Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Editor, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

The Immortality Virus

Chapter 1

The lobby of the Medicorp building loomed above Grace’s head like a majestic cavern, complete with holographic stalactites that almost perfectly imitated the age-old giants beneath the ground. Only the ridiculous notion of a skyscraper playing host to stalactites gave the ruse away; that and the recent popularity of cavern décor in buildings owned by people with too much money.

It was wasteful, Grace thought. Boastful and wasteful. But she had not come to this building to pass judgment. She did not know why she had come, actually. Every instinct in her told her that she was a fool to have agreed to this meeting.

The receptionist took quite some time verifying Grace’s identity and her appointment. Grace half expected them to turn her away, telling her there had been some kind of mistake, that Matthew Stanton, Jr. had not asked to see her that morning and she should leave before they called security. She wouldn’t blame them. Her skills were not exactly suited to Medicorp’s usual business.

“He’s expecting you,” the receptionist said. “Take the elevator to the thirtieth floor. I’ll buzz you through.”

The receptionist did not point to the set of elevators where dozens of people waited to go to their various jobs or appointments. Rather, she pointed to one that stood alone, with a large sign marked “PRIVATE” above faux-rock doors.

Grace nodded and headed for that elevator, which opened to reveal more cavern décor on a smaller scale. She stepped inside and shuddered as the doors closed, encapsulating her inside a space that felt a bit like a rocky grave. Or maybe that was just her overactive imagination.

Why had she agreed to come? The last thing she needed was to cross paths with The Establishment again. Mr. Stanton had told her she “would not have to worry about money,” but that only made her more nervous. Besides, she liked worrying about money. It was part of who she was.

So was curiosity. Her mother always told her it would kill her one day. Today might be that day, but she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t find out why the richest man in Kansas City had requested a meeting with a blacklisted private eye.

When the elevator doors slid open to reveal the thirtieth floor lobby, Grace managed to forget her worries long enough to gape at the lavish décor. It was so over the top that the word ostentatious sprang to mind. How much had been wasted on the holographic windows, the authentic-looking paintings, and the fountain? A dozen or so pedestals lined the walls, boasting different marble statues that Grace would have bet were originals.

A man in an expensive green on gray suit sat behind an executive desk in front of the only doorway on this floor. He motioned for Grace to cross the distance between them, and then pulled out an ID chip scanner. He did not say a word. His eyes and the scanner told her what he expected.

As Grace held out her left wrist for him to scan, she saw that this man used a better scanner than the receptionist below had used. The receptionist had compared Grace’s appearance with a picture programmed into the chip. This man’s scanner showed all the physical and medical data recorded on the chip and compared it with information collected by the building’s sensors.

“Thank you, Ms. Harper. Mr. Stanton will be available in a few minutes, if you would care to have a seat.”

Grace nodded and selected one of a half dozen chairs positioned along the wall. They overlooked holographic dreams of what the world outside might have looked like if it had not disintegrated into hell several centuries back. It was a bit showy, but Grace had to admit that it was also well done. Most of the time when she saw holograms like these they were inconsistent. They would either show the exact same picture through each window or they would each show a scene that had nothing to do with the next. This was far more convincing in its subtlety. Through one window she saw a view of a park, lush with trees, grass, and a handful of people walking, biking, or jogging. The next window showed the same scene at a slightly different angle.

For a moment, Grace tried to pretend the world really looked that way, but she could not pretend for long that these window scenes showed anything other than fantasy. It was the world that might have existed four hundred years ago, in the mid-twenty-first century. Now the park across the street had no trees, no grass, and no small number of people exercising in a carefree manner. The people who lived in the park now were crammed in elbow to elbow, using one another’s body heat to fend off the bitter January chill. A life like that couldn’t last long. Many died, especially this month, but the recyclers did a good job of removing the dead ones.

Somehow, despite all the deaths, their numbers never dwindled. Somewhere out there, a new mother would be giving birth to a baby with no chances and no hope.

An antique clock chimed nine times. Grace sub-vocalized, “Time,” and a moment later her portable unit, a thin silver bracelet plugged into her ID chip, replied, through her ear buds, “Nine oh two a.m.” The appointment had been set for nine o’clock, but Grace did not know what kind of man Mr. Stanton was. Would he be on time or late? In Grace’s experience, no one in a position of power was ever early.

Her thorough analysis of the floor and its holographic windows complete, Grace had nothing better to do than to continue to dwell on the upcoming meeting and what might have prompted Mr. Stanton to seek out a private investigator–especially one on The Establishment’s black list.

She knew that less than a month ago, the former CEO of Medicorp, Matthew Stanton Sr., had been killed in a stunning robbery. The stunning part was the fact that it had succeeded–rumor had it that the intruder had walked off with a brand new holosuit prototype that had not yet been released to the public.

None of which explained Mr. Stanton’s need for a private investigator. The police would be working tirelessly to find the killer of one of the elite. He would only need her if he thought the police were on the wrong track and unlikely to veer onto the right one.

Maybe the police even thought Mr. Stanton had something to do with it. Grace swallowed hard. The last thing she needed was to go head to head against the police.

Grace patted the gun strapped to her side. The state-of-the-art Smith and Wesson disruptor went with her wherever she went, though few ever tried to convince her to check her weapon at the door. Most people carried weapons. It was both their peril and their protection.

“Mr. Stanton will see you now,” the secretary said in a businesslike tone.

Grace noted the plaque on his desk that read “Lucas Smith” and thanked him by name before entering the enormous executive suite.

The suite had recently been remodeled. Grace could still smell the fresh paint: A strange shade of brown that was almost, but not quite, purple. The carpet was either brand new or made of some remarkable substance that never wore out.

The pictures in this room were not at all like the ones out in the lobby, which were meant to impress. The creators of these paintings–and they were paintings, not photographs–were not household names. The images depicted were all of a theme–human suffering. There was a man with a pike through his belly, a crowd of people on fire, and a group of people with peeling, blistered skin. The window scene of an overflowing park filled with hungry people fit in perfectly.

Then Grace realized that no holographic windows filtered this room from the outside world. She saw the park as it really was–teeming with people beyond counting.

A man stood in front of the window, resplendent in a perfectly tailored navy blue suit, his slightly thinning hair neatly combed back in a way that was regal without hiding the evidence of age.

An old timer. Grace hadn’t realized that he was one of the few remaining people who had already been old when humanity stopped aging. Most people’s ages were impossible to guess past twenty-five, but for Mr. Stanton, his age was written all over his lined face.

Of course, Matthew Stanton Sr. had been an old timer. She remembered his bulging, lined eyes staring out at her from the news report of his death. It only made sense that his oldest son and heir was also an old timer, his face frozen in time at a slightly younger age than his father.

“Do you like the view?” Mr. Stanton asked by way of a greeting. He did not turn around.

“It’s honest,” Grace said. “I appreciate honesty.”

“I thought you would. That’s why I asked for you.” He turned then to reveal a distinguished, charming face. His blue eyes sparkled and his mouth fixed into a small smile. He strode toward her with long, confident steps and offered his hand. “I’m Matt Stanton.”

Grace took the hand. “Grace Harper. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Stanton.”

“Matt, please. My father was Mr. Stanton for over five hundred years. People only started calling me by that name a month ago.”

“Matt,” Grace said, though the name didn’t fit the image he put forth.

“Please, have a seat,” Matt said, motioning to a chair in front of his desk. He moved to a bar set into the wall and asked, “Something to drink?”

“Water, if you have it,” Grace said. She would not imbibe anything that might dull her reflexes.

“Smart choice,” Matt said, and surprised her by pouring himself a glass of water. He handed her one of the glasses and took a sip of his own, all the while remaining standing. It made Grace want to stand herself, but she had already accepted the seat and could not undo that now.

“Why did you call me here?” Grace asked. She remembered the newspaper headlines again and found herself wondering if, just maybe, Matt had killed his father. Accidents, murder, or disease were the only way for a person to die when age didn’t plunge them towards that fate. Perhaps Matt had been sick of waiting around for his father to step aside and leave control of Medicorp to him.

“Straight to business, then?”

Grace nodded. “You have to admit, this meeting is unusual.” She did not specifically mention the blacklist, but she was sure Matt would know what she meant. “Does this have anything to do with your father’s death?”

“My father?” Matt cocked his head to the side. “That was a terrible accident in the midst of a robbery. Once you get as old as we are, you begin to tempt fate every day just by being alive. Old age might not get to us, but accidents are inevitable. Besides, the police have already handled the investigation.”

“They found the killer?” Grace asked, confused. She would have heard. Besides, since the robber had successfully stolen a holosuit, it seemed unlikely that anyone would find him.

“Not yet, but our city has a fine police force, and I’m sure they’ll do their job admirably.”

Grace decided not to argue with the idea that the Kansas City police force was either “fine” or “admirable.” They would enthusiastically serve the rich, perhaps, but a madman could go on a shooting spree in the park, and they’d just call in the recyclers.

“Then why–?” Grace began.

“How old are you, Ms. Harper?”

“I’m sure you know,” Grace said. She suspected that this man knew quite a lot about her.

“Yes, but I’m trying to make you feel more comfortable.”

“I’m one hundred and thirty.”

“Still quite young, then,” Matt said. “The odds are still on your side. Although you chose a dangerous line of work.”

“Is there a safe line of work? This is what I’m good at.”

“Rumor has it that you’re good at finding people,” Matt said.

Grace didn’t hesitate. “The best. I’ve had a fifty percent success rate across my career.”

“Fifty percent?” Matt echoed, his voice hollow. “That doesn’t sound very certain.”

Grace shrugged. “Who said life was certain? But most in the business don’t find more than one in ten.” Grace hesitated, but decided to go for broke. “I don’t always get work looking for people with ID chips, either. My clients aren’t people who deal with The Establishment, but I guess you know that.”

“Of course.”

“So then I must assume that the person you’re looking for is either someone without an ID chip or someone The Establishment wouldn’t want you to find.” Grace paused and tried not to think about the implications of that. “Probably both.”

A small smile played at the corner of Matt’s mouth, but he did not answer in words. He walked to his desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out an old-fashioned digital diary, the kind people used to buy when they had more money and resources than they knew what to do with. Grace had only seen them in movies. It looked a little like a notebook from the outside, but opening the cover revealed a microphone and speakers. “I ran across this diary a few weeks ago, mixed in with some old records the company was throwing out. It’s fascinating.”

“Oh?” Grace raised an eyebrow.

Matt stood in front of the desk, blocking her view of the diary. “How do you suppose we got like this?”

“Like what, exactly?” Grace asked, though she suspected she knew.

“Immortal.”

“We’re not precisely immortal. Your father died.”

“You like things precise, then,” Matt said with a satisfied nod. “I like that. How do you suppose we stopped aging, then?”

Rather than answer, she looked out the window at the sea of people in the park. She didn’t like these leading questions, especially since Matt wouldn’t be asking them unless he had some idea that she thought the human race should go back to aging the way they once had. Sure, she would have died a long time ago in that world, but really…She tore her eyes away from the window and looked at Matt.

If the wrong people found out how she felt–and Matt, a member of The Establishment, was definitely one of those wrong people–they would kill her. Not that there was anything she could do to change the state of the world, but people who held a certain lofty position had no problems protecting that position from any perceived threat.

She had to choose her words carefully. “You spout sacrilege. In four hundred years, if people had wanted to learn the answer to that question, don’t you think we would have? Your company would have been at the head of such an endeavor.”

“You are correct, of course.” Matt’s smile faltered slightly. “I suppose I should be more direct with someone like you. I’m used to dealing with scientists, you see. Their minds are often too full of other passions to leave much room for common sense. I happen to know that you’re secretly pro-death.”

“I am not.” It was the truth. The Establishment could give whatever evil words they wanted to the movement, but she wasn’t in favor of death so much as natural life.

“It’s quite all right,” Matt said. “This room is entirely secure. Besides, I, too, am pro-death.”

Grace froze. Either he was lying and trying to trap her or he had an ace in the hole, some way of being sure beyond any doubt that she was, in fact, in favor of natural life. But why would he bother trying to trap her? It wasn’t like she was an active member of the deservedly named pro-death movement. That group spent its time killing at random, bombing transit systems and large groups of people in order to “deliver its message.”

“You’re pro-death?” Grace asked, not sure she believed it.

“Natural life would be more accurate, of course,” Matt said. “I’m hardly in favor of terrorism. Perhaps it would help if I invited someone else to our little meeting. I can see that you’re uncomfortable, and I can’t blame you one bit.” He pushed a button on his desk and said, “Lucas, have Sam come in.”

Grace knew a Sam, or had a long time ago. He had been her lover for almost fifty years, during her formal schooling and after as she struggled to beat out throngs of people all vying for the same jobs. He had taught chemistry in school, a subject that had interested Grace, though not nearly enough to study it fully. In the end, she had gotten a degree in forensic science and criminology, which had led to a brief and infamous stay on the Kansas City police force.

He also knew that she was in favor of natural life. She had confided it to him during a night of true intimacy–the kind that doesn’t necessarily lead to sex.

Grace held her breath as he walked in. His face could have been chiseled from her memories. Even his sandy blonde hair was styled in the same manner. His soft green eyes gleamed with welcome, reflecting the perfect smile on his full, pouting lips. How well she remembered that smile. It had drawn her to him all those years ago. Others had questioned her taste, pointing out his unruly hair and his over-large feet, but she only had eyes for his smile.

“Nice to see you again, Grace,” Sam said as he entered the room. He nodded at Matt and took a seat next to Grace in front of the desk.

“Sam was kind enough to come work for me a few weeks ago,” Matt said. “When I told him what I needed, he said he knew just the person, and so here we are.”

“Here I am,” Grace echoed. “But of course, you had me checked out first.”

“Of course.”

“Then why–?”

Matt raised a hand to stop her question. He opened the diary and spoke into it. “Play entry one.”

A deep, tired male voice began speaking as if he were dictating a letter.

My Dearest Margaret, it’s January 3, 2050,

I won’t be able to see you as much as I used to. I begin my new job at Medicorp today. Now don’t judge me. I know I said I wouldn’t work for that evil corporation that lives to make a profit off of people’s pain but I’m afraid even I have my price. You. You see, I’m working on a cure for Alzheimer’s. Well, not really. They want me to work on a preventative, but that doesn’t do you any good now, does it? I’m going to fix this, Margaret. I swear to you that somehow I’ll make you right.

Ethan and Kevin promised they’d come by to see you more often since I won’t be home as much. Kevin’s such a sweet boy. I’m not sure what Ethan’s ulterior motive is, but at least he’ll be there for you. Who knows? Maybe he’s finally learned that there are things more important than money. I won’t hold my breath, but maybe.

I have to head off to my first day on the job now. I’ll carry you with me in my heart.

I love you,

Jordan

She could tell from his voice that Jordan, whoever he was, was old when he had recorded the message. She could not imagine what this recording had to do with her, but there was something about it that got to her–the raw pain in Jordan’s voice. The man seemed near tears over the fate of his wife. Grace did not look at Sam as she wondered at the capacity of a man to love a woman so much.

“What am I listening for, exactly?” Grace asked. “He was an employee here, I see. I’ve never heard of the illness he was working on.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to have heard of it,” Matt said. “It was one of many old age diseases that virtually disappeared in the latter half of the twenty-first century.”

“All right,” Grace began, still not sure what this was about, “So he was working on a cure for his wife four centuries ago. What’s that got to do with now?”

“Everything,” Matt said. “Haven’t you been paying attention? He found his cure. Alzheimer’s was virtually eliminated at the end of the twenty-first century.”

“Yeah, because the human race stopped…” Grace’s eyes widened. “You don’t think he’s the guy who caused all this, do you?”

“I think you’ll agree, once you’ve listened to the rest of this diary.” Matt tapped one thick finger on the top of the diary.

For once, Grace couldn’t think of anything to say. She just stared at the diary, a small rectangle that purportedly held the key to four centuries of human history. And Matt was offering to let her listen to the rest of it, to hear it for herself. If. If what? That was the key.

Grace risked a glance at Sam. He was staring at her, but she couldn’t read anything in his face. She turned back to Matt. “What do you want, exactly?”

“Find Jordan.”

“Find Jordan?” The words echoed dully around the room. It was impossible and Matt had to know that. Jordan probably wasn’t alive. Old timers were relatively rare and usually somewhat wealthy. Old age wasn’t the only thing that could kill someone, and four hundred years was a lot of time for everything else to catch up with a person. Besides, Jordan had already been an antique, judging from the sound of his voice.

Matt cleared his throat. “This won’t be an easy job. I have very few leads. Records indicate that Jordan left the company’s employ shortly after the last entry he made four hundred years ago. His last known address is four hundred years old.”

“If this is all you’ve got then I can just about guarantee he isn’t alive,” Grace said. “How old was he when he made that entry?”

“Seventy-six.”

“So how did he survive, do you think? Your father was one of a very few antiques who managed it for so long.”

Matt’s face fell into a deep frown, and Grace corrected herself for her rudeness. “I’m sorry. I mean very few people who were older than sixty or so managed to survive. The aging they’d already gone through was enough to get most of them within a century.”

“We do have a more recent record,” Matt said. “I know he was alive two months ago.”

Matt sub-vocalized something, and an instant later, a holoset in the corner of the room began showing them images from a surveillance camera in the lobby just outside the office. The camera clearly showed a very old man, escorted by an ageless security guard, striding with purpose across the lobby towards the office door. The secretary–not Lucas–didn’t even blink an eye so Jordan must have been welcomed. He wasn’t distinctive in any way except, of course, that he was old. He did seem to have a remarkable amount of energy for a man who had been in his late seventies when The Change began.

“So what did he do, just disappear for four hundred years and suddenly show up two months ago?” Grace asked. “What happened four hundred years ago to make him disappear?”

Matt cleared his throat. “He was on the run from the law.”

“Oh?” Grace raised an eyebrow.

“He allegedly killed a few coworkers. He ran before they could even question him about it and was never heard from again.”

Grace stared at the diary, a part of her more eager than ever to find out what was on the rest of it. “But he just walked back in here two months ago as if that never happened. What was he doing here? Why would your father see him? Did your father know where he was?”

Matt shrugged. “I wish I could help you.”

“Did he do it?” Grace asked. “Kill his coworkers, I mean?”

Again, Matt shrugged. “Who can know for sure? But if you get a chance to listen to the rest of that diary, you may form an opinion for yourself.”

“This just doesn’t add up,” Grace said, mostly to herself. She glanced down at the diary. “How many entries are there?”

“Just a couple of month’s worth,” Matt replied. “I know there’s a lot of mystery here, but I also know that there’s a good chance Jordan is still alive. He was two months ago.”

“Yes, and he apparently had dealings with your father,” Grace said, more to herself than to him. “Your father doesn’t have any other records? Maybe an address or vidphone channel?”

“If it were that easy, would I have called you?” Matt asked. “The only lead I really have is that diary. In it, he mentions a favorite grandson, Alexander Lacklin, who is still alive. You may want to try to track him down.”

With a few words, Grace recorded the name in her portable and then used the break in conversation to try to sort through things in her mind.

The potential mysteries to uncover here had her curiosity on overdrive, but she knew this would be risky. If anyone caught wind of what she was after… She shuddered. Death would only come after the type of interrogation she didn’t want to think about.

It was crazy. She couldn’t do it. She opened her mouth to say so, but the wrong words escaped. “If I take the job, what’s on the rest of the diary?”

Matt took a sip of water. “You’ll have to listen to it to find out.”

And I’ll have to take the job to listen to it, she finished for him. She glanced over at Sam again, who had remained the silent observer throughout. He flashed her another one of those winning smiles, the kind that made small dimples appear on his cheeks.

Grace shook her head slowly. “I don’t want to get on The Establishment’s radar again.” She glanced at Matt. “I’m sure you know that.”

“I know that The Establishment has better things to do than watch what you’re doing.”

Grace felt her cheeks burn a little.

“They have no idea that you’re here,” Matt said. “They have no idea who Jordan is or why he’s important. So there’s no reason for them to get involved, is there?”

Somehow, Matt’s assurances didn’t make her feel any better.

“Come on, Grace, it’s an adventure,” Sam said through his dimpled smile. “Do you remember back in school when I tried to convince you to take up chemistry?”

“Yeah,” Grace muttered, not quite looking at him.

“You told me there was no romance, no excitement. I believe your exact words were, ‘Who would want to live forever?’ Do you remember saying that?”

“So you think finding some antiqued killer is an adventure?” Grace asked. But she knew what the adventure was–it was in the potential knowledge. She had never been active in natural life (and certainly not in pro-death) but only because there was nothing she could do. But this was her chance to do something, or at least to learn something.

“We hope he’s alive and locatable,” Matt said. “Ultimately, of course, we’re looking for a cure.”

Grace looked around the room, half expecting people to melt out of the walls.

“You’ll be well compensated whether you find him alive or dead,” Matt continued. “But if you find him alive and bring him back here, you’ll get double.”

Matt slid a piece of paper over to Grace. She picked it up, scanned it, and then read it more closely. She tried not to show any emotion, though she was certain she had given something away with her initial reaction.

“Double if I get him alive?” Grace said, trying to sound casual about the exorbitant sum. It was even more than she had imagined when Matt had first contacted her that morning. It was enough to make her suspect he had no intention of letting her refuse the offer. One way or another.

“I want to make sure you focus on this case,” Matt said. “There should be no need to have other clients for a while.”

“I need double,” Grace said, pushing the paper back and trying to sound nonchalant. It was an insane amount of money, of course, more than she would make in twenty good years, but she needed to test her theory.

“That’s a lot of money.”

“Yes, it is.” Grace met his gaze levelly.

“All right, then, the offer is doubled.”

That was too fast, especially for such an outrageous sum of money. Matt either wanted to make absolutely certain she took the job or he had a reasonable suspicion that she would not survive it. Or both.

He would have her killed if she refused the offer, of course. She really should not have come. Her mother was right about the curiosity.

“I need half up front,” Grace said.

Matt raised an eyebrow. “How do I know you won’t just run off with it?”

“For the same reason you knew I’d take the job,” Grace said.

Matt nodded and opened a desk drawer. He pulled out a bank draft, filled it out, and handed it to Grace–half up front.

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