Shocked, she pictured Robert Gant’s face. Was that his plan? To keep his bloodline alive forever, to create an undying dynasty?
“Why are you helping them?” she finally eked out.
“Because I must. Mankind has always chafed against restraints and limitations. We left our homelands to cross uncharted seas. We broke the bounds of gravity to fly. We even left our planet. Here is merely the next step toward freedom, the ultimate freedom, to break the chains of mortality and free us from our very graves.”
Lisa found herself aghast. She had warmed to the man over the past day, working alongside him, but now she saw the chinks in his armor, allowing the madness inside to shine forth.
“The visionary Raymond Kurzweil once posed the question, Does God exist?” Edward turned to stare at the boy in the incubator. “His answer was only two words: Not yet.”
She stared at the man, seeing the glaze of megalomania. She knew from her years in the medical profession that this affliction seldom presented itself as a raving lunacy. Instead, most of those afflicted were charming in demeanor, confident in their convictions, and all too often described as simply nice. They were monsters wearing sweet faces.
She was saved from responding by the return of Petra. The woman had a sheaf of reports in her hands as she strode stiffly toward them. Her expression remained unreadable as she reached Edward’s cubicle.
He faced her, looking up, hopeful. “And the verdict on the boy?”
“Not good. The child may appear healthy, but his triple helices continue to denature and shed their PNA strands. Worse yet, the process appears to be accelerating.”
Edward lifted his hands, rubbed his eyes, and sighed out his defeat. “So the breakdown wasn’t because the boy was sick. As I feared, he’s simply rejecting the PNA.”
“He’s no good to us,” Petra said.
“But we were so close.” Edward sagged.
“We will keep working,” Petra said. “Success cannot be far away. And besides, you know they only want females. The boy was doomed either way.”
Lisa stiffened. “What are you talking about?”
Edward, lost in his disappointment, seemed surprised she was still there. “Surely you understand that males with triple helices are basically mules. They might live forever, but they’re genetic dead ends. Only females can pass this PNA trait to future offspring.”
“No, I don’t understand,” she said, intending to keep them talking, shifting slowly toward the key card on Edward’s desk.
You’re not going to harm this child …
He huffed, swung to a computer, and tapped up a file. On the screen, a time-lapsed video of cellular division appeared. The two DNA strands were colored in red, the single PNA in blue. A couple of additional PNA strands hung loosely in the cytoplasm. As the cells divided, the PNA slipped out of the way, joined its brothers in the cytoplasm. Cellular division then proceeded as normal. Once the cell had pinched into two, one of the PNA strands from each of the new cells snaked out of the cytoplasm and back into the heart of the DNA strand, re-forming the triple helix in both cells.
“Do you understand?” Edward asked.
She did. She now understood why a male couldn’t pass on the triple-helix trait. A man’s sperm cell contains half of his DNA. A woman’s egg contains half of her DNA plus all of her cytoplasm and everything inside the jelly-like cellular fluid: mitochondria, organelles, proteins—and, in this case, PNA. Because of that, a father couldn’t pass on the triple-helix trait—the trait of immortality—because he couldn’t pass on any cytoplasmic PNA. Only a female could.
“It’s like mitochondria in women,” Lisa said. “All mitochondria get passed along the female genetic line, from egg to egg to egg.”
“Correct. So you understand?”
“Then you also understand why we have to kill this boy.”
She jerked straighter. “No … of course not!”
Edward sighed. “He’s a dead end, only useful for research fodder. If we’d been able to return stability to his triple helix by treating his shock, then he would have made the perfect test subject for Petra’s vivisection table, his organs divided into artificial suspension systems, perfect for challenging and testing the immortality trait. Better that than waiting decades to study this child’s growth. Science can’t move that slowly, especially in the face of something as inconsequential as morality.”
Lisa sat back on Edward’s desk, numb with shock. She had labored throughout the night and slowly pulled the child back from death’s door—only to meet this end?
She had also grown attached to the boy. How could she not, with those big, trusting blue eyes?
Petra stared sullenly at the child in the incubator, as if he were a dog who had chewed her favorite pumps. “Now he’s useless. Another failure.”
“A promising failure.” Edward patted Petra on the back of her hand. “You can still perform the necropsy, collect all the histological tissue samples you want. We can still learn much, even from this failure.”
Lisa would not let them kill this child.
As they focused on the baby, with their backs to her, she made her move.
Already leaning on Edward’s desk, she grabbed his key card—and his desk lamp. She yanked the cord free and swung the lamp broad-armed at the back of Petra’s head. The weighted steel base hit her skull, felling her like a chopped tree. The woman hit the corner of the cubicle and tumbled hard to the floor.
Edward had started to rise, but Lisa kicked the chair out from under him. Off balance, he fell forward. She used that moment to ram her knee into his nose, smashing it and sending him sprawling. He wasn’t out, but he was down, dazed.
She dropped the lamp, ran to the incubator, and, as gently as she could, removed the cuffs and tapes of the NICU’s monitoring leads. Once he was free, she swaddled the child in a thin blanket and carried him close to her chest.
She knew the prison ward was a blind alley, as was this suite of labs. The only other true exit was the door through which Robert Gant had entered yesterday. She ran toward it, ignoring the flaring complaint from her swollen ankle. At the door, she swiped the stolen key card, unlocked the way, and dashed out of the ward.
A dimly lit maze of halls and rooms spread outward, looking deserted, waiting to be occupied by Edward’s new facility. She’d overheard that much.
She picked a direction and ran off blindly with the child, moving as fast as she could with her compromised ankle, thankful the child remained quiet after being fed.
She hadn’t bothered to dispatch or tie up Petra and Edward.
For a very simple reason.
She remembered the eye of the security camera following her as she fled. Someone already knew she had escaped.
July 4, 1:48 P.M. EST
Blue Ridge Mountains
“Where did she go?” Robert Gant pressed.
He stood in front of a computer in Dr. Emmet Fielding’s office, located in the red zone of the underground complex. He had gotten word a few minutes ago from central security that Lisa Cummings had attacked two of the scientists and fled with his brother’s grandchild.
A fist formed. Not out of anger at the woman, but at the thought of his brother. He held his grief in his fist and leaned his weight on it, crushing his knuckles against the desktop, trying to contain that well of sorrow. Flashes of moments with Jimmy sparked in his head: two brothers riding horseback, drinking beer behind the barn, playing cards while smoking cigars. It had been Jimmy who held him together after his wife died. He tried to squeeze an entire lifetime into his fist, to hold those memories in check.
It was why he had come down here, tinkering with Dr. Fielding on some projects, studying some of the latest neuro-pod designs, including several truly horrendous war beasts in early stages of development.
Anything to keep himself distracted.
Robert understood the inevitability of his brother’s assassination, could fathom the logic of it when it was presented to him as a fait accompli. The greater body of the Lineage demanded it. So he had to obey—as he’d always done in the past. But he could not escape the pain of it.
“She’s still missing, sir,” the guard said. The man’s image hovered in the upper corner of the screen. “There are only a few active cameras in that disused section of the facility.”
“Then check the cameras in the neighboring zones. Blue and Orange.”
As he waited, Robert brought up a schematic of the estate. The main mansion, the Lodge, lay ten miles away, surrounded by its high walls. Only a tiny fraction of the family knew the facility existed. Even Jimmy didn’t know, though he’d gone fishing a few times at a river within a half-mile of its outskirts.
The sprawling research facility covered twenty acres, occupying an old mine on a remote piece of Gant property, set amid the high cliffs and waterfalls of the Eastern Continental Divide. The divide—which ran through the Blue Ridge Mountains and across the Gant estate—split the watershed of the region: on one side, rivers all flowed toward the Gulf of Mexico; on the other, toward the Atlantic.
A century ago, a member of the Bloodline discovered the old, flooded mine. Slowly, over time, it had been engineered and converted into a secret facility, carved out underground and burrowed even farther over the years, spreading under the old-growth forest and meadows.
He stared at the map of the facility. It looked like a madman’s Rorschach inkblot, much of it shaded out in gray, indicating unoccupied sections of the lab. Robert remembered better times. During the heyday of the Cold War years, the place had once hosted hundreds of researchers from both sides of the Iron Curtain, all working for the Guild, for the Bloodline. The halls thrummed with excitement, the verve of men and women working at the edge of scientific exploration—and often moving beyond.
Robert stared at the grayed-out areas now, eating through the facility like a cancer. Since then, like many American companies, the research projects that had once flourished within these walls had been shifted abroad, outsourced to Third World countries where no questions were asked, labor was cheaper, and government interference or oversight was nonexistent.