Steve stepped out of the taxi, relieved that he’d made it to his destination in one piece as the vehicle’s body work seemed to be at least fifty per cent rust. As he slipped out of the car door he handed the driver a wad of notes, the local currency, he hadn’t got the hang of it yet but the driver seemed more than happy and drove off without proffering any change. He breathed in, deeply, immediately wishing that he hadn’t as his mouth filled with the flavour of unregulated industrial growth. The tang of sulphur in the air was unmistakeable and he was already looking forward to returning to his air conditioned hotel and steam cleaning himself in the shower.
He looked up at the building in front of him, covered with indecipherable pictograms. He might as well be in ancient Egypt looking at hieroglyphs for all the sense any of it made to him. He allowed himself a brief moment to ponder the fact that you didn’t actually have to leave the planet to gain the sense that you were in an utterly alien place. Indeed, he felt more at home in some of the Martian cities than he did here, in the smog filled streets of the Chinese Empire’s second city.
Still, he had a job to do, he’d hardly come here for his own amusement, and so he might as well get on with it. The sooner he started, the sooner he’d be done, and yet he still hesitated. The sun’s hazy disk was barely visible through the hazy smog, but he could tell it was getting low in the sky, and the last thing he wanted to do was end up stuck in this part of town after dark. Yet still, he paused, and the knot in his stomach that had been ever present since he’d set food in the country tightened just a little bit more. Time was getting on though, and it was too late to turn back, so he reluctantly willed one foot in front of the other and moved towards the door.
The lobby of the building provided respite from the foul tasting atmosphere, but the heavily filtered and stale air inside was only slightly more pleasant to breath. The desk clerk flicked his eyes up to greet him as he stepped in, he was expected, he knew. The clerk simply nodded towards some basic chairs by the lobby’s back wall and returned to blankly staring at a small bank of monitors which displayed the feeds from various security cams located in and around the building.
He took his seat; the knot tightening further, this was it.
A middle aged businessman in a tired looking suit emerged into the lobby from a door that led deeper into the building. The businessman nodded at him, and told him, in heavily accented English, to come with him. Steve followed him through a maze of corridors, notice boards filled the walls, all filled with memos and notes he couldn’t read. He wondered what lurked behind each of the closed doors they passed, never once did they encounter another person on their way to the businessman’s office.
Eventually they reached their destination and the businessman ushered Steve into a cramped and cluttered office. Shelving groaning with files, folders and boxes lined the walls, and the desk was covered in paperwork, empty drinks cans and the occasional item that Steve could only assume held some kind of personal significance to the businessman. Atop a flat screen computer monitor sat a small holoprojector displaying an image of two young children, presumably the businessman’s. Steve mentally noted that the office was devoid of any evidence of the existence of their mother.
The businessman sat and motioned for Steve to do likewise. Pleasantries were exchanged, Steve was asked how his flight had been and if he’d had trouble finding the offices. Both men, however, were clearly eager to get down to business, and Steve soon brought the pleasantries to an end by simply asking, “The device, you have it?”
“You have the money?” the businessman asked in return. With that Steve fished a small touchscreen, hand held communication device from his jacket pocket. He noticed a flicker of nervous emotion cross the businessman’s face as he reached into his pocket, and realised that he was not alone in being uncomfortable with skirting this close to the edges of the law. He thumbed through the menus, clicked a few onscreen buttons and smiled.
“On the contrary, now you have the money, I think you’ll find.” Steve tried to seem confident, and found himself relieved that his voice hadn’t cracked during that exchange, as his throat had become impossibly dry. He eyed the drinks cans jealously and, remembering a vending machine he’d noticed outside the building on his way in, knew what the first order of business would be as soon as he left.
The businessman turned his attention to the flat screen monitor in front of him, it too had a touchscreen, and after a few swift gestures he smiled broadly, pleased with the new balance of his bank account. “Indeed I do, and so you’ll be wanting this…”
The businessman reached under his desk and produced a hefty metallic case with thick rubber corners. He handed it across the desk to Steve.
“You don’t mind if I…” Steve began.
“By all means,” the businessman replied. “You’ll find that everything is in order.”
Steve flicked open the latches on the metallic case, and slowly lifted the lid. The room was bathed in a cold blue light, and he smiled softly to himself.
“Oh yes,” he said, “this will do, this will do nicely.”