Episode Sixteen – ‘Welcome to the Cheap Seats’, Part Seven

Once a somewhat bemused authorisation to investigate the corridors beneath The Hub had been secured from Governor Old, it wasn’t long before our search for the hidden door finally bore fruit. Michael and I found it hiding in plain sight in the middle of a long bare corridor and, with the aid of a hammer we liberated from a janitor’s closet, we soon had another set of coordinates removed from the inter-dimensional travel device. Our mission finally completed we headed upstairs to find that dawn was just breaking. Feeling a little worn out from all our exertions of the previous night it seemed like a good idea to grab a bite of breakfast in The Hub before heading off in search of the next marker on the device.

We’d been above ground for all of about five minutes before hanging around started to seem like rather less of a good idea. The Hub that we emerged into was in a state of subdued uproar. During the course of the night Governor Old had apparently issued the necessary edicts and the staff had gone around, relieving each and every passenger of their ‘travel sickness’ patch. No official explanation had yet been offered for this unexpected event and in its absence the rumour mill had gone into overdrive. A distinct sense of unease seemed now to have permeated ever corner of the airport as theories were formed and speculation grew.

In an effort to avoid the worst of this worried gossip Michael and I deliberately selected the least populous, most out-of-the-way café for our breakfast. But even here, on a quiet corner of the top floor, we couldn’t help but feel more than a little discomfited by our privileged knowledge about the patches. Aware as we were of the potential disruption to services that seemed likely to follow, it was impossible for the triumph of our victory over corporate greed last night not to now feel a little less triumphant.

“I don’t know,” I sighed to Michael as we worked our way through a large plate of over-cooked waffles, washed down with a pot of lukewarm coffee. “It’s just not quite the unqualified happy ending I was looking for.”

“Happy endings are always a mirage,” responded Michael rather mournfully. “If you hang around long enough you’ll always find that things turn sour again sooner or later.”

“That’s rather bleak for you, isn’t it?” I said with a mildly raised eyebrow.

Michael shrugged philosophically. “That’s just the way things are. We call it a happy ending when the Prince and Princess fall in love and get married but if you came back in a year or two you’ll inevitably find them rowing about the fact that he drinks too much or she buys too many expensive clothes just like anyone else. Life goes on.”

“I suppose,” I murmured. I didn’t disagree but it was a little disconcerting to receive such insights from the normally chipper Michael. Letting my eyes drift across the room I was soon reduced to another heavy sigh.

“Being confronted by his slimy mug every five minutes isn’t making me feel any better about it,” I complained to Michael, nodding grouchily towards Van Damm as he walked slowly past our café. It was the third time in the past half hour that the oily executive had passed by this way and the sight of his shiny suit and weaselly face was doing nothing to lift my spirits. “What does he want to hang around here for anyway?”

breakfast

Michael shrugged again. “Maybe he’s waiting to see what he can do to help. Perhaps he was telling the truth when he said his only concern was to keep The Hub running.”

I harrumphed loudly. “Those are not the shoes of a man with a concern for anything other than himself.”

“Then perhaps he just wants to stick around in order to say ‘I told you so’ when the whole operation comes crashing to the ground,” suggested Michael.

“That sounds more like it,” I said as Van Damm slid off again into the distance.

We continued our breakfast in gloomy silence. Just when I was thinking I couldn’t possibly feel more despondent about the whole situation our moody seclusion was rudely interrupted by a cheerful shout.

“There you are – I’ve been looking for you everywhere!” cried Kai as he approached our table. “I was beginning to think they must have caught you and kicked you out.” He pulled up a chair from one of the many empty tables and settled down alongside us with a cheery grin.

“Oh, hi Kai,” I muttered. Michael made an effort to dredge up something approximating a welcoming smile.

“Well then, how did it go?” demanded Kai eagerly after a moments pause. “What’s it like downstairs? Did you find that door? Did you meet anyone down there?”

“We found the door,” confessed Michael.

“Wow! And did you do what you needed to do?” asked Kai. “To get the coordinates off that little device thingy of yours I mean.”

“Yeah, the door is destroyed,” I told him.

“That’s ace!” exclaimed Kai. “But you missed all kinds of fun going on right here in The Hub. In the middle of the night, right out of the blue, staff members came round, woke everyone up and made them take off their travel sickness patches. No discussion, no word of explanation… Oh, I see you handed yours in too.”

“Hmmm,” I murmured noncommittally.

“Everybody’s talking about it,” continued Kai, absent-mindedly rubbing at the red patch on the back of his neck where his patch had been. “All trying to figure out what exactly it signifies. I mean, it can’t be like they’ve just suddenly decided that no-one is gonna get sick any more. One guy on the second floor passenger lounge reckons they’ve started putting something in the water to stop travel sickness instead. But that’s just crazy…

“And then there are all these rumours now about flights being cancelled and stuff. There was a woman over in the West Quadrant who was in floods of tears cos she was sure them taking her patch meant her flight was being called off. But I said that’s crazy too. I mean, they took everyone’s patch, right? They can’t be cancelling every flight, can they?”

Michael sunk his nose into his coffee cup and I busied myself with a particularly chewy piece of waffle in an effort to avoid addressing Kai’s question but fortunately he didn’t seem inclined to wait around for an answer.

“I just hope it doesn’t mean further delays, that’s all,” Kai mused. “I’ve been waiting four weeks, I’m sure I ought to be getting called any minute now… Oh, I know it’s daft to get stressed about these things. After all, I’m gonna be four years in space before I see my sister or the rest of my family again. What difference is a week or two gonna make to that? It’s just… Well, I s’pose I’ll feel better once I’m on board and we get going. This place does kinda get you down sometimes…”

Kai drifted off into a thoughtful silence. I fixed my gaze somewhere over his shoulder in an effort to avoid seeing his worried face, only to catch sight instead of Van Damm slithering around for another tour. I gave an involuntary groan, causing Kai to look round.

“Do you know that guy?” he asked curiously on seeing where my gaze was fixed.

“Kind of,” I confessed. “Don’t ask me what he’s doing lurking around here though.”

“I guess he probably wants to check his security box,” replied Kai casually. “He usually likes to wait till there’s no-one around before opening it.”

Michael and I exchanged a significant glance.

“His security box?” repeated Michael with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, he keeps one of those secure lockers just over there,” said Kai, pointing them out. “I always thought it was a bit weird cos they’re for passengers really. I’ve never seen any other staff using them – I always figured they probably had their own staff lockers somewhere.”

Van Damm's locker

“How did you know this guy was staff?” I asked. “He doesn’t wear a uniform.”

“Easy – no travel sickness patch,” replied Kai. “It’s always a dead giveaway. Or rather, it was.”

“Have you any idea what he keeps in this locker?” asked Michael.

“No chance,” said Kai with a shake of his head. “He’s real cagey about opening it when there’s anyone else around. I tried to catch him out once or twice – you know, just for fun – but he’s too sharp. Whatever’s in there, he ain’t letting anyone else in on it.” Kai gave a wistful shrug. “My money’s on some kind of porn stash.”

“Do you know which locker is his?” I asked.

Kai gazed thoughtfully at the stack of metal boxes for a moment. “It was definitely second row from the bottom… Third I think, no, fourth from the left.”

I looked at Michael. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“We can’t just go breaking into someone’s security deposit box,” returned Michael.

“Why not?”

“We haven’t got the tools for a start. They’re called secure lockers for a reason.”

“I suppose you have a point,” I conceded reluctantly. I paused for a moment. “Then how about we do things the official way? I bet you if we shared what we’ve just discovered with Governor Old he’d be every bit as eager as we are to see what’s in that box.”

“I suppose,” agreed Michael thoughtfully. “But he’s going to be a pretty difficult chap to get a hold of right now. By the time we get back here with the relevant authority there’s every chance Van Damm will already have cleared it out.”

“Then we post a look-out in our absence,” I announced triumphantly. I turned to Kai. “Do you think you could keep an eye out here until we can get permission from Governor Old to look in that box?”

Kai snorted. “It’d take you weeks to arrange an appointment with the Governor. And then you’d probably end up speaking to his under-secretary’s secretary… if you’re lucky.”

“No, it’s alright,” I insisted. “We already know Governor Old – he’ll speak to us.”

Kai looked at me doubtfully.

“Honestly, we met him last night,” Michael explained. “I’m sure he’ll listen to what we have to say if we can only get hold of him. And it could be really important that we do.”

Kai hesitated. “Are you kidding me? You really met Governor Old last night?”

“Just give us a few hours and we’ll prove it to you,” I told him.

“But what if my flight is called while you’re gone?” said Kai. “I can’t miss my flight.”

“You won’t,” I said. I hesitated a moment, not really wanting to have to explain further. But Kai’s eyes still full of doubt. I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, you know those rumours that you heard about flights being cancelled? They’re not just rumours. The truth is there are big problems with the commercial space programme right now and that guy in the shiny suit with the security deposit box is at the very heart of them.”

Kai’s eyes widened in concern.

“Now, I don’t know what’s in that box,” I continued. “Maybe he is just keeping a few dirty movies in there. But if he’s stashed something else away in there, something more valuable, something, say, that can be used to help patch up the mess that he’s made then we need to get to it before he does.”

Kai gazed at us, thoughtfully chewing his lip, for a moment.

“Just give us a few hours,” pleaded Michael quietly. “That’s all it will take. You won’t miss your flight, I promise. In fact, helping us out with this might well be the best chance you have of ever getting out into space.”

There was a pause that seemed to last an eternity. Finally Kai responded with a slight shrug of the shoulders. “Alright, I’ll believe you” he said reluctantly.

“Then you’ll stand guard?” I asked eagerly. “You can’t leave that guy alone for even a second.”

“Don’t worry,” insisted Kai with a smile. “Just give me a few minutes to round up some travellers from the passenger lounge and I’ll keep this lousy café rocking like the tequila bar at happy hour till you come back.”

 

*******************************

 

As we had feared, trying to get the ear of Governor Old on the morning that he was busy with the self-appointed task of trying to prevent the collapse of the entire European Commercial Space Programme was not an easy task. He’d been closeted in a sequence of meetings since before dawn with council members and various scientific experts and had left orders that he was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. And as we already knew from experience, there was no sneaking past Bod when he was on security detail.

Our breakthrough came via a chance meeting with Aramis in the corridors of power. She was pacing anxiously up and down, waiting to be called at any moment to testify before the council. There was just enough time to explain to her the discovery we had made at the lonely breakfast café on the fourth floor before she was ushered into the council’s inner sanctum but she grasped instantly the significance of Van Damm’s undisclosed security box. Ten minutes later she came back out in the company of Governor Old himself and we were swiftly co-opted into a delegation that set out to investigate the contents of this mysterious locker.

Kai had kept his word and, despite his continual, increasingly frustrated circling of the top floor, Van Damm had not been able to access the area unobserved for a single second. His face when he saw the posse of councillors and security guards bearing down on his security box was an absolute picture.

It was undoubtedly richly satisfying to listen to Van Damm’s frantic bleatings about the rights of the individual as he desperately sought to defend his property. Governor Old brushed aside his objections but still Van Damm refused to hand over the key. It was even more of a pleasure to see Bod then decide to take matters into his own hands and simply smash the lock open with a waffle iron borrowed from the café.

opening the locker

I’m told that when it was totted up the total value of all the cash, stocks and dealer bonds found inside Van Damm’s locker came to somewhere just shy of 3 billion marks. It turned out he’d been telling the truth when he’d told us that his shareholders had barely seen a penny of profit from their investment so far. But that was simply because their CEO had been siphoning off just about every mark he could into various secure funds of his own. There was so much stashed away that even Van Damm had only the barest notion of how much he’d fiddled and, even with his taste for shiny suits and expensive shoes, it would have taken several lifetimes for him to come close to spending it all. But then, for some people, the accumulation of wealth is an end in itself, no matter what the cost.

We left Governor Old and his council members to try and untangle the mess of finances. After a decent lunch in a rather better restaurant on the first floor of The Hub it was time for Michael and I to move on. We said our farewells to the Three Musketeers and wished Kai a bon voyage before heading off in search of the next stop marked on the inter-dimensional travel device.

A thoughtful silence reigned for some time as we struck out back along the road which had brought us to The Hub.

“I hope Kai enjoys his new life out among the stars,” mused Michael after a while. “And that others can continue to follow in his footsteps. You know, those billions might keep The Hub afloat for a while but they won’t last forever.”

“So long as they keep the place going for a bit then there’s always a chance Aramis and her team can fix the problems with the biometric monitors,” I suggested.

“I hope so,” said Michael.

“And if they don’t at least we won’t be around anymore to see the whole enterprise come to a crashing halt,” I added.

“That’s rather a cynical view to take,” remarked Michael sternly.

“You said it yourself – happy endings are only a mirage,” I countered. “Stick around anywhere long enough and life will revert to misery and suffering.”

“I don’t think I put it quite like that,” protested Michael. “I merely meant that from the perspective of the characters within there’s really no such thing as an ending, happy or otherwise. What we think of as an ending is really no more than a pause in an otherwise ongoing story.”

I turned to him, ready to argue that this was not exactly the point that he had made in the café at breakfast, but something stopped me and I merely shrugged and smiled. All things considered I think I preferred the return of an irritatingly buoyant Michael after all.

“Well, at least we can chalk this one down as a happy pause,” I said as we marched on to our next unknown destination.

 

Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will continue shortly…

 

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