It was with a steadfast resolve and a clenched jaw that Dr. Daitsuke Endo sat in his study at the deep end of a soulless corridor on the second floor of Tokyo’s prestigious National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, otherwise known as the Miraikan. Like many of the industrious compounds dotting the edge of Koto district, the research center was built on an artificial island, away from the city’s perpetual cacophony. Only the episodic loading and unloading of bulk cargo not so far off disturbed the quietude of passing watercrafts gliding effortlessly across the latticework of dry docks, jetties and man-made straits.
Most of Daitsuke Endo’s most remarkable insights had surfaced during times of contemplation against such clustered views, unseeing the slow influx of vessels sliding with minute precision in and out of their slipways. He liked to think of his grand theory of immortality as akin to a bustling harbor, where a limited number of autonomous, highly-specialized and intricately-connected entities worked in perfect synchronicity to keep the whole in pristine condition for eternity. As it happened, the human machinery was plagued by a slew of loose ends frankly impossible to get around and longevity scientists’ blatant inability to conjure up enough resources and manpower to cure death had caused him many sleepless nights slumped in this very chair.
He clicked the cap of his ink pen back on and twisted it. For the first time in over two hours, he broke the stillness of his stooped posture and looked away from his uncluttered workspace. The sole window of his secluded office opened on a murky sky. A gentle drizzle was falling, damping the bottom rail and the windowsill. Daitsuke Endo drew a heavy breath and stretched his arms. If he had learned anything over the past weeks, it was that soul searching required a whole lot more brainpower than scientific pondering.
As soon as his assistant Junko had left the biolab for the day, he had slipped off his white coat, hurried across the twenty meters separating the lab from his makeshift writer’s den and sunk in his leather chair. There he had scrawled tirelessly every relevant piece of information he could muster, searching his memory for precise recollections in a way he hadn’t done in decades. All that digging in his past…For whom exactly, he wasn’t sure. He had run in his head a variety of scenario–each more creative and frightening than the next–to justify his folly, but he was still to decide how he wished to proceed next. Perhaps he would use his writings as incriminating evidence in a courtroom, or send it to a news agency. Another possibility was to surrender to police. Everything they’d need would be on those gilt-edged pages.
Outside, massive dark clouds passed over Tokyo’s sheltered bay, casting ominous shadows over Daitsuke’s rosewood workstation and entire office. He moved to switch on his reading lamp but paused as his fingers touched the base of the early-century relic. The day’s work was already complete. He glanced down at his diary’s rust-colored cover. He was beginning to loathe the very sight of it. And every word in it. Writing in the goddamned notebook had become a nerve-wracking nocturnal ritual ever since he’d taken the most important decision of his life, just over a week ago.
His strict traditional Japanese upbringing had always been lurking in the background, threatening to burst his bubble of boundless, reckless ambition without warning. Well, it had caught up with him at last, and the guilt that had consumed him for years was now simply too much to bear. So after much deliberation with himself, he’d established that documenting his employer’s conveniently-overlooked mischiefs was a first step toward absolution and the easing of his heavy conscience, a process he knew would be extremely risky, if not outright suicidal.
Tonight only the tiny pearls of sweat building up at the base of his well-preserved hairline betrayed the moral quandary he was struggling with. As usual his pen had felt heavy and the words had refused to come out without shame, but now that they were immortalized on the page, his heart felt lighter.
With the tips of his fingers he brushed his beard, a thick, black coverage showing only the faintest of grey streaks–a rare feat for a man of his advanced age. Not much remained to be written, he reckoned, and in a few days, one way or another, he would be able to set things in motion and begin to atone for his sins. He closed his diary, not without surveying his office nervously first, exhaled deeply and tucked the journal deep inside a roughly-built hidden compartment beneath his desk.
The hoarse siren of a tugboat docking at the nearest pier momentarily covered the chime of his buzzing smartphone. The device shuddered with increasing vigor in his trousers’ back pocket, and when he plucked it at last and saw the name on the glass screen, his already pale face took a turn for the ghastly.
He shot upright, with enough consternation to topple his sturdy chair, and set down the flickering device on his desk. The Elder was bound to make contact in some not-so-distant future–that much was obvious and expected–but the possibility that the news of his intended betrayal had travelled that fast, even in this tech-mediated day and age, was beyond belief. He scanned his tiny office in a sweeping head motion in an absurd attempt to spot hidden bugs, and let his finger press connect.
A rough, bluish shape of a silhouette the size of a toy figurine came to life atop his smartphone. It juddered for a second, projecting staggering arcs of azure lights before settling into a crisp holographic rendering.
When Daitsuke Endo had pledged to serve the Elder and his organization a lifetime ago, for what he now considered incredibly selfish purposes, he had consented on a number of rules. Two of these rules dictated that he was to be on call 24/7 and, upon connection, that he activated his holo to the highest level of details. Of course, the Elder himself wasn’t tethered by such rules and the simulacrum now standing over the glowing phone looked nothing like his real self. In fact, it wasn’t anything like anyone Daitsuke knew or had ever met as this time, the Elder chose to display the outline of a little odd man in a purple wizard’s cloak. Bulging eyes and a skinless face weren’t the only disturbing features of the avatar; its head was bereft of a skull, showing a squashy brain in lieu of scalp and hair, just like the scrawny green invaders in late-twentieth-century cult film Mars Attacks. The irony was lost on Daitsuke Endo who, while partial to an old Japanese kaiju movie, remained utterly oblivious to most of the Hollywood classics. Especially those produced over a century ago.
The high-pitched, crackling voice that echoed from the cellular device was a fitting one. “Step into the light, please, Daitsuke-sama.” It stung like a command.
“Of course, of course.” The lights went on, revealing the tired features of a man that seemed to have gone through an awful lot. His gait was cautious, and his half-bow as deferential as he’d get with anyone. His restive pacing round the desk had little effect on the transmission itself; the phone’s many sensors swept the full width of the small room to pinpoint every nanometer square of his bust with military-grade precision and relay an inch-perfect full-body reproduction via Li-Fi.
“Daitsuke-sama, forgive me for going straight to the point. I am sure you understand this is not a courtesy call.”
There was a short silence during which Daitsuke Endo briefly considered muting the call and fleeing the planet. It would have been futile.
“Daitsuke-same…it has come to my attention that, how should I put it…your commitment to our enterprise might not be as unwavering as it once was. I should be obliged if you would shed some light on this for me…”
It took several seconds for the response to come. Daitsuke sat back on his chair and tilted his head down slightly so that his eyes were almost lined up with the face of the Elder’s Lilliputian avatar. He weighted his words carefully. “I have served the cause to the best of my ability, Elder, and believe that a retirement is in order after my many decades of service. At least, that is my wish.”
The derisive laughter that followed was unlike anything Daitsuke had ever heard. The digital overlay draping the holo’s voice bestowed upon the tiny creature an eerie, fairy-tale quality that scared the wits out of the Japanese scientist. He lay both his moist hands on the table astride the spectral figure and attempted to calm his racing heart, knowing full-well that this particular choice of avatar was a manipulation tactic straight out of the Elder’s rule book.
“Elder, I beg you not to let the directors fool you. I haven’t forgotten for one second what I owe the organization…my career, my discoveries, my reputation as a scientist…without you, Elder, and you alone, I would have achieved nothing of the sort.” That was only a half-truth. By all accounts, most importantly that of his peers, Daitsuke was a brilliant man, his only sin to underutilize his gifted mind by zeroing in on such a dead-end scientific pursuit as the quest for immortality.
Another silence bounced around the room. “Please…” urged the Elder. The vein on his neck pulsed frantically. “I won’t do you the affront of beating around the bush, as you Americans say. I wish to dissociate myself from the organization and its doings, with immediate effect.”
For a second that felt like an eternity, the holo appeared to freeze, and then said, “Go on…”
“The time has come for me to ‘reclaim’ my freedom. I have fulfilled my role in your remarkable enterprise and the purpose you’ve come to me in the first place is no more. Everything I know, I have taught you and the council.”
A gush of icy wind blew across the room and Daitsuke suddenly felt very claustrophobic in his small office. Outside the downpour grew thicker and foggier.
“Daitsuke-same…you have been a loyal servant…”
“Thank you, Elder–“
“Realize, however, that I do not run this organization like a corporation, much less like a charity. The council sees you as a most valuable asset. And you’re taking with you a host of knowledge that, in a sense, conflicts with our initiative’s very raison d'être.”
“Elder, please, I implore you to reconsider this view! What would I gain in failing you and the other honorable members? You have my word that, even in retirement, I will behold my duty of secrecy to the council. This is a responsibility I do not take lightly.” Drops of sweat drooled along his spine under his summer shirt. He wasn’t sure whether his lie was cunningly delivered or blatantly preposterous.
“Daitsuke-sama, let us speak the truth. If you remain at the helm of the Museum Research center, you de facto become an enemy of our organization. I am sure you have thought this through.”
“I know…” Daitsuke swallowed hard and pressed a palm against his chest. Lying did not come easy to the man of science. “I will resign from my position as a chair of this Miraikan and sever all affiliations to the field of immortality research as soon as you give me your permission.”
Nearby, a blaring foghorn screamed through the open window.
“So be it,” the Elder said.
The luminescent holo flickered madly and vanished abruptly in a bursting gleam of colorless sparks. Just then, the diffused, rotating beam of the glaring spotlight from the passing barge found its way into the small office and hit the back of Daitsuke Endo, projecting a slithery shadow on the opposite wall.
Daitsuke stood frozen until the unwelcome sight left the room and only the faint glint of his desk lamp remained. He closed the window, sank back into his chair and fetched his little orange diary with the express aim of finishing his meticulous documentation work that very night.