Candice M Hughes ’86 shares an excerpt of her debut techno-thriller Death on a Thin Horse (2012, Harcan Court Publishing). The author of a wide variety of creative and nonfiction works, she is also an accomplished poet and essayist. Candice is published in The Allegheny Review, The Lyon Review, and Pegasus (as the Mount Holyoke literary journal was previously titled) among others. She is a recipient of the Ida F. Snell Poetry Prize and a Pen Works Honorable Mention for Creative Nonfiction. Candice is also biotech consultant and professional medical writer. She holds a PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology and an MBA in general business management with a focus on strategy and innovation, and in this capacity is the author of the Small Business Rocket Fuel series. Her current passion is technology commercialization..
Raleigh, North Carolina, 2040
Meara Flannagan reached out to touch what was now hers. Under her fingertips, the thin golden strands of the Gates Heli, encircling each other like embracing arms, were ice-cold. Light-headed, the murmur of the crowd passed through the stage curtain and washed over her. Other scientists would do anything to own this statuette. Some would even kill. To get it, she had killed only herself. With every midnight DNA sequencing run and every 3:00 AM cell feeding, she’d clawed her way to becoming the bio-innovator “It” girl. She deserved her place on this stage. No one was going to take this away from her.
Every scientist on the planet dreamed of winning this award. She ran her fingertip over the letters of her name as the announcer in front of the curtain read them off, “Meara Flannagan, LifeCorp, 2040”. Meara caressed the length of the golden strands. She poured out her blood and soul to buy bits of knowledge that would cure people she couldn’t name. Her team had been there supporting her. But, she was the one who’d paid the price. She wouldn’t ask anyone else to make the sacrifices she had. Not to give up everything and everyone. To stand here alone.
he thud of a door closing in the small room backstage disrupted her reverie. Meara’s hand clamped tighter around the statuette. In the dim light, the pale face of her colleague, Vadim Ivanovitch glowed. He moved forward soundlessly, like a panther stalking. Meara stood her ground arms loose at her sides.
He was so close she could smell his sweat mixed with a sharp chemical odor.
“Congratulations, Meara! Winning an academic award should keep your lab funded by LifeCorp management for at least, oh, maybe, another year. If you don’t piss anyone off or screw up. Of course, my lab will still rank number one for revenue producing products.”
Meara’s stomach clenched. He was just baiting her. Trying to throw her off her game. She focused on the muffled words of the Gates Executive Director as he reviewed the history of the award.
Yet she kept her eyes on Ivanovitch. Never turn away from an enemy. His eyes shone in the dim light, “It’s the money that counts in life.”
Meara kept her eyes fixed on his. She sensed his muscles tensing. She returned his gaze, feeling uncomfortably like they were predators passing too closely in the dark. She let out her breath and answered, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I don’t think anyone is worried about my ability to produce revenue, Ivanovitch, especially not with my new LC2498 program. That drug will be even better than the one I’m winning the award for tonight. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back here again next year. Unless you have a sudden spurt of innovation.”
Ivanovitch’s eyes blinked for a fraction of second. “I’m looking forward to learning more about your LC2498 research at our department budget meeting tomorrow. I’m sure it will be—fascinating.”
The clapping died away on the other side of the curtain.
“If you don’t mind, I think that’s my cue.”
Ivanovitch’s lip twitched. “Of course, your audience awaits. I’ll see you at the lab. Congratulations.”
He creased at the waist, bowing slightly then retreated into the darkness.
Meara waited for the closing thump of the door before squaring her shoulders, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes and walking through the curtains into the sudden glare of the stage lights.
The glossy black granite block the helices were mounted on had a pleasing heft in her palm as she lifted it up into the spotlights beams centered on the podium. Meara squinted at the audience, searching for her father’s Kelly green bowtie somewhere front row where the guests of honor sat. At least he and her mother were here, somewhere, rooting for her as they always did. But, she’d never find them in the charcoal grey lump of humanity congealed by the flood lights into blandness punctuated by flashes of glitter.
Meara laid her note cards on the podium and cleared her throat. The murmur of the audience stilled to an occasional cough or scrape of heels on the wooden floor. Meara smiled, pushing away the nervous flutter in her stomach.
“I’m honored to accept the Gates Genetic Therapy Heli Award on behalf of LifeCorp and my entire team. Each of my team members, Dara Stone, Ulrich Sturm, and Jing Jong, deserves special thanks for their dedication to discovering new therapies for healing.”
She glanced up at the camera and flashed a smile straight into the lens. “You don’t get many chances like this, she told herself. Make it good.” Her image, slim Brooks Brother’s black dress and all, was being broadcast globally to hundreds of Corp auditoriums. Her face would be on every Corp daily and school newsletter. Winning the competition was a PR wet dream.
It was anyone’s guess how many billion yuan LifeCorp would rake in as the Licensing Executives zapped their contracts through space trying to beat out the other Corps. They all wanted to be among the chosen few to hand the latest miracle drug to their employees who hungered for the best treatments available for their families. Meara glanced down at her notes. They expected a heroine tonight. She’d better become Superwoman fast, cape and all. She thought about the speech she’d rehearsed, and mentally chucked it.
“While we are proud of our achievement to date in developing a unique gene therapy cure for sickle cell anemia, I assure you, we are currently hard at work enhancing a new drug that can be used to treat even more diseases. We will keep working until there are no more diseases left to treat. No one will ever have to suffer or die from illness again.” Meara paused, drank in the thunderous applause and lifted the statue higher.
Without warning, the taut sculpted muscles in her arm twitched and softened. The statuette plummeted, hitting the podium with a thunk, smashing the hand that held her notes and crushing her recently manicured fingernails. For a split second, the white flashes of starched shirts and bling were erased. Grey retreated into black. Not now, Meara thought. Not here. She closed her eyes, gripping the podium against the suction, the outflow of light.
In the darkness, a boy’s face emerged. He had brown hair. His nostrils stretched round and wide like a pig’s snout to accommodate snaking translucent tubing. Frantically, Meara patted the podium top for something to jolt her back to the stage. She heard a murmur of voices like the pounding of the sea into the sand. She reached out to pull herself free. She could not fail here, today.
Grasping a cold glass, she brought it to her lips, tossed her head back and swallowed. The cool water splashed down her throat. She opened her eyes. The glare of the flood lights pierced her retinas, and the boy was gone.
Baltimore City, 2040
Senator Cutter slid white doughy fingers through silver hair as dense as a wolf’s pelt and resumed pacing alongside his fuel-cell powered Rolls Royce limousine. He paused to caress the silky steel with the tip of a thick index finger. The black paint was the same color as the Bible he carried to church on Sunday as a boy. A black that was an absolute. A black that commanded.
God had told him then almost 50 years ago when he was scab-kneed, scampering about in torn blue jeans. He told him what he had to do. He had been lying in damp grass in a field in Kansas watching the greenish black clouds close in. The sword struck in a blue-white flash. The sword of God seared through his nerves then picked his scrawny body up and tossed it on the ground before he could blink. Just as his body hit the hard dirt, his heart shut off.
“Benjamin,” God had whispered. “Benjamin, the earth will be rent asunder. The people live in death, but you are my Prophet. You will lead them out.”
He remembered nothing else. Three farm hands found him among the green wheat stalks, breathed life into him and drove him to Trinity Hospital. The doctors called it a miracle. He wasn’t concerned about miracles then. He screamed for his mother.
“Hush boy. She’s gone”, the nurses told him. “Tornado took her, and she ain’t been seen since.”
Cutter didn’t stop screaming. He couldn’t hear them. The lightening had shattered his eardrums. He screamed until his throat bled. Years later, doctors gave him an audio implant that eliminated his partial deafness. They could do nothing with his feet. Every step he took, they tingled and burned with the fire of God. Benjamin knew God had done it to remind him of how He tested those He loved.
Now, God willed him to grow money like some people grow potatoes or corn. It started with a hedge fund, blossomed into private equity. At some point, he had accumulated enough to buy and sell small countries. That wasn’t challenging in the least. Could he convince people to give him their country? That was a challenge, one that could hold his interest. Cutter jerked his hand away from the sleek black finish and straightened his tie. He had to move on. No time to waste.
“Thomas!” Cutter rapped on the driver’s window with his knuckles. “Thomas! What’s taking John so long? He should have called in to confirm placement of the biological dispersal device by now. Has he called in?” The tinted window slid down soundlessly.
“Get him now. My scientists have been working on this virus for two years. We’re not making a mistake now.”
Thomas pushed a midnight blue cap higher on his shiny forehead with his thumb then tapped a palm-sized glowing screen to the right of the leather-bound steering wheel. Impatiently, Cutter pulled a pair of binoculars from his pocket and looked down the street. He searched the ground for a metal canister with a timer and an aerosol nano-dispersal system.
On the sidewalk across the street, an elderly woman who was bent nearly perpendicular, stopped to look in a bakery window at a six-tiered, lily-white cake. She shuffled a few steps forward, back, side-to-side. She crooked a thin arm around an invisible person and whirled. Her faded blue cotton skirt billowed around her swollen ankles. She was dancing, the old bitty was dancing right there on the sidewalk in broad daylight. She was dancing on a Sunday, when she should be sitting on a pew with her hands folded in her lap.
The cool breeze ruffled Cutter’s silver hair. He tapped the door with well-manicured nails. Wasting time was a sin. No one had the right to squander a second of God-given time. What was taking John and his men so long?
He trained his binoculars back on the old woman. She grabbed the handle of a metal cart and shuffled slowly down the sidewalk. Straight toward a metal canister.
Thomas looked up from the digital screen of the Comsys electronic communication system. Shading his eyes with a calloused hand, he said, “No answer, Sir.”
Cutter grasped the sleek chrome handle with an immense hand, jerked it open and folded his six foot six inch frame into the cream colored leather seat.
“You’ll have to go check on the aerosol dispersal device then. You know where the drop point is.”
“But Sir, I haven’t got a respirator, no anti-contamination suit…”
Cutter’s ice blue eyes stared into Thomas’. “Are you proposing that I check on the device?”
“No. No, Prophet…”
“Good, as long as that’s settled, you’d better get moving.”
Copyright by Candice M. Hughes. All rights revert to author.