Chapter 15 


It turns out that Elliot has no intention of attaching electrodes to my head, or even confining me to a sheep pen. He's a consummate businessman and is keen to capitalise on my popularity, and to my surprise he invites me to work in the Public Relations department of Foxglove, dealing mainly with the press. He gets a surprise in turn when I launch myself wholeheartedly into my new role. My knowledge of genetics is already substantial, and in the space of a few days I learn everything I can about multinational business in general, and Foxglove Laboratories in particular.  

Like any other multinational, our starting point is to produce goods in poor countries where we can pay a pittance and ignore the few regulations that may exist. If a country gets uppity and introduces labour laws, we move elsewhere. Currently we have production operations in Cambodia and Ecuador, where we grow GM seed cereals, including maize, and where we harvest insulin for diabetics. We also harvest other genetic material in these countries that may not be entirely legal, but we're good contributors to local political campaign funds and nobody seems to care.  

At the other end of the chain we market these cheaply made goods in the rich countries of Europe and North America, pricing them according to how much money people can afford, rather than what they're worth. The mark-up between production cost and retail price is roughly a factor of twenty-five – the goods are sold for twenty-five times the cost of production – and apparently this puts us in the same league as most of the multinational food and clothing companies. 

This healthy profit margin of around 96% allows us to spend large amounts of money on magazine and TV advertising. For example we have an anti-wrinkle cream called Silky Fox that we advertise heavily. Theoretically it's gene-based, and this is its major selling point, but I'm now in a privileged position and I've checked out the ingredients and apart from a few genetic waste products I can't see a gene connection. Yet it sells very well.  

  Naturally we pay almost no taxation in any of the countries where we produce or sell. We're registered for tax purposes in the Bahamas, and the amount of tax we pay could be drawn from a bank in $100 bills and would fit inside an average briefcase. A company vice-president earns more in dividends than we pay in taxation. But I'm very cool with all this new information and I don't discuss any of it with the press. They like me. They like me a lot. They like phoning a PR office and talking to somebody famous. We get ten times the amount of press coverage we had in the months before I joined.

Elliot is very happy with my performance, but he's still not sure whether he trusts me. For this reason we spend a lot of time together. Much of our time is spent on training, so it doesn't appear to be wasted. I'm probably the only person in the entire company who gets his computer training from the CEO. 

"Have you seen one of these before?" he asks. 

"Yes." I've seen a computer before. 

"Do you know how it works?"  

"Water-power, I believe. That's what all the pipes are for." 

"Whoever told you that?" says Elliot, smiling. "Of course they're not water-powered. They have a tiny hamster inside. Listen. If you put your ear close to the casing, you can hear its little wheel spinning round." 

I put my ear close to the casing and indeed I can hear a spinning wheel. "The hamster must be very small." 

"That's genetics for you. And although the cables do supply water, there's only a limited amount of food, so after a few years the hamster runs out and the wheel stops spinning and the machine doesn't work any more." 

"Fascinating. I didn't know that." 

Elliot teaches me the operating system, which is called Fenestres, and which works well sometimes and other times is a dog, depending on the mood of the little hamster. 

 But Elliot is not entirely a font of joy and compassion. On the positive side I'm given far more freedom than I could ever have imagined after the court case. I have a small flat within the laboratory complex. I'm not supposed to leave it at night, but inevitably after a few days I sneak out and wander around the long corridors with doors on each side and small square windows and I make it unnoticed into the smelly area to visit the pigsty and say hello to Radius, my favourite pig.

There's still a pigsty, but there's no pig. 

Beyond the signpost showing Pig or Pool, the elliptical building with water and a rocky island still exists, but in the pool there are no mermaids. It would be nice to think their tails have dropped off and they're happily walking around Milan or Paris on long legs and high heels, but I'm doubtful. 

I ask Elliot about Radius the next time we're together for computer training. 

"The pig?" he says. "It turns out he could fly much better than anybody thought. We took him out to the orchard one day and he's never been seen since."

I make sure I don't smile. 

"And what about the mermaids?" 

"How do you know about the mermaids?" 

"Er, I've heard stories." 

"The mermaid product has been discontinued." 

 Now I'm not sure if I'm going to throw up. Certainly it's a battle. I bend down to ease the nausea and try to show interest in a computer keyboard and screen, but I can't claim to be feeling well. I know Elliot is watching me. This moment, beyond anything else, is my real test.

"Non-commercial?" I suggest, without looking up. 

"Absolutely. We couldn't find a way to make a profit from them. I'm proud of you, Peter." 

But somebody else is not. I host a major press conference for the release of our new anti-obesity genetic fix, which is yet another re-branding of indigestible cellulose and is a complete sham, but is also the first televised conference that Elliot has trusted me with. I guess Buddha watches it, because a few minutes after the broadcast I get an email on my corporate address, written mainly in shouting capitals. 


I don't reply. My emails, I'm sure, are monitored. 

My discomfort is rewarded quickly, and in the best possible way. Next day Elliot calls me to his office, which is tediously minimalist, having half an acre of carpet and big windows yet containing nothing more that a desk and a few chairs. Does he think this is impressive? I think he probably does. 

"Peter, I must say I didn't imagine things would work out so well. I had you down as a loose cannon, needed tethering to the deck, but since you've been here we've been in the newspapers and on TV every single day. I'm impressed." 

"Thank you. It's a privilege to work for such a good company. I hadn't thought things would work out either, but you've given me a great opportunity and I decided to make the most of it." 

Maybe I've overdone the arse-licking, but no, he receives this nonsense as if it's perfectly true. He's lost in the deep waters of corporate hubris, and no submersible can go down far enough to rescue him. 

"We have a huge product launch coming up," he tells me. "And a re-launch too, so big that it's almost a rebirth for the company, and I'd like you to take charge of it."

"Thank you! Thank you!" 

"Don't thank me too much. All this has to be done in a few days. We launch on the 7th. I want five or six hundred of the world's press here. I want a fleet of coaches bringing them to our doorstep, I want the motorways full of our coaches. I want representatives of all the world's major TV stations, translators, pundits, everybody who can carry our message. I want them here on the 7th. Have you got that?" 

I've just been given a pump-it-up speech, so it's only right that I should appear pumped up. "Yes sir!" 

This is all working out very well. My court case was the turning point in my battle with Joe Progress, but not in the way I anticipated. I had to lose it to get to this position. What did Joe Progress say, back in the supermarket? "Foxglove takes many of the inventions developed by Q and myself and introduces them to the other world." And here we are on the verge of a major change in Foxglove philosophy and new product launches, all scheduled for the 7th, the day before the heavenly presidential elections on the 8th, when the collective views of the other-worlders decide who's in charge of heaven. Coincidence? I think not. 

Most important of all, I've got myself in a position where I'll be in charge of that Foxglove press conference on the 7th, with its worldwide coverage on TV. 

It turns out that the details of our major Foxglove commercial initiative are more impressive than the general concept. How often is that the case? Foxglove intends to get into the general retail business, especially food and drink. We're about to launch a range of cereals, meats, drinks, waters (Waters? How many waters can there be?) – all our own brands and all sold through the major supermarkets. This is the business to be in, apparently. People spend a huge amount of their income in supermarkets. I recall that Joe Progress was developing a supermarket when I last saw him. 

And our re-branding is an equally big deal. We're taking the 200s life extension program and bringing the price down so low we'll have half the planet signing up. Well… half the rich part of the planet, anyway, but we're talking hundreds of millions of customers. There are more than six billion other-worlders, and even five percent of six billion is… a very large number. 

My days are taken up with the aggravation of organising a large press event. Elliot wants this press conference to be held outdoors at the entrance to Foxglove Laboratories, within camera-shot of the grey marble company sign. I wonder if he was mildly annoyed by the introductory footage from Asamah Bulamaya that preceded my Four on Four TV programme and he wants a rerun – this time under his own control. It's a possibility.

I hire contractors. I have terraced stands built. I arrange catering, coaches, toilets, generators, lights, sound systems. Thanks to my privileged position, I also get fully involved in our new advertising campaign. I liaise with Aaron Paulerton, the account manager from our advertising agency, CHF, Chaille Henley Forne.  

The first thing I notice about Aaron is that he's very young. His hair is so heavily gelled that it looks like he's just got out of bed, and his tie has the flat kind of knot that old-fashioned entertainers tied on glove-puppets. I also notice that he wears extravagant cufflinks. 

Aaron manages to appear exceedingly polite while at the same time making it clear that he hates dealing with a corporate rookie – i.e. me. He teaches me the basics of advertising, using a patronising tone of voice that never changes. He teaches me that adverts must claim to provide whatever consumers want. This is far more important than actually providing it. It seems that Buddha's view is reflected on this side of the advertising fence – adverts really do tell us more about society's desires than about the products on offer. 

I learn there are just four types of advert: plain product info or price, product glorification, testimonial, and association. The trickiest is association, where the customer is invited to feel empathy with the product or a philosophy that goes with it. But it's also the most subtle and effective, and it's the one Aaron suggests we take on for our new mass-market 200s product. He says that society's main concern, its theme for the era, is ecological awareness, and what we must do is show how our product is good for the environment. 

"Actually, Aaron," I explain, "our product isn't very good for the environment. It'll keep a lot of people alive a lot longer, and that means more population pressure for a planet that's already overstretched. In fact it's probably the most harmful product for the environment that anybody's released for decades. At a stroke we'll add hundreds of millions to the number of the most polluting species, and all in the rich, heavily-polluting countries." 

Aaron's face lights up. "Then it's doubly important that we get the opposite message across, isn't it? That we show just how wonderful the 200s program is for the environment. We don't want people wandering around thinking it's bad. That would be a terrible idea!" He settles back in his chair, looking pleased that he's been able to present his case so clearly.

I'm not convinced. "Are you telling me that people are going to watch an advert and think that the 200s is good for the environment, even though reality is the exact opposite?" 

Aaron laughs. "Well I certainly hope so, otherwise I'm out of a living." 

Once again, it strikes me that Buddha's view of advertising is remarkably accurate. 

Aaron proposes that our advertising campaign concentrates on the good works people can do if they live longer lives. We'll show conservation volunteers at work, wildlife wardens, even gardeners, and make a connection between the time they're spending on these positive environmental acts and the extra time the 200s program adds to their lives. 

Naturally we don't intend to cover the time they spend driving their cars, flying in fuel-guzzling airliners, or producing garbage. 

"It just doesn't seem very realistic," I complain. 

Aaron agrees. "That's true. Even with the drastically reduced price, your 200s product is going to be well out of the financial range of people we'll be showing. No way could a mere conservation volunteer afford it." 

"So according to your logic," I say, when I've thought about this, "if they can't afford the program, it makes it doubly important that the adverts show they can." 

"Peter, you're a fast learner." 

 Fortunately, when the proposal reaches Elliot, he takes one look at it, laughs, and throws it in the bin – literally. This doesn't faze Aaron for a moment. I'd say he almost expected it.

Five minutes later, we leave Elliot's vast office with our new advertising campaign, as dictated by Elliot. It will be a straightforward product-information type campaign, based around the funky catchline: "Would you like to live a long time?" It's irresistible. But then we're fortunate with our product. 

During one of the rare lulls in Aaron's bullshit, when the fence is lowered slightly and I get to see a glimpse of a real human being beneath the bluster, I ask him if he thinks advertising really works.

"Well of course it does, otherwise there wouldn't be so much of it about, would there?" 

It's a compelling argument. I also ask him if he believes it has any long-term affect on society. 

"Forget it," I add, when he still hasn't replied after a minute. 

"No, no. I refuse to forget it. I'm still thinking. Yes, I've got it. There are two affects. One is that we see half-truths, minor deceptions and manipulations as commonplace, not worthy of commentary. The other is that we accept the commercialisation of everything as a natural state of affairs, from logos on teeshirts to naming football grounds after products, from ads being 40% of content in a news-stand magazine to 20% of our viewing on TV." 

"So you're admitting that the long term affects of advertising are bad for society?" 

"Of course," he says, astounded yet again at my naiveté. "It's very harmful. Why do you think we all get paid so much?" 

Curiously, we only intend to advertise the 200s life-extending product. There are no plans to advertise any of our brand new range of food and drink. This makes me suspicious and secretly I look into it. What I discover is more damning than I could possibly have hoped for. It becomes my most treasured knowledge, the ultimate weapon held in reserve for what I now recognise will be my final play. 

 My workload is so great that it begins to affect my health, despite my new-found youthfulness, but I'm perpetually reminded that hard work is necessary if I'm to give shareholder value. Perhaps the corporate item I have most difficulty with is this concept of shareholder value. I'm supposed to give shareholder value. Elliot has drilled this into me time after time. Shareholder value. Shareholder value. As far as I can see, shareholder value means it's fine for us to screw our employees and our customers and even ourselves as long we keep our shareholders happy. Elliot confirms this interpretation is correct. I note from the company records that he's the company's major shareholder.

It's a relief when the 7th finally comes around. Coaches and cabs arrive throughout the morning. Journalists from around the world are given their little red goodie bags containing a selection of gifts from Foxglove Laboratories, and are herded into the lunch tent with its 50 metre long bar. Not only do they get a goodie-bag, they also get a free tryout of the 200s program. My hired team of nurses takes care of the injections. Each injection should give its recipient at least one year of extra life. This little gimmick has made us the most popular press conference of the decade. We have seats for 1000 and many journalists are going to end up standing. Every TV news channel in Europe and North America has turned up, with no exceptions.

I've tried to bring some order to the arrangements on the terraces, so when it's question time I have an idea of the kind of journalist I'm dealing with, according to where they're sitting. On the extreme left hand side I've placed the rabid journalists from the mad dog papers, fond of foaming at the mouth, such as the The Mail and News of the World. Already they're asking me if there's an alternative word for telomerase, as it sounds "a bit too technical". 

Over on the extreme right I've placed the pro-corporate journalists from the pro-corporation magazines, such as Newsweek and Time. These are perfectly happy with the word telomerase, and will also be very happy with anything positive I have to say about the free market, or any compliment I can make about American foreign policy, if I can possibly squeeze one in. 

Between the two extremes I have the rest of the wolf pack, ready with their notebooks and dictation machines for the gems to trip off my lips. I'm nervous, I have to say it, but then I have a special reason why this should be so. 

Happily, the hard work of the previous few days pays off and the event goes like clockwork. I take the podium facing out on to the crescent of terraces, which reminds me of the TV studios where I've been filmed, but this time our ceiling is the sky and we have no walls. Our studio is the world. I begin with the relatively mundane business of presenting our new range of drinks and foodstuffs. They're packaged in the lilac colour of the common foxglove flower, digitalis purpurea. It's a very peculiar range, as it concentrates on food and drinks with an element of genetic modification - usually containing tomatoes or maize corn, or using GM feed for animal products. It's all clearly labelled as genetically modified, from the corn-based cereals to the tinned meats. The press is not especially impressed, but then I'm not today's headline act, so it's no big deal.

It's Elliot they're waiting for. He's a grand showman. When I'm done he climbs to the podium in silence and plays our top 200s advert on a giant screen. It shows an evening in the life of a young couple. They're 25 and beautiful, with flawless skin and boundless energy. They meet friends and have a meal together, then go to a club, though it is a middle-aged ad-man's view of a club, as it appears to be buzzing at 10pm and our couple leave by midnight. Then they go home and begin what's clearly going to be a marathon session of sex. There's no nudity but plenty of giggling and movement under the bedclothes and nobody over the age of eleven can fail to understand what's happening. While the same noises continue, the scene changes to an arthritic old lady climbing from her wheelchair into bed. And finally our marvellous catchline arrives - "Would you like to live a long time?"

It's a film in miniature, with a beginning a middle and an end, and gets a great reception from our audience. We're selling youthfulness, not just a long lifespan, because ultimately that's what people want, and we're in the business of fulfilling wants, not selling products, so Elliot tells me. Personally, I think the transposition of the old lady with the catchline is confusing and makes it look like we're selling long-term infirmity, but I'm a lone voice in the wilderness. Aaron says it's good to have something questionable in an advert, as it makes it memorable. I have a feeling Aaron says whatever's necessary to keep Elliot happy and get the bills paid on time. 

  Elliot now tells the assembled multitudes about the reduced cost of the 200s program and how great it's going to be for society. Einstein gets a mention, and so does conservation – the one tiny element of Aaron's original idea that's made it through. Elliot doesn't actually give the new price of the 200s but instead teases his audience, getting close to naming the price without ever quite doing so. Finally he turns to a curtained area of the wall behind him. There are drapes and drawstrings in the manner of a memorial plaque. Elliot winds up the audience for a few seconds more and then pulls on the tasselled rope to draw the curtains back.

And there is the price. £10,000. 

Immediately I can see which journalists are the haves and which are the have-nots. Our corporate friends on the right are perfectly happy, they'll be able to afford this. And our rabid bloodhounds on the left seem contented enough. Many of them are named columnists and earn ten times this amount each year. But in the middle, and especially amongst the younger ranks, there's some despair. They've got their freebie injections and these will be good for a year, but next year the price will be beyond them. If I'm not mistaken, many of them have stopped thinking about how they're going to write up today's events and are already wondering how they're going to earn the extra cash.

But one thing we've got across the entire terrace is full interest. Nobody is nodding off, nobody wishes they'd gone to the new BMW launch at Docklands Arena instead. We have their attention. 

"Ok," I say. "Questions?" 

Now I'm getting really nervous. 

Elliot takes the first. He's asked by one of the younger journalists if there are plans to bring the price down further in the future. He replies that there's a chance, especially if some of the richer countries relax their restrictions on genetic research, which would bring down Foxglove's costs. This is pretty much nonsense, but the questioner has no way of knowing that and will probably pass it on to a few million people. 

I field the second question. What do we expect the announcement to do to our share price? Well of course this isn't something on which we can comment, I say, but we would be surprised if it went down. There is a ripple of polite laughter. 

And here comes the big one. 

"It seems odd," says Fiona Wright, a financial journalist with a small magazine called Scotland Now, "that you're spending so much money on advertising the new price 200s program, but nothing at all on your range of GM food and drink. Surely it would make more sense the other way round?" 

I've primed Fiona with this question, and although my mouth feels dry I think I'm ready to give the explosive answer. 

"It makes perfect sense, and here's why. When we give you a 200s injection, we don't just put telomerase in the syringe, we also add a gene, a very small gene that gets absorbed in your DNA, like a little bit of spyware that comes with an Internet download and finishes up on your computer. And this extra gene makes you like our GM food. Imagine that! No advertising budget, we don't even have to make the food tasty, you'll love it anyway. Once you've had that first injection and got the gene you'll spend the rest of your life eating any old crap that we can turn out. Isn't that just the best marketing you've ever come across? It's not even illegal, because the law is way behind on genetics. In the long term it's going to make Foxglove the richest company in the world. We're going to be bigger than General Motors and Microsoft combined. We're going to alter everybody's genes and make a fortune from it." 

There. It's done. This is the culmination of my work here in the other world. I've given the world's press the ammunition it needs to take Foxglove apart, to unseat Elliot Harmon from his throne and hopefully take Joe Progress with him.

My revelation is greeted with silence. With mounting horror I realise it's not the silence of incomprehension and disgust, it's the silence of awe. 

"That's brilliant," says a voice from the pro-corporate side. 

On the opposite side, the mad dogs doze peacefully. "Your grub's great," says one, in response to my desperate, manic stare. Perhaps he's a headline writer. 

"Shit!" I say. I'm done for. I've fired my broadside and the shells have turned out to be blanks. Every one of these journalists should now be yelling, pointing accusing fingers, showing us the tiny puncture marks from their injections and screaming for their lawyers, shouting bloodthirsty copy down their mobile phones. The terraces should be a chaos of moving bodies. 

"Steady on," says a friendly voice from the BBC, in response to my swearing. 

"Can we get shares?" asks a lady from the centre. "They're going to be worth a fortune." 

"You'll find some in your goodie bags, in the breakfast cereal packs," says Elliot, from somewhere close by. I've lost my judgement of distance and space, as well as my judgement of what will cause outrage. I daren't look at Elliot. 

Everybody is waiting expectantly to see what I have to say next. But I've nothing more to say. I've reached the end of my script. My one chance to change everything here on Earth and in heaven has been and gone. I've blown it. I am a complete idiot. I want the ground to swallow me up. 

"Can we ask where you get your telomerase from?" asks a lady from the Sydney Evening Herald. "Only there are rumours of human embryo farms in China, lines of test tubes with fertilized human eggs inside them and people sucking out telomerase with pipettes." 

Really. And strips of wire with sparks flying between them in the background, no doubt. But the question brings me back to reality. Maybe I can escape from this. Maybe I can pretend nothing happened, that I just skated close to the edge and got away with it. 

"I'm afraid the answer is more mundane. We extract our telomerase from waste products that have no other use. The highest concentration of telomerase is found in the most vibrant form of human growth, which is the malignant tumour. So that's where we get ours, from the by-products of surgery."

"You mean, from surgically-removed human cancers?" 

"That's right. Mainly from black people in the third-world." 

The entire terrace seems to rise as one, and it's not an ovation of thanks. Everybody is shouting at once. The mobile phones are out. The corporate journos to our right are ordering up helicopter-borne squadrons of no-win no-fee lawyers. The rabid dogs to our left are taking off their jackets, rolling up their sleeves and climbing on to the podium. Who says the pen is mightier than the sword? 

I'm still by the microphone and perhaps I should be explaining that the procedure is perfectly safe and we're just extracting the one chemical, surely this is a perfect example of gaining something of great value from something otherwise valueless, but I doubt that anybody is going to listen, and actually – do I want them to listen? Anyway, I wouldn't get to complete the explanation because in about five seconds I'm going to be lynched. 

Foxglove security guards arrive in force and they manage to get a cordon around us before we're attacked. As a unit, we shuffle backwards off the stage area and through a rear door where Elliot and I are bundled into a security van and driven off rapidly to the main Foxglove building. 

"Congratulations," says Elliot. "First the pig, now you. I wouldn't have thought you could fool me, but you did." I've never heard him sound so bitter.  

I try innocence. After all, I really didn't know what I was doing. "I think I still have a lot to learn." 

"On the contrary. It's me who needs to go back to his schoolbooks, and it looks like I'll get the chance. But there is one final experience that I'd like us to share together. Let me show you." 

I'm not sure that I want to go along, but we're still in the company of many Foxglove security guards and it looks like I don't have a choice. As a group we disembark from the van and make our way into the heart of the Foxglove complex, along the corridors with their small square windows and scientific apparatus inside, into the area that smells of animals, until we reach the sheep pen that was my temporary home for a few minutes when I sneaked around here many days ago. The sheep with one head and three backsides is busy eating. The fluorescent sheep with the stinging fleece is there too, looking harmless in strong light. Elliot fiddles with some machinery, plugging it into the compressed air line that crosses the pen.

"This is hardly the time for shearing," I suggest.  

Elliot feeds ball bearings into a Perspex tube. "I agree." 

When the tube is full, he loads it into the device connected to the airline, which I now recognise looks like a machine-pistol. He lifts the gun, points it at the fluorescent sheep, and fires a ball bearing into its skull, killing it instantly. 

"The Pan product is discontinued," he says, turning on me and raising the slaughterhouse gun. 

"Now hold on a minute," I say, holding a hand in front of the pistol in useless defence. 

I've watched enough Hollywood films to expect a gloating speech, a justification, but I get none. The gun jerks. I feel an impact in my chest that stops my breath, like a scaffolding pole has been inserted there. I smell blood and soil. Odd, but it's unquestionably soil. I begin to go down. A second tube enters my head, cracking my skull on the way in. I hear the cracking noise. And then darkness.  

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