Ian was a bad liar and this was one of the few times he wished he wasn’t. Angela’s eyes searched his relentlessly, probing his every word like a living breathing polygraph machine. Having known her for much of his life and all his career, he had learned to recognize when her suspicious nature was engaged. She had switched on only a few words into their conversation and it was just a matter of time before she detected some obvious inconsistency in the story he was forced to either tell her or avoid telling her. Worse, he had to be aware of and guard every aspect of himself, from the blinking of his eyes to the tension of his jaw muscles. If he relaxed his control she would flat out ask him if something was wrong. If he looked away she would know instantly he was hiding something. That meant he had to spend more time forcing himself to appear comfortable than maintaining their actual conversation.
He tried to enjoy the spring night. It smelled of soil, buds, early flowers, wet thatch, and that indescribable aroma that signals the end of a long winter. The windows were open, letting in a cool breeze that should have been comforting. He should have been having the time of his life right now instead of concentrating on keeping his mouth shut while still talking. Tonight, of all nights, he should have been entitled to one moment’s peace!
The candle flame danced on an ornate table from his father’s study. It was not the home he grew up in, but Angela had taken great pains to make it seem that way. All his father’s books were neatly stacked in the massive shelves just the way he remembered when father was alive. The titles included military history, agriculture and horticulture, classic literature, philosophy, science, and a variety of other titles that made up a useful library. Father’s wisdom. There were few questions Ian knew of that could not be answered within the pages of these volumes. But tonight he wouldn’t know where to look for his answers and he didn’t have time to try.
Angela had given him the benefit of the doubt. She did everything a good wife could do to set the proper mood for what should have been their special day. It was to be a romantic evening. The candles created beautiful dancing shadows over her lovely features and young taut face, disappearing into her ebony hair. Her red lace dress clung tightly to her body, showing off every curve. Of course he had not been able to bring the flowers personally, but he had ordered twelve long-stemmed roses for the occasion. They stood on the windowsill and were adding to the symphony of natural odors. They had champagne, smoked salmon, and fresh oysters, all of which should have further underscored the importance of the occasion.
But tonight he wasn’t there. His face was a mask he manipulated from behind. His smiles were forced and, as in any theatrical performance, the food was merely a prop, which he could only pretend to enjoy. He said very little, another warning sign, and when he did speak he spouted small talk. After a particularly awkward silent spell he raised his glass politely and forced yet another smile. Angela returned the gesture with a smile even less convincing.
“Happy anniversary,” he said.
The silence was about to begin again and Ian knew she was filling it with God knew what suspicions.
“How are your birds?”
“The Cardinal’s back, but the rest didn’t survive the winter. Either that or they like the neighbor’s feeder better.”
Ian sipped his drink. “How ’bout the squirrels?”
“They still come around. So, are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
Ian had been waiting for that. It was almost a relief. But what was he to say now? Again, the truth was not an option and lies wouldn’t work. Her eyes were like laser scanners, lighting up in response to lies.
“Well, nothing, of course,” he stammered. “All’s well here. I just missed you, of course. It gets rather boring . . .”
“Stow it, Ian,” she said, setting down her glass. “I’m not daft and I listen to the grape vine. Carrie and Hari came over yesterday. We had a nice private chat. I don’t think we were monitored, anyway. Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“Angela, leave off,” he said in a last desperate attempt to avoid the issue. “It’s our anniversary. Why don’t we just try to __”
“I have to know, Ian! This time I have to know! I know the UN PR game well enough to spot a cover-up when I see one! Don’t forget I was well out of diapers when father was killed, and this is beginning to smell of that! We’ll have no secrets in this house, not while I’m here, anyway! You owe me! Now tell me, are you in trouble?”
Ian succumbed to the urge to glance to his left at a man in a light blue uniform sitting quietly in a metal armchair. He sat in the corner of the room next to the great bookcases, and only the ugly metal chair was more out of place than he was. The man stared back at him intently, holding a hand-held computer out in front of him like some kind of weapon. Angela noticed the glance and grimaced.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” She looked in the direction Ian had glanced in but did not appear to see the man. “They’re listening, aren’t they?”
“Maybe,” he admitted. “But try not to take it personal, Luv, you know how they are,” he added with his last gasp of phony cheerfulness.
“Try not to take it personally?” she shouted. “It’s our bloody anniversary! Gordon Bennett, what if we wanted to go to bed? You would tell me then, wouldn’t you? They’re afraid you’ll tell me something, aren’t they? There’s something they don’t want out. Something nasty! Well, if I’m going to lose you, I’d like to know why! I may also like time to prepare. Come to that, it would be nice to know what I should pray for, wouldn’t it? Is there a malfunction? Are you ill?”
“No. I’m in no immediate danger. You think I wouldn’t tell you if I were ill?”
“One of the others then? Scott? Vlad? One of them died, right?”
“Died? No! At least we . . . I mean, what are you going on about, who said anything about . . .”
Suddenly, Angela’s beautiful but tortured features faded into darkness. The candlelight vanished from the room and the normal antiseptic fluorescent lighting returned. Father’s bookshelves blurred and distorted as the features of the wall bowed back to form the gray padded track-flooring that sloped upward and around the back of his head. The single great window reappeared, displaying the stars outside and the huge blue shape of the planet below, which slowly crawled up from the bottom of the window to the middle as the ship rotated to form the less-than-perfect gravity. The sensation of the breeze left him too, affording him one last whiff of spring night air from Sutton Scotney, England. The table where he sat remained, but it was now a metallic gray. His wine glass reverted to its true form, a gray translucent plastic globe with a wide base. His half-eaten meal rations stared at him from the compartmentalized tin in rows of nondescript tasteless portions.
The uniformed man emerged from the corner, swiftly striking keys on his hand-held.
“Was that really necessary?” Ian asked through gritted teeth.
“I don’t make the rules, Merryfield,” the man answered, not looking up. “She was pumping you like a Vegas slot and you were about to pay off. Don’t worry, on her end it’ll look like interference. Tomorrow we’ll tell her your trajectory will take you out of VR communication for a while.” He looked up with a satisfied expression. “That should do it.”
“Sir, do you think my wife is stupid? She’ll figure it out!”
“She’ll have her suspicions, but that’s all.” He put on a more concerned look. “Understand, Merryfield, we’re sitting on a powder keg here! Now, I don’t pretend to know how this feels from your end, but try to imagine what could happen. We’ve been caught with our pants down in the biggest way. When we planned this mission we weren’t expecting anything like this. It was supposed to be a milk run, remember? Then there was the satellite, but that didn’t necessarily represent a threat. But now with Anderson missing . . . well, where do we begin?”
“I don’t know, sir, but, begging your pardon, I don’t see what you hope to gain by hiding it.”
“Time!” he emphasized. “Hopefully enough time to do something about Anderson. Then we may have something better to report. Do we really want to tell the press that one of our best pilots is missing on the surface of the New Ontario and the ship is basically helpless against further attack? They’ll eat us alive over that! And think of the public reaction! We need public confidence if we’re going to continue the program, let alone this mission. And it’s not just the American public we’re concerned about. I can see panic here and that won’t help you or Anderson, now will it?”
“No, sir, I suppose it wouldn’t,” he admitted.
“Now, we’re working on a cover story and you’ll be expected to stick to it. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir,” he said with a defeated sigh.
“Very well, then.” His plastic smile returned. “Sorry to interrupt your R&R.”
He shrugged as the man vanished from view at the touch of a keypad strapped to his arm.