Behind the Book

It might be that thinking about mortality is like gray hair and the propensity to start sentences with “these kids today”—just another unavoidable aspect of getting older.  But, in my case, it also led to questions about the inevitability of aging.  With all the advances in stem cell research and genetics, why do I have to suffer through it at all?

More than a few brilliant people have pondered this subject and their ideas are fascinating—everything from obvious strategies for reprogramming our genes, to strange plans for artificial replacement parts, to downright bizarre schemes for downloading our consciousness into computer simulations.  The bottom line is that the day we will no longer age has gone from science fiction to just around the corner.

Most people don’t know it, but some animals don’t get old.  Lobsters, for example, seem to keep going until they get injured, sick, or dipped in butter.  We’ve already modified tomatoes with flounder genes, why couldn’t we do something similar to ourselves?  Heck, how can we be sure someone hasn’t?

Even more interesting than the science, though, are the social ramifications.  What about overpopulation?  What if it was too expensive for all but the wealthiest people?  Would there be religious implications?  But mostly, if someone managed to develop such a therapy, what would they be willing to do to keep it for themselves?

Excerpt One

Northern Pennsylvania

April 12

Richard Draman followed Mason’s assistant to the library where she left him standing alone beneath towering bookshelves. He stood motionless in the silence for almost a minute but the butterflies in his stomach started to attack again and he decided to try to distract them with a self-guided tour.

Original pencil drawings of various plants and animals hung on the walls—reminders of an elegant time of discovery before modern devices like cameras. He walked deliberately, occasionally pausing to examine a particularly impressive insect collection or well-preserved skull, finally stopping at a first edition of On the Origin of Species on display under glass. Standing in the study of one of the greatest biologists who ever lived looking at a book that could have been personally thumbed by Charles Darwin wasn’t doing much for his sense of calm. Hell, he wasn’t even sure what he was doing here. Calling Mason had been a ridiculous Hail Mary. He’d never actually thought the man would agree to a meeting.

“Dr. Draman. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

Richard spun and found himself faced with yet another surprise. Mason was no longer the puffy, bespectacled man he’d been when he was working, nor was he the wild-eyed recluse so many had hypothesized.

For certain, he looked every one of his sixty-five years, but those years had settled in kindly. He’d lost at least forty pounds from when he’d disappeared, leaving a solid physique and shoulders that would be considered broad in the less than athletic world of academia. His skin was deeply lined around the mouth and eyes, but tan and healthy beneath a head of longish gray hair.

“Dr. Mason?”

His acknowledgment was limited to a polite smile.

“It’s incredible to meet you, sir,” Richard said, pumping the man’s hand with embarrassing energy. He’d actually had a picture of Mason on the wall of his dorm room at school. As he recalled, it had held a place of honor just to the right of his highly collectible poster of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini and just above his seldom-used beer bong.

“I really appreciate you agreeing to see me, sir. I know you don’t make it a habit. I’m truly honored to be here.”

Mason seemed vaguely amused by his guest’s breathless delivery.

“I’m sorry,” Richard continued. “I’m babbling. I suppose you get that a lot.”

“Not so much anymore.” Mason pointed to a pair of chairs and they sat.

“Last I heard, you were working in cancer, Richard. I seem to remember that there were a lot of people talking about you. The wonder boy from…Oklahoma, was it?”

“I’m from a little town you never heard of in Kansas, actually.”

“And how does someone from a little town I’ve never heard of rise to such eminence in as complicated a field as biology?”

Richard was embarrassed to feel a little surge of adrenaline at the compliment and the fact that August Mason would show any interest in him at all.

“Well, my high school didn’t really have classes that challenged me and I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to study at an out-of-state private school.”

Technically, correct but hardly the full story. In truth, he’d felt completely isolated as a child, disconnected from his family, his school, his town. And that had led him to use the intellectual gifts he hadn’t yet come to terms with for less than productive activities. It had started with him creating a concoction that, when added to livestock feed, turned cows blue—a vast improvement over the normal Kansas monotony in his mind, but an artistic statement lost on the community at large. What had started as a harmless cat-and-mouse game, culminated in an unfortunate incident involving a water tower, his guidance counselor’s new car, and the better part of the local fire department.

“So it was at this school you found inspiration?”

Richard shifted awkwardly in his chair, uncomfortable talking about himself in the presence of someone as great as August Mason and finding it hard to continue to lie under his intense stare.

“To be honest, Dr. Mason, it was a military school. When I got there, I was so terrified that I actually made an effort on the placement exam they made me take. At first, they thought I cheated, but when they figured out I didn’t, one of the science teachers took me under his wing. I pretty much owe everything to him.”

“It’s interesting how a random event can change our lives in ways that would be impossible to imagine, isn’t it?” He had a way of speaking that made it seem as though he knew more than he possibly could—as if he was talking specifically about that damn water tower. “But I seem to remember hearing that you didn’t continue in cancer research. Is that right?”

Richard nodded. “Progeria. My daughter has it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Then you’re familiar with the disease?”

“Oh, in a very superficial way.”

It would be an understatement to say that Mason had been as disliked as he was revered during his career. He had the reputation of being a cold-hearted bastard with a tendency to completely dismiss his intellectual inferiors, which, unfortunately, was just about everyone.

Perhaps worse, he’d also been a strong proponent of eugenics. His ideas on developing a program of abortions based on increasingly sophisticated amniocentesis had lost him the few defenders he had in the liberal academic community—Richard included. If it had been up to Mason, Susie would have never been born.

But it was hard now to see any of that in the man. Certainly, he wasn’t effusive and he had a disconcerting way of looking right through you, but he didn’t come off as one of Hitler’s tennis partners either.

“Now, I have to ask, Richard. What is it that I can do for you?”

“I wanted to talk to you about your research.”

“What aspect?”

“The fundamental structures of life.”

“Ah, the Great Truths. Not one of my favorite subjects.”

“But that was the real focus of your career wasn’t it? Some people might even say your obsession.”

“Delusion might be a better word.”

Richard opened his mouth to protest but Mason held up a hand, silencing him.

“I spent years believing that I was on the path to a breakthrough that would transform the way we understand life. That I would be the first person to stare directly into the mind of God. And instead, it turned out to be nothing.”

“And so you just went up in smoke,” Richard said, not bothering to hide his curiosity.

Mason smiled. “So what’s the popular theory these days? That I was living in the subway tunnels of New York? Or is the Syrian monastery hypothesis making a resurgence?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just such a mystery to all of us. You wouldn’t believe how many times the subject still comes up when biologists get together and have a few too many drinks.”

Mason shifted in his seat, obviously contemplating how much he wanted to say. “Let’s just say that God turned out to be more elusive than I thought, so I went to look elsewhere.”

“And did you find Him?”

“I’m afraid not. It’s up to the next generation. People like you.”

“And Annette Chevalier.”

Mason frowned. “I heard what happened. Horrible.”

“Were you aware she was doing research along a similar line as you were?”

“Yes. She called me a few times. I told her she was heading down a blind alley. But she wouldn’t listen. Did you know her?”

Richard nodded.

“Then you understand why I wanted to dissuade her. I knew about her depression problems and the fact that she’d tried to kill herself a few years ago. When I discovered my research was going nowhere, it was devastating enough to walk away from everything I’d ever known. I was concerned that she would…” He paused for a moment. “Take it harder.”

“Where is all the research you did?”

“I threw it away.”

“I’m sorry? What did you say?”

“I was upset. I threw it in the garbage.”

“You don’t have copies?” Richard said, horrified.

“It’s not as cathartic if you keep copies. So, I have to ask again. What is it I can do for you?”

Richard hesitated, knowing that he was on thin legal ice.

“Annette’s husband brought me a thumb drive with some of her theories and data on it. I looked it over and it’s incomplete and speculative. But it’s also pretty exciting. I know you say it’s headed nowhere, but I just can’t see the dead end you found.”

Mason’s expression didn’t so much as flicker. “Trust me. It’s there.”

Richard reached into his jacket and retrieved a copy of Annette’s data. “As unlikely as it seems, maybe she found an angle you didn’t consider. I know I’m asking a lot, but could you just take a quick look at this and tell me what you think? For reasons I’m sure you understand, I don’t have time to run down blind alleys.”

He accepted the drive and gazed down at it for a moment. “I’m not going to promise anything, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Excerpt Two

Outside of Baltimore, Maryland

April 18

It was the second time Richard had run home that week. He was putting in brutal hours at the lab to try to revive his work and unfortunately, they only had one car. Or maybe it wasn’t so unfortunate. He’d been a pretty decent athlete in college and the six miles of lung-searing torture was getting him back in touch with his physical side.

He pulled the sleeves of his sweatshirt down to protect his arms from the cold as he cut through a trash-strewn lot a few blocks from his house. He’d promised Carly he’d be home by midnight and she tended to worry when he missed his self-imposed curfews.

His stride faltered when he saw a shadow cross from his next door neighbor’s yard through the large hole in the fence that he’d been meaning to fix for months. He bent at the waist and put his hands on his knees, breathing hard from exertion and a sudden flair of anger.

That was it—the last goddamn time that dog was going to take a horse-sized dump in the grass where his daughter played. No more friendly reminders. No more reasoning. And sure as hell no more pleading. That mutt was going to the pound.

He crept onto the grass, trying to quiet his panting and stay in the shadows. The dog was nearly as old and fat as its owner, but he wasn’t exactly Speedy Gonzales either anymore.

The fit was tight, but he managed to get through the hole and slip into his backyard. Empty.

Endless years in school, countless academic awards, two PhDs…And he’d been outsmarted by a dog. Again.

Richard started to skirt the house on the way to the front door, but stopped when he noticed the screen from Susie’s open window lying in the dirt. Yet another thing that needed fixing.

He padded over and was about to reach for it when he saw something move in his daughter’s room. At first, he thought he might have woken her up, but the shadow moving toward her bed was far too big to be either her or Carly.

The windowsill was probably five feet off the ground and Richard was shocked when his attempt to vault through it succeeded and he found himself slamming down painfully on top of Susie’s open toy chest. The loud crash caused the man hovering over her to spin around, an object in his hand glinting briefly in the dim light before it dropped and he reached for something at his side.

Richard rolled gracelessly off the chest, managing to land on his feet and launch himself toward the figure. Susie shrieked as he and the man collided and Richard felt something impact the top of his skull. The butt of a pistol. He had a gun!

The blow was hard enough to collapse his knees, but not hard enough to stop him from swinging a fist upward toward the man’s stomach. At the last moment, though, a more effective target presented itself and he drove his knuckles into the man’s groin with the same adrenaline-fueled power that had gotten him through the window.

A satisfying grunt filled the room but the gun barrel kept swinging inevitably toward his face.

Then he was blind. For a moment, he thought the gun had gone off, but there was no sound. It took another split second to realize that Carly had turned on the lights and that the gun was still coming at him. He got hold of the man’s arm but then took a blow to the side of the head that drove him the rest of the way to the ground.

The man was shading his eyes with a gloved hand, so it was impossible to see his features—only his short black hair and wiry build beneath a windbreaker and jeans. What was clear, though, was that this time there was nothing Richard could do about the pistol lining up on him.

He put his hands up reflexively and waited for the impact of the bullet, but it never came. Carly jumped across their screaming daughter’s bed and slammed into the man with enough force to spoil his aim but not enough to knock him to the ground. He grabbed her throat and held her suspended as Richard fought to get back to his feet.

It had been a good try, but he realized that all she’d done was delay the inevitable. And to doom herself too.

Then Richard spotted the object the man had dropped on the carpet. A syringe.

He grabbed it and sunk it into their attacker’s khaki-covered thigh, using the last of his strength to push down the plunger.

A surprised yelp rose above his daughter’s wails just before Carly’s full weight landed on top of him.

Again, the gunshot he anticipated didn’t come. The man staggered to the open window and fell through it, landing with a muffled thump in the dirt below.

Richard pushed his dazed wife off him and crawled to a position where he could peek over the sill, spotting the man running unsteadily across the yard, syringe still dangling from his leg. It fell into a patch of weeds just before he squeezed through the hole in the fence and disappeared into the darkness.

Richard slammed the window and shut the curtains, turning to see Carly untangling their trembling daughter from her sheets.

“The police!” he shouted. “Call the police!”

His wife looked back at him, eyes still wide with panic, and then ran from the room.

“Susie!” he said, grabbing his daughter by her delicate shoulders. “Listen to me. Calm down. Are you hurt? Did he stick you with anything?”

Excerpt Three

May 18

Eighteen Hundred Miles East of Australia

Oleg Nazarov monitored Karl’s expression as he watched the video of  Andreas Xander’s limousine being destroyed by explosives planted beneath a manhole cover.

“What about the Dramans?” he said, the tension that had been growing so visibly in him subsiding somewhat.

“We aren’t certain. Our hope was that they would be in the limousine, but based on the escape tactics deployed by the rest of the motorcade, we now believe that they were in the vehicle behind.”

“You didn’t plan for this? That they might travel in separate vehicles?”

“I was aware of the possibility, but with no intelligence, there was nothing to be done. This operation was focused on Xander and it appears to have been a success. If he is indeed dead, the Dramans will be vulnerable again.”

If he’s dead?” Karl said, pointing to the flames on the screen. “You think he could have survived that?”

“I’d feel better if our people saw the body,” Nazarov responded, knowing that he couldn’t afford another mistake. “We’re watching Xander’s house to see if the Dramans return, and our people in law enforcement and the media are continuing to watch for any attempt by the Dramans to make contact. But there’s been nothing so far.”

“What about Mason and the others?”

“We’re nearly finished sterilizing everything. Within the week, our original organization will have virtually ceased to exist.”

“Virtually?”

Nazarov took a seat unbidden and again failed to think of a way to soften the impact of what he had to say. “The exception is you and this island. Those are the last unaltered links to our former structure.”

Karl’s expression darkened predictably, but it had less effect than it normally would. As angry as he would be over having to abandon everything he’d built there, Nazarov was even more pleased. The island was inescapable—a universe created and controlled by one man. The alternate location that Nazarov had selected was much more conducive to a hasty retreat on his part should it become necessary.

“On a more positive note,” Nazarov continued, “Susie Draman may have surfaced. Someone called in an order for medications under her prescription to a pharmacy in Ohio.”

Karl turned to the video again. It had looped back and he was temporarily mesmerized by the image of Xander’s car being lifted into the air. “Do we have people on site?”

“We do. We’re also tied into the store’s computer system and surveillance cameras. Even if someone other than Burt Seeger fills the prescription, we’ll know real-time when they’re scanned and we’ll be able to track the person who takes possession of them.”

Karl nodded slowly, fixing his gaze on Nazarov. “This is the last piece, Oleg. With her, we gain control of her parents. It’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.”

“Yes, sir. I understand.”