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At the Research Station

By Alan GoldPublished 6 months ago Updated 6 months ago 8 min read
Based on a photo by Markus Spiske,

Kasparov turned away from the blue glow of his screen when he sensed Ballantine lingering in the doorway.

"What's that?" Kasparov asked, standing up and stretching, a little relieved for the diversion.

"A package."

"I can see that." He laced his fingers and cracked his knuckles extravagantly. As usual, he let out a big sigh as he did this, as if the sound had broken a seal to relieve the air pressure deep inside Kasparov. "Where's it from?"

"It was just sitting there when I looked out to see if it was going to rain." Ballantine shrugged.

Kasparov always teased him about his obsession with the weather, but this time he let it slide. "Why didn't the doorbell go off?"

Ballantine looked up and cocked his head, considering the possibilities. "The drone must have come in low enough to avoid tripping the doorbell."

"Why even have a doorbell that shoddy?"

Ballantine hated conflict, so he found himself defending the doorbell. "The sensor filters out low movement, so we don't get a lot of false positives, like if a dog comes to the door."

Kasparov snorted. "Why in hell would a dog come here?"

"I don't know. I'm just telling you how the system works."

Ballantine looked around and set the box on the counter of the kitchenette. It was a perfect cube, tightly wrapped in plain brown paper without any apparent seams.

Kasparov came over and ran his hand along an edge, frowning, as if he expected his fingers to turn up dust. "Who's it for?"

"I don't know." Ballantine turned the box over and pointed to a label that was beginning to peel itself free. "There's some kind of splatter code, but I can't read it."

"Give it to me." Kasparov took over and tried scanning it with three or four different apps, but came up with nothing. "It must be for Melker."

"How do you know that?"

Kasparov shook his head and frowned. "You're not expecting anything, are you?"


"And I'm not expecting anything. So it must be for Melker, and he's in the field."

"He said he'd be back Friday."

"Sunday," Kasparov corrected him. "But you know how he is once he's in the field. Always looking for an excuse to stay a little longer."

"You'd think he doesn't like us," Ballantine said. "Give me the box."

He took the package and placed it back on the counter deliberately, so it was perfectly centered, all lines trued up to the laminate. "We'd better get back to work."

Kasparov mussed his eyebrows to make the hairs bush out in every wild direction. He planted his feet apart so his legs made a sharp triangle, and knotted his fists against his love handles. "What have you got to show for your time, Ballantine?" he barked in a perfect Melker imitation that cracked them both up.

They sat at their desks, going over the numbers on their screens. Normally, one of them would get up every hour or so, look over the other's shoulder for a few moments, then fall back to his own desk. The little breaks were more about keeping the circulation going than checking each other's work.

So Kasparov glanced behind him when he heard Ballantine get up without coming over to nod at Kasparov's screen.

Ballantine stood at the counter, caressing the edges of the package. "I don't see how they wrapped this without any seams or openings in the paper," he said. "It's like the thing was vacuum-sealed in brown paper…"

He picked the box up, tipped it this way and that, and shook it next to his ear.

"The weight is evenly distributed," he announced. "Nothing moves when you shake it."

Kasparov swiveled around in his chair. "You're like a kid who can't wait for Christmas," he said. "Why don't you just open it?"

"You said it was for Melker. He'd kill me. Most likely, he'd kill you, too."

But when Kasparov took a break an hour later, he, too, went over to the counter. He picked up the package and sniffed it. "Smells like paper," he said.

They retreated to their screens for a few more hours. Late in the day, something made both of them cock their heads.

"What?" Kasparov asked.

"I didn't say anything. I thought it was you."

"What was me?"

"That noise. It sounded like…" Ballantine trailed off when he couldn't come up with a description.

"Like what?"

Ballantine shook his head, irritated. "Forget it. Just forget I said anything."

Kasparov gave a little snort, or maybe it was a sniff. Ballantine couldn't say for sure which it was, but, either way, it sounded dismissive.

"Just forget it, jerkwad."

Ballantine, who often struggled to sleep, drifted off that night as soon as his head hit the pillow. Sometime, still hours before dawn, he bolted upright with the realization that the package might be a bomb.

He reached the counter in a few bounds, then stood there hesitating as his hands cupped the air around the box, looking for the safest way to lift it. He held his breath as he shuffled to the door, like a man balancing a tray of drinks on his head.

With his right arm, Ballantine tucked the box against his chest as he reached out to open the door with his left. He winced as the hinges creaked.

Outside, snow swirled beyond the porch, but nothing stuck to the ground. He looked up and saw a bright, white light almost directly overhead. His first thought was that the drone had come back, that it was all a crazy mistake and the drone would retrieve the package and they could wipe the slate clean.

But what if it really was Melker's package? There would be hell to pay if he gave it up so easily.

"Shut the damn door!" Kasparov shouted, crossing the room in his underwear to see what was going on.

Ballantine slammed the door and fell back against it, as if he thought the drone would try to smash its way in. His breath came in chunks as the package rose and fell against his rib cage.

"Were you born in a barn?" Kasparov asked, screwing up his eyes. "It's cold as hell out there."

Ballantine nodded and got a grip on himself. "I must have been dreaming. I thought the package was a bomb."

"Who would want to blow you up?"

"Well, it's Melker's package, isn't it?"

"You've got a point." Kasparov couldn't help but laugh. "You've got a good point there."

They both slept fitfully after that, until Ballantine got up at the usual time. It was his turn to make breakfast. He cracked an extra egg, but used only the white, pouring the yolk back and forth in the half-shell to separate it.

"Eggs are up," he called, loud enough for Kasparov to hear through the bathroom door.

The bigger man came in after a moment and started on his plate.

"Good eggs," he said, as he lifted the fork a second time.

"It's the Tabasco," Ballantine said idly. Perhaps he still held out some hope that Kasparov's cooking might improve before their tour ended.

Kasparov filled his mouth and contemplated the cupboard doors, as if he were looking at something that might be very interesting, but it was still too far away to be sure.

"When did you say Melker would be back?"

"I thought he was coming Friday, but you said it was Sunday."

"That's right," Kasparov nodded. "We've got a lot to do before then."

Ballantine rinsed the dishes, and both men booted their screens. About an hour into it, Kasparov cracked his knuckles and hovered over Ballantine's shoulder. "I think we're going to run out of time," he said, and his voice sounded a little bit tight.

"The numbers won't come any faster than they come," Ballantine protested. "There's nothing I can do about it."

"I wasn't saying that." Kasparov patted Ballantine's shoulder, causing him to lift off his chair. "I'm just telling you how it is."

Ballantine tapped the pause key and they both looked at each other for a long moment.

"I'm thinking maybe we should just give the package a rest until Melker gets back."

"Maybe so," Ballantine said, sinking back into his seat.

"It's just a distraction." Kasparov started back to his desk, but then he stopped. "Maybe I'll put it in the closet," he decided.

"Good idea," Ballantine said, releasing the pause on his screen.

A moment passed.

"Where is it?"

"Where is what?" Ballantine was puzzled.

"What do you think? The package!"

"It's on the kitchen counter." Ballantine felt ice in his bowels. "Isn't it?"

He heard cupboard doors slamming and closed his eyes tight.

When he opened them again, he saw Kasparov standing over him.

"So that's that, then," he said.

"Did you find it?"

"No. But if it's not here, it won't distract us, will it?"

"But it couldn't just disappear."

"It could or it couldn't," Kasparov shrugged, unpausing his screen. "Either way, there's nothing we can do about it, so best get back to work."

When Ballantine turned back to his own screen, he realized the numbers had kept running without him. It took him several minutes to scroll back and find his place.

He wondered what Melker would do when he finally came back. And each time he stretched his legs that day, he thought of a new place to look for the package: the closet, under his bed, under Kasparov's bed, even back on the porch.

But wherever he looked, there was nothing there, which left him with a sense of mystery and dread.


About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insight

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (8)

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  • C. H. Richard6 months ago

    Loved the dynamic between Kasperov and Ballantine! Their banter was iconic for two people stuck together in a remote place ! Well done!

  • SC Wells6 months ago

    Wonderful dialogue and back and forth between Kasparov and Ballantine. I feel that the package has become a sort of Schrödinger's package

  • Heather Hubler6 months ago

    I loved the banter between the two characters and really wanted to keep reading! I need to know what was in the box, lol!! Great writing :)

  • Cathy holmes6 months ago

    Good story. I'm wondering what's coming next.

  • KJ Aartila6 months ago

    Oh, gosh! Intriguing - where's the package? I thought you did well by creating the situation with the back and forth dialogue - the characters came across well. :)

  • Ooooh good one , I hadn't read this so hopefully you have a read

  • Jordan Twiss6 months ago

    I really liked the mystery you built here. You left this on a most tantalizing cliffhanger.

  • Babs Iverson6 months ago

    Wonderful story!!! Loved it💕

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