Chapter 3 v1.2

Before disembarking from the aircraft, Stryker was handed a small note in an embossed envelope. He was requested to take a taxi and show the note to the driver, as it gave the address and specified the more scenic route. Stryker was a little concerned because his money was in short supply, but when he got to the departure gate, there seemed to be few alternatives. With a little apprehension, he got into a taxi and noted that the driver turned off the meter. 

The scenic route was quite picturesque, in a harsh grey fashion. The sky was a leaden grey, with a light fall of snow that, thanks to the heavy traffic, led to slush on the road in front. As they travelled along, they passed many steep-roofed houses with snow waiting to slide, and many stark grey trees, branches laden with snow, and many vehicles with lights full on coming the other way. To the right, when they were not in one of the many villages, was the harsh grey sea. Yes, they were in a fjord, but the far side, which Stryker gathered was not that far away, had disappeared in the uniform grey of the weather. As the journey continued, Stryker had an increasingly leaden feeling about his wallet. Finally, what was obviously not a village: Trondheim.

The driver worked his way through surprisingly heavy traffic, and then stopped in front of a solid but otherwise uninspiring building that was set about twenty meters back from the street. Stryker attempted to pay the taxi driver, but to his surprise he found the trip from the airport was prepaid. How did the payer know which taxi he would take? Presumably, the note ensured good payment, not that it mattered. Having what must have been a very expensive fare paid was good news, not that it would alter his decision whether to work for whoever it was. When he opened the taxi door a bitterly cold northerly wind cut through what was clearly inadequate clothing. There were no winds in space so he was not ready for this. He glanced around at the grey of Trondheim as the view faded away in the gently falling snow, then he pulled the jacket tighter and made his way through the slush to the large very solid looking doors. 

As he entered he felt the pleasant effect of a generous central heating system. The reception area was strictly functional, but with nothing there to indicate what the business did. The assumption seemed to be that if you knew the address, you knew what you were doing there, so there was no need to remind you. The receptionist smiled, enquired in Norwegian what he wanted, or at least Stryker assumed that was what she did, but when he looked puzzled she asked him in flawless English. When he explained who he was, she asked whether he would like tea or coffee and whether there should be any additives, and when he told her she referred him to the fourth floor. He noticed her slightly surprised expression when he ignored the elevator and took the stairs. He started bounding up but he finished with very heavy breathing, and his muscles felt like taut strings. He might have kept up all the vigorous exercises he could in space, but he still felt totally drained after only four flights of stairs. Earth's gravity was still a blight, and there was much more fitness work to do. The stairs came out to another stark reception room, where there were two quite basic green plastic sofas and a small reception cubicle that looked to be far more comfortable. There were no decorations on the light brown walls. He was politely told to wait.

As waiting areas went, Jonas Stryker thought, this was likely to be as basic as they came, not that he had much experience. He also noted there was no coffee. He sat on one of the sofas and began drumming fingers on the arm-rest. What was he doing here? He needed income, but he also needed to work towards his future. He was aged twenty-eight; old enough that his career options were already closing, and young enough that he needed a long-term career, but anything related to space meant at best a dead-end job. He had been charged with ill-discipline and striking an officer, and while the charges were dropped the stigma would remain. He was probably close to unemployable.

The buzzer on the desk sounded and the Secretary glanced up. "Mr Nordstrum will see you now, sir." The secretary seemed anything but happy to make this announcement. She was middle-aged, and her stern expression suggested that she did not approve of him. Probably she had mother hen feelings towards her boss.

Stryker stood and nodded as politely as he could. He tried to smile, but it was forced, and he got no response. The choice of secretary met his approval: efficient rather than decorative. Not that that helped his current problem, and it may well have made things worse. Still, he had to go through with this interview. He had not applied; he had been requested, although what this company would need his abilities for eluded him.

As he passed the secretary he noticed she avoided his glance. He exhaled, shook his head slightly, but as he walked into the room, he noticed the temperature was set lower than the reception area. He looked around and gasped. This was no ordinary office. On the left wall, from Stryker's point of view, there was one of the most startling portraits he had ever seen, mounted behind what was serious security. The portrait was from a previous time, probably about the sixteenth century.

Before him, the man behind the desk got to his feet, using his hands to support his rise. Stryker knew the man was supposed to be forty-two years old, but he looked to be over sixty. He stood with a pronounced stoop and steadied himself against his desk with a slightly shaking hand. His cheeks were a little sunken, his eyes were slightly bloodshot, and his skin was ghostly white. His head wore a heavy woollen beanie, and instead of the expected business suit, he wore a very thick and rather bright sweater. The man held out his hand to shake, so Stryker took care to be gentle. The grip was weak. 

"Leif Nordstrum," the man introduced himself in a rather weak voice. "Thank you for coming, Mr Stryker." He paused, then when Stryker said nothing, he pointed at a chair and continued, "Please sit." When Stryker complied, Nordstrum carefully returned to his rather luxurious fleece-lined office chair. At that moment, the door opened again, and a young man appeared pushing a small trolley carrying mugs, coffee, and some quite delicious looking cakes. A mug of black coffee was handed to Stryker and another mug to Nordstrum.

"Help yourself to the cakes," Nordstrum said with a smile, as he took one himself and indicated the young man should leave. "I hope you enjoyed the view from your drive from the airport. I'm sorry about the weather, and I assure you the view is much better on a sunny day."

"I'm sure it is," Stryker said, as he took one of the cakes. "It was still quite interesting, so thank you."

Nordstrum gave a nod of appreciation, then he said, "As I indicated in the invitation, I am interested in hiring your services, but first I have to be sure you are suitable, and of course you will have to be sure you want to be hired."

"I am unemployed at present," Stryker said, "and I think you know why."

Nordstrum replied with a vestige of a smile, "I know things somewhat deeper than most. The allegedly deplorable event that led to your unemployment was on one of your better days. With most other people there would have been a complete disaster. You reacted instinctively, and you have good instincts."

"Thank you. I should have had you speaking for me at the –"

"Would have been a waste of time," Nordstrum interrupted. "Yes, I know what actually happened, and if you decide not to work for me, free of any other obligation on your part I shall make the truth public if you so wish."

"Thank you, whatever the truth is." Stryker had not expected this, and he was grateful. "However, I am bound by a confidentiality agreement and –"

"Yes, you are, but I am not. All the same, be careful what you wish for," Nordstrum warned. "The truth out there will only make your life worse."

"How?" Was this some sort of threat coming?

"First, what happened," Nordstrum said, followed by a rasping cough. "You gave the command for a short small burst from the rear port thruster. Correct?"

"Yes, but that wasn't what happened. The motor went full burst and would not turn off."

"And the reason for that was that to save money the service company for your ship decided to leave an aged and badly worn pump on that motor rather than follow the specified practice and replace it."

"You can prove that?" For the first time since he had been fired, he saw a way to resurrect his flagging career.

"Yes and no, and it won't do you any good." Nordstrum said that quite harshly, but he softened his expression as he shrugged and added, "Sorry."

"Why not?" Stryker demanded. It then occurred to him that Nordstrum might own the culpable company that had done, or rather had not done, the servicing.

As if reading his mind, Nordstrum replied wryly, "If you are wondering, the servicing company has nothing to do with me." He paused, took a sip of coffee, then continued, "Your problem is this. If you were to follow this through, the company would find a convenient scapegoat and fire him, and the corporation that owns that company would do its best to suppress all relevant evidence. What I know is true, but it was not obtained in a way suitable as evidence. Then your career would end up much worse."

Stryker scowled and lowered his eyes as he said, "So much for truth and justice."

"Life isn't fair," Nordstrum said with a shrug, "and being rich certainly alters the balance." He watched this sink in, then he added, "And I guess you are wondering what the balance is between you and me?"

"Well, I gather you're rich." Stryker took a sip of coffee and tried to look as if this did not concern him.

Nordstrum gave a superior smile as he said, "Well, you'd be quite wrong."

A surprised Stryker almost spilt his coffee. "Sorry to hear that."

"I'm extraordinarily rich," Nordstrum said in a challenging but not conceited tone, then he glanced at the wall with the painting. "You noticed that artwork when you came in."

"It is most certainly a stunning reproduction," Stryker said. He felt he had to be less prickly.

"It's nothing of the sort. It's an original." He paused, then added, "Tiziano Vecelli."

"Which explains the security," Stryker added. He felt foolish, as if he had put his oversized foot in his mouth. "You are exceedingly rich, assuming it is yours."

"It is, and I could easily afford to give it to you," Nordstrum challenged.

Somewhat irritated, Stryker said in a flat tone, "But you won't."

"Why not?" 

Stryker realized that Nordstrum was playing with him, but he was not going to give him the satisfaction of a squirm or a speech showing his dislike of the rich. He took another sip of coffee and said, "Because you like it too much, and I most certainly understand why."

"Yes, I do like it," Nordstrum replied, his smile also acknowledging a satisfactory answer. "Now, why you are here. I want to offer you a job as a space pilot."

Stryker stared almost in disbelief, then he said, "Go on."

"I want to go into space, and I need someone to pilot a ship." 

Stryker put the mug of coffee back on the desk. "I don't want to be offensive, but there's no easy way to say this," Stryker tried to explain. "Getting to space is fairly arduous, and, well, er, you don't look to be very fit."

Nordstrum laughed. "How diplomatically put."

"Look, I'm sorry, but maybe I'd better go before –"

"Mr Stryker. My problem, and the cause of my appearance for that matter, is that I am dying, and there is no cure. I want to do something before the end. Please stay and hear me out. I promise it will be worth your while."

"The strain may shorten your life," Stryker warned.

"So what? If the end comes suddenly, all the better. And by the way, I shall ensure no blame can be put on your shoulders. The point is, I want to do one last thing that I consider meaningful."

"And that is?"

"In the mythology of my ancestors," Nordstrum said with a broad smile, "dying in bed consigned you to Hel, while dying fighting, or having fought recently, led you to Valhalla."

"You're not going to start a war?" This bizarre situation was getting madder by the minute, and Stryker was wondering how he could get out of it.

"No need to look so appalled. Not a war in the sense I think you mean, but rather a fight against corruption and those who wish to make a power grab." He paused, took another sip of coffee, and added, "Please, have another cake."

Stryker was unsure how to respond, so to buy time he took a bite from another cake, then asked, "How does my piloting you around space contribute to that?"

"They are building a space station at the Earth – Moon L4 position, and they are paying big money for the delivery of metal-rich asteroid material."

"I thought you didn't need the money?" He tried to keep a straight face, but he could see no connection between asteroids and corruption on Earth.

"Of course I don't, but you do. At this stage you're better off not knowing too many details of the fight, and instead you should focus on better placing yourself if nothing substantial happens. For the moment, consider the purpose to be to distract and divert attention. I shall pay you a good fee, and you keep whatever we receive for the asteroid or asteroids. Later, if events become clearer, you have a free choice whether to continue. Interested?"

Stryker leaned forward to pour more coffee into his mug, which bought him the necessary but short time to think. Nordstrum was keeping the real objective secret, which meant he did not trust him so how could he go with . . . Then it occurred to him that he was not in the habit of explaining himself to juniors either, and further, in a combat situation, the fewer who knew the strategy, the less the chance of a leak. It might be indigestible, but he would have to accept that he was now a junior, and after all, Nordstrum had only known him for less than an hour. There was still too much uncertainty on some fundamental matters. "Do you have a suitable ship?"

"The Defiant."

"I don't think that will be good enough," Stryker warned. "That was an original Space Corps vessel. It's small, and its motors are not powerful enough to control a tolerably sized asteroid, and the frame is inadequate for –"

"It's been effectively rebuilt," Nordstrum said, and pointed his finger at Stryker as a warning against jumping to unwarranted conclusions. "Its bodywork is fully rebuilt, although the weapons ports are still there," he added with a grin, "and it has one of the newest most powerful fusion motors. If you ever have to flee someone, nobody has a hope of catching you."

"Chasing asteroids means a long time in space. That small ship couldn't stand a long spell and –"

"The new frame can clip on a ring, and the motor is powerful enough that the ring doesn't make much difference to performance."

Stryker gasped. The modern interplanetary cargo space ship was a mini-version of the Gamma Space Station, except that the fusion reactor gave far more power to the ship, and accelerations were sufficient to take massive loads to Mars in a matter of weeks if the orbital alignment was good. The modern "pursuit ship" was equally impressive. It was smaller but was still powered with thermonuclear energy, and while it had "extensions" that could be put out for artificial gravity, or folded into the ship when not in use, most of the time the acceleration of the motors was sufficient to give an acceptable artificial gravity. Then there were the compromise ships: ships that were not unlike a ship with a rotating ring, but from which the motor and command part could detach and make itself into a pursuit ship, then later come back and reconnect with the ring. "And this is safe?"

"If you say yes provisionally, you can have the engineering reports and licenses examined."

"Then I suppose, provisionally, yes." This was not what Stryker wanted, especially since he felt Nordstrum would not last long in space. Still, since it was a short-term job, he should be no worse off, and just possibly he might make enough money out of this that he could afford to be choosy next time. Also, it would be helpful to have on his résumé his "previous flight" recognised as a success and a recommendation from a happy and influential client. While being a rich man's nurse did not appeal, at least he would be piloting a space ship.

"There is one further condition," Nordstrum said. The tone of his voice suggested that Nordstrum feared this might be a deal-breaker

"And this condition?"

"You need a copilot and I would like you to offer Mitchell the opportunity, and better still, persuade him."

"I don't understand." Stryker was puzzled because he could not see what Mitchell would add to the expedition. There would be many better co-pilots. "You must know I suspect Mitchell had made a deal and would have testified against me had the trial continued?"

"I know he did, and I don't altogether blame him." He paused and took another cake. "What you may not realize is the failure to punish you at that so-called trial has severely irritated some important people, and –"

"But we have a legally binding agreement that –"

"That means less than you think it does. Money would buy a retrial."

"With Mitchell having –"

"Wrong!" Nordstrum again wagged a finger at Stryker. "If Mitchell volunteers to fly with you, his value as a witness against you drops almost to zero. He cannot complain later that you forced him to do something, or whatever he would claim, if he promptly accepts a job with you. Even if he were to turn on you later, it would be valueless."

"Well, thank you for thinking of my problems." 

"It's in my self-interest," Nordstrum said with a shrug. "When Mitchell cut a deal, he would have given your opposition a statement and they may be able to hold that over his head. They will be puzzled about why I want you as a pilot, and they may see Mitchell as a route to getting answers. If Mitchell then sends secret messages to Earth, we might uncover those parties."

Stryker said nothing, in part because there was little he could say.

"I also want to see your level of self-control," Nordstrum continued. "I don't want you to give any indication to Mitchell that you even have a minute feeling of suspicion about any deal he might have. Can you do that?"


"So you still accept?" Nordstrum asked. His expression was one of almost pleading. This puzzled Stryker because pilots would be easily obtained with his money, and it appeared that Mitchell was the person he really wanted.

"I'll have to offer Mitchell a guaranteed payment," Stryker said. "I can't expect him to take this on with the risk of no significant payment if we get only rubbish asteroids."

"No problem. I've already said that money is not an issue," Nordstrum explained. "Even with this expedition, it's not enough to register on my personal balance sheet."

"You mean, it qualifies as small change?"

"That's exactly what I mean. I hope that doesn't horrify you?"

"No. I'm just extremely surprised."

"So you're on board?"

"Yes, subject to the ship meeting the requirements."

Nordstrum almost beamed as he said, "Excellent! I'll get my secretary to sign you up, give you and Mitchell pay advances I think you will agree are generous , then we shall get to the Kazakh spaceport since it's the closest."

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