Andrew Payne was dead and knew it.
Pale sunshine dribbled feeble warmth into the hospital room as it streamed through white gauze curtains. A dark cloud drifted slowly across a dull sky and the sunshine faded, which pretty much summed up Andrew’s condition and mood.
A drip tube inside his left elbow fed him a saline solution to keep him hydrated. Efficient nurses wearing starched white uniforms and mechanical smiles changed the bottle when the clear liquid ran down. Sensor pads taped to his body connected to a monitor next to his bed that traced wiggly lines across a green screen. Sometimes it made a soft beep, which he ignored. No one else paid it much attention, but it was procedure and gave the attending nurses something to cluck over.
Dr. Gail Dalton cleared her throat, clearly uncomfortable. Over the last eleven months, Andrew had come to know the formidable doctor well. Every time she cleared her throat, it was bad news. He also learned that her stern exterior was a protective façade against the pain and suffering of her patients. Her conservative gray business jacket and black trousers hid a caring person who learned early not to get emotionally involved. Andrew wasn’t altogether certain the technique worked. It wasn’t working for him. Dying at twenty-four was a bummer any way he cut it.
She exhaled softly through her nose and clenched her jaw. For a fleeting moment, he was tempted to make this tough for her, but they were both past such foolishness.
“How long?” he asked softly.
This was not going to be a revelation anyway. He had known for a while that the sands of time had almost run out for him. In a way, it would be a release from constant pain, being fussed over, unable to do anything except vegetate in bed…and think. That was perhaps the worst part, always thinking, reflecting on what might have been, knowing it would never be.
“Three weeks. Perhaps four. The pain will peak in about eight days, then fall off rapidly.”
He smiled. “The old body deciding to settle its affairs?”
“We’ll make you as comfortable as possible, Andrew,” she said, her voice cold and clinical.
Don’t get involved. He could almost picture her thoughts.
“It’s okay, Dr. Dalton. I should have been dead a year ago, but you wouldn’t let me.” He raised a hand to forestall her protest. “Besides, it gave me time to study up. I came to know quite a bit about melanomas. Wish I paid more attention a while ago.”
Like many other young men, he sought diverting outdoor outlets as a release for excess energy. During summer, surfing and kayaking were his favorite pastimes. He knew all about skin cancer and the need to apply protection, and he did use them—sometimes. But impressing girls with a well-built bronze body came first. At nineteen, melanoma was something someone else got.
When an irritating little black mole on his left forearm started to itch persistently, he had it checked. His local GP cut it out and sent it to a pathology lab. The test came back positive for a possible polypoid melanoma, which got Andrew somewhat negatively excited, but his doctor told him they got it early and he shouldn’t worry too much about it. They put him on a regimen of medication and the wound left by the mole healed cleanly, leaving a faint pale scar. Life was bright for Andrew Payne and he jumped into it with relish. Sun, surf, and girls.
An honors degree in computer science majoring in virtual reality design and programming promised a fulfilling future. This was an industry to be in and he had ideas. At twenty-three, thinking about getting his own apartment in the city and leaving the stifling home atmosphere, freedom from authoritarian parents—that’s how he looked at it—he noticed that the scar on his arm had started to itch again and looked discolored. He had a challenging job he liked, a stunning girlfriend who thought he was the absolute best, and a place of his own that spared him the twice-daily commuting crush. He did not need an old nemesis rearing its head again to spoil things.
Polypoid melanomas are nasty, and grow quickly into the dermis and underlying tissue before a surface lesion becomes visible. A biopsy resulted in a speedy ambulance trip to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Center, part of the Royal Melbourne Hospital complex in Parkville, and his first encounter with the daunting Dr. Gail Dalton. Too bad she was his doctor and much older. He would not have minded dating her at all.
“You have Stage III melanoma, Mr. Payne, and it has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck and under both arms.”
Her cold announcement left him mentally floundering. This wasn’t possible! He gaped at her, struggling to express his shock.
“But…I haven’t felt anything! Apart from some itching on my arm, nothing.”
“Chronic symptoms don’t usually manifest themselves until the melanoma has matured and metastasized into the body. Your condition is serious, but treatable.”
“You mean chemotherapy,” he said glumly, not relishing the prospect of being bedridden, losing his fine crop of lustrous black hair, and suffering all the other associated unpleasantness.
“These days, we can tailor chemotherapy for your condition to minimize side effects, but there are other options. Latest techniques with radiation and immunotherapy have had encouraging results.”
“What’s the prognosis?”
She pursed her mouth. “Patients with similar symptoms have a life expectancy of up to six years, but new treatments such as genotherapy are advancing and look promising.”
Six years…if he was lucky. Dalton had just handed him a death sentence. No career, no girlfriend—what woman would want to saddle herself with a dead man—and his vision of a bright future in a black dumpster. It had not been a good day to get up.
Lying in the hospital bed, a drip in his arm, he stared at the somber doctor, grappling with the stark prognosis.
Four months later, despite treatment, tests confirmed that the melanoma had spread into both lungs. Instead of six years, he now had six months at most.
His parents took it hard, and his mother couldn’t stop crying when they visited, which only served to irritate Andrew. He was going to die and that was it; no need to rub his nose in it every time she showed up. Belana smiled and tried to cheer him up, but his sister was only eighteen, and the prospect of death still alien to her. Adriana saw him twice, and both of them knew it was over. He told her bluntly to forget him, and meant it. She had a life and he wished her well. They had been building something that promised a future for both of them. Now, she was gone, and a life he hoped to have gone with her.
The sun broke through the clouds and sunlight again flooded the stark room. Dr. Dalton shifted in her chair.
“Yes, you have learned a lot, Andrew. You should have studied medicine.” Her mouth twitched in a faint smile, which made her face look radiant.
“I have been studying medicine, and I came across something interesting.”
“Have you heard of Broca Genetics?”
Her eyebrows arched. “As a matter of fact, I have. A new startup in Silicon Valley. What about them?”
“They claim to have developed a radical genotherapy approach that has produced a ninety-six percent remission rate in treatment of several cancer types, including melanoma.”
“In rats and monkeys. The drug has never been tested on a human. It will be years before they are in a position to begin clinical trials.”
“I don’t have years, Doctor. I want to try it. Even if the treatment fails, it will give Broca valuable data.”
“I don’t know if the hospital ethics committee—”
“I will sign a liability waiver to protect you, the hospital, and Broca from any possible litigation. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“You could lose your four weeks.”
Andrew snorted. “Wow, some risk when compared to the possibility of even partial remission? How about it?”
Her eyebrows came together and she frowned. “I’ll make some calls.” She stood, hesitated, patted his shoulder, and quickly walked out.
* * *
Dr. Dalton wiped his right bicep with a swab and slid in the thin needle. Andrew winced as the pale yellow liquid surged into his arm, wishing she could administer the drug through the drip. Something to do with the rate of absorption, she told him once. She slapped on a Band Aid and he rubbed the stinging spot.
“No change?” he asked hopefully.
“We’re sending Broca blood samples taken four hours after every shot, but the tests so far have been negative. Your skin tone does show some improvement, but it is too early for real any change. We’re laboring under a great handicap here. It took Broca four months of rigorous trials on monkeys to determine appropriate dosage and frequency. With you, we have no protocol to follow.”
“Well, according to your prognosis, I have one week to go. Maybe two,” he told her. “One thing, though. The pain seems to have disappeared almost entirely.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Interesting. I will discontinue pain treatment to determine if the relief you’re getting is a side effect of the drug. Moreover, the painkillers could also be interfering with the treatment.”
“All useful data for Broca. After all, their monkeys were not able to tell them if they were experiencing a pain response or not.”
Dr. Dalton picked up the tray with the syringe and swabs. “You now had four shots, but I want to start you on two a day with an increased dosage. You’ll get the first one tomorrow morning. Have you had any other observable reactions?”
“Well, I’m hungry, and my joints aren’t as stiff.”
She frowned. “Mmm. Could be a psychosomatic reaction. I’ll see if I can get you a Big Mac,” she deadpanned.
He chuckled. “Deal!”
She paused at the door and nodded to him. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Dr. Dalton, even if this doesn’t work out, I want to thank you for looking after me.”
“We haven’t lost the battle yet, Andrew.”
No, the battle wasn’t lost, but he wasn’t fooling himself. The Broca treatment was highly experimental, and they only agreed to a trial because of his terminal condition. Like he told the doc—too bad that he was laid up, she was awfully pretty—at least he was pain free, and he had forgotten how good that felt.
He was grateful to have his laptop, otherwise he would have expired from sheer boredom. It enabled him to work on two virtual reality games he designed before being reduced to his present ignoble circumstances. No one was ever going to play them, but it kept his mind working. Having a room all to himself had its advantages not having to stare at other patients waiting to die. He glanced at his wristwatch: 9:15. His parents would be here shortly and his mom was likely to regale him with another sob session. He wondered if there was a way to skip that part. If his three best friends came, that would definitely stop his mother’s emotional outburst.
* * *
Two days of double shots did not produce any visible improvement, but it was still too early to tell. Dr. Dalton told him that Broca’s analysis showed the drug was enabling his immune system to fight the melanoma nodules, and all of them were shrinking. That was encouraging, because normally the body did not recognize cancer cells as pathogens. Regrettably, the rate was not fast enough to save him. He had gained an additional week of life at most. Basically, the treatment had started far too late.
Andrew had resigned himself to death months ago and had lost all fear of its looming shadow. There were lots of things he would never experience, but he’d had a rich life, and most of the memories were honorable. He did not dwell too long on the less savory bits. He figured life was like a stew. It needed salt and pepper, otherwise it was too bland. Unfortunately, his stew had soured somewhat. There were regrets, but he was at peace, and that was not such a bad thing.
Last night, his favorite nurse gave him his double shot and tucked him in. She was friendly and cute, but impersonal. Don’t get involved was the philosophy of the day. As she adjusted his pillows, she patted his shoulder and confided that all the nurses in the ward were running a pool on how long he would last. She betted that he would pull through. Misguided perhaps, but it made him smile as he watched her undulate her form out the door. Another experience he would never have…
He woke chipper and hungry. Gladia, an older no-nonsense nurse, jabbed him impersonally, which made his shoulder ache. Before she could slap on a Band Aid, the fire alarm went off. She immediately rushed out, leaving the tray with the syringe and drug vial next to his bed. Andrew could not smell any smoke, so this had to be either a training session or a false alarm. When the excitement died down, his saucy little nurse came in carrying his breakfast tray.
“And how are you feeling this morning, Andrew?” she chirped brightly as she studied his chart.
“Not bad actually. Hungry.”
“That’s good. I see that you haven’t had your shot yet. Might as well get that out of the way before you have your breakfast.” She glanced at the tray with the vial and syringe. “Who left that?”
“Ah, the fire alarm. Something set it off and they’re checking it out. She must have run off to her duty station before giving you the shot. I’ll take care of it.”
“Just relax, Andrew.”
He was about to tell her that Gladia had given him the shot, but for some reason he could not explain, he refrained. What was the point anyway? He was ready to let it all go now.
She gave him the shot, marked the chart, and fluttered her fingers at him as she closed the door.
Just before lunch, she came in and took a blood sample. Andrew was getting tired of this routine and having an irritating catheter stuck permanently into his arm. Around two, he decided to doze off a little, feeling surprisingly good. His skin tone had improved, looking almost normal, and he was off the painkillers. He felt restless with a desire to jump out of bed. It would be nice to stretch the old muscles, but he knew it was fantasy. His body was totally wasted.
“Come and get me, you black buzzards,” he muttered to himself, turned over and went back to sleep.
After the evening shot, another CT scan. At least he wasn’t jabbed for that.
* * *
Three days later, Dr. Dalton walked in with a scowl on her face. Andrew hadn’t had a shot that morning, which he figured wasn’t good. Probably too far gone to bother. Well, it had to come.
She pulled back a visitor chair, sat down, and cleared her throat.
Here it comes, he thought.
“I have discontinued your treatment, Andrew.”
“Yeah, I noticed. This is it, then. Right?”
A flicker of emotion crossed her face. “You misunderstand. The treatment was successful. You are in total remission.”
He gawked at her, all sorts of incoherent images raced through his mind. He was going to live? After all the pain and misery, he was actually going to live?
“The cancer is gone?”
She smiled warmly at him. “Completely. We’ll keep you here for another week or so until you regain some body mass, and then we’ll start you on rehab. Your muscle tone is practically nonexistent.” She glanced at his head. “By the way, your hair is growing back.”
To hell with his hair! “How…”
She shook her head. “I am hoping that Broca Genetics will tell us that.”
“Will you live? No one can say. You experienced a particularly aggressive melanoma. Treatment has enabled your immune system to recognize the runaway mutation and fight it off, but there is no guarantee that you have developed total immunity. We’ll be running ongoing tests on you for signs of any relapse, but right now all indicators point to an extended lifespan.”
“Doc, even a month in the sun again will feel like a lifetime,” he told her sincerely.
“I am glad that you developed such an outlook.” She stood and patted down her skirt. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She paused at the door. “Yes?”
“About my treatment. Now that it seems I’ll be alive for a while longer, I’m not sure if my insurance will cover all this, or the extended stay here.”
“Oh that. Don’t worry about it. Broca Genetics is footing the bill for everything. You don’t know it, but you saved them millions in research costs.”
He exhaled with relief. “Well, wasn’t that nice of them.”
Andrew Payne stepped out of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, paused, and looked up. Ragged gray clouds drifted from the west, but did not look threatening. Although it was late March, warm sunshine lit the stream of cars going both ways along the tree-lined Grattan Street. A tram clanked its bell as it approached the Elizabeth Street intersection. A faint breeze tugged at his hair. Melbourne’s skyscrapers clawed into a washed-out sky. He took in the smells, sounds, and sights, and breathed deeply.
“Feels good, eh?” his father said gently, sympathetic to his son’s emotions.
“I never expected to see all this again, Dad,” Andrew told him, still gazing hungrily at everything around him. “I have stared at the naked face of death, and you know? It is not a terrifying face at all. At least it wasn’t for me. The experience has rearranged my life’s priorities and made me realize what is important and what isn’t.”
“You have changed, son. A lot. I guess matured is the word I’m looking for.”
“Waiting for death tends to do that.”
His father brushed his arm and pointed at the busy entrance area down the broad steps and pedestrians along the sidewalk. “The taxi rank is just around the corner. If you’re not up for a walk, I’ll have them bring the car here.”
“I feel great, Dad. I really do.”
Andrew did feel great. He filled out rapidly and the rehab program had firmed up his muscles and built stamina. He looked like he’d been lifting weights for months. His hair had grown back, as did the mischievous glint in his dark eyes. A scar on his right wrist was gone, and he had that since he was fourteen. He felt energy surging through his body, which made him want to prance and shout with joy. His mind seemed to be running like a dynamo, making him incredibly alert and acutely aware of everything going on around him. He had always considered himself smart, but this increase in mental capacity was giddying, and made him feel there was nothing he could not do. Dr. Dalton and the nurses remarked more than once on his surprisingly rapid recovery. Three weeks after she told him he was in remission, they let him go. He was supposed to refrain from strenuous activity for a while, but the way he felt, he was ready to do a marathon.
He just felt so…alive!
The drive to his parents’ spacious North Melbourne house took less than ten minutes. It had been one of Dad’s smarter investments after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. It also made getting into the city relatively less traumatic, with a tram stop a five-minute walk down the street.
He really wanted to be alone in his apartment and savor his reprieve, but his family would never forgive him if he shut them out now. Anyway, it was only dinner, and Dad insisted that he spend the night. Plenty of time to reenter his life in the morning. Perhaps he was right. A get-together with his friends was also in order.
Call Adriana? It wouldn’t do any harm.
* * *
“There it is, Mr. Payne. Ready for your signature,” Keith Sloan said. “Corporate in Los Angeles baulked at the price, but after they saw your prototypes, they were convinced.”
Andrew smiled at the FutureTech Australian division general manager, and took the proffered contracts. He dashed off his signature in all the places marked by protruding yellow stickers and slipped one copy into his slim briefcase. It took three weeks of hardnosed bargaining by his lawyer to get to this point.
FutureTech wanted to buy his two games outright, naturally enough, but Andrew insisted on a settlement, plus a five percent royalty for every game sold. He started off with a demand for twelve, but that had been a simple opening gambit. FutureTech had gone as far as three percent, but when Andrew made it clear he was prepared to walk away—there were other VR gaming companies out there who would jump at what he had and FutureTech knew it—they folded. His approach to rendering 3D sets was unique and far cheaper to apply than anything else he had seen in the industry. Besides, he had ideas for more games, which was a hook that also got him a job with FutureTech. He would not be giving them new games for his salary. That was a mug’s play. He would use the company’s resources and developers, but he would own the IP and sell them the games on a sales share basis. With the VR industry set to explode, his rendering algorithm plugins were set to make FutureTech millions.
He had netted US$180K for each game, and a $165K job. Admittedly in Aussie dollars, but Andrew did not mind. When the games started selling, he expected to be hip deep in cash. Perhaps he should check himself into hospital again and dream up a few more games, he mused wryly.
“Thanks, Keith. I look forward to a profitable relationship with FutureTech,”
Sloan stood and offered his hand. “Welcome aboard.”
“I’ll see you first thing tomorrow,” Andrew said as they shook hands.
“Your office is ready and fully equipped. I expect both your games to be fully beta tested for the June 1 release. We don’t want to miss that as we’ve already started the promotional campaign.”
“They will be, and you have given me three of your best developers. With your facilities, it won’t take long to work out the remaining bugs.”
“Good! Tomorrow, then.”
Andrew strode out of the Eureka Tower and pumped his right fist.
It must have cost FutureTech a small fortune to lease an entire floor at such a prestigious location, but the company was already on the Fortune 500 list, and all market indicators showed they were set to carve up the VR entertainment industry. What they needed, Andrew told Sloan, was branch into education, government, and defense applications. They toyed with the idea already, he was told, but for the time being, the entertainment market would remain their primary focus and revenue earner. Andrew did not push it. Perhaps a practical demonstration of a flight simulator prototype he’d been working on would change their mind, but he was a new resource and needed to establish his credentials first. No hurry.
That was another change he noticed about himself since leaving the hospital. He was driven by ideas and things he wanted to do, but somewhere in the cancer ward, he had lost his impatience with fools and entrenched bureaucracy. There was always a workaround, no need to get upset and rile the stomach. Make the other guy upset.
He dropped off the contract with Tompson, Tompson, and Parker, a prestigious Collins Street firm, and took a cab to the hospital. His appointment with Dr. Dalton was originally scheduled for Friday, but he did not want to start his new job by skipping a day. Besides, how long does it take to have a blood sample taken?
The cab pulled in at the Grattan Street entrance and he ambled up the broad steps into a hushed foyer. There were enough patients and visitors coming and going that he had to wait for an elevator.
Dr. Dalton’s stern secretary cracked half a smile at him and ushered him into the inner office. The doctor’s frown made him wonder if he was about to get some bad news. When she cleared her throat, he became worried.
“Good to see you again, Andrew. Please sit down. There is something I need to discuss with you before we take your blood sample.”
He made himself comfortable and waited. She folded her hands on the desk and studied him.
“Okay, Doc. I can take it.”
Her mouth twitched. “There is no need to be alarmed. You are quite healthy. In fact, you are remarkably healthy for someone who survived a Stage III, N3 polypoid melanoma.”
“I am relieved to hear that. And I feel healthy,” he told her.
“Yes, I can see that.”
“So, if I am not having a relapse, what is it, then?”
“Your case is unique and has the researches at Broca Genetics scratching their heads. The genotherapy drug they developed for you from their baseline formula has not only cured you, it has done a lot more. The problem is, they have not been able to replicate the result with any of their test subjects.”
“They were all terminal cases with advanced types of cancer. Broca managed to cure them and all are expected to live out a normal lifespan.”
Andrew frowned. “Wasn’t the whole objective of their program to provide a cure? Why is that suddenly a problem?”
“How much do you know about telomeres?”
“With tubes and stuff stuck into me when I was here, I had a chance to bone up. Basically, each chromosome is capped by a loop of repeating nucleotide sequences. During every cell division, one of the telomere sequences is truncated. When enough of them are removed, the cell blocks further division, which induces aging and eventual cell death.”
Dr. Dalton nodded. “Somewhat simplistic, but accurate enough. It will help you understand what I am about to say. There has been a lot of research into techniques to repair telomeres and restore the loops to their original length. In experimental animals, this has extended life and overcome several types of cancers. However, cell division is not a perfect process, and repetition results in cumulative errors. When the telomere loop reaches a certain length, the cell produces a toxin that stops further division. This is a vital mechanism that prevents the spread of cells with damaged DNA, which in essence is cancer. In humans, when a cell dies, the body does not eliminate it, the process manifesting itself as aging. However, in some organisms such as sponges, corals, and lobsters, senescent cells undergo conversion to an imunogenetic phenotype that enables the immune system to eliminate them and prevents the onset of aging. This process also slows down the epigenetic clock, but doesn’t rest it. Otherwise we would have organisms that were effectively immortal.”
It took a few moments for Andrew to digest this, but her words nevertheless left him confused.
“Are you saying that Broca’s treatment has enabled my immune system to eliminate cells that have stopped dividing, and that’s what’s keeping me healthy?”
“That’s right. But it has done more than that. It has reset your epigenetic clock.”
“Your body is effectively living in year one.”
He stared at her, then exhaled loudly. “Wow.”
Year one…it is like the first twenty-four years never happened. He could easily live to a hundred! The things he could do…
“Aging is a very complex process and poorly understood,” she said. “Just because your body can eliminate senescent cells does not mean that you will not age. It simply means that you have been given an extended lifespan.”
“Well, that can’t be all bad, can it? So, what is Broca’s problem?”
“With the patients they trialed, the treatment enabled their bodies to eliminate dead cells, but it had not slowed down or reset their epigenetic clock. They were cured, but left with a normal lifespan. Broca does not understand how their treatment produced your condition. In your case, numerous factors undoubtedly influenced the eventual outcome. Dosage, frequency, the condition of your immune system…many contributing factors. I am not surprised they are having difficulties.”
Andrew found himself in a moral loop. Should he tell her about the double dosage he got one morning? Even if he did, what good would it do? It would not change his personal condition, and he doubted the result could be replicated with any other patient. He decided to let it ride.
“You told me the good news, Doctor. What’s the bad?”
“Broca has invited you to attend their Silicon Valley facility for six months of intensive testing and observation. You will be given substantial compensation for your cooperation, with all expenses included.”
He goggled at her, then grinned broadly. “A charming idea, Doc, but I’m not interested. I am starting a new job tomorrow, something that I hope will keep me occupied for years. If Broca want samples of my blood and tissue, I am happy to give it to them, but I am not prepared to turn myself into one of their caged test animals. I figure I have made my contribution to science. Besides, they got what they wanted, didn’t they? Successful treatment of cancer.”
“I expected this, Mr. Payne, and I understand your position. The Cancer Center has an extensive genetics lab. I suppose a joint research project with Broca could be done here, provided you are willing to make yourself available from time to time.”
“Happy to bleed for the cause, Doctor.”
She stood and offered her hand. “Thank you for coming in, Andrew, and I am pleased to see you looking so well. You were my star patient.”
He took her small hand and smiled. She really was striking, but it could never be.
“You gave me a second chance. Few people get that, and I will try not to waste mine.”
Adriana’s fingernails marched playfully across his chest, her bold brown eyes twinkling with amusement. Her head cradled in the crook of his arm, Andrew gently stroked her smooth side, marveling at the delicate texture of her skin. The light curtains stirred when a soft puff of wind drifted into the bedroom. Nothing moved outside and the city held its breath.
“My hunk,” she murmured pensively. “I always wanted a he-man all to myself, and now I got one.”
He brushed a finger across her cheek and pushed back a strand of short black hair.
“And you have been my dream,” he told her softly, and she smiled. Then the smile faded.
“Since that crazy day when we first met at the Anglesea beach, I never wanted you to change—except for that horrid melanoma—and you haven’t. Not one gray hair.”
“I’m only thirty-two, love. It’s a bit early for gray hairs, don’t you think? A stressful marriage notwithstanding.”
She fisted him in the stomach and he grunted.
He kissed the tip of her nose. “I wouldn’t change a day.”
“Seriously, Andrew. You haven’t changed at all. You eat what you want and it doesn’t stick. I only have to look at a lasagna to gain a kilo.”
He admitted that she was no longer the striking slim beauty he waylaid at that beach, but she was still gorgeous, if somewhat softer. Not overweight at all, just…womanly.
“You’re still a heartbreaker and you know it. Why do you think my best friend is trying to woo you away from me?”
She gave a merry giggle. “He’s just flirting.” Her fingers marched across his chest. “Andrew? What if you never get old?”
Funny, that is exactly what he asked Dr. Dalton yesterday.
The stern geneticist had mellowed somewhat over the years, put on some weight, and time had left its mark on her face.
“It’s your epigenetic clock, Andrew. As far as it is concerned, you are only eight years old. You won’t show any appreciable physiological change for another fifteen years or so.”
“That’s what Broca said. I know that DNA methylation is supposed to prevent gene expression. With age, methylation is altered and the rate of gene expression changes, which you can measure as a rate of aging. You told me that in my case, they have not observed any change. In effect, I’m not aging.”
She frowned. “You have been paying attention.”
“I had a lot of time in which to bone up.”
“Clearly, but the epigenetic clock is still not fully understood. Nevertheless, you do appear surprisingly youthful.”
Surprisingly youthful…and that was Adriana’s apparent problem. He hoped this would not come between them, then shook his head.
“What are you thinking?” Adriana asked dreamily.
“It’s Saturday and we don’t have to go to work.”
She giggled. “And I have a whole day to explore my he-man,” she murmured and her hand slid lower down his stomach.
During breakfast—a very late breakfast—Andrew mulled over the conversation with Dr. Dalton. Since his incredible recovery, his mind and body were functioning flawlessly. He healed quickly, enjoyed good physical strength and stamina for someone supposedly thirty-two, and he was mentally sharp and alert. But that should be the norm for any thirty-something. No? The lovely doctor was making too much out of nothing, as was Broca Genetics. They achieved a breakthrough that was netting them hundreds of millions in annual sales, with a few dollars for himself with the investment he made in the listed company. Not satisfied with success, they wanted to create immortals?
Andrew enjoyed the achievements he made. He had an adoring wife, two wonderful kids—Anita already six and Kevin five. Where the hell did the years go? His work with FutureTech had blossomed, and the investments and share options had made him moderately wealthy. Close to six million, according to Tompson, Tompson, and Parker. He was on a roll.
His epigenetic clock be damned.
* * *
“Ah, Mr. Payne. Thanks for seeing me,” Vincent Price gushed, and swept a hand at a visitor chair. “Take a seat.”
Andrew eased himself into the expensive leather chair and crossed his legs. The new Australian division general manager—Keith Sloan left three years ago to take up a post as the global distribution vice president—liked to project an effusive, easygoing image. He was easygoing, but under the polished smile lay a razor mind and a ruthless personality, as more than one luckless employee found to their cost. Despite an occasional clash of wills, he and Andrew got along because Andrew made the company money. Lots of money.
“The Flight Simulator range of games are doing well,” Price said. “So well that Boeing, Airbus, and McDonnell Douglas have expressed interest to incorporate the software into their training simulators. FutureTech has never interfaced any of its products with hardware platforms at a level demanded by something as complex as a flight trainer, but the advanced rendering modules you developed under my predecessor’s direction—”
Andrew suppressed a smile. Sloan’s direction? Balls. Andrew had a knockdown fight with the former general manager after showing him a prototype flight trainer for a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, urging FutureTech to expand into the civilian and military markets. It would cost a truckload of money to develop responsive human interfaces for every major aircraft type, Sloan claimed, something Andrew dismissed out of hand. Think outside the box, he told his old boss. The Virtual Reality industry had advanced to a point where an expensive hardware simulator had become an anachronism. Why sink tens of millions into a mechanical flight trainer that needed new versions and constant updating to accommodate emerging airframes, when a far cheaper and flexible option existed in a totally VR product. Instrument panels, controls, and responses could be programmed quickly to replicate a real aircraft cockpit.
“—convinced FutureTech corporate that we can pitch to the industry a fully integrated VR flight simulator. The idea is not entirely new, but was never seriously entertained by the industry because of their wedded belief that pilot training can only be done using a genuine cockpit replica. Your demonstration to Boeing last week has changed that mindset.”
“I am glad to hear that, Vincent,” Andrew said soberly.
He had worked on and off for almost two years to perfect a workable prototype, much of the time spent in his own software lab at home. Sloan did not begrudge him the use of company resources, knowing that Andrew always produced.
When Vincent Price took over, those resources were withdrawn. Andrew was paid to develop VR games, not dictate corporate policy. Despite his undeniable business acumen, the man simply could not visualize the potential of Andrew’s work. If he did, he considered the project far too costly to show an immediate return. Andrew did not mind the setback. His simulator was almost done anyway. The game versions were rolling out and earning money. When the industry version was ready, Andrew sent a copy directly to Keith Sloan, knowing that his friend would be receptive. Last week, Sloan had flown down to Melbourne with a Boeing executive from Seattle for a demonstration. Price had not liked being bypassed, but was too shrewd an office politician to take it personally. Andrew Payne was one of FutureTech’s golden geese, and you don’t serve one of them for dinner.
“You have no immediate projects, Andrew, and if your flight simulator program takes off,” Price gave a wry smile, “you will be heavily involved with its development. Potentially, the entire aviation industry could be a market. There are literally hundreds of aircraft models out there, from traditional propeller jobs to jets, and each pilot needs to be trained to fly one. If Boeing comes on board, FutureTech will create a new division to service the market. The division will need someone to run it and develop the VR software. I was asked by corporate to offer you a proposal.”
Price raised a hand. “We are not offering you a VP position to run the division. Your management credentials are beyond reproach, but at this stage of your career, you don’t have the required corporate outlook. You are a visionary and a damn good designer, and that’s what makes FutureTech money. Managers like me are there to make sure the corporate wheels keep turning, and to see that people like you keep producing. What we want to offer you, Andrew, is a position of senior development manager, which off course, will entail a substantial salary increase and bonuses. I have not supported your flight simulator program, but you had confidence in your product and courage to push it to Mr. Sloan. That perseverance is appreciated, and I can admit when I’m wrong.”
Andrew had gotten the gist of Price’s proposal before the man stopped talking. The news wasn’t altogether a revelation, having had a heads-up from Sloan.
“I’ll take it, Vincent,” he said simply.
The senior exec raised his eyebrows. “Well, you didn’t need much convincing.”
“It’s my project, and I can understand why FutureTech would want me to continue being involved.”
“Yes, I see,” Price mused. “However, this position will require renegotiation of your terms of employment. I am aware of your current contract. However, the industrial application of the flight simulator is not covered by that agreement. It is not a game. FutureTech is prepared to give you a substantial once-off bonus for its development, but the company will own all the IP and sales proceeds.”
Andrew grinned. The initial contract he entered into with Sloan covered this possibility. When he signed the agreement, he was a nobody at FutureTech, and Sloan allowed him a degree of freedom with the wording. No one anticipated how profitable the relationship turned out for both. FutureTech legal made two attempts to remove the IP ownership and sales share clauses, but Andrew did not budge. Short of firing him, he had them locked in and they knew it. A polite letter from Tompson, Tompson, and Parker on both occasions put a lid on corporate legal.
“Vincent, let’s stop this here and now, okay? Under my contract, I retain IP and I get a royalty of five percent for every unit sold. The contract specifically states, and I quote, ‘This agreement shall apply to any Virtual Reality (VR) software acquired by the first party, namely FutureTech Corporation, from the designer and developer, the second party, namely Andrew Payne, and any adaptation of the said software for, but not limited to, entertainment, government, education, medical, and other industrial applications.’ I would say that my flight simulator qualifies as an industrial application, wouldn’t you? I suggest you refer to corporate legal attempts to delete that part of my contract and the outcomes.”
Vincent Price scowled. “There is no possibility to negotiate?”
Andrew shrugged. “Why should I negotiate? Five percent of every game sold is a gimme even when you sell a few million units. Games have a limited shelf life. You have to roll out new products all the time or get left behind. I am sure this has not escaped you, Vincent, but some of the best VR games FutureTech produced were my designs, and most of them are still selling well.
“However, I appreciate that the cost of a Boeing 787 VR flight simulator won’t be selling for fifteen dollars. Five percent becomes a substantial amount, but as you pointed out, you have a growing market that will need hundreds and hundreds of simulators. FutureTech will be making billions. I don’t believe that asking five percent for every unit sold is excessive. Besides, I have ideas for other industrial VR applications. Now, if FutureTech is not interested…”
Vincent glared at him and pursed his lips.
Andrew was prepared to walk and Price knew it. FutureTech did not even have a valid claim to recoup any of the development costs, considering it a future investment freely made without any liability to him. If they wanted the simulator, they would have to buy it like any of his games, and agree to a five percent royalty.
“What you have now, Andrew, is one VR simulator for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. You don’t expect us to buy simulator software from you for every aircraft type?”
Andrew laughed. “Hardly. I recognize the investment FutureTech will have to make to develop variants. I am prepared to make a once-off settlement…two hundred million.”
Price goggled. “You can’t be serious!”
“Work the numbers, Vincent.” Andrew said, and watched the flow of emotions race across Price’s face.
There were hundreds of major airlines in the world, and thousands of little operators, and most of them needed training simulators. The cost of a Piper Cherokee simulator could not be compared to a Boeing 787 program, but the marketplace had the potential for thousands of unit sales of all types. When military options were included, two hundred million was a giveaway.
The general manager sighed, shook his head, and leaned back against his seat.
“And the five percent?”
“I’ll have to run this past corporate, you know.”
Life should have been sweet for Andrew Payne. FutureTech’s VP for strategic development, a net worth of over four-and-a-half billion, challenging the virtual reality industry, Anita and Kevin mostly happy teenagers—teenagers are never entirely happy—a long life ahead of him, he should be laughing every time he sprang out of bed. Not bad for someone who just turned forty-one. So, what was the problem?
It is not as though Andrew had not seen it coming.
Anita had grown into a striking beauty with no shortage of boys sniffing around her, especially when they learned she had a rich dad. It was too early for Kevin to get serious about girls, but having everything he desired nevertheless created an occasional clash of wills with his old man. A sober talk usually straightened him out…and one sharp lesson before Kevin got the point.
“If you don’t like how you mother and I are treating you, feel free to leave and find out for yourself what life is like out there,” Andrew told him once, perfectly calm. “No cellphone; I’m paying for that. No credit cards; I’m paying for them as well. A suitcase and whatever cash you managed to save.”
Kevin stormed out with just a backpack. Four days later, he came back a changed boy, although somewhat ragged around the edges, literally. Andrew never mentioned the incident again. However, teenagers being teenagers, he anticipated more sober talks ahead.
Adriana…that problem was not going away, and getting worse. A chasm was growing between them, and it was easy to identify the cause—his apparent youth. Showing the inevitable small signs of age, she could not help noticing that he still looked like a twenty-four-year-old. Because this was deep seated, emotional resentment not subject to logical reasoning, made it more difficult to treat. If she would only consent to counseling, but the stubborn woman refused and fumed inwardly. Andrew did not know what to do, except keep loving her. What nagged him, did she still love him?
It appeared that sometimes even love wasn’t enough.
The old saw about a fly in the soup that spoiled things was almost never true, but in his case, the fly was a bumblebee. A fat black thing called age.
And there wasn’t a thing Andrew could do about it.
He paused in front of the Royal Melbourne Hospital entrance, looked up at the imposing glass façade, and sighed. He didn’t know why he bothered coming. Nobody was able to tell him anything new. A tram clanged its bell and the sounds of traffic were loud in his ears. Everything was either too noisy, too smelly, too crowded, too full of crap. And he was being morose. He slowly walked up the wide steps, another piece of life’s flotsam drifting with the tide.
“Your telomere loop gets shorter every time a cell divides, as it should,” Dr. Dalton explained, “and after about fifty divisions, the cell stops dividing. What is happening with you, these cells are converted to an imunogenetic phenotype that enables the immune system to expel them. This change in your physiology explains your remarkable health, but not your apparent age.”
“You’re not telling me anything new, Doc.”
“I reminder,” she said wearing a faint smile. “There is only one explanation for the observed tests conducted by Broca Genetics and my team, and it is something that you already know.”
“My epigenetic click,” Andrew murmured.
“That’s right. Your epigenetic clock has not only been reset, but appears to be frozen, or is operating at a greatly reduced rate. However, our tests have not shown any measurable rate change.”
Dr. Dalton looked her age—mature and dignified. Still stern and formidable, they have come to know each other somewhat well over the years. He was her star patient, and a doorway to a possible Nobel Prize. Right now, Andrew did not care if she received a raft of Nobel Prizes.
“Does this mean I am immortal?” Andrew ventured sarcastically.
“I would not go that far, but barring a terminal accident, your body’s recuperative powers should keep you alive for a very long time. How long that might be, no one can say. We just don’t have any comparable data.”
“Well, I can always step in front of a bus if I get weary of life,” he quipped. He was tired being a study specimen. Tired of being prodded and poked and jabbed. Tired of everything.
Dr. Dalton frowned. “I would not treat this phenomena so flippantly, Mr. Payne.”
“You don’t have my condition, Doctor.”
“That might be true, but your condition has greatly advanced our understanding of the aging process. One day perhaps, we may be able to duplicate it.”
“I hope not. There is a very good biological reason why we age, not to mention a social one. Something you understand very well. I shudder to think what might happen if everyone can walk into a drugstore and get himself an immortality pill. Or the treatment is confined to the wealthy and the powerful.”
“You are right, of course.”
“Broca and their backers might be frustrated that they haven’t managed to develop such a pill, but they have produced cures for many genetic disorders. Not a bad day’s effort, I would say.” He sat back and exhaled softly. “What now, Dr. Dalton?”
“We will continue the monitoring program for as long as you are willing to donate your blood and tissue samples.”
“Not a problem, provided you and Broca don’t breach the disclosure agreement, which their article in the latest issue of Nature came awfully close to doing.”
“They were warned. It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t, or my cooperation ends, followed by some very unpleasant legal action. Not to mention cancellation of my annual endowment to the Cancer Center.”
Dr. Dalton blinked. “For which we are grateful, Andrew. However, you must realize that your condition cannot remain concealed forever.”
He stood and laughed. “True. My position with FutureTech has already become uncomfortable. Some of their New York execs are finding it difficult to believe that someone who looks like a twenty-four-year-old kid is in fact forty-one. I tried plastic surgery to age me—”
“—but within six weeks, I was back to—” he chuckled “—normal. My body likes the way I look.”
“Unfortunately, that problem will only get worse.”
Andrew snorted and stood. “I’ll see you in three months, Doc.”
He did not get an opportunity to resolve his problem with Adriana, because on Saturday, she was gone, as were his children. They had not done anything as a family for a while, and he thought it might be fun to spend a day together, drive along the Great Ocean Road and see the Twelve Apostles. Actually, there were only eight. Constant battering by waves that came unimpeded all the way from Antarctica reduced one of the nine majestic rock formations to rubble. Still, they were an awesome sight.
On the way, they stopped for coffee and cakes, and Kevin and Anita even braved the cold ocean water. It made Andrew shiver just looking at them frolicking in the surf. Not initially keen to tag along with their parents on what they figured to be a long, boring trip, both reluctantly admitted they were having fun.
That’s when it happened.
A pickup took a blind corner on the wrong side of the road and clipped Andrew’s car, sending it down a nine meter cliff onto the rocks below. His car was equipped with a level 3 autonomous driving system, but the narrow road gave the computer nowhere to go.
He saw the pickup, heard the squeal of brakes, and threw himself against Adriana. He felt the sickening crunch and the safety airbags popped. Sharp pain shot through his right shoulder and arm and he heard Anita scream before darkness descended.
When he woke, he could tell he was in a hospital room because of the faint antiseptic and medicine cabinet odor. A flat monitor beside him traced wiggly lines. It was quiet and the sun hovered above the city’s skyscrapers, bloated and red. A gentle breeze shifted the curtains. It felt good lying there, thinking about nothing in particular.
Reality crashed into him and he felt his face drain.
He sat up and winced at the stab of pain in his shoulder. The monitor started beeping sharply. His right forearm was in a cast, but it didn’t hurt. An attractive brunette nurse opened the door, glanced at the monitor, and hurried to his side.
“You shouldn’t be exerting yourself, Mr. Payne,” she admonished him in a stern voice and pushed him back against the pillows.
“Where is my wife?”
“You just lie there and I’ll get the doctor.”
It all came rushing back, none of it pleasant.
A young man walked in dressed in a conservative dark gray suit. He pulled back a visitor chair and sat down.
“I am glad to see you awake, Mr. Payne. You were lucky to walk away with a simple arm fracture and a broken collarbone. You have some contusions and lacerations, but nothing serious.”
“Where is my wife?”
The doctor—at least Andrew took him for a doctor—pursed his lips and exhaled slowly, not looking very comfortable.
“I am sorry to have to tell you this, but your wife didn’t make it. Your car landed on its roof against a large boulder that crushed the passenger side and most of the rear section.”
The doctor nodded. “Your son and daughter died on the way to the Geelong University Hospital.”
Andrew stared at the man trying to process everything. Adriana gone…his children gone…why couldn’t it have been him instead? They had everything to live for and he’d had his life.
Something tore deep inside him and he moaned at the cutting pain that gripped his chest in a vice. After a few seconds, it receded to a dull throb. He felt his eyes sting and blinked rapidly.
“The other driver…” he croaked.
“Not hurt. The police charged him with numerous offences, although that’s not much consolation to you.”
Numerous offences…Andrew felt like laughing.
He had a lot to laugh about. The fates have just played one of their better practical jokes on him.
* * *
Andrew Payne leaned against the steel railing and gazed at the rolling valley below his Mt. Macedon house. The redolent smell of towering eucalyptus made him breathe in deeply and exhale with satisfaction. Warm afternoon sunshine against a deep blue sky brought colors into sharp focus. Two magpies patrolled the backyard, pecking at the grass in search of snacks. Nothing moved, and deep silence pervaded his little kingdom. He lifted his tumbler of bourbon and nodded to the gods.
Life was good at fifty-three, and not a gray hair in sight. His body bloomed with health and he woke every morning filled with energy. These days, some of that surplus enthusiasm was spent at a local golf course. About six years ago, one of his friends introduced him to the game, and Andrew became hooked. He initially found golf to be an intensely frustrating and irritating game when the little white sucker ended among the trees instead of the fairway, or went curving into the brush from a wayward tee shot. But he now had the basics right and actually enjoyed the game. The browsing kangaroos no longer laughed at his amateurish efforts, standing tall as he pushed his little buggy past them, watching him solemnly before returning to their feeding. He did not play with his friend anymore, and rarely saw the three of them. They were all married with families to worry about, and work kept them busy. Once or twice a year, they would get together for a stag dinner and chew over the good old days. When Andrew saw them, saw what time did to them while he remained young, made him uncomfortable and depressed. They envied and resented him, hiding it behind cutting humor.
The years marched for everybody, but they did not march for him.
Four years ago, he quit FutureTech, bought a hectare of land in Mt. Macedon and built a modern open plan house. It looked rustic from the outside and blended nicely into the surrounding forest, but the interior had every convenience that a nine billion dollar fortune could provide. His neighbors were friendly and did not intrude, and he did not bother them. He drove a modest Tesla Cobra fully autonomous electric, having no desire for something flashy to show off. He was rich, but lived a simple lifestyle and did his own cooking, cleaning, and yard maintenance. This was no burden for his twenty-four-year-old body.
Losing Adriana and the kids had hit him hard, and it took a better part of a year before the pain receded to a dull throb. He never wanted to put himself through that again, and did not seek another companion. He missed her, missed the quiet talks they used to have, sometimes in the night’s early hours, being together and doing things together. She left a hole in him he was still to fill. One day perhaps, someone else would walk into his life and make him complete.
He liked it here, but in another ten years or so when the locals started to gossip about his youthful looks, wondering if he was ‘The Forever Man’, as the tabloids and 3D Wall news clips labeled him six years ago, he would need to move. A seaside place next time? No hurry. Right now, though, he had time to savor life and watch the world change around him. And it had changed, a lot.
Skycars buzzed everywhere like flies, autonomous cars, trucks, buses, trains—everything automated. They made travel infinitely safer, but many diehards clung to their diesel and petrol relics and drove them, but they were a dying breed. Social pressure and government regulations made it tough for them, seen as unacceptable risks. Houses and buildings in general these days had become their own power generators when solar paints emerged, to the intense annoyance of the utilities. But those companies had dug their own grave pursuing rapacious pricing policies. Cinemas had all but disappeared, as everyone could hook into old movies and new releases through their home 3D virtual reality Wall.
Personal communication had also changed drastically. Hardly anyone carried a smartphone or tablet anymore. Equipped with an implanted Personal Communication Module, PCM, hooked into a world-wide comms and cloud data network, everything and everyone was within instant reach with a simple mental command. Andrew had to fight stubborn FutureTech execs before they became convinced that partnering with Google and Microsoft to develop a PCM interface was the place to be. Intel was much easier to bring on board. They saw billions flowing into the company as demand for personal chips flowered. It took a while for the emerging technology to work out all the bugs, and even longer for governments to evaluate the social impact and enact privacy and security legislation. Many people frowned at what they saw Big Brother intrusion into their minds, but the young embraced it enthusiastically. As with everything, there was potential for abuse, but it was something the society would simply have to deal with. At two years, a child was allowed to have a PCM implant, and the real and virtual worlds were at its feet forever.
The Moon was occupied by the major powers, as was Mars, and several private ventures such as SpaceX and Blue Origin had begun asteroid mining. Electrogravitic ships had opened the Solar System, which should keep mankind busy for a long time to come. Andrew had invested heavily in both companies, and the investments had started to pay off handsomely. Although fascinated by space travel—he wanted badly to visit the Moon—he would wait a few years. He could afford to take the trip now, but the bases were still primitive, rough affairs, not really cut out for tourism. He hoped SpaceX would approve his concept plan for a chain of Moon hotels. A billion dollars from him gave them an added incentive. They were progressive and innovating, and clearly appreciated the potential of having an average family able to afford a Moon trip as their next vacation. It will take a few years to realize, but he was in no hurry.
In his lab, supported by one of the new generation quantum computers, Andrew hooked himself into his latest simulation prototype, a sensory interface. When PCMs first came out, they were in direct competition with smartphones and tablets. Although far more convenient to use, PCMs lacked one essential capability the other devices provided—recording visual images and audio. His latest project was helping FutureTech develop an interface software plugin to enable a PCM to capture all sensory inputs—visual, auditory, olfactory, everything—and store it in the data cloud. He hoped to one day enable the capture of emotional responses, the ultimate interface, but the brain was a tricky and complex piece of organic hardware, and its workings not easily cracked. These days, he worked for FutureTech as a strategic consultant, passing them an occasional idea. He no longer had to work for a living in the traditional sense, and didn’t.
He went back to university and picked up PhDs in advanced network computing and genetics. Broca Genetics had done terrific work in its field, but their research was results oriented. Their business model demanded producing marketable products. Nothing wrong with that, but it meant they shied away from spending huge sums of money on pure research. They were a business, not a university. Andrew had the money and convinced Broca to form a research division to study the more than 1300 human DNA gene switches, the microRNAs, and in particular, the switches that govern when the microRNAs are themselves turned on and off. Learning how to manipulate gene switches would have enormous implications with the potential to eliminate every disease and make humans immune to infection. If a viable products were to come out of that research, Andrew had ensured that he would have a cut of the proceeds.
It really was not about money at all, which was nice to have, but the power what money could do. And he had lots of ideas how to make his money work for him.
He did not fancy going to Silicon Valley where Broca set up their new division, but with instantaneous communication and his home lab, there was no need to go anywhere. Broca still wanted to know how his epigenetic clock became frozen, so did he, but for a different reason. His interest was pure scientific curiosity, while Broca saw dollars in it for them. They still wanted that immortality pill.
Andrew figured that his research into a sensory plugin and immortality should keep him profitably amused for a year or so.
A penthouse apartment in one of the new Southbank towers gave Andrew Payne a grand vista of Melbourne wherever he looked. He had the top floor all to himself. The floor below him served as his research lab. The four floors below that contained offices for staff who managed his various enterprises. It was easy to live in a penthouse rent free if one owned the building, which he did. He never intended going into real estate, but a minor housing bubble collapse eight years ago offered an opportunity to buy a building in South Melbourne, and to his surprise, he found that he liked living in the center of the city, these days much more habitable with the elimination of all smog. He originally paid an agent to manage it, then bought the agency when he found they were fleecing him. That was the first and only time he allowed a third party to run something for him, the exception being Tompson, Tompson, and Parker. The original lawyers were either all retired or dead, but the old firm had held onto its unshakeable integrity and scrupulous business practices, and Andrew was one of their very important clients.
He broke the comms link with the Moon Stardust Resort manager and rubbed his eyes. The lunar tourist business had taken off big, just as Andrew knew it would, and gravitic ships were able to reach the Moon in two hours, and Mars in four days. Stellar Corporation, a merger between SpaceX and Blue Origin, manufactured a line of passenger ships, including asteroid miners. They were not the only player in the field, nor the largest, but Stellar made sound, reliable ships, and never pushed them beyond their rated operating life. Asteroid mining was a four trillion dollar a year industry, delivering everything from complex hydrocarbons, ice, almost pure metals, including gold. Stellar dabbled in this, but they were a market leader in providing energy for the power hungry Earth. Why risk building polluting fossil power plants and dangerous nuclear stations, when virtual seas of liquid methane and ethane could be harvested from Titan. It took over two months for a tanker barge to reach Saturn, but each tanker had a capacity of a million cubic meters, which made the trip worth the investment. The liquid gas was never shipped directly to Earth, but powered enormous orbital plants that beamed microwaves to ground station receivers.
It was one of Andrew’s more profitable investments.
His latest project was to tap into the limitless lines of current that streamed between Jupiter and its moons, then beam the energy to enormous collectors in the L4 and L5 Lagrange points. There was unavoidable loss as the microwave stream attenuated with distance, but the current never ran out. A pilot station between Jupiter and Ganymede had already proven the concept. It was now a matter of building the collectors and redistribution antennas. It would cost billions and perhaps another eleven years to realize, but Andrew was patient. He and Stellar Corp won’t lose on the deal.
At sixty-four, he faced a minor life crisis. He had done almost everything he wanted in life. He had not climbed Everest and never would, seeing it as hollow bravado. It was a risk he did not need to take. He would never see the bottom of the Mariana Trench for the same reason. He was an excellent pilot, but he never tried hang gliding. A mishap all too often ended up being terminal. He had been to the Moon dozens of times, and Mars five times. He gazed at the naked face of Jupiter and stood awed by Saturn’s rings on his way to Titan.
His business empire encompassed many things, among them genetic research, quantum computing, space industries and resorts, and VR entertainment. He now owned FutureTech and all its products, past, present and those being developed. He was a major stockholder in Broca Genetics and Stellar Corp, among others. Tompson, Tompson, and Parker told him his net worth was around sixty-nine billion, but he wasn’t sure. It did not matter what it was. They were just bits in a computer. What those bits did give him was power. Economic and political power.
Despite his corporate philanthropic interests, he faced a life crisis. What was left for him to do? Years, decades, centuries of living, always searching for something new to capture his mind to avoid utter boredom? What he needed was a project so complex that it would need decades to implement. However, it needed to produce substantive social benefit. Technology had transformed Earth and made life easier for billions, but there was still war, starvation, sickness, and international rivalry not much changed from the 20th century. Mankind was still to advance and mature philosophically and ethnically. Unfortunately, there was no off-the-shelf product he could develop to fix that.
Or was there?
It all came down to a simple question. What did he want out of life, a life that might last for a very long time?
He pushed himself up out of the chair and ambled toward the lounge. He fixed himself a snifter of 150-year-old cognac and strode toward the floor-to-ceiling window. Below, Melbourne spread into haze, skycars crisscrossing it like ant lines. He took a sip and gazed at the sprawl of people going about whatever they were doing. Did it have any meaning, apart from the urge to constantly procreate?
As he stood there, he realized there was one thing he never tried—enact social change. He could not hope to make every person on Earth prosperous and disease free. There were far too many cultural, economic, religious, and political barriers for that to be possible. But gradual change could be achieved, given time and resources, and he had plenty of both.
He would enter politics.
Not as an elected representative, though. Party squabbling and factional machinations was one problem he wanted to fix. He would become a background player and mover. To influence change, he needed to be near one of the centers of world power, and that meant the United States. He decided to buy himself a president and as many Congressmen it took to shape policy.
He raised his tumbler to the orange and red-streaked sky. This promised to be a game that would keep him amused for some time, perhaps even a century.
Not exactly virtual reality, but close enough.