Dining on the 102nd floor of One World Trade Center might have been excuse enough for Rachel Katrachian. Or it might have been the fact that the event afforded the opportunity to eat food prepared by world-famous chef Montrose, who up to this point had never come to the United States. Or it maybe it was the opportunity to rub shoulders with the elite of industry and government, with her being the only reporter present.
But the reality was that Rachel had accepted the cryptic invitation to attend this impromptu gathering of the hoi polloi because the invitation came from Hanson Greer, the richest man in the world. Greer never gave dinner parties, at least that she knew. He didn’t because he didn’t have any friends. You didn’t start from next to nothing and end up with a net worth that many small and a few medium sized countries would envy by making friends.
Rachel looked around her and the more she looked, the more questions came into her head. She had gasped when she first arrived and saw the once-in-a-lifetime view of the New York skyline—she swore she could see the curvature of the earth!—but now she was gasping at the people who sat at the table around her.
Directly across from her sat Mirian Hall, chairwoman of First Love, the largest humanitarian organization in the world. Right now the rotund, middle-aged woman was talking to the elderly man next to her, Robert L. Steenway, CEO of Kagame Industries, the new world leader in electronics. Across from those two and next to Rachel sat Dr. Martin Freedbaum, the Surgeon General of the United States, and on the other side of him was Howard K. Pauls, the director of the FBI. On and on she went down the table, a veritable Who’s Who of movers and shakers. Rachel counted 12 of them—was there any significance in the number?—minus the empty chair at the front where Hanson Greer should be sitting.
The person sitting directly across from Greer’s empty chair was the greatest mystery for Rachel. In her 12 years at The New York Times, she had never heard one kind word passed between Greer and Baldwin Black, the middle-aged CEO and founder of Agate Lion, Inc., Greer’s biggest competitor. In fact, the two of them had almost come to blows six years ago following an antitrust suit filed by Black, one that had finally been settled out of court.
Her iPhone buzzed a text. Despite her surroundings, she chanced a glance at it: Washington Post claims Watson is dead. She flinched, knowing the text from her city editor was there to rub in the fact that she wasn’t ready to run her story on the disappearance of Hamilton Watson, the environmentalist who had disappeared six months ago. He had been scheduled to speak on national TV, supposedly to make some major announcement, and then had disappeared. Everyone suspected foul play, and the Post was ready to shout murder, but Rachel wasn’t convinced.
“I’m sorry, madam,” a voice said over her shoulder. She turned and a white-gloved hand reached down and took her iPhone. “Mr. Greer’s instructions were quite explicit. No electronic devices of any kind.”
That drew a look from more than one of the people around her, and Rachel nodded meekly and handed him her iPhone. She looked up as she heard applause and a few laugh and say, At last. A handsome young man who looked vaguely familiar was wheeling Hanson Greer’s wheelchair in through large double doors in the rear of the room. Greer took his place at the center of the table, where Rachel noticed the empty chair had been removed.
“I’m so sorry I am late,” Rachel heard Greer say in his shaky voice. Rachel knew that Greer was 79 years old, but to her Greer looked like he had aged a great deal since the antitrust trial six years before. She glanced back at Black, who applauded modestly with the rest of those at the table, but she noticed that he wasn’t smiling.
“I hope you have been enjoying the meal here,” Greer continued. “Isn’t Montrose wonderful? I wish I could have enjoyed the meal, but unfortunately I am on a very strict diet, as you can see.” He gestured to a bag of liquid that was mounted on a pole next to him, and smiled faintly. Then he turned to the young man standing behind his wheelchair.
“My apologies, I do intend to introduce this young man here, but before I do, I have one more thing I want to share with you.” He snapped fingers and waiters appeared from behind each chair, each removing the empty dinner plates and replacing them with a tall champagne glass, filled with a golden fluid. Rachel watched as the Surgeon General lifted the glass and sloshed the fluid around in the glass. It had a thicker viscosity than wine or champagne, and it sparkled with an unnatural brilliance, flecks of lights swirling through the glass.
“Now that everyone is taken care of, and before you enjoy my treat, I want to introduce you to my young guest. Ladies, gentlemen, this is Dr. Hamilton Watson.”
The room went silent, as if everyone was unsure what they were hearing. As soon as Greer said it, Rachel realized why the young man looked so familiar. She had been doing research for the past two weeks on Watson, and had seen many photos of him in college and during his early career. The hair was shorter, he didn’t wear glasses, but this, indeed, was Watson.
The FBI director laughed finally. “Come on now. Is this some sort of joke?”
Watson smiled and shrugged. “No joke, Mr. Pauls. I know that I don’t look like the 55-year-old man you are used to seeing, but it is indeed me, Hamilton Watson.”
“Look,” Greer said, motioning for a waiter to bring a electronic tablet. “This tablet is equipped with software that can take Watson’s fingerprint, and log you into the FBI database. Feel free to check with it. Do whatever you need to.”
As Pauls used the tablet to register Watson’s fingerprint and send it to the database, Greer continued speaking to the rest of the group.
“I invited you tonight because I need your help. Our research in nanotechnology has had a significant breakthrough, a milestone that can’t be held in the hands of just one man. I need you to help me to decide what to do with it.”
“What kind of breakthrough?” the Surgeon General asked.
“In front of each of you is water from the Fountain of Youth,” Greer said. “The Elixer of Life. I call it…the Chalice.”
“What are we talking about?” Black said on the other end of the table.
“What we are talking about is a way to extend life exponentially,” said Watson. “I know in the past that I have been publically opposed to nanotechnology and the specter of letting microscopic machines into our bodies, but look at me.”
He smiled broadly and opened up his suitcoat to show his flat stomach and broad chest. “I have never felt better in my life.”
Pauls nodded, still looking at the tablet. “He checks out. Don’t know how, but this is Watson.”
Greer spoke up. “We have been working on nanotechnology for more than 10 years, as you know, Baldwin,” he said, nodding to Baldwin Black. “We had a significant breakthrough a year ago, and were ready to do beta testing six months ago. We approached Dr. Watson because he has been one of our leading critics. How better to prove the critics wrong than to allow our leading critic to benefit.”
Rachel stared at the young Hamilton Watson. “You said extend life exponentially. How long is that?”
“We really don’t know,” said Watson. “All the projections show at least quadrupling the average life span, to about 300 years.”
“Three hundred….” Said the Surgeon General.
“But that’s the first step,” Greer said. “Who knows that we will be able to do in ten, fifty or a hundred years. Think of it: long life, and living it at a peak of health.”
The group stared at each other, still confused. Finally Rachel spoke up again.
“Pardon me, Mr. Greer, but if this technology is everything you say it is, then why haven’t you taken advantage of it? Why are you still in a wheelchair?”
Greer smiled. “Ah, the cynic speaks. Well, that’s fine. I have my own personal reasons behind the decision not to continue on in this life. I have done a great deal and am ready to explore the great beyond. What matters to me now is what my legacy will be.”
“I’d like to see the data on this,” Black said. “That is, if you are serious about sharing this.”
“Serious, yes. And you’ll see the data. I have made enough money in my lifetime to take care of all of you for a long time to come. In fact, that’s part of the deal.”
“Deal? What deal?”
“It’s a one-time only deal,” said Watson. “The technology calls for three potions. One today,” he gestured at the golden glass in front of each of them. “One a week from now, and the third and final six months from now.”
“It took quite a bit of manpower to manufacture the nanites that you see in front of you,” Greer said. “We have enough for each of you to complete the treatment. And our goal is to produce much more of this in days to come. But you can imagine what would happen if word of this got out prematurely.
“Therefore we have our own sort of non-disclosure agreement,” he continued. “If you choose to join us, you will remove yourself from public life. You will come to work for us. And in some cases, we will ask you to separate yourselves from friends and family. You can imagine what they will think if suddenly you start getting healthier and looking younger.
“Think of it. The end to disease, sickness, plague, even death,” said Greer. “But we need to be patient.”
Rachel nodded, thinking of what a story it would make for The Times, and at the same time how many millions would kill to have a chance at virtual immortality. And then she looked at Greer, who was trying to sell a panacea that he himself refused to take. She frowned, thinking.
“Has anyone considered what the long-term implications are for the planet?” Rachel blurted out, suddenly. “I mean in all of this wonderful news, this chance for each of us to live 300 years, what will it do to the world? The population couldn’t handle it.”
Watson nodded, suddenly serious. “That’s the main reason why Mr. Greer brought me into the project. I have run computer projections and they don’t look good. If everyone alive today were to add the nanites, we would have a total environmental collapse in three generations. We’re talking plague, starvation, rioting; the whole ball of wax.”
Greer looked at the young man, then at the rest of them.
“As much as I respect and admire the work you all do at present, I have called you here tonight because I have a bigger task for you. I need you to help me decide what to do.”
Once again, the 13 of them sat around the table, with Hamilton Watson standing by, waiting for an answer. Baldwin Black spoke up finally.
“Well it appears that our choices are: (a) we keep the Chalice to ourselves, or at least to a select few. In that case, word will eventually get out and we will all be massacred. (B), we give everyone the Chalice, and somehow keep them from having babies—maybe mandatory birth control. Or (c), we find a way to reduce the number of people in the world without destroying the earth in the process, perhaps some sort of selective plague.”
Everyone turned at stared at Black as his last few words escaped his lips. Greer spoke.
“Thank you, Baldwin,” Greer said. “I knew I could count on you to be pragmatic at a time like this.”
“Or D,” Rachel blurted out. “What about D? We don’t use the technology at all.”
The others stared at her, and Greer cleared his throat. “That is always an option, Miss Katrachian.” He turned to everyone else, and struggled to stand, finally rising with the help of Watson. He stood before them with his arms outstretched, as if giving a blessing to the 12 of them.
“This is the decision before us. I ask that you join us on this adventure, not because I want to reward you with something special, but because I need your wisdom to make the right choices. My days are numbered, but yours are just starting. I ask that you signal you willingness to accept the challenge by drinking the Chalice before you.”
As Rachel watched, each of them picked up the cup before them and drank, one by one, starting with Baldwin Black. Finally, only Rachel sat with a full cup before her. She looked at the others, one by one.
“Frankly, I am surprised that the rest of you were able to make the decision so easily,” she said.
“What’s to decide?” Watson said. “We are talking about immortal life here.”
“Not immortal life,” Greer said. “Don’t call it that.”
“When it get done with it, dear Hanson, it will be immortal life,” Baldwin Black said.
Wheels turned in Rachel’s head as she looked around the room and then at the cup before her. Finally she made her decision.
“Look,” she said. “Drinking this cup has made all of you lose your objectivity. Don’t you have need for someone to remain objective on your team? I’m willing to join, but only on my terms.”
Greer’s eyebrows raised. “You are passing up the gift I have for you, and yet taking on the responsibility? Miss Katrachian, I have underestimated you.”
Rachel nodded, mutely, looking around the table at the people who had given up everything to gain a chance at immortal life. And she wondered if she was the smartest person in the room.