Authors: Peter Meredith
In the cafeteria, the only part of the Walton Facility that was entirely complete, the three research teams were gathered around their tables waiting for the meeting to begin. Much as in a school cafeteria the teams sat as cliques; no one daring to break the code and sit apart from their colleagues.
Riggs really wished they would. His six-person team had been handpicked by him, not for their wit or engaging minds, but to accommodate his dominant personality trait: laziness. His team of worker ants was not known for brilliance of mind, it was made up of worker ants; nose-to-the-grindstone drones who excelled when tedious chores were heaped on them. If brilliance was called for, that was where he would step in.
At least that’s what Dr. Riggs PhD used to think. Then he was scooped by
. And he still didn’t know how. Everything was being held very close to the vest. Too close in his opinion. In order to confound the spy who had leaked the information, Thuy had compartmentalized each activity: Stem cell harvesting and preparation was being overseen by Milner. Riggs’ team was then transferring the mycotoxin-bearing organelles into the stem cells. Lastly, Thuy had assigned her team the work of growing the receptor cells and then “gelling” the receptors to the stem cells.
The end result was a miracle little molecule…supposedly. The results of her tests were also a tightly controlled secret.
on his note pad, wondering:
How could she have been the green light for a third round of tests with a fifteen percent success rate?
His own Com-cells, using far more powerful mycotoxins had a forty percent success rate in the animal trials with the unfortunate side effect of causing a rabid-like mania in nearly half of the subjects. A rabid opossum wasn’t a pretty sight.
He was aching to be given the chance to figure out what had gone wrong, instead he was playing lab assistant to Dr. Lee. Riggs shook his head, watching her glance at her notes and then at her watch. She could’ve begun speaking already but she was always exact even when exactness wasn't needed. She’d called the meeting for three and Riggs knew it wouldn’t start until three precisely. Thuy bent to pick something out of her briefcase that sat at the foot of the podium. Her tight skirt grew even tighter.
“Yowza,” Riggs said, under his breath.
“What is yowza?” Eng asked. “Is this engrish?”
Riggs tried to keep the annoyance off his face. In the last few days, Eng had kept closer to him than his own shadow. Eng was scientifically curious to a fault. A very annoying fault. “It’s nothing to do with the project. Why don’t you read your handout?”
Eng had already read it once, but to satisfy Riggs he read it again. He was halfway through when Thuy’s watch beeped at her. As usual she didn’t bother with pleasantries or a warm up joke. She went right in with her opening statement concerning the funding status of the project and didn’t pause until she noticed Riggs sitting with his hand in the air.
“Dr. Riggs, do you have a question on the current state of our funding?”
They’d worked together for the last six years so the skepticism in her voice was well warranted. “You know I don’t,” he answered. He only cared about funding when a project was his and his alone. “I want to know how you did it.”
She glanced to Deckard, the security man, who was standing behind her. As far as Riggs knew the security man hadn’t done much around the facility besides adding an aura of suspicion. He remained motionless save the raising of a single eyebrow, suggesting the decision was on her.
“Come on, Thuy,” Riggs said. “The trial starts in thirteen days. You have us flying blind here and it sort of feels like we’re about to fly into the side of a mountain.”
"Yeah," Milner agreed; a rare occurrence.
Thuy knew she’d have to give up her secrets eventually, however the very idea that one of the people in front of her was a corporate spy galled her. It made her feel violated.
And yet the others deserved to know what it was they were working so hard on. “Fine,” Thuy said and then sighed down at her notes. When she glanced up again she was a little shocked to find she had the room’s full attention—they had all been drowsing through the funding report, but now every one of them was listening eagerly. “Ok, I like your enthusiasm. For those non-scientists, to understand the Com-cell, you must understand its parts. I'll start with what we call the receptor cell. We are using the 27Q proteasome because of the high affinity and specificity..."
Deckard cleared his throat, lightly and leaned in. "Maybe a little less with the specifics, Dr. Lee. There is still the leak to worry about and any little thing puts your competition that much closer."
"Of course. You’re absolutely correct," Thuy acknowledged with a nod. She turned back to her teams. "All of you understand the concept behind the receptor cell: just like every other naturally occurring molecule, carcinomas have catalytic sites...docking stations if you will, where they receive nutrients and where they expel waste. Some of these sites are very specific to that particular form of cancer. This specificity allows our Com-cell to travel throughout the entire body and yet only latch onto the tumor."
"Mine didn't," Riggs stated in a loud voice. "And I was using the same proteasome as you. For some reason they built up along the ménages of my opossums with unfortunate side effects."
Thuy was unruffled by the outburst. "It is my theory that your mycotoxins were too powerful. Yes, they destroyed carcinomas, but I believe they also modified the Com-cells causing them to be able to dock at other sites." She paused to let Riggs respond, however he was picturing the Com-cell he had created and fearing she was right.
When he didn't meet her eyes, she went on, "The next step in creating the Com-cell is the merging of an adult stem cell with a fungal organelle; one that will release mycotoxins. In my first attempts with
the mycotoxins were too weak and too diffuse to make much of a difference against tumors larger than a gram in weight. I decided that instead of trying a more potent mycotoxin as my colleagues were, I changed tactics. Still using the weakest of the mycotoxins, I introduced the Com-cells via inhalation. This was a positive in a number of ways. First, the Com-cell was able to attack the cancer in the lungs right away without having to run up against the immune system. Secondly, the Com-cells were extremely concentrated allowing for the destruction of any sized tumors, and finally, the stem cells, having released their deadly payload were in a perfect position to replicate.”
“Son of a bitch,” Riggs said, in appreciation. “You kill the cancer and heal the lung at the same time.”
“Yes. It’s simple stochastic differentiation: the stem cell develops into two differentiated daughter cells. In layman’s terms, the Com-cells, once their payload of mycotoxins is delivered, become simply lung tissue.”
"The inhalation was your third test?" Milner asked. "What were the results?"
"Thirty out of thirty were healed completely," she replied and even she couldn't help the smile that crept across her face.
Lieutenant Eng needed all of his training to maintain a calm exterior as he came to realize he had just been given the keys to the kingdom. He knew everything now, maybe more than any of them except for Dr. Lee. He certainly knew more than Riggs who had barely glanced over the results of his two tests.
Eng had studied them until he had memorized every line. Cancer was easily China’s biggest killer, accounting for over 1.6 million deaths a year—and that was just the official count. The real number was at least twice that high and with the pollution becoming thicker than fog in many cities, death from cancer would only continue to climb.
If he played his cards just right, it would be Lieutenant Eng of the People’s Liberation Army who would get credit for finding the cure. To make that happen, he would just have to figure out a way to sabotage the efforts of Dr. Lee and by extension the French.
The first order of business was to force from his mind the visions of the parades that would be thrown in his honor and the justly deserved promotions he’d receive and all the hot patriotic ladies that would fawn all over him. These would come to him in due time. For now he had to make sure his cover of harmless, geeky “Chinaman” wasn’t blown.
He sat there as Dr. Lee went back to her meeting’s agenda. After the funding report, she introduced the members of the staff: Dr. Milner—a fat, pompous, ass. He stood and named his research team: three pretty ladies and three men from India with incomprehensibly long and complicated sounding names. Then Dr. Riggs stood and muttered the names of his crew; he looked stunned.
When Eng’s single syllable name was mentioned he smiled through squinty eyes and bowed his head in every direction. He was playing it up to the hilt, and no one noticed. Not even the security man. Deckard barely gave Eng a glance. He was too busy eyeing the new people to the lab: two oncologists, a radiologist, a mycologist, and the physician who would be present during the trial.
Eng didn’t see Deckard so much as twitch until the mycologist was introduced. Then Deck leaned in toward Dr. Lee and Eng could read his lips:
What’s a mycologist?
He took out a notebook and jotted down Thuy’s explanation.
The last person to be introduced shocked everyone by what he had to say. “This is Mr. Blair,” Dr. Lee said. “He’s the trial recruiter.”
Blair didn’t hesitate giving his bad news: “I only have twelve subjects signed up. Sorry.”
Only Deckard didn’t seem to get worked up over the low number. Everyone else was floored. “That’s not enough,” Dr. Lee said. “From a pool of tens of thousands, you have twelve?”
The recruiter gestured to a stack of loose paper set out on the table in front of him. “Yes, only twelve, but the pool isn’t as big as you think. A lot of cancer patients don’t want to do any traveling on such short notice. Hell, most people on the West coast wouldn’t even think of making the trip. Of those that are near I have to subtract the people who are too far gone, you know, physically and all those who have given up entirely. Then there are the people on the other end of the spectrum who think they still have a chance with chemo and radiation, or prayer. These people want to try what
“What about the ones who've tried chemo already?” Dr. Lee said.
“A lot of them don’t want to waste their remaining time as guinea pigs and there are more who are just plain clueless about these sorts of trials. People worry that they’ll get a placebo or a sugar pill or that the cure might make their cancer worse! I’m sorry, but it’s these out of the blue, last minute trials that are the hardest to place people in. Maybe if you had billed it as something else, like chemo without the vomiting I could have filled you up.”
“So what do we do?” Thuy stared around at the room. She looked as though someone had sucker-punched her.
No one had a good answer. Eng had a self-serving one: "Maybe we postpone trial one year. Give time to get new patients."
"And let how many people die in the mean time?" Thuy demanded. "No, give me something else."
“We bribe them,” Riggs answered. “Free flight, free cottage accommodations for loved ones. A big stack of
. Whatever it takes."
Thuy was ready to jump on any plausible idea. “Would that work?” She had asked Blair but it was one of the oncologists who answered.
“Yes,” Dr. Samuel Wilson stated. “Many of my patients are hurting financially. If the bribe is big enough, I'm sure they'll come on board even if they have no hope of being cured."
Thuy smiled uneasily. "Let's not use the word bribe. I think
is a better alternative."
In the middle of March he stood fourteen thousand feet above sea level at the top of Pike’s Peak looking out at the world. It was majestic, beautiful and surprisingly, fantastically cold and he coughed nonstop until he fled. A few days later he rolled his jeans up and waded into the Pacific off Pismo Beach—it was also cold and he shivered the gunk from the insides of his lung and he spat up ugly matter. On the twentieth he was in South Florida, riding his first rollercoaster and not really enjoying it. On the twenty-second he was near out of money and the pain in his chest was a constant reminder that it didn’t really matter.
It hurt to take a deep breath; it felt as though there were sharp edged diamonds between his ribs that gouged at his innards every time he sucked in air. Coughing made him wince and he couldn’t remember the last time he was hungry.
“Guess I’m just ‘bout done,” he said. “Now it’s just a question ‘bout how I’m gonna go.” The people around him on the observation deck pretended they didn’t hear the lean and leathery man talking to himself. He was in New York City. Even at the top of the Empire State Building there were crazies.
From fifteen hundred feet up he watched the sun go down over New Jersey. It was one of the damned prettiest sights he’d ever seen. That evening he spent watching the people of New York live their lives. It was a bit overwhelming for a man from Norman, Oklahoma and his head spun at the sheer number of humans going this way and that.