StarFront: Transit of Venus

Chapter 6: The Upturned Kilt

December 8, 2125

Earth, Edinburgh

Walking into the Upturned Kilt, the first thing Rob noticed was the noise.

He'd expected the booze, of which there was plenty of. He'd expected the waiters and waitresses, all of which wore kilts or upturned skirts depending on the plumbing they'd been issued. He'd expected seeing the type of people that an office job prevented him from seeing much. But as he escaped the cold night weather and entered what might have been another world, he hadn't expected there to be so much noise. Shouting, singing…

"Oh we eat our haggis, go through the slip and slop. Then we go outside to brawl, to kick ya in the chops!"

And bad singing.

Putting his hands in his tracksuit, Rob made his way through the throng of humanity. Paige had told him to meet her in the bar, but hadn't specified where exactly. If she wanted to impart information to him in private, the location made sense, but there were so many potential places to have a conversation where no-one could hear you.

Or maybe she's gone…

Rob glanced at his chrono-10:20. Twenty minutes late.

Or maybe she never turned up…Rob thought, making his way to the bar and casting his gaze around the rest of the pub. Maybe I can go home and save-…

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Paige.

Damn it.

"You're late," she said.

"Had trouble getting a babysitter," Rob murmured. "Most uni students are heading home for Christmas around now."

"Whatever. You're here now."

Paige led her contact through the gauntlet of patrons to a table situated against the wall, one she'd presumably reserved given the amount of people present. It was an arrangement that could easily fit three to four people on each of its leather chairs, and the pair sat down on either side. As he did so, Rob caught sight of a flatscreen fixed to the far wall. It was silent, but the images of warships, fighters and even UAVs was enough to tell him it was the latest newsfest on the Pacific Crisis.

TENSIONS REACH BOILING POINT IN PACFIC the crawling text said. URA, SSC AND PPA FLEETS MOVE INTO POSITION…EMERGENCY TALKS BREAK DOWN…

"Um, Rob?" Paige asked.

He kept staring. The text, the split-screen of the news anchor and some new political analyst…

"Rob?" Paige asked again.

He kept staring. And in turn, the waitress glanced round at the screen for a second.

"The Pacific," she murmured. "Figures."

Rob managed to avert his gaze, even as the screen briefly cut to a trio of Star Eagle-class fighters flying in formation. Eye candy was all well and good, but there was only so much he could take.

"So…" Rob said. "Down to business?"

And if he wanted to watch the news, he'd be at home instead.

"Down to business," Paige agreed.

A brief silence descended over the pair. True, the bar itself roared with sound and song, but right now, all Rob could do was stare at his…associate. Simple black clothing, hair loose, an ornamentation bar on her left arm that extended halfway up to her elbow…she almost looked like one of the patrons, if not for the black jeans that were practical for the weather outside.

"Um, down to business, then?" Rob asked.

Paige just sat there.

"Or…take my order?" Rob asked, getting irritated. "What, is there some kind of code I'm meant to utter first? Because I'm not-…"

Paige tossed something that looked like a passport onto the desk. Rob picked it up and opened the front page. On one side was Paige's face. On the other was an insignia of a globe, a dagger going through it, scales of justice and what looked like Venus, the moon and Mars behind it.

There was also the word "Interpol" below said insignia.

"I'm not a waitress," Paige said. "I'm with Interpol. Abductions. And I've been working your case for the last few months now."

Rob stared at Paige. Then stared at the document. A document that could easily be faked, he reflected, the lack of paper in the world notwithstanding. This could be a joke…

At least he thought that until a hologram shot out from Paige's wristband, showing streams of data that matched up with the physical document.You couldn't fake that…not on a waitress's salary at least.

"Paige, what is this?" Rob murmured. "Why did you bring me here?"

"I brought you here because I wanted a chat in private," she said. "One that wasn't in the café or at your home because of George."

"Why?"

"Because he doesn't trust me. And from what I can tell, you haven't been that open with him either."

Rob just sat there. Sat there as Paige did the same bar ordering a sherry from a passing waiter.

Rob passed on a beverage. He wasn't feeling that thirsty right now.

"I'll give the info dump," Paige said, consulting her wristband and whatever electronic display was on it. "You're Rob House. You joined the FEU Navy in 2113 as a techie, married Joanna Cruger in 2115, had your first child born in 2116. Then in 2117, you quit the Navy because your wife was killed in one of the climate riots, as they've been called. In early 2118, you took a job at VitaCom and have been stuck at the same desk for the last seven years."

"And this is relevant…how?" Rob asked, not enjoying his life story being told by a woman he barely knew up until now, and realized he knew even less over the past few minutes.

"It's not," Paige admitted. "It's simply my way of showing you how…invested, I am, in your case. How well I know you. And the 2117 date actually is relevant."

"How? Does the Navy want me back?"

"No," Paige said, taking her sherry. "Because Joanna isn't dead."

Rob stared. He felt like something had grabbed his lungs or something, because something in his chest was certainly tightening. And watching Paige sip her sherry wasn't the thing causing it.

"Bullshit…" he whispered. "You can't-…"

"You never found a body, did you?" Paige asked. "You ever think that was odd?"

"Yes, but-…"

"Or is it that you want George to keep thinking his mother's dead, rather than letting him live his life in false hope?"

"Don't bring George into this," Rob snarled.

"I won't," Paige said. "And the truth is, I wouldn't be bringing you into this if the situation didn't call for it."

"What situation?" Rob asked. "If she's alive…you said you were with abductions. Is…is Jo…?"

"Abducted?" Paige asked. "Sort of…depends how you classify abduction. But rest assured that she is alive, and is on Venus right now. Working for the Consortium."

Rob wanted to say "bullshit." Or "no way" or "you're kidding me," or some other piece of language that conveyed his disbelief. But he couldn't, because the disbelief was just too much.

Or maybe it was because in the midst of that disbelief, he could actually comprehend it…

"You know how the Consortium operates," Paige said. "They've got a free run in their extra-terrestrial operations. Nations squabble down here, give it the money and mandate it needs to get other worlds ready for us to screw up, and if they have to draft people to do their dirty work, well, the powers that be have other things to worry about."

"But…but those people are terrorists, aren't they?" Rob asked. "Criminals…"

"Most, yes," Paige said. "Least that's the idea. Still, you need intelligent people to do space colonization, and not every criminal, terrorist or general scum of humanity fits the bill. Besides, the Pro-Climate Refugee Movement losing one of its ringleaders? The FEU is hardly going to be worried about that."

Rob swore under his breath. It seemed unbelievable. Yet more belief was worming its way into his mind.

"Long story short, the Consortium can do what it wants," Paige said. "Luckily, Interpol isn't just international police nowadays, it's interplanetary as well."

"So go get her…" Rob mused. "Go get her…wait, why am I even here? Why don't you-…"

"Shut up Rob."

The father shut up. He couldn't remember Paige ever saying "shut up" to him. Not that she'd said any of this kind of stuff before, but…

Waitress…he thought to himself. She still looks like a waitress…

For how long, he didn't know. At this rate, she'd be showing a holstered pistol beneath her shirt at this rate.

"Interpol has clout," Paige said. "But the Consortium has more. "I could get your wife out…within the next few years."

Rob swore again.

"But I'm willing to go the extra mile," the officer continued. "Or rather, a few million."

"What?"

"It's simple," Paige said. "We go to Venus. I've got the clout, you've got the family connections. And at this point, Earth and Venus are as close as they're going to be for a year. A century, if you really want to mince the numbers down with the transit and all that. Five days' worth of travel on an ion thruster-type spacecraft."

Rob went to swear…and didn't.

Numerous questions ran through his mind. Why had it taken eight years for Jo to be found? Was she even really still alive? Why would Interpol give such advanced spacecraft to its agents? How would he cope with a minimum of ten days of space travel when he'd never been into space before or experienced anything close to zero gravity conditions? Would his presence really bring that much weight on Venus? Would Paige's?

"What about George?" Rob murmured eventually, choosing the question he knew had to be answered first. "I can't leave him for two weeks…"

"True," Paige said. "That's why I've got a co-agent ready to look after him"

"I was thinking about babysitters."

Paige laughed. "Rob, George is about to get his mother back. You think a pseudo babysitter is going to do more harm than good in the long run?"

Rob didn't answer. Paige had a point…of course, speaking of George, it also raised the prospect that he'd have to admit he'd been lying for the last eight years. And what if Paige was lying? He could accept some things…that she had a nifty wrist gadget for starters. But still, the prospect of travelling to another planet on nothing but her word that Jo was still alive?

She was also right that if Jo was alive, leaving George with a stand-in parent for a week or two was a small price to pay. But as she'd also said, he'd been lying to his son for the past eight years. If he was going to go on this trip, maybe it would be best to leave him in the dark as well. And VitaCom? He'd have to-…"

"You coming then?" Paige asked, getting to her feet. "Or am I going to make the trip just by myself?"

"What…I have to choose now?" Rob asked.

Paige nodded, gesturing to a waiter as she did so and dumping a plastic card in the tray. "Sooner the better. Venus is only going to get further away from now. Sooner we set off, sooner we get there, the less time is spent in space, and the lower Interpol's fuel bill. And, of course, the sooner you see your wife again."

Rob just sat there, burying his hands in his hair. It was too much, he reflected. Maybe if he'd ordered a drink, he'd have more of the liquid courage required to make such a decision. But now…

"Last chance," Paige said, getting her card back and signing the receipt. "You want to be the knight in shining armour, or you want to let some waitress save the day?"

Paige wasn't a waitress, Rob reflected. But again, she was right.

"Alright…" Rob said, getting to his feet. "I'm in."

"Good…" Paige smiled. "I thought you would be…"

Or maybe she simply knew how to press his buttons.