Chapter 10 – Velodia

May 25th, 2010 § 0 comments

Something, growing suspicion perhaps, propelled Dr. Ruth Bryson from Owen Bradlee’s apartment, down the elevator and into a Personal Commuter Pod station a block away. She hadn’t even brushed her teeth.

The morning air was chilly and dry. It blew down on the concrete platform, two stories above the street. She leaned against the dark blue ceramic balustrade and looked up the tracks. Four silver rails arrived in a knot and separated just beyond.

Bradlee must be up to something, she thought, but she couldn’t figure out what it was yet. She had gotten what she wanted, she should be happy. Many years of research had taught her to follow her hunches though and she wasn’t about to rationalize away the suspicion that Bradlee was setting her up.

The problem was, that as far as she could see, she was the patsy anyway, no matter what. So her instinct was to get the hell out. She wouldn’t feel right till she was with someone she could talk to. Someone she could trust like Leonard, who wasn’t involved.

A couple PCPs chugged by stuffed with outsized office guys and then an empty one arrived. She got in, punched in her destination and stared at her feet, like someone on the toilet, dazed by gin. The claustrophobic, faded plastic bubble lurched out of the station and along its track. They crossed empty canals, glazed with a brownish green slick of mire and algae stuck full of garbage.

Maybe, she thought, there was another way. Her old friend and colleague Dr. Velodia had been back at Cornell for almost a year now and they were to have lunch that afternoon. Maybe she could do something to help her out. It was delicate though. Bryson couldn’t even appear to be moving against Monozone interests, they would kill her. And Velodia would be in danger too, if she were caught in an act of sabotage at Bryson’s direction.

She was flung out on a cable high above the wide, churning East River. Flooded, broken and abandoned homes and factories pocked the tidal mud, a slew of wreckage left by the bankrupt state, to fall apart in the ceaseless tides and inundations. Then she descended onto a network of elevated rails that took her to the Monozone stop, where she got out with an empty, pitching stomach and aching bowels, in a coating of thick sweat.

The Monozone office building was a massive pink neoclassical skyscraper, with broad, steep steps leading up to three story brass doors. That was not her entrance though. The lab building, which was an annex to the main office tower, was entered by means of two small, highly secure doors. ID was required to open the first, then bIOmEtrIscAn opened the second, which led to a small, grey, functional lobby of BioWatch tiled walls with brushed steel trim, and composite floors.

Security greeted her at the door as usual, guns lowered and visors up and she had no doubt that they noted her condition. It was a running joke. Nothing malicious, just the knowing nod of the guards in their slightly shabby blue uniforms, rumpled from a night’s long duty in the sweltering lobby. The elevator at least was cool.

In the lab she observed the stark early morning order with a little sadness: it would remain stacked and clean until a new project began. There were no windows, and the overhead work lights were off. Floor lights glowed like candles, up the walls and across the white composite tile. One day it would revert to its human appearance, machines and chemicals out on the black work tops ranked in two rows up the center of the room, clothing and coffee cups piled up in the workstations along the walls, personal items hanging by straps off the backs of steel stools and chairs, glove boxes lit through the night, air alive with the ambient hum of assorted meters, incubators, refrigerators, vacuum chambers and compressors.

She crossed the lab to her office, turned on the low lights and shut the door. It was deliciously cool, 16c. She locked the door and undressed, turned on the coffee maker. The smell of her own sweat mingled with the funk of decaying sex and diffused through the air.

The office was a purely functional cell. There was a bed, a desk, and a counter top with a toaster, a small oven, and a coffee brewer and below, a bar fridge and shelves for bowls and mugs. There was a dark red composite stall with a toilet and a showerhead from which hung a small, soap-splattered mirror. Toilet paper hung on the wall just outside of it; she could reach around and pull off a wad by feel.

Dr. Bryson opened a container of plain yogurt and ate it slowly, seated naked at the end of the bed. Then she lay back and tried to go to sleep but she could not stop thinking. Images of her and Owen Bradlee in bed together, not unpleasant, were interrupted by snippets of their final exchange, and the flash of anger that still hadn’t faded. Vainly she tried to think of nothing, a white light, water rippling into sun.

Finally, she took a hot shower. The water drilled away the gin and Owen Bradlee’s damp clutch. She shut her eyes, and let it come down on follicles and eyebrows, neck and shoulders, between her breasts, belly and legs. Then it was gone, the day, all of its events and humiliations washed away with the semen and spit and the long rhythmic undulations that continued, hours later, to radiate out from her womb. All she felt was steam and water, till finally she was a plump, pink lady with red eyes and tired joints and a nicely sore crotch. She stepped out in a yellow cloud of soapy vapour and toweled off.

It struck her that transcryptasine, over time, would prove to be highly addictive. There was nothing to prevent people taking more than one dose a day. No one even knew what would happen if they did. They never tested transcryptasine abuse levels with humans, and the deaths made pretty obvious the fact that animals and humans reacted differently to it. Animals weren’t likely to be dreaming of gardens and angels anyway. They didn’t definitively penetrate to Penumbra, much less Umbra. Maybe it was the mental equivalent of ready prey. Once people got a taste of something easy and decent, they’d go for it all the time. What would that do to the 10% fatality rate? There wasn’t a bastard out there who knew anything at all, she included. Shoddy, time serving science, she thought.

The thing to do was to design a protocol. Maybe advertise in the newspaper for volunteers…. her thoughts began to slip around from thing to thing, like smoke, imperceptibly fading out of language and she knew she had to get dressed, she didn’t have time to lie back on the cot, eyes shut and the cold dry air patting her down. There was an opportunistic aspect of herself, one loath to change any situation pleasant enough to warrant lingering in. It wanted nothing more at that moment than to nap for an hour and then sit in boxer shorts at the computer futzing with thoughts and calculations. But then she would miss her lunch with Velodia.

Bryson forced herself into muslin travel clothes, a puce wrap she detested over polished hemp pants, and fibre sandals, worn knotty soles squooshed black and flat at the heel. It was like being wound up in cerements and buried. Into a canvas bag with big wooden handles, the kind of thing her mother would have once had, she flung some black night clothes, soft and sexy but with frump (Leonard required nothing in the underwear department, never seemed to notice if she was dressed or not.) Leonard could be exquisite in bed, 3 out of 10 times, which wasn’t bad, after all. The fact that he didn’t require all the do dads was fine with her. But it was always so fraught. He had no technique or sense of rhythm and was often distracted. And he was old and refused medication of any kind. When it worked it was the quality of affection, so odd and alarming, that overwhelmed everything before it. The love came positively rolling off of him in waves, great vibrations and oscillations of humor and kindness and infectious fulfillment. Desire was what it was she supposed. A dimension they had entered together once and could, without warning, inexplicably return to. And then, poof, it was gone in a cloud of sudden and enthusiastic work. All the passion for flesh was sublimated. Now it was for classification, or a search for an undiscovered something far away and awful. Counting crocodiles, crossbow murderers, mutant rednecks pumping out collection pools in 44c sun, loading landfill onto barges headed for the composite fusion plants, with their concrete vents rising 200 metres in the air. It was the worst of every world down there, biblical, forsaken. Who but desperate fanatics could stand it? Yet Leonard was not a dangerous man, or a lunatic. She understood that if the object of your study was Venus, you’d go there if you could, you’d search out what dark surface lay beneath the poison clouds. Those deltas down south, the lake basins and tidal washes, the Great Lakes of the north, they were his laboratories.

Into the bag went two bottles of Cargill Bros. Scotch, a stack of papers, her computer and some electraweave, and a book of detective stories set in 19th century Russia. She looked around her and thought that if she dropped dead there was nothing to tie her to this room but fingerprints and DNA.

Would they really try to kill her though? Her plan, such as it was, did seem to involve that possibility. So long as the plan was an abstraction, so long as it existed in a part of her mind where all plans are born and succeed, there was no chance of detection. They would never find out it was her. There would only be the fact that no one was prescribing the miracle drug. Flat domestic sales, combined with foreign lawsuits and the evident disaster of many inexplicable deaths, all apparently linked to transcryptasine…. Certainly she was safe and in the event, she would be right. You don’t kill people for being right. But that line of thinking was unsustainable even by her most optimistic monad. There were all the examples of licensed researchers who had disappeared, their mutilated corpses dumped in the canal or left to rot in the city. Companies were neither quiet nor slow in their retribution. Contracts were sealed in blood and loyalty was the first oath taken. They owned your genes, they owned you. She began to feel afraid. She had never done anything like this before.

With the trepidation that customarily precedes journeys and transitions she allowed the office door to close behind her and crossed the nearly black, odorless, echoey lab without looking back. On the stainless steel elevator she joined a couple of techs in white coats with clipboards and work-absorbed expressions. They recognized her right away and smiled with their eyes, which she acknowledged.

Hovercraft were a hateful invention. Their sole redeeming feature was that they only sat one comfortably. Not that she had ever experienced comfort in a hovercraft. But it was all she could afford. Maybe now that she was rich she would buy a car, a cheap ugly one, and keep it in the country.

She slammed the clear composite door shut, sat back in the black chair and programmed in her coordinates, Cornell, and Keuka Lake. The hovercraft coughed a bit and swung upwards in a slightly drunken flight path that took her at a steep angle out over Long Island Sound, and then across Westchester and New Jersey, with its sparsely broken tree cover, scattered with settlements, roads and factory complexes. To the south lay large rectangles of green farmland offset by stretches of tan and brown earth. She passed over horse country and then it was desolate, wooded mountains, flooded river valleys along the Delaware and the Susquehanna, flashing back the sun like tinted windshields. She was there in under two hours.

During the flight Bryson consumed three litres of water and had had to pee into an in-flight urination bag. One of the plagues of middle age–fat, veiny, grey–and having to piss without regard to circumstance. Fortunately none had spilled; her agility, even at two hundred K an hour in a scarred and blistered, lurching bubble with an aging guidance system, was still good.

She landed on a roof adjacent to the building where they were to have lunch, al fresco, she thought sourly. And in this heat. It radiated even off the nonreflective roof surface, that horrid putty colored material.

She walked down the dim, green internal stairs. The smell reminded her of her twenties, of beer and cigarettes and staying up for days. But wasn’t that what she still did? Not with her fingers in it though, not immersed in the smells and sounds of research. She spent as much time now adjudicating conflicts and setting budgets as anything else. In the wet, mildewy stones and concrete were hundreds of years of postdoctoral ambitions. In stairwells and halls here she and Velodia had created the future. She had arrived a bitter, lonely, rebellious rich girl, a total failure in her world of estates and horses and political dinners. Here she found herself, her husband, and her life’s work. She spent nearly fifteen years eating in these old stone buildings, or glassed-in in the labs. They water skied on Cayuga Lake, hiked in the surrounding hills and gorges, twice, even, played in huge drifts of snow. It was an uncomfortable, odd feeling, to be brought low by memory. In the intervening thirty years, she had returned often enough, for conferences, or to visit her friend, without a second thought. It was just a place, no different from any other. But just as she and Leonard had ascended, early, into desire, so had she and this place at some time ascended together and it only took a glint of light, or a waft of grilling hamburgers, or undergraduate vomit drying on a stone, to bring her back. It was infantilizing, it wasn’t real, sometimes it meant nothing at all. But what hovered, always, at the edges of the memory, was a sort of delight, a happiness she could not even believe was true or possible. And if she tried to pick apart the two lives, here, and the last thirty years at Monozone, she could not find the difference, not with her eyes, though she tasted it. All she ever did at either place was work. Here she had been a virtual slave to professors whose work she did and then to whatever grant was sponsoring her own research. Was it teaching then? But she still taught all the time. She only hired people who wanted to learn; no one else was any good. She wanted hungry, young, ambitious people, out to make a name for themselves. She could rein them in and the harder it was the better it was. That’s what Leonard had seen in her.

Even under the awning the patio cafe was blazing hot. But Dr. Velodia was a visionary, masochistic, survivor type. She beamed with rude, throaty vigor beneath a pile of artificial blond hair, nearly tipping over as she stood up from the table on her canary high heels. The bug nets swayed gently in the swishes of giant ceiling fans. The women embraced and kissed. Dr. Velodia’s mouth was cold and tasted of gin and tonic. Dr. Bryson, sitting down, craned about for a waiter and said, mostly to herself, “Bring me one of those.”

The patio jutted out from the fourth floor of an ancient stone building, with a slate roof and copper gutter pipes, built into a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake. Cayuga Lake, fed by torrential gorges, slopped over homes, railway tracks and stores. The creeks burst out of their canals and culverts, fish spawned in the crevices of collapsed retaining walls.

At neighboring tables sat a few elderly professors, either alone (newspapers and books open before their eyes), or with students. There was a young couple in sun hats, she catlike, he unfinished with a big adam’s apple. “Whuddya gotta do to get a drink around here?” Bryson asked. Velodia demurred. She had white, freckled skin, like milk with nutmeg floating on it. “You’re not in the city anymore, relax.” “If there’s anything left of me. I’m about to sweat five kilos off.” “That would do you some good.” “Oh come on, and be one of those mean old ladies with tight faces, and scrawny bodies. Blech, who would fuck that?” A waiter appeared at her side, towering, bald, and fit. “Good afternoon,” he said. Bryson said in a brusque, dismissive voice, “Gin and tonic.” She was impatient with waiters. He stepped away for a minute and returned with a tall icy glass on a tray. “Oh god, it’s been a year and I still can’t believe I’m back,” Velodia said, looking around at the screen, and the indistinct, green and grey valley beyond it. “Well, it’s been a while for me too.” “But you haven’t worked here for thirty years, it isn’t your home.” “No, thank god for that. So what’s good to eat?” The menu swam around in her eyes. “The duck’s smoked locally. And most of the meat is Amish.” Bryson grunted. “Good. I loath that legless pork they have now.” “Hmmm. It’s worse in Boston.” “Oh, I was at Mass General once for a conference. What is it about that place?” Velodia shook her head and ran her finger over the menu. “Beats me. Here, the trout. It’s still on the menu. That’s what I want. And beets with dill.” “How about the chowder?” Bryson asked, and they both laughed. “Not today thanks, I’m drinking.”

“Cheers then. Welcome back.” They clinked glasses. A breeze blew through the place and the waiter took their order. Bryson got a smoked duck salad with frisee and lardons. They split a linguini with plum tomatoes and basil. Velodia got the trout and the beets.

Velodia had been in Boston for two and a half years, as interim head of Psychiatry at Mass General. Before that she had been on sabbatical, so it had been many years since they had last met. Velodia, of course, was aware of Bryson’s work with transcryptasine, but they had to be discreet when writing and even if meeting in public. Not only were researchers like Bryson under strict confidentiality agreements, companies like Monozone were particularly sensitive to academic contacts, since they could conceal other more nefarious contacts with rivals.

Velodia had also followed the budding career of transcryptasine through rumors, discussions at conferences, speculative articles in the trade literature. When they started animal trials she read the published results. Since then there was largely silence. But she had recently received a visit from a Monozone Rep alias and just that morning a package of promotional literature had arrived on her desk with a sample.

“You’re not going to believe this, but I just got a whole transcryptasine package today.”

The waiter set down their salads and Bryson slowly raised the sweating highball glass to her lips. “They don’t waste any time, do they?”

“Didn’t you know?”

“It was only official yesterday.”

“Paregane. I like it. It oughta fix you for life, if it’s for real this time.”

Bryson’s stomach felt like a worm on a hook. “Oh, it’s for real.”

Velodia lowered her fork and moved as if to shade her eyes, though they were in a veil of black netting. “Then why aren’t you happy?”

Bryson laughed. “Yeah. Maybe I should take transcryptasine.”

“Or something. Euphoria’s not your problem.”

“It was just too soon,” Bryson said, quietly, to the table, and then she looked at Velodia, probed her face, her hazel eyes, a tiny dot of beet juice on her lower lip.

“Ruth–” her voice dropped a little. It was Velodia’s way of calling her out, using her name like that.

“They gave me 25,000,000 bucks too.”

“Holy fucking shit. No.”

Bryson nodded and smiled. “You’re not kidding. And an option to buy a 100,000 shares, at yesterday’s closing price.”

“Exercise that.”

“There’s talk of a council seat.”

“Then it really does work.”

Bryson forked a piece duck breast. “Should we order wine?” she asked.

“There’s a Riesling I like. Lots of acid. Good fruit.”

“O.K. Waiter?”

Velodia ordered the wine. “I can’t tell you how badly something’s needed, even if it works a little. There’s an epidemic of suicides. I can’t explain it. People aren’t just killing themselves, they’re mutilating their bodies first, setting themselves on fire and jumping out of buildings into crowds. Violent, sick stuff. Vindictive notes blaming the survivors. Extreme desperation. A man came into emergency one night. He had chopped off his own left hand and before he bled to death, had managed to cut out his tongue. These people, they load up on painkillers first. It’s a level of self-hatred that is inexplicable, and statistically significant. Nothing seems to work with them either.

“Most of these people are high functioning normal types too. They don’t hallucinate and may even appear to be rational in most respects. What they have is a rage to die. It’s as if they can no longer endure the normal pain of existence. When things go wrong, they have no resilience, no hope, none of that loopy narrative sense humans use to keep themselves going.”

Bryson couldn’t just come out and say it. “Well,” she began, unsure of where the sentence would eventually land, “I’m afraid transcryptasine carries a risk.”

“New medicines always carry a risk.”

The waiter presented the wine to Velodia, uncorked it and poured her a taste. She nodded and he poured two glasses of pale yellow wine.

“What’s an acceptable risk in psychiatry today? What’s your theoretic limit.”?

“Well, one has to be philosophical about things, given the history of the profession. We routinely render people frigid and impotent so they won’t feel bad and want to kill themselves. Sometimes we make them fat, sometimes skinny. Let’s see, we’ve used electricity, insulin shock, cold baths, whippings, isolation, cages, sedation. Field manipulators: neuronanobotic, prion, or viral mentation rewrites. Or we can get them high; restore perceived or conjectured imbalances, either chemical or electromagnetic. Every method has one thing in common: most of the time it fails, at least in the worst cases. The ultimate outcome then is suicide. Given that, a little danger in a drug is acceptable, as well as a lot of skepticism going in about talks of panacea.”

They tucked into a nest of linguini built on a puddle of scarlet sauce with a chiffonade of basil and shaved parmesan cheese.

Bryson sipped the wine. “Does a ten percent fatality rate seem high?” Velodia arched her right eyebrow. “Not for experimental chemotherapy on terminal patients with less than six months to live. Experimental.”

“I have no control here–”

“Then they took it away from you.”

She shook her head. “Did I ever have it?”

“Ten percent.” Velodia kicked it around. “Well, I could see in some situations, where suicide is a certainty, and the patient, paradoxically, say in a moment of clarity, wants to recover; it would all depend. Maybe condemned criminals, if it actually made them feel good, without side effects–”

“There are no apparent side effects and they feel great.”

“What about consent though, how can a person crazy enough to benefit from this drug be sane enough to consent to it? How many clinical trials have you had?” She sipped her wine and began eating again.

“Right. Three different double blind studies, a thousand in each, all suicidal. A hundred and fifty died.”

“Was it ten percent in each study?”

“Exactly.”

“And how many controls killed themselves?

“1 percent during the trial, some more after that. We’re tracking them.”

“But that’s madness. You can’t put out transcryptasine as a general Euphoric, what about the liability?”

“It gets worse. It’s being marketed overseas as an over-the-counter drug.”

“My god, consider your reputation.”

“I’m screwed.”

Velodia sat stupefied.

Bryson said, “They dismiss liability as a concern because the cause of death can’t be traced to the drug. Nothing can be proved.”

“Surely there’s a cause of death.”

“Nope. Natural causes. There’s no little pin point hemorrhage, no constriction of a blood vessel, no toxicity, no fluid in the lungs, no evidence of arrhythmia. No predictors either. Nothing. The patient takes a dose at bedtime, goes to sleep, and just doesn’t wake up.”

“Nothing like that could be approved.”

“It was rushed through. Monozone had someone on the inside that got wind of what the drug can do and it sailed through without a hearing. They didn’t even tell us on the team, they went straight to sales.” The waiter cleared their plates, which they had swiped clean with bread. Bryson sighed and drank deeply of her wine. “What’s the point of a long life if you don’t enjoy it?”

“I don’t know,” Velodia mused. “People are so desperate. Even the sensation of being alive is painful. Not agonizing, but a little bit off. And I don’t mean a spiritual state, mind enslaved by matter, or a body made uncomfortable by the presence of spirit. It has nothing to do with joy or agony or all the losses and disappointments and temporary ecstasies. It’s just that the pulse of consciousness is contrary to the pulse of the universe. The necessary discord. Duality, paradox. Chiasmus. It’s what accounts for that sensation of something being wrong. Now, if that’s the way of things, then what are we restoring? Treatment is a denial of the facts. Being is a design flaw. A mistake that draws more and more energy to itself. If we could, wouldn’t we drain the universe of its last photon just to stay alive? And yet, we hate it.

“Now you say you’ve found a way of correcting that pulse, at least in highly variant individuals, those who suffer more than others, those who feel like they’re on fire all the time. So maybe sometimes, transcryptasine goes too far in restoring balance, it reconciles the pulse of consciousness with that old ripple of the big bang and life ceases to exist.”

Bryson smiled at Velodia and they drank another glass of wine in relaxed silence. Then she said, “I took it, you know. It did nothing for me. But the oddest thing about transcryptasine is, everyone dreams of returning to the Garden of Eden.”

Velodia unleashed a peal of delighted laughter. “Well, I’ll go dust off my Jung then.”

A six foot two woman, with silver bangles on her long bony wrists walked in, wearing a flamingo pink paper suit. Her long neck terminated in a slightly small, square head of short black hair, with two lawn green composite discs in the ears, a sharp nose and pert, jungle red lips. The ancient professor she brought along was dressed for tennis. Without the stoop, he would have been a little taller than she was. He had blond, synthetic hair, a whole head of it, and it shined against his plum colored cheeks. Velodia rolled her eyes. Bryson checked them out and said, “She’s exotically bad.”

“But what’s with the geezer?”

Bryson drank some wine and lit a cigarette, flicking ashes in her water glass. “I only do geezers these days it seems. Last night I screwed Owen Bradlee. Remember him?”

Velodia made a face like she had just sucked smoke up her nose. “Not that pinky dick faux Englishman you used to drink with.”

“You’re confusing him with someone else. Bradlee’s got a whopper.”

“Well, I’m sure I never trusted him.”

“I’ve got no choice but to trust him, at least a little.”

“He’s a snake, always in and out of things, quiet, smooth. I wouldn’t fuck a man like that.” Bryson dropped her cigarette in the water glass. “You don’t like

dick anyway.”

“I don’t mind a little now and then, just to gas up the jets. That girl we were looking at? When she was just seventeen she ate every pussy worth eating in this place. But now? I hear there’s this intern who goes to her once a week and fucks her in the ass.”

Bryson made a face. “Once a week? My god, she’s made of strong stuff.”

“It must hit the spot, that’s all I can figure. No one likes her now.”

“Oh, who the hell cares. Look at her. The height genes took, but proportion failed. You can’t think of everything.”

“Do you want coffee?”

“Hell no. I’ve still got to ride out to Keuka Lake.”

“Well the wine’s gone.”

They looked around for the waiter. A new one came by, this one with hair, big red curls of it, and sallow skin. They ordered two more glasses of wine.

“So how is Leonard?”

“I hardly see him at all. It’s been close to six months since I went up there.”

Velodia stretched her arms across the table and made her hands into fists, and pulled the fists slowly towards her with a sigh. “I Like Leonard, always have.”

“You oughta come up some time.”

“I’d love to.”

“We eat a lot of deer and fish.”

“That’s fine with me.”

“And there’s a sort of crazy entourage.”

“You get used to that up here.”

Bryson scowled. “Oh, I suppose. Tell you the truth, I get bored. They talk so goddamn slowly. You have to ‘get around’ to everything.

God help you if you try to rush Mordecai Hertzler. Tomorrow might mean next week. Nothing happens right away.”

“But it must be beautiful.”

“Sure, hot and more bugs than air. There’s like this constant screech of living things”

Velodia laughed. “You used to like that when we were young.”

Bryson shook her head. It was true. She was quite acclimated to nature as a child and despite punting nearly every facet of her upbringing this she retained through college and all of her years of research at Cornell. But thirty years of living in the city and suburbs was a long time. It had effaced so much of that early self that when she felt it peering at her she usually turned away and that was that. Sometimes though, like an ivy-covered face of statuary in a dream, she couldn’t lose its stare and fell before it.

Bryson looked around the room, at the net walls swaying into the blue, cloudless sky, the army green ceiling fans, the stone floor and stonewalls. No one seemed to be paying any attention to them at all. The professors were either absorbed in their books or themselves. The waiters did their jobs, whisking crumbs off of tables before dessert, bowing slightly as they presented the menu cards. There air was serene, if hot. One could think here. She felt suddenly wistful and her usual wariness gave way. “I really loved working here,” Bryson said, feeling a little drunk. “Maybe with that money, I could afford to come back.”

Velodia looked at her friend strangely. “Why would they ever let you do that? It’s a lifetime contract.”

“Well, I could try to buy myself out, they don’t need me that much.”

Velodia lit a cigarette and pursed her lips. She didn’t look jolly or harebrained or comical anymore but hard. Bryson wasn’t making any sense. “They decide that and you know it. And as long as you produce, as long as see these things that you see, the danger of even suggesting–”

“Oh, but I’m tired of the things I see. I’ve earned my keep. And who the hell are they anyway?”

“With a council seat you’ll find out soon enough.”

Bryson looked around again. “Do you know all these people?” she asked.

“I think we’re safe enough. There’s more hostility than sympathy around here these days.”

“Did you tell anyone I was coming?”

“No, of course not.”

“After I get back I’m going to keep working on transcryptasine. Bradlee said he could fix it for a while. But it seems prudent, to me, to have a back up plan. Just to cover my ass.” As she approached what she had to say she faltered, her words forming around a hard black lump in her gut. Bryson wasn’t a fearful person and she gave little thought to death. Most of her life she’d been coasting from one success to another, and the way things are, the order, had always yielded to her irreverence. She got away with doing what she wanted because what she wanted to do always in the end proved to be so profitable. But now she was breaking a law, perhaps the only law. Others had done it, but they had done it by changing allegiance, going from a weaker to a stronger patron. Moving against Monozone was a transgression no one would forgive, especially not Owen Bradlee, unless he was in on it. But this kind of move would never interest him; it would appall and disgust him. This kind of a move had no pay off, it was a simple betrayal. The words came trembling to her lips and with a gust of determination left them, so small after such great effort.

“I’m wondering if there’s some way to try to stop sales by alerting doctors to the danger.”

They were quiet then. The ceiling fans took the separate curls of smoke from their cigarettes and dispersed them into haze.

Finally, Velodia, who was in a state of introspective fear, almost a swoon, whose head felt like a candle flame suddenly blown flat by wind, intense and vulnerable, cleared her throat. “Are you really ready to do this? Do you have an escape plan?”

“It doesn’t have to be so very dangerous,” Bryson said, recovering her footing some. “Maybe a discreet word here or there. Everyone knows the dangers involved.”

“No one wants to die, not to save the lives of strangers. Besides, a lot of them will look at these reports, they’ll get the briefings, and they’ll go for it. It looks like a panacea. I mean, you, or rather they, are touting it as a cure for ennui. Give me a fucking break. A drug that cures unhappiness is worth a little risk for most people.”

“That’s what they’ll say. But I know it’s not true and now you do too.”

Velodia studied her bony pale hands, the color of birch bark, with the sculpted red nails; she turned them over as if she were reading her own palms. “I’ve been lucky in life. I didn’t go with you to Monozone. I didn’t become a conference whore. I believe in psychiatry, the treatment of the soul. I believe that life inevitably makes us sick at heart, but that the mind is also an organ, the brain. I have studied its waves, its sirens and its tickings. I’ve tinkered with its stops and pedals, I’ve turned its tuning pegs, raised and lowered its pitch with drugs and talk and in return I get to sit on this terrace of an afternoon and sip wine with a dear old friend. There aren’t so very many of us in the world Ruth. I’ll see what I can do. The chiefs at the major teaching hospitals will be easy. It oughta diffuse from there, down through the ranks. Give it a couple of months. But I’ll tell you what, it’s the company doctors who scare me. They’ll just hand out what’s given them. And if they catch on to what we’re doing, then you and I are dead.”

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You are currently reading Chapter 10 – Velodia at The Man Who Can't Die: A Novel of Low-Tech Noir.

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