Authors: Gemma Malley
Tags: #General Fiction
For my sisters, Maddy and Abigail
LONDON, 16 MARCH 2025
Albert Fern stared down at his hands, which were trembling. He could feel small beads of sweat collecting in the crevices of his forehead, lines etched over the years from concentration which provided him with a face that looked older than his seventy years. Seventy years, he found himself thinking. It had gone by so quickly, much of it spent in this very lab, the place he loved the best, searching for answers, for breakthroughs, for . . .
He wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his lab coat. There was no doubt about it – he’d done the test twenty times and still the same result was forcing itself on him. He had the cure, the cure for cancer, the cure that would save his daughter’s life, and yet with it came something else. Something incredible. Something terrifying.
Carefully, the professor put down the syringe he’d been holding in his hands, removed his gloves and pulled off his protective goggles. He took a few steps backwards, as though attempting to escape from his creation while at the same time feeling unable to look anywhere else. The Holy Grail. That’s what it was. He wiped his hands on his lab coat; immediately more sweat appeared on them.
The door behind him opened suddenly, and he started, jumping rather more violently than was perhaps to be expected. Nervously, he turned round, his forehead furrowing.
His assistant looked at him, his eyebrows raised in a way that made Albert uncomfortable. ‘So, did you do it? Did it work again?’
Albert said nothing, but his eyes spoke for him. The corners of his assistant’s mouth crept upwards. ‘It did, didn’t it? You’ve done it. Jesus, Albert, do you realise what we’ve got here?’
Albert noticed the ‘we’ and let it go. ‘Perhaps. But perhaps . . .’ His voice trailed off. He wasn’t ready to articulate the truth, wasn’t yet ready to face the realisation that only a few metres away lay the answer to the question that mankind had been asking since it developed the power of speech. He was in shock, in awe – the discovery made him hot yet at the same time froze his blood.
‘Albert?’ His assistant walked slowly towards him. The man who’d been at his side for the past few years, the man Albert still didn’t trust. ‘Albert,’ he was saying uncertainly, ‘what’s wrong? Did something go wrong?’
Albert shook his head, then nodded, then shook his head again. ‘Nothing went wrong,’ he whispered.
The young man’s face lit up. ‘Albert, you know what this means, don’t you? We have the world in our hands. We’ve achieved what no one else has.’
Again, the ‘we’. Albert nodded uneasily. ‘Richard,’ he said carefully, ‘invention is not always good. Sometimes our inventions are too powerful for us to control. Splitting the atom, for instance. Ernest Rutherford couldn’t know what was to follow, and yet we all associate him with the atom bomb.’
‘The atom bomb killed people,’ Richard said, rolling his eyes dismissively in the way only young men could, Albert thought to himself. ‘This is about saving lives. Prolonging lives.’
‘But indefinitely?’ Albert asked quietly. ‘Do you know what that would mean? Have you understood the ramifications? It would change the world completely. It would change humankind completely. We would become demigods.’
‘We’ve been through this a thousand times,’ Richard snorted impatiently, scanning Albert’s desk then looking up when he felt Albert’s eyes on him. ‘It’s just an excuse for prevarication because you’re weak, Albert. Stop worrying. Stop feeling like you’re responsible for every possible repercussion of what you’ve created. You’re not.’
‘But I am,’ Albert said.
‘No, you’re not. And anyway, why shouldn’t humans become gods? Isn’t it the inevitable next step? All because of you, Albert. All because of you.’ He picked up a test tube and shook it. ‘What we have here is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’ he said, his voice almost a whisper. ‘It’s incredible. It’s wonderful. And you did it. Think of the glory.’
Albert frowned and shook his head. ‘I don’t want glory,’ he said quietly. ‘I don’t even know that I want this . . . to be responsible . . . to have created such a potential monster . . .’
‘Not a monster,’ Richard said quickly. ‘You’ve just been working too hard, Albert. You should take a break.’
‘A break?’ Albert looked at him incredulously. ‘You think I can take a break now?’
‘Yes,’ Richard said, walking towards him, calmer suddenly, and putting his hands on Albert’s shoulders. ‘You’ve saved Elizabeth’s life. You’ve done it. Now just give me the formula and you can get some rest.’
He’d saved her life. Albert felt his heart thud in his chest. That was how this whole enterprise had started. The search for the cure for cancer, Elizabeth’s cancer, which had ravaged her body, turned her against him. His beautiful daughter, virtually a stranger to him. This had been something he’d been able to do for her. Not enough – never enough – but something.
Albert looked at Richard, taking in his angular chin, his ambitious eyes, his stiff posture. His daughter’s husband. His son-in-law. He had to remind himself of this fact on a regular basis – to Albert, he was always just ‘his assistant’, the young man who had refused to take no for an answer, who had appeared one day, fresh-faced from university, telling Albert without any irony that he knew Albert would make the right decision and hire him. Then, as though determined to force himself into every crevice of Albert’s life, Richard had turned his attentions on his boss’s daughter. Undeterred by Elizabeth’s failing health, he had wooed her, swept her off her feet and married her. She’d even had a child while in remission, before the cancer took hold again, more violently this time.
Albert studied Richard for a few seconds. He often wondered what had induced Elizabeth to fall in love with this man, with his loud voice and complete belief in himself, so different from him. Then again, he mused, perhaps that
‘So, the formula,’ Richard said. ‘Let’s get it patented right away.’
‘Patented?’ Albert asked vaguely, still thinking about his daughter, about his granddaughter. Elizabeth had banned him from visiting a month ago, when Albert had first had doubts about the beast he feared he was creating. Richard had conveyed the message soberly and apologetically. She was getting worse, he’d told him; she needed the cure and she needed it soon, and she would not allow a man who had the power in his hands to cure her illness to see his granddaughter. After all, if she died at his hands then she would lose Maggie. Why should he have what she couldn’t? It had been blackmail; Albert recognised that, but still he acquiesced, throwing himself into his work, watched closely by Richard. And now . . . now . . .
‘I haven’t seen Elizabeth for so long,’ he said tentatively. ‘If I could talk to her . . .’
‘Yes, of course,’ Richard said seriously. ‘But Elizabeth will want to know that the drugs are in production, won’t she? That the formulation is being created and tested. Give me the formula. I’ll tell her the wonderful news and I know she’ll want to see you straight away. Just think, once Elizabeth starts taking the drugs you’ll have all eternity to make things up with her. Think of all the time you two can spend together.’
Albert felt a sad little smile creep across his face. His assistant spoke of eternity so lightly, as though it were a good thing, an adventure, not the horror it really was. But that was the optimism of youth. Such self-belief. Such conviction.
‘You don’t think perhaps we’re making a huge mistake?’ he asked quietly. ‘The vista of eternal life has corrupted men throughout the ages.’
‘The vista, but not the reality,’ his assistant said, a trace of impatience in his voice. ‘Albert, it would be morally wrong to hold this back. People have a right to know. Science can’t be selfish – you taught me that.’
Albert swallowed uncomfortably. He wanted time to think, time to reflect, to weigh up his options, to review the evidence, to consider the implications. And yet there was no time. Not for his daughter, at any rate.
‘Why don’t you at least show me how it works?’ his assistant said, then, ‘Please, Albert?’
Albert thought for a moment. Until now he’d held back from sharing with Richard any more than was absolutely necessary, fearing that his over-enthusiasm, his obvious desire for glory, might tempt him to interfere. Then he nodded. The truth was that he wanted someone else to see the beauty of what he’d created, even if he wasn’t ready to share the means yet. He gave Richard the goggles, led him to the microscope.
Carefully, Richard leant down. ‘What am I looking at?’
‘The cell on the right.’
‘What about it? It’s old. It’s ravaged.’
‘Indeed,’ Albert said. ‘You can tell by the colour, by its lack of vibrancy. Now watch.’ He took out a syringe and carefully inserted a drop of liquid into the cell. Immediately the cell began to renew; ragged edges became smooth again, its inside became luminescent once more. Albert watched his assistant’s face take on an expression of wonderment, watched his eyes open, his hair stand on end.
‘It’s incredible,’ Richard breathed. ‘Albert, it’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen.’ He stood up, turning to Albert with utter admiration plastered across his face. ‘You’ve made old cells young again. No one else has come close to this. Albert, you’re a genius!’
‘Not a genius.’ Albert felt himself redden slightly with pleasure. It was rather an achievement, he conceded. Quite a coup. The scientific community would be all over him. He’d have papers published, he’d give talks all around the world. He closed his eyes, allowing himself to imagine his future – what was left of it. Then he laughed lightly. His future was as long as he wanted it to be. That was the whole point.
‘Yes,’ Richard was saying under his breath, ‘a genius. Think of the power. Whoever holds the key to this drug holds the key to the whole world.’
The smile that had made its way on to Albert’s face disappeared abruptly; his face darkened. ‘I don’t want power, Richard. Renewal is not about power or politics or –’
‘Renewal?’ Richard’s eyebrows shot up. ‘That’s what you call the drug? I love it. Renewal. Does what it says on the tin.’
‘Renewal is the process,’ Albert said, frowning slightly. ‘The drug does not exist, Richard. It has no name.’ He breathed heavily, the battle that had taken hold inside his head weeks ago when he realised he was on the brink of this discovery not abating. Science versus humanity. The scientist within him was at a fever pitch of excitement; the man was terrified of what he’d created.
‘Not yet,’ Richard said. ‘But it will, and soon. Actually, perhaps you’re right – perhaps Renewal isn’t quite right. Maybe something that suggests extension instead of replacement. I’ll get the marketing lot on to it right away.’
‘Wait.’ Albert banged his hands down firmly. ‘Richard, you have to stop. I am not ready. I . . .’ His voice broke off. He didn’t know how to end the sentence.
‘You’ll never be ready, Albert. But think of your daughter. Think of all the people dying needlessly, painfully, leaving others behind, vulnerable . . . Give me the formula, Albert. Give it to me and then you don’t have to worry any more.’
‘You think it will be that easy?’ Albert asked, raising an eyebrow.
‘Yes, because it will be out of your hands,’ Richard said, moving closer. ‘Let the government worry about the rights and wrongs, Albert. You’ve done your bit now. Give yourself a pat on the back and relax a bit.’
Albert looked at him for a moment. He had a point. Decisions about such things were the government’s domain. He was a scientist, not an ethicist. Slowly, he handed over the syringe.
‘This is it? Just this?’ Richard’s eyes were shining.
Albert nodded. ‘In its purest form, yes. It can be made into tablets too, if that’s what people want. If that’s what the government . . .’
But Richard wasn’t listening to him; he was staring at the syringe in rapture, his mouth open, his eyes gleaming.
‘It’s beautiful,’ he murmured. ‘It’s so beautiful. The elixir of eternal life.’ He looked up at Albert suddenly. ‘It is eternal, right?’
Albert nodded, the scientist taking over, forcing a smile on to his lips, pride into his voice. ‘It seems that organs renew indefinitely, yes. Of course that doesn’t mean eternity. One has to factor in Nature’s ability to change and morph.’
‘Indefinitely,’ Richard whispered. ‘Oh, Albert, you did it. Now, the formula. What is it exactly?’
Albert opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. It was Richard’s eyes – the glint he’d seen a few times over the past few weeks. There was something about it that made him anxious. He put his left hand over his right, turning the ring on his finger – something he always did when he was nervous, but which today somehow had more significance.