July 4, 1992, concluded
"Booty call! Let's get biz-zay!"
Bill cleared his throat and looked self-consciously around him.
I caught his eye and shook my head.
"I think we're getting ahead of ourselves here." I looked around, noticing that her Mutt and Jeff sidekicks were sitting down, unlacing their boots.
"How so, Mr. Wilde?"
"I, for one, am not going anywhere--much less dropping my drawers--unless I get some answers, first."
"Mr. Wilde, we have.." she consulted her Rolex, "perhaps twenty minutes before we must begin the next stage of our journey. It is critical that we do so precisely on time."
"Or we shall, for want of a better analogy, 'miss our train'."
"The next such 'train' will not arrive for some months. Thus our plans will be ruined and our mission will fail."
"Since I haven't heard word one about what this 'mission' is, it's a little hard for me to care, one way or the other. The way I look at it, you have twenty minutes to convince me it matters."
She gave me a long, silent, probing stare.
"Very well. If you will be so good as to permit Bruno to go through your belongings while we speak, I shall endeavor to convince you of the importance of our task."
"And, if you can't?"
"You may return to Berkeley and resume your previous life."
I dropped my pack to the ground and motioned to Bruno to have at it.
"First things first--where, precisely, are we going?"
"To Methven, of course. I believe Mantami has mentioned my promise to return him to his family?"
"That he did. And from there?"
"The name of our ultimate destination would be meaningless to you, Mr. Wilde. Suffice it to say that we shall have quite a long journey in front of us and that both your skills and those of Mr. Wilson will be needed, if we are to complete it successfully."
"You said we'd have a 'long' journey in front of us. How long is 'long'?"
"Several months, I would imagine."
"Can you be more precise? 'Several months' covers a lot of ground."
She shook her head.
"There are quite a number of imponderables, Mr. Wilde. I should think we will require not less than two nor more than four months to discharge our mission."
"That's reasonable enough. Which brings us to the question of what, exactly, this 'mission' we're supposed to perform is."
"Essentially, Mr. Wilde, our goal is to recover a stolen artifact and to return it safely to its rightful owners."
"So, you guys are hired guns, too?"
"Not at all."
"Then, what's your motive?"
"Think of Bruno, Carleton and I as government operatives."
"Uh huh. And what's in it for us?"
"What do you think would be appropriate for your services, Mr. Wilde?"
"Well, Mantami mentioned a million dollars. Each."
She laughed, not condescendingly, but as if taken by surprise.
"By all means, Mr. Wilde. If we are successful, you shall have at least one million dollars each as a reward. More, if you wish."
"And, if we're not successful?"
"We will very likely all be dead. Or worse."
"So, what are the odds?"
She gave me a sober look.
"I will not deceive you, Mr. Wilde. This will be a dangerous undertaking. However, I do not regard it as a suicide mission, if that is your question. Nonetheless, I expect we will experience casualties."
I thought about the implications of that statement.
"Then answer me this--do you consider us," I gestured to my fellow Berkelians, "expendable?"
She shook her head.
"We are all 'expendable', Mr. Wilde. Bruno, Carleton and I no less than yourselves. But we shall all bend every effort to see this assignment through to its successful conclusion."
"That some of us, at least, must survive to complete it."
"All right, let me think about it."
She gave me a tight smile.
"Please do. You have," she consulted her watch again, "approximately another ten minutes."
Her attention immediately shifted to her companions.
"The rifles and ammunition?"
Bruno held up a fistful of rocks, cams, hexes and other climbing protection.
Bill shook his head, as if snapping out of a daydream. I noticed that he was down to briefs and socks.
"Given time, could you manufacture replacements for this equipment?"
"I think that highly unlikely. It would, at a minimum, require I have access to a moderately sophisticated machine shop."
"And, if that could be arranged?"
"I am reasonably confident I could reproduce the hexcentric chocks. I am considerably less confident about my ability to fabricate the camming devices."
"We will take the camming devices. Next?"
Carleton held up an armload of tapes and climbing ropes.
Læ shook her head.
"That is fairly sophisticated cordage, Madam. It was also non-trivially expensive."
Læ again shook her head.
"We will provide superior replacements, Mr. Wilson. And, since it was our money which you used to purchase them, the expense is simply not an issue. Next?"
They went through the rest of our gear like that. Læ made all the decisions and the other two never argued with her once she'd made up her mind. Despite her skirt, it was clear who wore the pants in that trio and it wasn't either of the men.
Finally, they came to the air pistols Bill, Mantami and I carried.
"You have some objection, Mr. Wilde?"
"You bet. If the Tempest stays, so do I."
"Do I take it that you have decided to accompany us?"
I shook my head.
"I have just a couple more questions."
Her hands balled themselves into fists, but her voice remained level.
"We are almost out of time, Mr. Wilde. Please be quick."
"Okay. What is this artifact we're after?"
"It is known as the Totalstone. Consider it to be a kind of object d'art."
"Who has it?"
"A meaningless question. You would not recognize his name and his relationship to my government would take much too long to explain."
She held up a hand to forestall my next question.
"I assure you that, once we have the time available, I will be happy to explain that relationship in as much detail as you desire. At the moment, we can afford no such indulgence. Our time is up. Please make your decision, Mr. Wilde."
"And if I decide to stay?"
"I hope that you will not."
"But, if I do?"
"Then, Mr. Wilde, I shall be forced to brainwipe you and leave you to find your way back to Berkeley on your own."
"Had you decided to stay behind as recently as ten minutes ago, I would have had the luxury of selectively erasing only those parts of your memory which relate to this expedition. Now, I will be forced to simply delete everything that has happened to you in the last six weeks."
"Decide, Mr. Wilde, or I shall decide for you."
I looked around for support.
Ever so casually, Bruno and Carleton had managed to position themselves on either side of me, just within arm's reach. With the exception of Pith and Mantami, the others refused to meet my eye.
Mantami simply stared with a look of mild interest. Pith, on the other hand, edged toward me, his eyes flicking from Bruno to Carleton. Clearly, he was prepared to back my play, if I decided to resist, but the odds looked bad.
I turned back to Læ.
"All right. You win. I'll go."
"Please disrobe, Mr. Wilde. Now."
I shrugged and started unbuttoning my shirt.
Læ ran her fingers down the inside of her calves. Her knee-high boots split open and she stepped gracefully out of them, kicking them out of the hexagon in which she stood. Then she pulled her tunic over her head in a single motion, revealing high, firm, medium-sized breasts with smallish areolae and nipples. She pitched the tunic and yanked off her skirt.
Two things became immediately obvious. Læ did not believe in wearing undies. And she was a natural redhead.
I stopped with my thumbs in the waistband of my boxers. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks as I blushed like a schoolgirl.
The blush wasn't the only thing that was rising.
I glanced around at my companions just long enought to see that Læ's exposure was having the same effect on all of us.
"Join me! Quickly!"
Bruno and Carleton brushed past me, both of them mother naked. Meanwhile, Læ threw her Rolex out of the central hexagon, placed a necklace with a single, egg-sized blue gem around her throat and turned toward the main pillar.
She spread her arms and began to chant.
Carleton turned toward us. "Come on, you idiots! Hurry up and get in here!" he hissed. "And bring your packs!"
Abashed, I picked up my own pack (now considerably lighter and less bulky for the loss of most of my climbing gear, my sleeping bag and pad and quite a number of other items) and stepped into the central hexagon.
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(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)