Authors: E.R. Mason
Copyright 2015 by E.R. Mason
All rights reserved
Sam Thornton, PE PhD
Contact: [email protected]
All characters in this book are fictional
and any resemblance to persons living
or dead is purely coincidental
It’s never a good sign when they won’t tell you why they want you. You climb reluctantly into the vehicle provided only because you know running like hell will do absolutely no good.
It was a government shuttle, a particularly lavish one, the type usually reserved for diplomats accustomed to receiving perks they do not deserve. In my case, providing such a luxury commodity made me even more skeptical. When they want you to do something especially aggravating, they always send the best. They also devise candy-coated excuses carefully constructed that tell you nothing at all. It reminded me of the Farside joke where the dog is in the backseat of the car teasing his buddy out the window saying, “Ha ha ha, Biff. I’m going to the vet’s to get tutored.”
We hovered at 3,000 over the Potomac, in sight of Crystal City, waiting for clearance to put down on the Glenn building roof landing pad. The shuttle was designed expressly for comfort. The passenger area was a lounge complete with kitchenette, private dressing room and bath with shower. The door to the flight deck was transparent but with the push of a button could be electronically frosted for those times when knowing you were back there might upset the pilot. Two disinterested jocks were presently intending to bring us down through the beehive below.
There were windows all around, even in the floor. The world below was what it was. We were now in the dome age, the latest rage of competitive industrial development. Every important conglomerate had to have one, otherwise you just weren’t. Tropical foliage and swimming facilities in midwinter. Snow on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, followed by warm breezes with no sign of winter at all on New Year’s Day. The dense artificial landscape that for so long had symbolized the competition for tallest skyscraper with the most glass and balcony was now spotted quite frequently with clear and semi-frosted domes each enclosing several city blocks or more depending on a CFO’s willingness to glorify his boss and board of directors.
The city was abuzz with personal air vehicles and the ground-bound cruisers that still outnumbered them, all dashing about, each following along the prescribed air corridor or roadway, a mind boggling, moving tapestry of tiny lights and color. Almost directly below I could make out a PAV that had stalled in midair and was being towed by a flying tow truck; Sam’s 24 Hour Air Service, Lowest Rates Anywhere, We Do It All.
When our turn finally came, the shuttle drivers dropped us down too quickly, causing loose items around the cabin to momentarily float. It was a cowboy attempt to alarm the passenger, a reminder that his life was in their hands.
Cowboys like that don’t usually bother me. But, my 6-foot 2-inch frame does have quite a few decorations here and there as a result of my own common stupidity. My sun-washed sandy hair and deep brown tan are from too much beach, a complexion completely out of place in the fluorescent pale skin-tone office look of D.C. I had, at least, chosen to wear my only suit and tie, just to make others comfortable, certainly not me.
The Glenn building roof was a good deal more than a landing pad. The eastern side had tables with umbrellas for the brown bag lunch crowd. An open room nearby was filled with workout equipment. A hefty rail ran the circumference of the place for sightseers looking out over the ever-changing world. I went to the nearest edge and held to the rail to look out for a moment at the great city. The view reminded me that my good friend R.J. Smith would have had a running commentary had he come along. He is famous for his frequent contestations on the evils of technology and mankind’s dependence upon it. His loveable countenance bears quite a bit of similarity with that of Einstein’s, and his gold-red beard and discordant hairstyle seem to respond with expanding chaos the more agitated his rambling becomes. What was bothering me lately was that I seemed to be paying more attention to R.J.’s impromptu lectures and even agreeing with them to some extent. And now, watching the mass of civilization running hectically all around brought back the lyrics to an ancient song frequently selected by R.J., a song conjured into existence by someone from long gone and yet its truth far more apparent now then it ever had been.
“Us and them. And after all we’re only ordinary men.
Me, and you. God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.”
I remembered the name. It was somebody called Floyd. I knew nothing about him other than he seemed to have an uncanny talent for describing the state of the human condition.
Two shiny silver elevators waited nearby. Someone had thoughtfully placed a printed sign above them with a single word: “
.” Since that was the only way one could go, the message was obviously intended as one of philosophical persuasion. The doors slid open. A gentleman in a dark suit and matching sunglasses with a security badge hanging from his pocket held the door and motioned me in. On the ride down he clasped his hands at his waist, stared upward at nothing and did not speak. When the doors again opened to the third floor, “Suite 319, Commander,” was all he said. I stepped out. He did not.
It was a very spacious and well-decorated hallway. Planters, oils, and antique furniture along the walls. Suite 319 had no hardware of any kind on the gray metal door, only a call button on the wall beside it. Before I could reach for the button, it slid open to reveal a large reception area, an equally lavish room with an attractive woman sitting at a very long desk. Her blond hair was up, her makeup too heavy but applied with professional precision, her gray dress suit finely tailored. She smiled at me and waved me in.
“His instructions are for you to go right in,” she said merrily. “And he wanted you to take note that he did not make you wait.”
“Do I get to know to whom you are referring, dear lady?”
“Of course! The man through those double doors.” She pointed at the heavily engraved dark oak doors nearby and resumed her smile.
I placed both hands on her desk and leaned forward. “Why all the secrecy, doll?”
“The answers you seek lie beyond those doors, oh Great One,” she replied mysteriously, seeming to enjoy the game.
I gave up, went to the doors, took a last look at her, and pushed them open. The answer became immediately clear. There sat a familiar man behind a hideously plush desk, surrounded by an equally elaborate office. He wore a gray suit that had sparkles in it. The lapels were too large and turned up at the collar. The white silk shirt beneath it had gold stitching and was buttoned all the way up. He had thin light reddish eyebrows that turned up at the end, probably artificially induced to appear that way. There was the familiar narrow stare of gray eyes adding just the slightest bit of color to the pasty white face. Thin lips, small mouth, ears that stuck out just a tiny bit too much. It was Bernard Porre, senior advisor to the Global Space Initiative, my inescapable management nemesis. I hung my head and shook it.
“Ah, Commander Adrian Tarn! Slipped right into my well-laid trap again, haven’t you?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Please sit, let us reflect on old times.”
He gestured to a red cushioned high back chair that would have been appropriate for any well-maintained medieval castle. Begrudgingly, I plunked down into it, still shaking my head.
“My dear Commander, I’ve just now had the dubious fortuity to adjudge your recent sojourn to the Mu Arae Tolkien Minor sector. What illuminating reading it was!”
“Bernard, really, what do you want?”
“Oh please, first tell me. I must know. Did you really destroy an entire transport ship this time, just before altering the social development of a Paleolithic civilization on an undocumented planetoid? And did you then disguise yourself as a Sirenian lord and kidnap someone from the planet XiTau, a place we have not yet visited nor do we have diplomatic relations with? Could one man really have caused that much carnage on a single interstellar trip, Commander?”
“Bernard, once again, what do you want?”
“My, my! You may recall my daughter was finally certified for PAV flight on our last visit. Since that time there has been nothing but chaos on our local airways here. It has made me wonder if at some point in the past you had relations with my wife that I do not know about.”
“Bernard, it would be impossible for your wife and me to have anything at all in common.”
“You are an aberration to all reason and logic, Commander. I firmly believe GSI keeps sending you to me to remind me that life does not make sense.”
“Bernard, what do you want? Please!”
“Well surprisingly, we have a job that only you can do, Commander.”
“I bet you say that to all the guys, Bernard.”
“Defer your pessimism, Sir. You may actually enjoy this assignment!”
“I’m already not enjoying it, Bernard.”
“You may recall yet another infamous mission of yours that involved the starship Electra, do you not?”
“What about the Electra? How is she?”
“To quickly review, she set out fully manned and with equipment and stores necessary for a simple charting mission. You sir, brought her back in quite a disparaging condition with only a partial crew remaining.”
“You left some things out there, Bernard. But, what about the Electra?”
“The Electra has been refitted at Enuro over the past 12 months, making her the most advanced ship in Earth’s fleet. She’s ready to come home. GSI wants to give you a temporary Captain’s license so you can ferry her home.”
“Why? You mean why you? I asked that very question! You may recall, the fact that the Electra made it back to Earth at all made for spectacular headlines everywhere, Commander. Certain members of Congress who support Global Space enjoyed a good deal of notoriety from that successful return. They have impressed upon GSI that it would be in the interest of several agencies if the Electra’s return was publicized as much as possible. Since you happened to be the ranking officer credited with Electra’s return, they would like you to be at the helm on this trip as well.”
“This is a publicity stunt? This is all to get some big press?”
“As I’ve said, it could only be you.”
“Should I be waving a flag and saluting when we pull into space dock?”
“You will genuinely serve as Captain of a heavy cruiser; quite a feather in your cap, Commander. This is an affair many high-ranking government and agency officials feel is important to the future of Global Space. There will be quite a celebration waiting for the Electra’s return.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Mr. Smith has agreed to participate.”
“No way! R.J.’s at a mountain cabin in Lake Burton, Georgia. There’s no way to even contact him.”
“Actually he’s on one of our shuttles arriving back in Florida at this very moment.”
“There’s not going to be any way for me to wiggle out of this is there, Bernard?”
“Not this time, Mr. Tarn. Too many eyes on you. The Electra will be the flagship of our fleet now. She has innovations and capabilities like no one has ever seen before.”
“What happens after I get back?”
“That will be entirely up to you. New career choices will be available if you desire them; otherwise you may disappear back to Florida, no harm done. By the way, how is that little jewel of a starship we signed over to you?”
“You mean the Griffin; that little jewel of a starship you were forced to sign over to me, don’t you? It’s just fine. It’s in a 30-day instrumentation upgrade at the moment. It’s not available for any taxi rides to Enuro.”
“No need, Commander. Enuro has a luxury liner used for ferrying diplomats back and forth. We’ve arranged accommodations for the two of you. The ship will be here to fetch you in three days. One of our shuttles will meet you at KSC and provide you with direct boarding.”
“These visits are always so unexpected and enlightening, Bernard.”
“I have a bet with certain members of the GSI head council that this most simple of missions will conclude in utter chaos. I believe my chances are very, very good. You need to stop in on the 7
floor on your way out for a quick checkup and some inoculations. The shuttle will be waiting on the roof to take you back.”