The morning of my seventy-ninth birthday, Manya Babichev calls me a cunt. I have known her for nearly half a century, and have tolerated her tantrums, outbursts, long jags of Russian folk songs ("Korobeiniki", "Ochi Chyornye"), but this is the first time I have suffered personal insult.
I am in her hospital room taking air samples. This has always brought me peace. Even when the equipment was primitive – not the laser quality monitors we use today – the process was meditative. I am spry for my age, but still beset with a variety of expected aches and pains, so the process of moving around the room and taking measurements is a kind of quiet physical therapy.
Babichev is animated, chattering excitedly about her fingers and toes. “Look, Doktor Myasnik. Look at this little piggy, and this little piggy …”
“Yes, Manya,” I say absently, fixated on the quality monitor. “You have all of your fingers and toes.”
She abruptly falls silent, her posture taking on an aristocratic air I have never seen from her. “Doctor Torvald,” she says in perfect English, “you are a horrible cunt.”
I pause for a moment, and take a deep breath. “Manya, how do you say happy birthday in Russian?”
She stares at me, her face frozen in a doll-like smile.
“Never mind,” I say finally. “I’ll look it up.”
Prisoner designation LS-25, Manya Elena Babichev. Physical age 23, actual age unknown. Height 1.6 meters, weight 50 kilograms. Pale, slight freckling on cheeks and shoulders, black hair, black eyes, 2-millimeter scar on chin. Babichev came to the Paean facility as part of the prisoner purchase agreement with the United States Bureau of Prisons. Babichev was apprehended for vagrancy and possession of a deadly weapon, and was flagged on the Longevity Index. Consequently, she was tried and convicted for a series of unrelated vagrant murders and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Per the prisoner purchase agreement, Babichev was reported deceased from natural causes three years after incarceration. She has been in Paean ever since.
Babichev is vain, impulsive, narcissistic, and a practiced manipulator. She claims to be a Romanov, though this claim is dubious at best. The guards call her “Czarina Nut-ball” and “Princess Loony.”
She is capable of physical regeneration when exposed to full-spectrum light. We have documented regeneration by excision of five fingers, five toes, forty percent of her skin, one eye, and one lung. Following the pneumonectomy, she was placed in a lightless solitary environment without food or water for thirty days to measure any impediment to regeneration factor.
She is a remarkable specimen, capable of regenerating nearly twice as quickly as the previous dozen or so subjects. We classify her as “phytoform,” though this is not strictly accurate. We have taken biological samples, cultured them, and attempted to grow new limbs in the lab with mixed success. We have attempted to isolate the regenerative factor for use in gene therapy and targeted therapy. One of the first subjects for this testing was James, my husband, who had inoperable cancer at the time. The tests were not successful.
The afternoon of my seventy-ninth birthday, I schedule a surgical procedure for Babichev. Tracheotomy and total glossectomy. We will remove her tongue.
Arthur Petitfrere is my least favorite person after Babichev. Arthur and I are the research heads for Paean and UTN, the two corporations that benefit from the prisoner purchase agreement. Paean's primary research goal is to isolate and exploit the factors that provide these subjects with extreme longevity, and UTN's goal is to determine the origin of longevity. Or, as Arthur would put it, he is seeking the Fountain of Youth and I am seeking the vaccine for death.
Arthur and Babichev get along swimmingly. He brings her sweets, calls her Manyasha. A portion of our agreement permits confidential interviews, which has always frustrated me. All I know about Arthur’s conversations with Babichev and the other subjects is what he reports back to me, and he is decidedly selective about this.
“You cut out Manyasha’s tongue?” he says, making a clucking sound and slowly shaking his head. He sits in my office, completely filling a leather chair. Age and a thyroid condition have transformed Arthur from an athletic boy with a full head of hair to the balding, rotund man who nags me now, his face a permanent shade of red. “That’s extreme, even for you.”
I methodically slide documents into manila folders and file them away, not looking at Arthur. “Progenitor cells in that part of the body are particularly lucrative for regeneration,” I say. “You know this.”
He eyes me carefully. “You could have just taken a swab.”
“Yes, or I could have filled her mouth with boiling oil and observed the regeneration process.”
He lets out an incredulous laugh. “Oh my,” he says, “this has taken a dark turn, hasn’t it? What did Manyasha do to incur your wrath, Elizabeth?”
“She has only incurred my curiosity,” I reply.
He smiles his knowing, condescending little smile. “That curiosity certainly hasn't improved poor Manyasha's singing voice. Your bedside manner is a bit severe, Elizabeth.”
Because Babichev cannot speak, Arthur must choose another subject to interview. The ones he finds most interesting are:
LS-16: Paris Edgefield, physical age 35, idioform regenerator. Acquired in 1965. Exempted from invasive procedures after he began scarring about twenty years ago. Quiet, aloof, poorly-educated, night terrors.
LS-101: Anjali Balakrishna, physical age 19, phytoform regenerator. Apprehended at LAX in the early 1980s and convicted for terrorism. Acquired in 1992. Serene, well-spoken, diplomatic. Has killed two guards in her tenure.
LS-118: Samuel Mann, physical age 35, idioform regenerator. Acquired 1978. Our only subject who was actually guilty of the triple murder for which he was charged. Guards call him “Hamilton” after George Hamilton, because of an apparently permanent tan. Average intelligence, gregarious, thoughtful. Well within the antisocial spectrum.
LS-121: William Nazare, physical age 52, hydroform regenerator. Apprehended trying to sell secrets to Iran. U.S. intelligence services identified him in photographs going to back to William McKinley, which brought him to our attention. Eidetic memory, obsessive-compulsive, delusional.
Arthur chooses Mann, because he is obsessed with the idioforms. They have no known catalyst for regeneration – they simply do it. Arthur believes – quite wrongly – that idioform regenerators were exposed to a toxin or foreign agent that facilitated longevity. We have studied four idioforms, and not one sample contained evidence of a toxin.
While Arthur is in session, I visit Babichev in recovery. She is a awake and alert, her mouth bandaged closed, a tube in her throat. Orderlies have handcuffed her to the bed, which is unsurprising. Her black eyes dart over to me as I enter, and they narrow.
“How are we today?” I say crisply, taking up Babichev’s chart and examine it. She lets out a tiny, muffled growl, her nose wrinkling.
“Very well, I see.” I replace her chart and check her vitals. “I am sure you will be completely recovered in no time. Thank you, as always, for your contribution to our endeavor.”
The moment I step out of the room, there is a commotion behind me. The door automatically locks, a security precaution. Babichev has slipped one of her handcuffs and thrown a tray at the observation window. She tears open the bandage, reaches into her mouth, and with her own blood, writes on the wall: FUKING KUNT.
“Little Miss Nutcase is at it again,” grunts the security shift lead.
“Have her transferred to isolation,” I tell him. “No food, no water, no sound, no light.”
I walk away, imagining a door. I lock the door, and swallow the key.
Six months later, Arthur Petitfrere and I are keeping new secrets from each other. I don’t know his, of course, but I know that it relates to LS-118, Samuel Mann. He has requested blood work and a liver biopsy, followed by a biopsy from Mann’s medulla. Arthurs claims that these are routine, but I know he is hiding something.
My secret is much more pedestrian. Early-stage dementia. Unsteady gait, forgetfulness, two bouts of mild aphasia that I know of. I am seeing a private doctor on my own dime, and Paean knows nothing about it. If UTN learns of this, they will move aggressively to secure this facility and all of its subjects.
And I will die in a fog and a loneliness that I cannot currently imagine.
Missy is on duty right now. I call her into my office and order a battery of biopsies for Mann.
“What should we sample?” she asks, taking notes.
“Everything,” I say. “Bone, brain, skin, whatever you can think of. Biopsy it all. Take out the fucker’s black little heart and stick it in a Petri dish if you must.”
Missy looks at me, wide-eyed. “Yes Doctor,” she says slowly, slinking out of the room.
For months, we disassemble Mann. We expose living tissue to radiation, heat, arsenic. We culture it, vaporize it, and analyze the fumes. I order his connective tissue sampled, large portions of his peritoneum removed, an eye blinded, cartilage from one ear sliced away. Nothing.
Heal thyself, say. This has become my mantra.
Words are slippery. More and more often, I feel like I’ve been drinking. Heart/hurt eye/ore liver/lever.
“What amazes me,” Arthur says, his repugnant smug settled into my chair, “is that Sam seems utterly unperturbed.”
“Samuel Mann. LS-118? The one we’ve been slicing and dicing.”
I am staring at a file about something. “Does he.”
“Yes. You removed his eye, and his only concern was that his other eye was good enough to watch the Sixers.”
“Sports,” I say.
Arthur laughs delightedly. “Correct! The Sixers play a sport. I had forgotten how you dislike them.”
“I don’t know who the Sixers are.”
“Sports,” he says. “How much you dislike sports.”
Paean learns about my condition just after my eightieth birthday. The tantrums gave it away, most probably. Yelling at staff, unlike me. Tears. Some nights I dream of roots growing in my brain, tongues coming out of the floor. The symbols are still good – math, cell diagrams. But the logic is fading.
They dismiss me, and I argue for thirty days to complete two drug trials. I falsify the data, and Arthur helps me. I don’t know why he helps, since my kingdom will become his. But he does. Thirty days to cure death. To heal myself.
“Hello, Samuel,” I say to him, straining to smile. Arthur stands next to me, reading over the vivisection paperwork.
“Call me Sam,” he says from his bed. He isn’t restrained. In his decades here, Mann has never once made trouble. It has always been my suspicion that he likes it here, that life in the facility is easier for Mann than life in the normal, mortal world.
“Sam,” I say. “Today’s procedure will be quite simple. We will put you under and take some samples, as usual.”
He chuckles. That wry, tanned face, wearing the invisible scars of – decades? Centuries? “What is there left to sample, Doc?”
I pat his hand and smile reassuringly. “Don’t you worry about that.”
I nod to Arthur, who smiles at me as I leave the room. Soon, Mann’s secrets will be my secrets. Soon, I will remember everything.
I’m at the end of the hall when I hear the shout. There is a sickening, wet cracking sound, and Mann’s room door locks down. But before it can slam shut, something blocks it. What is that?
I run to the exit door, pulling out my cell phone. I call security. “Locked in!” I shout. “Locked in!”
“Ma’am?” the voice on the other end replies. “Are you locked in somewhere?”
“Down!” I shout breathlessly. “Lock down! Lock everything down!”
The shooting begins when I’m a few yards from my office. I’m out of breath, seeing stars, the hallway beginning to spin. I hear the sharp report of a handgun, followed by the staccato crack of a rifle. Glass and the ping of metal. Strobe lights and alarms make everything seem like a house of horrors, like a music video. When I get to my office, the power goes out and red emergency lights turn on. The alarms stop, and screams rise up in the distance.
All at once, the screams stop. I’m under my desk. That’s when I hear her, singing one of her Russian folk songs.
“Ochi chyornye, ochi zhguchie …” Her voice echoes in the empty hall. The only other sound is broken glass, tinkling down like ice.
“Doktor Myasnik, where are you?” she says in a sweet, girlish voice. “I have my tongue again! Come sing with me. Dark eyes, burning eyes, passionate and splendid eyes …”
I curl up on my side, peering under the desk. Her shadow falls across the hallway wall, long and narrow. How can she be so narrow? I suddenly remember my Aunt Priss, an aunt by marriage, who was tall and impossibly thin. We visited her and my uncle in the summer, and my brother and I climbed into their mulberry tree and ate mulberries until we were sick. I feel sick like that now. What did I eat? Did I swallow something?
I suddenly remember the mental door, the lock, the key.
“Do you know this song?” Babichev says, her Russian accent strong. “Ne vstrechal by vas, ne stradal by tak … Ya by prozhil zhizn' ulybayuchis' … Vy zgubili menya ochi chyornye …” She rounds the corner, standing in the doorway. I can see her bare, shrivelled feet, gray against the gray carpet. “It means, If I hadn't met you, I wouldn't be suffering so. I would have lived my life smiling. You have ruined me, dark eyes. You have taken my happiness away forever.”
She leans down, peering beneath the desk. I understand now why her shadow is so narrow. She is withered, like a starved vine, a shrunken head. Her eyes bulge out of her face. I can see the outline of her teeth through her lips. When she smiles, there is a vague crackling sound. “Dark eyes, burning eyes,” she sings. “I love you so, I fear you so. I knew you in a sinister hour.”
“Don’t,” I say, as she grabs my arm. Her grip is iron, cold. She is dead and not dead. She strokes the back of my hand.
“Look, Doctor Elizabeth,” she says in her girlish voice. “Look at this little piggy …”