By Robinson, Jeremy
Thomas Dunne BooksCopyright © 2009 Robinson, Jeremy
All right reserved.
Todd Maddox stepped out of the Eurocopter EC 155 and ducked instinctively as the rotor blades continued chopping theair above him. The flight from LAX in Los Angeles to Captain Rolden International Airport in Peru had been uneventful, and the copter ride from the airport to this unknown destination blessedly smooth. But discomfort struck him hard as he exited the copter’s air- conditioned interior and entered the humid jungle air of eastern Peru’s Amazon rain forest.
His sunflower yellow shirt became like sticky, wet papier- mâché, gluing itself to his body. His styled hair, held in place by a thick film of pricey Elnett hairspray, dissolved into a heavy goo that oozed over his forehead. Out of his dry, Los Angeles element, Maddox grunted and cursed under his breath as he held tight to his briefcase and jogged toward the glass double doors that seemed so out of place in the thick green jungle.
Doubt filled his mind as he neared the doors. Was this worth it? Could he stand all this heat and humidity? The pay would no doubt be amazing and the company, Manifold, was renowned in the world of genetics. But the job description, well, there hadn’t been one. Simply a five- year contract and ten thousand dollars for an interview, take it or leaveit. He hoped to learn more during this one and only interview, but if the work they wanted him for was anything less than groundbreaking, he’d be on the next flight back to sunny, dry Los Angeles. His job there with CreGen paid well and made headlines occasionally, but the chance to work for Manifold was too good to not, at least, consider. Of course, when he agreed to an interview hehad no idea it would take place in the Peruvian rain forest.
The double doors swung open and Maddox ran through like he was escaping a torrential downpour; given the amount of moistureclinging to his dress shirt, beige slacks, and now slick hair, it wasn’t much of a stretch.
Inside the hallway, cool, dry air blasted from air- conditioning vents along the ceiling. Maddox’s forehead stiffened as the hairspray dried again, several inches lower than when it had first been applied.
"Humidity does a job on each and every one of you metrosexuals the boss brings down here," said a deep voice.
He looked at the man who had opened the door. He hadn’t been spoken to with such disrespect since high school. He glared atthe man through his Oakley black-rimmed eyeglasses. The man was tall, and given the bulges beneath his form- fitting black shirt, not a scientist. He filled his voice with as much disgust as he could muster and said, "Excuse me?"
"I’m just screwing with you, man." The stranger slapped him on the shoulder— which hurt— and laughed. He extended his hand. "Oliver Reinhart. Head of Gen-Y security here at Manifold Gamma."
"You’re in charge of this facility?" he asked, wondering if he’d have to put up with this goon long term if he took the job.
Reinhart rubbed a hand over the back of his buzz- cut skull, letting the short hairs tickle his hand. "I oversee security at all the facilities, Alpha through Epsilon. I go where the boss goes."
"That’s the guy."
Maddox blinked. Richard Ridley reached legendary status when he formed Manifold ten years previous using a three- billion- dollar inheritance. At first no one took his company seriously, but then he began acquiring the best minds in the field, some straight out of MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley. The company soon flourished, making rapid advancements in the fields of genetics and biopharmaceuticals. "Richard Ridley is here?"
"You’re a quick one," he said with a smirk. "I can see why he hired you."
"He hasn’t hired me."
Reinhart stepped past him and started down the stark white hallway. "He has. You just don’t know it yet. C’mon, follow me."
Maddox looked at the burly man’s face. A scar ran down his cheek, but other than that, the cleanly shaven face looked, morethan anything, young. No more than thirty. Figuring the young Reinhart got his kicks by pretending to be head of security and jerking recruits around by dangling Ridley in front of them, he said, "You look a little young to be head of security. What are you, thirty?"
Reinhart answered the questions quickly. "Twenty- five. We’re called Gen-Y for a reason. You won’t find anyone over twenty- eight in my crew."
"Doesn’t the lack of experience—" Reinhart paused. He fixed his eyes on Maddox’s. "Killers are born, not made."
As though on cue, two more security guards rounded the corner and walked past them, eyeing him and nodding their heads at Reinhart, like friends in a club. Both looked barely old enough to shave, though their bulk and cold eyes confirmed Reinhart’s statement. He’d entered a den of vipers.
Still, it seemed irresponsible to hire such young people for security. Then again, eighteen- year- olds were common on any battlefield. Given Reinhart’s buzz cut and military posture, he’d probably seen some time in Iraq or Afghanistan before landing the job here. There weren’t many military people his age who hadn’t. He decided to drop the subject and fell in step behind Reinhart, following him through a maze of hallways.
Reinhart stopped next to a door and opened it. He motioned to the door and grinned. "After you."
Maddox sighed and walked through. The room on the other side stopped him in his tracks. The white marble floor reflected the numerous shades of blue and green from the jungle canopy and sky, which glowed bright above the fifty-foot- long, arched all- glass ceiling. Incan statues lined the ruby red walls and a long oriental rug ran down the center of the room. The rug led to an enormous reception desk that looked more appropriate for a high- profile Hollywood literary agency than a genetics company. The serious- looking redhead behind the desk looked over her glasses at him and smiled briefly.
"Tell her who you are and she’ll take it from there," Reinhart said.
Unable to take his eyes off the expansive reception hall, Maddox heard the door whisper shut. Reinhart had left. Though young, the man’s presence concerned him. What would happen if he turned Ridley down? He pushed the question from his mind and focused on Reinhart’s explanation of his job. If he really was Ridley’s personal guard, he wouldn’t be here all the time... or would he? No one really knew where Ridley spent his time. Reinhart said "Manifold Alpha through Epsilon," which meant there were at least five Manifold locations. Maybe more.
His approach to the reception desk was watched by the bloodred eyes of the twelve Incan statues that lined either side of the room. Their twisted and angry expressions did little to calm his nerves. He paused in front of the desk as the redhead held an open palm up to him. She held a phone against her ear, listening. "You can go in," she said, after putting the phone down. She reached under the desktop and pushed a button. A door to the right of the reception desk slid open silently. He tightened his grip on the briefcase and headed for the door, unsure of what to expect on the other side.
The office was sparsely decorated with more Incan art. Masks hung on walls and statues stood in the corners. Large, green plants made the whole scene look like some ceremonial cave. He realized some of the plants must be mint, as the room smelled strongly of fresh peppermint, the kind his mother had grown in their green house.
At the center of the room sat two black sofas, facing each other. Between them, a short, hand- carved coffee table held two glass teacups, a steaming clay teapot, and a manila folder. Richard Ridley himself sat on the sofa facing the door, his bald head gleaming under the room’s stylish track lighting.
He had seen photos of Ridley in articles and promotional materials from conferences, but he looked taller and more confident in person.
Without standing or offering a hand, Ridley motioned for him to sit on the other couch. Maddox sat down and placed his briefcase on the floor next to him. Ridley poured two glasses of tea, drizzled honey into both cups, then handed one to him. A waft of peppermint filled his nose, opening his eyes and causing him to sit up straighter. He took a sip and swallowed. The liquid seemed to invigorate his mind as the peppermint was absorbed into his bloodstream.
"Fresh- cut peppermint tea," Ridley said, taking a sip and then placing his glass on the coffee table. His gravelly voice was impossible to ignore or mistake. Maddox had heard it before and, expecting it, was able to keep his mind from wondering how a man with such a sinister-sounding voice could be so successful. "Amazing what a simple brew can do for the body. It doesn’t hold a candle to what you’ve been involved in, though it probably tastes better."
Maddox smiled, trying not to look nervous.
"I’ve been following your work quite closely. Your breakthroughs with the Wnt pathway and limb regeneration in embryonic chickens."
Maddox’s eyes widened.
Ridley grinned. "Why don’t you explain it to me."
Maddox grew excited. He never expected to be in a position to explain something to the Richard Ridley. "As you know . . . may know . . . the Wnt pathway is a network of proteins that, in essence, tells a growing fetus where, how, and when to grow limbs. But it becomes dormant after birth. Mother Nature’s kill switch so to speak, preventing uncontrolled additions, like a sixth finger growing on the hand when you get a cut. What we tried to do was reactivate the pathway in adults so that when a finger is cut off, the active Wnt proteins tell the cells to grow new ligaments, bones, and muscles, not just a layer of new skin."
Ridley cleared his throat. "But— and correct me if I’m wrong— the Wnt pathway, while a brilliant attempt, is a rather embarrassing dead end."
Maddox hunched as his ego deflated. Ridley knew more than he was letting on.
"But"—Ridley waggled a finger at him—"you’re already pursuing a different path, aren’t you?"
A lot more than he was letting on.
Maddox remained silent, knowing that any verification of his current work would be a breach of his contract with CreGen and would lead to his firing and probably legal action against him. Just being here, instead of vacationing in the Ca rib be an where he was supposed to be, would be enough to get him fired.
"You don’t need to say anything. I know it puts you in a . . . situation.
So I’ll say it for you. You’ve managed to regenerate limbs on rats— tails, legs, even ears."
Maddox’s eyes widened. "How do you know that? We haven’t published—"
Ridley held up his hand, silencing him. "Please. Let me finish. You’ve also partially regenerated limbs on pigs and sheep, though with less success. But the crème de la crème is what you, and you alone, have managed to do with . . . humans."
"Now wait a minute," he said, sitting up straight. "The work on sheep and pigs is highly classified. There is no way you could—"
Ridley raised his hands. "And yet, I do. Corporate espionage is a wonderful thing. Don’t think your bosses at CreGen haven’t sent spies in our direction. If not for Mr. Reinhart and Gen-Y, you’d probably be privy to Manifold’s secrets as well." He leaned forward. "I notice you didn’t mention the human experimentation."
"That’s because there isn’t any," Maddox said, looking at the floor.
Ridley smiled, put his glass down and picked up the folder on the tabletop. He opened it and began reading. "Boy. Fifteen years old. Admitted to Mass General Hospital because he sliced off the tip of his left index finger while... trying to dissect a frog in his basement. The year was 1986." He looked up. "Sound familiar?"
"How did you get access to my medical history?"
"If I can bypass security at CreGen, do you really think HIPAA stands a chance?" He closed the file and returned it to the tabletop; then, like a striking snake, he grabbed hold of Maddox’s left hand. He held it up, inspecting the perfect left index finger. "You regenerated your fingertip. Not on the clock, mind you. On your own."
Maddox yanked his hand away and sat back, crossing his arms.
"No need to get upset. I admire your tenacity, even if it is inspired by vanity." He removed a folded piece of paper from his trousers pocket and slowly unfolded it. "Tell me how and I’ll show you what’s on this piece of paper."
"What could be on that piece of paper that would make me tell you something like that?"
"Your future," he said. "Aren’t you interested?"
Maddox held out for five seconds and then said, "Pig bladder extract. It . . . helps construct the microscopic scaffolding for incoming human cells and emits chemical signals that stimulate the regrowth process."
"That’s... unusual," Ridley said, then smiled.
"Pig extracts are used in diabetes treatments, producing islet cells that help reverse the disease in humans when transplanted."
"So you figured they could also help regrow limbs."
Maddox shrugged. "At the time. Beyond that it’s another dead end. The process doesn’t work."
Ridley nodded. "Then your research has stagnated?"
He didn’t answer the question. He couldn’t answer the question. It was too embarrassing to admit failure on something he’d spent his life on. Besides, he could see that Ridley knew the answer.
"As a young man, before all this," he said, waving his arms at the room around them, "I was obsessed with maps. I would chart land routes from one point to another, say Beijing to Paris, over and over until it appeared I had exhausted all the possibilities. But then I tried something different, like your pig bladder, I turned the map upside down and new possibilities emerged. But this technique ultimately ended in frustration as I once again ran out of possibilities. Using my father’s resources I turned to a final resource that is both hard to come by and often quite expensive— the ancient past. I purchased ancient maps from dealers around the world, legal and black market. Trade routes were revealed. Secret passages. Tunnels dug and forgotten. Each map revealed more. In this way I came to learn that the ancient past is one of the best ways to uncover secrets in the modern world. It is a belief I hold to this day and a lesson you will soon learn . . . if you’re interested."
"I . . . don’t know if I can."
Ridley laughed like it was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. "You regenerated your fingertip. You have ambition beyond the scope of CreGen, who, may I remind you, takes credit for your discoveries. But you’re stuck, just like we are. You can regenerate a fingertip. So what? Kids under the age of eleven sometimes regenerate severed fingertips. You merely extended the age limit on fingertip regeneration."
"By twenty- two years!"
Ridley smiled. "Impressive, I know. But it’s not the golden goose, is it? Full limb regeneration. Organ regeneration. Spine, brain, memory regeneration. Those are the real prizes."
Excitement overtook Maddox’s concerns. He could see that Ridley just might give him the keys to the kingdom, but he had a few requirements. "I want credit."
"Done," he replied, handing Maddox the slip of paper he’d just finished unfolding. "My offer. Accept it and I will reveal the past that will take us to the future."
As Maddox read over the few lines of text, his eyes widened with each word. He was being offered more than the key to the kingdom; this was the key to the universe! Unlimited research funding, a salary that would make him a multimillionaire, and some of the best names in the business would be at his disposal.
"Do you accept?"
Maddox nodded slowly. This was not the kind of proposal to chew on.
"Very good." Ridley took a sip of tea and got comfortable, his big body stressing the limits of the sofa on which he sat. "The problem with the Wnt pathway is that no one has been able to break what I call the ‘natural barrier.’ Humans can sometimes regenerate fingertips, as you’ve shown, but no one has been able to figure out what molecular pathway triggers this kind of natural regrowth. Pathways for triggering regrowth in other parts of the human body simply don’t exist."
"You believe I can overcome this?"
"Not at all," he said with a chuckle. "I would prefer to follow a different path. Something less conventional."
"How about nAG proteins?" Maddox said. Motivated by the compulsion to impress the man, he continued before Ridley could respond. "When a salamander loses a limb, blastema cells clump around the wound. Blastema cells can form bones, organs, brains— anything. Humans have them as embryos, but stop generating them after birth. The cells grow and divide, eventually becoming the amputated structure. The nAG protein directs the blastema cells, telling them what to become: muscle, veins, skin, etcetera. If we can find the human version of adult blastema cells and trigger the nAG proteins to communicate certain signals, the potential human regeneration is fantastic. But salamanders take more than a month to regrow a limb less than an inch long. The duration would be much longer for humans. Maybe a lifetime. But I’m sure that’s a hurdle we can jump when we get to it. With these resources I imagine I should be able to unlock just about any secret."
Ridley just cocked an eyebrow. "Not bad. Perhaps worth pursuing while we hunt down my pet project."
Maddox did his best to suppress a sigh. Inwardly he shouted for Ridley to get to the point, but all he managed was a timid, "And that is?"
The big man smiled without a hint of malice for the first time. "The fountain of youth isn’t some waterfall out here in the jungle, Maddox," he said, then pointed at his chest. "I want to live forever, and the key to that treasure is locked away inside our DNA. In our genetics. And in our past."
"You want to live forever?"
"Who doesn’t?" he said. "But I really just want to live long enough to take this company as far as it can go. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and my vision for this company has always been beyond its means, even now. You unlock the secret to regeneration and I might just live long enough to see my dreams come to fruition. We’ll make a boatload of money, too."
Maddox almost laughed, but then realized the man was completely serious. He’d never considered that regeneration in the extreme could vastly extend lives, never mind immortality.
"How well do you know Greek mythology?"
Maddox folded his hands and leaned back. "Better than most I suppose. It fascinated me as a child after watching Clash of the Titans. But my knowledge is based on personal research, not actual academics."
Ridley nodded. "There was a... creature. Perhaps one of a kind. Perhaps the last of its kind. Who knows. What’s important is that this creature had the ability to regenerate limbs, including its neck and head, very quickly."
"And you think this creature still lives today or its offspring still live today?"
"No. If it were still alive, we’d know. The myth states that it was killed... by Hercules."
"I see," Maddox said, wondering if Richard Ridley was losing his mind.
Ridley saw the doubt in his eyes and became very serious. "Do not mistake me for a crackpot, Maddox. I have uncovered manuscripts beyond the legend of Hercules. Documents that have nothing to do with the legend. Records of ravaged herds. Destroyed villages. Missing hunting parties. For centuries no one knew what caused all the death and destruction. Not until Hercules, that is."
He stood, walked to a wall safe, punched in a key code, and opened the solid metal door. He removed a thick glass case that held a single, aged document. "I bought this document on the black market for one hundred thousand dollars before knowing it was authentic. Knowing what I know now, I would have done anything to obtain it . . . and on two occasions, a rival group, whose identity I have yet to discover, tried to take it from me. It is truly priceless. As some have proven, it’s worth dying for." He sat again and held the case out for Maddox to inspect.
"What language is this?"
"Greek. It’s been dated to 460 B.C., mere years after Hercules’s fabled encounter with the creature. Far too soon for legend to have set in."
Maddox stared at the document. Its age and plainness somehow lent credence to Ridley’s claim.
"It makes no mention of Hercules, though it clearly insinuates someone killed the beast. It offers only a description of the creature, so that it might be identified and dealt with properly should one be encountered again."
"An ancient field guide," Maddox said, beginning to feel the first pangs of excitement.
"Precisely. And do you know what I found?"
Maddox waited in silence. He clearly had no idea.
"The description of the creature in this purely historical text is nearly identical to the mythological description. Perhaps the feats of Hercules have been exaggerated through time and legend, but the details of the beast were so fantastic to begin with that no one in the past twenty- five hundred years felt the need to exaggerate its appearance or abilities. Because of this I am compelled to believe that many of the other aspects of the story are also real. Based on the details of the myth, finding the creature’s burial place may be possible. If the creature has been well preserved, recovering its DNA would change everything we know about physical regeneration. Mr. Maddox, we must find the Beast of Lerna’s final resting place and extract its DNA. The prize is eternal life."
"Lerna . . ." Maddox leaned forward, his eyes wide with realization. "My God. You’re talking about the Hydra."
Ridley smiled wide and toothy.
Ridley chuckled. "And that’s exactly what I’d expect a scientist to say." He locked his eyes on Maddox’s. "The great scientists of human history all had something in common. Einstein. Galileo. Da Vinci. Hawking.. . . Imagination. They are all brilliant scientists, but they also had the guts to tap what was previously considered fantasy, science fiction, heresy. If the human race didn’t pursue the impossible we’d still be staring up at the moon having never set foot on it."
Maddox knew he was right. He’d gone down that path when he regenerated his own finger. But even if the Hydra had existed, they would still have to locate its grave and extract viable DNA. It just didn’t seem possible.
"Let me put it to you this way: Would you rather take a risk on something, that if successful will propel your name to the top of the list of great scientists, or would you rather it play it safe and return to a company that takes credit for your work? Remembered or forgotten?"
"You really believe in this?"
"I’m staking my eternal life on it."
Maddox smiled. He would have said yes because of the pay alone, but if Ridley turned out to be right, he might not only get his name into the history books, but also live long enough to see it. "I’m in."
Excerpted from Pulse by Jeremy Robinson.Copyright © 2009 by Jeremy Robinson.Published in by St. Martin’s Press.
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Excerpted from Pulse by Robinson, Jeremy Copyright © 2009 by Robinson, Jeremy. Excerpted by permission.
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