Chapter 26: The baggage man
Farid brought them to a local restaurant less than five kilometres past the camp. Due to the rough condition of the dirt path leading to the paved road, it had taken nearly twenty minutes to get there. Like the rest of the area, the restaurant was rustic and the people were friendly. Steven was happy to see that most of the inhabitants of the village in the area understood French and English for the most part. He was also surprised at how fast Chrissy had managed to pick up Norwegian words already. Colonel Lawson acssscompanied them and seemed to be a very hands-on commander.
The food was good and the best thing was that Fangs remained silent, not venturing to speak unless spoken to in front of a superior officer. As they returned to the compound for their second briefing, Lawson had taken Steven aside and discussed the Burden of Command especially the way soldiers and commanders were supposed to treat each other.
“Steven, you are the youngest here and you have the lowest education among all the employees. I’m saying this not to diminish you, but as a warning. You may have to face scorns from some of the personnel and jealousy from others considering you now have the same salary and benefits they have, but without having to spend the same amount of years in college,” said Lawson. “People who have spent years in universities and worked to get promotions don’t take kindly to others who have achieved the same without having followed the same academic path. Although the United Nations promotes an environment of non-discrimination with regard to race, gender, or sexual orientation,
humans are what they are and narrow-minded ones are especially slow to accept change.”
“Colonel, I would be lying if I said that I understood completely why I’m here,” replied Steven sincerely. “When they offered me that opportunity in Milan, I was sure they had made a mistake and, if I was lucky enough, I could visit the place before they realize that they had the wrong dude and boot me out.”
That made the Colonel chuckle. “I understand what you mean, but I can also see you have a lot of self-confidence and an uncanny gift to make people trust you. Frankly, you appear to be much wiser than people your age. Although I have been known to be wrong on a few occasions, in this case, that’s not one of them. You are the right candidate for this job and the sooner you understand that, the faster you will be able to put things together in your mind about what I told you and help us with the Facility’s security restriction problems.”
Steven nodded and couldn’t resist changing the subject. “Sir, about what you told us, it would help if I knew where or what to look for,” asked Steven. He learned that when people had a secret and took the time to tell you they had one, it was generally because deep down they wanted to tell you and he would press his advantage.
“I have said too much already. It could cost me my job to tell you more. I took a calculated risk to tell you in front of the others hoping that maybe one of them knows something. If I have a gift, it’s reading non-verbal language. You and Chrissy reacted to my statement, but no one else did,” observed Lawson calmly in a calculated tone.
Here was clue number two, he thought. “I’m a great fan of Dungeons and Dragons also and I was a DM for many years. Can’t you explain that to me, as part of a role play?” proposed Steven.
Lawson looked at him, focused his eyes and said. “Hmm, your girlfriend is a priest in the game and has found a magic item that makes her too powerful to allow her to be maxed in all attributes. What would a DM do with a player that strong?”
“A good DM would never let a character find an item like that in the first place, but I assume that a bad one would just create a situation where the character would lose that item for no apparent reason. It makes for poor playing and lack of imagination, but it has been known to happen,” answered Steven, thinking that Chrissy seemed maxed in all attributes. Also of note to Steven, the Colonel used the term girlfriend to describe her. Even if it was only a role-play, he was sure the Colonel didn’t mean a girl that is a friend, but girlfriend as in sexual partner. “So you are saying that something will happen to her?”
“In the game, sometimes things can change. Nothing is fixed; no quests are fully written in advance. That’s why I like that game since I first played it in 1976,” the Colonel went on as he looked at Chrissy keeping her distance, not wanting to interrupt. “You should focus on your work and be careful. I’m sure the answers to your questions will present themselves.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” replied Steven, feeling relieved as he shook his hand. As soon as the conversation with Lawson was over, Chrissy approached him. Knowing the others were around, he didn’t say anything, but promised to explain in detail the conversation to her later, which he had the intention to do anyway and felt glad by the way she asked. At least he would have some time to decide how he would explain the riddles to her without being pessimistic.
People started entering the barracks and took the same seats as before, a habit that seemed to bring comfort to people anywhere in the world. Nancy was sitting in the last row, likely thinking that this is where anarchist should sit. Eirik was introduced and praised by Lawson as it was his custom.
“The Colonel is overly kind,” Eirik told his audience, trying to be humble but failing somewhat, which was a change from his first few introductions, the Colonel observed from the back of the room. “He is a good man and you’ll have fun working with him. Tonight, I will be giving you the basic information about the Facility. During the week, you will have to take a few courses in security, mainly protocols, like what to say if people outside the Facility ask what your job is, why you are travelling in these remote parts of Norway, how you will be entering and exiting the Facility, and some information about the villages around us. You will also attend a few meetings about the rules and signs we are using to identify areas and off limits or unexplored zones, which are more like un-surveyed or un-catalogued areas. Since we have discovered the Facility, I visited at least everything once, at least those which I have access to.”
“You have all been briefed on the history of the project and on some of the technologies we have discovered,” Eirik went on as a tour guide who had to repeat the same story three times a day, but still enjoyed it. “You have also been told that you will sleep in the Facility at all times. You will see that’s an awesome experience in itself. As you have been told, we have no way to grant permission to anyone after the Facility denies it. That’s a big problem for all of us in various degrees.”
“This is by far our greatest headache, in fact, it was and still is the greatest source of contention among the personnel and a frustration for anyone who has been denied access to an area or a piece of equipment,” Eirik agreed with himself, looking at them and wondering how much this group would actually have access to. “The worst part is that, it appears that people have lost permissions at times, most permanently and sometimes only temporarily. I would love to say that it is not something you should fear, but you will. It’s unavoidable. We have yet to determine the logic behind it which compounds the problem. Well, it’s like that, you do something or nothing and one day you press the button and the door doesn’t open for you anymore.”
“At least the good news is that the opposite is also possible, meaning that I have personally been granted access to equipment which previously denied me. When that happens, tears of joy are also unavoidable. Not that I would cry, of course,” he laughed and so did everyone, except Steven who was afraid of not being granted access at all. He also wondered if there would be any terminal interface or if he could even plug his laptop to something.
“Celina, the Colonel told me that he already explained your job description to you and that you are supposed to lead team B?” inquired Eirik as she nodded. “I have reviewed your résumé and it is impressive. I hope you will be able to do the job because we could really use a professional archaeologist and expedition leader to organize and focus the people.”
“I’m sure I can. I have directed a lot of important archaeological projects, literally around the world, Sir,” confirmed Celina with enough enthusiasm to hide the feeling of being a little insulted at the remark.
“Please, call me Eirik. I’m not military, so please drop the Sir,” insisted Eirik with a smile. “Understand that on the professional level, I’m sure that you are more qualified than anyone to do that job, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. I personally can’t wait to learn from you, but what I mean is that I hope you can be allowed to do it.”
“I’m not sure I understand, Sir… Eirik,” Celina persisted, now confused in addition to being offended. “I have been approved and signed a one-year contract like everyone else, did I not?”
“He meant that he hopes the Facility will let you do your job,” that was Steven turning to look at her.
“Precisely,” Eirik concurred. “You see, Celina, I can take an hour to brief my team in the morning, gear up, take the elevator with four of them, select the location, then the elevator will take us there and then only three of us can disembark. The other two have to wait in the elevator for me to press the button to invite them to the new floor. If we are lucky, one is allowed by invitation and the other can only return to the point of departure, and all we can do is try again the next day at our next destination and hope it will be better.”
“That must make for a frustrating day,” Dave observed.
“You bet. It’s basically like an instant lottery ticket where more than half of the results are better luck next time,” acknowledged Eirik. “So you see, when I said that I hope you will be allowed to do your job, I really meant it literally and I will not hide the fact that this is an ego killer too, at least for us Alpha males,” As he looked at Celina, he felt that if the term Alpha Female were to apply to someone, she was it.
Eirik paused for a moment and Steven took the opportunity to ask the only question on his mind since the presentation started. “How much of it can you access yourself?”
“I would say so far eighty percent maybe, but that’s hard to tell, primarily because there are gadgets we can’t turn on or use at all,” explained Eirik, betraying a sense of exasperation in his voice. “But I can’t be sure if I can’t use them because I’m not allowed to or because I didn’t find the on switch yet.”
“What about Jack?” asked Steven, already knowing the answer thanks to Chrissy, but half wanting to hear it for himself and the other half wanting to justify the fact that he knew. Chrissy must have understood why he asked the question because he felt her hand grabbing his thigh.
“Well, I would rather not say. It is rather a personal matter,” Eirik told them, embarrassed by the question but understanding the need for Steven to know.
“That little, huh?” scoffed Fangs.
“What a bitch,” thought Eirik, who had just received a first sampling of Dark Fang’s medicine. “No, it is nothing like that. He can access about fifty percent on his own and seventy percent if I activate it for him,” he answered, exaggerating quite a bit.
Chrissy rolled her eyes at Nancy’s snide comment and mentally shot back, “Dinnae teach yer Granny tae suck eggs?” After taking a deep breath to ease the tension within her, she then turned her attention back to Eirik. “Could there be a mental or knowledge component to the access?” she asked, taking her hand off Steven’s thigh; fearing that Eirik might notice.
“I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive,” answered Eirik, looking at Chrissy who seemed a little puzzled. “You see, Jack has much more knowledge than I in some areas and can’t use some equipment that I can. As for the mental component, I’m not sure I understand what you mean, but you and Steven will be working on that aspect of the project, so you should be able to know as much as I do before long.”
He then spent another hour explaining the food replicator, beds, shower and the five colour-coded quadrants of the Facility: Red, Brown, Blue, Grey and Orange. He also told them that they had quarters already assigned to them and that their luggage would be transported safely to the Facility in the morning.
Eirik seemed to have adapted fast to his new responsibilities or, as he put it, his new reality. But the project was still in its infancy. They had yet to guess more than fifty words that the system was speaking, and they had only a rudimentary knowledge of the colour coding of the buttons and their functions. The fear that Eirik and Jack felt at the beginning about a three-letter organization taking the Facility over by force had not come to pass. Actually, it was better than what they imagined. They had both been allowed to continue discovering the place and were now paid for it. Indeed, they agreed that the main reason it didn’t happen was that the Norwegian government and the monarchy had been more diplomatic and much less arrogant than the United States, China, or Russia would have been. Jack, who would have normally defended his country, had not done so since his arrest and interrogation a few months earlier. He even informed Eirik that on the day he no longer enjoyed his diplomatic status provided by the United Nations to international employees in foreign countries, he would apply for immigration to Norway. At that, Eirik understood, his interrogation had been pleasant—even rewarded by long discussions with the King and the Crown Prince themselves, an honour for anyone living in a monarchical society. He reassured Jack that in the eyes of the monarchy, he was considered a national hero and naturalization would only be a formality. It had also been discussed that they would be receiving the St. Olav’s Medal for outstanding services to Norway, but not until an official cover story could be found or the Facility became public knowledge.
But thanks to the Crown Prince, Jack was now a full member of the project. His only major frustration was that the more they discovered advanced equipment, the less he was able to use, at least percentage-wise. The latest piece of equipment to be discovered was a device that seemed to allow Eirik to see through walls. Jack could, of course, see through the wall as well, but the second his finger touched the device, even when Eirik was operating it, the device seemed to die almost instantly and couldn’t be reactivated until he stopped touching it.
Eirik ended the briefing a little earlier than he had planned, but he could see that he lost his audience after the fifth or sixth anecdote. He blamed it on the long journey. He escorted them back to the van then returned to the barracks to gear up and head for the Facility with Colonel Lawson in tow along with two guards who had been maintaining their posts in hunter’s blinds in the surrounding forest and high grasses. Their replacements already arrived from the underground to take their duties on the nightshift.
Farid had managed to sleep in the back of the van until he was awoken by a nightmare about vampires. Half asleep, he got confused and took an extra second to realize that it was real. Dark Fangs was standing next to the window with a smoke in hand and urging him to get up and drive them to their hotel.
“You know that you can’t smoke at all on the compound grounds?” snapped Farid, a little pissed at the constant rudeness. “Also, friendly advice, make-up and scuba diving don’t mix too well.”
“I thought that the organization was an offspring of IAEA, not WHO?” snapped Fang before taking her place on the front seat and crushed her cigarette in the clean and likely never used ashtray. She was apparently happy with her joke, having read somewhere that smokers couldn’t apply for a job at the World Health Organization anymore.
“You shouldn’t have said that Farid; it would have been sweet to see her show up in full makeup in the morning and be forced to remove it. Better yet, see the result after the first dive,” said Chrissy smiling, but too tired to laugh.
“I can’t wait to see you being denied access tomorrow,” Fangs shot back, apparently not worried for herself or perhaps hoping to be denied and have an excuse to be sent home.
They took the same road back to the village, or so it appeared to them in the dark. The hotel was very small, too small for Dave, who seemed to have problems with confined spaces and used to expensive resorts and five-star American-style hotels. He was complaining to the front desk about his accommodation and offered to pay more for another room, but what he got was already the best they had. Steven and Chrissy both looked at each other, thinking that Dave was clearly not used to traveling in Europe and didn’t judge him for it. Instead, they just simply took the stairs to the third floor to their rooms. They were only equipped with single beds, if one could even call them that. Chrissy and Steven agreed that they wouldn’t repeat the last two nights’ experience. The two of them probably wouldn’t even fit in the bed anyway. It was already well past midnight and they were both completely exhausted.
Steven was already asleep when Chrissy opened his bedroom door and entered the room which he apparently neglected to lock. Sitting next to him, she passed the back of her hand on his forehead. He awoke delicately enough and opened his eyes. As he had always been able to do, he awoke instantly and alert. He cleared his voice and smiled, and felt aroused at the site of her hair brushing his face and her hand on his chest.
“Hi, is it morning already?” asked Steven, petting Chrissy’s arm and stopping when he realized what he was doing, “Sorry.”
“You Canadians say that a lot,” remarked Chrissy truthfully as she took his hand and placed it on her arm where it had been a second earlier. “I couldn’t sleep. You said that you would tell me what Lawson said to you. I can’t stop thinking about what he told about the secret they don’t want to tell us. My father definitely didn’t tell me anything about it. I logged on to the Internet, as slow as dialup from here, and searched for any relationship between us. Hell, maybe I’m too tired to think or I’m going nuts, but I even started thinking that we may even be blood relatives, but I couldn’t check that online and I have no reason to believe it.”
“Let me go to the bathroom and I’ll tell you about what he said to me after, okay, sister,” whispered Steven; getting up and walking on his toes, the wood floor cracking at every step.
“Steven!” warned Chrissy in a loud murmur. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Steven paused and turned, looked at Chrissy puzzled. “What? You said that you didn’t care if I’m naked in front of you. You started it; a little late to care about that now.”
“Oh, I don’t care,” replied Chrissy looking at him, thinking that she rather liked it, especially the surfboard abs, his hairy legs and everything in-between. “The others might.”
Steven paused for a second and felt dumb. He removed his hand from the doorknob, as he remembered that the hotel didn’t have private bathrooms, and there were only two of them for the entire floor. He took a towel and quickly exited the room. When he returned, Chrissy was hiding under the blankets.
“Sorry, I was cold and the bed was warm,” said Chrissy, giggling and flapping her feet like a kid making butterflies under the bed sheets. “Let‘s lie here for a while as you tell me what you know.”
Steven joined her, trying to think of something else to keep Junior at bay once more. He then explained his discussion with the Colonel and was a little sorry for not having more to report to her. He also interpreted his understanding of the role playing scenario, proposing not to worry about it and just keep an eye open and make sure to be efficient in their work and look for signs there. She wasn’t worried; only a little frustrated that Lawson didn’t want to say more. She explained on her turn that it was like Christmas: you knew you have gifts, people had told you, you could see them under the tree, so why not just open them now and be done with it? Steven gave her a guy’s explanation, saying it was Karate Kid all over again like Daniel-san. You were supposed to do your work without knowing why until a simple hint allowed all the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.
Chrissy wasn’t sorry for waking him. She was feeling better now and gave him a long hug, pushed away the blankets as she got up, covered him again, and kissed him on the forehead like a mother would kiss her child. She took her bathrobe from the hook next to the bed and turned to face him. “At least girls are lucky; nothing is apparent when we are excited,” she observed.
“Get out!” was his reply. “Besides, it is not my fault if you are so damn beautiful. Good night.” She blew him another kiss and closed the door.
Steven didn’t fall asleep right away. He was thinking at the way Chrissy teased him and he wondered what was behind it. He could have simply dismissed it as flirting, but that was more. Girls don’t generally cuddle with you and hug you naked without thinking of something else. It didn’t take days to happen either. It was much more primal than that normally; flirts, long kisses, touching each other all over and then finish with one asking the other if they had a condom with them. But that was more cerebral, more complicated. He had decided to play along. He would let her lead and see where it would go. Also, the reference to the family had not prevented him from being aroused, but it had stopped him from thinking of kissing her.
Also, there was that conversation with Colonel Lawson who seemed to know things about them. How could it be possible? Was he extrapolating too much on nothing like smart people often did, as in over analyzing the situation too much? That was going to be a long night and he knew it.