Fear washed over Mauricio as he pushed the button for the third floor. He’d avoided the news headlines this morning, knowing he’d get a full rehash from Charlie anyway. But part of him wondered if it was even worse than last week’s news…it had to be if Charlie was insisting on an early morning meeting. What could be worse than the Brazil tragedy? I mean, unless Brazil has finally announced they’re nullifying their agreement. No, Charlie expects that. We’ve already discussed sweetening the deal with Argentina to stop the bleeding there…
Mauricio shrugged off these foreboding thoughts. He’d be surprised if Charlie showed up this morning. Nobody hates mornings more than Charlie.
He stepped aside to allow others to enter the elevator. Closing his eyes for a moment, he tried to remember what his father had told him about duty and family. He had a duty to take care of Elisa and his girls.
But more than a sense of duty brought him to this office six days a week. He needed to make up for the stability he’d taken from them so many years ago when he’d made the unwise decision to take a job with SPI and then left to keep them safe. He couldn’t let this job with the Remington Center for Science turn into the same mistake. Not again.
The elevator beeped to announce his arrival at the third floor and opened to a quiet modern-looking office space. Five round tables filled the room flooded with abundant natural lighting from windows overlooking the river. Two conference rooms were situated at the north end of the rectangular room. Mauricio noticed a person sitting inside one of the rooms and whipped out his new glasses to get a clearer view of the person. Charlie Ford.
Mauricio glanced at his watch. It wasn’t even half past nine, yet Charlie—who rarely arrived at the office before noon and often left no later than three o’clock—was already here waiting for him. I guess he was dead serious about the meeting. This is bad. He inhaled, shook his head, and exhaled. Today was going to be a long day.
Hurrying toward the conference room, he passed an aloof staff member, a junior researcher who tucked himself away at a table in the far corner with a cup of tea every morning. Mauricio remarked, “Looks like we’re not the only two early birds today.” It peeved him that he never could remember the researcher’s name. After all these months, I’d be an asshole to ask him his name. Mauricio concluded the place was only big enough for one asshole, and Charlie played that role with gusto.
The researcher offered an awkward nod and crooked smile before returning his attention to the large book he’d been pouring over.
Mauricio slowed down as he approached the conference room. He braced himself and tried not to look worried when he opened the door. “Charlie,” he said, affecting a jovial tone. He noted the dark circles around the man’s eyes. “You look like you haven’t slept in ages?”
Charlie stopped pacing and pushed his thick gray hair back, a look of sheer frustration on his pale face.
The gloomy look in Charlie’s eyes was enough to sink Mauricio into a chair across the table. “Oh, man. What’s happened and how much booze do I need to handle it?” He suspected Charlie’s answer would leave him longing for the bottle of whiskey in his desk drawer.
“All our agreements all crashing like fucking dominoes,” Charlie said, loosening his tie as beads of sweat lined his creased forehead. He removed the blazer jacket and draped it over a chair. “Brazil has pulled out of their agreement. Cornelius let me know they plan to announce it publicly today. With the influence Brazil has in South America, this will crush the momentum we had there. We’re spiraling.”
Mauricio’s eyes widened. Is that all? He’s really panicking about something we saw coming a mile away? “Well, with the H2F-induced suicide there last week, this is hardly a surpr—”
“Plus, the fucking U.S. is probably going to pull out now,” exclaimed Charlie, speaking loud enough for anyone in the near vicinity to hear him. “I just got the call from Senator Abbott twenty minutes ago. The President is feeling a lot of pressure because of the latest H2F-related deaths.”
Mauricio shook his head and sighed. “You mean the kid who died in Iran last week?”
“No, I’m talking about the kid who slaughtered a whole middle school math class in Wilmette yesterday? In the Chicago area. Cornelius didn’t tell you? Don’t you check the news in the morning?”
Eyes wide, Mauricio stared at Charlie whose face had grown redder by the second. “Slaughtered? Please tell me that’s not what—”
Charlie dropped down in a chair. “Some stupid fucking parents in Wilmette decided they wanted a super genius kid, since some faders have enhanced learning skills, as you know. The parents bought some H2F, clearly from an unauthorized dealer since we haven’t even finished trials and started commercial sales yet in the States.”
“Get to the main part,” said Mauricio, leaning forward. “You’re telling me this kid turned violent?”
“Unlike the kid in Iran, this boy in Wilmette was already a fader anyway but only had one ability, fading. So he developed telekinesis after a few weeks of using H2F. According to local and national news sources and Cornelius’ intel, everything was going well until he lost control during math class yesterday and killed the teacher and damn near all his classmates. Twelve dead and six more injured. EMTs had to sedate the kid, and they don’t know what to do next with him.” Charlie massaged his temples and spoke in a calmer voice as he went on. “I can’t even convince my own countrymen to believe in H2F after this catastrophe. If we don’t manage some sort of goddamn miracle in the next week or so, the U.S. is nixing their agreement.”
“Which will effectively kill the Harmony Project,” muttered Mauricio, still picturing the horrific scene at the school. He’d worked so hard to build up the Harmony Project and the reputation of its chief product, H2F.
Led by FordTech with funding and support from the Remington Center for Science, the Harmony Project had commenced a mere month after Eve Cooper’s exposure of SPI over a year ago. Years of partnering with SPI to study faders had allowed Charlie Ford and his team at FordTech to develop what they hoped was a future where being a fader was normal and attainable by way of a new drug called H2F. Mauricio, brought on as Senior Director of Strategy to help initiate the project, spent the first six months meeting with world leaders and doing press tours to convince the public of the Harmony Project’s vision of the future.
So far, trials had shown mixed results, with some people developing abilities and others experiencing no changes. These results didn’t concern Mauricio, who viewed increased acceptance of faders as the most important goal of the project.
When Mauricio joined the project last year at the behest of Orson Remington III, the founder of the Remington Center for Science and the key funder of the project, Charlie took him to lunch and explained the unofficial benefit of the Harmony Project. “If everyone is a fader or can become a fader, then what reason is there to hate or fear faders anymore? What reason do we have to fear governments or terrorist cells developing secretive super spies or super soldiers? If everyone’s ‘super’ is anyone really ‘super’ anymore?”
Eve’s exposure of SPI led to the unmasking of similar agencies around the world, stirring up fear among even allied governments. Not to mention the outing of the faders—”super-powered people hidden in plain sight” as the New York Times had dubbed them—destabilized social relations, causing a rise in anti-fader hate crimes. All of this helped Mauricio and Charlie sell the vision of the Harmony Project, particularly H2F, as the thing that could bring stability back to an increasingly unstable world.
Charlie stood up and paced once more, running his hands through his hair and shaking his head.
Seeing the man so distraught unsettled Mauricio. Sure, Charlie was a bit dramatic at times, but he never seemed panicked. Mauricio supposed wealthy men like Charlie didn’t experience such typical emotions like panic and fear. Other than death and loneliness, what could their money and connections not solve?
As Charlie continued pacing, Mauricio watched in disbelief. If he’s this worried, I should be shitting myself.
“Charlie, you’re the reason I took this job. You urged Orson to reach out to me because you knew I wanted a way to make up for the horrible shit I’d done with SPI, and you were right. But why do I feel like you’ve sucked me into more shit, maybe even worse than SPI?” Mauricio frowned and lay his palms flat on the table as he stared at Charlie. “Remember what you told me on my first day here? ‘If we do this right, the Harmony Project can eliminate prejudice against faders’.”
A sad look shaded Charlie’s face, and he stopped pacing.
“What happened in Wilmette will have the opposite effect. Regular people will hate faders more than they did before,” said Mauricio.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Charlie shouted. “That’s why we have to fix this?”
“How the hell do we ‘fix’ a damn massacre? Come on.” Mauricio exhaled. “Charlie, I think we need to cancel all our agreements and shutter this thing now before it gets worse.”
He cast Mauricio a disappointed look and tightened his tie. “Unlike you, I don’t give up and run away from problems. We have ten minutes before Cornelius and the others get here. I’m going to propose that we find two well-known figures, a fader and a regular person, who are willing to take H2F and speak to their fans about their experience. It’s the only way for us to regain public trust.”
“You want me to find two famous people who are willing to take a drug that could kill them or worse?” asked Mauricio. “Even if I could find two people willing to take that risk, have you thought about how this plan could backfire? How far up shit’s creek we’ll be if a famous person drops dead from H2F?”
Charlie spoke in a lower voice when he noticed Cornelius approaching from the lobby. “Yes, Mauricio, and it’s a risk I’m willing to take. People are on edge, afraid of faders and what they’re capable of. The sporadic hate crimes we’re seeing are only the beginning. This project could be the only hope we have of calming tensions right now.”
“You act like the whole world is going to collapse into a war or something if we fail.”
“Because it will, mark my words,” said Charlie, sitting down. “You have one week to get two celebrities on board. Or the Harmony Project is dead, and our dream of a harmonious co-existence between faders and regular people will die with it. God help us all if that happens.”
With an exasperated sigh, Mauricio folded his arms across his chest. He wished he’d stayed in bed.