Lester awoke in an anechoic hyperbaric electromagnetic reverberation chamber. The human container constructed from a solid piece of fiberglass wrapped comfortably around a center platform elevated twenty-four inches from the bottom of the tank. Twelve foot walls spaced ten feet apart were paneled with sable melamine sponge dampeners while the overhead surface was topped with a wooden wire lattice nest masking a steel vent. Outfitted to an industrial ventilator, the air pump was programmed to deliver atmospheric pressures. In seconds it could flush the bowl with breezy sea level conditions ideal for regeneration or vacuum seal the death zone of Mount Kangchenjunga.
Today the million-dollar customized bedroom provided its occupant with the usual: an ideal environment for producing oxyhemoglobin. The catch was denying his infused body of any stimuli. While normal human brains demand constant distractions to occupy spanning attentions, sensory deprivation overloads one’s consciousness by forcing it to deal with itself. Grappling with such a setting for more than a five minutes causes the hallucinatory ganzfeld effect. Prolonged exposure and a mind breaks toward insanity. For Lester, however, this niche afforded a tether against the dilation of time. It was the closest he could come to being buried alive without the fatal dose of reality.
As serotonin’s last kiss trigger-twitched a smile, his living coffin echoed the ropy strands of his zygomaticus ripping the masseter a mast. Lester winced at the sound, which in turn created cacophony incarnate. Immediate lucidity washed muscle tension over his body, orchestrating a daisy chain of sinewy maelstroms. The roar landed on his mind like a cracked needle on static.
Lester struggled to tune out the life gorging within. The rhythmic geyser of thumping beats, his quickening breath rushing in and out like the king’s tide, the high pitch electrical spark ricocheting from his spinal cord through his nerve endings—his auditory organs were caught in the friendly fire bombardment of persistent babel. Each moment dug into his brain, fracking his conscience, loosening his grip on sanity.
Focus fraying with every eternal second, Lester attempted his last trick. He concentrated over the din to the millions of cells sprawling, digesting, duplicating and repairing him from within. Their constant vital hum endured and if they could then he could find his will to continue. Soul forged anew, Lester reclaimed his existential anchor, a raft no longer adrift.
Returning to this world, Lester’s right ring finger lifted. A motion detector picked up the cue and signaled for a speaker buried below the vat to begin. The space began to shake with a low frequency hum. The vibration swallowed the racket of Lester’s internal clamor, installing a peace that raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
Peeking beneath their thin blanket of skin, his dilated pupils patiently played with pixilated chroma. Lights embedded in the floor gently radiated a gradual glow from under the water, the lamps intensity timed to match the luminosity of a rising sun. His wavy mixture of cones and rods settled on a color once the soft emerald shadow of micro ripples danced across the organic mesh ceiling. Now that his sight had gained resolution, Lester rose and dipped his toes into the ignited waves of Epsom salted aquamarine waters.
Wading through the ankle-deep liquid to the vault door, Lester turned the knob counter-clockwise three rotations until the locks tumbled out of their metallic cylinder plugs. Lester pushed opened the hinges and entered a traditional bravura master bedroom outfitted with vintage Eames fixtures that had never been used. He let his feet dry on the wall-to-wall eggshell carpeting, leaving another layer of stained cerulean footprints embedding a path to the elevator doors. He snapped the gate shut behind him and waited as he was lifted through the stories of underground compartments.
Buried a tenth of a kilometer under red sooner soil, the former missile silo turned luxury abode reached the upper level with a chime. Copper doors clacked open to a glass entombed widow’s walk perched atop an Adirondack-style home in northwest Oklahoma.
Lester stared at the cloudless sky illuminated before him, straining his eyes to remain open against the brilliant blue hue. The tensions in his head coursed over to the pain in his heart. He massaged the caustic burn between his ribs, but the soreness of his overworked ticker demanded a closer look.
He inhaled deeply and stretched out his arms from his torso, a tortoise on the rack. The tingling tightness of his tendons maximized the sensation of pressure moving through his arms. He felt each throb move from the inner edge of his ring fingers to his wrists before tunneling up his shoulders. Elevated by his carotid it pumped through ophthalmic arteries before entering his retina.
As Lester held his respiration, counting the seconds into minutes, the piled exhaust clouded the macular vasculatures of his vision, spreading shade into the honey-comb structure of his fovea. Finally he exhaled.
The fresh pulse quivered the membrane of his cornea, shaking his perspective until ultraviolet radiation blued afterglow. A curtain of sensory fabric caught in a flash flood, his blood rocked in wrinkled undulations before smoothing itself over with light. Lester fazed over the translucent stringy floaters of vitreous to unveil the landlords of his cardiovascular system, watching his antibodies zigzag about with charged ambition. Their vast numbers swelled the seams of his ocular capillaries. He beamed—his livelihood was hunting well this morning.
Lester’s eyes stabilized and scanned across the hundred-foot blades dotting the landscape. Gigantic fans stretched out for miles over the rusty terrain, the wind farm’s ivory blades turning listlessly with the breeze. Every economic watt churned benefited the man staring past his glass reflection at the tiny piece of consolation he had afforded himself. He sighed.
His stomach growled. Following the cue, Lester slipped on a cotton shirt, denim pants, and leather sandals before making his way down an iron spiral staircase to the second floor. He entered a dining area connected to a fully stocked kitchen and openned the refrigerator door. After removing a silver pouch labeled AO 49 from a foil wrapped service package, he pursued then snatched a transparent nylon pocket of pink protein paste speckled with nickel and amber flakes. Grabbing a metal straw from the drawer, he punctured the pouch and sipped from the bag of rarefied juice.
With a burp and a cough, Lester walked past his unfurnished rooms into framed sunlight, passing a figure standing quietly in the corner.
Awaiting his arrival, she was a woman in her late sixties built from a portly blend of resolve and decay. The woman’s emaciated lips were sealed beneath a shaved head, her melanin adaptation to a strong equatorial sun pulled tight at the neck by a collar holding a box affixed to her vocal chords. She switched it on, letting the white noise unpack her throat like a resuscitated radio, and with what resembled a tonal cough did her best to clear the air.
Lester jettisoned acidic fructose from his nostrils, staring dumb-struck at the female in his study.
“What the hell Bruna?” he confronted with an embarrassed yelp, wiping the froth from his face. “Have you been there the whole time?”
Bruna shrugged, the device springing a vibration acting as her voice.
“Does it. Matter?”
“Only a little. What’s with the lurking?”
“You have been. Requested.”
Lester’s happy-go-lucky disposition vanished.
“Well, then. What’s the plan?
“They sent. A plane. Be at. The San Fran. Cisco. Airport. By noon.”
“Airports,” Lester shuddered. “Any chance I could drive? Make them change the destination?”
“I will see. What I. Can do.”
“How much time do I have?”
“Twenty. Four. Hours.”
“That’s short notice,” Lester thought out-loud. “Whatever, I’m driving. I’ll leave right after my snack.”
With that Lester squeezed the edible toothpaste from its pleated encasement. Bruna sniffed the air. Unable to place the scent, she shot her employer a quizzical look.
“It’s new. Salmon paste mixed with zinc and maple syrup flakes,” Lester informed before he took a sip from his drink. “And the usual military-grade antioxidant elixir spiked with apple cider vinegar. Want a taste?”
“I can. Not.” she grimaced.
“Have you already poured that nutritional sludge through your feeding tube?”
“I can cook some real food. Would you like to smell some Black Forest bacon?”
“Would you. Eat it. After.”
“And take minutes off my life?”
“Such a. Waste.”
“Is there. Anything. I. Can do. For you?” he asked, annoyed.
Bruna thought for a moment before a sad ritual crept over her pale mouth.
“And risk. Becoming. You? No. Thanks.”
Lester tilted his head and nodded.
“Well then, I’m off. I leave my life’s work in your hands.”
“I will. Protect it. As best. I can.”
Lester smiled and patted his only friend on her hunched back.
Standing by a sign inscribed with the words “weaving spiders come not here,” two middle-aged men dressed in scandalously-priced virgin wool stood at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Both suits were dark, unadorned with detail and pomp, and wore tight on inflated frames. While one wore a green cashmere knit tie with a Four-in-Hand knot, the other sported a traditional Windsor plated with 24-karat gold. For Mr. Green, it was the bane of his current malaise. While Mr. Gold stood cool and secure, all Mr. Green could do was smell Chinatown’s Thursday garbage pick-up wafting east over the city. It stained his manicured nostrils flaring beneath Bentley sunglasses.
Several yards away a thin elderly man dragged a bow across an erhu, straining the two-stringed instrument for charitable donations. His plight had seized the attention of the lesser of the two over-compensated handlers.
“Sounds like he is throttling a feline,” Mr. Green remarked to his partner, giving a nod to the frail transient in run-down garb.
“Show some respect,” Mr. Gold replied. “Instead of pan-handling shame for his ancestors, he’s playing a song of grief.”
“He’s still begging. What’s the difference?”
“Culture,” Mr. Gold said, fixing his tie.
After a pensive pause, Mr. Green walked over to the spine-cracked soul and tossed a one-hundred dollar bill at the mendicant’s feet. As thankful eyes looked up to greet their benefactor, they crumpled after seeing their own reflection in the other man’s ultraviolet protection. The cold unrelenting stare had one more morsel of benevolence for the man who was out of luck.
“A little tip—in this country we fake it until we make it. Pretend you’re having a great time. We’ll reward you for it.”
He then grabbed the spiked fiddle from craggy hands and shattered the wooden box over his knee, dropping the splintered debris before the old man.
As Mr. Green walked away, Mr. Gold offered a cordial chuckle.
“If you needed an indulgence, you’re scraping from the bottom.”
“Oh, this conscious is clean,” Mr. Green said, tapping his knuckle to his temple. “All I need to do is knock on wood.”
“It must be cheap paying the rent in your head,” Mr. Gold said, shaking his.
The old man clenched the ill-gotten gain and limped away from the snarling men, still shaking from the event that had cost him his daily routine. He boarded the public transport and returned home to his lean-to shelter off Mission Street. On the way he purchased a sack of rice, a bag of chicken gizzards, a gallon of water, some oil and a used butane stove top. He then hid from humanity under his plywood to wrestle each grain of sustenance from the bag’s fibers before cooking his last meal. He ate like a glutton until digestion pooled his blood to force postprandial somnolence upon him. He was found hours later, charred with purposelessness, the winds carrying him over the Pacific.
Back among the class of the Embarcadero, Mr. Gold kept trying to educate his understudy on the merits of the bare minimum.
“All I’m saying is that you’d be better off if you did less.”
“Doing more than you are expected to do only brings attention to yourself. It establishes yourself as a threat. Eventually you will make a mistake. Anticipating as much, the resentful and the insecure will skewer you for it.”
“Where’s the incentive to improve?”
“We are not here to improve,” Mr. Gold chastised. “We’re here to maintain the status quo. Don’t you forget it.”
He glanced at his pocket Patek Philippe Calibre 89, a gift from his employer.
“I had the same conversation with my son last night,” Mr. Gold said tersely. “He didn’t like hearing it either. Asked me whatever happened to no risk, no gain?”
“What did you say?”
“That no risk, all gain is better.”
“Hard to argue with that.”
“He found a way—said I was too conservative, that I had no heart,” Mr. Gold sighed. “I knew the opportunity cost on having a child would be a net loss, but what they don’t tell you is all the time you lose teaching lessons that go nowhere. What do they call that?”
“The lost intangible,” Mr. Green said, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to prod at his colleague’s underbelly. “But I’m sure he’ll be grateful one day.”
“Sure he will,” Mr. Gold smirked. “When all that stands between his inheritance and my senile ass is a forged signature requesting euthanasia, he’ll come around. That’s the rub with this job—all the short term thinking makes you lose sight of what’s valuable.”
“At least he’ll have to pay the death tax, am I right?” Mr. Green replied.
Mr. Gold scoffed.
“You still pay taxes?”
“Christ no. Do I look poor?”
“Where do you have your funds settled?”
“The Placentia in Panama.”
“Damn. Can you hook me up?”
“How much do you have in liquidity?”
“Talk to me when you get to fifty.”
Mr. Green shook his head.
“When I got this job I thought I had finally made it. Apparently I’ve got too much appetite and not enough sweat.”
“Like I said, don’t try too hard,” Mr. Gold replied. “People always make a mess of trying to belong. Keep watching what you pay for and you’ll get to where you need to be. And when you get caught comparing what they have with what you don’t, just remember—at least you aren’t grinding it out with the rest of these suckers.”
A third voice entered the conversation, surprising the two suits in ties.
“Present company excluded of course.”
Mr. Green and Mr. Gold turned to see Lester.
“Can we help you?” Mr. Green barked.
“I believe I’m the fly in your soup,” Lester responded, pointing at the sign. “You’re with the HLP, I presume? I’m here for the meeting at the Bohemian Grove.”
“You’re Mr. Deiss? We’ve been standing here for an hour waiting on you.”
“A common decency that seems to have gotten the better of you.”
Mr. Gold gingerly elbowed his colleague in the ribs before removing his sunglasses to offer Lester a thousand-yard stare and a crushing handshake.
“Mr. Deiss, thank you for joining us today. My apologies for my colleague, he’s been out of sorts. There was a great amount of care taken to ensure a private jet would have you punctual and present. Given you were the only individual who opted not to accept, we had to scramble to accommodate.”
“Am I too late?”
“Not at all, Dr. Warren was adamant about having you in attendance. We even took the liberty of attaining a limousine for your visit.”
“How thoughtful. Would it be alright if I just followed?” he said, pointing to a loitering electric vehicle parked at the curb several yards away.
“I’m afraid that we must insist,” Mr. Gold said.
Lester shrugged, walked to his Tesla and hooked the electronic key around the antennae. Mr. Green’s jaw dropped.
“The Port Authority will impound your car if leave it like that,” Mr. Green said. “Unless someone steals it first.”
“So either I’ll know exactly where to find it or some needy soul will have a happy day. Shall we?”
As Lester walked past the two men, Mr. Green looked to Mr. Gold.
“Who is this guy?”
Mr. Gold fixed his tie and returned his sunglasses to their impressions on the bridge of his nose.
“He’s why we are here.”
As the luxury shuttle drove south, Lester peered out of the tinted windows noting in the reflection the disposition of his handlers. As Mr. Green drove, Mr. Gold faced his consignment with a stern albeit well-bred temperament. He knew Lester was watching.
“San Jose just came and went,” Lester stated matter-of-factly. “Weren’t we supposed to head towards Monte Rio?”
“Not to worry, Mr. Deiss,” Mr. Gold replied. “Simply a change in venue”
“Care to inform me where we are going or am I being kidnapped?”
“We are heading to Monterey County. It is a marked contrast from the previous headquarters, but I think you’ll find it an improvement. Dr. Warren told me that you were never too impressed with the Grove.”
“The location was fine. It was the company that left a lot to be desired.”
“Dr. Warren hopes today’s audience will be more compelling.”
“If we’re not too late.”
“Don’t you worry Mr. Deiss. Dr. Warren has taken a great amount of care to ensure that the ceremony will not start without you.”
“The Warrens are always so hospitable.”
Within minutes they had reached the sleepy town of Salinas. The limousine pulled up past scores of Wraiths, Ghosts, Phantoms, Mulsannes and Rovers and the dozens of chauffeurs and body guards forced to stay outside. They all watched the final attendee arrive as the car parked in front of a red brick building three stories tall. Mr. Gold waited until Mr. Green left the driver’s seat to open the passenger’s door.
“We’ve reached our destination,” Mr. Green said.
“Here?” Lester replied. “Seems rather ordinary.”
“It was a rundown apartment for starving artists until the fault line moved in 1989,” Mr. Gold said. “After its collapse, it was abandoned and nearly demolished before being bought and renovated by our fledgling think-tank. We returned the portico to its century-old design, but a truly keen eye will spot the buttresses reinforced in the masonry. It’s practically a bunker now.”
“I’m sure everything is up to code,” Lester said. He noticed the top of the door frame where two stone owls sat, their bulbous telescopic lenses keeping a video record of all who entered.
Lester stood in front of a thick blast-proof gateway until he was flanked by Mr. Green and Mr. Gold, then watched the doors slide open like the cave of Ali Baba. They stepped into an immaculate reception area hollowed out from the building’s past to make room for the artifacts that celebrated their cause.
Airtight glass coffers held Athenian coins that bore the winged symbol of the currency’s city. An ancient statue of Minerva stood above, her arm a pedestal to the winged emblem piercing her immortal forearm with its talons. Medieval tapestries threaded Bestiary Strigiformes hung on the walls beside aboriginal depictions with wide oculars carved in cocobolo. Towering over it all at the far end of the wall stood a hulking mossy stone reaching the cathedral ceiling, carved to faintly resemble a wizened nocturnal raptor.
“I recognize this one,” Lester remarked, pointing at the boulder. “Moloch the rock owl, right?”
“Something new, something old,” Mr. Gold shrugged. “I believe the former Governor had it trucked over from Monte Rio to repay a favor.”
As they weaved through the display, a twenty-year-old blonde secretary behind a see-through desk alertly turned to their direction. Toned legs in a little black dress hemmed high opened quickly to jaunt across floor, silver high heels clacking across the marble floor.
“Thank goodness you have arrived,” she exclaimed, relief running down her face. “They are all downstairs and they are not used to waiting. I did what I could to appease them but—”
Mr. Gold raised his hand to quiet her flawless façade, his thumb massaging the stress line creasing the skin around her sandy eyes. Her cheek leaned on the unexpected gesture, pressing into his palm like a pet enjoying the caress of its master. As she closed her eyes to enjoy the moment, his hand stopped, drew back and slapped her. The force of the eruption resonated against the walls, the red imprint of his strike curdling the blood left in her leeched complexion.
“How dare you speak about our guests in such a manner. They are gods to you.”
Bottom lip shaky, her eyes watered as their spirit drowned. Mr. Gold’s hand lifted her chin.
“What do you say?” he inquired.
“Please forgive my ignorance. I must improve.”
Mr. Gold smiled.
He then turned to Lester. “Please, Mr. Deiss—this way.”
Mr. Green and Mr. Gold directed Lester to an elevator the size of a studio apartment. The burnished metallic walls offered no buttons, only a speaker, its electronic receptor and a sign indicating the weight limit: 10,000 kilograms. Mr. Gold activated his electric remote.
“Auditorium,” he said into the receiver. The elevator’s security program offered a ring of accordance. The metal cabinet walls snapped shut and descended to the underground floors. Slowing to a stop, the doors reopened and the three men walked into an indoor amphitheater garnished for a ministry of affluence.
The outer burgundy carpet walkway was wreathed with cedar buffet tables languishing with gourmet decadence. China plates glistened with Maine lobster stuffed with Nantucket scallops, kosher-salted A5 Kobe tenderloin and Wagyu ribeye shaved with Istrian truffles, beluga sturgeon caviar served on mother-of-pearl and garnished with smoked foie gras. One whole table was dedicated to blue-fin sashimi sliced off an endangered tuna so fresh its gills would gasp with each razor burn.
Jeroboams and Nebuchadnezzars of 1995 Chateau Petrus, 1979 Krug Clos brut, 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild and 1921 Château d’Yquem lay uncorked and exhaling their spell. Glacier-chilled cocktails infused with 1788 Clos de Griffier Vieux Cognac, 1770 Kummel Liqueur and 1860 Dubb Orange Curacao wailed ancient oxygen with each melting phase. The dessert table offered Kopi Luwak coffee, Cornwall pineapples, pule cheese, and chocopologie fudge morsels adorned with gold leaf. Dozens of stunning attendants dressed in silk and satin waited to serve at any and all beck and calls.
The sum lay untouched, rotting in the spoils of jaded blasé.
“My colleague will show you to your seat,” Mr. Gold replied, keeping a watch by the elevator. Mr. Green led Lester around the circular theater of walnut Piccadilly club chairs. The stadium-style seating was tiered towards a depressed center stage supported by columns suspended from overhead crossbeams. As the last man to arrive, Lester was welcomed by the hobnobbing international cliques with guffaws and peevish stares .
“Who are these people?” Lester asked. A star-struck Mr. Green was all too eager to elucidate about those in attendance.
“These are the elite’s elite and hopefully future members of the HLP if everything goes right.”
“I don’t recognize any of them.”
“Nor should you. These men are on a different level. For example, you see that little fat man dressed in folds? That’s Hokomai Tanebe, lord of Japan’s second largest economy, fetishism. He milks $3 billion annually from desperate salarymen by providing fantasy bath houses filled with costumed concubines. Next to him is Abdel King, the world’s foremost purveyor of trafficked females. If you need a doped-up moll, he’s your guy. He’ll even let you pick the drapes.
“The tycoon with the slick hair is Mamat Tam, a Malaysian ship breaker. He employs child labor to the yearly tune of $700 million—that we know of. Two seats below him, the grizzled bloke in the Magellan cotton polo, that’s Lucas Perez. A Brazilian telecommunications pioneer, he made his billions laying coaxial cables over Amazonian wildlife. Word is the cutthroat is still illiterate.
“The man on the respirator is Hervano Morteno, an accountant for the Knights Cartel of Tijuana. He represents a sizable stake of the North American drug trade, not unlike the bloke in the vomit-green dress shirt next to him. That is Arnold Buckner, a wise guy who made a killing by taking over a pharmaceutical firm just so he could market their cancer treatment at fifty thousand per pill. We thought it would be funny to sit them next to each other.
“Looks like Zang Toukang is out of hiding. He was the Communist party’s security chief until he made off with most of the treasury. Eventually some of it was seized but not everything. On the left is the known Congolese despot Jean Kabilo. He keeps roving militias armed to the teeth to keep the price of coltan high. In return he looks the other way as his gang jungle-rapes anything they can corner.
“To the right is Russian oligarch Alexei Medvedev, rumored to be the country’s next gas czar thanks to his brother’s untimely assassination. That dapper looking fellow in the three-piece is William Etienne. He ran a food conglomerate that mislabeled cheap food substitutes with non-nutritional additives. When infants eating his formula started to suffer from vitamin deficiency, his brilliant solution was to sell the goods to Mexico.
“The rest are Swiss bankers, trust-fund babies, information hoarders, real-estate icons and even a few media moguls. Oh, and I nearly overlooked everyone’s favorite forget-me-not, the hedge fund managers. They were the only ones clever enough to wear gloves to the party. Wouldn’t want to leave any fingerprints behind, now would we?”
He forced Lester into the farthest spot from the elevator next to a handicapped man.
“And this unoccupied chair is you.”
The seat was near a decaying assortment of edible flora. The petals of carnation, chrysanthemum, gladioli and black rose plummeted into piles of littered pastel.
“I feel out of place,” Lester said, his jeans and sweater squealing friction against the Corinthian upholstery.
“You should,” replied Mr. Green. “No offense, but a wind-farming millionaire is a pissant compared to these guys. Everyone here not named you ranges from 500 million to several billion. And they paid to be here. You’re the only one with a golden ticket.”
“What makes me so special?”
“That’s above my pay grade,” Mr. Green said. “But am I excited to find out.”
With that the bourgeoisie bouncer quickly returned to his holstered position by the exit. On the other side was Mr. Gold, and with everyone now in attendance he hit his remote. The chandeliers dimmed and the esteemed invitees took their plush cushioned seats.
The show was about to begin.
Projected in ten foot blocked white letters against the backdrop wall, the initials HLP filled the blacked-out auditorium. Walking out to center stage was a man fitted with a button-down oxford shirt tucked into a pair of dark linen slacks. His grey hair was loosely combed over a receding hairline, and his buffalo horn-rimmed eye glasses supported a headset dangling a microphone in front of his lips.
“Hello and good afternoon everyone,” a measured voice boomed from the speakers. “Thank you for meeting on such short notice, and for your patience. I assure you it will not be in vain.”
Instead of applause, the man was greeted with a catcall.
“For fifty million, it better not,” jeered a tech magnate from the peanut gallery. Several guests snickered—some due to the retort, most over the paltry amount.
“As always, your donations are appreciated. Here at the HLP we like to say affiliation is its own reward. In this room we have an estimated worth of over half a trillion dollars, or just under the GDP of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Take solace in where you are and what you have achieved, my friends. It has brought you to be among the most powerful members of the globe. It is the byproduct of your ambition, your intelligence and your fortune.
“Similar to how one must sequester their earnings from the sticky fingers of a taxing government, we had to consolidate and protect our interests—your investments. Which brings me to the first item I would like to discuss: our new headquarters.
“I have heard the complaints regarding our updated surroundings. Please accept my apologies for the lack of decorum.While they are not the ancient sequoias of the Bohemian Grove, our traditional haunts had been sullied and scrutinized by insipid outsiders. We needed a modernized and clandestine bastion to regale our new directive. That is, the cultivation and evolution of our kind.
“In turn, you will notice that we have many new faces in attendance. For those of you who may have forgotten my name, I am Dr. Henry Warren. And if there is one aspect of my character that I wish you to remember it is that I pride myself on being informed, and I make it my mission to share what I discover with all of you.
“There are a handful of you I’ve known since I was a child, ” the man said, spotting Lester. “A kind courtesy of my father. He is why all of us are here today. Sadly Dennis Warren could not join us but I am here to carry on his vision of our shared legacy.
“My father taught me many lessons. One of the most pronounced came early in my life. He informed me that the most honest phrase a man could utter is ‘I do not know.’ It spoke to the truth of wisdom, how knowledge is at best an appraisal of finite information, how none of us can ever be completely, totally sure.
“Today, however, we live in a new age. An age where ignorance is no longer an excuse, it is a choice. A poor one at that. But we are quite the opposite of poor, in all the ways that matter. So what does that currency buy you? Power? Distraction? Happiness? For how long?
“Which brings me to why we are all here—to pursue the only concept worthy of our time. Namely, more of it.”
With that Dr. Warren pushed a button on his remote. The lights went dark and several projectors from the ceiling activated to create a holographic image of the earth. It floated over the crowd, rotating along its tilted axis. A single red dot formed in Africa, followed by another and another, a chain reaction spreading like wildfire into Asia and Europe, across land bridges and drifting over oceans to North and South America, Australia and the islands of the world.
“This is a map of all the people who have ever existed on Earth,” Dr. Warren continued. “As we can see, human life is not unique. It is a readily available and replaceable commodity. In fact, human life has never been less valuable than it is right now.
“So how does one best measure the value a human life? That was the formative question that spawned the Human Longevity Project—what makes an individual important, special? Objectively, what is the real consequence of a single man?
“And the answer we settled on was memory. When mapping the most significant souls of our species, our collective memory is what make someone significant—no matter how false that memory may be. But while the fidelity of history is certainly up to interpretation, its fecundity and durability are not. A human’s longevity is dependent on his memory in the minds that carry him forward in time.”
Dr. Warren pressed another button. Each red dot began to sparkle. While most quickly faded, a few began to shoot-off from the holographic continents into the atmosphere, extinguishing at different heights. As they scattered several traveled higher than the rest, their brightness radiating as if caught in the thickness of the ozone. Some eventually dropped, shuttling back to earth. Others declined in tiers losing luster along the way. Others remained stratospheric, forging constellations of familial bonds as their line in time progressed.
“Africa’s Narmer unified the tribes and presided over them as a king five thousand years ago, but he will soon be lost to the sands of history. Masinissa, Hannibal, Mansa Musa, Ramses, Nzingha, Akhenaton share similar fates.
“Europe’s Archimedes, Isaac Newton, Charlemagne, Erikkson, Leonardo de Vinci, Freud, Columbus, Julius Cesar, Napoleon, Hitler, St. Paul Guttenberg and Einstein are steady in their relatively contemporary positions.
“Asia’s Cyrus, Confucius, Huang, Siddhartha, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Cai Lun are as well. Buddha is penultimate, but even he pales to Genghis Kahn and his prodigious germ. Memory is more than what we carry in our minds,” Dr. Warren said, smiling at Lester. “It is also how we carry our loins.
“Australia has Ned Kelly and a media mogul whose family might be in attendance,” Dr. Warren continued, his hand over his eyes in a mock gesture of search. “North and South America fair a little better: Simon Bolivar, Bartolome de Las Casas, Che Guevara, Pablo Escobar, George Washington, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, Tommy Douglas, Thomas Edison, and John D. Rockefeller. But these men are scant souvenirs compared to the big three.”
Zooming to a spot above Asia Minor, Dr. Warren circled the three highest points.
“Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad—these are our north stars, our fixtures in the sky, and their relative height over time reveals the truth of our species: humans want to believe. We are compelled to believe. And when we cannot find what we need to believe, we invent it. We lie.
“We lie and we spread that lie until we make it true. With communities, countries, hostilities, treaties, societies, economies, and ideologies—we make our delusion a shared reality. Human culture, nay human civilization is at our best when we lie, when we say there is a divine and then act collectively to make it so. We are at our strongest when we believe in God. So I ask you, what is God?
“God is the world of infinite possibility that we are too weak to realize on our own. God is the prayer of cooperation. And as much as you may be worth individually, there is nothing all of your money and all of your power can do to prevent you from our shared mortality. As a poor man once said: we all die alone.”
An uneasy grumble rumbled through the audience. Many shifted in their seats, cleared their throats, and swallowed audibly with nothing to say.
“But what if that were not the case. What if an individual had somehow become more valuable than the collective. What if that lie of the divine had finally come true? What if there was a change in fate, a new destiny—what would you do? What would you give for a little more?
“Here at the Human Longevity Project we no longer consider this an impossibility. In fact, it is a plausibility. That is why I have called you all in today. I have come to share with you our latest discovery: the secrets of the divine.
“We have funded research that has uncovered more about humanity than we ever thought could be possible. We’ve revealed that one out of every three hundred humans has the innate ability to prevent the HIV virus from replicating. We’ve learned that leprosy can turn nerve cells into stem cells and have experimented with the Daf-2 gene to promote telomere regeneration. Most recently, we quietly lobbied the Food and Drug Administration to disapprove of Mebendazole, keeping its ability to shrink parasitical cancers out of the American market.
“What I have to show you today, however, trumps it all. And we didn’t have to send an expedition into the Amazon or hide it from the FDA. The next great opportunity of our, or perhaps any lifetime, was right under our noses.”
Adrenaline pumping through his veins, Lester’s eyes darted about the circular trap scanning for an escape. The only way out was the way he had fallen in, and as his eyes met the covered lenses of the two handlers in twisted neckties. Mr. Green smiled, and waved.
Lester turned back to Dr. Warren. He had paused for effect, a lion tamer in front of his trained pride.
“We have always acted to keep and promote your best interests. Today, however, we draw back the curtain on our true mission. Today we will show you how we will live forever.”
He hopped off of the stage and joined his members in the audience before pressing the bottom button on his remote.
The entire amphitheater began to shake, the rhetoric replaced with the clamor of quaking surroundings. Gears the size of automobiles clicked into spline shafts, lowering the torus of seats. The audience gripped their chairs and edged forward in their seats eager for a better view at the ascending scene coming up from below. As the machinery settled to a stop, the ring of onlookers were treated to a bird’s-eye view of a sterile operative theater. Dr. Warren’s licked his lips with anxious exhilaration before speaking into his microphone once more.
“Good afternoon doctors,” he said.
A team of six physicians dressed in charcoal-colored scrubs waved to the group watching from above. Wearing surgical masks to cover their faces, the medical crew returned to their preparation in the bleached-white laboratory. An additional engineer was off to the side, his rubber gloves carefully testing a six-foot tandem Van de Graff accelerator.
At the center of the hybrid operating room, covered by a thin gown and strapped to a steel examination table, was a lifeless body. An adolescent male, the chest was still, its skin an icy blue. LED panels displayed imaging readouts of flatlined vitals.
Recognizing the boy, Lester felt his withered heart pound against his chest. His whitened knuckles dug into his chair’s leather armrests and the sheering force of his torqued fingernails began to rip at the tanned animal hide.
“Is the patient…etherized?” a British attaché asked as the engineer began connecting high voltage capacity electrodes to the body on the table.
“As you can tell by the heart monitor, there is no pulse,” Dr. Warren explained. “The EEG reads that the body is brain dead as well. This is not a patient but a cadaver.”
“Why is it blue?” a man with a Congolese accent queried.
“This body was removed from a frozen lake after passing from asphyxiation,” Dr. Warren said. “One of the many wrinkles that made this offering unique was its preservation.
“A human body at room temperature begins to spoil within minutes of cardiac arrest. Gravity causes the blood to pool and discolor, a process known as lividity. Autolysis follows, forcing cellular bodies to lose structural integrity. Within three hours rigor mortis renders muscles incapable of relaxing.
“Despite being deceased for over 24 hours, however, it shows no decomposition due to vasoconstriction—as you can see.”
The doctors began to flex each of the body’s extremities, even turning the neck to show a full range of mobility. The team then unfurled a rubber tubing from a ventilator, slid the malleable pipe down the corpse’s esophagus and pushed down on the corpse’s lower abdomen. Bubbling out of the cadaver’s mouth was a frothy mix of polluted water, syrup, and digestive acid. They continued until the stomach wretched clean.
“How did you get this body,” a financier asked, his face trained in feigning indifference.
“It was donated by a member who believes in our cause,” Dr. Warren replied. “The reason for today’s event was dictated by the availability of this specific body, for it is one that exhibits truly exceptional characteristics.
“In medical history, there has only been one person that comes close—a woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks. Her body perished in 1951 due to cervical cancer, but a sample of her cells were placed in a Petri dish. These cells proceeded to live unabated and they continue to do so to this day. As far as we know these HeLa cells, as they are now called, can live forever.”
“Are you saying that this body has HeLa cells within it?” a hedge fund manager inquired.
“No,” Dr. Warren said. “I’m saying this body, all of it, is constructed out of HeLa cells.
“Our research hypothesized that if such an individual were to exist, electrical shocks to the patient’s bone marrow would increase its immune responses. The generation of white blood cells would in turn would combat the malignant nature of the HeLa cell. Not only would it keep the body alive. In theory, the body would live indefinitely.”
Dr. Warren then nodded to the doctors below, who began inserting cathodes directly into the dead boy’s flesh. The metal needles cut through the sinew easily enough but needed a shove to shatter through the skeletal layer. Once the metal rods were in place, wires were attached and affixed to the conducting dynamo.
“Now, one aspect that is absolutely necessary is for the doctors to penetrate the medullary cavities in the pelvis, femur, and humerus,” Dr. Warren said. “Think of this procedure as a defibrillator, only one delivers its current from the inside out.”
“You said the body was dead,” a chemical plutocrat implored. “What use would shocking it do?”
“Electrocuting a regular cadaver would be only a macabre puppet show. This body, however, has the particularly rare form of sarcoma we are looking for. If I am correct, the cells in this body will resuscitate. And if that happens, then we will have witnessed more than a miracle. We will be on the cusp of the next state of evolution.
“If this works then there are more like him, living, breathing, surviving,” Dr. Warren said, glancing wickedly at Lester. “And I know where to find them.”
Dr. Warren turned back to the room below.
“Are we ready doctors?” he asked. The surgeons nodded. “Then proceed,” Dr. Warren said, waving the go-ahead.
With the flick of a switch, the battery began to whir electricity into the body. Initially the voltage began at a low register but the engineer slowly began dialing up the current. The body showed no effect. The team of doctors looked at Dr. Warren, but his face remained resolute.
“When the electric chair was commissioned as a capital punishment, studies were done as to whether the human soul could survive the voltage wrought from such an ordeal,” he informed. “We are about to pass that prescription now.”
As the voltage amount pushed to higher and higher, the watchers began to grow frustrated. Audible groans quickly turned to disgust as the body writhed around like marionette in a tempest, galvanized from the electrical force.
Finally, one of the doctors spoke over the racket.
“If the voltage increases any more, we will ignite the tissue,” she yelled.
Dr. Warren’s face seethed but his voice remained calculated.
“You will continue.”
“This was supposed to be a medical experiment,” she shouted, “not a Milgram experiment gone mad.”
The engineer at the generator joined her voice of condemnation.
“You could kill an elephant three times over at this level,” he said. “Combustion will occur within seconds.”
As the body violently convulsed on the table, the blue skin began to blister from the inside out. One member of the team doubled over, removing his mask to vomit from disgust.
Lester watched the dead flesh dance, tears of shame streaming down his face. He stood from his seat and stepped down the stairs towards the operating room. He made it as far as the walled divider before crumpling to the ground.
Staring at the audience, he watched their gaping maws howl with glee, their tongues dripping saliva and ready willingness. He saw the flames reflect off their eyes, an inferno engulfing humanity.
As the doctors used fire extinguishers to cover the blaze with sodium bicarbonate, Dr. Warren turned away from the medical suite to walk towards the elevator. He beckoned to Mr. Gold, a faint smile on his lips.
“You were right,” Mr. Gold said, walking over.
“As they say, actions speak louder than words,” Dr. Warren said, patting his employee on the back.
“What do you want me to do about them?” Mr. Gold asked, gesturing to the audience.
“They get goody bags but no refunds. Make certain we have the data on the boy before burning the evidence. We’ll get started on Group B in the morning.”
“And your guest of honor?”
Dr. Warren turned to see the collapsed Lester still weeping.
“After what happened in New Mexico he has nowhere to run. Let him crawl back to us or watch as we vivisect them.”
Bruna awoke to an Oklahoma moon casting its glow, the sound of a collision reverberating her window. Fearing the worst, she jumped from her bed and ran to the panic room, smashing her palm against the security button. Precautions slammed the door shut and activated spotlights around the perimeter of the house, illuminating the night.
The instrument panel flashed a red light indicating the front blast wall was defective. Bruna looked at video monitor to see an object preventing it from lifting. She zoomed in to see a rusted jalopy of a car crashed on top of the decorative barrier near the drive way. She had the lens focus on the driver’s seat. The door opened and out slid Lester, a bottle of cheap liquor tumbling to the ground with him.
Bruna deactivated the alarms but left the spotlight on Lester. She then left the room and made her way down to meet him.
The cool night air wafted down her nightgown, helping the adrenaline slowly sap from her body. Wrapping the cloth tightly around her torso, she stood over Lester as he attempted to drain the last drop from a broken bottle before looking up to see his help shaking her head.
“What. Happened,” her robotic voice queried. “To the car.”
“I traded it,” Lester slurred, “for a shit box. Full of whisky.”
Bruna promptly removed the shattered glass from his bloddied hand and offered hers instead.
“Are you. Alright?”
Lester tried but fell back to the ground again. Bruna carried him in, set him on the couch, and tended to his wounds. Lester looked up at his ceiling, numb and disconnected.
Not knowing what to do next, Bruna remembered the previous morning. She went to the kitchen and fried up some bacon. Returning with a BLT and a glass of water, to her surprise Lester was upright, his full attention given to his immense television.
The news was reporting another dry brush fire in Monterey County, California. Much of the devastation centered on the town of Salinas.
Lester turned to Bruna, tears once again welling in his eyes.
“Bruna? Have you ever spoken with God?”
“God is. Something. Man creates,” her voice box answered.
The lower half of his face offered a half grin of acknowledgement. He sat quietly in a tide of memory, his youthful appearance fading as a lifetime’s worth of incident and consequence gathered over him like a storm cloud. He reached into his mouth and pulled out his dentures, holding them in his hand as he tongued the gummy recesses of his jaw. His fake teeth sneered back at him.
“Once, a long time ago, a voice in the darkness spoke to me,” Lester said, peering at Bruna with small eyes. “Like a bolt from the sky it consumed my being, paralyzed me from moving, made me realize the here and now. Nothing else mattered but that immediate moment. And the voice told me that if it wanted it could all end.
“Every second was an eternity, as if all of reality would crumble if it desired to. I grew afraid, more afraid than I ever had been before or since. I wilted with the fear and pleaded for my life to continue, that I would make it worthwhile.
“And the voice, it took pity on me. It appeased my ember from the ash and left me in an instant. As the world came flooding back I wondered if it was all real. To this day I still don’t know if that voice was madness or if it was more. But it left me to be more or less how I am today. This mess of a man.
“And what have I done with it?” Lester lamented, his arms wide, carrying the property of his subsistence. “Traded it all for this? For years? This life and all that I poured into it is a disappointment. It is a waste.”
“To who?” Bruna asked.
“Your life. Is not. A. Disappointment. You are. A good. Person.”
“The only solace a good man has is knowing he’s a good man. I know better.”
Bruna watched Lester sit in the silence of his own misery. She watchedthe man who had saved her all those years ago, then took the prosthetic from his hand and lifted his head. Slowly opening his jaw, she slid his smile back into his mouth.
“You can. Be better.” she said. “You can. Be. Who you. Need. To be. Who else. Will?”
The metallic words from Bruna’s voice box resonated through Lester’s tired flesh. The consequence of their truth slowly built until their clarity instilled that as long as he still was, he could atone.
Lifting his head, Lester met Bruna’s eyes with cold-pressed with conviction. It was a look Bruna had waited to see since she was a little girl. Its sudden appearance shot an organic charge though her backbone. Her chin raised and the ends of her lips curled up for the first time in decades.
“You’re right,” Lester said. “If shame must fuel this mess into definition, then so be it. We must remove ourselves from under their heel. Better late than never.”
“No. More?” her voice box buzzed, unable to add the inflection of an interrogative.
“No,” he averred with a smirk. “More.”