A medical research scientist wishes to make an important breakthrough before he dies.
Doctor Shantilal Shah toggled the joystick to roll his wheelchair closer to the edge of the stage, staring down at his enraptured audience. Pressing a button on his keypad, he changed the image displayed on the giant screen behind him then activated his microphone. “And, as you can see from this final chart, the technique has proved successful in ninety-nine percent of the two thousand embryos tested.”
The audience responded with hushed whispers and shocked expressions. He sensed reservation in most, but the potential of his research caused a few to nod thoughtfully. Clearly, there were ethical issues to consider.
“Any questions?” He hoped there wouldn’t be too many as his back and neck ached from sitting straight for so long. Soon Shantilal would need to attach a neck and body brace to his wheelchair to hold him in position, but he wanted to put that off as long as possible and preserve some of his mobility.
An elderly blonde stood. He recognized Professor Shepard from Harvard Medical School, a fine lady with whom he frequently corresponded on technical matters. “This is revolutionary research, especially from someone as young as yourself. However, how can you progress with this? No civilized country on Earth will allow you to apply these techniques to human embryos.”
He scratched his wiry beard. “That’s a very pertinent question. Of course, my team and I cannot continue along the same avenue. No matter how beneficial this research might be, the ethical issues are unsurmountable. However, we can address the problem on a cellular level and prove that these techniques will succeed on cells donated by adult volunteers with Down’s Syndrome.”
“But your volunteers will lack the mental capacity to consent to these tests.”
“We plan to select mosaic subjects with a relatively high IQ. The tests will be non-invasive and not harmful in any way. The volunteers will be rewarded with training opportunities leading to gainful employment. My hope is that the charitable foundation I established will thrive long after my demise and benefit the victims of Down’s Syndrome and their families, whether by hastening the development of a cure or simply improving their quality of life.”
Professor Shepard smiled. “You are truly going to change the way we think about gene modification therapy.”
Shantilal snorted. “I hope so. This project shall be my final legacy. In fact,” he gestured to his withered legs and torso, “it is unlikely that I shall live long enough to see the results of the next stage of this project.”
The professor’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I have faith that the Gujarat Trisomy 21 Foundation will receive sufficient funding to complete the current research project and publish the results. Following that, I have instructed the foundation trustees to establish grants to sponsor further research in this field. Hopefully, research students and future medical researchers will be able to make use of our techniques and findings to prevent one in a thousand people from having to struggle through life with significant physical and neurological disadvantages.”
A representative of the faculty walked onto the stage, signaling this evening’s guest lecture must now draw to an end. Professor Shepard clapped, and the rest of the audience joined her in showing their appreciation.
Shantilal forced a smile and reversed his wheelchair back, turning so he faced one of the wings. After he changed into a forward gear, the powerful wheelchair motor rushed him into the darkened wing.
A young woman stepped out of the darkness into his path, and his breath caught in surprise. He immediately released the toggle on his wheelchair to avoid running into her, and his forward momentum almost tumbled him out of his chair.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to startle you, Doctor.” The slender woman dressed in clothes more suited to a nightclub than an academic facility. She stepped closer, and a pleasant fragrance like strawberries filled the air. Despite the poor light, he realized she was stunning. She brushed her loose, black hair from her pale face. “I’m Venessa. I was impressed by your speech.”
He blinked, speechless for a moment. He was used to receiving respect from people in lab coats or formal suits. Beautiful girls, however, only existed for him in TV shows and movies.
She moved behind his chair and grasped hold of the handles. “Let me help you negotiate the ramp.”
“No. My chair can handle the slope.” Besides, with the large motor, battery, and other attached equipment, it was too heavy for anyone to control while descending a slope.
Vanessa ignored him and pushed, apparently finding no difficulty maneuvering his heavy wheelchair. “I know. But why waste your batteries when you have a willing helper? Anyway, this provides me with the opportunity to ask a few questions.”
Shantilal glanced around, wondering what happened to the security guards he saw before the lecture. More to the point, where were the faculty representatives who should be guiding him to the adjacent building where they planned an informal get together for some of the more prominent members of his audience and key members of the department’s staff. It seemed he was alone with this unusually attractive woman. He should be concerned. For all he knew, she could be a member of an extremist terrorist group. Although he couldn’t imagine why such an organization would target him, he understood radicals needed little excuse to attack anyone. The small measure of fame he'd recently earned could prove sufficient incentive for fundamentalists. However, he couldn’t find the energy to be anxious. He often found himself growing lethargic around this time of night. Besides, his days were numbered anyway. What did he have to lose?
He returned his attention to the young woman pushing his chair. “What do you want to know?”
“I’ve been following your career for a few years now. Since you began your Ph.D. thesis ten years ago, you’ve worked on gene modification therapy. When you commenced your work, you already knew you suffered from motor neuron disease. So, Doctor, why didn’t you focus on developing a cure you could use on yourself instead of working on Down’s Syndrome?”
He chuckled. He’d asked himself the same question many times. He was no saint, no matter what others claimed. But the math had seemed simple. “It was statistics.”
Reaching an emergency exit door, Vanessa halted the chair and walked in front to face him again. “Explain.”
“Motor neuron disease is extremely rare and, in most cases, only affects people in the later stages of their lives. Down’s syndrome affects people from birth and is the most common genetic disorder. I knew I only had a short time to work, and I could potentially help far more people by working toward a practical cure for Down’s syndrome.”
She placed a hand on his arm, and he shivered. Her fingers felt like popsicles against his skin. “But you won’t complete your work before you die.”
“No. If you have followed my work, you must understand I merely laid the groundwork for other people's research that will eventually lead to a cure. Hopefully, others will soon yield tangible results.”
She frowned, her eyes appearing to hold more wisdom than her years. “That seems sad.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve done the hard work, but someone else will reap the rewards.”
He shook his head. “It’s the cards I was dealt. I did what I could with the available time.”
She gripped his hand and leaned closer, giving him a closeup view of her ample charms that he was certain she hadn’t intended. “What if you had more time?”
“It’s a simple question. If there was some way you could live…a few more years. Could you complete your work?”
“Well, hypothetically speaking, yes. At the risk of sounding immodest, I believe I know more about Down’s syndrome than anyone else alive. With unlimited time, adequate resources, and a team of competent assistants, I could develop a working cure.” He shrugged. “But I don’t have infinite time. Half a year at most. And once a cure is formulated, there is still the problem of developing an experimental treatment into something that can be used in hospitals. Not to mention the red tape involved in getting something like this approved by the relevant authorities in each country.”
She reached over and cupped his face, her fingers cold yet oddly comforting and not overfamiliar. “Time might be arranged…hypothetically. But there’s a cost.”
“There’s always a cost. The question is…is it worth it? To answer that, one would need to understand the cost.”
She straightened and placed a finger to the side of her full lips. “Let’s say the cost is one of fame and reputation. Imagine if someone were able to grant you the extra time you require, and you were able to create a working cure, but someone else won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in your place. How would that make you feel?”
He chuckled, amused by her fantasy scenario. “You have a very vivid imagination, Miss…what did you say your name was?”
“Just Vanessa, please.”
“Well, let me be completely honest, Vanessa. Of course, I’d be angry and disappointed that somebody else received the recognition and reward for my work. However, it would still be worth the price.”
She narrowed her eyes and leaned back against the exit door. “I’m older than I look, and I’ve been around a lot of deceitful people. I know when men lie. Would you truly be prepared to give up on your fame, the financial benefits, and the prestige of such a breakthrough in return for the extra time you need?”
Shantilal looked Vanessa in the eyes, momentarily distracted by their unusually bright emerald color. What was the point of these hypothetical questions? But then, it wasn’t as if he would be doing anything else tonight other than retiring to bed.
He thought about what she said and considered all the facets of her fantasy scenario. Would he be able to work to his full potential understanding that others would gain all the praise, and nobody would know of his part in the cure? With a successful gene therapy technique, millions every year would be saved from the pain and suffering associated with Down’s Syndrome. Their life expectancy would be increased, their quality of life improved, and they would contribute to society rather than becoming a drain on resources. Yes. Such an outcome was clearly more important than his petty need for recognition.
“You’ve come to a decision?”
He nodded. “If I were given the choice to live longer to develop my theories, I would be prepared to step into the shadows and allow others to take the bow.”
Vanessa grinned. “What an apt analogy.” She hit the bar on the emergency door, and it swung open to reveal a black Bentley with tinted windows parked in the narrow alleyway between faculty buildings. “Let’s get out of here.”
She reached down and gently lifted him from his chair. His heart rate spiked, partly due to the fear of the unknown, and partly due to his body’s uncontrollable natural reaction to the proximity of such an attractive woman.
“What are you doing?”
“Relax, Professor. We’re going for a ride.”
“Th-there will be people looking.”
“They won’t find you.”
He gestured back. “My chair.”
“You won’t need it.”
The blood drained from his face. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
A giant in a chauffeur’s uniform opened the Bentley’s back door, and Vanessa eased him into a seat. After fastening his seatbelt, she patted his shoulders. “Yes. But I promise it won’t hurt.”
She shut the car door on him and then moved around the back of the vehicle to enter from the other side. He shook his head in denial. What was going on? Why did she ask so many questions if she merely planned to murder him? She must be a sociopath. He took in the plush leather seats and the new car smell. A wealthy sociopath.
Vanessa claimed the neighboring seat, leaned against him, and lowered her mouth to his neck. Her tongue darted out to lick the skin over his carotid artery, and he shivered in bizarre arousal. “You’ll just feel a little prick,” she promised. Then lunged.
Shantilal awoke laying on a king-size bed inside an unfamiliar darkened room. Where was he? Despite the darkness, he could count the threads making up the blackout drapes covering a large bay window. He heard the footsteps of people outside the room, though he somehow knew they were on a different floor of the building. A pleasant lavender fragrance wafting from the fresh bedsheets suggested a feminine influence. Underlying that was a faint strawberry scent…
His memories flooded back, and he recalled Vanessa. What had she done? Perhaps she’d injected him with a hallucinatory drug that fabricated the impression his senses had become this aware. He sat up, placed his feet on the floor, and stood in one graceful and continuous movement. He froze. He was standing. How…?
The sound of footsteps on stairs drew his attention. Somebody marched along a corridor toward him. His bedroom door opened, and he instinctively turned and took on a defensive stance. Vanessa entered and smiled. “Good. You’re awake.”
“Where…? What…? How…?”
She gestured to the whole of his body. “This standing thing. It’s a good look for you, Doctor.”
He swallowed and became aware of a dry irritation in his throat. He felt unusually thirsty.
“Ah, yes,” said Vanessa. She walked over to a minifridge on one corner of the room and took out a giant Styrofoam cup with a straw. “You’ll need this little pick-me-up before we can talk.”
Shantilal doubted the wisdom of accepting a drink from a woman who had so recently drugged him, yet his throat was so dry he found he couldn’t refuse. The cool liquid eased his thirst with an odd metallic tang that he found somehow irresistible. Before long, the cup ran dry.
“Good.” She took his hand and led him back to the bed, removing the cup from his hand and placing it on the bedstand. He noted her hand wasn’t so cold today. In fact, it felt relatively warm and very soft. She perched on the side of the bed, patting the space beside her. Given that he had no idea what was happening, he saw no other choice but to join her in the hope of learning more.
“I’m pleased your renewal was successful.” She reached over and patted his thigh. “You’re as handsome as I hoped you would be.”
She gestured to a nearby dressing table. In its mirror, he saw a young man of Indian heritage with a full face and a healthy beard. It looked like his younger brother, Bhavin. Wait! It wasn’t Bhavin. It was himself. But the gaunt face and lifeless features he’d become used to over the past decade had been replaced by the healthy vitality of youth. “What…?”
She smirked. “This is going to be a lot to take in.” She squeezed his hand. “The most important fact is you now have all the time you need to complete your research and help millions of people. Also, between my friends and myself, we have the wherewithal to set you up with the necessary facilities and finances.”
“Honestly? I’ll be able to continue my work?”
“Yes, you will.”
Something in her eyes compelled him to believe. A weight lifted from his shoulders.
“But,” she continued, “as I mentioned, you must make sacrifices.”
He glanced down at his hand; his fingers now intertwined with hers. There were many legends and myths in India about demigods and immortals who walked among humans, helping them to build civilization. “I’m not human anymore, am I?”
She shook her head.
“I’m a deva like one of the Pandava brothers, aren’t I.”
Vanessa smiled and nodded.
“I’m not going to grow any extra arms or legs, am I?”
She chuckled and her eyes lit up. “Sorry, no. Although arguably that could be useful for multitasking in your laboratory. Yes, you're a diva, but I prefer the Western term vampire.”
“Vampire? So, I have to…?”
She gestured to the empty Styrofoam cup on the bedstand. “Yes.”
“But I don’t feel evil.”
She giggled. “Oh, Shantilal. I hope you don’t mind me calling you Shantilal?” He shook his head. “Were the Pandava brothers evil?”
“No,” he admitted. “But, well, vampires?”
“You’re exactly the same person you were before the transformation, but a little stronger and with a special dietary requirement. Ah, and also you can’t go out in daylight and you’ll never age. That’s kinda why you’re going to have to step into the shadows…literally.”
“But now I’ll be able to focus on my research and help many more people.”
“Yes. And, I’ll be by your side.” She raised an eyebrow. “If you permit?”
He blinked. “But of course. I would be honored by your company.”
She entwined her fingers with his and smiled shyly. “I’m pleased you don’t mind. I’ve been alone for a long time. In youth, I had bad experiences. You’re the first man I’ve met in centuries who I believe is genuinely good.”
“You flatter me.”
“I don't believe that, and I intend to take the time to test my hypothesis by spending forever by your side.”
He squeezed her hand. “I cannot think of anything that would bring me more pleasure.”
Word Count: 2919