Sunday, April 24, 2011

So are you guys really in the army?” Alex asked as we stepped into the building.

Nah, we’re just two wild and crazy guys fresh out of high school,” James replied from behind me, his confidence returned now that he was in his natural element of talking to hot chicks. I was staring up at the machine that dominated the open space that filled most of the building.

It was about ten metres long, a rough cylinder made out of gleaming pipes and spheres. A hatch had opened in the side, and some sort of pod was swung out on an arm. I probably don’t need to describe the pod, really. The professor always was a bit of a traditionalist about these sorts of things. The lid was crystal or glass, a transparent half-cylinder covering the liquid-filled interior. Two metal bands strapped across the top, one approximately halfway along its length, the other closer to one end. In other words, they were at genital and nipple height on the body inside, for the benefit of any cameras.

OK, what the hell is this all about?” I asked, projecting my voice into the centre of the building. It would probably seem odd to someone who didn’t know the professor that I wasn’t worried about the guy in the tank. Well, I was, but I knew there would be some sort of explanation. Prolonged exposure to the professor is an excellent method of immunization against surprise.

Dude... think he’s dead?” James said, tilting his head to the coldly-lit tube.

No. I’m... not entirely sure he was ever alive.”

Technically false, Mr Masters, but certainly a step in the right direction. Our dear Mr Darwin might not be breathing, but his heart is making thirty beats per minute and on a cellular level he is positively lively.” The professor was wiping his hands on a forest green silk handkerchief, and tottering towards us. His appearance of decrepitude was largely an act, of course, but probably not for our benefit; a grey suit stuffed with some sort of bureaucrat was walking a few steps behind him.

What exactly are these gentlemen wearing, Corporal?” the suit’s occupant said, as though – a happy thought - Alex had been personally responsible for dressing us.

Hawaiian shirts and board shorts, sir,” she replied, her husky voice suddenly underlain with steel, and I think a little contempt, though that might just have been me projecting.

Oh, do lay off, Crenshaw. Are you really that much of a civilian? They’re wearing brightly coloured shirts – decorated with guns and knives, I see-“

Thought it might be appropriate, professor,” James piped up, as though he’d been the one who’d found them.

...and it is, after all, the height of summer, when only someone with a stick so far up their ass all their food has a distinct woody flavour would possibly consider wearing a suit, and only a CIA desk jockey trying to look professional in the field would do so with a walkie-talkie in his pocket to make it look like he has a gun.” The professor, you see, was regarded as something of an asset for the whole of the Western World, which meant that he could be as abrasive and rude as he liked, a situation which suited him immensely. “Now, shall we explain to them what this is all about?”

Let me guess. Human cloning?” James was being flip, to reinforce his own confidence, but he also had to know what effect it would have on me...

Can’t be. First off, that can be done without all this... machinery, and secondly, you’d get a foetus, not a full-grown adult.” Pedantic was the case they gave me.

OK, smartass, what do you think it is?” He grinned at me, the one-sided corner-grin he used for challenging people.

Uh... well...”

Come on, now, Will, spit it out,” the professor encouraged me. “Don’t be shy.”

I looked again at the device. Sure, it looked complex enough for it, but did we know enough to make it happen? I kept my eyes fixed on a ring-shaped device near the top of the tangle as I spoke, steadying myself by avoiding the eyes of others.

I think it’s a resurrection machine.”

No one laughed, and that was when I knew I was right. I looked down from the machine. Alex was leaning against a corner of it with her arms crossed, looking at me with perhaps a hint of respect. James, of course, had realised it was true as soon as he saw the others’ reactions, and was looking at the machine now with renewed interest, though still glancing from time to time down to where Alex was standing. The professor was congratulating me, in that calm, affable, old-world way he has, and Crenshaw interrupted him to ask me how I knew. All of this happened in a bit of a blur. I mean... a resurrection machine?

You called the guy in the tank Mr Darwin, professor, and... well, he looks like the young portrait of Charles Darwin.” As I finished speaking, the professor chuckled.

Trust you to know the face of a man dead more than a century, Will. Though, of course, you resemble him a fair bit yourself, so perhaps that gave you an edge.”

So... it actually works?”

Well, we won’t actually know for certain for another three weeks, but all indications are that it does indeed work quite well. With luck, we should be decanting Mr Darwin by the end of January.”

I looked down into the tank. The fluid was circulating gently, and the thin, sandy-blond hair covering the scalp of the... body... was swaying like willow branches in the breeze.

He does look kind of like you,” Alex told me. It was true, though my hair was a little thicker and my cheeks a little less plump.

Oh, yes. I didn’t actually have a copy of Darwin’s genes lying around, so I used yours, since you look quite a bit like him in any case. It only took a little tweaking to give him a body he'd be familiar with. I hope you don’t mind?” The professor was casual about it. Someone who didn’t know him might think he was almost being mocking. I straightened up and looked at him, not really sure what to say. He makes these assumptions... but if he’d asked, I’d have said yes.

Ok, let’s take a little break and compare notes. Start from the top, kind of thing, so that I actually have some idea what’s going on.” James gave his disarming grin, the one that almost makes me think he might actually be innocent in some cases, which gives you some idea of the effect it has on people who don’t know him.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hey mama, look at me,

I’m on my way to the promised land...

James and I left Te Kainga on the 6th of January, 2008. James was driving, and I was choosing the music. Everyone else on the road was assigned the vital task of reacting with terrified bafflement as Mabel, James’ beloved “Nissan Pulsar” (so far removed from the factory model as to have a doubtful claim to the name) tore past them at half again the speed limit, the roar of its mighty engine mingling with the strains of two teenagers singing about their asses getting them down1 at the top of their lungs. It was the height of summer, and we had the windows open, the smell of the pines blasting in as we rocketed down the long avenues through the plantations on the hills between Rotorua and Taupo.

We stopped in Taupo for lunch, eating burgers by the water, and James regaled me with a tale of the girl he’d hooked up with on New Years’ Eve, who was “so hot” but “a bit of a ditz”. I kicked back and mentally filed his story; just a few more and I’d be able to figure out an alphanumeric category system for his 'relationships'. James was a great believer in quantity over quality, and his careful creation of a persona of almost godlike coolness had allowed him to live the dream for years.

Across the water, the peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu loomed in their dark summer plumage, just a few hints of snow remaining near their cratered peaks. After lunch we headed in their direction, and James moderated his speed for the sharp curves of the coast-hugging road between Taupo and Turangi, before letting rip on the straights down what’s called the Desert Road. A little melodramatic, really. It’s closer to a heath than anything else, though scarred by both the remnants of the area’s volcanism and human efforts to tame the watershed, guiding the flow of rivers through canals into Lake Taupo, and hence to the multiply-dammed Waikato River.

The other thing you see on this part of the road are the signs. There’s one every so often, on both sides of the road, warning passersby that this is a live fire area.

Waiouru is a smaller town than Te Kainga, though there is the museum, constructed to architecturally represent a fortress without actually being a fortress, the better to go with the tank and artillery piece in the front yard. We turned off before we reached the town or the museum, and almost immediately ran into a security checkpoint. James rolled his window down and leaned out to talk to the fatigue-clad private on duty.

Hey, can we come in?” From this angle I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he’d have his shit-eating grin turned up to 11. James loves playing games with those who have apparent authority over him.

I’m very sorry, sir, but this is, uh, military property, and we can’t let any, uh, civilians in without the right, uh, right clearance.” The private was obviously becoming aware of the disconcerting qualities of James’ grin. It seemed vaguely idiotic, and somewhat infuriating, and it showed an awful lot of teeth.

You mean... this clearance?” James flourished the card he’d received in the mail a couple of weeks after we sent away our NDAs. I held mine up, too, in the view of the poor sap, and gave him a thin little smile. I can’t be absolutely sure, given that the clearances were all given in code words, but I have the feeling, looking back, that they cleared us to go more or less anywhere. That was Crenshaw’s style through and through.

You guys, uh, you can go right along,” he told us, shock evident on his face. “Oh, wait! I need your phones and, uh, any other photographic devices you have.”

James immediately whipped out his phone and pressed a few buttons, then paused for a few seconds before speaking.

Hi, you’ve reached James’ phone. I’ve had to hand my phone in to security, but if you leave a message, I’ll ring you back as soon as I get it back. And if it’s you – and you know who you are – I’m thinking of you and I am definitely putting those thoughts into action as soon as I see you again.” He tapped the button and handed it over to the guard. “If you get a call from Marama, answer it before it stops ringing and tell her you’re looking after my phone for me. She likes shy guys.”

The private thanked him on automatic, then mutely accepted my phone, his eyes thanking me for not manifesting any more eccentricity or confidence than was necessary. The bar lifted, and we drove in, windows open, with our sunglasses on and our arms resting on the doors in calculated nonchalance.

How many would the ‘you’ in that message refer to right now, James?” I asked, just out of casual interest.

Just two. Marama, who knows the score, and Kelly from New Years' Eve... I haven't managed to let her down gently yet.”

He was like that. It annoyed me, but he was never cruel with it, so I couldn’t exactly disapprove without seeming jealous. But then, he knew that when I asked him those sorts of questions, I was registering my disapproval without actually disapproving, and he generally cut it down to one at a time for a couple of months. He also knew that if he ever really hurt someone, I’d rip off his balls while he was sleeping.

James has a memory for directions which is as good as my memory for quotations, and we were soon gliding up to a long, low building with blacked-out windows. We sat for a few seconds, after he turned off the ignition, and stared at the half-open door. We could feign confidence in front of the guard, but now we were up against the real deal.

Weeelp,” said James, “I guess we’d better go in.” We both grabbed our bags from the back and were halfway to the door when she pushed it open and stepped out.

It would be nice to say that I felt something special the first time I saw Alex, but the truth was that all I felt was a certain amount of awe and a rising erection.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Then, and now, Alex is and was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She... hell, I could write a hundred pages just about her eyes, deep green pools I could sink into forever quite happily, or about her hair, a rich, smouldering auburn, though when I first saw her it was trimmed short under her uniform cap. I was in awe, yes, but at that point it was nothing more than the awe I feel in the presence of anything truly filled with beauty. As for the erection, she had more curves than Pikes Peak, all in perfect proportion, and in the words of the ZZ Top song, she had legs, and she knew how to use them.

You’re the new guys?” she asked rhetorically. “Nice shirts.”

Thanks. This is Will, and I’m James Campion. It is... well, it’s really a pleasure to meet you.”

You guys are brothers?”

I, uh, no, uh, I’m, well, uh, I’m... Will Masters. Nice to see you.” Smooth and cool, that’s me. I even remembered my name on the third go. James gave me a look of pure amusement, then smiled again at the angel who, at that point, I could only have identified by looking at the name patch on her chest, which I didn’t especially want to be caught staring at.

Nice to meet you two as well. I’m Alex Teague, I’m the US representative on this little project of ours. Which unit are you with?”

James and I looked at each other. We could tell the truth, of course. We could. Any time we wanted.

Her Majesty’s Te Kainga Irregulars,” I invented madly, cursing whatever feature of my brain made it easier to create an army unit out of thin air than to remember my own name.

Those shirts part of the uniform?” she asked, a twinkle in her eye.

We’re highly irregular,” James answered, his grin returning.

Oh. Well, in the US, people have to keep that kind of thing secret if they want to join the army. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is,” she said, her voice perfectly regular. It was then that I decided that I liked her, as well as lusting after her.

Dude,” I said, turning to James, “She just called you gay.”

I noticed that...” he paused, “darling.” His delivery was perfect dead-pan, and we all burst into laughter. Partly out of relief, I think; it was nice to know that the person who met us first, out of whatever organisation was running this show, was someone we could get on with.

1My Neighbour's Ass” by Tim Minchin.