Chapter Nine: Wishbone
His stride exuded the greatest of confidence, never looking rushed even while he managed to move briskly through the hall. Everybody who saw him in time stepped aside, often greeting him as formally as possible. He recognized them all with a friendly nod, even if they found themselves speechless at his presence. It was nearly noon, and everybody who was scheduled to be in the building was already at work. Shuffling around with clipboards and suitcases, the staff did not seem to register any problem. As he delved further into the catacombs of the building, it became clear that something was indeed wrong. More people regarded him with anxiety, as if he would be angry at them for what he saw. Fewer of them seemed happy to see him. He found himself slinking around the wreckage of one of the security units, surrounded by a barrier of yellow tape strung around orange plastic cones; adjusting his glasses a little, he surmised that it was damaged beyond repair. As he rounded the last corner to the door in question, he was met by a pair of security guards, who jumped to attention at the approach of their superior.
One of them stepped toward him. "Right this way, Mr. Geshtar."
"Thanks," he answered, smiling more pleasantly than the man would have expected. He descended the stairs lightly, passing by another guard who was on his way up. Startled, the man scrambled out of the way, unsure of what to say. Geshtar nodded at him, never letting his pace falter. Once on the basement floor, he followed the odor of smoke to the sight of the disturbance. Stalking among the crowd, a short woman in a white coat barked instructions to the guards.
"Don't clean this up yet; leave everything the way it is until we can finish the investigation. I told you not to touch that! Just leave the door right th--"
Stopping in her tracks at the sight of him, she choked a little on whatever the rest of the sentence was, then quickly stood up straight and began brushing her coat and hair free of dust. He strode up to her with a kind grin.
"Hello, Dr. Jamy Kalin," he said.
"Mr. Geshtar," Kalin announced, suddenly sounding nervous, "It's so nice to finally meet you."
"Same here," he replied, deftly looking her over. "Wish I could have been there for your interview, but we were screening candidates for the security contract at the same time."
"I see," she thought aloud, sneaking a few glances at the destruction around her. "Well, not knowing much more about this than I've seen so far, I'm guessing that what happened last night was an isolated case."
"Let's hope," Geshtar chuckled, "Or else I'll look bad."
Kalin laughed a little, as if she was trying not to laugh too much while also catering to him at the same time. Geshtar chuckled back, and ran a hand through his lengthy hair. He looked about himself, and right before the moment grew awkward he spoke:
"I'd like to talk with the man who reported the incident."
Kalin grunted quietly in frustration. "That would be Paul Zeno, sir," she responded.
"Hans," Geshtar pronounced. "Call me Hans."
Her eyebrows hopped in surprise. "Oh... okay," she agreed.
"Is he still here?" Geshtar asked.
Kalin blinked. "Oh, Paul, right. He's..." she turned around, "Here somewhere." She continued to look, frozen in place before the man but trying to appear focused on the task of searching for Zeno. "I told him not to leave until you got here."
Geshtar produced a pocket watch. "Well, he'll have been here for a while now; maybe he's taking a nap somewhere."
"No, I'm not," Zeno gruffly announced from behind Geshtar. With baggy eyes and tousled hair, the portly scientist lazily forced a smile and proffered a hand. "I've been here for nearly twenty hours, but I haven't slept at all. Nobody here sleeps when the CEO from Vandole Enterprises makes a visit."
Geshtar returned the handshake, much more lively than Zeno intended, and let the man's comment bounce off him. "That's good to hear, Paul."
"You'll excuse me for being a little exhausted," Zeno said, "I was expecting that you'd be here earlier than this, considering the gravity of the problem."
"True, Doctor," the man replied, "But I have a meeting with the local stockholders at two-thirty this afternoon. This was an unforeseen situation and I had to make changes in my schedule to allow me a visit. You'll understand that it's my job to ensure our sponsors that everything is under control; they'll undoubtedly have heard something by this afternoon, and I want to be prepared to regain any trust they may have lost. I was going to tell them how much this division has been helping the company in general. You don't think they'd believe that after hearing about what happened here last night, do you?"
Zeno cleared his throat. "Uh, no; sorry."
"That's alright," Geshtar answered, "I'm sure it wasn't your fault."
"No, I meant about--"
"I'd like you to show me where and how everything happened," the CEO interrupted, casually walking further into the mess. Kalin dodged out of the way, quickly assuming a spot right behind him as he wandered towards the laboratory.
Zeno trotted after the two of them. "Well, be careful in there; some of the equipment is still live. We tried to keep everything in the same state it was in at the time."
Easily finding the correct doorway, Geshtar walked into the ruined lab. His eyes scanned the room with a sort of awe, as if he was impressed by the destruction.
"Listen," Zeno explained, "If you have a meeting, you'd better not be in here. You'll get all... dusty."
"I clean up pretty quickly," Geshtar said nonchalantly. Sneaking around the rows of tables, he shot them a look on his way to the back of the room. "Looks like somebody wanted to destroy our records," he observed, noticing the scattered papers on the floor. "Or at least ruin our expert filing system," he added plainly, glancing at Zeno. The bearded man shot back a look that Geshtar missed, having turned his attention back to the machinery in the back of the room.
The three of them stood for a moment, gazing at the smashed glass tank and the various nearby instruments that had also been broken. Geshtar looked the apparatus over several times, and breathed a loud sigh of admiration.
"So, they did this on their own?"
"I assume," Zeno said. "One of them had me cornered over there, and took on all three of the security units by herself."
Geshtar glared at the spot to which Zeno pointed, but regarded the smashed tank again. "But this is where the specimen was kept, right?"
"That's right," the portly man confirmed.
The CEO snuck a look at the floor; an odd greenish condensation had formed, and he was stepping in some of it. Lifting one foot up, he asked: "Is this harmful?"
"Not in amounts that small," Kalin answered, "And not as a liquid." She paused. "You might want to wash your shoes anyway."
"I'll do that," he said with a smile. Turning around and facing Zeno, he inquired, "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
Scratching the back of his neck, the fat man answered, "Well, there were three of them: two women and a man. The man was dressed like a carpenter, and one of the women was a Wendelian. I didn't see the third woman's face; she had a mask on. She was the one that destroyed the robots and blasted the hole to the surface."
"Blasted... the hole?" Geshtar repeated.
Pointing back to the corner of the room, Zeno faltered a little. "Actually, I didn't see how she did it. But she had to have done something."
Still looking at Zeno, Geshtar calmly walked over to the aforementioned corner. Kalin cocked an eyebrow at the bearded man before following. Zeno folded his arms and joined the other two. Nearing the closet that held the security robots, Geshtar peered in and examined the tunnel that had been bored through the wall and into the ground. Two guards stood on each side of the closet, and seemed to ignore the trio gathering in front of them. The CEO leaned in and looked at the walls of the tunnel with genuine interest, then regarded one of the guards. "You," he announced in a suddenly grave, authoritarian voice, "Go get a fan. We need to blow some of the smoke out this way."
"Yes, sir," the man answered as if Geshtar was a military general.
Geshtar stood straight up, turned to Zeno, snuck another glance at the tunnel, then spoke to the scientist. "Go home; you've earned it."
"Listen," Zeno began.
"I'm not denying your story, Paul," Geshtar interrupted. "You've been here for twenty hours; take the rest of the day and tomorrow off. I want a report on this by the end of the week. I won't pretend this isn't a disappointment."
"I know," Zeno said, looking at the floor for a second. "I still have things to do here. I have calls to make." A man in a suit snuck up behind the portly scientist and tapped him on the shoulder. Mumbling that Zeno had a phone call, the man quickly slipped back out of the room. Zeno looked at Geshtar and gestured in the direction of the exiting man.
"I see," Geshtar nodded, concealing his patronizing tone just enough for Zeno to ignore. The fat man left the room quickly, and the CEO turned to Kalin just as a ringing sound emanated from the inside pocket of his sport jacket. "Hmm," he said with a knowing grin of fabricated interest. Producing the small phone, he opened it, excused himself, and stepped a few paces away. Activating the phone, he answered: "Yes?"
On the other line, a voice said: "Sir, this is the Forcena building. I was told that you were in the city today."
"That's right," he answered. "I'm at the KAIRI building right now. What is it?"
"Well, I thought you might want to know that we got a call from the Steelpion just now. Apparently they're on their way here from Mandala."
"Why?" Geshtar said, his voice betraying some concern.
"They said they got into a fight with some of the locals, and one of their men is injured."
He paused. "Did they damage the tank?"
"They didn't say, but I'd guess not if they can drive it here."
"They're driving it into the city?" he blurted. "No; don't let them. Keep it out of the city. You call, them up, stop them now, send someone to meet them, and take their man to the hospital."
"Yes, sir," the other line answered obediently.
"I'll be in at two," Geshtar added, "And I'd like not to meet up with any of them. Send the rest somewhere else, and have them call me after they've left the city."
The CEO turned the phone off and tucked it back into his pocket while muttering an insult too quietly for anybody to hear. Approaching Kalin, he apologized. "Sorry about that; it's part of the burden of management." He ran a hand through his hair again, glancing around himself casually. "Say," he began, "What time did you get in this morning?"
Kalin squinted in thought. "I guess it was around three... sometime between three and four, but I was up before then."
"Have you eaten yet?"
"Just a couple rolls and about four cups of coffee," she answered, clamping her mouth shut at the sudden realization that her breath probably reflected that fact pretty strongly.
"Well," he observed, "It won't take me very long to write all of this up for the meeting, so I'm free until two. How about you head back to your hotel and get dressed up; I'll take you someplace nice for lunch, and we'll make up for having to make you get up early and miss a decent breakfast."
She looked in his eyes and the warm, almost infinite confidence in them, and almost forgot to answer. He smiled, and she became aware of her childlike staring. Flashing her gaze to the floor, she smoothed her white coast over, then straightened up and looked him right in the eyes again.
"Alright, I'll meet you in the lobby in half an hour."
"What is it?" Zeno demanded. "I almost went home."
"Man, you need one of those portable phones," Bill replied.
"Well, if you're going to bring it up, so does Koshiro."
"Yeah, right; he'd never carry anything that makes him look modern."
"Alright," Zeno said impatiently, "Did you find him?"
"Yeah, I ran into Hiroko; she knows where he's been living these days."
"Good, and you're heading there today?"
A pause. "I guess; is it that important?"
"They sent Geshtar here; what do you think?"
"They sent him that quickly?"
"No, you moron; he was here for something else, and Kalin told him about everything."
"Well, what was she doing there?"
"Quarterly review," Zeno declared, growing tired of the conversation. "Look, I'm on my way out; just write this down so you don't forget it when you meet up with him."
On the other end, Bill rustled some paper around. "Okay, go."
"He's looking for three people: two women and a man. One of the women wears a mask, and the other is a Wendelian. This is the important part: the man was dressed like a carpenter, and he had a sword. I want him to bring the man to me; I don't care what happens to the other two, but I want to settle my score with the man. He's the one that took our specimen."
As he wrote, Bill repeated: "Alright... two women, one man... mask... Wendel... carpenter with sword... specimen?"
"Right," Zeno confirmed. "It was one of those... those things... the demon-things... I don't know what his kind calls them, but they're the little people-things that use up the KAI Field. Just call it an elf; he should know what I mean."
Pausing to write, Bill said: "Okay, elf. Got it. Anything else?"
"Just make him hurry; I've got to save my ass here, or they'll probably fire me."
Zeno paused, not reassured by the other man's tone. "Just get it done, Bill."
"And try to get him to use a phone; I'd prefer to talk to him myself in the future."
She shuffled after the CEO, trying not to lose her balance on her awkward heels as she kept pace with the tall Geshtar. They strode into the restaurant, bustling with sharply dressed businesspeople, and Kalin slowed down, trying her best to determine if her blouse and skirt would fit among the scores of professionals littering the establishment. She patted her hair, making sure it was staying where she put it, and sped up a little to catch the CEO.
He approached the podium in the lobby and addressed the maitre d': "Geshtar, table for two."
The man studied his book for a second. "Yes, Mr. Geshtar, right this way." He waved to one of the servers, then quickly jabbed a finger at the floor, which prompted the young man to hurry. Slipping a pair of menus under his arm, the server lead Geshtar and Kalin through a maze of tables to a room near the back of the restaurant. It was dimly lit, with small electric lights and modest plants mounted in cone-shaped holders on the walls. The table to which they were directed had its own candle, and was already set with fine silver and cloth napkins. Geshtar took Kalin's coat, hanging it on a rack near their table, and pulled a chair out for her. Seating her gently, he then sat himself down and retrieved the menus from the server's hand.
"Our special this afternoon is the duck," the server pronounced, betraying a bit of tension. "Uh, if you need anything, don't hesita-- do not hesitate to ask."
"Thank you," Geshtar said, handing a menu to Kalin. The server smiled nervously and retreated from the room.
Looking around, Kalin spotted only two other occupied tables in the room, which held at least a dozen. Her shoulders drooped in a little, and she forced a smile. "It's been a while since I've been in a place this nice," she said quietly.
"Really," Geshtar replied with interest.
"It was a dinner with my fiancÚ," she explained. "Shortly before we broke it off," she added.
"I see," he said apologetically.
"It's all right," she shrugged. "It was more my fault than his. I needed to focus on my career more, and he didn't want to accommodate that."
Geshtar nodded. "I'm no stranger to that," he said to his menu.
She cleared her throat carefully. "So, what looks good to you?"
"Well," he began, "If the special was quail, I'd recommend that to you, but to be honest I've never had the duck here. Still, their standards for birds are excellent." He searched the menu a little more. "I myself am interested in the filet mignon."
Kalin was about to speak when the waiter appeared. "Good afternoon, my name is Mark. Are you ready to order?"
"Yes," Geshtar said. "We'll star with a bottle of Chateau Crystalle, as close to vintage as possible. I'll have the filet mignon; the chef should know how I prefer it."
"Of... course," the waiter said, finally recognizing who the man was. "And for the lady?"
"Oh, I'll have the special," Kalin stammered nervously folding her menu.
"Of course, and soup or salad?"
"Uh, salad... tossed... with... white cheese dressing," she thought aloud, furrowing her brow a little.
"Excellent choice," the waiter responded, writing everything in a small pad before taking their menus and slipping out of the room. Having been left alone with the CEO, Kalin blushed.
"Well," Geshtar casually began, "There will be a little damage done at the meeting today, but I'm prepared to tell the stockholders that the rest of our projects are proceeding exceptionally well."
"Yes, of course they are," Kalin blurted.
Calmly flashing a halting gesture, the man continued: "I know they are. I was in Pedan last week, and Dr. Euthyphro had a lot of good to report. The mechanics division is seeing a lot of improvement over last quarter's results. I think last night's incident is the only setback we've had this year."
"The only one I know of," Kalin quickly replied.
Geshtar smiled in a reassuring yet amused manner. "If you don't know about something, then it hasn't happened. I'm going to be returning to headquarters with good news, then."
Kalin smiled cautiously again. "So, you don't think that they'll pull any funding, do you?"
Closing his eyes and taking in a deep, relaxed breath, the CEO leaned forward. "There's no need to worry about what happened. Vandole Enterprises has always been a leader in research and development; our stockholders know this. The KAIRI merger was made with their blessing; as long as we keep them informed about what's going on, they'll maintain their loyalty. They know the risks of an endeavor like this." The anxiety seemed to melt from her expression, and he leaned in a little closer. With an almost hypnotic look in his eyes, he let a bold curl overtake the side of his mouth.
"This KAI Field," he continued, "Is going to revolutionize the way society runs. Every study you perform, every step forward you take is placing us closer to changing the world. We can shape civilization any way we wish once we master this, and your work is putting us in position to do just that. My superior had the utmost confidence in you when he hired you to take over as the head of operations. If President Vandole has that much faith in you, so do I.
"Your going to lead us into an era to rival the Mana Age," he finished, settling back down. She found herself staring into his eyes, unable to remove her gaze from his. The waiter quietly approached with two tall glasses and a bottle.
"Now," Geshtar said, suddenly assuming a friendly, casual tone, "Enough about work. Let's have a drink."