Read Next: A Novel Online

Authors: Michael Crichton

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #General, #Genetics, #Medical, #Mutation (Biology), #Technological

Next: A Novel

BOOK: Next: A Novel
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MICHAEL CRICHTON

NEXT

A Novel

This novel is fiction,

except for the parts that aren’t.

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

—STEVEN WEINBERG

The word “cause” is an altar to an unknown god.

—WILLIAM JAMES

What is not possible is not to choose.

—JEAN-PAUL SARTRE

Prologue

Vasco Borden, forty-nine, tugged at the lapels of his suit and straightened his tie as he walked down the plush carpeted hallway. He wasn’t used to wearing a suit, though he had had this one, in navy, specially tailored to minimize the muscular bulk of his body. Borden was big, six-four, two-forty, an ex–football player who worked as a private investigator and fugitive-recovery specialist. And right now, Vasco was following his man, a thirty-year-old balding postdoc, a fugitive from MicroProteonomics of Cambridge, Mass., as he headed right for the main room of the conference.

The BioChange 2006 Conference, enthusiastically entitled “Make It Happen Now!” was being held at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. The two thousand attendees represented all sorts of biotech workers, including investors, HR officers who hired scientists, technology transfer officers, CEOs, and intellectual property attorneys. In one way or another, nearly every biotech company in America was represented here.

It was the perfect place for the fugitive to meet his contact. The fugitive looked like a dink; he had an innocent face and a little soul patch on his chin; he slouched when he walked and gave the impression of timidity and ineptitude. But the fact was, he’d made off with twelve transgenic embryos in a cryogenic dewar and transported them across country to this conference, where he intended to turn them over to whomever he was working for.

It wouldn’t be the first time a postdoc got tired of working on salary. Or the last.

The fugitive went over to the check-in table to get his conference card to drape around his neck.

Vasco hung by the entrance, slipping his own card over his head. He’d come prepared for this.

He pretended to look at the event roster.

The big speeches were all in the main ballroom. Seminars were scheduled for such topics as

“Fine-Tune Your Recruiting Process,” and “Winning Strategies to Keep Research Talent,”

“Executive and Equity Compensation,” “Corporate Governance and the SEC,” “Patent Office Trends,” and “Investor Angels: Boon or Curse?” and, finally, “Trade Secrets Piracy: Protect Yourself Now!”

Much of Vasco’s work involved high-tech firms. He had been to these conferences before. Either they were about science or business. This one was business.

The fugitive, whose name was Eddie Tolman, walked past him into the ballroom. Vasco followed. Tolman went down a few rows and dropped into a seat with no one nearby. Vasco slipped into the row behind and sat a little to one side. The Tolman kid checked his cell phone for text messages, then seemed to relax, and looked up to listen to the speech.

Vasco wondered why.

The manat the podium was one of the most famous venture capitalists in California, a legend in high-tech investment, Jack B. Watson. Watson’s face was blown up large on the screen behind him, his trademark suntan and striking good looks magnified to fill the room. Watson was a young-looking fifty-two, and assiduously cultivated his reputation as a capitalist with a conscience. That appellation had carried him through a succession of ruthless business deals: all the media ever showed were his appearances at charter schools, or handing out scholarships for underprivileged kids.

But in this room, Vasco knew, Watson’s reputation for tough deal making would be foremost in everyone’s mind. He wondered if Watson was ruthless enough to acquire a dozen transgenic embryos by illicit means. He probably was.

However, at the moment, Watson was cheerleading: “Biotechnology is booming. We are poised to see the greatest growth of any industry since computers thirty years ago. The largest biotech company, Amgen, in Los Angeles, employs seven thousand people. Federal grants to universities exceed four billion a year on campuses from New York to San Francisco, Boston to Miami.

Venture capitalists invest in biotech companies at a rate of five billion a year. The lure of magnificent cures made possible by stem cells, cytokines, and proteonomics are drawing the brightest talent to the field. And with a global population growing older by the minute, our future is brighter than ever. And that’s not all!

“We’ve reached the point where we can stick it to Big Pharma—and we will. Those massive, bloated companies need us and they know it. They need genes, they need technology. They’re the past. We’re the future. We’re where the money is!”

That drew huge applause. Vasco shifted his bulk in his seat. The audience was applauding, even though they knew that this son of a bitch would cut their company to pieces in a second if it suited his bottom line.

“Of course, we face obstacles to our progress. Some people—however well intentioned theythink they are—choose to stand in the way of human betterment. They don’t want the paralyzed to walk, the cancer patient to thrive, the sick child to live and play. These people have their reasons for objecting. Religious, ethical, or even ‘practical.’ But whatever their reasons, they are on the side of death. And they will not triumph!”

More thunderous applause. Vasco glanced at the fugitive, Tolman. The kid was checking his phone again. Evidently waiting for a message. And waiting impatiently.

Did that mean the contact was late?

That was sure to make Tolman nervous. Because somewhere, Vasco knew, this kid had stashed a stainless steel thermos of liquid nitrogen that held the embryos. It wasn’t in the kid’s room.

Vasco had already searched it. And five days had passed since Tolman left Cambridge. The coolant wouldn’t last forever. And if the embryos thawed, they would be worthless. So unless Tolman had a way to top up his LN 2, by now he must be anxious to retrieve his container, and hand it over to his buyer.

It had to happen soon.

Within an hour, Vasco was sure of it.

“Of course, people will try to obstruct progress,” Watson said, from the podium. “Even our best companies find themselves embroiled in pointless, unproductive litigation. One of my startups, BioGen, in Los Angeles, is in court right now because some guy named Burnet thinks he doesn’t need to honor the contracts he himself signed. Because now he’s changed his mind. Burnet is trying to block medical progress unless we pay him. An extortionist whose daughter is the lawyer handling the case for him. Keeping it in the family.” Watson smiled.

“But we will win the Burnet case. Because progress cannot be stopped!”

At that, Watson threw both hands up in the air, waving to the audience as applause filled the room. He almost acts like a candidate, Vasco thought. Is that what Watson was aiming for? The guy certainly had enough money to get elected. Being rich was essential in American politics these days. Pretty soon—

He looked over, and saw that the Tolman kid was gone.

The seat was empty.

Shit!

“Progress is our mission, our sacred calling,” Watson cried. “Progress to vanquish disease!

Progress to halt aging, banish dementia, extend life! A life free of disease, decay, pain, and fear!

The great dream of humanity—made real at last!”

Vasco Borden wasn’t listening. He was heading down the row toward the side aisle, scanning the exit doors. A couple of people leaving, nobody looking like Tolman. The guy couldn’t have gotten away, there was—

He looked back just in time to see Tolman moving slowly up the center aisle. The kid was looking at his cell phone again.

“Sixty billion this year. Two hundred billion next year. Five hundred billion in five years! That is the future of our industry, and that is the prospect we bring to all mankind!”

The crowd suddenly rose to its feet, giving Watson a standing ovation, and for a moment Vasco could no longer see Tolman at all.

But only for a moment—now Tolman was making for the center exit. Vasco turned away, slipping through the side door and out into the lobby, just as Tolman came blinking into the bright lobby light.

Tolman glanced at his watch and headed down the far corridor, past big glass windows that looked out on the red brick campanile of San Marco, re-created by the Venetian hotel and lit brilliantly at night. He was going toward the swimming pool area, or perhaps the courtyard. This time of night those spaces would be crowded.

Vasco stayed close.

This was it, he thought.

In the ballroom, Jack Watson paced back and forth, smiling and waving to the cheering crowd.

“Thank you, that’s very kind, thank you…” ducking his head a little each time he said it. Just the right amount of modesty.

Rick Diehl snorted in disgust as he watched. Diehl was backstage, taking it all in on a little black-and-white monitor. Diehl was the thirty-four-year-old CEO of BioGen Research, a struggling startup in Los Angeles, and this performance by his most important outside investor filled him with unease. Because Diehl knew that despite the cheerleading, and the press releases with smiling black kids, at the end of the day, Jack Watson was a true bastard. As someone put it, “The best I can say about Watson is, he’s not a sadist. He’s just a first-class son of a bitch.”

Diehl had accepted funding from Watson with the greatest reluctance. He wished he didn’t need it. Diehl’s wife was wealthy, and he had started BioGen with her money. His first venture as CEO had been to bid on a cell line being licensed by UCLA. It was the so-called Burnet cell line, developed from a man named Frank Burnet, whose body produced powerful cancer-fighting chemicals called cytokines.

Diehl hadn’t really expected to land the license, but he did, and suddenly he faced the prospect of gearing up for FDA approval for clinical trials. The cost of clinical trials started at a million dollars, and went rapidly to ten million a pop, not counting downstream costs and after-marketing expenses. He could no longer rely solely on his wife’s money. He needed outside financing.

That was when he discovered just how risky venture capitalists considered cytokines to be. Many cytokines, such as interleukins, had taken years to come to market. And many others were known to be dangerous, even deadly, to patients. And then Frank Burnet had brought a lawsuit, casting doubt on BioGen’s ownership of the cell line. Diehl had trouble getting investors to even meet with him. In the end, he had to accept smiling, suntanned Jack Watson.

But Watson, Diehl knew, wanted nothing less than to take over BioGen and throw Rick Diehl out on his ass.

“Jack! Fantastic speech! Fantastic!” Rick extended his hand, as Watson came backstage at last.

“Yeah. Glad you liked it.” Watson didn’t shake his hand. Instead, he unclipped his wireless transmitter and dropped it in Diehl’s palm. “Take care of this, Rick.”

“Sure, Jack.”

“Your wife here?”

“No, Karen couldn’t make it.” Diehl shrugged. “Thing with the kids.”

“I’m sorry she missed this speech,” Watson said.

“I’ll see she gets the DVD,” Diehl said.

“But we got the bad news out there,” Watson said. “That’s the point. Everybody now knows there’s a lawsuit, they know Burnet is a bad guy, and they know we’re on top of it. That’s the important thing. The company’s now perfectly positioned.”

Diehl said, “Is that why you agreed to give the speech?”

Watson stared at him. “You think I want to come to Vegas? Christ.” He unclipped the microphone, handed it to Diehl. “Take care of this, too.”

“Sure, Jack.”

And Jack Watson turned and walked away from him without another word. Rick Diehl shivered.

Thank God for Karen’s money, he thought. Because without it, he’d be doomed.

Passing through the arches of the Doge’s Palace, Vasco Borden moved into the courtyard, following his fugitive, Eddie Tolman, through the nighttime crowd. He heard his earpiece crackle. That would be his assistant, Dolly, in another part of the hotel. He touched his ear. “Go,”

he said.

“Baldy boy Tolman has reserved some entertainment.”

“Is that right?”

“That’s right, he—”

“Hold on,” Vasco said. “Just hold that thought.”

Up ahead, he was seeing something he could not believe. From the right side of the courtyard, he saw Jack B. Watson, accompanied by a beautiful, slinky, dark-haired woman, merging with the crowd. Watson was famous for always being accompanied by gorgeous women. They all worked for him, they were all smart, and they were all stunning.

The woman didn’t surprise Vasco. What surprised him was that Jack Watson was heading directly toward Eddie Tolman, the fugitive. That made no sense at all. Even if Tolman were doing a deal with Watson, the famous investor would never meet him face-to-face. And certainly never in public. But there they were, on a collision course in the crowded Venetian courtyard, right before his eyes.

What the hell? He couldn’t believe it was going to happen.

But then the slinky woman stumbled a bit, and stopped. She was wearing a short, skintight dress and heels. She leaned on Watson’s shoulder, bent her knee, showing plenty of leg, and inspected her shoe. She adjusted her heel strap, stood up again, and smiled at Watson. And Vasco glanced away from them and saw that Tolman was gone.

BOOK: Next: A Novel
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