Authors: Christopher Farnsworth
The next time he brought up his knife, she swung and knocked it away easily. He looked shocked, and then it finally occurred to him what had happened.
She saw it then, in his eyes. The hate was still there. The rage, and the sense of wounded vanity. He never believed he was subject to the rules, even when they were all still mortal.
But above all, she saw the helplessness.
The poison was only slightly weaker than the one she used on the tips of her arrows. It paralyzed before it killed. But that only meant it worked slower. It was still working, implacably shutting down the connections between Aznar’s brain and his body, like turning off light switches in a house one by one, until the entire structure was completely dark.
It was almost over.
Aznar knew it, too. He was many things. But he was not stupid.
He ran away from her.
She was caught flat-footed, her weight still on her back leg, ready to parry his next attack. Even with the drug in him, he took off like a shot.
Damn it. All this time, and he could still surprise her.
She raced after him. She would not let him get away. She still wanted answers before he died. Forever, this time.
AZNAR FELT SURPRISINGLY CALM,
even as his breath hitched and his legs went numb. He did not expect it to end like this, in the ass end of a diseased slum.
But he always knew it would end somewhere. And he knew, with unshakable faith, that nothing waited for him. There would be blackness, and then, whatever he was, whatever he had been, would be gone.
It occurred to him that he had nothing to fear. That his faith had always been much more about suffering through Hell than embracing the joy of Heaven.
Shako was right on top of him now. He turned to look at her, could see the triumph and determination in her eyes.
Then he tripped and went down hard.
His skull rang against metal. He realized he’d fallen on the railroad tracks. He got to his knees and brought up his knife again, just in time to keep her from leaping atop him and finishing this.
She stood back, wary. He kept the knife up. She could afford to wait. His arm already felt heavy. The poison was still working in him. Soon he’d be helpless.
He could see that she had something to say. Of course, she would want to talk first.
“Where do you keep your source?” she demanded.
He almost felt cheated. She wanted to collect the Water. How boring. She was speaking in the formal, correct Spanish of the old days. It sounded almost like a foreign language in this debased time and place.
He did not return the courtesy. “Go fuck yourself,” he said.
She grinned and danced forward, blurring quick, and sliced open his cheek with his own knife.
He hadn’t seen it. He was too dull now. The pain burned as if his skin was etched with acid.
He screamed. Blood and tears poured down his cheeks.
“It’s amazing how the poison paralyzes but doesn’t numb, isn’t it? You can still feel everything. At least, that’s what I’m told.”
He unleashed another stream of obscenities at her.
“Such language,” she said. “They used to call you the Saint, behind your back. Saint Juan. Did you know that?”
He nodded. He knew. He could still hear the jealousy and bitterness in their whispers, even now.
“You were always so pious. So correct. And look at what you’ve become.” She glanced around the alley and then back at him. “I can’t say I’m surprised. I always knew what you were, deep inside. I always knew what you said about me to Simon. How he should not defile himself, laying down with the lower creatures.”
Aznar wheezed, as close as he could come to a laugh. “If only he would have listened.”
Another quick slice with the knife, and the tip of his nose was gone. He growled rather than screamed this time. The indignity of this was beginning to gall him.
“Yes,” she said. “If only. But he didn’t. Now we’re here. Now you only have a few moments left to live.”
She showed him the knife again.
“If you want to live them as a man, Saint Juan, you should tell me where you keep your supply.”
Aznar felt his first stab of genuine fear. He would not allow himself to be violated like that. In all his years, he’d never allowed that.
He tried to stall. “You must know. You must have been following me.”
“I’ve been watching you for weeks. I’ve seen you come in and out of that little hole where you hide. I know there is some there, but you need more. You couldn’t hold enough there to survive for this long. Where do you go when you need more?”
The world was growing dim, but something still clicked in Aznar’s brain. He felt a vibration in the tracks. She’d just given him the key. With that one word.
“Weeks?” he asked.
She seemed to realize her mistake. She ignored the question. “Where is it, Aznar?”
“You’ve been following me for weeks?” He wheezed, laughing again. “Then you must have seen. You must have watched.”
He saw the shame in her eyes and wanted to get up and dance.
In the distance, the sound of the train whistle. She heard it, too, but she was distracted.
Because he had taken another girl, only last week. She had seen. She must have known. That’s how she knew his patterns, how she put it all together, and how she set this trap.
And she did nothing to stop him. She let him kill an innocent, just to see if she could find out where he kept the Water.
“You let me kill her. Her blood is on your hands.”
“That’s right. You did nothing. Nothing at all. Oh, Shako. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps there is a Hell after all. And I will be so happy to see you when you join me there.”
Her face went dark. He’d seen that look before—just before she killed him the last time, in Serbia.
The ground shook under them both. The train was hurtling toward them. Those Walmarts up north were hungry. They needed to be filled. The trains had to run on time.
Now or never.
With all his might, Aznar flung his second knife at her.
This time her shoulder wound and her distraction made the difference. She had to fall over backward to avoid the blade plunging into her throat.
Aznar forced his nerveless limbs to move.
He flopped off the tracks just as the freight train barreled between him and Shako.
With his last bit of strength, he reached out and caught one of the cars. He only barely felt his legs bouncing and dragging on the gravel as the train pulled him up and away.
His blood ran onto the dirt. His body was filled with toxins and he labored for every breath as he rolled himself into a filthy boxcar.
None of it mattered. His long, happy life would continue.
He had beaten her again.
SHAKO WATCHED ALL THE
cars of the train pass along the tracks. Grit and dirt blew into her eyes. He was gone. But she had to be sure.
She found his blood on the other side of the tracks. She followed it for a mile, until the splatters became drops, then the trail ended completely.
He was gone. This time, unlike Serbia, she didn’t even have the satisfaction of killing him temporarily.
Shako walked back toward the city center, where she had a hotel room waiting with a change of clothes and identity so she could get out of this place.
She did not feel any guilt. She told herself that, over and over. It was not her fault, or her responsibility, what the men of the Council chose to do.
What mattered was making them pay. That was enough for Shako. She had her mission, and if there were innocents who died along the way, then so be it.
She had her mission. That was enough.
It had to be.
BUSINESS SECTION, PAGE ONE:
Simon Oliver III, the chief executive officer and chairman of the leading biotechnology firm Conquest Biotech, passed away unexpectedly late Sunday night, according to company officials.
The same press release also announced that his son, Simon Oliver IV, was elected to the chief executive’s position in an emergency board meeting convened via telephone.
The news hit just before stocks began trading on Monday. By noon, Conquest had lost nearly thirty percent of its value.
Although the stock price stabilized before the end of the day, analysts said that the reason is obvious: Mr. Oliver is not ready for his father’s job.
Mr. Oliver, 23, is better known for his activities outside of work hours. He has been linked romantically to everyone from supermodels and porn stars to reality-TV mainstays such as Kim Kardashian. (A representative of Ms. Kardashian said that she and Mr. Oliver were simply good friends.) His only previous attempt to involve himself in Conquest was a disastrous attempt to diversify the company in movies and music videos, which ended in several lawsuits. A 2009 drug charge against him was dropped after he agreed to enter a rehabilitation program.
Conquest, best known for its series of antiaging pharmaceuticals, has met or beaten earning expectations every quarter for the past five years. But it is facing an expiration on the patent for Revita, its most popular—and profitable—drug, which is used to increase cell vitality and spur synapse growth in elderly patients.
This, plus the selection of Mr. Oliver, has big investors looking for the exits, said Irfan Khan, an analyst with Bank of America Securities.
“Right now, Conquest needs another home run, and they’ve brought up a kid from the minors who’s basically incapable of finding a bat, let alone hitting it out of the park,” he said.
But the investors are essentially powerless to change the selection, no matter how far the stock drops. While anyone can buy common stock in Conquest, the Oliver family, which founded the company in 1946 as a manufacturer of pharmaceuticals for the U.S. military and other customers, still controls the majority of special voting stock—giving them a 3-to-1 advantage over other voters. Every member of the board is either related to the Oliver family or one of the original employees of the company.
Until now, investors have been willing to trade their lack of control for the exorbitant profits and dividends that Conquest has always delivered, Mr. Khan said. But with someone like Mr. Oliver at the helm, the big financial firms have decided the trade-off is no longer worth it.
Through a representative, Mr. Oliver and Conquest declined to comment for this article.
AVID ROBINTON WATCHED
the screen carefully. This was a crucial moment. The scanning tunneling microscope was fixed on his latest batch of test cells, and he needed to see the precise moment of division to know if this would work. If he’d actually been able to adjust the length of the telomeres, he could—
He realized he wasn’t alone in the lab. Someone was standing at the door, watching him. Then he realized he had no idea how long she’d been standing there.
He dragged his eyes away from the screen and saw Bethany waiting.
David looked at his watch. Past 3:00
A pang of guilt went through him. He knew they were supposed to have done something tonight, before his trip. But his grant was over, his time at the grad school was done, and very soon he wouldn’t have access to this lab anymore.
Damn it. He looked back at the screen just in time. The cells began to divide rapidly. Too rapidly. He’d failed. All he’d done was create tumor cells, and frankly, the human body didn’t need any help getting cancer.
She saw the disappointment on his face as she crossed the room to him.
“Another misfire?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said, and he meant it. “I know we had plans. I just really thought that this time, I might have hit on the solution. And no one had anything scheduled for the lab at night.”
“It’s all right.”
“No, it isn’t. I’ll make it up to you. After I get back from Florida, we’ll get away for a couple of days—”
He stopped himself. She’d taken something from her pocket and slid it across the lab table toward him.
The key to his apartment.
“No,” she said. “We won’t.”
David didn’t know what to say. “Did I miss something here?”
Bethany laughed, but didn’t sound all that amused. “My birthday. Meeting my parents. Two out of three of our dates. I could go on.”
It was true. David was one of the most gifted—perhaps the most gifted—students to come through Harvard’s School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. At twenty-five, he’d stunned his professors and the other students alike with his sudden, almost intuitive leaps in altering cellular DNA to increase longevity. He had picked up two Ph.D.’s in the time it took most people to earn one. And now that his latest research fellowship was over, there were a dozen big corporations chasing him, from Pfizer to Merck to Aperture and everyone in between, all convinced he would be the one to develop the next multibillion-dollar medicine or treatment.
But all of that came at a cost. Sure, he was smart—but he had to work, and work hard. He taught classes, authored papers, and still made time for his own experiments. He’d seen 3:00
in this lab many times.
Thinking about it rationally, David was surprised Bethany had put up with him for this long.
She had met him when he was a guest speaker for her biology class. She was a med student, and pretty damned smart in her own right. With her previous boyfriends, she had been the one who had the busy schedule; that earned him some slack at first. But eventually she had learned that David was not just busy. He was driven. No one required him to be in the lab until dawn. There was something inside him that wouldn’t let him quit.
She argued that he should be able to choose to spend time with her, the same way he chose to work. He agreed with her, but only to avoid the argument. In his heart, he knew that most of the time, he wouldn’t be around, and he hoped she’d just live with it.
Still, he tried to mount some kind of defense for himself. “I don’t know any other way to do what I do,” he said. “You knew the kind of schedule I kept when we met.”
She gave him a hard stare. “You don’t get to be the angry one here, David. I know you want someone around when you get lonely. But that is not just a one-way street.”
She was right, and he knew it. But he felt some obligation to try to make her see. This wasn’t about getting a good grade or even a good job; it was a search for answers.
“This isn’t about what I want,” he said. “This is about what I can do. We’re talking about finding a cure for everything. I mean everything. Cancer. Dementia. Alzheimer’s. Heart disease. If I get this right, I could turn back the clock on everything that makes us get old and sick. Do you know how many lives that would save?”
“And you’re the only one who can do it,” Bethany said flatly.
“Yes,” David said. “I know how arrogant it sounds. But it’s true. There’s maybe ten people in the world who are working at my level, and none of them have made the progress I have. Nobody else is even close. I could really do it. I could find the answer to everything that goes bad or rotten inside our bodies and I could actually fix it. That’s what I can do. And I will not apologize for trying.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic, David. I know how smart you are. I believe you could find it. But you should really think about this: You can carry all that weight on your shoulders. But do you really have to? What kind of life do you get, while you’re busy finding a solution for death?”
David shrugged. “This is what I have to do. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“No,” she said. “I think there’s more to it. You never told me what it was, but I know there’s more.”
David didn’t reply. He wasn’t about to open that wound again. Not here. Not now.
Bethany was done waiting for him. “I hope you do find someone who can share this with you. But it’s not going to be me.”
David understood, finally, that this wasn’t an argument. Bethany wasn’t asking him to fix something or fight his way back to her side. She was reporting on something that had already happened.
He picked up the spare key to his apartment and put it in his pocket.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe when I get back, we could—”
Bethany shook her head. “It would end the same way.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. You know why I’m telling you this, David? Because I have to. I don’t think you would have even noticed I was gone otherwise.”
“That’s not fair,” he said.
She gave him a sad smile. “But is it true?”
David looked away from her. And then couldn’t help himself. He looked at the cells on the screen again.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “You’re a good guy, David. I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”
Then she left.
David checked his watch again. His flight to Miami wasn’t until later in the afternoon, and the lab was free until eight, when the first students would come in.
He might as well work straight through.
It wasn’t like anyone was waiting for him now.
DAVID SAT ON THE
plane in the deep leather seat in first class and reviewed the package of materials the company had sent him. Lots of glossy pictures, lots of quietly assured boasting, couched in the usual corporate terms. “Unprecedented innovation,” “world-class facilities,” “global leader in the industry,” and so on.
Well, he thought. At least they didn’t use the phrase “fountain of youth.” That would have put them right into late-night infomercial territory.
That was the problem with working in this field, David thought, not for the first time. People were desperate to turn back the clock, and sometimes it felt like all of the advances being offered were nothing more than twenty-first-century versions of health tonics and patent medicines. It smelled a lot like a con game.
Which was not to say that Conquest didn’t have anything to brag about. Its research had led to Revita, a drug that did some of what David was trying to accomplish in the lab: physical rejuvenation of the human body at the cellular level.
Aging was a hugely complicated process. It might have looked like one long, steady decline—aches and pains, wrinkles, hair loss, memory loss, slowing reflexes, weakening muscles—but it was, in reality, a combination of multiple processes all affecting the body at once.
The search for eternal youth—the idea of holding a person at an ideal age, perfectly balancing maturity and optimum health—had been the obsession of humanity almost since Paleolithic times. The Egyptians believed in a combination of spiritual and actual physical immortality: mummies were preserved in an effort to keep them ready for the souls of their owners on the other side. Early Chinese cultures had believed something similar, to the extent that some emperors had whole courts of followers—wives, soldiers, advisers—killed and buried along with them. Christianity promised the return of the Messiah and a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth within their lifetimes. Only when Jesus failed to show up did the idea begin to morph into the resurrection of the soul.
Every culture had its myth or legend about eternal youth and immortality. But there were some hard-and-fast obstacles to actually pulling it off in real life.
The easiest way to increase human lifespan, of course, was to simply stop so many people from dying. And this had been the great work of the twentieth century, with advances in sanitation, food, and vaccines. Everyone was already living longer because there were fewer things in the world killing them.
But even with outside forces more or less controlled, there were still all the things that could go wrong inside a person. Sometimes when David looked at the body, he saw nothing but millions of little betrayals—everything from genes to major organs all on the edge of failure. Everything from heart attacks to rare diseases were hidden inside people, waiting to pop out like an obscene jack-in-the-box.
This was the undying frustration of David’s life. Every one of the problems of aging was like that, and they all had to be cured at the same time, or any one of the solutions was useless. It wasn’t much of a miracle to be a person with perfect, unwrinkled skin if you died of a massive brain tumor at forty.
This was why the attempt to create a single cure-all for aging never worked: there was simply too much going on for a single solution. It was like trying to bring down a whole flock of birds with one bullet.
But Revita was fairly effective at the one bird it did target: the aging of cells.
As cells died, they divided and replaced themselves—but after a while, it was like making copies of a copy. Errors began to pile up in the DNA. The cells became filled with junk and waste as they broke down over time.
Revita, however, fixed that. It discouraged the buildup of transcription errors and waste products in cells. Patients who took it, over time, found their overall health improved as new cells made better copies of themselves.
There were side effects, of course. But the demand for the drug was so high that the FDA put it on the market anyway. The baby boom generation wanted to stay young even as they were facing retirement age. Sales of Revita were incredible, despite its high price tag.
That was why David was interviewing with them, even though he’d already gotten better offers from bigger companies. The other Big Pharma players wanted him to work on the next Viagra or the next Rogaine—something that would generate billions of dollars while dealing with one small part of the aging process.
David wasn’t really interested in helping a bunch of old men keep their hair or their erections. He wanted to save lives. For all its hype, Conquest was the only company that had been willing to let him pursue whatever research he wanted.
At least, that had been the case up until a couple of weeks ago. The company had been in turmoil since its CEO had died of a sudden massive coronary. His son, Simon Oliver IV, took the top position.
The younger Oliver had used his family fortune to pay for an endless series of parties around the globe while his father worked himself into an early grave. TMZ recently caught him smashing a Lamborghini into a semi, then offering the other driver all the cash in his wallet to take the blame. David felt irrationally, personally insulted at that; he didn’t like drunk drivers.
Wall Street didn’t take the news well, either. Conquest’s stock was down twenty percent, and analysts were on the business-chat shows telling anyone who’d listen it was time to sell.
David wasn’t sure he wanted to work for someone like Simon Oliver IV.
But the word on Wall Street was that Simon had no interest in the company as anything more than a no-limit ATM. David figured he’d never even get so much as a glimpse of the new CEO.
Simon Oliver called to him from baggage claim. He looked just like his paparazzi shots, which inevitably showed him falling out of a limo, a bottle in one hand, a B-list starlet or wannabe model in the other. Behind him was a full entourage, composed in equal parts of hangers-on, eye candy, and security personnel.
Simon wore a conservatively cut dark gray suit. It made him look even younger, like a kid playing in his dad’s clothes. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, but he smiled brightly.
He offered his hand. David took it. Simon pulled him into a back-slapping man-hug. “Glad to meet you,” he said, pounding David hard between the shoulder blades.
Before David could say anything, Simon spun him around to face the entourage. “Guys, this is David. He’s the one. He’s going to put us over the top. He’s my new MVP, so I want all of you pricks to treat him like you would me.”
Another guy, about Simon’s age—sharp-featured, wearing a suit that could have been done by the same tailor—smirked. “So we have to pretend he’s not an asshole?”
Simon barked a laugh. “Hilarious, Max. I nearly ruptured a bowel. Come on. Let’s get a drink in this guy’s hand.”
Simon still had his arm around David. One of the girls peeled away from the scrum of people and produced, seemingly out of nowhere, a can of beer.
beer?” Simon said in horror. “Oh, Tiffani. Good thing I didn’t hire you for your taste.”
Other people in the baggage claim area gawked at them. Simon’s crowd had formed an island in the stream of people trying to get to their luggage or trying to get out to the taxi stands. A few bystanders even took pictures; they didn’t know who Simon was, but anyone with that many security guards had to be famous.