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Author: Greg Bear
Publisher: Del Rey, 2002
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Genres: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Immortality
Near-Future
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Synopsis

Blending fierce, fast plots with vivid characters and mind-bending ideas, Greg Bear has mastered a powerful alchemy of suspense, science, and action in his gripping thrillers. Darwin's Radio was hailed across the country as one of the best books of the year. His newest novel, Vitals, begins with a harrowing descent to a netherworld at the very bottom of the sea - and then explodes to the surface in sheer terror.

Hal Cousins is one of a handful of scientists nearing the most sought after discovery in human history: the key to short-circuiting the aging process. Fueled by a wealth of research, an overdose of self-confidence, and the money of influential patrons to whom he makes outrageous promises, Hal experiments with organisms living in the hot thermal plumes in the ocean depths. But as he journeys beneath the sea, his other world is falling apart.

Across the country, scientists are being inexplicably murdered - including Hal's identical twin brother, who is also working to unlock the key to immortality. Hal himself barely eludes a cold-blooded attack at sea, and when he returns home to Seattle, he finds himself walking into an eerie realm where voices speak to him from the dead... where a once-brilliant historian turned crackpot is leading him on a deadly game of hide-and-seek... and where the beautiful, rich widow of his twin is more than willing to pick up the pieces of Hal's life - and take him places he's never been before.

Suddenly Hal is trapped inside an ever-twisting maze of shocking revelations. For he is not the first person to come close to ending aging forever - and those who came before him will stop at nothing to keep the secret to themselves. Now every person on earth is at risk of being made an unsuspecting player in one man's spectacular and horrifying master plan.

From the bottom of Russia's Lake Baikal to a billionaire's bionic house built into the cliffs of the Washington seashore, from the darkest days of World War II and the reign of Josef Stalin to the capitalist free-for-all that is the United States, Vitals tells an astounding tale of the most unimaginable scientific secret of all - exposed by the quest for immortality itself...


Excerpt

May 28 - San Diego, California

The last time I talked to Rob, I was checking my luggage at Lindbergh Field to fly to Seattle and meet with an angel. My cell phone beeped and flashed Nemesis, code for my brother. We hadn't spoken in months.

"Hal, has Dad called you?" Rob asked. He sounded wrung out.

"No," I said. Dad had died three years ago in a hospital in Ann Arbor. Cirrhosis of the liver. He had choked on his own blood from burst veins in his esophagus.

"Somebody called and it sounded like Dad, I swear," Rob said.

Mom and Dad were divorced and Mom was living in Coral Gables, Florida, and would have nothing to do with our father even when he was dying. Rob had stood the death watch in the hospice. Before I could hop a plane to join them, Dad had died. He had stopped his pointless cursing—dementia brought on by liver failure—and gone to sleep and Rob had left the room to get a cup of coffee. When he had returned, he had found our father sitting up in bed, head slumped, his stubbled chin and pale, slack chest soaked in blood like some hoary old vampire. Dad was dead even before the nurses checked in. Sixty-five years old.

It had been a sad, bad death, the end of a rough road on which Dad had deliberately hit every bump. My brother had taken it hard.

"You're tired, Rob," I said. The airport, miles of brushed steel and thick green-edged glass, swam like a fish tank around me.

"That's true," he replied. "Aren't you?"

I had been in Hong Kong just the night before. I hadn't slept in forty-eight hours. I can never sleep in a plane over water. A haze of names and ridiculous meetings and a stomachache from French airline food were all I had to show for my trip. I felt like a show dog coming home without a ribbon.

"No," I lied. "I'm doing fine."

Rob mumbled on for a bit. Work was not going well. He was having trouble with his wife, Lissa, a blond, leggy beauty more than a few steps out of our zone of looks and charm. He sounded as tired as I was and even more confused. I think he was holding back about how bad things were. I was his younger brother, after all. By two minutes.

"Enough about me," he said. "How goes the search?"

"It goes," I said.

"I wanted to let you know." Silence.

"What?" I hated mystery.

"Watch your back."

"What's that mean? Stop screwing around."

Rob's laugh sounded forced. Then, "Hang in there, Prince Hal."

He called me that when he wanted to get a rise out of me. "Ha," I said.

"If Dad phones," he said, "tell him I love him."

He hung up. I stood in a corner of the high, sunny lobby with the green glass and blinding white steel all around, then cursed and dialed the cell-phone number—no go—and all his other numbers.

Lissa answered in Los Angeles. She told me Rob was in San Jose, she didn't have a local number for him, why? I told her he sounded tired and she said he had been traveling a lot. They hadn't been talking much lately. I spoke platitudes in response to her puzzlement and hung up.

Some people believe that twins are always close and always know what the other is thinking. Not true, not true at all for Rob and me. We fought like wildcats from the time we were three years old. We believed we were twins by accident only and we were in this long road race separately, a fair fight to the finish, but not much fraternizing along the way.

Yet we had separately chosen the same career path, separately become interested in the same aspects of medicine and biology, separately married great-looking women we could not keep. I may not have liked my twin, but I sure as hell loved him.

Something was wrong. So why didn't I cancel my flight and make some attempt to find him, ask him what I could do? I made excuses. Rob was just trying to psych me out. Prince Hal, indeed.

I flew to Seattle.

2

June 18 - The Juan de Fuca Trench

We dropped in a long, slow spiral, wrapped in a tiny void as shiny and black as a bubble in obsidian, through eight thousand feet of everlasting night. I had a lot of time to think.

Looking to my right, over my shoulder, I concentrated on the pilot's head bent under the glow of a single tensor lamp. Dave Press rubbed his nose and pulled back into shadow. It was my third dive this trip, but the first with Dave as pilot. We were traveling alone, just the two of us, no observer or backup. Our deep submersible, Mary's Triumph, descended at a rate of forty-four feet every minute, twenty-seven hundred feet every hour.

Dave leaned forward again, whistling tonelessly.

I narrowed my vision to fuzzy slits and imagined Dave's head was all there was. Just a head, my eyes, a thousand feet of ocean above, and more than a mile of ocean below. For a few seconds I felt like little black Pip, tossed overboard from one of Ahab's whaleboats, dog-paddling for hours on the tumbling rollers. Pip changed. He became no lively dancing cabin boy but a solemn, prophetic little thing, thinly of this world, all because of a long swim surrounded by gulls and sun. What was that compared to where we were, encased in a plastic bubble and dropped into the world's biggest bottle of ink? Pip had had a bright, cheery vacation.

One hundred and eighty minutes to slip down into the trench, two hundred minutes to return, between three hundred and four hundred minutes on the bottom, if all went well. A twelve-hour journey down to Hell and back, or Eden, depending on your perspective.

I was hoping for Eden. Prince Hal Cousins, scientist, supreme egotist, prime believer in the material world, frightened of the dark and no friend of God, was about to pay a visit to the most primitive ecologies, searching for the fountain of youth. I was on a pilgrimage back to where the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had taught us how to die. I planned to reclaim that fruit and run some tests.

This blasphemy seemed fair exchange for so many millions of bright-eyed, sexy, and curious generations getting old, wrinkled, and sick. Turning into ugly, demented vegetables.

Becoming God's potting soil.

A mile and a half below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, humans are unexpected guests in a murky and ancient dream. Down there, nestled in the cracks of Earth's spreading skin, islands of heat and poisonous stink poke up from shimmering chasms flocked with woolly white carpets of bacteria.

These are the best places on Earth, some scientists believe, to look for Eden—the Beginning Place.

I zoned out. Napped for a few minutes, woke up with a start, clonked my head on the back of the metal-mesh couch. I was not made for submarines. Dave tapped his finger on the control stick.

"Most folks are too excited to sleep down here," he said. "Time goes by pretty quickly."

"Nervous reaction," I said. "I don't like tight places."

Dave grinned, then returned his attention to the displays. "Usually we see lots of things outside—pretty little magic lanterns of the deep. Kind of deserted today. Too bad."

I looked up at the glowing blue numbers on the dive chrono- meter. One hour? Two?

Just thirty minutes.

All sense of time had departed. We were still in the early stages of the dive. I sat up in the couch and stretched my arms, bent at the elbows. My silvery thermal suit rustled.

I liked Dave. I like most people, at first. Dave was in his late thirties, reputedly a devout Christian, short and plump, with stringy blond hair, large intelligent green eyes, thick lips, and a quick, casual smile. He seemed a steady and responsible guy, good with machinery. He had once driven DSVs for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. Just a month ago, he had signed on with the Sea Messenger to pilot Owen Montoya's personal research submarine, his pricey and elegant little toy, Mary's Triumph.

It was cold outside the acrylic pressure sphere: two degrees above freezing. Chill had crept into the cabin and the suits barely kept us comfortable. I avoided brushing my hands against the two titanium frame beams that passed aft through the sphere. They were covered with dew.

Dave grunted expressively and squirmed in his seat, not embarrassed, just uncomfortable. "Sorry."

My nostrils flared.

"Go ahead and let it out," Dave suggested. "It'll clear."

"I'm comfy," I said.

"Well, you'll have to put up with me. Rice and macaroni last night, lots of pepper."

"I eat nothing but fish before a dive. No gas." That sounded geeky and Boy Scout, but I was in fact comfortable. Be prepared.

"I'm trying to lose weight," Dave confessed. "High-carb diet."

"Um."

"A few more lights?" Dave asked. He toggled a couple of switches and three more tensor lamps threw white spots around the sub's controls. He turned their focused glare away from two little turquoise screens crammed with schematics and scrolling numbers: dutiful reports from fuel cells and batteries, the onboard computer, transponder navigation, fore and aft thrusters. When we were at depth, a third, larger overhead screen—now blank—could switch between video from digital cameras and images from side-scanning sonar.

All we could hear from outside, through the sphere and the hull, was the ping of active sonar.

Everything nominal, but I was still apprehensive. There was little risk in the DSV, so Jason the controller and dive master had told me before my first plunge. Just follow the routine and your training.

I wasn't afraid of pain or discomfort, but I anticipated a scale of life that put all risk in a new perspective. Every new and possibly dangerous adventure could prematurely cap a span not of fourscore and ten, but of a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand years . . .

So far, this was just an itch, an attitude I was well aware needed adjustment. It hadn't yet reached the level of phobia.

At twenty-nine years of age, I worked hard to avoid what Rob had once called the syndrome of Precious Me. I could always rely on Rob to provide sharp insight. In truth, part of me might have welcomed a little vacation. The void might be a pleasure compared to the anxious, egocentric perplexity of my recent existence: divorced, cell-phone guru for radio talk shows, semicelebrity, beggar-scientist, mendicant, dreamer, fool. Prince Hal, my coat, my vehicle, forever and ever.

Spooky.

"You look philosophical," Dave said.

"I feel useless," I said.

"Me too, sometimes. This baby practically drives herself," Dave said. "You can help me do a routine check in ten. Then we'll make our report to Mother."

"Sure." Anything.

I rolled and adjusted the couch to lie on my stomach, Cousteau-style, closer to the chill surface of the bubble. My breath misted the smooth plastic, a spot of fog in the surreal darkness. Experimentally, I raised my digital Nikon, its lens hood wrapped in rubber tape to avoid scratching the sphere. I looked at the camera screen, played with the exposure, experimented with pixel density and file size.

"They also serve who sit and wait," Dave said, adjusting the sub's trim. Motors whined starboard. "Sometimes we play chess."

"I hate chess," I confessed. "Time is precious and should be put to constructive use."

Dave grinned. "Nadia warned me."

Nadia Evans, the number one sub driver on the Sea Messenger, was sick in her bunk topside. A rich, creamy pudding past its prime had made eight of our crew very unhappy. Nadia had planned to take me on this dive, but a deep submersible, lacking a toilet, is no place for the shits.

Best to keep focused on where we were going and what we might see. Dropping into Planet Extreme. Eternal darkness and incredible pressure.

Still more than a mile below, at irregular intervals along the network of spreading trenches, massive underwater geysers spewed roiling plumes of superheated water, toxic sulfides, and deep-crust bacteria. Minerals in the flow accreted to erect chimneys around the geysers. Some of the chimneys stood as tall as industrial smokestacks and grew broad horizontal fans like tree fungi. Sulfurous outflow fizzed through cracks and pores everywhere. Magma squeezed out of deeper cracks like black, grainy toothpaste, snapping like reptiles in combat. Close by, at depth, through the hydrophone, you could hear the vents hissing and roaring. Wags had named one huge chimney "Godzilla."

Gargantuan Earth music.

Down there, the water is saturated with the deep's chemical equivalent of sunshine. Hydrogen sulfide soup feeds specialized bacteria, which in turn prop up an isolated food chain. Tube worms crest old lava flows and gather around the vents in sociable forests, like long, skinny, red-tipped penises. Royal little white crabs mosey through the waving stalks as if they have all the time there is. Long, lazy, rat-tail fish—deep-water vultures with big curious eyes—pause like question marks, waiting for death to drop their small ration of dinner.

I shivered. DSV pilots believe the cold keeps you alert. Dave coughed and took a swig of bottled water, then returned the bottle to the cup holder. Nadia had been much more entertaining: witty, pretty, and eager to explain her deep-diving baby.

The little sphere, just over two meters wide, filled with reassur- ing sounds: the ping of a directional signal every few seconds, hollow little beeps from transponders dropped months before, another ping from sonar, steady ticking, the sigh and whine of pumps and click of solenoids.

I rolled on my butt and bent the couch back into a seat, then doubled over to pull up my slippers—thick knitted booties, actually, with rubber soles. I stared between my knees at a shimmer of air trapped in the sub's frame below the sphere. The silvery wobble had been many times larger just forty minutes ago.

Two thousand feet. The outside pressure was now sixty atmo- spheres, 840 pounds per square inch. Nadia had described it as a Really Large Guy pogo-sticking all over your head. Inside, at one atmosphere, we could not feel it. The sphere distributed the pressure evenly. No bends, no tremors, no rapture of the deep. Shirtsleeve travel, almost. We wouldn't even need to spend time in a chamber when we surfaced.

The sub carried a load of steel bars, ballast to be dropped when we wanted to switch to near-neutral buoyancy. Dave would turn on the altimeter at about a hundred feet above the seafloor and let the ingots rip like little bombs. Sometimes the DSV held on to a few, staying a little heavy, and pointed her thrusters down to hover like a helicopter. A little lighter, and she could "float," aiming the thrusters up to avoid raising silt.

An hour into the dive. Twenty-seven hundred feet. The sphere was getting colder and time was definitely speeding up. "When did you meet Owen Montoya?" Dave asked.

"A few weeks ago," I said. Montoya was a fascinating topic around the office water cooler: the elusive rich guy who employed everyone on the Sea Messenger.

"He must approve of what you're doing," Dave said.

"How's that?"

"Dr. Mauritz used to have top pick for these dives." Stanley Mauritz was the Sea Messenger's chief oceanographer and director of research, on loan to the ship from the Scripps Institution in exchange for Montoya's support of student research. "But you've had three in a row."

"Yeah," I said. The researchers on board Sea Messenger fought for equipment and resources just like scientists everywhere.

"Nadia's trying to keep the peace," Dave added after a pause.

"Sorry to upset the balance."

Dave shrugged. "I stay out of it. Let's do our check."

We used our separate turquoise monitor screens to examine different shipboard systems, focusing first on air. Mary's Triumph maintained an oxygen-enriched atmosphere at near sea-level pressure.

Dave raised his mike and clicked the switch. "Mary to Messenger. We're at one thousand meters. Systems check okay."

The hollow voice of Jason, our shipboard dive master and controller, came back a few seconds later. "Read you, Mary."

"What's going on between Nadia and Max?" Dave asked with a leer. Max was science liaison for the ship. Rumors of their involvement had circulated for weeks. "Any hot and heavy?"

The question seemed out of character. "Nothing, at the moment," I guessed. "She's probably spending most of her time in the head."

"What's Max got that I haven't?" Dave asked, and winked.

Max was twenty-seven years old, self-confident without being cocky, handsome, but smart and pleasant to talk to. His specialty was Vestimentiferans—tube worms. Dave was not in Max's league, and neither was I, if it came right down to it.

"Enough about women," I suggested with a sour look. "I'm just getting over a divorce."

"Poor baby," Dave said. "No women, no chess. That leaves philosophy. Explain Kant or Hegel, choose one."

I chuckled.

"We've got lots of time," Dave said, and put on a little boy's puzzled frown. "It's either read or play chess or get to know each other." He fiddled with the touch pad mounted at the end of the couch arm and once again punched up the atmosphere readout. "Damn, is the pressure changing? It shouldn't be. My gut's giving me fits."

I cringed.

Four thousand feet.

"I met Owen just once," Dave said. Everyone in Montoya's employ called him Owen, or Owen Montoya, never Mr. Montoya, and never "sir." "His people trust me to keep his expensive toy from getting snagged, but when he shook my hand, he didn't know who I was. He must meet a lot of people."

I nodded. Montoya seemed to enjoy his privacy. Best not to divulge too much to the hired help. Still, I felt a small tug of pride that I had spent so many hours with this powerful and wealthy man, and had been told we were simpatico.

I had met all sorts of people rich and superrich on my quest for funding. Montoya had been the best of a mixed lot, and the only one who outright owned an oceanographic research ship and DSV.

He was a whole lot more likable than Song Wu, the sixty-year-old Chinese nightclub owner who had insisted I try his favorite youth enhancer—serpent-bladder extract diluted in rice wine. That had been an experience, sitting in his living room, six hundred feet above Hong Kong, watching Mr. Song squeeze a little sac of the oily green liquid into a glass while I tried to keep up a conversation with his sixteen-year-old Thai mistress. Mr. Song refused to spend a single square-holed penny until I gave snake gall a fair shake.

All the while, a withered feng shui expert in a gray-silk suit had danced around the huge apartment, whirling a cheap gold-painted cardboard dial over the marble floor tiles, babbling about balancing the forces of past and future.

"You know Owen personally?" Dave asked.

"Not well."

Mary's Triumph leveled and alerted us with a tiny chime. Dave adjusted the trim again. The sub's thermometers had detected a temperature rise. The sea map display clicked on between us and a small red X appeared, marking where we had encountered warmer water. We had just crossed into a megaplume, a vast mushroom of mineral-rich flow rising over a vent field.

"That could be from the new one, Field 37," I guessed. I looked at the printed terrain map pasted between us, dotted with known vent fields in green, and six red vents roaring away along a recent eruption.

"Maybe," Dave said. "Could also be Field 35. We're four klicks east of both, and they swivel this time of year."

The world's seawater—all the world's seawater—is processed through underwater volcanic vents every few million years. The ocean seeps through the sediment and porous rock, hitting magma sometimes only a few miles below the crust. Deep-ocean geysers spew back the water superheated to the temperature of live steam—well over 350 degrees Celsius. But at pressures in excess of 250 atmospheres, the water stays liquid and rises like smoke from a stack, cooling and spreading, warm and rich enough to be detected this high above the field: a megaplume.

"Nadia tells me you're looking for new kinds of xenos," Dave said. "Ugly little spuds."

"Interesting little spuds," I said.

Nearly every dive in these areas found xenos—xenophyophores, the single-celled tramps of the seafloor, some as big as a clenched fist. Xenos are distantly related to amoebae and resemble scummy bath sponges. They use sand as ballast, glue their waste into supports, and coat their slimy exteriors with debris as they roll around on the ocean floor. Their convoluted, tube-riddled bodies hide many passengers: isopods, bacteria, predatory mollusks. True monsters, but wonderful and harmless.

"What's so interesting about xenos?" Dave asked.

"I have a snapshot taken by some postdocs two months ago. They found what they called ‘sea daisy fields' north of the new vents, but they didn't have a good fix on the position because one of the transponders had stopped sending. I examined a frozen specimen two months ago at the University of Washington, but it was all busted up, membranes ruptured. A specimen in formalin was nothing but gray pudding."

Dave had already gotten a briefing on our dive. This was telling him nothing more than what he knew already. "Yuck," he said. "So what's it to Owen?"

"Right." I smiled.

Dave lifted his eyebrows. "I'll just mind my own business and drive," he said, and rubbed his finger under his nose. "But I do have a master's in ocean biochemistry. Maybe I can render some expert assistance when the time comes."

"I hope so," I said.

"Is Owen interested in immortality? That's what I've heard," Dave said.

"I really don't know." I closed my eyes and pretended to nap. Dave didn't disturb me when he ran his check at five thousand feet. I don't think he liked my attitude any more than I liked his.

Owen Montoya wanted to be a wallflower at the Reaper's ball. That's what had brought us together.

Set the Wayback machine, Sherman.

Copyright © 2002 by Greg Bear


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