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The Gene Institute

Chris spent several hours each day at the Holt Gene Institute digging into the records--endless files of paper and computer data. With this information he had begun to put together a picture of what went on at the Institute, though his own records were on a data cartridge that was missing from the cabinet.

There was a daily event log, though in the last chaotic days it was not being kept up. Furthermore, Chris felt it was deliberately not complete. From it he could tell that they had a research facility at Marfa, the same town that the FBI had traced Jan's body snatchers to--the town on the edge of the desert where he had found himself dazed and drugged.

Chris knew now that the Holt people were somehow involved in the snatching. They must have wanted Jan's body for their own research purposes, or wanted to keep it out of the reach of other researchers, or perhaps both.

Then there was the fact that the Institute was involved with Chris' own background, at least when he was a child. He could remember his mother bringing him to this very clinic in Houston for treatments, though it had never been clear to him exactly why.

All this added up to the Institute having played a role in the outbreak of the Death, and to his own survival. When Jan died, the Holt people knew that her death was related to their own research and they were concerned enough about it to steal her body out of the morgue.

Then there were the missing days in Chris' own memory and the fact that the first place he could remember being after the missing time was near the Big Bend, not far from Marfa.

There were transcripts of telephone conversations on the desk in Jonathan Holt's office. He had found one that was very interesting.

"Have you got the tissue samples from the woman?"

"Charlie is flying them in this afternoon. It wasn't difficult to get them. They know we've been doing related research. We're getting together the family medical history as well."

"Anyone find H02217?"

"Not yet. By the way, the woman's daughter has just been admitted to the hospital. I'll let you know as soon as we find out what's going on."

"Do that. Talk to you later."

"Wait a minute. Charlie's coming in now; hold on a second." After a moment's pause the voice came back. "Charlie's just talked on the phone to some of the hospital staff. The daughter is dying of old age, the same as her mother did."

Chris put his feet up on Jonathan Holt's desk, the pieces going through his mind.

The Institute had done something that changed Chris' chromosomes, and whatever it was they did had worked--it did keep him from dying soon after puberty as it appeared he would have otherwise.

Whatever they had given him was somehow dependent on his particular body chemistry or cell structure to live--thus it wasn't contagious to others.

Something had changed the virus so that it could live in the body of an ordinary person. Its effect on others was to cause what it prevented in him.

But there were still many questions annoying him.

Would his offspring, having his disease, be long-lived?

Was the disease a dominant or recessive gene?

Did anyone else on earth have the disease? Had anyone else had the treatment, and if not, why not?

If there were other people with the disease, under what conditions would they be likely to survive the Death?

Perhaps the most intriguing clue, however, was found not at the Institute, but in a small bureau under the loft in Justin's room. In it were Carey's clothes and personal things. One day the top drawer stood open, and in it lay a piece of paper which caught Chris' eye.

"Here is my cousin's old address that I dug up at Holt," said Chris. "I was going to look her up in Houston. Carey must have gotten it out of my backpack."

Justin glanced over at the paper and said, "No, that paper's been in there since before I met you. That's Carey's address. It's where I found him."

Chris looked at his own familiar scrawl and furrowed his brow, then shrugged and started to put the paper back in Carey's drawer, certain that Justin must have the bit of paper confused with some other. Something on the back of the paper caught his eye, and he lifted it up again. It was part of an H.I. in a circle, the Holt logo. He realized he had to pursue the issue further.

"See, it's mine. Look, there's the Holt logo."

Justin took the paper, glanced at the logo, then turned it over and looked again at the address. "It does look like your handwriting," he conceded.

Chris went on. "I found it just now in Carey's drawer. I remember now, the last time I saw it was when I was at the Institute the day I was captured and locked up. On my own file folder there was an address label sticker. I couldn't fit the whole folder into my pack easily, so I wrote the address down on the back of a sheet of paper I picked up off of the floor, tore off this piece, and put it in my pocket. It was the address of my cousin, where I stayed when I was a kid, getting the Holt treatments. Somehow it's in Carey's drawer."

Justin flipped the paper over and looked at the logo, then flipped it back and looked at the address again. "Damn it, I know I'm right, I've been there. This is Carey's address. That's why I keep it in that drawer."

"Where did you get this paper?"

"From my father. I stole it out of his pocket. We were looking for you then, and I thought maybe it was where they had you hidden. So Tony and I went there, and in the house there was a bed with this dead lady that was beginning to smell, and a hungry little boy peeking out from under the bed at me. It was Carey."

Chris wrinkled his forehead and thought for a moment. "Your father must have taken this paper from my pocket when they caught me and locked me up."

"It was your cousin's address! That means Carey is your cousin!"

"Wait a minute," said Chris. "It only means Carey was found in a house that my cousin once lived in, ten years ago. Her last name was Crawford. Carey's is..." Chris had heard it, but couldn't bring it to mind.

"Briggs," finished Justin. "So either they're not connected, or maybe his mother was your cousin but remarried, or something."

The first thing to do was ask Carey, which they did. He thought that maybe he had heard of the name Crawford somewhere, but he wasn't sure.

Chris studied the little boy's face. The hair, the eyes. Could this be his cousin's son?

It was interesting to see how the city had developed in just a few weeks with no adults. Many of the stores had been claimed by a child or a group of children; they would set up shop and trade or sell the goods. Chris wondered what the medium of exchange would become. There seemed to be a bit of buying and selling with currency, but from he had seen so far, most trade was by barter.

There were a few kids wearing guns and driving around in police cars, but this was less popular than Chris might have expected. He hadn't heard of anyone trying to make any serious attempt at providing more than simple medical care.

Sexual maturity had become a sign of impending death. Once there was even a rumor of a child being born, but Chris hadn't spent time trying to verify it.

Chris knew there was no avoiding going to Mexico. But how? He didn't want to go without Justin, who in turn wouldn't leave Carey for any length of time. He was uncertain how many kids he should have along on what might be a long and dangerous trip. On the other hand, Houston wasn't going to be the safest place either in the coming weeks. Water was already a problem, and there would be other problems.

They could drive, but it would be a terribly long and arduous journey, trying to siphon gasoline from underground tanks at gas stations, watching out for wild drivers, obstructed roadways, and who knows what sort of chaos and leftovers from previous chaos.

That left flying. It seemed to be the only reasonable choice. Chris was accustomed to flying a Cessna 172, a four-seater. That would mean the possibility of bringing not only Justin, but Carey and perhaps one other. Somehow the thought of taking them made him nervous, but then, the sky should be one area that was less chaotic since the Death. He had given plane rides to kids before, so what was the difference?

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Copyright ©1995 R. Verner

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