Zircon is unlike any man you’ve ever met. And when his home is threatened, he reacts like no man you’ve ever met. Dan Malakin presents a zany tale of mad science, bureaucracy, and more mad science.
A Man Most Imperiled
by Dan Malakin
I am Zircon. My father, the illustrious Professor Zircon, created me by bombarding his own DNA with neutrons from Neptunium 237. He grew me first in a Petri dish, then in a test tube, and finally in an artificial womb made from silicone, which remains on a bed of dried rose petals in my lab, and which I affectionately call Mother.
For ten years since the death of my father I have lived a solitary existence, away from the Herd, away from the radio mouths of modern society shouting their empty words; I do not wish to be told for what to wish; I do not need to be told how to be. It is in originality, in invention, in creation, that we stride the path of self-understanding. The Herd promotes consumers, not creators. They do not make or do; they lust or want. It is a lonely life, my life, but in the twenty-five years since I first took air in my lungs I have known no other—and how can you miss something you never had?
But alas, a hand-delivered letter arrived this morning from a body called WTP Developments that threatens my status quo. They claim to have purchased all the land in the area, including where my cottage sits, which they say has never been registered with The Land Registry and hence does not legally exist. I have two days to leave my home.
What will become of me? Where will I go? My ancestor, a man of science called Zircon, built this cottage in the year 1543, and a Zircon has occupied it ever since. Here, I am self-sufficient, be it for energy, water, food, or sewage disposal. The cottage is in good repair and blossoms with genetically enhanced lilac foxgloves that in the summer give out a wonderful aroma of baking bread.
No, they will not force me out—I will fight them—for it is when a man is most imperiled that he becomes an unstoppable force.
I pull up to the offices of WTP Developments five minutes after leaving by means of my vehicle, which maintains the look of a 1970s pale blue Morris Minor, but in fact contains a neutrino engine that allows me to travel in a closed-time curve to the sun and back on a single tank of petrol. Although, generally, I use it just to go to the shops.
Lips locked and eyes set in the style of a man compelled by serious business, caring not for the suspicious glare of the security guard, I enter the sleek and glassy offices of WTP Developments and stride to the reception desk. On a high stool is what I assume to be a receptionist, her face down to examine some paperwork or other.
“Attention, madam,” I say. “I am Zircon. I have come to discuss such plans as were outlined in the letter I received this very morning.”
And with that I thrust their letter back at them.
The receptionist looks up. I step back, shaken.
She is amazing, a voluptuous Rubenesque blonde. Her hair bounces in loose curls around her beautiful face; her bosoms swell behind her red blouse; a cute comma dimple punctuates her left cheek as her face translates into a smile.
A smile? For me? Be calm, Zircon. She is simply a fine example of the female Homo sapiens. Do not be tricked by genetics.
And yet, as her smile widens, as her gaze softens my shoulders, do I not smell something? Ozone perhaps? From the electricity fizzing between us?
She glances at a door beside the reception and hurriedly looks back down. “Take a seat, please, Mr. Zircon,” she says. “Someone will come out to see you presently.”
I long to say something to prolong our exchange, but instead do as she instructs and sit on a red leather armchair in the waiting area. I try to dismiss her from my thoughts—I must not let the primitive Y-chromosome corrupt my mind.
Two men appear from the reception door. One has blond hair, and the other has brown. Both are tall and handsome, in a generic way, and wear pinstripe suits. They smile with muscular jaws. Something of the animal in me reacts to them, and I shrink in my seat, for we often judge our place in society on physical prowess.
Be bold, Zircon.
I stand and put out my hand.
“Mr…Zircon, is it?” says the blond-haired man, keeping his hands behind his back, ignoring my generous social gesture. I tell him he is correct. He introduces himself as Will.
“My name is also Will,” says the brown-haired man. “Can I get you tea or coffee?”
“Or a glass of whatever?” says the other Will, smirking.
“There was no reason for you to come down,” says the blond-haired Will. He presents me with a white-toothed smile. “But seeing as you’re here then we want you to know we will do everything to make your transition off the land as smooth as possible.”
“Yes,” says the brown-haired Will. “Everything possible.”
I reply, “But I do not wish to leave. That property belongs to me, and my father before me, and my grandfather before him, and on for hundreds of years.”
Behind the Wills, the receptionist glances up, frowning.
The blond Will shakes his head, sadly, and says, “I’m sorry, but there’s no record of your property as existing, so really you’re trespassing on our land.”
“Yes,” says the other Will. “It is most unfortunate.”
I tell them, “I will not go. You cannot force me.”
“We can force you,” says the brown-haired Will.
“If we wanted to,” says the other Will.
“But of course we don’t want it to come to that.”
“We would rather you gave us the land without fuss.”
I lift my chest and widen my stance. “You will never drive me from my home.”
“Listen,” says the blond Will. “In the end, whatever we want, we get.”
“We don’t stop until we succeed,” says the other Will.
I will not be dominated in such a manner. While these preening apes wallow in the swamp, I harness the heroic! I will fight their tyranny with every cell in my body and every thought in my mind. They will not beat me.
“We’ll come by tomorrow,” says the blond-haired Will.
With that, they turn and head through the reception door.
“You can come every day for the next hundred years,” I call after them. “I will never forgo my home.”
On the way out, I glance at my Rubenesque beauty once more. She is looking at me, her eyes warm with compassion. Before I can stop myself, I offer her a little wave, which she starts to return, smiling now, but then she drops her hand as the reception door opens.
I hurry away. There is work to be done.
By midnight I have completed my first invention, which I call The Oort Cloud; a haze of rare Re2Cl82 molecules, it transforms the inhaler’s mood to one of peace when absorbed by the precentral gyrus. Later, as a red dawn blossoms over the tree line, my nanobots finish a ten-million-atom Graphene Cloak that lies invisible over the house and is strong enough to withstand a bomb blast. Finally, by noon, I complete my Indoor Lightning Decapacitator; motion activated, it fuses electrons, generating an intense charge that causes a tear in space-time, trapping its victims in an eternal instant until they are released. I place the sensors in the hallway, on alternate flagstones, just beyond the elephant foot hat stand.
After two hours in my Ultra-Sleep Chamber and a lunch of sausages, my energy and alertness return—in time for a knock at the door. I open it to the bland, angular faces of the two Wills. The blond-haired Will lifts a briefcase, within which are blocks of twenty-pound notes.
Smugly, he says, “I thought we’d make it easy for you.”
I thumb the button of the console in my pocket, activating The Oort Cloud. A faint ammonia smell tinges the air. Having taken a tincture of citric acid, I am immune to the effects.
The blond-haired Will’s face falls slack. He lifts his briefcase and stares at the contents, as if overcome by a sudden and amusing thought. “What is this thing we call money?” he says. “It has no real value.”
A tear runs down the cheek of the brown-haired Will. “We both have the capacity to be wonderful human beings,” he says. “We devalue ourselves by projecting our worth into abstract concepts.”
“Have it all,” says the blond Will, thrusting out the briefcase.
I take it from his eager hand.
And then they embrace, sobbing, until like weary lovers, each with an arm around the other’s shoulder, they bid me farewell and return along my hedge-lined path.
At the front gate they shake their heads, jump back from each other, and face me with anger. They charge back down the path. A few steps away, once more in range of The Oort Cloud, they stop.
“I am so sick of living this way,” says the blond Will.
“Sometimes it feels like my soul is grey,” replies the other. “It is time for us to change our lives.”
Smiling generously, they hold hands and leave once more. At the gate they pull their hands apart. One pushes the other. I close the door and return to my lab.
Round one to Zircon.
For the rest of the day, while pottering around making adjustments to my defences, I find myself thinking about the receptionist. Although not a conventionally handsome man, and despite the scars of my experiments—stretch marks on my cheeks from the nose-shrinking debacle; a scar running along my left jaw from the velociraptor “accident”; for a while I was sucked into the afterlife, and now my left eyebrow is forever raised in alarm—I believe there is nobility in my chin, and stature in my stance. Is that what she saw when she looked at me? Is this how it feels to be in love?
I shake my head, as if it to dislodge the images of her that have taken root in my brain.
What is love anyway? How can I love her when we have shared but a moment?
But wasn’t there another moment? The village fête? That pretty girl with the rainbow ribbons in her hair? Ten years may have passed, but how many times have I replayed her turning to me before the three-legged race and saying, “That looks like so much fun! Do you want to try?” Did I not feel the same passing of charged particles as with the receptionist? Did I not smell the same scent of ozone? When I said nothing, she blushed and turned away. Five minutes later she ran the race with some egg-faced farm boy.
A low rumble that shakes the walls and floor interrupts my thoughts. I run to the window, straining to look through the trees, seeing flashes of yellow between the branches. The noise becomes more intense, now growling as loud as a low-flying aircraft. I rush to the door and pull it open as a vast metal beast parts the oaks at the front of my lawn.
Bulldozers! Come to tear my cottage from the ground!
The first one rolls over my front gate, flattening my hedges, the scream from its engine deafening. To my dismay, the driver is too high to be affected by the The Oort Cloud; he rears the mouth of the beast and holds it, ready to crash down.
The blond Will appears beside it and shouts through a megaphone, “OK, Zircon, this is it. Leave the property now or we will assume it is unoccupied.”
Beside him, the other Will shouts through his megaphone, “This isn’t a threat.”
“Nope. No threat,” says the blond Will. “Threat implies we might not do it, but we will.”
I shout at them, “You are tragic men of this culture,” and slam the door shut.
Where to go? What to do? I look through the window in time to see the Wills both gleefully shrug. Then the brown-haired Will lifts his right hand and twirls his finger. The driver nods and swings the jaws of his bulldozer towards my beloved cottage. I run for my basement laboratory.
I stop, warily, and turn.
I look out of the window—THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!—the bulldozers are bouncing off my Graphene Cloak as if they were made of plastic. They attack from all sides, beating at my cottage, but my invisible shield stays strong.
Eventually, they desist. From outside, I hear one of the Wills shout through his megaphone, “Don’t think you’ve seen the last of us!”
And the other shouts, “We won’t stop until we take you down!”
“We’ll never stop!”
Yet even as they are leaving, even as the bulldozers’ growls quieten to a soft thrum, even with the salt of victory sharp in my mouth, I am disappointed, because I know what they say is true. They will never stop.
All night this thought squats in my brain. Then, come morning, it strikes me that perhaps my tactics are not designed for victory—how many besieged cities have gone on to beat their aggressors? They repel and repel and hope for the best—but that is not good enough for me. It is time to change tactics, perhaps to bargain; after all, the history of civilization is built on exchange.
Using my Telephonic Modulator, a device that manipulates sound waves to connect to the telephone network—although in recent times it has mainly served as a watering can—I say, “WTP Developments,” into the sprinkler end and then hold the top to my ear. It starts to ring.
“WTP Developments. Maria speaking.”
It’s her! Maria. Of course, she would have such a beautiful name.
I remember it is my turn to speak and say, “It is…Zircon.”
“Oh hi! Mr. Zircon. So nice to hear from you again.”
The effect of her voice on me is physical, like a rushing sensation in my brain. How is she doing this to me? Are we entangled at the quantum level?
“It is nice to hear you, too,” I reply, and cringe into the Modulator. To business, Zircon! “May I speak to either of the men called Will?”
“They’re not here right now, but… Listen, Mr. Zircon. I really need to speak to you.” She lowers her voice. “Away from the office.”
“Away from the office?”
“Can we meet? In person?”
Is this a trick? A deceit by the Wills? Surely not—she may work for them, but I saw no deception in her eyes. Not that it matters. Despite The Oort Cloud, the Graphene Cloak, the Indoor Lightning Decapacitator, I dare not leave my home. “Sadly, I am unable to leave—”
“How about I come to your place?”
I almost drop the Telephonic Modulator. “Of course… Aha… Yes… I would be pleased for you to pleasure me with your presence. Ha ha ha! Alliteration. The weakest of all poetic techniques.”
Her laugh blows bubbles in my heart. “You’re so funny,” she says, and then, softer, “I finish at lunch today. I’ll come by after.”
For the rest of the day, I am neither able to concentrate on my experiments, nor pass the time in leisure. I vacillate from a business-like mind where I go over again my bargaining strategy, to anger at myself for succumbing to the simple fact of feminine beauty, to dread she will not turn up at all and that our conversation was somehow a dupe by the Wills. However, when I see her through the window, all my reservations dissolve. I switch off The Oort Cloud and levitate the Graphene Cloak as she steps through the ruins of my front lawn. Before she can knock, I open the door and, half-bowing, say, “Thank you for coming, Maria.” I kiss her hand and offer to take her jacket. As she shimmies out of it, I cannot help but wonder at her perfection. Such sturdy legs. Such ample breasts. A face that may be used as an a posteriori argument for the existence of God! I reinstate my defences, and then lead her carefully through the hallway, avoiding the Indoor Lightning Decapacitator sensor pads. In the sitting room, she reclines on a gold-legged couch from the tomb of queen Hetepheres. It is as if she were made for such fine things.
“This is an amazing place,” Maria says. “Look at all this old stuff.”
“Thank you. Thank you. So… Ah… You said… to speak to me.”
She pats the couch. “Why don’t you sit down?”
I sit, but cannot relax. “Would you care for a drink?”
“Do you have any wine?”
I am not fond of alcohol and have not drunk any for over five years, but find a dusty bottle of my father’s favourite fermented dandelion in a kitchen cupboard. I race back to Maria with two glasses.
“Wow, strong stuff!” she says, sniffing the yellow liquid and taking another sip. “You know, I was pretty nervous about coming here. If they found out then…well I’d be in a lot of trouble. I really want to leave the company, but it’s hard, sometimes, to… to change.” She jerks her head up. “Was that the front door?”
“They would never be able to get in. Besides, with you here, I am fearless.”
“And I feel safe with you,” she says, and her shoulders relax. “You know, you’re just how I’ve been imagining. Different. Original.”
And so we drink the wine and we talk. Maria tells me about her father, a coarse and sullied man, and the similar man she was engaged to who drove her away with his temper. I tell her about my work, my inventions, my beliefs about life and how it should be lived—in the pursuit of creativity, of knowledge. We toast and talk. We agree on so much. I feel as if we talk forever. Is this how it feels to be in love?
Maria starts to tell me about the Wills, who she confirms are cruel men who seek secret joy in the suffering of others, explaining how she has been planning on leaving for a while. “I’ve been meaning to quit for so long, and when I saw how they were treating you, and how noble you were in dealing with them”—my cheeks flush at such words!—“well for me it’s the final straw.”
“Yes, yes,” I reply, but it is hard for me to concentrate. My head is spinning. The alcohol is too much for me. I begin to slip from the couch, the room shifting… becoming cold… dark…
I wake with a start. Maria is gone. Emptiness vast as interstellar space grips my soul. Oh, Zircon, you fool. You succumbed to desire, to want. Why could you not be satisfied? You did not need the veneer of validation provided by the love of another. You needed nothing but your ideals, your dreams. You were happy, alone.
Were happy, Zircon. Were.
What was it she wanted? To get inside my house? She is probably in my lab now with the Wills, laughing about how easy it was to trick me, to take advantage of my intolerance to alcohol. Show a man a pretty face and he dives headfirst back into the mud.
I drag myself upright, stumble to the door, and pull it open.
White crackling static fills the hallway. The stink of singed hair assaults my nostrils. Then I see them—Maria, my beautiful Maria, a glass of water in her hand, and opposite her, each stuck in an aggressive stride, the two Wills, wearing gas masks, the blond-haired Will carrying a diamond-tipped drill and the brown-haired Will brandishing a gun. Each of them is trapped in a lightning bolt from my Indoor Lightning Decapacitator.
Maria, oh my Maria! I’m sorry for doubting you. You went to fetch this poor drunken fool a glass of water. Now all I need to do is turn off Maria’s lightning bolt and we can take our time deciding how to dispatch, once and for all, the two Wills.
I find the Decapacitator console, select the charge of energy dedicated to Maria, and turn down the power.
The dial comes off in my hand.
The static becomes a voltaic roar. “Danger” flashes in red on the console. The hallway warps as a long black tear in reality jags up the centre.
If I can get to my lab, flush the house with antimatter particles, then I may be able to save my home…
But by then Maria will surely be killed.
Think, Zircon! Think!
What will become of me without my cottage, my lab, my inventions, my life, my history, and not just me, but Zircon my father, Zircon my grandfather, and every Zircon stretching back to the Zircon that built this cottage with his own hands. Here is who I am. Without this place, I am nothing.
I look at Maria, flashing black and white in the lightning bolt. Her face, her beautiful, scared face. Those eyes that look at me like none may ever again.
It is a coward that sees regret and runs to it.
Be brave, Zircon.
I dive at Maria. We tumble away from her lightning bolt. The glass flies from her hand and smashes on the flagstones. The contents of the hallway slide towards the tear in reality. My elephant-foot hat stand. My antique gyroscopes. My deerstalker hat! I drag Maria to the door, fighting the pull of oblivion behind us, hearing the electric scream of the Lightning Decapacitator overloading. I yank the door open and we race into the garden, Maria’s hand in mine. There’s an explosion and we are lifted into the air. I land on my back, Maria falling on top of me. I wrap my arms around her.
And then, silence.
We lie on the ground, holding one another tight, until our breaths fall calm. I look over Maria’s shoulder at the haze where my beloved cottage once stood. She lifts her body and gazes down.
“You saved me,” she says.
“I could do nothing else,” I reply, but with sadness I cannot avoid, for the fear of what will happen to me now, of my future without my home, claws at my mind.
As if reading my thoughts, Maria tips her chin down and presents me a smile that would salve the sorest heart. “Your cottage was lovely,” she says, “but perhaps a bit old fashioned, you know, for the twenty-first century.”
With her words, the claws retract. An image comes to me of a new home, something graphene and geodesic, intricate yet idyllic, a fortress for all the future Zircons to come. Yet even the excitement of such plans are nothing compared to what happens next, when Maria closes her eyes and lowers her head. And at the touch of her lips everything else is suddenly, and completely, irrelevant.
Dan lives in London with his wife, daughter, and Boddington the dog. Some of his acclaimed short stories can be read in his new collection, Smiling Exercises, and Other Stories, out now on Amazon. His first novel, a sci-fi thriller called The Vaccine Slaves is out later this year. Find him at his website, www.danmalakin.com, where he blogs about books and writing, or on Twitter @danmalakin.
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