Authors: Christopher Farnsworth
AVID WALKED QUICKLY
from the building, unshaven, wearing the previous day’s clothes. It was still early, but this would be the latest he’d gotten to the lab in a week. That’s how long the man named Mathis had been following him.
Mathis stretched and yawned. He’d been up most of the night, parked in a nearby garage, watching the front of the building, waiting for David to emerge. The woman’s condo opened onto a shopping plaza filled with shops and restaurants. When the coffee place opened, he set up camp at a table outside with the biggest cup they had.
He let David go without following. There was no real urgency. The only places the geek seemed to go were the lab, his home, and, occasionally, some hospital where he volunteered. He’d pick up David at Conquest’s offices later. Right now, he wanted to find out more about the woman.
Mathis’s employer had told him to trail David and find out who he was seeing. It had been mind-numbingly dull so far. Then, finally, a date. Hallelujah, some kind of break in the routine.
Mathis knew he shouldn’t complain. He could have ended up like the other guys in his unit, since returning from Afghanistan: one a part-time bouncer at a strip club, one in the VA learning how to walk again, one waitlisted for the police academy, one doing construction, and one who’d put his gun in his mouth and eaten a bullet.
Boredom should have looked pretty decent by comparison. But he couldn’t help searching for the same rush he got when he was an MP at Bagram.
At least he had a diversion today. He’d run the condo’s address through a real-estate database on a laptop in his car, trying to get the name of David’s hookup. Turned out it was rented through a holding company. Not that unusual. But not at all helpful. Similar searches through utilities and credit bureaus based on the address were dead ends as well.
He figured he should follow her to work. From there, it would be a five-minute search on the Internet to get her identity. Take a couple of pics with his phone for the file, run her background, make sure she wasn’t working for one of Conquest’s competitors. Most likely, she was just a one-night stand. But she had to be more interesting than another day spent waiting for the geek to hang up his lab coat.
He was about to go inside for a refill when he saw her walk from the building, wearing workout clothes and carrying a gym bag. He committed the rookie mistake of staring. He had not really gotten a good look before, and she was incredible. His bullshit meter immediately pinged. There was no way someone this hot would go out with a science nerd. Not when there were so many tanned and gym-buffed guys—like himself, he’d be the first to say—on the market.
This was definitely getting interesting.
She fixed a pair of headphones in her ears and walked away. There was a twenty-four-hour fitness place not too far away, Mathis remembered. That was probably where she was headed. He’d have to leave his car and follow on foot.
No problem. She was off in her own little world. He waited for a moment, let her get around the corner of the building, and then crossed the plaza after her. He dropped his empty cup in a trash can on the way.
He rounded the corner as she disappeared from sight again. She was quicker than he thought. He saw her ponytail bounce as she took a shortcut in an alleyway between two buildings.
He picked up the pace. Mathis made sure that his jacket was buttoned—all employees of his firm were required to wear jackets and slacks, partly for the company’s image, and partly to hide the guns they wore in belt-mounted holsters.
He walked into the alley, which turned out to be a little access passage for the restaurants and shops to put out their garbage and take deliveries.
She was gone. He didn’t see her anywhere.
Shit, he thought. She might have started running. He should have been quicker. He didn’t think she’d seen him. She hadn’t glanced in his direction. He was going to have to hustle, catch up with her at the gym.
Mathis had broken into a jog when she stepped out from behind one of the plastic garbage bins. They could have been standing side by side, in line for a movie. His mouth opened and he struggled to think of an excuse for chasing her down the alley.
Then she swung her leg in a roundhouse kick that connected with his head and knocked him completely off his feet.
He had a small moment of disbelief before the back of his head hit the pavement and he went completely unconscious.
THOMAS PICKFORD SAT BEHIND
his desk in his office near the top floor of a tower overlooking Tampa’s downtown, booting up his computer. Outside his window, he could already hear the sirens as the city woke up and began killing itself. Music to his ears. He never said it out loud, but he thought it all the time: the decline of civilization was great for business.
Pickford had been in Iraq on the first go-round, way back in the nineties, in Special Forces and intelligence. When he was done, he discovered that his skills were more highly valued by Saudi businessmen. He worked in private security overseas until 9/11, when he decided it was time to go home.
He didn’t return out of any great sense of patriotism, but he could smell the opportunities opening up. The massive reduction in troops after Gulf War I created a lot of vacancies for guys with résumés like his. In Iraq and Afghanistan, military contractors were used to fill in every vacant space. In the States, every guy with a seven-figure bank account suddenly decided he was a target for Al Qaeda and wanted his own private army.
So Pickford took his savings and a federal loan and opened his own firm: OpSec. (His clients loved the name; it sounded like authentic Jack Bauer badassery to middle-aged businessmen who’d never been closer to the military than TV and movies.)
The paranoia after 9/11 died down—more or less—and even the demand for contractors was easing as the politicians tried to sneak the military out of Iraq and Afghanistan with as much dignity as possible.
But OpSec had flourished and expanded. Crime was rising again. Local governments couldn’t pay for more cops. And the news, especially in Florida, was 24/7 fear and tragedy. Between meth-heads and the remnants of the drug wars and the usual urban horror stories, it never took much selling on Pickford’s part to convince his clients they needed protection.
Currently, he had his guys in Mexico, escorting businessmen on a deal there; in a private jet on its way to the Dominican Republic, acting as security for a party of old men loaded on Viagra and Scotch and looking for teenage hookers; and all over the suburbs, bored as they made a bunch of millionaires feel safe at night in their gated communities.
OpSec also did jobs for corporate clients, such as Conquest Biotech. He’d never put their name down as a reference, but Conquest had used his services since he’d started business, from background checks to bodyguarding to the occasional B&E job in the lab of a rival firm. If he had any loyalty, it was to the steady stream of income Conquest had always supplied OpSec.
So when Max asked Pickford to follow around a new hire named David Robinton, Pickford didn’t think much of it. Guys like Robinton were loaded with intellectual property. It made sense to keep an eye on an investment like that. OpSec did it all the time. This was a ten-grand handjob at the most.
The War on Terror provided Pickford with plenty of young guys loaded with testosterone and lethal skills, fresh out of war zones and with few job opportunities. He sent one of them, a kid named Mathis, to shadow Conquest’s pet geek and come back with a report.
Then Mathis entered his office without knocking, hands up and behind his head. Directly in front of a woman who held a gun.
She wore tights and a workout bra and held a gym bag in her other hand. Mathis had a rapidly swelling bruise and an embarrassed look on his face.
“Had a bit of a problem, sir,” he said.
“Yeah, I can see that,” Pickford said. He kept his hands where the woman could see them, and waited.
“This boy belongs to you,” the woman said.
“He works for me, yes,” Pickford said. “Can I ask why you’re holding a gun on him?”
As he spoke, he gestured with his left hand. It was meant to distract her while he reached for the silent alarm under his desk with his right.
It didn’t work. She pivoted on the balls of her feet and brought the bag against Mathis’s skull in a single move. Mathis’s eyes rolled up and he went down as though he was hit by a tree branch. Before Pickford could draw another breath, the gun was pointed directly at him.
He had to admit, a beautiful woman in spandex holding a gun on him slotted into some of his more specific fantasies. But she was disturbingly calm, as if she did this sort of thing every day. He doubted her pulse was much above sixty.
Her gun hand didn’t waver. He gave all of his employees nine-millimeter Berettas loaded with hollow-point rounds. He could see the red dot on the side of the gun that meant the safety was off. If he didn’t want this to end with massive hemorrhaging, he realized he was going to have to be very, very careful now.
One hopeful sign. Neither he nor Mathis was dead already. If she meant to kill them, she’d had her chance. Keeping them alive was only increasing her risk at this point.
He might get out of this yet.
He put up his hands.
“Who hired you?” she asked.
He considered lying, or at least stalling. But she’d seen Mathis following her, taken him out, and forced him to lead her back here. That wasn’t easy, even if Mathis was still young. There were a dozen ways it could have gone bad on her, and she still made it to his office.
That put his odds of bullshitting into the unfavorably low range.
He decided to go with the truth and see where it led.
“Conquest Biotech,” he said.
The look on her face scared him. It was there for only a split second, but it was equal parts disgust and anger. It motivated him to tell her something that might keep her from pulling the trigger.
“We weren’t hired to follow you, exactly. I assigned Mathis to David Robinton. He’s supposed to keep an eye on him. Make notes of who he sees. Where he goes. That sort of thing.”
She considered that.
“It’s really a compliment, if you think about it,” Pickford said. “He’s very valuable to Conquest. It’s more a formality, for his protection, more than anything else.”
She raised the gun to center on his forehead.
“Have you told them anything about me yet?”
Pickford got the distinct sense his life might depend on the answer. He decided, again, the best course of action was the truth.
“No,” he said. “We report once a week. I didn’t even know you existed until you walked into this room.”
He held his breath.
She nodded. She seemed to be thinking.
“Is he your boyfriend, or are you—”
“Quiet now,” she said. He shut up.
She looked at him carefully for another moment, and then seemed to come to a decision.
“I believe you,” she said. “Here’s your problem. I don’t want Conquest to know I’ve been near David. I don’t want them to have any idea anything is wrong with their pet genius.”
“You’re working your own angle,” Pickford said. She was an operator. She had to be. High-level industrial espionage, with those skills.
She didn’t confirm or deny, which he expected.
“Your problem,” she continued, “is that I need to believe you won’t report any of this back to Conquest once I leave this room.”
Pickford swallowed. Once again, he decided honesty was the best policy.
“Well, I hate to say it, but there’s only one way to be sure of that.” He looked at the gun.
She smiled, and it was so brilliant that for an instant he forgot how much trouble he was in.
“No,” she said. “Fortunately for you, I thought of another way.”
She put the gym bag on his desk. It landed with a surprisingly heavy thud. He wondered if she kept weights in there.
She gestured him back with the gun, and he complied. Without taking her eyes off him, she reached into the bag and lifted out what was inside, placing it on the desk blotter right next to his computer.
Pickford drew in a sharp, short breath.
It was small, shaped like a tiny loaf of bread. There was an ornate character stamped into its side. And it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
It was a gold ingot.
He’d never seen real gold before, but he had no doubt that was what he was looking at now. It took in the overhead light and doubled it, pouring it in rich waves back into the room.
He couldn’t stop staring at it. Until she took out another, and another, and another, from her bag.
He looked at the ingots and tried to do the math in his head. They had to weigh at least three pounds each. He listened to Glenn Beck, and though he didn’t think of himself as a Doomsday Prepper, he did keep an eye on the price of gold. It was going for around $1,300 an ounce right now. Three pounds was forty-eight ounces was $62,400 per ingot.
That was almost a quarter of a million dollars, right there on his desk.
“That would be a down payment,” she said. “I would like to buy out your interest in David Robinton. And I’d expect a few more favors, here and there. Unless, of course, you feel some great loyalty toward Conquest.”
Pickford wanted to touch the gold so badly he felt it in his chest. She still had the gun on him. But it didn’t matter anymore.
He liked to believe he had a code. But looking at the gleam of the little bricks, he knew definitively that he’d left those sorts of ideals behind with his uniform. He was a mercenary, and mercenaries did not have a code. Mercenaries only had a price.
He couldn’t keep the smile off his face when he looked back at her.
“I think we can see our way clear to taking you on as a client,” he said.
She smiled back at him.
“I thought you would,” she said.
Only then did she lower the gun.
AVID WALKED DOWN
the hall to Max’s office.
They’d met only briefly when David had first gone to Miami, but he and Max had spent a lot of time together since then. Max, David learned, was Simon’s right-hand man, the guy who kept tabs on everything so Simon could spend his time chasing models or getting thrown out of bars.
Max’s executive assistant—a blonde packed into a tight outfit who seemed to have come straight from a naughty-librarian fantasy—escorted him in, and then left them alone.
As always, the office seemed almost unused. There was never a coffee cup on the desk, or even any papers. It was like he came in only for these weekly progress reports with David.
Unfortunately, there was no progress to report.
David was explaining that he had found nothing in the latest round of DNA testing when he noticed that Max wasn’t paying attention.
“Hey,” he said. “Are you listening to any of this?”
Max focused in on him again and gave him a sharp smile. “Not really,” he said. “I sort of lose focus after you tell me you’ve failed again.”
David was never sure exactly how much of the work Max understood. He was the same age as Simon and, like Simon, always dressed in an impeccable suit. But where Simon was unrestrained, Max spoke as though each word cost him money. He waited for others to step out of line, and then knocked them back into line with a cold, well-chosen sentence.
David was in no mood for it. He was exhausted. “This isn’t like mixing a drink,” David told Max. “There are millions—billions—of factors that play into what we’re trying to do.”
“Oh God, spare me. I don’t need to hear again how complicated it all is.”
“Then we should probably skip these meetings altogether. I could get more done in the lab.”
“You sure?” Max shot back. “Doesn’t seem like it. We’ve handed you a solution, David. All you have to do is copy it. Are we not paying you enough?”
David took a deep breath, trying to hold on to his temper. He reminded himself that he was here to ask Max for a favor.
“Listen to me,” he said. “I’ve looked everywhere. I’ve eliminated the possible causes and agents inside the human body. Whatever this is, it’s in your serum. I’ve done what I can from the results. I cannot go forward without a sample. I need the liquid, Max.”
“You can’t have it,” he said flatly.
“I want to talk to Simon about this.”
“You think he’ll give you a different answer?”
“He said anything I wanted—”
“Except that,” Max shot back. “You just started working for us, and you want a sample of the greatest medical breakthrough in history?”
“You think I’m going to steal it?”
Max smiled at him. “I believe people are fallible. No one is above temptation. No one knows that better than Simon. That’s why there are rules. You were given the rules. I’m not going to break them for you.”
“Let’s ask Simon, then.”
“Well, unfortunately, he’s out of town.”
“They don’t have phones where he is?”
“I’m sure they do, but it’s hard to hear when you’ve got your head between someone’s thighs. Probably difficult to speak clearly, too.”
The whole time they’d been talking, Max had been staring at his computer screen and occasionally tapping his keyboard. David assumed Max was checking his email. Now he shifted in his seat and got a good look at Max’s monitor.
It was running a screen saver. Max wasn’t even playing a video game.
David’s fists clenched. He stood. It was probably a good idea to end a meeting before you punched your immediate superior in the face. “Great. Well, then you’re paying me a lot of money to waste all of our time.”
Max finally looked away from his computer. He seemed to relent a little bit. “I’ll pass on the message. In the meantime, you keep trying.”
“I need that sample,” David said. “Without it, I’m just running in place.”
Max went back to pretending to check his email. He spoke without looking up. “You’re a smart guy, David,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”
AFTER THE WHORE LEFT,
Max sat alone in his darkened apartment, thinking about his meeting with David that morning.
The lights around the bay looked like a small galaxy from the patio of his high-rise apartment. He didn’t really see them on a conscious level anymore. Instead, he noticed the streaks on the glass of his floor-to-ceiling windows, the layer of dust on everything in the apartment, despite the money he paid to a white-glove cleaning service to visit twice a week. He ran his finger over the stereo, which he’d bought only six months before. Like the one it replaced, he’d never even switched it on. He didn’t really care for music.
So much of his life was like that: repetitive maintenance, time and money spent keeping up appearances, the constant polishing of his disguise.
Even the whore tonight had been something barely felt, a response to a small tug of lust, a minor itch easily scratched.
Max tried to remember when he last actually felt something deeply, but abandoned the effort after a moment. Simon needed to be told his latest savior was failing.
He picked up his phone from the side table, struggled to remember how to work the damned thing, and then pressed the button. It was not actually a button, of course. It was a mirage, a trick of light on glass. There was a time he would have thought something like this was witchcraft. Now he simply found it infuriating. He hated these toys. He and the others could barely work them. They were one of the things that made him feel truly old.
He tried to put his irritation aside as Simon answered, after the usual delay. Simon wasn’t good at working his phone, either.
“Where are you?”
“Beijing,” Simon said. “Some of our creditors here are a bit nervous about parking any more dollars with us.”
“I don’t blame them.”
There was a deep sigh over the line. “Max, I hope you have more impor-tant things for me than your attempts at humor.”
“It’s David. He’s requesting a sample of the pure, undiluted Water. Again.”
Simon hesitated. “I’d hoped he would make more headway with what we’d given him. Tell him to work harder.”
“He works fourteen hours a day.”
“What’s he doing with the other ten?”
“Nothing that we don’t know about. I have one of our security contractors shadowing him at all times. He works, and he goes home, and he runs. He talks to no one outside the labs. Oh, he does do some volunteer work.”
“All Children’s Hospital. He reads to the sick children. I suspect it’s his way of being with his dead sister again. Aside from that, all he does is work. He’s quite obsessed.”
“And that’s why he is the one who will find the answer. He views death as a personal enemy. He will deliver a solution for us. I am sure of it.”
“I know you believe that.”
“You don’t like him, do you?”
“Quite the contrary. He is decent and responsible and moral. And that’s the problem. I worry he might actually believe in something greater than his own needs. A man with principles is dangerous.”
“Fortunately, there aren’t many of them.”
“This isn’t a joke, Simon. What happens if he does find the answer? Do you plan to take another member into the Council?”
Another pause. “I haven’t decided.”
After all these years together, Simon still thought he could get a lie past Max. Max smiled.
“What are you doing, Simon? What is your plan?”
“The same as always. To save the world. In spite of itself.”
“I was talking about your more immediate goals.”
“We need him, Max. We need someone more comfortable with this era. We need someone smarter. We need new blood. And most of all, we need a solution. Do you honestly think I chose poorly?”
Max looked at the lights again, and again did not really see them at all.
“I wish I could say yes,” he said. “But no. He is brilliant. Truly. He’s burned through all the false paths it took the others years to discover. I’ve done everything I can to stall him. I believe he is right. The answer is in the Water itself. Not in anything it touches. And that is why he’s doomed to fail. We cannot give him what he asks. Not without revealing ourselves.”
Simon brooded about it for a moment. “We might not have a choice. This is about our survival, after all.”
“You’re not seriously considering—”
“No, of course not. Give him more time. He will surprise himself. And you.”
“May I ask one favor?”
“You know that’s a ridiculous question.”
“I’m not so sure these days.”
“Max. It’s late. Ask your favor.”
“Please tell me before you extend your offer to David. Before you reveal us to him. He might react badly. As I said, he’s more ethical than our previous candidates. He might surprise us badly.”
“You’re wrong,” Simon said flatly. “In the end, all he cares about is solving the problem. That is the only principle he really has. If we give him a way to do that, he will not care about the morality behind the mystery.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“I’ve gotten us this far, haven’t I?” Simon said. “You just need a woman.”
“I just had one.”
“Have another.” Simon hung up.
Max considered throwing the phone against the window, then remembered that meant he’d have to go through the torture of learning to use a new one. He set it back on the side table.
He knew what he needed. More of the Water. He needed to bathe in it, soak in it, let it saturate him and fill him.
They all needed this, but he was the only one who knew it. He wasn’t sure when he’d realized it, but it became increasingly obvious with every passing year: they were slowly petrifying, becoming stiff parodies of the people they’d used to be.
Pedro—Max could not call him “Peter” without a bad taste in his mouth—was still a child, desperately fascinated by the latest toys, buying cars and computers and boats and planes and anything else that was shiny and made interesting noises. He still longed for the chance to play war, even though soldiers had been surpassed by drone strikes and cruise missiles. Sebastian had never been a complex man, and time had refined him down to a few points. He was accustomed to being worshipped for his physical beauty, and that was enough. Max sometimes wondered if everyone who was born with such genetic gifts was the same way, if they just accepted the world as it was, because for them it was nothing but pleasant attention. Carlos was hidden away somewhere in South America, a prisoner of his own paranoia. And Aznar—well, Aznar had become even more like himself.
They were all clinging to being human, when they should have been reaching for the next step, evolving into something more.
If a sip of the Water could do so much, what would happen if they drowned in it? What would happen if they gave up the idea of all limits? What would they become then?
Simon wouldn’t hear of this. Max tried to tell him, but Simon was content to play his games and dance around the real problems. He was still enamored of the idea that this world was perfectible. He still believed that this gift—all the additional years the Water had given them—was meant to allow him to push the rest of humanity into some kind of order.
That was truly frustrating, for of all of the Council, Simon was—had always been—the most brilliant, the most perceptive. It was maddening that an intellect, a spirit, like his should be so chained by nostalgia.
In their lives, they had already redrawn the maps of the world several times. They’d toppled governments and moved behind the scenes of history. They controlled entire economies of wealth. They were the secret chiefs of the Earth.
And what had they really changed?
Not a damned thing.
There was always an excuse, always an inherent barrier to the changes Simon wanted.
The truth was, people did not want to change.
Take, for instance, their efforts to finally sever their homeland from the inbred and antiquated monarchy that was suffocating it. They’d backed a movement they thought would unite the country and would force it to fulfill its potential, to retake Spain’s place as a world power.
But sentimental loyalists, malcontents, and opportunists saw their own chance at power. The ensuing chaos forced them into an alliance with foreign powers who were hell-bent on war with the entire world. It took years to recover from their tactical error in joining with the Axis, and years more to accept the fact that Spain would never again be the empire of their youth.
Since then, every one of their efforts in the world, while profitable, had become tediously predictable to Max. They would plan and strategize, and carefully shift money and influence and people. And inevitably some little bastard would undo all their hard work with greed and incompetence.
It was like trying to play chess with toddlers: every time you set up the board, they knocked all the pieces onto the floor and covered them with snot.
Now Simon thought he’d found someone who’d find an answer. This boy David.
Simon believed if he could find the secret of the Water, then he’d finally be free of all limits. He could force the world to behave by giving the gift of endless years to his followers and punish those who dissented with their natural lifespan. Eventually, the only survivors would be the ones who obeyed.
Max smiled. Because it’s worked so well in our little group.
Max wasn’t so blinded by hindsight. He could see that the Council was afraid. They were still thinking like men. They didn’t know what they would be without their old habits. But he was chained to them, his ability to move forward limited by Simon’s stubborn refusal to give up any more of the Water than absolutely necessary.
So his life became a holding pattern.
Simon didn’t seem to realize—or perhaps did not want to realize—that it didn’t matter why the Water worked. They had been given a gift. They’d been given a chance to surpass their mere humanity. To pursue anything else was a waste of time.
And despite all appearances, their time was not unlimited.
Max knew what had to be done. He’d known it since before David Robinton was born, in fact. But he’d hoped Simon would wake up.