Friday, February 22, 2019

A Teaser

     [The opening segment of The Wise and the Mad, the sequel to Innocents and Experiences. -- FWP]

Monday, June 3, 2030

     Nathaniel Abernathy had only just set down his cosmetologist’s kit and closed his apartment door behind him when his phone rang. Though he hadn’t seen the number displayed on its screen for months, it remained unpleasantly familiar. He muttered an oath and snatched the handset from its cradle.
     “Hello, Dennis.”
     “Hello, Nate. Why so sour? I could almost think you were unhappy to hear from me.”
     “I’ve had a tough night, Dennis. Is this about something important?”
     “Nothing specific, Nate. It’s just that I haven’t heard from you for quite some time.” Dennis Addison’s tone was greasier than usual. “We did one another some favors at one time. I thought we both gained by them, which makes it odd that so much time should have gone by since I heard from you last.”
     “You gained by them,” Abernathy said. “I can’t say the same.”
     “Ah. Trouble with your employers, or with Chuck?”
     Abernathy suppressed a second oath. “I’d rather not discuss it, Dennis. What is it this time?”
     “A little bird tells me that Rachel MacLachlan will shortly be a guest on Overtime again. Friday this week, in fact. Am I correct?”
     “You’re correct. What of it?”
     “Has she requested a recorded dress rehearsal, like the last time?”
     “She has.”
     “And do you expect to be present for that?”
     “Not this time, Dennis. The station just hired a new cosmetologist. He’ll be the one going to the clinic. It will be a good chance to give him some practice. Break him in, as it were.”
     “But surely with so important a guest, you’ll be asked to supervise?”
     Abernathy could imagine the reporter’s smirk. It made him clench his jaw. “I doubt it, Dennis. It’s only a rehearsal. The recording is mostly a way of affirming the station’s no-surprises promise to MacLachlan. It won’t be aired.”
     “But you are the senior cosmetologist at WHUP, aren’t you? Even if the recording will never be aired, won’t it fall to you to debrief the rookie?”
     “It’s possible I’d be asked to comment on his efforts, but he’d be under non-disclosure—”
     “But you’re an employee of WHUP. He’d be perfectly free to speak to you. And if you weren’t at the clinic, you wouldn’t have signed an NDA.”
     Abernathy wilted inside.
     The bastard’s got me.
     “The MacLachlan therapy has already been heavily publicized, Dennis. What could I possibly be able to tell you about it that you don’t already know?”
     “Ah, isn’t that just the question! Why would MacLachlan be returning to the show if she has nothing new to tell us about her therapy, her clinic, or anything related to them? The guests that appear on Overtime tend to have new and interesting things to say. It’s as much a news show as the six o’clock version, just with a human-interest flavor and an upstate New York focus.”
     Abernathy did not reply.
     “The Register needs news just as much as ever, Nate. I need it too, for professional reasons. And if I were to learn that you’d denied me an interesting, newsworthy tidbit that I could have wrapped a major story around, it would make me sad. A little bit cross, too.”
     Abernathy vented a deep sigh.
     “All right, Dennis. I’ll see what I can dig up.”


     His Eminence Pietro Cardinal Famiglietti, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and late the Archbishop of Milan, could hardly conceal his anguish over the willfulness of his new boss.
     Didn’t I warn them that this would happen? Didn’t I say explicitly that to put an American on the Throne of Saint Peter would bring disaster upon us all?
     This is no time for recrimination. I must cope.
     “Your Holiness,” he murmured, “to invoke technology for such a purpose—a technology understood and controlled by only one person on Earth, an unbeliever!—is to mock the Covenant the Almighty has made with fallen Man.”
     His Holiness Pope Clement XV, until only a week previously known as Gerard Cardinal O’Rourke, prelate to the archdiocese of New York, maintained his habitual blandness of demeanor. Famiglietti found it supremely irritating.
     “Technology, Pietro, like all of Creation,” Clement said, “is one of God’s gifts to His children. It is the fruit of human understanding of the laws of Nature. We are permitted to use it, if possible, to promote the good among us. If possible, we must prevent it from promoting evil. No other laws apply, whether secular or canonical.”
     The pope’s utterance bore the heft of an encyclical. Famiglietti could not marshal an argument against it. Clement plainly sensed his frustration. He smiled and nodded.
     “The Covenant is indisputably important as a backdrop to the great story of human history. It speaks eloquently of the trials of temptation, to which all men are subject under the veil of time. Yet it does not bind us as the Commandments do. It does not forbid the use of technological means to assist us in meeting those trials.” He rose, stretched, and reseated himself. “Perhaps the Almighty, noting the grave peril to which the Church is subject, has taken a hand in our fate by encouraging the development of this technology. It may allow us to surmount the worst of our current problems. If it should, no doubt other temptations will arise, but those lie in the unimaginable future, as do the measures I or my successors will deploy against them.”
     He is God’s elect, the vicar of Christ. Yet he eschews the way of faith and reposes his confidence in machines. He is as American as I feared.
     “Your Holiness,” Famiglietti ventured, “do you not fear that this technology might be a temptation in itself? That it might become the instrument not of our renewal but of our ruin?”
     “I fear many things, Pietro,” Clement replied. “Most of all I fear that this opportunity will slip past us out of our fear of what we cannot foresee.”
     “So the welfare of the Church will rest in the hands of a layman and an unbeliever,” Famiglietti murmured. He regretted his words at once, for the pope’s gaze darkened dramatically.
     “It will not be the first time, Pietro,” Clement said. “The Church has often been defended by men who bore us no allegiance. But God has shielded us. When Hitler arose to imperil all the world, we Americans came to Europe to answer him. Not all those who took up arms against the Third Reich were Catholics, nor even Christians.” His expression softened. “Besides, we already have some report of this person, and it is most encouraging. Father Altomare speaks very well of her.”
     But how well do we know Raymond Altomare?
     Clement smiled and nodded.
     “That was a very expressive wince, Pietro. It spoke your thoughts most eloquently. You need not fear that I have shot an arrow into the dark. I ordained Raymond Altomare. I know him very well indeed.”
     He reached for his intercom and pressed the button that would summon the papal nuncio to his office.


     There was something off about Craig Mackenzie, but Rachel MacLachlan couldn’t put her finger on it. It might have been his endurance athlete’s good looks. It might have been his habit of mirroring her posture. It might have been his smile, which seemed too meticulously rehearsed to be sincere. It might have been the way he ended every sentence with a tonal uptick. Or it might have been that, despite a Scottish heritage of which he claimed to be proud, he refused to capitalize the ‘k’ in his last name. Whatever it was, it chafed her sufficiently to prolong his interview to the limits of her endurance.
     But not his. After a full hour’s grilling he remained as slick as when he’d seated himself in her office. He hadn’t become flustered or hesitant at any point. His smile seemed welded in place. His stare focused upon the bridge of her nose, unwavering throughout, and that troubled her worst of all.
     She badly wanted to rise, offer her hand, and tell him that he’d be notified. She was on the verge of doing so when her intercom buzzed.
     Saved by the bell...the buzz.
     She pressed the push-to-talk. “Yes, Elise?”
     “You have a call on line 1, Rachel.” There was an unusual tremor in Elise Rosenthal’s voice. “It could be important. It’s long distance and the caller sounds nervous.”
     “About what?”
     “He said he could only mention that to you.”
     “Where’s he calling from?”
     “Oh, that’s not...wait: Rome, Italy?”
     “That’s the one.” Elise’s vocal quaver became more pronounced. “He gave his name as Gennaro di Giuseppe. He says he’s the papal nuncio.”
     “Please tell him I’ll be with him in just a minute.” She rose, indicated that Mackenzie should do the same, and offered him her hand. He took it in a gentle clasp. His smile never fluctuated.
     “Thank you for coming, Mr. Mackenzie. I simply must take this call, and other matters are pressing upon me as well. Will you be available for a chat this evening?”
     “I will, Ma’am. You have my number.” He dipped his head. “Thank you for your time.”
     He pivoted smoothly and left her office. Rachel released a huge sigh and resumed her seat. “Elise?”
     “Still holding.”
     “I’ll take the call. Thanks.” She connected to the open line.
     “Rachel MacLachlan speaking.”
     “Good morning, Doctor MacLachlan. This is Gennaro di Giuseppe. How does the day find you, Doctor?”
     “Please call me Rachel, Your Eminence. I’m quite well, thank you. And yourself?”
     “Thank you, Rachel. I am very well indeed. Rome is at its most beautiful at this time of year. I assume Miss Rosenthal told you of my position?”
     “She did, Your Eminence.” Rachel paused. “I must say, I never expected to have dealings of any sort with the Vatican. What can I do for you?”
     “News of your desire modification therapy has reached us here in Italy. There’s a great deal of interest in it, in many quarters.”
     “Including the Vatican?” Rachel said.
     “Especially at the Vatican. No doubt you’re aware that the college of cardinals has just placed a new Supreme Pontiff on the Throne of Saint Peter. An American, for the first time in Church history.”
     “Yes, I am aware,” Rachel said. “It was a controversial choice.”
     “Yet there could be no other, for God had ordained it. The college spent quite a few days in discernment. In the end it seemed that the choice of Cardinal O’Rourke had been plain from the very start, that all our deliberations were merely to assuage our uncertainties and assure ourselves that we were of a single mind.”
     “I can imagine,” Rachel said, “that the amazement of the waiting crowds of faithful at hearing of that choice took quite a while to quiet.”
     “Indeed it did, Rachel. But all is settled, His Holiness Pope Clement XV has been installed, and the work of the Church must continue as if it had never been interrupted. It is our way to proceed thus.”
     “Yes, I understand. But what possible service can I, a non-communicant, render to the Catholic Church?”
     “That is as yet undecided, Rachel. The Holy Father wishes to speak with you himself. Would your schedule permit you to take a brief trip to Rome some time in the near future?”
     Rachel paused to draw a deep breath.
     “Allow me a moment, Your Eminence.”
     She pulled her keyboard toward her and surveyed her schedule for the coming month. It was busy, but not so packed that she couldn’t make rearrangements enough to free a three-day span for the trip to Rome. If she could reschedule her appearance on Overtime...
     But what could the Pope want from me? Does he plan to issue an opinion about the canonical acceptability of the therapy for use by Catholics, or has he conceived of a use for it himself?
     It’s not something to settle over the phone, anyway.
     “I think it would, Your Eminence. From my calendar, I’d say later this week would be best.”
     “Excellent. Shall I connect you to His Holiness’s appointments secretary to arrange the details?”


     Kevin Conway forked up the last of his scallops and fusilli in vodka sauce, savored its delicate aroma, chewed and swallowed it appreciatively. He set down his fork and sat back with a broad smile.
     “Jeanne, I have never had anything like that. Where did the recipe come from?”
     Jeanne Iverson mirrored his smile. “I threw it together one evening a few months ago, when there was very little in the larder because I’d been too lazy to shop.” She reached for her husband’s hand and squeezed it. “Todd likes it, too.”
     “Hell yes,” Todd Iverson concurred. He poked at his waistline. “Maybe too much.”
     “The way to a man’s heart and all that,” Kate Conway intoned.
     “Actually,” Todd said, “I prepared the first dinner we had here. Jeanne was suitably impressed, but as you can see she has some culinary talent of her own.”
     “Well,” Kevin said, “don’t let her near Grucci’s or they’ll try to hire her away from you.”
     “Not a chance,” Jeanne said. “I’m having too good a time. Besides, we like to eat there now and then.” She rose, circled the table to collect the dirty dishes, and disappeared through the swinging doors to the Iversons’ kitchen. Kate immediately rose and followed her. The men waited for the doors to close behind her.
     “So,” Iverson said, “you said you had a need.”
     Conway nodded. “A pretty big one.” He fitted his fingertips together. “I have a friend with a problem she can’t solve. A problem in genetics.”
     Iverson’s eyes narrowed. “Details?”
     “She has a freezer full of zygotes of unknown characteristics. She needs to know what would develop from them if they were to gestate.”
     “What, doesn’t she know whether they’re human?”
     “She’s pretty sure of that,” Conway said. “But there’s a possibility she’s concerned about.” He hunched forward over the table. “Do you know the word ‘futanari?’” Iverson shook his head. “It’s a very rare genetic anomaly. It produces a child with two X chromosomes, but that has only male genitalia.”
     Iverson’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Is the baby otherwise healthy?” Conway nodded. “So it’s not a disabling or life-threatening condition, then.”
     “Not quite, Todd. Futanari are incapable of reproduction. Their testes produce sperm, but it can’t fertilize a human ovum. So they are disabled in one way, at least.”
     “Not to mention the social reactions,” Todd murmured. “Which I would guess are about like what pre-op transwomen face.”
     “To some extent, yes,” Conway said.
     “Why is your friend concerned about this possibility?”
     “Do you remember, about a year and a half ago, how I was intermittently out of touch for weeks at a time?”
     Iverson nodded. “Kate did a lot of bitching about it.”
     “I’m not surprised,” Conway said. “There was a reason.”
     “Connected with this freezer full of zygotes, I assume?”
     “Yeah,” Conway said, “I brought it back from one of those jaunts. I found it in a lab that was dedicated to turning out futanari.”
     Iverson’s face fell. “Why—no, how?
     “By cloning.”
     “But there’s hasn’t yet been—no, strike that,” Iverson said. His gaze became intense. “Obviously there has. But what were you doing in that lab?”
     Conway swallowed and attempted to smile.
     “Destroying it.”


     The obstetrician, a most expensively procured high expert in his field, stood defenseless before the rage of the man who had committed to paying his fee.
     “I have no explanation, Your Grace. We’ve sent three samples to three different laboratories. We’ve emphasized the need for accuracy and privacy. We’ve waited patiently for the returns. All three have produced the same result as the amniocentesis.”
     His customer’s mask of anger remained unaltered. “Yet it has a penis.”
     “She does—”
     “Do not refer to a clearly male child as she!” the Duke of Norfolk roared. Despite his years he still presented a formidable appearance. His voice had lost neither its force nor its rolling-thunder timbre, as his colleagues in the House of Lords could attest. He rose from his seat and smashed his fists down upon its surface, the better to glare at the only target available to his fury.
     “Your Grace,” the obstetrician quavered, “the prenatal care of your wife, the delivery of your child, and the results of the genetic assays are all I have to give you. Is there some other service you would ask of me?”
     The duke’s face twitched once, twice. He opened a drawer and pulled out a checkbook, wrote out a check, and thrust it at the obstetrician as if it were a blade he would have preferred to bury in the man’s vitals.
     The obstetrician glanced at the amount in puzzlement. “You Grace, this is twice what—”
     “You will say nothing of this to anyone. Now get out.”
     When the obstetrician had departed, the duke dropped back into his chair, covered his face with his hands, and wept. A timeless interval later he felt a soft hand caress his brow.
     “Thomas?” Olivia murmured. “What’s the matter?”
     Thomas Landsdowne Walsingham, Knight Commander of the Order of the Garter and by royal decree of His Majesty Charles III Duke of Norfolk and Protector of the Northeastern Marches of the Realm, lowered his hands and looked piteously into his wife’s face.
     “I am accursed.”


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