"Cloning human beings is... challenging," said the soft-spoken man sitting across the table. "But not entirely out of our reach, given enough money." I had expected Dr. Nail Degtyarev to wear glasses or a lab coat or a terribly-fitted cardigan or something. To look a little bit sciencey. But he doesn't. Dr. Degtyarev was well-groomed and immaculately tailored. His clothes told me he meant business.
So did the gun-toting bodyguards. Jamal and Egor had been sent away after we'd sat down in the conference room, but the presence of the two still lingered in the spartan room, LED-lit room. It was unsettling. For me, anyway.
"Has it been done before?"
"Hah! You've done good work for me over the past few months. I appreciate the help. And I know you've been chasing the truth for some time." Dr. Degtyarev's mouth was smiling as he spoke. His eyes seemed markedly less friendly. Predatory, even."You wish to fully understand what it is we do here?"
I have to admit, I was hesitant. I wasn't dealing with a nice place and I certainly wasn't dealing with a nice man, but I knew I had to press on. I'd been after these rumours for too long, and if I had to plumb the depths of London to find them, so be it.
His eyes definitely weren't smiling as he grinned. "Good man. Let me show you my office."
That's how I found myself getting in a lift with two Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns attached to two utterly professional and contemptuous-seeming killing machines, and a brilliant Russian-American geneticist. Jamal pressed 'B47', the chrome doors glided shut, and we plunged into the bowels of Stamford Bridge.
"You don't have to look so nervous, Gordon! We have outsiders down here all the time." Somewhere in the back of my brain it was noted that Dr. Degtyarev had neglected to mention that those outsiders came back up again, an observation that did very little to ease my mood. I forced myself into a smile.
"Mint?" A tin box had been presented to me, and I took one almost mechanically, popping it into my mouth without stopping to think about it. Good manners prevented me from expelling the little lozenge in non-discreet fashion; the elevator ride passed much more rapidly with my mind fixated on my impending and rather embarrassing death by Altoid. I seemed, to my surprise, to be none the worse for the wear when those silver doors trundled open once again and we strolled out into a sterile, white and slightly curved hallway.
It had been more than eighteen months since I started looking into the odd-goings on at Stamford Bridge. Fifteen since I'd seen the horrible evidence first-hand. I could feel the echoes of those who'd come through these corridors before me, strapped down to stretchers and wheeled to their fates. Finding a plastic bag full of human livers in a dumpster is something that tends to stick with you.
I tried consoling myself with the thought that my liver was no good to anyone thanks to what I'd done to it after encountered on that February evening. It failed to cheer me up. At least the mint hadn't killed me yet.
Dr. Degtyarev stopped so suddenly that I almost walked into him. We'd come, I estimated, a good few hundred feet, and now were at what looked for all the world like a steel blast door. I couldn't help but ask a question.
"How did you build something this big under London?"
The doctor didn't turn his head -- he was undergoing some kind of retinal scan -- but he shrugged his shoulders. "Money helps. I'm given to understand that we even acquired planning permissions from the council. But you really haven't seen anything yet."
With that, the door disappeared, almost melting into the floor. It was a neat trick, but it barely caught my attention thanks to what lay beyond. The next room was vast. Our trek through what I realised had to be an enclosing ring had only taken us a sixth of the way around the circumference of the central hemisphere. And it its centre, illuminated by soft blue light and surrounded by furiously flickering images, was what looked for all the world like a child suspended in a floating orb.
"As you can see, it has been done before. Jamal, Egor, wait at the door please. Come, Gordon."
Leaving the silent guards by the threshold, I followed the doctor in silent awe, the only appropriate response to the incredible sight before me. As I got closer I realised that the child in the globe was no child at all, but a fully-grown man drifting in his own private ocean.The screens around him were showing football matches at rates so fast I could barely follow them.
"Mr. Ward, I'd like you to meet my son. I'm already very proud of him."
I'd been studying the unborn god's face, trying to decipher in whose image he'd been made. He certainly didn't look like a clone of Dr. Degtyarev.
"Your son, doctor? Is he supposed to be..."
He laughed at that. "No, no, no. Of course not. What would anyone want another me for? Call me Nail, by the way. We're friends, yes? But you do not understand; not your fault. Let me show you." Nail gestured over a piece of floor and a control mechanism popped up. A few button presses led to one of the screens disengaging from its stately orbit around that shimmering blue globe and descending to ground level. It wasn't showing football any longer. "Here, look."
I looked; a collection of faces stared back. I knew them all. Jose Mourinho, Hank Ten Cate, Avram Grant, Andre Villas-Boas, Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Rafa Benitez and Roberto di Matteo.
"Now you are beginning to understand, yes?" He continued without checking to see if I was following, "Not a clone of one person, but a collective. Great names in football, thinkers, leaders... we sought out the best traits of each and instilled them into my son.
"And I know what you will ask me now. You will say, 'But these men, their skills and personality and talents have grown up organically, through education and experience.' This is true enough, although not as true as you might think. The germ of talent is there, abilities and very specific skills waiting to be unlocked. That is what we are doing at the moment. Physically, he is ready to come into the world, but his education is not quite complete."
"You are constructing a football manager?"
"Hah, yes. That's as good a way of putting it as any. Constructing, assembling, building, whatever. Here you see Chelsea's next manager. He'll be ready by summer. And I also know what you'll be asking next. You will be shocked and inquire whether we intend to do the same to footballers -- the answer is no. It would not be sporting."
"Actually, doctor, this isn't what I expecting at all. I had thought..."
He interrupted. "You had thought what? That we were running some sort of organ-harvesting scheme here? Hah. Thinking too small, but funny. I know about the livers. That was unfortunate, but it was fun to string you along. You went pale as a ghost when you thought I'd poisoned you!"
"Wait, what?" I blinked.
"Those livers didn't come from people. Stem cells! 3-D printing! We were building adult organs, not taking them. Experiments! Science! We have a very good lab down there, Gordon. We have a lot of money and we put it to excellent use. Why would we risk everything on criminal ventures like that?"
"So that thing with the FBI?"
The questions elicited another laugh from Dr. Degtyarev. "Yes, that was bad. And difficult to explain. But it is of interest. So. Where to begin? First of all, my son is the second experiment we've done here. The first was to create a clone of Roman himself -- trained to be intelligent, capable and hyper-loyal. If it worked, he could be an advisor, bodyguard, and trusted operative. And it worked."
"Roman has a clone?" My world had gotten seriously weird, but mint poisoning now seemed out of the question, giving me the courage to play along.
"Yes. His is nine months old and his name is Nomar! Roman thought that was cute. Anyway, back to the story. You will have noticed that part of my son's genetic makeup comes from Mr. Guardiola. You also know that he's never been employed by Chelsea Football Club. So how did we do it? What happened? How did 'Roman Abramovich' ended up detained by the FBI in New York?"
"You tell me."
"So, the story goes like this. Roman has always wanted Mr. Guardiola to be included in this project. He tried to persuade him to manage Chelsea, but he turned us down for Bayern Munich. so we didn't have access to him. After it became clear that he was going elsewhere and we wouldn't be able to get to him for a while, Nomar was dispatched to Mr. Guardiola's apartment to harvest genetic material. He was successful, mostly."
"Well, apart from getting arrested by the FBI. Vladimir had to intervene personally." It struck me that I was dealing with someone who could reference the President of Russia by their first name, which was filed away in the already-overstocked 'don't piss anyone here off' section of my brain.
"This is why Chelsea have had so many managers under Roman, right?" I hazarded, and was rewarded with a smile.
"Yes! You have it exactly right. The more we hire the more we can incorporate into this project. Looks wasteful at first, but we will be rewarded long-term. By which I actually mean very soon."
I stared at the floating man again, contemplating his form against the background of what looked like Chelsea playing against Juventus.
"How will you explain this all?" I said. "Surely this can't be legal."
"Well, it's not illegal per se. We've been talking with the European Union and the British government to make sure it's legal legal. We think we'll be fine. There'll be no cover-up -- you will, I hope, not be talking about this in public until we issue our release, talk all you want afterwards -- and this project will become part of the real world. Another piece of the biotechnology revolution, and hopefully a Nobel prize for me. I'd like that."
"So all the rumours?"
Dr. Degtyarev flashed a smile, eyes included. "Plants, mostly. Designed to confuse, resist investigation. We didn't want too many people poking their noses in beyond the bare minimum. We've spent too much money here to be compromised. Even my outside-world personality has been carefully crafted."
"Why me, now, then?"
He shrugged. "You asked the right questions. Killing you would have worked too, but it's less convenient and also I like you. Plus we're nearly finished, and after that this all becomes public. We take you here now, show you what is going on, you drop your investigation and stop interfering for a few months and it gives us time to finish up. Works out for everyone, no? Oh, and don't mention the Pep part. We'll finesse an alternative story out."
"You realise how insane this all seems?"
"Seems less crazy to me, but I've been working on human cloning my whole career. Roman gave me the money and the access to make this all a reality. It's a beautiful thing, no?"
I couldn't help but agree about the beautiful part. I was still stuck on the sanity issue though. "All this because Chelsea need a manager?"
"All this because Chelsea need a manager. Let's go get a drink."
* * *
The two men made for the exit. In his artificial womb, Chelsea's next manager studied his team through half-open eyes.