The Everlasting Beyond Of Eternal Happiness

Chapter Two

Anthony Germaine pressed his face to the immense office window and stared miserably across the Hudson. This was all Faivish's fault. A thousand-mile flight and two nights in a five star hotel, all for the sake of a half-hour meeting with their New York sponsor. Anthony's boss, Faivish Goldbloom, thrived on this sort of trip. Rubbing shoulders with millionaire businessmen seemed to make him feel significant and happening. Anthony considered this a pathetic vanity. Faivish's sole claim to importance was he knew an inordinate amount about the innards of chickens.

Anthony hated flying, hated cities and, most of all, hated the ostentatious offices of big business. He was, however, an authority on the internal parasites of poultry. This was not something to win him immediate popularity or, he noted both frequently and bitterly, a girlfriend. However, it did make him of interest to the powers that be in the Renenkya Corporation, since their billion-strong flock of factory-farmed chickens was in the grip of a lethal epidemic of diarrhoea.

The subject of girlfriends or, more specifically, his lack of one, was a matter on which he had dwelt a great deal of late. He laid the blame for his seemingly perpetual status as desperate bachelor on one thing, his looks. Anthony possessed a curiously square face, his long nose running dead straight downwards, almost parallel with his flat cheeks. Thick, soft, mouse-brown hair, sensibly parted on the right-hand side, gave him a somewhat thatched appearance, a look further enhanced by his solid, six-foot frame and a stolidly bland wardrobe. If only a girl could see beyond his admittedly unconventional looks, see the selfless, kind, romantic soul he knew himself to be. Failing that, he might be in with a chance if one saw his considerable bank balance. But then, they would be after him for the wrong reason. No, the girl of his dreams would accept him as he was, cyberman-looks, olive corduroys, grey flannel shirts and all.

If he had been less obstinately fed up, the view from the window would have impressed him. Up this high, the air was clear, the choking smog of industry forgotten far below. He squinted at Manhatten's distant skyscrapers, stretching up into a pale, winter-blue sky, the low sun reflecting brilliantly from their mirrored windows. A little closer in the opposite direction, he could just make out the Statue of Liberty through the haze of acidic fog. She was in trouble, the waters of the New York Harbour lapping her toes, the plinth she stood on and its museum long since drowned. There was talk of rescuing her, talk mired in arguments over cost and just how much more sea level would rise anyway.

Regardless of whether the Statue of Liberty was waving or drowning, New York wasn't beaten. It took more than a twenty-five meter rise in sea level to dampen the spirits of The Big Apple. The architects just kept building upwards, bricking over submerged districts to keep one step ahead of the sea. The Renenkya Building, where Anthony now stood, was one of the new builds. All glass and chrome, it towered more than eight hundred meters above what used to be considered street level. It was a rather anachronistic term these days, since the streets only really existed at low tide. Most New Yorkers on-the-go got about by monorails and covered walkways many meters above the ground, or took a ride with one of the electro-gondoliers. Anthony did anything he could to avoid taking trips with the latter. The electro-gondoliers of New York always had something to say on every subject but even they shut up when Anthony told them what he did for a living. It was plain embarrassing.

"Quite a view, quite a view, eh?"

It was Faivish, Anthony knew without needing to turn around. He considered Faivish's almost childlike excitement infectious but only in a pathological sense. Anthony accepted it was cruel to dislike him. It was unfair to find the man irritating simply for being indomitably cheerful, well-meaning, talkative, podgy, short, bald and permanently in need of a handkerchief. Faivish had gone out of his way many times to help Anthony, opening countless doors in his career. Anthony liked and respected Faivish a great deal, in principle. In practice, he just wanted to strangle him. It was fortunate for them both that Faivish was due to retire in a year or two.

Faivish was on a roll. "Reminds me of the view of…"

Anthony cut in. "Kowloon from Victoria peak, 2037. Yes. I imagine it does."

"Oh yes, there was quite a funny story. My old friend Bey…"

"Beynish."

"Ah, yes, Baynish, yes. Well he and I…"

"Ended up in your pyjamas, explaining to the police why you had a rubber chicken on a stick. Yes."

"Yes, that's right. Oh we laughed." Faivish gave a little cough. "I've told you then?"

"Yes, Faivish. It was quite funny. The first time you told me."

Anthony sighed, turning away from the window. He found the office offensive. It was half the size of a tennis court, one side floor-to-ceiling windows, the other three sides hung with canvases of presumably expensive modern art. Anthony had no notion of whether the paintings were artistically significant but they did remind him of some of the microscope slides of colonic tissue back at the lab. In the centre of this vast space stood a mahogany coffee table, encircled by six curious art deco things Anthony had previously investigated and established as chairs.

On the table, a tempting cafetière of coffee steamed beside a silver tray of napkins, china cups and saucers. Anthony strode over, lowered himself into a chair and poured himself a strong one.

Faivish joined him, sitting in the chair opposite. "Quite a place they've got here. Quite a place, eh?"

Anthony grunted and sipped his black coffee. It was real, not synthetic like the stuff he usually had to put up with. "The coffee's good."

"Oh yes, no expense spared, eh? No expense spared." Faivish ladled sugar into his cup, spilling grains over the tray. "Reminds me of when I met Renenkya's CEO, back when the project started, oh, that was a time…"

"Faivish."

"What?"

"Why are we here?"

"Why? Why? Your work, Anthony, your work. Why else? You've saved Renenkya millions. Billions. They want to say thank you."

"You think they've brought us out here just to say thank you?"

"Yes, yes, why else? Eh? Why else?"

It was true. Anthony had saved Renenkya a lot of money. The corporation owned Star Spangled Chickens, a global player in fast food. Anthony found it amazing the chain could build such success on the paradigm of selling food by the bucket. A bucket of chicken with fries for under a dollar, all possible through factory farming and genetic modification. Anthony read round the natural history of poultry when he took his doctorate. Chickens used to have feathers. And feet. That was all gone now, thanks to modern science. Each chicken sat naked in a small wire cage, its genes twisted to produce huge, footless legs and enormous breast muscles. The necks were long, thin and brittle, to assist "processing" once the chicken's diet of synthetic protein had brought them to the appropriate weight.

The trouble was, a billion chickens awash with antibiotics and antiparasitics led to some super-resistant bugs. A little single-celled organism called Eimeria tenella had inconveniently mutated to a very nasty strain that shrugged off all the normal treatments. Star Spangled Chicken's profits had nosedived. The devastation of livestock was not the problem, they were covered by insurance. The trouble was the media images of countless chickens shitting themselves. It put the customers off.

But Anthony had found a cure, quickly, quietly and with no fuss. And now he had to have the inconvenience of being thanked for it. He drummed his fingers impatiently. "Well, where are they then?"

"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. Anthony, Faivish."

They both jumped at the rumbling baritone. A vast, mountain of a man stood to their left, his forty inch waist insignificant to his seven foot height. Ruddy and freckled, his few remaining wisps of hair were a faded ginger, his nose a mass of capillaries.

The man laughed deeply and extended a hand. "I'm Damon. Damon Bridle. I'm from sNASA."

Anthony struggled to his feet. sNASA. The Spiritual North American Space Agency? This made no sense at all. Faivish leapt from his seat with alarming speed for a man of his years and wrung Damon's hand.

Anthony waited his turn. "sNASA?"

"I'm sure this will come as a surprise. May I?" Damon gestured to the seats.

Faivish was gushing. "Of course, of course. A coffee?"

"Thank you." Damon lowered himself heavily into the seat between them and turned to face Anthony.

"Well, Anthony. I'm sure my presence will come as something of a surprise to you, yes?"

Anthony nodded.

"The Renenkya Corporation is involved in a lot more than just fast food."

"Yes, I know that." Anthony smiled thinly, fighting an urge to roll his eyes.

"Your work with microbes, with single-celled organisms, well, you have a very impressive record of research. Very impressive indeed. And a very good record of putting that knowledge into practice."

In the following pause, Anthony realised something was expected of him. "Oh. It was nothing, really."

"He's so modest, that boy. So modest." Faivish handed Damon a cup of coffee.

"Thank you, Faivish." He returned to Anthony. "You studied at Neo-Harvard, I believe?"

"Yes."

"In a student debate in 2041, you spoke strongly in favour of Intelligent Design. Is that an opinion you still hold?"

The question made Anthony sit up. "I did? Gee, I don't remember. That's nine years ago. How do you know this?"

"It's in your file."

"My file?"

"Everyone has a file. Intelligent Design?"

Yes, Anthony had been a devout believer once. His upbringing left him no choice, steeped in the teachings of the ICRT, the International Church of the Reformed Testament. Damon's question was loaded. Anthony considered his words carefully.

"I believe that religion is a personal experience between man and God. It is clear there is a driving force behind the…" He struggled for a safe word. "The development of life."

Damon nodded slowly, seemingly satisfied with the answer. "Good, good. What do you know about Mission Europa 2050?"

Anthony's heart sank. Now he understood. They wanted to pull him in for some charity do for the impoverished United States of Europe.

"Gee, I don't know much about it, sir."

"Well, The Renenkya Corporation wants you to be part of the mission. They want you to go to Europa as the mission's astro-biologist."

"Sorry? As what?"

"Astro-biologist."

"Where?" Anthony knew the Europeans were a strange bunch, but astro-biologist?

"Europa. The ice-moon of Jupiter."

A crash made them both look round. Faivish had dropped his cup onto the tray. "Oh, I'm terribly sorry, terribly sorry. Jupiter you say? Jupiter?"

Damon helped Anthony's flummoxed boss mop up the spilt coffee with the inadequately sized napkins. "Not Jupiter, Faivish, Europa, one of Jupiter's moons."

"But I don't understand." Anthony placed his own cup safely down and assisted with the clean-up operation. "Why do they want me to go to Europa?"

"As I said, your work, your reputation with microbes and bacteria. They're going to be looking for life."

"Life?"

"Let me explain. Leaving Earth aside, Europa is unique in the solar system in that it possesses water. Vast oceans of water, all deep beneath a thick coating of ice. It even has a very thin atmosphere of oxygen."

The spilt coffee mopped up, Anthony leant back in his chair and considered. "But I thought the ICRT decreed there was no life in the universe except that found on Earth?"

Damon smiled. "But of course they have. And of course, they are right. But there have been some…discussions. I'm a scientist like you Anthony. We scientists keep an open mind on things. We weigh up the evidence and if a theory is proved wrong, we come up with a new one to fit the evidence. As long as we don't make too much noise if we find something the ICRT might find inconvenient, yes? As long as we keep coming up with innovations for our sponsors, hmm? Need I say more?"

Anthony shrugged.

Damon lent forward conspiratorially. "The problem is, a few of our more vocal scientific colleagues lack discretion and, sadly, any concern for their careers. You see, they've questioned the no-life decree. Convinced there will be bugs on Europa, they've challenged the ICRT to put its faith where its mouth is."

"And so there's a massive, expensive mission to Europa to decide the issue one way or another." Anthony shook his head.

"In part yes. And since Renenkya's CEO is a very committed member of the ICRT and fiercely involved in the argument, your name came up as a possible."

"What about sNASA's astro-biologists? Surely one of them would be a better bet. Who's that woman?" Anthony snapped his fingers, searching for the name. "Duchess? Duck?"

"Duke. Mariah Duke. No, I'm afraid sNASA's astro-biologists ruled themselves out when they wrote that open letter to congress."

"Oh, yes, I forgot."

The letter, yes of course. It had been in all the news and there was talk of the issue going to the Supreme Court. Scientists demanding evolution be taught in schools alongside intelligent design.

Damon shook his head. "The people bankrolling this trip are all deeply religious men and women. They don't like talk of evolution." He lent even closer to Anthony, his voice lowered to a hoarse whisper. "They don't want to find life, you understand me Anthony? But there's a good chance we will." Damon slouched back in his seat and laughed, a deep rumbling laugh.

Faivish made eye contact with Anthony and nodded enthusiastically. "I see no problem with releasing Anthony for this trip, no problem at all. If anyone can find life, it will be our Anthony. Mark my words, Anthony's your boy."

"I'm sure you're right Faivish." Damon picked up his coffee and took a sip. "Still, it isn't just about life. There are a lot of other sound, scientific reasons for going. Exploration of space, advancing the frontiers of knowledge, the sponsorship deals, the merchandising spin-offs. There's even talk of another space station."

There had been a space station before, Anthony knew only too well. The Nice and Spicy Nacho Niks, eight years earlier, a vast city in space dispatched to search for life on Jupiter's distant moon. The name filled him with contempt. Space exploration cost a great deal and sNASA were clearly happy to take the money wherever they could. "The last one went, missing didn't it?"

Damon grimaced. "Yes, the last one went missing along with the relief ship we sent out for it, the Cola Français. A terrible shame, although the sponsors more than made their money back on the various rights. A minor part of Europa 2050 is to try to establish what happened to Europa 2042."

Anthony stood and walked a little way from the table, gazing towards the window. A trip into space. There would be a lot of attention on him, a lot of media nonsense. Still, Anthony Germaine, the astro-biologist. It had a certain appeal. You might say it sounded sexy. "I need to think."

"Of course. There's time."

Anthony walked to the window and pressed his face against the glass. The Statue of Liberty waved up at him. The Earth was drowning and Anthony was going to Jupiter.

There was something else, though. Higgs had been on the Nice and Spicy. Lionel Higgs. The action man, the head of house, the football king. The bastard who ran off with Biddy Dibben at Neo-Harvard, just at the point Anthony really thought he had a chance with her. And then with Lucy Cronk, after Anthony carefully cultivated her friendship by lending her books on flatworm anatomy. And, after that, Carrie Prowse, then Jodi Francis. In fact, every woman at college Anthony had even the slightest crush on, Higgs somehow got in there first. What made this worse was Anthony and Higgs had been buddies. Well, sort of. Anthony had hung out with Higgs and his cronies in the hope of being thought cool by association. It hadn't worked, of course. There had been quite a crowd on the periphery of the social geo-centre that had been Higgs.

After Neo-Harvard, the great man had risen up through sNASA's ranks and ended up second in command on the Nice and Spicy. Within a year of the space station being launched, all contact had been lost (although Anthony doubted there was any connection).

"I wonder what happened to Higgs."

Chapter Three