The lobby of the office that the builder was told to go to was grey and beige. The floors were covered in cheap, threadbare carpeting and the walls were bare and pockmarked with holes from removed nails and pushpins. The whole arrangement seemed somehow staged. It was as if the place had been put together in hasty whirlwind just before for his arrival.
He walked up to a woman in the lobby and gave her his name. She was trim and angular with a manish looking face. “Mr. Wells will see you in a moment.” She said from behind her cheap box assembled desk. “Please have a seat over there.”
Markoff followed the path of her fingertip towards a row of folding chairs that had been stacked in the corner. There sat two of the foreigners that he’d seen praying regularly for the past couple of months in the courtyard at the Taj Mahal. They looked scared and worried.
“Is this seat taken?” He asked walking up to them and pointing at a beat up chair.
“No, not at all.” A man said. He was wearing a heavy Goretex jacket with bulky sleeves over a dress shirt and slacks. On his collar he had an ID tag from NASA.
The builder eased into the chair and pointed at the badge. “Do you work at the space center?” He asked.
The man looked at him with wide eyes. “Is this part of the questioning?”
“I’m not here to ask any questions.” Markoff answered. “I’m here to meet Mr. Wells.”
The foreigner nodded. “Same here, as well.” He said curtly. Then, motioning towards the ID he added. “I work at the Johnson Space Center yes. I was called out here to answer some questions by a man who called me at my desk. I’m doing very important work and I have no time for this.”
“What sort of work do you do?”
The man gave him a serious look. “I study the chemical composite of interstellar geographical objects.”
The foreigner nodded.
“Is the world going to end?” The builder asked.
“I cannot tell.” The man replied. “Everything that is known about that matter makes it too difficult to tell.”
“Why not?” The builder asked a little perturbed by the man’s response. “Don’t you guys get paid to track these damned things?”
“They’re slamming around against each other all the time.” The man said defensively. “You can track one but then it hits another and then it hits another and then it hits another until the whole thing becomes an impossible mess. This is why we’ve had a year of these horrible impacts. The rocks are so spread out that it is an unattainable hope to think that our planet to avoid them all.”
“I’m not asking about all of them.” The builder shot back. “I just want to know about the big one.”
The man blinked. “What big one?”
Markoff shifted his weight in the chair, leaning forward. “You’ve got men with machine guns walking around outside of the space center.”
“I’ve never seen them.” The man said.
“They were on the news.” The builder argued. “The presidents going to be shot up to the International Space Station any day now.”
“I’m sorry but that is completely outlandish.”
“You just told me that you couldn’t tell if the world would end.”
“I was speaking of the drastic change in temperatures.” The man explained.
The foreigner sighed. “The earth’s rotation and orbit has been upset. We can only hope that the sun’s gravity will pull us back into place.”
“We end up like the dinosaurs.” The man answered soberly.
Markoff sat there giving the foreigner a long steady look as the woman at the desk typed away on her oversized laptop. The sound of her fingers hitting the keys seemed like grains of sand hitting the bottom of an hour glass. The silence between them stretched into years.
“We have met me before my friend.” The man nodded.
“You pray at my shopping center.”
“Yes and your wife introduced us as well.”
The man smiled. “I believe it was at the town hall for the meteor.” He said. “I was late because my dog was feeling ill.”
The builder nodded. “You sat next to us.”
“Indeed I did.” The man continued. “You asked me if we had been looking for a meteor at your shopping center and I told you that it was my assumption that one had indeed struck at that location.”
“You were wrong.”
“Perhaps.” The Indian agreed. “There is still so much that is confusing about that event.”
As far as the builder knew, the whole thing had already been settled. The New Years Day meteor had fallen in a field. The origin of fire at the Taj Mahal was never officially settled but it had been written off as an act of God and not as faulty wiring or a rock falling from outer space.
Seeing his confusion, the man continued. “There was something there.”
“I cannot explain it.” He answered throwing up his hands. “It was a background noise in the readings that we took from the ashes that we gathered. They were odd. It seemed like something that you would expect to see in matter from space, not hear on earth.”
“Radiation?” The builder asked.
“No.” The Indian said shaking his head. “I would not pray in the presence of radiation. It is a terrible energy that is not conductive towards the speaking with God.”
“The general God.” The man answered. “We all talk to our own Gods.”
The builder regarded him. “I thought that you guys were praying to Allah.”
“Some of us, yes.” He nodded.
“What God do you pray to?”
“I pray to the Christian God.” The man answered. “Before coming to this country I prayed to Vishnu but all that changed as soon as I became integrated into your culture.”
“We don’t pray in shopping centers.” Markoff said dubiously.
“She is the All-Pervading essence of all things.”
“That sounds pretty good.” The builder laughed. “Why switch?”
The man’s face screwed up into a pained expression. “It is difficult to pay tribute to a God who governs the entire Universe and originates all of the elements within it.” He said. “I have a dog and a girlfriend. I own a house and I have a stainless steel barbeque grill in my backyard. I once charged an expensive television onto a credit card that was given to me when I got my job. Things lose order with the way that we live here in this country.”
The builder accepted his answer. “Okay.” He sighed. “So if it wasn’t radiation that you found in the Taj Mahal then what was it?”
The Indian looked at him long and hard before answering. There was a twinkle in his eyes. “It was a lack of gravity.” He whispered flashing a quick smile at the intrigue of his statement.
Markoff was unsure if he’d heard the man correctly. “A what?” He asked in stunned disbelief.
“People are lighter in your shopping center.” The man continued. “I do not know if it was this way prior to the fire that occurred there but currently everything seems to weigh less when you step into that courtyard.”
They sat there hunched together as the Indian let the information sink in. The other foreigner sat in his chair reading a magazine. The receptionist pecked away at her keyboard. Tiny little nuggets of sand spiraled through the funnel of the hourglass hitting the bottom with each little tick that her fingers produced.
“This is not something that I have known to occur anywhere else on earth.” He continued after a moment. “It is simply phenomenal. There is simply nothing like it. We have known about fluctuations in the planets gravitational pull for some time but not one that swings with such a drastic measure as the one in your mall.”
“What would cause that?” Markoff asked.
The man leaned back in his chair. “The country that I am from has one percent less gravity than the rest of the earth.” He explained. “This is due to the extremely low elevation of the coast of India when placed next to the tremendous height of the Himalayan Mountains. The area where we pray in the Taj Mahal seems to be even greater than that and no one can explain why.”
“How much greater?”
“Six percent.” The man answered giving the builder a curt bob of his head. “This is why we find the place so spiritual. It allows our souls to escape the confines of the earth.”
Markoff squinted. “I thought you were scientists.”
“Then what does the gravity in my shopping center have to do with people’s souls?” He asked.
“Nothing.” The man responded. “Perhaps it is only because we at NASA know about the reduction in the pull of the earth but to us it feels like a place to worship.”
“It’s a place to shop.” The builder quipped.
“They are the same thing.”
Suddenly the phone on the woman’s desk rang, giving off a shrill desperate sound which caused them all to turn in her direction. Even the dark-skinned man who had been reading the magazine looked up. They watched her as she nodded into the reciever before placing it back in its battered cradle.
“Mr. Wells will see you now.” She said eyeing the builder.
Markoff rose to his feet. His stomach felt light and flutter, as if it were filled with butterflies. He didn’t know what to expect.
“Sanjay.” The builder said turning to the foreigner.
“Yes.” The man answered looking up.
“That’s your name.” Markoff nodded. “I just remembered it.”