He knew it was the last time he would be there.
He stepped through the double door of the administration building, held open for him, and the sinking afternoon sun blasted against his face. He blinked hard, momentarily blinded, and stopped disorientated in his tracks. He lowered the glasses from the crown of his head onto the bridge of his nose. They were all around him, crowded in the doorway, and they were his friends -- more than just the people he did business with, true friends.
The car was waiting. The driver stood beside the rear door and smiled at him with respect. The technicians, engineers, and managers pressed close to him to shake his hand, hold his arms, and brush-kiss his cheeks. The friendships had been nurtured over many years. When he had left the office of the project manager, three or four minutes before, he had started a stuttering progress down a shadowed, cool corridor, stopping by each door to make his farewells. He had been wished a good journey, a safe return home, and he had been told how welcome he would be when he came back the next time.
He knew there would not be a next time.
The sun, full and gold turning to scarlet, hit his face and pierced the protection of his darkened glasses. He grinned and responded to the friendship and trust that was shown him. He had betrayed their trust. The project manager took his arm, led him towards the car, murmured appreciation that he had fallen in with the change of schedule, and squeezed his arm in implicit thanks for the present of a Toshiba laptop. On each visit, three times a year, he brought many presents with him to the complex, and they had a sliding scale of value dependent on the position in the complex of his friends. He brought with him computer equipment and gold or sterling silver ink pens, toilet soaps, and packs of toothpaste. He had come, as always, five days before, his bags weighted with the gifts that cemented the friendship and bound the trust. The vomit was in his throat, and he swallowed hard. As their friend, each time he came, he was invited to restaurants to eat battered prawns or shrimps, or whitefish, and he was invited to their homes. It had taken years of visits to build the friendship and the trust that were a sham.
The driver opened the door of the car. The project manager was flicking the buttons of a personal organizer, a secondary present from the previous visit, to confirm the date on which he would next return. He looked past the project manager at the straggling line by the double doors, all smiling and waving. He said it again, as he had said it many times in the last five days: it had been no problem for him to change his schedule and come a week earlier than originally planned. He wished them well. He did not know what would happen to them. It was the mark of their friendship, their trust, that they had left the cool, air-conditioned offices and design rooms to stand in the ferocity of the sunlight to see him on his way, and he had betrayed them. He could not look into their faces or into the eyes of the project manager.
Before he ducked down into the car, a last time, he raked the buildings, scarred by the sun and the salt carried from the sea by the winds, as if it were important that he should remember each final detail.
What Gavin Hughes saw...The complex was a series of wire-fenced compounds. Above the wire mesh fences around each compound were the silver- and rust-colored coils of razor wire. At the gates to each compound were sandbagged sentry points that were covered with decaying canvas to give shade from the sun. The watchtowers at the corners of the compounds were built on weathered wood stilts, and the dipping sunlight caught the barrels of the machine guns jutting above the parapets. Between the compounds were four antiaircraft defense positions, two with multiple-barrel Oerlikon guns and two housing a cluster of squat ground-to-air missiles. If it had not been for the friendship and the trust, Gavin Hughes, who was a salesman in engineering machinery, would never have gained access to the complex...He saw the entrance tunnel to the building with the buried concrete walls and bombproof ceiling, and that was Project 193. He saw the dun-painted building, into which he had never been admitted, that housed Project 1478. He saw the building where the hot-die forge was installed, where heated metal for the warhead cone was compressed and then cooled for turning and grinding and milling, the home of Project 972. The buildings were spread out across the bright sand, scattered inside the complex perimeter that stretched three kilometers in length and two kilometers in width, and contained the lathes, mixers, presses, and machine tools. He would be asked the day after, or the day after that at the latest, what he had seen, what was different from before.
Copyright © 1999 by Gerald Seymour
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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