Authors: Pierre Ouellette
The Forever Man
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright © 2014 by Pierre Ouellette
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
is a registered trademark and the A
colophon is a trademark of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-7719-1
Cover and art design: Scott Biel
Author photograph: Justin Ouellette
I have no plans to die.
—Rupert Murdoch, as quoted in
The Wall Street Journal
, December 10, 1997
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”
At 127 years of age, Thomas Zed is forever cold, with the capillaries in his skin continually screaming for the blood his frail heart cannot provide. The walls of the ventricles are severely thickened, and the various chambers hopelessly compromised. The arteries that feed the cardiac muscles are fat with collagen and calcium, so they no longer stretch and recoil with enough vigor to power a strong pulse.
Zed moves forward on wobbly legs, with small, careful steps that measure the safety of the ground beneath him. His bones have ossified into brittle relics, leached of minerals and ready to snap during the slightest fall. The shovel that he drags with his right hand skews his gait and leaves a tiny furrow in the ground as he moves forward. Through eyes with bloated lenses and constricted pupils, he searches the grass ahead for the right spot. Even in the glorious blaze of prairie light, all is dim, and he must search very carefully. Then he sees it. A single stone, an aberration in the local geology, a rock too large for the earth around it.
Zed grasps the shovel handle with swollen, arthritic joints and winces at the pain they radiate. He could have asked for help, could have avoided the ordeal ahead. The security people are young, strong, resilient. They would have perspired freely as they dug with strong backs and thick shoulders and flung the prairie sod into the wind. But when they reached the target of the dig, they would be repulsed by what they saw, and he would be obligated to explain, which was simply not possible. He must suffer the pain of his labor, no matter what the physical cost.
He raises the shovel and plants his foot on the curled metal at the back of the blade. He gingerly puts his weight on it and feels the steel tip punch into the ground through the dry thatch. He removes his foot, pries the dirt loose from the earth’s stubborn grip, and throws it to the side. The volume of his excavation is pitifully small, and the magnitude of the task becomes sadly clear. He has only half the muscle tissue of his youth, and it will be severely stressed as it runs a large deficit in oxygenated blood. Nevertheless, he must go on. He raises the shovel and bites the cold ground once again. Already, he can feel pain where the back of the blade traverses the sole of his shoe.
As Zed digs, his heart heaves about in his chest and does its best to meet the cruel demands put forth by the muscles in the limbs and the back. His pulse clambers up to ninety beats per minute, and its rhythmic components begin to collide with each other in a silent scream
of protest. The orderly pattern of 127 years is being pushed out onto the far frontiers that define the border with chaos. Still, he digs.
Zed can feel himself on the precipice of physical catastrophe, but he must go on. He dips the blade in for one last gouge of earth and thrusts down feebly. Then his shovel hits something solid, and he knows instantly what it is. He drops to his knees in exhaustion and relief. His heart pulls back from the boundary line of disaster. Then he stops and looks up and over to the knoll, a small swell of earth pushing up against the enormous weight of the prairie sky.
Zed feels a small measure of relief as he claws at the loose earth and parts it with his impossibly wrinkled hands. He feels the rough surface of rotting canvas, and knows he has found it. He goes back to the shovel and gingerly widens his excavation, and the canvas is revealed to be a small, lumpy bundle tied with several turns of twine. Throwing down the shovel, he fishes a small penknife from his pocket and cuts the twine. Next, he makes a small incision at the base of the bundle, and feels the decaying material yield easily to the touch of the blade. Impatiently, he inserts his fingers so he can rip the bundle open in a single motion. He tears at the incision, and a thin cloud of dust rises as the fabric disintegrates, followed by a strange and musty smell. The skeleton of a small infant looks up at him, with arms held tight to the rib cage and the hands open with palms out, as though defending against a coming blow. The jaw is open and the toothless mouth seems caught in mid-scream.
Zed’s face collapses into a grim facsimile of a smile, his cheekbones scarcely concealed beneath the desiccated flesh with its wildly distorted matrix of wrinkles. “There you are,” he says in a hoarse whisper. “It’ll just take a minute. That’s all. Just a minute.”
He reaches down and grasps the midpoint of one of the femur bones, and gently begins to twist. “You’re giving a most magnificent gift. I promise to use it wisely. I promise,” Zed whispers as he works the bone loose from the hip socket and knee joint. He winces slightly at the cracking of the dry cartilage, but pushes on. Then the bone comes free, and he rises to his feet. It is colored a dirty ivory mixed with a faint yellow, but to Zed’s ancient eyes the yellow is only a vague mustard gray. He reaches in his overcoat, pulls out a plastic bag, and carefully inserts the femur. Then he turns once more to the skeleton.
He picks up the shovel and begins to close the grave. Its tiny occupant looks up at him with hollow sockets and seems to give a mute howl as the dirt rains down. Zed avoids looking at the infant directly and gazes into the distance, where a far-off squall line paints a band of dark purple a single degree above the horizon to the south. Tiny fingers of lightning flick out and silently stab the earth. The immense distance eats their thunder.
Arjun Khan comes off the fender of the utility vehicle and he out a cigarette butt beneath his
heel. He walks to the top of the road cut, where can see that the old man is back on the shovel, but filling instead digging. He must have found the source material.
Arjun methodically checks the defensive posture of the men, the vehicles. There’s little chance of trouble out here, but his action has become automatic, a habit ingrained from years of service. He turns back and sees Zed moving toward him in that slow, wobbly gait that sorely tests his patience. Khan is an engineer by training and admires precision and symmetry. The old man has lost both, and is rapidly descending into physical anarchy.
Khan calls out to the men, who rise like russet ghosts from the prairie grass and drift back toward the line of three vehicles, all painted in camouflage tones that match the soiled beige and gold of the ground and the grass.
Zed negotiates a small incline down to the gravel road, using the shovel to maintain his balance. Khan approaches him and takes the shovel, which he gives to one of the men to stow.
“We’re done,” Zed announces in a raspy whisper. “Let’s go.”
Khan goes around and opens the passenger door of the middle vehicle, whose classic utility style is augmented by military trappings. Bulletproof windows. Armor plating. Emergency ventilation system. After Zed carefully plants his foot on the running board, Khan helps him up into the interior. The old man lets out an involuntary grunt of pain as he exerts himself.
Khan returns to the driver’s side and motions the lead vehicle to move out as he climbs in. The old man’s mouth is open and his unblinking eyes stare out the windshield. Khan turns to the embedded microphone and orders the other vehicles to start out. He looks down at the map display and mentally calculates their transit time.
“Slowly,” the old man murmurs. “We must go slowly.”
“Of course,” Khan replies. Zed is paranoid about accidents, among other things. Even a minor one would plunge him into untold agony or even death. In spite of therapeutic effort, he is now an utter prisoner of his physical decline. And watching him, Khan has come to realize how the periphery of one’s personal world shrinks in the final years, during the final age of aging. Khan himself is nearing seventy, and finds his observations depressing. He’s fastidious about his health, except for the cigarettes, which will probably be his ultimate undoing. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe he will have no final age to struggle through.
“We were out here a little longer than I expected, but we should be back before dark,” Khan tells Zed. After nightfall, the roads become perilous, and Khan’s job is to continually minimize all risk in the immediate vicinity of the old man.
“That’s good.” The old man nods. “Turn the heater up.”
Khan punches a button to activate a propane-fired auxiliary heater that will elevate the vehicle’s interior temperature until the engine-driven heater warms up. The old man likes the temperature in the high seventies, which Khan finds oppressively hot, but he has no say in the
They lapse into silence and hear only the gravel chewing at the big tires as they head west, where the Gallatin Mountains reach out to grab the afternoon. Ten miles roll by.
“There were four men out here today,” Zed says abruptly. “They need a change of scenery. I think it’s time you rotated them out of service. For a vacation.”
Khan nods. “Yes. For a vacation.” He understands. Absolute security requires absolute silence, the kind found six feet under.
By the time they reach the airstrip, the sun has dipped behind the thunderheads creeping over the mountains to the west. Two men with slung combat weapons have come out to the gate, where coils of barbed wire wrap around a hinged wooden frame. The transponders in the vehicles have already identified them to the guard post, and the encrypted identification signals have passed through the finest of algorithms on the fastest of machines. Still, you can never be too careful. The lead vehicle stops, the sniffer scans are completed, and one of the men trudges back toward Khan and Zed. A neural-trained camera mounted on an armored vehicle tracks his motion.