Friday, January 07, 2005

Chapter Three - 1

"You made me look bad, gentlemen."

Nicholas Michael Dimitri Apolonio III, Chief Executive Officer of the TAFT Corporation, the largest and most powerful business consolidation that had ever straddled the Earth, and now beyond that into the outer reaches of the solar system itself, was arguably the world's most powerful corporate citizen.

But today, as he stood high up in TAFT's dark glass-walled administration tower and scanned the New Mexican desert outside the perimeter of the vast research and assembly area of the company's global headquarters, he felt full of doubt. He felt something else stir deep within him as well, something that was much more profoundly disturbing than the doubt that was visiting him, but it was too distant to see clearly, and if he could have seen it and attached a name to this thing that he had never felt before - he might have called it vulnerability.

He stood with his powerful hands clapsed behind him and leaned at a seemingly impossible angle towards the glass in front of him. His head, crowned with a thick mantle of coarse black hair streaked with feathers of ridged white, tilted slightly as his unblinking dark eyes surveyed the details of his immediate empire. There were no clues available in the dusty hills beyond or in the spotless southern sky above that might provide an answer to his dilemma. And no clues to show that Nicholas Apolonio was as close as he would ever come to feeling truly human at this moment in his life. An opportunity for a great awakening of his spirit presented itself - an opportunity that in his case fear alone could provide the emotional impetus for change.

He would get over it.

Even so, it did occur to him that he felt somewhat human in his doubt, a state that was unnatural and troubling to him. But to the assembled group of scientists and managers that sat waiting uneasily in the boardroom behind him, his uncanny resemblence to a great bird of prey was alarming. He stood as if hunched over on his perch, fathomless hawk eyes searching for prey, his total being absorbed in the cruel blood sport that gave life sustenance and meaning.

For the Boss, of course, that meant winning above all else.

His remarkably deep voice rumbled on. "Some of you here today have made me look bad indeed, gentlemen."

The sound came from everywhere, evenly, then it hissed at the edges of his speech as the invisible machinery that compressed his speech gently gave way to the rising white breath of the electronic noise floor below.

Nicholas Apolonio turned slowly towards the gathered room.

The room shrank before his terrible gaze even before the mood recognition algorithms built into the VR transceivers that ringed the room went off the scale and began to alter the holo-field he presented to those gathered in front of him.

"There are, of course, those that are directly responsible. I believe they know in their hearts who they are."

His voice grew, even as the words he spoke became a whisper, more measured, the spaces between each of them now turbulent inflections of air pushing in around them like the low concussion of distant ordnance, sinking the hearts of the even the bravest in the room.

Each man in the room glanced around him. Fifty swiveling heads, brows arched quizzically or eyes narrowed, examining the others. Then, as the heads slowly stopped and returned one by one to their natural repose, each began to look inside itself, terrified that it would find within itself the flaw that had brought them all here today to confront this terrible man.

"This is a problem of quality control, or, I should say, a lack of it."

Forty-nine heads pivoted suddenly, as if all were connected and yanked at once by the same string, stopping as one to gaze at the fiftieth, which stared down at the floor in anguish. One of their number sat off to the side of the room, isolated from the rest of them, the reason now clear in the minds of the others - he would be the unlucky one that would have to pay. But who was missing from the empty chair beside him?

"In particular, the problem is one of infection, as I'm sure you must all know by now," he sneered. Nothing stayed secret to them for long. Each man in the room had his own spies planted carefully throughout the corporation. The Boss knew this, tolerated it as inevitable, but was always disgusted at their protestations of ignorance when he knew every one of those shaking heads were often as well informed as he himself.

"We are in a race, the outcome of which could determine the future of the TAFT Corporation...". He turned his gaze fully on the room, making sure that all were with him.

He paused and almost whispered. "...my company, gentlemen."

The Boss's voice took a bad turn now, the first traces of a darkening wind pushed icy little fingers of wintry air out across the room, cold knuckles of the stuff brushing against unhappy faces, all straining forward now, as if in anticipation of the storm, and hanging on every word.

"My family built this company up to what it is today over three generations," his voice was rising now, "and I...will...not...be the one to fail it - failure is not an option for me!"

The first disconcerting changes began at the corners of the room. Something nasty was beginning to crawl into the peripheries of each man's vision, that part of the eye least affected by the concious mind, the wild eye that still roamed free, in search of danger, ready to sound the alert as it had been doing through a million or more years in the service of self preservation.

"All I have asked of you is to create an implant that is serviceable, gen-tel-men ," he twisted the word now and spat it out in three short bursts, as if he couldn't suffer the flavor of the whole thing in his mouth at once. "What could be the problem, I ask myself?"

He began to move around the room now, the stalker moving amongst its prey. The fear was evident in every eye that followed him, in the soft wet defenseless palms slipping nervously across glassy tabletops. In the terrible silence. But most of all it was the room itself; the room was responding to the drama that was beginning to unfold, a "learning environment" crafted by the corporation's most talented multi-dimensional media production groups, mostly for use by military and intelligence organizations that needed to motivate individuals into providing information, this one designed specially for the Boss. The edges of the room were beginning to dissolve now, the lines that marked boundaries of floor, wall, and ceiling became featureless leaving those gathered with a disoriented sense of floating in an infinite space with no horizon.

The crackling white noise of a wall size portal snapping open behind the CEO caused the crowd to jerk in unison. A shared outburst of childlike giggles and glances about broke the dark spell for a moment.

"DOCTOR XIANG REPORTS FROM OUR SHANGHAI VOLUNTEER CLINIC!" The mighty basso profundo voice of the Boss was a low body blow. Every head snapped back to attention. The CEO stood in front of the portal, pointing upwards to the waiting towering face of Doctor Xiang. The viewing portal lent the room some semblence of proportion again, however absurd the dimensions of it, and every man there fixed his eyes on it. The giant face demanded their attention, to look away risked the vertigo of staring into boundless infinity.

"Run the report."

The doctor cleared his throat and began. He didn't look well at all. Those in the room that knew the doctor were shocked to see the once handsome face contorted, long furrows ploughing his fine wide mouth down on the sides, fearful eyes staring out at them from dark hollow pockets, the source of that fear beyond the range of the camera.

"The situation here in Shanghai has been a great disappointment to say the least," the doctor began. " We are running a mortality rate of over 25 percent in head implants and roughly 10 to 15 percent in body implants. The leading cause of death is a virulent infectious agent introduced by the chip itself, as far as we can ascertain here. We didn't suspect it until a few days ago. Who would have thought the problem could have originated there? But it is the only possible explanation. A saboteur must have infiltrated the plant. The shipping cases are arriving undisturbed here, as always. The virus seems to have been introduced to the packaging fluid that surrounds and nourishes the chip while in transit. I can't be certain, but I would look for someone in the packaging area of the plant. We feel here that the virus must be added to the fluid later, after it has been produced in the lab - the controls there are just too restrictive to allow it to pass."

The doctor paused for a moment, turning his head slightly, as if distracted by something. He began again, somewhat agitated.

"The Chinese government is becoming...impatient," Doctor Xiang's narrow eyes darted to the left like a pair of frightened bats and returned widened now by some new knowledge only he could see. He sped on.

"We can not anticipate a continuing supply of...volunteers...under the circumstances. Indeed, the project may not be able to continue in its present form."

The screen flickered, some of the content of the transmission dropping out. When the signal was reestablished, there was more of a sense of urgency in the delivery. The doctor was rushing now, his eyes taking on a more desperate quality as loud voices and a sudden crashing noise seemed to emanate from somewhere close by within the clinic. The sharp staccato of authoritative Chinese voices rang out as the doctor hurried on.

"I hadn't anticipated this. We will need all personnel evacuated by any and all means possible." Panic had seized the doctor now as the noise around him became almost deafening. He shrieked out his last words.

"The situation here has become perilous, please..."

The audio burst into a torrent of static as the picture disappeared into waves of digital noise. In the last few flickering frames of the transmission Doctor Ziang's body could be seen twisted toward the direction of the disturbance, his hands raised above his head, his strobing mouth open in a silent scream. Then the wall went blank.

Nicholas Apolonio turned the full fury of his gaze upon the man seated alone at the side of the room.

"That transmission was received just over an hour ago." The Boss's jaw was clenched in fury, rippling masseter muscles bulging along the sides of his face. "We have heard nothing since, despite our best efforts," he hissed.

The edges of the room seemed to begin a slow spin now, as if the entire conference area were staged on a giant merry-go-round. Everyone sat tensed with anticipation, guts gripped by a fine cold fear, wishing they hadn't bought the ticket for this ride. A sense of madness, full of the kind of dread that can never be remembered until visited again, lay upon each man there. Now was the time to steel oneself for the ride - now that there was no turning back.

"Mr. Folley, please present yourself here." The Boss pointed to a spot in the middle of the floor in front of him, no longer acknowledging the man with his eyes. Derek Folley rose from his seat, looking already, as he crossed the room, like the ghost he was soon to become.

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