In 2025 America, it’s hardly news when a renowned octogenarian scientist dying of cancer disappears from a local hospice, but when Kansas City Star reporter Rich Azadian begins to dig, he discovers that other elderly scientists around the world have also vanished recentlyall terminally ill and receiving the same experimental treatment from a global health company. His investigation leads him to the reclusive Noam Heller, a brilliant researcher exploring new technologies to reverse-age cancer and other cells. Using revolutionary stem cell treatments and snippets of DNA from rare, immortal Arctic jellyfish, his breakthrough promises the genetic equivalent of the fountain of youth.
But when Heller is murdered and his lab destroyed, Rich and his girlfriend Antonia become targets themselves. With the local police and federal authorities failing to see the big picture, he realizes he must take matters into his own hands to survive and stop the killing. His only hope is to mobilize his network of brilliant misfits and infiltrate the vast and lethal raceamong cutthroat corporations, national intelligence services, rogue scientists, and a mysterious international organizationto control the new technologies and perhaps the secret of life itself.
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Hope springs eternal, but life, which it carries on its wings, slowly deflates like a leaky basketball.
Or maybe hospices are just depressing.
The hacienda-style Wornall Center for Palliative Care may look cozy from a high altitude drone or through Augmented Retinal Display lenses, but here at regular ground level every surface is designed to be quickly hosed down, scrubbed of the wreckage of human demise, of the evidence of each body's last desperate struggle to expel the humors it no longer accepts as its own. It's not a warehouse of broken dreams; it's the last gasp before sinking into the quicksand of life's cruel hoax.
I've been in the atrium for all of ten seconds but already have the visceral sense I'm breathing in death itself.
"Mr. Azadian?" I hear from behind. I turn toward the pleasant voice.
"Suzanne Ferguson," the approaching middle-aged woman says. Her medium-length red hair frames a round, inviting face.
"Thank you for seeing me," I say, extending my hand. "Do people disappear from this place often?"
My words come out sharper than I'd intended, stopping Suzanne Ferguson in her tracks.
"No," she says coldly, not lifting her hand to meet mine.
"I didn't mean to say ..."
"This has never happened before, Mr. Azadian. We take it very seriously."
At least somebody does, I think.
Two weeks ago a renowned octogenarian scientist on his deathbed vanishes from hospice care and the news only reaches me this morning? Even now, I probably wouldn't be here if Martina Hernandez, my editor, who doesn't seem to give a damn about my career advancement these days, hadn't grudgingly sent me. The tip about the disappearance was no big deal, and who else do we still have covering the science beat in our diminished newsroom?
But I'm here, and Professor Benjamin Hart did disappear, and almost-dead people don't vanish into thin air every day of the week. At least not in Kansas City.
"I presume you've notified the police?" I say gingerly.
Her look asks if I think she's an idiot.
"Did they come up with anything?" I continue.
"They asked a few questions, reached out to a few neighbors. They spent about an hour here, then said on their way out they'd get back to us if they learned anything."
"Have you heard from them since?"
She shakes her head. "I don't get the feeling this is much of a priority for them. Our guests at the hospice don't have much runway left."
The compassionate look on Suzanne Ferguson's face makes clear she values that little strip at the end of the airfield far more than does the Kansas City Police Department.
"I see," I say, imagining myself someday sputtering off the end of a remote runway into a gurgling sea. "Do you mind if I look around?"
"Please. That's why I was willing to see you, Mr. Azadian. We don't normally do much with the press, but this is very unsettling to all of us, especially the Hart family."
"How are they doing?"
"Not well, as you can imagine. Mrs. Hart has come by or called every day for the last two weeks. She's beside herself. Says she keeps calling the KC police, who assure her they're searching."
"But you don't think they are?" I reply, unsure if Suzanne Ferguson knows it was Mrs. Hart, Dr. Katherine Hart, who called our newsroom early this morning with the tip.
"If they were looking seriously I'd imagine we'd know something by now."
I pause to let her words settle. "Can you show me his room?"
She leads me down the sterile, pastel-green corridor. An eerie silence, punctuated by intermittent whispers and the quiet whir of Robotic Delivery Carts rolling through their rounds, blankets the hall. "Of course," she says, "we now have a new guest occupying the room."
The ancient man plugged into the respirator perches somewhere between sleep and death as we tiptoe in. The room is standard hospital design, with a bookshelf and a large painting of a sunset on the wall across from the bed. The sunrise has obviously long since passed.
I approach the window, softly unfasten the clasp, and lift. It opens about six inches before locking. "Any chance he could have opened the window more than this?" I whisper.
"Mr. Azadian, Benjamin Hart was at a very late stage of terminal cancer. He would have had a hard time just turning the clasp. Even if he did, he couldn't have opened the window any more than you just have."
"Can we talk outside?"
She follows me out.
"Could he still be here somewhere? Is there anywhere you might not have looked?" I ask.
"We've scoured every inch of the facility."
But if Benjamin Hart, University of Kansas professor emeritus of microbiology, is not inside the hospice, where else might he possibly be and how might he have gotten there? "Exactly when did you notice he was missing?"
"We know he went to bed after dinner on October 19. When the nurse went in to check on him the next morning he was gone. We searched the premises and couldn't find him."
"I presume you had a look at the surveillance feeds."
I can't quite read the pained look on Suzanne Ferguson's face. "We did, but ..."
I perk up. "But?"
"There was a glitch in the program. Apparently there was a break in service for two hours that night between 2 and 4 a.m."
My mind pings a faint alert. "And I take it there was no sign of Dr. Hart leaving his room before or after then?"
I pause a moment to think. "Do these service breaks happen often?"
"We had the same question. Our VP of operations called Everguard, the surveillance camera monitoring company. They told her there wasn't a scheduled upgrade that night but sometimes strange things can happen to the feeds. They said they'd look into it." It's clear from the look on her face they haven't heard back.
"These delivery carts going up and down the halls, don't they have sensors helping them get around? Wouldn't they be capturing images?" I ask.
"They do, but they're docked for recharging that early in the morning."
"And wouldn't Professor Hart have been wearing a biosensor on his wrist?"
"We found it in his bed."
Another ping. "Is that normal?"
"We usually take them off when our guests are washing up, but ... no, it's not really that normal."
My mind begins wrestling with the coincidences as I whisper the notes into the u.D — universal.Device — on my wrist. "How many exits does this facility have?"
Her eyes glance up as she counts in her head. "Eight."
"Can you show me?"
I note the position of nurses' stations as Suzanne Ferguson leads me around the building. It's at least conceivable someone could reach an exit without being seen. "Are the exit doors locked?"
"At night, from the outside. We never lock them on the inside because of fire regulations."
"Okay," I say, then whisper more observations into my u.D. "What more can you tell me about Professor Hart?"
"People come here at their twilight, Mr. Azadian. We rarely get a glimpse of what they were like in their prime. He seemed quiet and contemplative. Dignified. But there wasn't very much left."
"Did anything about him appear different before he disappeared?"
"Not that we were aware of, but we only knew him during the five weeks he was here."
Maybe the guy did just disappear, I think to myself, but I'm here, digging is my job, and — probably to a fault — I've never been able to leave questions unanswered. "Was he on any medications that might have changed? Did you keep any ongoing records of his condition?"
"This is a hospice. Most people go off most of their medications when they come here; some don't even wear biosensors. By the time people get here it's generally too late for technology. Our nurses file short notes on our guests at the end of each day, but they're by no means comprehensive."
"Can I see the notes about Professor Hart from before he disappeared?"
"I'm not supposed to and I'm not sure it will tell us anything." Suzanne Ferguson takes in a slow breath. "But this seems like a special circumstance." She pauses again before speaking. "I can't let you see any files themselves. ... Let's go to my office."
As we enter, she places her palm on her desk for biometric identification before dictating her commands. "Open file. Nurses' Log. Patient. Benjamin Hart. October and November 2025."
Her ashen face darts upward as the text flashes across her tabletop screen:
No items match your search.CHAPTER 2
In Jorge Luis Borges's magical short story "The Circular Ruins," a father dreams his son into being, then spends his life worrying the son will discover he's not real. Only later, when the father does not burn in a fire, does the father realize that he himself is the product of someone else's dream.
Wandering into the Kansas City Star newsroom, a Borgesian look of dreamy contemplation of life's ephemerality must be smeared across my face.
Martina Hernandez, as always, homes in on it like a laser. "Earth to Jorge, come in Jorge," she says, marching by and not looking in my direction.
Her formerly jet-black hair shifting toward gray, the lines and indentations etching across her face like Maori moko tattoos, Martina is as dressed for battle today as she was the first day she arrived at the Star thirty-three years ago as a junior assistant in circulation.
"Martina, I need to talk with you," I say, filing in behind her, caught somewhere between assertive and submissive.
Even after I broke the story of the US government's secret genetic enhancement program two years ago and was promoted to reporter at large, not to mention the success of my book Genesis Code: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, there's no question in anyone's mind about how the hierarchy is structured here. That is why Martina still ridicules me and my seemingly useless PhD in philosophy by calling me by Borges's first name instead of Rich, and why I'm still following her around the newsroom knowing full well she's not going to stop.
"Not now, Jorge," she says dismissively. "Halley, come in here," she orders over my shoulder.
I turn to see Sierra Halley in the middle of the newsroom. Sierra glances at Martina, then fleetingly toward me.
Tall and thin, with the all-American athleticism of a lacrosse player, her deliberate glide toward Martina's office brings to mind the lope of a gazelle. Just twenty-six, her no-apologies, post-post-feminist expectation of absolute equality on her own terms, along with her focused drive and determination, have forged an impressive wake through the newsroom in the eighteen months she's been at the Star.
Her spring-like Mayflower freshness stands in contrast to my Armenian American hint of dark-haired foreignness. My wiry, five-foot-eleven, forty-one-year-old body, the perpetual hint of afternoon scruff and pensive air of wonder on my face, and my slightly long black hair make me seem more like the philosophy professor I once aspired to be, or a barista, than an on-the-ball reporter.
Six weeks ago, Martina transferred Sierra from the business desk to the health-care beat — confirmation of an ascent that's beginning to feel preordained. Given the role that health care is playing in the US economy and in keeping the lights on at the Star, I'm not entirely surprised it's Sierra, not me, being summoned to Martina's office.
But it's more than personal. The revolution in the news business keeps happening, every turn a bit worse for the old-style media companies like us.
Since the News Protection Act — the law that provided federal subsidies to news organizations that accepted national security restrictions on what they published — has been rescinded, media companies have become freer of government influence but far more vulnerable financially. We can publish what we want, but we still need to figure out how to pay for it.
In the past couple of years, two ideas have guided our transformation to address this challenge. The first is to focus on the local market. Where the Star once had national aspirations and bureaus in Washington and New York, and even wrote about global issues like the developing world's fresh water crisis or the constantly unfolding chaos in the Middle East, our editors now eschew most anything beyond the greater Kansas City area. We once competed with the great national news organizations but now pit ourselves against community media, fighting for relevance in the sandbox of our little Paris of the Plains.
If that's not bad enough, the second idea is even worse.
With so many advertising revenue streams drying up over the years, all we have left to sell are our stories themselves. Of course, we don't call it that. It's not prostitution, just dinner and some flowers followed by sex. But how else can anyone explain why we are writing so many stories about the miraculous innovations of the health companies who just happen to be our largest advertisers? And is it really a surprise that all the positive stories about big health in news outlets across the country are pushing up those companies' stock valuations as they fight each other for market share, as their collective power grows, and as the Congress, awash with political contributions from those same companies, becomes ever less willing to regulate them?
But no one ever got to heaven (in which I don't believe) by ignoring the devil (in whom, for that matter, I also don't believe). Maybe compromising our integrity in this dying business is the price we need to pay for staying in the game. I'm not sure I agree, but that probably explains why most everyone seems agitated as I wade through this collective emotional fog toward Joseph Abraham's cubicle. He's waving his hands, moving words and images across his cubicle e-walls, and doesn't see me approach.
"Abraham," I say sharply, trying to startle him. Sometimes I can't help myself.
He doesn't flinch.
I wonder for a moment if he actually saw me approaching and is just getting tired of my shtick.
Joseph has begun to come out of his shell in the three years he's been my researcher at the Star, but he's still the quiet, serious young-old man he always was. Short and sturdy, with the dark skin and curly hair of Southern India, he exudes the calm mustiness of an ancient forest spirit. He looks at me with a mix of warmth and what I've started to interpret these past few months as caution. Joseph and I have been through a lot together, but I'm starting to get the impression that on some level he feels that continuing to be my researcher is holding him back from coming into his own as a reporter.
"I need you to look into something for me."
He nods hesitantly, awaiting additional information, but I read into the small gesture a sense that the power in our relationship is somehow changing now that he's been assigned some preliminary stories of his own. I rely on Joseph completely but don't think I'm being self-serving in my assessment that he's not quite ready for that next step. He has all the brains, resourcefulness, and then some, but he'd be well served by a generous helping of Sierra Halley-like assertiveness, by building the confidence to make his own case. The tortoise beats the hare in the children's story, but in the real world he'd be well-advised to get a move on it.
"See what you can learn about retired University of Kansas professor Benjamin Hart. He's the one who disappeared from the hospice. The surveillance cameras in the facility are monitored by a company called Everguard. The feeds stopped for two hours between 2 and 4 a.m. on the morning of October 20, just when he seems to have vanished. See if there's any way to figure out what happened. Okay?"
"Sure," he says quietly, looking down.
I pause a moment, unsure how to respond to Joseph's expression of even less enthusiasm than his limited range of natural expression would normally allow. "Are you sure?"
He looks at me wide-eyed without responding.
"Thank you, Joseph."
He offers a slightly conflicted nod, leading to a somewhat awkward pause.
"Okay then," I say hesitantly, pivoting back toward Martina's office.
Sierra is just coming out as I approach. I detect a hint of irony in her stare as she glides past.
I pause a moment, wondering if she's warning me about Martina or mocking me in some way, before turning toward Martina's office.
The door is still open. "Knock, knock."
Martina looks up, sighs, then shifts her gaze down toward the massive screen of her desk.
I wait for her to speak.
"What is it?" she finally says without looking up, as if speaking to an exasperating child.
It's funny with Martina. I'd have thought the success of the Genesis Code story would have sealed a bond between us. In a way it has. We both got pats on the back and promotions, she to deputy editor. But I sense deep down that Martina is still thoroughly annoyed that I was first offered an assistant editor role, which would have put me in a category of her perceived competitors in the company, that I turned it down because I still wanted to be a reporter and didn't want to deal with all the politics, and that, worst of all, I may be in my current subservient position in Martina's internal hierarchy by choice rather than necessity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eternal Sonata"
Copyright © 2016 Jamie Metzl.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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