By the time we had followed Athos through the door into the other ward, pausing just long enough to allow Porthos to collect the black holdall, she had already found what – or rather who – she was looking for. We found her standing by the bed of a man in his early thirties, clutching his hand and fighting back tears. Aramis and Porthos looked almost more uncomfortable than Michael and I at being confronted with this unexpected display of strong emotion and for a moment we all hovered awkwardly by the door, unsure whether we ought to go over and offer comfort or hold back and respect her grief.
As the unspoken consensus seemed to settle on a preference not to intrude on Athos’ anguish, I turned instead to her companions. “Athos, Porthos and Aramis, eh? So where’s your D’Artagnan?”
“There isn’t one,” confessed Porthos with a sheepish grin. “It’s just the three of us.”
Aramis shot Porthos a glare of rebuke for daring to be so free with this information. But then, after a moment of silence, she couldn’t resist adding, “We decided it was safer not to use real names. We all know what Van Damm is capable of doing to those who oppose him.”
“Who exactly is this Van Damm you keep talking about?” asked Michael. “And just who are all these people lying here? Where did they all come from?”
“From The Hub upstairs,” answered Porthos, defying another glare from Aramis. “They were all passengers waiting for a flight at one time or another, just like you.”
“Just like you claim,” retorted Aramis sharply.
“Really? All of them?” I said.
“Flight M537 to the Andronicus Moons – that was our destination,” Athos unexpectedly interjected.
We all turned to see that she was still holding tight to the hand of the man in the bed but she appeared to have regained some of her composure and regarded us with a determined look. “We were going to start a new life,” she continued. “We’d been saving for years and half our friends had already left the solar system – it seemed like the only option.”
She glanced down briefly and ran her free hand over her stomach. “Of course we might have thought differently if we’d known there was a baby on the way. I mean, the journey is five years and I don’t think a cramped spaceship is any place to bring up a child, do you?”
She didn’t wait for a response but carried straight on, seeming to gain strength from the telling of her story. “But when we booked our tickets we had no idea. You see, we’d been trying for years and, well, I suppose we’d just given up on the idea of it ever happening. So we cashed in our savings instead and headed for a new life among the stars. We’d been in The Hub, waiting for our flight to be called, for two weeks when I realised.”
She paused to gaze down on the face of the man whose hand she still held. “Jay was thrilled when I told him. But we both agreed straight away that was the end of the Andronicus Moons – no five year flight for us with a baby. We should have just walked out of The Hub there and then. But the thing was, we didn’t want to lose our deposit. It was a lot of money and with a baby on the way…
“We just thought that if we hung around long enough to talk things over then maybe we could figure out a way to get the company to refund our deposit. You don’t know how many times I’ve gone over it since… thinking that if only we’d left that morning, if only we’d said screw the deposit…”
Athos faltered there for just a moment, overcome by a swirl of regrets. But it took just a few seconds for her to compose herself once more. “So before you know it half a day has gone by and we’re still talking it over and are no further forward. Jay said he’d go and get us a couple of coffees. He wouldn’t let me come with him – he was determined to make a fuss.”
A long pause. “He just never came back. I couldn’t quite see what happened from where I was sitting. There was some kind of commotion at the coffee shop. When I went over to see what was happening they’d already taken him away. Somebody said he’d just sort of swooned in the queue. Which was ridiculous cos Jay had never had a day of sickness in his life. But the strange thing was that The Hub staff wouldn’t let me see him. They just kept telling me to wait, that they had doctors checking him over and what have you.
“Then the next thing I know some woman comes over and tells me that Jay has been given the all clear and has left The Hub and gone home. Well I knew that wasn’t right. There was no way he would have just gone off and left me. For a start it wasn’t as if we had a home he could go back to – we’d packed up or sold off everything before we left. But they were so insistent that I felt like I had to go and check. I went to all our friends and family, checked round with everyone I could think of, but he was nowhere to be found.
“So naturally I went back to The Hub but this time they wouldn’t even let me through the doors. They called me hysterical. I’d let slip that I was pregnant, you see, and they decided this meant Jay must have got spooked about being a father and run off. But that wasn’t like Jay at all. He was so pleased we were going to have a baby. There was no way he would have left me if it wasn’t for…”
Glancing down again at her partner’s lifeless face, Athos faltered once more. She made one or two attempts to continue but each time her emotions got the better of her. Nobody seemed to know quite what to say in response.
I looked on for a moment or two with that expression of embarrassed sympathy which is the standard British response to any kind of display of naked emotion. Finally, in an effort to fill up the silence as much as anything, I said to no-one in particular, “I’m sorry but I still don’t get what happened. How did he – how did all these people – get like this?”
“The answer to that question lies in your hand,” replied Aramis, nodding at the small green patch I had been awkwardly holding ever since I had torn it away from my skin.
“I don’t understand,” said Michael with a puzzled frown. “How can a travel sickness patch have such an effect?”
“Well for a start they’re not travel sickness patches,” responded Aramis with a touch of impatience. “They’re biometric monitors.”
Both Michael and I looked at her blankly.
“They’re designed to read and absorb pulses of neural energy from the brain.”
More blank looks.
Aramis hesitated. For a moment an instinctive urge to explain wrestled with her naturally suspicious nature before the urge to educate and inform won through. “Have you heard of the phenomenon known as a micro-sleep?” she asked us.
We both shook our heads.
“Well, you may not have heard of it but I can guarantee you’ve experienced them at one time or another,” she continued. “It’s that experience you have when you nod off for a moment somewhere you shouldn’t. Maybe you’re in a meeting or waiting in traffic and you feel like you zone out for just a moment or two before you come to with a start.”
“Oh yeah, that sounds familiar,” I said, the experience of struggling through Professor Watkins’ lecture sequence on the history of semiotics immediately springing to mind.
“What happens in those instances is that the brain effectively re-boots itself,” Aramis explained. “It’s almost as though it has to go offline for a few seconds before normal brain activity can continue. But the important point is that when the brain re-starts in this fashion it gives off a powerful pulse of neural energy. I was part of a team that worked on a method of capturing that energy using a biometric monitor that could be worn as a small patch just behind the ear.”
I glanced down again at the small green patch in my hand, marvelling at the complex technology that must be behind such an apparently simple-looking piece of kit.
“Neural energy, as you probably know, can be a very valuable resource,” continued Aramis. “The company that funded this research figured that great benefits could be accrued from applying these monitors in conditions where micro-sleeps are quite common. In an airport, say, where people sit around for hours but are afraid of falling fully asleep in case they miss their flight…”
Aramis paused here to allow space for the expressions of slowly dawning comprehension to develop.
“The real beauty is that under this scheme the benefits would be two-way. The profits from the energy harvested from the bio-monitors could be ploughed directly back into the airport. Space travel is, after all, a fairly expensive business. Do you really suppose an operation like The Hub could ever have got off the ground without the support of the energy companies? But this way the passengers could help to defray the costs of their own flights.”
“But if that’s the case then why not let the passengers in on the scheme?” asked Michael. “Why bother to come up with a story about travel sickness patches?”
“That’s a very good question,” acknowledged Aramis. “The original explanation was that people tend to be a bit wary of revolutionary new technologies that tamper with the energy flow in their brains. It was felt that the passengers would be unable to comprehend the process and would be unlikely to comply with what they say as an experimental new science.” Aramis gave a wry smile. “Of course nobody stopped to consider whether or not the passengers might have a point.”
“So what went wrong?” I asked.
“The corporations got greedy – isn’t that what usually goes wrong?” replied Aramis sourly. “Initial trials were conducted with the patches being worn for 24-48 hours without any problems and so the technology was licensed on that basis. But that didn’t quite yield the kind of return the company was looking for. You see, not everyone is susceptible to the phenomenon of micro-sleeps. Over a 48 hour period, even in optimal conditions like The Hub, you may find you harvest little or no energy from some subjects. So the company arranged for flights to be delayed to allow the monitors to be worn for longer periods.
“When they were being worn for a week we started to get cases of subjects lapsing into an unresponsive state. There was no significant organ or tissue damage, no specific cause that we could isolate. They simply fell asleep at a random moment and were unable to wake again. It was like the brain had simply lost its capacity to kick back into action. The whole project should have been halted then and there, or at the very least suspended to allow for further investigations. But the company had invested too much time and money to back out now.”
Aramis paused here for a moment, struggling to keep a growing fury in check. “I prepared a full report for the board and the civic authorities but it was suppressed. The CEO, Van Damm, falsified data, misrepresented findings and either bought off or discredited any scientists who contradicted him. When I tried to make a formal protest I found myself disgraced on trumped-up charges of professional misconduct and thrown out on my ear.”
She glared down at the floor for a moment, clenching her fists and scowling at the memory. “And all the time they kept on extending the delays at The Hub. You can see for yourselves what the result has been. It’s taken me months to find a way back in. In fact, it wasn’t until I met up with Athos and Porthos that I was able to formulate any kind of plan for breaching their security.”
“I used to work for the company’s security department,” threw in Porthos, “so I knew a thing or two about their operation. I figured a tunnel was about the last thing they’d expect.”
“It’s been a pretty tough slog but I knew I had to get behind the public façade of The Hub to find out what exactly was going on,” said Aramis determinedly.
“So what do you intend to do now that you’re in?” asked Michael.
“We’re going to shine a light on the whole murky business,” interjected Athos. Finally, reluctantly, releasing her partner’s hand, she came over to join us. “So long as the general public is kept in the dark about the consequences of these patches then the company will continue to gamble with people’s lives. We intend to make sure that every passenger in this complex is made aware of precisely what kind of danger they’re running in the name of the company’s profits.”
I turned to look at Michael and he looked back at me. I knew immediately that we were both thinking the same thing. “What can we do to help?” I asked.
Porthos beamed gratefully at us, clearly delighted with the offer, but Aramis hesitated, her naturally suspicious nature furrowing her brow into a cautious frown. “Well, I don’t know about that…” she began.
But it was Athos who finally tipped the balance. “Let them help,” she urged her colleague. “We may not know exactly who they are or how they came to be here but they seem genuine enough to me. And we could certainly use an extra hand or two.”
There was a long pause.
“Alright then, you’re in,” Aramis finally conceded with a begrudging sigh. “And now I think we’ve spent long enough standing around, gossiping. It’s time we got to work.”
To be continued…