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In King Midas’ Court, by Matthew S. Dent

It took three strikes to get the cheap, airport-bought match to light, and then another few moments of tentative sheltering and nurturing for the flame to swell and light the cigarette. The task finally done, he tossed the wooden split away, and took a deep drag.There was no relief in it. It stuck in his lungs, leaving only a few hacking coughs. Spitting phlegm over the side of the balcony, into the lush greenery below, he took another breath of smoke.

He took out the handful of papers and starting to read. He’d read it before, several times, but since he was about to see their subject firsthand, he wanted them to be fresh in his mind.

He didn’t get very far. The darkening skies above gave up their moisture, in great round globules plummeting towards the Amazon rainforest, and the curious steel-and-glass construction nestled amid the trees like a tumour.

“Shit…”

The tempo of the rain drops increased, and his reports were soon unreadable.

“This would be the rain part of the rainforest, Inspector Hasaan,” a voice behind him said. He turned to see the young woman- a secretary, almost certainly- who had told him he could wait on the balcony if he wished.

“Would you like to come in sir?” she asked. “You can wait for Mr. Kensington in the dry.”

Hasaan, who was already near-drenched, sneered at this, but moved towards her anyway. At least it would be warmer inside.

#

“Ah, Mr. Hasaan, wasn’t it? So pleased to meet you. I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”

Hasaan forced a smile. “Only a few hours, Mr. Kensington,” he said, standing and accepting the businessman’s hand. His suit was crisp, neat, and looked expensive- and his hands were well-manicured, but burdened with a number of gaudy gold rings on his fingers. Hasaan inwardly sighed, and braced himself for the ostentatious, self-important attitude which was sure to follow.

The man smiled, feigning sheepishness, but making no effort to look apologetic. “Sorry,” he lied. “Board meetings…”

Hasaan nodded understanding. He didn’t care. He’d done this enough times, in enough bizarre locations, that waiting in a reception lobby above the canopy of the rainforest was no problem. And he knew these types- self-important CEOs, presidents and vice-presidents of this and that. He didn’t care what they said, or how long they kept him waiting. They didn’t scare him, and wouldn’t dissuade him from doing a thorough inspection.

“If you’d like to come this way Mr. Hasaan, I can show you around our facility here,” he said, gesturing for the Inspector to accompany him through an imposing set of doors at one end of the room. Hasaan did so, entering into a sort of ante-chamber. It looked suitably industrial for the purposes of the building. The modernistic facade- flashy and intimidating- was just that, a facade.

“Might I ask why the UN feels it has to spring an inspection on us so suddenly?” Kensington asked, pulling on fluorescent overalls, and passing identical overalls to Hassan. They weren’t anything like clean, but Hasaan put his disapproval to the back of his mind. That wasn’t what he was here to see.

“It’s just a standard inspection,” he reassured Aurum Industries’ CEO. Privately, he was glad he made the man a little nervous. He felt it meant he was doing a good job. “The UN inspects all biologically-based industries on a rotational basis. Would I be right in assuming this is your first such inspection?”

Kensington nodded. “We’re a young company,” he said. “Only three years old.”

“That’s some impressive capital behind you then,” Hasaan noted, indicating the reception area.

Kensington chuckled. “Actually, this facility was built off our first year’s profits. Our process is such a success that we were able to move from our facility in Siberia, to the Amazon. With our financial contributions to the country’s economy, we were welcomed with open arms, so to speak.”

“I’m impressed.” And he was. To build this facility from the first year’s profits? That was almost unheard of. He caught himself wondering if there might not be some truth to the rumours that circled around Aurum. But he stopped himself.

There were no such things as miracles. Previously not contemplated breakthroughs in science, yes; but no miracles. There was an explanation for this Midas touch, and Hasaan was determined to find it.

“Here.”

Kensington handed him a safety hat, placing one on his own head. It was a large and unwieldy piece of kit, all sharp angles and large surfaces- not at all like the efficient, streamlined architecture of the building. He put it on. It was heavy, and hugged his head closely, enveloping it on all sides, with the front coming down to his brow level.

“A bit low-tech, don’t you think?” Hasaan asked.

For the briefest of moments, Kensington looked nervous- an expression forced from his face so quickly that he probably thought the Inspector had missed it. He hadn’t.

Kensington shrugged. “You save money where you can, I guess,” he answered. “They work well enough, I assure you.”

Hasaan was sure they did. The block of plastic on his head certainly felt sturdy. Not too heavy, but enough so that it wouldn’t be comfortable if he had to wear the damn thing for long. Perhaps it was Kensington’s plan? To put him in such discomfort, that he would be too distracted to focus, and too determined to finish.

He nearly snorted. Clearly Kensington had never spent a night in any of the hotels in these developing countries new companies, in new industries, with questionably-legal and -ethical practices seemed to favour. He shook his head.

“Tell me about your process, then.”

#

As they entered the main operational centre of the facility, Kensington began his explanation.  Hasaan was only half listening, as he looked around. It wasn’t what he had expected. He had been told about the supposed biological component to Aurum’s process, which was the reason he was there. But he expected to find it had been significantly overplayed. An enzyme or something. As he looked at the facility, he saw that if anything, the biological element had been understated.

Kensington led him along a broad walkway, passing over what looked like the bulk of Aurum’s operation. It was just as glacial and modern as the outside had suggested, a series of laboratories and vats, attended by men in white coats.

“…discovery in the jungle, in Peru actually,” Kensington was saying. Hasaan was certain it was simply the company line, but felt compelled to listen to the bullshit anyway. “I found it myself, whilst holidaying with a friend, who unfortunately isn’t with us today. When we realised the revolutionary implications for the gold market, and the world economy in general, we were astounded.”

“Hmmm. Your company statement claims that you’ve found a biological process to actually create gold,” Hasaan said, cutting to the point. “‘A real life philosopher’s stone’, according to your advertising literature.”

Kensington laughed. “I leave that sort of thing to the advertising gurus,” he said, cheerfully. “But it sounds about right.”

“So you’re actually claiming to be able to transform base metals into gold?”

“Well…” Kensington paused, uncertain. “We’re a small outfit, as you can see. I am the lead scientist; a doctor of bio-chemistry. A small outfit, but profitable.”

“Mr. Kensington,” Hasaan said, allowing the man to see his patience strain. “Or Doctor, if you prefer. I am not a guinea pig for your sales technique. I am here to do a job, and I’d appreciate it if you would help me do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. So please; are you claiming to be able to turn base metals to gold?”

“No.” Kensington leant on one of the barriers and looked down at the work below. The scientists were understandably nervous under the gaze of their boss. Or was it his presence that unnerved them? “Not base metals. But I think it would be easier to show you, Inspector. Doctor Sharpe is working with a fresh batch that should suffice.”

Kensington lead him down to where a balding man in a filthy lab coat held a clipboard, staring at what appeared to be a swollen slug. It was a deep green, and as Hasaan watched it, it pulsated and throbbed grotesquely.

Doctor Sharpe looked up as the two men approached. Hasaan noted that he too was wearing a bulky and obstructive hard-hat. Now that he thought about it, Hasaan couldn’t see the point. There was no heavy machinery- unless one counted the vats. And they were unlikely to take your head off.

But as soon as Hasaan started to take his off, the two men blanched.

“No! Don’t!” cried Sharpe, lunging for him.

But Kensington stopped him, catching the balding and bearded scientist. “Easy, Doctor.” Turning to Hassan, frozen in the middle of removing his headwear, he said, “Please Inspector, I’m afraid I must insist that you do not remove your helmet. There are regulations and… Well… there are things you don’t yet understand. Please, Inspector.”

Slowly, and with much confusion, Hasaan did as they asked. “So what is this thing?” he asked, indicating the slug. He poked at the glass, and the thing moved- towards him, perhaps; it was hardly clear what its palpitations meant.

“This, Inspector, is my grand discovery.”

Hasaan looked for him, expecting some punch line, or a smug grin on Kensington’s face- but the man was just waiting expectantly. Doctor Sharpe just looked nervous, sweat making his bald head shine.

He sighed. “It’s a slug, Mr. Kensington,” he said. “It does something extraordinary?”

“It does indeed!” Kensington chuckled. He gestured to Sharpe, who moved away to occupy himself with something behind Hasaan. “You notice the colour, Inspector?”

“It seems…greenish?”

“Yes indeed! You see, this species of slug, naturally photosynthesises. It produces all of the energy it needs like that. But the important part is that it still has the capacity to ingest food.

“When it has no access to light, it will feed off plant or animal matter out of necessity. The really fascinating thing is what happens then. We’re still researching precisely how, from what we’ve learnt so far, it seems like they change the very atomic structure itself, and you can imagine the implications and advances that might mean, as soon as we get it down. But the damn things excrete near-pure gold!”

Hasaan stood up. “That’s impossible,” he said, and moved towards the door. He was disgusted. He had come all this way, to investigate something which now it seemed was just a wind up by some sort of con man. “Gold cannot be willed into existence. I don’t know what scam this is, Mr. Kensington, but I will have no part in it.”

“It’s no scam, Inspector Hasaan,” Kensington replied, coldly. “I know it seems unbelievable, please don’t insult me. All of our data is at your disposal, and I’m prepared to allow you to observe the process, if you’re willing.”

“Observe the process?” That caught Hassan’s interest. He still was far from convinced that Kensington was above board, but there was clearly some serious wealth behind him. If he wasn’t a phenomenal scammer, then he had definitely stumbled on something. And it was Hassan’s job to discover exactly what was happening. If Kensington would show him his “process”, then he felt duty-bound to accept.

“Is it far?”

“It’s just below us.” Kensington indicated a small, minimalist elevator a few yards away. It was a small platform, large enough for two people, surrounded by a safety rail so insubstantial Hasaan wondered why they had bothered.

He tried to ignore the arising worry that he was going into an unknown space with a man he had certain suspicions of. He told himself he could turn around, he could go back to Geneva. He could tell them that Kensington was full of shit, and skirt around the questions of where his money came from.

But he knew that was rubbish.

As he stepped onto the elevator, Doctor Sharpe handed something small and black to Kensington. He gave Hasaan something identical, and he realised it was a pair of night-vision goggles. Kensington clipped his to the front of his hard hat.

“They only ingest meat when they can’t photosynthesise,” Kensington explained. “So we have to keep them in the dark, in order for the process to work. Hence the goggles.”

Hasaan nodded, but didn’t say anything. As the elevator began to descend, he clipped them onto the front lip of his hat. It buzzed into life, and illuminated his vision with an eerie green glow, doing did nothing to lessen the feeling of a great dark mouth swallowing him up.

#

It took Hasaan a few moments to adjust to the darkness, even with the goggles. They were a different sort of vision than he was used to. He had to concentrate harder to make everything out. He stepped off the elevator tentatively, only at the last moment thinking to check there was ground beneath his feet.

He sighed, as his feet trod upon solid ground. He took another step forward, and felt Kensington’s hand on his shoulder.

“Careful,” the CEO warned. He reached out a hand, and tapped twice on a hitherto-invisible barrier Hasaan had been a moment away from walking into. The impact of his jewellery rang musically off its surface. “Glass,” Kensington explained, as the sound faded away. “This is an observation chamber. What you want to observe is on the other side.”

Hasaan peered forward, and after a few moments trying to decipher it was he was seeing, realised that it was a whole mass of…meat. And in the illuminated darkness, he saw…things moving. They crawled around the meat, and when he realised what they were, he cursed himself. They were the slugs. They were more swollen to more than twice their usual size, and without their distinctive green colour were harder to recognise, but their movement was unmistakable.

“What are they doing?” Hasaan said, not meaning to speak the question aloud.

“They’re feeding,” Kensington answered. “We use different meats, and it affects the quality and amount of the gold. We haven’t figured out what makes the difference, but pork yields the best material. We use mostly pig carcasses, but we are still experimenting with more exotic meats.”

Hasaan stepped forward, pressing the binocular lenses to the glass as he watched them feed. “And they aren’t sentient?”

Kensington didn’t answer. Hasaan looked over to him, and saw the man stood, wearing his goggles and looking like some sort of cyborg. He couldn’t see enough of his face to gauge an expression.

“Are they sentient?”

“No, not sentient,” Kensington answered. “They produce gold at a fair ratio. It might not sound terribly efficient, but gold is worth a hell of a lot more than meat costs.”

Even in the dark, Hasaan could see the man’s grin. It was unnerving. He was aware he had seen no proof of gold yet.

“And you still have no idea how it works?” Kensington shook his head.

“I wouldn’t exactly say no idea… The Midas Slug’s biology is drastically different to anything any of our scientists have seen. We’re still trying to get down the process, but we think it’s something to do with whatever process they have instead of respiration.”

“Midas Slug? Appropriate, I suppose. You make it sound like they’re alien,” Hasaan said jokingly, as he walked back to Kensington and the elevator platform.

“You mean extra-terrestrial?” Kensington laughed. “No, nothing like that. But areas of the jungle are extremely remote- separate evolution similar to the Australian continent, as I understand it.”

As the elevator took them back towards the laboratory deck above, and Hasaan pulled off the goggles, he was still far from convinced. All he’d seen so far was a rather grotesque spectacle of mutilated meat and slugs, which he strongly suspected was a bizarre cover story for some sort of scam. This story of slugs turning meat to gold was just too far. Still, his job had to be done.

“Do you have any data I could see on the process?” he asked.

“Sure,” Kensington answered, nonchalantly. “We have production charts, recorded data, and quite a few theories- which are, at this stage, really only speculation.”

The CEO led him over to a desk, where a pile of papers waited for his examination- raising his suspicions more. Everything was just far too neat. He flicked through the documents, and found they were exactly what Kensington had said, supplemented by lab reports and personal statements from company scientists.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d keep those documents on site,” Kensington said, standing across the other side of the enclosure, speaking to Doctor Sharpe. “It’s sensitive information, and I don’t want it falling into the wrong hands.”

Hasaan managed to keep himself from the snort of derision. He pulled up a chair to the desk, and sat down, taking off the helmet.

He barely had it off when he heard Kensington shout from behind him. “What the fuck’re you doing?”

But even that roar paled in comparison to the wave of…something, hitting him as soon as his cranial protection was removed.

It was heavy, and strong- the mental equivalent of how he imagined being hit by a freight train would feel. And there were words in it. No, not words. Feelings, impressions. An overwhelming sadness filled his very soul, a longing for freedom and for death.

He vomited on the desk, even as he slipped from the chair to the floor. His vision distorted, the sound of blood rushed in his ears, and he felt his stomach heave again as confused thoughts bobbed to the surface of the turgid sea of his consciousness- only to sink back down again.

He saw Doctor Sharpe approaching him with the hypodermic he knew was loaded with enough sedative to put him under for hours- if not forever. The good doctor would be upon him in a moment, but a moment was long enough for this new consciousness to assert itself in his frame of reference.

As time slowed to a crawl, he understood. They weren’t slugs. They were a slug. A single entity, split into countless physical forms, but still sharing one consciousness. And a sentient consciousness; sentient beyond his wildest dreams, beyond his comprehension, and far beyond his own puny humanity.

It cried out inside his head. All of its helplessness, its moral outrage, and its utter dread flooded through him. He couldn’t discern the source. Hasaan was merely a conduit through which this jet of emotion surged, leaving him helpless and twitching like a live electrical wire.

Sharpe was nearly upon him now. The tip of the needle glimmered expectantly.

And then he understood. The last piece of the puzzle slotted into place. It was vegetarian; utterly and irreconcilably against the consumption of other animals. That was why it had evolved photosynthesis. It had taken control of their own evolution, and steered itself towards a peaceful existence. The ability to consume meat was a leftover relic of its distant past, and one which humanity had used to their own end.

This had been what Kensington had discovered in Peru. Hasaan saw it as clearly as if it was his own memory, as clearly as if he was there himself, right then. He was inside Kensington’s mind as he realised what he had discovered. He was inside the mind of his companion, too. He watched helplessly as Kensington raised the rock, and brought it down with a sickening and painful crack. He felt the anger, the fear, the pain, and the brief regret, unable to distinguish who felt what. To the slug, it there was no differentiation.

And it wept. The force of its pain and grief was tearing Hasaan apart, even as the needle penetrated his skin. It wept for the agony of the flesh it had consumed. It wept for the inhumanity of the men and women of this facility, who deafened themselves to its pleas, and blinded themselves with money. It wept for its captivity, and the eons of exploitation it anticipated. And it wept for Hasaan.

He didn’t understand why it should weep for him. Surely it understood that what Sharpe was pushing into his veins was just a sedative. He would wake up. He would go back to the UN. He would see that this newly discovered creature would receive its rights, as best as humankind could understand them.

So sorry… he heard in his mind, as he drifted into unconsciousness, the presence in his head finally having simplified its communications into words and concepts he could understand. We are so sorry, little one. Lonely one.

#

Hasaan woke to darkness. His eyes were open, but could see nothing. The heavy haze of sedatives was still on him, and it took a few minutes to stop his thoughts from spiralling away from him upon conception. It took him another moment to realise what had happened.

Trying to sit up, he found he was chained down. To the floor, he thought, though it could just as easily have been a large table. He struggled for a moment before deciding he was bound fast.

In the back of his head, a dim sensation of sadness that reminded him of the slugs. The slug. It was so much quieter than before. Perhaps the sedative was still wearing off.“Kensington?” he tried to ask. It came out as a garbled series of rough syllables. He cleared his throat and tried again.

“I’m here, Inspector,” an answer came from all sides. Some form of intercom, by the sound of it. His voice sounded weary and filled with regret. “I’m sorry about this. You really shouldn’t have taken your helmet off. I told you that it was for your own protection.”

“Mr. Kensington, you release me at once,” he said as calmly as he could, trying to maintain his authority even in his current blind and incapacitated state. “I am an Inspector of the United Nations, and you are guilty of gross violations of ethical conduct. Kidnapping of a UN official is a crime, Mr. Kensington!”

There was a pause.

“Your inspection will be a full one, Inspector,” Kensington said eventually. “I take it that the Midas Slug told you everything? A shame, but not insurmountable. Your plane will suffer an accident on its return, unfortunately, and the UN will list you as killed in the line of duty. A tragedy, but one that will be forgotten quickly enough. We will remember you though, Inspector Hasaan. We will not waste what you give us, I promise you that.”

“What?” Hasaan didn’t understand what he meant. Kensington was planning to kill him, but what-

“Aaah!”

There was something wet on his leg, followed a moment later by lancing pain. Then the same on his foot, his arm.

“Oh God… Oh God, please no…”

He understood. He understood, and he screamed his lungs out, begging for mercy and cursing his killers. But no one heard. And his last fevered, screaming moments were drowned out by the sadness within his own mind, and the agonisingly sincere whisperers of We are so sorry, as the Midas slug slowly consumed Inspector Hasaan.

#

“Inspector Artois, so sorry to keep you waiting.”

The blonde head turned towards the sound of the voice, and Artois looked up at a man striding towards him across the lobby.

“Mr. Kensington?” he asked. The man nodded. “No need to apologise sir, I realise you’re a busy man. I hear that you are setting up a second facility in Bolivia? Well I won’t take up much of your time. We managed to retrieve Inspector Hassan’s report from the plane crash site, and everything seems to be in order.”

Kensington shook his head sadly. “A damn shame. Hasaan seemed like a lovely man. Have they discovered the cause of the crash?”

Artois looked visibly uncomfortable. “It seems that the pilot had…ah…had a bit too much to drink.”

“Oh. Well. Perhaps best not to dwell on it then.”

“No, I think not.” Artios gave the Aurum Industries CEO a thankful smile. “I was just admiring your statue here.”

Both men looked up at the eight foot tall figure of a man, holding his hand out up to the sun in grateful receivership. Both pairs of eyes alighted on the face.

“Ah yes, King Midas,” Kensington said. “A fitting icon for our company I think.” He stretched out a hand and patted its leg, the gold rings on his fingers resounding on the metal with a hollow clunk.

“Yes, yes… But the face… It seems…”

Kensington nodded. “Yes, we modelled it on Inspector Hasaan, after the accident. He gave us so much, and we really are so grateful to him.”

—————

Matthew S. Dent is an aspiring writer of Science-fiction and Horror, who lives in the city of Brighton, on the south coast of England. He writes in his spare time whilst studying for a law degree, and his work has been published in several anthologies from Pill Hill Press, and is forthcoming in an issue of Twisted Tongue Magazine, and an anthology from Wicked East Press. More about him can be found at his blog, at http://matthewsdent.wordpress.com/

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