Authors: Christopher Farnsworth
IMON WAS INSIDE
the VIP lounge at some club inside a Vegas casino when the past caught up with him.
He and a dozen other people were drinking and watching a young woman, perhaps nineteen, as she danced alone, very drunk. She’d been hired for some bachelor party, which Simon remembered was the reason he was here. Some other wealthy young idiot. Like he was supposed to be. The girl began removing what little clothing she wore, and everyone cheered. She smiled at him, caught his eye, and revealed a little more of her tanned and sculpted flesh. Suddenly, it hit him just how old he was, just how vast the gulf of years between them was.
When he was this girl’s age, no European had ever stepped this far into the interior of the American continent. This was empty desert. Perhaps a few thousand humans at most had passed over this ground in centuries, always on their way to someplace else. And a young woman who took off her clothes in public would be branded a whore or a witch. A death sentence, either way.
Now he stood inside a building taller than the biggest cathedral of his youth, next to a man-made lake, surrounded by five times as many people as had lived in Rome at the height of its empire. Within hours, he would step aboard a plane and travel a distance that once took years and cost lives. But first he would see this young woman naked, bathing in electric lights, unaware of how many disasters she had dodged just to get to this point. The vaccinations against the diseases that killed so many children. The clean water and plentiful food that gave her long legs and clear skin and just the right amount of body fat and muscle. The synthetic fabrics that no longer covered her. She danced to notes clearer than any human choir could produce, with a pill under her tongue that would have been considered a revelation direct from God Himself once upon a time. And all the while, she remained completely ignorant of the miracles that surrounded her.
Perhaps she was stripping her way through college.
He couldn’t see her anymore. Couldn’t see anything but the indisputable fact: everyone he knew as a boy was dead, had been dust for longer than this city had existed.
For a second, it was difficult for Simon to breathe. The weight of the years felt like it would crush him, drown him in time.
This kind of extreme dislocation had happened before. It was the opposite of what he supposed other people called déjà vu. They had the impression they were seeing something that had happened before. Simon, by contrast, had seen almost everything before. He breathed deeply and let it wash over him, and rode it out. He suspected it was one more symptom of his long use of the Water. Men were not meant to live as long as he had.
He took a breath. Then another. He breathed. He was still alive. Despite everything, the world had not been able to kill him yet. And it would not.
Simon stood and walked away from the naked dancer.
The host of the party, the bachelor himself, stepped in front of Simon and placed a hand on Simon’s chest. “Hey, man, where you going? Party’s just getting started.”
It took every bit of restraint Simon owned to keep from grabbing that hand, twisting it, snapping the bone, spinning the man to expose his chest for the sword—
No. That was a different time.
Men did not touch each other so casually then. This was not a challenge. This was what passed for sociability.
He remembered to smile. “Gotta get a little space.”
The other man looked disturbed. Simon did not manage to get the tone quite right. Sometimes it leaked out. The age. The difference. Especially at moments like this.
He finally got himself under control by the time he reached the back booths of the club. They were mostly deserted, everyone’s eyes on the hired girl now, clustering around. In another moment, more women from the crowd would begin to strip—spontaneously joining the party, just as they’d been instructed and paid to do.
He’d seen it before. He’d seen it all before.
This was worse than usual, Simon had to admit. He had weak moments. Usually after he heard about Shako.
How long since he’d last seen her? Really seen her, not just a blurry surveillance photo passed along by the CIA or some other top-secret government agency?
Centuries. More time than these people thought possible.
He flattered himself that she still thought of him, too. Of course she did. She intended to kill him.
There were moments—like this one—where he considered offering himself as a target. Let her get it over with. Max would say that he had this suicidal impulse all the time, but Max didn’t understand. He wasn’t there for the true beginning.
Simon put the drink down. It was not going to help.
Perhaps he was feeling nostalgic, as Max had said. He was so close to—well, there was no better word—to winning.
The others didn’t understand, because all they wanted was for their lives to continue. And he couldn’t blame them, not really. He’d made them comfortable and powerful and rich beyond the imagining of their mortal lives.
But in truth, they’d advanced only to the point of that stripper: happy and protected and safe in the knowledge that her youth was eternal. The difference was, for her that was the standard illusion of the young. For Simon and the other members of the Council, it was truth.
But Simon had always wanted it to mean more. The others didn’t always see the plan. They didn’t see how difficult it was to maintain all the spinning plates, to keep the wheels within wheels turning.
He thought of his plan, in his private moments, as a great wall, assembled stone by stone. The end result would be the world as he envisioned it: safer, better, stronger. Everything perfect and eternal.
But for every stone he moved into his wall, another rolled out of place. It was incredibly frustrating. He spent all his time putting the world back together, and it just kept falling apart.
Time had a way of changing everything.
Vegas, for example. What was once a Mormon outpost along a desert road became a modern-day El Dorado, exactly like the legend, because the Mob needed a place to launder money. They gave the mandate to build a casino to Bugsy Siegel, who took it as a license to create a dream. They killed him for it, but it was too late. The dream grew huge and became reality.
(Simon had met Ben several times back then. He’d liked him, even though the man was deeply unstable.)
You couldn’t control everything.
When he’d started, Simon believed it was possible to unite the world under a single crown, and the Water would give him the power to manipulate the crown. He and his men would control the resources of the New World, and they would force the old one to be better. He’d planned to lift all men up, one at a time, if necessary, to see the glory that was possible in this world. He would share the wealth he’d found, once they were ready. His original idea had been a happy and united population, all following his ideals. They seemed grandiose at the time: cleaner water; food for all; schools open to every child, not just those of position or wealth; and an end to slaughter and war by the simple method of having the biggest and most powerful army on the planet.
But first, to do that, he had to secure his position. Amass enough wealth and power to make his voice strong enough so he could not be ignored. Then he’d use the power of the Spanish monarchy to begin changing the world for the better.
The English were the first to destroy that illusion for him. They destroyed Spain’s armada and began their decades of influence over the world.
So Simon and the Council had to adapt, had to use their riches to adjust to the new reality of an English-dominated world. Simon made the moves he could. He financed alchemists, then scientists, and other thinkers. He tried to overthrow England’s monarchy by supporting a fringe group of religious extremists, and they even succeeded for a time.
Then they fell apart, and the monarchy was restored. Simon had adapted to that, as he did everything else.
His grandiose goals became the status quo, bit by bit. And yet, somehow, the better world always remained just out of reach. People still, stubbornly, refused to behave in their best interests. Children were still starving and men and women still dying of pointless diseases and slaughtering one another in pointless wars.
Simon no longer believed in God, but he believed in sin. One sin in particular. He knew pride. He saw how it corrupted everything. How it kept people from knowing their place. How much better the world would be, he often thought, if only it would behave, and listen to someone who truly knew how it should work.
And yet they all insisted on following their own whims, even when they led straight into Hell.
At moments like this, especially, Simon could easily fall into despair. He controlled vast fortunes. He held the fate of powerful men in his hands. He’d seen empires rise and fall, and buried more enemies than could fit in a hundred graveyards.
And the world wasn’t perfect yet. Despite everything he’d done.
But he would not surrender.
Above all, he survived. Almost everyone and everything else he’d ever known was dust and rot, but he remained.
The dream was still good. And he’d see it come to life. No matter how long it took.
Now, with the possibility of an unlimited supply of the Water—of a true cure for death—he was closer than he ever thought possible. No more games. No more hiding behind the scenes. A man who could offer a cure for death could have anything. There was no one on Earth who would fight him then. They would all finally have to do as they were told. And then he would have the world as he had always dreamed it, made perfect and eternal.
He heard a noise behind him. It served to wake him from his dreams of the past. His mask fully in place, a modern man once more, he turned and looked.
The girl stood there, wearing nothing but a thong.
“Hey,” she said. “Never had that reaction before. You really didn’t like my dancing?”
He smiled. She wouldn’t take rejection. It was as foreign as the past to her.
“Maybe I just wanted a private show,” he said.
She smiled, back in a familiar script, and moved closer to him. Simon put his arms around her as she settled onto his lap and began to writhe.
Men were not meant to live as long as he did, he reminded himself. But that didn’t mean he was going to give it up anytime soon.
AVID COULDN’T RECALL
being nervous like this before a date. In fact, he couldn’t recall
being nervous before a date.
As arrogant as it might have sounded, he’d simply never cared this much before. Even in high school, it had seemed immature to drown in the drama of pursuit and rejection. He was always working on other things that took precedence.
Most of that, he did not need a therapist to tell him, was because of the losses he’d suffered. His sister’s death was like a bullet from a random drive-by cracking the drywall of his family’s home. It taught him that nothing was ever as solid or safe as he thought before.
He’d decided to fix it. He would make sure that it never happened again, to anyone. A childish hope, sure, but hey, he’d been fourteen, and in all honesty, he was smart enough. So he already had a quest.
Dating and girls, and then relationships and love, were distractions at best. Other people were capable of finding love. Only David was capable of finding what he was looking for.
And if that meant putting his own life on hold for a while—well, he was young. There would always be time to catch up later.
Those thoughts melted when he knocked on the door of her condo overlooking the bay and Shy opened it and smiled at him.
She wore a simple and elegant black sheath, held at one shoulder with a silver clasp that gleamed against the dark tan of her skin. He had to kick-start his brain into supplying the standard greetings.
This is what normal people do, David told himself, handing over the bouquet of flowers he’d agonized about bringing. (Corny or romantic? Endearing or childish?)
Shy took the flowers and thanked him, then invited him inside, the black silk clinging to her tightly.
David stood at the threshold for a moment longer. Then he shook his head and stepped in.
Christ, get a grip. It’s just a date. People do it all the time. It doesn’t mean anything.
SHE MADE HIM DINNER,
and they ate in front of a window that seemed to frame the entire horizon as it met the water. It was beautiful. The food was perfect.
He looked at the view twice and barely tasted what was on his fork. Instead, he stared. A lot. And struggled to find something to talk about with her.
You are blowing this, he told himself.
She threw him a lifeline and asked about work, which was the only thing he really had. “So, what does Conquest have you doing?”
Unfortunately, he also had a very strict nondisclosure agreement. “I’m really not supposed to talk about it.”
She smiled. “Come on. Surely you can avoid slipping out any corporate secrets.”
David laughed, relaxing a little. “Ah, it’s probably dull as hell to you. I’m stuck on some complicated DNA stuff. You don’t need me droning on about that.”
“Oh, I see. You don’t think I’m smart enough.”
“No, no,” David said, rushing the words out. “It’s just—you know, technical.”
“Oh. Technical. I see. That clears it right up.”
He had the distinct feeling she was laughing at him. Still blowing this, David. Come on, bring it back around.
“All right,” he said. “I warned you. Ready?”
She put on a serious expression, her eyes lit up with mockery. “Ready,” she said. Then she leaned forward, inadvertently revealing a distracting slice of her cleavage.
David forced himself to keep his eyes level. “Okay. No secret that Conquest is working on antiaging approaches, right? The trick is, which approach do you take? Aging is so fantastically complex. The body breaks down in all sorts of ways. It’s like the story of Hercules and the Hydra. Cut off one head, another two take its place. Deal with one problem, another one pops up. The idea of a single magic bullet to target them all, that’s got to be a fantasy, right?”
“Except you don’t think so.”
He smiled. She was fast. And he reminded himself, she didn’t work for Conquest, so he’d have to be careful.
“The basic problem is in our DNA. Humans have never lived as long as we do now. So we’re running into the unintended consequences of our success. Evolution didn’t come up with solutions for all the problems of aging because it’s not crucial to our survival. As long as our species can still breed, evolution doesn’t care. Sexual maturity comes when we’re in our teens. But we survive long after that. It’s like we outlive our warranties by fifty or sixty years. The longer we live, the more wear and tear we get. Our cells get corrupted, too, so our most basic building blocks start to fall apart. We get tumors, we get slower, our hair falls out, our cuts don’t heal as fast, our skin gets thinner and sags. That all starts way down in our DNA.”
“Right,” Shy said. To David’s ears, it sounded very much like
He wasn’t breaking any new ground here, and she seemed on the verge of boredom. “So, how do you fix that?”
“I think there has to be a way to address all the problems all at once. A truly holistic solution, instead of trying to chop off another head of the Hydra every time it appears. There are self-repairing mechanisms already in DNA.”
“You mean nucleotide excision repair,” Shy said.
“Right,” David said, reminding himself he wasn’t lecturing a hall of Biology 101 students right now. “Those sequences get old and wear out and start picking up errors, too. But if we fix them—get them to repair themselves perfectly, with zero errors every time—we could have an autocorrect for the human genome.”
Shy smiled. She saw it now. “If the repair mechanisms are perfect—”
“They can repair the DNA in every cell and make them perfect, too. Think of it as a massive software upgrade for the entire human body. A way to reboot DNA without any flaws.”
“So you’re going to fix something that’s gone unaddressed by millions of years of evolution.”
“I can do it,” he said.
“You seem pretty sure.”
David knew it sounded impossible. But he had an advantage over Shy, over everyone in his field, in fact. He knew it was possible. He’d seen it firsthand.
But Shy hadn’t. He worried he’d said too much and started talking rapidly to cover it up.
“There’s got to be a way to train and shape the DNA-repair sequences,” he said. “We’ve created custom genes. We have the tools. Hell, it might even be there already, somewhere in the junk DNA that hangs out in the cell, just waiting for the right circumstances to activate it. I’ve been looking into the Johns Hopkins research on hydrogels, which can be turned into self-activating, self-assembling proteins. They could create a cluster of the right kind of amino acids. But that raises its own interesting questions. The delivery method alone . . .”
David had been talking uninterrupted for a while before he realized Shy had stood up from the table and was standing over him.
He blinked and looked up at her. She had that enigmatic half smile on her face again.
“Sorry,” he said. “I can get carried away.”
“Perfectly all right,” she said. Her voice was throaty, as if she was holding back a laugh. David figured he’d bored her out of her mind. A deep disappointment welled up in him. He’d definitely blown it.
“Sorry,” he said again. “It’s just, when you think about the implications this has for cancer research alone. The idea of programmable cells—”
Oh my God, you’re doing it again, what is wrong with you, for God’s sake, why can’t you shut up?
Then Shy touched the clasp of her dress, sending it to the floor in a puddle of silk.
David shut up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Did I interrupt your train of thought?”
He just stared. Her skin was beautiful. All of it.
“Well,” she said when he failed to answer. “Maybe we can find something else to do with your mouth.”
She leaned down and kissed him.
It was like the contact between them closed some circuit, reactivated some vital knowledge in him. He kissed her, his body instantly aware of every inch of hers, her warmth and bare flesh only inches away from him.
He stood and ran his hands over her, trying to touch all of her at once. His pulse sang in his veins. He felt clumsy, overeager, like he was in high school again, making out in the backseat of his car.
She let him paw at her for a moment as she effortlessly guided him from his clothes.
He looked at her again. Still could not believe it.
Every inch of her was perfect. Flawless, copper-colored skin smooth over supple muscle. She stood effortlessly, lightly, on the balls of her feet, watching him watch her, eyes still smiling, amused by him and his awe. He felt like he was in the presence of great art, inside a cathedral, his head buzzing with the impulse to worship, to kneel.
So he did.
He hiked her right leg over his left shoulder, supporting her as he lapped at her, unable to show any restraint. She ran her fingers through his hair and tugged occasionally, pulling and guiding him.
Then as her back began to arch and she started to push against his mouth, she suddenly broke contact and yanked him to his feet.
She took him in her hand and pulled him along, leading him quickly to the bedroom.
He was suddenly on his back, in her mouth, feeling like he would explode in seconds. But she held him off, working him expertly, bringing him to the edge and no further.
When he thought he could not take it anymore, she released him. He was gasping for air when she swung a leg over him, straddling his hips, drawing him deep inside her.
He thrust upward and felt a kind of savage pride as he saw the look on her face, her eyes rolling under her closed lids. Her mouth was open, a small triangle of skin flushed red, right under her throat, above her breasts.
There had been other times with other women, but at this moment, they seemed like dim matchsticks in the dark against a blazing incandescence. She pulled something from him, something stronger than he’d ever felt before.
He’d never felt so hard, so sure, so right. This was different. She was different.
He pushed against her and she held him down with her hips, pushing back.
She cried out as she shuddered, and it was more than enough to put him over the edge. He thrust again and again, his strength draining, his muscles going liquid even as she kept on building and building, her cries reaching a high pitch before she collapsed on his chest.
David felt as if he’d ridden lightning to the ground. He felt as though he’d been broken. He felt an unaccustomed surge of peace.
He looked at her face and saw her eyes open, watching him.
She smiled, and he saw something predatory there, something triumphant.
He did not care. He felt that, too.
They curled into each other, side by side. David did not feel as if he’d ever need to move again.
But within a few moments, he felt himself stirring. So did Shy. She looked at him over her shoulder, both a challenge and invitation in her eyes.
That was all he needed, and he was lost again.
Just a date, he reminded himself. People do it all the time. It doesn’t mean anything.