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THE METHUSELAH STRAIN
By J. P. HELAK
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 J. P. Helak
All rights reserved.
Deanna stared at the image reflecting back at her from the aluminum pitcher that sat on the nightstand next to her hospital bed. A tear rolled down the deeply wrinkled cheek that she no longer recognized. The white, sparse hair that lightly framed her aged face showed no hint of the long, auburn locks that once were—the locks through which Kyle had so loved to run his hands. The thought of him never being able to touch her again was too much for her to take. I must get out of here.
It was 9:00 p.m., and the nurses had just finished their rounds. They would be occupied with charting for the next forty-five minutes, and since she had been transferred to ward D last week, there were no guards outside the door to worry about. No need to guard the weak and dying. This might be her best chance. She was unsure if she had the strength, but she would rather die trying than just lie there, awaiting the inevitable.
With her hand trembling, she reached her arm around the bedrail and pressed the release latch. The rail slammed down suddenly; her atrophied arm muscles were too weak to lower it gently. She froze momentarily, fearing she had already given herself away. When no one came, she rolled to her side and lowered her feet to the floor. With great effort, she stood and began shuffling her way to the door, her frail, bent frame passing other crippled and disfigured ward-mates as they laid still in their beds, accepting their fates.
Her heart pounded as she reached the doorway. She paused to catch her breath and peeked around the doorframe to locate any nurses. Just as she had suspected, they were all still gathered at the back of the nurses' station, completing their never-ending charting duties. The main elevator stood directly in front of the nurses' station, so there was no way to reach it, but the cargo elevator around the corner was out of sight and was never used at night. That was her destination.
As she waited for enough strength to return to her feeble body, her thoughts turned to the fine gold chain around her neck that held a medallion of Saint Anthony. It had been given to her by her father when she'd gone off to school. St. Anthony was the patron saint of lost items and missing persons. How ironic. She held it gently in her hand, said a quick prayer, and then made her break.
Her bare feet made virtually no sound as they contacted the linoleum floor. The rate at which they moved, however, was painfully slow. She had once run the hundred-yard dash in under twelve seconds, but now those same brain impulses that had once commanded an impressive sprint only summoned up a disappointing shuffle. The faster she tried to will her body to move, the slower she seemed to go and the more painful every step became. As she reached the elevator door and pressed the down arrow, she became aware of laughter coming from the nursing station. She paused and concentrated on what they were discussing. Gomers ... trial trash ... Abram's atrocities? Were they talking about her and the others? Her mind was becoming confused, time and events garbled. She tried to remain focused. I must get to ... go ... go where ...? Down. She stumbled into the elevator. With great mental effort, she located and pressed the ground floor button. Down, must go down ... out to the alley ... the alley ... Kyle ...
* * *
The comment was to no one in particular, just a reminder to herself that it was time again for her rounds. The heavyset nurse grabbed a blood pressure cuff and a digital thermometer and headed to ward D. It had been only two weeks since she had been transferred up, and after nearly a year on the ground floor filling out potential client questionnaires at base pay, she was more than ready for the increased income and responsibility.
She thought about Brandon, her teenage son, as she went through her rounding routine of checking vital signs, collecting specimens, and dispensing meds. It was only last month that he had received the letter of acceptance into the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado. She shared in his excitement at the time while hiding her fear of not being able to afford it. Out-of-state tuition and boarding was so expensive.
Brandon's father had been out of the picture since he was a toddler, and though Brandon was a bright boy and would no doubt qualify for some scholarships, she knew all too well that her out-of-pocket expenses would be prohibitive. But now, all that had changed. Her pay had increased by nearly 50 percent, and more important, there was the promise of further advancement as she worked her way up the nursing ladder into an administrative position.
Her mind became more at ease as she reflexively measured the contents of another urinal. Things would work out fine, as long as she continued to have the confidence of the director, which she undoubtedly had so far. After all, one couldn't even be considered to move up to ward D unless the director was assured of your abilities and your loyalty. She remembered how proud she was after surviving the multi-level interview process, and he told her what an asset she would be to his team.
A moan emanating from the bed she was approaching brought her attention back to the present. She took her stethoscope from around her neck and placed its diaphragm on the patient's back. The telltale rattle released by the lungs was the same as those she had heard a half a dozen times already since arriving on the ward. It wouldn't be long now for this poor soul.
She surveyed the dimly lit room. How many more would she lose this week? A feeling of depression began to set in. This wasn't exactly what she'd pictured herself doing when she finally got her RN last year. These pathetic creatures were beyond real help; her only job was to try to keep them comfortable as they rapidly withered away. But that was enough, wasn't it? To know that she was at least helping to relieve some suffering in the end? Besides, whatever research the director was doing was sure to help people like these someday.
She sighed as she resumed her progression throughout the ward. About halfway through, she noticed that something was wrong. One of the beds toward the end of the room seemed to have its railing down. In the dim light, she couldn't make out the patient. "Damn," she swore under her breath as she headed in that direction. "If she's fallen out of bed on my watch, the director will ..." She stopped midsentence as she got close enough to the bed to see that the patient was not on the floor. Fear gave way to panic as she flipped on the overhead lights and searched the room. The patient was nowhere in sight. Finally conceding the obvious, she ran over to the comm panel and pressed the red button, sounding an alarm throughout the complex. So much for my fledgling career.
* * *
Brad had had enough of the frat party. He thought this would be a perfect opportunity to get closer to Sandra, whom he had been trying to work up the nerve to ask out since the beginning of the semester. He remembered how she looked when he'd first noticed her in psych class. She was so stunning that he initially felt he would have no chance with her. But then, after being placed in several small-group discussions with her, she seemed to take some interest in him. When she mentioned the frat party and asked him if he was going, he thought he might faint; it seemed as if she were asking him out.
But now he could see how wrong he was. In the corner of the room sat the woman of his desires curled up in the lap of Arizona's all-conference quarterback. How was he to compete with that?
He looked away and walked toward the kitchen, where he'd noticed Tom and Dan heading earlier. They were the only true friends he could say he'd met since coming to the University of Arizona. The three of them had lived in the same dorm freshman year and had several classes together since, and though Brad was the most reserved of the three, they generally had similar interests. They had come to the frat party together in Brad's car. Now that he was thinking of leaving, he felt he'd better let them know.
As he approached, Tom noticed him and enthusiastically waved him over. "Hey, Brad!" Tom yelled. "Look at this—it's awesome!"
Brad could tell Tom had already had too much to drink by the way he slurred together his words: itsawesome. As he arrived at the kitchen table, Tom put his arm around him and directed his attention to Dan, who was seated at the table with a crowd around him. He seemed to be doing something to his arm with a toothpick. As Brad leaned over someone's shoulder to get a better look, he realized exactly what was going on. Dan was using a toothpick dipped in food coloring to tattoo his forearm. He finished the image just as Brad began to make it out.
"Yeah!" Dan shouted as he threw his arm into the air, revealing a decent representation of SpongeBob.
"Isn'titawesome? Tom asked, looking right at Brad. "I'm gonnado Patrickstar next! You wannado one?"
Brad backed away and waved his hand in front of his face in an attempt to ward off the odor emanating from Tom's mouth. "I'm out of here," he said, shaking his head. "You guys are on your own."
He had downed a few beers himself, so he decided to leave his car and walk the three blocks to his apartment. Fifth Avenue was dark and quiet at that time of night. As he rounded the corner of the Pittman building and heard the whistle of the wind surging down the alley, he began to question the wisdom of being out this late and in this part of town—alone. He had heard stories of students disappearing after leaving similar wild parties, their faces never to be seen again until plastered on TV screens across the country as yet another victim on America's Most Wanted. True, those mostly involved young women, but he had also heard some other stories, usually told by intoxicated old men, about the strange happenings going on in these buildings.
He did a double take down one of the alleys as he passed by. What the fuck ...? He froze stiff, his heart racing as he stared down the alley. Something had moved. At first he thought it was an animal, but it moved too slowly and noisily. He then noticed the shadow of the hunched-over frame with a crippled gate coming toward him. He resisted the urge to run and squinted his eyes to make out the form in the dim light. Is it human?
He heard the wheezy, irregular breathing as it approached, and as it moved into the light of the street, he could make out all its details. Brad had never seen such a pathetic creature. It appeared to be a woman of extremely advanced age. Her sparse hair was pure white, and her skin wrinkled beyond anything he had ever seen. Her skeletal frame was contorted with arthritis, making ambulation a slow and painful undertaking.
When he stepped toward her, he noticed her eyes: they were bright green and appeared to be still full of life. She reached out to him and grasped his shirt with thin, bony fingers. Then, after pulling herself toward him with all her might, she beseeched him in a hoarse whisper. "Help me!"
With eyes still fixed on her, he slipped his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed 911.
Death is not inevitable.
The dictum repeated in his head over and over, like a jingle one couldn't expunge, or the answer to a test question one didn't want to forget. It was the first thing the director of YouthCorp had said to him when he'd reported for duty as a new molecular genetics technician over four years earlier.
He reflected on that day as he slid his ID badge through the card slot on the secure door of the inner lab, buried deep within the Pittman building.
It was 1:00 a.m. There was no one in the building except for the security guard, who might have become suspicious at the tech's late night arrival had he not started periodic late-night work sessions several months ago. So easy to deceive feeble minds.
The orientation the director had given him upon his arrival four years before, though lacking in any new didactic information, had been riveting and inspirational in its presentation. He had never really been inspired before. After all, he didn't get into genetics for altruistic reasons. He had no delusions of curing cancer or winning the Nobel Prize. He went into it for very pragmatic reasons: he seemed to have a knack for chemistry and biology, which always came easy to him. And it was an up-and-coming field, one in which he knew he could make a lot of money. Although his dad always pushed him to go to medical school, where he could possibly make more, he knew he wasn't one who would deal well with patients. He wasn't a people person. He spent his college years blending into the wall at the back of the classroom, managing to get through all four years with a minimum of human interaction.
The job at YouthCorp seemed perfect for him. He would be isolated in a lab most of the time with his own work to do, and the pay was quite high—though not as high as he needed at the moment, but that was about to be rectified.
He had to admit, though, that the director had really given him food for thought. The man's passion had been contagious as he spoke about the immense life spans of some of man's fellow creatures: the Amazon parrot, with a life span exceeding a hundred years; the Galapagos land tortoise, which could live two hundred years; the Methuselah tree, over two thousand years; and the hydra, which was potentially immortal. He remembered his excitement as he heard the word. Immortal. Could it really be possible? Could mankind, with all its biological complexities, possibly match the lifespan of the simplest multi-cellular organisms? Could Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth finally be within grasp? The director had been sure of it, and as he described his plan, the tech had become a believer, too.
Telomerase was the answer. It was the repairman of the chromosomes, and he knew just how to introduce it into human host cells to coax them to replicate indefinitely.
The tech remembered being impressed at the aggressive testing schedule that the director had set up, but he never imagined that in a mere three years, he would be witnessing the testing of the final product—one that could change the world forever. Of course, such an aggressive schedule of trials inevitably led to some bad outcomes, such as those unfortunate subjects on ward D, but he tried not to think about that. Scientific progress does have its costs. After all, initial inoculation programs for smallpox in the 1800s had carried a 2 percent mortality, and even the highly lauded Jonas Salk had caused the infection of over two hundred individuals, including ten deaths, with his polio vaccine. History would treat the director with the same respect that it did Doctor Salk, despite the casualties.
The tech entered the antechamber of the lab and passed through the ultraviolet sterilizer. He donned his polyurethane clean suit with practiced precision, taking great care to avoid knocking off his black, horned-rimmed glasses as he swung the hood over his head. Though the suit appeared bulky, it could be put on quickly without assistance, and it was actually quite easy to maneuver inside it. Less than thirty seconds later, he deftly made his way through the lab in the bubble-boy suit, as it had become known throughout the lab.
The H3R3 retrovirus vector resided in a vial in the isolation chamber, at the end of the lab. Without so much as a glance in the direction of any of the half dozen lab tables strewn with centrifuges, beakers, and test tubes, he honed in on his objective. As he approached it, he paused and admired it. It was so unassuming in its small, cylindrical glass container. To the untrained eye, it was no different from any other of the dozens of similar containers found about the lab, but this one was very different. This one held the key to immortality.
The tech reached his gloved hand into the isolation cubicle, a six-sided Plexiglas container with protruding black gloves, through which the contents could be manipulated with the utmost safety. He picked up the vial. This is it. So small, so unassuming, and yet ...
His thoughts turned to the director. This was the culmination of the man's career, his passion, his very life. He knew that the human trials, set to begin in less than seventy-two hours, would ultimately vindicate his obsession, placing the director's name among other pioneers of medical science.
Or maybe not.
Excerpted from THE METHUSELAH STRAIN by J. P. HELAK. Copyright © 2013 J. P. Helak. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Methuselah Strain is a fast paced thriller, with some interesting ideas and questions posed about immortality. It's a fun story that's easy to jump right into. It's a fun story for anyone looking for a quick sci-fi kick.