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Part One

 PAST

The door of the lab was open as usual, the nameplate on it read “Michael Cooke, PhD”. The office looked like a well-organised mess with pieces of wire, circuit boards and scientific journals, as well as typed and hand written notes on the work which took place there. It was obvious that Michael Cooke, PhD knew his way around, as he wheeled himself back and forth between desks and equipment on his office chair.

After a while he came to a halt in front of a metallic box, connected to a computer by a number of hefty cables. There was another seemingly identical box on the other side of the lab, connected to another seemingly identical set of cables. The only discernible difference between the boxes was that the one in front of Cooke was labelled “Transmit”, the other “Receive”.

He reached out to press a button and the word “scanning” appeared on the monitor of both of the computers. After a couple of minutes watching the cursor move across the screen there was a bleep and “scan completed successfully” appeared. The back rest of his chair creaked slightly as he leaned his full weight upon it. He ran his hand through his very short hair, the colour of which was indistinct in the halogen lighting, then took a deep breath, which he held as he pressed the same mushroom-shaped red button he had initiated the scan with a few moments before.

There was a faint, almost imperceptible sound, similar to the noise a sheet of paper makes when drawn out of an envelope and the screen of the computer which had been showing a shower of numbers now exclaimed “transmission complete, performance check started”, followed by “scan completed successfully – T/R = 1”.

Cooke let out the breath he had been holding in, smiled to himself, then stood up, his 180 centimetres meaning he had to stoop to miss a couple of the more unrestrained cables. He drummed out a quick rhythm on top of the unpolished steel before flipping the catch that released the door, gently opening it and leaning down to peer inside.

When he was preparing to carry out the test he had scanned around the office for something to use, his eyes had alighted on the rather unassuming plastic lunchbox he brought to work every day. He had walked over, opened it and wasn’t particularly surprised to find the cheese and salad sandwich, chocolate bar and finally the apple, which he had packed before leaving for work that morning. Although the apple was probably the least atomically complex of the three items it seemed, to him at least, the most apposite. Of course it meant that if it all went wrong he’d still have the unhealthy but tasty options left when he got hungry.

Michael reached into the small metal box, pulled out the apple, gave it a quick visual inspection, rubbed it vigorously on his trouser leg then took a bite, smiling to himself.

 

***

 

Originally published in the Guardian newspaper.

Eco-terrorists threaten climate change negotiations

…however events have come to light regarding the Environmental Assistance, Rehabilitation, Training and Health (EARTH) Force. This band of previously harmless environmental activists has recently taken to staging more elaborate, and in some cases disruptive, action which has interfered with a number of high profile events, including the EcoBuild2021 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and the more recent World Summit held in Birmingham, resulting in the recall of the 23 representatives from the USA and Ghana.

This may have set back talks on climate change by up to ten years. Stephen Smythe, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management from the University of Western Australia, one of the attendees at the conference, told the Guardian, ‘If these people are trying to improve matters for the planet they are going about it the wrong way…

 

***

 

Kerry was fairly new to the job. Sure, waitressing wasn’t exactly top of her list of ideal jobs and didn’t register up there on the glamor scale, but she felt lucky to have got it as it was fairly quiet and didn’t require too much thought, so she could concentrate on writing her short stories in the evenings.

She was currently wiping the work surface down in an absent-minded fashion, then realised she had been doing so for almost five minutes, as she stared at the sole occupant of the café sitting with his back towards her. He had arrived three quarters of an hour earlier while there was a bit of a rush on and she had barely noticed him, taking his order and placing the flat white on the table an unreasonable fifteen minutes later. He hadn’t complained or even said anything. He was just staring into space.

As the place emptied over the next twenty minutes the man appeared to become more self-conscious and had picked up a newspaper left by another customer. Kerry had offered him more coffee but he had waved her aside without even looking up.

The reason she was staring now was because the man’s shoulders were bobbing up and down, it looked very much like he was crying but it was a little hard to tell as the movements were so slight. Kerry was in two minds about what to do. Should she go and ask him what was wrong or just wait and see what happened. Her mind had drifted away, as it had given her an idea for a new story, but before she got back to considering what to do the guy had pulled himself together, stood up and walked towards the exit. She tried to fix his features in her head, in order that she could make the character in her story as realistic as possible but all she could seem to take in was that he was about her height, had a recent, quite badly executed, grade one haircut and a pair of wire rimmed glasses that made her think he might work in a university.

After the door had closed Kerry picked up the disinfectant spray, went over to collect his cup and saucer and cleaned the table, while things were still quiet. He had left the newspaper on the table. It was the Guardian, seemingly one of the more popular papers with the customers but not one she read very often. There were a number of small wet circles on the open page so he obviously had been crying, but there was also a section ripped out with only part of the headline “The EARTH Fo…” left amongst the teardrops.

She considered what it might mean but once again her mind wandered away, snapping back to earth as a young couple came in with their arms tightly round each other’s waists, obviously in the first throes of romance. She thought no more about the man as she went over to take their order and considered what their story might be.

 

***

 

It was quiet where they had dropped him off, he had been expecting that. He turned round to look at the truck but it had, of course, disappeared. Which was more of a surprise than it should have been after his briefing.

He looked around to get his bearings, then purposefully strode down a narrow path between two buildings. He was fairly sure where he was headed but it still took an effort of concentration for him to look confident. Eventually he stepped out from the maze of corridor-like pathways on to the high street. He looked up and down the rows of shops and cafés, scanning to find one which offered wireless connectivity.

He chose a place which seemed fairly quiet, went in and sat down. The waitress, who looked as if she wasn’t really thinking about what she was doing, came over. After spending a few moments looking at him she stared into the middle distance asking, ‘What can I get you?’

‘Just a coke please, oh and can I get the SSID to log on as well?’ The waitress had a blank look on her face until he realised that being a waitress she may not be super technical, ‘Um sorry, I mean can I have the details so I can get on the wireless service with my laptop please?’ She smiled at him and headed for the counter, saying that shouldn’t be a problem.

He unzipped his backpack, leaning it against the chair leg, removed a laptop and flipped open the lid, hitting the power button as he did so. The machine stirred into life and was at the log on prompt before the waitress had returned, bringing his drink and a slip of paper with the wireless details scrawled on it. He clicked on the screen where it displayed the username “AlanScott”, deftly entering his password.

As soon as the OS was up and running Alan muttered ‘amateurs’ to himself, adjusting the time and date. After fiddling with a few other settings, to get it working the way he wanted he got online and set Google as his homepage, then typed in ‘EARTH Force’. After a momentary delay a list of about 170,000,000 results came up. Better be a bit more specific he thought, as he started searching for regional links to the group. It took him a while to pin down what he was looking for but eventually he had a name and an email address.

‘Can I get you anything else?’ Alan was a little unnerved, he had been concentrating on the computer so hard he hadn’t seen the waitress approaching.

‘Actually yes, could I get a cup of coffee please…’ Alan glanced at the shiny new nametag pinned to the waitress’s breast, ‘Kerry. Black, no sugar. And do you do some kind of bacon sandwich?’

She smiled, surprised someone had actually bothered to find out what she was called. ‘No worries, I’ll add it to your bill.’ She was looking straight at him and he figured she didn’t see a lot of people with naturally red hair and green eyes. Especially well-built six foot tall men. He was kind of used to people staring at his features but that could be good, it meant they weren’t actually taking any notice of the rest of you and what you were doing. She hadn’t even looked at the laptop screen.

He decided to relax until his food turned up, idly leafing through a magazine someone had left on the adjacent table. It was a glossy wildlife thing and the main story seemed to be about a famine in Southern Mongolia, and how it would have been less severe if new power plants hadn’t been set up in Northern China over the past ten years. Alan put the magazine down as his order was gently placed on the table and said, ‘Thanks Kerry,’ to which he was offered a shy smile and a blush.

After taking a bite of his sandwich he shuffled his finger over the track pad of the laptop to wake it up again and typed in “bedsits”, before narrowing down his search results to the local area. ‘Nothing fancy,’ is what had been suggested to him, he understood the implication and only selected the worst parts of town.

 

***

 

The small room seemed crowded, even with only three men sitting around the table, this was due in part to the fact that all of them had personalities far too big to fit in one country. They all looked very serious. Two of them were in serious looking military uniforms, the other looked a little less honed but was in an expensive suit, which didn’t really hide his languid lifestyle choices.

One of the uniformed individuals, a man who would nicely fit into a description involving the words “world-weary” was talking to the other two, who were paying him some of their attention. The insignia on his shoulder had a crown and three rectangles denoting the rank of Brigadier, but he was still the lowest ranking individual there.

‘…Masterson has been in my Division for twelve years now and served under William before that. He has an outstanding record and I realise he may not be exactly what you were looking for, but I think it needs to be taken into account that this assignment will involve civilians.’ The two men listening had an air of apprehension about them and the Brigadier was about to start listing all the commands, posts and what had been achieved at each, when there were two short, sharp blows on the door.

‘Ah, that’ll be him now. Come in.’ The last words were aimed roughly towards the door, which opened immediately. ‘General, Minister, this is Colonel Robert Masterson.’ Robert figured they already knew exactly who he was, as he closed the door and stood to attention.

Without noticing the irony, the slightly rounded man in the almost well-fitted suit said ‘Don’t stand on ceremony man, take a seat.’ Robert didn’t smile because he had been in the armed forces for 19 years. You learnt quickly not to smile in the company of people higher up the food chain than yourself.

‘Thank you sir,’ the Minister obviously hadn’t meant what he said as he didn’t correct the use of his formal title.

Without any preamble the General asked, ‘You know why you’re here?’

‘I’ve been briefed on the specifics of the task at hand but have no information on the mission itself, sir.’ He made his answer as succinct as possible, because he knew these men all had short attention spans and still less time to listen.

Robert’s commanding officer, the Brigadier gave a nod to the unspoken question the General asked, with a swift glance in his direction before continuing, ‘I’m sure you know everything necessary at this time. We’re still receiving information and the project itself is at a very early stage. However we need to be ready when the time comes. So collect the inventory from the desk outside as you leave, and ensure all items on it are acquired and securely stored.’

Robert nodded, saluted then left the room, closing the door and breathing an internal sigh of relief as he asked the military assistant on the desk for the list. He gave her a wry smile, trying to intonate that he didn’t envy her job, being the aide-de-camp to the General. She smiled woodenly back and returned to her work immediately, utterly failing to catch the hidden meaning in his expression.

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