Short Tales by Paul J Fleming

Simon sat within a small comfortable booth in the waiting area of one particular pleasure house located in the red-zone area of Tranquillity Base. In front of him on the round table sat a mug of hot coffee, the steam which rose from the surface of the liquid capturing his attention as he took the time to allow his thoughts to rampage unchecked through his mind.

Once he had entered the red-zone, he had made his way through the passageways to one of his long term contacts who had furnished him with titbits of information on important personalities who had frequented the establishment, allowing Simon to formulate stories of exposure and corruption within the local authority and earned him his position within the Solar Press Core.
Roger Delaine was not the most trustworthy of people he could turn to as he quite obviously had a reputation for selling information on visitors to those who sought it, but under the circumstances he had found himself pressed and had a fair idea that the amount of credits he had passed over to Roger in the past may stand him in good stead for some food and drink at the very least without the need for currency, and maybe even shelter for some short time.
In that concept he had been proven correct and although not overly tasty or satisfying, the food he had just eaten had gone some way to placating his hunger and now he simply had his coffee before him which absorbed his focus.

‘Excuse me, but would you mind if I sat here?’ enquired the tall thin individual who approached the booth in which Simon was seated, causing him to start with alarm slightly as he had not even registered any other patrons within the waiting area.

‘What? Er….’ He began to reply, glancing about his present location quickly to see who else was present. There was slight relief that there was only this one individual. Then his surprise turned to slight irritation at the fact there were a number of empty booths about them, but now this man wanted to interrupt his solace? ‘Look, I’m not in the mood for conversation or company right now friend. Can you not sit somewhere else?’

‘I think that would provide a barrier to our conversational efforts Mr Hunter,’ the tall thin man replied quite amicably, then raised his hands in a placating gesture as Simon glared up at him with sudden alarm. ‘Please, don’t be rash or do anything both of us will regret. I know who you are and why you are here simply because I have been following your story in the press and know both why and how you happen to have ended up in this,’ he paused to glance about slightly before returning his gaze down towards Simon, ‘fine establishment.’

Quickly determining his options, Simon gestured towards the seating opposite him at the table in the booth. If this man possessed information about what was happening to him at present, it made sense to glean any valuable insight if he was to formulate a plan out of this whole mess. He knew quite well that it could all be part of a deception, some unknown scheme to trap him, but it was a risk he had to take.

‘Okay then friend,’ Simon remarked quite levelly as he fixed his gaze upon the distinctly elegant features of the man who now took the seat opposite to him. The slightly reddish complexion and jet black hair which was swept straight back from his forehead and the thin black goatee beard accompanied the high quality of the suit the man wore, giving an overall impression of wealth and authority, but most definitely the man was of Martian heritage. ‘You know me and why I am here so you have the advantage, as all I can work out form you is that you have a few credits to rub together but are obviously a Martian. So are you something to do with Aries Corporation?’

With mild amusement, the man raised his right hand before his mouth to stifle a chuckle and then shook his head from side to side.

‘A rather wide generalisation wouldn’t you say?’ he replied with obvious mirth. ‘I am Martian and therefore must be something to do with the monolithic Aries Corporation. No, no, no. You must broaden your perspective Mr Hunter. Not all Martians are under the thrall of that company, nor support their insidious efforts throughout the solar system. Some of us even have brains inside our heads which allow us to think and see past the deceit and lies they spread, mostly utilising the services of your previous employers I might add.’

‘Well I’m glad you find it all so amusing,’ Simon retorted and took a swig of the coffee which was still a little too hot but he suppressed his grimacing reaction to level his stare at his booth companion. ‘Who the hell are you?’

‘Augustus Van Harmann,’ was the curt and simple reply.

‘Am I supposed to gasp in awe?’ Simon replied with a level of contempt. ‘Look Mr Harmann…’

‘Van Harmann.’

‘Whatever! Look, I have no idea who you are or what you’re involvement in all this is, but you said you knew why all this was happening to me. So I’m waiting.’

‘It is happening because your story flew disastrously close to a truth which some people do not wish to be revealed to the colonised worlds. You wished to expose the exploitation of the poor souls who are forced to live out a ghastly existence within the labour camps in the ruins of Earth, their treatment at the hands of the camp wardens and the most recent directive that those who cannot work do not earn their keep and therefore the injured and debilitated amongst their number are being starved quite consciously and deliberately to refine and promote the efficiency and the profitability of the camp. Well, suffice to say you scratched the surface of something which has brought you firmly into the spotlight as a threat and thus you have been summarily dealt with.’

Simon retained his silence and stared at his booth companion, his eyes seeking out any tell tale signs of deception but he had to admit that the demeanour and tone with which he had been addressed was with sincerity and no apparent hint of deceit.

‘You are assessing the validity of what I say, as well you should. Suffice to say Mr Hunter, you have caused a great deal of concern at some very high levels. Oh and if you are wondering if I am part of the scheme to debunk both you and your story, rest assured I would not go to the extravagant lengths which have been employed. If I wished to silence you, I would have simply shot you. I have enjoyed ample opportunity on our way over here to perform such an act with complete discretion.’

Simon’s brow furrowed with concern at this revelation and he reached out for his coffee once more, contemplating the fact that Van Harmann had just stepped from the shadows in his approach to the booth whilst Simon had thought he was alone and had been observing the entrance to the reasonably small room.

‘So what are you? Some assassin sent to make sure I can cause no further ripples?’ He asked with a touch of incredulity to his tone, for the man before him seemed as unthreatening as the coffee mug he held now in his still outstretched hand. The fact he was sat at the table simply chatting with him seemed to elude to him wanting something rather than a macabre act of conversing with the mark.

‘Assassin? Hmm, well we have all been things in our time in this thing we call life haven’t we? However it is not my past I am here to discuss but your immediate future. I understand that you are concerned with finding a reason to put your trust in this stranger who has landed upon you within fraught circumstances, but rest assured that your goals and mine seem to tally at this point and thus it is worth our while collaborating. Now, the little matter of your fugitive status is rather bothersome for our purposes and I would like to offer you a solution?’

Simon pulled his coffee closer, raised it and took a sip as he retained eye contact over the rim of the mug. He still had no straight answer to his new found friend’s identity other than a name, coupled with inferences to talents he may possess. However he had very few options open to him at that time and if this Van Harmann could offer an avenue towards a productively positive conclusion, should he not at least entertain it as a possibility without being too hung up on credentials? After all, whilst investigating stories and leads he was more than accustomed to dealing with people who did not wish to be fully identified for fear of retribution or exposure.

‘Okay then, I’m listening,’ he replied quietly.

‘Within the very fabric of this ordered and neat society, there exist those who seek to remain apart from the meticulous monitoring of the authorities and as such they have methods for worming out their personal records on the Luna Mainframe to erase all detail held within their file.’

‘You mean ghosts?’ Simon interjected.

‘Yes. Ghosts if you wish to call them that. Would it interest you to know that I have a copy of that very worm program here on this data key,’ he remarked as he pulled the small rectangular device from his top jacket pocket. ‘One which is specifically encoded to seek out your own personal I.D. file and erase all the data contained therein, both in the active storage media and any related and backup files which have been created. Insert this into a data access terminal and it will be released into the system, shortly thereafter granting you the elusive status of a ghost.’

Simon’s gaze drifted to the small data key and then back to meet the smiling expression upon Van Harmann’s face.

‘Oh, I took the liberty before actually making contact with you to prepare this,’ he wiggled the data key, ‘just in case you decided to take me up on the offer.’

‘So I go from terrorist to an unrecorded illegal alien?’

‘Indeed. However short of a full DNA cross reference identity check, which I would advise you to try and avoid, I have these for you also,’ Van Harmann replied as he pulled out a pair of extremely thin transparent latex gloves and deposited them on the table between the two conversationalists. ‘They false prints which will be registered to an assumed identity, providing you with the ability to travel freely and also have access to provided funds for necessary purchases. Due to the brevity of time I had to prepare this little package, I have not been able to craft your new identity yet which will tie in your existing prints with your DNA records but should our endeavour move forward I will work to arrange this with all due haste, leaving these gloves redundant. For now though, they will suffice.’

‘Craft a new identity?’ Simon enquired as he reached out and gingerly lifted the gloves from the surface of the table, turning them about before him and inspecting them closely for a moment before glancing back up at Van Harmann. ‘Just who the hell are you?’

‘I am a friend, Mr Hunter. One who wishes to see you pursue your story further, to expose more details and seek out those who have perpetrated these acts against you. I am the one offering you a way out of your predicament, however if you do not wish to trust in me in the short term at the very least,’ he said quite simply as he reached over and plucked the gloves from Simon’s hand, folding them and moving to place them back in his inside jacket pocket.

‘Whoa! I didn’t say that, I just….. Look, I’m sorry okay?’ Simon quickly retorted and held his hand out with palm upturned before Van Harmann.

The Martian raised his eyebrow for a moment and then smiled as he handed the gloves back, placing them in Simon’s waiting hand together with the rectangular data chip.

‘Very good. Now, onto business Mr Hunter. Your story requires more work and for that you will need to seek out some rather unpleasant truths, but these do not exist here upon Luna. For those you will need to travel to Earth.’

‘My records were altered here on Luna though,’ Simon countered.

‘Yes they were, to distract, debunk and destroy you. Think this through with the benefit of your investigative talents. If it was so important for them to effect such changes to your record, framing you and making you focus upon your own predicament….’

‘Then there’s something down there that someone really did not want me to find out,’ Simon said in completion of Van Harmann’s sentence. ‘Something so profound that they will go to all this effort? So if I concentrate on the local angle then I will be doing what they want, whilst they have time to cover up whatever it is down there? With these,’ he said as he regarded the gloves and data key in his palm, ‘I can make my way down there and catch them with their pants down, the last thing they will expect is me to carry on and chase down the conclusion to the story.’

‘Exactly!’ Van Harmann replied enthusiastically.

‘So what’s in this for you then?’ Simon shot back quickly and scrutinised the Martian across the table from him. ‘You’re offering me the tools, finances and an identity to carry on digging in the hope I expose these facts. You’re either the most uncharacteristically charitable Martian I have ever come across, or you have an agenda which I’d like to know before I commit to this whole scheme.’

Van Harmann did his best innocent expression and gestured towards his chest.

‘Would it surprise you to know that the people who have committed this act against you are also responsible for my exile here upon this desolate rock orbiting a ruined wasteland? For my inability to rejoin my family and friends upon the world I called home for the major part of my life so far? Despite all my efforts to redress the balance I will forever be unable to return home, so this is not a patriotic act to re-establish my position or credentials, rather a punitive one born out of revenge to cause as much upset for those who have done this to me. If you are concerned about any dues owed by yourself on conclusion of our business, rest assured that should you prove effective in your efforts then our partnership will be at an end and you are free to resume your life free of any form of debt to myself.’

‘So you want to kick back at those who did the dirty on you, and you’re using me to do it?’

‘Simply put, yes. As I said earlier, our goals and paths have crossed quite fortuitously. You possess the talents to ferret out the required information and I possess the tools to enable you to proceed. What say you Mr Hunter?’

Simon lowered his gaze to the gloves and the data key once more, moving his hand up and down slightly as if he were judging their weight. When he had walked into this establishment he had been bereft of ideas on how to proceed, his whole world ripped away from him so quickly as to leave his conscious mind in a spin and unable to rationally conceive a positive way forward. The items in his hand and Van Harmann’s continued support certainly offered him the best route out of the mess he was in for the time being, but he had to try and conceive what troubles may lurk around the issue. Was he trading one mess for a much bigger cacophony of trouble?

Raising his gaze slowly to meet the expectant and hopeful face of his new Martian compatriot, he nodded slowly as he became more certain that he would indeed accept the help on offer, at least for the time being.

He certainly did not trust this Martian as far as he could throw him, but when considering the options open to him without the assistance on offer, Simon had to conclude he had very little choice ahead of him.

‘Okay,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m in!’

— This is an excerpt from an upcoming project, currently being written as a short story within the 23rd Century setting.