Aphelion Issue 262, Volume 25
June 2021
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

On The Corner of Galaxy and Fifth

Part Four of Five

by Rob Wynne and Jeffrey Williams


Chapter Twenty-two

As the cold arctic winds blew down the bustling streets of Oslo, a dark figure stood motionless, obscured by the shadows of a narrow alleyway. He held a chrome-plated rifle firmly against his shoulder, and peered into the targeting scope at a man only yards way, walking briskly down the avenue chattering mindlessly to his companions, blissfully unaware that his life was about to end.

The crosshairs were lined squarely upon the head of Trauma Martin, and Ground readied himself for the unique pleasure that he knew would come when he watched his target's head disintegrate. The deadly rifle had completed its initial charging process, and now it was just the simply matter of squeezing the trigger.

Ground held the gun steady, savoring the moment of his victory. But the wounds he'd received fighting the disintegrating Timelines were terrible, and the deep November cold of Oslo was slowly but surely wearing down his stamina. The image in the crosshairs blurred suddenly, and the trenchcoated man shook his head to clear his vision. Finally able to see again, he re-centered the rifle and pulled the trigger

There was a sudden sizzle as a fiery burst of energy leapt forth from the rifles chambers and arced across the busy street towards its unsuspecting target. At that very moment, a large trundling lorry passed by on the street, neatly intercepting the electrical death intended for Trauma Martin. The driver continued on down the avenue, completely unaware of the watermelon-sized hole which had been punched neatly in his cargo hold. People on the street strolled by equally unaware of the momentary disturbance. The guns targeting and power systems were so precise that not one particle of energy was wasted on excess kinetic energy or noise.

It was the perfect weapon for assassination, Ground thought bitterly, raising his weapon again and finding his target had moved on. Not this time, you miserable vermin! he screamed inwardly at Trauma and company, and prepared to give chase. Once again, he felt the bitter cold stabbing at his wounds and sapping his strength. He needed rest. He needed healing. Most of all, he needed to contact Control, who was probably in a state of panic over the sudden loss of communications.

Reluctantly, Ground slipped the weapon back into the protective holster inside his long black coat. He trudged onto Holberg Gate and pulled himself along the street, watching for any place where he could stop and recover. He spat bitterly upon the ground as he passed the large cluster of buildings which made up Riks-Hospitale. A human place of healing, he thought angrily. No place for me at all!

* * * * *

Trauma Martin sauntered gaily down the sidewalk, a large city map folded out in front of his face, completely obscuring his vision. George and Mia followed along in his wake, stopping occasionally to assist pedestrians who had fallen in an attempt to avoid Trauma's erratic walking path.

"Are you sure you know where you're going?" Mia asked, exasperated, as a passerby hurled insults in Norwegian at the strange man in the violet suit. "I mean, have you ever actually been to Norway before?"

"Oh, yes," Trauma said absently, his eyes continuing to scan the map. "Of course, that was a bit before Oslo's time." He stopped in his tracks and dropped the map from his face, staring straight ahead in a fog of thought. "Who was that strange fellow? Erik the something, I believe."

George stared at the horizon, watching the sun retreat from the heavens and relinquish control of the sky to the frigid darkness. "That's the problem with this time of year," he said. "We're so close to the Arctic Circle that there isn't much useable daylight in November."

"No matter," Trauma said with enthusiasm, snapping out of his reverie. "Plenty of streetlights. Good street signs." He pointed to one of the signs which hung from the side of a building. It read "Halvdan Kieruffs Plass."

"Ah," he said, pleased with himself. "South across the railroad tracks to Kristian IV Gate, then take a left. Turn right onto Fredericks Gate, and go past the Nationaltheateret, then turn left onto Karl Johans Gate. Unless I miss my guess, somewhere along there we should find the Karl Johans Center."

"Oh, very good," George mocked.

"And once we get there, we just wait for Hamlet to show up, right?" Mia asked.

Trauma nodded in agreement. "At this moment, our Danish friend controls our purse strings."

"I wonder if it wouldn't have been wiser to keep one of Boltz's credit cards for ourselves," George pondered. "I mean, most places never bother to see if the person using the card is actually who they claim to be."

"Too risky," Trauma said, resuming his walking. A light snow began to fall, forming beautiful sloping shapes upon the sidewalks and dizzying kaleidoscopic images in the streetlights. "We cannot do anything over and above what we are already doing. The fabric of time is very delicate now and very fluid. If someone did question us about the card, what then?" George nodded thoughtfully.

"Still," said Mia irritably, her normally cheerful voice tinged with fatigue, "I can't see how it's any riskier than throwing ourselves to the mercy of the Timelines." Of course, if all this doesn't work, she thought, there might well be no timelines to worry about.

The snow was already beginning to crunch underfoot as they made the turn onto Kristian IV Gate. George tried to envision how the events of the next few days would unfold. He pictured Hamlet waltzing into the conference, looking every inch the confidant engineer intent on revolutionizing the aerospace industry. As he understood from the Boltz papers, the meeting was quite contentious at times, and tremendous diplomacy would be needed to navigate the murky waters of complex negotiation.

"I certainly hope Hamlet's been doing his homework," George mused aloud.

"Of course he has," Trauma said matter-of-factly. "By the time he arrives, I guarantee he'll be up to speed on many of the issues confronting him." His face contorted with mild disgust. "Heaven knows he's worked with enough actors over the years to pick up a few of their learning habits."

"I don't think that's quite what he meant," Mia said, glancing up at George and anticipating his objection.. He swallowed slightly and smiled at her. "I think," Mia said, turning towards Trauma, "George was talking about Hamlet's....what's the word...syntax."

"Ah." Trauma said. "That is another issue entirely. We may have to work very carefully with him this evening." For a brief moment, Trauma looked genuinely worried, but he snapped out of it quickly and redoubled his pace down the snow-swept street. "When was Hamlet's flight due again?" he asked Mia, who fetched a strange leather-bound notebook she had procured on Shakespereon IV from her jacket.

"He's due in at six o'clock local time," she said. "That's about two hours from now, I think."

Trauma glanced at a small clock tower in the distance and noted the time: 3:58. "More or less," he muttered. "And let us hope it was a relatively good flight, else we might find ourselves dealing with a very disgruntled Dane."

Recalling Acts IV and V of Hamlet, George felt a slow chill creep across his soul.


 

Chapter Twenty-three

The AF-400 rumbled slowly to the gate of Gaerdemon Airport and waited patiently as the jetway specially designed to handle the massive aircraft was rolled up to the outer door. The prince of Denmark was among the first to leave, noting with frantic irony that Thomas Boltz was the very man who had designed the structure he was using to escape the plane.

The trip had been a thoroughly nauseating experience. The food which had been served to him was terrible, and the servants onboard had been surly and oddly uncooperative with his requests to remove certain passengers from the vehicle. He especially remembered the unpleasantness with the family of seven who seemed to occupy most of the so-called "First Class" section where he had been seated. As if all of this were not enough, the strange dips and rolling sensations he'd felt while soaring over miles of countryside and ocean had utterly unsettled his equilibrium.

From behind, a grating, high-pitched voice shrieked, shattering the chill Nordic air. "Mommy, I don't WANNA GO to some stupid museum!"

"You'll love it; it'll be fun," the mother replied flatly without a trace of enthusiasm.

"Frankie pulled my hair!" a little girl cried, tears slowly rolling down her face. "I hate him!!"

"Frankie, apologize to your sister," the mother soothed absently, never taking her eyes from the escape which lay at the end of the jetway.

"I ain't done nothin'!" the boy named Frankie yelled indignantly.

"Hey, Frankie!" an obnoxious older boy teased, "if ya don't quit, Momma's gonna make you eat eels in Oslo!"

"Sebastian Cabot Reagan Bush, I will do no such thing." the mother snapped. "Wait until we get to the embassy! If you kids don't calm down, I won't allow your grandfather to introduce you to the King..."

The bickering brood bustled past Hamlet, who had stopped at the end of the jetway and propped himself up on a column. "What a rogue and peasant slave am I," he muttered to himself, gazing forlornly out the window at the wing of the massive aircraft, "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

A short man in a neatly pressed gray business suit cautiously approached Hamlet. The prince slowly focused his burning glare upon this person who would dare to interrupt his misery.

"Excuse me, Mr. Boltz?" the man asked hesitantly. Hamlet, quickly catching on to his role, stood erect before him, noting that his carriage clearly indicated he was little more than a lackey.

"I am he, " Hamlet proclaimed regally. The little man's face lit up with a smile so wide it pushed his glasses a quarter inch higher on his nose.

"Oh, good, good!" he exclaimed breathlessly, extending his hand to the prince. "I'm Daniel Burton!"

Hamlet awkwardly clasped Burton's hand, and shook it slowly.

"Mr. Fielding sent me to pick you up," Burton continued eagerly. Hamlet mentally scanned the list of names he had crammed into his head during the flight, and obviously his quest for the name showed on his face. "You know, the president of Boling." Burton supplied helpfully.

"Ah." Hamlet said, as if suddenly free of a great burden. "Verily I recall the name. A thousand pardons I must beg of you," he said without any great show of sincerity. "The device which bore me here upon its silvery wings across the heavens unto this...palace...did not provide comfort or satisfaction."

"Oh." Burton said, thoroughly puzzled. "Well, Nordic Airways has a pretty good reputation. Perhaps the trip home will be better." He picked up one of Hamlet's bags and began leading him towards the baggage claim area. "Confidentially," he whispered conspiratorially, "I think it's because Nordic uses AirFrames for long hauls. Rotten aircraft if you ask me." His face suddenly went scarlet as he met Hamlet's cold blue eyes. "Er, except for that AF-400! Crackerjack plane that one, make no mistake..." His voice trailed off into a nervous giggle.

Hamlet stared at him impassively. "Where is Mr. Fielding now?" he asked slowly, taking great care to edit words from his speech in the manner George had suggested he practice. "Our meeting is not scheduled until the morrow, when the cock crows." The prince winced inwardly as he slipped into his more usual manner of speaking.

"Well, he asked me to invite you to meet with him for drinks in the hotel lobby." Burton replied. "Will eight o'clock be alright with you?"

"Yes," said Hamlet with difficulty. "Fine." When we meet again, I shall impale thee, Trauma Martin, he thought, upon a pike of strong, strong oaken wood.

The two men stood silently watching the conveyor belt move countless bags which no one apparently had any desire to claim as their own.

* * * * *

The coffee shop was dark, and Ground liked it that way. The picture windows gave him a good view of the city streets without allowing anyone to view him in return. He walked slowly to the wall and adjusted the thermostat once again. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the building, a furnace began working overtime.

He returned to a table back in the shadows of the cafe and watched the snow fall softly from the gray Arctic sky. Horrid backwater, he sneered. You people deserve to die when the comets hit. Mentally, he ran over the plans again. Indeed, the comets were scheduled to hit Earth with no significant advanced warning. If only, he thought, I can deal with these interlopers! "Will no one rid me of this troublesome man!" he wailed aloud, breaking the solemn silence of the dark and empty shop.

The hot liquid in his cup was nothing he cared for, and his taste buds rebelled against the acrid, oily substance. But the warmth! The warmth was a gift from the Revered Deities, and he reveled in the sensation. Even now, his body was slowly beginning to recover strength, and his painful wounds were feeling less uncomfortable.

After a short time meditating over the warmth of the coffee cup, he finally stood and walked around behind the counter, pausing to carefully step around a large object on the floor. He tapped the number he knew from memory and waited patiently for someone to pick up the other side. As he waited, he unholstered his weapon and switched it on, intending to perform a small amount of field maintenance on the rifle when his call was complete.

"Ground!!" an alien voice hissed from the receiver. "Where the blazes are you? Answer me now!!"

"It is difficult to explain the circumstances." Ground said calmly. "But I am in Oslo, November 8, 2016."

"And what precisely are you doing there?" the angry voice rasped, a hint of obvious sarcasm dripping from every word.

"Chasing after our mutual problem. Martin and his people have come here." There was a long pause on the far end of the receiver.

"I suspected as much. An unknown entity attempted to access the Boltz papers." Ground could hear the sound of computer keys clicking in the background. "It does not matter now. I have been systematically erasing references to him. Once all the backups and satellite files have been retrieved and erased, nothing will remain of what was the past." An evil laugh echoed in his ear.

"And once I eliminate Martin and his friends," Ground said gleefully, "there will be no more worries!"

"Take no action yet," Control ordered. "Stay on this line. Communications are erratic, and the Cat's Cradle is almost completely destroyed. I can send no more reinforcements, and I have been unable to contact my deep agents in Oslo. We must begin our contingency plan, and I'll use this connection to make contact."

"I can handle Martin myself," Ground protested.

"Do not presume to argue with me," Control hissed. "We will do this according to the plan! Now, stay on this line while I make the necessary connections!"

Furious with his superior, Ground held the receiver away from his ear while various beeps and clicks chattered over the line. As he waited, he noticed a human approaching the door of the shop. He pulled sharply on the front door, as if he expected it to be open, then stood in front of the window, cupping his hands over his eyes and pressing his face to the glass. Ground cradled the deadly rifle on the counter in his arm, and quietly laid the phone receiver on the bar.

"Olav," the man yelled, rapping on the glass. "Olav!"

Slowly and deliberately, Ground raised his gun and centered the cross-hairs on the man's darkened face.


 

Chapter Twenty-four

When the airport limousine at long last pulled into the receiving area of the Karl Johans Center, Trauma, George, and Mia were nearly impossible to miss, shivering against the cold and looking like nothing quite so much as wayward circus performers, with Trauma as their ringleader.

Wasting no time, Hamlet stepped out of the car almost before it ceased its movement. The entire trip from the airport had been dominated by Burton's ceaseless chatter about "stratigic downsizing" and about "target markets being soft", and how all of the people at Boling admired the tremendous work that Thomas Boltz had been doing. Hamlet thought it very odd to be lavished praise for the work of someone else.

"Mr. Boltz!" Burton called from the back of the limo as Hamlet strode purposefully toward the huddled trio. "What about your luggage?"

"Indeed, my good man," Hamlet replied amiably. "Pray carry it to my quarters." He swept into the hotel, carrying George, Mia and Trauma in his wake.

* * * * *

"Ham-- er, Thomas," Trauma said as they came within earshot of the front desk of the Karl Johans Center. "How was your flight? I take it you studied the paperwork..."

Hamlet spun around and grabbed him by the lapels, glaring daggers into his eyes. "Were it not for your solemn oath," he hissed, "your most faithful word of honor upon your soul and upon my sword, thy days and nights would end before rosy-fingered morn ere touched your face again!"

"Ah, well, dear me. Bad flight?" Trauma smiled, disdainfully removing the prince's hands from his jacket.

"We shall not, under any circumstance fair or foul, engage in any discourse about that metallic abomination." Hamlet stared stoically off into the distance. "Even so, 'twas a good omen. I was borne by a winged beast of Boltz's design."

"Well, that's something, anyway," Trauma said, as the two wandered off towards the registration desk.

Mia smiled up at George. "When you got that note," she asked," did you ever think that your future would depend upon a neurotic Prince?"

"Never in a million myriad thoughts, before or since," he declared theatrically. His expression changed from mirth to distaste. "This is awful, Mia. I'm beginning to sound like Hamlet."

Mia tried desperately to suppress a fit of giggling, aware of the people starring curiously at the pair. George reached over to hold her steady, laughing out loud himself, and they locked eyes. As their laughter subsided, both of their smiles slowly faded as recognition simultaneously crept over them. It was no more than a moment, but long enough for both of them to know.

"Ohmigod," Mia whispered, almost to herself, and George slowly nodded his head.

"Indeed," he said softly. They continued to stare at one another, lost in a single, shared private thought in the middle of the busy hotel atrium, oblivious to the scores of people scurrying about them.

"George! Mia!" Trauma called from the front desk, snapping them out of their mutual reverie. Slowly, each released their hold on the other and walked as though entranced to where Trauma and Hamlet stood.

"...Olympia, Washington, Yoosah." Hamlet said to the young woman behind the front desk who was entering his information into the registration computer. The petite blonde looked momentarily confused.

"It's a joke," Trauma interrupted quickly, stepping neatly between Hamlet and the desk, earning an uncomfortable glare from the Danish prince. "He always says 'Yoosah' instead of U.S.A. It's just to get a good laugh out of everyone. Isn't that right, Mr. Boltz?" Trauma laughed nervously while making coaxing gestures at the hotel clerk and Hamlet, both of whom stared at him as though he were quite insane.

Trauma quickly shifted his attention to George and Mia, who were each standing on one side of Trauma and Hamlet. "Ah, there you are!" he said proudly, flashing his Cheshire grin at the woman behind the desk. "Madam, these are the two Mr. Boltz was speaking of. If you will just be sure to add the rooms to Mr. Boltz's account." She nodded, then hurried rapidly to the printer.

"We'll definitely need to work with him tonight," Trauma whispered to George.

"What?" George muttered dreamily. He shook his head slightly to clear the cobwebs. "Oh-- ah, yes, quite. We shall work with him."

"If you will just sign here, Mr. Boltz," the woman said to Hamlet, handing him a printout and a pen. Hamlet signed Boltz's name carefully, though a close examination of the signature suggested that the Tho- may have started out it's life as an Ha-. "And here are your cardkeys. Mr. Boltz is in Suite 823 of Tower Asgard. The rest of you are in Rooms 317-319 of Tower Midgaard."

"Thank you so very much," Trauma said amiably, smiling broadly at the woman as she quickly hurried away from the bizarre party in search of other work. "Mr. Boltz," he said, "we should follow you up to your room and get to work as quickly as possible."

Burton staggered into the lobby, carefully balancing the four heavy pieces of baggage in his arms. "Mr. Boltz!" he called desperately, alternately dropping and retrieving each of the cases.

Trauma glided gracefully around the overloaded executive. "Yes, thank you so terribly much, my good fellow. Indeed, let me give you hand with that. Let's see, one for me, one for Mr. Boltz, one for George, one for Mia., and one for-- oh dear, we seem to be all out of luggage, Mr..."

"Um, Burton. Daniel Burton" he said, bewildered. "Well, Mr. Boltz and I have some things we need to..."

"Quite!" Trauma agreed enthusiastically. "I'm sure you both do, and indeed there will be time for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of toast and tea. But for now, I'm quite certain you will agree that Mr. Boltz has had a long, difficult flight and desperately needs rest. Good day for now, and he will see you later. Come along, everyone." Trauma flashed his brightest smile at Burton as he bustled his companions towards the elevator, leaving the stunned Burton standing alone in the swirl of humanity that ebbed and flowed through the Karl Johans Center. He stood in a daze for a moment, then suddenly regained his senses.

 "Mr. Boltz!" he called across the lobby. "Don't forget drinks at eight with Mr. Fielding in the bar."

"He'll burn that information into his brain," Trauma enthused as the elevator doors closed, leaving Burton marooned in the hotel lobby, surrounded by a wide, wide sea of hotel guests and workers.


 

Chapter Twenty-five

The four companions visibly relaxed as they shed the roles they had been playing. George turned to the prince of Denmark. "Hamlet," he asked. "Who is Mr. Fielding? Why are you having drinks with him?"

"The King of Boling," Hamlet replied.

"The-- the president of Boling Aerospace," George corrected, somewhat alarmed.

Mia fretted nervously. "Trauma, is he ready for that?"

Hamlet turned a stern gaze to the red-headed librarian. "Madam, I would remind you that I am a prince, twice-heir to the throne of the Great Danes. Though this place be wondrous strange, I am not completely void of etiquette or grace."

George nodded with approval. "Much better. Those words sound almost normal."

Mia shook her head emphatically. "It's not the words I'm worried about," she said, squaring her petite frame to confront him directly. "I intend no disrespect, Lord Hamlet," she scolded, "But there is quite a bit we need to go over with you, especially about the manners of this time, and the technical material that all of us need to come to grips with."

"Fear not, m'lady," Hamlet said quietly, his face almost breaking into a soft smile. "I will not address matters unfamiliar to mine understanding. A brief discourse upon the unpleasantness of the voyage to this place from the west. Perhaps the taking of mead and wine."

"I'm sure he'll be fine," Trauma said. "The conference doesn't begin until eight in the morning. If Mr. Fielding asks any more, just plead exhaustion."

"Ah, there's the rub," Hamlet's eyes twinkled as the elevator doors opened onto the eighth floor of Tower Asgard. "Thomas Boltz was indeed a man of boundless energy. There are accounts, by his own hand recorded, of forty-eight -- hour? -- of forty-eight hour intervals sans peaceful slumber." This time, Hamlet allowed a rare wan smile to tug at the corners of his mouth. "I shall endeavor to be...calmly evasive, and most truly stubborn like an intransigent ass." His smile faded rapidly as they walked down the hall towards the executive suites. "Heaven knows, the experiences with evasion I have seen lo these many months."

"Eight twenty-three." Trauma said as he examined the door of the suite. Hamlet stood patiently before it, as if waiting for it to open. "Now, take that card they gave you downstairs, and swipe it through that slot by the doorknob." With no small amount of trepidation, Hamlet slid the card through, and an audible click could be heard. Trauma reached forward and pushed open the door.

The rooms revealed by the opening of the door were perhaps the most opulent that any of the four had ever seen. A small foyer with an adjoining coat rack and closet greeted them just inside the entrance. Mia reached around and flipped the light switch.

After the foyer was yet another door, this one leading to a large bathroom complete with shower and Jacuzzi. Straight ahead was the bedroom containing a king-sized bed, tastefully adorned with a plush scarlet bedspread. One either side of the bed stood a pair of bed tables, the one on the left containing an alarm clock and telephone. Each table also supported two large lamps, each the color of the bedspread.

Across from the bed was an entertainment center with a television, VCR, and complete stereo system. Next to it was a tall chest of drawers. Both it and the entertainment center were made of a dark rich solid mahogany. Scattered throughout the room were reproductions, or possibly originals, George thought, of works by various European painters.

To the left of the foyer was a second door, which led into a comfortable living-room area, complete with sofa, coffee table, and a trio of deep, comfortable chairs. Another entertainment center held another TV/VCR unit. In the corner, a work area had been sectioned off, with a large desk, lamp, and telephone arranged neatly around a padded high-backed chair. Neatly centered on the desk was a computer keyboard and mouse.. A 34-inch flat screen monitor hung on the wall, displaying a hypnotizing screen-saver pattern.

Trauma stood in the center of the living room, turning slowly to absorb his surroundings. "Yes, indeed," he beamed, clearly pleased with his new base of operations. "This will do very nicely indeed."

* * * * *

It was a building that spoke of misbegotten dreams, of hopes gone awry. In the middle of Akershussstranda, nestled among some of the nicer structures of the district, an old storefront sat dark and neglected. The exterior was dark brick, discolored by years of hard winters and low maintenance. There had been some discussion some years earlier about having it torn down and replaced as part of the revitalization of the neighborhood, but the owner refused to sell each time they were approached, when in fact they could be approached.

No one in the surrounding area had ever actually met the owners, and no one was sure precisely who they were. The deed was handled through a law firm, and held in trust by a holding company based in Oslo, but it too seemed to be held by another company, and it by another, and so forth. Communications with the beautification commission were usually terse: "We choose not to sell or renovate at this time."

In fact, no one even knew exactly what went on in the building. It was a storage facility for all anyone knew, and with no reason to think otherwise, no further inquiries as to the role of the building had ever been made.

A single figure in a dark trenchcoat made his way slowly down a snow covered street towards the building, pausing at the gated door and panting heavily. Raising his hand, Ground pushed on the door buzzer, then crossed his arms and shivered in what felt to him like approximately three degrees above absolute zero.

Anyone who had previously tried to gain admission to the building in this manner would have been quite astonished to see that not only did the dark figure manage to get a response, but was also greeted by the opening of both the door and the gate. He entered, and both instantly closed behind him, their locking mechanisms engaging with an audible, ominous click.

Ground made his way down the concrete steps which passed through the cold brick and stone walls. The lighting was grim and dreary, but up ahead both brighter lights and seemingly warmer air beckoned him. Finally, he walked through a doorway, it's frosted glass door having opened without any obvious effort on his part.

He stood in the middle of a large computer room. Two of the walls were lined with terminals and data entry systems. Another was lined with weapons and other offensive and defensive systems. The fourth wall was especially impressive: from floor to ceiling, it contained a grid-lined operations board detailing a digital map of Oslo and its surrounding environs. A four block radius around the Karl Johans Center was shaded in red, and various above and below ground routes into the hotel were highlighted by glowing green and yellow lines. Ground glanced about and realized he was alone, so he strolled over to the board and marveled at the detail.

"The benefit of hundreds of years of knowledge," an iron voice remarked from behind. Ground spun around to face his sudden companion. The man appeared to be Nordic, but there was an oddly waxen sheen to his features. He was flanked by two companions, who looked remarkably similar to the leader, as though they had all be cut from the same cloth. Each sat down at the large central table and motioned for Ground to join them.

After they were all seated, they nodded curtly to Ground. "What went wrong?" the Nordic looking man asked.

Ground shrugged. "I don't know, Gaabick. None of the models indicated Martin or Pembroke had any chance of survival beyond the fall through the warp tube."

"There was a third," a second figure spoke with a thick Norwegian accent. "Did Control take into consideration the possibility of the librarian participating?"

"No Maxis," Ground muttered impatiently. "Her involvement beyond the planned role was unexpected and unintended. She must have thrown the calculations off somehow."

"And now," the third figure spoke, "they have a Shakespereon actor involved, and playing the role of the Great Evil."

"May he be forever tortured in the bowels of Malvana and the flames of Nodestran," Ground hissed. "The Great Evil is dead, only to be reborn! And portrayed by a Dane!"

"There was no contingency for this development," Gaabick said. "But we are here, and there are many things we can do."

"We should find Hamlet's room and disintegrate him!" Ground growled. "And then, Mr. Martin should be placed on skewers and boiled in..."

Gaabick shot to his feet, raising his voice to drown out Ground's vindictive fantasies. "Nothing so crude. If he dies now, before the conference can begin, there is as much chance as not they will build the plane in his cursed honor."

"If we kill any of the other players in this drama," Maxis agreed, "we run the risk that the respective companies might build the ship in honor of their fallen comrades."

"But if we discredit Boltz," the third figure said, "then we have a chance."

"Discredit?" Ground said incredulously. "How in the name of All do we do that? Broadcast to everyone that he is a hoax? 'This cannot be Thomas Boltz, because we killed him days ago. Surely he is an imposter!'" he mocked. "Don't you think that might rather tip our hand?"

"Not if it originates from someone with no connection to us," Maxis argued.

"Which is why," Gaabick completed, "we have arranged for a change in the plans of one group of conference attendees." He smiled wickedly, and joined Maxis and the third agent in a round of evil laughter.

Ground stared at the trio in disbelief. Dear Mother-of-All, he thought. The whole plan is falling apart around our ears, and these people are carrying on like rejected movie villains. "And just what have you arranged?" he sneered.

Gaabick tapped a series of buttons on the table in front of him, and one of the display terminals began displaying printed information, noting the departure time of a plane leaving from a place called "Netherlands."


 

Chapter Twenty-six

"Mr. Boltz," Burton enthused as Hamlet entered the bar of the Karl Johans Center. He bounded from his seat and grabbed the Dane's hand to shake it. Hamlet's arm swung like a wet noodle, and he regarded Burton with an expression normally reserved for fungus growing on the outside of the castle in the spring.

Burton let go of Hamlet's hand and laughed nervously. "Er, well, yes. If you'll follow me," he said, walking quickly towards a booth in the back of the bar. Sitting in the booth were two older men. One was dressed in a standard gray vested business suit, complete with white starched shirt, plum-colored tie, and mirror-polished shoes. His dark brown hair was graying at the temples almost too perfectly, as though it had been dyed gray to achieve a more distinguished look.

The other man was much taller and appeared to be a good bit heavier as well. Unlike his conservatively attired counterpart, there was no doubt about the color of his thick, neatly trimmed hair -- it was solid silver from end to end. His black suit and tie gave him the remarkably distinguished manner normally reserved for the better class of mortician.

Burton gestured towards the man in gray. "Thomas Boltz, this is Chuck Melton, Vice President of the Commercial Aircraft Division."

"Pleasure," Melton smiled warmly as he reached for Hamlet's hand. Deciding he would have to adapt to this odd custom, the prince took Melton's hand firmly and shook it. The businessman tried gamely to force his smile and hide the pain caused by Hamlet's iron grip.

"The pleasure is mutual," Hamlet said.

"And this," Burton said reverentially, "is Richard Fielding, President of Boling Aerospace." If Burton could have somehow conjured a choir of angels, they would have begun singing thousand-part harmonies at that moment.

"Mr. Boltz. Thomas," Fielding said. "I can't tell you how nice it is to finally meet you!" He took Hamlet's hand and shook it, and this time it was the Dane who winced in pain. Hamlet finally retrieved his hand and took a seat on the other side of the booth. Burton quickly moved to take his seat as well.

Fielding effortlessly motioned to Melton, who gave a nearly imperceptible nod. Melton turned to Dan Burton. "Dan," he said, "I need you to go check on some figures for me, please."

Burton looked at him with pleading eyes which begged to be allowed to stay. Melton placed a friendly hand on his shoulder. "This is important," he said. "I want to make sure I have all my facts straight for this meeting. Go call Mark Friedman and have him fax over those estimated 808 airframe costs."

Burton sighed with disappointment. "Okay, shall I bring them down when they arrive?"

"Just have them sent to my room," Melton said absently, already turning his attention back to Boltz. Slowly, Burton retreated from the table and left the bar.

"Sorry about that, Tom," Fielding said in a soft but powerful voice. "Dan means well, but he just doesn't understand yet about the province of the executive."

"His time's coming," Melton interjected. "I've got great hopes for that kid, but he needs to learn a bit more about how the business runs before we can let him in on these sort of discussions." He smiled knowingly at Hamlet, who stared at him impassively.

"Indeed," Hamlet said dispassionately. "One must serve his apprenticeship before one may rise unto the summits of power."

"Well put," Fielding said, smiling and taking a sip of scotch and water. "Well, Tom, it's nice to finally have a face to go with the name and voice." He carefully scrutinized Hamlet as though he were trying to guess his character from the lines on his face.

"When I suggested the joint conference here," Melton chuckled. "I want you to know this is the man who said 'What? You'll never get him out of that blasted hanger of his in Olympia.'" Both he and Fielding apparently regarded this a tremendous joke, and laughed long and hard over the comment. Hamlet forced the corners of his mouth into a mock smile and patiently waited for them to stop.

"You know, you really ought to move up to Seattle," Fielding said. "Get a little closer to the action, if you know what I mean." The old man's eyes twinkled merrily as he raised his glass in a mock toast to the man he believed to be Thomas Boltz.

"If I may be so bold," Hamlet said. "is there a purpose for this council?"

Both Fielding and Melton were slightly taken aback by the question, and lapsed into a startled silence. Finally, Fielding chuckled wryly and smiled.

"Just like I've always heard about you, Tom." he said. "All work and no play, eh? Well, I can respect that." Fielding finished his scotch and placed the empty glass on the table. "Yes, Mr. Boltz, there is a reason for this meeting. I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing."

"In what way should I not know?" Hamlet asked, surprised by the notion.

"Tom," Melton said seriously, his previous sense of mirth quickly fading. "When we commissioned you to work on the 808 project, we had no idea it was going to turn into all of this."

"The initial designs and proposals are intriguing," Fielding continued. "We owe it to our shareholders to look into this, insofar as you are comfortable with the design, anyway."

"But there is something we'd like you to consider," Melton said, picking up the thread of the conversation seamlessly. Hamlet narrowed his eyes at this obviously rehearsed dialogue. "The Japanese have some pretty advanced moon-base planning going on. We think they may be ten or fifteen years away from acting on those plans but..."

"What we were thinking," Fielding finished, "was a high altitude, high speed transport plane. Something with the capability of being modified for use in space-flight. It shouldn't be that much of a stretch for you on this one since you've already been tackling this problem on the 808 proposal."

"And we're not talking about anywhere near the speeds you've suggested for the 808," Melton enthused. "We figure a three to four day circumlunar capability would be more than enough. That would give us plenty of power in the atmosphere, and good enough turn around time to service what we project will be an absolutely huge lunar market in the not too distant future."

"We call it the 'SkyBird,'" Fielding said, sipping at the new glass of scotch and water that had been placed at the table. "The Hardee-Lincoln division would manufacture it, and Fortinbras Aviation would be contracted to provide the engines." Hamlet cringed at the name.

Hamlet sat silently for several moments, making sure that the small, imperfectly played production's final curtain had indeed fallen. He swept his gaze from Fielding to Melton and back again, choosing his words carefully.

"Mine ears may be deceiving me," he finally said deliberately. "What art...are you proposing?"

Fielding gave Hamlet a long, hard stare, a smile slowly twitching at the corners of his mouth. "A buyout of the 808 project contract," he said. "And a new contract for the SkyBird. SkyBird has a great deal of potential, we think."

"And there are still quite a few of technological boundaries we'll have to push to build it." Melton muttered. "Without-- how can I put this...without the risk of using-- using--"

"Matter/antimatter engines," Fielding completed with a hint of disgust. "Naturally, Tom, the 808 project is still your baby. That's why we're here, after all, to decide whether or not to proceed. But Tom, I've got to tell you, I have grave doubts. And I know Sven Norgaard well enough to tell you he's far from enamoured with this Jules Verne engine of yours."

"What we're offering -- if you want to accept it, of course -- is more money for an airframe we can guarantee will be manufactured, in the process changing the way the industry does things. You'll be praised for SkyBird's design and ingenuity! Boling will be praised for being ahead of the curve on this one. Fortinbras will be praised for building the most advanced conventional engine of its class." He glanced at Fielding briefly, who nodded, then turned his focus back to Boltz. "Tom, it's your call. We're here to be sold on the 808, but you've got a long way to go before you do that. That goes for Boling Aerospace, and I can safely say that goes for Fortinbras Aviation, too."

"Gentlemen," Hamlet said after a long pause. "I cannot explain at this point in time, at this juncture in the ebb and flow of life, but the 808 must not be stillborn ere it has a chance to spread its wings." He stood, grasping each man's hand firmly and shaking it. Both looked sadly resigned, and appeared to feel a genuine sense of pity towards him. "I decline your most gracious and generous offer, and do most humbly request the presence of an open mind o'er these next few days. I will show you why this craft must be constructed -- why, indeed it is vital to the future of us all."

With that, Hamlet gave a slight bow and left the bar.

The two businessmen watched the man they knew only as Tom Boltz retreat from the table. Finally, Melton shook his head in amazement. "You have to admire his chutzpah. He actually believes in this pipe-dream of his."

"I just hope he knows what he's doing," Fielding said. "He may be a genius, but that man has an entire career riding on this science fiction idea of his." He picked up the scotch from the table and swirled it thoughtfully before drowning the last of its contents. "I don't see any way to build this plane of his. When this weekend is over, Thomas Boltz may well rue the day he ever heard of Gaston Lafayette."


 

Chapter Twenty-seven

"And what did you say Fielding did next?" Trauma asked. He was pacing the living room like a caged tiger, his fingertips pressed tightly together and held close to his chin. Hamlet cast a morose eye upon him

"It did most verily sound, upon my word as a Prince and as a man of good character, that to dissuade he did tempt me."

Mia blew an errant lock of hair straight up off of her forehead. "In English, please?" she said crossly.

A dark storm erupted in the prince's eyes as he leapt angrily to his feet. "Most truly, madam, I am uttering the tongue of my forefathers. Shakespereon IV hath signed no treaty nor agreement sealed with your Alliance. We are under no obligation to undertake the learning of your many devilish tongues!"

Trauma quickly slipped his slender frame between the looming prince and the small librarian, holding his hands wide apart to separate them. "Stop it," he said in a stern, commanding voice that George did not recall hearing before. "Hamlet, Mia, we are compatriots here, and more is riding on our success than any petty personal differences. We cannot afford disagreement of any sort at this stage in the game." He locked eyes with the sullen prince, engaging the Dane in a silent contest of wills. George watched with fascination at the staring contest, which continued for several moments. Suddenly, Hamlet deflated slightly and took a step backwards, lowering his eyes to the floor.

Trauma smiled gently and clasped the prince on the shoulder. "There are too many forces at work in all of this to worry about internal dissension," he said softly.

George shot a concerned glance to Mia, who sat defiantly on the couch with a furrowed brow, daring anyone to suggest she had been the least bit intimidated by the sudden outburst directed at her. "I think I know what he was saying," he said

Trauma's face transformed quickly, the familiar grin rematerializing as swiftly as it had disappeared. "Well, don't keep it all to yourself, dear fellow," he enthused, "what are our friends at Boling up to, hmm?"

"Boling has spent a lot of money on hiring Boltz to design this plane of theirs." George said, climbing to his feet and pacing up and down the room in a fair imitation of Trauma. "This man has a tremendous reputation, but he's also a visionary, and so produces a design that far exceeds their expectations. Still," he continued, "they were intrigued enough to continue supporting the project with developmental funds."

Trauma nodded thoughtfully. "Interesting. But what may this mean with relation to Hamlet's curious discussion in the bar?"

"Boltz threw them a wicked bowl," George said. "He produced designs for a matter/anti-matter engine based on the released theories of some Nobel laureate and insisted they go on the 808. Now Boling has a sizable investment in the plane, and they therefore approach a leading engine maker with Boltz's proposal. But both Boling and Fortinbras are frightened by the idea. Too committed to just back down without discussion, one or both decide to work out some sort of compromise."

"I see what George is driving at," Mia said, smiling warmly at him. "They were trying to tempt Hamlet-- er, Boltz into dropping the 808 plans himself."

"There's an old saying about hiring visionaries," George nodded, "'No one is sure exactly what they will do or how to tell if they are doing it. But every company has to have one, because no company can afford two. For a little more money, they keep Boltz and his design genius, get an advanced but still basically conventional design, and keep their freelance star from taking his plans to another manufacturer."

"Fortinbras is happy," Mia said, "because they get to build the new engines."

"And no one has to worry about incurring the risk of falling flat on their face with some untested new technology," George concluded with a rueful smile.

"How astonishingly clever!" Trauma marveled. "Now we've just given them a bit of a problem. Boltz seems committed, and now they have to go through with the conference and the difficult process of evaluating the risks and making their own decisions." He flashed a grin at Hamlet. "You are none to popular with Mr. Fielding at the moment."

Hamlet sat down on the wide sofa, gazing solemnly into the darkness outside the room's gigantic window. "There is so much that I follow," he said quietly. "I have seen diplomatic machinations in forms scarcely dreamt of here, and the words and deeds of the rulers of Boling are nothing less than those very machinations at work." He rose again, and turned to face Trauma. "But the customs," he said, "the overall concepts. They are alien to me. Much rides upon my success or failure. I feel I need someone near me at all times, to provide wise council and instructions as to the customs of this world."

"I can do it," George said quickly. "I at least have some involvement with business and economics." He picked up a stack of printouts that Mia had generated while Hamlet was in the bar. "Maybe with some of this information, I can figure out exactly how much money both the companies already have invested." He turned to smile at Hamlet. "Fancy me as Thomas Boltz's assistant?"

"Good thinking, George." Trauma said. "There you are, Hamlet. A native of this planet to help you with terrestrial problems." He walked over to Mia and cocked his head curiously, as though he was attempting to read her mind. "In the meantime," he continued, "I have two projects for you, Mia."

Mia forced an exhausted smile. "Only two?" she said playfully. "Come now, I can handle at least four or five problems simultaneously."

Trauma beamed. "Well, then this should be no problem at all for you." He walked over to the computer. "I need you to create a cross-referencing program for all of the Thomas Boltz information."

Mia sunk into deep thought. "I can probably do that in an hour or two," she decided. "I don't think I could whip one up that will pinpoint specific material, but I can hit general search terms. Why do you need that?"

"I'll tell you later," Trauma said. "Suffice it to say we may need to get our hands on that information rather quickly, and even a rough sorting of it will help us in that regard. Second task," he continued, "is to locate the individual or group who would have been next in line to develop the FTL engine."

"Yes, well I've no doubt I can find that, given enough time," she said thoughtfully, "but I don't know if we have enough time, given the state of the timelines."

Trauma smiled warmly at her, and brushed her hair back from her face gently with his hand. "Mia, I have great faith in your skills and abilities. Regardless of what happens, I know you will do your best.  Besides, those hyperchannel computer links were designed to hold their integrity even during catastrophic situations.  They won't last forever, but they should last for quite awhile."

"Hamlet," George said, "I think you and I need to go into the other room and get ourselves up to speed on this technical stuff. Also..." George winced inwardly, "I can't believe I'm going to say this, but-- Trauma can help you get a better grasp of terrestrial English."

Hamlet failed to display any tremendous amount of enthusiasm.

"Who knows!" Trauma said, gracefully leaping over the sofa and landing catlike on his feet before bounding off into the bedroom. "We may yet win you first prize for elocution."

Oh, dear God, George thought. I'm relying on an eccentric dream detective to teach Hamlet how to speak properly. We're doomed.

He shook his head sadly and slowly followed Trauma and Hamlet into the next room.


 

Chapter Twenty-eight

It was eight the next morning when the last of the attendees filed into the Odin Chambers, the largest of the Karl Johans Center's conference rooms. While not quite the size of a full-scale convention room, the Odin was nearly too large to be simply a conference room.

The walls were paneled in stained spruce and pine, and chandeliers in the shapes of icicles brightly illuminated the chamber. Scattered about the central podium were dark tables set in a semi-circular pattern, capable of holding ten people on the first row, twenty on the second, and thirty on the third. Fully half of the tables were filled, with the remainder reserved for those who would join the conference as it proceeded.

Daniel Burton slowly but confidently made his way to the speaker's lectern, just as two tables and three chairs were placed on either side of the dais. "If I could have your attention, please," he said into the microphone. "I'm sure we've all enjoyed the hospitality that Karl Johan's fine culinary staff has provided this morning, and I'm also sure that good food puts us in the mood to catch up with old friends and talk about good times, but we probably should be moving along here." He glanced expectantly over to where Melton was sitting, and the vice-president nodded with approval.

"I have been told," Burton continued, looking over a notecard which had been handed to him only minutes earlier. "I have been told that the AirFrame delegation had some delays in Amsterdam and only arrived late last night. Mr. Wingruber extends his apologies, but says his staff will be here when we move into the actual discussion and debate stages. Mr. Darnler and Mr. Strom from Pitt and Whitley will also be here at that time as well. Anyway, without further ado, I call upon our gracious host and possible partner in the Boling 808 venture to open the conference. Please welcome the president of Fortinbras Aviation, Mr. Sven Norgaard.

A tall man with gray-blonde hair and piercing blue eyes emerged from the audience, amid the enthusiastic applause of the gathered executives and engineers. As he moved to the lectern, he removed a folded sheaf of papers from his jacket and smoothed them onto the reading surface, then fished a small pair of wire-rim glasses from his breast pocket. Adjusting the microphone, slightly, he spoke in a booming voice which betrayed just a hint of Norwegian lilt

"Good morning," he smiled, casting his eyes from one side of the gathered audience to the other. "Nearly a year ago, my engineers were approached by a man of great vision and integrity with an idea that was on its surface quite easy to dismiss as the fever dream of a lunatic. Had it come from any mind other than Thomas Boltz, I doubt if the proposal would have even come to my attention. And if this project had not been associated with one of the great aircraft manufacturers of the world, I doubt I would have given the proposal a second look after glancing through it.

"For what did I find when I perused these several pages of highly technical, theoretical text? Only the most ambitious plans I have come across in my thirty years in this industry. The proposal read like a science fiction story; designs which on the surface were almost too fantastic for the mind to grasp. Here were the most powerful engines ever conceived for a non-military project. What Thomas Boltz proposed was the construction of an engine using processes never before used by humankind: the controlled combustion of matter and anti-matter!" Norgaard paused for dramatic effect before continuing with his opening remarks.

As he continued on about the Boltz proposal, George and Hamlet prepared to make their entrance from a small room just behind the conference area. Hamlet was dressed much as Boltz appeared in the only good photograph Mia had been able to procure from this time period: a deep, royal-blue suit and black wingtip shoes, a crisp white shirt with a rounded collar, and a rich plum tie. George, on the other hand, had decided to recreate his more comfortable gray pinstripes with a vest and heavily starched white broadcloth shirt. In a slight concession to color, at Trauma's insistence, he had relented to a gunmetal tie with swirling silver paisley designs on it which, while certainly not outlandish, made him feel a bit like he was on his way to a fancy-dress ball.

George fidgeted noticeably while waiting for their cue from the president of Fortinbras. "Are you nervous," he asked Hamlet. "I'm petrified. I feel as though the entire weight of the universe is on our shoulders."

"'Tis." Hamlet said simply. "But let not such worry your brain make useless to the task at hand."

George shook his head. "I won't let it interfere," he said. He examined the pages of notes that he, Trauma, and Mia had assembled during the nearly sleepless night. "And you are comfortable with all the information?"

Hamlet nodded solemnly, examining the impressionist artwork that adorned the walls of the Preparation Room. "Not all of it makes sense to me," he said, concentrating on the plain words Trauma and George had coached him on the night before. "But I have learned enough from my association with actors lo-- er, over the last several years. I can--how did you put it--bluff my way at present, but I hope Trauma as promised comes through with his measure of aid and comfort." Hamlet turned his attention to George. "And where is our compatriot?"

"...and the Loughlin SunCruiser from ten years ago," Norgaard's booming voice came drifting in over the speakers, "It was the inability of the companies invovled to properly define..."

"I'm not sure. I know he didn't sleep," George added. "He needed you to get that cash advance off the credit card for some reason or another." Hamlet nodded.

"...but only the greatest living designer of airframes and aircraft components, a true renaissance man in his field..."

"I think Sven Norgaard is talking about you," George laughed. If only they knew what a Renaissance man this fellow really is, he thought.

"These words for Thomas Boltz doth--do ring with praise." Hamlet glanced at his notes. "Warranted praise, I gather. But they come to bury Boltz, not to praise him. They fear him as much as they admire him. The offer of yesterday's eve was but a mere preemptory salvo if I follow your reasoning of last night correctly."

"Quite true," George nodded. "Perhaps 'fear' is a trifle strong, but they certainly are greatly concerned."

"Some already sharpen their wits," Hamlet noted morosely. "Their quivers are full of darts to suffer the 808 the death of a hundred nicks and scratches." He turned to look George directly in the eye. "Be ever vigilant. I will play my part, but you must play yours accordingly."

"And so," Norgaard finally concluded, "I present to you the man who is the reason for all of us being here today."

"That's our cue," George said, as the two men busied themselves smoothing out wrinkled jackets and pushing back stray locks of hair.

"To victory, or to the gallows," Hamlet smiled humorlously.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Thomas Eugene Boltz!"

Hamlet and George walked through a small door at the side of the stage, emerging to an audience rising as one to shower them with thunderous applause.


 

Chapter Twenty-nine

Mia sat alone at the computer console, sifting through the various programs and applications available to her through the library cards. At the bottom of the screen, a small blinking icon labeled "Execute" beckoned impatiently to be activated.

She stared at the screen, lost in thought, as her right hand slowly swiveled the mouse so that the point-and-click arrow made lazy circles on the screen. Reaching up, she brushed her hand through her red hair, and sighed softly as she wrestled with inner doubts. She directed the mouse to the Options icon and began sifting through various link packages. Suddenly, it stopped, hovering over an option called "Remote Site Interface."

Mia grinned impishly, and pulled a small electronic NoteMinder from her jacket pocket. Tapping furiously at its small keypad, she began sifting through notes, numbers, and miscellany that she had accumulated over the years.

"Residential link code...residential link code...," she whispered out loud to herself. Suddenly, her face lit up as she found the bit of information she had been seeking.

Mia clicked on "Remote Site Interface" and tapped out 5654114-TPAL-RES in the small box which materialized on the screen. She laughed triumphantly when the logo of the Timelines Project Authority Library Residential Mainframe came online. She stared thoughtfully at the login prompt, and then tapped SELKIRK-56574, and hit Execute again. Briefly consulting her notes, she tapped in an eight digit code at the password prompt, and chortled gleefully as she entered the account of Tyson Selkirk, and then leapt from his account to access the main Library System.

"Ok, Ellis," she said to herself. "Trace that! And as for you, Tyson, for the last time, no, I don't want to meet you after work for drinks, in this or any other lifetime, you sexist troglodyte." She giggled gleefully. "I have ways, Mr. Selkirk. Oh, do I ever have ways..."

With the library link active once again, Mia reduced the screen and returned to her other project. She made some corrections to a long listing of computer code, finally deciding that it too was correct. She set the program in motion, and entered the words "Olympia, Washington" at the prompt. The screen began cascading text from the Boltz papers which contained those two words.

"Thank you, Mr. Wall." she said with satisfaction. "Nice to see that some things work as well on this backwater world as they do five hundred years from now." As she watched the data scroll across the screen, the telephone rang. Checking the clock and noting it was exactly ten o'clock in the morning, local time, she rose and picked up the receiver.

"Thrill me, big boy" she said in her most kitschy, seductive voice, before collapsing on the bed in a fit of giggles.

"And what, madam," Trauma's unamused voice queried, "would you have done just now had I been some person calling for Mr. Boltz?"

"But I knew it wasn't," Mia laughed. I'm sorry, I've just extracted a measure of revenge and I'm reveling in the pleasure. Who would have thought that demure little Mia was an amateur hacker?"

"You are a woman of most remarkable talents," he said disinterestedly. "Have you heard from Mr. Boltz or his assistant?"

"Not yet. The agenda they received indicates the opening session goes on until 11:30 AM local time."

"Good. I should be in the room in about two minutes," Trauma said. "I'm just outside the building with a sack of goodies. Have you completed the task I set you to?"

"The search program is ready." Mia replied. "It's not terribly precise, but I can pull up large chunks of specialized data fairly quickly."

"Stupendous. Ten out of ten." Trauma said happily. "I'm in the elevator now, so I will see you in a bit." The line went dead.

"Communications etiquette is not your strong suit, Mr. Martin," Mia smiled, placing the dead receiver back into it's cradle.

* * * * *

Snow fell slowly from the gray skies above Oslo as a small Trabant pulled up to a corner. Gaabick and Ground emerged onto the sidewalk, staring into the distance at the towers of the Karl Johans Center. Gaabick smiled wickedly, and both he and Ground scrambled back into the car.

The interior of the car was unlike any Trabant the East Germans who manufactured it decades ago could have ever dreamed of. Nearly all of the interior consoles were taken up by city displays, status panels, and weapons activation keys. There was also a communications panel which Gaabick toggled to the ON position.

"Maxis, Hathram, can you hear me?" Gaabick asked as Ground turned the heat in the car to its maximum setting.

"We read you," Maxis's voice crackled over the intercom. "Martin just reentered the building carrying parcels of some sort. We couldn't see what they contained."

"What are Hamlet and the Earth man doing?" Ground hissed.

"The two of them are still in the conference center." Hathram replied. "Presumably, they will cease for a rest period some time soon."

"Has our surprise checked in yet?" Gaabick asked.

"Both he and his superior are in the hotel, but have not gone to the conference yet," Maxis reported.

"Are you sure this plan of yours will work?" Ground whispered testily to Gaabick.

"Maintain surveillance," Gaabick said into the intercom. "Gaabick out." He turned his head slightly to face Ground. "There is a time for violence, brother. But there is also a time for confrontations of the mind. This plan will work, or it will fail and we will try another one. but we will fail on the merits of the web we have laid out, not on the will of an agent with a personal agenda." He grinned evilly, as Ground turned to stare out the window and the swirling snow. "Oslo is our responsibility, and you will subordinate yourself to our authority here."

The automobile pulled away from the corner and zoomed off down the snowy streets.


 

Chapter Thirty

The elevator doors slid open, and George and Hamlet made their way towards Boltz's suite, walking with the air of practical jokers heady with success. Hamlet pulled out his key and placed it in the slot, pushing triumphantly on the door as the latch clicked almost instantly. They entered the room and were instantly greeted by the sight of Trauma Martin spreading out various pieces of electronic equipment upon the bed

"Ah, there you are!" Trauma bubbled. In a grand motion, he proudly turned over his wrist and examined the face of an expensive watch. "Eleven thirty-five, local time. How fabulously punctual of the conference organizers!"

George looked over the objects on the bed with a small amount of incredulity. Dropping his notes on the table, he kneeled to take a closer look. "This looks like a hearing aid," he said, picking up a tiny skin-colored object.

"Bravo, George," Trauma said with a gleam in his eyes. "Now, put it in your ear canal." George glanced up at him suspiciously, then cautiously slid the object into his ear.

"I can't say things sound any clearer," George muttered, climbing back to his feat as Hamlet walked over to the side of the bed.

Trauma grinned madly as he picked up a small box and hit the power switch. "Can you hear a difference now, George?" he spoke into the box. George's eyes lit up as he spoke. He grinned from ear to ear. "Yes, you can hear me, can't you? Two way communications system, complete with two ear-piece receivers, two lapel voice transmitters, and two handheld receiver/transmitters!" Excitedly, he reached onto the bed and gave an ear-piece and lapel pin to Hamlet and a lapel pin to George.

"Well, God-a-mercy!" Hamlet said with mock enthusiasm as he inserted the ear piece. "Tell me, O most excellent and munificent quartermaster, who doth hold the other unit?"

Trauma gestured towards the other room with a Cheshire grin, then bounded through the door, pulling his companions along in his effervescent wake.

Mia tapped at the keys of the computer, moving through files at lightening speed. She looked up as the trio entered the room, flashing a quick smile at George before returning to her work.

"Our computer genius extraordinaire," Trauma said, bowing and gesturing grandly to Mia, who simply smiled and bowed her head, her cheeks flushing slightly, "has the other unit. The real work of the conference is getting ready to begin, and it is my hope that these devices will aid us in our endeavor."

"At Trauma's request," Mia said, turning to face the group, "I've written a program to search for items from the Boltz papers we downloaded. If you get a query in the conference about wing nuts," she turned to tap the words into the computer, "then this program will find all references to wing nuts." To her surprise, a small paragraph's worth of material on wing nuts emerged. She giggled to herself. "Looks like someone during the conference was talking about them. It's recorded in the transcripts."

"You know, that's a idea," George said thoughtfully, leaning over Mia's shoulder to examine the screen. "Couldn't we use the transcript as our script for the meeting? I mean, it would make everyone's life much easier if we could just use the command center as a sort of prompter."

Trauma shook his head emphatically. "The moment Thomas Boltz died, that transcript of things as they happened became invalid. We are here, not Boltz, so we cannot expect things to go now exactly as they did then."

"But," Mia interjected, "we can use the contents of the transcript and the Boltz papers themselves as a guide. The system's not very precise, but it's better than nothing at all."

"This morning was relatively easy compared to what will begin this afternoon," Trauma said. "Hamlet was able to read from a text that George and I prepared. There was no question and answer session, no debate. Starting this afternoon, they will want real answers and real arguments."

Mia stood and walked over to the Danish prince. "You can't be expected to remember everything, love. Hopefully, between the three of us, we can help you to be convincing."

"I appreciate your kindness, milady." Hamlet said quietly, but without enthusiasm. He turned to face the large window, and stared out over the snowy streets of Oslo.

"Let him have his private reverie," Trauma said gently. "Our dear Hamlet is subject to these little bouts of melancholy."

"So long as he keeps himself together for the conference," Mia said, biting her lip. She briefly fought the urge to walk over to Hamlet and attempt to comfort him in some way.

"Oh, he will," Trauma said. "The entire bargain we made rests upon this."

"What did you two agree on?" George asked curiously. "I keep hearing about bargains and terms involved in this."

"Recall your oath upon my sword," Hamlet cautioned quietly, not bothering to turn his gaze from the world outside the window.

"I recall," Trauma said through clinched teeth. "Hamlet and I agreed to keep our terms secret. I'm sorry George, but I swore I would not tell." George nodded and sank into one of the comfortable chairs.

"This is most brave," Hamlet said to himself, "that I, prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, must like a whore unpack my heart with words."

"For the sake of our sanity," Trauma said, just loudly enough for Hamlet to hear, "please keep your soliloquies to yourself."

"Where did you get this equipment, by the way?" George asked as he felt of the ear-piece.

"Ah," Trauma said with a gleam in his eye. "Have you ever heard of the Order of the Shady Dragon?"

"Not that I recall," George replied.

"That's a pity," Trauma muttered, leaning back in the overstuffed armchair and instantly falling fast asleep.


 

Chapter Thirty-one

It was one-thirty before the conference resumed. The room was now completely full, and a few extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate a few more individuals. Hamlet and George sat on one side of the podium at the front, while Sven Norgaard, Richard Fielding, and another gentleman sat on the other side. Burton again stood at the lectern.

"Okay," Burton said into the microphone, "we should probably get started again. I want to welcome everyone back, and I want to take this moment to welcome a few other individuals. Sitting directly on my left is Roger Strom, one of the chief engineers at Pitt and Whitley. I'd also like to welcome Karl Wingruber and John Falstaff, special projects personnel from AirFrame Industries. As you might imagine, AirFrame is very interested in some of the engine aspects of our discussion and were of course invited to attend. To the rest of you, I'm sorry that I cannot call on each of you by name, but our time is rather limited here."

Smiling broadly, he glanced at Chuck Melton, who was still sitting in the audience. Melton gave him a quick thumbs-up, but then tapped on his watch face.

"Anyway," Burton continued, "what we'll do for the next few hours or so is let Mr. Strom talk about the PW-9047, which is looking like a good candidate to be the atmospheric propulsion for the 808..."

* * * * *

"...and then we'll turn things over to you for questions and debate," Burton's voice echoed clearly from the transmitter/receiver in Trauma's hand.

"Is yours working?" he called to Mia in the next room.

"Yeah," she replied. "I can hear just fine."

"Remarkable system," Trauma enthused, clearly pleased with his purchases.

"Well," Roger Storm's voice droned, "we were first faced with the problem of what type of engine was needed for the proposed job. Was it going to be something we already had in inventory or could we work it up from a pre-existing design? Or was it something we were going to need to scratch build? If you look on this chart here, you'll see the three classes of engines in the inventory, and the types available in each class..."

"Oh dear," Mia smirked at the nasal whine of the voice coming from the receiver. "How long did they say this fellow was supposed to speak?"

"The session is open-ended," Trauma said, clearly more interested in what was being said.

Mia scanned the information in front of her, then frowned when she realized she had gone down a blind alley. Backing up several screens, she clicked on an icon and typed in FTL History Designers. She pressed Enter, and another stream of information erupted on the screen.

"Drat," she said, leaning back in her chair. "To the victor goes the spoils."

"Come again?" Trauma called.

"Nothing," Mia muttered, backing up to start once more. "It's just that there seems to have been a phenomenal lack of scholarship concerning other cultures' drive to create FTL engines. Everything concentrates on Boltz and the modifications made to his original designs over the centuries."

"It's an unfortunate truth," Trauma said absently, turning up the volume on his receiver, "that second place is not often seen as particularly honorable."

"The PW-7574, which we'd developed for the European Aerospace Upper Atmosphere Project, seemed to possess many of the key features that would be needed..." Strom continued from the conference room.

* * * * *

"...for an airframe of this type. But there were also problems which could not be worked around. The power, available space, and fuel storage capacity..."

George looked around the room at all the faces in the audience. Nearly every facet of the global society was represented in one way or another. Men and women, Europeans and Asians, Africans and South Americans. He noted with satisfaction that the world had improved at least a little since his time. But he found himself continually drawn back to one face in the crowd. When Burton had introduced the AirFrame delegation, George had briefly noted the two men that stood briefly. Wingruber was a burly man with flowing, curly hair and a dark, coarse beard. Falstaff was taller and thin, with black, graying hair and piercing hazel eyes hidden behind thick glasses. What puzzled George, however, and kept his capturing his attention, was intense scrutiny Falstaff seemed to be placing on Hamlet/Boltz specifically.

George looked over at the Dane, who was busy scribbling notes on sheets of Karl Johans Center stationary. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary about him, so far as George could see. He worried to himself about this new, unknown factor in their planning.

"How's it going, George?" a voice unexpectedly whispered in his ear. He shivered momentarily as the noise and the sensations it caused rumbled down his spine. "I hope I remembered right that you are on channel two. So, how does it feel to have me inside your head," she giggled playfully. George fought a smile and pretended to study his notes.

"So, that left us with the PW-9047. Now, I know what you're thinking: didn't he just say that it couldn't handle ultra-high altitude operations?"

"The gods were not kind when Strom was given his voice," Mia giggled, and George had to grab his water and choke down a swallow to avoid laughing out loud, disguising a few stray sounds as a coughing fit. "Remember," she said, "just tap on your pin if you have anything to say."

George reached up and casually tapped his finger on the microphone pin. My life gets more and more like Star Trek with every passing moment, he thought. "Shhhh!" he whispered. He bent down so that his body was covered by the table he was sitting behind and pretended to tie his shoe. "Don't make me start laughing. I'm trying to be the assistant to the most serious man in the universe."

"Awww," she cooed. "Can't a girl have any fun?" She giggled girlishly. "Talk to you later, George." There was a barely audible click in his ear.

* * * * *

"...after the tests were conducted in our wind tunnel..." Strom continued to drone over the voice feed.

Mia smiled to herself and tapped absentmindedly at the keys of the computer. What on earth am I going to do about this...situation, She thought to herself. "Oh, well," she sighed, though she continued smiling.

The computer chimed angrily, and Mia looked to see what she had done wrong. The screen blinked File Not Found, and she back-tracked to make sure she had not inadvertently typed in the wrong term. Puzzled that she found nothing wrong, she tried her query again, and got the same response.

"Trauma," she called. "You'd better come here." Trauma wandered in from the other room, tossing his violet jacket on the back of the sofa and loosening his tie.

"What is it?" he said, wandering over to examine the screen.

"Our friend is at it again," she sighed. "The Online Reference Guide to Propulsion System Design has been deleted, and it's not the only thing he's removed. I just hope he hasn't gotten to the archive copies in the residential section yet." She shook her head angrily. "He's certainly given my colleagues and me a lot of work to do when we get back to the library."

"If we get back," Trauma warned. "We have to make sure there is still a library for us to return to. Still," he mused, "I wonder..."

"What are you thinking?" she asked.

Trauma furrowed his brow and stood straight. "Just something I recall Arn saying when we were leaving the library, about the cameras on the 18th floor not working," he drifted into a deep thought before suddenly shaking himself and smiling at Mia. "I presume that you have other avenues you may still search?"

"For now, anyway," Mia said, tapping in new search parameters. "Whoever's out there is having a great deal of fun with the Erase key." Trauma stifled a yawn and watched as Mia tapped on the keys "Shouldn't you get some more sleep? Half an hour in a chair isn't exactly what I'd call restful."

"Perhaps I should at that," he smiled. "I'll go have a little lie down on the bed. Wake me when they actually get into something resembling debate or discussion."

"What happens to an engine of this design when exposed to a vacuum?" Strom asked.

"I don't like this fellow's voice," Mia remarked, "but I have a feeling he's just the quiet before the guns start to fire." Trauma nodded thoughtfully and wandered into the bedroom, collapsing on the bed and succumbing to a deep and restful sleep.


 

Chapter Thirty-two

In the lobby of the Karl Johans Center, guests and businessmen walked about.

"Not in the conference, Steve?" a businessman teased his colleague, who simply laughed as he dialed a number into his cell phone.

"Maybe you can stand to listen to Strom grate his fingers across the chalkboard in there, Bill, but I had to get out of there." The two men laughed heartily as a telephone repairman busied himself with a line junction near the entrance of the Odin Chambers.

"Did you hear about those murders?" Bill asked, suddenly becoming serious.

"Yeah," Steve nodded, "What was it? A coffee-shop owner, his friend, and a cabby?"

"Something like that."

"Why aren't you in the conference, then?" Steve teased, dialing another two digits.

"This part doesn't interest me very much," Bill confessed. "Sisler Motors doesn't deal much with Pitt and Whitley. When we start talking Boling stuff, though, that'll get my antennae up." A group of Japanese tourists piled by on their way to the front desk.

"I thought I might make a few changes in my portfolio," Steve continued, dialing another digit. "I heard some Norwegian fellow talking about the oil reserves up here drying up, and I thought I'd better get out of North Sea Oil while the stock still has some value."

"Alright, then." Bill said, shaking Steve's hand. "I'm going to browse through the art exhibit over here for a few minutes, and then I'll meet you back in the conference." He smiled, and then walked towards a room adjacent to the lobby.

The telephone repairman completed his work and replaced the cover to the junction. He picked up his tools and walked to the front desk, leaving his invoice with the clerk. Finally, pulling his cap down low to hide the waxy sheen of his face, he smiled malevolently and walked out of the building and disappeared into the snowy streets.

* * * * *

The snow continued to pour down upon the streets of Oslo as the cold winter sunlight began to fade. Most of the conference goers stood in the snow, smoking cigarettes and trying to shake off the lethargy and boredom generated by Roger Strom's endless discussion. Among these were Fielding and Melton, who smoked thin brown cigarettes out of fancy paper packets.

"I can't believe it's even spread to Scandinavia," Fielding said bitterly, clinching his teeth. "Can't even smoke inside the most expensive hotel in town!"

"Well, since the settlement, you can't really smoke in Seattle, either," Burton replied. Other businessmen conversed in various languages around them, occasionally nodding their heads in Fielding's direction.

"So, do you think he's ready?" Fielding said to Melton.

"I have no idea," Melton said, staring up into the swirl of falling snow. "You ever heard of George Pembroke?" Fielding shook his head. "Neither have I. I can't figure out what Boltz's game is going to be."

"Doesn't matter," Fielding said, dropping his cigarette to the snow-covered sidewalk and crushing it with his foot. "If we leave here with a commitment to build, I'll buy you and the whole executive board a steak dinner." Melton laughed, and filed behind Fielding as they walked back into the building along with a throng of other attendees.

Just up the road, the Trabant sat still and Ground and Gaabick listened to the sounds coming through the speaker system.

"It's just static and meaningless cackle," Ground sneered.

"Maxis said they had gone on break," Gaabick snapped. "You are being deliberately difficult."

"Before we get started again," Burton's voice said over the intercom, "check Mr. Boltz's microphone and make certain it's working properly. He's been awfully quiet, and I wanted to make sure it's not the sound system."

Gaabick smiled triumphantly at Ground, who slumped angrily in his seat and stared out into the darkening streets of Oslo.

* * * * *

When the conference resumed at four o'clock, Hamlet, who had begun to suspect the job was shaping up to be very easy, suddenly found himself feeling very much under attack.

"Mr. Fielding," a woman with a thick Asian accent asked from the audience, "I've read Gaston Lafayette's work and find it to be very--how shall I say it--interesting." She consulted a notepad, then turned to stare directly at Hamlet. "But even the Olvig Reactor Project hasn't dared to use a full scale run using this system. Are you seriously proposing placing this reactor on a commercial airliner?"

"Well," Fielding cleared his throat, "the original concept did not start with this type of technology in mind, but we found the design intriguing. Of course, this is the main reason we're holding this conference so that all the possible contractors in the project can have their say. As for why engines using Lafayette's theories, I have to turn that one over to Mr. Boltz.

All eyes turned to Hamlet, and George noted, for the first time since they'd met, he looked tremendously uncomfortable.

"They were best suited for the purpose envisioned for the craft," he said tentatively.

"But Mr. Boltz," she said, turning her lip up in a slight sneer, "isn't there the Ion drive? Haven't they been perfecting that over the last twenty five years? I mean, I can't see argon gas being particularly dangerous."

"Ion drive," Hamlet said, shooting George a bewildered look.

George shrugged helplessly. He's losing it, he thought, tapping his lapel pin.

* * * * *

"George," Mia said, pulling out of the library program and switching to the search engine she had written for the Boltz papers. "It's the Ion Drive question, right?" A cough came through the receiver. "Trauma!" she yelled over her shoulder.

Waking up almost instantly from his sleep, he leapt out of bed and ran into the living room. Mia motioned to the receiver, and without asking questions, he picked it up and prepared to speak.

"Hamlet's channel," she said, sifting through the output of the search program.

"The ion drive," Hamlet said over the receiver after an awkward pause, "was considered. Was most certainly considered." George began coughing urgently into his microphone.

"Right here, here!" Mia said, pointing to a particular block of text.

"The...ion drive doesn't have enough power for something of this size." Trauma said carefully into the receiver.

"And," Hamlet said with renewed confidence, "I found the Ion drive to be insufficient for the task. The Ion drive does not provide enough power." Murmuring sounds could be heard in the conference room as Mia pointed out more text.

"Okay, Hamlet," Trauma continued, "Even the most advanced Ion engine of this time produces only the thrusting power of a garbage can of paper burning. It's fine for long durations, but not for the speed you are trying to achieve."

Hamlet picked up the discussion after completing some filler material he had just ad-libbed. "In fact, madam," he said, "I never seriously, beyond moments of pure jest, considered trusting the lives of intrepid passengers to a means of conveyance using the immense power of burning parchment." A slight ripple of laughter washed over the Odin Chambers.

"Score one goal for the home team," Mia said, letting out a sigh of relief. "I wonder what will be next."

"Good job, Mr. Boltz," Trauma said into the receiver, allowing himself a small smile of victory.

"Mr. Norgaard," another voice said from the gallery, "Are you, in fact, confident in your company's ability to build a matter/anti-matter combustion system using Mr. Boltz's design?"

"I have great confidence," Norgaard said, "in the abilities of the team here. Fortinbras is justly proud of the work we have done in the past, and with all due respect to Pitt and Whitley, I'd stand our firm against any other on the planet, and I venture that we'd win." Again, there was a small wave of laughter from the audience. "We can build it, but I don't know if it is practical. Again, since he is more familiar with the design, I'll have to turn this over to Mr. Boltz for further discussion."

"Pull up everything on the design," Trauma said, and Mia began furiously typing at the keyboard.


 

Chapter Thirty-three

Edgar Tollefson had thought it would be a good idea to seek out his roots. Life in America had never made much sense to him even though he was born and raised there. In the back of his mind, he always suspected it had something to do with Bill Clinton, the president when he was born. He couldn't precisely label what the connection was, but he knew it must be there.

When he graduated from college, he drifted for a few years, taking occasional computer jobs before deciding the answers had to lay in the past of his ancestors. But Oslo had given him none. The first few days, he'd seen all the sights, including the medieval looking grounds of Akershus Slott. He stood on the hills and walked in the snow covered gardens, trying desperately to hear the ancient echoes of his Nordic ancestors, but none came to him.

Now it was quiet and still as the snow and the darkness both fell across the city, broken only by the lights in Vigeland Park. Tollefson demanded answers from the statues, nude and semi-nude figures of men, women, boys and girls, all of whom were covered with thick layers of drifting snow.

He fell to the ground, crying out in anger. But the silence did not remain for long. As he concentrated on the failures of his life, wind and snow began to swirl and flow around him and the statues. He stood, searching for the source of the sound he had just heard. It didn't seem to be coming from the ground, so he peered up into the air, just in time to see a figure fall from the sky amidst a torrent of falling debris, smoke, and fiery bursts of energy.

The figure was wearing a thick, black, bulky suit, topped off by a hood secured to the shoulders. Covering his face was something which appeared to be a gas mask, but the viewport of the mask was a reflective protective lens. Steam poured from the suit and snow sizzled as it melted around the figure.

Slowly, the figure stood, and Edgar was able to see more of the suit. Lights on some sort of chest pack flashed, and still more lights adorned a blocky unit secured to the strange man's wrist. The figure held his wrist up to his faceplate, and examined the blinking display. There was a second, bulkier system strapped to the figures back, parts of which still glowed a bright, cherry red.

Not understanding what was happening, and perhaps even thinking this man could offer him the answers he sought, Tollefson stumbled towards the man who fell from the sky. Noticing his approach, the man in the suit turned towards him and raised his hand as if to wave.

"Hello, my name is Edg--", Tollefson managed to call out before he was blinded by a sudden flash of light accompanied by a loud thwack sound. "I can't see! I can't see!" he cried. A sharp crack on the back of his head and the world went dark and still.

The dark figure looked about, scanning for other lifeforms, then removed a round metallic object and placed it in the snow. Slowly the object began to flash urgently, and within minutes, similarly attired figures began to fall from the sky. Once the tenth emerged from the swirling vortex that hung almost invisibly in the sky, the first retrieved the round object and placed it into a side pouch of the suit.

The last to arrive fell into the snow and rolled around, steam flowing up as the frozen precipitation made contact with the red-hot metal. Slowly, the figure reached up and began undoing clasps and other securing devices on the front of the suit. Once the third layer had been removed, a bright white light emerged.

"Sergeant Werm," Ellis said from beneath the protective layers of the outfit, "chronological reading!"

"November 8, 2016," Werm said, even more muffled by the suit.

"Excellent, Sergeant," Ellis said. "You did a stellar job of navigating under very difficult circumstances." Ellis finished removing his suit, and two other agents began collapsing the suit. "Gather round," he motioned to the agents, who were all in the process of removing their suits.

"Secure the civilian," Werm directed, and two agents moved Tollefson to a protective tent they had rapidly erected.

"We must discuss the plans," Ellis said. "Nothing must go wrong now."

* * * * *

The discussions and debates had dragged on throughout the afternoon and into the late evening. While he wasn't entirely sure, George felt they had at least held their own against those who wanted to scrap plans for the 808.

"Mr. Boltz, Mr. Fielding, and Mr. Norgaard," an official wearing a blue Sisler Motors Jacket stood from the back of the room. "I've heard a great deal over the last several hours. I've heard about wind tunnel tests, and structural tests, and technological studies. I've heard about Gaston Lafayette and safe and unsafe combustion of matter and anti-matter." He glanced around at the other conference attendees, and then directed his attention back to the front of the room. "Mr. Boltz, and I'll ask this same question of Mr. Fielding and Mr. Norgaard. Would you allow your children, if you have children, to fly on the first commercial flight of a Boling 808?" The audience remained quiet.

Here it comes, George thought. This is the big one.

"Mr. Connelly," Daniel Burton said, rising from his seat and grasping at the lectern. "We made an agreement early on not to let this debate sink to personal levels."

"This isn't personal," the Texan businessman replied angrily, firing his hat to the table. "It's a damn fair question! Would you, if you have children, let them fly on the first commercial flight of a Boling 808?" He again looked around at the other conference goers. "Look, Sisler Motors stands to make a great deal of money from this project. I mean, cryogenic systems may not seem to be a cash cow here, but the 808 has cryo out the wazoo, if you'll forgive the language.

"Your colloquialism is--quaint," Hamlet said, rising to look Connelly, even at a distance, in the eye, "But your meaning is understood."

"Don't give him too much respect," Trauma said into the ear-piece. "Keep him as far beneath you as possible, and the audience will hopefully stay with you."

"Now, my company would love the 808 contract," Connelly said, playing to the audience rather than the podium. "But I've been instructed to be thorough about issues concerning safety, and I don't know how safe an aircraft--or spacecraft--like this can be!" He began to thread his way to the aisle and walked down towards the podium.

"I'm assuming everyone here has heard of the Comet," Connelly said. "A veritable marvel of the jet age. First of its kind. Sleek, fast, dependable. A sexy plane by anyone's terms." He held a pencil up and snapped it in two. The crack echoed to the far corners of the hushed room. "How many people died when those planes exploded at thirty thousand feet? Sure, they'd be tested. And tested and tested and tested again. But the technology was too new. No one knew that those micro-fractures around the rivets could link up and blow open the fuselage. No one knew because the technology hadn't been around long enough!"

* * * * *

"What's the Comet?" Trauma asked, and Mia tapped the term into the computer.

"The first commercial jet airliner," Mia reported thoughtfully, scanning over the page of text. "Oh, dear, Trauma. I know what he's trying to get at..."

* * * * *

"deHavilland was the first out the door with this new technology," Connelly continued. "Anyone ridden on a big deHavilland jet lately? The Comet didn't exactly do wonders for that company's future." He raised his hand and pointed a finger, first at Hamlet, then Norgaard, then finally at Fielding. "Your companies have good reputations, and good track records," he said. "Do you want a horrible disaster to be the thing that ends it all? Can you imagine the lawsuits when it's discovered you didn't guess it all? That metals weaken under the stress of all that thrust? or that pilots can't survive the repeated stresses?"

He turned and began to walk back up the aisle towards his seat, then paused and turned to face the podium again. "One last thing," he drawled. "Can you big fish assure the little fish that all of us won't be dragged down when this little pipe dream goes up in smoke and they nail Boling and Fortinbras to the wall?" Dead silence reigned as he slowly walked back to his seat.

Hamlet rose, and George tapped at his lapel pin.

"Stall them if you can," Trauma said in the ear piece. Hamlet was about to speak when Burton took the podium.

"Okay," Burton said. "I feel, and I think Mr. Boltz, Mr. Fielding, and Mr. Norgaard would agree that this is something everyone should have the time to mull over and think about. I propose that we recess for the night and pick up with this tomorrow evening. If there are no serious objections, we'll resume tomorrow at 8:00 AM." Without waiting for any one to lodge a comment, he pounded the gavel on the lectern and scurried off the podium.

Slowly, the audience began to filter out of the Odin Chambers, though a few lingered behind to scribble notes franticly.

"George," Trauma said into the ear-piece, "meet me in the art exhibit in the lobby. I'm telling Hamlet to mingle and keep himself available, but not to answer any more specific questions."

"Okay," George said softly. I get the feeling I've just attended an execution, he thought solemnly, and glanced over at the prince of Denmark. Hamlet sat, looking both stoic and melancholy. George reached over and placed a soft hand on his shoulder. A brief flicker of a smile crossed his face as he nodded up at George. George squeezed the shoulder gently, then slowly walked up the aisle and out of the Odin Chambers, removing the ear-piece and lapel pin when he was confident no one was looking.

Burton and Melton stood in a corner busily conferring with one another, and Fielding and Norgaard also carried on a quiet discussion. Finally, Fielding disengaged and made his way over to where Hamlet stood carrying on small talk with a pair of Hungarian engineers.

"SkyBird is still an option," Fielding said. "Think it over. Sleep on it." And then he too walked out of the conference room.

Slowly, Hamlet made his way into the Preparation Room behind the stage. Closing the door, he sat down at a table and slowly drifted into a deep thought. He pulled the ear-piece out and placed it in his jacket pocket along with the lapel pin.

"What a piece of work is man," he said out loud to no one in particular.

There was a soft knock on the door of the Preparation Room, which then opened slowly. Hamlet stood to face the door as a tall figure slipped inside, closing the door behind him.

"Mr. Boltz," the man said. "I wonder if I could talk with you for just a few moments?"

"Certainly," Hamlet said, tapping at his jacket wistfully. "What can I do for you?" The middle-aged man smiled and approached him in a manner that caused distant alarm bells to wring in his head.

"Do you know who I am, by any chance?" the man asked pointedly.

"I believe you are with the AirFrame delegation," Hamlet said, looking over his guest and checking for any sign of weapons. "Mr. Wingruber? No, Falstaff."

"Yes," he said. "John Falstaff. I'm the second assistant to Karl Wingruber in the Special Projects division." He laughed quietly. "Not the first assistant, Geena McKenzie. Bad luck there. She came down with food poisoning, but then, you couldn't have known that was going to happen, could you?"

"Mr. Falstaff," Hamlet said impatiently, an edge of menace beginning to resonate in his voice. "you have a question, or perhaps something you wish to discuss?"

"Please," Falstaff said, "not so formal. Call me John." He smiled widely. "You always called me John in the past, Thomas."

"Yes." Hamlet said with dreadful recognition. "I know you, don't I?"

"Perhaps you do," Falstaff said. "But I have no idea who you are, and I am here to find out."

Hamlet's mouth curled into a menacing smile, and he slowly approached the figure of John Falstaff.


 

Chapter Thirty-four

"This is but a mere setback, George," Trauma said confidently to his friend as they walked into the art gallery next to the lobby. "We knew ahead of time that the proceedings were to be contentious. And indeed they are. Hamlet and yourself have handled things quite nicely, and the communications system is functioning exactly as it should."

"Yes, but that was a hefty bomb Connelly tossed in our lap," George muttered sadly as he examined a Manet painting. "Hours and hours of duck, dive, evade, and confront, all of which was going well, and then this from some potential subcontractor."

"George," Trauma assured, "things likely proceeded more or less in this manner originally, and the 808 was still built."

George turned to face Trauma. "And the real Thomas Boltz was the man who did it," he whispered savagely. "He had all the conviction of being the man who actually designed the plane. We can act all we want, but we don't have that final passion. Have you heard of the deHavilland Comet before?"

"Mia checked," Trauma replied sadly. "For someone in those jobs and positions, the Comet is a powerful reference. It is indeed something we will have to deal with delicately but firmly."

"Is anything going well?" George sulked. "Has Mia been able to track down the next group in line for developing the FTL drive?"

Trauma shook his head. "I wish I could say so, George. I genuinely wish I could. But files are being erased, and there appears to have been little documentation to begin with."

"Good lord," George sighed, turning to look at another painting. I can't believe we've come this far, he thought, only to wind up falling on our faces. Oh well, maybe I'll be able to work out some fashion of career in Oslo.

Trauma read the despair George's face. "Keep believing, George," he smiled warmly. "We're not dead yet."

* * * * *

Mia's slender fingers glided over the computer keys like a mad organist playing an insane tune. Her face was lined with frustration. She slumped back in the chair, pushing her hair up on her forehead.

She nibbled on her pencil as she reexamined the problem for the thousandth time, turning it around in her head and looking for an unexplored angle. Maybe I just need a break, she thought. She reached over to the small coffee table in front of the sofa and picked up the English language newspaper that George had asked the concierge to deliver that morning, and flipped open to the crosswords. Maybe a little crossword will limber my mind, she thought. She began working the across clues, filling them in with a ballpoint pen. She was contemplating possible solutions for "Gainsborough's paint pigment" and had just begun to write "ochre" in the five letter block when a realization struck her so swiftly she dropped her pen.

"You idiot!" she shouted to herself, swiveling her chair back around to face the computer. She furiously tapped keys, navigating through screens and screens of library reference data, until she finally found what she was looking for: The Alliance Maritime Codes Catalog.

"Useless," she whispered hoarsely, "Useless." The requested reference scrolled onto the screen, and Mia quickly scanned the contents of the file. Her eyes grew wide as she reached for the communications receiver.

"Oh...my...god..."

* * * * *

"Trauma," George said, as his friend appeared to melt into the colors of one of the paintings. "Why are they even holding this conference?"

"Hmmm?" Trauma muttered. "What? Oh, presumably to thoroughly evaluate the potential for the aircraft."

George shook his head. "I'm not an aviation enthusiast by any means," he said, "but I do know business, and I've never before heard of a company like this one holding meetings of this scale to decide whether or not to build an airliner."

"But the 808 is an extraordinary plane," Trauma said. "I doubt whether or not any of them have ever dealt with situations of this nature before."

"I have a theory." George muttered. "Care to hear it? I think it may help to shed some light on this entire ordeal." Trauma nodded, and the two of them walked over to a far corner near a picture no one in the gallery seemed to want to be near. "This SkyBird proposal," George continued, "I told you I thought it was a hedge. Get Boltz to commit to something less risky and keep him on the payroll."

"I'll agree to that.."

"Fine," George said emphatically. "What if, though, this entire meeting were a hedge?"

"A hedge for what?" Trauma asked, puzzled. "To get him to build SkyBird?"

George shook his head emphatically. "Make large scale announcements to all the major parties likely to be involved in the building of the 808. Give them as much information as possible, even more than they actually need given their likely roles in the overall project, and scare the daylights out of them. Then gather them together in one room to lob all their objections at Boltz. That way, everyone else involved starts worrying about the project, and more negative statements are made, and more reasons are given for Boling not to go ahead with building the plane in the first place."

"I see what you mean," Trauma said. He began scratching at his beard and slowly pacing in the gallery. "Someone is stacking the deck--setting Boltz up to fail before the entire aviation community."

"Or at least convince him that the idea was too much ahead of its time," George said, maneuvering himself in front of Trauma to ensure his undivided attention. "Fielding said that SkyBird will involve advances in aviation and engine design. He was very specific about that. I think Fielding and Norgaard have already agreed in private to build SkyBird." He laughed humorlessly. "Disheartened by the reception to the 808, Boltz throws himself even harder into his next project. Boling gets to take a leap, albeit a safer one, into the future, and Fortinbras gets to build the engines."

"And most of the other conference attendees will probably get a piece of that particular project's action, as well." Trauma mused thoughtfully.

"They want Boltz to fail," George said emphatically. "We have three enemies here. the person who is trying to change history, and the heads of Boling Aerospace and Fortinbras Aviation." George leaned up against the wall and suddenly felt very tired. "We need a new strategy here that assumes we have no allies. We've got to go on the attack and sell this project until they cannot say no."

"I want to check the transcripts and the notes," Trauma said with renewed enthusiasm. "I'm willing to bet that the real Thomas Boltz either knew all this before ever coming to this conference, or else figured it out in swift order once he arrived."

"I hope so, Trauma. After all, what else do we have going for us?"

Trauma grinned madly at him. "Quark, strangeness, and charm, my dear fellow." He was interrupted by the sound of a cell phone ringing. He pulled a small object from his jacket and flipped it open. "Another of today's acquisitions," he grinned. "Hello?"

"Trauma," Mia cried breathlessly. "I've been trying to reach everyone, but Hamlet and George must have taken off their ear-pieces!"

"Calm down, my dear," Trauma soothed. "What is it?"

"I know who's behind this all," she continued, running her words together excitedly. "I found who would have developed the FTL engine next if Boltz had never succeeded!" She paused to catch her breath. "You're never going to believe this!"

Trauma's expression collapsed as Mia told him the final piece of the puzzle, and his mouth flew open as he raised his free hand to his face. George noticed his stricken expression, which was rather evocative of the reproduction he was standing in front of. George shivered with slight terror as he looked back and forth from Trauma's pale face to the eerie visage that adorned Munch's "The Scream".

* * * * *

An altar stood bathed in the light of burning incense candles and computer screens. Atop the alter stood a bowl of greenish steaming liquid, in which was partially immersed an ebon figure of a humanoid male split in half. From above, small green leaves were dropped into the liquid, which started the fluid rolling and boiling, dissolving pieces of the statuette.

"May the Great Evil be forever banished from the pages of history," an alien voice rasped. Shadows cast by computer screens and the candles moved across the wall, revealing the outline of a tentacled creature standing over a computer bank. Green tentacles moved deftly over the keys, and the Alliance Maritime Code Catalog vanished.

The Thromboid reached down, picking up the utility belt filled with cleaning fluids and washers, and strapped it on. Then, sitting down in front of the computer, the janitor laughed a deep and evil laugh.


To Be Concluded...

© 1998,2007 Rob Wynne and Jeffrey Williams

Robert Wynne ("Doc") is a gentleman rogue and a scholar of truth. He has been, at alternate times, a writer, an editor, a salesman, a teacher, a freelance computer consultant and a charming vagrant. He currently works as a Systems Administrator for an Atlanta area ISP, and in his spare time enjoyed gaming and figuring out ways to get cheap airline tickets. You can reach him via e-mail at doc@america.net.

While herding a sturdy diesel across the highways of life Jeff Williams dreame d of becoming a writer. In between haunting railroad yards he scribbles cryptic notes on slightly-used paper napkins and posts them off to his colaborator, Rob Wynne. They brainstorm these abstruse anagrams into the tales that you've just been reading. And people say the youth of America have no goals in life. You can reach Jeff at jtwrccc@aol.com

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.