Ellie Santos-Smith grabs a
clean white coat as spring dawn brightens her worn oriental rug and streaks with sun her only luxury, a grand piano.
She runs a comb through her jet-black hair, cut short because she thinks that makes her look older. Her smooth skin glows with 20-ish health, though she is 47. Patients distrust young doctors. Nanomed infusions keep her body young, her mind sharp, and mitigate her crippling agoraphobia. She has worked hard to be able to live in a minuscule apartment in The Enclave, a safe, low-population-density bubble in Washington, D.C. In this small, pure paradise the incredibly rich claim more cubic feet than most people in the world can dream of, dine on rare organic food, and ingest the most finely tuned infusions.
She hates herself for needing this. But she does. If she is to help anyone, if she is to put her hard-won training to use, she does. She can walk to the Longevity Center for her frequent infusions and, after that, to her job as an emergency physician at Capital Hospital without being trapped in a car, a subway, a plane.
Her phone rings. “Dad?” His voice gravelly, odd. Not that she’s heard from him in a long time.
She thinks blue for a moment. His eyes, tear-shimmered blue beneath a thatch of sun-whitened hair, all those years ago. He had been abruptly summoned from his marine biology kingdom the day her mother was murdered, as Ellie watched, during the First East Coast Riot. He’d fled back to his undersea haven soon afterwards, leaving her to Grandma and boarding schools.
“Can we talk later? My infusion is overdue; then I’m working emergency till seven,” she says. She imagines him in the teak cabin of his Key West–anchored sloop, stubbornly aging.
“Never mind.” He hangs up.
Same old game. She should be used to his gruff elusiveness, but it always hurts. Her father, a celebrated marine biologist with a worm named after him, quit academia once she got her college scholarships and spent decades painting bizarre ocean creatures, gaining a small international following.
Downstairs, the doorman smiles. She steps out into her safe haven, a few tree-lined blocks of historic mansions, townhomes, restaurants, and shops bounded on one side by Connecticut Avenue and patrolled by security professionals (thugs, to her mind) for which she pays a hefty neighborhood fee. They keep out the homeless, the hungry, the desperate, and the different. Once outside this discreet, invisible boundary she will have to pass through a few blocks she calls The Gauntlet, which throbs with the dense crowds that now fill most of the cities on Earth, before reaching the hospital where she works. Only her nanomed infusions keep panic at bay.
In front of her, a lone bicyclist splashes through puddles, and nearby Don Stapleton descends the broad stairs of Forever, a 1900-vintage condominium mansion of 30 wealthy centenarians, some of whom worked hard to establish The Enclave. He waves. “Doc! Lovely morning!”
Trapped. She could swear he hacks her schedule. White dreads halo his dark, handsome face. “Coffee on the veranda?” She glances over at the broad Victorian porch, with wicker chairs, hanging ferns, and eight limber residents sun-saluting as Ella Fitzgerald sings.
Six hundred million centenarians—C’s—are the last recipients of Social Security. It is the lifeline of most C’s but only slightly augments the wealth the people in Forever acquired during successful professional lives.
“Thanks, but I’m late.”
“I’ll walk with you. We have a new offer.”
Her throat constricts. “Sorry, but no.” The work, she knows, would be a nightmare. Perpetually on call for a household of detail-oriented hypochondriacs; crushed by constant, whimsical, impossible demands. She walks faster toward her job in the Hospital Center, where her patients are poor and in desperate need of her skills. They are the people to whom she has devoted her training and her life.
Don persists. “You got Mrs. Diyubski an emergency infusion. Cut through red tape, saved her life—”
“I’m not a boutique m.d.”
“You are a nanomedicine expert. Fewer patients might be less stressful for you. That could be a great change, given your phobia.”
Nosy bastard. He smiles. “Public information. I’m sending the offer.” The ping in her ear registers its reception, and Don falls behind.
In a few blocks she is at Dupont Circle. The implanted microchip that gives her access to The Enclave now signals with a low beep that she is unprotected. She takes a deep breath. Masses of children, teenagers, everyone young. Shanties, ever-milling crowds, food lines, rank odors, and a constant assault of raised voices, ugly music, honking horns.
The phone. Her father, calling back. “We need to talk. I’m dying.”
A break in her stride. “Where are you?”
“Hospice at Sunnyland. Hepatocellular carcinoma.” The words roll off his educated tongue.
“When were you diagnosed?”
“Three months ago.”
She rages. “Why didn’t you call? It’s not too late. Regeneration infusions—” Her brain teems with nanomed therapies. Most out of his financial reach, since he has stubbornly avoided anything other than mandatory insurance, and his age—85—precludes expensive life-extending measures.
“I’m ready to go, Ellie. They give me two, three days. I just want you, now.”