He watched the color drain from her face. Then she rose suddenly from the table and turned her back to him. She seemed to hover motionless for a brief moment in an ether of uncertainty before she bolted in a blur from the restaurant into the night without looking back.
Jake started to call after her, but her name caught in his throat like a shard of glass. He poured himself a shot of vodka instead and gulped it down, then another and another. He noticed the scorched taste of something familiar as the vodka reached its destination. It lingered in his mouth like a persistent scold.
Later that night he tried to reach her again on his untraceable, but there was no answer. She had reminded him earlier at the restaurant that they would both be subject to the mandatory monthly biometric scan upon arriving at the Diversity Council Tower the next morning, and that detectable biometric evidence of an abortion, medical or surgical, would likely persist for several weeks. As always, she had arrived well-prepared.
Neither of them had touched the caviar or vodka on the table. Maria ran her hands through her hair. “Any trace evidence of an unauthorized pregnancy will end us on the Council,” she told him. “We’ll be finished. You might survive with your fortune and reputation intact, but I won’t. They’ll come after me to get to you. Things will unfold exactly the way we designed them.”
Jake raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement, but he was lost in thought.
“They’ll screen me the moment I return to the Council,” she continued. “I’ll have to disappear until I no longer show any detectable traces of the abortion.” She struggled to keep her composure. “What will we tell them?”
Jake shook his head without looking at her. “You won’t tell them anything,” he said, suddenly annoyed. “I’ll cover for you and take the heat until you return.”
Maria watched his mind race in obvious overdrive. Desperate for him to feel what she felt, longing for a single word or gesture of comfort, she reached across the table and took his hand. "Such a shame,” she said, more in a final effort to convince herself than him. “You’d make a wonderful father."
But he dispelled her chimera with a cool precision that cut straight through her like a laser. He straightened slowly in his seat and gently extracted his hand from hers. “I don’t want to be a father,” he said coldly, eyes narrowed. A curtain of silence dropped between them like a sheet of ice. “I thought you knew me better.”
Maria exhaled softly and felt a hollow thump inside her chest. “I know you well enough,” she said. With that, she rose from her chair and she was gone.
The next morning he tried unsuccessfully to contact her once more before heading out to his office in the Diversity Tower. As anticipated, a young female intern from Internal Security arrived at his office later in the morning to take his biometrics.
Midday, and still no word from Maria. Jake started work in his head on a narrative to reintroduce her once she returned, but couldn’t imagine any scenario that would restore her position on the Council or inoculate her from the pathological fallout of its members, selected in no small measure for their sociopathic tendencies in the first place.
Maria had been his lieutenant on the Council since its inception eight years earlier. None of the other fifteen members, he knew, would rue her absence. Rather, they envied her power and would wait patiently -- by design -- for the opportunity to bring her down.
Not one of them, however, was Maria’s match when it came to either ambition or strategy, a fact made clear from the very first time they convened in the late spring of 2030 in a large AllCorp conference room aptly named “Freedom Hall". There, standing at one end of a massive black ebony conference table, Jake Kassman appointed himself as First Chair of the very first Diversity Council of Greater New York City -- first state to form in the likewise newly declared Utopian Federation. His first official act as Diversity Council First Chair was to appoint Maria Perez to the Council as his lieutenant and Vice Chair, a position she accepted only after he announced her full oversight over all internal Diversity Council security matters and, far more significantly, full oversight over the new federation’s entire surveillance and enforcement mechanism.
Later that inaugural day Maria delivered everyone’s marching orders in the first plenary session of the new Diversity Council. All but captive, each of the fourteen other council members sat in stunned silence and listened while she described deference to her as their primary Council responsibility. Her iron grip over both the Diversity Council and the Hate Crime Authority went not unnoticed by the Council members that first day on the job when the most powerful among them -- a social media mogul whose handlers worked full time just to keep his private life out of the legal system -- interrupted her with an objection. The nature of his objection was of little consequence at face value. But Maria immediately recognized his interruption for what it offered: a teaching moment. She excused herself from the lectern with a smile and took him aside. He seemed to listen intently to her for several long moments while everyone else just watched. Then he turned suddenly and left the room without a word. Seconds later, Maria returned to the lectern where she announced his immediate resignation -- and replacement. No one challenged her authority again.
But now her sudden absence chummed the waters, and Jake could hear the buzz in the building as the Council sharks began to circle. He desperately wanted to reach out to her but she had obviously gone silent for a reason. So he needed to trust her. Besides, Maria was the least impulsive and most calculating person he knew. She always had a plan. Even so, her sudden absence at his side was not only a galling distraction for him but a dangerous invitation to Council pretenders. He ached to hear from her.
Late that afternoon he started to receive the first predictable queries about her from other Council members. Several of them mentioned how unfortunate it was that she had missed her biometric exam. Their feigned concern for her wellbeing didn’t surprise Jake in the least; thanks to Maria he knew them better than they knew themselves, and he knew that not one of them cared for anyone except themselves -- by design.
At dusk he received a two-word text from her on his untraceable: “its done”
He texted her back right away: “where ru?” Ten minutes later he stood at the window of his office and looked out over Manhattan as the sun dropped low over Jersey and the Hudson and washed the distant twin pyres of the George Washington Bridge with red and orange flame. He looked out over his city, over their city. It saddened him beyond words to be there without her. He longed for her hand in his and the taste of her lips. Finally, he wondered, almost as a matter of fact, if at some point in the near future he might have to betray her.