Allie must’ve spent thirty minutes washing her hands before she exited the ladies’ room at Ex Nihilo Industries; even then, her hands still felt filthy. She smoothed out a wrinkle in her pencil skirt.
The facility was smaller than she expected; it consisted solely of what looked to be the main building, and a tall, warehouse-looking thing that stood immediately adjacent to it. However, the walnut paneling and granite floor of the impeccably clean bathroom suggested that the company wasn’t cash poor; it simply spent its funding on quality rather than quantity, a trait which immediately garnered Allie’s respect.
“This is great!” Grace whispered as they exited the bathroom. “No one will ever believe I’ve been inside this place.”
“Just remember,” she whispered back, “we’re here as investors, not investigators. I can’t afford to get kicked out.” The statement was true on two levels. From a professional standpoint, if Ex Nihilo was operating unethically, she did have a duty to the public, and to this Dr. Wright, to bring that wrong to the light. More to the point, however, she suspected that this place could hold the key to understanding her connection to that man, that Skippy Darnight. She couldn’t afford to lose this moment, to lose this one opportunity to make sense of the last five months of her life. She needed to know why a rapist was stalking her sleep.
The two girls strode across the marble floor of the entry hall, to the small group of men waiting beside the reception desk. “Ms. Rhode, I presume?” asked one man, holding out his hand. Bespectacled and graying, he had to be in his early fifties.
“That’s right,” she returned the handshake. “You must be Dr. Wright.”
The elder man’s face portrayed an inquisitive glance, and he replied, “No, no I’m Charles, the Chief Executive Officer of Ex Nihilo. But you know Aaron?”
Before she could reply, Allie felt a light poke in her right shoulder; assuming it was Grace, she immediately brushed the hand away. Yet when she glanced to the right to learn why Grace was poking at her, she instead found that it was one of the other two investors, a youngish man with two remarkably pronounced earlobes.
He poked her again. “Excuse me,” she demanded, brushing away his hand again. His eyes jerked from her shoulder to her face, shifting every second or so as though examining her lips and jawline; they then shifted upward to greet her own eyes. “Yes?” she asked.
He glanced at her shoulder again, then returned to her face. Then he glanced at her shoulder and returned to her face. Then, still holding her gaze, he poked her shoulder once more.
“What is your problem?” she hissed; she heard Grace chuckle from behind.
“Sorry,” the man finally spoke. “You’re just so beautiful; I wanted to make sure you weren’t just my imagination at work.”
“Hah!” Grace laughed in reflex; Allie gave her an over-the-shoulder look of aggravation.
“Does that line actually work on women?” she rolled her eyes.
“Not once,” the man replied, “But it’s my first time trying it out. What do you think?”
“Not a chance.”
“Try it without the poking,” Grace chimed in. “Oh, she’s single by the way.”
Allie slapped her hand to her face in exasperation. “Thanks Grace.”
“What are friends for?” she beamed.
“Grace,” the man repeated, moving to take her hand. “A lovely name. Might I know its entirety?”
“Grace Hawthridge,” she smiled. “And this is Allison Rhode.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet the both of you.”
Fortunately, the conversation was then interrupted by the grandfather clock standing beside the reception desk, a clock which seemed strangely out of place in this modern laboratory. “All right everyone,” the CEO spoke after the clock finished chiming seven times. “It’s time to begin.”
Allie subtly moved away from the man with the earlobes, and wound up standing beside the other investor. He glanced over at her, snorted, then looked forward once more. “I promise not to flirt with you,” he whispered.
“Thanks,” she laughed, offering her hand.
“Derek Winthrop,” he said.
The CEO began his presentation. “First of all, I’d like to welcome you all to Ex Nihilo Industries,” he stated grandly, as if the four members of the semicircle now formed around him were closer in number to fifty. “My name is Charles Redcoat, CEO of ENI. As a courtesy to your privacy, the building has been emptied of all employees not essential to the tour.” Allie shifted her weight from one leg to the other; with a glance around the sparsely furnished entry hall, she realized that they wouldn’t be doing much sitting.
“Ex Nihilo began as a small biological engineering firm with a highly specific purpose,” Redcoat began. “Our goal was to produce a line of genetically engineered plants which replace photosynthesis with a process we call ‘melasynthesis’. Essentially, instead of harnessing light for power, they run on darkness.”
“Uh,” Grace blurted out from the other side of the semicircle, “That’s like, physically impossible. Darkness isn’t an energy of any kind; it’s simply the absence of light. Darkness doesn’t exist.”
“Mm,” Redcoat nodded, “That is an excellent point, Ms…”
“Hawthridge,” she replied.
“However, just because something doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be useful in one way or another.”
The man beside Allie – Derek Winthrop – spoke up. “I’m not sure that I follow.”
The CEO smiled, then strode over to a plaque situated on the wall beside a nearby door; the semicircle turned into a gaggle, and then reformed around him. “Our company’s logo is a good example of this principle,” he asserted; Allie peered at the plaque. The logo was familiar; she had seen it on the envelope she’d received that morning. It consisted of two lines of text, both of which read ‘Ex Nihilo’; however the top line was written in white text over a black background, while the bottom line was black text over white.
“What does this sign say?” Redcoat asked, glancing at Derek Winthrop.
“It says ‘Ex Nihilo’ twice,” he replied; Redcoat shook his head.
“Actually, it only spells out ‘Ex Nihilo’ once,” he corrected. “If we decide that white is the color to be read, then the top line reads ‘Ex Nihilo’, while the bottom only contains the outline of ‘Ex Nihilo’. If on the other hand black is the color that we read, then the situation is simply reversed.”
Allie nodded and smiled; the example was a clever one.
“So,” he concluded, “Even though Ex Nihilo is technically only spelled out once, we automatically read it twice. The second line is given meaning not by the existence of the necessary letters, but rather by their lack of existence.” Redcoat paused. “In a similar manner, our plants are given energy not by the presence of sunlight, but rather by its absence.”
“And you’ve actually succeeded in creating these plants?” asked Grace with incredulity.
“We have,” Redcoat qualified, “although in the end there was very little genetic engineering involved.”
Allie watched Grace frown as she grappled with this new paradigm. She then watched the CEO grin as he relished the words, “Would you like to see them?”
“Absolutely,” Grace replied.
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