“You will forgive me for this. I am not capable of travel as I once was. You will also forgive me because you have no choice.”
Even as he attempted to retain his composure Jhel couldn’t help but swing around searching for whoever spoke. In the sensory induced environment of the Mediterranean patio he chased the disembodied voice until it brought him in a full circle, returning to a piece of the terrace that had been formerly empty. Now it was inhabited by a well-coiffed tall man who appeared to be in his early fifties, dressed in black, with archaic brass wire-rimmed glasses. A part of Jhel noted that this rather idealized figure could be anyone, that the apparatus affecting his brain could produce whatever body image the controllers desired. Nonetheless, he recognized the figure.
“Hans Persson,” the name left his mouth almost without belief in what he was saying. The founder of GT, serial entrepreneur, global activist, and leader of the Pacific Reclamation initiative, Persson hadn’t been seen in public for over seven years.
As if the kidnapped pair required no introduction, Persson responded, “And you are Jhel Phen and Lee Osterberger, the youngest executive vice president and highest paid technician of the largest of my companies, respectively.”
Not far from Jhel, Lee stood with his mouth hanging open, staring at the apparition. Jhel was glad that while he may not have kept his mouth shut, he also didn’t speak. Before Lee found the initiative to do so, Jhel organized himself. He smoothed out a tie that he knew wasn’t there and clamped down on his fear, letting enough peek through to show his respect for the power before him. “Sir, it’s an honor to meet you.”
“As it should be. I am not a well man.” For a moment Jhel thought he detected a trickle of blood at the mouth of the speaker, but then it was gone. Was this some kind of psychological bleed-over? Or his imagination? He put this aside to focus on what the person claiming to be Hans Persson was saying. “Rather than pursue treatments that have failed everyone else I currently reside in an industrial vat outside of Stockholm. I am told an entire warehouse of equipment and staff is employed in keeping me alive.” Persson spoke very casually of this while removing his glasses to polish them with an emerald green handkerchief.
“But…” Jhel let his confusion show through, amplifying it a bit for the sake of emoting humility. “You’ve been seen at board meetings and attended investor calls.”
“Yes, a sufficient number to keep the legal machinery of GT from declaring me dead or unfit.” The man cleaning his glasses remained Hans Persson, but was now several decades younger, a man in his early twenties. A prodigy, firebrand, and founder of a relatively new company at that time, he was the picture of the mastermind that would shape decades of future events. The change was so sudden and so seamless Jhel felt his mask of control slip in the face of the enormity of whatever he now faced. The complete transformation of Persson’s age felt like such a small thing that it only reinforced the total control of whatever was master of this environment. If it was Hans Persson and the totality of his wealth, the control extended far beyond this patio. Jhel couldn’t recall the last time he was in a situation he couldn’t manipulate. A part of him also reminded the rest that his actual, physical presence was sitting somewhere with a gun to its head.
Lee forgotten, Jhel realized his mouth was open. He closed it.
As if he were unaware of his personal change or the impact it had on Jhel, Persson continued. “My confinement has had other, less desirable effects than extending my life, though. It has made me…less empathetic. For instance, I do not care about you. Let me assure you right now, either of you could live forever or die right now and it would not impact me in the slightest.”
Another blip, another blink, and Hans Persson was a much older man, older than any public figure of the man, pale as the once-famous snows of his homeland with blue veins running along his temples. “The discovery of what you’ve done, though, that could impact me in a real and very uncomfortable way.”
Lee began a bumbling protest. Jhel had to give him credit – he nearly formed words. Concerned some of these might turn into some kind of accusation of Jhel being the ringleader, he cut Lee off. “Sir, we only did what we did for the good of the company.” A simple lie and one Jhel had told many times in many different circumstances, so it was possible for him to sound honest by virtue of that surplus of repetition.
Clouded, gray eyes turned on Jhel then, the dilemmatic film on them cast his reflection back at him, reminding him of both his own youth and vulnerability. “Do not tell me such falsehood Mr. Phen. I have no doubt that what you did benefited the GT conglomerate. Securing the biodiversity of the Kansas basin has reaped multiple benefits. Our Polish and Finnish labs alone have mapped the genomes of over 14,000 different species. The copyrights will provide us with revenues and political leverage for decades to come.”
Jhel heard Lee mumble, “Wheat has one of the largest genome among crop plans. Standard genome-sequencing methods are ineffective.”
The ancient eyes and blue veins of Persson appeared to indicate some approval at this statement even as they dismissed Lee’s shocked presence. “Quite right. And all you had to do to acquire this was wipe out one of the most powerful and influential clans that remained in United States politics.”
Jhel began to protest but was stopped by a wave of Persson’s ghostly hand. “Please do not waste time denying it. I admire your initiative and the manner in which you achieved your ends without directly involving GT. The years, years,” Persson emphasized the second utterance of the word, seeming to have recently acquired a new appreciation for it, “that this saved us in legal battles – that was worth it alone.”
Persson changed again, becoming a much younger man, perhaps of high school age. The continued change was mounting an assault on Jhel’s vestibular system. The accompanying sensations reminded him of one of the first times he had gone into orbit, the visual illusions causing a nausea that felt as if it had its own gravitational pull.
Nearly vibrating with a youthful energy Persson began to pace back and forth on the warm stone of the terrace. “But you left a loose end and now it is…looser?” The young man snickered, adding, “Pardon me. English was never my first language.”
Jhel wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the slip into juvenile humor made him even more uncomfortable. Increasing the seriousness of his expression in the same way others might have turned up the volume on their kino player, Jhel responded, “We’re taking care of it now, sir.”
“Are you?” The youth stopped suddenly, turning to Jhel with the question. “It seems to me that you have been more concerned with covering up your part in it. I might likely never have discovered what was going on if your contractor hadn’t tripped the hazard marker I had placed on the Kansas file.”
“Those two failed, but only–”
Persson cut Jhel off. “Allow me to assure both of you that I did not start a genetics company to remain incubated in a suspension vat until American politicians dragged me out of it to die answering their questions.”
Jhel bowed his head, “Of course not.”
At this show of humility Persson’s figure restored to the original version of himself that Jhel had first seen upon his entrance into the sensory matrix. “However you choose to deal with Kansas cannot involve GT. I will provide you with a mass of funds from another, untraceable source. You will use this to handle it with the same initiative and creativity that you handled the Aspen clan. If you cannot, or he comes close to gathering sufficient proof of GT’s involvement, I will see both of you ejected into the void of orbit.”
Jhel thought that might be better than being put up against a wall and shot. There would, at least, be a view. However, he had no doubt that Persson could keep that threat or, really, any threat he should choose. So Jehl said the only truth that fit into the situation.