Her guest, Dr. Kozaburo Nambu, nodded. “My schedule is full today and tomorrow.” He checked his planner (as if, she thought, he needed such a mundane item). “Thursday is free.”
“Lunch, then? I’ll buy. There’s a place a few blocks from here. Redfern’s. Noon sharp.”
“I’ll be there. Good-bye.”
She watched him walk away. He’d been a real challenge, and a pleasure, to interview. There seemed no way to throw him off his stride or lose his train of thought.
“I wanted excitement!” her producer griped.
“Frank, you wanted drama. You wanted the crap the others dish out, and I don’t do that. If you paid attention, you would have found plenty of excitement.”
Until Thursday, she watched the other interviews Nambu gave. Not many scientists could simplify complex subjects without sounding condescending or impatient. She certainly had not expected a man with more degrees than a university to do so. Or for him to handle the one-trick-ponies so expertly.
These ‘journalists’ all tried for rim-shots, put-downs, and shut-downs. See how elitist and out-of-touch the ISO and UN are! Look, he’s a mouthpiece for the big corporations! Look, he’s a mouthpiece for special interests!
There are words and phrases that shut down all discussion. The recipients are too disgusted, angry, or surprised to respond, and so they fall silent.
Nambu turned those words back on the speakers. When Fuller called him a Nazi (in so many words, too), Nambu politely asked how he had come to that conclusion. He did the same to Monahan’s implication that he was a shill for Big Business, and to every other attempt to score points.
She enjoyed the results. These screamers of left and right had no idea what journalism was about. They were used to making pronouncements that their followers treated as fact. When asked to explain their reasoning and present their evidence, they fumbled and bumbled horribly. (And Fuller actually had no idea what Nazi ideology was.)
Journalism wasn’t the dozens. It wasn’t a game. It was about the truth and about presenting the people with the information they needed so that they could make good decisions. She was conservative, but voted according to what she thought best. If that meant voting liberal, so be it.
Fortunately, the pendulum was swinging back towards true journalism. After decades of shouting heads, sound bites, indiscriminate blogging, and 140-character-or-less nonsense, Amerisians were relearning the joys of reading thoughtful, well-researched news articles. Her show’s ratings grew steadily, her audience crossing the lines of a public increasingly broken down into smaller and smaller niches.
Their response to Dr. Nambu and his arguments for the International Science Organization were overwhelmingly positive (even when they disagreed with the need for the ISO), allowing for those who were swayed by trivial matters. Several of those reactions had been to his handling of the bloviators.
When the ISO had contacted her about the interview, she had researched Dr. Nambu. He was an impressive man, with a brilliant mind. That mind never stopped working, even when a loudmouth was trying to rile him.
Redfern’s was public enough to be private. She picked a table under the awning and watched for him.
When he approached her table, she almost did a spit-take. What was he wearing?
In the interviews, he’d worn autumn colors that brought out his coloring and gave him extra dignity. The suits probably cost real money.
He now wore a light blue jacket, dark blue slacks, a pale yellow shirt, dark red vest, and dark blue tie. Adequate, serviceable. Not as bad as some men’s fashion sense.
He does not have a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend. Or a spouse.
He gave no sign that he’d noticed her reaction as he sat across from him. She did see relief, perhaps at the public location. A few female interviewers must have made plays for him.
Not where everybody and God can see us. “Right on time,” she said. “I recommend the chilled shrimp. It’s in season. Do you mind if I record this, also? Sometimes, I discover I’ve written in a lost language.”
“Not at all.”
“I suppose it sounded silly when I said I had as many questions as before the interview.”
“Hardly. The same thing happens in the sciences. I tell my audiences that every answer leads to at least one new question. If you can’t find an answer, you might be asking the wrong question.”
The server came over, favored Nambu with a fractionally-longer glance, and took their orders.
“Before we get to what I really want to ask, I want to know why you dignified the screech brigade with your presence.”
A smile crooked his mouth. “We ignored them in the past, and they went on the air and told their audiences that we were cowards and were hiding the truth.”
“You made them look like the fools that they were. They’ll never forgive you. Why didn’t your colleagues use that strategy?”
“I don’t think they quite know how. I used it in school.”
The image formed in her mind, and she laughed. “The jock made some smug put-down, looked around at his classmates and his girl to see that they all appreciated his wit, and instead of clamming up, you turned the tables.”
“I made friends that way, if you can believe that. Some of my classmates had been afraid to show their intelligence. They wanted acceptance.”
“Brainiacs are losers who can’t get --- you know.” She doubted that Nambu had that problem. He was almost too handsome. If she weren’t happily married, she would flirt with him. “Able to solve the mysteries of the universe and can’t tie their own shoes. You showed them what smart really meant.”
The server brought their (non-alcoholic) drinks.
“We skimmed the surface on my show. There wasn’t enough time for everything.” Her coffee tasted ‘off’. “I hope you folks get the artificial coffee fixed.”
“How about real coffee?”
“You’re working on that?” God, to have decent coffee, not the fakes that kept the fancy chains in business disguising the flavor. Once, the real thing had been as common as the fake. Now, it was a luxury.
“We are. Among other things.”
“Well, then, let’s start with the ISO’s agricultural projects. You said that the goal was to develop high-yield crops and sustainable farming methods. Do those go together?” They did, but she wanted his words.
“The population is still growing, and industrial farming long ago hit its limit. Poor nations can barely feed themselves. Topsoil is disappearing. We need ways to produce food that won’t leave farmers in debt and don’t require large equipment and expensive chemicals. We have to get away from the idea that we can turn any piece of land into a breadbasket if we just try hard enough.”
“Then, what are you doing?”
“Developing crops that people can plant, tend, and harvest with minimal equipment, in ways that don’t strip the land of soil or nutrients. Traditional peoples have discarded many potentially-useful customs because they were persuaded – or forced – to adopt Western methods of agriculture. The people who farm the land should not have to buy seed every year, or spend hard-earned money on unnecessary fertilizers or equipment.”
That sounded promising.
The interview lasted so long that they had to leave the restaurant and go to a small park. Then they returned for dinner.
She argued, of course. Worthy as the ISO’s goals were, many of the methods to meet them smacked of socialism and oversized government. She worried about the unseen effects of genetic engineering, the use of satellites to monitor rainfall or land use (such monitoring could be so easily turned to other purposes), and so on and on.
He listened carefully to everything, asked questions, answered her thoughtfully. A few times, he wrote down particularly well-argued points for research and reference.
The year before, she had interviewed Dr. Demon, the failed candidate for ISO head. Unfortunate surname and looks aside, he had all the qualifications. On paper. He’d lacked warmth. His intellect was a cold, formidable thing. He was superior and knew it.
By contrast, Nambu was passionate about helping people with his knowledge and intellect. He made jokes and admitted his mistakes. His formidable mind didn’t scare her.
She liked him.
“Sorry I was gone all day,” she said as she arrived home. “I could get a year’s worth of shows out of him.”
“That impressive, huh?” Harlan wheeled over from his desk and pulled her into his lap. They shared a long kiss.
“Very much so. My blog will have indigestion.” He could still stir the butterflies when he wanted to.
“Hey, Mom.” Her son, Ray, slouched towards the bathroom, a teenage stereotype of boredom and disinterest.
“Well, I finally figured out how to make that composite. We were too hung up on ….” The blank expression on her face made him chuckle.
“You’ll have to share that one with your colleagues. I understand a lot, but I don’t understand the chemistry of what you do.”
Erin, all of 12, bounced out of her room. “Was that Dr. Nambu as cool as I thought?”
What archaic slang. “Cooler.” Was her daughter about change career paths? “There may be real tuna in the sushi when you graduate college.” Real, mercury-free, tuna.
She and Nambu kept contact, mostly through e-mail and blog entries. They were professionally friendly, which didn’t prevent him from inviting her to lunch when he came to town. He took it in stride when her family crashed the party once, and she watched him handle conversations with all of them.
Once, she did ask about his wardrobe, and he admitted that his ‘interview suits’ were chosen by the women who worked with him. As for the rest of his clothing choices --- she could keep on wondering.
Because she was such a voracious news-gatherer, she saw the pattern so many others missed. An acquisition here, a merger there, a political scandal in another place. Connections beyond the usual coincidental links. Odd political decisions. Unusual mining contracts or mineral leases.
She covered the International Air Show in Melbourne, Australia, and interviewed the pilots. The crowd (and her) favorite, Kentaro Washio, dazzled everyone for three days. On the long-distance leg, his plane crashed into the ocean. Despite an intensive, two-day search, only a few bits of wreckage and an oil slick turned up.
I just interviewed him. He can’t be dead.
God, what about Dr. Nambu? Washio was his best friend.
When Nambu e-mailed an invitation to the memorial service in Utoland City, she told her producer that she was going. As a friend, not a news reporter. There were enough pre-recorded shows in the can that he didn’t kick up a fuss.
Apparently, Kentaro Washio subscribed to no particular religion, for the service was held at an ecumenical building that could serve anyone from Greek Orthodox Christians to animists. Still, she saw a Christian priest, a Shinto priest, and a Buddhist, each of whom spoke the appropriate words.
Washio’s picture, in pride of place on the shrine, captured him: standing in the cockpit, triumphant arm in the air, devil-may-care grin on his handsome face, joy of living radiating from every pore.
What had he said about flying? About his plane? “Your dance partner stumbled,” she whispered. “She must have screamed all the way because she could not save you.”
A man, a woman, and a small boy knelt before the shrine. Unwilling to intrude (unlike other reporters, whose attempts to get close were blocked by some real klutzes), she waited to one side.
Prayers over, the man stood and offered his hand to the woman. When he turned his head, she recognized Nambu. That meant the woman was Eileen Washio, and the boy was Ken.
“Francine,” he called, murmured something to the Washios, and waited for her.
Feeling very intrusive, she said, “Hello. I would rather we met under better circumstances.” Such as for a puff piece after the air show. “I talked to your husband for at least an hour. I am truly sorry for your loss.”
Ken turned his startlingly clear blue eyes on her. “Dad’s not dead. There’d be a b-body, and a coffin….” He dissolved in tears.
Taking her son in her arms, Eileen said, “Kentaro had that effect on people. He never met a stranger.”
With perfect timing, Nambu ruined a photographer’s shot of mother comforting son.
Francine swallowed a giggle. All those apparently clumsy blunders were nothing of the sort. They couldn’t keep reporters out, but they could interfere to protect privacy.
(A photographer for a popular website figured it out, too. With proper shame, he put away his camera.)
“Thank you for coming,” Nambu said.
“Until the very moment of the crash, I expected to meet them for a piece on the champion’s family. Requisite cute shot of Ken with Daddy’s trophy, the Norman Rockwell shot of the family, maybe one of Washio with an antique aircraft. After the crash, I expected him to swim out of the ocean and stride onto the beach, looking as if he had planned the whole thing.” She shook her head. “It’s a cliché, but he really was full of life.”
They wanted to reach for each other, to at least lay hands on shoulders and draw close enough for the private words that friends use to share and alleviate grief. Wanted to, but could not because of the other reporters, particularly the ones who just had to twist things into ugly shapes.
For that same reason, she knew that she would not see his arm around Eileen Washio.
When she updated her blog, her description of the service was worthy of the best news service.
Her fans were not fooled.
More news. She filled high-capacity flash-memory cards. Now that she knew what to look for, she couldn’t miss the connections.
Harlan Blake knew that she had found something so big she dared not even hint at it.
One night, as she trembled at her keyboard, he asked, “What’s wrong? How can I help you?”
After several long, deep, breaths, she opened the files and showed him.
It was the only time he was thankful for the wheelchair.
The internet had supposedly eliminated the need for ‘foreign desks’ for journalists. All you now had to do, the thinking went, was search the Web for relevant keywords, then write your own piece using the information, and your own local paper or news site ran it. No need to maintain expensive office space and staff.
That hadn’t worked as planned. People who live and work in foreign countries have perspective, information, and contacts that stay-at-home colleagues and competitors lack.
Francine had long ago made herself her own foreign office, willing to travel to cover an interesting or significant story.
Which was why she was in Hontwarl for a week, covering the elections.
On the packed train to the airport, someone pressed a hard, squarish object into her hand. A voice, barely a whisper, said, “Give this to Nambu. Red Impulse.”
Several bottles of nail polish died to make the garish, eye-burning man-eater hue of her nails.
She had rehearsed this carefully, to ensure that she did not say or do anything that would tell observers that there was anything different about this lunch with Dr. Nambu.
Whatever he had started to say disappeared when she held out her hand. “What is that?”
“I have a cousin who designs cosmetics. What do you think?” She had the flash drive palmed.
He took her hand. She dropped the device. “She calls it Red Impulse.”
“It’s – red enough,” he conceded, releasing her hand.
“Don’t be so polite. This color belongs on one of those classic movie man-eaters of the 1930s or 1940s. I wanted you to see how bad it was.” Where was the flash drive?
They talked of the latest offerings from the lunatic fringe. Dr. Nambu was a space lizard in human guise, one of Earth’s true rulers, and here was the proof in this photograph! The ISO had engineered contraceptives into the seed crops they sent to (insert name of country here). If you draw lines connecting ISO projects, they form occult symbols proving that (insert name of secret society or cult here) controls the world.
Conspiracy theories. She had found a real one, and these crazy people ensured that she would never be able to tell anyone what she had found. Unless, perhaps, Nambu would hear her out.
As they walked to the park, Nambu said, “He should not have involved you. Not even this little bit.”
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. “Does the name ‘Galactor’ mean anything to you?” Let him laugh, please let him laugh.
“I have files. I spotted a pattern shortly after that first interview. I thought I was mistaken. There’s no man or rabbit on the Moon’s face: we just put a pattern to the features we see. But this time, there really is a face, metaphorically speaking.”
I should have known that you would find it out, if there was anything to find.”
“But nothing we can take public. It would take too long to explain.” How many others had discovered this huge, horrible conspiracy? How many thought themselves alone in this knowledge?
“The more information we have, the more questions we ask, the closer we come to discovering what Galactor wants. Right now, they want control of Hontwarl. What is their ideology? Who leads them? If they fail in Hontwarl, will it destroy them?”
“This could take years.”
“Count me in.”
“Francine --- “
“I already know about them. My husband knows. They don’t know that I know. Besides, remember what I told you about why I became a journalist? Defending the defenseless and exposing wickedness.”
She didn’t have to have his intellect to follow the gist of his thinking. I’ll investigate anyway. I travel, so it won’t look odd for me to go from here to Hontwarl to wherever and then back here. We’re friends, so meeting him isn’t a problem. The only sticking point was the danger to her and her family.
“You’re in,” he said.
Galactor didn’t kill her. She’d gotten too close to the truth about a Congressman from a Southern state. His aides, taking their cues from movies instead of common sense, rigged her brakes.
Unfortunately for the politician, she had already filed the story. It knocked the ‘terrorist attack’ on the ISO’s Burnham campus off the front pages for a couple of days.
At the funeral, Harlan Blake rolled over to Dr. Nambu. After exchanging condolences, he said, “Francine told me.”
“I’ve been thinking of coming to work for the ISO. Have any openings?”
Nambu understood. He was silent a long time. Then: “I’m working on a composite that will withstand a deliberately induced temperature of at least 3000 degrees without disintegrating.”
Harlan could see her in his mind, giving him the high sign.