Another of my readers made the comment that I as the author showed which ideological direction I am biased toward too early, thus not allowing the reader to make his own decision based on the story arc. I agree, and the rearrangement of the text and significant rewrites should I think mitigate some of those issues.
Other changes were made simply for better storytelling effect.
╗ TWO ╚
THE HOMOGEN INITIATIVE
Sterilization was a dirty word. Cure polled much better.
Or so Anna had been told. Her expertise lay with computer code and systems tech, not with public relations and advertising buzzwords. However, as she stood and smoothed her business skirt in front of her office mirror and rechecked her makeup, she implicitly felt the difference. Sterilization was a word born of much darker times, and even the newer term liberation didn't quite have the same flavor. Cure had the effect of a necessary solution, which it most certainly was. Besides, the Central Administration Office had already anointed it as the central part of the national lexicon, and so Cure it would be called.
It was a good word.
It gave her selling power this morning, anyhow. Not usually the company's point man for customer presentations and company tours, the task had fallen to her anyways because of some scheduling fluke. No problem; it would be a pleasure to vacate her desk for an hour and give someone a tour. The file on her desk claimed the customers in question were a lesbian couple in their early thirties, finished with the twenties romantic fling thing and ready for a child.
At the least, she did not expect this to be difficult. At best, it would be enjoyable.
She touched her auburn hair, again, ensuring it was securely pinned back in her characteristic messy bun. She also fiddled with her name tag, straightening it: Annalise McLean, Senior Software and Systems, HomoGen, Inc. In the past five years the HomoGen Initiative represented the only thing that she had approached recently with any modicum of passion. If she was proud of anything, specifically of her work on anything, it was the Initiative.
Last look in the mirror, last check of her jewelry, blouse, face, shoes, skirt, smile. The smile... That was harder than the other things. It still would not fasten on with the same ease as her professional attire and expensive watch. Still, what she could muster should be sufficient for now. Besides, this wasn't a money-grubbing meeting with Central Admin, where she had to grovel and even show more skin than usual to grease the right palms. This was customer service, plain and simple.
She looked at her timepiece and noted it at eight fifty-eight and a half. Her meeting began at nine precisely. She snatched her commex and purse off her desk and exited her office with more than a hint of smugness.
In the gleaming white and chrome lobby downstairs, the lesbian couple sat and waited just as they were supposed to be. They were both slender blondes and dressed to perfection, with noses buried in their respective commexes when Anna rounded the last bend and willed her face to smile. She must have had some success with the exercise, for both of the women stood and smiled back and held out hands in warm greeting. Their names were Sara and Pearl and they wanted a child.
Anna began their tour with the lower floors, the laboratory showcase level of an almost decadently beautiful building. Her enthusiasm waxed ever greater as she showed off the facility and her subjects caught her spirit and explored with growing interest. From there they moved up several floors to the presentation level, replete with the appropriate conference rooms and curved window-walls looking down over Washington D.C. below. Finally they stopped at one of these windows and the two women spent a long moment staring out at the tiny cars and people below. Finally Sara turned around and leaned on the window rail, smiling at Anna.
“So why do you do this, Miss McLean?” she asked innocently.
“Do what?” Anna smiled back, masking her confusion.
“What you do, all of this.”
Anna swallowed and thought for a moment. She marshaled her sales pitch as best she could to the forefront of her mind and began. “We here are providing humankind, women especially, with a solution. A Cure, if you will. A cure from the way things have always been. I want to be at the cutting edge of that. We solved the problem of STD's successfully a long while ago, so it was only natural that we tackle the population regulation problem next.”
Pearl turned back from the window as well and eyed Anna. “And how successful has that regulation been? Just out of curiosity?”
“Overpopulation is now under control, overall.” Anna forced another smile. “Although our AnnexEstros intravenous shots take care of that pretty well. No, what we have done here with our 'Versions' is to truly perfect the art of reproduction without the pain and potential heartbreak.” Anna almost chuckled as she added, “Hell, you can even pick your child's hair color, eye color, skin color, and sex if you want. Every Version we make is to the exact tastes of the parent.”
Pearl smiled widely. “So there is never an unwanted Version?” she breathed almost reverently.
Anna nodded. “That is correct. There will never be an unwanted child ever again if we have our way.”
Sara shook her head. “You have done something really special, Miss McLean.” She chuckled and added, “And we are planning on being pretty specific with what we want. Although Pearl and I cannot decide on eye color to save our lives.”
All three laughed and Pearl put a hand on Anna's arm. “I want to thank you for giving us your time today, Miss McLean. I know you have a busy schedule and it was good to hear all this from you.”
Anna nodded. “Thank you. I am a woman, like you. I like to think I understand the challenges and the rewards of your situation. Rest assured, that as soon as you open your account here that we will begin work with your Version and will notify you of every stage of his or her progress.” A soft beep emanated from her hand and Anna glanced down at her commex. She tapped it and the screen lit up to reveal a new message. In the Sender box it read “Jesse Atkins”. She quickly swiped it with her thumb to reveal the words: “Get done soon, we are having guests. Be prepared to talk A LOT.”
Guests. A loaded term in her line of work. Her stomach churned whilst her brain processed the idea. It could bode well: perhaps Central Admin had sent emissaries who would provide more funding for the Initiative if they liked what they saw. Then again, it could be the same emissaries wondering about inefficiencies and wastage, and coming to deliver the bad news about a funding cutoff.
With profuse apologies she excused herself from the two women and began heading back to the elevator. She shook her head to clear away her consternation; she would find out everything about her surprise visitors in due course. Try as she might, though, the weight of her ignorance bore down on her and she rushed with a quicker step than usual back to the elevator and tapped the “Up” button.
Would the emissaries arrive with open or closed hands, with an offer or a verdict? She attempted to mentally divine the purpose of their visit but came up just as devoid of an answer as before. Unless she or her team had performed a task incorrectly, there was nothing she could think of to warrant an unannounced intrusion. Then again, it occurred to her that it may not even be Central Admin who was coming.
Ah, who am I kidding? she thought. It is always Central Admin. Their offices stretched vast feelers over the entire width and breadth of society, constantly tuned to the hum of human activity and always listening for the occasional discordant note. Of the fates of the discordant notes she was unaware, and she was firmly set on never finding out.
And why the hell was Jesse Atkins the one giving her this news? Her anxiety turned to annoyance as she remembered that she wasn't speaking to him this week. Flaunting their office romance to her friends was bad enough, but watching porn in her house after their own bit of naughty fun was the last straw.
The doors slid open and she stepped inside. Just as they began to close again a tall, slender man with a well-cropped goatee came rushing up and touched the doors to keep them open. “They are keeping completely tight-lipped about this one,” Jesse remarked as he slid into the elevator next to her, and he began stabbing the eighth floor button with an urgency that was not his wont.
“Good morning to you too,” Anna replied coldly. “It seems you pulled yourself away from yourself long enough to give me the time of day.”
Jesse grimaced at her sidelong. His long face was unusually focused for this time of the morning and Anna even imagined she could see a thin sheen of sweat cloaking his dark skin. His nervousness oozed out of him with almost the same intensity as his powerful cologne. The manly smell overpowered the tiny room and left the air almost unbearably pungent to breathe. She had a weakness for that particular scent in its proper dosage, but there was nothing even remotely erotic about the concentration of this stench. She coughed and theatrically put the collar of her blouse over her nose.
“Really threw that stuff on this morning, didn't you?”
“Maybe I could have gotten the percentage correct if you had let me come over last night,” Jesse countered. “I'd have had you right there to tell me when to stop.”
“You never know when to stop,” she replied. “With that or anything else. And you never do stop anyways, even when I do tell you.”
Jesse turned to look at her over his shoulder. “That's because you want it,” he said with a leering smile and a sultry look. Anna frowned at him and looked away, although her skin prickled; she could still feel his gaze probing her. He did that too much now, the long looks and the obvious mental undressing. The first couple times it had been sexy. Now it just reminded her of the porn shoppes he loved so much.
“So what do you know about this meeting?” she asked in a desperate attempt to fend off more of his unwanted attention. Jesse either got the hint or got bored, and he turned back to the closed doors in front of him before he answered.
“Central Admin. They're sending two of their top people. The subject matter? I have no clue but I can guess what it's not.”
“Is it budget again?”
“I don't think so.” Jesse scratched his chin. “They sent nothing on ahead, except for a request that you and I have the Project main quarter report available and be willing to answer any questions they might have. At least they are done acting like HomoGen is a private company anymore and are just giving us orders like they do with everyone else. Makes life so much easier.”
The elevator pinged and the doors slid open, and Anna stepped gratefully out of the cologne-soaked sweatbox into a long hallway. The opposite wall was constructed almost entirely from huge panes of glass and allowed prodigious amounts of morning sunlight to stream in. She crossed to the windows and looked down at the miniature city below in a distracted fashion. “I just hope they are not taking away our funding,” she said quietly.
“I don't think that's why they're coming,” Jesse reassured her. “Their request for info seemed perfunctory anyways. I think it's something else. Come on, I nabbed conference room two. You go in and wait, I'll be there in a moment.” With his hand a little too low on her back he guided her towards the conference room door and opened it. “And don't drink all the coffee before we start.”
“Ha ha,” Anna replied without humor. “And I find it funny that you give that decaf crap the name 'coffee.' You can rest assured it'll be full for you when you get back.”
Jesse opened his mouth to voice a snarky counter-opinion, then thought better of it, wordlessly turned and walked away. Anna meanwhile entered the room and found a home in one of the giant leather chairs surrounding the long table. Dim lights set at intervals along the walls cast shafts of soft illumination up to the ceiling. The table reflected them back from deep within its dark oiled finish and from the chromed video conference stations inlaid into the wood.
She tapped red-painted fingernails on the table impatiently, waiting for another human being to enter. The clock on the wall monotonously ticked away the seconds, the distant traffic outside noised its low rumble, and nobody came. The room remained silent and empty for much longer than she had anticipated. Her foot began tapping now too, her heel clicking on the marble floor in time with the clock. Finally her hand reached of its own accord to her bag and pulled out her commex. Her earphones followed and she was soon gratefully drowning in a sea of inner-ear sound. She still blasted the music like everyone else but her preference lay with artists from near the turn of the century. It was not stellar but also not bad in the same way modern music was bad. At least the early stuff used intelligible lyrics; the current music had casually dispensed with that component and gone for the heavy electronic sound instead.
Her music was a soothing drug, a cathartic exercise that staved off boredom and deep thought. As she listened her eyes slipped shut and she leaned back in her chair with a sigh of contentment. Her mind emptied and the sound flowed in, possessing her brain and matching her biological rhythm to its pulsating electronic one. She sank into its raging tumult and imagined herself at peace.
The tap on her shoulder shocked her back into reality and she came ungracefully bolt upright, ripping the music from her ears and stuffing the entire ensemble back into her purse. Jesse stood bent over her, his face nearly on level with her nose and an amused expression on his face. He smirked and motioned behind him with his thumb. “We have visitors.”