The Immortals

( 1 )

Overview

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF IMMORTALITY?
For nomad Marshall Cartwright, the price is knowing that he will never grow old. That he will never contract a disease, an infection, or even a cold. That because he will never die, he must surrender the right to live.
For Dr. Russell Pearce, the price is eternal suspicion. He appreciates what synthesizing the elixir vitae from the Immortal's genetic makeup could mean for ...

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Overview

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF IMMORTALITY?
For nomad Marshall Cartwright, the price is knowing that he will never grow old. That he will never contract a disease, an infection, or even a cold. That because he will never die, he must surrender the right to live.
For Dr. Russell Pearce, the price is eternal suspicion. He appreciates what synthesizing the elixir vitae from the Immortal's genetic makeup could mean for humankind. He also fears what will happen should Cartwright's miraculous blood fall into the wrong hands.
For the wealthy and powerful, no price is too great. Immortality is now a fact rather than a dream. But the only way to achieve it is to own it exclusively. And that means hunting down and caging the elusive Cartwright, or one of his offspring.
The Immortals, James Gunn's masterpiece about a human fountain of youth, collects the author's classic short stories that ran in elite science-fiction magazines throughout the 1950s. All-new material accompanies this updated edition, including an introduction from renowned science-fiction writer Greg Bear, a preface from Gunn himself, and "Elixir," Gunn's new short story that introduced Dr. Pearce to another Immortal in the May 2004 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
James Gunn has updated and added 20,000 more words to his celebrated 1962 vampire novel, The Immortals, the basis for an ABC-TV Movie of the Week in 1969 and the 1970 television series. Warner Bros. has recently renewed the film rights for another 18 months. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671534868
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
  • Publication date: 9/1/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 0.72 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

The young man was stretched out flat in a reclining hospital chair, his bare left arm muscular and brown on the table beside him. The wide, flat band of the sphygmomanometer was tight around his bicep, and the inside of his elbow, where the veins were blue traceries, had been swabbed with alcohol and betadine.

His eyes followed the quick efficiency of the phlebotomist. Her movements were as crisp as her white uniform.

She opened the left-hand door of the big refrigerator and from the second shelf removed a double plastic bag connected by plastic tubing. There was a hole at the bottom for hanging the bags from an IV pole. The plastic bag was empty, flat, and wrinkled. A syringe needle on a length of clear, plastic tubing was attached.

The technician removed the protective plastic cap from the needle and stretched out the tubing. She inspected the donor's inside arm where it had been sterilized and deadened with lidocaine. The vein was big and soft, and she slipped the needle into it with practiced skill. Dark red blood raced through the tube and into one of the plastic bags. Slowly a pool gathered at the bottom and the wrinkles began to smooth.

The technician stripped a printed label with the date and a number from a sheet of nonstick paper and pressed it on the plastic bag. At the bottom she put her initials.

"Keep making a fist," she said, glancing at the bag.

When the bag was full, she closed a clamp on the tube and removed the needle from the donor's arm, replacing it with a cotton ball and a plastic bandage.

"Keep that on for an hour or so," she said.

She drained the blood in the tubing into test tubes, sealed them, and applied smaller labels on them from the same preprinted sheet of paper before she placed them on a rack in the refrigerator.

The tubing and needle were carefully discarded in a waste disposal canister with a plastic lining.

"The typing will be done at the center," the technician said. "If you're really O-neg, you might make a bit of money from time to time. That's the only kind that we have to buy when we can't get enough donations."

The donor's youthful lips twisted at the corners.

"I'll need your name and address for the records," the technician said briskly, turning to the computer on her desk and typing a number into it. After the young man had given it and she had typed it in, she said, "We can have you notified when the results come back. The lab checks for AIDS, hepatitis, venereal and other blood-carried diseases. All confidential, of course. If you like, we can put your name in our professional donor's file."

Without hesitation the young man shook his head.

The technician shrugged and handed him a slip of paper. "Thanks anyway. Stay seated in the waiting room for ten minutes. There's some orange juice, coffee, and muffins that you can have while you wait. The paper is a voucher for fifty dollars. You can cash it at the cashier's office — by the front door as you go out."

For a moment after the young man's broad back had disappeared from the doorway, the technician stared after him. Then she shrugged again, turned, and put the unit of blood onto the refrigerator's top left-hand shelf.

A unit of whole blood — new life in a plastic bag for someone who might die without it. Within a few days the white cells will begin to die, the blood will decline in ability to clot. With the aid of refrigeration, the red cells will last — some of them — for three weeks. After that the blood will be sent to the separator for the plasma, if it has not already been separated for packed red blood cells, or sold to a commercial company for separation of some of the plasma's more than seventy proteins, the serum albumin, the gamma globulins....

A unit of blood — market price: $50. After the required tests, it will be moved to the second shelf from the top, right-hand side of the refrigerator, with the other units of O-type blood. But this blood was special. It had everything other blood had, and something extra that made it unique. There had never been any blood quite like it.

Fifty dollars? How much is life worth?

The old man was eighty years old. His body was limp on the hard hospital bed. The air-conditioning was so muffled that the harsh unevenness of his breathing was loud. The only movement in the intensive care unit was the spasmodic rise and fall of the sheet that covered the old body.

He was living — barely. He had used up his allotted three-score years and ten, and then some. It wasn't merely that he was dying — everyone is. With him, it was imminent.

Dr. Russell Pearce held one bony wrist in his firm, young right hand and looked at the monitors checking blood pressure, heart function, pulse, oxygen level....Pearce's face was serious, his dark eyes steady, his pale skin well molded over strong bones.

The old man's face was yellow over a grayish blue, the color of death. The wrinkled skin was pulled back like a mask for the skull. Once he might have been handsome; now his eyes were sunken, the closed eyelids dark over them, his mouth was a dark line, and his nose was a thin, arching beak.

There is a kinship in old age, just as there is a kinship in infancy. Between the two, men differ, but at the extremes they are much the same.

Pearce had seen old men in the nursing units, Medicaid patients most of them, picked up on the North Side when they didn't wake up in their cardboard boxes or Dumpsters, filthy, alcohol or drug addicts many of them. The only differences with this man were a little care and a few billion dollars. Where this man's hair was groomed and snow-white, the other's was yellowish-gray, long, scraggly on seamed, thin necks. Where this man's skin was scrubbed and immaculate, the other's had dirt in the wrinkles, sores in the crevices.

Gently Pearce laid the arm down beside the body and slowly stripped back the sheet. The differences were minor. In dying, people are much the same. Once this old man had been tall, strong, vital. Now the thin body was emaciated; the rib cage struggled through the skin, fluttered. The old veins stood out, knotted, ropy, blue, varicose, on the sticklike legs.

"Pneumonia?" Dr. Easter asked with professional interest. He was an older man, his hair gray at the temples, his appearance distinguished, calm.

"Not yet. Malnutrition. You'd think he'd eat more, get better care. Money is supposed to take care of itself."

"It doesn't follow. As his personal physician, I've learned that you don't order around a billion dollars."

"Anemia," Pearce went on. "Bleeding from a duodenal ulcer, I'd guess. We could operate, but I'm not sure he'd survive. Pulse weak, rapid. Blood pressure low. Arteriosclerosis and all the damage that entails."

Beside him a nurse made marks on a chart. Her face was smooth and young; the skin glowed with health.

"Let's have a blood count," Pearce said to her briskly. "Urinalysis. Type and cross-match two units of blood, packed RBCs if you can get them, and administer one unit when available."

"Transfusion?" Easter asked.

"It may provide temporary help. If it helps enough, we'll give him more, maybe strengthen him enough for the operation."

"But he's dying." It was almost a question.

"Sure. We all are." Pearce smiled grimly. "Our business is to postpone it as long as we can."

A few moments later, when Pearce opened the door and stepped into the hall, Dr. Easter was talking earnestly to a tall, blond, broad-shouldered man in an expensively cut business suit. The man was about Easter's age, somewhere between forty-five and fifty. The face was strange: It didn't match the body. There was a thin, predatory look to its slate-gray eyes.

The man's name was Carl Jansen. He was personal secretary to the old man who was dying inside the room. Dr. Easter performed the introductions, and the men shook hands. Pearce reflected that the term personal secretary might cover a multitude of duties.

"Doctor Pearce, I'll only ask you one question," Jansen said in a voice as flat and cold as his eyes. "Is Mister Weaver going to die?"

"Of course he is," Pearce answered. "None of us escapes. If you mean is he going to die within the next few days, I'd say yes — if I had to answer yes or no."

"What's wrong with him?" Jansen asked. His tone sounded suspicious, but that was true of everything he said.

"He's outlived his body. Like a machine, it's worn out, falling to pieces, one part failing after another."

"His father lived to be ninety-one, his mother ninety-six."

Pearce looked at Jansen steadily, unblinking. "They didn't accumulate several billion dollars. We live in an age that has almost conquered disease, but its pace has inflicted a price. The stress and strain of modern life tear us apart. Every billion Weaver made cost him five years of living."

"What are you going to do — just let him die?"

Pearce's eyes were just as cold as Jansen's. "As soon as possible we'll give him a transfusion. Does he have any relatives, close friends?"

"There's no one closer than me."

"We'll need two pints of blood for every pint we give Weaver. Arrange it."

"Mister Weaver will pay for whatever he uses."

"He'll replace it if possible. That's the hospital rule."

Jansen's eyes dropped. "There'll be plenty of volunteers from the office."

When Pearce was beyond the range of his low, penetrating voice, Jansen said, "Can't we get somebody else? I don't like him."

"That's because he's harder than you are," Easter said. "He'd be a good match for the old man when he was in his prime."

"He's too young."

"That's why he's good. The best geriatrician in the Middle West. He can be detached, objective. All doctors need a touch of ruthlessness. Pearce needs more than most; he loses every patient sooner or later. He's got it." Easter looked at Jansen and smiled ruthfully. "When men reach our age, they start getting soft. They start getting subjective about death."

The requisition for one unit of blood arrived at the blood bank. The hospital routine began. A laboratory technician, crisp in a starched white uniform, came from the blood bank on the basement floor. From one of the old man's ropy veins she drew five cubic centimeters of blood, almost purple inside the slim barrel of the syringe.

The old man didn't stir. In the silence his breathing was a raucous noise.

Back at the workbench, she dabbed three blood samples onto two glass slides, one divided into sections marked A and B. She slipped the slides onto a light-box with a translucent glass top; to one sample she added a drop of clear serum from a green bottle marked "Anti-A" in a commercial rack. "Anti-B" came from a brown bottle; "Anti-Rho" from a clear one. She rocked the box back and forth on its pivots. Sixty seconds later the red cells of the samples marked A and B were still evenly suspended. In the third sample the cells had clumped together visibly.

She entered the results on her computer: patient's name, date, room, doctor....Type: O. Rh: neg.

She pushed another key. A list of blood available wrote itself across the screen, grouped by types. The technician opened the right-hand door of the refrigerator and inspected the labels of the plastic bags on the second shelf from the top. She selected one and put samples of the donor's and patient's blood into two small test tubes.

A drop of donor's serum in a sample of the patient's blood provided the major crossmatch: the red cells did not clump, and even under the microscope, after centrifuging, the cells were perfect, even, suspended circles. A drop or two of the patient's serum in a sample of the donor's blood and the minor crossmatch was done.

On the label she wrote:

FOR

LEROY WEAVER 9-4

ICU DR. PEARCE

She telephoned the nurse in charge that the blood was ready when needed. The nurse came for the blood in a few minutes. She and the lab tech checked the name of the recipient, the blood type, and the identifying numbers of the blood unit and initialed the tag that hung from the bag. The lab tech stripped one copy for her file, and the nurse carried the bag away. At the nurses' station she removed another copy and filed it in a drawer. Then, with a second nurse, she went to ICU and attached a copy of the tag to the patient's chart before both reviewed the doctor's orders and the patient's identity, and compared the numbers on the patient's identification bracelet with those on the unit of blood and on the tag.

Dr. Pearce studied the charts labeled "Leroy Weaver." He picked up the report from the hematology laboratory. Red cell count: 2,360,000/cmm. Anemia, all right. Worse than he'd even suspected. That duodenal ulcer was losing a lot of blood.

The transfusion would help. It would be temporary, but everything is, at best. In the end it is all a matter of time. Maybe it would revive Weaver enough to get some solid food down him. He might surprise them all and walk out of this hospital yet.

Pearce picked up the charts and reports and walked down the long, quiet corridor, rubbery underfoot, redolent of the perennial hospital odors: alcohol and anesthetic, fighting the ancient battle against bacteria and pain. He opened the door of the intensive care unit and walked into the coolness.

He nodded distantly to the nurse on duty in the room. She was not one of the hospital staff. She was one of the three full-time nurses hired for Weaver by Jansen.

Pearce picked up the clipboard at the foot of the bed and looked at it. No change. He studied the old man's face. It looked more like death. His breathing was still stertorous; his discolored eyelids still veiled his sunken eyes.

What was he? Name him: Five Billion Dollars. He was Money. At this point in his life he served no useful function; he contributed nothing to society, nothing to the race. He had been too busy to marry, too dedicated to father. His occupation: accumulator. He accumulated money and power; he never had enough.

Pearce didn't believe that a man with money was necessarily a villain. But anyone who made a billion dollars or a multiple of it was necessarily a large part predator and the rest magpie. Pearce knew why Jansen was worried. When Weaver died, Money died, Power died. Money and Power are not immune from death, and when they fall they carry empires with them.

Pearce looked down at Weaver, thinking these things, and it didn't matter. He was still a person, still human, still alive. That meant he was worth saving. No other consideration was valid.

Three plastic bags hung from the IV pole — one held a five-percent solution of glucose for intravenous feeding, another held saltwater, the third held dark life fluid itself. Plastic T-joints reduced multiple plastic tubes into one that passed through an IV pump fastened to the pole and plugged into the nearest outlet. The plastic tube from the IV pump entered a catheter inserted into the antecubital vein swollen across the inside of the patient's elbow.

"The blood bank didn't have any packed RBCs in O-neg," the nurse said. "We had to get whole blood."

Pearce nodded and the nurse closed the clamp to the intravenous feeding and released the clamp closing the tube from the saline solution before doing the same for the bag of blood. There was a brief mixture of fluids, and then it was all blood, running slowly through the long, transparent tubing with its own in-line filter into the receptive vein, new blood bringing new life to the old, worn-out mechanism on the hard hospital bed.

New blood for old, Pearce thought. Money can buy anything. "A little faster."

The nurse adjusted the pump. Occasionally the pump beeped a warning, and the nurse made further adjustments. In the bag the level of the life fluid dropped more swiftly.

Life. Dripping. Flowing. Making the old new.

The old man took a deep breath. The exhausted laboring of his chest grew easier. Pearce studied the old face, the beaklike nose, the thin, bloodless lips, looking cruel even in their pallor. New life, perhaps. But nothing can reverse the long erosion of the years. Bodies wear out. Nothing can make them new.

Drop by drop the blood flowed from the bag through the tubing into an old man's veins. Someone had given it or sold it. Someone young and healthy, who could make more purple life stuff, saturated with healthy red cells, vigorous white scavengers, platelets, the multiple proteins; someone who could replace it all in less than ninety days.

Pearce thought about Richard Lower, the seventeenth-century English anatomist who performed the first transfusion, and the twentieth-century Viennese immunologist, Karl Landsteiner, who made transfusions safe when he discovered the incompatible blood groups among human beings.

Now here was this old man, who was getting the blood through the efforts of Lower and Landsteiner and some anonymous donor; this old man who needed it, who couldn't make the red cells fast enough any longer, who couldn't keep up with the rate he was losing them internally. What was dripping through the tubes was life, a gift of the young to the old, of the healthy to the sick.

The old man's eyelids flickered.

When Pearce made his morning rounds, the old man was watching him with faded blue eyes. Pearce blinked once and automatically picked up the skin-and-bone wrist again. "Feeling better?"

He got his second shock. The old man nodded.

"Fine, Mister Weaver. We'll get a little food down you, and in a little while you'll be back at work."

He glanced at the monitors on the wall and studied them more closely. Gently, a look of surprise on his face, he lowered the old arm down beside the thin, sheeted body.

He sat back thoughtfully beside the bed, ignoring the bustling nurse. Weaver was making a surprising rally for a man in as bad shape as he had been. The pulse was strong and steady. Blood pressure was up. Somehow the transfusion had triggered hidden stores of energy and resistance.

Weaver was fighting back.

Pearce felt a strange and unprofessional sense of elation.

The next day Pearce thought the eyes that watched him were not quite so faded. "Comfortable?" he asked. The old man nodded. His pulse was almost normal for a man of his age; his blood pressure was down; his oxygen level was up.

On the third day Weaver started talking.

The old man's thready voice whispered disjointed and meaningless reminiscences. Pearce nodded as if he understood, and he nodded to himself, understanding the process that was reaching its conclusion. Arteriosclerosis had left its marks: chronic granular kidney, damage to the left ventricle of the heart, malfunction of the brain from a cerebral hemorrhage or two.

On the fourth day Weaver was sitting up in bed talking to the nurse in a cracked, sprightly voice. "Yessirree," he said toothlessly. "That was the day I whopped 'em. Gave it to 'em good, I did. Let 'em have it right between the eyes. Always hated those kids. You must be the doctor," he said suddenly, turning toward Pearce. "I like you. Gonna see that you get a big check. Take care of the people I like. Take care of those I don't like, too." He chuckled; it was an evil, childish sound.

"Don't worry about that," Pearce said gently, picking up Weaver's wrist. "Concentrate on getting well."

The old man nodded happily and stuck a finger in his mouth to rub his gums. "You'll git paid," he mumbled. "Don't you worry about that."

Pearce looked down at the wrist he was holding. It had filled out in a way for which he could remember no precedent. "What's the matter with your gums?"

"Itch," Weaver got out around his finger. "Like blazes."

On the fifth day Weaver walked to the toilet.

On the sixth day he took a shower. When Pearce came in, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, dangling his feet. Weaver looked up quickly as Pearce entered, his eyes alert, no longer so sunken. His skin had acquired a subcutaneous glow of health. Like his wrist and arm, his face had filled out. Even his legs looked firmer, almost muscular.

He was taking the well-balanced hospital diet and turning it into flesh and fat and muscle. With his snowy hair he looked like an ad for everybody's grandfather.

The next day his hair began to darken at the roots.

"How old are you, Mister Weaver?" Pearce asked.

"Eighty," Weaver said proudly. "Eighty my last birthday, June 5. Born in Wyoming, boy, in a mountain cabin. Still bears around then. Many's the time I seen 'em, out with my Pa. Wolves, too. Never gave us no trouble, though."

"What color was your hair?"

"Color of a raven's wing. Had the blackest, shiniest hair in the county. Gals used to beg to run their fingers through it." He chuckled reminiscently. "Used to let 'em. A passel of black-headed kids in Washakie County before I left."

He stuck his finger in his mouth and massaged his gums ecstatically.

"Still itch?" Pearce asked.

"Like a Wyoming chigger." He chuckled again. "You know what's wrong with me, boy? In my second childhood. That's what. I'm cutting teeth."

During the second week Weaver was removed from intensive care to a private suite and his mind turned to business, deserting the long-ago past. A telephone was installed beside his bed, and he spent half his waking time in short, clipped conversations about incomprehensible deals and manipulations. The other half was devoted to Jansen, who was so conveniently on hand whenever Weaver called for him that Pearce thought he must have appropriated a hospital room.

Weaver was picking up the scepter of empire.

While his mind roamed restlessly over possessions and ways of keeping and augmenting them, his body repaired itself like a self-servicing machine. His first tooth came through — a canine. After that they appeared rapidly. His hair darkened almost perceptibly; and when a barber came in to trim it, Weaver had him remove all the white, leaving him with a crewcut as dark as he had described. His face filled out, the wrinkles smoothing themselves like a ruffled lake when the wind has gentled. His body became muscular and vigorous; the veins retreated under the skin to become gray traceries. Even his eyes darkened to a fiery blue.

The lab tests were additional proof of what Pearce had begun to suspect. Arteriosclerosis had never thickened those veins; or else, somehow, the damage of plaque buildup had been repaired. The kidneys functioned perfectly. The heart was as strong and efficient a pump as it had ever been. There was no evidence of a cerebral hemorrhage.

By the end of that week Weaver looked like a man of thirty, and his body provided physical evidence of a man in his early, vigorous years of maturity.

"Carl," Weaver was saying as Pearce entered the room, "I want a woman."

"Any particular woman?" Jansen answered, shrugging.

"You don't understand," Weaver said with the impatience he reserved for those immediately dependent on his whims. "I want one to marry. I made a mistake before; I'm not going to repeat it. A man in my position needs an heir. I'm going to have one. Yes, Carl — and you can hide that look of incredulity a little better — at my age!" He swung around quickly toward Pearce. "That's right, isn't it, Doctor?"

Pearce shrugged. "There's no physical reason you can't father a child."

"Get this, Carl. I'm as strong and as smart as I ever was, maybe stronger and smarter. Some people are going to learn that very soon. I've been given a second chance, haven't I, Doctor?"

"You might call it that. What are you going to do with it?"

"I'm going to do better. Better than I did before. This time I'm not going to make any mistakes. And you, Doctor, do you know what you're going to do?"

"I'm going to do what I've always done: my job, as best I can."

Weaver's eyes twisted to Pearce's face. "You think I'm just talking. Don't make that mistake. You're going to find out why."

"Why?"

"Why I've recovered like I have. Don't try to kid me. You've never seen anything like it. I'm not eighty years old anymore. My body isn't. My mind isn't. Why?"

"What's your guess?"

"I never guess. I know. I get the facts from those who have them, and then I decide. That's what I want from you — the facts. I've been rejuvenated."

"You've been talking to Doctor Easter."

"Of course. He's my personal physician. That's where I start."

"But you never got that language from him. He'd never commit himself to a word like rejuvenation."

Weaver glowered at Pearce from under dark eyebrows. "What was done to me?"

"What does it matter? If you've been 'rejuvenated,' that should be enough for any man."

"When Mister Weaver asks a question," Jansen interjected icily, "Mister Weaver wants an answer."

Weaver brushed him aside. "Doctor Pearce doesn't frighten. But Doctor Pearce is a reasonable man. He believes in facts. He lives by logic, like me. Understand me, Doctor! I may be thirty now, but I will be eighty again. Before then I want to know how to be thirty once more."

"Ah." Pearce sighed. "You're not talking about rejuvenation now. You're talking about immortality."

"Why not?"

"It's not for humans. The body wears out. Three-score years and ten. That — roughly — is what we're allotted. After that we start falling apart."

"I've had mine and a bit more. Now I'm starting over at thirty. I've got forty or fifty to go. After that, what? Forty or fifty more?"

"We all die," Pearce said. "Nothing can stop that. Not one man born has not come to the grave at last. There's a disease we contract at birth from which none of us recovers; it's invariably fatal. Death."

"Suppose somebody develops a resistance to it?"

"Don't take what I said literally. I didn't mean that death was a specific disease," Pearce said. "We die in many ways: accident, infection — " And senescence, Pearce thought. For all we know, that's a disease. It could be a disease. Etiology: Virus, unisolated, unsuspected, invades at birth or shortly thereafter — or maybe transmitted at conception.

Incidence: Total.

Symptoms: Slow degeneration of the physical entity, appearing shortly after maturity, increasing debility, failure of the circulatory system through arteriosclerosis and heart damage, decline in the immunity system, malfunction of sense and organs, loss of cellular regenerative ability, susceptibility to secondary invasions....

Prognosis: 100% fatal.

"Everything dies," Pearce went on without a pause. "Trees, planets, suns...it's natural, inevitable...." But it isn't. Natural death is a relatively new thing. It appeared only when life became multicellular and complicated. Maybe it was the price for complexity, for the ability to think.

Protozoa don't die. Metazoa — sponges, flatworms, coelenterates — don't die. Certain fish don't die except through accident. "Voles are animals that never stop growing and never grow old." Where did I read that? And even the tissues of the higher vertebrates are immortal under the right conditions.

Carrel and Ebeling proved that. Give the cell enough of the right food, and it will never die. Cells from every part of the body have been kept alive indefinitely in vitro. Differentiation and specialization — that meant that any individual cell didn't find the perfect conditions. Besides staying alive, it had duties to perform for the whole. A plausible explanation, but was it true? Wasn't it just as plausible that the cell died because the circulatory system broke down?

Let the circulatory system remain sound, regenerative, and efficient, and the rest of the body might well remain immortal.

"When we say something's natural, it means we've given up trying to understand it," Weaver said. "You gave me a transfusion. Immunities can be transferred with the blood, Easter told me. Who donated that pint of blood?"

Pearce sighed. "Donor records are confidential."

Weaver snorted derisively.

The blood bank was in the basement. Pearce led the way down busy, noisy corridors, cluttered with patients in wheelchairs waiting for X rays and other tests, and others on gurneys being maneuvered to labs or back to their rooms.

"If you're smart," Jansen told him on the stairs, "you'll cooperate with Mister Weaver. Do what he asks you. Tell him what he wants to know. You'll get taken care of. If not — " Jansen smiled unpleasantly.

Pearce laughed. "What can Weaver do to me?"

"Don't find out," Jansen advised.

The blood bank was clean and efficient and, for the moment, empty except for the phlebotomist. When Jansen asked for the information about Weaver's transfusion, she keyed in Weaver's name on her computer. "Weaver?" she said. "Here it is. On the fourth." Her finger traveled across the screen. "O-neg."

Pearce said to the technician, "Have you had any donations from Mister Weaver's office?"

"None that have identified themselves."

"You're just making difficulties," Jansen said. "There's no such rule about replacing blood, but don't worry: You'll get your blood tomorrow. Who was the donor?"

"That information cannot be released," the technician said.

"We can get a court order here within two hours," Jansen replied.

"Go ahead," Pearce said. "I'll take responsibility."

The technician pressed another key and the array of data shifted on the computer screen. "Marshall Cartwright," she said. "O-neg. Kline: Okay. Now I remember. That was the day after our television appeal. We ran low on O-neg, and our usual donor list was exhausted. The response was limited."

"Remember him?" asked Jansen.

She frowned and turned her head away to stare out the window. "That was the third. We have more than twenty donors a day. And that was over a week ago."

"Think!" Jansen demanded.

"I am thinking," she snapped. "What do you want to know?"

"What he looked like. What he said. His address."

"Was there something wrong with the blood?"

Pearce grinned suddenly. "'Contrariwise,' said Tweedledee."

A brief smile slipped across the technician's face. "We don't get many complaints like that. I can give you his address easy enough." She punched some keys on her computer. "Funny. He sold his blood once, but he didn't want to do it again.

"Cartwright. Marshall Cartwright. Abbot Hotel. No phone listed."

"Abbot," Jansen said thoughtfully. "Sounds like a flop joint. Does that bring anything back?" he asked the technician insistently. "He didn't want his name on the donor's list."

Slowly, regretfully, she shook her head. "What's all this about anyway? Weaver? Isn't that the rich old guy up in 305 who made such a miraculous recovery?"

"Right," Jansen said, brushing the question away. "We'll want copies of the computer entries."

"You can have the computer entries as soon as the technician can have them run off," Pearce cut in.

"In the next hour," Jansen said.

"In the next hour," Pearce agreed.

"That's all, then," Jansen said. "If you remember anything, get in touch with Mister Weaver or me, Carl Jansen. There'll be something in it for you."

Something in it, something in it, Pearce thought. The slogan of a class. "What's in it for the human race? Never mind. You got what you came for."

"I always do," Jansen said brutally. "Mister Weaver and I — we always get what we come for. Remember that!"

Pearce remembered while the young-old man named Leroy Weaver grew a handsome set of teeth, as white as his hair was black, and directed the course of his commercial empire from the hospital room, chafed at Pearce's delay in giving him the answer to his question, at the continual demands for blood samples, at his own enforced idleness, and slyly pinched the nurses during the day. Pearce did not inquire into what happened at night.

Before the week was over, Weaver had discharged himself from the hospital and Pearce had located a private detective.

The black paint on the frosted glass of the door read:

JASON LOCKE

Private Investigations

But Locke wasn't Pearce's preconception of a private eye. He wasn't tough — not on the outside. The hardness was inside, and he didn't let it show.

Locke was middle-aged, graying, his face firm and tanned, a big man dressed in a well-draped tropical suit in light cocoa; he looked like a successful executive. But business wasn't that good: The office was shabby, the furniture was little better, and there was no secretary or receptionist.

He was just the man Pearce wanted.

He listened to Pearce and watched him with dark, steady eyes.

"I want you to find a man," Pearce said. "Marshall Cartwright. Last address: Abbot Hotel."

"Why?"

"What difference does it make?"

"I have a license to keep — and a desire to keep out of jail."

"There's nothing illegal about it," Pearce said, "but there might be danger. I won't lie to you; it's a medical problem I can't explain. It's important to me that you find Cartwright. It's important to him — it might mean his life. It might even be important to the world. The danger lies in the fact that other people are looking for him; if they spot you they might get rough. I want you to find Cartwright before they do."

"Who is 'they'?"

Pearce shrugged. "Pinkerton, Burns, International — I don't know. One of the big firms, probably. Maybe a private outfit."

"Is that why you don't go to them?"

"One reason. I won't conceal anything, though. The man hiring them is Leroy Weaver."

Locke looked interested. "I heard the old boy was back on the prowl. Have you got any pictures, descriptions, anything to help me spot this man Cartwright?"

Pearce looked down at his hands. "Nothing except the name. He's a young man. He sold a pint of blood on the third. He refused to have his name added to our professional donor's file. He gave his address then as the Abbot."

"I know it," Locke said. "A fly trap on Ninth. That means he's left town, I'd say."

"Why do you say that?"

"That's why he sold the blood. To get out of town. He wasn't interested in selling it again; he wasn't going to be around. And anyone who would stay at a place like the Abbot wouldn't toss away a chance at some regular, effortless money."

"That's what I figured," Pearce said. "Will you take the job?"

Locke swung around in his swivel chair and stared out the window across the light standards, transformers, and overhead power lines of Twelfth Street. It was nothing to look at, but he seemed to draw a decision from it. "Two hundred fifty dollars a day and expenses," he said, swinging back. "Fifty more if I have to go out of town."

That was the afternoon Pearce discovered he was being followed.

He walked along the warm autumn streets, and the careless crowds, the hurrying, anonymous shoppers, passed on either side without a glance and came behind, and conviction walked with him. He moved through the air-conditioned stores, quickly or dawdling over a display of deodorants at a counter, casually glancing behind in a way calculated to conceal his unease, seeing nothing but sure that someone was watching.

The symptoms were familiar. They were those of paranoia, of people in that wistful, tormented period of middle age when potential has turned to regret and one looks for someone or something to blame besides oneself. Pearce had never expected to share them: the sensitivity in the back of the neck and between the shoulder blades that made him want to shrug it away, the leg-tightening desire to hurry, to run, to dodge into a doorway, into an elevator....

Pearce nodded to himself and lingered. When he went to his car, he went slowly, talked to the parking lot attendant for a moment before he drove away, and drove straight home.

He never did identify the man or men who shadowed him, then or later. The feeling lasted for weeks, so that when it finally vanished he felt strangely naked and alone.

When he got to his apartment, the phone was ringing. That was not surprising. A doctor's phone rings a dozen times as often as that of ordinary people.

Dr. Easter was the caller. The essence of what he wanted to say was that Pearce should not be foolish; Pearce should cooperate with Mr. Weaver.

"Of course I'm cooperating," Pearce said. "I cooperate with all my patients."

"That isn't what I meant," Dr. Easter said. "Work with him, not against him. You'll find it's worth your while."

"It's worth my while to practice medicine the best way I can," Pearce said evenly. "Beyond that no one has a call on me, and no one ever will."

"Very fine sentiments," Dr. Easter agreed pleasantly. "The question is: Will Mister Weaver think you are practicing medicine properly? That's something to consider."

Pearce lowered the phone gently into the cradle, thinking about the practice of medicine, about being a doctor — and he knew he could never be happy at anything else. He turned over in his mind the subtle threat Easter had made; it could be done. The specter of malpractice was never completely absent, and a power alliance of money and respectability could come close to lifting a license, or at least of making practice too expensive. Malpractice insurance premiums were already steep — a number of his colleagues, particularly in obstetrics, had left their professions as a result, or practiced defensive medicine in a way that sent hospitalization and Medicare costs soaring — and a lawsuit, won or lost, might send his rates beyond his income.

He considered Easter, and he knew that it was better to risk the title than to give away the reality.

The next week was a time of wondering and waiting, and of keeping busy — a problem a doctor seldom faces. It was a time of uneventful routine.

Then everything happened at once.

As he walked from his car toward the front door of the apartment house, a hand reached out of the shadows beside an ornamental evergreen and pulled him into the darkness.

Before he could say anything or struggle, a hand was clamped tight over his mouth, and a voice whispered in his ear, "Quiet now! This is Locke. The private eye, remember?"

Pearce nodded as well as he could. Slowly the hand relaxed. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Pearce made out Locke's features. His face was heavily, darkly bearded, and something had happened to his nose. Locke had been in a brawl; the nose was broken, and the face was cut and bruised.

"Never mind me," Locke said huskily. "You should see the other guys."

As Pearce drew back a little, he could see that Locke was dressed in old clothes looking like hand-me-downs from the Salvation Army. "Sorry I got you into it," he said.

"Part of the job. Listen. I haven't got long, and I want to give you my report."

"It can wait. Come on up. Let me take a look at that face. You can send me a written re — "

"Nothing doing," Locke said heavily. "I'm not signing my name to anything. Too dangerous. From now on I'm going to keep my nose clean. I did all right for a few days. Then they caught up with me. Well, they're sorry, too. You wanta hear it?"

Pearce nodded.

For a while Locke had thought he might get somewhere. He had registered at the Abbot, got friendly with the room clerk, and finally asked about his friend, Cartwright, who had flopped there a couple of weeks earlier. The clerk was willing enough to talk. Trouble was, he didn't know much, and what little he knew he wouldn't have told to a stranger. Guests at the Abbot were likely to be persecuted by police and collection agents, and the clerk had suspicions that every questioner was from the health department.

Cartwright had paid his bill and left suddenly, no forwarding address given. They hadn't heard from him since, but people had been asking about him. "In trouble, eh?" the clerk asked wisely. Locke nodded gravely.

The clerk leaned closer. "I had a hunch, though, that Cartwright was heading for Des Moines. Something he said — don't remember what now."

Locke took off for Des Moines with a sample of Cartwright's handwriting from the Abbot register. He canvassed the Des Moines hotels, rooming houses, motels. Finally, at a first-class hotel, he noticed the name "Marshall Carter."

Cartwright had left the Abbot on the ninth. Carter had checked into the Des Moines hotel on the tenth. The handwritings seemed similar.

Locke caught up with Carter in St. Louis. He turned out to be a middle-aged salesman of photographic equipment who hadn't been near Kansas City in a year.

End of the trail.

"Can anyone else find him?" Pearce asked.

"Not if he doesn't want to be found," Locke said. "A nationwide search — an advertising campaign — they'd help. But if he's changed his name and doesn't go signing his new one to a lot of things that might fall into an agency's hands, nobody is going to find him. That's what you wanted, wasn't it?"

Pearce looked at him steadily, not saying anything.

"He's got no record," Locke went on. "That helps. Got a name check on him from the bigger police departments and the FBI. No go. No record, no fingerprints. Not under that name."

"How'd you get hurt?" Pearce asked, after a moment.

"They were waiting for me outside my office when I got back. Two of 'em. Good, too. But not good enough. 'Lay off!' they said. Okay. I'm not stupid. I'm laying off, but I wanted to finish the job first."

Pearce nodded slowly. "I'm satisfied. Send me a bill."

"Bill, nothing!" Locke growled. "Five thousand is the price. Put the cash in an envelope, take it out a little at a time to avoid notice, and mail it to my office — no checks. I should charge you more for using me as a stakeout, but maybe you had your reasons. Watch your step, Doc!"

He was gone then, slipping away through the shadows so quickly and silently that Pearce started to speak before he realized that the detective was not beside him. Pearce stared after him for a long, speculative moment before he turned and opened the front door.

Going up in the elevator, he was thoughtful. In front of his apartment door, he fumbled the key out absently and inserted it in the lock. When the key wouldn't turn, he took it out to check on it. It took a moment for the realization to sink in that the door was already unlocked. Pearce turned the knob and gave the door a little push. It swung inward quietly. The light from the hall streamed over his shoulder, but it only lapped a little way into the dark room. He peered into it for a moment, hunching his shoulders as if that might help.

"Come in, Doctor Pearce," someone said softly.

The lights went on.

Pearce blinked once. "Good evening, Mister Weaver. And you, Jansen. How are you?"

"Fine, Doctor," Weaver said. "Just fine."

He didn't look fine, Pearce thought. He looked older, haggard, tired. Was he worried? Weaver was sitting in Pearce's favorite chair, a dark-green leather armchair beside the fireplace. Jansen was standing beside the wall switch. "You've made yourself right at home, I see."

Weaver chuckled. "We told the manager we were friends of yours, and of course he didn't doubt us. Solid citizens like us, we don't lie. But then, we are friends, aren't we?"

Pearce looked at Weaver and then at Jansen. "I wonder. Do you have any friends — or only hirelings?" He turned his gaze back to Weaver. "You don't look well. I'd like you to come back to the hospital for a checkup — "

"I'm feeling fine, I said." Weaver's voice lifted a little before it dropped back to a conversational tone. "We wanted to have a little talk — about cooperation."

Pearce looked at Jansen. "Funny — I don't feel very talkative. I've had a hard day."

Weaver's eyes didn't leave Pearce's face. "Get out, Carl," he said calmly.

"But, Mister Weaver — " Jansen began, his gray eyes tightening.

"Get out, Carl," Weaver repeated. "Wait for me in the car."

After Jansen was gone, Pearce sank down in the armchair facing Weaver. He let his gaze drift around the room, lingering on the polished darkness of the music center and the slightly lighter wood of the desk in the corner. "Did you find anything?" he asked.

"Not what we were looking for," Weaver replied.

"What was that?"

"Cartwright's location."

"What makes you think I'd know anything about that?"

Weaver clasped his hands lightly in his lap. "Can't we work together?"

"Certainly. What would you like to know — about your health?"

"What did you do with those samples of blood you took from me? You must have taken back that pint I got."

"Almost. Part of it we separated. Got the plasma. Separated the gamma globulin from it with zinc. Used it on various animals."

"And what did you find out?"

"The immunity is in the gamma globulin. It would be, of course. That's the immunity factor. You should see my old rat. As frisky as the youngest rat in the lab."

"So it's part of me, too?" Weaver asked.

Pearce shook his head slowly. "That's just the original globulins diluted in your blood."

"Then to live forever I would have to have periodic transfusions?"

"If it's possible to live forever," Pearce said, shrugging.

"It is. You know that. There's at least one person who's going to live forever — Cartwright. Unless something happens to him. That would be a tragedy, wouldn't it? In spite of all precautions, accidents happen. People get murdered. Can you imagine some careless kid spilling that golden blood into a filthy gutter? Some jealous woman putting a knife in that priceless body?"

"What do you want, Weaver?" Pearce asked evenly. "You've got your reprieve from death. What more can you ask?"

"Another. And another. Without end. Why should some nobody get it by accident? What good will it do him? Or the world? He needs to be protected — and used. Properly handled, he could be worth — well, whatever men will pay for life. I'd pay a million a year — more if I had to. Other men would pay the same. We'd save the best men in the world, those who have demonstrated their ability by becoming wealthy. Oh, yes. Scientists, too — we'd select some of those. People who haven't gone into business — leaders, statesmen..."

"What about Cartwright?"

"What about him?" Weaver blinked as if recalled from a lovely dream. "Do you think anyone who ever lived would have a better life, would be better protected, more pampered? Why, he wouldn't have to ask for a thing! No one would dare say no to him for fear he might kill himself. He'd be the hen that lays the golden eggs."

"He'd have everything but freedom."

"A much overrated commodity."

"The one immortal man in the world."

"That's just it," Weaver said, leaning forward. "Instead of only one, there would be many."

Pearce shook his head from side to side as if he had not heard. "A chance meeting of genes — a slight alteration by cosmic ray or something even more subtle and accidental — and immortality is created. Some immunity to death — some means of keeping the circulatory system young, resistant, rejuvenated. 'Man is as old as his arteries,' Cazali said. Take care of your arteries, and they will keep your cells immortal."

"Tell me, man! Tell me where Cartwright is before all that is lost forever." Weaver leaned farther forward, as if he could transmit his urgency.

"A man who knows he's got a thousand years to live is going to be pretty darned careful," Pearce said.

"That's just it," Weaver said, his eyes narrowing. "He doesn't know. If he'd known, he'd never have sold his blood." His face changed subtly. "Or does he know — now?"

"What do you mean?"

"Didn't you tell him?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't you? Don't you remember going to the Abbot Hotel on the evening of the ninth, of asking for Cartwright, of talking to him? You should. The clerk identified your picture. And that night Cartwright left."

Pearce remembered the Abbot Hotel all right, the narrow, dark lobby, grimy, infested with flies and roaches. He had thought of cholera and bubonic plague as he crossed it. He remembered Cartwright, too — that fabulous creature, looking seedy and quite ordinary, who had listened, though, and believed and taken the money and gone...

"I don't believe it," Pearce said.

"I should have known right away," Weaver said, as if to himself. "You're smart. You would have picked up on it right off, maybe as soon as I woke up, and you would have realized what it meant."

"Presuming I did. If I did all that you say, do you think it would have been easy for me? To you he's money. What do you think he would have been to me? That fantastic laboratory, walking around! What wouldn't I have given to study him! To find out how his body worked, to try to synthesize the substance. You have your drives, Weaver, but I have mine."

"Why not combine them, Pearce?"

"They wouldn't mix."

"Don't get so holy, Pearce. Life isn't holy."

"Life is what we make it," Pearce said softly. "I won't have a hand in what you're planning."

Weaver got up quickly from his chair and took a step toward Pearce. "Some of you professional men get delusions of ethics," he said in a kind of muted snarl. "Not many. A few. There's nothing sacred about what you do. You're just craftsmen, mechanics — you do a job — you get paid for it. There's no reason to get religious about it."

"Don't be absurd, Weaver. If you don't feel religious about what you do, you shouldn't be doing it. You feel religious about making money. That's what's sacred to you. Well, life is sacred to me. That's what I deal in, all day long, every day. Death is an old enemy. I'll fight him until the end."

Pearce propelled himself out of his chair. He stood close to Weaver, staring fiercely into the man's eyes. "Understand this, Weaver. What you're planning is impossible. What if we all could be rejuvenated? Do you have the slightest idea what would happen? Have you considered what it might do to civilization?

"No, I can see you haven't. Well, it would bring your society tumbling down around your pillars of gold. Civilization would shake itself to pieces like an unbalanced flywheel. Our culture is constructed on the assumption that we spend two decades growing and learning, a few more producing wealth and progeny, and a final decade or two decaying before we die.

"Look back! See what research and medicine have done in the past century. They've added a few years — just a few — to the average lifespan, and our society is groaning at the readjustment. Think what forty years more would do! Think what would happen if we never died!

"There's only one way something like this can be absorbed into the race — gradually, so that society can adjust, unknowing, to this new thing inside it. All Cartwright's children will inherit the mutation. They must. It must be dominant. And they will survive, because this has the greatest survival factor ever created."

"Where is he?" Weaver asked.

"It won't work, Weaver," Pearce said, his voice rising. "I'll tell you why it won't work. Because you would kill him. You think you wouldn't, but you'd kill him as certainly as you're a member of the human race. You'd bleed him to death, or you'd kill him just because you couldn't stand having something immortal around. You or some other warped specimen of humanity. You'd kill him, or he'd get killed in the riots of those who were denied life. One way or another he'd be tossed to the wolves of death. What people can't have they destroy."

"Where is he?" Weaver repeated.

"It won't work for a final reason." Pearce's voice dropped as if it had found a note of pity. "But I won't tell you that. I'll let you find out for yourself."

"Where is he?" Weaver insisted softly.

"I don't know. You won't believe that. But I don't know. I didn't want to know. I'll confess to this much: I told him the truth about himself, and I gave him some money, and I told him to leave town, to change his name, hide — anything, but not be found; to be fertile, to populate the earth...."

"I don't believe you. You've got him hidden away for yourself. You wouldn't give him a thousand dollars for nothing."

"You know the amount?" Pearce asked.

Weaver's lip curled. "I know every deposit you've made in the last five years, and every withdrawal. You're small, Pearce, and you're cheap, and I'm going to break you."

Pearce smiled, unworried. "No, you're not. You don't dare use violence, because I just might know where Cartwright is hiding. Then you'd lose everything. And you won't try anything else because if you do I'll release the article I've written about Cartwright — I'll send you a copy — and then the fat would really be in the fire. If everybody knew about Cartwright, you wouldn't have a chance to control it, even if you could find him. You're big and powerful, but there are people in this world and groups and nations that could swallow you and never notice."

Weaver rose from the chair and said, "You wouldn't do that. Then there would be thousands of people looking for Cartwright, not just one." He turned at the door and said, calmly, "But you're right — I couldn't take the chance. I'll be seeing you again."

"That's right," Pearce agreed and thought, I've been no help to you, because you won't ever believe that I haven't got a string tied to Cartwright.

But you're not the one I pity.

Two days after that meeting came the news of Weaver's marriage with a twenty-five-year-old girl from the country club district, a Patricia Warren. It was the weekend sensation — wealth and beauty, age and youth.

Pearce studied the girl's picture in the Sunday paper and told himself that surely she had got what she wanted. And Weaver — Pearce knew him well enough to know that he had got what he wanted. Weaver's heir would already be assured. Otherwise, Weaver would never risk himself and his empire in a woman's hands. Tests were reliable even as early as this.

The fourth week since the transfusion passed uneventfully, and the fifth week was only distinguished by a summons from Jansen, which Pearce ignored. The beginning of the sixth week brought a frantic call from Dr. Easter. Pearce refused to go to Weaver's newly purchased mansion.

A screaming ambulance brought Weaver to the hospital, clearing the streets ahead of it with its siren and its flashing red light, dodging through the traffic with its precious cargo: money in the flesh.

Pearce stood beside the hard hospital bed, checking the pulse in the bony wrist, and stared down at the emaciated body. It made no impression in the bed. In the silence the harsh unevenness of the old man's breathing was loud. The only movement was the spasmodic rise and fall of the sheet that covered the old body.

He was living — barely. He had used up his allotted three-score years and ten and a bit more. It wasn't merely that he was dying. Everyone is. With him it was imminent. The pulse was feeble. The gift of youth had been taken away. Within the space of a few days Weaver had been drained of color, drained of fifty years of life.

He was an old man, dying. His face was yellowish over grayish blue, the color of death. It was bony, the wrinkled skin pulled back like a mask for the skull. Once he might have been handsome. Now his eyes were sunken, the closed eyelids dark over them; his lips were a dark line, and his nose was a thin, arching beak.

This time, Pearce thought distantly, there would be no reprieve.

"I don't understand," Dr. Easter muttered. "I thought he'd been given another fifty years — "

"That was his conclusion," Pearce said. "It was more like forty days. Thirty to forty days — that's how long the gamma globulin remains in the bloodstream. It was only a passive immunity. The only person with any lasting immunity to death is Cartwright, and the only ones he can give it to are his children."

Easter looked around to see if the nurse was listening and whispered. "Couldn't we handle this better? Chance needs a little help sometimes. With semen banks and artificial insemination we could change the makeup of the human race in a couple of generations — "

"If we weren't all wiped out first," Pearce said and turned away.

He waited, his eyes closed, listening to the harshness of Weaver's breathing, thinking of the tragedy of life and death — the being born and the dying, entwined, all one, and here was Weaver who had run out of life, and there was his child who would not be born for months yet. It was a continuity, a balance — a life for life, and it had kept humanity stable for millions of years.

And yet — immortality? What might it mean?

He thought of Cartwright, the immortal, the hunted man. While men remembered, they would never let him rest, and if he got tired of hiding and running, he was doomed. The search would go on and on — crippled a little, fortunately, now that Weaver had dropped away — and Cartwright, with his burden, would never be able to live like other men.

He thought of Cartwright, trying to adjust to immortality in the midst of death, and he thought that immortality — the greatest gift, surely, that a man could receive — demanded payment in kind, like everything else. For immortality, you must surrender the right to live.

You're the one I pity, Cartwright.

"Transfusion, Doctor Pearce?" the nurse repeated.

"Yes," he said. "Might as well." He looked down at Weaver once more. "Type and crossmatch two units of blood and administer one unit when available. We know his type already — O negative."

Copyright © 2004 by James Gunn

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2013

    Its one of must read novels of science fiction. Like Eric Frank

    Its one of must read novels of science fiction. Like Eric Frank Russell.s Wasp its a good story and very entertaining.

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