"Feeling okay, Michael?" says Ham.
"Yes," I say.
But I'm not. I've just finished up another session with Dr Columbine, and he tells me the latest batch of tests has failed to find a cause for the slow but remorseless loss of weight which has stripped pretty much the last ounce of fat from my aging body.
My calorie intake is adequate, and the cancer scans have all come back negative, and there's no virus, and the hunt for gut parasites drew a blank, so what are we left with? Something with no known cause. And you can't cure what you don't understand.
Although Dr Columbine is always very reassuring, it's hard to shake the notion that I'm dying, which makes it difficult for me to focus on today's meeting, our council of war about what the Stance Translator has done to us.
The Stance Translator, well, it's just a toy, really, like those gadgets which claim to translate your dog's barking into highly evolved grammatical English. Nobody takes it seriously. So I don't really understand why we're having this meeting, and I say as much.
"Mr Chairman," says Zilhammer, "you haven't seen the recording yet. I suggest you withhold judgment until we've been through it together."
Zilhammer is the newest member of the Inner Team, and he's disconcertingly formal, always "Mr Chairman" and never plain "Mike," despite all the times that I've told him we do business on a first-name basis.
"Okay," says Ham, my lawyer, the man who will help me decide if we sue these guys. "Are we clear about the provenance of the recording?"
For some reason, my wife seems to think the question is directed to her. Even after all these years, there are times when I don't understand how my wife is programmed. Anyway, she gives us a recap of what we already know.
The recording is Harleguin Television's private done-for-fun product, cooked up by the tech guys to amuse the staff at the traditional raucous New Year party. Made without malice. No harm intended. But now bootleg copies are in circulation, sold cheap or simply given away, so it's become something we have to deal with.
"And now let's have a look at it," says Ham.
He fast-forwards through a bunch of bloopers and some unscripted profanities which never made it to the airwaves, then switches over to normal speed so we can see what the Stance Translator does to Ms Primrose Splint, the immaculately coiffed announcer who is such a shining advertisement for the wonders of plastic surgery.
We see her walk into the studio, hauteur in motion, and take her seat, a study in pride and elegance. And then the Stance Translator cuts in, voice-over combined with speech bubble text.
"God!" says Primrose, or seems to say. "I wish I had a bigger icicle up my crevice!"
It's crude but effective, and, despite the gravity of the situation, I want to laugh. But I don't dare. After I became the Chairman, I soon realized that there was one person I could never be again: myself. Theoretically, privacy might permit the free expression of the self, but there are no private places left. I'm on display everywhere. Even here, in our secret meeting. Especially here.
Now that the financial structure of the Institution is tottering in the aftermath of our unfortunate adventure into the derivatives market, it's more important than ever that I play the role of the Chairman to the hilt. I have to do my best to live up to the role that my makeup artists work so hard to create: the man of gray-tinted wisdom who is still youthful enough to lead the organization into the shining future. I must not betray myself as what I am: old, exhausted, stressed out and on the edge of a breakdown.
"Do we know what Primrose plans to do about this?" asks young Gary Nephew, as ever the master of the irrelevant question.
"Nothing, at a guess," says Ham. "She's a pro. She'll shrug it off. But, then, she's not in the fund-raising business."
She's not but we are, and here I am, on the recording, now, striding into the convention hall at the peak of the Institution's annual Celebration, the fundraiser in which we focus on mining the deep pockets.
I'm carrying little Argentina in my arms, and she's asleep, but she twitches as I come up to the microphone, and my body stiffens, visibly, and the Stance Translator cuts in, speech bubbles and voice-over, and it has me saying, in a hugely angry voice, "Don't wake up, bitch!"
Ham freezes the recording there. You can see my face. It's not a happy face. It's almost as if I'm snarling.
"It gets worse," says Ham. "We could watch it all, but I think you get the picture. Michael, what have you got to say?"
This open-ended question has no obvious answer, but I've been the Chairman now for thirty-seven years, so my public relations reflexes cut in automatically. I'm always doing PR, even in my dreams. I can't help myself.
"I love my daughter," I say.
It's an automated response, but it comes out sounding sincere. When I hear a recording of myself speaking, that's what I always hate about my voice: the relentless sincerity.
At heart, I'm a cynic, and always have been. The world in which we live, with its hundred percent kill rate (a hundred years from now we'll all be dead, with the sole exception of little Argentina) has always struck me as intrinsically absurd. It's a joke, really, and sardonic laughter is the best way to handle it.
However, the Chairman is, of necessity, sincere. Nihilistic irony is not how you go about fund raising.
"I love my daughter," I repeat, "and I have every hope that her wonderful future is going to repay that love, to me and to the world."
Fact is, I won't be around to see that wonderful future. A week ago, Argentina celebrated her fifty-second birthday. Developmentally, however (mentally and biologically, that is) she's just a little over three months old. She will grow up eventually, the experts tell me, but it won't be in any century that I'm going to live to see.
"Is that all you can say?" asks Ham, a little sadly.
For the first time, I sense danger. This meeting is not just to talk about whether to sue Harleguin Television. There's something more going on.
"He doesn't understand," says Gary. "He needs to see more."
And he presses the PLAY button and the recording continues, and there I am with Argentina in my arms, standing in front of the audience at the Celebration, and I'm saying, with a note of unabashed triumphalism in my voice, "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the wonder child! This is the miracle girl who will live to achieve amazing things in the unimaginable world a thousand years from now!"
With my bleached teeth, I look pretty good, very confident, enthusiastically committed to the lies that I'm telling.
And they are lies. We have no evidence that Argentina will grow up to be anything other than normal. Lethargic growth syndrome, of which she is the first (and, so far, the only) victim, seems to confer exceptional longevity (a thousand years or more, perhaps). But, apart from that, there is nothing exceptional about Argentina.
Except for her immune system. That incredible immune system of hers, which gave us the twenty-five patents, which gave us the money, the marvelous money, rich as leather, fragrant as lilies. The money which we have just gone and lost in the derivatives market.
Which is why I'm here at the Celebration, telling lies in the interests of our begging bowl, because now we're a charity case, pure and simple. Our financial underpinnings are gone and we're going to have a lot of begging to do.
And, while I'm speechifying, while I'm in midflow, Argentina wakes up and screams. And you can see my entire body convulse. It's just a twitch, really. The breathing-body audience at the Celebration probably never noticed anything. But the Stance Translator does, and it replays the twitch, and in my name it says, "I hate you, you've ruined my life, I wish you were dead."
At which point Ham intervenes, freezing the recording again.
"We really do not need to see more," says Ham, with a stern look in Gary Nephew's direction. Then, to me, "You do see, don't you?"
"See what?" I say. "The Stance Translator, it's a goy. A malignant toy. It's like, you know, sticking obscene speech bubbles on Jesus Christ."
"I wouldn't make that comparison in public if I were you," says Sendara dryly, Sendara being our public relations guy. "Perhaps I should take over here. Michael, to be frank, we think it's time to restructure the Institution to widen our focus, to relate ourselves to the aging process in general rather than just lethargic growth syndrome."
"Yeah," says Gary. "Like that, uh, what's that thing the poor little kids get? The ones who are old when they're teenagers?"
"Accelerated aging," I say. "Otherwise known as progeria. We've been down this road before, haven't we? Progeria is a worthy cause, and it's one I've donated to, but it's already catered for. It's not our cause. The reality is that LGS is what we are. It's what Argentina is. It's why we exist."
"Michael," says Sendara, "after the first five minutes, the public was never much interested in Argentina. Historically, the donations flow shows that all too clearly. To the extent that there was interest, it was in the human drama of the family. But now your wife is ..."
"Dead," supplies my wife, filling an awkward pause.
"Yes," says Sendara, making no effort to soften the statement. "And you, Michael, you're, well ..."
He looks at my wife, who does not help him out. Instead, she turns to me and smiles that smile of patient wisdom that she cultivated to such a degree of perfection in the last decades of her life.
"Old," I say, in obedience to the promptings of that smile. "Old, and worn out, and defeated, and past it. But the child is still a miracle."
"To the extent that every child is a miracle," says Ham, the father of a decidedly old-fashioned seven, two in jail, one under lock and key in a psychiatric institution, one living on the streets and two dead on different overseas battlefields, leaving him with the shy live-at-home daughter we secretly call Miss Timid.
"She is a miracle," I say.
I'm trying to be stubborn and emphatic. Trying to hang tough. But what I hear is a whine, weak and querulous. They can outvote me, I know. The Institution is not my private property. They can displace me, sideline me. And then what will I be?
"Maggot girl," says Gary, smirking.
"What?" I say.
"A cartoon character, maybe you don't know her," says Gary. "From an underground comic. Popular with teens. Maggot girl, she lies on her back all day long, she's only three months old. Says goo-gaa-goo, smiles a lot. That's all. But then, when evil threatens: ta-dah! She turns herself into a super maggot, and crawls up the evil-doer's backpipe, and bites his bladder out."
"You're kidding," I say.
"No, he's not," says Sendara. "There's a lot of ugly stuff out there, Michael. As I've told you already, repositioning is the way to go."
"So," says Ham. "Michael. What have you got to say to us?"
It's the same question that he started with, more or less. I thought we were gathered here to decide whether or not to sue Harleguin Television, but, evidently, that decision has never really been on the agenda. The agenda is about me. And I feel myself breaking up inside.
They have decided to sideline me, but they don't want me doing a loose cannon number on the decks. They want me to go quietly. They don't want ugly tabloid revelations, real or imagined, and they certainly don't want me suing anyone.
"I think," I say, "that, in the interests of the Institution, it would be for the best if I resigned."
A couple of minutes later it's all over, and they troop out, leaving me alone in the room, the recording still frozen on the player.
This can't be an accident. The recording remaining, I mean. Everything has been too carefully orchestrated for this to be an accident. I'm meant to play the rest of the recording. I'm meant to see the Stance Translator do its worst.
I think about it, and I'm still thinking five minutes later when my wife returns.
"Well?" she says. "Are you going to watch it?"
And that's when I realize that they have suborned her, too. She has become part of the process.
"Am I evil?" I ask.
It's a wretched question that I never intended to ask. It just comes out. My wife hesitates, then replies in a round about fashion.
"I saw something in the news today," she says. "A woman took her two-month son. Threw him to the floor. Fractured his brain bone."
"Skull," I say. "Fractured his skull."
"That's what I said," says my wife.
Then she falls silent, and I suspect that the complexities of the situation have overloaded her computational facilities. She knows that it would be good for me to watch the recording, because then I would know the worst. But it would be bad for me to watch the recording, because it would destroy a piece of what is left of me.
The Stance Translator, you see, was programmed by humans beings. And human beings do understand other human beings. After a fashion.
"I'm going to the nursery," I say.
"Goodbye, then," says my wife, with a formality that I cannot fathom.
On the way to the nursery, I meditate on the news story that my wife has told me about. She has given me the answer to my question. Am I evil? Well, perhaps. Depending on how you define evil. But I am certainly not uniquely evil. I am certainly not uniquely evil in suffering moments at which my frustration, my rage and (admit it) my out-and-out hatred of my child come to the boil, overwhelming my better tendencies.
Because I have good self control, even when in the grip of fury, all you see is a twitch. A twitch as high-voltage anger goes convulsing through the body. But the sin against love is real.
We are supposed to love, without reservation. It is our duty. Inarguably. But things do not always work like that. All through these long years that I've been the parent of a child marooned in babyhood, I've noticed (it's impossible not to) the ongoing trickle of news stories (part of the routine background of the everyday world) about parents doing terrible things to their tiny children, everything from slamming them full force into the floor to shaking them (the shaking of a baby leading, not uncommonly, to brain damage or to blindness).
And I (as my wife has divined) have felt my own share of homicidal emotion over the years.
I've felt compelled (by honor, duty, pressure of convention) to play the role of devoted father, and that has meant hours at a time, decade after decade, with a small thing which screams at me, which lies there like a maggot, flat on her back, year after year, hating me, screaming at me.
Of course she doesn't hate me. The thought is ludicrous, self-pitying and immature. I'm ashamed of that thought. She's a baby, and I'm her papa. And, statistically, she probably doesn't even scream as much as I imagine. If I did a statistical analysis of smiles to cries, the ratio probably wouldn't look too bad.
But it's just that this has all gone on for too long. It's the endlessness of the situation which has ground me down. I cannot foresee any future in which I will ever be free to, say, go to a bar on the occasional evening to get harmlessly drunk. I'm always on duty, with no respite.
And now I have the problem of Argentina's future. How is she going to cope once I'm dead? It's all too easy to imagine the Institution collapsing. And then what will happen to Argentina? Some hygienic scientific institution will take her over, I imagine. But that's not the life I have been imagining for her.
Because I have been imagining a life for my daughter, a real life for daddy's little girl. I have been imagining a future in which she grows up, in which she walks, in which she talks, in which she strides out under blue skies in a world not yet predicted by our statistics.
"I don't want to be what I am."
That's the problem. That's the key problem. I don't want to be what I am, which is old, and tired, and burnt out, strung out by health worries, money worries and sleepless nights. I want to be young again, and strong. Strong enough to cope with this.
I enter the nursery and Nurse Osmond smiles at me, and points, wordlessly.
At first I don't understand. Then I get it. Baby Argentina has finally done something that's she's been trying to do for at least seven long years now. She has rolled right over. And, what's more, she has got both her arms free from the weight of her body. And, on top of that, she has her elbows and knees on the carpet.
It's not crawling, but it's the position of crawling. She knows what crawling is. And, given time, she'll do it. She'll crawl. She'll walk. She'll run.
And my eyes fill with tears and I weep, weep for the sadness of the world and for the wonder of it. A detached part of me wishes that I could weep like this on cue, when required. But, no, I'm not actor enough for that. When we make the announcement to the world, I'll smile.
What I can do I will do. And, who knows? Perhaps what I can do will be enough.