Chen felt the hypo pressing against the small of his back. The ceramic syringe had beat the low-tech metal detectors at airport security and the high-tech scans at Oz, but there was no way he could survive a five-hour flight with the battery-sized cylinder digging into his sacroiliac. It had only been five minutes and he was already in agony.
“What?” he grunted. “No, not much.” Chen spared his seat neighbor a quick glance. A young thing, pretty, with perky black hair dyed purple in streaks and pink at the ends. Were those called highlights? He didn’t know for sure. Not the type of girl that usually spoke to him, and that made Chen immediately suspicious.
“Are you nervous? I know how you feel. My name’s Cassandra. I used to get nervous on airplanes until I met my Jesus. Would you like me to tell you about him?” Her words came out in a single, rapid phrase as if they were chromosome pairs in one long strand of DNA.
“No,” he said politely. “That’s okay. I’m not nervous. It’s just my back.” He grunted again. He was tempted to ask if her Jesus could help with that, but bit his tongue. She might be a faith healer.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said with obvious disappointment. The last thing Chen wanted was a long conversation with a stranger, but he felt compelled to explain. It wasn’t every day that a pretty, young girl bothered to speak to him.
“I’m just waiting for the seatbelt light to go off so I can use the can.”
She cringed a little and Chen realized his mistake. Perhaps his technique needed work. Another time then. He decided to cut his losses and seek refuge in the emergency pamphlet. Two exits to the front, the middle and aft…
The plane jostled a bit on takeoff, driving the hypo like a nail into his spine. He grunted again but at least his biggest worries had passed. No sirens. No announcement from the cockpit informing the passengers of a slight delay. No men in black Kevlar combing the aisles with a photo of his face in their hands. He was safely stowed in a brand new 747 screaming out of DC at 560 mph. He’d made it so far, unless…
Was that a look? Did the flight attendant just give him a look before she hung up the phone? Or was she looking at Cassandra, her funny hair? It was impossible to tell. They could be toying with him, waiting to see what he would do, to see his contacts. She could be a spy from Oz. Anybody could, even the pretty, young thing with the funny hair.
Chen heard a bell but didn’t move.
Cassandra coughed. “It’s okay now,” she said shyly.
“The seatbelt sign went out, so you can…”
“Oh. I didn’t…” He unclipped his seatbelt and stood up. By now there was a lineup. He had to find a better hiding place for the hypo than the lining of his underwear, but for now his pocket would do. A thought occurred to him, something he’d seen in a movie. He hoped it didn’t come to that.
Ten minutes later, he was back in his seat feeling more than a little relieved. Cassandra smiled at him. He’d been a fool to suspect her of anything but being a sweet, young innocent. It wasn’t her fault he’d gotten himself into this mess.
“My name’s Roger,” he said.
“Yes, I know. You already told me.”
She giggled. “Oh yeah. I forgot.”
“So what brings you out of D.C.?”
And that was enough to open the floodgates. For the next twenty minutes, she revealed her life story in agonizing detail. Twenty minutes was more than enough time. She was only 17 and hadn’t been anywhere or done much of anything. Armed only with her Gideon’s New Testament and an inner-city education, she headed off to Berkeley to win the heathen for Jesus.
Chen’s heart went out to her. They would eat her alive.
“Well, good luck with that,” he took a sip of his rum and Coke and gingerly placed it back on his foldout dining tray.
The seatbelt light came back on with a ding, and Chen felt the airplane lean to the left. The rum and Coke tilted 30 degrees in the plastic cup.
“You okay? You look nervous again. Is your…back hurting you?”
“No, it’s just…” Chen reached into his pocket and fondled the ceramic syringe.
“Attention, ladies and gentlemen. This is your pilot speaking.” The pilot garbled his words as if his cheeks were stuffed with marbles. “LAX has reported a heavy weather front up ahead so we’ll be detouring to Baltimore. We don’t anticipate a long delay and apologize for the inconvenience.”
“Baltimore! Why Baltimore?” a businessman complained loudly and there was a collective echo of complaint throughout the rest of the cabin. But Chen knew why Baltimore. Oz was in Baltimore. It couldn’t be a coincidence. He leaned over Cassandra to look out the window, nearly spilling her orange juice. Nothing but blue sky.
“I’m sure it’ll be all right. Jesus has a plan for everything.”
“This has nothing to do with him,” Chen mumbled under his breath, irritated but not yet panicked. He sat back in his seat, but left his seatbelt unfastened. Cassandra looked as if she’d been stung by a bee.
“Sorry. I guess maybe I do get a little jumpy on airplanes.” He smiled and Cassandra reciprocated immediately.
“And besides,” she said brightly, “nothing can go wrong now. They sent us an escort.”
Cassandra pointed back out the window at the F-25 hovering 50 yards over the wing. “It must be a really bad storm up ahead.”
Chen bolted to his feet, upsetting his rum and Coke and spilling Cassandra’s orange juice all over her white, frilly, ten-dollar blouse. There was no time to apologize. He was in the aisle in an instant, ignoring the startled cries around him.
“Sir! Sir! The seatbelt sign is on. You must return to your seat,” the flight attendant protested.
“I’m going to be sick.” He tried to push past her, but she blocked the aisle with the serving cart. He had to get to the washroom. He had to find someplace to hide the syringe. But where? The lining of his underwear had worked once, but it wouldn’t work again. And nor would more drastic measures. They had his picture by now. They would rip him apart to find it.
The plane lurched. They would do it. They would crash the whole plane–kill all 400 passengers. They would do anything to stop him.
“Please, sir, return to your seat, or I will be forced to call security!”
Chen scanned the crowded fuselage in desperation. Two exits to the front, the middle and aft… But that was suicide. He didn’t have a parachute, and at this altitude, the plane would depressurize. He’d kill them all. He was a lab rat trapped in a gilded cage. They would blow him up or drag him back to Baltimore. Either way, he was finished. Who was he kidding? He never had a chance to begin with.
Chen dropped his head in defeat. Cassandra looked at him sadly as he sat down.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the orange stain on her blouse.
“It’s okay. It’ll come out. It’s only orange juice. Are you okay?”
He shook his head.
“I don’t want to sound too pushy, but if you like, I could pray with you.” She put her hand on top of his. He pulled it away quickly.
“Prayer can’t help a dead man,” he whispered mostly to himself.
“Is that what’s bothering you? You know, I used to feel that way too. I used to lie in bed at night staring at the ceiling thinking, just thinking. What if I don’t wake up again? What if this is my last night on earth? You see, my dad died when I was sixteen. Died in his sleep.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Chen mumbled reflexively. He felt his stomach drop and his ears pop. They were descending rapidly. Maybe they wouldn’t blow them up after all. But they would still come for him. There was no doubt about that anymore.
“But then it just hit me,” Cassandra continued, “we all die, some of us sooner, some of us later, but we all die. That’s what makes us human.”
Chen laughed and Cassandra looked at him, confused. “You know, I once had a lab rat that lived 18 years. In fact, it’s still alive today, as far as I know.”
Cassandra’s face morphed from a look of gentle concern to puzzled anxiety.
“The average life expectancy of a rat is three years, at the most five. Eighteen is impossible. It’s the equivalent of a 500-year-old man.”
“But it’s a rat,” Cassandra said simply.
“I know, I know. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Chen felt the sudden jerk of the airplane tires skidding on the runway. He reached back into his pocket and fondled the ceramic syringe. It wouldn’t be long now.
“I don’t think I ever told you where I worked.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Baltimore Industrial Oxygen–Oz for short. Get it?”
She shook her head, and Chen shrugged.
“But really, what we do is science, pure science, uninhibited by legal or ethical restraints. I’ve seen wonders you couldn’t possibly imagine. We’ve cured diseases that even Jesus couldn’t touch–cancer, HIV, even death itself.”
Cassandra blanched at the blasphemy, but then her eyes turned thoughtful. “My father died of cancer. Could you have saved him?”
“But then, why—?”
He shook his head. “What drives medical discovery, Cassandra?”
“The betterment of mankind.”
Chen laughed. He was becoming more and more unstable, but he couldn’t help himself. This was the end.
“But we would have paid—”
“For what? Something that doesn’t exist?”
Cassandra lowered her head and a tear ran down her cheek in one long line. Chen felt a pang of guilt.
“I’m confusing you, and I don’t mean to. It’s just I don’t have much time. Have you ever heard of Meucci?”
“He invented the telephone.”
“But I thought–“
“Alexander Graham Bell? No. He just owned the patent. Twenty years ago, the multinational pharmaceutical giants began buying up every conceivable medicinal formula combination known to mankind. It was like buying the Sahara just to get one oasis. The price of medical research went through the roof. And that’s when Oz was built.”
“What I’m telling you is the truth, Cassandra. We do have a cure for cancer, and HIV and countless other diseases that cause untold suffering in our world, but we can’t make money on them without patents. And so we sit on the secret until we can buy the patents from the pharmaceutical multinationals that own them.”
Cassandra shook her head. “It’s not right.”
“No, it’s not. I thought maybe I could change all that if I could just get a sample out there. And then people would know and they’d have to use it. They’d have to.”
The plane had come to a stop and now the pilot was mumbling something about a short delay and staying in your seats. The flight attendant was at the front again, wrenching her giraffe-like neck around the cabin and talking on the phone. Her eyes rested on Chen and then she turned around quickly and cupped the receiver in her spare hand.
They were here.
“I’m truly sorry about your father,” Chen said.
“Thank you, but like I said. We all die.”
“You won’t.” Chen fondled the ceramic syringe in his pocket. Cassandra’s eyebrows knitted together in confusion, and then she smiled.
“I know, because I have Jesus.”
Chen nodded. The men in black were next to the flight attended, shoving an 8 by 10 photograph in her face. She pointed directly at Chen.
“You know, Cassandra, I think I’d like you to pray for me now, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Cassandra’s smile grew even wider, even sweeter. She put her hand back on top of Chen’s left hand and closed her eyes.
“Dear Jesus,” she began.
Chen slipped the hypo out of his pocket and injected the serum into the flashy part of Cassandra’s bare arm.
“Ouch,” she exclaimed, rubbing her forearm and looking at Chen with sudden shock. “What did you do that for?”
“Like you said, it wasn’t right what happened to your father.”
“Dr. Chen. Dr. Roger Chen.” The security guard towered over him, his Colt automatic barely visible under his Kevlar jacket. “Please come with me.”
Chen stood up.
“What’s happening? Where are you going?” Cassandra tried to stand, but her seatbelt was still attached. She fumbled with the clasp. Chen looked back over his shoulder.
“It’s okay, Cassandra. I work with these men. I’ll be fine,” he lied.
Cassandra stopped trying to undo her seatbelt, but her face still looked worried. “Will I ever see you again?”
“You never know. Remember what I said about the rat? Maybe someday.” A strong hand closed on Chen’s shoulder. He didn’t try to resist, holding up the empty syringe and grinning like a junior caught smoking in the boy’s room. The guard snapped the syringe out of his hand without a word. “Maybe in about 500 years,” Chen said sheepishly over his shoulder, and stepped out into the empty aisle.
Cassandra glanced up at the doctor, doing her best to hide the knot of terror in her gut. The doctor smiled warmly.
“I suppose you’d like to know what’s going on. I’m sorry about all this.” He pointed to the IV in her arm. “The needles and tests. I understand it can all be quite upsetting.”
Cassandra nodded. “But it’s okay. I always have Jesus.”
The doctor blinked.
“Yes, of course.” He rubbed his clean-shaven chin. He still hadn’t said why she was here. Cassandra didn’t want to rush him. He was a doctor, after all.
He’d introduced himself earlier as Dr. Johnson. Thirty-ish and dreamy. Cassandra’s regular doctor was an older woman with a big stomach and brown spots on her hands. She worked out of a little clinic in the mall, but that was miles from here.
Dr. Johnson sat down on the edge of the hospital bed.
“I brought you in here because of a blood test your family doctor sent to us. She was worried about some abnormalities. I have good news, Cassandra. The cancer is completely gone. We can detect no signs of it anywhere in your system.”
“Praise Jesus!” she gasped, her eyes welling with tears. “It’s a miracle!”
Dr. Johnson smiled, the type of smile that said, “I don’t believe in Jesus, but I’m happy for you anyways.” Cassandra had seen that smile a hundred times before.
“It certainly is a medical mystery.” He rubbed his chin again. “I wonder if I might ask you a few more questions.”
“Of course, doctor.” She wiped away the tears with her hand. Dr. Johnson handed her a tissue, and then glanced down at his clipboard.
“Have you been taking any other medications that are not in your medical file, perhaps something given to you by a friend, herbalist, naturopath or unlicensed medical practitioner?”
Cassandra shook her head. “No, doctor. I would never . . .”
Dr. Johnson nodded.
“Have you had intercourse lately?”
Cassandra shook her head.
“Are you menstruating?”
Cassandra felt her cheeks burning with embarrassment. She shook her head again.
“Have you been exposed to any electronic radiation, gamma rays, tachyon particles or temporal displacement fields?”
“I don’t think so?”
“Have you come in contact with any sharp objects that may have pierced the skin – needles, blades, even sharp rocks?”
Cassandra started to shake her head, and then her hand went to the red dot on her forearm. The doctor looked up from his clipboard.
“Is that a needle mark? How did you get it?”
“I don’t know, exactly. There was this strange guy on the plane.”
Dr. Johnson put down his clipboard.
“Thank you for answering all of my questions, Cassandra. You have been very helpful. I’ll need you to go with these officers for security reasons. Don’t worry. Your family will be notified.”
Cassandra turned to see two large men with brush cuts and black suits standing in the doorway. Before she could ask what was going on, she felt a sharp prick in her neck, like a bee sting, and then the lights went dim.
Chen sat in the ten-by-ten windowless room wondering how long he had before they put a bullet in his head. Or did they even do that here? With all the drugs at their disposal, they could fake his death a dozen ways—heart attack, skin disease, cancer, brain embolism. Nobody would ever know it was murder, and nobody would ask.
The steel door opened with a rush of air and Chen felt his heart go into his stomach. Dr. Carl Johnson appeared in the doorway flanked by the two security guards from the plane.
“I’d like a minute alone with our guest,” he said coolly. The guards gave him one long look, and then left.
At one time, Carl had been his best friend, not colleague, not associate, but friend. They had roomed together in college, swapped lies about girls and fast cars, and shared their dreams about the future. But somewhere along the way, their views on mankind had radically diverged. Chen saw technology as the answer to the world’s greatest problems, but Carl saw it differently. He saw it as the world’s doom.
He closed the door slowly and sat down.
“Can I get you anything? A coffee? Some cigarettes?”
“How about a lock pick?”
Roger smiled without humor.
“What were you thinking, Roger? Did you really believe you could steal from Oz and just get away with it?”
“It wasn’t about money, Carl. You should know that much about me.”
“Then what was it about? Revenge? Pride?”
Roger leaned back. He had clearly not expected this response. Chen leaned forward, pressing his point.
“You mean to tell me that you don’t feel it? You truly feel nothing for all those poor people out there who are dying from cancer and AIDS and old age when we have the cure to human suffering right here in our labs?”
Carl pulled a cigarette out of his vest pocket and lit it. The irony was that he would never die from lung cancer. He’d vaccinated himself against that disease years ago.
“That’s not compassion, Roger. That’s mass genocide. Without these human suffering, as you call it, the Earth’s population would mushroom out of control in less than a decade. The world needs the reaper, Roger. It always has.”
“And who decides who dies and who gets to live on smoking cigarettes forever? You?”
Carl let out a puff of smoke.
“And what about the church girl, Roger? You infecting her with GH9. Was that compassion? You’re lucky we picked her up when we did, before the sweepers were called in. It could have been another Code 10 like in Belize.”
Chen felt a weight in the pit of his stomach. The sweepers were a hit squad. They wiped out an entire village just south of Belize–men, women, children, nearly two hundred people–all because a company plane crashed in the forest nearby and they suspected someone from the village might have visited the wreckage. There was no proof. Just a suspicion. They covered up all evidence of the slaughter with a landslide. The landslide story ran on page three of the Globe and Mail, no mention of the sweepers, of course.
“What did you do with her?”
“Don’t worry. She’s safe and sound. I brought her back to Oz. I’m sure we can keep her busy doing something.” He took another puff of his cigarette, and leaned forward. “I want you to understand, Roger, this one is on you. That girl has a life sentence, now. She’ll never leave Oz. And neither will you.”
“Can I see her?
Carl kinked his head as if thinking it over, and then stubbed out the cigarette into the steel table.
“Of course. In fact, you’ll be seeing a lot of her from now on. Maybe you can even explain to the poor girl why she’s here, and whose fault it is. I’m sure she’ll forgive you— in a few years or so.”
She stared at the steel table for a long time, praying.
“Look, Cassandra. I’m really sorry. I was only trying to—”
“To help,” she said, and then looked up into Roger’s sad, guilt-ridden eyes. “I’m not mad at you. You’re like a missionary, sort of.”
Roger hesitated. “I don’t know about that.”
“You were just trying to spread this drug thing, this GH—”
“Yeah, to help people the same way missionaries spread the gospel. You know, to help people.”
Roger shrugged. “I guess you could say that, but I failed, and now you and I are stuck here. That’s my fault.”
“Yeah, but this thing is out there now. People will get better and stuff.”
Roger shook his head and sighed. “I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. GH9 is not airborne. It is transmitted through blood and saliva.”
“Yes, so unless you shared a needle with someone or engaged in intercourse . . .” He glanced at Cassandra hopefully. She shook her head.
“Do you take communion?” she asked oddly.
“No, I’m afraid I’m not religious. But Oz is a very large facility, almost like an underground city. We have a number of chapels with multi-faith services if that’s what—”
“I took communion in my church before I went to the hospital.”
Roger looked at her blankly.
“Do you know what communion is?”
“Well, yes. It’s when you drink the wine and eat the wafer, right? I was raised Catholic, but I—”
“We partake of the blood and body of Christ.”
All her religious talk was starting to make him uncomfortable. “Yeah, well, figuratively, I guess.”
“No, not figuratively.”
She paused, and now Chen felt very uncomfortable.
“In my church, we believe that we are the blood and body of Christ, so we share our blood with each other. Do you understand?”
He clearly did not, so she said it more bluntly. “We drink each other’s blood.”
What kind of church did this girl attend anyway? It sounded like some kind of crack-pot Charles Manson cult. This was usually the point in the conversation where Chen just shut the door. But then it dawned on him. If Cassandra shared her blood, GH9 would have spread through to the whole congregation. And that was three days ago. By now GH9 could be all over LA.
He stared at her for a long moment, wide-eyed with astonishment.
“It’s not as weird as it sounds,” Cassandra said shyly.
“It’s not weird at all,” Chen said, and then grinned. “It’s wonderful.”
Dr. Johnson sat in the security room monitoring Chen and the girl with funny hair on closed-circuit TV. He reached suddenly for his cell phone and punched in a single number.
“Oz. Security code delta foxtrot zero zero six,” he recited.
“Yes. There’s been a city-wide outbreak in LA. I’ll need Code 10 sweeper team authorization.”
Dr. Johnson closed the phone. Taking one last puff of his cigarette, he ground it out into the table and swore bitterly.