by Terry L. Mirll
Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.
Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.
“I’ve no doubt, Richard, you’re doing your best,” the Old Man said, his face floating directly ahead of Lohman’s. “But I don’t give a damn about your efforts. I expect results.”
“A momentary setback, Director,” Lohman replied as he climbed aboard the Old Man’s private elevator, tapping the “down” key. “A mere bump in the road.”
“I hardly consider the loss of a major piece of equipment a mere bump.”
“Director, I’ll admit it caught me off guard. A level of resistance I’ve heretofore never experienced from my point of contact. He was always rather cooperative, once he was given the proper motivation, of course. I had no reason to expect any differently, before he compromised one of our Grunts.”
“Compromised? He blew its damn head off!”
“A booby-trap, coded into his database, causing catastrophic damage to any outside source attempting to breach his firewalls. The amount of damage was programmed to be proportional to the total energy output of the source itself.
“I had seen Citizen Goldstein on numerous occasions prior to the incident, always on my own. He had no reason to expect that on this particular occasion I would bring Grunts with me. I’m sure he only expected to fry the hard drive of some hand-held decryption unit, not bring the walls down around our ears.”
“But that’s what he very nearly did. Get yourself killed, Richard, I don’t give a tinker’s dam, but when you allow Ouroboros property to be destroyed, I should debit your wages. Fortunately for you, I won’t need to.”
Lohman made no reply, though his curiosity at this last comment was piqued.
The doors to the elevator opened, and Lohman shut down the video link with the Director as he made his way into the Old Man’s office. He took only one step inside, freezing on the spot upon seeing the enormous pile of shiny yellow plates which lay in stacks upon the Director’s desk. The Old Man was seated right behind it.
Approaching cautiously, Lohman reached out to lift one of the plates into his hand. It was heavy. “Director, what’s going on?”
The Old Man leaned back in his seat, smiling gloriously. “Richard, do you know what chrysopoeia is?”
“Can’t say that I do, Director.”
“It’s an alchemist’s term. You at least know who the alchemists were?”
“Idiots who convinced themselves there was a way to change lead into gold.”
“Idiots only in the sense that none of the avenues they pursued ever worked. But geniuses in the sense that they seemed to understand innately that gold and lead are not so different, one and the other.”
“Be still a moment, Richard, and listen. The alchemists, of course, had no knowledge of atomic structure. Their attempts at chrysopoeia involved primitive, oftentimes ludicrous, strategies. But atomically, lead and gold are quite similar. Both have precisely six electron shells or energy levels. These shells are made up of identical configurations of electrons: of two, then eight, eighteen, thirty-two, and eighteen electrons. The only difference is in the outermost electron shell. Lead has four electrons, gold only one.
“At its nucleus, lead has eighty-two protons and one hundred twenty-six neutrons. Gold has seventy-nine protons and one hundred eighteen neutrons. Which means that if you can find a way to remove from an atom of lead exactly three protons and three of its outermost electrons — these joining together to create a trio of hydrogen atoms — you will have changed it into gold. A bit neutron-heavy, to be sure, but gold nonetheless.”
Lohman placed the heavy yellow plate atop the pile on the Old Man’s desk. There must have been a couple hundred kilos of the stuff. “You’re saying all this used to be lead?”
“This is what Stevens has so far reclaimed from the device we constructed to manufacture Shmeat. He estimates another five to six hundred kilos by the time he’s finished.”
Lohman whipped around and exited the Old Man’s office, whose face instantly reappeared before him.
“Richard, I’m not finished,” the Old Man said.
“So talk,” Lohman said. “I can walk and listen at the same time.”
“I want you to understand why finding Flemel is so important.”
“I get it, Director. Flemel’s in over his head. Not only has he stolen the Shmeat files, he’s also inadvertently made off with data outlining a process for changing lead into gold. If he manages to sell his files—”
“Just as long as we understand one another. Under no circumstances can Flemel be allowed to sell his data. I don’t care what it takes: stop him.”
Lohman grunted a curt reply, and when the Old Man disengaged, he smiled. He loved that “I don’t care what it takes” talk. Carte blanche was such a lovely thing. And what the Old Man had clearly intimated without expressing directly was what to do with Flemel. Lohman’s task wasn’t simply to retrieve the files from him. He also had to ensure that no one ever found out that Ouroboros had inadvertently discovered a process for chrysopoeia. That meant Flemel had to disappear once he was found.
“Hildy!” Lohman called as he made his way back to his office. Hildy’s lovely face appeared. “Yes, sir?” she said.
“I’ll need another Grunt. Requisition one for me, then come to my office. I need your help.”
“Oh, and pack a bag. We’re going on a trip.”
“Yes, sir,” she repeated. Her image disappeared.
Lohman reached his office. By now, the data he had confiscated from Solly had been safely decrypted and downloaded to his case files. Seating himself at his desk, he began to browse through Solly’s data. There were pages and pages of information, too much to sort through on his own. Irritated, he gazed at the side door expectantly. Where’s that damn Hildy? he thought.
“Hildy!” he said. Again, Hildy’s smiling face appeared.
“Get in here, I need you!”
“I’m sorry, sir. There’s been a delay.”
“Delay? Nonsense! Drop whatever you’re doing and help me with this data.”
He returned to his research, but only for a few seconds.
“Hildy, damn it all! What’s keeping you?”
Hildy’s face once again appeared before him, bearing the same smiling expression. She looked calm, even passive.
“Yes, sir?” she said.
Lohman’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned back in his seat. With guarded caution, he said, “That’s a lovely outfit you’re wearing today.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Where did you get it?”
“I’m not sure, sir.”
“That’s a lovely outfit you’re wearing today.”
“Thank you, sir.” Her expression never changed.
Lohman bounded from his chair, walking briskly down the access hallway past the kitchenette and adjacent lounge with its comfortable furniture and well-stocked bar, past his private lavatory and the bed in the next room.
He burst into Hildy’s office. It was empty. Reaching her desk, he opened the holographic control panel and tapped the “communication” icon. It opened.
It was set on autoreply.
Quickly, he ran a tracer on her profile, but was amazed to find it blocked. That meant she had requisitioned a corporate transport, the one vehicle in Ouroboros inventory bearing the kind of jamming hardware sophisticated enough to block even a Centcom scan.
When he checked her communications log, his eyes grew stern: Her reply avatar indicated that when she had originally requisitioned the three Grunts, she made the call to the vault from a remote location, a corporate transport headed due west.
He checked its itinerary: the transport had flown nonstop, until touching down for several hours in Albuquerque.
“Hildy!” he grumbled. “You conniving BITCH!”
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll