Zera and the Green Man: Chapter 14

After a brief stop to check out Theodore’s new office (a half-size version of Langston’s with a just-as-awesome refreshment bar), the two men took the executive elevator to the roof. A helicopter waited, motor running, blades rotating slowly and powerfully. The men clutched their briefcases, bent down, and ran. Langston’s hair and clothes whipped about, but Theodore’s usually unkempt hair stayed put, thanks to the massive amount of styling gel applied that morning by André.

They got into the helicopter and shut the door to — silence.

“Isn’t it great?” said Langston, running his fingers through his hair. “Totally sound-proof.”

“First rate,” said Theodore, trying to admire the leather seats and the roomy interior, while at the same time thinking how he was about to get lifted up into the sky — in a helicopter. That’ll sure put my new deodorant to the test.

A tanned and muscular man with a blond crew cut sat at the front of the chopper, behind the controls. As he turned to face his passengers, Theodore noticed the name Cooper Davies embroidered atop the planet Earth/VCC logo patch on his pocket.

Langston introduced the square-jawed pilot, adding, “Coop’s an ex-Marine. But now he’s in VCC’s branch of service.”

Coop shook Theodore’s hand. “It’s an honor, sir.” Theodore made an effort not to wince. Now I know what a grip of steel is. This guy is ripped.

Moments later they were sky borne, whirling through L.A. smog and looking down onto an endless landscape of concrete and cars.

After a buzz over the city, the chopper headed toward the desert. As they traveled east, the vegetation became sparse and the temperature so hot that waves of heat visibly radiated from the land below. Forty-five minutes later the Void Research Facility building came into view. Langston pointed to it, a spot of green on the horizon amid a beige landscape of mesquite, clumps of pale grass, and dry, cracked earth.

The chopper hovered like a dragonfly over a low, sand-colored building about the size of a football field. The grounds, which covered twice that much land, consisted of an asphalt parking lot enclosed by a twenty-foot-high electric fence topped with razor wire. Guard towers stood at each corner of the property and Theodore’s skin crawled when he saw the glint of laser guns flashing from their windows. The thought came to him that the complex would be identical to a maximum security prison if not for one detail: the entire rooftop of the building was a sparkling jewel of glass and greenery. Sixty-six pyramid-topped greenhouses, connected together, six deep and eleven long, covering the entire surface.

“You’ve got some pretty heavy security,” Theodore said.

Langston shrugged. “Got to. The building alone cost over $150 million, and the projects we’re working on are literally priceless.”

“It’s nothing like BioTech Multinational.”

Langston’s mouth tightened. “Make no mistake, Theodore; you’re in the big leagues now.”

The helicopter circled to the rear of the building and hovered above a landing pad, also painted with the VCC-Earth logo. Coop set the chopper dead center and cut the motor.

A door to the building opened and Troy Sylvan stepped outside. Theodore hadn’t seen him since dinner at The Posh, though he’d heard a lot of good things about him from Langston these last three days.

Troy jogged over to the chopper. “How was the ride, Theodore?” he asked. Grinning, he pumped Theodore’s hand.

“Great.”

“Everything running smoothly?” Langston asked Troy.

“You know it.” Troy turned to Theodore. “Congrats! Finally, you’re one of the team. Wait till you see what we’ve got going here,” He stroked his black goatee excitedly. “You’re gonna flip.”

They entered the building, and Troy directed them down the hall to the clean room/dressing room where they donned white laboratory coats, plastic shoes, safety glasses, latex gloves, and what looked like blue shower caps. Before entering the laboratory, Langston paused to look at himself in a full-length mirror, above which hung the sign, “ARE YOU CLEAN?”

Langston slipped up his safety glasses with the thumb and forefinger of one gloved hand and surveyed his not-quite-so-debonair self. “The only thing I hate about this place is the attire.” To the two men he said, “Ready? Then let’s go.”

Langston pressed a black button on the wall opposite the entrance. A set of elevator-like doors slid open, and the three stepped into an immense, brightly-lit laboratory buzzing with activity. A hundred pairs of eyes turned toward the door and all talking stopped. Theodore’s pulse raced. They know that the boss — no, the BOSSES — are here. Just last week I was in their position; now I’m the one to be noticed.

Theodore scanned the room to find row upon row of tables, each holding thousands of round glass Petri dishes and plant specimens. Dozens of lab technicians were involved in various tasks: transplanting tiny plants to the dishes, transferring larger plants to pots, working under microscopes with tiny syringes, injecting plants with bacterium laced with the DNA of other species, typing notes on electronic notepads.

“This is where the newest and most promising ideas in the fields of agriculture and cosmetics are tested,” explained Troy. In a low voice he added, “The ones that aren’t top secret, anyhow.”

Troy keeps mentioning “top secret.” They must have something really big going on. Probably a new fruit or vegetable combined with a mammal, like the burg-fry. Excitement stirred within him; he couldn’t wait to find out.

A printout banner taped to one wall read “MATERNITY WARD.”

Theodore pointed. “Clever.”

“Not very professional,” Langston frowned, “but apropos, don’t you think?”

Troy led them to a table where a small, mousy woman rapidly transplanted large seedlings into plastic pots filled with soil and fertilizer pellets. She seemed surprised and a little self-conscious to see Langston, but she continued her task. Theodore watched, transfixed. Tiny leaf buds swelled and began to open as she moved them into the bigger pots. Roots and stems grew before his eyes. This is incredible, much more than I expected.

“Here,” Troy said, “we are working on designing a superfast-growing oak tree. Waiting one hundred years or more for a mature oak is unacceptable. And soon it’s going to be a thing of the past. What we’re doing here will eventually provide raw building materials — oak for floors, furniture, cabinets — in a fraction of time. Not one hundred years, but ten. Teresa is potting up our solution, a combination of mice growth genes inserted into the DNA of the oak. These seedlings are two hours old.”

Theodore’s eyes widened behind the safety glasses. “So it’s a success?”

“Well, let’s put it this way, we’re still working on getting a few of the squeaks out.”

The men guffawed and the lab technician, up to her elbows in plants, smiled politely. Theodore thought she looked like she’d heard that joke many times before.

They walked to the next row of tables, full of microscopes, as a technician arrived at his station. The young man, who looked to be in his late teens, appeared startled when Theodore caught his eye. He quickly pulled his cap down over his of hair, wisps of which were going everywhere, turned, and took off at a fast clip down the aisle. Although he left quickly, Theodore could swear the young man’s hair was turning from blond to blue, the same color as the plastic cap. He was moving away so fast, but his skin seemed to be lightening too, becoming paler. Weird.

Langston noticed. “What’s with that guy?” he asked Troy.

So he saw it too.

“That’s Dubson,” said Troy in a low voice, giving Langston a knowing look.

“Oh,” said Langston.

Theodore moved closer to the men. “Did I just see what I thought I saw?”

Troy sighed, frowned. “We weren’t going to tell you about Dubson until later. That kid is from our Youth Volunteer Scientist Program, a program where young people who get into a scrape with the law can work off their debt to society, so to speak, by putting in time at the lab, taking part in a few harmless experiments. It’s all legal, I assure you. He signed a waiver.” Langston looked around, and his voice dropped. “We’ve developed a cream that’s applied to the skin. The cuttlefish gene spliced to some stem cells. The cream is applied before the cells die, and is absorbed into the skin. The results are fantastic. Short term, but incredibly promising.”

“You’re doing human experiments?” Theodore’s voice rose, and several lab techs looked over. This was unheard of. His mind raced. Cuttlefish. They were related to octopi, known for their amazing camouflage techniques, their ability to change the pigmentation of their skin to their surroundings. Is that what he saw? And this guy was running around the lab? He felt color rising to his cheeks, a flash of something that was akin to anger. This was too much! He had a million questions.

Langston saw his irritation. He took him by the arm and led him away from the tables. “Theodore, it’s inevitable that man will take the genetic engineering work to the next level. That is what we ourselves are genetically designed to do, to find out how far our minds, our research, can take us. VCC is just the first one to do it. Dubson was happy to volunteer. He thought it was marvelous to see if he could have this camouflage ability. Can you imagine? It’s like the closest thing to human invisibility. The applications are incalculable and the military is very interested, as you can imagine. And this program, with these volunteers — it’s a great way to keep that bottom line down.”

Contradicting thoughts battled in Theodore’s mind: This isn’t right — they are using these kids — fought hard against — Human invisibility? That is the coolest thing ever! Langston was staring, trying to read him. Theodore swallowed hard. I’ll sort it out later. “This is some cutting edge work, that’s for sure,” Theodore said in a husky voice. An inkling of the possibility of what might be in the top-secret lab teased his mind. I’m in, thought Theodore, I signed the papers. Either it’ll be me or someone else as president of the Biotech Division. I’ve always wanted this.

Langston smiled. “There will be plenty of time to talk about this later. We should get on with the tour.” Troy led the way to a part of the lab where technicians sat at benches hunched over Petri dishes. He explained that the fingernail-size sections of choco-cane, a previously engineered combination of sugar cane and the cacao tree, had been placed in a nutrient mixture. To this mixture the lab technicians added, by syringe, a solution of a disease bacterium.

Troy explained that the bacterium had a gene, the milk-producing gene of a cow, spliced into its DNA. “We’re going for a milk chocolate plant. Can you imagine the money we’ll make?” he said. “Instant chocolate!”

Although his mind was still fixated on the cuttlefish and Dubson, Theodore watched the technicians perform a process he knew well. This was how all genetic engineering work began. The bacterium invaded the plant, entered the plant cell’s nucleus, and inserted some of its own DNA, while at the same time smuggling in the foreign DNA — in this case, a cow’s. Then the scientists would wait until the slips of plants grew roots. They’d pot the plants, move them to the greenhouse, and from there, wait until the newly created life-forms matured. Soon they would find out whether the experiments succeeded or failed. Most failed. Theodore knew that science hadn’t advanced to the point where they could predict exactly where in the genome the new DNA would land, so the procedure had to be performed thousands upon thousands of times. If the gene landed in the right place, the company hit the jackpot; there would be new products to patent in the world market. If the gene landed in the wrong place, the combination might not show up, might show up weakly, or the plant could be a freak. There were a lot of throw-aways in genetic engineering; one of the problems was collateral damage to genes near the target area (making for even more mutations), but a single success more than made up for it in the sales department.

He took a deep breath. “Very impressive.”

Next to a wall, they visited a thin man whose face showed a lot of razor-stubble. He stood in front of a “gene gun,” a steel- and safety-glass enclosed contraption about the size of a small microwave oven, covered with dials and hoses. Troy explained that this project involved inserting a disease bacterium containing the gene of a walrus into the nutrient mixture holding a tomato cutting. Troy introduced this man as Max Albright.

“Max was one of our brightest interns,” Troy said, “and now he’s one of our most devoted scientists. He developed this little idea himself, the walato. It’s a tomato/walrus combination that will allow, we hope, the popular temperate-climate fruit to be grown in the Arctic, year-round.”

“Exciting,” Theodore said. He meant it; it was exciting, but he couldn’t get his mind off Dubson.

“We’re determined to find a success soon,” said the exhausted-looking Albright, his eyes glassy and bloodshot. “This is the three-thousandth and fifty-sixth batch.” Hand trembling slightly, Albright turned the dial and pressed the button. A tiny red light flashed and the contraption made a tiny “POP.”

“Trying to get it in the right spot on the genome is like a blind man trying to hit the bull’s eye in game of darts,” Troy said. He told Albright to keep up the good work.

“Thanks, sir.”

“Now, at long last, it’s time to see the really cool stuff,” whispered Troy.

Really cool stuff? Theodore wondered. What in God’s name could that be? Already it seemed that VCC was way ahead, dangerously ahead, of the game in their research already.

Returning to the clean room/dressing room, Troy secured the door behind them. He searched the dressing areas and bathroom to make sure they were alone and then called Security from a wall v-phone.

“You’ll need to come over and unlock the door,” he said to the guard on the monitor. “We’re going downstairs.”

The guard nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“We’ll call you in about twenty minutes.”

Langston went to the sign next to the mirror that read “ARE YOU CLEAN?” and swung it aside. Theodore saw a secret key pad and scanning device hidden underneath. Langston took off one glove, punched in a series of numbers and letters, and laid his palm atop the scanning device. A high, whining tone emitted from the scanner and the mirror below slid into the wall, revealing a long, dim, downward-sloping corridor. He extended his arm. “After you, gentlemen.”

Everything’s so cool, and so cloak-and-dagger — now a secret passageway? Light-headedness came over Theodore. He wasn’t sure if it was elation or dread, but his palms were sweating. For some reason, Alice in Wonderland, Alice falling down the rabbit hole in particular, entered his mind. This is what free falling feels like. All I can do now is wait for the landing.

The trio entered the passage and the mirror-door slid closed behind them as lights along the passageway brightened. Theodore looked up and noticed a tiny camera hovering above them, driven by silent, helicopter-like blades. It was so small that at first he thought it was some kind of insect. Holy cow. He could feel the adrenalin coursing through him. This IS the big leagues. The camera followed them as they descended. Down they went, at a gentle slope, for about sixty feet. At the end of the corridor, this time uncovered and in the wall next to a set of double doors, Theodore saw a second scanning device.

“It’s your turn,” Langston said to Theodore. “It’s easy. Just punch in the secret code, Demeter 911, and then place your palm on the scanner. It’s been set up already to recognize your hand.”

“But how, how did you get this set up so quickly?”

“We’ve had a few days together. I’ve had your prints since that first dinner together.”

Theodore shook his head. “Again, so very impressive, Langston.” I’ve never seen anything like this. “Demeter? Isn’t that the Greek goddess of agriculture, fruits of the harvest?”

Langston laughed. “And of course 911’s the number you call for emergencies. Troy’s got an incredible sense of humor, don’t you think?”

Very funny. Theodore entered in the code and laid his now-sweating palm against the scanner.

The door opened.

Bright, white light caused the men to squint as they entered the room. The first impression was of an outdoor plant nursery. Rows and rows of overhead fluorescent lights made the place as bright as natural sunlight. Theodore took in the green leafy plant life. There were trees — and humidity. His skin absorbed the warmth, the mugginess. Then he noticed a sickeningly sweet floral smell, tinged with the scent of bleach.

Theodore’s eyes adjusted, and details emerged. Closest to him, a row of vines on a long trellis held strange fruits. Small and round with filmy coverings, blue, green, brown, hazel, with black centers and white rims. They hung in clusters, like grapes. But these grapes stared blankly. For a second it didn’t compute.

It was as if his mind couldn’t accept what he saw. They’re eyes, Theodore thought. Eyes! Dozens of eyeballs in a cluster, hundreds of clusters along the row.

His heart thudded, his mouth dropped open in stupefaction. He couldn’t speak. His throat felt closed up, strangled.

Forcing himself to shift his gaze, Theodore saw most of the other plants were trees, growing in large containers in neat rows. A row of gnarled, twisted trees bore huge, garish red flowers, unlike any he had ever seen. Some of them held mature fruits. Theodore’s head swam. These fruits, recognizable even though encased in milky membranes, were hearts. Hearts with thick veins — live, beating hearts. Human hearts. Over the sound of the fans stirring the moist, sickeningly perfumed air, Theodore heard the slow but unmistakable beatings — thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump — as they pulsated with life. His own heart seemed to stop as he noticed the medical equipment attached to the trees, white, whirring machines with digital printouts and graphs and little red lights. Like a hospital.

Theodore gaped at another row of trees. They were also gnarled and ugly — and covered with pairs of lungs! Breathing in, breathing out. One word echoed in Theodore’s head. Alive. There was more medical equipment, and then, across the room. My God, livers? Theodore’s stomach churned at the site — big, dark, and sloppy wet-looking human organs.

Theodore’s gaze fled, only to land on a long three-foot-high tank-like structure filled with soil. White trellises rose from the structure with white, ghostly vines scrambling to the top, vines with super-thick hairy stems and huge, pale leaves. The stems needed to be thick in order to bear the weight of the large fruit. They weren’t thick enough. Around each big bowling ball-sized fruit globe was a net of mesh tied onto the trellis support. Through the mesh, Theodore could see the hair of the fruit poking out. Long hair. Human hair. No faces, just hair.

“Welcome to Fort Knox,” said Langston.

“Now this is cutting edge, baby!” exclaimed Troy.

Theodore’s knees buckled and everything went dark.

*     *      *      *     *

He awakened to the overwhelming sensations of his nostrils on fire and his sinuses filled with an icy wind. His eyes flew open and he gasped. Above him hovered a very overweight woman with pretty brown eyes. Eyes that looked familiar. She peered down at him where he lay on a couch.

“The smelling salts worked. How are you feeling, Mr. Green?” While the words were kind, her tone had a definite undercurrent of disdain.

Where am I? Do I know this woman? The nurse wore white scrubs and had her dark hair pulled back severely with a trio of bobby pins on each side. The slightly wrinkled and softer flesh of her face revealed she had to be at least forty. For a second she looked familiar but no, he didn’t know her. Everything seemed scrambled and he struggled to remember. Where am I? He saw Langston and Troy sitting in chairs at a nearby table. They looked at him with concern, tinted with a trace of amusement.

“You’re in the break room, near the lab,” said the nurse matter-of-factly. “You’ve been out for a couple of minutes.”

It all came back to him. A nurse, of course there’s a nurse. It’s like a hospital. The blood drained from his face.

The nurse said, “If you feel sick, I’ll help you to the bathroom. It’s right around the corner.”

“I’m okay,” Theodore said, sitting up.

The nurse looked back at him with an expression of barely-concealed annoyance, as if the idea of a grown man fainting, let alone vomiting, over some emotional disturbance disgusted her. Theodore cleared his throat, turned to the men at the table. “I . . . I knew you were running some computer programs, checking out the theories, the data I’ve been sending you from work I did in college. I was just fooling around, coming up with wild ideas. I had no idea that you were implementing this work.”

“I think you’re done here now,” Langston said to the nurse. Troy walked to the door and held it open. The nurse quickly packed the contents of her medical bag and left.

Langston stood. “There’s been a small team on these projects for years. We started checking out your theories way before you sent them to us as, well, your computer system did not prove much of a challenge to hack into. Everything you hypothesized has been an incredible success,” said Langston. “Everything has worked! Every single man/plant combination you came up with, the protein mixtures, anti-rejection formulas.

Everything worked just like it was meant to work. This is success beyond all expectations.”

Theodore, still reeling in disbelief, reached for his glasses on the table next to him and put them on. “You hacked into my files? This is all illegal on so many levels, Langston. How could you do this? It’s one thing to examine an idea and quite another to make it a reality.” He rubbed the back of his head, where he had a bump from the fall. “Those balls of hair. Good God, that must have been my melon-hair idea. I never meant for these things to be created!”

“Every bald man, and woman, is going to be beating a path to our door,” Langston said, his voice flat. “Now you know why we had to have you. You are a genius. An Einstein, an Edison, a Luther Burbank times ten! But those men didn’t have the backing of a powerful multi-national corporation, or the money Void Chemical Corporation has to grease the wheels with the politics of it all. When word of what we have done gets out, mankind is not going to worry about the legality. We’re going to save lives, Theodore! The money will be astronomical! With us, all your dreams will be realized.”

“We also had to have you, once we started testing these theories,” Troy said, “or you would have sued us.”

“Yeah, I would have.” Theodore stood up. He felt wobbly, but his anger steadied him. The disgust crashed through him in waves. Maybe I still can. Langston repulsed him. I trusted him and all he wanted to do was steal from me.

“But you would have had a hard time winning,” Troy said. “With the holdings VCC has, we would have kept you in court forever. You would have had a hard time proving anything.

Langston shot a menacing glance at Troy, and then turned to Theodore. “That would never happen, Theodore. We’re friends now. We care about the same things.”

With friends like you . . .

Langston walked over to the cooler and pulled out two bottles of StrongMan Rejuvenator. He opened them and brought one over to Theodore. “You’ve signed the contracts. We don’t want to turn this into something negative, put the false word out that you’ve been leaking this technology for years. We’re one of the major corporations in the world already, Theodore. Soon, we’re going to be the major corporation. Your work is our crowning achievement. Do you know what all this means? It’s The Golden Rule. You know, ‘Those with the gold, rule.’ We will have it all.” He paused, taking a drink from the bottle. “Though, I will make a confession. To me, the power, the money, pales in comparison to the actual work. This is the most exciting step mankind has ever made. Bigger than going to the moon, bigger than the atomic bomb.” His green eyes flashed. “For the very first time we are gaining absolute power over nature. And we’re getting closer to immortality, Theodore, thanks to your brilliant mind. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

“No.” Theodore didn’t. It’s too much.

“It means we are there. We can do anything we want!” Langston’s voice turned soft, soothing. “I know it’s a bit much to take all at once. We should go now, take you back to L.A. and let you get some rest. After all, we’ve had a lot of time to get used to the idea of what we’re doing. You’ve only had today. I certainly understand.”

“Yeah, it’s some heavy stuff, Theodore,” added Troy. “You need time to soak it all in.” . .

Cuttlefish

 

To purchase your own copy of Zera and the Green Man, visit the official website now. Paperback and Kindle versions are now available.

Zera and the Green Man is a novel by Sandra Knauf, a local author and sustainability advocate living in Colorado Springs.

GreenwomanPublishing

Published via US Represented by consent of the publisher:
Published by Greenwoman Publishing, LLC
P. O. Box 6587, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 80934-6587, U.S.A.

First published in the United States of America
Copyright © Sandra Knauf, 2013
All rights reserved

ISBN: 978-0-9897056-0-8 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-9897056-1-5 (ebook)

Cover drawing by Paul Spielman.
Cover photography by CanStockPhoto 11569383
Cover and interior design by Zora Knauf.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or living-dead, is entirely coincidental.

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