Life works better if you have a goal. You feel more motivated, you have more energy, you wake up at five in the morning buzzing with ideas.
This also tells you how life operates. It works the same way any scam works. You get told about how amazing the thing will be when you get it, and then it puts you to work. The dream, the dream. Ignore the pain and the tedium and the everlasting numbness that pervades your body, focus on the dream.
You know it’s a scam because it doesn’t matter what the thing is. Whatever you’re aiming for, it’s great, it’s the best thing ever. You want it, so it must be super-valuable. You’ve got good taste, you know what’s worth chasing, don’t you? So keep digging.
Anytime you get buttered-up, you can expect to get the shaft soon afterwards. It’s not just flattery, it’s lubrication.
My problem was that I’d seen Jenny and I was all worked up. I don’t mean to sound like I was all loved-up, but when it comes to affairs of the heart, it’s all drugs and addictions.
Sure, it’s naturally produced drugs, dopamine and serotonin and testosterone to fire up your blood (yes, despite appearances, I do occasionally produce male hormones), but the effects are the same — you start thinking crazy.
We’re born addicts. Air, food, water, that’s just to get us started, give the body a taste of what’s to come. Then it’s anything we can stick in your mouth or up your nose or in your veins. It’s no coincidence we keep doing the same stupid shit, even when we know it’s not good for us. That’s how we’re built — a bag of meat shot full of hormones.
Now I was all up in my head about how I could make changes and move mountains to make the world a better place. Not for any moral or ethical reasons, even though that was the sort of justification I would give if asked. No, this was really about impressing the girl I liked.
I’m being honest — although not with myself, obviously — about why a guy does stuff that looks like a bad idea. The chances of success are low, and even if you manage to implement a radical fix to sort out a problem, it will only slowly degrade back to where it was after a while.
But you can do it. You can change the world long enough for a girl to look at you like she wants you to play her ovaries like they’re bongo drums.
Any guy can have that effect on any girl. It’s how we’re designed. Fortunately, we also have the ability to override our programming. It’s just very, very hard (not a euphemism).
“You want to send the people running things over here, over there?” I said, just to make sure I was understanding Duncan’s proposition correctly.
“Sure, you got it, that’s the plan. What do you think?” Duncan said with great enthusiasm.
It was hard to know how to respond. Obviously, it would be great to get rid of the fuckwads making a pig’s ear of everything while they lined their own pockets, but to be replaced with what? More of the same would be my guess.
“I know what you’re thinking,” continued Duncan, his big meaty hands waving away my concerns. “If we send these pricks off to the moon or whatever, there’ll be another bunch of pricks along to take their place, right?”
I nodded. Duncan was an astute businessman. He didn’t get to be where he was today — in a bunker under a fake church — without knowing how to read people. He was old school, old money, old-fashioned. He was generally old. But he hadn’t given up on the younger generation. He wanted us to make something of ourselves, but unlike most whining white men of a certain age, he wasn’t blaming the problem on Millennials with their unnecessary beards and tight trousers. He had spotted the real culprit — his mates’ offspring.
“We can’t aim too high,” he said. “You can’t expect to change things overnight. These people are in charge for a reason. They paid their dues, they greased a few palms and, let’s face it, they worked hard. They want their beautiful, spoilt, incompetent kids to enjoy the fruits of their labour. It’s what being human’s all about, am I right? Of course I am. Unfortunately, they were better businessmen than fathers. And they married some godawful women, so that didn’t help. We need to remind these little shits that there’s more to life than fancy watches and flashy cars. Think how much better they’ll be at running the world when they come back. Those of them that do.”
It was certainly an innovative plan. One of those corporate retreats where the executives go paintballing and learn to work under pressure, only with live ammo and targets that fight back.
“What about you?” I said. “Are you going to send your kids?”
It is a common observation, I’ve found, that the people who shout loudest and most aggressively about the need to fight for what they believe in are the most likely to not do any actual fighting themselves or to send their kids to do any fighting. It didn’t use to be like that, but at some point the actual wars became such a pointless shit show that there really wasn’t any reason to go if you didn’t have to. You could just as easily betray everything you stood for from home.
“I don’t have any children,” said Duncan. “My wife, God rest her soul, she wasn’t able. And I wasn’t interested in anyone else.” He was resolute in his affirmation of monogamy. I’m not saying I didn’t believe him, but… “My work became my focus, my children, if you will. I’m very proud of what I’ve produced.” He beamed like a three-year-old who managed to go potty by himself.
“And what business are you in?” I asked.
I had yet to really learn anything about this man. I liked his ideas, the way he spoke about the kind of rich kids I’d always thought of as deeply unpleasant. Tobin, Timmy, PJ and Squi. Fuck those guys.
But that didn’t mean he was any better than them. It’s easy to criticise others (and fun too) but it’s often just a way to take the focus off your own sleazy behaviour. Believe me, I know of what I speak.
“My business interests have always varied, always changed with the times,” said Duncan, not unproudly. “Oil, gas, coal — when they were the staples of the world’s economies, I was at the forefront of those technologies. Renewables are the thing today, but they are just a stepping stone to what comes next and it won’t be easy competing with the Chinese in any case. Where I’m headed now is into genetically modified food.”
“Really? You’re going to try to poison the world?”
“Ah, I can see you’ve been taken in by the propaganda,” said Duncan. “As well you should be, that’s why we put it in place.”
“You did? You started the anti-GM movement?”
“Certainly. And a fantastic job we’ve done of it, don’t you think?”
I had to agree. Everyone with half-a-brain saw GM foods as an insidious plot against man and nature. “It’s not the idea of modifying food that’s the problem,” I said, “it’s the companies that do it. They’re slimy and unprincipled, and if there’s a chance, even a tiny chance, that adjusting plant DNA will cause the zombie apocalypse, their incompetence and greed will make sure it comes to pass.”
“Damn straight,” said Duncan. “We’ve been breeding crops and cattle to our tastes for thousands of years, and we’re damn good at it. But if people are going to accept the new products we want to sell them, they need to get their anxiety out of the way first. We let them bitch and protest, give them a target to aim at, and then when the real marvels hit the market, they’ll be blown away. I’m not kidding. Fruit that can elevate your mood, cereals that can put a real hop in your step, a chocolate bar that can improve your eyesight. You haven’t any idea of what’s possible, trust me. And cheap. And ecologically friendly. Yes, we’ve set it up so there’ll be doubters, but we’ve grouped them up, made it clear who they are and what they think is going to happen, and then we’ll show the world what they’re actually getting is a thousand times better than what they thought. Not just an end to world hunger, but stronger, faster, healthier people. No need to take pills and medicines, you’ll just eat an apple and feel fucking fantastic. Here, have a candy.”
He picked up a bowl from his desk and offered me one of the boiled sweets it held.
I was a little wary in case this was one of his Frankensteinian creations and I was about to be turned into a large blueberry and rolled out of the room by Oompa Loompas, but I trusted my healing powers would keep me safe.
The sweet tasted of aniseed and mint, not particularly pleasant. And then a rush of energy went through me like a dose of Veruca Salts. I suddenly had the urge to run around the room for no reason, but kept myself from doing it by grabbing the back of the armchair next to me.
“Good, huh?” said Duncan. “And that’s just a simple herb infusion. Gives you the feeling of about a gram of cocaine.” He grinned mischievously at me. “No side-effects, not addictive, and inexpensive to make. Do you really think anyone will listen to the doomsayers and gloom merchants once they try one of these?”
I was still trying to stop myself running up the wall while laughing like a maniac.
“There have to be some side-effects,” I managed to say through gritted teeth. “There always are.”
“Sure, some people won’t respond as well as others, but that’s true of all food, right? People don’t have the same tastes. Allergies, sensitivities, digestive intolerances. But we’ll have something for them. We’ll have something for everyone. And the farmers will love how easily it all grows and how resistant it is to bugs and insects. That’s the beauty of it — no need for pesticides at all.”
It sounded too good to be true, so it probably was. One of the biggest issues with GM crops was that they were made resistant to hardcore chemical weed and bug killers. So you could dowse the fields in the stuff and the crops wouldn’t even notice. Everything else would die, though. Not just the pesky mites and flies, everything. Trees, flowers, water poisoned, environment destroyed. Bumper crops, though.
But if the food produced had the kind of effect on people the sweet in my mouth was having on me, would anyone give a shit about the leaves turning black on a few trees? You want to put healthy nutritious food in your body, but a boiled egg that could make you run a sub-four-minute mile was going to have a lot of appeal to the Crossfit generation.
“Okay,” I said, spitting out the sweet into my hand and slipping it into my pocket. My legs were shaking and I was sweating, but not in an unpleasant way. A bottle of water and I’d be raving all night. “Okay, you’re going to be the richest farmer in history. Great. How will that help you rule the world?”
“I have no interest in ruling anyone,” said Duncan. “I leave the clerical work to others. There’s a lot of tedious paperwork and legal wrangling in getting people to do what you want. Way too slow for me. That’s why I think we can work together. You aren’t a big believer in the politics of subjugation, am I right? It’s not about wanting to be in charge, it’s about making sure the people who are in charge aren’t psychopaths out to ruin it for the rest of us.”
“But who’s going to take over, then?” I asked. “Someone has to be at the steering wheel. You can’t just leave people to govern themselves. They’re too dumb, they’ll just drive themselves off a cliff.”
My view of the general public may have been a little condescending, but that was only because of the ones I’d met, seen, read about and overheard. Other than that, I’m sure they’re lovely people.
“Sure, sure, sure,” said Duncan, like this was the least important part. “You need a designated leader, and no doubt it will be some vain, self-important lounge lizard — it nearly always is. But that’s fine. As long as they let people do their thing and stop the crazies taking over the asylum, that’s fine, don’t you think? You can’t rely on a great leader coming along more than once in every fifty years or so. I mean, okay, we’re about due for another one, but in the meantime, the important thing is not to let a monster get in the chicken coop and eat all the hens.”
“If that’s true,” I said, “how do you explain what’s going in your neck of the woods right now?”
“Ah, yes.” Duncan sighed. “That would be the powers that be — the one I want you to help me declaw — setting up for their next boy wonder. After this mess, anything will look wonderful by comparison. This is how they operate, Colin.”
“Who?” I said. “Who’s pulling the strings.”
“The same people I’m talking about,” said Duncan. “We send them off to a galaxy far far away, and their whole strategy becomes compromised. You see?”
“And what about Orion and the Council of Four?” I asked him, keen to see if the names rung any bells.
“Ah, yes, there is that,” said Duncan. “But that’s where you come in. After all, if we’re going to open a portal to that place, then we’re going to need their help. They’re the ones who can talk to the girl.”
“He can talk to the girl,” said AJ.
“He can?” Duncan looked at me. “You can?”
A little light was starting to appear at the end of the tunnel. Probably a train.
“Can’t you?” I said.
“Lillian is the only one who seemed to be able to get close,” said Duncan.
An awkward silence descended on the room.
“What?” said Duncan. “What is it?”
“There was a slight accident,” said AJ, still smiling. “Lillian is dead, Boss.”
“What? How? There’s no way, right?”
AJ looked at me.
“It was an accident, like he said.” I didn’t normally try to evade responsibility for my crimes, usually I just ran, but it really had been a mistake.
“But it’s okay, Boss. Colin here was able to talk to the girl himself. Much better than Lillian ever could.”
AJ really didn’t care about Lillian’s demise. No love lost there.
“He did? You spoke to the girl in the darkness?” Duncan didn’t seem too upset about it either. Women in the workplace, sorely undervalued.
“Yes,” I said. I was a little confused about them calling her ‘the girl’. Lillian had known her name. And she had found me because Jenny had sent her to me. Or that was what she said.
Had she been holding out on these guys?
“That’s fine then,” said Duncan. “As long as you can talk to the girl, we should be good to go.”
“We should?” I said. “Why? What’s the girl got to do with anything?”
“She’s the one who’s holding the door closed,” said Duncan. “She’s Orion’s secret portal. He doesn’t know we’ve found her, too.”
Wait, did that mean Jenny was talking to Orion? If she was the door then I understood why Orion saw me as the key. But Jenny hadn’t said anything. Then again, she had other things to say to me.
Something felt off. Had Jenny been trying to communicate with me on a subtle level only I would understand because she knew other people were listening? And had I totally missed the cues because a woman’s idea of an intimate relationship is nothing like the reality of me spending most of my time wondering if a dog’s breath smells like dog food?
I tried to think of what Jenny had said to me but I’d already forgotten most of it.
It was like the feeling you get in a video game when you realise that room you were going to go back and check later isn’t accessible anymore and you probably missed out on some loot and a magic ring. You don’t want to have to go back to your last save point but what can you do?
“Lillian was a good psychic was she?” I said, trying my best not to show my concern.
“The best I’ve ever seen,” said Duncan.
What kind of psychic can’t even foresee her own death? Then again, I didn’t actually see her body. Was I being fucked with as usual? More to the point, had Jenny recruited someone to give me a hard time over here until she could take over duties again?
“Okay,” I said. “Explain exactly how the girl can open the door.”
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