“...so this will require a bit of effort, I’m afraid.”
Helen did her best to focus on Anna’s words, but it was an uphill struggle. Someone had left the heating in the meeting room cranked all the way up. Already cramped, it now felt suffocating to even sit inside. Squeezed between Hank to the left and Boghdan to the right, breathing was like drinking some hot, thick soup. She hunched forward, resting her head on her hands and straining to keep her brain from shutting down.
“Can we open the window for a moment?” she heard someone suggest—Barbara, probably. “It’s just…”
“It’s minus five outside,” Anna replied coolly, “and I’ve just recuperated from a cold.”
Everyone sighed, but no one protested. Anna was good thirty years older than any of them, and also the sole reason why the organisation ever took off. This did give her a degree of dictatorial powers over them which she employed with an old professor’s glee. With the heavy red sweater she wore, it was a miracle she didn’t get a heatstroke yet. Knowing her luck, everyone else in the room would faint before she felt even mildly inconvenienced by the temperature.
“Anyway,” Anna continued, “we have much to discuss. Miss Hu, how did the interview with Hernaszewski go?”
“Uhhh,” Helen groaned quietly. “Uh, it’s… it was good?”
“Miss Hu,” the superficial concern in Anna’s voice concealed a tone of reprimand subtle enough to be blatantly obvious to everyone in the room. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” she mumbled back. “Yes. The material from the interview was really good. Henraszewski focused on the court battle, and that entire media fallout, but I think the part we’ll have the most use of is what he said about his life immediately after DigitEX, this entire…,” she paused, looking for a word, “realign… reabs…,” it was on the tip of her tongue. “Uhh…”
“Reincorporation,” Hank helped. “This entire saga of his return to the life of people who do not measure their income in millions. It was, to be honest, pretty entertaining.”
“Good,” Anna nodded. “And Miss Hu?”
“Yes, ma’am?” she looked up.
“Please get more sleep next time we have a meeting in the morning. Moving on...”
Her boss started to talk about the next project she had planned, and Helen took it as her cue to completely zone out. To be honest, Anna wasn’t wrong—she really should have slept more. In fact, she’d actually intended to, had this great plan to go to bed early so that she would be, for once, rested for the dreary meeting. But what she’d done instead was stay awake into the deep hours of the night, glued to her phone, googling “Pygmalion Corporation” and getting increasingly frustrated by the results. First of all, three fourths of them had nothing to do with the Pygmalion she was after, but rather about either the myth or Bernard Shaw. Hell, her Pygmalion didn’t even have a Wikipedia page—it redirected to Galatea Corporation’s entry, where a short note indicated that Galatea acquired Pygmalion early into its existence. The reference cited was a dead link to some press release in Romanian.
This, really, was par for the course. What little she managed to find were some articles in Romanian, a few mentions in early dispatches about the meteoric rise of Galatea (“...having acquired the aptly-named Pygmalion, Galatea seems to be poised to take on the biotech world…”) and very little else. She even scoured the Wayback Machine for Pygmalion’s old webpage, but its snapshot was painfully incomplete and without the interactive elements that were supposed to introduce the visitor to the “innovative solutions from Bucharest”.
At the end of the night, she’d ended up knowing little more than she’d started out with. Pygmalion was a startup company working in the then-fashionable field of machine learning, it apparently entered into a partnership with several medical industry companies (one of the articles she managed to find was a Medium post where someone warned of the danger of patient data being sold to a shady Romanian company—apparently, according to the author, it being Romanian meant it had to be a Russian front), and then was gobbled up by Galatea and promptly forgotten.
The worst part was that the guy who, according to Hernaszewski, got away before the bust, was nowhere to be found. In fact, the only trace of him that Helen managed to dredge up was a group photo of Pygmalion employees posing in their ultra-modern office against the backdrop of the Bucharest skyline visible through the window behind them. Or at least she assumed he was there—the description that was supposed to accompany it was lost to the depths of the internet.
What that all boiled down to was that she had to actually go on a date with Henraszewski.
She half-groaned, half-yawned, briefly launching back into alertness to see if anyone took notice, but Anna was too caught up in her plans, and, gratefully, there was no one else in the room who would care.
Creepy old dudes hitting on her wasn’t really anything new, even if it had become vastly more rare as she’d butched it up. Being read as a mannish dyke did discourage at least some of them, or at least make her appear too intimidating to harass. Henraszawski, however, was smarter than the lot of them, or at least had more leverage. She had to give it to Hank, he might have had a point when he’d claimed that people in managerial positions had to be, without exception, scum.
Well, there was also always the option of just forgetting it. This entire Galatea thing was starting to wear on her nerves and…
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She jerked her head to notice Hank standing over her.
“Wakey wakey,” he chuckled. “Meeting’s over.”
“Oh,” she murmured, embarrassed, and again glanced at Anna. This time, she was deep in a conversation with Bohdan. Small mercies. Helen packed her notebook away and lifted herself from the table. “Thanks,” she mouthed.
The air outside the meeting room was fresher, even if reeking of the lime-scented detergent everyone in the building used. Holding mostly upright, Helen shuffled towards the kitchenette and put the kettle on.
“You sure you’re okay?” Hank asked, prompting a pang of pointless annoyance to flash through her. “You look like you haven’t slept.”
“Yeah,” she snapped, digging through the pile of coloured tea-boxes. “Yeah. Everything’s fine.”
“Okay,” he shrugged. “If you say so.”
She finally settled on some citrus infusion. Her mug, of course, was in the sink. Someone had used it and then hadn’tt washed it. Typical. She stifled a swear and reached for the sponge.
“We’re interviewing that court guy tomorrow?” she asked after a moment, scrubbing the battered mug vigorously.
“Yeah. 6 PM. Maybe catch a beer after?”
“Maybe,” she said, wiping the mug clean and slapping a tea bag inside. It was a real shame she had given up Red Bulls. She fished out her phone and typed in a quick message for Henraszewski.
Tomorrow, 4:30 PM. Wien Cafe?
She didn’t have to wait long for the confirmation. He’d had his hopes up, it seemed. She scowled. Never a good sign.
Wien Cafe belonged to the category of coffeehouses that seemed to take pride in being as non-descript as possible. Its interior was carefully cultivated unremarkablness: white walls, some wooden furniture, a few prints of European old towns and a bunch of old books scattered about to give it a more urbane feel. It registered as familiar to people who had never set their foot inside and couldn’t possibly offend any aesthetic taste by the dint of being so completely and utterly neutral. But their coffee was okay for the price, and being located near one of the city’s administration hubs rendered it permanently busy.
Helen checked the hour on her phone, frowning. It was fifteen to five, and there was no sign of Hernaszewski anywhere around. She considered phoning him to ask, but decided against it; she really didn’t want him to feel like she was eagerly awaiting the “date”, especially not after the messages he sent her last night. If not for the fact that she’d read them starting with the apology sent several hours later, she would have just told him to fuck right off. Even now, she was sorely tempted. But if there was any data on Pygmalion online, she simply couldn’t find it, and she couldn’t afford to go to Bucharest to do an archive dive there. So, she needed this man.
And he was, somehow, late.
She looked at the morning paper arrayed next to her half-empty coffee cup. She’d spent the last half an hour reading through it, and as usual, there was nothing inside that approached even remotely cheerful. She fidgeted with the phone a bit, checked the mail, scrolled through her feed. Nothing interesting there, either. Her thumb hovered over the logo of the Galatea Corporation on the home screen, and she almost opened the app, before remembering that she was, after all, in a public space and probably shouldn’t watch live-streamed pornography featuring her friend here.
Besides, she wasn’t even sure if she could stomach looking again at what the application had shown her in the morning. The mere thought was enough to get her stomach to sink. The body, wired to machine, like a late-stage cancer patient about to breathe his last. And the eyes, the absent, empty eyes… She inhaled, and tried thinking of anything else. She didn’t need that image dancing before her eyes. She grabbed the paper again, started reading an interview with some director describing about the wasted legacy of #MeToo. A little bit of outrage helped.
It was a further ten minutes until she finally saw Anton Hernaszewski push his way through the crowded cafe, red-faced and clearly embarrassed. He wore a navy-blue suit over a white shirt, the sort of a uniform that was mandatory for anyone business adjacent five years ago. In fact, Helen was almost certain she had seen this exact same jacket in one of his old photographs. She sighed quietly.
“Mr. Hernaszewski,” she said, standing up and extending a hand. Her own outfit consisted of an old, shapeless blouse two sizes too big, and washed-out pair of jeans. Judging by the look on his face, he noticed and understood.
“I’m sorry for being late, He… Miss Hu,” he replied, shaking it nervously. “I was stuck in traffic.”
She sat down. He followed her, slumping into the pseudo-mid century modern chair.
“It’s been half a decade,” he muttered, embarrassment clear in his voice, “and I’m still not used to getting around with buses. It’s...” he paused. “Sorry.”
“I understand,” she said neutrally, even as it baffled her. “Thank you for coming nonetheless. I really…”
“And sorry for that stupidity during the night,” he cut in, rushing out his apology. “I was drunk, I swear. I understand that you are not…”
She felt a sting of pity. She’d heard him talk about his lost life and try to pass himself at peace and above it all. And yet, here he was, twitchy and nervous, like a little kid caught with phone in hands, pants down. Was he really that lonely? Did he really put that much hope into this longest of long shots? Only—and it was at that realization that sharp, bitter frustration cut through thin sympathy—it wasn’t a long shot. It was no shot at all. He’d fantasized himself an opportunity he’d never really had.
“It’s fine,” she lied and watched him visibly relax. “So about…”
“Look, when you called, in the middle of the night, for a moment I thought that it was just an excuse, that you… Look, I just wanted to apologize, I understand that it was dumb, and that I should have checked my expectations.”
Helen sighed, increasingly irate at him cutting in.
“I accept your apology, Mr. Hernaszewski,” she said, a bit more forcefully. “Now can you tell me…”
“I just couldn’t really understand why you would be interested in that kid,” he continued undeterred. He must have really loved being interviewed, being allowed to talk uninterrupted. “And then it hit me. It wasn’t about getting to me, it was about Galatea. You’re taking them on, aren’t you Miss Hu?”
“...what?” she blinked, momentarily confused. “What are you talking about?”
“I’ve read your piece. You’re trying to dig out something on Galatea, to get back for what they did to your friend,” he declared, a hint of self-satisfaction at figuring it out bleeding through the apologetic facade. “Revenge.”
“Do you really read Gorgon’s Laugh?” she blinked again.
“I googled your name. It was in the first five results,” he replied. “It really isn’t hard to figure you out. But, alas,” he shook his head in an exaggerated gesture, “I can’t help you. There really is no dirt. I don’t have anything on Mircea. He really did the sale legitimately, God knows why.”
Mircea, Helen thought. A name—he hadn’t remembered it last time.
“You’re talking about that Pygmalion guy, yes?” she asked, just to make sure.
“Mircea Leon, yeah,” he said. “I actually met him, you know? Briefly. He was a weirdo.”
“Can you please tell me more about him?”
“I guess? I mean,” he added, looking a bit surprised, “just let me get a coffee.”
He rushed to the counter, then spent a few minutes trying to figure out what exactly to order, looking nervously through his wallet. Helen wondered if it would be ethical to include this scene in the project. An old capitalist star, counting every penny at a cafe.
“Sorry,” he mouthed, returning to the table with a single espresso. “Anyway, Mircea? I met him once, we exchanged a few words, but he skipped the dinner so we didn’t get to network. I can’t say I really knew him. Besides, there wasn’t really that much interesting about him, I suppose, unless you count the gossip. Is that something you want to hear about? It’s pretty out of date, I suppose.”
“Well… He didn’t exactly have the best of reputations, and... I’m not sure if I should share this,” he said in the tone that meant he was going to share it all and then some, “but he kept getting talked about behind his back, in private conversations and like. He was a bit of a running joke in our circles because, well…” he smiled to the memory. Helen didn’t like the expression at all. “He was a total nerd, and I don’t mean it in the ‘liked computers’ way. A basement dweller, literally. His first office was actually in his dad’s dank cellar, I’m told.”
He paused, expecting laughter. When none came, he frowned and continued.
“I guess he was talented, or something. Certainly worked on some stuff that was good enough to attract a bunch of people who wanted to be his ‘partners’. Lucked out, dodged the most predatory sort. Some of them actually helped him, if I recall right.”
Helen thought back to the unsigned photograph. There was a man there, pudgy and awkward, wearing an ill-fitting flannel shirt, glaring at the camera as if it was threatening him. Was that Mircea?
“Anyway, most of that gossip was because, funnily enough, Mircea was a complete pervert,” Hernaszewski chuckled. “You know, serious S and M, rubber, leather, the works. It really exploded after someone posted the photos of him in latex, almost killed half of us...”
She looked up at him; he was grinning ear to ear.
“Kill?” she asked.
“I mean, it was seriously gross stuff,” he shrugged. “Just imagine a fat neckbeard trying to squeeze himself into a catsuit. Just, those bales plopping about, stretching it… he ended up looking like a tightly packed sausage. One that was about to pop.”
There was something in the way he spoke that Helen found nauseating. It had to be this callous amusement he broadcast, as if it was the most obvious, universal thing to laugh at something like this. She had to glance away, hide her expression.
“And that was it?” she asked. “You didn’t like his kinks, so… He didn’t quit,” she realized coldly, “he got bullied out.”
“Please, the tech world is no high school,” he waved her away. Any vestige of shame had long drained away from him. “Just a few laughs. I don’t even think he ever found out. Not before he packed his bags and left for parts unknown. No one has heard from him since.”
Helen took a moment to process that, eyes set on her empty coffee cup. She wasn’t sure what she was expecting. Some kind of a breakthrough, some secret from the heart of Galatea. Not the history of an unfortunate, overweight man who had the misfortune of making it in a completely odious environment.
“The funny thing is,” Hernaszewski took her silence for encouragement to keep talking, “is that he wasn’t a moron. There was constant talk about how there was something he was developing that was going to just, you know, change the rules of the game. People kept circling him like sharks, waiting for him to give them an opportunity to get their hands on it. Everyone kind of assumed that he was going to get screwed over but,” he said with a kind of grudging respect, “but that never happened. Like, as if he had some sixth business sense. It’s why when he vanished, it spooked everyone the fuck out.”
She thought about that; it was hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for a man who, apparently, had managed to disappoint every single asshole like Hernaszewski looking to con him out of his accomplishments.
“No one knows what happened to him?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he shrugged again. “Well, there was quite a bit of investigating, because when he sold his entire thing to some nobody biotech out of Bratislava, people smelled foul play. But it was really air-tight, no irregularities at all. And he—well, he disappeared from view somewhere in the chaos. Obviously, it was suspicious, but what were we supposed to do? Hire a PI to track him down? You know how it is.”
She wasn’t sure what he meant by that, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.
“What people actually cared about was biotech,” Hernaszewski kept on talking. “And for a good reason. It’s Galatea now, the hottest brand in our part of the world. I don’t know if it was because of their acquisition, but I can tell you for certain that there was plenty of soreness among folks who failed to grift Mircea first. But at that point, I was starting to have my issues with Herman, and, well, you know the rest. So I stopped paying attention. And that’s that.”
“Is it all?” she murmured.
“About him? Yeah. Was there something else you wanted to hear?” he asked, leaning in. “As I’ve said, not much there to hit back at Galatea, unless you find out that they, I don’t know, assassinated Mircea to get his tech. But that’s thriller stuff. He probably lives on a farm in New Zealand or something stupid like that. Not like he ended up short on money after the sale,” a familiar note of resentment cut into Hernaszewski’s amused voice. “The bastard,” he finished.
“No,” she looked at him, feeling the frustration return. She wasn’t sure what was prompting it, this dull, futile tension in the pit of her stomach, but lately it was never far from her company. The entire thing felt like a tremendous waste of time. She’d come here hoping for answers and had received none. “Look,” she tapped her phone, “I have work in a moment, I have to go. Again, I’m really thankful that you’ve decided to share all of this, but I have work, so…”
“Sure,” he interrupted her one last time. “Sure, sure. Go, do your things. It was a great diversion, and really, if you are ever bored, I’m always game for a conversation with a cute woman like you.”
She muttered something in response, trying not to be pointlessly rude, gathered her things, paid the bill (for both of them) and rushed into the cold outside.
The story of the man they were interviewing—some clerk peripherally involved in the DigitEX scandal—was mostly uninteresting. All he had to contribute were some irrelevant details about the network of court proceedings surrounding the story. As such, Helen was more than happy to let Hank lead the conversation and just stay at the edge of it, nodding strategically, and thinking of something else.
The frustrated feeling of having wasted her time still lingered, as did the slight sense of nausea left by Hernaszewski’s palpable disgust of Mircea. It was typical, really; could Rowan hear about it, she would easily spin it into a story about the pathologization of imperfect bodies, all adorned with fancy words like “abjectual” or “libidinal”. She missed that; she liked to listen to her go, even if sometimes it felt like Rowan was more interested in sounding smart than actually making a point.
She missed Rowan. The thought, more than anything else she had experienced today—maybe aside from what she had seen on the Galatea feed in the morning—hurt. And like so many other things that pained, it refused to go away even as she tried to focus on something else, like the clerk’s boring story of capitalist court battles.
After the interview finished, she made up some excuse to Hank and left. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to spend time with him—he was a good friend after all—but there was just too much on her mind to enjoy a beer and an argument, and she knew there would be an argument, because there was nothing in the world that he liked better. She really needed to rest and relax.
She tried watching something on her phone on the bus home—it was a long route, and the alternative was staring dumbly out of the window, or trying to read yet another piece about the world going to shit, and she really didn’t need that. But no matter what she put on, she just couldn’t focus. Mutely annoyed, she turned the video off, then, moments later, opened the internet browser and typed in “Mircea Leon”.
It was the sixth result from the top, right below Romanian Facebooks, Instagrams and LinkedIns of several other Mircea Leons. An interview, from almost a decade ago. “Up and Coming Startup Star Mircea Leon on Technology, Economy and His Favourite World of Warcraft Memories.”
There was no face attached to it, just a photograph of the same office space that Helen remembered from the WaybackMachine search. She skimmed through the interview; most of it was boilerplate tech reporting, templated questions and answers, probably edited to hell and back for reader’s comfort. As usual, the interviewer didn’t bother to ask any important questions, and the good half of the conversation was just some idle banter about Leon’s preferred video games. It was only towards the end that something stood out and caught her attention.
JACK: So what do you think about the future of technology?
MIRCEA: Well, mostly I am interested in how we will use it on ourselves. The stuff being developed today is incredible, and I think that in a decade, it will be just mind-blowing. Already there are some things that I think hold amazing promise in so many different fields. But, ultimately, I think we are approaching the point when we will be finally able to do something we’ve long since struggled with. We’ll solve it for good.
JACK: What problem is that?
MIRCEA: Being unlovable.
She spent the rest of the ride, and then two hours more after coming back home, scouring the internet in search of any trace of Leon. But Hernaszewski was right. There was almost nothing on him even before his disappearance. A few tweets mentioned him, she even found an article by some Communist whom she vaguely recognized reminding his readers that even though he stepped out of the business, he was still The Enemy, but it seemed like the Internet—at least the Internet that she could access—had nothing on him. At some point, Hernaszewski’s joke about Galatea abducting him stopped seeming so far-fetched. How does one disappear a person so completely? He was on no social media, traditional media did not care about him, Hell, he didn’t even pop in conspiracy nuts’ fevered dreams, and she’d once found one of her close friends there, decried to be a succubus for participating in a TV debate on income inequality.
A suspicion, unpleasantly outlandish, began to hatch in her brain. In fact, it felt like one of those conspiracies she had laughed at mere moments ago. But the lack of information about Leon and the spottiness of Galatea’s early history just kept on bugging her. She wondered if that was how it felt before one took a headlong dive into crazy-town and joined one of those groups accusing Galatea of trying to usher forth the Kingdom of the Whore in preparation for the coming of the Antichrist.
Or maybe it was just due diligence. But being on the 20th page of a Google search for “what happened to Mircea Leon” and staring at an article exposing Mircea Eliade as a fascist as the top result didn’t really strike her as anything diligent.
“You’re driving yourself crazy,” she mumbled, and then, as if to provide herself evidence of her own deteriorating mental state, she brought up the email client.
It was a spur of the moment thing, and had she been any less tired and frustrated, she would have never done it. But, in the moment, bringing out the conversation with Aphrodite and quickly typing in “do you know what happened to Mircae Leon after he sold his life’s work to you?” before tapping send, seemed like the only real move left to her. She regretted it almost instantly.
The response arrived precisely five minutes later.
He found a place for himself, and is happy now.
She stared at it for a long, long while.
“...so this will require a bit of effort, I’m afraid.”