Thursday, October 21, 2004

Chapter One - 3

"Come in, Mr. Bengolin, and close the door behind you." The little man in the thin grey suit motioned Larco towards the chair positioned precisely across from where he sat. He pointed with his pen, not bothering to look up as Larco approached. Larco took his seat and waited quietly as the pen scratched noisily across the sheet of paper spread across the desk.

The most reliable tools of subterfuge were thousands of years old, Larco thought. This man didn't trust the electronic devices of the world that surrounded him.

The room was furnished in dark wood panelling, thick plum carpet, plants and real leather, you could feel the weight of it all. And smell the plants. There were no VR projectors here.

That's it, Larco decided to himself. You can't smell anything on Mars, that's what's wrong with the damn VR projections. They haven't programmed them for smell.

TAFT’s headquarters rose several stories above the surface of the planet. Larco looked outside the tall windows that rose behind the man at the desk and saw the ore crawlers coming in from the north, pulling their long loads across the frozen ground towards the distant blackened concrete of the space shuttle pads.

"I'm Schiller, Mr. Bengolin. Welcome to the Station," the man finally said, fixing Larco with his small dark eyes. He did not wear a wrap.

"We have a very important job for you, Mr. Bengolin. A job that entails some risk, I'm afraid. Are you interested?"

Larco knew he had no choice in the matter. It was a senseless formality to have asked the question. But that was how things were done here. The careful formalities helped to give structure to a world that was always threatening to collapse into a personal nightmare. It was best to nudge people politely towards their assignments. He nodded quickly.

"Of course sir, I accept."

"Excellent. Well then. It's a courier job. You'll be taking a package back to Earth and passing it along to another agent. You've been chosen because of your anonymity and excellent field record. It could be a step up for you, if all goes well."

Larco was pleasantly surprised by this. He had never anticipated returning to Earth so soon. He almost smiled as he nodded again.

"This will not be a vacation, Mr. Bengolin," Schiller snapped. His eyes turned hard as little black buttons.

The door opened again. This time Schiller rose from his seat.

"Come in Doctor, come in. Is everything ready?"

"Yes, yes. I have it all here. It must be sent immediately, Schiller. It's too important to delay."

Larco turned in his chair to see an older man with an immaculately groomed head of shining white hair piled atop a thick pink face. He was dressed in expensively casual clothes, his wrap studded in the small gems the wealthy found de rigueur this year. He held a brief case sized metal security container out in front of him, his hands gripping the sides as he thrust it forward, offering it to the room.

"We don't want to raise suspicion, Doctor Brandt," Schiller said, ignoring the case for the moment. "He'll leave on the regular flight back to Earth. You can't change the departure time of a solar cruiser without people taking notice now, can you?"

"It should have been made to leave days ago. A find of this significance is beyond all measure. You people obviously have no idea of the importance of this or you would have agreed to send a veiled transmission to Earth immediately."

The doctors face was reddening now.

Schiller smiled thinly, his dark eyes, half-lidded, tilted up towards the ceiling.

"It will have to be studied more closely before we can decide how important it really is, won't it Doctor? No one man can know for sure now, can he now?" Schiller said evenly.

"You don't think I know the significance of an observable singularity growing on the edge of the galaxy? A hole through which Almighty God himself is staring us straight in the face! I'll tell you the significance of..."

"THAT WILL BE ENOUGH, DOCTOR!" Schiller barked the order with an authority that stunned both Larco and Brandt.

He looked to one and then the other of the two men, his face a tight mask of command.

"There is no need to involve Mr. Bengolin any more deeply in these matters than is necessary for the completion of his mission," he continued firmly. "Give him the case, Doctor."

Brandt pushed the case into Larco's upraised hands and turned away. It seemed that for a moment the relief of giving up his burden almost won over his great concern.

"The contents of this case must not fall into the wrong hands, Mr. Bengolin," Brandt finally said, a great weariness in his voice.

He took his wrap off to wipe the perspiration from his brow. His tired, waxy eyes protruded unfocused from the thin pink-edged lips of their sockets. Seldom exposed, they were not accustomed to hiding the truth from people. Larco could see real fear there in the darkness of his dilated pupils.

"This information could provide certain people with a power beyond your comprehension," Brandt's voice was almost lost in a whisper now as he turned his disturbing eyes towards Larco again.

"The world as we now know it is threatened by the existence of this phenomenen, Mr. Bengolin". He bent over and tapped a crooked finger against the case in Larco's hands.

"To unmask God himself...who would ever have thought it possible? It's unthinkable! Yet I believe it is possible! And if the unthinkable were to happen, Mr. Bengolin..." The doctor’s voice grew stronger as he swung around to face Schiller, the finger following, sweeping the room like a tiny scythe, now raised accusingly towards the little man behind the desk, "...the potential for destruction is almost limitless! That's why the information in this case must get back to Earth, so it can be stopped!"

The doctor stepped back again, turned and lowered his face as he put a hand on Larco's arm. His grip tightened as his dreadful eyes pleaded for understanding.

"You see then how important this is?"

Larco folded the metal security case in his big hands and looked up with great difficulty into the doctor's naked eyes, trying to read the terrible mystery that lay behind them.

"Of course, Doctor. I understand."

He didn't, of course. He wanted to ask about the hole, that had truly shaken him, but he thought better of it. Schiller would not take kindly to any enquiries, he felt sure. What the hell did he mean by God staring at us? Brandt had sounded convinced about that. Larco wanted to get off the planet as quickly as possible.

"Please step away, doctor," Schiller ordered.

Schiller came around from his desk and placed a length of smartsteel wire across Larco's sleeve cuff; the end curled around and joined back into itself seamlessly, forming a snug loop around his wrist. The other end was permanently fixed to the metal security case.

"Read this, Mr. Begolin, after I activate the restraint." He handed Larco a piece of paper and entered a command into the keypad on his desk. He nodded for him go ahead.

Larco read the words on the page and the smartsteel loop snapped open, slipped away from his wrist, and hung limply down the side of the case.

"Good, it works. You won't need to memorize the words, Mr. Bengolin. It works by voice recognition. Just tell it to open in your own way. It's the only way you can take the case off. Take it off only when you need to. Your voice and the voice of the man you are to meet are the only ones that can release that wire. You'll be met at Chicago spaceport. They'll pick you up on the field in a car. Take your wrap off before you approach them, Mr. Bengolin, we don't want any eavesdropping. And don't let anyone else touch that case! "

Schiller paused, letting it all sink in.

"You'll be put on board the Solar Cruiser first. We'll send you up in a company shuttle right away. Keep to your cabin and talk to no one. And Mr. Bengolin...any unauthorized tampering with the device will abort the mission." He dusted at an imaginary speck on his sleeve.

"And I do mean abort, Mr.Bengolin," he barely whispered, looking up into Larco's impassive face.

The gesture had not been lost on Larco.

"Do you have it all, Mr. Bengolin?" He was all fussy business again.

Larco nodded again.

Schiller put his head down, closing the open file on his desk and opening another larger one beside it.

"That will be all. A driver will be waiting for you outside."

He was dismissed with a perfunctory wave towards the door.

Dr. Brandt, his wrap still dangling from his hand, now stood quietly under one of the large windows behind Schiller's desk, staring up at the first evening star to appear over the eastern horizen. His head tilted slowly to one side like an inquisitive dog.

He did not see Larco leave.

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