2. The worst day of Dex’s life - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
What would turn out to be the worst day of Dex Dearborn’s life had begun twenty hours earlier, more than 3000 miles away.
To be fair, nothing about the day as it dawned foreshadowed that by the time the sun set his world would have been shattered comprehensively about his ears, never to be repaired.
Admittedly, he had not expected, even by ordinary standards, to have a good day. A message had come in overnight, from some airbase somewhere near Tashkent. Joe would likely not be back to base for at least two or three days. As always, his absence took the light from the Legion. Without him they moved sluggishly; chores were poorly performed or neglected altogether. Someone had to take up the slack. That someone was inevitably resented. And sometimes Dex wondered if these erratic trips round the world over the last few months really meant - as Joe always asserted - that he needed to restore Totenkopf’s devastation on a case-by-case basis, or if he was running away from something.
Running away was not something Dex would ever before have associated with Joe. Nor, to be fair, with himself either. Except - since last Thursday.
He looked down at the mug of coffee cooling on his work-bench, his face flushing. Remembering Thursday left him feeling soiled, filthy. Bile rose in his gullet and he swallowed. He only wished he could be sure that, given the chance again by some time-travelling device (his mind had played with the possibility of turning that comic-book notion into reality; what a coup that would be!) he would, second time around, have turned down the choice which a mixture of an evening’s bath-tub hooch and an adult life-time’s sense of isolation had made so inevitable - and so completely avoidable.
He felt so changed inside himself - and not for the better - since Thursday, that he almost caught himself dreading being in the same room as Joe again, and relieved at the brief reprieve signalled by the overnight message. For when they met again, surely Joe - with all his experience of the world - would notice something different about him, and it was hardly as if he could explain -
Work, however, was something he could always use to shut out the world. Even during those dark days when Joe’s plane had gone down, somewhere over China, he had been able to work. He had flung forth every tendril of his genius to make the Legion safer, to guard it against Joe’s return. The return he refused to believe would never happen. The return he made them all believe in, too.
And the miracle, at last, had occurred.
Joe had returned, and a respectable percentage of the Legion was still whole, standing on the tarmac of the base to greet him as he landed.
Everyone had crowded to congratulate Joe. No-one had congratulated Dex. He hadn’t expected it; he’d had his reward already, in a sidelong smile, a relieved arm-clasp, the feel of sun-warmed sheepskin under his hand.
The sense of duty done.
He had done what was needed by the Legion. And however the world had changed since then, he needed to go on doing it.
His coffee downed, and the basic paperwork of the base handled, the main contract must be his principal concern. He worked on the blue-prints for an hour or more. There was a modification to inspect - the workshops had turned out a new prototype for that crucial central assemblage overnight. He turned, to compare the finished product to the drawing he held in his hand.
Something was wrong.
Oh to the uninitiated, of course, perhaps the solid hunk of machinery standing four-square before him was that depicted in the blue-print. The changes between it and the diagram in his hand could be measured in thousandths of an inch. An eye should not accurately attempt to judge them.
But nevertheless Dex never doubted for an instant that the latest prototype had been produced - Sandy had signed off on it, and the Angel Gabriel would be caught faking a timesheet sooner than Sandy - and that it was not, whatever the paperwork said, the latest prototype that was standing before him.
Something was horribly wrong here.
A frantic hour or so tearing through papers and round the base turned up a piece of paper slid between two others bearing a message cut and pasted from the pages of the local newspaper. For the life of him Dex would have said it had not been there when he searched his desk fifteen minutes earlier.
” If you go looking for it, you might be surprised by what will be found with it. You thought no-one was watching, last Thursday? Ooh, Mr Dearborn. Did they never tell you? “Thou God seest me”? We are the tongues of righteousness, and the scourge of the evildoer. And now everyone we choose can look through God’s eyes. So: how do you fancy spending the next three years in jail? But then again, perhaps you’d enjoy that. Especially the showers. But if you’d prefer not - the answer is in your hands. Give us your co-operation and maybe you get your machine back - and even your reputation. But otherwise -
He only made it to the cubicle in the men’s room an instant before he threw up. He curled against the partition for a good three-quarters of an hour before he stopped shaking enough to go back to his office. Once there, he sat with his head in his hands, his elbows propped on his desk for a long time. When he came to himself he stretched - his hand cold and corpse-like - for the cool Bakelite of the telephone handset. He dialled a number, and, as if from half a world away, he heard the confused jumble as he was put through to a defensive switchboard operator.
“Yes,” he breathed into the receiver. “Yes, I do need to speak to her. In person. As soon as possible.”
Joe was half a world away, and in any event there was no power on earth that would hold up Dex if he had to stand before him and confess that, after all, he had betrayed the Legion unto its enemies through his own weakness.
To prevent that humiliation he was prepared to confront the Devil in person. Or at least, Madam his Hellishness’s personal representative on earth.
“Yes,” he said with unaccustomed tetchiness to the operator. “I said a personal call, and I mean it.”