“Reporters were some of the first to turn,” said the old woman through a blue paper mask, “we haven’t had any updates for months now.”
“Things are worse, Mrs. Carter,” replied the well-attired businessman. “Far worse.”
Even with his dark facial covering, the exceeding handsomeness of the Daedalus Pharmaceuticals CEO was easily discernable from where he sat across from the aged lady and her strangely pretty granddaughter.
“It’s all my mom’s fault,” Allison bit out, sullenly crossing her arms.
“You know it’s more complicated than all that,” her grandmother chided.
“Your mother is a hero,” Duncan pronounced, straightening in his seat. “You have to understand, humanity was an endangered species. Global warming, extreme weather, pollinator die-out… there were massive food shortages. This was the world you were born into, but one that you probably can’t even remember because of Dr. Carter.”
Rolling her eyes, Allison retorted, “Great. Now it’s a just world filled with crazy ‘pepsies’ trying to eat everyone’s face.” Her sarcasm rapidly devolved into anger, “She turned people into cannibals! If she hadn’t forced it on everyone… hadn’t made it in the first place…”
“You’re wrong,” he broke in, “your mother didn’t control how quickly Eupepsid went to market. I did.”
This admission instantly quieted the small room; Duncan took advantage of their stunned silence. “All remaining governments were chomping at the bit for solutions. Blaire… Dr. Carter… your mother reconstituted a Paleozoic era nudivirus which she trained to alter neural pathways, giving the brain agency over metabolism.
“It’s common knowledge now, but please try and appreciate the magnitude of her discovery at the time. Giving people control over nutrient absorption and energy production as easily as one takes control of their breathing or blinking was beyond genius. A single ration of food now lasted as long as twenty, which was exactly what the world needed… what Daedalus needed.”
He sighed, “I made sure Blaire received all of the credit, which garnered her all of the praise, awards, and accolades that she was rightfully owed for saving billions of lives. Unfortunately, becoming the unwitting face of Eupepsid made her appear to be the responsible party when things went south. Even though I was the one who rushed testing and release.”
“If I’d listened to her, we would have done longitudinal studies… looked more deeply into the alternative uses—”
“Alternative uses?” Allison spat, “You mean the millions of narcissistic jerks who overclocked their metabolisms instead of slowing them down?”
“Precisely, yes. Although we accounted for some percentage of subjects (celebrities, influencers, and the like) hacking their metabolic processes, we completely underestimated. Ordinary people were speeding up anabolism and catabolism to stay slim or tap energy reserves. Since it took almost ten years for the first of these… overtaxers to turn, additional testing might not have mattered. Regardless, I’m just so sorry. For all of it. Including the fact that your mom was the scapegoat for my decisions.”
He stopped and tried to gauge the pair’s reactions. The grandmother returned his vulnerable gaze with stony, frigid eyes. Because of this man, the world was unraveling. Human beings who’d pushed the limits of their metabolic functions for too long were crossing over an inescapable threshold that magnified the very physiological effects they were striving to achieve, like a biochemical monkey’s paw.
They became rail-thin but with immeasurable amounts of speed, strength, and stamina. Pepsies burned through anything they ingested so quickly that their need to consume became all-consuming. The selfishness that compelled them to act on vanity during an international crisis meant they were generally less likely to take their own lives during the day or so it took for them to turn completely.
Once they lost all compunction, they ate every living thing they could get their hands on before dying of exhaustion about three weeks later. It was a horrible way to go and an unimaginable situation to be responsible for. And yet, this man was here owning up to all of it without prevarication. Duncan’s apology felt like absolution for Blaire, for the blame that had been heaped upon her by media, by the victims, and by her own child.
“Let’s get some fresh air,” Clementine said, girding herself to rise.
The small group walked past the matte black helicopter, occupied by its pilot and two armed security personnel, toward the edge of the overgrown acreage encircling the house. Stopping beside their sprawling garden, a cloud of kinky blond hair whirled around until its owner’s brilliant, cat-like eyes were locked onto Duncan’s cobalt blue ones.
“Where is my mother?” Allison asked with more tenderness than she’d felt for the woman since she was unceremoniously dumped on her grandmother’s doorstep at seven years old.
Duncan’s face darkened above his mask, “Blaire and I were not on good terms after launch. In fact, the more praise she received, the more contracts I secured, the more withdrawn she became. The final straw was when the UN sanctioned atmo-dosing, where air tankers dispersed Eupepsid on major cities and hotspots.”
“I remember. I’m guessing my mom didn’t like that very much?”
“Not at all. She quit the very next day,” he said flatly, “or at least I took her attempt to destroy all of her research as a resignation. I hadn’t seen her since she burned the lab down almost ten years ago.”
Clementine furrowed her brow. “Blaire is the only person who could have told you about this house. If you haven’t seen her in a decade, how did you know to come here?”
Duncan steeled himself, “She got a message to me last week with her location, but when my team and I arrived, she had been killed. We believe she was attacked by a couple of pepsies she’d trapped for study.”
Allison evoked every ounce of her will to keep from crumpling to the ground. She imagined the indifference she would have feigned had she received this news just fifteen minutes ago. Now, she was utterly gripped by the loss of her mother and of any hope for reconciliation. When she looked at her grandmother, it was evident that Clementine was also poorly attempting to contain her grief. And so, the younger, sun-kissed girl enclosed the elder, ebony woman in a trembling embrace for a long while.
When it seemed appropriate, Duncan gently cleared his throat and extended a ragged sheet of paper to the women. “This is the only thing we found.”
Allison carefully took the soft, rumpled page and read the disjointed handwriting scrawled between splotches of dried blood:
CODE IS IN MY GOLDEN LOCKET
Searching her memory for all of the things that were in the sparkly pink unicorn satchel she’d had at her arrival to Clementine’s, Allison could not recount a single piece of jewelry. Crestfallen, she looked to Duncan, “Oh no. You’ve come all this way, and we don’t have it.”
“Yes, we do,” Clem interjected.
Allison beamed, “You never told me, Gram! Where is it?”
Squaring the girl to her, Clem lowered, first, her mask and then her granddaughter’s. “My first husband was a right bastard. Even though he beat me mercilessly, we had a baby together. One day, when my son was about ten, he stood up to his father. The second I saw this grown-ass man raise a hand to strike his own child, something broke in me. No matter what I felt I deserved, I knew that my sweet little boy didn’t deserve that.
“I snatched a knife off of the kitchen counter and, well… that was that. Put my son to bed and buried that sack of shit somewhere over there,” she pointed beyond the plot of vegetables.
“You never knew your father, which is such a shame, because he was an absolute angel… even with an abuser and a murderess for parents. He died in the COVID-27 outbreak just before you were born, and now I know why your mother asked me to keep so many things to myself. She saw the direction of the world even then, and I think she hoped that silence would keep you safe.”
“Keep me safe…” Allison murmured softly under her breath, feeling as though she were finally unraveling the knots in her comprehension of a woman she’d hated for so long. Suddenly, she grinned at Clem, “I always thought you were my mom’s mother.”
“Child, I am black as pitch, and your mom could get lost in the snow,” she chuckled, pulling her in for another squeeze.
“I don’t know. I just thought she was adopted,” Allison laughed into her grandmother’s bosom. Pulling her gently to arm’s length, Clem tilted the beautiful heart-shaped face she loved more than anything in the world up to her own.
“Your father’s name was Emerson Locket, Jr.”
Allison looked from her grandmother to Duncan’s knowing eyes and back, “I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do, my love.” Clementine caressed the gilded skin of her granddaughter’s shoulder, smoothed the flaxen curls behind her ear, and stared fixedly into shining honey-brown eyes until she saw awareness dawn.
“You really weren’t lying, for once,” he whispered, smoothing the feathery platinum tresses away from the shocked face that snapped pleadingly to attention at his words.
“Do you really think so little of me?”
Her eyes darted to the rolling tray just beyond the reach of her cuffed hands. Its silvery surface was lined with scalpels, medical implements, and her tongue.
Duncan followed her gaze and snickered cruelly, “That was a rhetorical question, anyway.”
Pulling his hand from his pocket, he balled up her note, grabbed her sticky jaw, and mushed it into her swollen mouth.
“Were you hoping to die before I could get all of your stupid little clues? Did you really think I wouldn’t employ all the resources I have at my disposal to figure out every single scrap that I could wring out of you?” He squeezed her cheeks violently, then shoved the back of her skull into the steel headrest.
“Well,” he stood up coolly, “despite your stalling, I found her. And might I say, that’s one gorgeous girl you’ve got there. You were smart to keep her away from me.” Blaire defeasibly jerked against her restraints.
Ignoring her fury, Duncan began to casually unhook the various vital sign electrodes and polygraph wiring from her chest and arms and fingers, speaking in friendly tones all the while. “Your mother-in-law was super nice. Shame we didn’t have enough room to bring her, too. Especially with that horde of pepsies that were following the chopper on our way there. You don’t think we lead them right to her, do you?”
Spent, all she could do was stare at him with seething, impotent rage.
“I guess that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is you lead me right to the girl. So, as a reward, I promise you that as soon as the tests prove she really is the carrier,” he lowered his lips to her ear, “you will have my express permission to die.”
A timid knock interrupted his one-sided conversation. Duncan wiped the blood from his hands onto the front of her shirt, groping her breasts as he did so, then walked around the thin partition to crack the door. “Yes?”
“Her bloodwork checks out, sir.”
“Wonderful. Go ahead with Phase Two.”
“But, sir, I can easily replicate the antiviral sequence with what’s already been drawn. Why are we… exsanguinating her?”
A hoarse, garbled scream came from behind the curtain, and the technician fruitlessly attempted to look past his boss’s broad shoulders. “It has to be done, son,” he said with a kind smile. The shaken young man blinked several times before giving a tiny nod and retreating.
Duncan returned to stand before Blaire. Although the guttural noise that spilled from her lips over and over was wholly indecipherable, the beseeching question in her glistening eyes was crystal clear. “Why? Why? Why?!”
“We can’t allow the cure to fall into our competition’s hands, now can we?”