At a signal from their leader Van Damm’s guards lined the five of us up and we got ready to move off in something of a daze. I can’t speak for the others but I was finding the developments of the last few hours, which had taken me from engaging in an innocent poke around behind the scenes of a futuristic airport to joining a secret conspiracy against an evil corporation to facing imminent evisceration in return for my part in said conspiracy, had been so swift and drastic that it was hard to keep up. And perhaps, truth be told, I was still smarting just a touch from the failure of my ‘undercover reporter’ ruse, a ploy which seemed to have been shot down with unwarranted ease for what had seemed at the time such a brilliant idea.
Realising I lacked the capacity for another such burst of inspiration any time soon I found myself as we were led out into the corridor reduced to weighing up the odds against our making a straightforward escape from our guards. On the plus side, if it came to a scrap the numbers were at least even and I didn’t fancy that Van Damm would prove to be much of a fighter. In fact he seemed to me to be precisely the kind of weaselly bully who might be all cocky arrogance behind the protection of his security guards but who would collapse like soggy cardboard if you got him one-on-one.
On the other hand Athos was clearly in no condition to take part in an extended brawl. And, whilst I had every faith that Aramis would prove a handy ally in a dust-up, I wasn’t entirely sure how far we could rely on Porthos. He was clearly the proverbial big man who was out of shape and it was obvious that for Van Damm’s guys this was a full-time job. When you threw in the fact that Porthos had already given up the only weapon we possessed between the five of us then I was obliged to conclude that I would be better off praying for a miracle than doing anything that might provoke a fight.
Fortunately on this occasion the divine intervention service was operating with surprising efficiency. Our little procession had barely turned the first corner of the corridor before we ran headlong into two figures coming in the opposite direction. The first, a smartly-dressed black man in his mid-forties, was probably of about average height but he initially appeared much smaller, dwarfed as he was by his companion, a huge shaven-headed young white man who glanced at us with the blank yet menacing stare that was the hallmark of hired muscle.
On any other occasion they might have proved quite a perturbing pair to run into late at night in a place you had no right to be but under present circumstances I was glad to see anyone. My disposition towards them was further softened by the immediate effect their appearance had on Van Damm.
“Governor Old!” he exclaimed in a tone which mingled shock with dismay. “What…? I mean, why…? That is, what on earth are you doing here?”
“Surprised to see me Mr Van Damm?” replied the Governor in the smooth, unruffled tone of the born statesman. “I can’t think why. After all, despite your company’s significant investment, The Hub remains a public building. You can have no objections, surely, to an elected official checking up on government property?”
“Well, no, of course not,” blustered Van Damm. “But how…?”
“Ah yes, that was rather remiss of you – forgetting to notify City Hall that you had updated all your security codes,” returned Governor Old with a wry smile. “Fortunately someone on your staff was good enough to rectify the oversight.”
Van Damm whirled round, glaring suspiciously at each of his security guards in turn. Was that just the hint of a guilty flush that I detected rising up the cheeks of the guard with the Sergeant-Major moustache? Van Damm certainly glared at him longer and harder than the rest but he had no time to challenge his employee for Governor Old was already moving on.
“It would appear to be a good job that they did for you seem to have run into a spot of bother,” he continued briskly. “Fortunately Bod and I are here to help.” He indicated his enormous companion with a nod. “Or would you like Bod to call for further assistance from the police?”
Bod’s brow furrowed into an offended frown, presumably at the suggestion that he might require help from anything as puny as a mere police force.
“No, there’s no need for that,” insisted Van Damm, making an effort to recover some of his oily charm. “As you can see, my security forces have it all under control. It’s just a case of simple trespass – a group of thieves who tried to break in and steal some valuable equipment.”
“We are not thieves!” exclaimed Aramis hotly. Then she turned to the politician, endeavouring to address him in a more measured tone. “Governor Old, may I speak to you? We are here investigating disturbing developments at The Hub, developments which I believe you are being kept ignorant of. I’ve been trying to contact you for months. If you’ll only let me explain…”
“Don’t I know you?” asked Governor Old thoughtfully.
“My name is Dr Hoy. I was a member of the neurological team at ATL…”
“Dr Hoy was dismissed from her post some time ago for gross misconduct,” Van Damm hastily interrupted.
“Those charges were false!” declared Aramis.
“That’s not what the Board of Executives concluded after their investigation,” asserted Van Damm airily.
“That investigation was a sham!” insisted Aramis, struggling to keep control of her temper in front of the Governor. “I have been falsely discredited for daring to speak out against unsafe practices…”
“Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?” responded Van Damm dismissively.
“How dare you!” cried Aramis. She looked pleadingly at the rather bemused Governor. “Please, you must listen to me. Hundreds, possibly thousands of lives may be at stake…”
“I’m sorry Governor but you really don’t need to hear this,” Van Damm interrupted again. “This whole farrago is simply nothing more than an outrageous attempt by a group of disgruntled ex-employees to hold our company to ransom.”
Now it was Athos’s turn, unable to bear watching from the side-lines any longer. “That’s just not true!” she cried. “I have never worked a day of my life for this man but I can testify to his unscrupulous… his unethical… his downright dirty…”
“Really Governor, you shouldn’t listen to the outpourings of this hysterical woman,” Van Damm blithely insisted.
“I am not hysterical!” yelled Athos.
“You see what I mean.”
Governor Old’s brow slowly began to furrow into a definite frown as the voices started to overlap.
“Governor, if you’ll just hear me out…”
“Really Governor, this is all nonsense…”
“He’s telling you lies…”
“They’re all mad…”
As everyone battled to be heard at the same time the individual words were gradually lost in one long unintelligible yowl of complaint. The Governor continued to impassively gaze upon the red faces and flailing gestures for a minute or two before he abruptly raised his hand and issued a solitary command, “Stop!”
The din of voices subsided immediately. Governor Old’s eyes flicked from one face to another, carefully studying each expression but not yet deigning to issue any further instructions. Everyone stood perfectly still, glaring fiercely at one another without daring to be the one to break the silence.
Then Michael calmly said, “Do you mind if I say something?” His request, made as it was in such a perfectly reasonable tone, came in such a contrast to the cacophonous bickering that had gone before that it seemed to me almost impossible that he should be refused.
And indeed, after just a brief hesitation, Governor Old responded with a nod. “Go ahead.”
“The trouble as I see it as that we appear to have two competing versions of the truth here. Mr Van Damm here asserts that we are nothing more than troublesome thieves; we contend otherwise. We seem to have reached something of an impasse.” Michael paused here to allow Governor Old to acknowledge his point with a faint nod.
“I believe the impasse might be broken with one simple action. If the Governor would care to take a look inside a couple of rooms that lie just along the corridor there I think he’ll be able to judge for himself. I only ask for five minutes of your time. If, after what you’ve seen, you still think us mere thieves, well, then you can leave us to the attentions of Van Damm and his guards.”
There was a tense silence as we all waited for the Governor’s response. It was a bold move (after all, Michael was essentially placing all our lives in the hands of a man he’d only just met) but I could see that there was enough in both the manner of Governor Old and in Van Damm’s reaction to him to suggest it was a gamble worth taking.
Finally, the Governor agreed with a stately nod, “I think that sounds reasonable enough.”
“But really, I don’t see…” Van Damm immediately began to bluster.
There was a low murmur of disquiet and a flexing of the arms from Bod and Van Damm’s protests fell swiftly away. He allowed himself one last desperate glance round at his security guards in the hope of countering the threat from Governor Old’s heavy but was obliged to turn back with the unhappy expression of a man who realises he’s brought four small popguns to a bazooka fight. “Fine,” he said, giving up the struggle with a bitter sigh. “If that’s what you want.”
“Thank-you,” said Governor Old, accepting his surrender with exaggerated grace. “Now then, let’s go and see what all this fuss is about.”
The deathly quiet of the makeshift hospital wards, broken only by the rhythmic pings of the heart monitors, seemed more eerie than ever when we returned. Governor Old said nothing as we entered but, shadowed all the way the ever-faithful Bod, he calmly walked the length of both rooms, taking silent but careful note of everything and everyone within. It was clear that as he progressed both Aramis and Athos were itching to speak – to offer explanations and accusations – but it was as though a spell had been cast which they were afraid to break. Meanwhile Van Damm followed the Governor’s every move with the sulky expression of a teenager who knows he’s about to be reprimanded for an untidy bedroom. His security guards stood uncertainly about, watching and waiting for instructions.
When the Governor had finally completed his tour of the rooms he turned to the executive with a stern air. “Well Mr Van Damm, have you an explanation for all this?” he demanded.
Van Damm opened his mouth to reply, left it hanging agape for a few seconds, before finally shutting it again with an irritable shrug.
“If you’ll allow me,” put in Aramis. “I can explain.”
Governor Old accepted her offer with a gracious nod.
So Aramis took a deep breath and launched herself upon a swift rundown of the failings of the biometric monitors and Van Damm’s increasingly desperate attempts to cover them up. Given the circumstances and Aramis’ own personal involvement in the story, I have to say it was a masterful performance – simple, concise and delivered with clear conviction. In fact, the only occasion when she faltered was when it came to explaining the presence of Michael and I in her little gang, an issue which, given the unlikely chain of events and her own ongoing suspicions, she was naturally obliged to fudge somewhat.
But fudge it she did and as the story unfolded we fully expected to see Van Damm slowly wither beneath the weight of evidence arrayed against him. But, somewhat disconcertingly, Van Damm showed not the slightest indication of being downcast or dismayed by the allegations put forth. Instead his gaze seemed only to harden as the speech continued and by the time Aramis had concluded her tale his expression had become worryingly steely and resolute.
At the climax of Aramis’ speech all eyes turned instinctively to Governor Old. He remained silent for what seemed like an age, thoughtfully running over the details of what he had just been told. Then finally he turned to Van Damm and asked, “Is this true?”
Van Damm responded with a shrug that was one part resignation to two parts defiance.
“Why was I not told?” demanded Governor Old, using that stern commanding tone he had deployed to such effect in the corridor. “I should have been notified the instant there was a problem with the clinical trials.”
“I didn’t want to put you in a difficult position,” replied Van Damm lightly.
Though our acquaintance had been a short one I had already formed the impression that Governor Old was not a man who was easily ruffled. Which is why I suspect that the fierce glare and slightly raised voice with which he responded to Van Damm’s casual statement were about the closest he had ever come to losing his temper. “A difficult position?” he barked. “I’ll show you what a difficult position looks like! Did you really think I wouldn’t find out sooner or later what had happened to these people? Or, worse still, did you simply imagine that I would not care?”
“Oh please don’t get me wrong,” said Van Damm smoothly. “I certainly never intended to impugn your sense of honour Governor. I merely wished to spare you from the kind of tough choices that a man in your position would be obliged to make once acquainted with these facts.”
But Van Damm’s flowery words appeared to cut little ice with Governor Old. “If you think I have trouble making tough choices then you don’t know me very well,” he told Van Damm sternly. “You had better understand that I’ll do whatever I think is right in any situation. And by that I mean what is right by the people I’m elected to serve and not by your shareholders.”
“Oh, I’d expect nothing less,” replied Van Damm, refusing to wilt beneath the Governor’s fierce stare. “But the question then becomes which of the people you’ve been elected to serve do you intend to do right by – the few unhappy souls lying here or the hundreds of thousands of travellers passing through the doors upstairs? Because I’m afraid in this case you’ll find you can’t serve both.”
Aramis opened her mouth to protest but Van Damm pressed on. “We’ve all heard Dr Hoy’s story. Shouldn’t I at least be allowed a right of reply?”
Governor Old continued to regard Van Damm sternly but he nodded nonetheless. “Alright then, let’s hear what you have to say,” he conceded.
Now that he had the floor Van Damm began to pace once again with a touch of his previous oily swagger. “Naturally it has suited Dr Hoy to paint me as the villain of the piece but I swear to you Governor that I am just an ordinary man trying to do a very difficult job in trying circumstances.”
At this both Aramis and Athos tried to protest but they were silenced by a gesture from Governor Old.
“Dr Hoy tells you that I have pressed for delays in flights from The Hub, delays that have endangered the health of a small number of unfortunate passengers. This, I confess to be true.
“But I can promise you that the reason for my requesting these delays is not, as Dr Hoy would have it, pure greed. I’ll tell you now that I live off a relatively modest salary and the shareholders in my company have so far received little in the way of dividends. You are welcome to check the accounts for proof of that. All the proceeds generated from the biometric monitors have been ploughed right back into The Hub. And so far it has taken every penny we have earned, and more, just to keep this project running.”
Van Damm paused in his pacing and turned to make rather a theatrical appeal direct to the Governor. “Governor, you know yourself how difficult this project was to get off the ground. And the sad truth is that the running costs have proved far more prohibitive than we could have predicted. I’m afraid that without the biometric programme The Hub will cease to function.”
Governor Old regarded Van Damm with narrowed eyes. “If you’re trying to manoeuvre me into some kind of false dilemma…”
“Believe me Governor, nothing could be further from my mind.”
“Governor, it was never my intention that the biometric programme should cease to operate,” interjected Aramis. “I only ask for a temporary suspension while these unfortunate side effects are properly investigated.”
“That’s just not practical,” insisted Van Damm hastily.
“Or at least for the use of the monitors to be scaled back…” Aramis tried again.
“Out of the question,” stated Van Damm. “Without the neural energy receipts at their current levels the economics underpinning The Hub will collapse within a week. Check the books and you’ll see for yourself. No more money to pay wages or maintain the complex, no more funds to keep our craft in orbit.”
Van Damm resumed his pacing once again. “That’s why you need to think very carefully about the consequences before you make your decision Governor. Halt or scale back the biometric programme and hundreds of flights will have to be cancelled – colonising and supply flights as well as leisure trips. I mean, sure, the Americans and the Chinese will do what they can to pick up the slack but the popular space programme will be put back by decades. Exploration will be halted, communications disrupted, colonisers will be left to fend for themselves.
“Of course there may be a chance that, sometime in the future, once a solution to the biometric issues has been found, space flights could start up again. But you know as well as I do how difficult it was to get this operation up and running in the first place. To do it a second time, with all the added uncertainty caused by this shutdown? Well, I just don’t know how realistic a proposition that is.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Governor Old appeared to be lost in thought, carefully weighing up everything that had been said. The rest of us were left in the agonising position of watching on anxiously from the side-lines, waiting and hoping for what we hoped, but could not be sure, was the right decision.
Van Damm allowed the pressure to build for a minute or two more before making a final effort to press his case.
“You’re a realistic man Governor, I think I know you that well at least. You must understand that it’s not always possible to act in the best interests of everyone. Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture, be willing to make choices that may be tough in the present but will pave the way to a better future.”
Still, the Governor didn’t respond.
“Governor please…” said Athos softly.
Van Damm moved a step closer and dropped his tone a notch or two. “You understand how this works Governor. You’re a man of vision…”
Governor Old looked up and for the first time his eyes met Van Damm’s. Sensing he was within touching distance of victory Van Damm relaxed his features into one of those oily smiles. “And don’t you worry about any of this down here Governor. I can take care of this little lot. It’ll be like these people were never even here.”
In his eagerness to wrap things up it seemed Van Damm had finally pushed a little too far. Governor Old continued to stare at him with a fixed gaze for a moment or two and then he rolled his shoulders as if shaking a great weight from them. “Don’t even think about it Mr Van Damm,” he declared.
Van Damm sprung back as though he had been stung. “But Governor…”
“I’m afraid you haven’t understood me at all,” the Governor continued. “Whatever else, I will not have this swept under the carpet. I’m going to call an emergency assembly for first thing in the morning at which the council will be fully informed of all the developments within The Hub. What’s more it is my intention to recommend that the council call a halt to the biometric programme with immediate effect and that it not be reinstated until a proper investigation has been made into the side-effects of these patches and proper safeguards put in place.”
“But the flights… The Hub…” stuttered Van Damm. “Think of the future.”
“I will not consider a future that needs to be built on a trail of broken lives,” Governor Old insisted firmly. “If our actions result in the cancellation of flights or the suspension of services then so be it.”
Aramis performed what amounted to a silent cheer. Athos reached out and clutched Porthos’ arm. The big man himself looked close to tears.
“Governor, I really don’t think you’ve considered this properly…” began Van Damm. In his anxiety he actually reached an arm out towards the Governor but was immediately halted by a low growl from Bod. Van Damm turned desperately to his security guards for support but not one of them would meet his eye. Realising he was defeated, Van Damm’s face twisted into a bitter scowl. “Well, on your head be it Governor,” he spat out. “I only hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for.”
“I’ll try to cope as best I can Mr Van Damm,” returned Governor Old tartly. “You can stand your men down now. Bod will maintain watch until some proper care can be arranged for these people in the morning.”
Van Damm dismissed his guards with a sulky wave. With a faint smile of satisfaction Bod took up a pose in the middle of the room that suggested it would take a bulldozer and several pounds of dynamite to shift him.
“Now then, I think the rest of us had better leave him to it,” said Governor Old. “There’s nothing more can be done here tonight.”
“Could I be allowed to stay?” asked Athos, glancing wistfully across at the bed in which her partner lay. “I just want to sit with him for a little while. I promise I won’t cause any trouble.”
Governor Old glanced over at Bod who responded with one of those offended frowns of his at the prospect of someone like Athos causing him any trouble.
“Very well,” conceded the Governor. “And now, unless anyone else has any business here…”
We had all begun to file towards the door when Governor Old’s talk of business suddenly reminded me for the first time in a long time of the business that had brought Michael and I down into these rooms in the first place.
“Actually Governor, there was just one thing if you don’t mind,” I piped up rather awkwardly. Governor Old looked at me curiously. “I wonder if we might just have a quick look round at all your doors before we leave.”
To be continued…