InsertThe doors closed with a whine of servos and that heavy clunk particular to armour plate. My visitor was a man of medium height with a friendly, open face, seemingly devoid of guile. He smiled. “Good evening Mister Ghent. My name is Peter Anders. I’m the designated hostage negotiator, and my only interest is in achieving a peaceful resolution.”

Around us the server farm blinked and flickered. The room was otherwise empty apart from a table and two chairs. I sat down and motioned Anders forward. “Given the little army you have outside I’m surprised you feel the need to negotiate. Doubly so as I’m unaware of anyone being held hostage.”

“What you have in here, Charles – may I call you Charles? – is more valuable than flesh and blood, but just as vulnerable. And, please, call me Peter.” I inclined my head. Anders leaned forward, adopting a conspiratorial tone. “Very well, cards on the table. The information you’ve amassed over the years would make earlier revelations by Bradley, Snowden and Hardcote look like idle gossip over tea at the vicarage.”

“So you apparently believe.”

“A Finnish hacker managed to retrieve a partial master file index, but that was enough to bring the sky down on your head. To put it simply, you could ruin the careers of numerous prominent politicians and put the cause of international diplomacy back decades. That isn’t going to happen.”

I sipped from a bottle of tepid mineral water. “I’ve issued no threats, made no demands.”

He sat back and spread his hands. “And yet here I am. The deal on offer is straightforward enough. You walk out of here, leaving the data intact. No encryption, no logic bombs, no timed deletion. You board your private jet at Stansted and fly away. I understand the Caribbean is lovely at this time of year.”

Now it was my turn to smile. “And will my disappearance be put down to mechanical failure or pilot error?” Before he could answer I continued. “Are you aware of my broadcast capability should you try and force your way in? I have a high-capacity array built into the hillside above our heads, and the codes to access almost every communications satellite in the Western hemisphere.”

Anders nodded. “It would be a selective interception nightmare, I admit. Which is why we’ve borrowed a trick from the old Soviet playbook and gone for blanket jamming, across the board. Hell, the guys outside can’t even use their personal radios. In terms of telecommunications this place is a black hole.”

He seemed genuine. I raised my voice slightly. “It’s safe.”

Two figures materialised, like cardboard cut-outs stood on edge and now turned to face us. They morphed into 3-D; a blonde woman and a dark-haired man with similar, bland features.

Anders was good, I’ll give him that. His eyes widened but remained locked on mine, like a child trying to deny the Bogie Man creeping up behind him. “This complicates matters, but there’s still a deal to be made.”

“May I introduce, ah, let’s call them Pearl and Dean, Mister Anders. Their arrival has been anticipated by the Americans for many years, to the extent that the entire planet is being monitored for a distinctive energy signature.” I smiled. “Apart from in here, that is.”

Pearl shuffled forward to stand beside my visitor. Her voice was a flat monotone. “This form is distasteful.”

A trickle of sweat ran down Anders’ cheek. “You have to tell me what I’m dealing with, Ghent, if any of us hope to get out of here alive.”

“They are Dark Matter made manifest, Peter. Agents sent here to discover why, in our distant future, we attempt to invade their realm of existence.”

His composure started to crack. “Give me something to work with, dammit! You’re not making any sense.”

I felt almost sorry for him. “My mother came from Roswell in New Mexico – not that she ever understood what happened to her in 1946. She subsequently served as a nurse in Japan, tending to the wounded being shipped in from Korea, and that’s where she met and married my father, Captain Ronald Ghent. Being an only child my parents assumed I had the usual imaginary friends, but I always knew the shadows were out there, waiting.”

Anders stared at me. “All this, the data collection, the underground archive, it was all designed to ensure a blind spot in American surveillance? How could you possibly know we would react this way?”

“Perspective, Peter, perspective. All my life I’ve remembered this moment, this incident. In a way it’s a relief to finally catch up with the future. Facing the unknown will be quite an experience for me.”

Dean stepped up behind Anders. “Template.”

I nodded. “Yes.”

Dean placed his hands on Anders’ shoulders. The negotiator stiffened, then began to dissipate as each individual particle of his body drifted apart. The air cleansing system kicked in, drawing the now unrecognisable cloud into the vents. It took less than four minutes.

Dean shimmered into an exact replica of the former Peter Anders. His lips moved but it took a moment for him to master coherent sentences. “This form will prove adequate.”

I opened the doors to a forest of firearms.

‘Anders’ raised his hands. “Don’t shoot! The deal has been agreed and I’m flying out with him as a gesture of good faith. Get our technical people in here immediately. Take her into custody for questioning,” he gestured towards Pearl. “She’s not covered by our agreement with Ghent.”

I tried not to smile at that. They had as much chance of holding Pearl as of bottling a shadow. By dawn I’d be out over the Atlantic and the authorities would have two unexplained disappearances on their hands. In the euphoria of seizing my archives intact I doubted anyone would notice until it was too late.

We walked out to the car surrounded by a phalanx of armed men. There was a pre-dawn tinge to the eastern sky but I’d be flying west, chasing the night.

One step ahead of tomorrow.

© Martin Clark

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