Chapters 21 and 22
For those of you just tuning in, Christine Taylor has accepted her reassignment from the Joint Human Analysis Directorate in Heaven to a Black Ops mission on Earth.
Ground Floor Lobby
Phil had already gone home for the day when Christine arrived in the lobby. It was dinner time, but the atrium was still overflowing with tourists. She checked her watch, waiting for Harry to show up. The rain had slackened outside, but not by much.
Christine turned at the sound of her name, not recognizing the voice. A throng of Japanese visitors pushed past her, then the speaker became visible.
General Delco Pembroke. She could hardly believe her eyes.
General Pembroke was standing next to his wife, Penny. Both wore cargo shorts, flowered shirts and sandals, with multiple cameras hanging around their necks. Delco and Penny were also very elderly, very fit and very tan. Heaven had obviously agreed with them.
Christine had heard of the Pembroke’s arrival back in 2007, but hadn’t felt comfortable contacting them. She had been engaged to their son, yet the marriage was interrupted by her death, and she had never officially become part of the Pembroke family.
General Pembroke spread his arms and wrapped her in a bear hug, then Penny did the same. Christine knew the general had suffered a fatal heart attack at home, and like most long-term married couples, Penny had followed soon after.
At that moment a pair of Heavy Air Recon angels walked past, probably heading upstairs for a mission briefing. Operators in Heavy Air Recon were the epitome of what humans conjured in their minds when thinking of the term ‘angel’ – they were huge, bulging with muscles, and had a wingspan of 45 feet or so. Size did matter. The Japanese tourists spoke excitedly to one another and shot off hundreds of photos.
General Pembroke, always an eye out for military perfection, whistled.
“Wow, you don’t see them out in public very often. Strange, isn’t it?”
Christine watched the two angels step onto the elevator. “Not really, General. JHAD usually coordinates their missions. This is restricted airspace, you know, so Heavy Air Recon has to walk in just like everyone else.”
General Pembroke shook his head. “I didn’t mean that. I meant that, back on Earth, the United States has perfected the art of blowing up a terrorist with a Hellfire missile fired from a drone….a plane without a pilot. Here in Heaven, they’ve perfected the art of a pilot that doesn’t need a plane.”
“I never thought of it that way, General.”
“What am I babbling about? Christine, it is so great to see you. We heard you built this place, but visiting JHAD is something else altogether. This is…astounding.”
Christine smiled. “A lot of good people were involved, General. How are you?”
“Please, it’s Delco now. It took us a while to get used to the pace here, but Penny and I are doing fine.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, Christine.” Delco chuckled. “You haven’t noticed what Heaven is like? It’s similar to Italy after the Second World War - the electricity is sporadic; the trains don’t run on time and just getting a bagel at the corner bakery is a traumatic event. The pace here is glacial.”
Christine had often wondered what Heaven was like for people outside of JHAD. She and her co-workers put in eighteen hour days tracking murderers, and the pace had never been glacial - by any stretch of the definition.
“I opened a gift-basket boutique.” Penny said. “Keeps me busy. We deliver, too.”
“And you, General?” Christine asked. “How do you fill your time?”
“Well, I play golf every day with my buddies, then in the evening I cook a terrific dinner with my wife. I am an expert in the kitchen now.”
“Expert, right.” Penny said, waving a manicured hand. “Don’t let him fool you, Christine. Cooking is Delco’s excuse to drink wine and see what’s new on Netflix. I do all of the work.”
Christine laughed. “That’s sounds nice, actually.”
Penny took Christine’s arm. “How are you doing, honey? We were all devastated when your flight went down. Josh took it really hard.”
“Of course, he did.” Penny nodded. “You were the love of his life. He crawled into a bottle for nearly a decade, and it destroyed his career at the CIA.”
“Indeed.” General Pembroke agreed sadly. “There were some really bad days. I tried to help Josh, but he basically drank himself into oblivion, losing a lot of friends in the process. The Agency let him go as Reagan was coming into office. Shame, too. Josh would have been a real asset to that administration.”
Christine was astonished. “I didn’t know any of that. What happened? Is Josh okay now?”
“Josh was in - ”
Out of the corner of her eye, Christine noticed Harry step out of the elevator, posing for a moment with a large group of German tourists. He separated himself and started in her direction.
“Christine!” Harry waved a hand. “Come on, we have a lot of ground to cover.”
Christine turned and waved back at Harry. She would have to find out what happened to Josh another time.
“That’s my boss.” Christine explained. “A new situation has come up.”
“That’s the famous Harry Moss?” Delco said. “I never met him back on Earth, but I’ve heard of his accomplishments – at the FBI and here. What’s the rush, Christine?”
Christine sighed. “Things are really hectic right now, Delco. I know this sounds strange, but I got fired this afternoon.”
“Yeah, and I’ve just been reassigned to Black Ops…for a mission on Earth.”
General Delco Pembroke’s eyes softened, placing a hand on Christine’s shoulder. It had been a long time, yet the strength of his character rushed back. She’d seen the same strength in Josh; and the memories were a bit overwhelming. She pushed them to the back of her mind.
“Christine…it doesn’t sound like you got fired…it sounds like you got promoted.”
Penny nodded. “I think Delco’s right, dear. If there is one thing we’ve learned, God really does know what He’s doing.”
Christine hugged them both.
“Maybe…we’ll see. I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
Harry and Christine entered a long hallway behind the gift shop, and the jabber of tourist chatter died out. A sign with arrows pointing in two directions read RESTROOMS and BASEMENT SERVER FARM. Harry followed the arrow toward the basement.
Harry patted his pockets, then found what he was looking for. “I’m teaming you up with three Black Ops agents, but only one of them is here in Heaven at the moment.”
“And this agent is down there? In the basement?”
“Yep.” Harry said. “His name is Parker Noble.”
Harry swiped a keycard, then opened a door marked NO ENTRY. Christine followed him down a metal staircase into the bowels deep below JHAD.
Christine had not been in the basement in ages. As they descended two levels, she looked around at the hundreds of steam, water and liquid nitrogen pipes snaking their way toward the surface. Electrical conduits and aluminum heat sinks covered every inch of wall space. Giant fans moved thousands of cubic feet of air relentlessly, but even so the atmosphere was heavily saturated and warm, creating a mist that the lights didn’t quite cut through.
Far below, the heat exchangers clanked and hissed steam. The server farm shared the same space on the ground floor, but was sealed-off by glass panels, air-conditioned, and considered a clean-room.
If the huge Gyrotourbillion above was considered the brain of their organization, then the basement was the body. A single high-temperature geothermal vent now ran several binary cycle heat-pumps that operated with decent efficiency, supplying 10,000 megawatts of power.
Overseeing this operation was a server tech, generally someone who possessed a high IQ but had no people skills. It was – understandably - a lonely job without many perks.
Harry stopped on the staircase and looked back at Christine.
“That’s Dr. Parker Noble,” Harry said quietly, “down there at the main terminal. I’ve heard he’s a little…off. Don’t do anything to spook him.”
“What? Is he an antelope? I thought this was some well-trained Black Ops agent.”
Harry and Christine stepped onto the basement floor, where Parker Noble sat at a data terminal that was a full 35 feet long, covered with dials, gauges, screens and switches. The workstation was mostly automated, though, apparently leaving Noble with way too much free time. He was oblivious to their presence, a set of headphones over his ears and humming to himself.
Christine sighed and wondered what kind of mess Harry was getting her into.
Parker Noble – in Christine’s opinion - was not an impressive sight. Although he was a handsome young man, with pale blue eyes and unruly dirty blond hair - his choice in attire left a lot to be desired.
A whole lot to be desired.
Noble wore dark jeans with holes in the knees, reproduction Star Wars boots, a threadbare Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt with a brown vest, and a ratty straw cowboy hat. Christine nearly dry-heaved in revulsion.
He sat at his cluttered computer workstation, surrounded by comic books, Red Bull cans and toy race cars - as well as a bunch of other junk. A slot-car track wound its way around the area, held up in places by stacks of books and sci-fi memorabilia.
She briefly leafed through a Spiderman comic, then lifted a Ferrari from the track and peered at it. The little race man inside had been painted with painstaking detail.
“Hey, hey, hey! Don’t touch that.” Noble hollered, pulling off his headphones. “Those cars are all prepped for Le Mans. Took me hours to get the look right.”
Christine gingerly set the car back on the track. Noble went back to fiddling with a makeshift computer keyboard.
“Dr. Noble, we came down to speak to you.” Harry said patiently.
“Dude, I’m totally swamped here. I got an epic race laid out and I’m combining a new music phenomenon – dubstep jazz fusion rock. Busy day, you dig? Good race needs a soundtrack, know what I’m saying?”
Harry nodded, mouth open. “Busy day…yes…real groundbreaking stuff.”
“Yeah, you feel me.” Noble flicked a hand. “So whatever you need…core values on the server, or dissolved gas readings from the heat plant…just go ahead and get what you want.”
“That’s very generous of you, Dr. Noble.”
“Uh-huh, whatever. The carbon capture system is working just fine, by the way. I checked the trace element emissions at lunch time.”
Christine, incensed, picked up a toy Porsche and crushed it. “The race has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.”
Noble swiveled slowly in his chair and looked at the tiny car parts spread across the floor, then up at Christine.
“Dude, that’s harsh.”
Christine nodded. “No great loss. Porsche was never anything more than an overpriced VW Bug.”
“Dr. Noble….do you know who we are?”
“Umm…no. Should I?”
“This is Director Moss, and I’m Deputy Director Taylor. Ring any bells?”
“Christine Taylor and Harry Moss? Whoa, you guys started this place.” Noble stood and shook their hands. “Totally old school back then – you guys are real pioneers. I don’t get topside much, you know? Been stuck down here since ’92, taking care of the server farm and geothermal exchangers. But that’s cool, you know? Totally dig what you guys have done with the place.”
Christine sniffed. “I’m so totally glad you approve.”
“Are you…like…making fun of me?”
“No, I simply don’t like you.” Christine said. “You look like a scruffy Han Solo.”
Noble grinned broadly. “Thanks!”
“A scruffy gay Han Solo.”
“Got a problem with that?’
“You aren’t exactly user-friendly, Dr. Taylor.”
“I’m not some appliance – like a coffee maker.”
“That’s good.” Noble smiled radiantly. “Be some real cold coffee. Nobody likes cold coffee.”
“Sarcasm, I am familiar with it.” Christine huffed, then turned to Harry. “I thought you said you had some good agents lined up for the mission. This overgrown man-child is just a well paid plumber.”
Harry sighed. “He’s not so bad. Pa - ”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Noble cried. “A mission? A chance to get out of here? Count me in.”
Christine shook her head. “Not so fast, Buck Rodgers. I’m not so sure we need the baggage.”
“Now, hold on.” Noble said. “I could be a real asset.”
Christine laughed. “What could you possibly contribute besides a guided tour of a Star Trek convention? You’ve got the emotional level of a 12-year-old boy.”
“And? What’s the problem?”
“Dr. Noble! You are a train wreck in progress.”
“Maybe so.” Noble said triumphantly. “But I also have a doctorate in computer science from Pratt, a degree in psychology from Yale, and a double degree in genetic engineering and chemistry from MIT.”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Christine mocked, “give me something substantial, Skywalker.”
“Umm, how about another doctorate in propulsion engineering from Brown just because I was bored.”
“Meh…child’s play, really. Studying the different ways friction ratios affect gravity loads? Anybody can do that.”
“Okay, Dr. Taylor….how about this?” Noble drew a breath. “I also rebuilt every system in this basement, fixing a bunch of your mistakes.”
“Ohhh, boy.” Harry said to the overhead pipes. “He didn’t just go there.”
Christine snarled. “I don’t make mistakes.”
“Uh…okay.” Noble shook his head. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, Pumpkin. Who do you think wrote the DES cipher? Who do you think solved the LU grid decomposition that was shutting down the matrix upstairs? Me, that’s who.”
“That was really you?”
Christine pursed her lips. She was surprised by the vast facet Noble’s knowledge covered, and the problems that he’d resolved – problems that had stumped her best programmers.
Brains, however, weren’t everything.
There was usually a good reason why certain types were locked away in the basement. She decided to give him a chance. One chance.
“Impressive, Dr. Noble. How are your hacking skills?”
“Look at me; do I look like I get out much? Other hackers wish they were me.”
Christine smiled slightly. “I often judge an agent’s character by the manner of their death. It tells you quite a bit about someone.”
“Oh, crap. You know, you remind me a lot of my mom.”
“Not the answer I was expecting. How exactly did you die?”
“Skydiving accident,” Noble explained. “Main chute didn’t open.”
“What about your reserve chute?’
Parker Noble fidgeted for a moment. “Well, the thing about the reserve chute is…once your main chute fails, you quickly realize that your reserve chute is also your last chute. After that, you don’t have anything left to pull.”
“Let me get this straight.” Christine said, incredulous. “You didn’t pull your reserve chute and you died…because you were hoping a better opportunity would present itself?”
Noble nodded. “That’s right. But when you put it that way it sounds kind of stupid.”
“Uh-huh. That’s because it is kind of stupid.”
“Help is available for the anger issues you seem to have, Dr. Taylor.”
“I don’t have anger issues, Noble.” Christine replied, irritated. “It’s just that everything you say makes me want to punch you in the throat.”
Noble raised his eyebrows. “My point exactly.”