Tom Penrose had never been to the moon before this trip, and he was sorry to leave it. He was not sorry that the tremendous cost of getting there and getting back was not completely his to worry about. Penrose had always thought that having to collaborate in person on any project was outmoded these days, but being in a critical phase had necessitated his coming up from Earth. The loonie engineering team had far exceeded his expectations, but he was convinced now that there really was no substitute for face time. Besides, he’d had an ulterior motive for coming up to the moon. What he hadn’t counted on was that he would have to change destinations and request a few days off.
“You’re costing us a fortune to get you up and down, Penrose, and now you want us to pay for your vacation, too?” His boss was not pleased.
“No, not at all, sir,” Penrose said. “It’s not exactly a vacation. There’s been a death in my wife’s family and I need to go be with her and the kids. I haven’t seen them in weeks anyway. Look, if it’ll sweeten the deal, I’ll cover the cost to get down to Earth and the company can reimburse me for my trip back from home.” After a couple seconds’ delay, the face in the screen softened.
“No, I understand. It’s not easy having to leave your family on the damned planet, on top of working a continent away from them half the time. Tell you what, you go ahead and exchange your ticket and we can discuss reimbursement when you get back. Take a whole week off. This project is just about over anyway. Be back on” — he looked at his watch — “the seventeenth. Sound good?”
“Sounds good. Thank you sir,” Penrose said, signing off. He made a mental note to call his family with the news. While he was pleased that his time off was actually longer than he’d requested — he’d actually have a day or two to visit his family now — he was not happy to have to lie to his boss.
“So glad you could get the time off,” his loonie contact said with an oddly sardonic grin. “You’ll be meeting two men in Edinburgh. These men are even fresher than you are, so you’ll be in charge of the group. You will receive further instructions from there and it will be your responsibility to ensure that each of you executes his piece correctly.”
Penrose was impressed with the scope and complexity of this conspiracy. This trip to the moon was his very first time meeting personally with someone involved, someone evidently somewhat higher up in the chain of command, and already he was being given an assignment and further contacts. “What’s the nature of this meeting?”
“It’ll be a social call,” said the man, whose name was Cantor. He was smoking, which to Penrose seemed like an odd thing to do on the moon. Suddenly he thought, It must be a signal of extravagant wealth. Air could get expensive here. “You and these two have some friends in common, it seems. You all went to the same school.”
“They went to Charlotte?” Cantor nodded, taking a drag on his cigarette.
“Not too long after you did, actually. They’ve know each other since school days. This is why we’re organizing this there and now. If travel security asks you why you’re going to Edinburgh, you can tell them you’re visiting old friends. That should fool the correlation system. It’s not as if you have a criminal record.” There was no hint of a question in Cantor’s voice. He knew for sure because the conspiracy knew for sure. “They won’t ask any further questions, but that’s only if you’re selected for investigation in the first place.”
“Which I probably won’t be,” Penrose admitted. Selection was random, at least for the law-abiding among groups who weren’t already known to pose security risks. Penrose was both of those.
“You’ll find them at the elevator port,” Cantor said. “Rather, they’ll find you.” He glanced at his watch. “You should probably run to catch your shuttle now. Take this.” Cantor stubbed out his cigarette and reached down for a book. It looked like a novel. “Steganography,” Cantor said, handing it to Penrose. “Best kind of crypto. Let me show you the best route to the spaceport.”
After a cramped shuttle ride, Penrose made his way through waystation security with plenty of time to spare. Just when he thought he was through, he was singled out for inspection before being allowed to board the elevator.
“Would you step over here please, sir?” Damn it, he thought. Maintain composure.
“Of course,” he replied in his best couldn’t-give-a-damn voice. He handed the security man his ticket, but the latter didn’t appear to look at it.
“How has your journey been so far, sir?” the security man asked, looking up from his screen for the briefest of moments.
“Oh, you know how it is. Hot, crowded. Worrying about your bags. Then you get singled out for a random inspection.” He forced himself to breathe. This is not composure.
Fortunately, the security man had heard it all before. “I understand, sir,” he said with a chuckle. “The system is no respecter of persons. I myself have been singled out, I don’t know, three or four times while off duty. Just the luck of the draw.”
Penrose tried a grin but ended up with a nervous grimace. “I guess so.” The security man continued tapping on his screen.
“Where are you headed today, sir?”
“Lovely city this time of year. And how long are you intending to stay in Edinburgh, sir?”
“Just about a week. Six days.” The security man tapped and swiped on his screen some more. After a pause, his eyes narrowed.
“Would you state your name in full, please?”
“Thomas Moore Penrose, Jr.” Tap, tap.
“And your business in Edinburgh?”
“Visiting some friends.” The security man waited a moment, staring at his screen. He had been affable enough before, when he was just doing his job. Now had iron in his voice.
“Please speak their names into this device, enunciating clearly, and describe the nature of your relationship.”
Penrose gave the names of his two Edinburgh contacts. “We went to school together.” He looked up. “Am I under suspicion of something?”
The security man held his hand up. A tense fifteen seconds or so passed in silence and his face softened. “Well sir, it appears you were flagged, but then cleared.” He handed Penrose his ticket back. He looked almost apologetic. “This happens occasionally. It’s sometimes a wanted criminal with the same name, but we never get the details. Anyway, have a nice day, sir. Enjoy the trip down.”
“Thanks.” Penrose shouldered his bag, and with relief visible on his face headed for the nearest ladder. He had never had such a close call before. He hoped his lie — his second today — had not been picked up on, but he could not afford to believe that.
He hurried up the ladder to the zero-grav area. He knew he had gotten off too easily.
Resisting the temptation to look back over his shoulder, he thought about how he might avoid any pursuers. If that security man had known his true purpose, Penrose would have been detained on sight and eventually made to disappear.
That would happen to anyone who planned to destroy the world.
[Click here for Chapter II.]