Chapter Seventeen - Geeks Meet Their Hero
In the kitchen Charlotte smiles nervously at Gabe and the geeks. Gonzo is absorbed in playing a game called ‘Hammerhead’ on his phone. Gabe is seated comfortably at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. Bird is pacing, his small yellow shoes making no sound on the tiled floor. Charlotte sips her coffee, watching the cloakroom door. A car pulls up in the garage. A door slams. The door opens. Robert Campbell, armed with papers and briefcase, sees his daughter and smiles.
“Hi Charlie. Oh, and we have visitors, I see.”
Charlotte kisses his cheek and allows him to embrace her, her eyes fixed upon Gabe. “Dad, you remember Gabe Murray.” The two shake hands.
“Yes. Hi Gabe. Good to see you.”
“And this is Gonzo and Bird.” They shake hands with him. Even Bird darts forward, thrusts out his small hand then retreats again.
“Nice outfit,” says her dad, nodding at Bird’s yellow ensemble. A girlish giggle escapes Bird’s lips and he claps a hand over his mouth, his eyes wide. Charlotte’s mouth quirks in a smile.
“A real honour to meet you, Professor Campbell,” says Gonzo. “We have admired your work for ages!” He glances at Gabe and says proudly, “We think transhumanism is the most important issue of the future.”
“I think the energy crisis might be of greater significance,” says Robert, grinning. “But thank you. Always good to meet Charlie’s friends.” He grins at her as he places his briefcase beside the bench.
“Dad, the guys know about me. In fact, they have been helping me understand it.”
Robert raises his eyebrows.
“Really? Well I’d be very interested to hear what you’ve found.”
“Professor Campbell, could we see your lab?” blurts Gonzo, watching the man remove a carton of juice and pour the thick, orange liquid into a glass.
“I don’t see why not. I’ve some interesting slides to show you.” He salutes his daughter with the glass. “Charlotte’s blood samples.”
“How about tonight?” Gonzo says, ignoring the warning looks from Gabe and Charlotte.
“Well, seeing as it’s already six o’clock, how about we order pizza first?” They all chorus enthusiastically. Professor Campbell picks up the phone and places an order.
“Five pizzas? Cool!” Gonzo’s eyes are large and round. He pats his ample belly. “I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving!” complains petite Bird. “You can’t go five minutes without food.”
“So Professor, any theories about the spots?” Gabe wants to know. Her father seats himself at the table.
“Yes.” His eyes meet Charlotte’s. “It appears to be a form of Phenoptosis, despite the Infinity Gene.”
“Programmed cell death?” says Gonzo, his head on the side, considering. “Makes sense.”
“Would explain why things are changing at a molecular level,” muses Gabe, squeezing his chin with thumb and forefinger.
“Genetic mutation,” adds Bird from his corner perch on the arm of the sofa.
“But why now? Puberty was long ago,” says Gonzo, glancing briefly at Charlotte and flushing bright red.
“Yes, I did wonder about the timing of it,” says her father. “But it’s definitely intensified lately.”
“Not to mention the other day, with Anna Povic,” says Gonzo. Charlotte fires him a look and he cringes, mouthing the words sorry!
“My face is dying,” she saysquickly to cover up Gonzo’s faux pas. “And yet you all talk about it so calmly, as if it’s not a person you’re talking about.”
“Sweetheart, we’re just trying to figure out what’s happening,” her father reassures her.
“I know that, Dad. I just wish you wouldn’t talk about me as if I’m some sort of experiment!”
“But Charlie, they’re just trying to help. After all, I can’t discuss this with any of my colleagues. They have no idea you are the prototype of my human cloning program.”
“It’s just so unfair! I didn’t ask for this!”
“I know.” He hangs his head. “It’s my fault. My arrogance, my inability to let my little girl go.” He lifts his face and his eyes are bright with tears. “You have every right to be angry with me.” There’s a stunned silence. He meets his daughter’s gaze, straight on. “But I don’t regret it.”
“Even if it’s just prolonging the inevitable?” Charlotte feels a choking fear tighten in her throat. Searching her father’s face she finds no solace or comfort there. Then a warm hand takes hers, tenderly. She looks up. Gabe is standing beside her looking into her eyes with such fear and longing that she holds her breath. Why? Why does he care so much? She can’t cope and flees the room.
Later, there’s a knock on her bedroom door.
“Come in, Dad,” she says, without looking up from her magazine. Trixie Hilton is wearing the most hideous outfit. Charlotte is seriously considering writing a rant to the magazine.
“Hey.” It’s Gabe. Charlotte drops the magazine. He seats himself on the chair by the window. “So, you ready to go? They’re all waiting downstairs.”
“Nah. I changed my mind,” She picks up the magazine again, hoping he’ll leave. She doesn’t want to face this. Programmed Cell Death - it sounds like computer jargon.
“God, Charlotte! Do you always have to be so damned stubborn?”
Charlotte looks up, frowns. “You’ve known me for what - two weeks and you think that qualifies you to judge my character flaws?”
“Charlotte, you don’t understand...”
“How come you always treat me like you know me? Until the start of term I’d never even seen you before, yet you act like... like you’ve known me for years. Why is that? Huh?”
He stares out the window, his jaw tightening. “Because I promised to protect you, ok? I promised.”
He turns to face her, his eyes sad, like he’s been betrayed. “You needed me. Once. We were close. Told each other secrets.” His voice breaks. “You can’t remember, can you?”
“You’re delusional!” She throws a pillow at him. “Get out.”
He cradles his head in his hands. His voice is a whisper. “You were so sick. They put you in a private room. I knew you were going to die.” Charlotte stares at him. Something is stirring in her mind - a fuzzy, unformed memory. “And then, one morning, you woke up. And you didn’t know me. You’d forgotten everything and I was a stranger to you. They took you home and I was left there by myself.” He runs his hands through his dark hair. Charlotte gets off the bed and takes a step towards him, curiosity and surprise rippling through her.
“When? When was this? I don’t understand.”
He looks at her. She can feel his pain and vulnerability, but more shocking is the grief etched in every line of his angular face. She kneels in front of him, her hand on his knee. This strange boy she hardly knows is filling in some of the lost years of her life. The thrill of it is coursing through her body like a flash of sparks. Their eyes lock. His voice is soft.
“We were eight, in the children’s ward. I had a broken leg, broken arm and you were... dying of some incurable disease. Your parents were there all the time, but occasionally they’d go for coffee and I’d hobble over to your bed. You’d tell me stories and I’d teach you card tricks.” He sees the incomprehension on her face and turns away. “But none of that matters to you now. When your father transferred your consciousness it wiped your memories. I’m nothing to you.” He shakes his head. “But a promise is a promise.”
Charlotte studies every feature of his face; the angular jaw, the brilliant-cut gemstone eyes, the dark, tousled hair. She keeps her hand on his knee, as if keeping the connection with the past, but she cannot remember this wonderfully loyal and irritating boy.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“No. It’s like you’re talking about someone else.” It’s starting to make sense now, his familiarity and confidence with her. And why she feels so comfortable around him. Drawn to him. “But it explains a few things.”
He looks at her with hope on his face. “You remember me?” She leans back on her haunches and regards him.
“Not directly. There’s this weird feeling of recognition, you know? Since the day we met at school, when you stood in front of my desk and talked to me.” She laughs. “Geeks don’t talk to me.”
He smiles and his raw fragility shoves a spike through her heart. “This one does.”
“Yeah.” She returns his smile, blinks away threatening tears. “I wish I could remember you, but...”
He takes her hand in his. It’s like a warm, comforting cave.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Can we start again? Become friends?”
He looks deep into her eyes. Heat crackles between them. “I think we both know we’re already more than that.”
“Cool!” Gonzo says, eyes wide. The geeks, Charlotte and her father are standing in the centre of the lab at Parson’s Industries. Bird is hiding beside a rack of test equipment, his eyes darting around the huge, open space with fear and interest. Dad walks over to his group of machines and turns on a couple. He sits in his padded chair and a big screen springs to coloured life. In a moment the strange blobby images she recognises as her blood appear. The guys fall to chatting amiably, as Robert Campbell shifts through pictures of DNA strands, discussing the Infinity Gene. Charlotte pays more attention this time. She wants to know, to understand, so that she can calculate her limitations.
Presently her father suggests they visit the cryogenics lab. Charlotte can’t face the pod marked ‘Ellen Campbell’ again. She wanders over to the Common Room to get a drink. Her feet feel a bit heavy, but otherwise she feels better. Finding a juice carton she plonks down onto a sofa and flicks through a magazine. There’s no sound from the lab. She’s there all alone, encapsulated in her undecided fate. She closes her eyes. Let them figure it out. I’m too damned tired.
It seems just a moment later that her father is gently waking her. She checks her watch. It’s two in the morning. Gabe stands beside her waiting, dark circles under his eyes. She gets up on her own.
“I’m fine,” she waves them all away. “Stop fussing.”
Gabe and her father share a grin, shaking their heads.
“What?” She says irritably.
“Nothing,” says Gabe, walking beside her to the lift. His stride is easy, relaxed.
“Progress?” she asks.
“Kind of.” He presses the button. The geeks cluster behind them, chatting quietly.
“I’m impressed with these guys,” says her father. “They really have been following my work.”
“Lucky for me,” murmurs Charlotte, stepping into the lift. It sounds ungrateful. Snide. She smiles at her father to reassure him. He squeezes her hand.
“You’re going to be all right, Sweetheart. I promise.”