"Who are you, and how in the hell did you get in here?"
I stared at the youngish looking man with a lazy smile who had somehow talked his way past Carol, my administrative assistant.
He stopped in front of my desk, waiting on me to say something. Which, I might note, I just had, and I didn't want to repeat myself. Carol Genoa is a very hard person to fool. She can change the expression on her normally pretty face to an icy formality capable of stopping a tank in its tracks if need be. He must have known in advance I wasn't seeing visitors and walked right past her without looking. Even so, why hadn't Carol alerted me?
Barging in without an appointment isn't the way to get off on the right foot with me, either. I hate being interrupted at work. This man had walked into my laboratory office on Tuesday afternoon, just when I was sitting at my desk in the middle of a creative haze.
I was mapping out the design of a new ultra microscope I hoped to one day use to study specific genes in the very act of assembling organic protein catalysts, from transcription to translation to assembly, all without disturbing the living cells, nuclei, chromosomes or genes. It would involve highly sped-up data observation and transfer using a computer program I had partially designed to manage the process. The programmers were already working with it, chasing bugs and inconsistencies. If it all fell into place, I thought that maybe in another decade or so I'd start getting a handle on the specifics of how gene expression is affected so greatly by the environment. All we know at present is that it is, not how. Or not much of how, anyway.
"I didn't say who I'm with, Miss Trung, but I represent an agency of the United States Government. My name is Gene Smith." He smiled, but didn't offer his hand, probably knowing I'd refuse it. He also pronounced the "Miss" so there was no mistaking it with the more generic Ms.
I doubted his name was Smith. He had the same air of secrecy about him as the security agents I'd been forced to deal with during that one period of temporary insanity when I did research for the National Health Administration.
"It's Ms. Trung," I said coldly, just to throw him off balance. If he already knew I'd rather be referred to as Miss, he knew too much about me already. "And I don't believe I have anything to say to the government."
"Oh? I think I can convince you otherwise. And I would have sworn you preferred to be addressed as Miss Trung so long as we're being formal." He smiled again, as if he didn't have a care in the world, but I sensed some steel beneath that handsome exterior.
How much background did he have on me, anyway? Not that it mattered. I was perfectly satisfied working for the Havel brothers, Lester and Chester, the founders and still majority stockholders of Havel Genecrafters, Inc. I liked the area, too, near enough to Houston for the things a big city can supply but far enough from the bustle of commuters not to be bothered by them.
"The exit is that way, Mr. Smith." I pointed. "Please use it. And make an appointment next time you want to see me." Not that I would grant it, but I wanted to emphasize my point. I didn't want to work for the government again. Too much paperwork, not enough real work.
He stood fast, making me wonder if I'd have to call security to get rid of him. The next thing he said made me hesitate, though.
"Miss Trung, suppose I offered you a job doing research at a level I know you and only a very few others are qualified for. At a much higher salary, I might add. You could do whatever research you please. We'll order any instruments you think you might need or have someone design and engineer them for you if they don't exist. We'll pay whatever you like and take care of all the moving for you. If there's anything else you want, all you have to do is ask and we can probably arrange it."
"No thanks." I admitted to myself I was interested but was careful not to let it show. Whatever agency he represented was obviously well funded and desperate for personnel in my specialties, evolutionary and environmental genetics and molecular microbiochemistry. And maybe someone like me who also grokked computers. Still, it was a government job he was talking about. "Not unless you tell me more than you have so far and it would be very doubtful even then."
He noticed I hadn't asked him to leave again, though. Smart man. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little black rectangular object about two inches long and a half inch in its other dimensions. He turned away from me and mumbled something while holding it close to his mouth. When he was facing me again, he held it cupped loosely in his hand at waist level.
"Xenobiology," he said, one word and nothing else.
While I was staring at him, Carol came in, looking flustered and very embarrassed. She brushed a strand of fine blonde hair from her forehead. "I'm sorry, Miss Trung. I don't know how he got in here. He must have walked right by me when I had my back to the door looking for a file."
"It's all right, Carol. Something to drink, Mr. Smith?"
"Some coffee would be nice. It's been a long day. Black, please."
"Bring me a cup, too, Carol, please. Then close the door and don't let anyone else inside."
"Yes, ma'am." She was being very formal, the way she always is when others are around. In private, we use first names. She looked speculatively at Mr. Smith, then hurried off. She was back in a minute, carrying the coffee on a tray.
Once she was gone, I leaned back in my chair and took a sip of the rich Columbian brew as only Carol can make it. She won't let me near the coffee pot. She says I must have learned how to brew coffee at an all-night burger joint.
"You have one of those aliens," I stated.
"Right you are, Miss Trung. More than one, actually. And let me start off by apologizing. Someone dropped the ball by not contacting you as soon as we began assembling our first team. You should have already been aboard."
How long had they been working with the aliens? Their presence on Earth was a widely accepted fact ever since the body of one had been recovered in Mexico a number of months ago, but no government was admitting they knew much about them, including ours. There was no denying the way developments in space had suddenly sped up, though.
I had wondered about it and thought maybe we had recovered the ship the Mexico alien arrived on. And I seriously doubted that huge explosion that ripped up China's spaceport had been caused by them playing with firecrackers. But a live alien? Goddamn it, I would have given both tits any day of my life to see what the gene structure of a completely alien species looked like--or didn't look like. They might not even use genes. My mind was whirling with so many possibilities that he had to repeat himself. I hadn't heard him the first time.
"I said, 'How soon can you leave?'"
"Oh. Sorry." I thought for a moment. There was no question of me not taking the job, even as little as I knew about it, but there were other factors involved. "I'll have to give notice. I can't leave Les and Ches without some preparation for my replacement."
He waved a negligent hand. "We'll take care of that. They both hold reserve commissions. If necessary we'll call them back to active duty and have them work for us."
"I don't like that approach. They deserve better."
"You misconstrue, Miss Trung. I believe they would be glad to come under any conditions, or release you from further obligation once they know why you're leaving." He pulled another gadget out of his coat pocket, this time an ordinary PDA, and spoke to it then flipped it back shut. "Anything else?"
The man did appear to be the type who got things done in a hurry, an unusual trait for a government employee. Which reminded me.
"Yes. May I bring Carol, my administrative assistant, with me?"
He winced first, then eyed me speculatively. My mixed Vietnamese and American ancestry left me with dark brown hair and a slight tilt to my eyes, the bare remnant of an epicanthic fold. I'm no beauty, but I know I'm not bad to look at, and I do have more on top than most oriental women.
"Did we miss something? I thought..." His voice trailed off, leaving him at a loss for words for the first time.
"No, you didn't miss anything, Mr. Smith." I had to laugh, knowing what he was thinking. "It's nothing like that. Carol Genoa is simply the most efficient person I've ever worked with. I'd have a hard time getting along without her."
He had the grace to blush. I could see him relax, but not completely. "Call me Gene. You'll be seeing a lot of me. I'm the guy to go to when you have an administrative problem that's hampering your work. About Carol--I wasn't expecting that, so she'll have to be vetted, and it would be much better if her disappearing from sight didn't leave any loose ends. Never mind, though. We'll manage, one way or another. It's my job to see that the scientists get what they want and aren't bothered by the paper shufflers."
That made me feel better.
Carol would love working with an alien, too. We had first met at a science fiction convention in Amarillo where my parents lived before they were killed in the Goldenrod Mall Massacre by home-grown Islamic Jihadists, the worst kind because they're so hard to identify. Carol impressed me by the way she organized the convention that year. I've never been to one that went off so smoothly, from hotel room service to the Con Room and everything in between. We began corresponding, and two years later she came to Havel Genecrafters with me. Our relationship is as much friend to friend as supervisor to subordinate.
I smiled to myself, thinking of the expression I would see on Carol's face when I told her we'd be changing jobs and meeting an alien.
"That's fine, then. We can leave as soon as you've cleared it with the Havel brothers. Most of my friends call me Mai, or sometimes Cherry."
"I wondered about that so I looked it up. Mai Li Trung. I take it the Cherry comes from cherry blossom. Is that right?"
"Yes. Mai means 'Cherry Blossom' when it's pronounced correctly. Vietnamese is a tonal language."
"So I've heard. It's a pretty name either way, but I'll call you Mai if I may."
"Certainly. Just don't read anything into my middle name. I don't know why my parents stuck Li in there and I never bothered to ask. Enough about names. What comes next?" I don't like wasting time on idle chatter, not at work.
"Let's get Carol in here so I can get some background on her."
"I can tell you a little about her myself if you'll tell me how you sneaked by her."
"I used an invisibility cloak," he said without cracking a smile. "Okay. Shoot."