When You Look Up, You Feel Like You’re Falling
Howls rose within her mind, like when high winds poured around her house at night and made sounds like wailing ghosts. She’d wake in terror, clutching her big down pillow, and not until she came fully awake could she grip reality and remember the human-sounding groans derived from nothing more supernatural than flow turbulence beneath the edges of her new solar panels.
But what could she hold onto now? Her lab was wrecked and she’d fled her beautiful solar-powered house. No graduate students. No research. Nothing to clutch against the howls except this blue lunchbox and the tall tale inside.
Tires shrieked as the Jeep lurched around a corner. Richard was driving like a madman. She thought of her bipolar brother Sammie and his endless car crashes. Her hands ached, and when she checked to why, she discovered that her fingertips had turned purple from gripping the lunchbox so hard. She relaxed her hold to let the blood flow back. She should take better care of her hands.
Once upon a time, she had beautiful hands. That’s what everyone always used to say. She’d taken the compliments for granted until she stopped getting them. Cooking, chemical reagents, obsessive cleaning, they’d taken their toll. No elastin left. These days she had the hands of a fishwife. She owned closets full of moisturizing lotions, but none help. What was a fishwife anyway? Probably someone who wrecks her hands scaling fish.
She set the lunchbox on the floor beneath her feet and leafed through the dossier Richard had given her: birth certificates, fingerprints and passports, police reports of missing persons, a single faded photo from a newspaper. Taken together, they told the story of a man who didn’t age.
“It’s so easy to fake photos,” she said.
They were driving on a two-lane highway now, steadily and evenly, but above the speed limit. Richard twisted around in the seat, struggled with a pocket, and pulled out a cell phone. “Use the web browser,” he said. “Find the Sydney Tribune archive page, and look at August eleventh, nineteen-fifty-eight, page six.” He slammed on the brakes and made a sudden U-turn.
She wasn’t good at typing with her thumb especially in a constantly braking and swerving car, but she found the story from the dossier, and the photo too, a man in his mid-thirties who’d gone missing in Australia.
He looked younger than mid-thirties, as young as the graduate students who used to come to talk to her during office hours , all bashful and shy because they’d fallen hopelessly in love with her. One or two a semester. When was the last time that happened?
“Found the article?” Menniss said. “So you see, I didn’t fake the photo. Now go to the Homeland Security website, www.dhs.gov. Under sitemap, you’ll find a login option. Use this name and password.” He gave them to her, and she laboriously thumbed them in. “Now search for Alan Davidsen. No, first, enter your own name. Just to see how much they know.”
It took awhile to type her whole name, but when she did, the things that came up filled her with outrage. “Oh my God! They have every place I’ve lived. All my driver’s licenses, passport photos. Even my high school yearbook. And what’s this part? Phone log? They have every single number I’ve called? Going back twenty years? And my emails. Is this because—because you brought me the tissue?”
“No, not at all. They have that kind of information on everyone.”
“But that’s so unconstitutional! The Republicans are turning the United States into a dictatorship.”
He twisted the steering wheel and they left the highway at such a sharp angle the force slammed her into the passenger door.
“Stop it,” she cried. “You’re going to get us killed.”
“I’m trying to save us from getting killed. Now type in Alan Davidsen.”
She did. And there he was.
The same man fifty years later, and not aged a year. Maybe a man could stay young looking all the way up to forty, or even fifty if you used enough makeup. But given the time interval, this man calling himself Alan Davidsen had to be at least seventy years old. It wasn’t possible to look like a beautiful young man at seventy.
Unless he didn’t have an aging clock.
“You’ll want to close your eyes now,” Richard said.
She closed her eyes and put her palms over them as inertia tossed her. She heard horns and tire screeches and plugged her ears with her index fingers to make the outside world disappear.
A human who didn’t age. A science-fiction story.
Not at all. In fact, she should have been looking for such cases herself. If all higher organisms possess a genetically determined clock that initiates and controls the rate of aging, mutations that disable the clock could certainly occur. Perhaps, as she suspected, the clock was linked to the citric acid cycle or some other essential physiologic function; in that case, non-fatal mutations would occur only rarely. But they could still occur.
You meet someone at a bar, you seduce him, and he gives you the key to winning the Nobel Prize. It sounded like the punch line of a joke.
Only, it wasn’t a joke. Someone had wrecked her lab, and a few hours later Federal agents had come pounding on the door of her house.
Her eyes popped open. “Are they still following us?”
They were on the freeway, past Capitola. “Hold on tight,” he said. He jerked the wheel, swerved across three lanes of traffic and raced down an exit ramp. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think I’ve lost them.”
“If you’ve lost them, then why are you still driving like this?”
“Just to make sure.” He made another of his violent U-turns and threw the car up an on-ramp, putting them on the freeway in the opposite direction from the way they were going before.
You meet a man in a bar and he gives you the tissue of an Immortal. You sequence the tissue’s DNA, which doesn’t take more than six months; you use a computer to compare the tissue genome against the normal human genome, and that doesn’t take any appreciable time at all, given the speed of computers; then you do some digging around. With any luck, a few weeks later you find the genetic clock, the goal of your whole professional life. What a funny joke. Especially when you can’t sequence the tissue because you don’t have a lab anymore, and you’re running away from someone who isn’t chasing you. Hysterically funny.
But she didn’t let herself laugh because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to stop. She was on the edge. She didn’t have full-blown bipolar disease like Sammie and her aunt Evelyn, but she’d known for a long time that she had the tendency. If she went too far down certain roads, she might not be able to come back.
She looked at Richard, his big body hunched around the wheel, his eyes flashing in every direction. Despite that fact he was driving like a madman, she found his presence calming.
She wondered what he thought of her. She wasn’t beautiful anymore, not the way she once was. And she wasn’t a normal woman. She was a science robot. Mike had told her that a thousand times. Men want women who can feel, but she lived in her mind, not in her feelings.
Did Richard like her anyway? Last night, while they were making love, he certainly seemed to. What about now?
But as she tried to concentrate on the question, her familiar mental block appeared, the dense mental mist to which, way back in childhood, she’d given the name “Grey Fog.” She knew better than to fight it because when you fought against Grey Fog you got something worse: Blocking Monster. The name was childish but that’s exactly what it felt like, a giant stone monster plopping down from nowhere and blocking your thoughts.
Other people didn’t have the same mental blocks. Mike said it came from focusing on facts too much, and he was probably right, especially regarding Blocking Monster, because it mostly appeared when she tried to think about emotions. Mike said she was afraid of emotions, and that’s why she did science because she wanted to think instead of feel.
But he had that last part backwards. She did science because it made her feel. She loved science. What was more worth getting passionate about than the truth?
For example, consider this piece of truth. Japanese quail and common pigeons each weigh about the same as the other, but pigeons live ten times longer. A Japanese quail begins to show signs of aging at a year and a half that won’t appear in a pigeon for another fifteen years. Isn’t that enough in itself to prove that aging is under deliberate control?
An entire factor of ten. Apply that to a human, and what do you get? The lifespan of Methuselah. Not that there ever really was a Methuselah.
Richard lifted a hand off the steering wheel and stroked her once-beautiful hair. “I think we’re safe now.”
“You do?” On impulse, she leaned over and kissed him. He was such a good, kind man. She knew that from the stories he’d told. She trusted him. How wonderful to have someone you could trust.
Francine unzipped the lunch box and checked on the sample. Six ice cubes floating in the water, and the sample wrapped tight in about forty layers of saran wrap. Just a bit of overkill. How cute. “How far do we have to go? If it’s very far, we need to get more ice.”
“I’m not sure. But the directions are in the most recent text message on my phone.”
She found the message and read through it. “Based on the mileages, it looks like an hour or two. The ice should last that far. But what’s this place we’re going to? It’s deep in the redwoods.”
“A hidden laboratory for Dr. Selis.” He pronounced “laboratory” the Boris Karloff way. Her non-scientist friends in college used to say it like that too. “Francine has to go to her la-BOR-a-TOR-y.” Back when she had non-scientist friends. Most of them were English Lit majors. Then molecular biology took over her life and she didn’t have time for friends.
She had a frightening thought. “Who sent you these directions? Are you sure they’re not in on the conspiracy?”
“They came from my client. He’s the one who convinced me that Immortals exist in the world, and he paid me to look for them.”
Francine imagined Richard dressed like Sherlock Holmes and holding a magnifying glass, and smiled. “Who’s your client?”
“I don’t know. I’ve worked for him for twenty-five years doing this and that, but I’ve never seen his face. I call him the I-H, the Immortal Hunter. I’ve lately realized he’s kind of a character.”
“He has a weird sense of humor. He thinks life is a big joke.”
“I hate that attitude,” she said. “Life’s not a joke. There’s so much greed and selfishness in the world that you have to take it seriously. Watch out!” A truck carrying redwood logs appeared from nowhere, lumbering directly into their way. She screamed and closed her eyes. She didn’t want to die. Not now. There was too much left to discover.
But Richard made a smooth turn and the huge crash she expected didn’t happen. She opened her eyes and the road was clear. “You’re a really good driver,” she said.
“It’s the car. It has stability control. It also has a really good radio. How about we listen to some music and relax?”
They were driving in a suburban neighborhood in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. He tuned the radio to a classical station, and she would have liked it except he’d turned the volume up much too high. She reached toward the knob to turn it down, but before she made it there, Richard grabbed her forearm, squeezing so forcefully it hurt. She cried out, but the music drowned out the sound. With his mouth to her ear, he said, “I have something important to tell you, and I have to assume this car is bugged.”
The car was bugged? Howls of terror rose within her. But she was also curious. Putting her mouth to his ear now, she asked, “Bugged by whom?”
“My client. I only trust him so far. Right now he needs you, but the moment you discover how to make people immortal, he won’t need you anymore. That’s what worries me. Don’t the directions say I’m supposed to hop the curb somewhere around here? We’re on Bridgelane Drive.”
The sudden change of subject confused her, but only for an instant and then she was on top of it. She scanned the text message. “There’s supposed to be a green two-story house across from a house under construction. Oh, here we are. Hop the curb at that empty lot past the yurt. But are you sure we should follow these directions? What if it’s a trap?”
“We don’t have much of a choice.” He drove the jeep up over the curb. They passed through a large clearing between two houses and came to the dirt road leading into the redwoods. “If we stay out in the open, the guys chasing us will find us, and even though I don’t entirely trust my client, I trust him more than I do them. We have to go to ground somewhere, and I don’t see any option beside the I-H’s place. But once we’re there, we’ll need to handle things carefully. The point is to manipulate things so you stay essential. As long as the I-H needs you, you’re safe.”
She was in the middle of a real-life thriller. “But if I have to worry about manipulating someone, I’ll be too anxious to work. When I’m anxious, my mind goes sideways.”
“Well that doesn’t sound too good.” He put his hand on her thigh. She wouldn’t have thought she could get aroused when she was so scared.
“How about this for a deal,” he said. “You do the science, and I’ll do the manipulating. It’s a way of life in my line of business, and I’m good at it. When am I supposed to turn next?”
He turned the music down a little. “Not for another mile.”
They were fully in redwood forest now. She loved the redwoods. Beautiful trees towered up around them, trees so high that when you looked up you felt like you were falling.