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By Morad Zaffron
Real African PublishersCopyright © 2013 Morad Zaffron
All rights reserved.
Dr Vincent Sebastian Bach International Convention Center, Manhattan, New York
His little brother was dying. Their parents were already dead. And as young Dr Vincent Bach faced the raucous mob, he suddenly feared that his life was over, and that if he couldn't save this moment, he would let a million more people die in the days to come.
He winced as the heckling in the audience grew wilder. The cacophony of whistling, boos, and laughter thundered through the Grand Auditorium making it impossible for him to go on. From the podium he could only stare in disbelief at their reaction to his paper. At the very least, he had expected a standing ovation. After all, he'd brought these scientists the one thing that had eluded the best of them for decades. Yet, barely halfway through his presentation, and led by Professor Emil Sarty, a man he idolized, they had turned against him and were rising in scorn and pushing for the exits.
His heart pounded. The room swam in his gaze. Catching his image on the giant screen behind him, he shook his head. What in the world made him think that they would ever believe someone like him!
At twenty-six, with his long tousled hair, jeans and worn leather jacket, the strapping former postdoc from MIT and Harvard looked more like a grunge rocker than a scientist who'd just shocked this international gathering of his peers.
When they began clicking phone cams in his direction — no doubt posting their version of his disgrace on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube — he knew he'd become a worldwide joke long before the room cleared.
Cold sweat drenched him. His gaze darted from the dwindling crowd to his tablet computer on the lectern. Even as he yelled into the wireless coms, begging them for another chance, his fingers were a blur on the touchscreen, typing the codes that would launch a million bots to find and destroy any image of his face online. The move was instinctive, a survival mechanism, to salvage some dignity in his sudden new-found notoriety.
Alone now, he lurched as a wave of dizziness struck him. Christ! How long had it been since he'd last eaten? A day ...? Two days ...? How long since he'd last slept? Vincent's days of late blended into one another. He hardly left his apartment, began each day by bathing his brother Chris, giving his meds, and coaxing vital nourishment into the teenager's emaciated body. The meds — his experimental IV cocktails keeping the boy alive — were nearly finished. And so was the money to make more of the drugs.
He'd spent the last month on his crude supercomputer, testing his hypothesis as he refined his paper for tonight. The one he believed held the best hope for Chris. The one he now flung in the trash on his way to the exit.
Dreading the mob in the foyer, Vincent drew a deep breath, his hands trembling as he mopped his brow. Unbelievable, he whispered. He'd become a doctor at age fifteen, had four PhDs by the time he was twenty, yet his mind was blank right now. He couldn't figure what to do next, how to survive this.
Not since he'd watched his parents die had he felt this kind of pain and heartbreak and anger. Now he would face, for the second time this evening, those who had robbed him of the chance to save his only kin.
Earlier, he'd been heartened by the Big Pharma boys, the Biotech types, and the VC suits scouting the talent. How he dreamed of them fawning over his discovery. But his heart sank when he stepped into the foyer and found only antipathy instead of admiration in their eyes.
The media surged forward, crowding him. Through bobbing mikes and the strobe of flashbulbs, he caught a glimpse of Sarty. Flanked by his cronies, the CDC consultant and head of the National Institutes of Health winked and flashed him a triumphant grin.
Vincent's cheeks burned as he turned away to brave the gauntlet of jeers. Yells of "Conman" and "Fraud" rained down on him as he battled to escape the melee.
It was only then he became aware of the two burly figures in trench coats coming for him.CHAPTER 2
Inside the black stretch limo speeding away from the Convention Center, Vincent Bach battled to breathe. Sandwiched by the goons who'd brought him to face one of the most dangerous men in the country, he reeled from the shock of his predicament. In less than fifteen minutes on that podium, he'd lost everything — his money, his career, his little brother's life. Now his own survival was in peril.
Five years of research down the drain, he thought. Five years of hell. All triggered by the death of his father, a man he could hardly remember now. But his mother — Christ! He swallowed hard at her memory — how small she'd become. How frail. Her body in the repose of her final moments, a bag of bones as she took his hand, barely whispered, "Vincent, I beg you ... don't let this scourge take our Christian. If anyone can find a way ... conquer this ... disease ... it's you ..."
He recalled the media frenzy during his flight from the auditorium —
"Dr Bach, this disease has already claimed millions, how could you justify such an unscientific approach to a cure?"
"Dr Bach, is the New York Hypothesis a prank?"
"Dr Bach, CNN, can you comment on the walkout during your presentation?"
"Dr Bach, People Magazine Channel, did an alien race bring you this cure?"
He was shielding his face from the cameras, dodging the mikes, when the strangers gripped his elbows. The one with the great peppered mustache, the Sam Elliott lookalike, leaned close and slipped him a card.
EDWARD A. STYLES, CEO, SLOANE-WRIGHT BIOTECH
"Our boss wants to see you," he growled.
Vincent gulped at the name, thought to flee, then considered the media mob, his zero options and relented as the men parted the throng like Moses.
* * *
Edward Alderon Styles. Vincent had never met or seen the man before, yet in the run-up to the conference, the reclusive tycoon's reps had made several lucrative overtures for his work. Vincent was wary of Sloane-Wright's notoriety and Styles' reputation for ruining scientists' careers. He lured the most promising postdocs with generous salaries, but ruined them if they lost him money. It was rumored he shipped his hapless protégés to the company's African or South American plants then eliminated them far from US eyes. Vincent didn't need that kind of danger. With the imminent threat of this virulent plague spreading in the US, he was confident the good guys would back him.
How wrong he had been.
Having used every penny of his parents' life insurance to fund his experiments, he was left with nothing. In his pocket was the turn-off notice from Con Edison. Within days they would cut his electricity and gas. And Chris ...
He couldn't bear to finish the thought.
All because of that bastard, Sarty, Cardinal of Medicine, robed in authority, whose voice had boomed across the auditorium, posing the questions that would seal Vincent's fate.
"Dr Bach, has your team conducted any primate studies to support the hypothesis?"
Vincent tried to avoid the question.
"Actually, Professor, there's been no team," he'd said.
Technically, of course, there'd been thousands, only they hadn't known it. His virtual patient, or e-human, required the kind of computational power and speed in excess of a million teraflops. So he'd enlisted the spare processing power of thousands of anonymous computer users over the Internet, including the Department of Defense and NASA. It was at this point that he realized he'd made a fatal mistake with the audience.
"Dr Bach?" Sarty pressed.
Vincent cleared his throat. "Er, no, there've been no animal studies." My virtual patient eliminates the need for animal cruelty, he wanted to say. But a chorus of gasps confirmed he was going too far too soon.
Quickly, he added: "Of course, this is just a working hypothesis. My simulation programs render vivisection obsolete. The Virtual Human App and the Virtual Virus App make it possible to —"
Sarty stopped him again, this time reading aloud the title of Vincent's paper: "HIV Eradication from Human Cells — a Nanotech Approach. You stand here claiming to have found the cure for AIDS. And that without primate studies to support your premise, no scientific team, and some kind of computer simulation game." He laughed. "I think you're in the wrong place, young man. Hollywood is that way. But do take a plane. You'll never get there by simulation!"
The delegates burst into laughter while Sarty, with a flourish, turned for the exit followed by his hangers-on, then row after row of the audience.
That's when Vincent had pleaded for them to stay. "Wait, Professor, please. I've referenced every precedent for simulated studies. I've followed the Harvard Protocol on Sim —"
A strange voice jerked Vincent into the present.
He did a double-take when a glass partition slid open before him and the countenance of a one-eyed stranger materialized from the blackness.CHAPTER 3
Vincent stared at a short stout man whose bald head gleamed green under some sort of halo lighting. The stranger stared back with his lone eye hooded by a caterpillar unibrow. When he tweaked his pencil-thin mustache and fidgeted with the black eye-patch over his left eye, Vincent thought: Danny DeVito under the Jolly Roger.
"It's rude, Dr Bach."
"You're gaping." The man's voice was reedy and shrill, yet assured. He extended his hand. "Edward Styles."
Vincent did likewise. "I'm sor —"
Styles waved it away. "Well, I'm not exactly Brad Pitt, am I? And you're a man under pressure. What with losing your job at Grant-Sinclair — and all because of an obsession that just got you booed before the world. Gold nugget for your thoughts just now."
Vincent sighed. What a night this was turning out to be.
"You didn't return my calls, Dr Bach. That wasn't very polite, was it? I reached out the moment I read your proposal to the scientific committee. If we'd done business then, I could have saved you this humiliation. Anyway, Michael and Hans saved you from a real mauling out there, didn't they?" He suppressed a chortle then gestured out the window with disdain. "The press. Salivating wolves. And Sarty and his cronies — bigots, conspirators, not in our league."
Vincent shook his head. "They'll come around. I was naïve, is all. Didn't think to warm them to my ideas. I talk too fast. Think too fast. I leave people behind. It's just the way I've always been —"
"Yeah, like in high school, aged ten, when the faculty thought your Living Computer Project for the science fair — script composed of DNA code! — was a prank. They rejected that, and your Cellular Processor Hypothesis. Then Professor Ginsberg of Harvard discovers it on your blog, invites you to deliver a lecture to his Masters Class. The media goes wild. This is followed by an invite to MIT, which you declined. Even then, you couldn't stand the limelight, hated photographs of yourself. Am I right?"
Styles shrugged off Vincent's surprise and continued. "So, it is about being well-prepared. But tonight that wasn't your problem. Whatever Sarty and the rest needed to know, to believe, was all there in your seminal paper. It's just that they run the kind of politics you'd never comprehend. Those old academics at Harvard and MIT really marveled at the child prodigy, didn't they? Only now you're all grown up and kicking ass on their turf. You're the competition. Welcome to the real world, kid." Styles turned to the Sam Elliott clone, who'd introduced himself as Mike Moran. "Your manners, Michael?"
The aide opened a drinks-packed bar fridge and smiled at Vincent, the salt and pepper mustache bristling like a porcupine. "Your pleasure, Doc?"
Vincent licked his dry lips and suppressed a stab of hunger. "A Bud'll be just fine, thanks. Then you can drop me off at the next corner."
"What? And miss making the deal of a lifetime? I'm doing you a favor here, kid. No one will spend a dime on you after this."
"I don't make deals with the devil," Vincent said and pressed the chilled bottle to the rising heat in his face.
Styles chuckled at that and Vincent stiffened as his mental search engines began probing his brain. Text, images of his weird host flashed. He selected the pertinent info about Styles —
Like the 'Babies for Sale' story in Africa: A company, AfriGen in Zambia had been indicted for cloning babies for wealthy childless couples through the international black market. AfriGen was suspected of being a Sloane-Wright subsidiary set up to circumvent the Stateside ban on cloning. Shortly after the indictment, a fire razed the facility, killing forty-five people including twelve American scientists resident there. All evidence was destroyed and Sloane-Wright emerged from yet another controversy unscathed.
Rumors abounded that the company routinely broke protocol to fast-track products into global markets. Not least of Styles' problems was the AsthEze fiasco. The lawsuits against the corporation's errant asthma therapy were taxing company reserves, making Styles just as desperate as him.
As his mind hummed on Vincent became aware of Styles holding up a bound copy of his hypothesis. "Now here's a bestseller, wouldn't you say? Killing a real virus with a DNA antivirus program, just like computers. Ingenious!"
But Vincent wasn't listening. Instead, looking out the window, he noticed they'd gone left down 34th Street and were now cruising past the bright windows of Macy's between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. He remembered shopping there with his mother, Saturday mornings before Chris was born. He adored the odor of new fabric, crisp material sparking with static as he played among the racks while his mother tried on fancy clothes she'd rarely ever buy.
Weekends she'd bring him into the city while his father was at Bellevue performing trauma surgery six days out of seven, saving lives with every cut — until the day a scalpel slipped, sliced through gloves, broke his father's skin and violated the flimsy barrier between life and oblivion.
One drop of blood turning their lives into an ocean of pain!
The car hadn't stopped and Vincent, downing his second beer, caught his reflection in the window — the thick hair, prominent nose and cheekbones, the dark eyes and the cleft in his chin. So much like his father now ...
"Fox News is already calling it the New York Hype-Pothesis!" Styles grinned, a surfeit of gleaming dental work winking in passing neon. He tapped his BlackBerry. "It's already the rage online. The walkout garnered almost fifty thousand hits on YouTube in just thirty minutes." He tapped a key on his armrest and a TV display opened above them. "Five minutes after the walkout, it made 'Play of the Day' on CNN!" He chortled as he played a clip. "Checkout the breaking news headline —"
21st CENTURY DA VINCI BURNED AT THE STAKE
Vincent winced at his image above the headline. Though tall and broad of shoulder, with his face hidden behind raised arms, he cowered before the swarming crowd like a frightened child.
"You've given the Times and Post their highest circulation figures for this quarter. Copies'll be flying off the stands." Styles shook his head. "But it's all a joke to those bastards. They'll never see you as one of them. Not only are you light-years ahead. You're a freak, a half-blood. Just like me. You know that, don't you?"
Vincent grimaced. His face flushed as he tried to ignore the comment. But felt the resonating insult and humiliation of the walkout return.
Because his father, a prominent surgeon, had married an old-world woman, an Iroquois, they'd always been different, always on the fringe. His gift had only made it worse, making the family appear as freaks. Taking a long swig from his third beer, he glared at Styles, loathing all he stood for, hurt it was Styles lauding his work instead of those whose admiration he sought. And regardless of how revolted he was, how strongly his moral compass directed him elsewhere, he knew he was trapped in this crucible with a killer.
He seethed. His pent up rage and frustration from the auditorium boiled over. Recoiling, he grabbed the lapels of his host's suit and pulled the man forward.
"And what the fuck is it to you, Mr Styles?"
The slices of the Bach sandwich reacted instantly. Hans got him by the throat. Moran elbowed him in the gut.
The boss yelled, "No!" and waved his men at ease.
Vincent doubled over coughing, struggling to breathe. When he looked up at Styles the man's face had grown large, his fiery eyes rising and floating toward him. Vincent blinked. It had to be the alcohol on his empty stomach, he knew. Yet he felt powerless, like he was in the grip of this strange man's mesmeric power.
Styles laughed — a sudden eerie cackle that ended as quickly as it began. There was almost a leprechaun-like mischief exuding from his mannerisms, an underlying menace that disturbed the young scientist. The man leaned forward, all intensity, slipping to the edge of his high seat, while Vincent shrank deeper into his.
Excerpted from The Cure by Morad Zaffron. Copyright © 2013 Morad Zaffron. Excerpted by permission of Real African Publishers.
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