The low orbit plane, Fields One, was ready. Large engines purred to life, a slight growl before the full belly roar that would push the plane into orbit. It was longer than a jumbo jet with V shaped wings set well back on her fuselage, which was thick and flat on top.
Everyone had always told Jane how beautiful the Earth was from orbit. The pictures were testimony enough, the most eloquent case for the environmentalists. However, Jane rarely glanced out her window. Aesthetics didn’t amuse her now. Maslow’s pyramid ruled and survival was her priority. Even in orbit she was connected to her network, an invisible umbilical cord of radio waves. She waited for the calls. If they did not come, she had wasted two and a half hours on this flight, as well as publicity on a dangerous move.
Forty-five minutes into the flight, the first call was routed to her:
"The mission was a bust. An ambush was laid by another group. Cyborgs and tranq guns took us out, found us in our safe house. My fullest apologies. Your money will be returned."
"That’s not necessary. Your loyalty is appreciated. Thank you. Good-bye."
The cabin warmed, but not considerably. Reentry was well managed, but the second call had not arrived. She could see the crescent of the Nipponese islands below her. It reminded her of a scythe.
The cabin speaker blared, annoyed her, "We have clearance to land."
Jane snapped, "Of course, we have clearance. I wouldn’t have made the trip if the road hadn’t been paved." It was possible that Cuchulain’s computer snarling had been ineffective, that Cerberus had sent his own agents to waylay Mariko. She closed her eyes and tried to stop chasing paranoid ghosts. Where was that second call? the call that her agents had rescued Mariko and put her in Jane’s debt.
Fields One touched down smoothly.
The cool breeze assaulted her, so different than Argentinean air. The gangway was long and steep, but she had never been afraid of heights. Two rows of policemen were awaiting her, a processional to a Mercedes limo. These weren’t her men. There was nothing she could do. Ambition and desperation had forced Jane Fields over the last sixteen hours to break her cardinal rule: Never get involved personally.
Mariko’s right hand man was waiting for her, seated comfortably on the black leather. She climbed in, seeing no other option. The air conditioning only added to her chill.
Kentaro spoke, "We are honored by your presence in our network. Please, do not speak."
The ride was long and uncomfortable, at least two hours, under the stoic glare of Kentaro’s placid but handsome features. The building at the end of a gravel driveway was not Mariko’s primary residence. It crossed her mind that Kentaro may have made a move for Mariko’s network. Jane certainly wasn’t about to ask him. She had expected curved red roofs and ornamental guards, a shogun’s estate befitting the mistress of the Nipponese network. But it was a lonely building, a low budget modular home, probably erected in under twenty-four hours. She followed Kentaro inside. There were few guards, though they passed through three gates, two of which required retinal scans on Kentaro’s part. He was still insufferably quiet.
They entered an elevator, an expected oddity in this rambler style house. There were no interior buttons; it was controlled from the outside. Jane admired that: a nice trick in its simplicity. Better, it took her mind from her upcoming fate.
Two guards with rifle weapons stood on either side of a sterile steel door. It silently slid open as Kentaro and Jane approached.
Mariko. She sat on a large suede chair behind a glass table. Four computer screens were set in the table with four keyboards inlaid on each edge. Jane remembered that Mariko was in her thirties, but she looked younger, timeless with a fashion model’s frozen elegance. Mariko nodded for her to take a seat to the left of her; Kentaro sat to Jane’s right.
Mariko did not smile. "I must thank you for rescuing me from Cerberus’ operatives." Her eyes were iced over. Jane could get no feelings from her.
Jane bowed her head, a careful if noncommittal show of respect.
"Oh, no need to be so formal, Jane. We are equals here. After all, if these were the old days, I would owe you my life for saving it. Thankfully, however, we are no longer bound by such–moralities." Her voice whispered that last word.
Jane bit her tongue to cover her fear. Mariko knew, she knew. But Mariko was pretending that she didn’t know. That was fine by Jane. "Yes, well, the Six have different responsibilities, a different morality."
Now, Mariko smiled: a small upturn of the left side of her lips. "Has this something to do with independent citizenship, Jane?"
Jane leaned forward, looked into Mariko’s eyes. "Yes, yes, it does. I believe–"
Mariko laughed and cut her off with a tiny wave of her hand. "The passion in one so experienced does you credit, Jane. But you must excuse me. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. When . . . Cerberus attempted to kidnap me, he as good as forced me to call a punitive conclave, which is why, of course, I escorted you here so that you could second the summoning."
Mariko was playing into her hand. Jane looked at her hands and admitted they were somewhat infirm, particularly here. She was deprived of her network here. And forced into a conclave, a punitive conclave, that could just as easily turn on her. Yet she couldn’t refuse the summoning: That would be an admission of the kidnapping.
Mariko tapped on her keyboard. The four screens came to life:
Punitive Conclave requested. Please log on for identity verification.
Mariko looked at Jane expectantly.
LOGON: Mariko, Jane,_
In five minutes the conclave was complete: LOGON: Mariko, Jane, Demian, Cerberus, Pietr, Cuchulain.
Mariko: I’ve summoned this conclave to consider punitive actions against Cerberus, who attempted to kidnap me. Jane will verify.
Demian: Wait one moment. Your second man blamed me for that moronic operation; my Electech stock fell thirty points, because your man leaked out the Kelly insider trading agreement. I’ve got five brokers indited. I demand satisfaction or restructuring of this punitive conclave to include Mariko.
Mariko: I offer Demian three secrets, two of which include projected Cerberus waves in the United Nations; the other is a run down of secondary rank I.R.I.S. personnel.
Cerberus: What?! Mariko, I deny any activity in this alleged kidnapping. Everyone on line knows that my methods are not so ill conceived.
Cuchulain: As to methodology, bunky, you sent an assassin against me, a plainly reckless act, more suited to my nature. This act testifies to Cerberus’ recent and violent methodology.
Demian: I verify. My New York operatives scanned a known I.R.I.S. android’s sudden deactivation and an explosion at one of Cuchulain’s tertiary residences. I am satisfied that the three secrets given to me will lead to sufficient punitive action against Cerberus and move to close this punitive conclave.
Pietr: I second.
Mariko: Is there a majority? I vote No.
Cuchulain: No. Why should Demian have all the fun?
Cerberus: I maintain my innocence and suggest that Fields is suspect as our networks were preparing to war.
Jane: A military action!
Demian: That is within a network’s rights. You know that, Jane.
Pietr: I suggest that we examine the cause of the recent instability; therein will the guilt be.
Cuchulain: What’s wrong with instability?
Demian: I agree with Pietr. Jane’s independent citizen move in the United Nations, the center of Cerberus’ network, was certainly the cause of the instability. I would tolerate no such bold action by others within my network’s parameters. Jane asked for network war.
Jane: I claim the betterment of world society.
Jane: Independent citizenship will free humanity from the bonds of nationalism and war.
Cerberus: This is absurd. Who here can make worldwide projections with such an unprecedented move, with so many variables?
Cuchulain: Not everyone here is tied to their calculator, bean counter.
Jane: Allowing the option of world citizenship is something we all acknowledge will happen if the light barrier is broken and space travel becomes feasible. A number of articles have touched on independent citizenship in regard to the proposed Martian colony.
Demian: While I admit the possibility of future independent citizenship, I deny that it will result in the betterment of mankind. Human nature is immutable.
Pietr: I agree. The absence of nationalism will only create a power vacuum in humanity’s need for a group identity. The successor to nationalism will most likely be organized religion, governing secular arenas. Humanity will leave the age of reason for superstition.
Jane: But we have the chance to make people independent!
Mariko: What Pietr is saying is that the people do not want your independence.
Cerberus: I request a motion for retraction of Jane Fields’ independent citizen operation.
Mariko: That is not at issue. Your kidnapping my person is at issue.
Pietr: But the source of instability is Jane Fields.
Deliberately moving her hands away from her keyboard, Mariko looked toward Jane. Mariko spoke, "The three secrets to Demian will debilitate Cerberus enough for my satisfaction. I believe you had a hand in this, Jane. I know you did. Did you think I would not guess at such a clumsy attempt by Cerberus? He was in prelude to a trade war with you. Joint responsibility, debilitating you both, will be highly profitable for the other four. Even the toady, Pietr, will go along, since Cerberus knows he has already lost those secrets to Demian. Demian shall do my dirty work against Cerberus; and you will pay for disrupting my person and my network with your absurd maneuvers. This has been a very costly move for you, Jane."
Mariko: I accept Cerberus’ accusation of Jane Fields’ culpability in the kidnapping of my person. I suggest the dismantling of her Argentinean off coast complex as satisfaction: a complete and final ban on independent citizenship.
Jane breathed a sigh of relief.
Mariko: Why do you disagree, Demian?
Demian: I calculate a thirty percent network expenditure on Jane’s part for this move. Retraction now would create a vacuum that would not be in my interests as well as a reward to Cerberus, since that is what he wants.
Mariko: A majority is still possible. I vote yes.
Cuchulain: You can forget the vote against independent citizenship, Mari. It ain’t gonna happen. I’ve just completed an agro-arms-gold deal with the Chinese and have purchased a ninety-nine year lease of Tibet. I am now the second independent citizen and will be inviting the Dalai Lama back to his homeland. The positive profile of the Lama in the Euro-American sectors should make independent citizenship feasible and, hopefully, profitable. You’ve got a second, Janey! Well, bean counter, what does your projected wave on independent citizenship say now?
Cerberus: One moment.
Jane shouted. Kentaro leapt from his seat, jolted by the sudden noise. Mariko drummed her fingernails on the glass table in rhythmic thought.
Cerberus: I back independent citizenship and sue for treaty with the Fields network, providing Demian and Mariko agree not to war against independent citizenship.
Jane: I accept treaty with you, Cerberus.
Mariko: I am still due satisfaction from Jane Fields.
Jane: I offer Mariko a merger of our aero-space industries.
Demian: I have no incentive to tolerate independent citizenship.
Jane laughed. She was feeling too happy and knew she shouldn’t speak to Mariko, but, "Hah, just wait five years. Tibet’ll be the new independent arms capital of the world–no paperwork, no officials, just Cuchulain’s metallurgists and engineers. Those monks’ll never have to worry about losing their homeland again."
Mariko replied softly, "An irony, considering the monks’ peaceful natures. But, I think, independent citizens shall turn out to be the most ironic concept of all; we shall be burdened by a populace without loyalties or giri."
Jane thought about Mariko’s parting words during her flight home aboard the newly christened Fields-Matsushita One. All this trouble just for doubts. Cuchulain had a good time at least. Jane laughed softly and spoke to the empty cabin, "Well then, independent citizen, where do we go from here?"