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Wheels in the Sky


The 10,000


John Eider

Copyright 2018

Smashwords Edition

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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T-Minus 10 – The Announcement

Chapter 1 – Harmony Base

In the very near future…

Deep beneath the Earth, there was a thrum. Philip Bradford lay back on the bunk in his cabin and listened. He liked to think it was the sound of the planet itself, its molten core moving and rumbling, beneath the brittle skin of rock upon which all life lived. Or almost all life, for in three or four distant, far-flung places around the globe, tiny teams of researchers burrowed deep beneath the ground in the name of science.

In one of these ‘deep research’ stations, Bradford lived. He was not a scientist, not even a part of a research team. Instead, he had elected, for his own reasons, to live a mile beneath the ground, and had petitioned the Government of the United States to be allowed to do so.

So, Bradford lay back and listened to the thrum… and then it changed, barely perceptibly, to a different tone. Only someone who had been concentrating on it would have noticed; and it broke the illusion: the thrum had never been the Earth, which, that deep within the rock, was as silent as the tomb. It had been the generators and equipment of the scientists with whom Bradford shared his subterranean space – it was only a personal fantasy that the sound had been the groaning of the planet far within.

Years before, when he had been a young boy growing up in California, Bradford had been standing at the kitchen door of his family home, looking out at the Sacramento evening, when the sky had appeared to change its shade of blue. He’d been a sensitive boy, aware of objects and their fields; and that night, standing by the open door, seeing the sky change colour, he quite calmly wondered whether he had lost his mind?

Only over time did he think that all sorts of things could have altered his perception of the brightness of the sky: a light going on in a neighbour’s garden, a moment of light-headedness in himself, even blinking. Perception was a funny thing, and natural objects could be seen entirely differently for all kinds of reasons. But still, he had not forgotten that night: it acted as a totem of his fallibility, a reminder that our perception of nature could not be relied upon, and that his mind’s coherence was far from certain – he could lose it as easily as a million others had lost theirs.

And Bradford remembered that boyhood sensation now, now that the thrum had changed.

He had already been distracted from his writing that morning, hence why he had gone for a lie down. Now he hadn't typed a word for two hours, and had made it through to lunch time. Lunch was good, because it was a justifiable break – no writer could be criticised for needing to eat. Though Bradford knew it was a ruse, that he was looking for any reason not to write, and that ‘deep down’ (he chuckled at his own internal joke) he was verging on a crisis.

He remembered so clearly the first time he had come down to the base. He had seen it featured on the television news – scientists beavering away a mile below – and it had struck him as something entirely new to his experience. It made him sit up in excitement; and as a man in his fifties who had travelled and seen the world, there was not much left that could do that.

Between his novels, he also wrote occasional pieces for a certain broadsheet paper, The Herald, and he reported his discovery to his Editor eagerly,

‘They’re building an underground science base,’ he had declaimed over the telephone. ‘It’s the only place on Earth – or under the Earth – that they can find a certain type of particle, one that can pass through any matter. All the normal particles are blocked by the wall of rock around them, you see. It only leaves the one particle they’re interested in; and once they find it, then there could be all sorts of scientific breakthroughs.

‘The Government is spending billions on it, and I bet the public hardly even know it’s there! And it’s not just that – it’s the thing itself, the fact of it, of what it must be like to work and live so far beneath the ground. You have to get me down there.’

The Editor had agreed; and true to his word, a pass with Bradford’s name on it was soon waiting at the newspaper offices. Bradford couldn’t wait.

Like a boy running eagerly towards a funfair ride, it was left to those around him to call him back and worry for his safety,

‘A mile beneath the ground, you say?’ ‘What if the lift breaks?’ ‘What if you get crushed?’

But he waved these fears away, even goaded his friends with sarcastic responses,

‘Well, I could be crushed to death in someone’s cellar tomorrow if the building fell on top of me, you can’t be any more crushed the further down you go.’

He didn’t care if they were worried, he laughed it off – he was as high as a kite with excitement for his visit.

He travelled there alone. His flight from Los Angeles brought him into Lincoln, Nebraska. From there, a much smaller plane arrived at a distant rural airport; and then he was driven for five hours in the base’s supply truck,

‘You a scientist then?’ asked the driver.

‘No, I’m a writer. I’m covering the base for The Herald.’

‘You ever been underground before?’

‘No, you?’ Bradford’s own question to the driver had struck him as stupid the moment it left his lips – after all, here was a man who attended the base daily. But his answer caught Bradford off guard,

‘Me, underground? Nah, you wouldn’t catch me down there. I leave my goods at the door, and get off out of there,’ he laughed. ‘I’m not risking my life in some cage lift. I’ve got a wife and kids to get home for. You got any yourself?’

‘No,’ answered Bradford, and turned his gaze to the white-blown landscape they were passing through in the huge Ford truck. The air had been chill that day, as though the sky were emptying and blowing grey dust over the sparse grass and fenceposts.

‘How long till we get there?’ he asked.

It would be several more hours.

Chapter 2 – The Rock

Once arriving at the base, there was a sense of apparent anti-climax. The upmost part of world’s most advanced science centre was barely distinguishable from any local farm warehouse: oblong, featureless, blown by that same grey dust.

Bradford was greeted, not by a welcoming committee, but by the regular technician meeting the supply truck.

After greeting Bradford, he noticed his guest’s non-plussed expression,

‘It’s not much to look at, is it?’ he laughed at the visitor’s face. ‘And it’s not very much more glamorous “downstairs”,’ as Bradford would get used to people terming the base itself.

Bradford struggled for his words,

‘But that isn’t the point, is it? It’s not what the base looks like. It’s the fact of it, the geography, the distance below.’

The technician smiled, which Bradford took to show a shared understanding.

Other men appeared by the truck to take the supplies in, and the driver left as swiftly as intended. Bradford, ever the sentimentalist, even waved him goodbye.

‘Don’t worry,’ laughed the chipper technician. ‘He’ll be driving you back home tomorrow.’

Once inside the warehouse, Bradford was issued with a hard hat with attached ear protectors, and some basic instructions, which he laughed off,

‘Keep your hands inside the car, I know!’

The lift itself was a cube cage some three yards square. Squeezing in beside the cling-wrapped pallets and crates, the men began their descent.

It was in that ‘cage lift’ that Bradford felt his first fear. It wasn’t the weight of the rocks they were passing through that fazed him, their ‘instant crushability’, as he would write it in his subsequent article. It was that, as the open platform descended through the unsheathed chasm, for minute after slow minute, Bradford saw the eons and millennia of human existence… forget that, of the Earth’s existence, rolling past him in reverse.

He wondered: before the shaft had been cut for the long-exhausted silver mine, whose space the base now occupied, when had been the last time that any creature’s eyes had laid sight upon the ground they were, at each second, intersecting?

The technician must have mistaken Bradford’s awe for apprehension, and sought to break the monotony,

‘So, you’ll be writing on the research?’

Bradford paused, before answering,

‘I’m not so scientific, more creative.’

The guide laughed again, ‘You’re a “creative” one all right.’

Bradford was reminded that, to many people, that word was not always a compliment. The descent went on for many minutes, and didn’t speed up throughout.

‘Is it as quick coming back up?’ he asked sarcastically.

‘Just about. If someone has a panic attack down there, then the endless ascent can make it worse – we have to knock them out. Sedate them, you know? I don’t mean literally!’

‘That’s reassuring,’ uttered Bradford, as he thought of seeing dinosaur skulls leering out at him from the passing strata.

Thankfully, once they found the floor of the shaft, he didn’t instantly require to see the open air again. Instead, they calmly opened the gates and stepped out into the strangest environment.

Bradford’s first words were, ‘There is no sky.’

The technician laughed, ‘The main chamber can seem like that, can’t it. The arc lights point down, not up, so you can’t see the ceiling.’

‘And what is the ceiling?’

‘Unfinished rock. This was a working space – anything the miners didn’t need to smooth off, they didn’t.’

What the huge lamps did show seemed like an outdoor scene on a rocky outcrop at night; and also like some weird illuminated crime scene in an industrial complex: self-assembled oblong cabins, in singles and multiples, piled up on top of each other, in some places three high; buzzing generators surrounded by reams of heavy cables; and other ‘rooms’ that resembled the Apollo landing craft, metallic in construction, fitted with riveted portholes of thick clear plastic, and clad in golden foil.

‘You don’t want to go near those,’ he was instructed.

‘Top secret, eh?’ asked Bradford.

‘No, you’re just as likely to get an electric shock as to freeze your hand solid in liquid nitrogen.’

‘So, they are your famous experiments?’

‘Some of them, though not the big dogs. They’re buried even further away along the old mine shafts.’

‘That makes sense,’ mused Bradford, ‘if the purpose is to have the least disturbance possible.’

‘You really get this, don’t you?’ marvelled the technician.

‘And others don’t?’

‘Between you and me, we’ve had politicians down here, checking up on where their funding’s being spent, who haven’t known one end of a Bunsen burner from the other.’

He concluded, ‘But you seem to understand the need for isolation.’

The technician didn’t mean the words in the way that Bradford took them, but he was not to forget them.

Chapter 3 – The Decision

The rest of the underground visit passed by in a mood of beguiled excitement and a blur of explanations and introductions. Bradford even had one of his books presented to him to be signed. He ate with the staff, and slept alone in a visitors’ dormitory, placed spookily away from the main hall along a barely lit shaft.

Along that narrow tunnel the ceiling was lower than in the main area, only just above his head, for he was quite tall. And Bradford found he wasn’t scared – lying in his bed, he knew that just outside the dimensions of his small white man-made chamber, the rock was there, surrounding him, cosseting him.

Before sleep, alone in the tunnel, with the station almost silent, he stepped out through the door to stand on the ancient strata in his bare feet. He touched the natural wall beside him, and looked up those few inches to the tapered roof. He found that, even closed in like that, he felt no fear of the rock falling, or of him being crushed or, perhaps worse, being trapped down there alive – why should he fear? The old miners had known what they were doing. If the roof was going to fall, it would have done so many years ago.

In the Earth’s crust all around him he saw not something heavy and about to break, but instead the oldest thing that he had ever known. The plates hadn’t moved for millennia, and he had a total certainty that they weren’t about to do so now.

He went back inside his flimsy plastic chamber and lay down, and it was the best night’s sleep he could remember.

The next morning, eating breakfast in the largest cabin, with everyone sitting along two trestle tables, he had made up his mind. The previous day he had been mostly talking with the younger staff, recording their enthusiasm. The chiefs had been meeting in one of the offices for most of the afternoon. Though it was one of those to whom he would need to speak now.

He looked around for his guide from the previous day, then went over and asked,

‘Morning, so I’m off soon but I haven’t spoken to any of your senior scientists yet.’

‘Well, our Director’s not here this week – she spends half her time up-top. But you can speak to our Research Lead. That’s him there.’

The conversation took two minutes at the breakfast table, as the heavy-set man munched through a tomato and egg toasted sandwich. After mouth-full introductions, Bradford made his pitch, perhaps the last brave thing he would do for a while,

‘Sir, you’ve clearly got the space down here, and the quiet is a Godsend for a writer. I won’t be cut off from the world – you have cables running up to ground, you have the Internet, you have food brought down each day. And, if I could keep that room along the tunnel, then I can’t imagine the books I could write.’

By now, the listener had finished his mouthful, and asked,

‘But, wouldn’t it be lonely if you’re not used to it?’

‘I’d have food, a roof, my laptop. Some would say a writer doesn’t, indeed shouldn’t, need anything else.’

‘Well,’ pondered the Research Lead, before resuming his sandwich, ‘I’ll have to check with the Director.’

Bradford’s Herald article was a huge success, though friends were worried at his follow-up plan, asking,

‘But how long for?’

‘Three months; six.’

‘All that time underground?’

‘But I can’t tell you how restful it is. And after these past couple of years…’

‘I know, with Martha and little Jack.’

‘I’ve hardly written a thing. This could get me back on track.’

‘But,’ the friend implored, ‘aren’t you going to miss people? Aren’t they going to miss you?’

Bradford pondered, before finding the words to say what he hadn’t yet said out loud to himself,

‘Maybe if I still had a wife… though that was nearly three years ago now; and as for Jack, well, I expect I’ll see as little of him living underground as I do in LA.’

‘I get it.’

‘And I’ll be on email, and you can call. And you can always come and visit!’

The friend did not appreciate this last remark, but at least it broke the mood before they hugged and parted.

And so it was done. A week later, Bradford was back on the plane to Nebraska; back on the supplies delivery truck, back on the endless elevator, and back to sleeping soundly for the first time in years.

Chapter 4 – News of the Ten-Thousand

Eight months on, and Bradford sat down for lunch.

‘How’s The Mole?’ asked one of the others at the canteen table.

‘Distracted,’ he answered.

After so many months, they were getting well used to each other.

‘Well, this will get your attention.’

Although there was a Wi-Fi hotspot within the underground base, the print-sheet daily papers that came down with their supplies were a physical reminder of ‘life upstairs’. Bradford read its headline, as he did most days, but rarely with such electric enthusiasm:


‘What is this?’ he asked his lunch companion, a scientist at the base.

‘Haven’t you been following the story?’

‘Maybe the bunny hasn’t been taking the papers down the rabbit hole to him?’ joked someone, referring to Bradford’s quiet nook off the main chamber.

‘What he means,’ interrupted a friendlier voice, giving the previous speaker a stern look, ‘is that perhaps the story hadn’t reached far beyond the scientific journals before this week.’

The friendly voice was Edward Ferrarin PhD, astrophysicist and researcher into the gravitational echoes of the early universe. Several of the gold-clad machines were expressly his. He also played a mean hand of Texas hold ‘em, though didn’t possess the granite visage to really push his advantage home around the card table. This was what Bradford liked best about his new-found friend: that, for all his talents, he was still too soft for the competitive world – he had to find other ways to get on.

The conversation, though, was passing Bradford by.

‘Another station?’ he asked rhetorically. In a sudden mix of emotions, he pushed the story away without hardly reading it. ‘I’m sorry, Ted. This might turn on you techies in your line of work, but I think the rest of us know what we’re getting out of space by now: weird ant experiments, a few TV satellites getting fixed, astronauts cartwheeling in Zero G listening to Bob Marley. I wasn’t part of the Apollo generation, I’ve never been excited by space.’

Ted just looked at Bradford in comedy contempt, but answered in a laughing voice,

‘You haven’t read the story at all, have you. This isn’t just any station, it’s “The Station”. The Big One.’

‘How big?’

‘Ten thousand people, big.’

Bradford was the boy again, staring out into space through the mile of rock above him. Only now it wasn’t changing shades of deep blue, instead there was a little gleaming light crossing the night sky in a silent arc.

‘I lied earlier. I loved space.’

‘As did we all,’ said Ted, regaining faith in his friend.

‘I lost it, though, when it became so reduced, when we knew we wouldn’t all be rocketing around Mars and living on Venus. We even retired the Space Shuttle. And there’s just a handful of men alive who’ve walked on the Moon.’

‘Well, this could be it, Bradford.’

The pair ate in silence, each thinking furiously. Bradford looked up and down the trestle table, knowing that every one of them was thinking the same thing – how do I get up there?

The cautious look on Ted’s face suggested that the thought had occurred to him too. After they had finished, even before they’d had a second cup of coffee, he ushered Bradford around a corner in the rock, and whispered,

‘Listen, Brad, you’ve only just seen the story, but I’ve been thinking about it all morning.’

‘And there was I thinking you had the world’s most complex machinery to keep your eye on.’

‘Not any more, not if they build this thing.’ Ted stabbed a finger at the paper he hadn’t been able to let go of, taking it everywhere with him. He gestured to the base around them, ‘All this will seem like a Radio Shack kiddies’ science kit once Adam’s launched.’


‘That’s a suggestion that’s been made for the name: a new start, the Garden of Eden. It’s going to be full of vegetation, a floating hot house.’

‘My, my.’

‘And it will be a fantastic opportunity for science,’ continued Ted. ‘The trouble is, the expectation will be matched by demand. Being an astronaut has been a minority pursuit up till now, with only the very best believing they had a chance. There’s been a few hundred of them ever – you’ve more chance of winning Olympic gold. Now, every Tom, Dick and Harry will fancy their chances of getting among a catchment of ten thousand!’

‘The trouble also,’ added Bradford, ‘is that there are still well over ten thousand exceptional people on Earth. Though they’ll need your skills, Ted, that’s a given. Don’t you go worrying about that.’

But Ted just looked at Bradford, before asking,

‘Really? You’re going to make this about me? As if you’re not every bit as desperate to get up there yourself?’

‘But… what hope for a washed-up writer who hasn’t had a hit for years?’

Ted nearly gagged, before blurting,

‘Are you joking? Your piece about the base has increased our Internet traffic by a factor of a thousand, and requests to visit have sky-rocketed.’

‘But that’s about you guys, not me – I only wrote what I saw.’

‘And you conveyed your enthusiasm, what writer can do more than that?’

Ted tried a new tack,

‘Bradford, don’t you read your own press?’ (The look on his face clearly suggested he didn’t.) ‘You’re a cultural icon, Bradford: the world-famous author who chose to forsake that world and live underground.’

‘And do they know that this “world-famous author” can barely write a word these days?’

‘Well, maybe that’s what eight months underground can do to you? You know that the rest of us are limited to two weeks at a stretch? There’s a thriving town out by the airport – bars, hotels where staff spend their off-weeks, people jetting in and out for family trips. There’s a crèche up there, wives and husbands. We have a whale of a time.

‘You should come up-top, Bradford.’ But then some small frustration snapped in Ted, ‘Ah, but then you’d lose your mystique, your Subterranean Ennui. Isn’t it now all about how long you can bear it down here without breaking?’

‘That’s not it. That’s not it at all.’ And Bradford’s face displayed a fear he hadn’t shared, not even to Ted.

Chapter 5 – The Archetypal American Family

Bobby made his way over to his Uncle Thomas’s. He only lived along the street, and in their quiet suburb there was hardly any traffic. He was clutching the newspaper, and burst in… to find the old man crying.

Bobby was too young to understand, only ten, though that felt very old for one so young. He didn’t know how to respond, so he only offered, quietly and confusedly, the line he had prepared to give much more excitedly,

‘Thomas, Thomas, it’s in the paper, everything you said. They’re going into space!’

But all the old man said was, ‘Can you ask your mother if there’s room for me at dinner?’

This excited Bobby, as it meant that he would get to spend the evening with his favourite person.

At the door as he left, Bobby paused though, confused by that point. He asked Thomas,

‘But why do you always ask, Thomas? You know Mom always lets you come.’

And the old man answered, ‘Common courtesy, Bobby, your mother deserves no less.’

Thomas wasn’t related to the family; but in the absence of a grandparent within a hundred miles, he had become a de facto Granddad to the little boy. He would wow Bobby with models of planes and spaceships and rocket cars. He would bring out old books with yellow, crackling covers; and rolled-up blueprints in long tubes, plans for homes and offices and railroad stations that were never built.

‘This is what they thought the future would look like,’ he would explain. Which confused Bobby, as the buildings in the pictures seemed so much more exciting than those he saw on visits into town; and the cars, with their rocket-engines and bubble-top canopies and candy colour paint-jobs could easily have out-raced the boring cubes and oblongs that he saw out of his back window when he travelled with his parents on the freeway. The cars in Thomas’s pictures looked like they were going at one-hundred miles an hour even standing still.

‘People were excited back then,’ the old man would say. ‘There was something new to aim for.’

And Bobby was too young to question where the models and the drawings came from, or why someone would have kept them for so long, or how lucky he was to have Thomas to show them to him. It could not occur to one so young that not every boy had a family friend with all this interesting stuff.

‘They’re going to build it in a decade,’ said Bobby’s father that evening after they had eaten.

‘Kennedy’s promise,’ remarked Thomas, and the adults shared a silence of deep acknowledgement.

‘You can go in it, Dad!’ shouted Bobby.

To which the thirty-something laughed,

‘By the time that thing’s built I’ll be ready for my rocking chair.’

‘But you said ten years,’ asked the confused boy.

‘On Government contracts? – more like twenty-five,’ and the men snickered. His mother just gave them a look.

‘Lazy workmen, more like,’ she said, getting up to collect the plates. ‘Thank Goodness half the world can get a job done. Tell a women a baby’s coming in nine months, and she can’t push that deadline back.’

To Bobby, this sounded a little like his mother had been angry. Though the others didn’t respond as such; and a moment later, when Thomas offered to help her with the plates, she smiled kindly as she told him to, ‘Stay right there, you’re our guest.’

In his young mind, Bobby was reminded of something he had heard on TV and which he had been trying to apply to his parent’s behaviour. In his most upright voice, he asked,

‘Mom, was that a… joke?’

All three adults burst out laughing,

‘Look at your serious little face,’ his mother remarked, leaning down to him. ‘Come on and help me cut the pie.’

T-Minus 7 – Three Years Later

Chapter 6 – Officer Lato

Officer Lato was getting tired of it now. After a morning of escorting criminals in and out of the town courthouse, he had pulled up beside the advertising hoarding on Route Twenty in his Dodge police cruiser, and was hoping for a peaceful hour – Mayweather, Texas could look after itself awhile.

Had he wanted the action of a police chase, he would have parked up behind the advertisement, and so caught the drivers out as they unknowingly sped past him; but today he thought the sight of the Black and White upon the crest of the hill would be deterrent enough.

His partner, Thompson, was sitting beside him – they weren’t even bothering with the speed gun yet – give the drivers an hour to get used to their presence and see if any got cocky.

Already, though, the radio receiver was crackling with the familiar female voice of their dispatcher,

‘Officers requested at the new factory plant. Please copy. Officers requested…’

‘That’s just along Twenty,’ offered Thompson needlessly. They all knew where the town’s current hot spot was situated – they had been called out there often enough in recent months.

‘Ask her what’s up,’ instructed Lato, still reclining in his seat for the time being.

‘This is Thompson, what’s happening?’

‘Hello, Officer. Good to hear from you,’ the dispatcher offered mordantly. ‘The usual: fifteen or so kids outside the gates.’

‘Where’s Hernandez?’ asked Thompson. ‘He can handle that.’

‘There’s been an injury, and a car window shattered, so the caller said.’

‘That’s new,’ said Lato, finally rousing himself. ‘Tell her we’re on our way.’

Mayweather was not a large town, though it had doubled in size those past three years. A parcel of land had been bought up by the Government, and a factory soon established. There was nothing too unusual in that – Mayweather’s nearest neighbour had a plant producing concrete for the highways, and the town next along made farm machinery. Though, after that, the similarities ended.

As they drove, Thompson said the thing he always said when they headed to that same destination,

‘The place is secretive though, isn’t it?’

‘No more so than anywhere that wants to keep snoopers’ noses out.’

‘But no-one comes in or out of there…’

‘Well, they must have done so this time if a car got smashed.’

‘…except for those black buses. Its workers sleep within the grounds, they say. No one knows them locally. Even the guys who constructed it were bussed in…’

Lato just smiled and continued his driving.

‘…and now we have another demonstration: we don’t know who, we don’t know why.’

‘Well, we can guess.’

‘But we shouldn’t have to guess, should we. We’re the police, they should tell us these things.’

Lato couldn’t help but enjoy his colleague’s grumping.

‘You know,’ concluded Thompson, who Lato thought only got really interesting when he was angry, ‘It would help us out a mighty lot if they even told us what they were making there.’

‘We know what they’re making there,’ said Lato, as he drove at fair speed along the dead-straight road. ‘Those protestors tell us, if no one else does.’

The high wire fencing soon approached, and Lato pulled over.

‘Nah, they’re just guessing,’ said Thompson, as the men got out a distance away and observed the scene a moment. ‘And who believes this space stuff anyway?’

Lato looked at the same placards with the same slogans he had been seeing more and more since the big announcement of the plant being built:




If the top two gave the hint as to what the plant was involved in, then the third suggested what the protestors’ beef was with the whole endeavour.

The two rows of razor wire ran for a mile alongside the empty road, a stretch of tarmac along which, Lato imagined, little else of note had ever occurred. A hundred yards back behind the wire, shivering under heat-haze, were the slate-grey, featureless buildings and warehouses where the action happened – whatever that action was, exactly. So far, not even the most fervent of protestors had attempted to break through to these. And just as well, as Lato didn’t think they’d get very far.

The officers began to walk toward the gate. The old familiar sight fulfilled itself as they neared: the ragtag gang of protestors, in their mix of colourful slogan shirts, combat shorts, and sometimes home-made costumes: there was only one green alien that day, though at least three Apollo-era astronauts in bubble-helmets.

‘How the hell are they surviving in this sun?’ asked Thompson, with a curse in his voice.

‘Never underestimate a true believer,’ answered Lato with a smirk in his.

Behind the disordered band were the two huts just within the wire that formed the gateposts; and beside them the same two large men, always visible, with their rifles, also always visible.

Something was different this time, though. Under the baking sun, a car’s bodywork gleamed. It seemed to be stuck between the outer and inner-rows of cutthroat chicken-wire, and between the two huts. As the officers neared, they saw the damage,

‘It’s not only the windscreen,’ said Thompson, suddenly steeling himself.

‘The side windows have gone,’ grimaced Lato, ‘and the bodywork’s wrecked.’

‘A Lincoln Town Car,’ said Thompson. ‘They’re often armoured… if we are talking Government…’

Parking a distance away had been a tactic to get an overview, before the officers themselves were mobbed. Now that opportunity was over, and the men sped up.

‘Well, you know what the Sheriff always says…’ began Lato.

‘That every placard is a two-by-four in disguise?’

‘You’ve learnt well, my boy. Hands on holsters.’

The two groups hit at speed, though only to shout at each other. A stern elderly couple were usually present among the younger protestors, apparently the organisers, though this time only the wife was stood there. Lato looked quickly, and saw her husband sat lolling in the sun, resting against the wire, holding his hand to his bloodied head.

‘Officer, officer,’ called the woman. ‘Look what they did!’

But Lato pushed forward to the fence, to shout at the nearest man behind it.

‘Hey, guard! Has an ambulance been called?’

‘Sir, our client’s car was damaged as he tried to leave. We need you to clear the gates so he can…’

‘There’s an old man down here. Has an ambulance been called?’

‘Sir, we need you to…’

‘Call an ambulance, now!’

‘Sir, we’re bringing a car through. We need you to clear the gates.’

Through the wire, Lato fixed the guard in his gaze, and roared,

‘You call an ambulance now, or I swear, I’m coming through this wire and arresting you. And you try stopping me like you stopped him,’ he pointed to the man on the ground, ‘and I’ll put you in the County Hospital before I put you in the cells.’

Chapter 7 – Demo

The guard retreated to his hut, without a word or gesture. Thompson leaned in to whisper,

‘Boss, why? You know I’d call it in on my radio.’ (Which he already had.)

Lato glared, ‘Because I wanted to see him do it.’

The conclusion to the stand-off had brought a great cheer and roar from the protestors; but the scene was still volatile. Lato hadn’t finished yet. As Thompson checked up on the injured man, Lato looked around for the wife; though she found him first, exclaiming,

‘Officer, officer. You see what they’ve done? We want them arrested. They got out of that car and they beat him.’

Lato fixed her in a glare only slightly less severe than that which he had given the guard,

‘Madam, and what was your husband doing vandalising… vandalising the car in the first place?’

Though she didn’t answer. She turned to anyone who’d listen, declaring, ‘We’ve got proof. We know what they did.’

Lato looked around himself. Thompson, his attention diverted from the old man, was at that moment holding back two street fighters attempting to make their point known, though he suspected that neither would succeed. And they weren’t the only ones in the crowd who might be handy in a fight.

Lato turned back to the woman, turning her to him by her shoulders. He whispered,

‘You’re the ring leaders here, right? You and your husband? You organised this? The rest of them are just narked off college kids, give them anything to shout about and they’re happy; but for you pair, it’s political.’

‘Well, isn’t it political? What they’re doing here?’

‘We don’t know what they’re doing here, no one does!’

But she only raised her eyebrows at the officer’s naivety. She spoke then in a tone that shocked him, almost spitting,

‘Get that blue out of your eyes, officer. You know what they’re doing, everyone does. Look up “Sigmundsonn”, see what they make around the world: gyroscopes, precision instruments. So, what need has anyone of those things around here, except…’ she pointed up at the clear blue sky.

‘And the issue isn’t Government,’ she sneered, ‘it isn’t even corporations making billions.’ She leant in so close that Lato could feel the moisture of her breath, as she almost pleaded, ‘It’s the billionaires!’

Lato was on the back foot now – what was all this? He should have followed the rumours, he should have looked the company up before now, it was true. Instead, he still knew nothing about them. But right now, the situation needed solving.

‘Oh, don’t worry, officer,’ continued the woman. ‘We’ve got it all on film. You missed quite a fight,’ she said with relish. Lato looked up to see two of the costumed spacemen. Upon closer inspection, their uniforms were ripped, and one was leaning decidedly groggily.

‘Officer,’ repeated a flat voice through the fence. ‘We’re bringing a car through, we need you to clear the gates…’

Thompson bumped against Lato, as his two protestors proved their rowdiness…

Elsewhere, a chant started up…

A girl in blue jeans and pink shirt was spinning around to get it all on camera…

The guard at the gatepost implored him with his eyes…

The witch-like woman gave him a look that made the air between them curdle…

Beneath the beating sun, it was in danger of becoming too much. Lato breathed, and thought…

A thing the Sheriff had always taught him was: to take a moment out in the eye of the storm. ‘Don’t let yourself be caught up in effects,’ he’d say. ‘Arrest a dozen people, and what have you achieved? Nothing, they’ll just be more narked the next week. Take a moment, find the cause.’

Lato’s father hadn’t thought his son was very bright, barely clever enough for the simplest uniformed duty. He had fulfilled his father’s slim expectations in early jobs; until he found himself, in every sense, at Police Academy. At last he had found a role in which he could excel. He had become a police officer, his proudest achievement, even become a mentor to young officers. And now, here he was, thinking laterally in the middle of a street fight.

He remembered the Sheriff’s words, and considered to himself: the cause of the disturbance wasn’t the factory, or what they did there, not even that their guards had hit out at an old man. The cause was what had prompted the protestors to attack the car.

Most of the crowd had a temper, Lato could see, but they had kept it under check in the demonstrations up till then. What was different that day?

‘Officer, officer,’ called someone, tugging at his shoulder…

Elsewhere, an ambulance’s sirens could just be heard…

Suddenly he saw it. He spoke quietly to the woman,

‘You have a camera here today. You’re not just protesting, that hasn’t made a difference in all the months you’ve been coming here. You wanted propaganda. You wanted film of them attacking you; and an old man to boot. You’ve got all these young fellows here, and your husband went in first?’ Lato gave a look of disgust, as the woman’s confidence momentarily wavered.

He concluded, ‘Well, you can have your film – that’s your business. But, you have your people step back right now, or we take that camera and we smash the hard drive.’

With barely an instruction, the woman gave a couple of nods… and the protestors parted like the Red Sea for Moses. A new blacked-out Lincoln rumbled up to the barrier, and the occupants quickly switched from the damaged one. Moments later, the hesitant guards opened the electric gates, and the car trundled past with barely a whisper.

‘Now, gather up,’ instructed Lato. ‘You’re finished for the day.’ And the protestors were quite happy to oblige. The ambulance passed the Lincoln on the road as it arrived, and soon the old man was taken away also.

As his wife climbed up into the back of the white and orange vehicle to travel with her husband, she gave Lato a smug look, as if to say, ‘I knew you were on our side.’

Lato looked away.

‘So, what was all that about?’ asked Thompson afterwards.

‘You didn’t lose faith in me, did you?’ asked Lato, returned to his usually dry self.

‘Never; though you took a minute to decide what to do.’

‘You had your money on me calling in the National Guard?’

‘I’m glad you didn’t. These idiots would have had their case all over the news.’

‘You picked up on that too? Come on, we’ve earned our couple of hours on traffic duty.’

It didn’t make sense to him, though.

That evening, Lato did look up Sigmundsonn Corp. on his son’s computer.

‘The “Corp.” comes from their incorporation into American law,’ he read out loud, ‘“thus allowing them to operate on US soil and bid for Government contracts.”’

‘What are you reading?’ asked his wife, amazed, as she came into the room. There was a ‘ball game about to start, and she brought a bowl of nachos which she placed on the table before them.

‘It’s those protestors today,’ he answered. ‘They’ve got me thinking.’

‘What about?’

‘About the new plant along the road, what they’re doing there, who’s in charge.’

‘Who is in charge?’

‘I don’t know! But they said something about “Billionaires”.’

‘Well, you’ve got to be rich, haven’t you, to own a place that big.’

He stayed silent in thought, which wasn’t like him.

‘Why today though?’ she said kindly. ‘You’ve been breaking up demos outside there for months now.’

‘But it was so weird there today, love. There was something going on.’

‘You usually say protestors are all hot air.’

‘Yeah, usually they are. Which makes it annoying that I think they might be on to something this time.’

Chapter 8 – Meeting with the Director

‘You know, Bradford, when you first requested to come down here to do your writing, it never occurred to me that you’d never leave.’

The Director of Harmony Base was a genial woman. She sat behind the desk in her bright white ‘inside’ room that, with its modern professional appearance, and but for its lack of windows, could have been anywhere on the surface of the Earth.

Bradford thought hard, before answering her question,

‘I can’t honestly tell you that that was my original intention.’

‘But, looking at your psych reports, then the warning signs were there four years ago.’

‘But what can a doctor tell you, really?’

‘In your case, quite a lot!’ She then recited certain lines that she had highlighted from the report,

‘“The subject displays a tendency to withdraw to places of safety rather than to explore new horizons”, “They display a nervousness surrounding everyday personal interactions, that has increased throughout their time at Harmony Base,” and, “While below the Earth, the subject has suffered a breakdown of their abilities to function in a normalised interactive human environment. However stressful they may have found life above-ground, and however welcoming a ‘hidey-hole’ (their phrase) the Base may have represented to them, prolonged isolation from those trigger-factors is only eroding such skills in these areas as they already possessed.”

‘He goes on, “The analogy might be that of a person squinting from the sun, finding shadow to hide in, but the light then appearing even brighter when they eventually emerge from that shade; or of someone finding conversation too quick to follow, so withdrawing from it, though only slowing down further the longer that they spend in silence.”

‘Heavy stuff, Bradford, I’m sure you’ll agree.’

She paused before reading the conclusion in full,

‘“The subject has used Harmony Base as an artistic retreat of sorts, and as a subject for their writing in itself – their early pieces submitted to the Herald newspaper make for fascinating reading. However, they have also, perhaps above and beyond all other purposes, used the Base as a means to avoid the common currency of human relationships and face-to-face meetings.

‘“Were I dealing with a person so isolated above-ground, I would immediately prescribe a routine of weekly therapy, along with home-visits by someone sent to accompany them to those sessions. The travel would prove a daunting challenge to such a subject – leaving their place of safety to get to the sessions would require this support, and would be a part of the therapy in itself.

‘“However, in the case of someone now effectively trapped hundreds of metres below ground, and out of the reach of regular medical attention, then the situation is made that much more acute. The physical distance proves both a false-reassurance to the subject, and a barrier that might require physical force to help them overcome.

‘“After nearly four years below ground, the urgency of the situation cannot be overstated, and cannot be deflected by the urbane offhand manner and witty ripostes of the subject. There is a very real risk, if the subject is allowed to decide upon their own course of action going forwards, of them choosing never to leave Harmony Base and, indeed, to remain below ground until their death.”’

The Base Director gasped after reading it all.

‘“Until their death,”’ she repeated. ‘In other words,’ she summarised, ‘you’re not talking your way out of this one, Mister!’

Bradford was stunned, he said nothing till asked.

‘So, what do you make of all that?’

‘As I say, what can doctors tell you?’

‘Gah! Try harder.’

‘That I’ve waited my whole life for someone to find me so interesting.’

‘It’s not interest!’ the Director almost shouted. ‘He’s scared you’re going to die down here. Die down here!’

‘Not on your watch, eh?’ offered Bradford sarcastically, then instantly regretted it.

She answered, ‘I think you know that that is garbage, and personally offensive.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I know you are.’ She got her breath. ‘But what are we to do?’

He didn’t have an answer, and so she got the rest of her frustrations off her chest,

‘Oh, I was a fool not to see it, Bradford. I thought it was a bit of fun at first, a publicity coup for the Base; and, well, maybe a bit of me was keen to meet such a distinguished writer and be a part of their latest project. Was there vanity there? Did I enjoy being a part of something that someone like yourself found so interesting?

‘I don’t know. But I do know that we let your special status get in the way of expecting you to follow the same rules as every other soul down here. We didn’t treat you the same.

‘You welcomed the isolation, it was the reason you were here. Perhaps we felt that a truly creative person might foster that feeling to draw out your masterpieces, and that you might manage such emotion better than the rest of us. Was there something of the logic of the parent who doesn’t let their child do drugs, but who trusts their favourite singer not to give themselves an overdose?

‘There’s more in the report,’ she went on.

‘Please, you’ve made your point.’

‘No, I don’t mean it like that,’ she explained, and she smiled sympathetically, before going on. ‘It says, “The subject has developed a belief”, and he quotes your own words from your last interview with him, “that ‘I may as well live on my own as no one else would have me.’” The Doctor mentions your wife, and your son, and that you didn’t think it mattered whether you were above the ground or not, as you didn’t think you’d get to see him anyway.

‘I can help you, Philip. We can find a lawyer, a family court…’

But Bradford waved her away,

‘I can’t think like that.’

‘But, is that a part of why you stay down here? So you don’t have to face that… separation, or have to do something about it?’

‘She didn’t want me to see him, she moved their home to Paris!’

‘But you were jet-set people when you were married – I confess, I read of you in celebrity magazines. I bet you moved cities yourself often. Oh, I’m not trying to tell you off, Bradford. I’m worried for you. Your buddy Ted is too – don’t worry, I only asked him briefly, he didn’t give away any of your secrets. But you know you’re going to lose him, don’t you? He’s already started working with the space program; and when they start construction, he’ll want to be there.’

Bradford was quiet again, and the meeting was winding itself up. The Director concluded,

‘I was busy, I was away from here a lot. We should have spoken sooner, I’m sorry for that. You squinted in the sun, you hid in the shadow – but you can’t remain there.’

‘We don’t make art in public!’ offered Bradford as a final tantrum. She answered,

‘But you’re not making it down here either, are you?’

Chapter 9 – Preparations for the Speech

The car pulled up outside the vast, modern conference centre.

‘This place is huge,’ said Molly.

‘It has to be,’ responded Zak, ‘with the audience we’re expecting.’

‘Professor Page,’ greeted the woman who had come out to meet their car.

‘Thank you.’ He introduced Molly as they stepped out, ‘And this is Doctor Zubecker, my assistant.’

‘We’re so glad to welcome you both to Copernicus Campus,’ she offered in a lilting Southern drawl.

‘I haven’t been back to UCLA since this was built,’ said Zak as they were led inside. The building was of the new ‘Organic Style’ and suggested to Zak an enormous seashell made of caramel.

‘But where more fitting for the talk we are to have?’ asked their guide.

‘Indeed. And – I have to ask – are there many reporters?’

‘Oh yes,’ she answered excitedly. ‘We’ve had quite a job keeping them all in their designated areas! Our security has had to be beefed up. But then, doesn’t that always seem to be the way with your “Grand Project”? Everyone seems so excited with what you have to say. In fact, I wonder if it wouldn’t help us in our efforts to assist your party if we could have some idea of the speech you’re going to give?’

‘Thank you,’ was all he offered as they reached the foyer of the building. ‘You’re already being more than helpful. Perhaps you could assist us, though, by showing Doctor Zubecker to the stage to make our preparations; and I wonder, is there somewhere I can work undisturbed?’

‘Of course,’ answered the woman, robbed of her preview. She summoned her own assistant, and the guests were ferried off to their differing destinations.

Molly stood at the lectern after loading up the teleprompter. ‘My fellow Americans,’ she intoned in comic booming tones; and listened as the reverberations echoed back from the circular walls and ceiling that enclosed her. Also in the giant seashell were several thousand empty seats, every one of which would be filled that evening.

‘They’re wonderful acoustics, aren’t they?’ Their greeter from earlier was standing almost unseen at the side of the stage. ‘I didn’t get a chance to talk to you properly before. I’m Nicole Evans, representing the Faculty.’

‘Hello, Nicole. Molly. I apologise, we’re so busy that we don’t always have a chance to make proper acquaintances.’

Molly was polite, but she braced for what was coming. She made herself look busy, and kept up the act as the woman stepped up to the stage,

‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ said Nicole, looking about herself. ‘You ought to see it when it’s full. Of course, you will later. It’s so exciting. Seeing you two here, getting to hear the speech in person later – well, I just don’t know! I feel like a hat-check girl meeting Elvis.’

Molly laughed; though Nicole pressed the point home in the down-home Americana accent of hers,

‘Oh, you act coy, but don’t tell me you don’t feel it. You must do, everywhere you go. And you being so young and all. You’ve done well to hold such a role at your tender age.’

‘I’m thirty-six,’ answered Molly.

‘My my, you wear it well. I would have pegged you a decade under that.’

‘Don’t worry,’ smiled Molly, ‘my mother keeps me well aware of my biological clock.’

‘So, you put career first then?’

Molly was tiring of the fake-friendship. She was nearly done on stage anyway. Picking up some unneeded microphone cables, and turning to leave the elevated area, she offered boldly,

‘You know what? It was never even a decision.’

‘Same here. And, do you know what? I absolutely love it!’

Molly smiled, she couldn’t help it.

‘I envy your life though…’ added her guide.

Here we go again, thought Molly, another stab at information.

‘…to be part of such a project…’

At that point, something snapped in Molly, and she answered,

‘Do you know what? I can’t tell you about it. I can’t tell anyone. If NASA haven’t given out the info, it’s because we don’t have it yet. Or because we can’t share it, which is the same difference, as I’m not going to jail for it.’

‘Well, I don’t know that there’s call for such a tone…’

‘Well, there is, when everywhere I go I’ve got people trying to be my friend in the hope of getting some scoop!’

Clutching her cables, Molly was set to bustle off – but something paused her, and she stopped, turned, and added,

‘And you think you envy my great life? Well, I’m a doctor myself. I could be making a real difference somewhere. I’ve spent years at university. And I didn’t do all that work to be ferrying around behind some man setting up his microphones for him.’

She concluded,

‘You think you’re meeting Elvis? Well, if Zak is Elvis, then I’m Charlie Hodge.’

At this Nicole burst out laughing, asking,

‘So you have that album too?’

‘It’s Mom’s favourite,’ offered Molly, suddenly embarrassed at how she’d spoken.

‘And, do you know what?’ asked the older woman in her homely tones. ‘I might know a little of what you were just speaking of. I never made it to NASA, but I was the prize winner for my year, at this University, right here,’ she gestured with her arms, beyond the new building, to the college outside. ‘And yet, here I am as meeter-and-greeter for the succession of famous speakers who make in onto this stage.

‘My girl, if you’re handing Elvis his drinks and towels, then I’m the one handing them to you. You’re Charlie Hodge? Then I’m Charlie Hodge’s Charlie Hodge.

‘Look after yourself, dear, and watch out if the crowd gets too heavy.’

Chapter 10 – At Lunchtime

After preparations, Molly got to lunch late. With her temporary canteen pass, she stood with her full tray and hoped so much to see one person. The room was large but almost empty… and then she saw her.

‘Ms Evans.’ She asked, ‘you don’t mind if I sit with you?’

Molly didn’t honestly think the woman would refuse her, and she was rewarded for her trust.

‘Of course, dear. Though we could each have a fifty-seater table to ourselves if we wanted, it’s so quiet around here.’

‘Isn’t it just.’

‘Well, it’s all the extra security your visit has brought down on us – regular lessons have been cancelled for the day, all staff and students kept away, unless they won the campus lottery for one of our allocated seats.

‘And I told you, it’s Nicole.’

‘Nicole, look,’ began Molly. ‘I wanted to say sorry – I couldn’t bear to not see you again to apologise for earlier.’

Nicole raised a hand, and offered in that comforting voice of hers,

‘There’s no need, dear. And I was as much to blame. I don’t know why I was pestering for information. I know that you can’t tell me; and I’m an adult, I can wait a few more hours.’

‘You were just excited,’ said Molly, ‘like we all are. I don’t know why I acted so…’

‘I do, you told it straight enough.’

‘But to snap like that…’

Nicole reasoned, ‘Perhaps a good snap was just what you needed? And didn’t it clear the air?’

This cheered Molly; though she was still in self-immolation mode,

‘And now I’m babbling on like this… I’m really quite level-headed, honestly. I just feel that I can talk to you. And, in my role, with all the secrecy, then I have so few opportunities.’

In the cafeteria, Molly and Nicole did talk.

‘So, you were saying about your studies,’ asked Molly. ‘How did you get here?’

‘I came up through a scholarship, all the way from a little school in Galveston, Texas. And yourself?’

Molly was almost embarrassed,

‘Ivy League parents, Ivy League big brother. What else was I going to do?’

‘But we both ended up at the same place – so to speak. And was space always your field?’

Molly laughed at last,

‘Actually no, I hadn’t thought of it until the new project began three years ago and they were asking for research volunteers. NASA were taking everyone on back then, and I needed a job.’

‘Yes, I remember – we lost quite a few good people.’

‘And your field?’

‘I got my doctorate in Microbial Studies,’ remarked Nicole, ‘microscopic lifeforms.’

‘Oh, wow.’

‘Though now the focus is on nanotech – you’ve heard of that? It’s tiny machines in the bloodstream – man-made microbes, if you will. Or “woman-made” in my case,’ and she laughed.

‘Fascinating.’ And it did fascinate Molly to hear that soft Texan drawl, like a mom of five asking who wanted lemonade, flip onto subjects of high technology. She didn’t think someone from Texas wouldn’t know of such things any less than anyone from anywhere else would, it was just something in the juxtaposition of tone and content. The older woman continued,

‘And I get to do that work for around three days a week.’

‘When you’re not meeter-and-greeter?’ Molly risked the joke, and was again rewarded with Nicole’s response.

‘Or Faculty Co-ordinator, to give that work its proper title.’

‘While the men do their scientific work for all five days?’

Nicole smiled the wry smile of a woman who had been around long enough to learn a bit about human nature.

‘Oh, I don’t blame them, not really. Do you want to know my take on it? That these are men raised by their mothers and looked after by their wives, and they need the same at work. Academia encourages the compulsive and the absent-minded, the ones who’ll leave a pile of papers next to a coffee pot, electric fans at the edges of desks. The women can’t bear the mess of it, and end up becoming their assistants and faculty administrators – their work wives.’

Nicole continued, ‘Now, you’ve told me enough to suggest that we’re both professional women who, by dint of being women, are pushed into front-of-house roles.’

‘While the men get on with the serious work?’ suggested Molly.

‘It can sure seem like it,’ agreed Nicole. ‘I don’t know if men are inherently incapable, or whether they choose to be and know a woman will pick things up.’

‘That’s so right,’ agreed Molly. ‘I work for NASA, yes, a great employer, but I’m just a pretty face there. I’d quit tomorrow for a research position that paid half as well.’

Nicole gave her a look that intrigued Molly, before saying,

‘Well, don’t do that just yet. I do have another question – not asking any secrets of you, but something practical.’

‘Fire away.’

‘I know that you must get a lot of crank letters coming into your organisation about space; but if a person had a serious idea for the new station, then who would they put it to?’

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