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The Eternity Prize - Chapter 3
Enemies of the State
March 10, 2068
Asbury Park Free Press Opinion Page: Guest Essay
‘Rick Khoury’s Flawed Search for Eternity’
Rick Khoury's Eternity Project hopes to implant a human consciousness in a biobot that can, theoretically, live forever. The Earth Alliance’s International Institute of Health is offering a trillion yuan to the first scientist who can make that dream come true. I think this is a terrible idea, and I say this as a doctor who fights death with every means possible.
Scientists and engineers should take their cues from nature. While researching my M1 cure, I learned a lot about cellular life and death. The worst form of cell death is necrosis. Necrotic cells refuse to die. Their toxicity eventually builds to the point where they burst open, releasing their poison into the organism, making it impossible for wounds to heal. When necrotic cells finally die, they bring the whole organism down with them.
The best form of cell death is Apoptosis. This process usually occurs when a cell becomes old or disrepair sets in. Its own signaling molecules will tell it to voluntarily self-destruct to make room for new cells. Apoptosis is the reason we don't have embryonic webbed hands and feet, it's an elegant mechanism for controlling the development of neurons. It's the most common form of cell death, and it's essential for life.
Rick Khoury says death is our enemy. But I think the fear of death is our real enemy. It distracts us from the miracle that each life holds. You are unique, created from the eternal. Dying comes from the privilege of having lived.
And yes, there is immortality in the cellular world. Cancer. That's what happens when just one cell among billions achieves immortality. It's the ultimate worst-case scenario.
And cells never lie.
- Dr. Joseph Roth, MD, PhD, inventor of the Murmuration Cancer Cure is a Neuro-Oncology fellow at Montefiore Medical Center
Comment on Dr. Joseph Roth’s Guest Essay
‘Rick Khoury’s Flawed Search for Eternity’
Doc Joe – you're one smart kid, I'll give you that. Cancer cure at age 17, PhD and MD at age 18 -- you're a real-life Dougie Howser. And if you don't get that reference, watch the series on my 'Astronaut Rick's Oldies' channel (TM).' Available on Earth and Mars. Subscribe now and get the first month free.
You raise interesting issues, but the point of Eternity sailed right over your head. It's not about living forever, it's about helping mankind evolve into a sturdy, spacefaring species. Space can kill you in a million ways, and none are pretty. Remember the Strauss Mission? They ran out of food, the hydroponics failed, all because somebody forgot to pack the pumps. Ten skeletons landed in Xanthe Terra, half with tooth marks, because they didn't use a checklist. Once you burn your engines for Mars, you can't turn back.
Then there was the time I tried to fix a loose screw outside my ship. A scrap of space junk ripped past me at 36,000 klicks an hour, tore my suit near the elbow, created a vacuum that sucked the oxygen out of my skin. I've had all the surgeries and enhancements your medical science can offer, and my arm still isn't right.
Space doesn't give a shit about apoptosis and your cells. It'll chew you up in a supernova and crap you through a black hole. Yeah, I survived, but I'm one of the few. When you're talking about the colonization of space, you're talking about millions of humans who aren't prepared for what's out there. Biowars, geoengineering, and nukes turned Earth into a dumpster fire, refugees are coming to Mars by the shipload. And, good God, why am I wasting my valuable time explaining this to a child? Doc Joe, get back to me when your balls drop.
- General Richard Khoury, President of Mars is the former producer of the popular podcast ‘Astronaut Rick and the Spacefarers’
Earth date: April 20, 2080
Biblis Patera Hospital, Colony 5, Mars
Joe stepped into the shower wondering what Granger meant by “Deja You” — had they met before?
Reluctantly, he decided to look up on Granger’s info on Facebook. But, as expected, when he opened the app, his visor clogged with Khoury’s comments, all expressing his desire to kick Joe's ass.
This was becoming an everyday thing. Once Khoury saw Joe was online, more messages would be coming. Enough was enough -- with a few quick eye-swipes, the President of Mars and Generalissimo of the Lebanese Space Force was blocked.
Finally, Granger's page came into view, headed by his last selfie. Standing at the edge of the Borealis with a fishing pole in one hand and a buggy-eyed fish in another, he reminded Joe of Ed Reidel – same fishing obsession, same fish. The only difference – the purple-grey Martian skies. And the wife and two kids smiling beside him. Damn.
Hands shaking with guilt, Joe could barely button his shirt as he re-watched the operation on his self-cam, noting every pause, every lost second, every missed cue. Corpuscles raced along the same path; neural electricity lit the same pattern. Like a film that couldn’t be edited, same characters, same script, same tragic ending.
He took the slow staff elevator to the waiting room, steeling himself to deal with the family's tears. Or worse, resigned silence. Brushing his still-wet black hair from his forehead, he eye-scrolled through his email. 450. No, wait. Only 350. Mail was glitching again.
Still, it was too much. Hundreds of emails reminded him of hundreds of other emails he'd missed. He cc.d Karman and told him to take him off the lists.
As the elevator descended, he scanned the news with his Hopeless Optimist filter. 12,253 news items rejected, 2 chosen.
#1 - NASA probes found a new form of life under Ganymede's icy surface – methane breathers that looked like squid. Interesting.
#2 - On Earth, they'd found the remains of Major Tom Davies, a pilot who had crashed his space plane during a secret test flight in 1943. They were calling Davies the first astronaut. Joe hummed 'Ground control to Major Tom' as he shared it.
The elevator doors opened. Dust vents wheezed as Joe stepped into the hallway. The location monitor slapped against his ankle as he walked through curved hallways, past light sensors that were calibrated to determine the mood of each passerby and give them an emotional lift. His depressed peripheral vision was bathed in happy yellow.
The hospital was one of the most expensive buildings in Colony 4, built when Khoury and his investors thought Mars would be the ultimate adventure resort. But after the Biowars, the only people left on Earth with money and power were government bureaucrats, the least adventurous people in the Galaxy. Bibs stayed empty until Earth decided to use Mars as a dumping ground for Enemies of the State -- like Joe.
Another Optimist article popped up: His friend, Grace Park, had announced a breakthrough in miniaturized Quantum Data storage. Her Q-drive could process more data than Bibs' whole server farm, but it was smaller than a stick of gum. "You go, Grace", he said as he slammed into something real and hard. The lunch cart. The orderly pushing it rolled his eyes as Joe switched his view back to RL and mumbled "sorry, sorry, 'scuse me'." He took a few steps back, blinked, and realized he was back in the emergency room, back where he started.
'Deja you’. He still couldn’t remember where he and Granger could have met. When he was young, his brain could retrieve memories at lightspeed. Now it shuffled like an old librarian.
A blue dot at the edge of his vision pinged him. A text from Khoury, demanding a response to his latest Twitter challenge. Enough again. Joe deleted him from his contacts.
Khoury had been bullying Joe since he'd first set foot on Mars.
Back in 2074, Joe was just out of quarantine and was still queasy from Mars's lighter gravity. 'Space Lag' put fizz in his brain and spicy vomit in his throat. The first time he met Khoury in person, he’d taken took two steps out of the hotel’s transport rover, stumbled past the President, who’d been waiting at Bibs’ entrance with a three-man band and a splash of confetti, and collapsed into a nearby chair.
Khoury sent the band home, sat down beside Joe and patted him on the shoulder, a kind, fatherly gesture that was a prelude to a fatherly tirade. "Karman says you want out of the research game! Well, fuck that.” Khoury roared. “You won't even go in the lab I built for you. Because you want to be an 'ordinary doctor'. Well, let me tell you, you’re NOT a doctor. You’re a lab geek. You’re here to find Eternity. That's the deal!"
Joe had an argument prepared for this, a long list of reasons why he should never enter a lab again. Primary among them, the fact that his M-2 nanobots had almost wiped out all life on Earth. But every time he opened his mouth, queasy burps silenced him. All he could do was listen to Khoury roar and wonder – why were there so many children? On Earth, where life was relentlessly safe, hardly anyone had kids. Mars was fraught with disease, danger – and sweaty, feverish children. Why did they bring so many kids into this dangerous world?
Khoury shifted his muscular ass cheeks on the plastic chair and leaned towards Joe. "If it wasn't for me, your organs would be for sale in the Yonkers Wet Market. You know how the new government deals with dissidents. First, they rape you to death. Then they skin you. Then, they cut out your organs and sell them. And if they like you... "
"…they'll do it in that order." Joe burped.
"I hate those bureaucratic shits." Khoury continued. "They're... what's that word? Necrotic. Earth needs apoptosis."
Joe wanted to point out that if Eternity succeeded, those bureaucratic shits would be running things forever, but a caustic eruption in his esophagus silenced him.
"The last thing I need is another overworked ER doc. No one would trust you anyway. We don't censor the media on Mars, everyone here knows about your lab-eating Nano-blob. They won't trust Young Frankenstein to cure a hangnail."
"Then you shouldn't trust me in a lab." Joe coughed "Dangerous... materials."
The billionaire's mood shifted like a flag in a thunderstorm. He laughed so loud Joe jumped in his chair. "True dat!" Khoury leaned towards Joe. "You think Eternity is a crazy idea."
Joe nodded. "Your friend Ed Reidel said... "
Khoury snorted. "We’re not friends. He thinks I’m full of shit.”
"Umm... well, he has a point. We still don't have a scientific definition of consciousness …"
Khoury's red-rimmed eyes bulged as he leaned towards Joe. "That's where you're wrong. I know what consciousness is. It's the thing inside you. The thing you know is you. You know what I mean?”
Joe blinked. “Maybe… ?”
“It’s the voice that vibrates in your head. Like, on the Quantum level, everything from the universe to the smallest cell runs on vibrations. Light, colors and sounds vibrate at frequencies. That's how our brains process them. Consciousness is your frequency. Awareness is a beam of light."
"Like a photon?"
Joe was so intrigued he forgot the ache in his bones. "Have you ever heard of – Travelers?"
Khoury didn't answer, he was distracted by a kid with a face swollen like a pumpkin, running towards them with a coloring book. "President Rick!" the kid said. "Can I have your autograph?"
The billionaire's voice got soft. It even cracked a little. "Sure." he said, tears welling in his eyes. Joe could guess why – the kid was the same age as Rick's son Mitchell was when he was murdered. He even had the same broad smile. Joe clutched his stomach, overwhelmed by the misery and pain around him. Kids with swollen faces. Bloodshot eyes. Lesions.
"What's your name?" Khoury asked the pumpkin child.
"Louie. Louie Granger."
The pockmarked chin. The lesions. "Deja... you." Granger was in the hospital on the day the Dassak Strain came to Mars.
Rick handed the crayon back to little Granger and turned to Joe. "This is all your fault. Your cancer cure convinced me Eternity was possible – you solved a problem they said was unsolvable, you threw out all their crap pseudoscience away and went back to the old books. Real medicine. Your nano-blob formula has promise too, if you can work out the kinks. With your tech and Everlast's new bio-bots..."
Joe nodded, but he wasn't listening, he was remembering... swollen faces. Bloodshot, teary eyes. The quarantine camp at the edge of the Kalahari. "My... God." he gasped.
"Well, ok, Everlast's bots don't have the best reputation, but Hudson's are wayy worse ..."
Joe staggered to his feet. "You're going to die."
"Yeah, that's what I'm trying to prevent."
“No, you're all going to die -- in a week! Thirteen days at most." Joe waved to the room full of children. The rash, the facial swelling, the pink eye..."
"Ahh, don’t worry about that. Doc Broeksmit says it's conjunction-i-tis. A seasonal thing."
"Your doctors wouldn't know about Dassak. The media covered it up."
"Covered – what up?"
"A bioweapon leak. In Botswana."
Khoury wiped sweat from his brow. "Shit."
"Yes, bad shit. A deer virus CRISPRed into a coronavirus with HPV, chicken pox and God knows what else."
"W... what does it do?"
"At first, it looks like an allergy. Red eyes, stuffy nose, a rash on your chin. In a week, the heart palpitations start. Lesions grow into pustules. In a few days, boils cover your face. Heart palpitations, your groin and armpits swell up. It's like the plague, on steroids. They called me into Botswana to help. M1 can clear cancer-related viruses like HPV and Hepatitis."
Khoury's face brightened. "And… you’re alive! So, it worked."
“Not really.” Joe said as he sat down, queasy again, remembering the African fields littered with dead cows. Coffins stacked up outside muddy quarantine tents, the rank smell of blood and disinfectant. The rash that soon covered his face despite his protective gear. Laying on the pus-stained cot, knowing in a few days he'd be like the man beside him, dying in screaming agony. The nurse's face appearing above him, an angel of compassion with a bright, mask-free smile. He told her to get away, Dassak was highly virulent. She laughed and told him she'd had it and recovered. Something her grandma cooked up.
"A local doctor put a treatment together." Joe told Khoury "A cocktail of anti-parasitics, aspirin and lemon juice. But it didn't work for the elderly or people whose immune systems weren't strong. So, I figured, why not combine the two? And it did work – sort of. Only if we catch it before the heart palpitations start."
They both turned to young Louie Granger, who was breathing heavily. Joe reached for his arm. "I need to check your heart rate."
The boy backed away.
"It's okay" Khoury said "Joe's a doctor. And a damned good one".
Joe gazed at his now-deceased patient's photo. If he'd just remembered who Granger was, he would have known about his weakened heart. But he didn't remember because he was not a good doctor. Wrong again, Khoury.
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