Bitter and Sweet
“It’s actually the Milky Way,” said John.
“Milky, silky, whatever. This Andrew Baker’s estate, right? Delivery.”
The taxi driver was sulky. Such a huge delivery, so far out of town, in this ungodly hour. Couldn’t they wait? He hadn’t even had coffee yet. And that damn box was giving him the creeps. It was buzzing. Like a living thing. CHZ: Handle with extreme caution! said the big red label on it.
“Open the damn door. Wider! Can’t you see my van’s big?” The driver shouted.
John fussed about the lock, and a few moments later the car’s tires clawed against the gravel. The driver hit the brake hard, popped the trunk, and yelled: “Pick the damn box in back! Quick. Gotta go.”
John tried to lift it but it was too heavy for his slender arms. The only physical effort he ever allowed himself was virtual.
“Need some help here,” called John. “Let’s just lower it to the ground. I’ll take it from there.” The driver glared, but he wanted out quick. So he tilted his baseball cap and went to the back.
“Come on, boy, pick up your side. One, two…” He dropped the box too quickly. It landed heavily and almost smashed John’s feet.
“Thank you very much, indeed, ass…” John was saying, but the van was already screeching toward the exit. What a jerk, John muttered. He stood there for a moment wondering warily what his uncle had ordered this time. He was certain he’d seen that CHZ thing during his endless nights in the Deep web. John shuddered.
He set off in search of help for the monstrous box. He saw the head beams of the gardener’s rusty Jeep. It was a miracle of engineering it was still moving.
“Morning, John.” Tom was always cheerful. It was 4 o’clock in the morning, but he was beaming with energy. “Did that bloody thing arrive?”
“What’s this fuss about, Tom? What’s in the box? It weights a ton.”
“Don’t you worry. It’s for the party tonight. Your uncle has a surprise for the guests.”
“The party, right. Another lovely display of good manners. Everyone speaks with their mouths full. The sugar daddies with the fat bellies and the fat wallets, and their anorexic eye candy. And that’s a charity event?!”
“Cheer up, John. We’ll have a whole free week after that. Exciting, eh? We can do whatever we like.”
Tom was always so good-humored, so friendly and accommodating. They slowly carried the box to the shed. Neither paid attention to the second label. And, anyway, they wouldn’t have made much sense of it: ‘[Rn]6d17s2. XT-ADS/MYRRHA’
It was time for breakfast and coffee. Tom toasted bread. John put coffee in the French press. Both gazed at the rising sun. A new day. Good for some, bad for others. John was trying not to think about that scary label. Tom was looking forward to a week in his beloved garden.
Andrew smiled in the mirror in his hotel room and tightened his tie. There was a knock at the door. About time, he thought.
He opened the door and a huge shadow quickly slipped a hood over his head. Another hit him hard in the solar plexus. The pain was shattering. Andrew fell on the floor, gasping for breath. They lifted him by the arms and dragged him. No words, no hesitation. A good team. Experienced.
They put him in a car trunk. He felt a sharp needle in his neck. “Christ’s sake! What’s goin…,” Andrew mumbled and blacked out.
‘CHZ. Child Hemophilia and Zika.’ What the hell is Uncle up to?! John forced himself to keep reading. ‘RNA genome mutations… African lineage… Malformations and life-expectancy…’
Africa? Uncle’s doing research in Africa. Oh god.
A bucket of ice cold water brought Andrew back. Actually, it was the shock that reactivated his senses. It was dark. He could feel a presence. Somebody was just standing there, in the shadows. All he could make out was the bucket swinging from the ceiling.
“Where am I? Who are you?” Andrew was coughing and spitting dirty water on the floor. It tasted of something faintly familiar. Or was it the smell? Rotting flesh?!
“Mr Baker, we meet at last. I bet you wish it was in better circumstances.” A woman’s voice, to his right.
Andrew bristled. He’d heard the grinding sound of that voice, more than once. It took him a few moments to recover and speak back.
“Untie me. Please.”
“Of course, Mr Baker. Just a couple of things first.”
A lamp was switched on. Andrew blinked and looked around. He was in an abandoned car garage – tied to a worn chair. Old tools were scattered all over the place. On his left was a rusty Opel. It had broken windows and no tires. In front of him was a huge guy. His face was disfigured and menacing. On the right was a black Land Rover. The front left door was open and on the seat was a woman with silver hair and ice-cold grey eyes. Her hands were in the pockets of her black coat. There was a pin on the right lapel – golden initials on a dark-blue background: R.I.P.
“Roxana Irvine Palmer. I didn’t expect to see you so soon.” Andrew was worried, but also a little curious.
“Well, Mr Baker, your time’s up.”
“Certainly, there must be a civilized way to communicate. You have a request, Milky Way’s call center works 24/7,” Andrew tried to be ironic.
“Confident to the point of arrogance. As always. If only people knew what hides behind your nice looks and false smile.”
“Let’s get these ropes off, have a cup of cocoa and talk like normal people.” Andrew tried to play Roxana’s obsession with the chocolate drink. Forbes had recently published an article on the Palmer family – the Cocoa Dynasty – and their suffocating stranglehold over African plantations. King Leopold II and his Congo Horrors paled in comparison. Murder, rape, famine, deformed babies.
“First, tell me. Is it done?” Roxana asked.
“Finally, it is.”
“Good. Now tell me the access code to Milky Way’s laboratory.”
Andrew held his breath. He couldn’t possibly let her in there. Not just yet. “And you had to kidnap me for this?” He tried to laugh off the tension and fear.
“People are starting asking questions. Those filthy politicians. Greased too many dirty hands to turn a blind eye. We can’t wait any more. Give us what’s ours.”
“All research and development is property of the foundation. The whole world is watching. No benefactor can use it only for their own purposes.”
“You’ll think of something. People are not that stupid. They know companies don’t survive by giving money away for nothing. Not hundreds of millions.”
“It’s called charity,” answered Andrew with bitterness in his voice.
“Sure, keep up the fairy tale. Savior of the world. There are many promising avenues you can explore. Feed them something. Our project, of course, will remain a secret.”
“You know there are side effects. We need more time.”
“More time? I don’t think so. James?” The man with the disfigured face stepped forward.
“Uncle, what did you just do?!” John was out of his mind. He was shaking violently. “Why?!”
The party was going as expected. The mayor turned up. He choked on a shrimp and threw up in front of everyone. Quite a mouthful. Everyone was delighted – the celebrities, the politicians, the journalists. Ordinary people too. The whole event was streaming live on Twitter. John was disgusted. I think I’m about to throw up myself. And then the unthinkable happened.
The lights went out and his uncle came on stage. Everyone expected one of his the-future-is-brighter- than-ever speeches. Instead, he dropped a bombshell.
“Tonight I resign as CEO of the Milky Way Foundation.”
A murmur started in the crowd. He couldn’t do that. The whole world depended on him to guide it. “Our chief benefactor will take on. You all know her. All of Milky Way’s research is in safe hands. Ladies and gentleman, Roxana Irvine Palmer.”
Total silence. Everyone stared in disbelief. The Milky Way in the hands of the living embodiment of evil.
Roxana Irvine Palmer. Rest In Peace. Never. Not for a second, John thought bitterly. Tears were rolling down his face.
He rushed after Andrew. “Uncle, what did you just do?!” John was out of his mind. He was shaking violently. “Why?!”
“It’s alright, John.” Andrew tried to calm him down.
“No, it’s not. I know what you’ve been up to. CHZ?! That’s horrible. Even for Deep Web standards!”
“Oh, dear boy. You’re right. It’s all my fault. I should’ve told you a long time ago.”
“Told me what?”
“How it all began. You see, my father was born on 26 April 1920. On that same day, the Great Debate took place. It was between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis. Shapley believed that the Milky Way was our entire universe. He was wrong, of course. But he discovered something else. Something beautiful.
He knew that water was vital for life. So he set forth the conditions for a planetary surface to support water. Not too large or small, not too hot or cold, with just the right amount of radiant energy from a Sun. Or another source.”
“And this is important because?”
“It’s called Circumstellar Habitable Zone. CHZ!” Andrew was triumphant.
“Oh, I see.” John was a bit sheepish.
“You do, don’t you, my dear boy.” Andrew’s eyes shone with hope.
“Extraterrestrial life and intelligence. Just like on Earth. Right. Are they green?” To himself John said I knew it. Uncle is totally bonkers.
“Of course, not,” laughed Andrew. The boy is quick. “Or, maybe, they are. It’s actually a metaphor. It means to have life we need just the right amount of everything. Including bad stuff. Even bad guys.”
“A deal with the devil. Genetic tinkering, human experiments!” John was livid.
“No, no, no. Never!”
“I don’t believe you.” John wouldn’t give up.
“Well it’s true I turned to that filthy rich demon Roxana Irvine Palmer. Not directly. Through a middle man, of course.”
As if it makes a difference, John thought angrily.
“You see,” Andrew continued, “she was terrified she’d lose her cocoa empire. Rising temperatures are going to kill cocoa. So she was ready to pay to save her empire.”
“So you began the search for the perfect cocoa,” John interrupted his uncle. “A genetically modified sort that will survive the scorching Sun. Did you know from the start that the only way to do it is to actually weave it into human genes? A human host? An inter-species hybrid? Cocoa in the womb of a…”
“No, no. She thought that too, of course. So I said I needed more money, to buy politicians, whole governments. But they’re actually cheap. A free cocktail, something to eat. Anyway, we secretly focused on a perfectly safe source of nuclear power instead. A revolutionary particle accelerator. The MYRRHA reactor. Now that can save the world! And she can’t hide it. Her hands are tied. The whole world will know tonight. I published the findings online. Of course, she has some of the patents, but it’s only a matter of time before everyone benefits.”
“She agreed to that?”
“No, but what’s she going to do? No-one loves her.” Andrew chuckled.
There was a long silence. Finally, John began to see. “You played her.”
“It’s actually one of the oldest tricks in the book. Let people see what they want to see.”
“I told you, not all bad guys are bad, and, it turns out, not all radiation is bad, either.” Andrew smiled lovingly at his nephew.
John smiled back at his uncle. Suddenly, the world was different. They had found a more habitable zone.