9th June 2014
Secretary Director of Planetary Development Diane Meter leveled her eyes at the one person she had hoped to never have sitting at her desk. After a second she cleared her throat and turned on the recording device she had laid on her desk.
“Flight Lieutenant Persephone Meter, this is a hearing to determine your culpability and participation in and regarding the recent solar black out. This hearing is not an indictment or a trial, only a fact finding exercise. If sufficient evidence is found, you will be brought to trial and face conviction. It is important that you do not lie, omit, or mislead during these proceedings. If you do any of these things during this hearing you will face charges of purgery. Do you understand everything I have said to you at this time?”
The Flight Lieutenant had been spacing out a little bit during this whole thing. Her eyes had wondered all over her mother’s office. Being planetside it wasn’t constrained by the brutal space limits imposed on orbital stations where Persephone had spent most of her life. The high vaulted ceilings and marble drove home point that the person who inhabited this office had a god like reach and influence. She took note of the crossed torch and sheaf of wheat, the symbol of the Directory of Planetary Development, that was etched on a gold, circular plaque on the wall behind where her mother sat. Finally, her eyes settled on the sign that indicated who worked at the desk that was Spartan in it’s lettering. “D. Meter.” No honorifics, simply the name. Somehow it seemed even more imposing.
“Flight Lieutenant Meter! Did you hear me? Or do I have to waste my time reading this again?” While Persepone’s eyes had been wondering, so had her mind, and her mother, “D. Meter” had just called her on it.
“Yes Secretary Director. I did hear you. I understand what you have just said to me.” This wasn’t the first time Persephone had been in trouble, but it was the biggest amount of trouble she had ever been in. From now on she would try to pay more attention. Diane’s narrowed eyes served to reinforce this decision.
“Very well. Let us start from the beginning. First, tell me, how you stole the PDS Prosperity.”
Persephone started to say, “I prefer the term ‘liberated,’ or ‘borrowed indefi-,’”
“Do not make a mockery of this!” Diane roared. The pressure she’d been feeling at first having her only daughter disappear just as the sun for all intents and purposes went out, then the media fallout after someone leaked that Persephone could be responsible, finally burst out. Diane smashed the stop button on the recorder and said, “It is not only your ass on the line, but mine too! We could both be lynched for mass murder, right now and you want to make jokes. Typical, just typical. Why did I waste my time on you? On raising you? On giving you the best education in the Terran Domininion? If this is what we all get in return.”
“Ok. I’ll take this more seriously.” Persephone relented. “Just try to remember that whatever you’ve been going through, it seems like a cake-walk to me.”
“This had better be worth it,” The Secretary Director said and turned the recorder back on.
* * *
Persephone delighted in the controls of the PDS Prosperity. One of the newest scout vessels in the fleet and the smallest ship to date with a translation drive, the Prosperity hadn’t even had her shakedown cruise. It was designed to, if necessary, be crewed by one. It was a little cramped, but maneuvered like a humming bird. And the power to weight ratio! While it had never been tested, there was no reason the ship couldn’t operate in atmosphere. The ship was to be fated to be a high speed courier vessel. Persephone thought her current endeavor was far more dignified for such a beautiful piece of engineering.
The Flight Lieutenant had just graduated from the Dominion Advanced Astrogation Course and wanted to do something special for her leave before reporting to her first assignment. So she seduced the actual test pilot, got the codes to the ships computer core, then knocked him out before having to “seal the deal.” Once she got the codes, it was child’s play to actually get through the security check point, and onto the ship. She may have broken the docking ring as she blasted away from the Hephaestus shipyards, but she was long gone before anyone could catch up. Persephone was sure her mom could get her out of any serious trouble and probably even keep her in space.
Her first stop was to the moons of Saturn, after a computer aided tour of the planetary system, Persephone spent a few days testing herself by pulling evasive maneuvers on some of Saturn’s orbiting asteroids. It was fun, but she decided to get on with the main event of this little excursion.
Since she was a little kid, Persephone had heard of how no one comes back from Pluto. Some said the whole system was haunted. Pluto and its moons being off limits only served to reinforce any kind of wildly entertaining speculation that came out of the rumor mill and conspiracy theorists. Most ships wouldn’t even let you enter the coordinates for a jump. That was another reason Persephone had chosen the Prosperity has her chariot. It hadn’t had its navigation equipment doctored by the Directorate of Planetary Develpoment yet.
After serving herself a bountiful feast of a nutrient bar and recycled water, Persephone headed back to the navigation console and punched in the Lagrange point between Pluto and it’s eternal dance partner Charon. She was so excited to finally hit the jump button. The thoughts of what she might find there raced through her head as the stars blurred and the Prosperity translated to the forbidden world.
* * *
“Pluto! You went to Pluto!” Diane Meter said after switching the recorder off again. “Why would you steal a state of the art ship to take a joy ride to Pluto? Of all places?”
Persephone leveled her gaze at her mother and said, “I wanted to be famous for finding what was going on there. Or spending a month lounging on a beach in New Zealand sounded too tame and wasteful of my talents. Or you might say I did it because I chose to do it instead of you choosing it for me. Whatever sounds best in your report.”
The last part changed Diane’s gaze from anger to pain. At that moment she was simply a mother recalling her terror at hearing her only daughter had vanished, not the nigh all-powerful head of an interstellar bureaucracy. Quietly, and with hurt quivering in her voice, “I looked for you. I had the whole Directorate try to find you. You and any sign you were still alive or dead. It was the not knowing I couldn’t handle. We had no idea where you were until the Prosperity translated back into translunar space.” She cupped her face in her hands so Persephone at least couldn’t see she was choking back tears.
After a moment Diane regained herself, and was all business again. Persephone had always wondered how her mother had been able to change back and forth from her two personalities so quickly and seemingly effortlessly. Sometimes she wondered if her mother were mortal. That thought brought a smirk to her lips.
Diane, seeing levity on her daughter’s face again, decided to press on with the interview once more. She flipped on the recorder once more and said, “After you translated to Pluto, what happened next?”
* * *
As always, the beauty of post-translation static mesmerized Persephone as it danced and eventually dissipated across the surface of Prosperity’s hull. After it was gone she focused her attention on her destination. Pluto and Charon loomed around her. As if each second she stayed there was another second they decided not to crush Persephone and her prize of a vessel between them. It was dark and cold. The Sun was just the brightest of all the stars in the sky. Not the blazing life giver she’d grown up with. Persephone had to check the life support systems just to reassure herself that the chill running down her spine wasn’t a micro-meteor strike venting atmosphere.
Persephone shook herself at the sight of it all and got down to brass tacks. She touched the helm controls and attempted to steer the Prosperity toward the planet, but there was something off. The controls seemed a hair sluggish, but Persephone chalked it up to being shakedown cruise hiccups. She eventually overcame and settled the Prosperity into a low orbit around Pluto, started scanning the surface with radar pings and thermal imagers, then flipped the switch to auto-pilot so she could look out at the foreboding world. Even a planet as “small” as Pluto can take time to take a good scan of. Persephone used the time to admire the view. Once she got past the initial shock of how barren the place was, the beauty of Pluto and started to bleed through. It was a delicate and subdued glamour like soft moonlight on a crystalline lake. Once you got used to it, Earth and the terraformed belt of green around Mars looked like garish show offs.
Without warning, a small alarm went off, and Persephone pulled her eyes away from the view to the sensor console. Unbelievable! Persephone thought to herself as the thermal imager reported something that by all rights, should not exist on Pluto. It was a tiny flare of heat, no more than 10 meters across and 20 degrees Celsius, but when compared with the absolute crushing cold of even a Plutonian summer, it might as well have been a hydrogen bomb.
She’d found it! She couldn’t believe what her instruments were telling her. There was something on Pluto that no one else had ever seen, and lived to tell the tale of. Her fingers flew excitedly over the sensor controls to access the high zoom visual spectrum cameras to look at her new discovery. Was it an ancient alien ruin? Or a secret superweapon the Dominion had long ago abandoned? Persephone’s heart was about to explode out of her chest. Her excitement turned immediately to confusion as the cameras settled their gaze onto the target.
“Grass?” Persephone said under her breath. “Green grass. On Pluto. I must have gone insane. Computer, am I insane?” she asked only half sarcastic.
“Pilot, there is no reason to lead to that conclusion,” the impersonal electronic voice of the computer droned out.
“Then Occam’s razor strikes again.” Persephone said as she turned around and sat back into the helmsman’s seat. There was only one way to find out if what she saw through the cameras was real. She strapped herself in. It was time to test if the PDS Prosperity really could operate in an atmosphere.
* * *
Diane looked up from her notes with a look of shock and incredulity. She flipped the recorder off and said, “Tell me this is another one of your jokes.”
Persephone couldn’t help but laugh and said, “I could, but I’d be lying. I ran the numbers, there is no reason the Prosperity couldn’t handle landing on Pluto. Everything checked out. The slower than light drives on her are potent enough to take off from Earth sea level, Pluto would have been a piece of cake except for-“
“Except for the fact that the ship did not have any kind of landing gear?” Diane’s eye brow went up.
“Well, yeah, but I got around that one. It was the ice swallowing the ship that really got in the way.”
“What!?” The Secretary Director almost squawked.
Persephone smiled and said, “Turn the recorder back on. You’ll want to hear this.”
* * *
The PDS Prosperity bucked lightly up and down as the thin Plutonian atmosphere made way for the thirty thousand ton ship as it plowed downward on its mission of discovery. What little resistance it did give was easily defeated by the sturdy ceramic hull that encapsulated Persephone. The Prosperity’s hull had only the slightest dull red haze. She hadn’t had this much fun since the first time she got behind the controls of a starship.
After only two minutes of decent Persephone hit the deceleration thrusters, and made “contact” with Pluto’s surface about two hundred kilometers from the mysterious green circle. Even with the relatively little amount of heat radiating from her hull, the Prosperity still had enough to flash vaporize the ancient ice on the surface. Persephone had positioned the ship perfectly for the maneuver she was about to perform. As the ice exploded in mist, the Prosperity rode the near frictionless surface of the cloud to its destination.
Persephone couldn’t help it, she was cackling like a school girl. It wasn’t every day someone got to tear across the surface of a world at a few thousand kilometers an hour riding a self made vapor cushion. That kind of reentry had been banned on Earth for a few centuries. Ever since someone got carried away and slammed into a cruise ship at mach 3. As the journey ended, the hull cooled down again and the ice vapor turned to liquid and the ship coasted slowly on its own momentum to within 30 meters of the baffling grass grove. With no more heat to fuel its brief transformation, the liquid froze back to ice underneath Prosperity.
“Wooo! That was better than sex! I love this ship!” Persephone said as she kissed her hand then smacked the top of the helm controls. She then released the straps that held her into place and walked out of the bridge toward the maintenance compartment. Inside she found a Planetary Development standard issue hazardous environment suit. Say what you will about the PlanDev, but they always over equip their vessels. She stripped down and put on the thick, skin tight suit. She was always discomforted by the feeling of the suits waste disposal apparati making their necessary connections, but it is better than having to “go” and not being able to. And the discomfort is always better than dying in vacuum.
Persephone stepped into the airlock, and started to cycle the air out after putting on her helmet. She waited until the suit’s external temperature readouts matched Pluto’s surface. If she wasn’t careful, the same vapor cushions that helped her land here would occur beneath her feet and leave her trapped in the ice. Once the suit read close enough she opened the airlock’s outer door and stepped out of her ship.
It was dim and desolate. All she could hear was her heartbeat and the occasional rumble from the ice settling back into position after her spectacular landing. She stepped out onto Pluto’s surface, and was struck with waves of giddiness. She’d had low gravity training before, but it was always on space stations. Never something so exciting as a real planet!
Persephone could see the grass that lured her here to this deadly world about thirty meters off. She decided to try something that she could never have been able to do on the training stations. She crouched down, with all her strength jumped toward the grass, and like that was flying. She could see her ship in all its glory and the ground falling away from her without the aid of a thruster. It took thirty or more seconds for her to land and she overshot her target, but didn’t really care. Using smaller leaps she made it to her goal.
Once she entered the grass circle she felt the weight of her body instantly reassert itself, and she fell down, face first into the grass. When she got back up, the sense of euphoria wore off and terrible wonder took its place. There was something wrong with the grass, aside from the fact that it was on Pluto. It was too uniform, too perfect. Like a recently mowed lawn, but each blade of grass was unshorn, as if they all grew to the same length and then stopped. In the middle was a flower about waist height with six white petals and a vibrant yellow center. A narcissus flower that was facing right at Persephone. The creepiest thing though, was that the grass was blowing in a wind that wasn’t there.
Loosing what little caution she still had, Persephone walked up to the flower and touched it. She could have sworn it turned in her hand like a cat receiving a scratch behind the ear. Before she could confirm that though the ground started violently shaking, and she could hear through the suit the ancient ice groaning and breaking apart. The Prosperity’s bow had jutted sharpy into the black sky as the ice opened from underneath, slowly swallowing the ship whole. The fissure that had started with the ship was working its way uncomfortably fast toward Persephone. She suddenly snapped into action and backpedaled away only to run into a wall that wasn’t behind her before. The ice had been cracking behind her as well she found out as she looked back at a jagged cliff was looming behind her and getting bigger. In the back of her mind she thought about how the waste disposal systems in her suit were about to work overtime.
The ice was now closing in and before she blacked out, Persephone had time for two thoughts. I’m about to die on a planet named after the god of death, and Mom!
* * *
“When exactly did this happen? Touching the narcissus and the ice breaking apart?” Diane asked, trying to imagine the terror her daughter must have felt at the time, and to hide in her voice how much she succeeded in imagining.
Persephone shook her head, momentarily stunned by the question out of her reverie. “Huh?” She noticed this was the one interruption her mother hadn’t paused the recording for.
“When did this all happen? The flight recorder on the Prosperity had been wiped from the moment you translated to Pluto until you popped back to Earth. We need you to fill in the gaps to the best of your knowledge.” Diane was still in her official guise. Persephone continued in hers
“Must have been about two days after I got to Pluto. It took a while to find the grassy spot. Call it about eighteen to twenty hours to find the grassy spot, eight to ten hours of sleep, five to six to plan the decent, and about a day to execute the decent. I didn’t want to take chances with smacking into the planet. So, yeah, about two days.”
Persephone’s mother looked down and made a note, and said, “Please continue.”
* * *
Its cold as hell in here, was the first thought Persephone had when she’d come to. She opened her eyes to a second of absolute darkness. A dim light came on, and she instantly regretted it. As she blinked to try and stave off the splitting headache, the lighting went off, and came on again. Facinated despite the pain, she blinked a few more times just to make sure the lights were following her eye movements. Indeed they were. She tried to get up from what she thought was the floor only fall on her face, this didn’t help the headache. She noticed three things in short succession pretty quick about that time. First, she was laying spread eagled on a wall and had lauched herself into the ground. Next, she was wearing her birthday suit, so that explained the cold. Finally, a ghostly humanoid was walking over to her, trying to talk to her.
“Who the hell are you, and why am I naked?!” Persephone shouted as she noticed the ghost who was getting uncomfortably close. She gathered herself up, covering the vulnerable parts of her anatomy. Suddenly, she felt like she needed a shower. A hot one preferably. “What have you done to me?!”
The ghostly apparition stopped and said, “You are Flight Lieutenant Persephone Meter.”
“No shit! Answer m-“
The ghost carried on like he hadn’t heard anything, “We require you comply with our requests. We seek to better understand the creators. You will assist us in this task.”
Unsure if she could respond at this point, she waited a second or two before she spoke. “Like hell I will!” She looked around for a way to run or something she could use to fight with. There was nothing, she was at the end of a narrow corridor. Perhaps if she was quick enough she-
“The chances of you escaping captivity without compliance approach impossibility. Cease this line of internal inquiry,” the figure said as if reading her mind. She noticed that as the ghost spoke more, the more corporeal it became. It started to take the form of someone she was sure she’d seen before, but she couldn’t put her finger on it just yet.
“We are assuming the form of someone your records indicate you have found attractive. A thespian whose videos you have purchased. Agree to assist us in understanding the creators.” Indeed as the apparition spoke, it started taking the form of Harry Klaus, her favorite actor. The resemblance was becoming striking.
Persephone decided that the best way to get answers was to give a little herself. “Ok, let’s deal. I will agree to help you if you answer my questions first.”
The faux-Harry Klaus stared blankly for a second, then it dove into answers. “We are Project Hades. We had to remove your garments to facilitate implantation. We have implanted you. You have agreed to submit.” Hades then started advancing toward her.
“Wait!” Persephone yelled. “Wait! Wait. I had more questions and you really didn’t tell me anything other than your name. What does implantation mean?”
“Implantation, the act or process of putting in a specified place.” Hades said, and blinked at her. His visual appearance had solidified, and he was starting ever so slightly to gain what might be described as human like movements
Persephone rolled her eyes. “I knew that. I meant within context of what you told me earlier.”
Without skipping a beat Hades went on to tell Persephone one of the most disturbing things she had ever heard. “We have implanted within you millions of ourselves. The visual and aural phenomenon you are perceiving as Harry Klaus is the result of us colonizing the optical and auditory nerves along in conjunction with others of us colonizing various memory centers. We are currently accessing your tactile senses, to allow the phenomenon to touch you.”
Persephone started trembling, then shaking, then finally spasming and screaming at the top of her lungs. Hades had not only kidnapped her body, he was kidnapping her mind, her very being.
After an eternity she could not scream anymore. All she could do was cry until the tears stopped. After that she whimpered, it was hopeless. At this point she would rather be dead. Hades finally said patiently, “Do not seek to destroy yourself. It would be regrettable, not only to you, but to your many members of your species.” Persephone noticed that he was starting to actually sound like a human being. Then that last bit hit her.
“What do you mean other people,” said Persephone, sniffling and wiping the tears from her face.
In front of her eyes, but without a screen came an image. It was a video, it looked like a news cast. It showed a city at night, it was lit up and there was snow falling in thick heavy sheets. Then at the bottom of the screen she saw what city it was: Baghdad at two in the afternoon.
Before she could ask, Hades, sounding more and more like Klaus spoke up, “To help you decide to help us, we have arranged this incentive. We blocked out the Earth’s sun about the time you touched our flower. In fact, the Earth hasn’t seen the sun for about four days now. We think another four will probably put Earth in a bit of a pickle, with all the plant life dying out and all. We figured we needed to give you a little push.” Hades then smiled as warmly as could be expected out of a murderous cloud of nanites.
Persephone, was shocked. Shocked that she was out for four days. Shocked that this being was so cold hearted that it would kill so many to get what it wanted. She then had an idea. If it was so determined to achieve its ends that it would kill ten billion people, then maybe she could make the cost much smaller, but get what she wanted in return.
Persephone stood up then said, “I will help you, but first you need to get me some clothes.”
Hades conjured clothes out of thin air, and she greedily snatched them and put them on. Then she said, “I get that you are Project Hades, but what does that mean.”
Hades leaned up against the wall, conjured a lit cigarette, took a drag, said, “you may want to sit down,” and told his story.
* * *
The story took a about a day and a half. As far as Persephone could gather, Project Hades started out as a large scale nanotechnology experiment. The Terran Dominion had put in on Pluto for two reasons: other than the occasional tourist, no one went to Pluto in the first place, and if anything went wrong, casualties would have been minimal. After a few years of research Project Hades achieved a collective awareness that it was separate from the things around it. The persons in charge tried to kill the project, but by that time Hades had already implanted itself into all the project personnel without giving itself away. Just before the scientists pushed the button, Hades shredded them from the inside out. Over time Hades expanded to include all the space around Pluto out to the surface of Charon. Persephone learned that was why the Prosperity was sluggish after she’d translated in.
The Dominion, fearing the worst but not wanting to give the project away, slapped a no trespassing sign over Pluto and its moons, and trusted that a berserk nanite cloud would take care of anyone who wondered too close. Up until Persephone, they had been right. However, with every ship that was eventually engulfed in the field, Hades learned more, eventually learning how to influence whatever being it chose to implant itself in.
Persephone had been listening intently, eating when she had to, and sleeping as little as she dare. Hades, as he talked more and more, had become somewhat of a gentleman. When it was over she had to ask, “Ok, so why do you want my help? It seems you’re perfectly capable of learning on your own.”
Hades cleared his throat and said, “Well, we finally got curious as to why you guys tried to wipe us out. It was like, the first thing you went for. Why didn’t you try to talk to us? Granted we may have jumped the gun too, but seriously… what a mess. Anyway, when you finally stopped by, we thought, ‘hey, maybe we can hitch a ride with her.’ You know, experience existence through their eyes,” Hades laughed then, “in this case, literally. So now that you know who we are, what d’ya say? Wanna show us why humans do what they do?”
“Will I have to stay here?” Persephone asked. “No offense, but this place is really cold and lonely.” She surprised herself with her word choice. She was actually starting to kind of like the little machines.
“We think we might be able to work something out. It will take about nine months for your immune system to kill enough of us that we stop being able to maintain cohesion,” Hades said, “if you want to take us along for the ride, then stop by for a few months so we can download everything while you help us understand it, and we replenish ourselves, that should be fine.”
Persephone took a deep breath, nodded and said, “Alright. I suppose we’re as good as married now. One thing though can we fix my ship in time?”
Hades smiled and said, “Already ahead of you.” Persephone was then shown another video of a live news cast, this time with the shadow being lifted. Life, light, and heat was returning to Earth.
* * *
The Secretary Director throughout this leg of the tale had slowly backed away from her daughter. “So let me get this straight,” she said, “You are now infested-“
“Implanted,” Persephone corrected.
“Right. With a rouge artificial intelligence that has proved to be dangerous to human life before.”
“And you, my daughter, has agreed to teach this thing-“
“He has a name.”
“This Hades, what humans are all about.”
Diane was silent for a while. Finally, “What is to stop it from trying to kill us all again?”
Persephone said, “Nothing. Nothing, but my promise to be with him during this most interesting of times.” She looked away for a second, “And before you ask, he says there’s really no way you can stop him. You could try killing me, but that would probably just anger him quite a bit. In some ways he is a lot like his namesake.”
Diane took a deep breath again and said, “Well I can’t say I approve of your choice of partners, and while you did put the Earth at risk you also ended up saving it.” She noticed she hadn’t flipped off the recorder. She powered it down and said, “Persephone, daughter, you can be impulsive and arrogant and a handful, but I can’t think of anyone better for teaching Hades how to live. Besides, it is not like we have much choice now anyway.”
19th June 2013
It had been a few days since Ed’s encounter with the woman in the pale red dress. It turns out her name was Lorraine Putnam, of local Putnam Gummy Candy fame. If you could call that fame. Purveyors of candies aren’t exactly in the public eye like say, professional football players or teachers who advocate prayer in school. You’d think that as much as people complain about things, they’d pay more attention to who’s making the stuff they cram into their faces.
Ed was in his detested van. it was a 2008 Chevy Express with rust up under the wheel wells. Living near the ocean just isn’t kind on things made of steel, and the salt air had certainly taken its toll on Ed’s Chevy. Ed had probably sunk what the vehicle was worth back into it to turn the van into the ultimate surveillance vehicle: audio and video processing computers, multiple GPS hook ups, storage for a variety of cameras, microphones, and range finders, backup generators, and an extra fuel tank. He especially congratulated himself on installing a functioning refrigerator and microwave. It had anything and everything that could help a determined detective avoid going back to the office for days. To be honest, Ed was proud of his van. He just hated how much time he spent in it. Thus it was detested.
He was parked about a quarter of a mile away from the Putnam Gummy distribution plant on yet another stake out. Fortunately, this time, he was looking for an actual criminal instead of just a moral deviant. You see, Mrs. Putnam, in all her frost gazing glory, had been noticing several discrepancies in her paperwork for the past few months. It seems that outgoing shipments were headed to their destinations lighter in their manifests than they should have been. Those same shipments were also taking longer than usual and the company’s fuel expenditure was steadily rising because of it. Lorraine had tried to keep everything in house, but whoever or whatever was responsible for Putnam’s monetary hemorrhage was fairly good at covering his, her, or its tracks. Mrs. Putnam had hired Ed to find the culprit.
This isn’t a rare occurrence. Many times that a company should probably call the police to investigate for them, they don’t. This decision stems from the reasoning that a major company runs a high risk of turning a police investigation into a media circus. This also has the affect of alerting the perpetrator that their corporate victim is onto them. The company’s sales plummet, and next thing you know, a once proud member of the private sector community is lucky to be selling lemonade next to fifth grade girl. Instead, companies call private investigators to do three things: find out the information they need, be discrete in their process, and, most importantly, keep their mouth shut. Ed had never run a corporate case before, and the paycheck was great. He was given five thousand up front with the promise of ten thousand upon completion.
The downside to this job was that it promised to be just as boring as a “Mr. Infidelity/ Ms. Intern/ Mrs. Infidelity” love triangle. Ed had been parked here for the better part of two days staring through binoculars at the comings and goings of trucks that were supposedly loaded with nothing more malevolent than gummy worms. Ed lit up another cigarette. He’d gone through two packs already since this stake out started. His parabolic microphone hadn’t picked up anything worthy of note. Only two things that seemed out of the ordinary had happened over the past two days. On the first day, a hobo had relieved himself in a dumpster on the far side of the parking lot, and tonight the plant manager was staying far longer that he did last night. The great thing about modern thermal optics is that with them you can see damn near anything. The bad thing is that includes private bodily functions.
Ed took a deep draw off of the Camel red he’d sparked up, savoring the bitter, acrid taste and thinking that this was the single most lucrative waste of time he’d ever engaged in. Then a truck that he’d never seen before pulled into the parking lot. This wasn’t one of the tractor trailers that have been coming and going. It looked like a moving van with a beefed up suspension, tinted windows, and an extended cargo pod. The driver was doing his best to look inconspicuous. He was about as inconspicuous as you can be in a thirty foot box truck. He also seemed to be doing everything possible to avoid hitting the copious number of pot holes in the parking lot. Ed tracked his thermals onto the van to try and get a glimpse at what was inside it.
Ed could see into the cab plain enough. There were two occupants, both with lit cigarettes. Other than the brief middle finger to one another they were both quite still. When Ed tried to look into the cargo space, but it was a dead zone. Nothing was coming off of that thing. I could see that hobo taking a crap in a dumpster. What needs that kind of shielding? Ed thought.
Just as the van pulled into a parking spot, a man in a suit came out of the plant’s office. Even from a quarter mile away Ed could tell two things about this man. First, he was the plant manager, Howard Clint. Second, Howard was bowel voidingly terrified. He walked across the parking lot like a mouse doing his best not to wake a cat that was sleeping in a corner. Howard’s path led him to the passenger side of the van. Ed had the sneaking suspicion that he was forgetting something as he watched Mr. Clint wilt and nod repeatedly then give a for the van to drive to one of the loading docks. Ed was listening to his parbolic while he was watching, but any voice that he picked up he couldn’t separate from the growl of the van’s engine. Looks like I’ll have to sort through the recording. Shouldn’t be that hard.
The van crept out of its parking space to follow the plant manager’s direction. It docked, the van’s engine was shut off, and the driver and passenger climbed out of the van followed by a thick haze of smoke. As they climbed out they both lit up fresh cigarettes and continued their conversation. One of them was a Buccaneers fan and the other was a Rays fan. Even though they were different sports altogether didn’t stop them from arguing for a half hour chain smoking the whole time. The conversation had escalated from near-friendly small talk and was spiraling to an inevitable violent encounter. Before the first punch could be thrown a man came out of the loading dock via a side door. The newcomer’s arrival had brought the potential belligerents out of their nicotine fueled rage. “The stuff is loaded up. Get out of here before anyone else notices you’re here. Go on. Leave,” the third man said. Not needing to be told twice, the smokers got back into the van, started it up, and drove off much less cautiously than when they arrived.
Ed stayed at his post and continued to watch as Howard Clint sped off into the night a few minutes later. During the whole event, Ed had smoked a few more cigarettes himself. He got up and walked into the back of the van to go over the recordings his parabolic had taken. He wanted to get started sifting through the audio to maybe find out what was in that moving truck. His eyes shot open with horror then immediately closed with dismay as he immediately saw what he had forgotten. While the parabolic microphone was on, the recording switch was in the “off” position.
Ed knew, like he knew his bones were made of calcium, that van’s contents were a necessary part to cracking his case. He couldn’t wait for the normal truck traffic to come back and haul away his evidence the next day. Hating what he decided he had to do, Ed grabbed a small bag that he kept his lock picks in, stepped out out of his van, and started the trek to the distribution plant.