Guy Carson, stuck at yet another traffic light, glanced at the clock on his dashboard. He was already late for work, second time this week. Ahead, U.S. Route 1 ran like a bad dream through Edison, New Jersey. The light turned green, but by the time he had edged up it was red again.
“Son of a bitch” he muttered, slamming the dashboard with the fat part of his palm. He watched as the rain splattered across the windshield, listened to the slap and whine of the wipers. The serried ranks of brake lights rippled back toward him as the traffic slowed yet again. He knew he’d never get used to this congestion any more than he’d get used to all the damn rain.
Creeping painfully over a rise, Carson could see, a mere half mile down the highway, the crisp white facade of the GeneDyne Edison complex, a postmodern masterpiece rising above green lawns and artificial ponds. Somewhere inside, Fred Peck lay in wait.
Carson turned on the radio, and the throbbing sound of the Gangsta Muthas filled the air. As he fiddled with the dial, Michael Jackson’s shrill voice separated itself from the static. Carson punched it off in disgust. Some things were even worse than the thought of Peck. Why couldn’t they have a decent country station in this hole?
* * *
The lab was bustling when he arrived, Peck nowhere in sight. Carson drew the lab coat over his lanky frame and sat down at his terminal, knowing his log-on time would automatically go into his personnel file. If by some miracle Peck was out sick, he’d be sure to notice when he came in. Unless he had died, of course. Now, that was something to think about. The man did look like a walking heart attack.
“Ah, Mr. Carson,” came the mocking voice behind him. “How kind of you to grace us with your presence this morning.” Carson closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then turned around.
The soft form of his supervisor was haloed by the fluorescent light. Peck’s brown tie still bore testament to that morning’s scrambled eggs, and his generous jowls were mottled with razor burn. Carson exhaled through his nose, fighting a losing battle with the heavy aroma of Old Spice.
It had been a shock on Carson’s first day at GeneDyne, one of the world’s premier biotechnology companies, to find a man like Fred Peck there waiting for him. In the eighteen months since, Peck had gone out of his way to keep Carson busy with menial lab work. Carson guessed it had something to do with Peck’s lowly M.S. from Syracuse University and his own Ph.D. from MIT. Or maybe Peck just didn’t like Southwestern hicks.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said with what he hoped would pass for sincerity. “Got caught in traffic.”
“Traffic,” said Peck, as if the word was new to him.
“Yes,” said Carson, “they’ve been rerouting—”
“Reroutin’,” Peck repeated, imitating Carson’s Western twang.
“—detouring, I mean, the traffic from the Jersey Turn-pike—”
“Ah, the Turnpike,” Peck said.
Carson fell silent.
Peck cleared his throat. “traffic in New Jersey at rush hour. What an unexpected shock it must have been for you, Carson.” He crossed his arms. “You almost missed your meeting.”
“Meeting?” Carson said. “What meeting? I didn’t know—”
“Of course you didn’t know. I just heard about it myself. That’s one of the many reasons you have to be here on time, Carson.”
“Yes, Mr. Peck,” Carson said, getting up and following Peck past a maze of identical cubicles. Mr. Fred Peckerwood. Sir Frederick Peckerfat. He was itching to deck the oily bastard. But that wasn’t the way they did business around here. If Peck had been a ranch boss, the man would’ve been on his ass in the dirt long ago.
Peck opened a door marked videoconferencing room ii and waved Carson inside. It was only as Carson looked around the large, empty table within that he realized he was still wearing his filthy lab coat.
“Take a seat,” Peck said.
“Where is everybody?” Carson asked.
“It’s just you,” Peck replied. He started to back out the door.
“You’re not staying?” Carson felt a rising uncertainty, wondering if he’d missed an important piece of e-mail, if he should have prepared something. “What’s this about, anyway?”
“I have no idea,” Peck replied. “Carson, when you’re finished here, come straight down to my office. We need to talk about your attitude.”
The door shut with the solid click of oak engaging steel. Carson gingerly took a seat at the cherrywood table and looked around. It was a beautiful room, finished in hand-rubbed blond wood. A wall of windows looked out over the meadows and ponds of the GeneDyne complex. Beyond lay endless urban waste. Carson tried to compose himself for whatever ordeal was coming. Probably Peck had sent in enough negative ratings on him to merit a stem lecture from personnel, or worse.
In a way, he supposed, Peck was right his attitude could certainly be improved. He had to rid himself of the stubborn bad-ass outlook that did in his father. Carson would never forget that day on the ranch when his father sucker-punched a banker. That incident had been the start of the foreclosure proceedings. His father had been his own worst enemy, and Carson was determined not to repeat his mistakes. There were a lot of Pecks in the world.
But it was a goddamn shame, the way the last year and a half of his life had been flushed virtually down the toilet. When he was first offered the job at GeneDyne, it had seemed the pivotal moment of his life, the one thing he’d left home and worked so hard for. And still, more than anything, GeneDyne stood out as one place where he could really make a difference, maybe do something important. But each day that he woke up in hateful Jersey—to the cramped, unfamiliar apartment, the gray industrial sky, and Peck—it seemed less and less likely.
The lights of the conference room dimmed and went out. Window shades were automatically drawn, and a large panel slid back from the wall, revealing a bank of keyboards and a large video-projection screen.
The screen flickered on, and a face swam into focus. Carson froze. There they were: the jug ears, the sandy hair, the unrepentant cowlick, the thick glasses, the trademark black T-shirt, the sleepy, cynical expression. All the features that together made up the face of Brentwood Scopes, founder of GeneDyne. The Time issue with the cover article on Scopes still lay next to Carson’s living-room couch. The CEO who ruled his company from cyberspace. Lionized on Wall Street, worshipped by his employees, feared by his rivals. What was this, some kind of motivational film for hard cases?
“Hi,” said the image of Scopes. “How’re you doing, Guy?”
For a moment Carson was speechless. Jesus, he thought, this isn’t a film at all. “Uh, hello, Mr. Scopes. Sir. Fine. Sorry, I’m not really dressed—”
“Please call me Brent. And face the screen when you talk. I can see you better that way.”
“Not sir. Brent.”
“Right. Thanks, Brent.” Just calling the supreme leader of GeneDyne by his first name was painfully difficult.
“I like to think of my employees as colleagues,” Scopes said. “After all, when you joined the company, you became a principal in the business, like everyone else. You own stock in this company, which means we all rise and fall together.”
“Yes, Brent.” In the background, behind the image of Scopes, Carson could make out the dim outlines of what looked like a massive, many-sided vault.
Scopes smiled, as if unashamedly pleased at the sound of his name, and as he smiled it seemed to Carson that he looked almost like a teenager, despite being thirty-nine. He watched Scopes’s image with a growing sense of unreality. Why would Scopes, the boy genius, the man who built a four-billion-dollar company out of a few kernels of ancient corn, want to talk to him? Shit, I must have screwed up worse than I thought.
Scopes glanced down for a moment, and Carson could hear the tapping of keys. “I’ve been looking into your background, Guy,” he said. “Very impressive. I can see why we hired you.” More tapping. “Although I can’t quite understand why you’re working as, let’s see, a Lab Technician Three.”
Scopes looked up again. “Guy, you’ll forgive me if I get right to the point. There’s an important post in this company that’s currently vacant. 1 think you’re the person for it.”
“What is it?” Carson blurted, instantly regretting his own excitement.
Scopes smiled again. “I wish I could give you specifics, but it’s a highly confidential project. I’m sure you’ll understand if 1 only describe the assignment in general terms.”
“Do I look like a ‘sir’ to you, Guy? It wasn’t so long ago that I was just the nerdy kid being picked on in the schoolyard. What I can tell you is that this assignment involves the most important product GeneDyne has ever produced. One that will be of incalculable value to the human race.”
Scopes saw the look on Carson’s face and grinned. “It’s great,” he said, “when you can help people and get rich at the same time.” He brought his face closer to the camera. “What we’re offering you is a six-month reassignment to the GeneDyne Remote Desert Testing Facility. The Mount Dragon laboratory. You’ll be working with a small, dedicated team, the best microbiologists in the company.”
Carson felt a surge of excitement. Just the words Mount Dragon were like a magic talisman throughout all of GeneDyne: a scientific Shangri-la.
A pizza box was laid at Scopes’s elbow by someone offscreen. He glanced at it, opened it up, shut the lid. “Ah! Anchovies. You know what Churchill said about anchovies: ‘A delicacy favored by English lords and Italian whores.’”
There was a short silence. “So I’d be going to New Mexico?” Carson asked.
“That’s correct. Your part of the country, right?”
“I grew up in the Bootheel. At a place called Cottonwood Tanks.”
“I knew it had a picturesque name. You probably won’t find Mount Dragon as harsh as some of our other people have. The isolation and the desert setting can make it a difficult place to work. But you might actually enjoy it. There are horse stables there. I suppose you must be a fairly good rider, having grown up on a ranch.”
“I know a bit about horses,” Carson said. Scopes had sure as hell done his research.
“Not that you’ll have much time for riding, of course. They’ll run you ragged, no point in saying otherwise. But you’ll be well compensated for it. A year’s salary for the six-month tour, plus a fifty’thousand-dollar bonus upon successful completion. And, of course, you’ll have my personal gratitude.”
Carson struggled with what he was hearing. The bonus alone equaled his current salary.
“You probably know my management methods are a little unorthodox,” Scopes continued. “I’ll be straight with you, Guy. There’s a downside to this. If you fail to complete your part of the project in the necessary time frame, you’ll be ex-cessed.” He grinned, displaying oversized front teeth. “But I have every confidence in you. I wouldn’t put you in this position if I didn’t think you could do it.”
Carson had to ask. “I can’t help wondering why you chose me out of such a vast pool of talent.”
“Even that I can’t tell you. When you get briefed at Mount Dragon, everything will become clear, I promise.”
“When would I begin?”
“Today. The company needs this product, Guy, and there’s simply no time left. You can be on our plane before lunch. I’ll have someone take care of your apartment, car, all the annoying details. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” said Carson.
“That makes things easier.” Scopes smoothed down his cowlick, without success.
“What about my supervisor, Fred Peck? I was supposed to—”
“There’s no time. Just grab your PowerBook and go. The driver will take you home to pack a few things and call whoever. I’ll send what’s-his-name—Peck?—a note explaining things.”
“Brent, I want you to know—”
Scopes held up a hand. “Please. Expressions of gratitude make me uncomfortable. ‘Hope has a good memory, gratitude a bad one.’ Give my offer ten minutes’ serious thought, Guy, and don’t go anywhere.”
The screen winked out on Scopes opening the pizza box again.
As the lights came on, Carson’s feeling of unreality was replaced by a surge of elation. He had no idea why Scopes had reached down among the five thousand GeneDyne Ph.D.s and picked him, busy with his repetitive titrations and quality-control checks. But for the moment he didn’t care. He thought of Peck hearing thirdhand that Scopes had personally assigned him to Mount Dragon. He thought of the look on the fat face, the wattles quivering in consternation.
There was a low rumbling noise as the curtains drew back from the windows, exposing the dreary vista beyond, cloaked in curtains of rain. In the gray distance, Carson could make out the power lines and smokestacks and chemical effluvia that were central New Jersey. Somewhere farther west lay a desert, with eternal sky and distant blue mountains and the pungent smell of greasewood, where you could ride all day and night and never see another human being. Somewhere in that desert stood Mount Dragon, and within it, his own secret chance to do something important.
Ten minutes later, when the curtains closed and the video screen came once again to life, Carson had his answer ready.
Copyright © 1996 by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child