By: Terry D. Scheerer
Sometime in the not to distant future—
Carter Hartley, CEO of the largest pharmaceutical research company on the West Coast skimmed over the last page of the electronic report and tossed the data pad onto his desk. The pad slid across the polished, antique rosewood and came to a stop scant inches from the far edge of the huge desk. “I don’t see how they can blame us for any of this,” he said to the other man in his office.
Hudson Clarke stood silently, lost in thought with his back to the desk, gazing out of floor to ceiling windows at the city, sixty-two floors below him. When he finally spoke, it was softly, as if he was speaking only to himself. “Do you know how many people in the world could care less about our petty problems?”
“What?” Carter asked, not understanding how the question pertained to the report.
“Damn near all of them,” Hudson replied, still speaking softly. “And yet, do you have any idea how many people in the world are going to become frantic to be involved with this project when the results of that report become widely known?” he asked. “Damn near all of them,” Hudson answered his own question after a short pause.
Carter sighed, but didn’t say anything else. He was used to his friend and partner’s peculiar mood swings and found that if he just ignored Clarke’s unusual verbal meanderings, he would eventually come back down to earth.
True to form, after a few more minutes of silent contemplation, Hudson turned from the window and moved over the plop his lanky frame down in one of the heavy upholstered chairs that faced the desk. “You missed the whole point of the report, Carter,” he began, as if no time had passed since Hartley had finished reading the report.
“Explain it to me.”
“You’ve heard of California’s giant redwoods, haven’t you?” Clarke asked from behind his long, steepled fingers.
“Of course I’ve heard of them,” Carter stated. Though his offices were only a few hours from the very trees Hudson was talking about, Hartley had never taken the time to visit the forest of huge, ancient trees. His business had always kept him too busy to take time off for any sort of vacation, let alone one that would take him away from the creature comforts he had become so used to. “What about them?”
Now it was Clarke’s turn to sigh. Deeply. “It was in the report, Carter,” he said, trying not to sound too exasperated. “Some of those trees live to be over two thousand years old.” Carter seemed unimpressed, so Hudson continued. “About twenty years ago, a geneticist in Northern California discovered the gene in the Sequoias that slowed down cell degeneration. It appeared that it was this gene that helped the trees live as long as they do.”
Now Hudson detected a gleam in Carter’s eye. He must have realized that there might be some way to make a profit from this information, but Clarke plowed ahead with his story before Carter could sidetrack him.
“While that discovery was considered a breakthrough in some scientific circles, nothing was done with it at the time and after a while it was just filed away and essentially forgotten about, until some fifteen years ago when the Manned Mars Mission was in the early planning stages.
“One of the many problems facing the scientists working on the Triple M project was how to fit enough water, food, and oxygen for two or perhaps three astronauts on board a craft that would also have to carry scientific gear and enough fuel to get them safely to Mars and then, of course, back home again on a journey that would last some sixteen to twenty months.”
Unable to sit still, Hudson got up and began to pace the length of the office, but was drawn back to the view of the city from his huge windows that formed two walls of Carter’s office. He stared down from his lofty position at the teeming millions of people below as he continued speaking to Carter. “ They had obtained some insight from past experiences with the Mir Space Station, as well as the International Space Station, such as how to recycle both air and water, but the Triple M project had its own set of problems. If the astronauts were to run short of supplies a hundred million miles from Earth, there wasn’t going to be much anyone could do to help them. Of course, they were going to try and produce some of their own food during the trip – using a system of hydroponics and the like – so the processed food they carried would only be used as a supplement, hopefully, but even so, two years is a long time for food to just sit around.”
He turned back to face Carter before going on. “ Then, one of the scientists on the project came across the research done on the sequoia gene. He found that if that gene was introduced into the cells of the processed foodstuffs, it slowed the breakdown of the cells, essentially keeping food from spoiling for months without the necessity for added preservatives or refrigeration.” Carter didn’t appear overly impressed by this breakthrough and Hudson moved over and put his hand on the desk and leaned toward the man.
“ That meant that they could stock the Triple M ship with more than enough food for the extended trip and didn’t have to worry about any of the food going bad before they returned to Earth.”
“ I understand that part of it,” Carter said with a wave of his hand, “but how did we become involved with the Mars mission?”
“We didn’t,” Hudson replied, moving away from the desk and back to the window. “We became involved after they returned. Something happened on that long trip to Mars, something that no one has yet been able to understand.”
He became silent and Carter waited for him to continue. When he didn’t speak for sometime, Carter finally asked, “So what happened?”
Shaking off his inner thoughts, Carter went on. “We know what happened, we just don’t know why. Somewhere out there in the blackness of the space between the Moon and Mars the sequoia gene changed. It mutated, for lack of a better term. It may have been the extended lack of gravity or perhaps it was cosmic radiation – nobody knows for sure and why it happened isn’t really that important. What is important is the result of the mutation.” He turned back to Face Carter, but didn’t leave his place near the window.
“When the mutated gene was ingested and digested by the astronauts, it managed to attach itself to cells in their own bodies and then did the same thing to their cells as it did to the food cells. It slowed down the cell deterioration.”
Not sure if his friend meant to imply that this was good or bad, Carter had to ask, “Is that a good or bad result?”
Hudson sighed, again. “It depends on how you view the future of the human race,” he answered, which didn’t help Carter to understand the situation any better, at all.
“And that means…?” he prompted.
Turning back to the window, Hudson said, “Cells in the human body die all the time, but they are usually replaced with new cells, as the older cells die off. As the body ages, however, fewer new cells are produced and over the years as more cells die without being replaced, we inevitably age more rapidly. The eyesight goes, the hearing goes, muscle and bone weaken and deteriorate, all because cells die and aren’t replaced.” He moved back to stand in front of the desk to emphasize his next words.
“For the most part during the past hundred and fifty years, the average life span has been slowly but steadily increasing. At one point, it was up to 87.6 years. That was the number of years the average human in western society could expect to live. Unfortunately, in the past couple of decades, that average has declined rather drastically. Due to excessive air pollution, pesticides in our food, carcinogens in our water, strains of bacteria that have become immune to most known antibiotics and other, as yet discovered reasons, the average life expectancy in the western world has now dropped to approximately 78.3 years and by all accounts is still on the decline.
“That is a huge drop in only twenty years,” he admitted, “and has frightened global scientists, who don’t know if they can reverse this downward progression.” Suddenly tired and frustrated, Hudson plopped himself back down in the chair and stared at his hands for a moment before continuing.
“Now, imagine if there was something that would slow down cell deterioration in the human body– something that would essentially slow the aging process and add literally decades to the normal life span. How much would that be worth to people?” he asked, looking up at Carter. “And what would people be willing to do to achieve this miracle?”
Carter slowly began to understand the implications of what Hudson was saying. “We have access to this, this gene?” he asked, his voice almost in a whisper.
“In a manor of speaking, we do,” Hudson admitted, although he didn’t sound very happy about it as he leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling. “When the astronauts returned from Mars, it was months before anyone discovered that they weren’t aging in a normal fashion and it was months more before it was discovered what had caused the change. It was all top secret, of course. No one wanted to admit the possibility of a life extending breakthrough until it had been sufficiently tested. That’s were we come in.”
He leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees, now staring down at the floor.”We did experiments for almost two years, using what little of the food was brought back from the Mars mission. It turned out that we couldn’t reproduce the gene mutation effect here on Earth. Whatever happened to it could only take place out there,” and he waved his hand toward the window, indicating the vastness of space.
“We fed some of the remaining food from the mission to animals and some human volunteers. It worked the same on either species – cell deterioration was slowed, as was the aging process. But we couldn’t duplicate the gene mutation,” he said. Slamming his fist down on the arm of the chair and getting up, Hudson began pacing the room once again.
“Eventually, we put down the animals that had been infected by the mutated gene and fed some of them to additional volunteers.” He stopped his pacing and wiped a shaky hand over his face. “It seems that the mutated gene can only be transferred from one cell group to another by ingestion and digestion. Those volunteers who digested the mutated gene in the affected animal meat also exhibited a slowdown in cell deterioration.”
“They actually stopped aging?” Carter asked.
“No, they didn’t stop aging,” Hudson assured him, “but they showed a definite slowing of the age process. We won’t know for decades how many years may have been added to their lives. There are too many variables – their age at the time of ingestion, their health at that time, other variables we haven’t even worked out yet.”
“So, the experiments are ongoing, then,” Carter asked, finally becoming excited at the possibilities of this breakthrough.
Hudson collapsed back into the chair and covered his face with his hands. “Only in the sense that we can medically follow the remaining volunteers,” he admitted.
“What do you mean, ‘the remaining volunteers’?” Carter asked, suddenly feeling a sinking sensation in his stomach. “How many are there?”
“We now have contact with eight of the original twenty-six volunteers.”
“Eight!” Carter echoed. “What happened to the rest of them?” he asked, hoping that he wasn’t going to be told that they had somehow died as a result of the experiments.
“They walked away from the research complex in Delano two nights ago and basically disappeared.”
Flabbergasted by this revelation, Carter demanded, “How was that allowed to happen?”
Hudson sprang from the chair and glared at his friend. “Christ, Carter, they weren’t prisoners,” he nearly shouted. “They were volunteers,” he told him, calming somewhat, “and they were apparently frightened when they found out what happened to them.”
“Why would they be frightened?” Carter asked, almost shouting himself. “They should have been thrilled to death at the prospect of living a longer life. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
“Of course it is. That’s exactly why they were frightened.”
Confused, Carter asked more calmly, “Explain that line of reasoning to me.”
Hudson sighed and moved back over to the window and stared down at the city, knowing that somewhere out there, eighteen frightened people were living on borrowed time. He sighed again. “The only way the mutant gene can be transferred to another living organism is by ingestion and the only samples of the mutant gene we have left in the whole world are in the living tissue of those twenty-six volunteers.” He turned and looked hard at Carter, who was slowly beginning to realize the implications of what Hudson was saying. “What do you think the rest of the world population is going to do when they find out that only twenty-six people in the entire world have the potential to extend their lives by twenty, thirty, even fifty years or more?”
“But no one knows about this, outside the company. Do they?”
“They didn’t up until two nights ago,” Hudson told him. “But now that the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak, we aren’t going to be able to keep this under wraps for very long.” He turned back to the window. “Someone is going to be upset that he or she can’t have this miracle for themselves and they will sound the alarm. They will tell other people that there are a few special humans who have something that the rest of us can not have. People will become jealous at first, then they will become angry and then they will attempt to seek out these special people and try to take from them that which they themselves do not have.” He sighed, again. “It is, after all, only human nature to fear, to hate and then to destroy that which we do not understand, that which we want but can not have.”
Disturbed by the thought that his friend might actually be correct in his judgement of human behavior, Carter asked softly, “You’re being a just bit hard on the human race, don’t you think?”
Hudson slowly shook his head, but didn’t answer. He continued staring out the window as a single tear welled up and over his eyelash and dropped unnoticed to his cheek.
Less than a week later, the news that a life-expanding gene had been discovered was known world-wide. When it was found out that the limited quantity of this gene was being hoarded by only a handful of people, riots broke out. All over the world, frantic, angry people stormed university and genetic research centers and frequently burned them to the ground when no information could be found on how to obtain this elusive gene. The “Gene” and the people who had it was not only the talk of the town, but the entire world.
A small talk radio station in Central California was no exception.
“Good evening, everyone. This is Tommy T. Martin at KILR, that’s Killer Talk Radio, your late night companion with a very special guest for your enjoyment tonight,” Martin told his listening audience. “Tonight we are privileged to bring you an interview with one of the most sought after people in the world. That’s right friends, tonight we have with us one of the original “Gene” volunteers from the Delano research facility, right here in California.” He waved his guest in toward the microphone on the other side of the console.
“Now, we promised our guest his anonymity tonight,” Martin said, checking the dials on his console and turning on the guest mike, “so I’ll just call him Mr. G.” He looked up at his guest and waited for him to nod his acceptance of that gesture.
“Welcome to Killer Talk Radio, Mr. G.”
“Uh, well, thank you, Mr. Martin,” the guest responded nervously, leaning in toward the mike as he spoke.
Martin waved him back, tapping at his headphones and shaking his head, indicating that he was too close to the mike. “Now, now, my friends call me Tommy T, Mr. G,” Martin told him, smiling at his rhyme.
“Oh, well, all right,” Mr. G said, tempted to lean toward the mike, once again.
“Mr. G, our audience is anxious to know how you feel about carrying around this gene that is going to prolong your life.”
“Well, Tommy,” he stated, but seeing Martin wave his hand in a circular, keep going kind of motion, added, “uh, well, Tommy T, when I first volunteered for this project I certainly didn’t have any idea that this was going to be happening to me.”
“But don’t you feel it’s unfair for you and only a few other people to have the benefit of this life-extending gene, when there are so many millions of people in the world who would like to have access to it?”
“Well, sure, I guess to most people it might seem a bit unfair, at least at this point, but hopefully, somewhere down the road, I’m sure this gene will be available to everyone.”
“But how can it be made available to everyone if the only samples of it are held by you and a few other people?” Martin asked and Mr. G could sense a growing hostility coming from the man seated across from him.
“True, only a few people have the gene, now, but eventually scientists will be able to mass produce it. They’re working around the clock on a solution to this problem, you know.”
“Oh, sure,” Martin snapped. “A solution which if ever found may be decades away and in the meantime, millions of people will grow older and die, while you don’t age more than a few months. Do you think that’s fair, Mr. G?”
Becoming increasingly uncomfortable, he replied, “Now look, Mr. Martin, I didn’t come here tonight to be attacked like this. It isn’t my fault that I happen to accidentally have been given something you don’t have access to. While I may understand your feelings of anger and frustration, there’s nothing I can do to make things different for you.”
Martin smiled and said, “Oh, but there is something you can do to make things different for me, Mr. G.”
His guest heard an unexpected noise behind him and turned to look over his shoulder. Through the large window that separated the control room from the room in which he was seated, he saw over a dozen men, women and even children staring silently at him through the glass with haunted, hungry eyes. He whirled back to face Martin, suddenly very afraid.
“What is this Martin?” he asked, his voice shaking. “You promised me this program was going to be taped and nobody outside of this room would even know I was going to be here tonight.”
“That’s right, Mr. G,” Martin sneered, as he removed his headphones and slowly stood up. “My friends and I will make sure that no one outside of this room ever knows that you were here.”
As Martin started toward him around the console, Mr. G saw that the radio talk-jock now held a large butcher knife in one hand, but as he heard the door open behind him and the sound of many feet shuffling into the room, what made him finally start screaming was the fact that in the other hand, Martin held a fork.
About the Author
A published writer since 2001, along with his work which has appeared in “The World of Myth,” Terry D. Scheerer’s short stories have appeared in such magazines as, “Dragonlaugh” and “Sword’s Edge,” and a book of his collected poetry and short stories was published by Gateway Press in August, 2005. Mr. Scheerer continues to work as an Editor and writer (as health permits) on a number of ongoing projects.