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 Five of Five

By Rob Wynne and Jeffrey Williams



Chapter Thirty-five

The Timelines Project Authority Library sat empty, quietly succumbing to the forces of entropy and neglect. A great deal of chaos had been caused by the Temporal Enforcement agents as they seized control of the facility, and in the confusion of patrons and library workers scrambling to get away, falling under the effects of the Biologic Disabler, and flailing about as they awoke, frightened and unsure about what had occurred, many shelves and computer terminals had been overturned, and papers had been scattered to the floor.

When they awoke, library officials escorted patrons into the residential section of the complex, where medical personnel certified that no one had been harmed by the Agency's weapons. Once settled, depositions were taken for the TLP Authority, which would be used to prosecute those responsible for the destruction of the timelines if in fact any recognizable court survived to prosecute them in.

A few officials stayed behind to repair damaged equipment, and the Thromboid custodians were called out to help clean up the destruction, a task they launched themselves into with cheerful abandon.

"Mr. Kudschu," Will Soma called to the janitor as he emerged from the lift. "I need to you to dispatch a team to the eighteenth level at once."

The Thromboid drew itself up to his full four foot height, and saluted Soma smartly with a tentacle. "Yes sir!" he rasped.

"Someone really did a number up there," Soma continued mournfully. "They managed to knock over several stacks and put the entire section into complete disarray." Kudschu nodded and began to amble towards the lift. "While you're there, see if you can discover why the emergency exit up there triggered."

"As you wish," the Thromboid said dutifully, bowing slightly. He entered the lift and pressed the button that would send the lift to the eighteenth floor. I will take great pleasure in watching you squirm when our roles are reversed, it thought, chortling softly as the compartment began to rise.

* * * * *

"And you are absolutely sure about this?" Trauma asked for what seemed the tenth time. Mia's fingers rapidly danced across the keyboard, and the screen began to display multiple windows full of text.

"I have documented proof. At least, I did before the Maritime Codes catalog went offline." A duplicate of the file emerged on the screen. "I couldn't find direct references to other FTL projects, and I realized very quickly the search was getting nowhere. I started working a crossword puzzle to help myself relax, and that's when it hit me. The thing that started this whole crazy mess in the first place -- at least for me, anyway."

"The Useless code," Trauma murmured softly.

"Precisely!" Mia said. "The note was written using Useless coordinates, so who would be in the best position to understand such a code?"

"Those who used it to begin with," George answered, nodding thoughtfully.

"I checked the catalog. Useless was the last navigation code registered with the Alliance before the adoption of the Uniform Maritime Temporal Code. And it was filed by a representative of the developers. A Thromboid representative." Mia concluded triumphantly.

"But just because they filed the code doesn't mean..." Trauma protested. Mia held up her hand, and he trailed off.

"I checked the Thromboid Historical Database," she said. "Once I knew where to look, it was easy to find. The Thromboids were a relatively new star-faring race. They decided as a culture to take a gamble." She tapped at a few more keys, and new information from the database appeared on the screen. "Just the fact that I can still get to their database should be evidence enough," she muttered beneath her breath. Finding the data she was searching for, she pointed at the screen. "Here it is. They decided to put all of their resources into the design, testing, and production of an FTL engine. They had inferred evidence from astronomical research that other space-faring races existed, so by building this engine they felt they could unite-their words-and help shape the destinies of a hundred less fortunate societies."

Trauma looked at the screen and absently stroked his beard.. "Unite and help shape, or pull together by force and domination I wonder."

"I think what's happening now answers that question," George said.

"You may be right," Trauma admitted.

"It took twenty years and many unfortunate accidents," Mia continued, "but with the cooperation of the entire Thromboid scientific and business establishment, they built a stable engine. Then, they equipped an entire fleet and set out to give--probably sell--the cosmos their wonder of technology. When they arrived, they found representatives of the Alliance who informed them that FTL had already been achieved but they would welcome Thromboid into the Alliance."

Trauma stood and shook his head. "Are you certain they would have been first to achieve FTL if Boltz hadn't existed?"

"I'm as certain as I can be," she said. "The Thromboid first contact was in 2075, thirty-one years after Earth brought, sold, and licensed the FTL engine and helped to form the Alliance. That's not really a long time in the scheme of things, so circumstantially it all fits. Plus, there are two other bits of information that seem to seal the case." She pulled up another file. "The Thromboid economy had been shattered by the single minded drive for FTL, and the hope was that the manufacture of the engines would make the entire world a fortune. Instead, they had nothing to sell. To make matters worse, the Alliance had come together pretty quickly, so there was really nothing left for them to do. Thrombia had nothing unusual in the way of goods, raw materials, or high tech services to offer, so they launched themselves into the one area that was still open."

"The service industry!" George said. "Trauma, you said yourself they were late getting to the Alliance and there was nothing left for them to do." He wrinkled his nose. "So that...thing is responsible for all of this?"

"That janitor, or someone like it. I've always admired the native ingenuity of the Thromboid race." He turned to Mia. "And what is your last piece of evidence, madam?"

Mia furrowed her brow. "It's the thing I found most puzzling and disturbing. I can't find any reference to what exactly it is, but it is mentioned in several places. Within five years after the Thromboid contact, there is a mention of something called the Temporal Purification Society. It's some sort of religion apparently, but there's very little said about what they actually stand for or believe in, beyond this little tidbit," She punched the keyboard, and a picture of a ceremony filled the screen. A large ebon statue of a human figure was being held aloft by Thromboid priests in ceremonial dress, while figures from the crowd were violently smashing the statue into pieces.

Both George and Trauma peered over her shoulder at the image on the screen, each attempting to puzzle out the meaning of the bizarre rite. Suddenly, George stood upright, horror-stricken.

"It's Boltz," he whispered. "They're ripping apart Thomas Boltz in effigy."


Chapter Thirty-Six

The bar in the Karl Johans Center was active, but not crowded. Patrons sat scattered about the room carrying on quiet, discreet conversations in Norwegian, English, and a half-dozen other world languages. In a booth in the darkest corner of the bar, Hamlet and Falstaff sat and drank.

"Thomas and I worked together on the AF-400," Falstaff said. "It was the first big project either of us had worked on, and it became apparent right away who was the prince and who was the attendant lord." He smiled slightly and took a sip of his drink. "By my reckoning, since he left college, I have spent more face to face time with Thomas Boltz than anyone else on the planet. He was reclusive to a point then, and after the project ended and he left AirFrame, he virtually disappeared. "

"Karl Johans Center paging guest Olvig Ullman," a pleasant voice said over the public address system, "Olvig Ullman, please call your office. Thank you."

"That is an assistant for Fortinbras," Hamlet muttered, remembering the name from the conference notes.

"Very good," Falstaff mocked. "I once considered Boltz a good friend. But I guess I just wasn't genius material." he said bitterly. "Who are you, sir? Why are you here?"

"Verily," Hamlet said, "I mean no harm to you or to anyone, nor would I wish to besmirch the good name or reputation of Thomas Boltz." He took a long drink from his glass of dark ale.

"That doesn't answer the question," Falstaff said, slamming his drink on the table . "If you're here to insure that the plane isn't built, you're doing a damn fine job."

"Quite the contrary, Mr. Falstaff," Hamlet said indignantly. "Tis vital to the future of everything that you think you know, indeed, of everything that I do in fact understand, that the Boling 808 be built, tested, put into production, and set free to roam the stars."

"You may be well intentioned," Falstaff said, "but why isn't the real Tom here? Tell me what is going on here? I demand to know the answer!"

Hamlet scanned the room, looking to see if others were listening in on their conversation. No one seemed to be paying them the slightest bit of attention.

"Why, look you now," Hamlet quietly snarled. "You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you will pluck out the heart of my mystery." He leaned back in the booth and drank more ale. "There is much music in this little organ, yet you cannot make it speak." He set his glass to rest on the table, punctuating his sentence with a loud thud. "Things wondrous strange abound beyond your abilities to comprehend. To explain them would make me sound the fool, and in so doing turn you further against the noble cause."

Falstaff stared at the Dane incredulously, both infuriated and intrigued by his words.  "Well, you certainly seem to have Boltz's temperament." he remarked dryly.

"Karl Johans Center paging guest Thomas Boltz," the pleasant voice said again over the intercom, "Thomas Boltz, please call your suite. Thank you."

"AirFrame put Karl and me in two rooms in the old building," Falstaff said quietly.

"I must depart," Hamlet said soothingly. "I offer you my assurances that by any means possible, the Boling 808 will be built." He began walking towards the exit.

"We will be speaking again," Falstaff said with a faint hint of menace. Hamlet stopped to stare at him impassively, then swept regally out of the room.

* * * * *

The streets of Oslo were quiet. The snow, which had fallen on and off since the previous evening, was tapering off again, but several inches lay in drifts upon the ground, and the cold arctic air contributed to the inhospitable environment. Those who were about in the city reflected both the light from the streetlights and the light which bounced off of the snow, making them seem to be glowing beacons of dancing fire in a cold, dark world.

It was this condition which allowed the agents to walk about virtually unnoticed. The combination of the city lights and the light reflected from the ground caused them to very nearly disappear from sight. They came upon a snow and ice covered square, and the ten agents scattered about the buildings, near enough to one another for teamwork, but far enough apart that they would not be wholly conspicuous.

Ellis and Sergeant Werm were farthest ahead of the group. Ellis surveyed the scene in front of him, the snowscape and the city reflected in his mirrored sunglasses. Without speaking, he motioned to his assistant, who raised a device, about the size of a school book-bag, and pressed a series of buttons.

"The streets are conforming to known maps," Werm said. "At our current pace, we can be there by the morning."

"Good." Ellis nodded approvingly. "And the signal scan?"

"At least one signal of unusual character for this time period," Werm said passionlessly as he scanned the readout. "Stationary time is required for the device to pinpoint the location."

Ellis nodded and raised his right hand. Another agent materialized out of the shadows. "Approach pattern Bravo." Ellis commanded without turning to face him. "Pass the word. Follow planned procedure. Unless circumstances change dramatically, we will proceed carefully and cautiously. And Colpan, pass the word also: if any party intercepts Martin or his companions prior to our arrival, they are to take them into custody. By any means necessary."

"Understood, sir," the agent acknowledged, disappearing into the snow and shadow. Ellis turned to examine the readout on Werm's device. "That could be Martin," he said disdainfully. "Take no chances. When the opportunity presents itself, I want a firm location on that signal."

The sergeant nodded, and the two of them moved forward into the night.


Chapter Thirty-Seven

"What do you mean Falstaff knows who you are?" George protested, as Hamlet settled into a chair and removed his tie. "You say it like this isn't a bit of a problem! I mean, this could be the whole bloody match, couldn't it?"

"Calm down, George," Trauma soothed. "Mr. Falstaff has had all afternoon to expose Hamlet as a fraud, but he hasn't. Obviously, he's still curious about what is going on."

"The emissary from AirFrame desires something," Hamlet said quietly, "else he would no doubt have reported his suspicions -- nay, his absolute understanding -- of my identity."

"That certainly makes sense," Mia agreed. "If he was completely opposed to what was going on, or if there was no ulterior motive, something would have been said by now."

Trauma leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes and pressing his fingertips together. "If that is the case," he said, "then the question becomes: 'What is it that John Falstaff hopes to gain?' Hmm?"

"It could be money," George said. "Looking at the investment figures and the value of Boltz's contract, a great deal of capital has already changed hands, and there is obviously more of that where it came from."

"Extortion seems out of place here," Trauma said, slowly shaking his head. "Why hasn't he named his price if it is only money he wants?"

"The answer to your query is simple," Hamlet said. George marveled at the amazing level of quiet power and authority inherent in the prince's voice. "Why sir, he is a bitter man, mourning for the loss of a friendship, yet also angry over the loss of prestige." Hamlet stood as if to address courtiers. "Several times, he mentioned sadness and a sense of loss. But I sense it is much deeper than that. His place and title at AirFrame doth not indicate great power or prestige. Perhaps it is this that the gentleman hopes to regain."

"A piece of the action, in other words," Mia mused. "A chance to get a slice of the 808's pie. Perhaps, even a chance to have his name associated with Boltz again."

"Do we let him in, then?" George asked. "Things are already so tenuous that I for one would be very worried if we destabilized the situation any further than it already is."

"Someone motivated by envy would be a dangerous ally," Trauma said, getting up to pace the floor. "No, that is out of the question. The issue now is: what do we do about Mr. Falstaff?"

Mia took off her glasses and stared thoughtfully into empty space. "Let me run the search program. Maybe there is something in the Boltz papers and related documents that can help on this one."

"Have you gotten all the financial data you needed, George?" Trauma asked. The accountant nodded.

"We have a mission here," Trauma said. "We have no allies here. Boling and Fortinbras are trying to discourage the other companies from participating in the venture, thereby dooming the 808. And John Falstaff is playing a game of his own, one which may prove even more dangerous and difficult to overcome. We have a long night ahead of us, and I suggest we get to work immediately."

With the speeches over, Mia quickly got to work on the computer, while George, Trauma, and Hamlet gathered in the bedroom, huddled together as if at a council of war.

* * * * *

"Sir Anthony Hazleton," Burton said to Fielding and Melton, both of whom were pouring over sheets of paper on an oak table in their suite.

"CastleStar Launch Systems," Melton said, locating the name on one of his papers. "No successfull products or product associations for 12 consecutive quarters."

"They can't rest on the Virgo booster forever," Fielding said, taking a bite of chicken sandwich. "Have you heard anything that would make him want to gamble?"

Melton shook his head and smiled. "The orbital abort motor contract won't pay off unless we build at least a hundred 808s," he said.

"We could find a new contractor for that if we had to," Fielding said, "but I don't think we'll have to worry about that for the time being." Fielding silently turned to Burton, who eagerly read the next name from the list.

"Kim Lin Wong," Burton intoned.

"Divine Wind Avionics," Melton said.

"Too conservative," Fielding enthused. "Remember how much trouble our boys had convincing him to go with the integration system contract?" Again, he looked at Burton, who scanned the page for another name.

* * * * *

"I can't get over the money Boling and Fortinbras have spent," George said as he went over his figures. "How can they just summarily decide to write off something in which they've already placed a heavy investment of time and resources? I mean, the money they're paying to Boltz alone is enough to finance a few football clubs in northern England for two or three years."

"That's a point to develop then," Mia said. "They may already be counting on SkyBird to pay off the 808 debt."

"We try this then," Trauma interjected. "Point out the immediate gains from a project such as this in terms of know-how and in terms of beating the curve. Plus, they are counting on those Japanese bases to appear, and there's no guarentee that will happen. 'Alternative Projects,' we'll call them, would therefore amount to nothing."

Mia laughed as she checked the information on her screen. "The funny thing is that that Japanese, when they built their first base, used 808s to launch the materials and service the stations."

"The 808 has practical applications for near-future space missions," Trauma whispered as he wrote notes on a legal pad. "I don't suppose they will actually consider how quickly this plane could get from point A to point B on Earth alone. That's another point we need to stress."

"In all of their dealings, though," Hamlet said from the far corner of the room, where he stood staring out the window into the darkness of the Oslo night, "one cannot help but admire our foes' tenacious and clever acts of cautiousness. " He turned to face his compatriots, who were each giving him dirty looks from across the room. "In their own ways, they are worthy and devious generals in a time of war. Death by attrition is their stratagem. Deprive the 808 of its lifelines."

George leaned back into his chair and cupped his hands over his eyes, rubbing sleep from the corners. "No bloody way you can admire these people!" he said angrily as his stood up.

"He is merely expressing an opinion," Trauma soothed, attempting to return to his notes. "I say, that reminds me of the time I met Dame Ariel Throttyl. She had a distinguished run with the Five Systems Opera company during the Operatic Wars of the 23rd century. They conquered two-thirds of the territory by..."

"Trauma!" George snapped. "I do not even want to begin to consider contemplating the possibility of learning at this time what the Operatic Wars were. I've had enough of this futuristic balderdash I've been enduring the last few days!" He stormed into the bedroom.

"Oh, dear," Mia muttered, slipping quickly away from the computer and disappearing after him into the bedroom. Trauma, looking slightly offended, turned hopefully to Hamlet, who redoubled his efforts to wallow in his own melancholy and looked back towards the outside world.

In the bedroom, Mia carefully approached George, who sat on the edge of the bed starting at the television set, which he had not bothered to turn on. Softly, she eased onto the bed next to him, propping her head on his shoulder and looking hopefully at the side of his face.

"A mil for your thoughts," she said, smiling brightly.

The corner of George's mouth twitched slightly, but he still continued to stare morosely at the blank screen. Suddenly, he exhaled violently. "Why are we having to fight so hard for this?" he said with exasperation.

"The real Boltz had to fight just as hard," Mia said. "Why should we have it any better than he did?" She giggled slightly. "And at least he knew what he was doing without the aid of his own notes and papers."

In spite of himself, he smiled just a bit. "I just can't understand why they can't see," he whispered. "They have a marvelous feat of engineering at their fingertips, a quantum leap in technology and understanding in their grasp, yet they point-blank refuse to see it." He turned to face her, smiling slightly at the site of his own face reflected in her dark brown eyes. "I can only conclude that they are fools, or are at least willfully ignorant."

Mia looked at him with a mixture of sympathy and amusement. "We'll turn you into a citizen of the future yet," she smiled. "You're halfway there already."

"And what does that mean?" George asked, bewildered.

She stood up and turned to face him. "You've so accepted what the 808 did that you can't see how someone from this time might see the project differently." She placed her hands on his shoulders and locked eyes with him. "George, you believe in the 808. I believe in the 808, Trauma believes in the 808, even Hamlet believes in it. But we do so because we already know that it will be successful. To them, it's a frightening risk -- something that is essentially unproven."

She straightened up and slowly walked back towards the door which led into the other room of the suite. Turning back towards him, she continued, "Stop looking at them as if they were willful fools, and starting looking at the participants of the conference for what they are: scared businessmen who are afraid for their futures. Once you do that, you'll be able to stop being angry." She smiled and motioned for him to follow. "We'll do a better job of preparing for this with you rather than without."

Slowly, George stood up and walked over to where she stood. Taking her hand gently, he followed her back into the living room to resume their work.


Chapter Thirty-Eight

In the corner of the headquarters of the Thromboid agents, Ground slowly surveyed the racks of weapons. Removing his gun from within his trenchcoat, he placed it gently in an empty rack, then picked up a newer, higher-powered version of the same weapon.

"I've heard this guarantees full disintegration," Ground said lovingly as he examined the shiny surfaces of the rifle.

"Concentrate on the plans!" Gaabick hissed, and Ground slowly returned to the conference table. "You were saying, Learned Reverend?"

"Everything is following the plan you outlined to me?" Control rasped over the speaker system.

"Yes, Learned Reverend," Maxis said. "Our listening devices indicate general lack of support from the humans attending the conference."

"In addition," Gaabick continued, "We picked up a brief exchange between Falstaff and the Shakespearion. If he has not done so already, he should discredit the Boltz impersonator by the morning."

"There are no guarantees that this subtle plan of Gaabick's will succeed," Ground said forcefully, picking up the gun and checking the weapon's scope. "We are being too cautious. We should act now with force and with firepower!"

"Learned Reverend," Gaabick said, his voice betraying his frustration, "as you can hear, his insubordination continues to grow."

"There will be no dissention from within," Control hissed. "Success is nearly ours, and our People are soon to move from bondage into the Light of Prosperity, into the New Universal Order as prophesied by Hyglac the Green." Silence filled the room, but it was a silence filled with stern rebuke. "Ground, Gaabick, do not, so close to deliverance, risk excommunication with the Holy Mother-of-All"

"I seek absolution, Learned Reverend," Gaabick said humbly.

"Forgive me, Learned Reverend," Ground muttered quickly, forcing as much humility as he could bear.

"You may be wise to be cautious, Ground," Control said. "These individuals have already slipped their bonds once. It is time, I believe, to send in our special agent." Control laughed heartily. All in the room, with the exception of Ground, began laughing heartily as well.

* * * * *

The meal from room service had arrived at Boltz's suite at two-thirty that morning. Hamlet and Mia had eaten heartily from the selection of eggs and breakfast meats, while George had settled for cereal and nearly an entire pot of coffee.

Trauma, on the other hand, decided to give in to the sense of exhaustion that had begun to overtake him an hour earlier. "Wake me at 3:15, " he said to his friends, and he leaned back into his chair and slipped into a deep sleep.

The images of George, Mia, and Hamlet eating danced in his mind. Replays of the events since George Pembroke came into his life continued in a seemly endless loop, like a record skipping on a scratched section.

What was fascinating to him as he dreamt, though, were small details from the events -- things he had missed in the general excitement. In a corner of the library that he hadn't noticed at all, there was a single painting by renowned artist Leegon Hajulk of Londonberry III, one of the multi-legged nudes that the painter was famous for. Later, in Boltz's laboratory, a single issue of The Atlantic New York magazine from 2001 commemorating the American debut of the AF-400 had been tossed carelessly on a countertop. Yet, it was there, and Trauma marveled at the quiet nature of Boltz's ego. In the bar on Earth, one of the women had been wearing a ring with a black onyx gemstone.

Each cycle through the dreams, he seemed to fall further and further into sleep, all the while relishing the discovery of all the lost details of the last few days. Suddenly, he noticed a faint alarm ringing in the distant corner of his mind. Curious, he thought, that I should feel so sleepy, and then have the very type of dreams that I love. Slowly at first, fighting the waves of fatigue that seemed to sweep over him, Trauma began methodically probing his mind. The more he searched, the more he felt like a prisoner in a movie theatre. All the films were available, but the doomed patron could never leave. Trauma was determined to get out, if for no other reason than to get his box of popcorn.

As he fought against the current of sleep, the dreams began to dissipate and he became aware of another force at work inside his mind, something completely alien to his being. He followed his sense of intrusion, finally finding his way into a long dark hallway, the sort that one might expect to find in an office building after hours. In the darkness, he could make out doors lining the hallway on both sides.

A sudden flash of light caught the corner of his eye, and he moved slowly towards it. As he crept closer, he noticed the light bobbed up and down in a narrow beam behind one of the doors about halfway down the darkened corridor. He approached the door, and read the writing on the frosted glass:

Memory and Planning Department

Trauma felt for a doorknob. Locating it, he grasped it firmly, and counted to three carefully and deliberately before throwing the door open and reaching for the light switch. Illumination flooded the room, chasing the shadows to the four corners.

Standing before him, obviously startled, was a carnival clown holding a flashlight. Several filing cabinets in the room had been pried open, and files lay strewn across the floor. On top of the cabinet was a portable radio which was playing soothing lullabies.

Trauma flashed a Cheshire grin at the clown.

"Well, well," he said, a hint of malice in his voice. "Mystery number two solved." He moved slowly towards the clown, who immediately flashed a maniacal grin of his own at Trauma. "I'll take it for granted that your name isn't Piangi."

Much to Trauma's surprise, the clown broke into song:

Isn't this grand?
Isn't it deep?
Me all alone in your head
And you -- fast asleep!
You can't beat a clown

Trauma arched his eyebrows slightly, clearing his throat before responding in a rich baritone:

Is this a bad joke?
I do not approve.
From out of my mind I insist
That you remove!
I've no time for clowns!
I won't stand for clowns!

The clown blinked in surprise, and a hint of fear clouded his eyes. Gamely, he rallied:

Just when I'd searched through dreams
Finally knowing that this one was yours, so it seems
Making my entrance again, with my usual stealth
Sure of my task, to steal your wealth

Invading your thoughts,
Aren't you confused?
I knew that you'd know what I want --
You can't even choose!
And why not a clown?
You can't beat a clown!

Trauma smirked wickedly as he stepped on the clown's line:

Don't bother, you lose.

Isn't it strange?
Don't you agree?
That all your plots were confounded
by little me?
What use is a clown?
You all are just clowns!
Just get out of here!

The clown gazed at Trauma in horror, as he realized that he was being evicted from the steel trap of Trauma's mind. He looked at Trauma pleadingly, but the detective just grinned madly at him as his body dissolved into mist. Trauma shook his head sadly. He turned and flicked off the light, closed the door behind him, and sauntered off down the back corridor of his sleeping mind, whistling merrily to himself as he walked.

Suddenly his eyes flew open and he sat upright, feeling both refreshed and thoroughly satisfied.

"The tears of a clown," he sang with gusto, "when there's no one around."

George looked up at him, puzzled. "What are you on about?"

Trauma flashed him a toothy smile and stood up. "Oh, just thinking of Smokey." he enthused. Now, where were we?"


Chapter Thirty-Nine

Over the years of torment and indecision that surrounded the death of his father -- the murder, as many had insisted, including his father's ghost -- Hamlet had known moments of fatigue and exhaustion that nearly sent him to the tender mercies of sweet oblivion, yet it had been quite a while since he had awakened from an hour of sleep as fitful as his had been. He looked about, allowing a yawn to escape his mouth when he was sure that no one was watching. The weight of the responsibility he was carrying was beginning to affect him, and Hamlet suddenly yearned for a skilled troupe of players, a group with whom he could experiment, test, and revise the various arguments and approaches that he and his compatriots would be going over that day. While he would be able to count on the support of Mia, George, and Trauma, the ultimate weight of the performance fell to himself as Thomas Boltz.

"Was a man," he muttered softly to himself, "take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again." His instincts suddenly came alive and he scanned about the room. He saw John Falstaff emerging from an elevator and walking towards him with a crooked grin.

"Mr. Boltz," Falstaff said, looking refreshed and ready for the day. "I'd like a word with you." He pointed towards the art gallery. "In private," he said, his grin widening.

"After you," Hamlet intoned politely, returning an even more menacing smile. Falstaff nodded and walked slowly into the gallery, turning every few steps to make sure that Hamlet was following. Finally, by slow fits and starts, the two entered the small exhibition hall. Falstaff glanced nervously around the room, making sure it was free of other guests. Satisfied that it was empty, he turned to address Hamlet.

"Well," he chuckled. "I still have no idea who you are, but I can guess you are here because the real Thomas Boltz is either dead or incapacitated. My presumption is that you have been chosen to take his place on a more or less permanent basis." Falstaff's smile was now completely devoid of warmth.

"More or less," the prince replied, wondering to himself just how long he might be forced to play the role of Thomas Boltz.

"Well, I'll be honest with you, old son, I don't much care who you are. But you do play the part well." Falstaff positioned himself between Hamlet and the door. "Whether you are even a quarter of the genius that Thomas was is in serious doubt, but you have the name. You have the demand. You sir, have the money and the reputation.

"And you want a share of both," Hamlet said mockingly.

"I have my talents," Falstaff continued, "And I can help to maintain the charade for longer than I suspect you can. In return, for my talents and my time, I want several things. First, I want an immediate cash payment of four hundred thousand euros, with the understanding that future cash payment requests may be made from time to time." Hamlet scowled, and Falstaff moved even closer to the prince. "More importantly, however: I want to be listed in all future Thomas Boltz contracts as a consultant, and to be paid directly from those contracts."

"You wish the power of reputation," Hamlet said. "Of prominence by association."

"As I said," Falstaff muttered bitterly. "I have my talents, but they may never see fruition unless I am able to hitch a ride with your.--Thomas's--reputation" He turned to look at one of the paintings, a blurry print by Claude Monet. "The more I see of this man's work, the more I'm convinced he could have done with a good pair of glasses." he laughed to himself. "One more thing...Boltz. If resistance to the 808 continues, you are to drop the plans."

Hamlet had been regarding the conversation with something more akin to amusement than danger, but Falstaff's comment cut to the heart of the entire reason he was even in the situation he was. He spun to face Falstaff angrily. "It is vital," he said emphatically, "that the winged bird be allowed to leave its nest!"

"No. If you go down with the 808, you'll prematurely diminish your reputation and, therefore, your earning power. That harms us both, and I am not prepared to see you go down in flames just yet."

"Mr. Falstaff," Hamlet said, barely controlling his fury, "I have regarded your proposals with amusement. But what advancement I may hope from thee that hath no revenue but thine own good spirit? The 808 must be built, and neither you, nor demons from across the rivers of Hell, shall stop it from its flight. I decline your generous offer, sir."

Falstaff took a quick step back, so that he was easily viewed from the hotel lobby. "You are not in a position to decline. Think about it. You have until lunch." He turned and walked deliberately towards the conference room. Hamlet followed him closely. "Tell me no, Mr. Boltz, and the charade ends today." The engineer disappeared through the door.

George and Trauma emerged from the elevator, notebooks and charts in hand, and Hamlet turned his attention towards them. As he did so, he tapped on his pin. "Mia," he said, "how goes the search we spoke of in darkest night?"

* * * * *

"This plan of yours doesn't appear to be having much of an effect on the proceedings," Ground muttered angrily to the others at the table. Gaabick and Maxis both glared at him, while Hathram worked the dials and buttons, clearing substantial interference which had begun to creep into the signal from the conference room.

We know that Falstaff contacted Boltz," Maxis said, while Gaabick joined Hathram in clearing the difficulties. "Falstaff's master profile indicates that one way or the other, he will be successful." Maxis walked over to stand nose-to-nose with Ground, sneering openly. "You have been a constant source of disruption, a continual Veadle point irritating an open wound. You may have acted resourcefully, even bravely, tracking these cretins to Oslo, but you were forced to do so by your own failure! Do not attempt to pass your faulty procedures to us!"

Ground's waxen face contorted with anger and humiliation. His eyes began drifting back towards the armory that lined the back wall.

A burst of static mixed with a loud whine pierced the ears of the four conspirators. "...and how would the stockholders react...:" could be faintly heard through the noise before being drowned out again. The signal hissed in and out of phase, and Gaabick and Hathram made continuous adjustments.

"Even your pathetic listening device is letting you down," Ground whispered just loudly enough to be heard.

"There is some exterior interference," Gaabick muttered. "This close to the North Pole, electromagnetic pulses often cause such interference." He made more adjustments, and Hathram smiled triumphantly. "This one was worse than the others, but we've pushed through, and the signal should remain clear. As for you, Ground, I suggest that you make no further comment until the successful completion of this mission." Gaabick, Maxis, and Hathram laughed heartily while Ground sank mental daggers into each of their throats.


Chapter Forty

The meeting began at eight the next morning, and the controversy began immediately.

"After the conclusion of yesterday's session," said a short, balding German man with the name Ernst stenciled on the name tag pinned meticulously on his sport-coat, "General Thermodynamics team members met to discuss the details brought up, particularly the reference to the deHavilland Comet." He looked down and flipped a page on a legal pad. "With any new venture, there is going to be risk involved. A man of Mr. Boltz's standing should be given the chance to take that risk, as should we all. Gentlemen, my team is for the Boling 808, and I can give assurances that General Thermodynamics stands behind my team."

Mr. Connelly from Sisler Motors stood, and Burton recognized him. "I am addressing Ernst Otto, aren't I? Sorry, y'all, but there are a great many people here, and so many names to remember." Portions of the group laughed and nodded their heads in agreement. "I'm sure that all of us respect, and in some ways admire, General Thermodynamics. And our two companies have a couple of things in common here. Both of us stand to make a great deal of money from this project. If it flies and flies well. But Ernst, I don't quite figure how you could come to the conclusion that this thing is worth the risk, unless you're lettin' the potential money put you on the scent like a bloodhound on a raccoon." Some quarters of the gallery laughed again.

"Mr. Connelly," Burton said, more for appearances than out of genuine anger, "we did agree to avoid personal accusations in this forum."

Connelly laughed, but then affected a very serious expression. "I meant no harm," he said genially, "Only wanted to make a point." He sat, and Burton recognized Sir Anthony Hazleton. George and Hamlet watched and scribbled more notes on the margins of the notes they had already written.

"We've won some people," George said hopefully. Hamlet maintained his stoic expression.

"General Thermodynamics is merely an enlightened and visionary fiefdom," he muttered softly away from his microphone. "They may have been convinced 'ere they came." He tapped on his lapel pin.

"Go ahead, Hamlet," Mia's voice immediately rang in his ear.

"Madam, I will need shortly a sword with which to fight, sting, and prick upon the reputation of Mr. Falstaff.," he said, quietly but angrily. He could hear the keys tapping in the background.

"Working on it, love," she said, "Boltz didn't care for him very much, that's certain."

Hamlet shrugged his shoulders and sighed. "We must find something."

"...and failure isn't something my company can tolerate," Sir Anthony Hazleton said to the conference goers. "Without solid and unequivocal support, CastleStar will not expend the effort to build suitable emergency reentry engines! And, unlike my learned colleague's firm, CastleStar has no short term financial benefit from this. The development and production costs will not be offset by sales until well into the future of the 808, and that future may never come."

There were more murmurs of dissent and agreement throughout the conference room, and Fielding surreptitiously gave a thumbs-up sign to Norgaard.

"Sounds pretty rough down there," Mia said in Hamlet's ear.

"Indeed," he replied. "The drums of war beat louder still."

George tapped the prince on the shoulder. "A little too loud," he said. "Don't blow it now."

Sir Anthony began to whip himself into a froth. "Mr. Boltz," he said as loudly as he could manage without actually shouting, "you sit there idly watching the proceedings! Defend this folly of yours!"

Taking this as their cue to begin, George passed a set of notes to Hamlet, who quickly arranged them in front of him.

"Sir--Anthony," Hamlet said, "indeed, all of you in attendance with the exception of my former employers, my past acquaintances at AirFrame, all of you need to query your souls. You must put forth not the question of why should you build, but how can you afford not to." He again examined his notes, trying to remember not to tip his hand and reveal that he had access to confidential information.

"In the interests of discretion," he continued, "I will not reveal information that is not generally privy to the public discourse, nor shall I venture guesses that may, upon reflection, be wondrous false." He shot a glance to George, who mouthed the words "plain language" to him. With a slight nod, Hamlet acknowledged the advice. "Tremendous amounts of time and resources have already been expended in pursuit of this goal. Now, I do comprehend that losses and write-offs are a part of the game, however--" he paused for dramatic effect, taking the time to scan every face in the room. "However, why suffer a loss, why take a write-off, when success would do more for your profits, and for the confidence of your investors?"

Sir Anthony sank into his seat, listening intently, though skeptically, to Boltz. Connelly also listened, though his expression betrayed his extreme revulsion to what was being said.

"Review your financial statements and assessments," Hamlet continued. "Balance the ledger of failure and regret against the tallies of success and exaltation."

"Mr. Boltz," a voice called from the crowd.

"Chair recognizes Mr. Clark," Burton said.

A tall, lean man stood up and placed a monocle over his right eye. "Mr. Boltz, ComfortCruise has nothing to lose by not participating in this ill-considered venture." His voice was heavily accented, although it sounded very much like he was deliberately trying to sound more foreign than he really was.

"Pretentious S.O.B." Melton said with enough volume to be heard by Hamlet.

"My good fellow," Clark continued, "What is my motivation?" Hamlet did not immediately answer, and George came close to calling Mia for help.

"A chance for unlimited and unbridled conveyance to the endless possibilities of the future!" Hamlet's voice suddenly exploded with fervor. He leapt from behind the table and began pacing up and down the front of the podium, playing to all parts of the audience. "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? In the end, after the losses and balances are weighed without the golden thumb of greed, when you are sleeping on your deathbeds, will you be able to say to yourself that you made a difference?"   He placed one hand firmly on the corner of the lectern, as if for balance.  "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea we are now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures."  He paused, sweeping his iron gray eyes across the assembly.  "Will you be able to say that instead of waiting passively for history to sweep you along its ceaseless current, that you seized the opportunity to take captain the ship of your destiny and to plot the course that mankind takes to the future?"

"If I may," George said, looking to Hamlet for approval. The prince nodded his head in assent, turning to consult his notes again. "No one is proposing flying a Boling 808 without thorough testing of the operation of all its components." George said, standing up and making sure that his eyes touched each face in the crowd. "Many of you feel that you are taking a great risk, and the truth is, by approving this project you will be. But it is that risk, that sense of doing something that no one has ever done before, that in the end will drive all of the participants in this project to ensure that the best, most reliable, most user-friendly ship is built, with a minimum of risk to passengers and crew."

"There was a time," Hamlet said, "when man huddled in caves, trying to stay warm, trying to hold out the darkness." He paused, specifically turning to face Connelly, then Hazleton, then Fielding, and finally Norgaard. "Then, humanity harnessed fire. Gentleman, verily I say unto you, fire in that context is no less important than the combustion of matter and anti-matter will be in our time. Can you sleep, knowing that you let this slip quietly into oblivion, a mere gloss upon the pages of a stagnant and forever unchanging history?" Hamlet turned his back on the conference, walking back towards his seat. Suddenly, he stopped, and turned to face the hushed crowd. "Weigh the costs, ladies and gentlemen. Measure the balance in your ledgers."

* * * * *

The Odin Chambers were nearly empty during the mid-morning break, as Karl Johans Center employees scurried about, placing glasses full of ice and pitchers full of water on all of the tables. Near the door to the Preparation Room, Richard Fielding and Sven Norgaard talked in quiet whispers, far away from any possible open microphones. Each held pieces of paper, and frequently exchanged documents.

"It looks good to me," Fielding said quietly. "When all of this becomes official, and after your people and my people check the fine print, I think we can seal the deal."

"Ah, Richard," Norgaard said in his heavily accented English. "Nothing is certain yet. At least not until the end of the conference this afternoon." He looked out into the mass of tables and chairs. "Are you hearing the same things I am?"

"The 808 is as good as dead," Fielding assured him. "I'm hearing a good amount of negative rumblings." He tsked to himself. "Maybe I should have listened to Chuck on this one, though. A few anonymous information packets on the price of failure might have given that extra edge of assurance."

"Tell me, Richard," Norgaard said thoughtfully. "Could you have ever imagined us, standing together at a conference such as this, savoring the possibility that a project such as this would be cancelled? How often have we, as you Americans put it, sweated it out to hear if a government or airline would purchase one of these marvelous planes?"

"Often enough," Fielding laughed. "At least you have other manufacturers to work with if one of your engines doesn't sell on one of my aircraft."

"True," Norgaard agreed. At the top of the Odin Chambers, figures in business suits began to slowly make their way down the aisles and settle into their seats. "We'd better take our places, Richard."

"I'll be talking to you after all this is over with, Sven," Fielding said, and the two of them quietly moved to their respective delegations.


Chapter Forty-One

"Are George and Hamlet maintaining contact?" Trauma asked into his cell phone. He was standing in a corner of the lobby that was obscured by plants and by suits being carried out on rolling carts from the Karl Johan Center's dry cleaner.

"I just passed along some dirt on Falstaff," Mia chirped. "If he speaks up, Hamlet has something to hopefully stop him cold." Trauma smiled broadly and kissed the ear piece of the phone. "What was that?" Mia asked.

"Sorry," Trauma said, suppressing a laugh. "Must have been static." Several carts of suits were being carried by, forcing Trauma deeper into the corner. "Are we ready for the grand finale if the moment arrives?" There was a pause as papers shuffled and printouts were made.

"George and Hamlet have all the stuff we put together last night." Mia said. "And I've got more at my disposal here. Between the supporting information and the notes, I think we can pull this thing off."

"Indeed," Trauma said. Just around the corner from where Trauma stood talking, a number of men began filing into the lobby. Each wore large floppy hats and bulky trenchcoats. Some made their way slowly towards the Tower Asgard stairs, and others moved towards the elevators. Two stood before the entrance to each of the three elevators, and four others entered the stairwell. While their clothes were not inconspicuous, each had moved with such grace and skill that no one, even the security personnel on hand, had paid them any attention.

Elevator two slid open with a pleasant chime, and several people left. As two of the figures climbed aboard the elevator, they were joined by a third man.

"You fellah's going up?" the man asked genially.

"Going up," one of the figures said, lifting his head just enough to reflect the glimmering light from his mirrored sunglasses.

* * * * *

"...Pitt & Whitley sees no reason why we can't proceed, at least to the testing of a flight ready prototype," Roger Strom's voice echoed over the receiver. Mia continued typing at the computer, stopping only occaisionally to take a bite from a biscuit and take a sip of a diet drink.

"I never thought I'd find anything more vile than a NutraDrink," she said into the telephone cradled between her ear and shoulder.

"Hrumph!" Trauma wheezed over the phone. "Sorry, my dear, it seems I picked the wrong corner to converse from." The sound of rustling plastic overpowered his voice, and Mia had to pull the phone away from her ear. "I am currently being assaulted by freshly laundered clothing." Mia giggled despite herself.

"Sorry, love," she smiled. She highlighted some bits of text and rearranged them on the page in front of her. "How long before you can get back up here to command central?"

"A few minutes, perhaps." Trauma said. "I was thinking that there might be some sort of break before they started going at each other's throats."

"As for AirFrame's position on this matter," Karl Wingruber's heavy German accent rumbled from the transmitter/receiver, "at present, we cannot promise equipping our planes with any such engine at this time." Shouts and murmurs echoed throughout the hall.

"I think you're too late for that," Mia said.

* * * * *

On the eight floor of Tower Asgard, the doors of elevator two slid silently open. Two trench coated figures emerged, dragging the limp body of an unfortunate passenger between them. Removing the man's room key, one of the agents walked to room 800 and unlocked the door. The other drug the inert body into the room. As he returned to the hallway without the body, elevators one and three opened to reveal four more agents.

At each end of the hallway, stairwell doors opened, and two more sets of agents appeared. Silently, they all converged on the door to suite 823. One pulled a small device out of his pocket, and placed it above the lock on the door. He tapped a few buttons, and the front of the device lit up, as it worked through millions of combinations per second. Suddenly, the front panel of the small box began to flash, and there was an audible click as the door's lock released. Silently, the door was pushed open and the agents disappeared from the hallway.


Chapter Forty-Two

"Has anyone bothered to think about the lessons of the Loughneed 1112?" a short Canadian man asked from the floor.

"Chair recognizes Mr. Swinburne," Burton mumbled. He was no longer standing at the lectern, but rather sitting at the table next to it with his head propped in his hand.

"Sven," Swinburne continued, addressing the President of Fortinbras. "You have to know the stories. Those were relatively conventional high-power engines that were built for that plane. But the development costs and under-performance of the M-1112 sent Raoul-Joyce into bankruptcy. A big bloody battle in the end lost. Can you afford to handle things if the market never materializes for a matter/anti-matter engine based on Mr. Boltz's design?"

"That is of real concern to us--" Norgaard began.

George and Hamlet exchanged glances. He doesn't know what an M-1112 is either, George thought. Quickly, he tapped at the lapel pin.

******

"Hold on just a moment," Mia said. "George needs something."

"Take your time, dear lady." Trauma said, smiling softly and trying to disentangle a plastic laundry bag which had wrapped itself around his legs. In the background, he could hear Mia pick up the radio receiver.

"What is it, George?" she said. Before any answer could be heard, there was a soft thwack sound. Mia screamed, and there was a soft hissing sound, followed by a thud.

"Mia!" Trauma yelled into the phone, spinning around and looking frantically about the lobby. Suddenly realizing the implications of what had just occurred, he ran back to the corner of the room and set the phone, still connected, into the thick leaves of a potted plant, and began to run for the door to the conference room.

* * * * *

George bolted upright, sending a shower of papers onto the floor and momentarily stopping debate. He complosed himself and sat again, allowing Norgaard to continue his discussion. Shaking, George quickly scribbled the words "Mia's in trouble" on a scrap of paper and slipped it over to Hamlet. Seconds later, he rose and quickly hurried out the of the conference room, leaving a stunned Hamlet to face the crowd alone.

* * * * *

The conference room door flew open, knocking Trauma to the ground.

"Something's happened to Mia!" George said frantically as he reached down to help his friend to stand.

Wobbling slightly and shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, Trauma nodded. "I know. I was on the phone with her when it happened."

George bolted towards the Tower Asgard elevators, but Trauma grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back. "George, not that way, we--"

George violently wrenched his arm from Trauma's grasp and ran towards the elevators. "Something's happened to her, and I'm not going to stand around to find out what!" he called over his shoulder.

Trauma furrowed his brow, caught in a moment of indecision. "It's a trap!!!!" His voice echoed through the lobby, and everyone around him turned to stare. George, seemingly oblivious to Trauma's words, punched the button for the eighth floor, and the doors slid closed.

Trauma muttered obscenities to himself between clinched teeth, and began to run towards the elevator himself. Pulling up short, he thought better of committing the same fallacy as George, and turned towards the stairs. As his hand closed on the doorknob, he stopped again.

"Stop." he commanded himself. "Think. No, this is just what I would do. Monitor both ways in." He turned and walked quickly over to the front desk, pushing his way past several people waiting to check in.

"Is there any way into Asgard other than the stairs and the elevators?" he demanded.

"Sir," the startled woman behind the counter replied with a thin reserve of patience. "You'll need to wait."

Trauma closed his eyes and silently counted off the first 25 prime numbers. "A thousand pardons," he said, mustering up his usual veneer of charm. "I was merely wishing to surprise a friend of mine. I should not have barged in like that." He flashed a Cheshire grin to the woman, who seemed to be torn between running away or pushing the "panic" button that would summon security. Selecting a third option, she pointedly ignored Trauma, turning back towards the businessman she had been checking into the hotel and continuing with her work.

"Go to the tenth floor of Tower Midgaard," she said coldly as she entered data into the computer. "You can use the Bifrost connector to get back into Asgard."

Trauma's eyes lit up. "Bifrost!" he said, smiling broadly. "Thank you very much, madam." Before she had a chance to respond, he pushed back through the crowd, sprinting towards the elevators leading up to Tower Midgaard.

* * * * *

The elevator door opened with a chime, but no one emerged into the empty hallway of Tower Asgard's eight floor. Slowly, the seconds ticked past, and the door began to slide closed again. At the last moment, a hand shot out, forcing them to open again. Cautiously, George emerged from the car, carefully looking both ways before inching his way down the hall towards the suite.

We should have moved from one room to the next! he seethed. We were sitting ducks! As he moved along, George began to mentally prepare for what he planned to do when he reached the room, and quickly came to the realization that he had no idea. One by one, courses of action based upon various strategies were evaluated, then discarded, for each ran up against two very real obstacles. First, George had no idea who or what might be in the room. Secondly, and the small part of George's brain that was still rational was sounding this alarm as loudly as it could, he had no idea how he was going to stop this enemy once it had been conclusively identified.

The entire venture was, frankly, beginning to look rather ill-advised.

George froze in place, waffling between the single minded passion to protect Mia and the practical reality that was confronting him. Just as the better part of valor seemed to be winning out, however, George felt a blunt object nestle into the small of his back. Had he never gotten involved in this adventure, he still would have understood the meaning of that object.

The object nudged George foward, and he began walking slowly to his room, sweat beading on his forhead. Finally, he stood before the entrance to room 823. The door opened silently from the inside, and George walked into a room full of white-clad agents.

"Ahh, Mr. Pembroke," Ellis smiled. "How nice of you to save us the trouble of tracking you down."


Chapter Forty-Three

"We will--we will be breaking for lunch in just a few minutes, "Daniel Burton said into the microphone, tapping at the lectern with a gavel. "To save time, I'd like everyone to pass up written suggestions for our afternoon agenda." Papers began shuffling in the conference room amid assorted shouts and murmurs. "I've been advised that several of you have to leave by no later than this evening, and we intend to accommodate you. Barring some truly extraordinary circumstance, we will end this conference by seven o'clock."

Hamlet was beginning to feel alarmed. It had been nearly twenty minutes since George had left to check on Mia, and since then, he hadn't heard anything over his comlink. He feared that the situation was becoming desperate, but even more, he feared that he was going to have to finish the conference alone.

He tapped on his lapel pin at an opportune moment, but all he heard in his ear piece was dead air. "What was it that scourge and trickster the king once said to me?" Hamlet whispered to himself. "How is it that the clouds hang on you?" Hamlet forced a laugh, attempting to chase away his melancholy. "Oh, mine Uncle, I am too much in the sun." Hamlet broke from his reverie and looked quickly over the mass of notes in front of him. He scanned the sea of faces, attempting whenever possible to avoid meeting eyes with Falstaff, who grinned at him maliciously. He saw Connelly, who was looking even more bitter and angry. As he scanned each person, he suddenly became aware of the character of them all. "A bloody council of warriors, all of them!" he muttered. "Each with his own sword to wield, each with a body politic to respond to in the confines of his own home." The room suddenly became alive with images of counselors and courtiers, all moving and interacting in an exquisite ballet. The individual threads tying their means and motives revealed themselves to be attached to one another as much as to their respective companies. As he began to realize the intricate nature of the web laid out before him, he slowly began to smile. He could feel the return of a skill and instinct that had been missing from his mind for what seemed to be ages.

"Let those that play your clowns," he muttered, "speak no more than is set down for them." He stood, and was vaguely aware of Burton signaling the end of the session and the beginning of the lunch period. "Each has a responsibility, covered o'er with fear and most wounding doubt, though in the mean time, some necessary question of the play be then to be considered!" He scanned the room, finally catching sight of a hotel employee coming in to begin cleaning up for the next session.

"Come, child," Hamlet called softly, as he walked down off the podium and towards the front of the room.

"Yes, sir?" the young man asked nervously. Hamlet again smiled, though the employee did not seem to find it reassuring.

"I have a task must needs be done," Hamlet said, taking the young man by the arm and pulling him aside. He sat at the nearest table and began writing a series of names, referring often to his notes. "A fair measure of ducats to you if thou dost complete this errand promptly and within no more than twenty minutes." He finished writing the names and handed the sheet of paper, along with a one-hundred euro note, to the boy. "One more of those for completing the task. Two more if thou dost complete in the time specified."

The boy looked at the money, then at the list, and grinned widely at Hamlet. "Thank you, Mr. Boltz," he said. "I'll get right on this!" He rushed up the aisle and out the door.

Hamlet, briefly, felt satisfied, but his worry about his friends crept over him like ivy on a castle wall, and he tapped his lapel pin repeatedly without success.

* * * * *

It had taken Trauma nearly twenty minutes to reach the tenth floor of Tower Midgaard. Initially, he had stopped in the room that had been booked for him but which he had never actually occupied during the trip. Searching carefully, he poked at the walls and ceiling tiles, searching for something he hoped he would find. It took about fifteen minutes, and a great deal of damage done to the room, but thing he was searching for turned out to be accessible, if a bit cramped.

Stepping out of the elevator, he carefully approached an archway. Above the arch, in neon script, was the word "BIFROST". Directly below that, in smaller lettering, was a separate sign which read "The Rainbow Bridge.". He stopped through the doorway and felt his breath catch in his throat. 

Nearly every material used to construct the connecting bridge between Towers Midgaard and Asgard was transparent, offering a sight, Trauma mused, not unlike that of a fully operational timeline, although infinitely more colorful. Six stories below his feet, he could see the old section of the Karl Johans Center. To each side of him, he could make out portions of the Oslo skyline, and even see a hint of water between the buildings on the horizon. In front of him, Tower Asgard loomed like an impregnable fortress, daring him to scale its walls. Above his head, the walk was covered with snow, but enough light filtered in to give the illusion that he was really walking across on a rainbow bridge.

Trauma allowed himself but a moment to marvel at the amazing construction. "No time for tourism, Trauma," he said aloud to himself, and forced himself on. He crossed the bridge quickly to Tower Asgard, and, after taking three steps into the hallway, stopped and closed his eyes. He stood stock-still while counting silently from ten to zero. His eyes popped open and he grinned with delight when cold hands failed to close on him and the pressure of a biologic distortion device failed to materialize in the small of his back.

"Missed a spot," he whispered, his gleeful expression turning serious once again. He eased the door to the stairwell open, craning his neck to peer downwards. Seeing no one, he slipped inside, closing the door carefully behind him so as not to make a noise. Creeping down a single level, he slipped out onto the ninth floor and began quickly moving from door to door, looking for one he could get into.

Maintenance closet, he thought to himself, dashing down the hallway only to find that door was also secured with an electronic lock. Very well, he thought. The issue is clear. The actions to be taken are clear. He reached into his jacket pocket and fought back a look of panic. The tools are in the room. Trauma felt momentarily deflated, and he looked about in desperation for a solution to his sudden dilemma. Spotting a room cleaner down the hall, he seized upon a plan, and began to rummage in his pockets. Pulling out the transmitter-receiver, he smiled broadly and positioned himself near the room the cleaner was working in.

Nearly ten minutes went by before the cleaner finally exited the room. Trauma crouched in the doorway of the next room, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. The cleaner loaded her cleaning supplies into a large blue rolling bin, then turned and pulled on the door so that it would close behind her. As she walked off, Trauma reached out and slid the transmitter-receiver across the floor, just hard enough that it came to rest next to the doorframe. His timing had been perfect, and the door came to rest gently against the small box. He waited patiently for the cleaner to move further into the next room. Once she had disappeared from his sight, he quickly crept forward, collected the transmitter, and slipped into the empty room, quietly sealing the door behind him before anyone noticed what he had done.


Chapter Forty-Four

Suite 823 had undergone a rather remarkable transformation in the short period of time since Ellis's men had occupied it. The computer was still in use, though it had been joined by two other laptop systems. In addition to the data collected by the group, there were also data screens from  Temporal Enforcement headquarters and streams of information concerning local conditions. Near the window in the living room, Sergeant Werm sat with a remote system, tracking signal information from the city. George sat on the floor, Mia's limp body cradled in his arms, while Ellis stood sneering down at the two of them.

"You people," Ellis snickered triumphantly. "Always thinking too literally. Of course you didn't see the guard in the hallway." He crossed his arms and turned his back on George. "You should have considered the top of the car. Make a small hole in the cover, observe those who enter, lower the car after your quarry has egressed. Pity it was you and not Martin who reacted first."

"She had best be alright," George said flatly. "You attacked the person least deserving of it!"

Ellis spun around, glowering disdainfully. "Capture the base," he lectured. "Take captives. Gain the position of strength. Elementary tactics, my boy." He pointed at Mia. "And did she consider her actions? One Tyson Selkirk would no doubt argue otherwise. Presuming, that is, he makes a full recovery." He adjusted his sunglasses and turned to the sergeant.

"The signals are being resolved," Werm responded to Ellis's unasked question. "I should have the results momentarily."

"Excellent, Sergeant." Ellis smiled. Without warning, George lunged forward, trying to knock the Chief Law Enforcement Officer's legs out from underneath him. Ellis, however, deftly avoided the maneuver. "How very crude," he said, looking down upon George with mock pity. "It's not easy being beaten, is it?"

"You bastard," George shouted, finally losing his last grip upon his temper. "We're here trying to maintain the flow of your precious history, yet you mock us! You stun us! God knows what liberties you've already taken with the citizens of Oslo! And if anything has happed to Mia--"

Ellis laughed out loud. "The citizenry never understands," he said, "no matter how often we tell them. The Biologic Disabler has but a temporary effect. She will wake unharmed--for the moment." He stared at the ceiling. "If only Mr. Martin hadn't discarded his cellular communications system. We'd have him in custody now as well."

"And what of Hamlet?" George asked. "Are you going to capture him too? The man is the only thing keeping a whisper of hope that the 808 will ever be built."

"Or," Ellis interjected, "he might be working here to insure that time is never corrected. Our files indicate a host of conflicting motives. But no, he is not at threat of capture at the moment. He's too high profile to just be snatched and taken out." He lifted his hand to his chin, and used it to cradle his head for a moment. "No, whatever we do with the Shakespereon will require subtlety."

"And then?" George continued. "Have you even considered that? What happens to Earth? What happens to the Alliance?" George was seething now. "The conspirators were right under your noses the entire time. I don't know how many janitors there are at that library, but the Thromboids are your villains. Check your records, why don't you? They certainly have the motive! They have the method, those time rings."

"Thromboids, indeed," Ellis snickered. "Your attempts at humor are really quite pathetic."

"Check the data she compiled," George said weakly, realizing that his cause was, for the moment, nearly hopeless.

"Let's hope that Mr. Martin gives himself up soon," Ellis said seriously. "Many issues must be resolved and resolved quickly." He again turned to confer with Werm, who was completely absorbed with the device in front of him. "Your task must also be completed quickly," he said, looking back towards his captives.

* * * * *

The crawl space was cramped, crowded, and extraordinarily dirty. Dirt was, in fact, rapidly revealing itself to be the primary form of life in the area.

In all his travels throughout the universe, Trauma had noted three constants wherever he went: airports and spaceports were always extremely unpleasant, local law enforcement nearly always overlooked the obvious, and every hotel or place of lodging had a crawl space. Granted, these spaces were in many cases impassable, but they still provided aid in various and sundry ways.

Trauma inched his way forward, peering down as well as he was able into the rooms as he passed them.

"Squeak!" a surprised mouse remarked.

"Indeed," Trauma whispered, trying very hard to inhale as little dust as possible. "And rather a tight one at that." The mouse continued chittering angrily, as it moved to and fro, trying to find a way around this impolite intruder into its home. "Tell me, mouse," Trauma continued, "would you by chance have a small energy weapon lying about? Perhaps some sleeping gas?" He stopped and gasped for air. "At least, a respirator?" he added plaintively.

The mouse chattered at him with annoyance, casting a last angry red glare in Trauma's direction before vanishing into the darkness.

"Yes," Trauma wheezed, "Nice--humph--chatting with you too." Suddenly, he found himself wedged tightly between the floor above him and some piping below. He struggled, but his actions were constrained by his need to be quiet. He rocked side to side, tried pushing backwards, and even attempted sitting still and waiting for his weight to have some sort of effect on the overall gravimetric situation in the area. These all failing, Trauma exhaled every ounce of air from his body, willing his chest cavity to collapse as far back into his body as possible. Finally, he was able to push through and make slow progress towards his destination.


Chapter Forty-Five

The Preparation Room in the Odin Chamber had not been designed to hold a large number of people, but Hamlet did not trust the security of the entire room. Plus, he had discovered to his delight that one of the walls easily slid back to allow the area to be expanded slightly. Thirty-one men and women in addition to Hamlet squeezed into the room, each mumbling and muttering, some carrying plates of food hastily grabbed from buffets and dining areas.

Hamlet stood by the door, waiting for the last of his invited guests to arrive. As he waited, Falstaff worked his way through the crowd and approached him.

"Have you decided?" he whispered discreetly.

"I have, Mr. Falstaff," the prince replied regally. "I have indeed. Your generous offer has been considered, and I have decided that I have far more important things to do with my time than to continue making talk with the like of you. Good day, sir."

Hamlet filed in behind the last of his guests, closing the door behind him. Falstaff stood sputtering with rage as he heard the audible click of the door's bolt being slid home, and he stormed out of the conference area.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Hamlet finally said, gathering the attention of the group. "I have requested this grave convocation, this solemn meeting, because each of you are in a position to swing the balance towards the Boling 808. Mr. Wingruber, for instance. Concrete interest from AirFrame, or at least from you, personally, would motivate--" Hamlet sighed, reluctant to speak the name, "Fortinbras." He turned to smile at a middle-aged brunette woman in the crowd. "Dr. Van Lytton, your engineering expertise gives you rare insight into the soundness and basic design of the Boling 808, and the support of Carlysle-Electric would be a boon for Boling."

"Mr. Boltz," an irritated voice came from the back of the room. Hamlet scanned for the origin of the voice, finally picking out Bob Carrack from Sisler Motors. "Mr. Boltz, this is what the entire conference is for. Why are we here? I'd kinda like to eat my lunch in more pleasant surroundings."

"'Tis simple, Mr. Carrack," Hamlet answered genially. "That conference is not for answering these questions. This conference is a farce. All of you have been summoned to this gathering by Boling and Fortinbras to damn the 808 to eternal limbo." He mentally reviewed the notes in his head, trying to keep track of events and situations. "Why call such a meeting? Can any of you swear that something like this has been done, on this grand a scale, in the past?"

The crowd was now rapt with attention as Hamlet's presence began to draw them all in.

"All of you, through the actions of Mr. Fielding and Mr. Norgaard, are being denied the privilege decide for yourself what must be done. We cannot afford to let the 808 vanish." Hamlet decided it was time to play one of the cards he'd carefully stacked into his deck. "Accordingly, I remove myself from all suspicion of ulterior motives. I will forgo any remaining payment of funds from my contract with Boling. I will complete my agreed upon contract for free, or I should say by funneling my own resources back into the construction."

The crowd murmured nervously, and more than one mouth hung open at this admission.

"Supposing we agreed," Carrack called out. "I see no reason why I would not, but ok, supposing we agreed. What then?"

"Influence your coworkers, your comrades at arms." Hamlet paused. "Your friends, even. With your support, the Boling 808 may yet become a reality." Moving forward, Hamlet scanned the gathering with his eyes, looking for signs of having gained or lost any of the available support in this room. While he was pleased with his result, he could still sense many teetering on the edge, uncertain of which way to come down. Turning his back on the group, he began to summon forth his will and his energy for one final appeal.

Slowly, he turned, cutting across the room with his gaze like a scythe through the harvest. Every eye was focused on the man from Shakespereon. With quiet deliberation, he began to speak:

"To build, or not to build: That is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The ignoble chains that bind us to the earth,
Or to take arms against the demon gravity,
And by opposing, overcome it. To fly, to soar --
No more -- and by a flight to say we end
the heartache, and the thousand natural deaths
that Earth is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished. To fly, to soar --
to soar, perchance to dream: aye, there's the rub,
For in that flight to soar what dreams may come
when we have shuffled off this sphere of Earth
must give us pause. There's the respect
that makes calamity of a grounded life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's greed, the proud man's reputation,
The pangs of supposed safety, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself his destiny make
with a lone starship? Who would fardels bear,
to grunt and sweat under a weary sky,
But that the dread of something after earth,
that undiscovered country to which borne
no traveler has ever gone, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear the ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution.
Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action!"

He froze in place, letting his last words echo in the small chamber. Every eye was locked solidly on him, and he waited for his audience to condemn or confirm him. For what seemed like an eternity, and for what was certainly at least ten or even fifteen seconds, there was a deafening silence in the room. Then, suddenly, there was a shout, and a cheer, and the audience rose as one to applaud the man who would give wings to humanity.

* * * * *

"The return signal has been drowned out again," Ground said impatiently, staring morosely at the status screens.

"Local solar disturbance," Hathram reported matter-of-factly. "We will compensate more."

"You didn't completely lose the signal last time, did you?" Ground sneered. He snapped open his coat, checking the status display on his rifle. From behind his line of sight, Ground was suddenly slammed in the face by the back of a hand. He stumbled to the floor, stopping his fall by using the display screens to support his weight.

"I have had enough of you," Maxis snapped, standing over his fallen comrade. "Control will hear about this! The Grand Cleric will hear of this! Petty differences put to work for the wrong cause! Bah!" Maxis kicked Ground in the ribs, then went back to consult with the others, who were still trying to reclaim the failed signal.

Collapsed in a heap on the floor, the pain from half-healed wounds renewed with full fervor, Ground could feel small trickles of blood flowing again. While the pain was harsh, it was not unbearable, and it served to bring to a boil his lingering anger and resentment. Gaabick, Maxis, and Hathram were gathered together, focusing on a listening device that had become more and more intermittent in its reliability Reaching into his coat, Ground clicked the power button on the rifle and deftly felt his way towards the dispersal controls. He thumbed the knob all the way to the left, setting the deadly weapon for a wide beam.

"Try the sub-frequency modulation," Maxis suggested, and Hathram began adjusting the controls. Ground slowly began easing the rifle from its holster, careful to neither move to quickly or too obviously. Hathram bolted out of his seat, looking to Maxis and Gaabick with alarm.

"The signal is being reflected back," he said. "We're being traced!" Gaabick opened his mouth to speak, but the words never came. A sizzle of energy caught the three agents directly across their midsections, killing them instantly.

Ground leaned the rifle against the wall and pulled himself up, using the control banks for leverage. The air was pungent with the aroma of freshly burnt plastic, of burnt wiring, and of burnt flesh. Just as things ought to be, Ground thought, satisfied at last, and he eagerly began to survey the weapons lining the wall.


Chapter Forty-Six

The Karl Johans Center was well constructed, but even it had a few cracks, small spaces between seals and tiles that offered viewing to the well placed individual. In his trek through the crawlspace, Trauma had peered into a number of rooms, trying to ascertain where precisely he was. What he had seen in the rooms ran the gamut from Mafioso figures extorting money to young couples engaging in activities best left to the imaginations of people with more time than Trauma could afford himself.

Finally, clothes thoroughly run through with dust and dirt, Trauma made it to the area above suite 823. Peering in through the limited viewing areas, he was able to see at least two agents, though experience told him there must be more of them. if not in the room, then in the building itself. He moved from crack to crack, carefully searching for a glimpse of George and Mia, hoping silently to himself that they were safe, though not necessarily secure.

"A reading will be available in two minutes, sir," a voice called out from below.

"Excellent, Sergeant!" another voice responded. Trauma immediately recognized the voice of Ellis. Inching slowly through the crawlspace, he moved in the general direction of Ellis's voice, plans crystallizing and then breaking apart as Trauma quickly deemed each unworkable. Where are you, old son? he thought, peering through more tiny pinholes. Finally, he caught sight of the top of a graying head standing near two figures on the floor. Trauma assumed they were George and Mia, but only their legs could be seen from this vantage point.

In the room below, Ellis continued his combined lecture and sustained diatribe, suddenly whipping a wand out of his jacket pocket and flourishing it at his captive. "Ingenious device, don't you agree, Mr. Pembroke?" he asked politely. "It is capable of blinding virtually any type of creature for a duration of up to two hours. For those without eyes of such, it also has a blinding capacity for other sensory organs as well. And then, with a simple pushing of a button, the Biologic Disabler is efficiently keyed in." He grinned malevolently as he demonstrated this action.

Trauma's eyes grew wide as Ellis leaned towards George. Preparing himself, he began to lean off of the crossbeam he was resting upon.

Ellis was quite close to George when Trauma's dirty violet frame plunged through the ceiling tiles, spiking his heels squarely in the middle of the chief temporal agent's shoulders. Ellis went down like a pole-axed steer, fumbling the wand towards George, who managed to catch it in mid-air despite his obvious surprise at someone falling through the ceiling.

"Eyes!" Trauma yelled, closing his quickly. George just managed to close his amid a fury of flashes and thwack sounds. Ellis struggled to his feet, staggering wildly as he attempted to orient himself. Quickly, Trauma grabbed Ellis by the collar, pulled the sunglasses off of the agent's face, and shoved them onto his own. "Wand!" he barked, and George flipped the small wand to him. He caught it with his freehand, and wrenched Ellis around, pressing the wand against the side of his captive's neck.

"Well, well," Trauma said gleefully, "it would appear that the tables have been well and truly turned." Five of the six agents, Werm being the only exception, converged on the pair from both rooms of the suite. "I suggest you call them off," Trauma said playfully. "I have no idea what might happen if I were to discharge the Disabler into your neck repeatedly. Do you," Trauma paused, flashing a Cheshire grin at the terrified Ellis, "sir?"

"Stay back," Ellis commanded. The agents stood motionless, confused about how to proceed.

"I assume my friend and colleague, Mr. Pembroke, has informed you of our intentions here," Trauma said, as he positioned himself more securely over the agent.

Ellis tried vainly to turn his head to face his captor. "Your associate has spun quite a fair tale," he said with difficulty. "If you were going to suggest scapegoats, Mr. Martin, I would have chosen a more likely lot than the Thromboids."

"Yes, you would say that, you arrogant little troll. Don't you understand that this is their greatest weapon?" Trauma began patting down Ellis's suit, searching for other weapons and devices. "Keep your eyes shut, George. He doesn't seem to have another set of glasses."

"On this matter we are in total agreement," George said, holding on more tightly to Mia’s inert body.

"Who in their right mind would ever suspect the janitors, the cleaning men, the butlers....surely they aren't capable of a grand pan-temporal conspiracy," Trauma continued. "It never entered my mind, and if it were not for my stunned colleague on the floor doing a rather brilliant bit of detective work, I might well have never known." He dug the point of the wand more forcefully into Ellis's neck.

"It is sufficient to graze the skin," Ellis warned uncomfortably. "They'd be useless if they required any greater contact."

"Oh, I'm not doing this to stun you, old chap." Trauma said brightly. "I'm merely enjoying myself. For once, you and your merry band of cut-throats and hooligans failed at your task. The reality is that you didn't see the Thromboid conspiracy building, and then, once Boltz was dead, you didn't have any plan for dealing with it. The answer was staring you in the face, but you were too busy chasing your tails trying to catch us to bother and ask the most important and obvious question any detective ever faces. 'Why?' There are exactly three people in this room who have any concrete, productive plan for dealing with this, and not one of them is wearing immaculate white. If I have to sit on you here for the next five weeks until we can succeed in getting the 808 built, I will. The question now is this: Are you going to help us, or are you going to hinder us?"

Before Ellis could answer, Werm stood from his position by the window. "Sir, I have the coordinates for the signal return."

"What signal return?" Trauma asked suspiciously.

"There is a listening device in this building." Ellis explained. "It is not of terrestrial origin. The Sergeant has confirmed the location to which the device is transmitting."

"The device is transmitting to a location in Akershussstranda. 378 by 758 by 1268. The system is preparing a pinpoint map now, sir," Werm supplied helpfully.

"Excellent. What is the technology?" Ellis asked, his tone of voice suggesting he already knew the answer.

"Thromboid, sir." Werm said blandly.

Ellis's jaw dropped and he stared at the Sergeant in disbelief. "Are you positive, Sergeant?" he asked incredulously.

"Estimations are accurate with a margin of error of less than one half of one percent, sir." Werm confirmed.

Trauma felt the body of his captive deflate slightly. Leaning forward, he whispered in Ellis's ear. "Now, are you prepared to believe us? Everything we have told you, from the moment you first questioned us in the library, has been true. We are not your enemy."

Ellis did not ascend to his illustrious rank by being slow to make decisions. He looked up at his assembled agents and nodded to four in rapid succession. "You four go to those coordinates and apprehend anyone you find there. Werm, pull in our corridor agents. All units not on the recon will stand down until further orders are given."

The four agents slipped quietly out the door as Werm began calling in the rest of the ground team on the radio. Satisfied that the situation was under control, Trauma allowed Ellis back to his feet, handing back over the sunglasses and the Disabler in the process.

"You say that there is a non-terrestrial signal?" George asked, suddenly realizing the implication. "There are Thromboids in Oslo? That means we've been under threat the entire time we've been here."

"Quite likely," Ellis said, brushing down his rumpled white suit. "But my agents are taking care of the situation now."

"I suggest that you send for reinforcements." Trauma said, rubbing his hands as best he could along the small of his back. "We've done the best we can with the resources we had available, but a Temporal Corrections Unit would be quite helpful."

Ellis shook his head. "We are the entire force available," he said matter-of-factly. "The Cat's Cradle is virtually impassable. The Timelines are destroyed. We came here in environmental armor, and we barely made the trip alive. Had our projections been off, this would have been a mission from which there would be no possible hope of return."

Despite his disdain for Ellis and his men, Trauma smiled warmly at him. "Without that unit, I'm afraid you'll just have to hope this plan works. Thanks to your intervention, Hamlet has been carrying on alone for well over two hours as Boltz."

"Yes," Ellis scoffed. "Employing him may very well prove to be your undo--oooph!" Ellis slowly collapsed on the floor and curled up into a ball as Mia's foot retracted from his groin area.

Mia, still slightly giddy from the effects of the mind-fog brought about by the Biologic Disabler, smiled widely at Trauma and George. "Oh, yes, I have ways," she said weakly. "Oh, do I have ways..."


Chapter Forty-Seven

The conference room was abuzz with chatter and discussion when Hamlet, Burton, Fielding, and Norgaard took their places at the front of the room. As Hamlet returned to his seat, a Karl Johans Center employee set a large stack of photocopies in front of him. The prince nodded his head and slipped another 10 euro note to the boy.

"We need to go ahead and resume these discussions," Burton said into the microphone. "We have received a number of questions--"

"Mr. Burton," a representative from Oldham Industries shouted from the floor.

"Mr. Ginsberg, we have a great deal to accomplish in a very short--"

"That's my purpose for this statement, Danny Boy," Ginsberg interrupted, much to Burton's chagrin. "Many of us in consultations during the lunch period have reached some conclusions about the future of the project, and I move for an immediate yea or nay vote from the representatives."

"But, Mr. Ginsberg, the vote is not scheduled until--" Burton was once again interrupted, this time by Ginsberg ripping apart a copy of the conference agenda.

"Pitt & Whitley seconds the motion," Roger Strom said, standing to address the front. Ginsberg smiled triumphantly.

Both Fielding and Norgaard began shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Sitting at the Boling table in the conference area itself, Chuck Melton also began looking rather concerned. He stood to face the other conference attendees.

"If everyone will wait, I have seen some of the questions forwarded to Mr. Burton." Melton rubbed his hand through his hair. "I believe that hearing the answers to these questions may be very--"

"If it will move to put an end to this damn folly, I'm all for a vote right now," Connelly called out, propping his boots up on the Sisler Motors table. Murmurs of support for an immediate vote echoed through the hall.

"Mr. Burton," Falstaff said suddenly. "If I can have a word with the conference, I think we can solve this issue entirely." He shot an I-told-you-so glare at Hamlet.

Burton had given up any pretence of controlling the floor, and stood slumped over the lectern, his gavel dangling loosly from one hand. "Chair recognizes John Falstaff," he said, resignedly.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Falstaff said, walking to the center aisle and turning to face the audience. "We have been carrying on a debate about this fever dream project, but how can we even consider building such a plane when the very person who is singing that project's praises is," he paused for dramatic effect, "an imposter!"

Shouts of disbelief and heckles rippled through the audience. Both Fielding and Norgaard leapt to their feet. "What did you say?" Fielding gasped.

Falstaff walked slowly down to the well of the chamber. "Oh, yes," he said, stopping in front of Hamlet, who merely smiled benignly at him. "I worked with Boltz on the AF-400, and this is not him." He turned to address the crowd. "My friends, I didn't say anything about this before, because I wanted to see what he was trying to do. Well, now I know. It is obvious he is trying to ruin us all by getting us all to support some fantasy pipe dream. I don't know what happened to the real Thomas Boltz, but this man is not him!"

There was a long pause, and all eyes turned to Hamlet, who was sitting passively in his chair, looking down at his accuser with a look that was somewhere between bemusement and pity. "Gentlemen," he said deliberately, "I regret to inform you that one of your own is a somewhat less than honest individual. I had expected some sort of silly outburst from this man, and I have prepared a document to attempt and explain the situation." He snapped his fingers, and the young bellboy who had been assisting him so ably materialized at his side. Making no comment, Hamlet merely picked up the sheaf of photocopies and handed them to the youngster, who began distributing them throughout the room. Falstaff reached for one of the remaining documents, but Hamlet grabbed them up quickly and gave a copy to Fielding, Norgaard, and Burton.

Falstaff tsked at Hamlet. "What is your petty game now?" he asked suspiciously.

"Does everyone now have a copy before them for their own perusal?" Hamlet inquired, smiling with satisfaction as he noticed the shock on the faces of some of the people who had already scanned the documents.

"Yesterday," Hamlet said, unconsciously dropping into a more formal mode of oratory, "this man approached me with the most preposterous notion. He claimed that I was not who I appear to be. I was curious as to why he would accuse me of such a thing, when we have known each other for so many years, so I set out to divine what purpose he might have."

Falstaff leapt towards Hamlet, trying to grab one of the documents from his hand, but Hamlet casually strolled down the stage at just the right moment, leaving his tormentor grasping at thin air. "This morning," he continued, as if he were unaware of the interruption, "I received confirmation of certain matters. Firstly, Mr. Falstaff's ridiculous claim was a petty attempt at extorting ducats from my purse."

"Gentlemen," Falstaff said impatiently. "Can't you see what is going on here? This imposter has been cornered, and now he is trying to escape."

"Mr. Falstaff," Hamlet said breezily, "demanded that he be given immediate payments of four hundred thousand euros and inclusion in all future contracts bearing my name, or else he would 'expose me'. Looking at the document in front of you, you can see why he might choose to do something of this nature." Hamlet grinned cat-like at the mouse scurrying below him. He casually allowed one of the documents flutter lightly to the floor, where Falstaff grabbed it. He glanced over it angrily, but as he read, the blood drained out of his face.

"Mr. Wingruber," Hamlet said to the AirFrame representative, "please call your auditors. Now that they are aware of precisely what they should look for, they should be able to quickly determine when and how John Falstaff began embezzling money from AirFrame Industries. You will also find a rather large debt load associated with his failed investment projects. I regret that this information had to come to light in this forum, but as you can see, the actions of this pretentious knave presented me with no alternative."

Wingruber stared dumbly at Falstaff. "You told me that money had gone into the contingency fund." he said.

"Can't you see," Falstaff protested weakly. "it's all a pack of lies." He spun angrily and lunged at the Danish prince, but Hamlet side stepped his clumsy attack effortlessly and guided his attacker headfirst into the lectern.

"Your story is utterly ridiculous, Mr. Falstaff," Burton said from the podium. A company official emerged at the exit door, hotel security in tow. As the officers approached, Falstaff attempted to stand, but his feet were tripped out from underneath him by Hamlet.

"I'll get you for this," Falstaff threatened as the security guards tightened their grip around each of his arms.

"I am rather sure you would like to think you could," Hamlet smiled as they led Falstaff away. Thank you, Mia, he thought. "Mr. Burton, I believe there was a seconded motion for an immediate vote," he provided helpfully. "I have no objections to the motion and have every confidence that these good men and women will vote their hearts and minds."


Chapter Forty-Nine

Ground limped through the snow-encrusted streets, wincing in pain with every labored step. Driving a ground vehicle had proven more difficult than he had imagined it would be, and he was finally forced to abandon the car when he smashed it into the side of a building. But the car had served its purpose. He was very close to Karl Johans Gate, and a walk of another mile did not make much difference to him at that moment.

The cold did not bother him. The pain did not bother him. The thought of dealing with Control and later with the Grand Cleric did not bother him. Only months ago, he had been satisfied performing contract hits on those the Grand Cleric had deemed to be apostates. Now, he was shuffling down streets in the most miserable locale he'd ever been forced to endure. Someone was going to pay, and that someone was Trauma Martin.

As he approached the hotel, Ground ran through his choices of attack options, finally deciding that entrance through the rear of the complex would be most prudent. He made a quick trek down a side street so as to better approach the Karl Johans Center.

* * * * *

"Hamlet," Trauma said into the transmitter, "we're back on the air. How goes the conference?"

"We are approaching the final vote," he said softly. "What has transpired? Where hast thou been?"

Trauma grinned widely, not so much from the question as from Ellis's uncomfortable gate as he approached the laptops on the table. "Don't ask," Trauma said. "I'll fill you in on the grisly details in good time." Mia lay quietly on the bed in the next room, and from his vantage point he could see her body curled beneath the covers. George stood in the doorway, never for a moment taking his eyes off of her.

"Is my presence required?" Hamlet asked.

"No," Trauma said firmly. "Stay there. Work the crowd. We have to get this project approved. I'm signing off now, and I'll be down to watch the proceedings from the doorway." Trauma put the transmitter down, and turned to face Ellis.

"I'm still angry with you." he said. Ellis did not jump on the taunt.

"My agents have entered the Thromboid complex. The report is being updated in text form now. It seems the situation may be even more complex than we imagined. Corporal Hilbern reports they found three freshly deceased Thromboid bodies buried inside half melted Chameleon suits."

Trauma nodded thoughtfully. "Internal dissent, do you suppose?"

"More than likely," Ellis agreed, wincing slightly from the lingering pain. "The killer is also a Thromboid. They found a light trail of Thromboid blood leading from the point where the weapon was fired leading out to the street. It appears the killer has changed his location."

"He's coming here." Trauma said flatly.

"It seems very likely. Sergeant Werm, take Private Gaulen to the Ground floor. Search pattern H313. Jyx and I will protect the base."

"I would recommend you get your men back here immediately," Trauma said dryly. "I have great respect for the talents and abilities of the Temporal Authority, but there are only four of you here now, and that force has been split. We do not know for certain that there is only one Thromboid."

Ellis glared at him, then pointedly jabbed a button on the communications console.

"Is ill-temper a prerequisite for being hired as a Temporal Agent?" Trauma asked as he left the room to check on Mia. George smiled at him, and nodded his head slightly. Trauma smiled back, then slowly made his way to the door, pulling it quietly closed behind him.

* * * * *

At the front of the conference room, Burton and two hotel employees recorded the votes that had been cast by each company. These had been sent forward on folded pieces of paper to be counted. Sitting nearby at his table, Hamlet waited calmly, yet anxiously, for the result. Just before the votes had been cast, he had made one last speech to the assembly reminding them to strive for the future and stressing that the best decisions in history did not always seem the most popular or even the most wise courses of action to pursue at the time.

At the counting table, the group seemed to have made it through all the ballots, but Burton remained unsatisfied. The hotel porters sighed loudly, and began recounting the ballots. Hamlet scanned the quiet faces in the chamber, catching sight of Trauma at the top of the room. He could tell right way that his companion was agitated, though he could see no immediate cause beyond the vote itself, and had no opportunity to ask.

At long last, Burton stepped up to the microphone, looking at turns shocked and frightened, as though he were afraid someone might dislike his announcement and shoot the messenger. "Ladies and gentlemen, if I can have your attention, please. Uh, It appears that this conference body has voted, by a margin of approximately two to one, to recommend construction of the Boling 808."

There was the sound of breaking glass, as Norgaard's drink slipped from his hand and crashed the floor. Fielding sat open mouthed, looking as though he had just been slapped. Burton looked over at the two executives, and then referred to his notes. "I believe the plan is for Mr. Fielding and Mr. Norgaard to now make their final decision based on the recommendation of this conference."

"I--uh," Fielding stammered. "I--need a few minutes here."

"As do I," Norgaard agreed quickly, still glassy eyed from disbelief.

At the exit to the lobby, Trauma smiled widely. Boling would almost certainly now decide to build. For a moment, Trauma forgot the worries he had and rejoiced in the knowledge that they had done their best. Whatever happened from this point on was more than likely out of their hands.

A large rack of dry cleaned jackets rolled out from the cleaners and maneuvered its way through the lobby. To anyone watching, it would have appeared to be moving itself. The rack began to slow to a stop in the middle of the floor, and a small cylindrical object emerged from between the coats. Ground stared through the scope mounted on top of his lethal pistol to make sure that Trauma was squarely in the target, and then slowly squeezed the trigger, savoring the moment for as long as he was able.

In the name of the Mother-of-All, in the name of the Great Cleric, and in the name of the great planet Thrombia, I sentence you to death, Trauma Martin, he mouthed to himself as he pulled back on the trigger.

The gun discharged into the floor as Ground was attacked savagely from behind. A hail of fisticuffs pummeled his head and body, and he dropped the pistol harmlessly to the floor as he attempted to fend off his unseen attacker. Slowly, he slumped across the trolley and slipped into unconsciousness.

Standing over him, grasping at his hands and wrists, which were now relaying irritated messages to his brain, George nodded with satisfaction. He walked over to where Trauma stood dumbfounded.

"I couldn't stay in the room any longer," George said by way of explanation. "What was going on down here was more important even than what is going on up in that room." His shoulders slumped suddenly as the adrenaline which had been propelling him for hours finally exhausted its supply of energy.

"Thank you," Trauma said, putting his hand on George's shoulder. "I appear to--" he cocked his head slightly. "Owe you one."

Trauma and George quickly herded the trolley and its cargo onto the elevator before security could respond to the fracas. George continued to massage his hands and wrists, which now throbbed persistently. Kneeling down to examine the fallen man, he gasped in amazement. "Trauma," he cried. "It's the dwarf!"

Trauma looked at George incredulously. "Him?" he asked, gesturing at the motionless body.

"It's the wrong height, but I'd swear that was his face!"

Trauma leaned forward and looked. Quickly, he began feeling along the legs of the man in the trench coat. "Ah, yes." he smiled. "The agents said they had found three Thromboid bodies in half-melted Chameleon suits. The bottom half of the legs are artificial." George gave him a puzzled glance. "Thromboids. Standing up on their tentacles, they're only about four to four and a half feet tall." he explained.

The elevator doors opened onto the eight floor, and George and Trauma wheeled the cart down to suite 823.


Chapter Fifty

Sitting alone together in the Preparation room, Richard Fielding and Sven Norgaard hunched over a large decanter. They took turns pouring glasses of brandy for the other to drink, and both men were smoking large cigars in defiance of all known hotel restrictions. The room was already thick with smoke.

"Where'd we go wrong, Sven?" Fielding asked, taking a long sip from his drink.

Norgaard stared sullenly at the crystal shot glass. "You hired Thomas Boltz," he said flatly.

Fielding smiled grimly, resisting the urge to throw his brandy into Norgaard's face. "You may be right, my friend. You may be right."

"So, what are we going to do about--" Norgaard gestured vaguely towards the door, which was momentarily shielding them from the collective will of the conference. "about that situation?"

"What else can we do," Fielding shrugged. "We made the bed. We bought the sheets. We own the frame." He drained the entire glass, and Norgaard immediately refilled it. "If we back down now, the reporters will get wind of all this and we'll never be able to live it down."

"I was afraid you were going to say that," Norgaard grimaced, downing his glass.

"So, when the board of directors fires you, what do you think you'll do with your life?"

"I understand there are some lovely monasteries in the south of France," Norgaard said without enthusiasm. He raised his glass above the table. "Well, Richard, here's to the biggest white elephant either of us will ever have the misfortune to be involved with."

Fielding clinked the outstretched glass with his own, shaking his head sadly. "Even if it gets off the ground, who's going to want to buy it? A museum?"

* * * * *

The agents closed the door to suite 823, pulling the Thromboid and its suit onto the bed. Mia, who had only earlier awakened from her slumber, watched as they methodically disassembled the artificial shell. What had only recently passed for human was quickly revealed to be a severely injured squid.

"This is the Alpha," George said to Mia, pointing at the disassembled Chameleon suit. "Those leg extensions hid the fact that this was the man in my closet who gave me the cryptic note." Mia looked at the Thromboid, who was now being given medical treatment by two of the agents. Probably only want to keep him alive for questioning, she thought.

"It makes sense now," Trauma said, running his finger around his Time ring, which no longer flashed urgently. "He used a time ring to pop into your closet, handed you the note when you were most vulnerable, and then popped out again before you had a chance to react." Trauma smiled widely, almost despite himself. "I've always said the Thromboids were one of the more brilliant species in the Alliance, and this does rather confirm it."

"Need I remind you," George said testily, "that that so-called brilliance nearly cost the Alliance."

Mia reached out and grabbed his arm. "Now, George, calm down. It's over." She smiled nervously at him, relaxing slightly as she felt the tension ebb from his body.

"It's not quite over yet," Ellis said, checking reports on the computer system. "HQ reports that the normal flow of time is re-establishing itself, but the Cat's Cradle will need to be rebuilt. Fortunately, we stowed a portable line erector at our landing site. It will create a very small line, but it should be enough to make one trip."

"We can at least get everyone back to the library," Mia said. "Speaking of which..."

"A contingent is already on their way there, with orders to detain all Thromboids present in the complex." Ellis finished typing his report into the computer and shut it down. "It might take a while, but we will establish who is a part of this--conspiracy, and who is innocent."

"I hate to think just how much work I've got to do over the next couple of months," Mia said, holding her hand to her forehead melodramatically before breaking into a fit of giggling. She poked George in the stomach to stop him from tickling her. Growing serious again, she added, "I just hope he hasn't gotten around to erasing the backups."

"And then, of course, there is the matter of the Prince of Denmark," Ellis continued.

Mia looked startled. "Omigosh," she said. "I never even thought about what needed to be done with Boltz if we were successful."

"He will return to Seattle by aircraft," Ellis said. "We will meet him there, and then arrange for Boltz to die on the way home, placing his body in a wrecked automobile." George cringed visibly. Ellis smiled slightly, and nodded sympathetically. "I prefer to think of it as a practical solution. All our projections say that only minor shirts in the temporal flow will occur if Boltz dies after the 808 project is confirmed."

"Well then," Mia said playfully, reaching out to ruffle Ellis's hair, "you finally get to face a real menace on this trip."

"Wha-??" Ellis yelped, ducking from under her hand. "What in the blazes are you talking about?"

Mia grinned, slipping her arm around George and squeezing him slightly. "You get to tell Hamlet he has to fly again."

Trauma and George stared at each other in disbelief, before the three companions collapsed in a fit of laughter.


EPILOGUE

The orchard was quiet and still. A thin coating of snow and frost lay upon the ground, and icicles dangling from the tree branches glistened in the light of dancing torches nearby. The pale sun shining down through the branches washed out what few colors could be found in the still clearing, giving it the air of a desolate graveyard. Only moments before, it had become just that. On the ground in the center of the clearing lay a tall, regal man. His gray beard spilled out around his flowing purple robe, and nearby, a golden crown lay neglected where it had rolled.

Standing only inches away from the body, a shorter, stockier man wearing almost pure white hovered over the body, barely visible against the background if not for the clouds of vapor he exhaled. The small gold bottle in his hand also stood out against the white, snowy background. He knelt down and prodded the body, as if to assure himself that the figure was actually dead. Standing, he slipped the golden vial back into his white furs, laughed quietly to hismelf, and scurried quickly into the foggy winter afternoon.

There was an audible click, as Hamlet pressed the stop button on the video camera. He rewound the tape, pressing play again, watching the images in the tiny view monitor. It was horrifying to see what he had suspected for so long played out, but the camera had recorded first the sleeping King Hamlet, and had recorded everything up through that point that Trauma pressed stop.

It was now official. There could be no denials, no hesitations, no pulling back. Hamlet held in his hand the proof that his Uncle Claudius had murdered the King, and this proof could be used to justify the actions he would be taking as soon as he returned to present day Elsinore.

Hamlet said a silent prayer for Trauma Martin, who, as promised, had come to the garden at the moment before the King arrived for his afternoon nap and placed a video camera to record once and for all what truly occurred. In the two months that had passed since he had seen Trauma, Mia, and George, he had waited patiently for the word that the Timelines were once again operational. Clutching the camera tightly in his arms, he reached down and began to manipulate the crimson jewel in the amulet that hung around his neck. Just before activating the operating unit, handpicked by Trauma from several that had been available on the black market, Hamlet reflected on what he knew he must now do. Taking a deep breath, he gave the jewel a quarter twist and disappeared into the Timelines.

* * * * *

The Mycroft Space Terminal was not a friendly or happy place to be under the best of circumstances, and these were not by far ideal times. Long lines of passengers waited to board flights to destinations throughout the Alliance. Many of them had been stranded in the terminal for days.

During a single day, seemingly in the wink of an eye, entire flight schedules and fleets of spacecraft seemed to appear and disappear and appear again, and it had taken days for the hundreds of organizations involved in the industry to straighten out the errors.. While a split second did not make much difference to Holigoth businessman, for instance, it did make a world of difference between being on-course and being light-years off course for ships travelling through the depths of space.

No credible explanations for the sudden upsets of flights had been given. Officials explained it in terms of "galactic hiccups", but when pressed, none could give a reliable explanation for what that actually meant. Other agencies passed off the disturbances as "localized temporal anomalies", and in one case, "mass sustained psychotic episodes." For its part, the Alliance offered no explanation beyond a simple, if cryptic, remark: "We refer the recent unexplained phenomenon to the doorstep of the gods, and suggest that perhaps you might check with them for further information."

Of course, there were rumors. Prominent conspiracy theorists pointed their fingers at the Temporal Authority, charging them with covering up some giant galactic plot to destroy all of space and time. Indeed, they noted with pointed interest the sudden "temporary" closure of the Cat's Cradle to all but "necessary traffic", an event termed routine by the Authority, who claimed the closure was necessary to effect maintenance on the lines and ensure their integrity.

On the very fringes of society, crackpot journalists, survivalists of low breeding, and revolutionaries postulated that a link existed between these strange events and the Thromboid Cult of the Great Evil, which had been the subject of a sweeping series of crackdowns and arrests by various law enforcement officials. These people, generally considered lunatic by society, cited as their "proof" the supposed high level secret meetings which were taking place in the Thromboid capital--allegations denounced as preposterous by the officials who were denying they were involved.

As interesting as all the speculation and general hysteria was, however, it offered little comfort to those stranded in spaceports throughout the galaxy. Already, an entire colony of Hulgar'la on their way home after attending their obligatory bicentennial holy pilgrimage, had been forced to go into molt in the terminal, severely increasing the level of frustration, annoyance, and discomfort felt by everyone around them.

Terregon Spryte, briefcase and travel bags in hand, had already missed two connecting flights at other terminals.

"This is ridiculous, ain't it?" Spryte moaned to the person in line behind him at the boarding gate. "I didn't go into outside sales to ride on some klyxoisht discount line." He huffed loudly, his throat sacks expanding and contracting with every breath. "First class, all the way? Bah!" He wheeled about to address the line directly. "Whoever heard of Space Tran? A flygran cattle call line!" Gazing out the window, he accosted the nearest passenger in line. "Look at that ship! It's a blasted antique, that's what it is. They call that a spacecraft? Oh, this is terrible."

The target of this diatribe straightened his violet jacket and ran a casual hand through his thick black hair. "Oh, I don't know," he said, flashing a Cheshire grin at Spryte. "I'm rather looking forward to the trip myself."

The weary travelers filed down the jetway, lugging their bags and suitcases along the long tube that stretched out from the terminal to connect with the entrance door of the spacecraft, just above its huge delta-wing.

Trauma Martin was the last man to step on board. He paused at the door, turning to survey the crowded spaceport behind him, the bustle of the teeming masses of passengers on their way to and from unknown destinations, and the scramble of the maintenance workers completing their final inspections. Slowly, his face split into a wide smile, and he nodded with satisfaction as he turned and stepped into the waiting hatchway, which slid closed behind him.

Moments later, the giant Boling 808 lumbered onto the runway, and roared off to the stars.

The End


© 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 enjoys 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.