It was hard to find David Dexter's country retreat. The GPS in Tom’s rental car repeatedly announced ‘you have arrived’ when there was nothing to see but rolling green meadows on one side and impenetrable forest on the other. He drove back and forth a few times, mumbling.
It was fine country: narrow lanes and hedgerows punctuated with rustic cottages and the occasional farm tractor. Nice if you can afford it, he sniffed, driving very slowly, peering into the trees, the GPS still telling him he had arrived.
David Dexter had summoned him. The Great Man Himself. After all this time he could still yank on Tom’s electronic leash and require his presence halfway across the world on short notice. Three years had passed since he’d quit Dexter’s employ yet he still felt a connection to the man.
He was feeling the lag now: the hours of flight and drive, the dearth of any real sleep in several days. This place is here, he muttered, you’re just not seeing it. He rubbed his face, looked at the fresh, unopened pack of cigarettes on the seat next to him.
Not for you, pal, he said.
There: a brier-covered gate, a muddy track half covered in grass. The tire tracks gave it away, he thought with some satisfaction as he stopped the car, got out and approached the gate. It was wooden, falling apart, lightly chained with a rusty lock. Beyond was a thick press of evergreens, the track snaking into them. It looked like the entrance to some forgotten farm.
The summer sweetness of country air assailed his nostrils. Insects buzzed like the drone of a distant lawnmower. He stood and inhaled deeply. Smell of honeysuckle with a faint undertone of cow shite. Should bottle the stuff and sent it up into space for one of those trendy little eateries to pump into their system.
Few were invited to this retreat from the press of intergalactic trade. David Dexter had built a sprawling enterprise of fast freighters and clipper ships to ply the routes between Earth and the newly-opened Deccan system. Tom Kelly had been a part of that. Once. And now he was returning to the man who’d given him everything and from whom he’d turned his back.
A little melodramatic, perhaps, he chided himself, running his hands over the wooden fence, trying to figure out how it opened. This was the right place, he was convinced, looking at the multiple tire tracks heading into the woods.
He straightened up at the sound of an approaching quad on the road, driver in stout boots and Belstaff looking pissed-off as he stopped at the gate.
“Who might you be?” this driver barked.
Tom stepped towards him, spreading his hands ruefully.
“Well,” he said, “I’m here to see Mr Dexter and…”
“Mr Dexter, I have…”
“And who might you be?” Again.
“Tom Kelly. I have an appointment with…”
“I don’t know about any Dexter,” the man barked. There was a shotgun mounted behind him. Tom also noticed the camera lenses mounted on the roll bar, pointed at him. “But this here is private land.”
“This here’s a public road,” Tom said gently.
“Not where you’re standin’ it ain’t.”
“Alright then,” Tom said evenly, stepping towards his car. The quad reversed abruptly, the driver keeping it aimed at Tom. Keeping him, he realized, in view of the cameras.
“Let me see some ID,” he barked.
Tom grinned. He showed the man his passport, held it up. “Can I come in now, please? David?” he asked the cameras.
Huffing and puffing from the guard. “We’ve had poachers in these parts. Thieves too…”
“Can’t have bloody poaching, can we?” Tom put his passport away, put his sunglasses back on.
A crackle of radio chatter from below the dash of the quad. The guard picked up a headset, jammed it against his ear.
“OK sir. I’ll escort him up.”
They guard had him drive his rental just far enough inside the gate to conceal it from the road. Then he had Tom sit on the bench seat next to him. They went hurtling up a long track winding up into the wooded hills. It seemed forever before outbuildings, and then the main house, came into view. The quad skidded to a halt next to a low building. Dexter security, so familiar in their khakis and black polo’s, came out to greet him.
“This way sir,” an older man said. Tom recognized him vaguely. They led him into the security building.
“Jesus guys,” he muttered again as they took the few items he carried and ran them through a scanner. Then scanners for him: biometric, retinal, some new device that appeared to sniff at him.
“Guess you are who you say you are, Mr Kelly,” said the older man finally. “You can have a seat.”
An hour later he was still sitting there and the magazines on the table had been exhausted. No phone: he’d surrendered it for the duration of the visit. He looked around at the painted cinder-block walls, at the guards monitoring cameras. Some were fixed, or from drones, others were mounted on farm vehicles and the quads that roamed the muddy tracks. Dexter took his security seriously, Tom thought. More so than previously.
A Bell Jet Ranger dropped into the forecourt of the security building. Tom stood, looking out. Two besuited men ducked low under the declining whoosh of blades and walked into the building.
Higgins, thought Tom. Head of Dexter Security. The man entered the guardhouse, looked at him, through him, not a flicker of recognition as he proceeded through to the main house.
Tom stood there, smile frozen, feeling foolish. Visitors came and went. Some he had served with on various voyages to the more distant outposts of the galaxies: faces he had seen over the years, some saggy with age and gravity, others suspiciously youthful and tight. None acknowledged him.
He waited, gazing out at the grass and the trees. How much longer? Suddenly tired. Little eddies of depression rippling. This place. The guards. The unease descending. He sat back down, rubbed his face. Breathe in. Breathe out. Count to fucking ten.
A mistake. Coming here. Why make him fly across an ocean and drive out into the woods? Why not just set up a call? Dexter had summoned him only to make him wait here like a minion, to remind him that he had erred, that he had turned his back, rejecting the largess upon which he had feasted. Back now, begging bowl in hand, hoping for indulgence.
Fuck that, he hissed, standing again, straightening his suit jacket. I have options. Qualified on Deep Space freighters and ion-barge tugs, capable of piloting atmosphere-capable shuttles and...
And nothing else. Earth had gobbled him up like a slug feasting upon the bacteria of the Fallen. A low growl began in his chest. Doesn’t matter what you did back in the day, mate, he muttered. It means nothing now. No work for Returners. No work for anyone. Too many people with his skills. At least, his flying skills.
Dexter wants your ‘other skills’ he mused. Let’s leverage your adjacent capabilities Tom. Your talent for cleaning up our mess.
“I gotta go,” he snapped. “Forget this.”
“Sir?” a chirpy young staffer stood as he stood before the front desk. “Can I get you something?”
“Yeah, no...I’m good.” There was a log to sign, a visitors badge to return, his phone to reclaim. He’d need quad-man to bring him back to his car. He turned to watch the helicopter, spinning up, whisking off low over the trees.
“Good luck with your career, miss,” he muttered. “It’s a great company. It really is.”
“Sir?” She looked up, bewildered.
“What’s your hurry Tom?” came a voice. He turned.
And there was the Great Man himself.
David Dexter led him down to the ornamental lake.
“Did ye bring the…?” he asked. Tom patted his pockets, handed over the pack of cigarettes he’d brought along. Dexter took it, opened it, shook a cigarette out.
“Do ye…?” He held out the pack.
Tom didn’t. Or hadn’t. For several years. But now he shrugged.
“Sure…” He bent in close as Dexter held up a flame. Just like before. The Old Man sets the tone, the pace. Have a smoke. Have a drink. Sit back and relax and let me peel back the onion skin of your soul. He laughed, coughed.
“What’s so feckin’ funny?” asked Dexter, amiably, inhaling deeply.
“Ah…just…” Tom coughed again. “It’s good to see you, sir. Thanks for, er…”
And the Old Man went impassive for a moment. He gazed out across the lake, at a pair of fountains spuming great jets of water into the air.
“Well…” he said.
Tom waited. He was past the initial hurt of the cigarette. He took in a great lungful. He felt like he was home. The Old Man looked the same. Grizzled and fit in the gnarly way of a farmer. The years of it all. For a few minutes they fell away. It felt like home.
Only you’re not home, he reminded himself. Dexter just had that surrogate father thing down well. Tom had a place in his heart for the man. Trust, however, was more of a challenge. He wondered why they were out here, beyond the guards and staff. He didn’t think it was just just because David wanted to smoke.
“You’re lookin’ well, Tom.” Dexter had an Irish brogue that he hammed up a little when Tom was around. He put a hand on Tom’s shoulder and squeezed it.
“Yeah. Well. “Tom actually scuffed his feet. Goddammit, he thought.
“Will you do a job for me Tom?”
And it was as simple as that.
“Of course,” he said.
Dexter dropped his smoke to the ground. Tom did the same. They stamped them out. Dexter looked back up at the house. His retreat. And took Tom by the arm.
“Come,” he said. “We’ll take a little walk.”
Afterwards, Dexter walked him back to the security building.
“Higgins has something to show you, Tom.” They stood at the entrance. “Give you an overview. Get into the weeds of the thing...” He caught Tom’s tense expression. “If you’re ready, that is.”
“I gotta think, sir.” Tom looked away. “Not…er, pulling any triggers yet.”
“Sorry,” said Tom. “Might not have been the best choice of words…”
They stood. Dexter waited. They looked at the trees.
He’d do it, of course: take the assignment Dexter was offering. At this point in his career he would take anything. He just didn’t want to seem desperate.
“I’m not the…optimal resource…for this…job.” Tom turned to face his former boss.
“He knows you Tom. He likes you. He still trusts you.”
“He’s gone rogue…Jesus.” Tom rubbed his face. They stood in silence for a moment.
“We’ve tried several approaches to this,” Dexter said. “We’re still trying several approaches to this and, you know Tom, what we’re dealing with. It’s like pissing in the wind so, look…” Dexter held out his hand, signalling his exit. “See Higgins, Tom, get the full picture. Do whatever you need to do.” His handshake was brief. “You’d be helping us out. Me, the company. The family.” Dexter put his hand on Tom’s shoulder again. “This thing is dragging on us…”
Tom nodded. “I’ll see Higgins.”
Dexter moved off, head lowered.
“Thank you Tom. I’m off to feckin’ Ganymede tomorrow so…safe travels.”
And Tom went in to see Higgins.