The CEO’s rather large accommodations were arranged such that Cain’s support staff was invisible, tucked away in small little side areas, unseen unless summoned. The majority of the floor was left open as a waiting room. Well, more of a waiting gallery. Leather couches and chairs had been arranged to create little bubbles of intimacy. Each area had its own refreshments and a complimentary piece of Vergeron’s past, sometimes the centerpiece of a coffee or end table, sometimes a pedestal or shadowbox hovering somewhere nearby. The entire room was like that, dashes of history peppering the landscape, each art installation with its own little plaque, explaining the significance of this industry award or that circuit board. There was even a ten meter section of wall that was plastered, floor to vaulted ceiling, with full color renderings and half completed sketches of all the original ideas for the Vergeron logo.
Py hated marketing. Hated how the touch of it could make any achievement feel cheap. When something was excellent, it didn’t need to be glamorized. It was simply excellent. The last time Py had visited Cain’s office he’d walked past the syringe that contained the first working vaccine for Rapture. It had saved millions and would continue to save millions more. It was the reason he’d chosen his original vocation. It was a large part of the reason he was here now. But below that vaccine, below that miracle, was a digital frame looping the awards ceremony footage of a balding fat executive accepting the UN’s award for Peace and Global Unity. The first time the award had been issued to a multinational conglomerate. An award Py knew Vergeron had bought and paid for through ‘charitable’ donations and UN policy recommendations. It was hard to cheapen saving lives, but somehow they’d managed it.
Each floor of the Vergeron tower took the form of a huge hollow disk suspended by tremendous cables from the grand central column, stabbing through the heart of the great megalith. Between the edge of each floor and the column was a significant gap with bridges traversing the empty space, so one could stand and look the length of the tower both up and down. The bridges merged and mingled with gardens surrounding the central space. Lush clinging vines wrapped around the spire. Fragrant flowers were suspended everywhere in large hanging planters. The ambient noise of guided rainfall touched leaf and petal to diffuse the light and create the ubiquitous scent of floral petrichor. Py always wondered how Vergeron justified the expense. They employed more full time gardeners than any other institution in Delphi and were not shy about publicizing that fact.
The grand column also housed the building’s primary method of conveyance. A traditional elevator would be too slow and inefficient to fit in the space the architects had allotted, so the Vergeron tower employed a unique vertical roadway. The cars were not suspended by cables, but connected to the inside of the column using magnetic force. Hundreds of small cars were allowed to move on the maglift in all directions, creating the same throughput as dozens of conventional elevators in a fraction of the space. The translucent wall between the gardens and the central column allowed a perspective occupant the view of Vergeron’s army climbing up and down the lift, like a nest of swarming ants.
In an age where any tech company worth its salt has centered itself on a sprawling campus, Vergeron and its Delphi counterparts were forced to think skyward. The amenities were the same however; people could jog, eat, or simply meditate in the cool green spaces. Py had seen children a few times, even a dog once, though he doubted that was the norm. World class food was served at each of the buildings many cafeterias. Laundromats, exercise gyms, and cafes followed on the lengthy list of reasons why an employee would be a fool to return to their dirty little hovels when they could live and work forever, each day at Vergeron.
The maglift ride was always a surreal experience for Py. The pod ran along the column at speed and it took some getting used to. The constant acceleration and deceleration to optimize travel of the pods kept one’s stomach in a constant state of flux. Not just up and down, as many people are accustomed, but side to side as well. The cars missed each other, sometimes by centimeters, as the computer guidance worked to save every modicum of both power and distance.
As the pod made it’s way downward the paradise of Vergeron was laid bare. The gardens Py sped past were all different. Some were rocks and sand in the Japanese style. Others were dense collections of pine and fir trees, or rainforest plants Py didn’t know. All were idyllic, after a fashion, and all, except for the central floor, which had the distinction of being purposed solely for recreation and life necessities, had tucked beyond the flora, or rock, or water feature an unmistakable maze of office space.
Py transitioned from above to below. The gardens of previous floors transformed into the lobbies of the Underground, which displayed their own modernist charm. This was where office space gave way to lab space and scientific endeavours. Access here was restricted and recreation space vanished in its entirety.
The majesty of Vergeron’s manicured space was offset rather suddenly by the parking complex passing by in a blink, followed by a cacophonous whoosh from all sides and total blackness, the only light coming from inside Py’s car, and the sensation of being swallowed by a great malicious something. The first time Py had experienced the sensation he’d had a moment of panic. His first week at Vergeron had been like any other employee’s and had included, among other corporate minutiae, a guided tour. It had been established by a well spoken, smiling someone as they walked the underground facilities that the 10 floors below the main building were where all of the more sensitive work was managed. Py remembered being somewhat impressed by the labs and had largely put it out of his mind. It hadn’t been until he was chosen as a beta tester for the Alice system that he realized how secretive Vergeron was about their projects, that he would be part of a deeper conspiracy, invited to participate in endeavours buried well below the 10 ‘secret’ floors that Vergeron publicly claimed comprised the research and development arm of their Delphi branch.
Py would learn upon his ascent back to the surface that the great whooshing of his descent had been caused by a large security door built into the maglift column. The door consisted of a series of rotating metal disks, similar to the rotating cylinders in a combination lock. When aligned they created a small, just-barely-pod-sized passageway that the car zipped through at uncomfortable speed. After the pod cleared the lock, the disks spun out of alignment to create a massive steel barrier separating Vergron from its underbelly, generating a rather impressive sound in the process.
While he had a pretty good idea of the layout above his head, Py was completely unsure how far the root system of Vergeron reached into the earth. He’d only ever come down here once and that was to accept custody of the silver pen that connected him with the Alice system.
Py stepped out of his pod and was relieved when the thick metal plates of the doors in front of him separated with a satisfying shhhhhh into the walls on either side and allowed him access. An older man, dressed in the black lab scrubs common to the Vergeron Underground, stepped forward as Py moved through the doorway.
“Mr. Black, I’m Mr. Gliss. I’ve been assigned to get anything you need for the Alleyman Project.” The man extended a hand in Py’s direction.
Py took the offered hand.
The Alleyman Project? Wonder if Cain’s already run that headline through a focus group.
“Thank you for being so, ahhh...punctual. I know this assignment came as a surprise. Have you been briefed on the necessities?” Py was almost positive the man didn’t know anything, but he’d be damned if he was going to let Cain get one over on him.
“No sir. I was given the project name and told to meet you by the entrance?”
“Well, first things first, Mr. Gliss, enough with the sir and the ‘Mr. Black’. Name’s Py. Please use it. Second, in the right now, I’m looking for a Veebot. If you’d be so kind to lead me to one I can use, we’ll talk as we walk.” Py indicated the hallway ahead so the man could take the lead.
The Vergeron Underground was a different world. Py had no idea how big it was and only a vague understanding of how it was put together. Though he knew it wasn’t entirely accurate, Py couldn’t help but think of the Underground as the roots of some vast tree, extending and giving purchase to the structure above. There was a saying you’d hear some of the older black-jackets recite: only Vergeron’s big toe pokes above ground.
The ceiling was vaulted and slightly curved, seamlessly meeting the walls on either side. White was the color of choice, and the knowledge that you were under literal tons of earth was chased away by the perfectly diffused light. It reminded Py of some of the labs at WHO, everything sterile and clean. The unmistakable smell of disinfectant permeated the air. Horizontal space was both in abundance and almost completely covered. A few other people in the same black scrubs as Mr. Gliss where wandering the halls, discussing in hushed tones whatever business they were about.
As they walked, Py found Mr. Gliss, who prefered to be called Brian, a pleasant sort of person. He was matter of fact and sure in a comforting way. He’d been with Vergeron since his college days, and his dedication to the company had landed him a more permanent position after graduation. Py had to marvel at how good Vergeron was at that, making sure the young and talented were indoctrinated into the fold. Corporate culture was beguiling and deliberately so. Certain aspects of it were a little cultish for Py’s taste. The sooner Vergeron convinced you to drink the kool-aid the better and Brian had drunk a lot of kool-aid in his time, now carrying a frosty pitcher with him to dole out as he made his daily rounds.
Brian had led them to a little side lab and to his credit he waited for the door to close before asking any details.
“So, exactly what does The Alleyman Project entail?” Brian stood with his hands behind his back as Py glanced around the room and saw, to his satisfaction, that the latest model Veebot was tucked in the corner.
“I’m investigating a handful of unexplained deaths. I suspect it’s related to some unknown agent present in the environment. I’ll be gathering several samples and I’ll need to have them analyzed.” Py walked over and got himself situated in the attached reclining chair of the automated phlebotomist.
“That’s kind of a wide net to cast. Any tests take priority?”
“I may have been exposed to the agent myself, so I’ll be your first subject. We’ll start with blood cultures and mass spec.”
They went on like that for a while. Brian asking for clarification. Py providing theories and details. Cain had placed a marvelous array of toys at Py’s disposal and Brain seemed fluent in all of them.
Py was happy to discover that the Veebot he was currently in made the Delphi Police Department one seem like trash. Py wondered how the manufacture had managed to take the ‘pinch’ out of getting your blood drawn.
“This is almost pleasant. The Veebot at the police station had my arm pinned down so tight I thought they were going to keep it.” One of Brian’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline, but he didn’t ask why Py would have been at the DPD, getting his blood drawn.
“I don’t know how they managed to sell those dinosaurs. It’s like getting mugged by your doctor. Although, I guess for the police it probably helps with their tougher customers.”
Once the blood was drawn Brian offered to escort Py to the exit, which he accepted. Py wasn’t a social outcast per se, but certainly more discerning in who he interacted with than the average person. He wasn’t much of a networker either, but even he could see the advantages of having someone like Brian on your team. Py had to wonder if Cain had deliberately chosen Brian as the best possible person for Py to work with, or if it was pure coincidence that Py was talking with a man he actually liked.
They were almost back to the maglift when a squeak of a voice from behind made both men jump.
“Excuse me. Mr. Py?”
“Just Py,” he said automatically as he spun round.
“I’m sorry?” The girl chirped, acknowledging Brian with with a small nod before turning back to Py “Say again?”
“Just Py.” He replied shortly. “Py is my given name, so the title Mr. Py is gibberish.”
“I’m sorry, Mr...I mean, Py.” She continued, clearly flustered as he turned back to continue walking to the maglift with Brian in toe. “Dr. Whitechapel asked me to bring you a message.”
“Oh really?” Py remarked not slowing down. “How is Ben? I haven’t seen him in a while.” Py was surprised to hear from Ben outside of their arranged Alice beta user check-ins. He’d filed several digital reports over the past weeks, but didn’t have anything face-to-face scheduled for a few more days.
“I think that’s my cue to go.” Brian said, clearly uneasy at the mention of Dr. Whitechapel. “I’ll let you know when I have some results.” Brian shook Py’s hand with a ‘good luck’ expression on his face before giving the squeak-ish woman a nod and walking off into the warren of shining white walls that made up his floor.
Py took a better look at the girl as Brian departed. She was a mousy little thing, the type often found in and around laboratories. Though she wore the same black scrubs as Brian, the dark cotton bulged to accommodate a rather large sweater, a feature Py recognized as common among the female occupants in the Underground.
“So, what does Ben want?”
“Well, that is, Dr. Whitechapel wanted me to say, or rather, what he wanted me to ask...he wants to know if you’ll come down and meet him in the lab? He says Alice wants to see you.”
The nervous little creature could have been Py a decade ago, before life and experience had given him some perspective. He would have had more patience with her had she not presently represented a very small fish in a very turbulent ocean of thought. She was clearly uncomfortable, both in life and to be around. What was Ben up to? He hadn’t sent an email. He hadn’t texted. He hadn’t notified Py through the very encrypted, very private Alice-Bridge. Instead, Ben had sent Miss Mouse here, inconveniencing not only her, but Py by way of social convention. Py couldn't just stuff her in his pocket like an unwanted text, he was forced to acknowledge her in the here-and-now. Expected to suffer her politely. Expected to give a response by way of the social contract. Py had to consider that this was some sort of test. To see if the awkward messenger would crumble under the weight of her assignment. To see if Py would sacrifice social niceties to indulge his perpetual obsessions. If Ben had reviewed the Alice Query logs from yesterday he would have seen that Py had been up nearly the entire night compiling a corpus of poisons and diseases not only unrelated to his current assignment, but well outside the bounds of the beta program. Py didn’t know if Ben was aware of the Alleyman Project, but if he didn’t know he was clearly sniffing.
“I can’t come now, sorry. I have a date with legal, I’m afraid.” Py said, turning and pushing onward to the exit. “But tell Dr. Whitechapel I send my compliments. Alice is performing very well.”
“Ahh, well, Dr. Whitechapel wanted to know why you were asking Alice about the deaths in the alleyway? And something about pharmaceuticals….? I think?”
Py stopped and heard the gentle shuffle of feet behind him do the same.
God damn you Ben. Why must you make things so difficult.
Py turned to face the girl again.
“Just tell Ben I’ll come by when I can.”
Py took a step away before stopping unexpectedly. He faced Miss Mouse again, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Wait... you said Alice wants to see me? What does that mean exactly?” The thought had blown by Py before in his desperation to escape. The idea that Alice might want to see him didn’t make sense in context. Perhaps his mind had filtered her words for this very reason. Did Alice really ask for him? Or perhaps this girl, in her nervousness, had misspoken.
She shrunk a little at the sudden stop and unexpected question, appearing even smaller now than she had before.
“Oh, well she’s worried.”
“Worried?” Py asked tilting his head a little to one side. “That seems a very human concern to attribute to a data engine^” Py was doing his best to be non threatening as it seemed any amount of criticism increased the girl’s anxious tendencies.
“I, well.. I guess I don’t really know^” She squeaked back, immediately aware of the vacant failure her response represented.
Py gave a sigh of resignation. “I’ll come by when I can. Enjoy the rest of your morning.” Py made sure the dismissal was more explicit this time and turned again for the exit. The thought occurred to him a few steps away from the maglift that he hadn’t asked her name, or for that matter how she’d found him. Py was inquisitive by nature, and they were tempting questions, but less tempting than the desire to reach the maglift before she said anything else.