Stage Right: A Sterile Promontory
October 24, 2016
Alistair Sodhi glanced out his office window at the barren landscape. Wyoming. A piece of America that had fallen out of time and memory. The locals were few, distrustful, and eager for employment since environmental regulation had slowed the coal industry to a cash-hemorrhaging crawl. It was perfectly suited to his work and the cover story for the facility: a joint-university research project to explore pharmacological application of a few native plants. The occupation was boring to laypeople, easy to justify shipments of medical and scientific equipment, and the occasional helicopter could be explained as Big Pharma Execs coming for tours and funding requests. The few staff that made up the public face of the operation also provided a steady economic trickle into the nearest town by way of rental housing, beers, and haircuts. A small amount of cash, used inconspicuously, could buy a great deal of loyalty. Sodhi even set aside funds to buy a percentage of needs – office supplies, coffee, paper products – locally to earn trust.
He hated Wyoming. Hated the never ending stretch of dry grass to the east that had life for only two weeks of green in the spring and remained a dull, yellow brown the rest of the year. He hated the sharp, impassable mountains to the west, dotted with trees and predators. He hated the icy cold and feet of snow in the winter and the rasping dry heat of the summer. Above all, he hated the wind. It was forever blowing. Either a quiet, needle-some breeze that was always too cold or too hot, or a biting wind that howled at night and made equal hazards of dirt, snow and rain. And the facility was old. A new surface building had been constructed in the nineties to house the cover offices, but the installation underground, sprawling into the mountain, was WWII-era. The outer chambers were perpetually damp, the infrastructure exposed against bare concrete, and it never rose above sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Room after room of storage – old equipment, boxes and cabinets of files, and some doors that would never again be opened. He hated Wyoming, but no power on Earth could have convinced him to leave.
“Dr. Sodhi,” his assistant spoke through the intercom, “your eight o’clock call is ready, shall I put it through to your office?”
“Yes, thank you.” He picked up the receiver as soon as it rang. His palm was clammy. “This is Sodhi.”
“Good morning, Doctor.” The voice on the other end was not particularly intimidating, rather cheerful and overly familiar in the way of most Americans. “How are things there?”
“Cold,” he answered shortly. Which was true in that the less than sixty degree temperature outside was a far cry from the mid-nineties Kolkata was currently experiencing. He knew from unfortunate experience that it would get much, much worse. His mouth turned down at the thought, disgust nearly overwhelming his nerves. “I assume you have received my latest reports?”
“Yes. It appears that Project Sunday is on schedule for full-scale production. That is excellent news. I will expect a shipment to all the major markets by the end of the month.”
Sodhi made an impatient noise of agreement. “And the budget requests?”
“Hm, yes. I have the notes from your previous supervisor. It seems she turned down some of your programs. Repeatedly. Project Scion, for instance-”
“Sir,” Sodhi interrupted quickly, “if you will refer to the memo included with-”
“I read the memo, Dr. Sodhi.”
“And the white paper. And your rather extensive previous requests for funding.”
Sodhi took a deep breath, preparing to justify his research to a man who obviously didn’t understand the opportunities that could be gained, but he was preempted.
“I also took the liberty of going through your predecessor’s files. Salazar’s work was quite…controversial. Intriguing, but not well received by the prior administration. You’ve taken a different approach – closer to the failed attempts in the early eighties.”
Sodhi swallowed hard. Few of those responsible for funding decisions within the organization had ever researched the science behind the projects they supported. “The advancements made in utilizing ICSI in conjunction with modern-”
“You do not have to convince me, Doctor. I quite agree that the project should be given active status.”
Sodhi relaxed. His hand left a smeared print on the cheap wood veneer of his desk. He had been working on Scion for over a year with whatever resources he could divert from other areas. He needed the funding. Desperately. “Thank yo-”
“There is the issue of the amount, however.”
Of course there was. There always was. Sodhi sank back into his chair, a bitter twist to his lips It had been too much to think, even for a moment, that the science would come before the bottom line. The voice on the phone continued, “I believe an increase to two hundred ten percent of your request should provide more prodigious results. Do you agree?”
“Ag, hrm, yes, sir.” Sodhi was nearly choking on his surprise. With those dollars he could purchase new equipment, hire additional staff, buy computing time.
“Dr. Sodhi, in exchange for this support, I expect an aggressive timeline. Monthly reports and progress. If there is anyone outside the organization you need, send the name to my office and we will assess the possibilities for…recruitment.”
“Yes, yes, sir.” Sodhi’s mind was spinning. He could already think of a few specialists that would provide significant support. Gerghan at Yale, any of the partners at Root Solutions in Los Angeles – money might entice the private sector, M’benga at Cambridge, Marcus and Ferrik or Xiu Son – if he could find them. There were a few newcomers to the field that showed promise as well.
“Scion is a priority now, Doctor, second only to Sunday. There will be consequences if results are not forthcoming.” Sodhi was making noises of agreement, mentally listing steps that would need to be taken to prepare for live trials. “With the cash flow from Sunday’s latest upgrades, more funding may become available to you. But I want. My. Soldiers. Is that understood?”
“Perfectly, Mr. Carson.”