Ashley took a circuitous route to Rockefeller Center. On arrival she spotted an unusual number of people concealing guns beneath their autumnal clothing. Past these was the squat bulk of Harold Northrop, wrapped in a long black coat and sitting on a bench from which he could look down at the sunken portion of the Center’s plaza.
When winter set in it became a skating rink, but for the time being it was still occupied by an outdoor café, with tables spread out beneath the gilded statue of Prometheus.
Ashley was struck by the theatricality of having their meeting in this setting, Northrop turning the world-famous Rockefeller Center into his own personal office. She supposed that went right along with the taste for games that made him spend a Sunday night lurking in his real office just to be in at her capture.
Ashley sat down next to Northrop, conscious of a vast number of eyes on her, and conscious too of the fact that she couldn’t see all of them.
“Good evening,” she said.
“And the same to you Ms. Sutton,” Northrop said, looking straight ahead.
“As I am sure you know, your attempted theft of the disc in my office last month ended in failure,” he began. “We recovered the item within a matter of hours, before your employer could receive it.
“But there was no way of knowing what happened to that information during those hours for which it was in your possession. Or what your next move would be. And it turned out that we were right to be concerned, given how you went about the country, and beyond it, probing into certain affairs. For all we knew, you were in the employ of the people who hired you for much more than just that theft, continuing some mission that only started when you got the disc.”
In other words, Ashley thought, her strategy for extricating herself from the situation got her into deeper trouble with Northrop. But it was crucial to getting her out of trouble with the Client. It had to be done—
“In the process, you did find out a lot of things we would prefer that you hadn’t, and for which you will now have to account,” Northrop continued. “In other words, the big question is what you intend to do with the information you have now.”
“Whatever it takes to get my life back,” Ashley said.
“Dr. Vieira thinks you are sincere about that,” Northrop said. “I understand the client on whose behalf you carried out the theft in the first place now thinks so as well.
“I prefer not to rely on such professions, but the situation is not a simple one. I could ask for all the material you have, but I would never be certain that you’re not still holding on to a copy of the material you stole. Or a thousand such copies.”
“No,” Ashley said, “you wouldn’t. You also wouldn’t be certain that I hadn’t made arrangements to release that information in the event that anything happened to me.”
“Also true,” Northrop allowed. “But you do realize how little your doing that would actually achieve? I wouldn’t have got where I am today without knowing a bluff when I see one, and I am under no illusions about the extent of the information you have, or the degree of access you have to people who might be able to use it against us.
“Because there are no such people, not really. You see, we have no real enemies. Where the real players in this game are concerned . . . there is disagreement over strategy and tactics, not over the ultimate end. And such disagreements as do exist, we keep among ourselves.”
Ashley thought of the Client again and wondered about why he’d wanted the disc, something about which she still hadn’t a clue. Was it possible that they had been colleagues, even fellow Olympians? Fellow Olympians who, like the lords of old, had their foot soldiers kill each other when they saw an advantage in it, then treated with one another cordially when it suited them to make peace?
“This state of affairs leaves only those who are not players as even your potential audience,” Northrop went on. “People of no account, and who will not be in a position to block what we do. Intellectuals and so forth. They never accomplish anything. That takes a very different kind of person.
“So what you possess is of nuisance value, no more.”
“Maybe,” Ashley said. “Where the bigger project is concerned. But maybe not where your position is concerned. Maybe it’ll be enough for your associates to see you as a liability, as someone whose discretion or competence cannot be trusted . . . even if only ‘conspiracy theorists’ buy it.
“And maybe even your associates don’t know all the details of how you’ve been overseeing the program, and wouldn’t approve of everything you’ve done if they did. Maybe you’ve already got on the wrong side of them, so that they’re just looking for an excuse to get rid of you. So that even if the program would go on and on just as you say, you won’t get to be a part of it. And that’s something I don’t think you want.”
It was hard to tell in the dim light, but she was almost certain that Northrop was flushing.
He certainly didn’t have an immediate comeback.
And she knew that she’d struck a nerve. Just as Vieira had said, just as he hadn’t needed to say, Northrop and company were very serious about this endeavor.
But very serious egos were also behind this whole program.
Northrop didn’t just have his ideas about the way he wanted the world to be; he wanted to be an active participant in remaking it. To be a god in the way that only his place among the Olympians permitted him to be. And confident as he was about the balance of power between people like him and people like her, he couldn’t be so confident about the balance of power between him and his associates, or that what she had might not be enough to tip it against him.
Maybe he knew for a fact that she could tip it.
“If that were true,” Northrop allowed when he finally spoke again, “that possibility isn’t much to stake a life on, is it?
“In any case, you might be more reticent to play such games if you understood what this was all really about.” Northrop paused again as he appeared to focus on something in the distance. “I gather your conversation with Dr. Vieira touched on such matters.”
Again, Ashley did not answer. He smiled patronizingly at her silence.
“He didn’t entirely convince you,” Northrop said. “He made his argument, and you spoke the usual pieties about ‘freedom.’ But here’s the truth that we would have to face, even in a world without such dangerous weapons as we have, and which makes those weapons that much more dangerous: what you call freedom depends on growth, enough growth to let civilization dissolve its internal tensions.
“But globally and per-capita, growth has been steadily slowing for forty years, longer than you’ve been alive. Given the resource crunch we’re up against, and the way our technology’s stagnating, growth is going to go on slowing, and even drop into the red.
“The less growth we have, the less freedom society can afford. Naturally an elite will have to retain its freedom of thought and action, because the kind of guidance the species will need will be impossible without that. But those extras in life’s drama who think freedom means the right of losers to whine about the way the game went and demand their insane idea of what constitutes a fair share of the goods, there won’t be room for that. Fortunately the end of that sort of ‘freedom’ will be no great loss.”
Ashley didn’t follow everything he said, but she also had no trouble guessing what his words spelled. A small privileged group looking down on the world from their mountaintop, controlling all the rest of the world. Literally like gods.
Like the Olympians after whom they styled themselves.
The vision frightened her, as it could only frighten someone who’d had nightmares about such a box, and the power it had exerted over her, which she realized was just a very small fraction of the power that Northrop meant to exert over billions of people with his boxes.
But what would be the point of telling him about all that?
“Maybe another way is possible,” Ashley said half to herself.
“We have weighed the alternatives and judged them unsatisfactory. But too many find the logically unavoidable conclusions unpalatable—such is the continued influence of the softheaded egalitarianism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So the conventional explanations and rationalizations and grounds for false hope are permitted to stand.”
Maybe he was right, Ashley thought. And maybe, to him, certain things were givens, beyond questioning, so much so that he was incapable of even trying. If so, he seemed absolutely indifferent to this limitation of his—a privilege of his position, Ashley supposed. Other people had to deal with his way of looking at the world, not he with theirs.
The jolt of fear Ashley felt at that image of a world controlled by men with little white boxes had not left her, but the reaction uppermost in her feelings as she looked at Northrop was not fear. It was simple revulsion.
“I don’t suppose I’ve convinced you either,” Northrop said.
“No,” Ashley said, loving the sound of Northrop’s voice far less than he clearly did.
“That’s all right,” Northrop continued. “Really big revelations usually take a while to sink in. And even if it never sinks in, the fact won’t make much difference, regardless of what you do.
“On the other hand, you’ve made a life for yourself, of a kind for which a woman of your birth and talents could scarcely have hoped,” he added, in a tone that made Ashley want to punch him in the face, though she held herself back. Just. “I suggest you concentrate on enjoying it. Keep the material you have gathered to yourself, stay out of our affairs from now on, and barring that eventuality, we will no longer regard you as a concern. You will have what you want: your life back. What you do with it after that will be another matter.”
And with that the conversation was over.
Northrop made it seem like he had let Ashley go on his terms, but she still thought of the way his face had flushed. Everything he’d said to her after that, after she made clear that she knew that even if she couldn’t bring down the Olympians she could at least bring him down, seemed like an attempt to save face.
Ashley supposed that meant she’d won, but she didn’t feel victorious, or even relieved.
She told herself that that difference between how she felt and how she thought she should feel was just a matter of running for so long and needing time to adjust afterward.
And so she departed for the subway. When her train came she took a seat under what seemed like the unusually bright lights and found herself across the aisle from someone reading a newspaper. She thought of how little contact she’d had with actual, hard copy newspapers in her life. Because she’d never actually read them, had for as long as she could remember got the information she wanted from the web. Paper with ink that came off on the fingers was to her a part of the life of an earlier generation. Like pay phones. Or postage stamps.
The paper seemed thinner than she remembered newspapers being, but then she realized that the reader wasn’t holding the whole paper, but just the financial section of the Times.
The headline at the top of its front page read THORN BUYS FIRESTONE FINANCIAL, and the whole unreality of the situation struck her again. Because buying Firestone Financial was the kind of thing that Thorn did, the kind of thing Harold Northrop did. That was his world, not secret science experiments, and it seemed unbelievable that she had traveled thousands of miles these past few weeks chasing after knowledge of his involvement in such experiments. So unbelievable that it seemed she must have got it all wrong somehow. The reading of the file on that disc, words on an anonymous blog proclaiming the existence of vast conspiracies, the interpretation of that dream. (Dreams! Had she really pursued de Ruyter on the basis of a dream?)
Ashley found herself comforted by that sense of unreality, as if it had all been just a bad dream. But no, it had all been very real, from what she saw in that bad dream on so many nights, to her sitting on a bench in the Rockefeller Center plaza next to Northrop himself, listening to him justify everything he’d done, everything he and his associates meant to do. And then the real source of her discomfort struck her, not the slowness with which she felt her return to normality, but the fact that the end of that run let her feel, truly feel, the existence of the far, far bigger game behind that chase, and the responsibility that the information she now possessed bore with it. But that may have been too big a game for anything she tried to matter—and she didn’t know that she had it in her to play that game even if she did. She thought of Blake’s personal crusade, and told herself that she was not made of the same stuff as Blake.
Besides, she thought, what Northrop and his associates envisioned might not have been the inevitability he imagined. She knew as well as anyone else that he wasn’t always right. Perhaps the plans he and his associates were making would fall apart. Perhaps someone else, someone who actually had the power to stop them, would come along. Yes, either of those was a more likely outcome than the triumph of the Olympians Ashley told herself as she headed back to the safe house, and Logan.
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