Authors: Christopher Farnsworth
A TSA employee heaved himself from a stool at the nearest doorway and stalked over to them.
“Sir,” he said loudly. “You’re gonna have to move along. Can’t have you blocking traffic.”
The smile vanished from Simon’s face.
“Or else what, McGruff? You gonna shoot me?”
The security guards flanked their boss with practiced moves. David might have been imagining it, but they seemed annoyed and bored. Not the first time this sort of thing has happened, clearly.
“Just move along, sir,” the TSA agent said, waving them off.
“Are you shitting me?” Simon laughed. “I could put this whole airport on my AmEx Black just to fire your ass if I felt like it. I pay more for a decent meal than you earn in a week. In case you still don’t get it, I am the One Percent, asshole, and we own people like you.”
The agent scowled and reached for his belt. It looked as if this conversation was about to end with Simon getting Tased. Then Simon seemed to remember David was still at his side.
“Why are we waiting around here?” he said, the smile reappearing, the sun beaming from behind a sudden storm cloud. “We have a lot of sights and sensations to show our new boy. Come on, bro.”
He grabbed David’s arm again and half-dragged him toward the doors.
The entourage whooped in delight, the security guards looked slightly relieved, and the TSA agent was already lumbering back to his stool.
Within moments, David was inside a limo, Tiffani on his lap, a drink in his hand.
He was just able to see Simon in the farthest seat—the only light came from a video screen and neon tubing on the floor and ceiling—hoisting a glass to him.
“Welcome to Miami, David. I think you’re going to enjoy it.”
Then he vanished behind a very well-toned, very bleached blonde.
This was a new experience for David. He had never been one of the guys before in his life. He was always too serious, too busy. He wasn’t sure he liked it.
But he had to admit, this was a lot more interesting than the other job interviews so far.
THREE HOURS LATER, DAVID’S
head felt like it was made of foam rubber. He almost never drank, and the beer he’d accepted to be polite somehow led to tequila shots.
This was their third club of the night, and like at all the others, Simon’s security had cut an effortless path through the crowd, escorting them to a booth in a prime position. Within moments, more beautiful women joined them, and the tables were covered in bottles.
David wondered if wherever Simon went, people simply waited to meet his needs. Then he realized that was probably what being a twenty-three-year-old billionaire meant.
In the limo, Simon had introduced him to the other young men in suits: there was Max, who sat almost as close to Simon as the girl on his thigh; Sebastian, ridiculously handsome and too bored with everything for a guy in his early twenties; and Peter, thick with gym-built muscle and whose first response to everything was an argument.
They began to get loud enough that David could hear them, despite the thumping bass of the speakers. David was surprised they didn’t text one another like everyone else in the club. They were in some kind of political discussion.
“I keep telling you, it’s time to get out of Afghanistan, Iraq, the whole Middle East. We’ll be lucky if there’s anything left there but corpses in the sand in a few years,” Sebastian said.
Peter disagreed, loudly. “That’s where all the oil is, dumbass. How you going to drive that Mercedes of yours with no gasoline?”
“Of course you’d say that,” Sebastian shot back. “You were the one who wanted us in downtown Kabul.”
The others laughed, but Peter looked insulted. “I still say the only thing separating Afghanistan from Arizona is the right kind of investment and air-conditioning.”
Max chose that moment to jump in: “And maybe something like Ebola to clear out the locals.”
They all clinked glasses to that. David thought it was weird. He knew not everyone took politics as seriously as the students he’d met in Cambridge—because, really, who could?—but they talked like they were discussing investments.
Simon watched them with a smirk, as if he’d heard this before. They finished each other’s jokes and sentences, hinted at past idiocies and embarrassments, utterly familiar with one another, as if they had been together since birth.
David felt a pang of jealousy at that.
Simon seemed to notice. Or, at least, he turned his attention to David. He waved, and one of the girls handed David a new drink.
“So, how do you like the job so far?” Simon said.
“I don’t work for you yet.”
“Oh, come on. I bet none of your other prospects met you with girls. At least not girls like these. I mean, seriously, you should see what Tiffani can do with a banana and a martini glass.”
David lost a moment trying to picture that, then shook it off. “I’m sure that’s impressive,” David said, “and yeah, this is fun and all, but it’s not really my world.”
“True,” Simon said. “But it could be.”
“I don’t think so. Nobody really gets into science expecting lap dances and body glitter. No offense, but I’ve got a serious problem I want to solve.”
“Not having a whole lot of luck, though, are you?” Simon asked. “I understand you’re still working on telomeres. And by ‘working,’ I mean ‘failing spectacularly.’ ”
David felt his face get hot. Telomeres were the sequences at the ends of chromosomes that kept the cells dividing properly. When the cell ran out of telomeres, it got old and eventually died. David had been trying to increase the length of telomeres and increase the life of the cells.
Unfortunately, lengthening telomeres in a cell was also one of the first steps in the cell dividing out of control. Increasing the lifespan of a cell was also opening the door to cancer. That’s why David’s current experiments had all failed.
David wasn’t sure how Simon knew that—his latest research wasn’t published yet—but he was more surprised that Simon even knew what a telomere was.
Simon could see it on his face. “You weren’t expecting that question in this club, were you?”
All right, David thought. Let’s see how much the boy billionaire learned from whoever gave him the CliffsNotes version of DNA manipulation. “Telomeres are the most efficient way to increase cell life,” he said. “Highest reward, least amount of risk. If we can increase error-free replication, the entire body lives longer.”
“But the body will still age. Cellular breakdown and disease will still be a problem, maybe even more so,” Simon shot back. “What about other solutions? Like, say, boosting mitochondrial life, as suggested by de Grey?”
“Altering the mitochondria?” David asked. “The problem there is the genes identified by de Grey can’t survive outside the mitochondria. Move them, and you end up killing them.”
“Then why not decrease cell toxicity by improving the cell’s ability to remove waste products?” Simon asked, not letting up. “Engineer a tiny little DNA garbageman who takes out the trash.”
“Where does the waste go, then? You shuffle it outside of the cell, it can build up in other places and do more damage there. You cure a guy’s wrinkles and give him amyloid plaques in the brain and Alzheimer’s.”
“So we use specific cleansing enzymes, like hydrolases. Regular injections to go after the stuff between the cells and clean it out. You could even apply a modified variant of the same thing to clean up the extracellular cross-links and break them down before they start collecting and causing problems.”
David shook his head. “Which could start to erode cellular material indiscriminately if the genetic delivery system mutates. It would make Ebola look like a bad flu.”
“Exactly,” Simon said, as if David had just made his point for him. “That’s why Revita works on transcription errors,” Simon said. “Zero defects. Perfect cellular copies. That’s the key. Not telomeres.”
“Your own research trials show that Revita doesn’t fix all the errors. It’s more like bleach in the laundry—you erase the stains, but most of the color, too. And that’s why you’re getting such a high incidence of brain tumors. You’ve wiped out one of the gene sequences that prevents cancerous cells from forming in nerve tissue.”
“None of our other researchers have said that.”
“Probably because they’re too scared. Like I said, I don’t work for you yet. I bet your next set of lawsuits comes from people developing spinal-cord cancer.”
Simon gave David a cold look.
Just when it seemed like this job might be interesting, David thought.
Then Simon smiled. “You’re right. We’re getting some feedback from the FDA about that already. It’s probably going to be a class-action suit by Christmas.”
Simon didn’t appear too worried. In fact, he looked pleased that David had just found a flaw in the company’s most lucrative product.
“I think you’ve got to combine our transcription approach and your telomerase research to find the answer,” he said. “What if I told you—”
He was about to continue when the bodyguards shifted from background scenery into sudden, violent movement.
David saw a girl, dark-haired and dark-eyed, approach Simon’s table. She didn’t look that much different from the other random women who’d joined the entourage.
But the bodyguards must have seen something they didn’t like.
They formed a wall, blocking her out completely. The guard in the lead shoved her and sent her flying. He was six-four and easily 240 pounds; she was maybe 110 after a full meal. She landed hard on her ass and went skating backward on the dance floor. Another of the guards put his hand in his jacket as if he were going to take out a gun.
David didn’t realize he was on his feet until he was right in front of the bodyguard. “Hey,” he shouted. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
The bodyguard raised his hand to knock David aside, but David was quicker than the man expected. He slipped under the guard’s arm and pushed him back.
Another guard was on him in a second, wrapping him up and immobilizing him in a complicated armlock. It felt like being inside a very small steel cage.
The guards had a clear sight of the girl again, who was still on the floor, stunned.
There was a moment, strung out like a high wire. Impossible as it seemed, they looked ready to shoot her.
David struggled. He saw the lead bodyguard look at Simon.
Simon gave a quick shake of his head.
And the tension evaporated. The bodyguards relaxed as the young woman hopped up and began screaming about a lawsuit. The guards released David, and Simon approached the girl. A few moments later, she stopped screaming and accepted a thick wad of cash and a drink from him.
David was still buzzing with adrenaline. Simon’s friends didn’t say anything, just watched him. Then Simon returned from soothing the girl, who was smiling and giggling at whatever he’d said.
They all looked at David, gauging his reaction.
“What the hell was that?” David asked, his voice tight.
Simon shrugged and looked at David. “It’s a curse to be so attractive, you know?”
“You need a guy with a gun to protect you from a girl in a miniskirt?”
“They got a little overzealous. It happens.” He turned to the lead bodyguard. “Mr. Perkins. Would you please apologize to Dr. Robinton?”
The big man looked at David like a machine scanning a bar code. “Sorry,” he said flatly.
“There,” Simon said. “All better?”
David shook his head. “You’re that scared of random club girls?”
Simon didn’t respond. The music thudded, heavy on the bass.
Max broke the silence. “He’s that scared of being served with a paternity suit.”
They laughed, but it seemed forced. Simon smiled and got David another drink. David calmed down after a few more sips. Then they went back to other topics. That was apparently all the explanation David was going to get.
Maybe this happened all the time in Simon’s world. David decided he needed a break from all the fun. He made an excuse about going to the bathroom and looked for a way to get some fresh air.
FORTUNATELY, THIS CLUB HAD
a patio that was open to the sky and stars. David felt better once he got out of the noise inside. The patio was almost deserted, aside from a few people keeping to the shadows at the far edges. He found a comfortable cushioned seat. He leaned his head back and drew in a deep breath.
“Tired of the high life already?”
David’s eyes snapped open. She’d taken the chair opposite him, was watching him with a bemused smile on her face. He started to reply, and then found he didn’t have any idea what to say.
He was looking at the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life.
Her hair was dark and long, and her skin was a deep, burnished copper, the same shade that other women spent hours in the sun trying to achieve. Her eyes were dark, with flecks of gold reflecting back at him in the dim light.
He’d heard the words “breathtaking” and “stunning” before, of course, and seen his share of beautiful young women at all the campuses where he’d studied and taught.
But this was the first time he’d ever had his breath actually taken away. This was the first time he’d ever actually been stunned.
She had to be accustomed to getting stares from men. (And women, too, probably.) She just let him gape at her for another moment, then laughed.
Despite the fact that her laugh was just as distracting—her face lighting up with amusement, her perfect white teeth revealed in a brilliant smile—it was enough to snap him out of his stupor.
“Ah, sorry,” he said, just managing not to stammer. “I was taking a quick break. I’m not used to this.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I could tell. Don’t worry. Nobody’s as good at celebrating as Simon. I think it’s his true calling.”
“Oh. Are you—I mean, you know Simon?”
“Sure,” she said. She didn’t elaborate. David hadn’t seen her in the entourage earlier that night, and he would have noticed. Maybe she’d joined the party later, while he was doing body shots off Tiffani. He hoped, suddenly and fiercely, that she hadn’t seen that.
And she didn’t strike him as one of the party girls. They were almost frantic in their desire to have a good time. The stranger sitting across from him radiated calm—even serenity—despite all the decadence and noise on all sides of them.