by Brogan Thomas, UK
Chas Lind was not as well known as his father Carmine Lind, the fourth richest man in the world. He was the owner of a tech company called Fendways, best known for providing deathbed surveys. This data was of enormous value to the markets because of a recent boom in space travel. His analytics showed that most of the older generation were broadly in favour of their grandchildren evacuating the Earth to escape a potential climate catastrophe. It also revealed a surprising number of them regretted being unable to afford space burials. As hoped, Carmine’s rivals responded with competing promises to colonize Mars within the next two-to-three decades. Carmine himself then announced he too was branching out into space travel, and would begin by opening the world’s very first graveyard on the moon.
The Lind fortune had long been a source of anxiety for Chas, who could not help but feel it rendered his life unimportant. At the of age three he told Carmine he wanted to become an astronaut and Carmine laughed. A few years later, Chas said he was interested in becoming a human rights lawyer and his mother said, ‘Well okay but you know you’ll never have to work. You’re very lucky. You’ll always have enough money.’ Although he later came to suspect his mother had said this out of frustration or even disapproval, Chas still grew up wondering just how many other people would have “enough money” if his father were to give more of it away.
One evening, when he was twenty, Chas met Marsha at a bar. She knew who he was immediately, and when asked her opinion of his father, she replied, ‘I always thought the term evil billionaire sounded dumb, kinda like toxic masculinity. It’s tautological.’
They had a long conversation about the redistribution of wealth, about which Marsha knew a great deal. Chas was very used to being greeted with thinly veiled contempt, so her unvarnished scorn excited him. ‘Doesn’t it bother you?’ she said, ‘Your father is encouraging people to look beyond this planet before it’s even too late. He’s actively accelerating ecological collapse because he’s figured out a new way to profit by the death of the planet. Not the destruction, the death! Everyone knows he manipulated that data on behalf of the oil companies. He’s not even pretending! He’s telling people to look forward to the end of the world. He’s practically saying, “Hey, when it’s all over (cos it already is, so there’s nothing anyone can do about it, right?) don’t worry because you’ll still be free to buy whatever shit I’m selling.” Rate Your Life, and because of your answers, when you die, your kids are going to a better place!’
‘When I was a kid,’ said Chas, ‘I told my dad I wanted to be an astronaut and he laughed.’
‘Well what are men but a race of failed astronauts?’
Marsha belonged to an environmentalist group which protested spaceflight emissions. There had been a more than fifty-percent increase in the number of rockets launching since Fendways began their own space programme, which made Carmine the group’s prime target. Their activities picketing actual launch sites had generated widespread support as well as derision, particularly following a recent controversy in which two of their members succeeded in reaching the launchpad, only for the rocket to lift off anyway, incinerating them both. This was due, apparently, to a miscommunication. Chas watched the footage online several times. His father had made a rare public appearance to describe the event as ‘highly regrettable.’ Chas re-watched that footage even more.
After their initial meeting, Marsha gave him a number and he got in touch with some friends of hers. They seemed very happy to know him. Soon he had become a member. They listened to his ideas with interest. Within a few months a plan had been hatched.
Chas had surprised Carmine by asking to become a legal intern at the Fendways Building, his father’s New York headquarters. Most evenings he took the subway home, which Carmine’s security chief, Kersleigh, suggested was unwise. He pretended to laugh her off. One day in winter, after he had been working there for several weeks, there was a small climate protest occupying a thoroughfare along his usual route, so Chas took a detour down a deserted alleyway to avoid it. At the end of the alley, a car appeared. Two men with balaclavas and chloroform bundled him into the backseat and drove away.
The following day, Chas awoke on an uncomfortable bed feeling groggier than he ever had in his life. He checked to see that the little finger of his left hand was missing and was so full of painkillers that he was not even horrified to find that it was. It excited him. Marsha came and took him to the control room where she explained everything seemed to be going perfectly, that his finger had probably arrived home some hours earlier and would currently be in the care of Carmine’s security firm. Chas had never felt so alive.
‘How does it feel?’ she asked.
‘Good,’ he replied, giddily. ‘I always said I was more use to you dead or alive.’
Chas was impressed by the underground bunker. He knew their operation was not small but had never expected such impressive facilities. Ansell, the group’s leader, had insisted its whereabouts be kept secret from him in case of a security breach, which was why they used real chloroform. At the centre of the lengthy control room was an array of large screens displaying maps and national news coverage.
‘We’re expecting it to break anytime now,’ said Marsha.
‘So soon?’ said Chas.
‘We sent the video to all the major stations.’
Chas had forgotten all about the video. It was recorded during the amputation, while he was under anaesthetic. Chas and the group agreed that Carmine would never meet their demands unless public pressure was on their side. The terms were that he make a live speech admitting Fendways was deliberately accelerating the Mars Race in order to undermine the green economy. This had to be done within twelve hours of the video’s arrival or his son would die. Ansell had asked Chas if he would consider losing another finger should Carmine prove slow to comply but Chas refused.
‘How long?’ he asked, restlessly. He had woken up six hours after the video was sent and two hours had passed since.
‘Any minute now,’ said Ansell, yet again.
‘We’ve had word!’ called a woman sat at a computer.
‘Who from?’ said Chas.
‘Carmine,’ said Marsha, leaning over the woman’s shoulder.
‘What does it say!’
‘The usual bullshit. It also says yes.’
She turned to face him. ‘Yes he’ll do it.’
Chas stared at her. ‘Don’t get too excited,’ she added. ‘It’s only what he’s being told to say.’
‘No,’ said Chas. ‘He doesn’t have to do as anyone says. If he says he’ll do it, that’s it.’
‘Look!’ someone else called, pointing at one of the screens. ‘Turn the others off!’ ordered Ansell. The other screens promptly flickered off and the volume was turned up. An anchor Chas recognised had just received some breaking news: ‘…Chas Lind, heir to the Fendways empire. The twenty-year old disappeared on Monday afternoon. This surveillance footage is believed to have captured the moment he was abducted by two unknown assailants…’
‘Aren’t they gonna show the video?’ said Chas.
‘They’re probably holding that off as long as possible,’ said Marsha. ‘It does show your finger being cut off, remember?’
Chas suddenly remembered why his left hand was itching. That part still did not seem quite real to him, or at least not as real as seeing his face on television.
Two hours later he was still waiting around, fiddling with his bandage and drinking coffee. He began to feel embarrassed repeating the same questions to Marsha and Ansell. They were apparently waiting for one of the news stations to show the video. The screen had been turned off after the initial report, which made no mention of the group or their demands. It was only after Chas asked to see what was happening that someone switched it back on again. Sure enough, there was the same few seconds of surveillance footage, being dissected by pundits. He felt embarrassed again and asked them to switch it off. Somebody asked if he was okay and he said, ‘Yes but…,’ why had they heard nothing more from his father or the authorities yet? Nobody seemed to have the answers, or they did but were unwilling to tell him, which made him feel like a patsy.
With just an hour left to go, during which the painkillers started wearing off and the coffee kicked in, Marsha let him watch the video in its entirety. The news stations had all refused to show it, she said, so they had uploaded it directly to the internet. Chas looked at the millions of Views and Likes and started to feel alive again. ‘Why didn’t you let me see this earlier?’
‘We didn’t know if you were ready to watch your own finger being cut off,’ she said.
‘What do you think I agreed to it for?’
Internet access in the bunker was limited for security reasons, so Marsha gave him a phone containing the original video file, which he watched three times. Belatedly, he began to feel slightly sick. In the final half-hour, he asked Ansell if he could go outside for some air. ‘Just for a minute?’ he appealed.
‘Chas, there’s nothing up there but trees, but if you show your head, something might see you.’
‘Can’t I just poke my head above ground for a second?’
‘Not until it’s dark.’
‘When’s that? It’s gone 8.30…!’
‘You wanna chill the fuck out?’
There was a loud bang from the far end of the bunker as though something heavy had just slammed shut. Then there was a piercing alarm bell. Ansell gave a shout and everyone started running around. Chas stayed still. ‘What is it?’ he called to Marsha. ‘Don’t worry,’ she answered, picking up a gun. ‘That’s an early warning.’
‘Where’s everyone going?’
Marsha placed a comforting hand on his face and said, ‘Stay here.’ Then she put the gun in his hand. ‘It’s loaded, so be careful.’ She nodded shortly at him, then turned and darted from the room after the others. Chas heard another door slam, then there was quiet. He had never held a gun before.
It was strange, he thought, that at no point had anybody asked if he was hungry. True, he had no appetite, but it would have been considerate of Marsha to at least ask. Then he had to remind himself he was not actually a captive, or a guest. He was part of the organisation. That was what excited him the most. Then he vomited onto the concrete floor – a mixture of coffee and stomach acid. Some went on his shoes. As he stood doubled over, pressing the gun against his right knee, he heard a voice: ‘Chas, are you okay?’ He lifted his head. The voice was coming from one of the screens. ‘Chas? Answer me. Are you okay?’
‘Kersleigh!’ spluttered Chas. His father’s security chief was looking at him through the central screen, whispering as though there may be someone else in the huge room who could overhear. ‘Where are you?’
‘Never mind,’ shushed Kersleigh. ‘We know where you are. That’s all that matters.’
Chas was still standing bent over the puddle of brown bile, holding a gun. The sight of Kersleigh, whom he had always pretended to despise but was actually terrified of, talking to him through a television made him think he would be sick again. Then he realised his adrenaline was running too high. ‘How did you find me?’
‘We got a mole,’ she said. ‘We’ve had our eye on these guys for months. They’ve been out to destroy your father ever since the space programme launched.’
‘Do I look like I give a fuck?’
‘You should care, kid. How else do you think we’d have found out?’
‘Wait, wait… You said you had your eye on them?’
‘Why don’t you ask what’s her name?’
‘Who?’ she echoed. Chas heard a barely audible mumble from somewhere close to Kersleigh. ‘What?’ she answered.
Ansell stepped into the frame beside her and impassively said, ‘Marsha.’
‘Marsha!’ said Kersleigh, putting an arm around his shoulder. ‘That’s it. Ask her.’
Chas felt his throat tightening. Ansell stood looking slightly awkward while Kersleigh grinned, then she nodded his cue and he shuffled back out of the frame. ‘Oh, and Chas?’ she continued. ‘Your old man was asking how you are. I think it’d be best if you told him yourself, don’t you?’
Chas barely heard her above the pain searing in his left hand. The last of the morphine had finally worn off. His right hand was hurting too from throttling the gun.
‘I told your mother you’re in Bhutan. I told her you lost it in a hiking accident.’ Chas did not have to look at the screen, nor could he. He recognised this new voice well enough. ‘You should really eat something. Try the box on the counter to your right.’ Chas lifted his head in time to see Carmine add, ‘It hasn’t gone anywhere,’ and then the screen went blank.
Chas looked to his right and saw what his father was talking about: a foam box. It really had been there ever since he woke up. Straightening himself, he walked to the counter and opened the lid. It contained a cheese burger. He lifted the top half off the bun. At first he thought he was looking at a Spanish Gherkin because of all the sauce covering it. Then he was sick again. His father’s voice returned: ‘Chas, let me explain something to you. You know how much space is gonna be worth now? More than you. More than your friends. They cost far less than that.
‘You know, when I was a kid I told my father I wanted to be the first man on the moon. He said, “Too late.” Well, things change. According to our own surveys a lot of people don’t believe there ever was a moon landing, probably because the astronauts didn’t have cellphones. The Mars landing will be different. But they can have Mars. I want the Moon. I want it because it’s the last place in the universe women have never set foot, and I intend to keep it that way. If I can’t be the first, I’ll be the last. Once the Moon is open for business it won’t be long before she’s full up. The last plot is mine. A hundred years from now people will look back on the Earth and see a pauper’s grave.’
He pointed to the gun. ‘Keep that if you want. It’s a toy. Or you can keep your finger. Your choice. Show yourself out.’ The screen went dead.
Eventually Chas found his way out of the building, which was not an underground bunker but a warehouse. Furthermore, they were not in a forest but on a dockyard in the city. He recognised the skyline. Looking across the quay, he saw a small group of people in faux paramilitary garb milling around, doing their best to ignore him. Ansell was not among them, but Marsha was. She turned and looked at him, and before looking away again, her eyes dipped in a peculiar way, something between a nod and a smarting reaction. She hastily departed a moment later. The others drifted off in different directions.
When he was clear of the docks, Chas stood in a doorway and took the gun out of his pocket. He did not know how to use it, but this did not stop him from quickly working out how to remove the clip and discover that it was both real and loaded. The morning air was cold, so he turned his collar up. Then he put the gun back in his pocket and headed in the direction of the Fendways Building.
In another part of the city, a small group of people sit in a room, silently looking at a screen. They watch Chas as he steps through the door of his father’s tower. They know, as does he, that Carmine is somewhere inside. After a few minutes Marsha arrives and sits down to watch with them.