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The Eternity Prize - Chapter 6
Too cool for school
April 20, 2080
Biblis Patera Hospital
Karman sat by the nurses' station, pretending to read a medical journal, but really waiting for Joe. When he saw him, he switched his ancient tablet off with a tap of his bejeweled fingers. Ninety years old and he still wore more bling a Lunar Rapper – gold rings, jeweled chains around his neck.
His formerly piercing eyes had become kinder with age, but his smile was tight. Joe knew he was angry - about Granger, about the meeting Joe missed, the hundreds of emails unanswered. No words needed to be said. Joe's shoulders were bowed, apologetic.
Like a mom greeting her child with an after-school snack, Karman handed Joe his lunch in a paper bag. Inside was Ensure-fortified coffee and two Adderall tablets. "I needed you there." he chided.
Joe gulped everything down, then wiped his mouth. "I know, I'm sorry. It couldn't be helped. There was a shootout in Pavonis."
"Imperial Wizard Baloq was not happy." Karman said.
Joe frowned, tossed the empty Ensure can in the trash. "Fuck him. His goons killed my last patient."
"Yes, yes, and he donated the coin for this wing."
"40 million yuan to make the Nazi immortal. Nothing to help Martians who are dying like flies." Joe turned away, headed towards the elevators. Karman followed. "The Eternity Prize is a...."
"... cancer.” Karman said, completing Joe’s oft-repeated complaint. “Yes, yes, men like Baloq are a plague upon this world. But the terms of your probation require you to spend fifteen hours on Eternity every week. And go to meetings!"
Joe stopped walking.
"I've been trying to cover for you." Karman said "But the pressure is more than I can bear. Now Prince Mafous is on my case. You know what a fuss he can be."
Fuss. That was a strange word to describe Mafous. When Joe first met the Prince, he thought he was a pretty cool guy – the checkered keffiyeh, the dark shades, Italian shoes that cost more than the average house. Then Mafous nearly strangled a waiter for bringing the wrong soup. He followed that by making loud jokes about his drug empire, and boasting about how he started the nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. Not cool.
"We have to keep Mafous happy. Your future depends on it." Karman said.
Joe sighed and thought of the most quoted line from his TED talk -- "Don't think of the worst that can happen as a result of your experiment – think of the best that can happen."
He never guessed it would lead him here.
When Joe was eleven, the 2061 Interstate treaties were signed, the UN Red Helmets allowed the ferries to cross the Hudson, and Joe finally had a chance to meet the black sheep of the family, Uncle Irwin.
At first, he found it hard to believe Irwin and Dad were brothers. Dad was tall and thin, with dark hair and a quiet, observant manner. Irwin was short, loud, red-haired, and scary as hell. He'd been to prison. He had ugly tattoos, uglier scars and a coat that smelled of fire and sweat.
But once Irwin and Dad got past the hugs and greetings, they were like two swordsmen with an infinite grudge. And Joe knew – they were brothers. Irwin fought with brutal thrusts of truth. His father evaded with quick, sarcastic riposte. Joe didn't want to take sides, but he liked hearing unfiltered truth. He decided to show Irwin the Traveler's memorial.
Irwin took one look at the glass fairy and said "Today's Jani's Yahrzeit. We should remember your sister on the anniversary of her death."
"My sister? I had a sister?"
Irwin's sigh fell like a bale of tobacco. "They never told you. Jani died a year before you were born. Cancer of the brain."
The truth was so much worse than Joe expected. He felt a painful ache for his lost sister, eaten alive by cancer, torn from a mom who traced hearts on her back - torn from a dad who played chess with her like a grownup and was happy when she won - it would be like the pain that cut through Joe when Mom was in The Grey, but worse. An order of magnitude worse.
Irwin pulled a dank cigar from his pocket and chewed on it. "Your parents thought they found a cure – this so-called genius doctor. But his cure was bupkis."
"Bupkis?" Joe said.
"Experimental, never been tested." Irwin said with a wave of his stubby hands. "He convinced your parents it would work because her brain was special. Some bullshit about photons."
"Jani was the Traveler."
"Yeah, your mom and her photon fairies. Jews don't go with that. They believe that every part of a person's body holds their life force." Joe wasn't sure why Irwin was talking about Jews, but he didn't want to interrupt him. "Your parents left Jani's blood with Karman." Irwin spat a star of cigar juice "She's in a test tube somewhere in Montefiore."
"Dr. Karman. At Montefiore." Joe said, committing the name to the memory that never failed.
They sat in smoldering silence until Irwin said "Heard you got into trouble for hacking into the school's computer. Lucky you didn't get expelled."
"I'm autistic. If you're Special Needs, you can get away with anything."
"You're not autistic, you're weird. All smart kids are weird."
"I like being Special Needs. We don't have to do homework. But my grades made Mom cry." he kicked the cigar spit with his shoe. "I wanted to improve the situation."
"Just do your damned schoolwork!"
Joe met Irwin's bloodshot glare and raised it. "I can't! It's boring! If I'm not playing games or hacking, I fall asleep."
Irwin growled and raised a hand. Joe cringed, suddenly aware of the downside to honest emotion. But instead of smacking him, Irwin patted his head "Ha! This kid – too cool for school." He crouched next to Joe and gave him a conspiratorial look. "Don't let your parents keep any more secrets."
When Irwin left, Joe asked his father if he was Jewish.
Dad sniffed. "You want us to get sent to Minority Housing? Because that's how we get sent to Minority Housing."
Enough secrets. That night, he used his bio-spoofer to hack Dad's phone. There, he found photos of Jani, just born, red-faced and wrapped in swaddling. Jani's tummy time, Jani's first taste of apricots. Jani at age three, feeding the ducks in Van Cortlandt Park. Jani with Joe's dark eyes, straight black hair and the round baby face that got squarish as she got older.
He touched the pixels of her face, blinked tears from his eyes as he watched his healthy sister get bald and thin. In the last vid, she was surrounded by balloons. Sixth birthday, in a hospital bed. Dr. Karman, skinny and wide-eyed, said "We need to do more tests." He gave a thumbs up. "But it's looking good!" Mom and Dad thanked Karman over and over, in voices that were light and happy.
Joe never heard those tones at home.
He left the story of the Traveler's memorial out of his first TED talk. He also left out the weeks he spent stalking Dr. Karman, and the night he slipped into the hospital through an unlocked cargo elevator to find the doctor asleep in a pool of his own vomit. How he dragged him into the safety shower and cleaned him up. How Karman flapped his arms and claimed to be Icarus flying on fragile waxen wings. How he then fixed his bleary eyes on Joe and said, "Who are you?"
"Joe Roth. Jani was my sister."
Karman put on his glasses. "You're the stalker security warned me about." He paused as his boozy brain slowly loaded relevant information. "That's why you're here? Revenge?"
"You kept her blood." Joe said, "You have no right to use it."
"I did not keep it. It's illegal to use a person's cells for research without their written consent." he frowned. "You want to kill me for that?"
"I don't want to kill you! I just wanted to ... umm... " He leaned back against the wet tile wall. "I don't know what I want."
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there when the soul lies down in that grass, and the world is too full to talk about.” Karman staggered to his feet and lit a fire below a water-filled beaker. "Want some tea?"
"Ok." Joe wrung out the towel and stepped out of the shower. "The thing about souls lying down in grass – is that from the Talmud?"
"No. That's Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet."
"He was a mystic, a man of faith. Very few of them left these days." The water hissed as Karman poured it into two repurposed beakers. "I was Jani's last chance, you see. Your sister's case was beyond the reach of conventional therapies. I did the best I could. " He turned to Joe, his stare intent. "But you disagree. Tell me, what should I have done for her?"
The glasses magnified Karman's already wide eyes to a frightening degree. But a lifetime of never doing his schoolwork had fortified Joe for dealing with intimidating adults. He stared right back and said "Jani had a diffuse infiltrating brainstem glioma. They can't be surgically removed because they multiply too quickly and they invade the surrounding brain tissue."
"So you used an mRNA-based CAR-T cell treatment that strengthened Jani’s own immune cells.”
"I did not use that! mRNA technology has been thoroughly discredited."
"Yes you did. Dad saved your notes. I read them all."
Karman’s eyes narrowed. "You couldn't have read my notes, they were written in cursive. They don't teach that in school anymore."
"School." Joe snorted. "In school, they tell us masks keep us cancer-free. School is stupid."
Karman raised an eyebrow "You taught yourself?"
"Yup. Then I looked up CAR-T cell therapy in my grandfather's medical books."
"You have -- paper books?"
"Published in 2019, before they put everything online.” Joe gulped the sweet tea. "You used lipid nanoparticles covered in transferrin to get past the blood-brain barrier. Then you used the sensors they put in vaccines to watch the nanoparticles working."
Karman covered his phone, shaking with fear. "Shh! Don't talk about the sensors in vaccines. You’ll be arrested for spreading conspiracy theories!"
Joe pointed to Karman's phone. Reluctantly, the doctor handed it over. With a couple of swipes, Joe activated a VPN and disconnected the phone from the monitors. "It's not a conspiracy theory. Dad's company makes those sensors -- he lets me play with them when he takes me to work. It's like the video game, 'Fantastic Voyage.' Have you ever played that?" Karman shook his head. "Have you heard of 'Room at the Bottom?'"
"I'm not immersed in popular culture, but that doesn't sound like something a child should ..."
"It's Richard Feynman's speech about nanotechnology. He said in the future, nanotechnology would create a super-tiny robotic doctor. That's what 'Fantastic Voyage' was all about." Joe pushed a chair to the whiteboard and jumped onto the hand rests. Precariously balancing, he quickly sketched a submarine.
"Joseph, do your parents let you have sugar?"
"No, they think I'm hyper. I never sleep." He drew a man lying in a pool of blood.
"I dunno, sometimes, maybe..." he pointed to his sketch. "Fantastic Voyage is based on a movie where a famous guy gets shot in the head. Their doctors can't heal him, but some scientists have figured out how to shrink themselves to super-small size. They even have a nano-submarine." He sketched a microscopic crew. "They get injected into his bloodstream and travel through his heart and brain."
Karman pointed to the sketch of a buxom woman. "And this is...?"
"Cora. She's a microscopic doctor. You thought the treatment would work because the microtubules in Jani's brain had a strong signal. According to Penrose's theory of quantum consciousness, that shows a healthy connection between neurons." Joe drew some laser beams, whispering. "bzzt. bzzt."
"Umm... yes. Can you tell me why it didn't work?"
Lost in the details of drawing laser beams, Joe paused. "You... didn't get them all. And you couldn't check it because your sensors ran out of energy."
"Aha! That's where you're wrong." Karman grabbed the marker from Joe's hand and drew more cancers. "There were too many tumors, hidden in too many places for me to keep track of. The MRI showed that her system was all clear but..."
"But it wasn't…"
"Do you know why?" Karman said, wide eyes intent.
Joe started to sweat. He'd been reading Grandpa's medical books night and day, but he'd never talked about his ideas out loud. What if Karman laughed at him? He scanned his memory for encouraging words. Dad tried to be supportive, but everything he said was tinged with irony. There were lots of loving hugs from Mom, but the only real match was that time Irwin patted his head and said "This kid. Too cool for school."
He took a deep breath and said, "Her cancer was bad – fourth stage, right?"
"It came back because her tumor suppressing factor p53 wasn't able to get to all the malignancies. The pathways were blocked. And sometimes tumors play dead. When the treatment is over, they wake up and start multiplying again."
"Right. And that's why I failed, failed, failed!" He slashed Xs over Joe's scientist characters' eyes and slouched back into his chair. The marker dropped to the floor.
Joe picked it up. "Maybe... you could make the CAR-T cells tougher, so they'll last longer. You..." he started sketching "need to make them like..." Karman watched, openmouthed, as Joe's squeaking marker produced a muscular, tattooed merman. "Aquaman!"
The doctor reverently took the marker from Joe's hand "Want a job, kid?"
Holding on to Joe's arm for support as they walked through Bibs' bright hallways, Karman said, "I agree with you completely, the Eternity Prize is absurd. But if Baloq, Khoury and Mafous want to throw their money away, let them throw it to us. We can use it on our own projects." He took a deep breath "For example, I've been thinking of a new form of... "
"New discoveries are a double-edged sword." Joe interrupted "We've seen how men like Baloq use their swords."
Karman sighed. "Joseph, you need to get back to the lab. You're wasting your brilliance in the ER."
"Broeks says I'm the best surgeon on the planet."
"With the worst bedside manner."
Joe hung his head. "You heard about the fight in the waiting room."
"Your patient was a Goner. This is a harsh and unforgiving place - people die like flies.”
"Home of the brave, land of the uninsured." Joe said, in a voice that was a little too loud. A patient glanced uneasily, then shuffled by.
"You take things so personally, you’re much too sensitive. And I'm not the only one who is worried. Bibs' Mental Health Board has also expressed concerns. They say the language in your reports indicates suicidal ideation."
"What? I don't talk about myself in my reports."
"You use 50% more absolutist words like 'always', 'never' and 'only'. Current research says that indicates suicidal tendencies."
"That’s bullshit! Psychiatry is in the same place real medicine was during the Middle Ages – quacks ranting about humors and leeches." Joe's timer beeped.
"This research was peer-reviewed."
"By other quacks. When a psychiatrist can fix a minor depression as well as I can fix a subdural hematoma, we'll talk."
"It's not like you've been thinking about ways to die." Karman said.
Joe reset his timer. "I have not. After my trial, the only thing I have left for my parents is my life insurance."
"You'd have to make it look like an accident."
"Nah, this isn't the Bronx, they don't do autopsies. There are a million ways to accidentally die here."
His timer beeped again. He led his mentor to a chair and helped him sit. Then he began to walk backwards, towards the meeting room. "Gotta get to class. Teaching is the only thing I enjoy."
"That's exactly what they were talking about!"