A young intern makes a name for herself
|THE UNLIKELY ASCENSION OF MS. JUDITH BROCK
by Jeff Dosser
Sleeping with her aides was Tribune Valencia Wu’s only vice; one which had never been a problem, until the arrival of Judith Brock.
Val peered at her 3-D display, doing her best to ignore Judith as she slipped into the office and stood quietly beside the door. Val knew she would stand there, silent and immobile, until finally acknowledged.
“Yes, Judith.” Val sighed and leaned back in her chair. “What is it this time?”
“Director Jenkins sent me over.” Judith clutched nervously at her data-pad and raised her eyes to Val’s.
“And are you capable,” Val sneered, “of conveying Director Jenkins request without consulting your notes?”
Judith’s eyes darkened. “Yes, Tribune Wu.” She glanced down shyly. “He said there’s something extraordinarily special you must see.”
Fresh out of grad school, and boasting a resume as well rounded as her figure, Judith had seemed the perfect fit. But unlike past interns, the girl hadn’t taken the hint to move on once the amorous portion of her tenure was complete.
“Please inform Director Jenkins,” Val met the younger woman’s gaze, “that he’s already twenty-four hours overdue on his Green Alert status.” She turned her attention back to the display. “Tell him I’m not doing anything except canceling his project unless I see that study.”
“He told me you’d say that.” Judith stepped closer, the floral scent of her perfume wafting on the air. “He said he’ll hand-deliver the report if you come.”
With a sigh, Val turned in her chair and gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows running the length of her office. Outside, broad golden rays lanced through the afternoon clouds as they tumbled across the habitat’s plexiglass ceiling three kilometers above. Rising from her seat, Val strode to the window and gazed down at the barges plying their way along Mars’ Valles Marineris river. She could almost pick out the hexagonal globe of her apartment on the valley’s far bank, glittering like a gem among the other balconied residences bored into the Martian cliffs.
Jenkins and his constant delays were an ongoing headache. The man had always been slow presenting his status on Green Alerts, the automated notifiers that indigenous life might have been located during man’s exploitation of the planet. Yet this was the first time he’d refused to file his report within the allotted seventy-two hours.
Val was also aware Jenkins’ Core Ignition Project was set to launch the next day, and without her clearance, the council would shut it down. Val turned from the window; hands clasped behind her.
“He said the Green Alert report was complete?”
“Have him email it.”
“I understand.” A sad smile played across Judith’s lips. “I’m sorry, Bunny.” Judith looked up sharply as her voice cracked. “I mean Tribune Wu. It’s just… I know he’s going to blame me when he hears you’re not coming.”
Color rose in the girl’s cheeks as she dabbed at her eyes. Despite herself, Val was touched by the girl’s innocence and found herself wanting her again.
With a sigh, Val checked her watch. It was only 2:00, so it wasn’t like she’d be leaving early. And who knew, maybe that idiot Jenkins had something worth seeing.
“All right,” Val said. “Take me to him.”
“Really?” Judith clasped her hands in front of her low-cut blouse. “Oh, thank you, Tribune, you won’t be disappointed.”
Val followed Judith through the oak-paneled hallways of the governmental complex, to the great circular platform overlooking the river valley below. As the glass doors slid open, they stepped from the office’s air-conditioned chill into the vibrant breath of a late Friday afternoon, the rumble of the river’s distant falls vibrating around them.
“Where is he?” Val asked, as a skimmer rose from a stack of hexagonal craft and sailed across the platform towards them.
“He’s at the drill site,” Judith said.
Judith cleared her throat, refusing to meet Val’s eyes as they stepped aboard the flat, black craft. The guardrails rose out of the floor and snapped into place. “And…” She looked to Val and grimaced. “He’s about twenty-kilometers down.”
Val did the mental calculations on how long the trip would take and rolled her eyes. In for a penny in for a pound.
“Take us to the Core Ignition drill site,” Val said.
A green light on the guardrail lit up to acknowledge the command, and with a gut-wrenching lurch, the craft rose on a whirr of spinning blades and sped across the valley. From half a kilometer up, the commoners and droids working the fields or strolling the avenues below gave the scene a toy-like quality Val found somehow comforting.
A moist wind whipped Val’s hair as they sped between building-lined cliffs, through the bee-hive busy airspace outside the shopping district, to the concrete barrier separating the habitat’s southern border from the near-airless waste beyond; a flat gray expanse so huge the eye found it difficult to take in. At the great wall’s feet, lay a handful of ugly, rectangular buildings interspersed between conical piles of rock and the pupil dark hole of the tunnel itself.
It was hard to believe Judith hadn’t quit after her assignment to the cramped, dusty drill site. Only a couple of months working for Dr. Jenkins had been enough to send all the rest of her interns packing. But Judith ¬-- Judith remained. If anything, the stupid girl seemed energized dealing with Jenkins.
The transport dropped between the anthill like muck piles, their massive bulk pitching them into shadow and a slight evening chill as their immensity blocked out the sun.
“Right this way,” Judith called, hopping to the ground and setting off along the well-worn gravel track.
Val’s lips tightened, looking from her new leather pumps to the grimy trail.
“Come on,” Judith waved. “You’re gonna love it.”
Love it? Val consigned her new pumps to the trash bin before stepping off the flier. How did Judith know she’d love it? Val shook her head at the girl’s juvenile elation, surprised there’d been a time when she’d found the trait endearing.
In the changing room, Val slipped into one of the heavy enviro-suits, wrinkling her nose at the rank stink of B.O as she snapped on the gloves and snugged the helmet into place. She looked up to see Judith tuck her lustrous curls beneath the neck ring of her own suit and secure the helmet. Val glanced from her baggy, ill-fitting, dirt-smudged cover, to the trim, clean lines of Judith’s brand-new suit.
“Where’d you get that?” she demanded. “Have you been wasting departmental funds?”
Judith’s eyes widened as the color drained from her face. Her response echoed through Val’s staticky helmet speakers.
“No, Tribune. Not at all.” She brushed a hand along the suit’s crisp blue pinstripe running along the leg and up the side. “I was down here so often and ….” She looked up, grinning shyly. “You see how icky those suits are. So, uh. Wil bought it for me.”
“Dr. Jenkins.” Color blossomed in Judith’s cheeks as she turned and waved down the hallway. “Come on, the elevator’s this way.”
Stepping through the airlock, Val found herself standing inside a vast stone cathedral. The walls arched fifty meters overhead to where rows of gleaming lights bathed them in blue-white fluorescence. Thirty meters further, and a great dusky wall rose before them. In it was bored a rectangular wedge of darkness twenty meters high and separated from the hallway by a bent and beaten iron gate. Beside it were a pair of gleaming elevator doors.
As Judith pressed the lift’s call button, she explained how the larger hole serviced the muck carts as they were filled by the automated drillers down below and lifted to the surface.
Val was well aware of the drilling process to the planet’s frozen iron core having been a council member when the project was approved. But listening to Judith’s excited explanation was preferable to engaging her in conversation. When the lift finally arrived, Val paused, eyeing the dented and dirty interior and wondering how many inspections Jenkins had managed to avoid.
“Don’t worry,” Judith said with a smile. “It’s perfectly safe.”
Val followed the girl aboard feeling the fine layer of grit scrunch beneath her boots as she stepped aboard. Judith’s incessant, nervous chatter paused only an instant as she typed in their destination.
“You might want to hold on,” Judith said, nodding to the blue plastic handles interspaced along the wall. “Some find the ride … disorienting.”
A split second later and the floor dropped with a heart-skipping lurch. Val grabbed for the handles in a panic.
Disorienting? she thought angrily, marking Judith’s side-eyed enjoyment. Already, she regretted her decision to come.
“It’s fun, don’t you think?” Judith grinned from the other side of the lift. “See.” She pushed off and drifted to the ceiling, lifting an arm to halt her progress before slowly sinking back down. “We’re not in freefall,” she explained, “but pretty close. Zero-point-one Gs. About what you’d find on Enceladus.”
Val scratched at her thigh not convinced the tickle working its way towards her knee wasn’t something crawly left behind by one of the suit’s prior users.
“Enceladus, huh?” Val said.
“You know who cares?”
The girl’s brows narrowed.
“No one. No one cares, Judith.”
The girl’s lips tightened, her gaze ping-ponging from Val to the panel display as it ticked off their plunge.
“I thought I’d regret bringing you,” Judith said before turning to stare at the panel. “But I’m glad you came.”
After what seemed an eternity, Val’s weight returned, then quickly grew to an uncomfortable downward pressure on her ankles, knees, and back. Then just as quickly as it began, their plunge was over, and the lift doors opened.
Val stepped out, her mouth agape.
She stood at the center of a vast underground cavern, a set of tripod-mounted lights cast their beams across fields of stone columns, rows of reaching stalagmites, and a ceiling which shimmered with the jagged wet teeth of uncounted stalactites. But even this beauty isn’t what caused Val to pause. Alongside pools of mirror-black water grew mushrooms and ferns as tall as her knees. The air itself was alive with the snowflake flutter of a thousand tiny insects flocking around the lights.
“The drill team,” Judith began but was cut off by a man’s voice booming across their speakers.
“That’s all right, Judith, I’ll take it from here,” Dr. Wilford Jenkins said.
He strolled from behind one of the stone columns dressed in a similarly pinstriped enviro-suit.
He examined Val as she stood gawking inside her ill-fitting suit. Inwardly he smiled.
“I was just going to explain…” Judith began, but he shushed her, raising a hand.
“I must say I’m somewhat surprised we got you down here.” Jenkins turned and waved an arm at the miracle of life swarming around them. “But I’m certainly glad you came.”
Val’s momentary discomfort at Jenkins unexpected appearance vanished as she watched a twenty-centimeter worm inch its way across the floor and tap tentatively at her boot. She reached down and plucked it up, marveling at the creature’s purple, segmented rings and its head of thin waving antennae.
Though Martian life had been discovered soon after colonization, it had so far been consigned to the realm of simple bacteria and molds. Evidence of advanced life had so far escaped science except in the form of fossils scattered across the planet’s vast ancient seas.
“You’ve…you’ve made the discovery of a lifetime,” Val said.
Jenkins nodded, stepping from the shadows into the light. “Yes, I’m certain I’d be quite famous.” He paused, taking in the scene around him. “Who knows how many schools and libraries would be named after me if people heard about this place.”
He met Val’s eyes. “I must admit, you were right, Madam Tribune.”
Jenkins performed a tight bow. “It seems your pointless Green Alerts were not so pointless after all.” He handed her a data chit and stepped back smiling. “There you are, Madam Tribune, just as promised. The status of my Green Alert.”
Val turned the chit in her gloved hand then looked up to Jenkins. Had she misjudged him all these years?
“Thank you, Wil. I … I don’t know what to say.”
“Well,” Jenkins said, rocking back on his heels, “Don’t let it be said Wilford Jenkins never kept a promise.” He leaned forward with a grin. “But, though you’ve won the battle, I think it’s safe to say, you’ve lost the war.”
He pulled a pistol from his pocket and pointed it at Val.
The woman’s brows tightened, her eyes going wide. “Wha… I don’t understand.”
Jenkins looked to Judith. “Look, Doll. The grownups are going to have a private conversation. You mind if I lock you out of the channel?”
Judith’s eyes narrowed before giving a slight shake of her head. “Of course not, Willy Bear.”
“Great, I thought not.” Jenkins poked at the control pad on his wrist and looked up to Judith.
“Can you hear me?”
She nodded and he tapped at the panel again.
“How about now?”
She nodded once more.
With a curse, Jenkins thumped at the controls, until Judith sidled up beside him. She laid her hand over his and tapped slowly into the pad.
“Did that do it?” Jenkins asked. “Valencia, can you hear me?”
“Yes, Jenkins, I hear you.”
“Judith, how about you?”
The girl’s brows bunched, then she tapped the side of her helmet and shook her head.
“Perfect.” With a sweeping motion of his arms and jabbing the pistol’s muzzle towards the lift, he motioned Judith away. “Now then. Where were we?”
“Something about losing the war?” Val prompted.
“Winning the war, Tribune, winning it. You see, that Green Report you hold was the only roadblock to completing my project. Once you and that report are gone, there’s nothing left to stop me.”
Val looked up, surprised.
“That’s right, Tribune, you and that chit of yours will still be in this cavern when we activate the reactor and, soon after, dump a trillion liters of water down this tunnel.”
His brows rose as he lifted a finger. “Which reminds me. “His gazed drifted skyward as if addressing the Gods. “Computer, begin Core Ignition countdown.”
A metallic voice echoed through their helmets. “Voice pattern verified. Count down initiated. T-minus ten minutes to Nuclear pile ignition.”
Val’s eyes widened.
“You see,” Jenkins said. “I’m not really a bad guy. Which is why I brought you down here.” He waved the pistol to what appeared to be a snake creeping across one boot. “I thought you deserved to see this before it was destroyed, before I ignited the reactors and dropped them into the planet’s frozen core. I owe you that at least.”
“You… you can’t continue with the project, you’ll destroy this…” Val waved at the wonder around them.
“Ah, but I can,” Jenkins said. “Although having a bunch of snot-nosed brats running through the hallways of Wilford Jenkins Elementary might be a fine legacy, I believe I’ll go for the riches and power instead.”
At Val’s look of confusion, he went on.
“You see, Val.” He paused to smile. “You don’t mind if I call you Val. The likelihood we actually reactivate Mars’ frozen core is a one in a million shot. It would take thousands of reactors like this to create any viable magnetic field from the planet’s core. The only way they got this project funded was at my suggestion to siphon off some of the heat. Which we’ll use to supply water for a habitat expansion. Hell, in five years, we’ll have roofed in over ten additional kilometers of the trench. With the heat from the core project, we’ll do it at a third of the cost.”
“T-Minus seven minutes and counting.”
“But how does that benefit you?” Val asked. “You can’t purchase land, you’re a Director.”
“Yes, sadly, that’s true.” He raised a finger in mock surprise. “But, anyone else could. Even a mere intern could purchase land. In fact, with the right contacts, a dimwitted girl like Judith might be named CEO of a holding company without even knowing it.” As he said it, Jenkins wondered if somehow Judith might have suspected. He shook his head and chuckled. Impossible.
He laughed, tossing a glance back to Judith. “We were married at city hall only last month.” He shook his head and pushed out his upper lip in a frown. “Sadly, my beautiful, but not too sharp bride will not survive for long. It seems she has a most pernicious food allergy which we’ll sadly discover on our honeymoon flight to Luna.”
Val crossed her arms as surprise wore off and anger set in.
“T-Minus six minutes and counting…”
“You’ll never get away with it,” Val said. “You can deep fake or delete the surveillance vids, but my files are quite detailed in our dealings.” She leaned closer and sneered. “I’ve commented on each and every one of your antagonistic emails. I even added personal notes that you might be attempting a cover-up.” She lifted her chin in defiance. “Just like this.”
She laughed and waved a dismissive hand. “My only regret is not being around to watch you fry.”
“Personal emails?” Jenkins cocked his head. “Yes, that could be a problem. If I didn’t’ have someone who knew your password and had access to your private files.”
Val’s gaze bounded to Judith standing at the lift door.
“That’s right,” Jenkins said with a grin. “Our little Judith.”
“But…but…” Val stared open-mouthed.
“Ahem.” The sound of Judith clearing her throat reverberated across the airwaves.
“Judith, you can hear us?” Jenkins said. Then with a note of fear, “You can hear us?”
“T-Minus five minutes and counting…”
“Yes, Willy Bear. I can hear you, and I didn’t mean to interrupt your pissing match on which of you is smarter.”
Judith Brock stepped inside the lift.
“I just wanted to let you guys know. The stupid girl is leaving.”
With that, the lift doors closed, and Judith Brock was gone.