“We really, really want her”
Mark stood on the pavement, looking up at the sleek glass building towering above him. These new skyscrapers were certainly impressive, but also rather intimidating. It rather depended on what business you were about to transact in them, he supposed. On this particular morning he wasn’t too happy about the idea of going inside.
He ran across the busy road and slipped through the main doors, smiling. No doubt he was already on camera and being observed. The receptionist sent him up to the tenth floor, where Security descended on him, as he had expected. Pockets emptied, full body scan, phone and laptop confiscated. Even a scan of his retina, to double check he was who they thought he was. He was getting a bit confused about that issue himself. Certainly he was not the same enthusiastic young man he had been when he’d first come across these people. Something about the whole business had changed him, and worn him down. Not the time to show it, though.
“Mark, good to see you, come in!” The man he knew as Porter beckoned him into the same office he had been in once or twice before. Mark thought Porter was his boss, but he wasn’t too sure. People came and went and he’d actually interacted with two or three different individuals over the past couple of years. He’d been told to see the organisation as his employer, and its representatives as just that. But in reality it was Porter who was calling the shots – Porter who he was afraid of.
“You must be glad to be back in the country again,” his superior’s words were friendly, as he gestured for Mark to take a seat and help himself from a tray of drinks. But Mark was too attuned to the harsh core of the man to be taken in. In his fifty or so years, Porter had grown more and more of a thick skin, through which no emotion was now allowed to seep. He was pure business; uncompromising and unfeeling. It was all Mark could do not to squirm under his cryptic gaze.
“This is Francis, by the way.” Porter nodded towards an older man who sat to one side in a leather armchair, his role and presence unexplained. Mark deliberated over whether to shake hands with this stranger, but since the other made no move to do so, he kept his hands to himself. Francis merely smiled and regarded Mark with interest, over clasped bony fingers.
There was no window in the room, but on one wall was mounted a huge screen which served as a picture frame and was currently showing a sunlit tropical vista. It might have been meant as a decorative, calming feature, but was somehow ominous. One wondered what other images it might be made to show on demand.
Mark settled back in his chair and prepared to be moaned at.
“I wanted to be absolutely sure that you understood the utmost importance of this affair,” Porter began, his false smile fading by degrees. “Do you know how many millions have been spent on experimentation in this area? Massive projects have been undertaken, rooms full of people have been recruited and have sat for years – years – trying to make progress and achieve something. And what do you think the result has been?”
Mark merely raised his eyebrows and didn’t comment.
“Nothing. Zilch. Absolutely not one morsel of success, one smidgeon of truth! Lots of money wasted, lots of dreams shattered. But the projects still persist, because it would be so important, so significant, if progress was achieved.”
There was a long silence and Mark was still considering what remark he might make, when eventually Porter continued.
“If this girl can do what we think, the applications are endless, the significance huge. Her skill makes a whole raft of surveillance equipment obsolete. She’s worth more than all the satellites orbiting this planet put together. There would be no limit to her usefulness.”
Now a comment came to Mark without need for deliberation. “But how do you know she’d be willing to help you achieve your aims?” And he winced inwardly as he realised he should have said ‘we’, and ‘our aims’. It was the sort of thing that would get noticed, and might make them question his loyalty – but it was too late.
“Let us worry about that,” said Porter. “You just find her and bring her in. Soon.”
Mark nodded and leaned forward a little. “I do understand and I am trying. The thing is…” Porter made a little noise that managed to imply he wasn’t really interested in listening to excuses, but nevertheless Mark ploughed on. “The thing is, because of the very nature of her ability, we can’t know where she is. The effects of what she can do can be investigated in one location – but where she actually is physically herself, well she could be anywhere, anywhere in the world.”
The only thing that changed in Porter’s demeanour was the angle of his head, which he tilted a little more to one side.
“I have told you that you have all our facilities at your disposal. If you need an increase to your budget, don’t hesitate to ask for it. Lure her in with promise of payment, convince her in whatever way you think fit. We have vast experience, all over the world, of finding people who don’t want to be found. It can be done, and I expect you to do it, otherwise – ” A shudder passed through Mark as he waited to hear what threat would be used to motivate him. “Otherwise, well, I think you might find your to date very promising career just a little derailed.”
My career, thought Mark wryly, knowing that almost certainly there was a lot more than his career at stake, should he fail to deliver in his mission.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, he offered up some detail of the leads he had pursued over the last few months, and the near misses which had exasperated him.
“Yes, I’ve read your reports,” Porter stated. “Of course, we’ll give you some more time. We understand how unusual the situation is, but let me make clear – if this girl is for real, she’s the absolute key to this country’s continued security, not to mention world peace. We really, really want her. So be a good boy and bring her in quickly.”
Once Mark had left the room, Porter turned to Francis, who had been listening intently without saying a word. Now the old man commented, quietly.
“You didn’t tell him about the leak.” His voice was gentle, subdued. “He should know that he’s likely to have competition, now that the word is out.”
“Hmm,” said Porter. “No point putting too much pressure on him at this stage. I’m still pretty confident he’s the right man for the job.”
Porter’s hand hovered over the control panel for the big screen, which would indeed have allowed him to watch Mark stomping out of the building in a foul mood, but decided against bothering.
“He’s very motivated, and he doesn’t like to fail.”
“But,” said Francis, “he’s a lot more at risk now.”
Porter waved away the risk, which wasn’t, after all, his own. “I think he can take care of himself.”
They regarded the view of the palm trees, each thinking their own thoughts.
“So,” Francis continued after a moment. “If he does come up with the goods, how exactly do you intend to make this girl co-operate?”
Porter kept his eyes fixed on the screen. “I think we both know the answer to that.”