Masks 18: Part 2

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Rodford Edmiston

Part Two

The two men had known each other for a couple of years, but this was a first date, so naturally, they were nervous. Even though both were in their early thirties, and were both professionals in related fields, and both single for too long.

They were at a small table in a back corner. Something nice and private. Even though the management was known to be gay-friendly, the two men found this far more suitable for now. Harry tried to make small talk as they passed the time until the waiter arrived.

"I'm finding this a bit... unsettling," said Harry, with an embarrassed smile. "Though I don't make any secret of being bi, I haven't had a boyfriend since I was seventeen. Back when I was still female."

"What..." said Gordon. He gave Harry an odd look. "Is that some sort of joke?"

"Sorry. I thought you knew. My case was a bit famous, locally, a few years ago. I was female until I was..."

He stopped, looked away, swallowing nervously.

"Sorry," said Harry, quietly. He felt phantom pains in anatomy he no longer had. "It still hurts, even after all this time. I was... gang raped. Beaten. Between the doctors using an experimental technique to save me and my latent power activating, I wound up completely male. Right down to the chromosomes."

"You have powers?!"

"One power. Once. Years ago."

"I don't think this is going to work," said Gordon.

He rose and hurried out of the restaurant.

Harry sat there, stunned, for several minutes. Finally, he told the obviously embarrassed and sympathetic waiter they wouldn't be eating there, after all, and rose and left.

As Harry exited there was a distant rumble of thunder, from a clear sky. Harry didn't notice. Few did. Later that night, though, the freak storm would get a lot of notice.

* * *

President Sievers and Queen Tolnar were meeting in the Oval Office for what was likely the last time. There were four guards present for each ruler; Secret Service for the President and Monarch's Honor Guard for the Queen. Both sets very determinedly did not listen to the discussion. Finally, after a long discussion on a particular matter, the two leaders reached an agreement and both sat back a bit.

Tolnar glanced out the window as the President made notes on the agreement they had just reached, and couldn't help but be impressed with the progress made in repairing the damage from the war. She just wished her own Empire had made as much improvement in that time. Of course, social change was much slower and more difficult than physical change.

"I'm very glad we finally worked that out," said the President, with a tired smile, putting her pen down. "I have come to like you, personally, and your people as a whole, but these prisoners were a major problem. With you taking them back to the Empire for repatriation that relieves us of a great burden. I'm certain that even with the possibility that some will be prosecuted for their part in the coup against your rule, they would rather be back in their home culture."

"I think you underplay your own nation's hospitality and fairness," said Tolnar. "They were housed and fed and treated well. Which is more than those who used them so poorly did."

"There is still the matter of those who have requested asylum..."

"They are citizens of the Shilmek Empire and must be returned," said Tolnar, volume still at a conversational level but tone much firmer.

"These are people who have specifically requested sanctuary in the United States," said Sievers, tone effectively identical. "With the help of your security forces we identified the war criminals - those who sympathized with and willingly aided the rebellion and invasion, including those who held me and those with me in that dome - and turned them over to you. Those remaining have no such charges against them, even by your own government. These are people who have honestly requested asylum here, who want to live in our society."

"They are deserters."

"From a defeated military, which they were forced to fight for against their will," said Sievers. "Few have said anything against you personally, and the main complaint of those who have
is that you weren't able to maintain control for those several months."

That was not strictly true, but the President was trying to negotiate; not speak with complete honesty. She was well aware that Tolnar was in the same mode.

"They are still citizens of the Empire who are attempting to leave without permission."

The President leaned back in her chair and thought for several moments. She had discussed multiple approaches with her advisors, and they had consulted with several sources before advising her. Including the refugees, themselves.

"What if we call them immigrants?" said Sievers, leaning forward, resting her forearms on the desk. "That would be more palatable to some on both sides."

"Not to me," said Tolnar, firmly.

The President frowned. She didn't want to give these men and women up. Aside from the pragmatic benefits of having the resources of several Shilmek of several professions available, that would set a bad precedent. Tolnar was well aware of both factors. Still, there were things of far greater value - to the world, as well as the US - which she would not sacrifice to keep them. Something Her Highness was also aware of.

"There is a concern - far more mine than theirs - that they would be mistreated if they returned to the Empire."

"Are they being treated fairly, here?" said Tolnar, pointedly.

She did have a point. Public opinion was still very strongly against the attackers, even those who were not actually involved in battles. Of course, some people were against all Shilmek, and not just the invaders. Sievers realized she was temporizing, and sighed.

"We gave our word they would be allowed to live here," she said, firmly. "Would you have us go back on our word?"

Tolnar scowled, and the President realized she had made a strong point with the honorable Queen. Still, she couldn't allow anyone who had participated in the rebellion - even if unwillingly - to be rewarded in this way. In that she had much in common with many of Sievers' critics.

"We are - and I freely admit this is a lesson learned from the aftermath of your own Civil War - officially engaging in a policy of reconciliation," said Her Highness. "I am fully aware that we cannot guarantee fair treatment from everyone towards those we would return, or even towards those already returned. That _is_ our official policy and I stand by it."

"Perhaps we should come back to this at another time," said the President.

"No. I think we need to solve this here and now."

Sievers nodded.

Eventually, after more than an hour - not including a short break when tempers seemed to be too close to flaring - they reached an agreement. Tolnar would personally speak with those requesting refuge in the US. Pointing out the problems they would have trying to integrate into the very different society here, and promising fair treatment back in the Empire. Hopefully, all would agree to give up their asylum request and return. If any didn't, each would be dealt with on an individual basis.

"Well, it's not ideal, or what either of us wanted," said the President, tiredly, once agreement was reached. "However, that probably means it's as fair as we can manage right now."

"Words of wisdom," said Tolnar, with a weary laugh. She stood, regal and formal. "One more thing. I, personally, and my people as a whole, owe your people a great debt. Several, in fact. Possibly the greatest is your help and advice in restructuring our government. There is much to still be worked out - likely generations of details - but we have a stable rule in which all have a voice. Thank you."

There was little to be said in response to that which wouldn't sound trite. The President instead stood as well and extended her hand. The two shook, very firmly and formally. Then the Queen left.

There was still much to settle during this trip to Earth, but nearly all of that was with others. Most of it through the United Nations. Her work in the United States was completed for the time being.

As she boarded the short-range transport - given special permission to fly to and from the White House lawn - Tolnar smiled a bit, remembering the problems she'd had her first couple of visits to Earth, keeping those two very different organizations straight. Then she and her escort flew back to the spaceport.

Even as she entered her own starship, Her Highness kept to herself one of the more stressful meetings she planned. One the other participant didn't even know about yet.

"Reconciliation..." she said, quietly, to herself. "No matter how personally difficult."

* * *

Several people were already in the room when the head of the Pine Island Academy arrived.

"Why did you call this meeting?" said Eve, a bit sourly, as she seated herself. "School starts back in three weeks and we still have a lot of work to do!"

"We found something interesting - and potentially problematic - during our restoration of Pine's old geothermal station," said the school's chief engineer.

"Just dandy," said Eve, with a tired sigh. "Wait. I thought that was long finished..."

"Is the power station still working?" said Template, suddenly worried.

"Yes. This doesn't involve it directly. The power plant is fine."

"Then what is the problem?" said Eve.

Was it Junker's imagination, or was Eve unusually testy today?

"Pine was studying the Puerto Rico Trench," said Junker, approaching the matter indirectly. Which only aggravated his boss's mood. "Or, rather, he had several of his people develop ways to monitor activity there. He never told them why. We now think he was checking whether his raising of this island had affected the plate tectonic movement."

"The which, now?" said Eve.

"The Trench is where the North American plate is sliding past and subducting under the Caribbean plate," said Template. "Though this is the first I've heard of it in connection to our school."

"The hotspot Pine created is slowly - very slowly - moving in that direction; south-southwest," said school geologist Dr. Othar Halvargardsen. "Although this island we are on is continuing to move in the same direction as the North American plate as a whole, which is generally southwest. Normally, at least many centuries should pass before there would be any significant movement - or change of movement - of either."

"However...?" said Eve.

"Dr. Halvargardsen had the island's engineers and some of the engineering students put a bunch of the base's old geological monitoring instruments back into operation," said Junker. "In addition to things like standard seismometers, magnetometers and tiltmeters he - Pine - had some non-standard stuff. Including things specifically meant to keep track of what's going on in the trench."

"We were surprised to find that some of the instruments placed there are still working," said Dr. Halvargardsen. "He had multiple, many-kilometer-long cables laid, across the seafloor towards the Puerto Rico Trench, with sensors along their lengths. Most of the sensors had failed in the past decades. However, what we saw on the surviving instruments encouraged us to institute a major repair program. Between aquatic teachers and students in the shallow areas and drones for the deeper work we now have most of the stations back in operation."

"We believe some of the sensors actually in the trench were buried by slides and maybe even subduction over the past forty-six years," said Junker.

"What are the remaining stations telling you?" said Eve, becoming increasingly irritated at their reluctance to just say what the problem was but keeping her temper. So far.

"We're... not sure," said Dr. Halvargardsen, shifting uneasily in his seat. "That's why we're asking for funding to make an on-site inspection. Drones first - we need to rent or build some capable of handling the pressure at that depth - then possibly an actual presence in the trench."

"What are the symptoms?" said Eve, trying to be patient.

"Multiple earthquakes in the trench and surrounding seafloor," said Junker. "The vast majority too small to feel; the rest barely noticeable. However, there are a lot of 'em; far more than normal given the history of that area. In fact, there's almost constant seismic activity. Temperature sensors are also showing a rise in sea water temperature along most - perhaps all - of the fault."

"Could this be another demon incursion?!" said Template, alarmed.

"We consulted with the magical staff and they say almost certainly not," said Dr. Halvargardsen. "The pressure is too great even for most demons. However, this could be connected to the incursion here."

"Just how deep are you planning to go?" said Template, puzzled, knowing demons were generally immune to all but the most extreme non-magical effects.

"The deepest part of the trench - and the Atlantic Ocean - is the Milwaukee Deep," said Dr. Halvargardsen. "That's over 8,400 meters. It's the only place where the North American plate is subducting."

"Hooooo..." said Junker, startled. "I didn't know it was that deep. Yeah, we definitely need specialized equipment."

"Approval granted," said Eve, scowling. "We've had almost three years of peace and quiet - and rebuilding and improving - and I don't want to risk that by having something unknown coming at us from the bottom of the ocean!"

"Especially with the new hospital about to open," said Template, with feeling.

"Is there any update on that?" said the Principal.

"Still waiting on an inspector from the mainland," said Junker, with a heartfelt sigh. "He's supposed to approve the work we've done so we can get the permits to do it."

"Uh..." said Template.

"Yeah. We have to do the work, get it inspected, then get the permits for it. Things are complicated, since we're still a US possession and this is a medical facility which will accept patients from any nation. Maybe even from off the Earth. The whole approval system is screwed up beyond belief. Even the people inspecting and permitting know this. There's just nothing they can do. Been like this for decades and will likely continue to be. The war sure didn't help things along, either, even with pressure on Congress to expedite inspections and permitting to repair the battle damage. They pass laws and then nothing changes."

"Bureaucracy perceives improvement as damage and attempts to heal it," said Eve, sagely.

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