Why Gloria had turned on her TV and for that matter to the pop-up channel ‘Political Debates’ when she had the type of guests she had was anyone’s good guess. Politics rarely made a good after-dinner conversation especially if the diners didn’t share the same ideology nor belonged to the same party as their host.
As Gloria realised the latter fact the anchor, dour Phil Munroe was saying to one of the panellists, “Of course, normally, as often happens in circumstances of hostilities, agendas like strategies between same side players often differ.”
“I agree with you,” said Potts, the Realists spokesman. “Yet, the Harmonisers aren’t thinking straight about this Alien issue. In fact, they never have.”
“Why do you say that?” Phil asked.
“Well, what they have always proposed is unworkable and boarders on being unpatriotic.”
The representative of the Harmony, Watts scoffed loudly at Potts remark.
“I’ll explain, Phil,” Potts continued unabated. “For instance, look at their manifesto. Harmony wants the Aliens to stay, to have them live and let live. They corruptly ignore the sobering and immutable fact that Earth and its resources are bound forever in a state of finitude. We just can’t give these, our, resources away, nor can we accommodate other races on the little we have without getting something in return - moreso when the survival of the human race depends upon the Solar System. Earth and, if I dare say so, the Solar System is overpopulated already. The sudden influx of Aliens that has been occurring these past decades is straining us further. We, however, offer a real workable compromise. The solar system is too small and the universe too big for the Aliens not to find another star system - a vacant system at that - to colonise, terra-form if need be and create, excuse me for lack of a better term, a humanosphere. Why do they insist on coming here to stay forever? Why? I smell ulterior motives, deadly ones at that, Phil. Why can’t they be tourists not immigrants?”
Watts laughed uncomfortably then. “Real compromise!” He said. “Potts you’re just spewing forth political folderol paranoia. Phil, the Realists want the Aliens gone, but then they want the money too. That won’t work. Your party Potts cries everyday that they should be free trade and tourism between the races and peoples of the universe, that trade posts be established but none should emigrate. There’s a word for that. It’s segregation. You cry, think of the opportunities, the revenue and the jobs mankind would reap. Be honest. You don’t like Aliens. You only want their sweat and money. You just want to use them like you use everyone else.”
Angrily Potts immediately retaliated. “Be honest yourself, Watts. Aren’t you funded by Aliens? Aren’t you their propaganda machine? In fact, you might be an Alien yourself - a Pod person. You’re on the extreme opposite of the Earth Allegiants, which makes you extremist as well. We have a human word for what you’re doing. Its called treason.”
“Phoor,” glared Watts childishly at Potts. “Phil, what he is saying is utter nonsense and is all false accusations. Only the brainwashed can believe such lies, such vitriol, such blather.”
Phil smiled loving the fireworks - controversy is always good for the shows ratings.
“Why not go away?” cried Potts. “The Universe is large enough. There’s plenty, billions even, of virgin galaxies, vacant star systems and planets. Why come here? Why come to us? I tell you they’ll make our Earth even the whole solar system a Necropolis if we don’t guard against them.”
Watts shifted uncomfortably in his chair, smiling weakly.
It was then that Gloria hurriedly reached over and switched off the telly. She realised she didn’t want her guests defending themselves to her, or trying to recruit her.
“Sorry about that,” she said. At least she had the decency to look embarrassed. She knew Martha and Raphael belonged to the Earth Allegiants who wanted the Aliens gone forever. And once gone, zero contact. They firmly believed that from the Sun to the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt and the Oort Cloud belonged to humans and was enough and sustainable if humans were wise about how to use and distribute it only amongst themselves.
Currently, they were lobbying the government for alien exclusion zones in cities and once that succeeds, countries, and finally, the whole Earth and thereafter the solar system. They even had party regalia emblazoned with the slogan, ‘ET go home. Don’t ever come back’ which they publicly wore or displayed with pride. Obviously being Earth Allegiants meant everything to them.
“About Eleanor,” Gloria said after the awkward silence. “I’ve a suggestion. I’m not sure how you’ll take it.”
“Yes, what is it?” Martha said not knowing which was the worst topic Eleanor’s issue or the political one.
Suddenly, Gloria looked nervous.
“Well, child,” said Martha growing impatient. “Out with it.”
“See Gleichenia, the story teller,” Gloria blurted it out. “Only he can help you find Eleanor. If he can’t no one can.”
“Why?” Martha had gaped, surprised by the gall Gloria possessed and was displaying. Is this why she had invited them over for dinner, acting the part of the commiserating neighbour? Immediately, however, Martha put it down to Gloria being twenty-two, feisty and daring, but good intentioned. Youngsters took everything for granted these days. They assumed everything was easy because they’d no convictions nor allegiances.
“He’s ET,” Martha observed in protest before glancing sideways at Raphael, her husband, who stoic as ever, never said a word during the exchange. Instead he continued to sip his coffee like the conversation happening between the two women was normal and inconsequential to his life.
“Of course, he is, dear. That’s why he can do what he does, what no human can,” Gloria chanted, at the same time sitting opposite Martha and causing Raphael to end up on her left-side. She lowered her voice a bit as if confiding and added whilst reaching for Martha’s hand, “I know you both have problems with the Aliens being here. But, considering everything, you’ve nothing to lose. You want to find Eleanor, don’t you?”
Determined she looked to Raphael then back to Martha with her ‘well, what do you say?’ face.
“Yes, we do,” Martha admitted, thinking all the while of the time they’d wasted with the police and private detectives.
‘The more days that passed,’ that fat and bald detective Lyogs had said to her only that morning, ‘the lesser the chances of finding Eleanor alive, that is, if she’s found at all.’
Martha held back the tears. Raphael took her other hand and gently squeezed it, saying nothing. His touch, a source of strength, shut her emotional floodgates, calmed her down - a bit. Though, by the way his gnarly liver spotted hands shivered ever so slightly, Martha knew he didn’t like Gloria’s idea as well. Martha could just as hear him think: ‘Getting help from the enemy humanises them, makes us weak. How will we kill them when the time comes, when we know they saved one of our own? Creating empathy with an enemy is never a best policy.’
“My dears, help is help, no matter the hand that gives it,” Gloria explained, somehow oblivious to the underlying dilemmas her proposal had created in her guests. “My advice don’t look at the hand that helps. Just mind the help. That’s what I’d do if she was my child and I was in your shoes. Be self-serving on this. Forget the prejudices. Forget the party, the politics and your positions therein. Think about yourself, think about the child and getting her back home. Think about Eleanor’s child, your grandchild, Luke. Save her whatever the cost. Real, caring people will understand if you use every chance you have got.”
“Raphael?” Martha asked, fear in her eyes, confused, needing help, pleading her husband for approval. Gloria had a point. Family must come first, always.
Raphael heard her and understood. He nodded his ascent. How could he deny her? “We’ll try it,” he said. “for Luke, for Eleanor, for us.”
“Thank you,” Martha said, kissing his hand. She knew the decision was hard for him: it’s never easy getting help from the hand of one one has hated and fought for so long.
Gloria smiled, patted her hand, softly.
“You’ll not regret this,” she promised.
There and then, at the Franks request Gloria had discreetly set everything up, given them directions and warned them to travel incognito. “You’ll be fine,” she’d said in her sing song voice. “No one needs to know. Many from your party go there. You wouldn’t believe who if I tell you. I’ve set up the appointment. Just be there. He’ll be expecting you. He’ll help bring Eleanor home. Trust me.”
The Franks had followed Gloria’s directions meticulously. Martha and Raphael ended up downtown, at the entrance of an alleyway. The alleyway was sodden, filthy and rat infested. The twilight didn’t help. The rusty staircase the elderly couple had to ascend at the end of it was precarious that Raphael had to hold Martha’s hand going all the way up. When they finally found the apartment, on ringing the bell, a mouse of a man opened for them.
“We’re the Franks,” Raphael announced to the man. The man’s poked face broke into what the Franks assumed to be a smile, but it was more of a toothed gash.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the man said. “My name is Hirschsprung. Please, welcome, enter into Master Gleichenia’s Temple of light.”
The Temple of Light was in a word dingy despite an attempt to decorate it with exotic and expensive looking silks, carpets and tapestries, and it was deliberately dark in places.
“Forgeries,. Imitations,” Raphael whispered to Martha. “This is a con. We shouldn’t be here.”
“We’ve talked about this. We agreed to try everything to get her back. You promised,” Martha reminded him.
“Trust me,” Hirschsprung interjected on overhearing them. “Looks can be deceiving. That which lacks lustre isn’t always worthless. This way, please, to the Master. He awaits. He says your session is going to take time.”
Hirschsprung ushered them to some floor cushions. “Sit,” he said. The Franks obediently sat. Before them, they realised, when their eyes got used to the dim light was the Master in a lotus position - probably meditating.
“The ceremony will begin whenever you’re ready. The Master asks for absolute silence from one and all. No questions or interruptions allowed. Listen carefully to his narration. Take notes if you wish. But it isn’t necessary, an audio file will be provided free of course, courtesy of Master Gleichenia at the end of the session. If you want video that will cost you extra,” Hirschsprung explained with a grin as he ferreted about the place lighting up candles and essence lamps.
Maybe today, Martha thought, I will get real answers.
Raphael only wanted closure. He’d given up all hope of finding her alive. He told himself he’d be grateful to just have his child’s body to bury. That would be enough for him. To give her a decent burial and know where to find her if he‘d things to say to her, like how he missed her, loved her, was sorry for not protecting her enough from the world and herself.
Martha and Raphael watched attentively as before them Gleichenia shivered, his black orbs turned white as his purple lips moved in the dim light.
“I’m she now; a woman, younger and stronger, ruthless and driven,” he said. “She’s talking to another, a subordinate.”
Who’s she? Raphael thought and wanted to ask, but he thought the better of it and decided to wait and see.
Gleichenia continued: “The Fire Department has been notified. They’re on their way,” Jane says.
Fearing the worst - the woman - she asks, “And the fire itself?”
“According to the smoke alarm and sprinkler system the fire started in the animal lab and is confined there for the time being,” Jane replies. “It hasn’t spread to the neighbouring labs.”
“Thank you,” the woman says but having learnt not to rely on the reports of others when she can easily see and judge for myself, she rechecks on the labs live video security feed from her desktop. The cameras, those inside and outside the animal lab when she works them from all their panning angles even when zoomed or not, they only see smoke. They are basically blind, useless.
She turns up the sound - only white noise: no frightened chatter is coming from the animals. The thought of the covia cobayas which being gentle creatures didn’t make that much noise even when under threat of harm, didn’t make her feel better - only that much worse. The creatures couldn’t even rattle cages. She groans and thinks, they are most likely huddling in the furthest corner, frightened and waiting to suffocate from the smoke or to be burned alive.
Regardless she has seen nothing, images of a lifetime of scientific work burning to a crisp flood her mind. She nearly curses herself, then fate, then everything. Then stops. She realises doing so would break her longest running streak of not using a swear word in four hundred and two days.
She’s wonders to herself, but did this fire have to occur a day after the Board had vetoed their licence application to start Phase One Clinical Trials? She has to relieve this stress and frustration of failure somehow. Silently, she chants to herself. But the chants aren’t working this time around. Overwhelmed she drops her face into her good hand and groans some more. Life couldn’t get any worse than this, she thinks.
“Are you alright?” Jane asks probably sensing how stressed she is.
Looking up at her she says, “You should go home, Jane. I’ll call you when I need you.”
“Am I being fired already?” Jane asks, cheery demeanour fading. The woman hears Jane ask but what Jane has said hasn’t registered against her tempestuous thoughts.
“Why this? Why now? Why at all?” She laments under her breath. Before angry, incoherent thoughts follow. So frustrated by the unfortunate events, she proceeds to gibber. Jane is shocked, wants to run away and is edging to the door. The lalochezia grips her hard and with a pent up vengeance. She feels the stress therapy crumbling. Now she hears herself gutturally voice a colourful litany of four lettered swear words, repeatedly. They are leaping out of her mouth like inmates on a jailbreak. They fill the spacious office, then they race down the hall before their echoes bounce back, reverberating in the empty corridors.
Jane flees, possibly her ears are melting. Poor girl, she thinks - all this on her first day.
Back in the office taking a breath the woman tells herself to get a grip. Maybe the fire isn’t as worse as it seems. She just has to find out, instead of driving herself crazy. Immediately she abandons the paperwork she’s working on on her office desk - it can wait. She practically sprints out of the office and down the corridors. When she frantically arrives at the lab within seconds, she sees Ehrlich in the lab. He’s, she thinks at the time, busy securing their work; the vials. On seeing him and the vials clasped each in his hands she breathes a sigh of relief, lauding his presence and quick response to providence.
“Thank god, you’re here,” she says. But he just looks at her with sadness in his eyes and says nothing.
“Ehrlich, are you okay? What’s going on? What happened?” she shouts, breathlessly, over the clamour of the klaxon and the thickening cloud of smoke gathering above their heads. When he doesn’t answer she briskly adds, “Here, quickly, give me the vials. Then we’ll get the covia cobayas to safety before the fire spreads or the smoke suffocates them.” Still, he says nothing as she rattles on, “If there’s still a chance we’ll get the files out last. Thank God most of our data is backed up on the Cloud.”
Ehrlich still says nothing.
“What’s wrong?” she asks. “Let me help hold the vials.”
Instead of handing the two vials over, he throws hard smashing one of them against the opposite wall. The sudden violence causes strange reflections to occur on her mind. Suddenly, a startling and preposterous conclusion stares her in the face. She’d heard of them, industrial spies, intellectual property thieves and saboteurs. But to think, her dearest, Ehrlich, as one of them - after all these years of utmost fidelity and diligence? No. Not possible.
She looks around. The evidence though circumstantial is there. Yet she feels it’s weak, unreliable. It doesn’t lead to one logical conclusion if all that is and has happened is considered. But does she know everything? She wonders. The fire burning in the dust bin and nowhere else. He could have easily put that out with one of the hand held fire extinguishers. He’d foregone that option. If he’d not done so it would have obviated the removal of the vials. Unless, if he’s burning something he was intent on destroying. Or maybe, she realises, he’d not agreed to her plan after all.
She stills herself. It doesn’t make sense, nor can she shake the possibility. Then she sees the lifeless animals in the cages. All sixteen of them dead, possibly poisoned. The smoke cannot have suffocated them. It is swirling up on the ceiling, still gathering and not below the floor were the animals are. The air down there is still fresh, or at least breathable. That’s why herself and Ehrlich were standing upright and breathing - only the smell of smoke is a slight bother, that is barring the existence of odourless noxious fumes like carbon monoxide.
“What did you do?” She asks, shocked as the realisation of what he has done hits her.
“Mercy killing,” replies Ehrlich, proudly. “I put them out of their misery, of being experimented upon in such a grotesque and gruesome manner. It was quick, painless. Don’t worry. They didn’t suffer.”
She opens her mouth to ask why and shuts it again. She knows why already. This has nothing to do with industrial espionage or selling out.
Immediately she regrets why in the first place she’d yesterday confided in him about her plans to experiment on herself. She thought she’d made it clear that to her this wouldn’t be experimenting with respect to its inherent nature but treatment: and wonders - is he doing this to deny her treatment no matter if it is experimental? Whatever his reasons are, she’s disappointed with him.
So she stands her ground, a part of her blames herself, and another wants to run away and hide - understanding is for later.
“Who the hell are you?” she says dryly. “The Ehrlich I know and loved would never destroy my work, betray or really hurt me, or refuse me treatment.”
Still he doesn’t answer.
“Ehrlich. Please. The vial,” she says, sprinkler rain getting into her eyes, hiding her tears.
He shakes his head. “No,” he says.
For as long as she can remember, her personal motto is: I don’t do desperate. Such a mental attitude had sustained her, made her strong, self-reliant even. So when she finds herself, at this very moment, saying, “Please Ehrlich. Don’t take this from me, from us.” she unsuccessfully fights back the tears for she knows what she’s feeling. And when she says, “Help me to understand.” she means it. Maybe there’s something to salvage if they can only talk. She wishes though she’d had the pride, fortitude and foresight to stop the words from ever coming out, and simply walked away, letting the law to take care of him, get answers and let her have some satisfaction from justice served. Then again desperate is desperate. She cannot let him take away her only hope at being normal again.
The man Ehrlich stands frozen-like. She waits for an answer to her pleas. It’s in vain. All she gets are wasted seconds, silence and a cold stare.
In his eyes and in the determination he’d executed his actions she finds words of what he’s thinking. Or she thinks she does. He’s thinking he can’t stop now: a compromise will be a mistake, conceding will cost a lot. Or is she projecting, ascribing her own thoughts and standards to him, and judging them as his? Maybe. She really doesn’t know. Its only that in the circumstances it’s easy, convenient even, to do. The idea seems to fit, after rationalising what he’s doing and why. Anyhow, she knows, if he’d only let her take the treatment she’d be normal and wouldn’t he like it? How can he not? She will be normal like other women. Didn’t he want that? She knew she wanted nothing else.
“If this was breast augmentation I wanted would you say no, or behave like this?” she asks.
“That’s not fair,” replies Ehrlich.
“Is it?” she asks feeling belligerence mounting up and taking control. Left so with no workable option she faces him no longer as a colleague but an adversary. It feels strange to her seeing and thinking of him as such after years of mutually working together and collegial harmony.
“Give me the vial,” she says extending her good hand. When he refuses she snaps. “What you’re doing is unprofessional, vindictive and unwarranted,” she remarks. “Aren’t we doctors?”
“It’s precisely because I’m a doctor that I won’t give it back,” Ehrlich answers stepping backwards, away from her. “I can’t allow the use of the contents of this vial or come to think of it permit its very existence. If I do, that would be dereliction of my duty of care.”
Taken aback by his response and for the first time the difference between them is too stark to ignore: he mightn’t mind but she hates losing especially by her own hand. To her losing to a worthy opponent is better but still she eschews failure. She looks at him and sees before her a man, intelligent and capable, who’s embracing failure without even a meagre attempt to fight back.
Maybe classifying his own destructive conduct as not being derelict made him sleep at night, she thinks. She pities him as a thought tugs at the back of her head. Can it be this lashing out is a sign of depression or a sudden mental breakdown? She wonders. The classical symptoms are all absent. Obviously, he’s well. And she’s already looking for excuses for him, justifying why he’s ruining her chance to be normal.
“You’re a coward,” she says, conclusively. “And you know very well I’m not your patient for you to prevent me from taking the treatment even if its experimental.”
He blinks. “On a personal level we are in a protective relationship.”
She gasps. He had to go there. That didn’t require comment. Instead she asks: “Are you really oblivious to the fact your actions are only aiding our detractors, the Board?”
“Oblivious, no,” replies Ehrlich. “But I guess I can understand how a person in your position can see it like that. Honestly, the Board is correct. You’re disappointed with their decision but you’re reckless. Reckless is never bravery nor is having sense cowardice.”
She seethes and groans. “You’re naive deferring to the Boards unmeritorious wishes when they are a hundred of miles away. Only us the grunts know the actual reality of the battle. I’m on a face to face basis with the enemy. I live with it. They don’t, neither do you.”
He replies, “Then you’re blinded by the dust, smoke and blood of battle. For once worry about the war, the bigger picture: the safety of humanity and your own.”
“Don’t be a fool, Ehrlich. Don’t be their puppet,” she says.
“Who needs human puppeteers when blind ambition or the lack of sense makes puppets of us all?” Ehrlich answers calmly. She ignores the jibe. He has always accused her of being too driven for cautionary sense to ever prevail. But strong ambition doesn’t equal to blind and senseless ambition, does it? Truly there’s a distinction, she thinks.
Around them the red emergency lights still blink incessantly, the fire alarm still shrill harshly and the sprinkler system is drenching, ruining everything in the lab. From the corner of her eye she sees the flames in the dust bin die out. Good, she thinks, fire is such a dreadful hazard. But neither the fire nor water ruining specimens and equipment are the least
Verlag: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Cover: Sol's Science Fiction Thirdly Magazine
Lektorat: Robson Finsin
Satz: Jo Ling-Ko
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 30.01.2020
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