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The Eternity Prize - Chapter 8
Could you patent the sun?
April 20, 2080
Biblis Patera Hospital
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Joe had ten students, all young, thin, and stressed. They trooped into the meeting room, leaving traces of red dust behind them. A holoboard was set up, but all the chairs were pushed into the corner. Joe never sat, and if he didn't, they wouldn't either. He smiled as they gathered around him. Their determination, their curiosity, their need to succeed chased away The Grey.
"Ok" He said "Who's presenting?"
Missy raised her hand. The silver shine of her purity ring matched her glowing blonde braids. Both were a sure sign that her family was with the Breiviks. When he first started teaching this class, he was wary of her, afraid that he'd be training a potential Eugenicist. But she made it clear, she wanted to put all that garbage behind her. That was her parents' deal, not hers.
Shiraz raised his hand higher. He was the exact opposite of Missy, an intense Iranian whose black brows were always knitted into a frown. As a Christian, he and his family got grief from all sides – from Hassan's Basij because he wasn't Shi'ite, from the CHUDs because he wasn't Sunni, and from the Breiviks because he wasn't white.
Missy and Shiraz were his best students. Being competitive pre-meds, they hated each other intensely.
Joe chose Missy. "When Mrs. Tabrizan came in, her tumors extended into the meninges." she answered. "She had high protein content in the cerebrospinal fluid."
Shiraz broke in "About fifty percent of glioblastoma multiforme occupy more than one lobe of a hemisphere or are bilateral. Tumors of this type usually arise from the cerebrum."
With the grace of a ballerina, Missy tiptoed in front of Shiraz and shoved him aside with a firm butt cheek. "And then they spread across the corpus callosum, producing a bilateral glioma."
Joe said, "Where was the evidence of metastasization in the bloodstream?"
Shiraz paused but Missy knew this trick. "There wasn't any. Gliomas don't metastasize through the bloodstream."
"Very good, Missy."
"Thank you." she twirled her soft braids, using every advantage she had. He had to admit, he wasn't immune to her charms.
They walked to Oncology. Joe led the way.
"What symptoms did the patient report?"
"Disorientation, headaches, vomiting. She said that these symptoms were present before they came to Mars."
"But was this true?" Joe said to Shiraz.
Missy said "Yes, there was a... "
"Not you, Missy. Shiraz"
"No, it was not." Shiraz said, shouldering Missy aside. "Mrs. Tabrizan lied. She and her husband were stowaways. Hassan and his thugs smuggle Basij illegals in the cargo bays, and those bays have minimal radiation protection. I analyzed her blood cells. Without question, the damage was caused by spaceflight radiation."
Missy gasped, mortified to be wrong. Tears rimmed her eyes.
"And the lesson is?" Joe said, stopping in front of the entrance to Oncology.
"Don't believe the patient." Shiraz said.
"Listen to the patient." Joe said "But ask yourself, what facts have been proven? Which ones haven't? It doesn't matter what everyone else says – everyone else has been wrong in the past and they'll be wrong again. Trust yourself – and remember ... cells never lie."
They all nodded and smiled. He said this at least once during every class.
The door hissed open. Vacuums echoed in the empty room as Joe and his students quietly walked past many unused beds, each covered with a haze of red dust. Their one cancer patient, Mrs. Tabrizan, was at the end of the longest row of beds, sleeping. As they gathered around her bed, she woke and pulled the sheet over her disheveled gown.
Joe uploaded her chart, sat down and patted her arm to help her relax (Karman's advice for improving his bedside manner.) No one could deny, she looked great. Her formerly thin hair was thick and sleek. Her previously sallow skin was rosy. "How are we doing today?" he said.
"Not good." she said.
Missy knew otherwise. "Tumor reduction is complete. She's entirely in remission."
"I have a rash." Mrs. T. said.
"Hmm... yes." Joe turned to his students "Minor outbreaks of seborrheic dermatitis are to be expected..."
"You always say 'it's to be expected.'" Mrs. T. cried. "Shitting my brains out was to be expected, throwing up, looking like a freak, all to be expected!"
He turned to his students. "Brain activity had been somewhat tepid before, but as you see on her Connectome meter, it's now above normal levels."
"Is that because I'm aggravated!?" Mrs. T. said.
"Yes, good guess." Joe said. He handed the ophthalmoscope to Huda, a thin-faced Saudi who never spoke up. Joe knew she'd done the reading, he could tell from her well-placed nods that she knew the material, but she was shy. He hoped that today, he could bring her out of her shell. "Huda." he said.
She snapped to attention with wide-eyed terror.
"You've been reading up. If there was a loss of heterozygosity in chromosome 10, would that change your diagnosis?"
Shiraz laughed. "We were discussing this over beers... " he said, then blushed. "Ah, umm... Pepsis. Yesterday."
A silence fell over the group, a sure sign that Karman had warned them never to discuss certain subjects in front of Joe. Like booze. Financial ruin. Frankenbots.
Back in 2061, Karman had offered the eleven-year-old Joe a lot more than a job. He got Joe into Montefiore's Albert Einstein College of Medicine college-level work-study program, which meant -- no more Special Needs classes.
Joe was in paradise – he was hanging out with college students who understood what he was talking about. And the lab – the sensors, mass spectrometers and atomic force microscopes all brought him to new frontiers. He was Captain Kirk exploring new life and new civilizations, he was Indiana Jones searching for the Arc. If he could have stayed in the lab 24/7, he would. But when he was finished with work, he had to go outside and be a kid again, vulnerable and afraid.
Every night was the same. After a long day's work, he'd step out onto the dark, cold sidewalk. E-cars hissed on the Henry Hudson Parkway. Black branches crackled. Birds gathered above him, chattering – like they knew what would happen next and were already laughing about it.
Walking through the park, he'd hear the basketball bouncing, sneakers squeaking against asphalt. When the big kids saw him, the ball stopped bouncing. Then came the shouts, heavy footsteps behind him. Loud voices calling out. Laughing. They'd found a better game to play – chase the Jewboy.
So he ran. He'd cut through the Foodtown lot, or, in desperation, run across the busy street. He'd rather take his chances with speeding drone trucks than the bullies, he could time the trucks and dodge them. Running hard, ignoring his searing lungs and weepy eyes, he managed (barely) to lose them.
But every night, he heard more footsteps. Like Video Game Zombies, this bully pack would soon grow into a horde. And he wouldn't be able to outrun them.
There were no good solutions. He couldn't ask his mother to pick him up. She didn't like Karman's work/study program, she was afraid that leaving school made Joe lonely and unpopular -- as if that hadn't always been the case. If she knew about the bullies, she'd put him right back into Special Needs.
He asked Irwin what to do.
"Which gang, Breivik Boys or Caliphate?"
"I'm too busy running to ask."
"Yeah, well, Jews have been everyone's punching bags since forever. Learn to fight or get your head kicked."
"I don't have time for boxing lessons."
Irwin shrugged "Figure it out yourself. Use the science method."
"The scientific method." Joe said.
Irwin nodded and spat.
Joe asked the guys at the lab. The same thing happened to them, they just accepted endless ass kickings. He was disappointed with his tribe until Kim delicately slid a strand of pale brown hair behind her ear and said, "I shot my bully. "
The guys got quiet. "I ain't going there." Ralph said as they rolled their chairs back to their designated spots. Kim stayed beside him and breathlessly whispered. "This guy would wait for me outside my apartment, and he'd, like, open up his raincoat and ... well, I don't want to traumatize you for life by saying what I saw."
Like he couldn't guess. "Where'd you get the gun?"
"It wasn't a gun-gun. It was this." She rolled to the mouse cages and picked up the dart gun they used for larger animals. "It'll drop your average shithead in 0.7 seconds."
He grabbed the dart gun. "It has only one chamber. There's more than one of these jerks."
"It's 3D printable. Go on the maker boards and download a prototype. Or design your own."
He quickly found a double-barreled sawed-off dart-shotgun ripped right from the specs of his favorite video game. After a week of target practice, he hooked it on his belt and put his plan into action.
It started out the same – the starlings chattered. The basketball stopped bouncing. He knew he had to stay and fight, but his genius brain froze. Pure adrenaline pushed his feet to run. Then it got worse. Knocked off balance by the weight of the gun, he stumbled. His chin slammed into the cement. A red slice of pain cut through his tongue. That didn't hurt half as bad as their laughter.
But pain gave him rage. He wasn't prey. He was cool. Too cool for school. He got up, wiped the blood from his mouth and shouted "What? What's your fucking problem?"
They stopped laughing and just – stood there.
There were only five of them, skinny and shivering in crappy, thin coats. He felt kind of sorry for them, but he kept the sympathy out of his voice as he shouted, "What's your problem?!"
He reached for the gun. It wasn't there. It must have come unhooked when he fell. The panic rushed back until he realized – they were backing away. They weren't afraid of the gun – they were afraid of him – the blood on his teeth, his anger, the way he put his shoulders back – the shot of courage that coursed through his body.
As they faded into the shadows, he made a gun with his fingers and said, "Bang."
The birds still chattered, but they didn't scare him anymore. They were just birds, tiny-brained beasts with a simple fight/flight response. He was the Alpha now. He opened his arms wide and shouted "Ha!"
As if his shout was a command, they simultaneously rose from the branches into the darkening sky, then swirled, en masse, into a huge, shape-shifting cloud. They weren't simple birds anymore, they were a roar of feathers in liquid, flowing motion.
Dazed by the fast-mutating patterns, he remembered what his mom once told him about how murmurations were formed. A photon that left a star millions of years ago entered each bird’s eye to light up a molecule in the retina called a cryptochrome, which kicked around an electron that stirred entangled particles into a cloud that mingled with the magnetic fields arcing from the earth. This gave each bird an intuitive GPS that turned flight into art.
And he realized – his been thinking about his cancer cure all wrong. He was trying to find a way to change nature's course, to bring it to a specific point. But maybe there was no specific point to reach. The solution was quantum, a path that was intuitive, natural. All he had to do was follow.
At the conclusion of his second TED talk, Joe said:
When I saw that starling murmuration, it occurred to me that I was heading in the wrong direction. I was trying to make the modified cancer-killing T cells stronger because that was what researchers were trying to do in the early 21st century. But back then, they didn't know how their CAR-T cells interacted with tumor-suppressing proteins like tp53.
With the internal medical sensors my father's company recently developed, I could watch that interaction, up close, in real time. I could learn about what worked and what didn't from nature itself. And I could fix the glitches created by certain mutations.
My sister Jani died from glioblastoma when she was six. She died before I was born, but when I was working on my cancer cure, I felt her presence, right beside me. Like we were birds in flight.
At first, we flew alone. Most doctors didn't agree with my theory. They thought chemotherapy and surgery were the only way to fight cancer. CAR-T cell therapy was discredited in the early 21st century. Doctors who recommended this treatment were discredited, bankrupted and de-platformed. Their names were erased from history.
But they were right. They were right all along. That's why I've decided not to seek a patent for my cancer cure. It's built on others' work -- and on nature. As Jonas Salk once said, "Could you patent the sun?"
When Karman heard that speech, he was not pleased.
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