Even More Casserole

(The holiday season looms. My posting frequency may be erratic through the end of the year. It is so good to be my own boss on this. I will try for something different on the next post. There is such a thing as too much casserole)

The drive took us off the main highway and onto a secondary road until noon.  We were in the heart of farm country and the world suddenly seemed far away.  Mal took a side road for several minutes, coming to a place called Bhrycal Corners, with all of an independent gas station, family restaurant and antique shop to differentiate it from any other country crossroad.  Mal slowed and pulled into the gas station.

“This doesn’t look much like a meeting place,” I observed.

“No,” Mal said, getting out of the car.  “We could use some gas and more food, though.”

The meeting was clearly some time into the future.  I didn’t object.  After gassing the car, Mal parked and insisted we try the local cuisine.  The Quiet Corners Family Restaurant was true to its name, we were the only guests and it was not yet one o’clock.  The menu was limited but Mal found a way to order a feast.  An appetiser of cheesy garlic bread was followed with a hot turkey sandwich and an order of apple pie for desert.  I was hungry enough to order a similar quantity of food.

“It always makes me sad to see places like this,” she said while stirring the sugar into her coffee.  “The people work hard to build a business, even out in the boondocks, and it too often sits empty.  The owners don’t want to make a million dollars, they only want to make a decent living.  Sad.”

Her attempt at chit chat felt forced, awkward.  I didn’t care much for talking when I only wanted to find out more about why I was being called in, and what was wrong with Corbin.  Mal did not take the hint, or chose to ignore it.

“I hope places like this last forever,” Mal went on.  “It’s not fair that they go out of business and fail.  There must be a way to fix that, you know?”

“Places like this tend to fail because they are not properly planned or managed,” I said, anxious for the silence of our car trip.  “I could care less if they make it or not.  Not my problem.”

“Charming,” Mal said, flashing her smile for the first time in a while.  “You should write a motivational column or something.”

“I’m not feeling very chatty,” I grumbled.  “This was not how my day was supposed to go.”

“Ah, yes.  You were supposed to go back to your boss and make a delivery; a worthy use of your skills and responsible contribution to society.  Somehow, I am not bothered about disturbing your day.”

“You can spare me the crap about doing the world a favour,” I said, feeling resentful again.  “I did enough.  All I wanted was a full extraction, and they couldn’t do it, so I left.  It’s a free country, the last time I checked.”

“Then why didn’t you take a labour job?  Or anything other than crime?” Mal rose to the challenge.

“Because labour jobs that pay well don’t exist, and the pension the program offers doesn’t exist,” I shot back.  “And I lost too much time playing secret agent to jump back into a normal life”

“Let me get this straight,” she said, getting more agitated, “you want a pension for ten years of work?  Fuck!  How about a gold watch and a retirement party?  You can’t be that selfish.”

“Oh, but I can.”

“You would be dead if it weren’t for Corbin,” she said, crossing into sensitive territory.  “The only reason you can handle this insane life of yours is because of him, too.  You know how he is, how do you think he feels about your career choice after what he gave you?”

I was pissed off by this point.  “I got over that a while back.  Corbin saved my life, and I can only thank him for it, but I didn’t sign up to be a slave.  I’m not only one to leave the program, either.”  The truth went deeper than this, really, but I just wanted to stop talking about it.  Mal had opposed my leaving from the moment I first mentioned it, before I chose a criminal life.

“Don’t give me that bull shit!” she kept on going.  “Paul became a police officer and Nancy got an office job.”

“Listen, Mal,” I said, working very hard to keep my voice down, “I just don’t give a shit.  I haven’t given a shit for while.  So how about not talking about it?”

Our server saved me from more distress with the prompt arrival of our garlic bread.  I engaged in a brief, and awkward, conversation with the woman.  She was a chubby lady in her early fifties with pleasant features and work-worn hands.  Mal’s earlier point about the plight of little businesses like this hit me, just a little, when I looked at the woman.  She was polite, and friendly, but clearly wanted to leave our table.  Mal was bubbling over, searing anger obvious in her eyes; stoked hotter as I obviously extended a meaningless conversation with our server.

Mal leaned in after the server was out of earshot, looking like pure venom.  “You don’t want to fucking talk?” she hissed.  “Fine.  Then you can save it for the meeting because I’m done talking, too.”

“That’s the best thing you’ve said since you showed up,” I said, not contented to let her off too easily.

“Fuck you,” she responded.

Our meal was very ordinary, other than being too salty.  True to her word, Mal not only stayed quiet but she never once looked at me.  She even told the server that I would be paying.  I had clearly struck a nerve.

The rest of the drive took us into a remote area of southern Ontario; even the farming seemed to peter out.  At one point, it was clear that Mal was doubling back and circling a certain area to check if we were being followed.  Some of the roads we took were hard on the car, not being much better than pairs of ruts in the bush.  The car was a right-off, anyway, as Mal had put out several cigarettes on the dash since lunch.  It was nearly dusk when she finally turned down a particularly rough track.  The overgrown track jostled us in the car, the undercarriage taking a beating as branches scratched the exterior.  Mal drove on with a satisfied look on her face as the car took a beating.  When the bush around us cleared, we were at the edge of cliff.  Mal stopped the car and got out.  I had a bad feeling about her intentions toward the car and got out quickly.  As expected, Mal gave the car a shove over the edge, ending about fifty feet below and into watery grave.

She didn’t even look back as she headed into the surrounding woods.  I had one final temptation to run for it before I followed her in.  She kept a quick pace, not quite jogging, through the woods until we broke into a field dotted with patches of bush.  It felt like an abandoned farm area, dotted with stones, thistles and trees.  In the early twilight, it felt very remote, as if the world outside didn’t exist.

Our path kept us in the direction of a distant barn.  The closer we got, the clearer it was that the place was nearly a ruin.  It was deathly quiet, other than the crickets and occasional bird chirping.  When we were about fifty feet from the barn, Mal slowed her pace and changed her course to circle around.  I followed carefully, it being obvious that we had reached the meeting place.  A complete circle later, we went toward the barn.  The door hung open enough to slip through; the outside twilight just barely illuminating the interior through the damaged roof and walls.  I immediately noted the smells of gun oil, perspiration and fabric.  Years of living a dangerous life made me want to reach for my weapon, which might have been fatal in the company I was meeting with.

A tiny light, the same colour made by fireflies, flashed before us in some unknown, coded pattern.  I was familiar with this type of coded communication, only the code had probably changed many times since I had last used it.  Mal signaled back with a penlight of her own, the firefly colour matching.  We moved forward to what looked like a tent, turning out to be an ancient tractor under a tarp.  Beneath the tractor was a trap door to a cramped basement below.  The basement was only just high enough to stand straight in.  The lights were dim, but I recognised everyone there.  Palmer, Smith, Jarredsson and several others I knew too well.  Good, upstanding members of the program.  In all, there were a dozen of them; I estimated another two or three in the barn above us.  I was acknowledged with a combination of silent nods and a variety of mumbled greetings; none of it felt terribly friendly.

More Casserole

(Just adding a bit more to the last post here. Enjoy)

     I had parked in an alley between a hardware store and a junk shop.  When I reached the car, Mallory was already behind the wheel, smiling mischievously and certainly pleased with herself.

     “Hop in,” she said through the open window, before I could speak, “I’m driving.”

     “Like hell you are,” I snapped.  “Get out.”

     “Listen, Peters,” she said, smirking.  “If you really want to make a scene on a quiet, northern morning, after seriously fucking up a pair of local gangsters, go for it.  Otherwise, I’m driving.”

     She had me, and knew it.  The last thing I could afford was unwanted attention.  Besides, a physical fight between the two of us would be more than noticeable.

     I got in and buckled up, instructing Mal to do the same.  “You already look like a freak,” I told her, “so we won’t be giving the police any more reasons to stop us today.”

     “Fine,” she said, and laughed.  She started the car out of town, driving by Foundation Street.  Two cruisers had already arrived, cherries blazing and sirens silent.

     “They sure took their time,” she commented.

     “For a town like this, they did alright,” I said.  “No gunshots or screaming reported.  They were like lightning.”

     We drove in silence for a while.  Mal kept us heading to the main roads out of town while I nervously tried to appreciate the rural scenery.  I was content to stay quiet; I didn’t want to know why she was here.  Before we reached the last turnoff to the major highway, she pulled into a coffee shop drive thru.

     “We’re barely twenty minutes out of town,” I spoke up.  “This is a bad idea.”

     “I’m hungry now,” Mal said, as if I had not spoken.  “And we were already seen by several people.  You must be peckish, too, unless you stuffed yourself this morning.”

     A dozen doughnuts and two coffees with three sugars were ordered.  Mal smiled at the disinterested clerk like we were out for a Sunday drive.  She hit the highway and set the cruise at one twenty.  She started packing down the doughnuts.

     “Sure you don’t want one?” she asked after the sixth one disappeared.  “They aren’t the best, but I’ve had a lot worse.”

     “I’m fine.  Just keep your eyes on the road.”  The coffee just tasted like sugar.  The calorie value was the only thing that mattered.

     Mallory left two in the box for me.  I would be hungry soon and she knew it.

     “You know,” she continued, sipping her coffee, “if I ever revert to normal I think I’m going to let myself go.  I couldn’t manage a diet if I tried.  Food is just too good, you know, especially the crap stuff.  How could I live on healthy food?”  She paused to light a cigarette.

     “This is a rental,” I spoke harshly.

     She looked at me with a smile, cigarette hanging from her lips.  She took a few insolent puffs before stubbing it out on the dash.  “There,” she challenged.  “Happy now?”

     I rubbed my temples.  I had forgotten how difficult Mal could be when she wanted to.  I settled myself enough to accept two important facts: Mal was here to tell me something and I probably didn’t want to know it.  The rest were details.  The sooner I got this out of the way, the more likely she was to go away.

     “Okay,” I spoke calmly, rubbing the frustration from my temples, “what is it?  Why did you come here?”

     “Long story,” she said, a hint of seriousness creeping in.  “It’s a good thing we have time.  There is a crisis, but not the usual kind.  This one affects us directly.  The timing of it sucks, too, so all the rogues are being called in.”

     “This sounds awfully familiar, Mal.  Am I going to get the usual lines about saving the world and living up to my potential?”  These were the type of lines they fed you, making it feel like a superhero moment when they needed your skills in action.  It was rarely a minor intervention or casual job; high pressure was the intended motivator, as though it were enticing.

     “Except this is the real deal,” Mal answered, a distant look on her face spooking me at the same time.  “I’m not shitting you in any way.”

     “You went through all this trouble,” I said, ready to call her bluff, “so I’ll nibble at the bait.  Let’s hear it.”

     Mal pursed her lips slightly before speaking.  “The Program, our cooperative arrangement with the federal security agencies, and even our own necks are in deep trouble.  Technically, it affects us all, which is why they are calling everyone in.”

     “What kind of threat are we talking about?”

     “I’m not supposed to give you any more than I already have,” Mal sighed.  “Unfortunately, you are as predictable as hell and I know you’ll fight me the whole way if I don’t do better.  So here is the teaser: the government is making moves to eliminate the program and us with it.”

     “That talk was in the wind even before I left,” I countered.  “Corbin has always handled that end, anyway.  You have to do better than that.”

     “Corbin is…”  The word caught in her throat, her tone somber.  “…is not well.”  She popped another cigarette into her mouth and lit it.  This time I said nothing.  She took a long drag and continued.

     “I won’t go into much more detail, Peters.  The information about our elimination came to us accidentally.  There is more to it, of course.  All I can say is that the intelligence we have right now is extremely legit.”

     “What is wrong with Corbin?” I asked abruptly.

“You already know more than you should,” she snapped back.  “Just go with this for once, will you?”

I wasn’t feeling like going back.  It was a part of my life that I remembered too well and despised too much.  Still, Corbin was Corbin.  He was something of a father figure to the members of the program.  In most cases, he had either saved our lives or made them worth living.  It was unlikely that Mal would use his health as a ploy to bring me in, not like this.  I was stuck, and however much I hated it, I knew it.

“Fine,” I said, angrier than intended, “I will go.”


“Where exactly is this meeting?” I asked, more gently.

“Not far, actually,” she said.  “Just enjoy the drive.”

This was not likely to happen.  I had too much to think about to just enjoy a drive to an unknown place, to meet people I would rather avoid and see a man I cared about in a state of illness.  My plans for an easy fortune and a quiet retirement seemed gone already.  What the hell could I do?  Even if I could ditch Mal, with violence or not, neither of which were foregone conclusions, where would I go?  Where could I hide that they wouldn’t find me, eventually?  And then, how would I feel about abandoning Corbin when he might need me?  It was not worth thinking about.  I reclined the seat slightly and reached for the remaining doughnuts.  I had a feeling I would need the calories.

Electric Soul, Part II

Part IPart IIIPart IV

(Near future sci-fi stuff, in case you missed it last time. I was very tempted to break this into more than three parts due to the length. Part I is posted below.)

Director of Operations Office, Regeneratix, 11:20am, Thursday, June 26, 2087

“Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike,” Bert Sanderson said, looking at me from across his rather expansive desk.  “Did you know that I lost a hundred dollars the second you walked through the main doors?  I had a bet going with Wells in accounts that you’d never show your face here, again.”

     Bert had a large office with every modern amenity possible.  It was all flash and display, of course, but that was a reflection of Bert; he was a showy, shallow type who liked his own hype.  He should have been born a peacock; instead, he was the Director of Operations for Regeneratix Canada.  He wasn’t all bad, just mostly.  My earliest dealings with Regeneratix were with Bert’s predecessor, Ralph Darington, who was remarkably similar to Bert, so my connection to him was sort of forced.  I believe he was a junior executive in the company at the time I hooked up with them, but I never clicked with him the same as I did with Ralph, who was a little less annoying.  Anyway, Bert could be colourful, at the best of times, but our relations had grown strained and broken.  The odd message he would send seemed to seethe with aggressive language and accusation; what made it worse was that he only knew half of my wrongdoings.

     I was distracted by the movement of fish in the wall-sized tank behind him.  They were all recovery creatures, used as a showcase for the healing technology of the future that was Regeneratix’s stock and trade.  What I was working on for them represented an attempt to break into a different area, and I expected they were disappointed.

     “Well, I figured it was overdue,” I said, hoping that I would be better off cutting the crap and getting straight to business.  “I have something to run by you.  I think you’ll approve.”

     “Really?” Bert laughed.  “A thousand messages, mailings and attempted visits later, and you have something to run by me?  Well, this should be pretty damn good, Mikey.  I’m almost thinking I should have a few drinks first, but I might die of old age before I hear your voice, again.  So lay it on, I’m a captive audience.”

     “Okay,” I continued on, without responding to his bull.  “The project has had several hiccups along the way, as you know, but I’m almost at the point of wrapping it up.  The early results threw me off, but I’ve isolated all the issues and dealt with them.  I know I’ve told you this before, so I won’t go over the details.”

     “Whoa there!” Bert chirped up suddenly.  “I just want to cut you off for a second, in case you’re about to waste our time here.  Everything you’re about to run by me, just now, is it going to answer this question: do you, or do you not, have a fully operational bio-processor that comes anywhere close to the specifications in our original designs?  That’s easy, right?  You’re a smart guy, so just answer me that question.”

     Stupid bastard, I thought.  I wanted to bounce his smug face off his giant desk, but I had years of experience in keeping my cool through stuff like this.  “The short answer is yes.  Would you like me to go on?”

     “That’s great news!” he piped up with more mock enthusiasm.  “So, before you go on, do you have test results?  Maybe we could go see them together?  I’m sure I could find a brainiac or two who would ride shotgun.  Whatchya say to that?”

     “I would say that in October, I will be happy to do that.”

     “Oh, now it’s October,” he jumped in again.  “Well, that’s great.  Here I was thinking it would be next year.  I guess your predictions are getting tighter, at least.”

     “I’m willing to go a step further, if you want to hear it.”

     He was interested, even if he was suspicious as hell.  I felt slightly better.  If I had his interest at this point, even slightly, then he wouldn’t be able to say no to the juicy little offer I was going to pitch.  He wouldn’t say no because the offer was too good to be true, and it was.  The reality was that someone needed to be screwed in this equation, and I didn’t have the heart to throw the university under the bus.  Greedy, corporate pukes like Bert were simply part of a money machine that only cared about the bottom line.  Where I was at, it really was just a detail that mattered less and less; all I needed was to be left alone until the end of October.

     “I do want to hear it,” he growled.  “But first, I want you to hear something.  This fucking project of yours has been a massive pain in the ass.  It’s been an embarrassment for too long.  I won’t go over the fun and excitement we’ve had since you shut us out, because I’m sure you have a good idea.  What you might not have as good an idea about is the flurry of activity in our legal department.  We actually have an amazing case, right now, but the legal guys want it rock solid.  They want it rock solid because I threatened to cut their fucking balls off if we didn’t have your head on a platter when the dust settled.  You see where this is going?”

     “Yeah, I follow,” I said, “and I know you’re pissed.  I don’t blame you.  But I have something for your legal department.  If you like, I can just present it directly to your legal monkeys.”

     “What, and miss the chance to have the first look at it?  No chance.  Hand it over.”  I gave him the pack of papers.  I had them drawn up about a year before, for a situation just like this, when my back was to the wall.  After Morgan dropped by, I knew what I had to do and got my attorney on it.  Rolly Paluamalau was an old buddy from before my own university days.  He was an odd duck, but he was an amazing lawyer and had my stuff ready in two days.  I couldn’t have made it as far as I did without that guy.

     “It’s fairly involved, but the short version is that you get full rights to all of my findings and work, including the final product, and I will leave up an offer to work for you that is damn near slavery.”

     Bert was quicker than I had thought; he had already covered the document while listening to me.  “Mikey, Mikey,” he said, returning to pure sarcasm, “you sure like to sweeten a deal, I’ll give you that.  Tell me, though, where did you get a figure like two hundred thousand a year from?”

     “Easy, really.  I did a little looking, and it seems the going rate for someone of my qualifications is around eight hundred thousand.  So, I did some more looking and found out that if you factor in the damage I’ve done to my reputation in the last few years, assuming my work falls short, I’m still worth about four.  So, I work another twenty years and Regeneratix recoups a few million.”

     “Getting a few million back over a few years…I dunno, Mikey,” he said, wheels turning just below the outward veneer.  “That falls a little short of the mark, in case you haven’t kept track.”

     “I thought of that,” I wound up for the whammy, now.  If this didn’t get me until November, nothing would.  “I also thought about the alternatives.  If the project falls flat, not that it will, but if it does, the university will get their equipment back.  The court might tie up access for a while, but Regeneratix won’t keep it, and I think you know that already.  There’s no point in working your legal team to death over a lost cause.  In that case, you sue me and get next to nothing because I have drained my personal finances into my work.  If you push me too hard, I promise my notes and whatnot will be posted on public domain networks the same day.  I would be happy to do time for that, too.  So that’s scenario one.”

     I took a quick breath, surprised that the smartass hadn’t interrupted.  “The second scenario is that my work is a wild success.  Regeneratix instantly becomes the world leader in bio-computation.  I know my competition, Bert, and they’re so far behind me it’s not even funny.  Your only concern, at that point, is keeping out of a monopoly suit.  The university won’t care much about the academic loss, as long as they get their equipment back, free and clear.  That’s the good scenario.”

     “So you’re suggesting I take your word that you’ll soften our losses with a long service.  Is that right?  Why should I trust you?”

     “Bert,” I asked, “what choice do we have?  I’m offering Regeneratix a contractual guarantee that softens the blow, which is a hell of a lot better than getting nothing.  In that case, I’d be perfectly happy to have the job, even for that pay.  I know I’ve stalled for a long time, and you have no reason to trust me, but this is a contractual deal that puts a time limit down.  I’ve put it in writing, this time.”

     The wheels were turning and Bert was hooked.  He would never give me the satisfaction of an answer on the spot, so I rose to leave.

     “You know I have to run this by legal?” he asked.

     “Yes,” I said, “but you know the offer, so it’s up to you.  I’ve already signed your copy, and left a registered copy with my lawyer.  If you decide to go ahead, contact him.”

     “I’m still trying to think of a good reason why I shouldn’t just shut you down and take a chance that legal gets a piece of the equipment.  You got any contracts to cover that?”

     “No,” I responded gently, “but you’d lose the chance to soften the loss or win big, if I strike gold.  You finally have my deadline in black and white, Bert.  I have nothing left to offer you.”  And that was essentially true.  I walked out of his office knowing I had him and knowing Regeneratix Canada’s legal crew wouldn’t be going home early.


The Lab, 2:11pm, Friday, June 27, 2087

Rolly called in the middle of a tissue scan.  Most calls never came through to the lab, but I had programmed a chosen few into the system that would alert me.  It was a bitch to interrupt the scan; however, things were in the balance and I couldn’t afford to let the call pass.  Rolly was an awesome guy, who I owed a million times over.

     “Hey, Rolly, how are things?”

     “Very, very strange, my genius friend, very strange indeed,” Rolly boomed back with that giant, Polynesian voice of his.  “You sure get into business with some strange people.”

Rolly was one of those people who are always happy, no matter what.  You could see it on his face and posture, and really couldn’t help but hear it in his voice; my phone system was automatically programmed to drop the incoming volume a little from Rolly’s number.  I first met him at a party in Aurora that had spilled over from a pre-university mixer.  Rolly is as big as his voice and didn’t need any help taking care of himself.  At the time, I wondered if he weren’t on a football scholarship or something.  Anyway, some drunken guy, who was almost as big as Rolly, knocks him over from behind and makes a slurred racial comment, hoping for a supportive laugh from the crowd.  I had been chatting with a group of people, including Rolly, when this happened.  I was drunk, and my need for immediate justice high, so I suckered the drunken guy; and by some miracle, knocked him flat.  If I threw that punch a million times I probably wouldn’t have scratched him, but that night he dropped.  Rolly never, ever forgot that night and we have remained friends, ever since.  He passed his bar and worked for a few firms over the years before opening his own office.  He charged me next to nothing and didn’t care that I took forever to pay.  All for one drunken punch in his defense.

     “Very true, Rolly,” I laughed back.  “Lately, it seems to be getting worse.”

     “Well, I can’t help you with that part, Mike, but I can’t chit chat too much.  I’ve got one of your strange people on the other line, right now.  Some guy named Bert, sounds like a jackass.  Anyway, he says he’s ready to go with your deal, but he has to talk to you right now, or it’s no dice.”

     “That’s strange,” I pondered.  “Do you think there’s a legal angle to it, like recording my verbal agreement or something?”

     “It wouldn’t mean anything if he did,” Rolly said.  “Sounds more like he’s got something personal to say.  I tried to put him off but I can tell you he won’t sign without some chit chat.  It’s your call on this.  There is no legal harm, either way.”

     “All right, Rolly, put him through then,” I said, trying to switch gears from science to Bert.

     “Okay, Mike,” Rolly said, “Call me back if you want, I’m around for a few more hours.”

     The line switched over to Regeneratix.  “Hi Bert, what can I do for you?”

     “You could tell me you’ve figured out how to change lead into gold,” he opened sarcastically, “or maybe found the meaning of life.  Right now I’ll settle for your word on something.”

     This was strange.  I had abused and abased my word for a while now, so I couldn’t figure out where he was going, or why he cared.  Bert was too sly to take my word, anymore.

     “All right, Bert, what is it?”

     “I’m ready to go ahead with your offer.  I’ve got enough support from the board to move forward, even though it feels wrong.  I’m the only guy left to kibosh this thing, and I’ll kibosh the fuck out of it if I don’t get your word on something.”

     “Okay, go ahead.”

     “It’s going to work, right?” he asked.  “When you’re done, you’ll plug it in and it’ll work.  I have your word on that?”

     “This project has gone on for about ten years, Bert,” I said, sounding more tired than I intended, “I can’t remember the last time I took a full day off.  My social life doesn’t exist.  I’m broke and my academic career is a wreck.  I didn’t do that to myself for a maybe.  Bert, you wanted my word that it will work out, now you’ve got it.”


The Lab, 9:14am, Monday, June 30, 2087

“Good morning, Morgan,” I was positively beaming into the vid-phone.  I felt good, even though I was being rushed to complete the project of my life.  I had bought off Regeneratix with a meaningless offer and I had a goal, a real deadline; it was the first, real deadline in a long time.  I was happy to have avoided losing it all right away, which was almost the case.

     The weekend was comprised of several tests and retests, before breaking down a condensed schedule into roughly fourteen weeks.  It would be tough sledding, but I allowed for almost a week of buffer.  Barring the worst, I would be ready to initiate the final experiment on schedule.  I could have called just about any science grunt in my field to help me with the final run, maybe even have automated it, but I preferred Morgan’s good judgement and experience; besides, I couldn’t necessarily trust anyone else.

     “Hi Mike.  Long time, no see,” Morgan was smiling, too.

     “How does your October look, again?” I asked.

     “Pretty busy, but what did you have in mind?”

     “The third week of it,” I said, taking a sip of coffee.  Even the coffee seemed to taste better than usual.  It was definitely a good day.

     Mike looked a little shocked and set his scheduler to vertical display, flipping the screen ahead to October.  A myriad of notes dotted the days on the display.  He had a full schedule.  “Give me a second, here…” he mumbled as he scanned through his appointments.

     “Listen, Morgan, if it helps at all, I don’t actually need you for the full week.  I just need you available during that week.  I won’t need you for more than a day.  Two, at the most.”

     “I see,” he said.  “That doesn’t entirely help, but I do have some flexibility.  I can put off some of this, and probably get away with cancelling a thing or two.  How much notice will you give me?”

     “Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure.  Let’s just say a maximum of a day, unless I’m ahead of schedule.  I’ll have a better idea in early October.”

     “The best I can do,” Morgan offered, “is forty-eight hours notice, unless you can give me more time.  It’s a busy stretch.”

     “Okay, forty-eight hours will do fine,” I said.  “I’ll try to keep you in the loop as things progress.  Thanks, Morgan.”

     Morgan made a quick series of notes on his schedule as he spoke.  “No problem, Mike.  I’m sure it will be interesting.  I’d chat more, but I’m about to give a tour to some undergrads-to-be.”

     “Yikes, how did you get roped into that?”

     No lectures in a long time means I have to do crap like that, now and then,” Morgan sighed.  “My alternative was to review the chemical storage inventory, so I chose the three hour tour, instead.”

     “Good call, Morgan, and thanks again.  I’ll be in touch.”


The Lab, 11:08pm, August 27, 2087

     “Hello?” I mumbled into the phone.

     “Is this Doctor Michael Hawlorne?” a cold, flat voice responded.  I had been sleeping when the call came through.  My phone didn’t alert me unless it was a call from a preset list, so I was surprised I didn’t recognise the voice; the bigger surprise was the use of Doctor as my title, because nobody called me that.  Phone hacks were still possible, and this smelled like one.

     “I think you have the wrong number, mister,” I said, still a bit muddled.

     “Dr. Hawlorne,” the caller went on without acknowledging, “you probably don’t know who I am, but I suspect you know the group I represent.”  It was one of those psychos from PureLife, I could just tell.  No one else opened up with creepy shit like that.  I was a little dozy, so I didn’t hang up right away.  “I realise that previous contact from PureLife may have been threatening or peculiar, by your standards.  I must apologise for their behaviour.  Things have changed, and I thought I should discuss that with you.”

     “Did you know this was a secure line?” I asked.  “And did you realise it’s eleven o’clock?”

     “You are correct on both counts,” the crazy voice went on, “and I hope you understand the nature and timing is not my preference, but you are difficult to reach and I felt the need to give you an update on how PureLife will behave in the future.”

     “Awesome,” I blurted out, perhaps too rudely.

     “Dr. Hawlorne, your work with bodily tissues remains a transgression in our eyes.  That fact has stayed the same.  What has changed is our approach to dealing with it.  Your laboratory cannot be permitted to continue with the blasphemy of the flesh, but I felt it was best to warn you of our action plan.  Our intent is to punish the sin and not the sinner.”

     “Punish?” I replied, awake enough to be pissed off and too dopey to hang up.  “This might just be the weirdest threat yet.  I thought you said things have changed?  Sounds like they’ve got worse.”

     “On the contrary, Dr. Hawlorne.  For now, I will be brief.  You have until the end of September to close down your lab or we will take physical action against it.  It was important you be warned so you could save yourself from harm.”

     “The end of September, eh?” I was about to add another name to my fuck you pile.  More than any of the rest, even the money whores at Regeneratix, the band of PureLife shitheads had it coming.  “Seeing how you’re being reasonable and all, what if I made you a deal?  Something that would help us both, perhaps?  Or are you just like your predecessors, really?”

     There was a pause.  The self-assured, self-righteous dick was off balance for the first time in the conversation.  I’m sure that my speaking to him, almost respectfully, was unexpected.  Some of these protesting types got it into their head that they were going to be reasonable, honourable or decent, unlike their previous leaders.  If I was lucky, I could shame this one into a deal.  The pause grew awkward.

     “All right, Doctor Hawlorne,” he finally spoke up, “I will hear your proposal.”

     “You are clearly in charge of things, so you understand what deadlines and other obligations are like, right?”

     “I’m not sure I follow the general line of thought, but I understand.”

     “Good,” I went on, “that’s the first thing you need to follow.  Are you familiar with my connection to Regeneratix?”

     “I am.”

     “Okay, then I’ll explain it all,” I said.  “Regeneratix has been pushing me to get my work done too soon.  They are threatening to put someone else in charge.  What’s worse for your cause is they have been pushing me to take a far less ethical approach.  My work is generally against your beliefs, I know, but if you knew what Regeneratix was planning, you might be happier with me than a Regeneratix replacement.”

     “You are not making sense, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     “Sorry, I can be longwinded,” I apologised.  “What I’m trying to say is that Regeneratix has ticked me off.  They are giving me unrealistic deadlines and pressing me toward unsavoury uses of the project.  If you’ve read my paper on bio-ethics, you’ll understand my view of things.”  He probably hadn’t read anything I’d published, including the paper on bio-ethics, but it always threw a wrench into their thinking.

     “Please get to the point, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     “Here’s my side of the offer,” I said.  “I will make sure my current research doesn’t find its way into military or other hands.  I will also provide you a complete list of the projects in the Regeneratix database, including the locations and contacts for all of them.  I’m not happy with some of their work, so I can only imagine the outrage you will feel.”

     A slight moment of hesitation; fishy had taken the hook.  “An interesting offer, but what is it that I can offer you for that information?”

     “A small reprieve would be enough, one that would be helpful to you, anyway.  Leave me and my lab alone until November.  That’s the Regeneratix deadline.  If I don’t get the project done, the next guy will be less scrupulous.  You wanted to stop me at the end of September, and all I’m asking is for another month.  That month will get you the naughty and nice list from Regeneratix, if you’re interested.”

     Another pause.  “Give me a moment, Doctor Hawlorne.”  Consulting with his fellow nutcases, no doubt.  It didn’t matter much, either way.  PureLife had threatened action before and was sure to do so again.  It would be nice to screw them over, though; a firm kick in the teeth for all the love and affection over the years.

     “Doctor Hawlorne,” Captain PureLife came back, “what assurance do you offer for your side of this…bargain?”

     “How about this?” I said, feeling giddy inside.  “You give me a call on the first of October, perhaps at a more reasonable hour.  If my lab is still running, I will send you one location and project that you don’t currently know about.  How does that sound?”

     There was no hesitation, this time.  “I look forward to speaking with you on October first, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     So will I, I thought, so will I.


Old Henry’s Pub ‘n’ Grub, 8:31pm, October 19, 2087

“Mike, is there any particular reason why you’ve chosen this…place?” Morgan was laughing.

     “There is, Morgan,” I replied cheerfully.  “It was the last place I could remember going out to eat before I went into my little seclusion.  I admit it has lost some of the charm I remembered, but the beer is still cheap and the ambiance, well…”

     Morgan and I looked over the place.  Of course, I had already been there for ten minutes, but the second look was amusing.  The place was one of those originally a sports bar turned family restaurant turned karaoke bar turned cookie cutter franchise bar turned pseudo-authentic pub kind of places; and it had seen better days.  Most of the tables had been carved into with all the eloquence of a typical, knife-wielding patron.  Luckily, I had found a spot in the corner with a less mutilated table and balanced chairs.  The lighting was fairly low, probably hiding certain failings from the cleanup crew.  The walls had been painted a burgundy colour with a line of wooden trim about halfway up.  The bar had a matching set of brass rails along the top edge and foot rest.  The mirrored wall behind the bar, sporting innumerable types of alcohol, had lost a bit of shine from years of cleaning.  A couple of illuminated beer advertisements cut through the dim haze of synthetic tobacco smoke.  Some of the patrons looked like the type to rob you on the street.

     “It’s not the nicest place,” Morgan said, testing his chair before sitting down.

     “Yeah, I guess so.  Did you want to go somewhere else?”

     “No,” he said, smiling, “I’m probably overdue for a place like this.”

     The waitress had made her way over, and I hoped she hadn’t listened to our conversation.  She was a cute, young blonde with a bit too much makeup and a provocative outfit; late October seemed a bit cold for a short skirt and tight tee shirt.  A girl like that was clearly aware of how gratuities worked.  She was easy on the eyes, but I couldn’t help noticing the crooked nose.  It looked like it had been broken.

     “Can I getchya somethin’, honey?” she asked Morgan, barely a second after he was seated.

     Morgan took a quick look her way, and I could tell he noticed the nose, too.  “I’ll, uh…have one of those,” he said, pointing to my beer.

     “You got it, darlin.’” she said in her perky little voice.  She was pleasant to look at as she walked back to the bar.  Broken nose and all, I found her attractive in a fleeting, meaningless way.  Too much time in a lab, I guess.

     “What the hell are you drinking, exactly?” Morgan whispered.

     “I believe she called it Jagerhundt,” I said, trying to pronounce the name in German.  “I just asked for the best stuff they had and she brought me this.  It’s actually pretty good, but I’m not much of a judge.  This is my first alcoholic beverage in…shit, it must be three years.”

     “That’s quite an endorsement; you should have gone into marketing.”

     “And it’s a good thing you stayed out of comedy,” I said, trying hard not to watch the waitress returning.

     “There y’are,” she declared with a wink, “I think you’ll like it.”  I didn’t even bother trying not to watch her leave.  Morgan stayed quiet as I watched her go.

     “I have to admit I’m really excited,” he said.  “Whatever you’ve been working on must be amazing.”

     “It is, Morgan.  I’m also excited, and the final test has yet to be conducted.  Even if it fails, I regret nothing; the advances I’ve made will be passed along.”

     “You make it sound like you’re ninety, Mike,” Morgan sipped his beer, his face still deciding if he liked it.  “I know your career is in a pinch, but you have lots of time to recover.  And maybe a fresh start will is just what you need.”

     I couldn’t tell him yet, so I smiled and drank.  I knew I would have to be a little careful with how I worded things until I aired it all out.  “I suppose.”

     “So, while we’re on the topic of work, what is it you need me to do?” he inquired.

     “Not a lot, really,” I explained.  “Mostly, I need you to observe and record.  Depending on how the test progresses, I might need you to monitor some of the equipment and make minor adjustments to the settings.  It will be straightforward.”

     “Very mysterious, Mike,” he chuckled.  “How long will the test take?”

     “That’s completely open-ended.  If the experiment goes poorly at the beginning, we will be finished very early, like an hour or less.  If the experiment is a wild success, we will be tied up for the whole day, and possibly beyond.  Don’t worry, though, I will try to have you home for supper.”

     “That’s okay, Mike,” Morgan assured me, “you have me for all of tomorrow, even through supper.  My schedule has been easier to rearrange that I thought.”

     “Oh, how’s that?” I asked, even though I had suspicions of why.

     “Well, you remember that Chinese lab that was driving me forward?  It turns out they were doing work, very unofficially, for none other than your precious Regeneratix.  Nobody would have known, except that those PureLifers got wind of it and burned the place down.  So it’s not that I’m coasting, but the immediate pressure is off.”

     “That’s good news,” I said, hiding my smile by taking a slug of beer.  “Those PureLife types must have good sources.  You are probably the only one doing meaningful research in that specific area.”

     “Basically, yes, but to change the subject, why have you asked me here tonight?  I thought we’d be reviewing some notes or covering my side of things for tomorrow.  Now you’re telling me I’m mostly observing.  What’s really going on here?”

     Morgan was a shrewd cookie; he already suspected there was more to my research.

     “I need to leave a couple of things with you, Morgan,” I said.  “Before I go too far, I also need you to sign this for me.  There’s nothing freaky about it, just something to cover my bases, down the road.”  I handed the envelope to him.

     “Hard copy.  Very official.”  Mike pulled out the contents and squinted his way through reading them over in the poor light.

     “The nondisclosure thing is legal crap for Regeneratix, really.  Because you’re not a permanent employee of the lab, I need you to sign it.  It covers me against another of the million pieces of legal shrapnel I’ll have to dodge.  The other paper authorises you to deal with my lawyer, in case of emergency.”

     “Emergency?” he raised an eyebrow.  “Like what, the sky falling?”

     “Or tripping and falling on a sharp pencil; that sort of thing.”

     “Interesting,” he mumbled.

     “There’s also another envelope there, but don’t open it.  It’s a compilation of notes regarding cellular regeneration and stabilization in neural systems, and a hodgepodge of other stuff you might find useful in your own research.  If things go badly for me, it’s all yours.”

     “Wouldn’t it all be Regeneratix property by then?” Morgan asked.  He looked like a kid at Christmas who had been given the wrong present, knew it, but wanted to open it, anyway.

     “That stuff is fringe material, not quite worth a patent,” I said.  “You could put it to use without citing it because anyone could have discovered the information with enough work.  Anyway, it might not be that useful to you, so don’t thank me yet.”

     “Okay,” he said, producing a pen and signing the agreement, “are there any other things you wanted to go over before we adjourn?”

     “Not specifically.  I have a few odds and ends to update you on.  I’ve modified some of the equipment, mainly to keep it on par with the current stuff, so I’ll need to go over that with you.  It’s nothing too outrageous.  My testing method is peculiar, by current standards, but it works.”

     “Has Regeneratix given you specific expectations,” he asked, finishing his JagerHundt, “or are you working to your own standard?”

     “A little bit of both.  There are some tangential aspects to my final product that definitely fall outside of my corporate arrangement, but that’s okay.  Considering my current situation and the adjustments I’ve had to make, they can fuck themselves if they don’t like it.”

     That got both of us laughing.  It felt like old times, and that was good.

     “You boys like another one?” our waitress asked on her approach.  She moved nicely and I couldn’t help but smile appreciatively.

     “I think we would,” I said, ignoring Morgan’s protesting look.

Electric Soul, Part I

Part IIPart IIIPart IV

(This is a neat bit of near future, science fiction. The entire thing is on the long side, so I have broken it up into three parts. A mere 5420 words to kick things off. Enjoy.)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? -Mark 8:36

The Lab, 10:35am, Tuesday, June 24, 2087

Morgan looked at me with an expression bordering on shock.  I knew my appearance was lacking, I hadn’t been taking very good care of myself.  At least it wasn’t the dean, or the president of Regeneratix.  It had been raining and Morgan was soaking the entrance lobby, just looking at me as though I were someone else.

“I think you should get your coat and boots off, Morgan,” I said to him, ignoring the look.

“Yeah, good idea,” he responded, hanging his coat and shaking a boot off.

I brought him into my front office and offered him a chair.  I offered him a coffee when we had settled, which he declined; he looked vaguely uncomfortable.

“Mike,” he began, “there’s a lot going on.  I’m not sure where to start, but I figured you needed to hear it before things get ugly.”

Morgan was a really good guy, long time colleague, and about the only person I could kinda-sorta trust.  He actually worked with me in the early phases of the project.  I knew he meant well in coming by, only I had already figured out, or guessed, most of what he was going to tell me.

The university was after me for a few things, really.  They had partially funded the project and I had heavily borrowed some of the physical resources from the school.  Throw in the fact I hadn’t published anything in, well…forever, and you have an angry university.  If I didn’t produce results soon, my options would fall into publishing like a madman and taking a loan to repay the school, or loss of tenure; but the university was the least of my concerns, really.

Regeneratix was the major source of funding and they had already lost patience with me.  If I didn’t give them something to chew on, I would be in all kinds of trouble.  Mostly, they would sue me to death, which I could have lived with; the real problem was the potential for losing my research.  That would have been worse than anything else they could have done, and they were almost in a position to do it.

Another issue that had cropped up before all this was a collection of interest groups who entirely misunderstood the nature and intention of my work.  They wanted it shut down and banned.  Isn’t that nice?  Work that could revolutionise the human race, and they would put a stop to it.  The positive ramifications of success were enormous and it was beyond me why they were so adamantly opposed to it.  PureLife was what the media had dubbed them, and they embraced the title.  Some of the coalition had been on Regeneratix’s back for years over a variety of issues.  I was anxious for them to grow bored with me and move on.

“How bad can it be, Morgan?” I asked.  Morgan’s first name was Sam, but I hadn’t called him that since I first met him.  Seems everyone just calls him Morgan, and he likes it that way.

Morgan rubbed his temples for a second.  “It’s, uh, pretty bad.  I’m not sure where to start, really.  Maybe I’ll have that coffee, after all.  It’s still that same nasty tar you always brewed, right?”

I laughed.  I had forgotten that old machine and the terrible coffee it spat out.  How many cups of that crap did we drink setting up the lab?  Too many.

I got up to fire off a coffee.  “The old beast died about a year ago,” I said.  “I almost had it bronzed.  This new one actually makes reasonable stuff.  I forgot how you take your coffee.”

“Just some cream is fine,” Morgan said.  “Didn’t that old machine come from a second hand shop or something?”

“Nothing that glorious.  It was a yard sale.  I think I paid five dollars for it.”

“You sure got your money worth, even if the coffee was terrible.”

“Coffee is a luxury, no matter how bad it is,” I said to him.  “I hated having to replace the thing, but this new one works well.  It’s almost done, already.”  I slid a paper cup under the dispenser and it started pouring.  I would have joined him, except I was already three cups in and it wasn’t even noon.

“How is your work going, Morgan?  It seems like so long since we’ve properly talked.”

Morgan perked up a little bit.  This delay in his message delivery was helping him relax.  It occurred to me that Morgan, several years my junior, was not the young man I had worked with before.  He had aged gracefully, but he had aged, all the same.  It was a strange thing to notice, all of a sudden, but it struck me.  Where did the time go?

“It could be better,” he said.  “The lab results just haven’t been consistent enough for me to move forward yet.  I’ve refined a few things for the next set of tests.  I’m hopeful this will put me over the top and I can begin testing on human subjects.  I’m overdue to lecture and I haven’t taken a sabbatical since I was tenured.  If that bloody Chinese lab wasn’t right behind me, I might be able to relax.  I just can’t let them beat me to a solution.”

I set his coffee in front of him.  I was pretty sure Morgan was still working on the replication issue with synthetic nerve cells.  The synthetics were good, but didn’t regenerate or replicate, at all.  Early attempts to have them replicate went badly, often spawning cancerous, synthetic nerve cells.  If I remembered correctly, and I wasn’t sure I did, Morgan was three or four years into working out a solution.

“You must be pretty close, by now, so I wouldn’t worry too much,” I said, sitting down across from him again.  My front office was fairly tidy, other than vacuuming and dusting being overdue.  I kept nothing of importance there, except the coffee maker.  The walls were bare and I only kept a few dated magazines and journals around for general interest.  As I thought of it, I realised they were the original chairs and desk I had started with.

“Thanks for the coffee, Mike,” he said, taking an eager sip and smiling.  “Yep, much better than before.  And, no, I’m not too worried about that Chinese lab.  They started up after I did and a lot of their early results turned out to be, well…exaggerated.  They’ve been more cautious since then, but I still wouldn’t trust their science for a while.”

When he mentioned the Chinese lab and fudgy results, it came back to me.  It was a total embarrassment for the Chinese, in general, and the lab was a laughing stock for a long time.  Apparently, several other labs couldn’t repeat their published work and several international NGOs came close to pulling their recognition of that lab, altogether.  From what I had read, it seemed like they had published some questionable stuff prior to that final incident.

“Me either,” I reassured him, “and that’s my point.  That lab has a credibility issue that will take a million years to shake.  They have set the bar pretty high for themselves.  Nobody’s going to accept anything but perfect results from them.”

“Yeah, but I still can’t afford to let them close the gap, even if it’s bigger than I think.”  He paused and sipped his coffee again.  “I guess I should get back to why I’m here.”

“The university, Regeneratix, PureLife, and my strange conduct,” I interrupted, thinking it would set him up nicely.  “Is that it?  Unless there’s been a major change, I am aware of those troubles.”

“Just so you know, Mike,” Morgan said, looking tired and old again, “I’m not here in any official capacity.  No one sent me.  I really am here as a friend.  This place was the last major project I worked on before I was tenured, and I would hate to have it end badly.  That’s why I’m here.”

“Okay,” I told him.  “Go on, then.”

Morgan looked uncomfortable, but went on.  “I know you are aware of what’s going on, but I’m more worried about where you are at.  You look like hell, Mike.  I’m guessing you haven’t been sleeping much, lately.  You’ve missed practically all the university business for over two years.  When did you last use your office at the university, Mike?  It can’t have been in the last year.”

“I’ve been working out of this location for a while, they know that,” was all I could think to say.  It was essentially true.  The fact I had all but ignored the university for a year or more was definitely something they hadn’t expected.  My work had taken over, but it had to be that way.

“Mike,” he said, exasperation showing, “it’s not about the university or the department.  We don’t need another old sweater at an undergrad wine and cheese, and we sure as hell don’t need another opinion in our mindless department meetings.  That’s all a bunch of shit that goes on without you, anyway.  It’s about showing your face once in a while.  You got on well with the department guys, you always did.  If you showed up, maybe talked about your work, or even just asked about their work, the heat would be a little less.  Do you follow me yet?”

I followed him, but he didn’t understand the full extent of my situation.  There were things he didn’t know.  I didn’t have the heart to give him a canned response; he said he was coming on his own, and I trusted that much.

“Morgan, do you trust me?”

This caught him off guard.  He was probably expecting me to defend the importance of my work and the value to science, and crap like that.  I knew the whole trust thing opened a can of worms, but I had little to lose, and a funny feeling Morgan might have a place in my work again.

“Mike, why do I have the feeling there’s something funny going on here?” he finally uttered.

“Probably for the same reason that you just answered a question with a question,” was my response.  “Listen, Morgan, I know how things look from the outside.  The knives are freshly sharpened and pointing straight at me.  Whatever time I have left to work with is precious, and I can’t be hampered by external forces.”  I got up and started making myself a coffee, more for something to do than a desire for coffee.  “You want another one?”

“No, I’m fine, Mike.  Listen, if there’s more to this, just tell me.  Maybe I can help.”

I got the machine going and turned to him.  I ran my hand along my cheek and was suddenly conscious of a three or four day beard.  It was probably that long since I’d showered, too.  It occurred to me that Morgan might be a harder sell than I thought.

I started to laugh.  “Morgan, old buddy, I must look like a mad scientist, right now, but you are right.  When my work is finished, you’ll understand.  Perhaps you are the wakeup call I have needed for a while.”

“Now you’ve really lost me,” Morgan said blankly.

“I know.  I’m probably not giving a good account of myself, either.  Listen, what does your schedule look like over the next few months?  Do you have any spare time?”

“I’m not crammed at the moment,” he quickly replied, “but I think you need to understand something first.”

“If it’s a money thing, I can’t spare much, but I do have a small reserve,” I said, partly thinking out loud.  “I would probably just give you the lot, if you can spare the time.”

“It’s not that, Mike,” he said emphatically.  “There are some developments you don’t know about.  It’s partly why I came here.”

My coffee was ready, and I sipped at it before I sat down.  “Go on, then.”

“The university has probably sent you a ton of mail lately, so I won’t trouble you with the paper trail,” Morgan said, that aged look coming back.  “They are coming for the borrowed equipment.  They have approved plans for an advanced study wing and most of your big ticket equipment is involved, but they will take it all.  The wing is supposed to be ready by the start of the January term, which means they will need it in place by November, sometime.”

I was glad I had sat down before he told me.  The timing was brutal.  I had put years into my work, and was within a year of readiness for final testing.  It was late June, and I was faced with making it happen in four or five months.  This was not good.

“I could try for an extension,” I said, sounding more desperate than I intended, “even if it is a long shot.  They’ll be hard pressed to have a facility up and running even if they had the equipment now, so what loss would a few months be?”

“I was at the meeting last night, Mike,” Morgan explained.  “The move is pre-emptive.  The word is that Regeneratix is getting really close to pulling the plug on this place.  The department is worried the equipment will get tied up in the legal crap that follows.  If they can get it out early enough, it’s less likely to become lost.”

“There has to be a way around this,” I muttered.  “I’ve put too much time into it now.  The equipment isn’t even up to date, anymore.  I have made some modifications to keep it updated, but even the latest stuff is three or four years past its prime.”

Morgan leaned forward in his chair, speaking firmly now.  “There is a chance to salvage something from this, if you’re interested.”

“What do you mean?”

“Okay, right now you are in deep.  Something hasn’t been working out for you, and you think you’re close.  That’s great, but you have said that a few times too many, lately.  Whatever is happening is probably not worth publishing or you would have done that.  Sound about right, so far?”

“I’m still waiting for the salvage part,” I said, still coping with the foreseeable loss of my project.

“It’s coming, Mike, really.  The thing is this.  Right now, if you fight this equipment thing to the bitter end, and Regeneratix doesn’t see anything from you and so on, then you are finished.  You’ll be sued for everything you’re worth, probably lose, and odds are good you will have your tenure revoked.  If you’re really, really lucky you might be allowed to stay and lecture until you die, and how lucky would that be?  So here is the salvage bit.  A couple of the other profs, the dean and myself have a potential plan.  It’s nothing firm, just something that works for everyone, and the details would be a cinch.”

“I thought you were just here as my friend,” I cut in.  “Now you’re making an offer from the department.  What are you pulling here?”

“They don’t know I’m here, Mike, so don’t get the wrong idea about this.  I’m not actually making you the offer, it hasn’t been agreed to and the details are far from figured out.  What I’m saying is: you still have allies inside the university, and if you are cooperative there may be a way to come out of this with your career intact.”

“All right,” I said, finishing my coffee without tasting it.  “Approximately what does the preservation of my career look like in this unofficial, incomplete deal?”

“It looks like this.  You agree to hand over the equipment without making a fuss, no stalling or anything.  You help install it at the campus and start training staff and students for a few years, at least.  There’s no reason you might not be given some sort of formal position within that wing, God knows you have the experience.  The lab work and equipment contribution of the last million years would essentially be a write off for the school, but they can try to fluff it up.  Anyway, I’m sure you could cobble together something to publish from your years here.”

“And what about Regeneratix?” I asked, feeling a headache coming on.

“That is the tricky part,” Morgan said, “and it’s why nothing official has being proposed to you, yet.  The department wants you to accept full liability for that side of it.  Technically, their involvement is separate from Regeneratix and the equipment was only left in your care, not actually donated.  It would bankrupt you, but I can’t see the department going along with this, otherwise.”

This is where Morgan was in the dark.  He didn’t understand a couple of things, at least not properly.  The deal was fair enough, on the surface, even though it torpedoed years of work at the last moment.  I had stalled before, said I was close to something, sure, but now it was true.  The real problem was much deeper.  I had deliberately misrepresented my work to them and the university.  I might be able to fudge up my notes enough to con the department, however, Regeneratix would recognise that I had been doing my own thing, even if it was pure gold for them, anyway.  In addition to bankruptcy, I would probably face a few years of jail time, which would also end my tenure.  I would be lucky to get a job cleaning test tubes in a discredited Chinese lab, if I made it that far.  Wiggling out of so many tight spots had made me good at it; unfortunately, I had become so good I also knew when there was no wiggle room left.

“Not that I want to seem ungrateful,” my dry, old lecture voice began, “but what if I made one last counteroffer, something that would be legally ironclad?”

“It would have to be pretty amazing, Mike.  What would it be?”

“I’m not even sure I could pull it off, but let’s say I made a onetime contract with both the school and Regeneratix.  It would look like this: I would be given another year with the status quo, that’s my part.  The university would be guaranteed the equipment, after that, with no legal holds or leans from Regeneratix.  Regeneratix would be given first dibs on the results of the work.”

“Sounds pretty light,” Morgan said, sceptically.  “What if the work falls through?  The department might be happy with their equipment back but Regeneratix will want something more, I would guess.”

“At this point, if the work amounted to nothing, which it won’t, then I would walk away from the school and work for Regeneratix at a reduced rate.  It would never pay off their losses, but it would mitigate them.  They could play it to the investors as a continuance or something.”

“From the rumours and rumblings I heard at the meeting, you have run out of good will with the execs at Regeneratix, so the idea sounds pretty thin.  I just don’t think they trust you.  If you could produce a summary of your work, it might help…but even then.”

“Yeah, it’s thin.”  I wasn’t sure what else there was to say to that.  Regeneratix had all but cut me off.  I might have allies at the university, but I knew there were none left at Regeneratix.  I was in deep with them.

“Mike,” Morgan’s voice snapped me out of my sudden pensiveness, “are you okay?”

“I’ve been better,” I replied.  The bones of a plan started to form in my mind.  It was sudden and desperate, though full of potential.  “Morgan, when do you think they’ll actually come for the equipment, assuming they want it in place by mid-November?”

He sat back for a moment.  “Well, Mike, I would assume the actual move itself would take a few days, maybe a week at the most.  That would put the move in late October or early November.  What does it matter?”

“It matters a lot,” I returned quickly, thinking out loud again.  I could cram some of the work and get meaningful results, the rest would be risky.  “Morgan, what does your schedule look like in mid-October?”

“You’ve asked me about my schedule twice, now,” Morgan said, pulling out his phone and fumbling with it for a moment before looking up at me again.  “Right now, October could be better.  I can probably rearrange some things if I knew what you had in mind.”

I knew what I had in mind; I didn’t know how to approach him with it.  “I would need a couple of days from you, that’s it.  This is pretty sudden, so I don’t know which days yet, but I could confirm by Monday, if that’s okay?”

“Yeah, that would be fine, Mike,” the old-looking Morgan confirmed.  “You know they might come for the equipment early, right?  I was at the meeting, but the brass doesn’t always do what they say, so anything could happen.”

“I know, Morgan,” I sighed, “but leave that to me.”


The Office of the President of the University Of Toronto, 6:40pm, Wednesday, June 25, 2087

     The place hadn’t changed.  I was told they updated it slightly after the fire in ’26, but actually tried to keep the same look.  For as long as I had ever known it, the office was stuffy and boring.  Sitting across from me was the man himself, University of Toronto President Carl Jones.  Carl was a little guy, maybe 165 centimeters tall with a thin frame.  He was also into his eighties, though I couldn’t remember how far in.  He was something of a university hack, finally given his current position after years of service in various roles.  There was a rumour he actually didn’t want the position at the time, accepting it only because the next probable candidate was an idiot, and old Carl wouldn’t abide that.

     I met Carl shortly after I came to U of T.  It was unusual, but we shared an interest in older movies.  When the film study, or some other arts department, put on an older show I would try to make it out.  I was new at the school, and this gave me a chance to mix and enjoy a decent movie.  Carl wasn’t president at that time, of course, and I forget what his position was when I first met him.  We didn’t have much in common outside of the movie thing, but on that we really clicked.  So, two or three times per year, pretty much up until I started my project with Regeneratix, I would meet up with Carl and a few other profs and enjoy a movie, often chatting with them afterwards.  I had dealings with him after he became school president, mostly relating to the lab, and I’m sure my movie connection didn’t hurt.  Our relations in last few years had become strained as the lab work ran on without results; I had taken to avoiding contact as much as possible.  Carl sat in his usual, rigid way, gazing blankly at me.  He wore a grey sweater over a cheap collared shirt.  The little bit of white hair remaining on his head was kept short and functional.

Carl may have been more figurehead than proper executive, but he was reasonably bright and I had pushed things right to the edge.  It was going to be an awkward meeting with no room for fancy footwork.

The secretary had already left for the day, so I had let myself in.  Carl had been polite in seating me, but there was tension between us, I was sure of it.

“So, Michael,” he quietly began, clasping his hands together on the desk, “to what do I owe this honour?”

He’s opening with light sarcasm, I thought to myself, not a great start.  Don’t get me wrong, I had it coming.  Carl had been quite patient in the early weeks and months before I completely dodged everyone; and more, he had been slow to get after me, the proof being that I was still operating.  All that deserved a few jabs.  I just needed to keep things short and sweet, and get the hell out.  I had deliberately come late to avoid dealing with anyone else, and that had worked out well.  I even stopped by my office, which had been partly converted into storage space for office supplies and hard copies of miscellaneous files.  A year or so away will do that, I guess.  I did catch a few memos posted electronically regarding the new research wing Morgan had mentioned.  Seems they were moving fast on it, so I had to stay ahead.

“I am here to speak with you directly,” I said, trying to sound serious without being too formal.  I suddenly missed the casual nature of our film discussions.  “I have several things to work out and figured it would be easiest to do it in person.  I know I’ve been unavailable, maybe even evasive, but the work is very time intensive.”

“I’m not sure how sympathetic I am to your workload, Michael, but please continue,” Carl spoke quietly again.  He was very still, watching me very carefully.  I don’t know why it bothered me, but it did.

“Okay, here is the situation,” I said, leaning forward slightly.  “I noticed the plans for a new science wing and the type of work that will go on there.  I know that some, maybe all, of the equipment I’m using will be shifted over.  I’m not going to ask for that to be put off or anything.  All I need is to have the equipment until the end of October.  Everything I have worked on can be finished, by then.  That’s it.”

“I’m not quite sure what to say,” Carl sighed gently.

“Say yes.”

“That may be out of my hands, Michael,” Carl returned.  “You know that.”

“I know that.  I also know you have a lot of influence over what happens, even if you don’t have the final say.”  I wasn’t sure where this was going.  Part of me wanted to laugh at myself for even thinking this might go smoothly.

“Fair enough,” he almost laughed.  “Michael, you’ve changed.  You are not nearly the fellow I knew years back.  When this project of yours came into being, I was nearing my retirement.  I hadn’t the slightest notion I would become president, but here I am.  This project of yours has become troublesome, on several levels, and I’ve grown tired of the whole thing; including your antics.”

“Carl, listen–,” I tried to interrupt.

“No, Michael,” he shot out sternly, “enough.  I was not in charge when this lab was set up, and that’s fine.  I could care less about cutting another ribbon or smiling for another photo in front of the latest, greatest school building.  I am here to keep things moving along properly, and I intend to do just that.  I have stood back and let this lab of yours run its course, without interference, for a couple years more that it had a right to.  Now, this company you’ve taken funds from is upset about a lack of return, and who can blame them for that?”

Carl paused, adjusted his glasses slightly and continued.  “I’m not a science type, but I respect the sciences a great deal; and while this represents a relatively small commitment of university capital, I cannot be irresponsible.  I have been advised that most of the equipment in your care has as much as twenty years of meaningful use left.  That may not make this new wing a cutting edge lab, but it lays down a foundation that can be updated over time.”

“I’ve got no problem with that, Carl.  All I ask is that you let me wrap things up.  After that, I will help prep the equipment for transit and even set it up in the new wing.”  I knew what was coming.

“Normally, if any of this can be called normal, anymore, I would have no issue with granting you the additional time.”  Carl was starting to ice up, so the roadblock was about to be set.  “The concern, now, is that millions of dollars, even factoring depreciation, are tied up in a lab that might have legal action taken against it very soon.  This private company you’ve crawled in with seems to share my opinion that you’ve extended your work for too long without results.  I haven’t fully explored the legal side of this situation, Michael, but I know how it could go and I don’t care to have millions of dollars tied up in court for years on end.  That equipment has twenty years of potential value left, and I don’t care to squander it in legal limbo.  The earlier the equipment is back on university property, and out of your hands, the better.  The piper has played your tune, Michael, and you know what happens after that.”

That wasn’t so bad.  I knew the Regeneratix thing would be the major hurtle.

“That’s completely fair, Carl,” I quickly responded.  “I can see that I’ve stretched things out and done wrong.  I know what the equipment represents to the university and I won’t jeopardise it further, so hear me out.  If I can get you an assurance that Regeneratix will leave the equipment be, at least until November or so, will you leave it with me to wrap up my work?”

He squinted at me, just slightly and only for a second, and I knew I had him.  What else could he say?  The new wing probably wasn’t even cleared of whatever it was currently housing, so it would take a while to be readied.  If I took away the risk of losing the capital, what else did he have to lose?

“Michael,” he said, propping his chin up on his clasped hands, “can I ask you something personal, completely off record?”

“Sure, Carl.  What is it?”

“When this project is done, this biological computer thing, what are your plans after that?”  Carl changed his tone in the asking, but his edge was still there.

“It could go a few different ways,” I said.  “I could win a Nobel Prize, or I could end up broken and poor.  Right now, I’m rushing the completion of it all, but I will finish.”

“A Nobel Prize?” he seemed shocked.  “I thought we already had computers made with living tissues?  Are you sure you’re not dreaming a little too hard, Michael?”

“I don’t want to get technical, but the computers we’ve made to date are made with living tissues, but not from living tissues.  It really is a big difference.  And if I’m dreaming too hard, well, so be it.  A lot of science would never get done without someone dreaming.”  If Carl really knew the full extent of my work, he would have something else to dream about.

“What would be the problem with setting up your work in the new wing?” he asked me.  “Then it wouldn’t matter when you moved it here.  Odds are good that we won’t have it all ready for January, anyway.  Why not finish up here?”

That was a heck of an olive branch.  The complete, honest answer was more than I could afford to reveal, so I gave the incomplete, honest answer.  “Carl, the equipment is set up for my project and it would be a major setback if I had to suspend it, even for a few weeks.  It would erase a couple years of my effort, at least.  Even if I could reset it all, Carl, I would need exclusive access to the equipment.  That wouldn’t work in a research wing.”

“A pity,” Carl said, not quite sounding disappointed.  “I must be a fool, Michael, but I will do what I can to leave the equipment in your hands provided the university gets the appropriate legal assurances.”

“I appreciate the confidence,” I said, trying not to sound too happy.

“Don’t thank me,” he said, giving me that hard look again.  “If you don’t produce this time, it will be the end of your career, and there will be nothing I can do to prevent it.”