Project Contact, Chapter 3

Hysterical complains and calls for extra protection coming from any other person would have been ignored, but if Jonah Wickerman asked for something, the local government obliged. WYPL, his laboratory twenty kilometers south of Paramaribo, had cost close to 30% of the small South-American nation’s GDP, and most of its 138 highly-paid scientists, contractors, and workers lived on the capital. So if the old man didn’t like how the streets were arranged, what timezone the country was in, or felt that he was being shadowed by Chinese clone secret agents, the government would nod and provide whatever he needed.

Wickerman’s occasional lording over Suriname and his own lab also meant that he had grown used to an autocratic style of leadership. He rarely consulted anything with anybody, even when the things being decided clearly fell outside the scope of his expertise.

Constantine Howard, WYPL head of security, had found his boss’ latest unconsulted decision at 5 a.m. He was taking a quick before going back to the lab when his boss’ call came in. Thanks to his influence, Wickerman had managed to get two dozen, perhaps more, policemen for extra protection, and only now, when the cops were already on the building, he was informing the head of security. Howard protested, naturally, but it’s not easy to argue in the shower, much less against someone like Wickerman.

Howard drove to the lab and, just as Wickerman had stated, the cops were already there. Usually, the compounded had just four guards on watch. One at the outer entrance by the fence to let the cars in, one at the desk in the main building, and one in the basement, watching the scientists going up and down the elevator leading to the lab proper, a colossal underground vault 1500 meters below ground. Howards was free to move around and usually kept an eye on everything from his officer. But now, he had who knows how many new men, armed men, roaming around his compound; a security threat if he had ever heard one.

Constantine saw two police cars by the outer gate. Three local cops leaned on the cars but straightened up when they saw his car approach. He drove up to the barrier and exchanged looks with the guard on watch, Jeremy, who simply shrugged as his way to comment on the sudden changes.

The path to the main building was a mile-long trek through a jungle forest that always seemed ready to overrun the narrow route. The last hundred meters were paved and in better shape and led to a wide deforested area dominated by WYPL buildings, although the true heart of the compound was underground.

The parking area had the usual occupants but Constantin saw two extra police cars and, parked at the entrance, two more and a police armored car. Four men armed with military-grade rifles guarded the main door. They hadn’t bothered to use the parking lot so he didn’t either.

The security chief pulled up before them and left the car there. The four cops straightened up and one of them even saluted him as if he were some sort of military officer. As an answer, he gruffed back, and then entered the building without looking at them.

In the foyer, in front of the desk, Jonah Wickerman and Administrator Svoboda were having a lively discussion, with arms flapping about and all sort of heated recriminations. Since Wickerman was ninety years old and Svoboda almost eighty, the couple looked oddly comical despite their cleary anger. When they saw Howard approach they calmed down a bit.

Howard had never really understood Svoboda’s role there. He did dry administrative duties, but as far as he knew, the man was just the liaison with the rich donors that kept the place running. Wickerman was the true authority. Despite that, he always greeted Svoboda as is he was his real boss, and if Wickerman was present, he did so even more emphatically. This time was no exception.

“Something going on?” Howard asked. “Aside from the twenty armed men running around?”

“Eh? It’s not that.” Svoboda waved dismissively.

“It isn’t?”

“No. It’s…” He turned to Wickerman, who looked at both like he was dissecting him inside his mind. “Look, Jonah, please, listen to reason!”

“I’m acting reasonable, given the circumstances, that is…” the ancient scientist said in his throaty voice.

“Can someone fill me in?” Howard asked.

“This is a private conversation!” Wickerman said.

“Here? Private?” Holmes’ hands swept the hall. Their conversation was being listened by many people, but most tried to act as inconspicuous as possible.

“Huh,” Wickerman muttered, seemingly realizing now where they were. “In any event, it’s a scientific matter. No offense, Constantin, but it’s none of your business. You should be talking with the good men outside — they are under your command now. Show them the place, train them a bit, make sure they know how to aim and shoot. It should be easy an easy task.”

“Of course…” Holmes muttered. He was already leaving when Svoboda stopped.

“No, I think he should stay,” the Administrator said. “It’s also a security matter. Or why did you call for so many extra guards?”

Wickerman shifted on his feet and wriggled his hands like a misbehaved boy caught red-handed. “I have been feeling unsafe these days, that’s all.”

“This is not your personal bunker, old man!” Svoboda yelled.

‘Old man’ Holmes’ thoughts echoed, and he had to suppress a smile.

“You know what he wants to do?” Svoboda asked Holmes and pointed at the professor.

“Never.”

“He doesn’t want to publish the results!”

“It’s unwise!” Wickerman shouted back. “I don’t trust, well, them,” he said, and pointed at Svoboda.

“Oh, them,”  the Administrator said. They clearly had had this conversation many times. “Those people are the ones that keep this place afloat. What we sell from the labs here upstairs? That’s chump change.”

“I don’t think they are founding my investigations,” Wickerman said. “They just want to keep an eye on me so I don’t actually discover anything, at least anything they can’t control or own.”

Svoboda threw up his arms in frustration. “That makes no sense, Jonah!”

“Did you say something about results?” Holmes asked, but he was ignored.

“Do you know how many obstacles I’ve encountered to get this thing running?” Wickerman asked. “Donors! Bah! Only when I threatened to go to the Chinese… And I’m being spied all the time. Our networks suffer so many attacks it’s ridiculous!”

Holmes knew that at least the last part was true. But he had already wasted enough time listening to the two old scientists. He clapped, startling and silencing them.

“I said, ‘did you say something about results?'”

“Yes! The warp works!” Svoboda shouted.

A deep silence engulfed the room. From the looks on people’s face, this was the first time they had heard news of that.

“It does?” Holmes asked.

“Bah! It does not!” Wickerman said but then sighed. “Well, we have had some promising results. Oh, all right, we have recreated warp-like effects on a macroscopic scale. But that’s laboratory setting, using devices that would break anywhere else, and still light-years away to build a warp engine.”

“And he wants to keep this a secret!” Svoboda yelled. “This is your life’s work, you were the only one who believed this was possible before the ship arrived. You were fanatically devoted to this, and now you are acting like you just discovered a new type of dirt!”

“I… have been thinking about the implications of what we do here, about what other people want of us… or don’t.”

“Incredible. Can you believe this?” Svoboda asked Holmes.

“I actually can,” the chief of security said. “In fact, I…”

A peep came from his tablet. Then another, which was expected, and finally another. Three alarm peeps in succession. He had never heard that outside security drills.

He pulled out the tablet and switched the visual feed from the outside cameras. The entire security system was automated and was able to recognize threats. One beep was typically someone acting erratically or aggressively, perhaps shouting too much. Two could mean from people sneaking around to pushing each other. Three meant active hostile action or intention with potentially lethal means or effect. There was only another level above that, four, and you had to show an explosive vest to the camera and yell ‘I’m going to murder you all’ to get that.

The security AI was showing him the outside game, but the code indicated the threat had first been detected two hundred meters away, by the outer listening posts. But according to the codes he was reading, the threat (or threats, in fact) were already near the gate, and what could possibly go that fast? Holmes then saw it. Traveling at full speed, an armored heavy truck went straight into the security gate and smashed through it like it was paper. A line of smaller pickup trucks with armed men on them followed it. The last one in the line slowed a bit and, as it passed by Jeremy and the surprised cops, who had no time to pull out their weapons, a man in full paramilitary gear gunned them down.

 

 

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