by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Chapter 25, part 2
Chapter 27 and Chapter 28
appear in this issue.
Chapter 26: Desert Storm
At nine o’clock on May Day morning, the meeting with Brighter Vale began.
It was not a round table, but Graves had done his best, with Maelene by his side, their fours guests spaced evenly around it, and the un-made Carla hovering reassuringly behind him.
‘So, gentlemen — I trust you bring us good news?’
Sanoutrio was their spokesman, as before.
‘No, Raymond, we do not. We’ve all tried very hard. Steve especially — right, Steve? We do believe what you told us on Monday. We do understand it has to be done ...’
Raymond smiled most specially, took a little look for himself at their true thinking, and was not fully convinced. But he allowed Nick to continue.
‘Our clients are up in arms. Most of them are refusing to even contemplate a temporary halt in supply, never mind a complete stoppage and some sort of rehabilitation plan. Some of them have banded together — that’s a novelty, Steve tells us ... they’re sworn to secrecy, and they usually stick to it. They’re threatening us with all sorts of action — but it’s just hot air, because none of them would ever dare go public and expose what they’ve been doing. It’s stalemate, Raymond ...’
‘How many have agreed to accept the proposal?’
‘Fewer than ten percent.’
‘Come on, Nick — plain speaking!’
‘Only two, out of twenty-six. And even they are only willing to do so with a full refund of all monies paid, and a very large settlement in compensation for the emotional injury caused ...’
‘Well, that’s a start,’ began Raymond, always alert to the smallest hint of an opportunity to move forward. Then he noticed his colleague’s raised eyebrow.
‘Yes, Maelene?’ he asked, with a look that said ‘Be very careful ...’
‘I have two very simple questions.’
‘Go ahead ...’
‘Mr Sanoutrio, please tell me how many of your twenty-six clients are women.’
‘And the two who are willing to accept the deal?’
Maelene nodded lightly to Graves and sat back in her chair, and her senior partner continued.
‘Gentlemen, let me summarise again the realities of the situation. If you and your clients do not cooperate, there are certain to be dramatic personal consequences for you all.
‘Ms Toresito risks political suicide and a great deal more. I can see that each of you persists in regarding this as an issue of minor importance, but I suggest you have not begun to think that particular thread through to its logical conclusion.
‘You, Mr Shenner, risk a total loss of face and the end to your huge and unexpected new source of income. And I shall not speculate on the criminal charges that might be brought against you.
‘Nick, Phil, and Walter — well, you would lose everything, would you not? Just when it was about to turn into a profitable investment! And instead — can you imagine the civil lawsuits?’
‘And then we have your super-rich clients, the still-beautiful people of the Golden State. Whatever happens, you know, their precious Eau de Regnolt Saluoy will all be evaporating very fast and very soon. They can do it the hard way if they choose to — no compensation, public humiliation, and escape to some desert hideout, to slowly fade away ...’
Raymond quickly looked inside their minds once again. A little further progress, yes — but the four of them had known all this since last Monday. It was obviously still not sufficiently encouraging. He sighed, and turned to his left.
‘Maelene — I believe there is something you would like to pursue ...’
‘Yes, there is. Thank you, Raymond.’
She took the deepest breath of her life, and then realised she was pushing back her chair and rising to her feet.
‘Listen, guys, I’d like you to think for a minute about just what it is you’ve been doing here.
‘You’re taking people — most of them vain old women desperate to keep up a pretence of youth — and you’re turning their lives into a future hell without them even knowing it!
‘These Lutetium Salts only do their job if the user goes on a real low-calorie diet, right?’ ... ‘Oh, you didn’t all know that, huh? Just you, Mr Shenner? OK, now we’re getting somewhere ...
‘So let’s think about this. Here’s a ninety-year old woman, rich and famous in her day, living in the lap of luxury most of her life, and certainly not used to taking much exercise. No great will or desire to do any, either. And her strength has naturally been decreasing, with the same effect — very little exercise.
‘But fair enough. That’s her choice, right?
‘And what do you go and do? Get her hooked on a diet plan that slows down her metabolism so much that you need to re-stimulate it artificially. But because it’s then going so freakin’ slow, she has even less will to exercise! And less and less strength. It’s a vicious circle, ain’t it? She physically does less, and less, and less, until she hardly has the strength to get out of bed!
‘And what’s the use of your body looking forty-five on the outside, if it’s reached a hundred or more on the inside and you can’t even move your butt to show it off any more? Would you guys like a dose of that magic potion yourselves?
‘And I’m not asking you, Steven Shenner! I can see you’re already on that downslide yourself. But it’s a huge confidence trick, ain’t it! Tell me — when did you last see any of your clients in the flesh?’
‘Actually, I see most of them quite regularly, my dear. They all insist on a personal visit ...’
‘And how many of them are up and about, and playing tennis, and going out on the town every night?’
‘Well ... none of them. Mostly they stay at home hoping someone will drop by. And they do still feel very confident about coming to the door.’
‘Huh! Until they can’t even make it there from the bedroom!
‘I rest my case, gentlemen. You’ve got these people paying big dollar for a one-way ticket to a very sad, slow demise, and you don’t give a good dog damn about it. Wake up and shape up!’
She sank down into her chair, exhausted, exhilarated, and rather worried about what Raymond would think of her dramatic interjection.
He took another rain check. Very good, Maelene, he decided — you’ve shocked and embarrassed them. Not my normal negotiating technique, but it might just work.
And he took control again.
‘Well, I can see that has certainly made an impression on you all.
‘But I appreciate that you cannot bring your clients together for a similar, full group persuasion exercise. They would all refuse to be outed, would they not? Nor is it practical for my employers to visit each of them individually. And Maelene and I are not able, personally, to directly oblige any of them to change their minds.
‘No, it will still be down to focused efforts from yourselves, gentlemen. And you have now been powerfully tutored, by my partner here, in what you will need to say and do.’
Another quick reading. Further progress again. They would certainly all be more inspired in their next round of client negotiations.
But there was still not enough unconditional acceptance, in any of their hearts, of the Mater’s overwhelming power base.
‘However, despite our strong and persuasive appeals, which I am pleased to see have had a significant influence, I am not yet convinced that we are thinking as one. So I propose a substantial coffee break, while we arrange a little demonstration.’
* * *
The Mater had finalised its decision. It would go ahead, unilaterally, with a brief initial extraction.
The SOG-E procedure would have to be tested out on Earth, sooner or later. And they did badly want a sample of lutetium to assess its actual quality. And now it was obvious that they still needed to provide a small show of strength to achieve the desired short-term result with the Brighter Vale team.
They had released a fully-prepared “Stealthed Ore Granulizer-Extractor” from its launch bay many hours earlier, and since then it had been winging its silent and undetectable way down towards the outer atmosphere, ready to make its entrance if and when required.
And Lucia had paid a rapid visit to Dave Evans at the Brighter Vale mine, first thing that morning, allowing the Chief to re-engage him and insist on the immediate evacuation of the entire site, until further notice. Dave would need to tell his staff it was simply an exercise, a test of procedures mandated after the inspection earlier in the week, and that there should be no panic, nor any call for the emergency services.
And the site had quickly been fully vacated. Not a human remained. Only one un-made radimote, and she was positioned at a very safe distance from the pit. For Lucia was not needed there as a pathfinder. No — she was Press.
On Earth, many observatories and human eyes suddenly spotted the visible effects of what was presumably a very large meteor, traversing the atmosphere at an entry angle which, many of them quickly calculated, should allow it to survive its passage largely undamaged.
And a number of those observing authorities took immediate steps in readiness to deal with it quite summarily, should it indeed come through unscathed and pose a significant threat to life and limb.
But at the very instant it emerged, with many eyes expecting to be following the Earth’s latest and biggest-ever meteorite as it tracked across the North American skies, it disappeared once more from the view of every single monitoring system.
And it descended, fully stealthed, with its magnelavity drive and its newly programmed navigation systems slowing it down and positioning it nicely over the northern Mojave Desert, until it had established itself in a silent, invisible hover two hundred feet above the unique Rare Earths deposit, and just beyond the rim of the existing pit.
At the Starblaze Hotel, Raymond received his whispered cue from the unseen Carla and encouraged the party to re-take their seats, while she positioned herself carefully at the end of the room. Then, just as she had in Strasbourg for Toni, when she had shown him that beautiful landscape of Arunura for him to draw for himself, she prepared to play a role slightly different from her usual one.
Lucia’s live video feed was up and running, and the director on the Mater was satisfied. Carla’s projection services were instantly enabled, and the four members of the Brighter Vale team gasped as a large, three-dimensional image materialised before their eyes, presenting an unmistakable picture of the Brighter Vale mine’s deserted excavation site.
A real-time clock appeared at the corner of the virtually silver screen.
Jake Linnerman had seen it all in his three score years and ten, working the land on farms throughout the southern states. Tornadoes, hurricanes, huge thunderstorms and sandstorms, the works. Not much of that sort of weather up near Clark Mountain, though. Nice, peaceful place for his retirement, most of the time. Apart from the military tests and all.
He was driving back from his weekly shopping trip into town when the SOG-E went to work.
Suddenly there was an explosive disturbance of the land a few miles ahead of him, up at the new mine. Then a thin and vivid column, dark yet sparkling with light, pushed rapidly out of the ground and extended upwards for just three seconds until it stopped growing but carried on rising, pulsating, for another few moments, then quickly shrank to nothing from the top down.
It looked to Jake, and the two or three dozen other souls who were quick enough to turn and watch it, like nothing less than a strange, flat-topped missile being launched from an underground silo and then disappearing fast into some invisible target.
And most people thereabouts were used to curious things like that happening in the Mojave Desert ...
Raymond’s little show was over, and the projection screen too had evanesced. And despite a strong personal sense of shock and incredulity, the immaculately polished diplomat maintained the poker face he had carefully assumed in advance, and turned back to his equally stunned audience.
Poker-faced he may have been, but his special smile was still fully extant. And he could see that now they truly did believe. All four of them. At last the Mater’s new disciples could be sent back to the field to finish their uncompleted work.
‘Now, gentlemen — you will not report this, or discuss it, or even acknowledge that you have seen it, if you should ever be asked.
‘You have a further ten days to secure a complete acceptance of our offer from every one of your clients. You may include a reasonable financial settlement in each package, and we shall attend to its sourcing. But do not make the mistake of promising an excessive amount, my friends. Because if we should judge that you have overstepped that undefined mark, when you return with your results, we shall regard the deal as effectively aborted, we shall withdraw our offer once and for all, and we shall follow the other, very unattractive script, in which Robin Hood takes what he chooses and gives the payment due to others more needy.
‘So may your own morality be your simple loss adjusters’ guide.
‘Do I have your agreement to the terms of this final round?’
They all nodded silently.
‘Good. We shall reconvene on Sunday May 11, at a time and location to be advised. It will not be at this hotel. You will each write down two personal phone numbers for me on this sheet of paper, before you leave, and I shall contact you all in good time to allow you to travel to that meeting, wherever it may take place.’
* * *
The Mater’s SOG-E had first deployed the extractor shaft down only to ground level, its invisible walls created and sustained by perfectly balanced magnetic forces.
Then, through the centreline of that hollow shaft, the laser beam had been generated, powerful enough to pulverise the ores beneath it into dust-sized granules. Simultaneously, the suction system had been enabled, with its mechanetic stream racing down the isolated inner core, and the dust-rich up-draughts rushing back in the surrounding column.
In the space of eight earth seconds, the SOG-E had drawn up a tidy column of granulized “Gerontite” ores, ten feet in diameter and sixty feet tall, and had gathered its little harvest in a corner of the oval-shaped, domed store rising high above the laser generator gear.
And then the largest vacuum cleaner never seen on Earth had engaged the gravity-exchange circuits of its magnelavity drive, departed stealthily back to the Mater, and rejoined it at the dump-off bay. There the dust would be filtered and its precious elements subjected to full chemical analysis, followed by intense and temporary re-compacting.
And the unwanted waste materials would be stored separately, in this particular case, for later jettisoning on the eventual trip home, well away from prying eyes ...
Only those few dozen people had seen it happen. But that was enough to generate several telephone calls.
The ones made to the Press would have little effect. There had been no photographs, and each sub-editor would decide it was just another bunch of coordinated cranks seeking UFO-spotting glory by feeding off those earlier phantom meteor reports.
And the calls to government agencies would be politely acknowledged, but never properly answered. Because the spies-in-the-sky saw that remarkable, slim cylinder of dust quite clearly too, and the secret word was rapidly spread, and the air and ground exclusion zone was quickly established around the mine, on some pretext of a minor environmental hazard, and the specialist teams soon began to stream in past the hastily erected military cordons and get down to their highly classified investigations of this scene of grandest larceny.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd