The Long Death (Part III)

Michael sat patiently on a moulded plastic seat in the hallway outside Professor Hussein’s office. His hands were clasped together neatly on his lap, and he hadn’t moved for some minutes now. The hallway was long, floored in echoing tiles, and passers-by would make their way from one end to the other, their footsteps reverberating as they went, perhaps alone or in small groups of two or three. They talked to each other, laughed, goofed around, but they all seemed to fall into an embarrassed silence as they passed Michael. It was a small campus, and most of them knew him by sight. Everyone studying there had a right to be doing so – there was no bullying, no snobbery, because the students here were, by definition, the cream of the crop, but still Michael made most of his peers uncomfortable. He sat there, alone, silent, not even playing with a tablet or smartscreen, staring straight ahead at a blank wall. Waiting.

Eventually the door opened and Professor Hussein put her head out, looking at Michael over the top of her glasses. “How long have you been sitting there, Mr Cohen?” she asked him gently.

He thought about it. “Approximately fourteen minutes.”

“Approximately?”

“I didn’t think you’d need to know to the exact second. Besides, several seconds have elapsed since you asked me now.”

“Well quite. I said I’d be ready to see you at three-thirty.”

Michael checked his watch. He still wore one of the old-fashioned kind on the wrist. A quaint affectation that seemed to suit him. “It’s now three-thirty exactly,” he announced after a few seconds.

“So why have you been here for fourteen minutes?”

He stood up, shouldering his satchel as he did so. “I had to think about a few things, and this seemed an acceptable place to do it. And you might have been early.”

“Very logical,” the professor smiled.

“Thank you.”

She held the heavy wooden door open behind her as she stepped back into her office, letting Michael follow her in. It was an old college – much of the architecture, including this door, was original – and the grounds were a rare patch of greenery in this part of the world. They could afford it, unlike almost everywhere else. Hussein walked over to her desk and sat down. Various tablets were littered across its surface, evidence that even in an age where paper was a rare commodity, there would always be people capable of finding ways to be disorganised. Hussein was of the opinion that a disorganised office was an indicator of an active mind. Michael was not. He sat down carefully, angling himself awkwardly into the chair opposite, like someone sitting on a bench next to a stranger. Hussein smiled at him reassuringly. “So, Michael. You were very insistent about this meeting. I cancelled coffee with a good friend I hope you realise, so what is it I can help you with?”

“Professor Hussein,” he started, sounding like he’d been rehearsing, “it’s come to my attention that this educational establishment has been contacted by a certain corporation which has laid claim to a discovery of potentially phenomenal importance and, as it is one of the foremost centres of human learning, a team composed of various scientific worthies that teach or were educated here is even now in the process of being assembled for a highly important mission aboard the fastest and most advanced spacecraft available so that they might investigate said phenomenon and as an avowed expert in a number of fields that are central to the correct cataloguing and describing of the phenomenon in question I believe I should be a candidate for inclusion on this team of so-called experts and in fact it would be foolish for you to eschew me in this instance as I would be a highly valuable asset and the whole of human destiny possibly hinges on your correct decision today so please do take my request seriously thank you.” His mouth closed like a fish’s.

Hussein blinked. “Right,” she said. Michael didn’t add anything else, he just sat there, staring right at her. “Right.” She took a tablet and activated it. “Phenomenon, you say?”

“I believe that is the only appropriate term.”

“You seem to know a lot about this.”

“I know almost everything about it, professor.”

She arched an eyebrow at him. “Oh?”

“Yes.”

“Would you care to tell me how that’s the case? I won’t try to pretend what you’ve said isn’t true, since you seem to know so much about it already, but I am curious about how you managed to uncover such highly sensitive information.”

“I hacked the college’s private servers.”

“And how…” she waved  hand, “never mind. I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve done it. So you know all about the object in orbit of Tethys that the Hoshi-Wójcik ship discovered?”

“Yes.”

“And you know that this college has been given the unique opportunity to assemble a group of experts to send in a science vessel to investigate it?”

Michael started to look frustrated, one of the few emotions she’d ever seen on the pale young man’s face. “Yes. I said that already.”

“Just trying to get things straight, Michael. I’m not fortunate enough to have a mind like yours.”

“I know.”

“But,” and here Hussein smiled as kindly as she could, “the thing is, Michael, you’re still a student here. And the youngest on the campus. Are you suggesting we put forward a sixteen-year-old – even a prodigious polymath like yourself – as a candidate for a potentially dangerous space mission?”

Michael reached into his satchel and took out a tablet. It was a custom built one that he’d designed himself. Or one of them anyway. “If you would just read this report, Professor Hussein, you’d see why I am a very logical choice for this mission. Indeed, you would see why it is absolutely essential that I am included in the team.” He held it across the desk hopefully.

“Even if I was to entertain the notion, Mr Cohen,” Hussein said, imbuing her words with a sternness she didn’t really feel, “the team was finalised two days ago. And the mission plans have already been made with that in mind. This is a space mission. An extra team member can’t just be added on a whim. There are precise calculations, as you well know.”

“Then one of the existing team members should be made to stay behind so I can replace them. Professor Gilbert, for example.”

“Professor Gilbert, the world’s foremost expert on theoretical exobiology? I would think, of everyone on board, he would be the most valuable.”

He waved the tablet at her. “If you would just read this report, I explain quite succinctly that his inclusion is, at best, a luxury and, at worst, a cataclysmic mistake. The object was clearly made by humans. An exobiologist adds no utility.”

Hussein sat back in her chair. She watched Michael carefully and, under that intense, dark-eyed scrutiny, some of his unflappable arrogance faded. He withdrew his tablet shyly. “Obviously you’ve studied all the data on the object to have reached a conclusion like that.”

“Yes.”

“I’ve given it a look myself, but it’s only been sitting on our servers for a week, and there’s terabytes of data to wade through. If any of us could draw any useful conclusions from all that in the available timescales, we wouldn’t be sending a team in person. Yet you’ve formed an opinion already?”

“Not an opinion,” Michael said, his face turning determined now. He placed his tablet on the desk, now trying sliding it across to her instead of waving it in her face. “The report…”

With a sigh, she picked up the tablet and looked at the screen. “This looks…very thorough, Michael…”

“Thank you.”

She scrolled down. And down. And down. “How long is this report?”

“Fifty-seven-thousand-two-hundred-and-seventy-one words, professor, excluding footnotes and references.”

“And you wrote it…?”

“Last night.”

She laid the tablet down carefully. “Maybe you’d like to summarise its conclusions for me?”

“After analysing all of the available data on the object, I have concluded that it was manufactured by human beings, and that its primary function is to act as a repository for information of some description. It is, in effect, an enormous computer.”

“And what humans could or would build such a device in orbit of one of Saturn’s moons?”

“There’s no way to know that,” Michael replied, as if explaining something to someone who was a little slow, which Hussein supposed she was compared to him, “so it goes beyond the scope of this report.”

“You mean to say you’ve written nearly sixty-thousand words about this thing and you haven’t even so much as hazarded a guess about how or why it was made?”

“I can only interpret the data that I have, professor. To discover the answers to those questions, I would need to gather more information.”

“Why can’t you wait for the science team to send it to us like everyone else?”

“When the ship reaches Tethys, they will be approximately ten point three Astronomical Units from Earth. Any number of disasters might befall them at such an extreme distance and we would never know what they found.”

“But if you were on board, the same disasters might befall you…”

Michael tilted his head slightly; an expression of his that she’d come to recognise as mild confusion. “Yes. That’s true.”

“But if you were there, I suppose that wouldn’t matter, because you’d know, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes.”

She nodded. This was as close as Michael would get to expressing passion for anything at all. He just wanted to find out the answers, and it wouldn’t have occurred him to do any less than risk his life for them. She’d been aware of him since he’d come to the college – the whole faculty had – the genius boy from New Jersey, born to wealthy parents, diagnosed with a whole succession of disorders. As a young child, everyone had assumed he was autistic, then this was altered to Asperger’s when it seemed he was quite capable of communicating, but was just disinclined to, then hyperlexia, then a whole gamut of various fashionable learning difficulties until, in the end, it was just decided that he was…well…Michael. He could socialise perfectly well – she’d seen him mimic ordinary interaction with as much ease as he mastered any academic subject he put his strange mind to – but it was as if he just saw no need to concern himself with indulging in such lowly pursuits. He was certainly odd, but he had a certain bewildered charm to him. No one could hate Michael. He just was what he was. “I’ll show this to Professor Heston,” she said, picking up his tablet again, “and see what he thinks. But I can’t make you any promises. I helped make recommendations for the team, but I didn’t have any sort of final say. Why did you come to me with this anyway? Why not Heston?”

“You understand me, Professor Hussein. You’re not scared.”

“We’re all scared of you, Michael,” she smiled, “and that brain of yours. The only difference is that I know it would never even cross your mind to use your powers for evil.”

“Evil is a human construct used to explain acts of unexplained misfortune.”

Hussein smiled again, but this time it was tinged with sadness. The boy couldn’t know, of course. Raised in a Tower community in the East Coast Metropolis, never knowing hunger or violence, sheltered from the suffering and horror of this heartless, resource-starved world, seeing everything through smartscreens. He’d lived his whole life in a precious, delicate little bubble. If he ever got into space, his illusions could be shattered into a thousand pieces. Meeting the crew of some corporate junker, the kind of desperate people who were paid to be launched into the depths of space on a shoestring, risking – what was it they called it? The Long Death? All to get what people like Michael were born to. Evil was very real. Evil was what they were all living through; some of them were just fortunate enough to be able to turn away from it and pretend it didn’t really exist.

“You will show it to Professor Heston, won’t you?” Michael’s voice was almost eager.

“Of course I will,” she said, “now don’t you have a class to attend?”

He looked at his watch. “In three minutes and thirty seven seconds, yes.”

“You’d best run along then, hadn’t you?”

“Could I have my tablet back, professor?”

“Oh yes. Make sure you send me that report.”

“I already have.” He tucked the tablet back into his satchel as he stood up.

“Then why arrange this meeting?” She was faintly annoyed that someone as smart as him would be so thoughtless, but not surprised.

“It has been my observation that most people feel that meeting ‘face to face’ provides an opportunity for a party’s true intentions to be more accurately conveyed and interpreted. Non-verbal cues like body language, dilation of the pupils and even pheromone signals play a part in this. I knew that my logic, as impeccable as it is, would not be enough to convince you. I wanted…I wanted you to understand how important this was to me.”

“Thank you, Michael. I believe that I do. Now please leave me in peace.”

He blinked at her, probably trying to decide whether that was supposed to be a joke or not. Then he finally nodded blankly, and left without a further word. Hussein rapped her fingers against her desk, considering. She couldn’t in good conscience not take his plea to Heston now, even though her first instinct was to lie and just tell Michael he’d said no. But then, she didn’t think she’d be able to stomach being the cause of the crestfallen expression she’d no doubt see on his face. The kid deserved his shot, didn’t he? She had no illusions that he’d be much use in outer space but then…she looked at her own tablet. Sure enough, there was the report he’d sent through. Sixty-thousand words in a night? And she had no doubt it was as thorough and accurate as it seemed. For better or worse, maybe this mission really did need wunderkind Michael Cohen along for the ride.

*

Gia’s sleep patterns didn’t improve. Less than a week after the spacewalk, and she was lying awake in her bunk again, trying to shake off the lingering disorientation of the same vivid dream she’d been experiencing every single night since that strange experience. She couldn’t get the sound out of her head, the long, eerie keening of a song that was just beyond her understanding. She kept trying to hum it, trying to attach snatches of lyrics to it, like it was something she’d really once heard before. But she knew it wasn’t like that. No, there was something, some strange ancestral memory, some forgotten yearning within her that wanted to respond to the call. In her dreams, she was back on Pi, standing on the strange, glassy surface of it but without a spacesuit this time so that there was no barrier between her skin and its smooth facade. As her hands ran across it, it responded to her touch. Lights and symbols flared up, and she thought she could almost understand them. Then the two columns blazed with light and, as she placed her hand in the right place, the energy captured between them surged and…

She blinked. It was always then that she woke up. Like the song, the conclusion of the dream was just out of reach of her mind. Like any dream, it was the product of her own knowledge, of course – everything she saw there was just extrapolated from her real experiences. So it was no wonder she couldn’t envisage the next step. She couldn’t possibly imagine what the mysterious object orbiting Tethys might actually be for. Giving up on going back to sleep, she unlocked the hatch again and clambered out. The ship was quiet. They had nothing to do except hold their orbit until the science ship arrived. Technically, they could do some scans of Tethys, actually try to complete their original mission, but the orbit they had to adopt wasn’t ideal for that. So they just kept getting readings off Pi. Gia knew they wouldn’t find out anything else from inside Annie though. Everyone was just waiting, holding their breath, wondering what part they’d have to play in this unfolding drama.

Gia went to the control room and wasn’t surprised to find Peters on duty there again. He nodded to her as she took her usual seat. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Nope. How about you?”

He shook his head. “I just…I can’t seem to relax…not with…” They both looked at the display screens in front of them, which showed the object they were tracking, moving languidly in front of the white disc of Tethys.

“We need to go back there,” Gia said.

“I know, but there’s no way Levitt will agree to another spacewalk. We’re supposed to leave it to the scientists.”

“I can’t take a month of this…”

“Me either. But what are we supposed to do? Go and steal a pod? Use more precious fuel and oxygen? Not with things as tight as they are. And Levitt would be well within his rights not to open the bay doors and let us die out there. Is that how you want to go?”

Gia actually gave that question some thought. She didn’t want to die at all, but the existential horror that came with the thought of dying out in the cold vacuum of space no longer seemed to grip her in the way it once had. Instead, the darkness seemed to call out to her, daring her to brave it a second time. She rubbed her arms where goosebumps were forming. “I just want to go home and get married.” It was a lie though. She had something else she had to do first. “What do you think it is?”

Peters seemed to consider the question. It was hardly the first time they’d talked about it – obviously, there’d been very few other topics of conversation amongst the crew since they came back – but this was the first time they’d be alone since then, and Gia felt like she and Peters now shared a special kind of connection. Only they’d walked on the Pi. Only they’d heard its strange siren song. “I’m still going with the computer theory.”

“You think it’s just a giant databank? A library floating in space?”

“Well why not? Regular libraries burn down, or get buried in earthquakes or blown up in wars. And even the most heavily backed-up database on Earth can get swept away in a flood. Disasters aside, stuff on Earth corrodes in the atmosphere. It rots. But put it up here in the void, in the sterile vacuum of space…no rats to chew at the wires, no dust to gather in the circuit boards, no rust or mould. A repository of knowledge could last a billion years out here. If I had the entire history of some ancient, advanced civilisation to keep safe, this is where I’d put it.”

Gia nodded thoughtfully. “So you think that’s where it came from? That humans built it, I mean?”

“You’re the one who said it first. You didn’t seem in too much doubt when you were down there.”

She looked down at her hand, remembering the way the lights on the column had configured themselves to her yearning touch. It couldn’t just be some clever trick, could it? “At the time, it made sense. But now I’m not so sure. It seems so crazy in the cold light of day, you know?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been looking at the symbols on the columns.”

Gia leaned over. He had a tablet where he’d done some doodles with a stylus based on images captured by their suit-mounted cameras during the EVO. “What about them?”

“You’re the one who knows all the languages, so maybe it’ll make more sense to you, but don’t these look kind of like letters?” He gestured.

“Well yeah…”

“So I figure humans must be involved somewhere along the line. Individual shapes like this, made of lines, like letters or runes or whatever. What are the chances that any alien life thinks in the same way as us?”

“I don’t know. How else would they communicate?”

“Smells? Ultraviolet splodges? Electromagnetic tora? Who knows? But figures made to appear on a two-dimensional surface in the visible light spectrum? Either these are letters made by humans, or by aliens so similar to humans as to be more or less indistinguishable. Now if only we could read them! Do they look like anything you recognise?”

Gia peered at the designs. Peters had obviously been trying to match them to terrestrial alphabets, even going as far back as cuneiform, filling in lines, adding embellishments, making a square peg fit a round hole. It wouldn’t work. “No,” she said, “but the oldest written languages on record don’t go back more than eight-thousand years. If we’d been able to get a sample of Pi, we could have carbon dated it, but my guess is it’s much older than that. Whatever language those symbols were written in is long lost to Earth.”

“Maybe. But there must be some trace of it somewhere.” Peters hunched low in his seat, picking up the stylus and scribbling some more on the tablet. He looked like a sulking child.

“Whatever culture made this thing,” Gia said, “it’s long gone now. Forgotten. It must be.”

“Then how come…” he stopped and shook his head.

“How come what?”

“It’s nothing.”

“No, go on.”

He looked at her, then checked the room, as if someone could have come in without them noticing. “How come I feel like I know what this thing is, but the truth is somehow just out of reach? How come that song sounded familiar? There’s something in me, some ancestral memory, that speaks to this object and its history. Maybe this sounds crazy, but I feel like we’ve been drawn here. Like…like it’s destiny or something.” He sat back again. “I know you’re thinking I’ve lost my mind.”

“No. In fact,” Gia admitted, “I feel the same way. But I was hoping it was just some aspect of Pi’s technology. Like, it was built to draw in the user somehow.”

“What would be the use of that?”

“I don’t know but…but I suppose if you put something out here, in the most hostile environment of all, you can’t have people freaked out to use it. You have to give them some incentive to come here. Maybe it’s a sort of safety measure, to let people use it without their minds collapsing from fear of the Long Death.”

“That makes sense, I suppose.” Peters didn’t really sound convinced.

“Well, whatever the truth of it is,” she shrugged, “we’re not going to discover it by endlessly combing over the data we already have.”

“So what then? Steal the pod, hope Levitt understands?”

“No, the only hope we have is the science ship. When it gets here, we’ll just have to try and convince them to involve us somehow. They should be reasonable people, shouldn’t they? We discovered this thing. It’s…well…in a way, it’s ours.”

“Yeah, I suppose it is.” Peters smiled at her. “Our discovery. Our little space baby.”

“Baby is right. Its crying drills right to my goddamn heart.” She shivered compulsively and wrapped her arms close around her. She’d been doing that a lot lately. It was like the cold had gotten inside her.

“One thing’s for sure,” Peters said, “money’s never going to be a problem again. We’ll be heroes when we get home. We’ll be on talkstreams every day. The whole world’ll get sick of us.”

Gia hadn’t thought of that. The money from this expedition would have catapulted them to a better life, but it wouldn’t have solved all their problems. All she’d hoped for was to be able to afford a modest apartment in the Tower district of Los Angeles. But she could return to wealth beyond her wildest dreams. She’d sent a message to Clarissa, trying to put into words what she’d gone through, but had yet to hear back. They’d need to talk about what they were going to do. The old mantra crept back into her mind. Think about the money…think about the money…

But she couldn’t, because there was no room in her head for anything but the Pi right now. She and Peters both stared silently at it moving slowly on the screens before them. They both knew they’d be going back there, whatever it took.

*

“Come in, come in,” the man said, sliding back the frosted-glass door and beckoning him through. He was tall, handsome, with tanned skin and a pearly-white smile. His hair was stylishly coiffed and his suit was one of those expensive ones that rippled in artificial light. Professor Heston, feeling shabby and fat, followed him in. He had a tablet tucked under one arm, and noted the lack of any kind of terminal technology in the office. Was this all for show then? Was this slick-looking executive nothing more than a front man of some kind, supposed to throw him off with platitudes? “Sit, sit,” his host said, gesturing to a plush set of chairs around a low glass coffee table. There was no desk. In fact, it was barely an office at all, just a wide, glassy space near the top of a huge spire of a building that rose high above the photochemical smog of Tokyo. Here the air was filtered and clean, and the walls were the same fogged glass as the door, to hide the unsightly brown squalor of the metropolis below. Heston had grown up in a time when places like this weren’t the reserve of only a privileged few, and was fortunate enough to live a life of relative ease, but even he was awed by the casual luxury on display: the potted plants dotted about, the crystal-clear water in the decanter, the general cleanliness and gleaming perfection that he’d seen everywhere in the building. It also discomfited him. Not just because of its artificiality, but because this jewel hung high in the sky, literally and metaphorically out of the reach of all but the tiniest fraction of a percent of the population of the planet. Still, he was here to do a job.

“Thanks for seeing me at such short notice,” Heston said.

“Not at all. The Hoshi-Wójcik family is so excited about the opportunities presented by this endeavour, and by the team of experts we’ve assembled to make good on our investment that we’re happy to accommodate you as much as possible. We know how demanding the world of science can be.”

“Right, yes. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”

“I’m Mr Jenkins,” the executive said smoothly, and somehow Heston didn’t think he was telling the truth. He’d been hoping to speak in person with either Mr Hoshi or Mr Wójcik, but it seemed that no one had any idea how to contact them, or even what they looked like. They may not even exist, or so went the joke online.

“Anyway, Mr Jenkins, I’m sure you read my e-mail and you know why I’m here. I understand that the planning for the mission is really all finalised, and that the calculations on any kind of spaceflight are so precise that there really isn’t any room to start changing things now but, well, we really think this could make the difference between success and failure.” He took out the tablet and activated it. “Have you read the report I attached?”

“Of course.” Heston sensed that was another lie.

“That…uh…that report was written in one night by one of our students, a particular brilliant young man called Michael Cohen. I’ve read it and reread it myself, and his analysis is very sound. He appears to have an understanding of this phenomenon that goes beyond even our best scientists, and he’s made a request to join the mission.”

“Highly irregular,” Jenkins observed. His expression of gentle enthusiasm never seemed to alter. He was like a mannequin with painted-on eyes, or some kind of corporate mascot. It was like talking to a buttoned-down Ronald McDonald.

“I know that. But we were going into this whole thing almost blind. We really had no idea where we’d start once we reached the object. But Cohen has engaged with this so thoroughly that he…well, to be frank, he’s catapulted our understanding ahead by some months. And those were months we didn’t have. I think, I really think, he needs to come along with us. I think he needs to be on this mission.”

“I see.” Jenkins leant back in his seat and steepled his long fingers in front of him. Then he reached out and plucked at the air. There was a low chime, and Heston realised why there were no tablets or ‘screens in the office. A holographic display lit up in front of his host and Jenkins began to expertly manipulate the scrolling numbers that hovered in the air before him. From Heston’s viewpoint the holo-image was reversed, but the characters looked like kanji. Maybe not just a mindless corporate drone then. “Of course, it’s absolutely possible to add an additional team member to your mission.”

Heston brightened. He hadn’t been expecting such an easy sell. “I’m glad to hear that…”

“There will be costs though.”

“Costs? I thought Hoshi-Wójcik was paying us…”

Jenkins smiled. The expression was technically warm – the movement of his mouth, the crinkling around his eyes, the low chuckle in his throat were all as they should be – but Heston felt chilled to the bone by it. “I mean costs to us. I don’t have to sketch out the realities of space travel to you I’m sure, professor. An extra person means extra resources, and the cost of this mission is already phenomenal.”

“But you stand to gain incalculably from it.” In truth, Heston was uncomfortable with this expedition being underwritten by a multinational corporation. The idea that a company like Hoshi-Wójcik could lay claim to a discovery of this magnitude offended him on a very fundamental level, but no government on Earth had the wealth to oppose this. Hoshi-Wójcik’s pockets were extremely deep. They and a handful of other corporations had a stranglehold on the space missions that were all that stood between mankind and extinction, so what could any of them do? These were the rules of the game in this day and age. And so the presence of a possibly extraterrestrial object orbiting one of Saturn’s moons was known to only a handful of executives and academics. All news had been ruthlessly suppressed – even the families of the crew of The Little Orphan Annie, the antiquated ship that had somehow stumbled on this thing, had no idea what was going on. The excited messages sent across the gulf of space to them were still sitting in the Hoshi-Wójcik databanks, encrypted beyond the guile of even the cleverest of hackers or bots.

“Of course,” Jenkins agreed, “but we must think of risks.” He finished his calculations and dismissed the holo-screen with a satisfied sound. “Mr Cohen has been added to the crew complement. He should report to the training centre in Huston with the rest of your team next week.”

“Thank you, that’s great news.” Heston allowed himself to relax. “We were concerned we’d have to replace one of the other team members. I wasn’t looking forward to breaking that news.”

“We wouldn’t inflict that kind of choice on your, professor,” Jenkins said, “we have every confidence in your choice of experts for this highly important mission. We wouldn’t hear of anyone being excluded.”

“Good to know.”

“You should know that conditions may be slightly less comfortable now though. An additional crew member, and the resources required to sustain him for three months, is no small sacrifice to be made. Fortunately, the mission parameters had some slack built in.”

“Oh?” Heston was surprised. Even something this important should have been calculated to the last litre of air and kilogram of food so that no unnecessary resources were expended.

“You need not concern yourself with it. The ship was supposed to carry some additional supplies.”

“In case something went wrong?”

“Not exactly. Don’t trouble yourself with it.” He stood up and held out his hand. Heston took it gratefully. Jenkins’s grip was very firm, and his hand felt cool and smooth. “Wish your team luck, professor. I especially look forward to seeing what young Mr Cohen will bring to this endeavour. If he impresses, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a place for him here at Hoshi-Wójcik. We are always keen to employ the best scientific minds available.”

“He certainly falls into that category. Thank you, Mr Jenkins. This was…very productive.”

“Productivity is always the most important concern here at Hoshi-Wójcik,” said Jenkins. His eyes were as flat as a shark’s as he smiled. Heston let himself be led to the door. “Waste not want not, is our unofficial motto. In such troubled times as these, it pays to make tough decisions.”

“Yes,” Heston agreed with a slight frown, “I suppose it does.”

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