Chapter Two: The Lounge
The lounge was dark, and almost cool after the choking heat of the night air, breezeless and slightly dank with canal water. No one was there. The walls were painted a neutral grey darkened by years of cigarette tar. Brass sconces with amber chandelier lights lit the red tabletops and punctured black cushions of the booths. Small ceiling fans whirled quickly on the shadowed ceiling, between recessed, colored accent lights. She took a seat at the huge, horseshoe shaped bar. On either side of the mirror were liquor cabinets, with illuminated stained glass panels chipped here and there. There was a champagne cork embedded in the wall with a circle drawn around it, Big Al’s eye died here written in laconic letters. Jammed in at the top of the mirrors were two signs. One of a parrot, with red and green and yellow and blue feathers, bending down to pick up a beer in its beak, which it then lifted and drank, replacing it with a squawk and ecstatic blinking. The other was of a dancing leprechaun, green top hat and red cheeks, seeming to toast the bird with a yellow martini glass. The colors were warm and vivid; they bounced off of a curved wall of windows on the long side of the room. It cheered her up. She could watch that bird drink for hours.
“Evening ma’am,” said the bartender, a man with premature wattles and eyes sagging down his face. He suffered from a rare wasting disease contracted after accidentally eating a mutant zebra mussel. The parasite was slowly eating its way through his connective tissue.
“Jim.” She looked at herself in the gold mirror. “Martini please. Make it a Razor’s Edge.”
He nodded and placed a bowl of spanish peanuts on the bar.
Seated directly across from her, at the other end of the horseshoe, was a man in uniform, with a typically coarse haircut. Even in the dolorous orange light, and at that distance, she could see raw cuts. A cheap hemp newspaper lay out on the bar and he poked at the crossword with a pencil, tongue between his teeth. He was drinking a melon ball, in a tall frosted glass, with a cherry. Drinks like that made her almost as happy as the bird did. The man looked at her and she smiled, then instinctively looked at her hands.
The first sip of the cloudy martini had been everything she hoped it would be. It was the one reliable thing in a day of make believe. Her triumph. But they couldn’t just hand it to her without all that stuff about the team. And it was no triumph at all but a loss of control. Her name would be forever associated with transcryptasine but she would never have any power over how it was used.
She played with the three olives–drab army green, with pimentos, like raw nipples on a gangrenous tit–and finally speared one with a toothpick. The lactic bight made her wince with pleasure. She tossed off the rest and called for another, hoping to have all three sheets hoisted before the meeting let out.
Tonight she’d sleep in the lab; tomorrow, she’d join her husband, Leonard, at their place in the Finger Lakes. The very thought made her sweat. The house was in a Greenhouse Mitigation Zone, on a ridge above a mosquito-infested valley near Keuka Lake, known mostly for its failed avocado farms. In exchange for a lifetime of indulgence she had indulged Leonard and bought this land. There was just no reason not to give him what he wanted. Leonard had had his share of inconsequential sluts over the years but it didn’t hold a candle to her near constant infidelity. And he was in his mid eighties.
Like many people his age he wouldn’t make 120, as she was near guaranteed. She had modified genes, and a stem cell line established by her parents. Leonard’s family were poor, and religious; they didn’t believe in manipulating the genome. In the next ten years he’d fall apart, one thing at a time.
The house was an abandoned vineyard he had restored with the help of his Amish neighbor. It was comfortable inside, large, with power to run ceiling fans, which kept the miasmic murk going in circles. The windows had screens to keep the biting night flies out. The lake was fine to swim in so long as the weeds died back in winter. The one thing she looked forward to was the artesian well; it came up at a constant 14 degrees, so she could spend hours in a claw foot tub, under an old oak tree behind the house reading detective novels. The tub was big enough so she didn’t feel like a cork in a bottle. She could really spread out. Leonard grew and prepared the food himself. It was superb. His wine on the other hand tasted like battery acid.
She was beginning to enjoy spending time in the country with him. They were both less obsessed with their work. For most of their 42 years together they’d lived apart. Leonard was an emergent ecosystems analyst, a passionate biologist. Whenever he was not teaching he was doing fieldwork in places she couldn’t imagine, Louisiana, Florida. Their time together was often brief, intense, conflicted. Big egos, exhausted, depressed or totally manic.
She sipped her second drink and stared out the windows at the arriving and departing hovercraft. Like bumble bees, she thought, shivering. Their green and red lights blinked against the pale concrete of the Monozone lab building, across the canal. The labs had no windows, just black grills to let the cool air in in winter.
Owen Bradlee walked in carrying a suitcase, in a dove grey suit, starched white shirt and collar, and a silk tie of green, gold and red chevrons. In her more objective moods he seemed like a bit of a stooge. He liked his little home in the suburbs, always dressed well, better than he earned, and knew the right people. A lover didn’t need to be smart, he needed to be fun, no challenge at all. Then you were free to love. Husbands were different. Husbands had to be hard, difficult. Everything else was boring.
Bradlee had a way of drifting into a room, like fog into headlights. Even his touch was a little foglike. The chill lay on his fingertips, in the manicured nails, the sapphire ring on his right ring finger, the two silver bracelets sliding out of his starched cuffs, and the onyx cufflinks. It was a little cold, but everything else always seemed so hot. She looked at him as he approached. Even in his sixties, going ruddy with drink and smoke, his mustache a puff of white, his hair synthetic, he was desirable. He smiled at her with recognition as he crossed the glassy puddles of light spilled down from above.
“Well Bryson, congratulations are in order. Mind if I join you?” When he spoke it was as if his reserve were meant to hide a touch of sadness. And what might in another man come off as condescension with Bradlee appeared to be mere reticence, a mastery of the pain caused by contact with other humans.
Bryson scowled at a small fleck of ice floating in her drink. A drop of sweat formed at her temple and rolled down her slightly plump cheek, stained cherry red by the sign. She had been there long enough to perspire now, it was either time to leave or take off her lab coat.
“No please, sit down. What’ll you have?” To face him, she stood and pushed her stool out a bit and wiggled out of her lab coat. She was a little heavy, and liked it that way. It gave her heft, which came in handy in the right position.
“Manhattan,” he said, with evident enthusiasm.
Bryson pointed loosely to her body and said, “I haven’t had time to shower or change.” The strap of her damp, white tank top dropped off her shoulder. She looked at the bartender. He was bent over the crossword, helping the soldier out. “Jim,” she called. He started up, craning about in sudden alarm and panic. His adam’s apple rolled up and down between the wattles like a ball on a track. He was an older man, sick and afraid of losing his job, even though he had been there so long, it was hard to imagine who would fire him. Then he saw it was only Bryson and relaxed.
“Forgive me ma’am, I was just helping Private Cooper out with the crossword. It’s his last night.”
“Where’s he going, up to the front tomorrow?” Private Copper nodded vacantly and went back to the puzzle. “Jim, you remember Mr. Bradlee?”
“Why yes I do. Manhattan dry?”
Bradlee nodded and Jim headed for the speed rack.
“Make it top shelf Jim, I’m buying,” she said.
“Everyone is quite pleased with you.” Bradlee patted her hand and smiled beneath his mustache. His warmth waffled in with his cold like a changeable day.
Jim plunked down Bradlee’s drink. The cherry swam up from the dark, plasmic bottom of the glass and stood briefly in the clear red light. With a slight grin he took a tentative first sip, gazing across the rim of the glass at Bryson. He had weepy blue eyes. Allergies were his excuse, but Bryson always suspected melancholia.
“Brutal meeting,” he said, staring now straight ahead, at the bottles.
“Stupidity at its human limit,” replied Bryson.
“I wouldn’t go that far. But you were certainly both deprived of authority and given insufficient credit for the discovery.”
She dismissed him by looking at the ceiling.
“Well, I come bearing gifts. Your work will certainly not go unrewarded.”
She said nothing.
In silence, and slowly, he opened the brass snaps of the briefcase and withdrew a small leather wallet. It contained three thin gold wafers. “A private bonus, for you.”
She lifted the wallet up and examined the discs. “What are these for?”
“Jewels. Twenty five million dollars. No one will ever know you have them, they’re untraceable.”
“Well,” she said, jocularly, “who the hell are we?”
“Ah, I knew it would come around to that. Now, you also have an option to buy, at today’s trading price of 23, a hundred thousand shares of Monozone stock.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“You don’t seem to understand how profitable all this is likely to prove. Paregane could push us up over two hundred, which would get us a seat on state council. We could bump Genetel. Do you have any idea of what that stock will be worth then?”
Skeptically picking out points on Bradlee’s face she reached for the wallet and placed it in her pocket. She couldn’t stop looking at him, at the blue dots of his eyes floating in pink, the total stillness of his jaw. “I should quit while I’m ahead.”
“But you have decades to go. Your most important work is ahead of you.”
“Oh please. I did that forty years ago, at Cornell, with Velodia.”
He snorted. “Vadge Velodia. Haven’t thought about her in years. Has she changed much?”
“It’s Quap, not Vadge. And I wouldn’t know.” It was a lie. She had plans to see Velodia the next day. They drank in silence. She ordered another Razor’s Edge and lit a cigarette.
“You don’t look so bad Bradlee,” she said.
“Neither do you.”
“Yeah, well, they can keep us alive, but they can’t make us young.”
He smiled as if the thought of being young were slightly repulsive. “I had my liver out you know.”
“So what, Leonard’s on his third.”
Bradlee looked surprised, raised his eyelids. “I didn’t think Leonard drank. Has he been hiding it?”
She shook her head and waved him off. “No, Leonard didn’t drink, at least not until we bought the vineyard–”
“Forget about it. The first one he had out because of Hepatitis. Down in Lake Pontchartrain, some exotic river worm from the Amazon swam up his urethra. They treated him for that, but they didn’t know that the worm carried a retro virus in its digestive track. When they poisoned the worm, it released the virus into Leonard’s body and the virus attacked his liver. No one knew a thing was wrong till Leonard blew up and turned yellow. So they gave him his first transplant. Then the virus attacked his new liver, so that one had to come out too. He had a hell of a time finding the right antiviral.”
Bradlee looked distastefully away from his drink. “Does he still wear those dreadful rubber boots?”
Bryson laughed. “Yeah.”
“You’ve got one wish left Bryson. What do you want to work on next? Name your project.”
He shook his head, “I can’t do that. It would be totally irresponsible. You don’t understand the importance of what you’ve done. People are unhappy. Productivity is down. There’s a plague of ennui and misery and boredom out there. The statistics are terrifying. Suicides up in all age categories, especially the young. Accidents, emotional family murders, street brawls, drug addiction, absenteeism, all on the rise. I would say consumer confidence is eroding.”
“If you want to make people happy do something about the weather. Transcryptasine isn’t snake oil, it’s meant for debilitating, suicidal depression. It’s an important finding, it has a promising future, but you know and I know that it’s insane to market a drug over-the-counter, in China or anywhere else, that kills ten percent of the people who take it.”
“That’s where you may be wrong. The gamble may prove to be exciting, give people a sense of purpose, something to feel good about, you know, I survived another day. It’s what gave our parents’ generation such backbone. The world ending. Flood, wind and fire, work to be done. All that blah. Now people are soft and stupid. There’s no risk. If we can offer them paradise in a pill, how can that fail?”
“That’s just what the angel called it,” she mumbled, feeling suddenly haggard. It was an argument she’d been having for months, and here she was having it again.
“Speak up Bryson, the what?”
“Oh, the angel.”
“Good lord, what ever do you mean?”
Wearily she explained. “When I took transcryptasine, I, like everyone else, dreamt of going to Eden. But I was the only one who saw an angel.”
“That must have been some surprise.” He chuckled and popped a handful of peanuts in his mouth.
“Scared the hell out of me.”
“And this angel, did he have wings?”
She shook her head. “No, no no. It was nothing like that. The place feels real, as real as this, as you and me right now, here. And the angel was actually kind of a hairy fellow, very, earthy, you know? Hairy red arms, bushy eyebrows, sideburns. He came out from behind a shrub, like I’d caught him napping or something and said, very sarcastically, Paradise in a pill, what will they think of next?”
“How did you know he was an angel?”
“I just did. It gave me the creeps and still does. That whole place made me nervous.”
“Sounds like transcryptasine didn’t really work on you.”
This observation prickled her pride, though she had made it
herself. “Oh, it worked just fine. I went there, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but you had no desire to stay.”
“Maybe not, but I was happy as a pig in shit for weeks after, even though I knew I would lose that battle with marketing. That’s the thing right there, isn’t it, about transcryptasine. Happiness and reality don’t cancel each other out. The real world doesn’t get to you, doesn’t destroy your confidence in things. Nevertheless, you’re right. I didn’t want to stay.”
“Well, I like it here just fine. It’s all the paradise I can stand.” As he said the word paradise he glanced around at their surroundings.
“So I can just forget about further research.”
“I’m sorry Bryson, anything but that. State’s approved the marketing plan. By next week there’ll be black billboards from Lhasa to Hong Kong, and our reps will have held virtual meetings with every doctor in the country.”
The doors swung open and people in gregarious groups of four and five began to amble in, one member of each table bellying up to the bar to buy pitchers of beer. Individually any one of them would be afraid to be near Bryson, but as a herd they broadcast a fatuous contempt.
Bryson stirred her drink around with her finger, licked the gin off and took a long sip. “Time was, on a night like this, I’d go home and fuck my husband.”
Bradlee smiled, drained his drink and said, “Or me.”
“Well, shall we go to my place then, for a night cap?”
She sighed. “I was going to sleep in the lab tonight and meet Leonard tomorrow, at the vineyard.”
“The one I’m supposed to forget about.”
“Keuka Lake. About, I don’t know, nine, ten years ago I bought it for Leonard to retire on.”
“Greenhouse Mitigation Zone? How eccentric.”
“What can I say? You know Leonard.”
They headed out the door and were absorbed by a hot vapour of stale seawater. Haze drifted up into the orange sky. Cool green phosphorescent pods of hovercraft crossed above, rose and fell and moved about like dancing eggs.
They crossed a steel footbridge across the canal separating Monozone from the Lounge and she turned left, towards the elevator to the hovercraft lot.
“Not that way, Bryson. I’ve got a car.”
She followed him without the least resistance. She did not remember the last time she had ridden in a car. Pick up trucks and tractors in the country, toy cars at car parks, sure, but a car?
It was a thing with her, transportation. Hovercraft made her nauseous. It was like sitting in a bucket with windows and getting kicked around. Amphibatrains gave her hives, all those people packed in, yacking their heads off about nothing, drinking shitty booze. And the interminable card games in the smoking car. The only other reliable form of transport was Individual Commuter Pods. At least they rode on a rail and only sat one.
In the city, a car was big business. Bradlee must have gravitated to a winning side. It was maybe time to reconsider his power. “Who do you work for now? What side are you on?” She felt she could at least demand that of Bradlee. They had spent quite a bit of time together. He was never one to let on in an obvious way what his ambitions were, but they were clear enough, if not generic. Bradlee always seemed to occupy a noman’s land, between things, undecided till the last moment when he would instinctively break in the right direction, landing wherever the opportunity was, but for seemingly disinterested reasons, or as if by means of coincidence.
“Same side as always, Bryson.” He pulled out a key chain. They were in a small parking lot, back by the generators, behind the Monozone building. A single, two-story pole dusted the air with a dim bluish light. There was a garbage truck parked by some 10-ton dumpsters. Beneath them black canal water chugged. Insect shoals swam in and out of the light. Then there were a couple of modern cars, wheeled vehicles, she thought with scorn. That model year they were two-toned boxes, grey and white, like a cubist pigeon with tinted windshields and crappy batteries. Cheap as always, she thought, and then watched him stick his key into the door of a 1967 silver Cadillac.
“Jesus Bradlee, where the hell did you get this?”
“Relax. It’s a Nigerian knock off. But it’s damn good, I can tell you that. This thing can go wherever you want. There’s no programming.
You just drive fast.”
“How did you ever get permission?”
“Defense Department portfolio. I’m civilian staff. It’s an official car, but of my design.” He opened the door for her. It swung out and bumped her leg. The weight nearly knocked her over. Even closing it was difficult. The door seemed to want to bite her foot off. She sank back into the grey leather sofa seat. It roared.
“Is this a gas car?” she asked.
“Dual system. It’s a ten cylinder internal combustion engine, that runs on gasoline or alcohol and a modified hybrid solar hydrogen job, Korean design.” The air grew frigid. She reminded herself that such things shouldn’t matter to her anymore. She had twenty five million in jewel discs.
“I could live in this thing,” she said. They eased out of the security gates, and onto a narrow dark road built above the main canal into Manhattan.
“There’s nothing out there on the road anymore. I can go for days.”
They were on a long causeway, the approach to the Queensboro Bridge. The city was dark, scattered with light from a few offices, a few homes, but nestled in the middle of the island, behind the towers, was a bright glow. The streets of midtown.
They crossed the levee and circled down onto the Beltway, through warrens of damp concrete and out onto 44th street. Here they drove up a plastic composite ramp and into a small, secure parking area. He summoned an elevator. She looked at the buttons.
“Jesus, what floor do you live on?”
“Actually, it’s the 53rd. It looks south, west and east.”