall, over her breasts and down along her stomach, sweeping all the way around her waist and spilling from there nearly to the floor.
She’d obtained the micros for this dress from Dr. James Yang, a corporate researcher who’d been easily persuaded by a young female body. Sanderson Products had provided the programming: her payment for years of passing them the corporate secrets she’d learned, not just from Jiunn-Wei, but from all the other men she’d seduced on her way to this 126th floor penthouse.
She’d been waiting for her revenge for so long, it surprised her that now, when it was only a few hours away, she’d begun to doubt her purpose. Killing Jiunn-Wei wouldn’t bring her mother back; she knew that. It wouldn’t even lessen her own grief. It would simply serve justice on one who deserved it, the only way such a villain could get justice.
And was justice worth it? Was it worth the destruction of her life, the sacrifice of her time, her youth, even her body, risking imprisonment or death, for the sake of that one goal?
Yes, of course it was. It had to be. It was too late to reconsider.
She spun around for the mirror, admiring the effect. It would work, she thought. It would have to.
Beth just barely escaped. Before she finally made it out the door, she’d thanked Mrs. Gray half-a-dozen times, refused another water, and barely staved off an invitation to supper. She raced to her pod, set a course for the skyscraper, and slapped a cube of micros onto the inside wall. Before they’d even spread out completely, she was using her belt to control them, accessing data from the corporation network.
With the top clearances her position afforded, Beth retrieved records of egg donations from the years prior to Christine’s birth. She’d had access to this information for years; it had just never occurred to her she might have a granddaughter. A search for Mariana Walker turned up an instant match. The report listed her as athletic, healthy, intelligent: high scores for eligibility. Details on sperm bank choice and surrogate placement followed. Beth skimmed down to the final line, which read: “One child, daughter, assigned to Gray family unit, Chiayi, Taiwan.”
Slowly, the full implications sank in. Granddaughter or
no, Christine was an intimate contact of Beth’s employer whom Beth firmly believed was a spy for another corporation. They weren’t family; they were enemies. Beth rubbed her temples with one hand. The idea of a woman using her body to fulfill selfish desires for money or revenge disgusted her. If this kind of woman was her granddaughter, she wanted nothing to do with her.
And yet—her granddaughter. Beth couldn’t help imagining Christine as she must have been as a baby, as Mariana’s baby, though Mariana would never have held her. How could she hate her own daughter’s daughter?
Only one thought was clear: she had to find out the truth about Mariana’s death. She couldn’t trust her feelings. She needed facts.
Christine had hoped for a dull party. It made her dress that much more effective. Jiunn-Wei gazed at her for maybe the hundredth time, his eyes seeming to bore right through her microspin. She staggered him with her best smile, the one that said, “I’m here for the taking.” The one she saved for moments when she meant it.
Finally, Jiunn-Wei stood, cutting off the president of a major subcontractor mid-sentence.
“It’s getting late,” he said with a growl. “My apologies. Christine?”
Five minutes later, he practically dragged her aboard his personal jet and into the private bedroom in the back. Before the plane even cleared the runway, Christine’s new dress lay scattered like sand on the thickly carpeted floor.
“Dr. James Yang?”
Beth cracked the door and peered inside. “I’m with Corporate Security; could I have a few minutes?”
She slipped through the office door without waiting for a reply. Despite his first name, James Yang appeared to be fullblooded Taiwanese, and a good twelve inches shorter than Beth. He stood to welcome her with undisguised suspicion.
It had taken Beth half an hour, even by priority pod, to navigate the maze of connected buildings that made up the Corporation’s laboratory complex. During that time, she’d studied the background of Dr. Yang, the lead researcher on the project for which Mariana had died. He was best known, with three other colleagues, for inventing micros, though by his interviews, he was apparently not proud of the achievement. As they both sat down, she decided to bait him.
“Just a few questions. How long have you been working in microtechnology?”
Dr. Yang winced. “Nanotechnology. Ms…”
“Just call me Beth, please,” she said. No use giving him a chance to associate her last name with Mariana’s. “But I thought you worked with micros. They said you were one of the original inventors.”
“My field is nanotechnology. I patented one of the first self-replicators. Micros were a publicity stunt, a sidelight with some production value, mainly to interest investors. Now what can I do for you?”
Beth affected a girlish laugh, effective even at her age to give the impression of harmlessness. “Oh, come now, Dr. Yang. The biggest invention of the century, a publicity stunt? You’re being modest.”
“I don’t know what you’re after, Ms… Beth. But micros are children’s toys compared to what nanochines can do.”
It was working. Yang was leaning forward in his seat, talking more freely in his annoyance than he would have otherwise. She’d read his perspective on micros and nanotechnology. His team had been making advances in assemblers and replicators, taking huge leaps closer to the promised miracles of nanotechnology. Designer molecules. Super-strength materials. Self-replicating consumer goods. Human immortality. But the investors had wanted immediate marketable results, and so Yang and his team had given them micros—tiny, nano-built, sophisticated machines that performed a host of simple tasks in tandem, according to their programming. They’d originally been created as a safe delivery system for nanochines: tiny troop transports to release the soldiers inside at the right time and in the right sequence, far away from humans.
Beth shrugged. “So where are these nanochines then? Why haven’t I heard of them?”
Yang’s voice lowered to a growl. “You would have, except that now all the money goes into micros, toward making clothing and toys, instead of funding the real research. Now, please, unless you have some real questions…”
“Henry Tsung, Kep-Tian Lan, Mariana Walker,” Beth cut in. “Those names mean anything to you?”
“Some of the early nano pioneers,” he said finally. “Along with many others.”
“But those three in particular, weren’t they involved in an accident in one of the labs?”
Another pause. “Yes, that’s true.”
“Can you tell me the circumstances behind that accident?”
“Look, either you know or you don’t,” he said with quiet force. “If you know, you don’t need me, and if you don’t, I’m not telling you. Now if you don’t mind, I have a full schedule today.”
Beth didn’t move. “Dr. Yang,” she said. “Or James—may I call you James? I am the Chief of Corporate Security. I could edit your financial accounts, your criminal record, search your house, even issue a warrant for your arrest. Given sufficient motivation, I could find and read your diary. You can forget your schedule. I’m looking for answers.”
“Since when does the Chief of Security make house calls? This is starting to smell like a personal interest. Could I see some ID?”
Beth jumped to her feet. “It was a cover-up, wasn’t it? An accident with some of your little machines? Or maybe illegal testing outside a shielded area? And those three wouldn’t keep quiet, would they? So they had to disappear.”
Yang threw up his hands. “This is harassment. Ridiculous accusations. Leave before I have you thrown out.”
“I’ll find the truth, James. When I do, I’ll take you all down.”
Sardonic laughter. “How Hollywood,” he said. “Six years ago, you might have had a chance. Not anymore. The provisional government has enough to do pussyfooting between China and the US; they’re happy to let the Corporation handle its own criminal matters.”
“I’ll go to the top then,” said Beth. “To Mr. Chen himself, if necessary.”
Dr. Yang smiled. “That’s where you’ll find your answers, Miss ’Chief of Security.’”
Now it was Beth’s turn to pause. It made sense—a man like Yang wouldn’t risk his career. The order must have come from the top. “You’re telling me Mr. Chen was involved in this? That he ordered the deaths of those three?”
Dr. Yang smiled. “Beth,” he said. He spoke her name kindly, as if she were a child. “Do you know what a handful of carbon assemblers can do to a human body?
“They’re meant for limestone,” he continued, when she didn’t answer. “Set them loose in a limestone bed, they chew out the carbon atoms and rearrange them in just the right pattern. Presto! Diamond, lots of it, sharp and hard and useful for just about anything.
But of course, people are mostly carbon, too. Three meddling researchers trapped in a limestone cave leave nothing much more than a pile of fresh diamond dust. Think about that, before you go asking any more questions.”
“Limestone,” Beth mused, ignoring his threat. “Then you must have been testing in the Hengchun nature reserve, am I right? Plenty of limestone there.”
“Or possibly the Truong Son highlands over in Laos, but Hengchun’s more accessible.”
Beth backed away with a bow, closing the door softly behind her.
As the plane touched down, Christine reactivated her dress, though her hair and makeup were not quite what they’d been. A twin pod fired her and Jiunn-Wei 126 floors up to the penthouse on the skyscraper’s top floor. She led him to the bed, massaging his shoulders and neck.
“Why don’t you take a hot shower,” she said, hoping the flutter in her hands wasn’t noticeable. “I’ll be waiting.”
He kissed her without comment, then headed for the bathroom. When she heard the water running, she set to work.
Almost as soon as Beth left Yang’s office, she remembered the date. Yang’s revelations had made it clear that Christine wasn’t just out to ruin Chen through industrial espionage. She intended to kill him. And caught up with the case, Beth had nearly missed the date that for the past six years had hardly left her mind. Today was the anniversary of Mariana’s death. If Christine had any sense of poetic justice, she would kill Chen tonight.
Beth punched emergency priority on her pod and catapulted off for the skyscraper. Her call indicator beeped.
“This is Beth.”
“Ms. Walker! You were right!”
“Sorry, yes. It was the yoga—you were right.”
Distracted by her other thoughts, Beth couldn’t understand at first what Chichang was talking about. She said, “Yoga?”
“It was the means! We found a radio telescope on a roof two miles away, trained exactly at the spot she does her yoga every day. It’s a vital signs flashlight.”
“Hang on,” she said, while her mind raced through the implications. “We’re talking about detailed communications here. Those vital signs detectors are just meant to tell if someone’s alive under earthquake rubble, or on a battlefield.”
“Well, this one’s extremely accurate. The radar beam is narrow—focused with a microwave lens—with sophisticated signal processing to filter out the noise. Trained right at a person’s chest, even two miles away, it can register miniscule changes in breathing or heartrate…”
“And yoga’s all about breathing control,” finished Beth. “That’s it. She’s timing her breaths to some small accuracy, or controlling how deeply she breathes, to communicate detailed information in some specialized code. Amazing.”
“She could even be controlling her heartrate,” said Chichang. “They say yogi adepts have incredible control over their autonomous muscles. Anyway, it’s something like that. I’d bet my career.”
He was right. Beth knew it, felt instinctively that Chichang had found the means by which Christine was communicating information to a rival corporation. But her emotions spun helplessly in a whirlwind of opposing thoughts. By all the evidence, Jiunn-Wei Chen certainly deserved death. He’d ordered Mariana’s murder! Part of her wanted to wring his neck with her own hands, or at least do everything in her power to help Christine. And yet, she’d spent her life upholding the law. Her sense of justice wouldn’t allow her to follow Christine’s path, to convict and execute without proof of guilt.
All the grief and anguish she had crushed into a corner of her mind now washed through her like a melting glacier. The rising tears stuck like a gumdrop in her throat. For a moment she couldn’t speak. Then, swallowing hard, she said, “Good work, Chichang. Let’s keep an eye on her and try to catch her in the act.”
“Why wait? She’s a spy; let’s arrest her.”
“Chichang, slow down. She’s the lover of one of the most powerful men in the world. Don’t underestimate the influence she might have to destroy either one of us. I believe you, but she could make that radio telescope theory sound quite silly. We need proof. Pictures. Video. Easy to understand evidence that leaves no doubt.”
“You’re the boss,” he said and clicked off.
Christine ripped a piece of paper from a pad on the nighttable.
“Darling,” she wrote. “Looks like a lovely night for yoga. I won’t bother with the clothes. Come and join me.”
She dropped the message on the bed, then took the spiral stairs two at a time, pushed open the trapdoor, and slipped out onto the roof.
Beth tore into the skyscraper’s security command center.
“Level A situation,” she said. “I have control.”
The duty officers yielded the main console. Beth confirmed Jiunn-Wei Chen and Christine’s location, but she had no way to see what was going on. Mr. Chen naturally didn’t allow security cameras in his penthouse suite. Instead, she called the agents assigned to guard the top floor.
“This is Command,” she said. “You have the boss, confirm?”
“Here with his latest, Command.”
“What are they doing?”
The agent cleared his throat. “I’d guess the same thing I’d be doing in their place, Command.”
Beth paused. Her duty was clear; arrest Christine before she could kill Jiunn-Wei Chen. But the other option dangled temptingly in front of her. Beth knew her own investigation of the murder could fail. There was no guarantee she would be able to prove Chen’s guilt and bring him to justice. She might even get herself killed trying. Wasn’t the easiest thing just to let Christine succeed? It wasn’t like killing him herself; she would just do nothing.
But whatever she did, she had to decide now.
In the clearing where she practiced her yoga each morning, Christine deactivated her microspin. The dress collapsed into a colorful pile at her feet. She took off the slim belt, too, activating a new program before she dropped it onto the pile. The new program would wait several minutes, then start. Finally, she placed a second handwritten letter on the ground, though this one had taken her hours to get right.
She flew naked back down the spiral stairs just as the water in the bathroom turned off. She dove behind the bed, wriggled under it, and lay quiet, using all her concentration to control her heartrate and breathing.
The bathroom door opened. Bare feet crossed toward the bed, stopped. Jiunn-Wei picked up the note, then gave a low, throaty chuckle.
“That’s my girl,” he said.
His feet padded up the spiral staircase. She heard the trapdoor open, then close.
“Command? Are you still there?”
Beth shook herself. She couldn’t let it happen. She couldn’t allow an individual to take an execution into her own hands, even if it was her own granddaughter. Even if she believed the death was justified.
“Yes, listen closely. You are to enter the penthouse immediately and arrest Miss Gray. Repeat, arrest Miss Gray immediately. This is Chief of Security Elizabeth Walker, electronic signature coming… now.”
Christine dashed from the bed back up the spiral stairs and entered the security key sequence to secure the trapdoor. It locked shut with a dozen solid clicks. With Jiunn-Wei Chen outside.
She’d done it. In another two minutes, the micros in her dress would begin their new program. Long enough for Jiunn-Wei Chen to find the letter and read about Mariana Walker. To remember how he’d killed her. And then to read how death was about to visit him in much the same form.
Micros, small as they were, could nevertheless hold thousands of nanochines inside. When the new program began, the micros would scatter and burst open, showering the roof with carbon replicators. The tiny machines were programmed to replicate exponentially as long as they could find raw material, then die. The armored roof would contain them outside the building. They would last only a few minutes, but those minutes would be enough.
And Christine would be out of the building and far away before anyone knew what had happened. From a cabinet she pulled a simple cloth blouse and pants, which she slipped on. She’d take the first flight to the United States, where Sanderson Products would protect her. A new life was ahead of her.
She stood to go. Then the doors burst open.
Beth’s microcam eyes and ears flew in behind her agents, showing her the whole scene: Christine, startled and backing away, Jiunn-Wei Chen nowhere to be seen.
“The roof!” she shouted to the agents’ earpieces. “Check the roof!”
One of them grabbed Christine by the arm, the other pounded up the spiral staircase. He keyed in the combination, mistyped in his haste, then tried again. The second time, the locks clicked back; he heaved the door open and stumbled outside.
Beth’s microcams followed the agent up into a wasteland. Where before nearly a half-acre of ornamental garden had stood, only a few plants toward the edges were left. Nothing else remained but a carpet of sparkling white dust, stirred up by the wind into a growing cloud that drifted toward the waters of the Taiwan channel far below.
Christine sat unmoving, head lowered, eyes on her lap, the same position she’d held since her arrest the night before. Beth watched her, torn between aversion and affection, no longer trying to draw her into conversation. She’d decided not to tell Christine about their relationship. It could only complicate things.
She wanted instead to memorize Christine’s appearance. Beth knew she would torment herself in the years to come, knowing she’d put Christine in prison for a crime that was at least partially her own. She’d hesitated before sending the agents in, crucial seconds that probably cost Chen Jiunn-Wei his life, and made Christine guilty of murder instead of just espionage. She might have stopped her earlier, or else allowed her to succeed entirely and escape; instead, her indecision had cost Christine her freedom without saving Chen’s life.
So Beth watched her for a long time, wanting a clear picture of her granddaughter in her mind.
“Was it worth it?” she asked finally, aloud.
This question, so different than any she’d asked earlier, prompted a response the others hadn’t. Christine stirred, lifting her head and pushing her gorgeous blond hair back out of her face. Her dark Asian eyes met Beth’s. Beth saw in those eyes, not her daughter’s daughter, but a woman completely foreign, a woman unknowable. A woman who would destroy her whole life to avenge her mother’s death. Had it been worth it?
Christine never answered the question. Beth didn’t repeat it. They sat watching each other, silent, neither flinching, until the guards came and took Christine away.
[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]
3 thoughts on “DIAMOND DUST by David Walton”
Hello. I just finished your Diamond Dust story and found it highly entertaining. I hope, however, that the future laid out therein does not come to pass, for then there would be very little place for me or mine in such a world of high technology and monolithic corporate hierarchies. Keep up the good writing anyway.
I really liked this story. As Bryn says though, I don’t look forward to a time when the technology in it might come to pass. On the other hand – those dresses!
This is the author. I’m perfectly willing for this story–and all my fiction published on Futurismic–to be covered under the Creative Commons License. Feel free to copy and distribute the story at will, so long as you credit me and don’t change it.
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