Well, you know, heroes aren't very much fun without some villains to bother them...
He paused just before entering the huge glass-fronted office, checking his shadowy reflection in the doorway, making sure his hair was perfectly arranged, his hat just so, his white suit precisely as it should be. Appearances mattered, after all.
He pushed the door open and walked in, long-legged stride accentuated by the clean lines of the suit. The secretary looked up and smiled. "Dr. Fairchild! Mr. Brookings is expecting you; he said to go right on in."
"How kind of him. Thank you, my dear." He grasped the double handles and pushed the doors open, revealing an expansive office that could have doubled as a conference room for fifty people, had its owner been so inclined. The deep carpeting, polished wood and cushioned furniture, and expensive paintings hung at precise intervals on the natural wood panelling, however, showed that the only meetings which occurred here were private ones between men of great power and influence, or those lesser beings that the man who owned the office summoned.
Doubtless, Fairchild thought with a tiny, thin smile, he believes I am one of those lessers.
Brookings – head of the immensely powerful World Steel Corporation, known by friend and foe merely as "Steel" – did Fairchild the honor of rising from behind his wide mahogany and ebony desk for a moment. "Doctor Fairchild. So good of you to come so promptly." Brookings re-seated himself with a scarcely audible sigh, but one not surprising; where Fairchild was tall and slender, Brookings was short and broad, with more than a mere tendency to corpulence. His face was round and could be deceptively childlike when the chief of Steel wanted to give the impression of harmlessness, but more often had the look of a belligerent and hungry wild boar.
"The situation did appear to warrant decisive action, Mr. Brookings," Fairchild said. He noted there was one other man in the room; of average height and in clothes that concealed his breadth, nothing clearly distinctive about him unless you looked closely and realized that he was a mass of muscle. Perkins was a man of undefined, yet important, position in Steel; he "took care" of things, the kinds of things that Steel found troublesome and that needed methods better left unexamined.
"And decisive actions have been taken. Successfully."
Indeed? Let us see how he explains it. "The sabotage of the Skylark was carried out according to my directives?"
"Exactly as you specified, sir," Perkins confirmed, rough voice belying the fact that there was, in truth, a fairly active and capable mind behind that bland exterior. "I was able to get on board, removed the indicated plate, and placed the relay in the circuits."
"And what," Fairchild said, with a careless intonation to his voice, "about the launch complex?"
"That was the perfect icing on the cake, Doctor," Brookings said with a self-satisfied smile. "Kinnison's been a thorn in our side for a long time – word is some people want him to go into politics once he gets out of the military, and that would be … difficult. In any case, the whole project's been his, and those two scientists, Seaton and DuQuesne. So we figured we could take all of them out of the picture. Bryson won't be able to duplicate it all on his own."
"No," Fairchild conceded. "Doctor Bryson's not entirely incompetent, but not at my level, nor that of his protégés. But what, precisely, did you do?"
Perkins grinned. "Figured that since we were getting rid of the two brains in their own ship, why not make it look like the ship did for them all? No transmissions during the exercise, except tight-beam, so no one would know exactly what was going on who wasn't there. We detonated one of those little X-bombs you made as a demonstrator, planted it right under the tarmac near the launch area. With any luck, it'll look like those two blew up on their pad and took the others with them."
"So," Brookings said with an answering grin, one that was unaffected by the fact that this little jest had cost hundreds of men their lives, "we have eliminated several problems and can take a bit more time with the main project."
"I see." Fairchild sighed. "You idiots."
Brookings' face purpled. "What?"
"I called you an idiot, and an idiot you are." As the other man opened his mouth to bellow, Fairchild stood and glared down at Brookings. "Silence!"
The steel magnate stopped, mouth half-open. Partly it was from shock that anyone would dare speak to him that way in his own office, but Fairchild could also tell that it was partly because Brookings now sensed he was in great danger. Fairchild usually hid his nature from others, and he was good at it; but this was a time to be, shall we say, honest.
"Good. Good. You can tell, somehow, that it would be unwise to bluster with me. You must have checked my background, Mr. Brookings. You are aware of something of my capabilities. Understand that what you know is not a tenth part of the truth." He slowly seated himself. "Had you consulted with me, I would have been able to tell you why this was a terribly ill-advised plan. You are used to getting away with sloppy execution, far too used to it, because usually you are dealing with little people; the town constabulary, city or state governments, other corporations.
"But this time you are dealing with the United Earth Military, and they are, I assure you, something of a harder nut to crack, and much less amenable to just looking the other way for a few dollars."
"We thought of that," Brookings said indignantly. "There's nothing to tie us to the –"
"But there will be if we go ahead with the plan and any of the people survive, especially if they can betray the fact that the explosion of the launch pad came a few hours after the launch. Yes, yes," he waved the others to silence, "launches are often delayed, and the ones who would know that – or not – would be at the base. However, while there were no wireless transmissions and, overall, a silence was imposed, there were in fact not one, but two communications following the launch but prior to your explosion."
The two looked at him with dawning worry. "How do you know—"
"I know because I do not rely on others for my information. I'll tell you no more than that. However, I will tell you WHO. The first was Dr. Bryson, and he called Kinnison shortly before the explosion. I would guess that he had discovered our… acquisition of X."
"That… is not good at all. We could have an accident happen to Bryson –"
"And I would recommend you do it soon, yes. He's the only person there who knows for a fact the launch was completed prior to the explosion – but that will not be true for very long at all."
"Then let's have the second name, Doc," Perkins said, "And I'll arrange two accidents."
"Oh, not nearly so simple. The other was Dorothy Vaneman. Kinnison called her just after the launch."
"That's not a problem. A little house fire and –"
"—and if you wish to do that, by all means, do so. I will of course immediately separate myself from you and your organization and if necessary testify against you."
Brookings had never looked so much like an angry boar as he did now. "Are you daring to threaten me? You'll go down with us!"
Fairchild laughed, seeing his own cheerful blue-eyed countenance reflected in the wide, tinted window behind the Steel magnate. "Tsk, tsk, Brookings. I have carefully arranged it that there is no evidence of such a connection. Try to make one in court, and you'll end up sued for libel." He leaned closer, and the blue eyes were like ice as they bored into the other man's brown ones. "I told you at the beginning that I did not work for you; that it was convenient and appropriate at this time, but that I reserved the right to change that arrangement at my, or my… allies'… whim."
Brookings was gritting his teeth, but Perkins appeared more used to judging whether a man was bluffing or not… and he'd decided Fairchild wasn't. "Why not an accident to her as well, sir?"
"Because I have studied Richard Seaton and Marc DuQuesne rather extensively. I have met both at a conference or two. And the two of them really only have one weakness. For Marc DuQuesne, unfortunately, that weakness is Richard Seaton, his only real personal friend. For Seaton, however, it is Dorothy Vaneman, his fiancee."
"But we just got rid of –"
"Perhaps. But as the design of the Skylark made it virtually impossible for me to actually cause it to explode in a manner which would, at the same time, not wipe out half the Eastern coast of the United States, I had to settle for having it run wild. There is a good chance that this did, in fact, kill Seaton and DuQuesne; fifty hours of acceleration at that level would kill nearly anyone. And if they did survive it, they would need to find their way back, which will not be nearly so easy as they might suppose.
"However, it is not impossible that they will do so. And in that case, gentlemen, I have absolutely no intention of facing down both Richard Ballinger Seaton and Marc Cassius DuQuesne, piloting that ship, without a little insurance. And Miss Dorothy Vaneman," he concluded, with a smile that was slowly echoed by the other two, "is a most excellent piece of insurance."
I am starting to catch on to what you're doing, and it's even nastier than I thought.
Feeling sorry for him?
A pause. In a way… yes. But this is his adventure. And if I'm right, it's going to be an even grander adventure than he could imagine.
"I don't know – he can imagine quite a bit."
Ahhh, the classics. I suppose you're right, but it's still going to be one hell of a ride.
That it will. Strap yourself in for some more!