CHAPTER ONE: DR. GARCIA
With a merry whoop, Manny Garcia broke the silence in his lab on the Northern California coast. Outside there was faint music from distant homes and lights of nearby hospital buildings. It was Saturday evening.
He was a scientist in his 40s. Humming the letters, G, C, A and T, the nucleic acids that make up DNA, he recited codes for chromosome segments.
“Go crazy!” he finished.
The computer console before him flashed like a game at an arcade. Colored lights blinked. Sounds spoke a language only its trained operator understood. His hands returned to the keyboard. Watching the monitor, he scanned across hundreds of streaming signals and occasionally tapped the screen.
Sitting within a steel compartment like a priest inside a confessional, he re-opened a letter. it read:
March 15, 2025
“Hello, I am one of the patients in the research trial. I learned about it from my oncologist in New York City. I may not ever meet you, but the nurse said to write anyway. I am so excited to start the second phase next week!
I thought I was going to China, so I was surprised to discover my ticket is for Athens and then I go to a medical center in Africa. But they explained to me that this is an international collaboration.
I am seventy years old. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and now must find a way to pay it forward — spend more time with my grandkids.
Thank you so much for your help! What can be more precious than hope?
He hovered his phone over it to take a photo but then shredded it instead.
The only record for this landmark moment — his first volunteer for the experimental vaccine project— would be a memory.
Cheer curdled into fear. The home camera had shown that someone had been inside his apartment the other day while he was at the lab. Why?
Maybe it was just the apartment handyman.
Then there was the phone call to his 15 year old son in Chicago. Disconnecting, then rapid clicks before reconnecting, was someone listening in?
Could his employer be spying on him?
Strictly speaking, Pandolf Medical Center had not authorized him to work on this project for an outside organization. Also, his contract with Pandolf stated that anything “an employee created with company time or resources was (their) intellectual property.”
Still, what was the harm? During these off-times like tonight, no one else was on the computer anyway. In any event, he was making tremendous progress using the Drukker, a new supercomputer with artificial intelligence designed to run biological programs.
Soria, a chain of international clinics, had sent him terminally ill patients’ clinical records and specimens — de-identified for privacy. For them, he was tallying conclusions and possible medical treatment recommendations.
It was time. Tap. A thin glass bar, the first of the storage discs ejected near his knee. Tap again. Another bar ejected. Three more followed.
The computer asked, “Do you wish to run this file?”
“Your data will no longer be retrievable. Do you still wish to run this file?” A synthetic woman’s voice.
Yes, Garcia hit the key.
Pages of code scrolled down the monitor, raining many colors before the screen went black. Then the bright Drukker sun dawned, its 3-D video security logo. Relieved at how everything had processed so smoothly, he scrawled five names in thick black marker on the five glass bars.
Picturing the letter-writer as a frail old woman determined to survive, he labeled “MARY” first. She had already received her first pre-treatment in New York City. Her letter did not have her last name or contact information.
There were four other files, terminal cancer patients who were wealthy enough to pay but unlike Mary, they had not yet signed up for the trial. Onto their discs, he wrote: “MARK,” “MATTHEW,” “LUKE,” and “JOHN.”.
As for Soria’s choice of Biblical names, plenty of rich people with savior complexes dabbled in the medical field. His job — ignoring religious superstition — was to make recommendations to Soria’s machine learning and artificial intelligence team — to help the individual patient’s immune system combat the dynamic genetics of cancer. Feeding medical data into the computer at night — from blood and biopsy results to advanced imaging — he investigated how each tumor evolved.
The ingenious metamorphoses of cancer, from a single cell to its changing hide-and-seek organization of millions within the victim’s body, became targets for the Drukker’s AI in games that pitted the disease against vaccines. His aim was precision medicine for a terminally ill patient to experience remission, possibly cure, and to die one day of something besides cancer.
His breathing became shallow. Heart pounding, he slipped the five glass bars into a case that he dropped into his backpack.
I’m a scientist, not a thief.
But he had never bent the knee to anyone else’s moral code anyway, was an unbeliever in this church of American academic medicine and would pay the worldly price. To seize this chance to pursue his own ideas for research after working all his life for other people on their projects — was the right thing to do.
Next to the supercomputer housing, a frayed notebook swung like a hanged man from a nail. In it, his fellow scientists scribbled their times for reservations to use the Drukker computer. Their illegible writing often caused feuds about schedules, but no one wanted to use the computer in the graveyard hours he now worked in. He scribbled his name into blank spaces for next week’s schedule.
His Soria phone gave a new notification from David Campbell, the contractor to transport the data storage discs to the African desert state of Saburia, where Soria had built a new clinic.
Garcia texted the other scientist back that he was taking the drives to a hiding place in the Pandolf hospital complex. Tomorrow, he would leave Campbell a hand-drawn paper map with directions to the location.
“Look forward to going to Africa myself one day,” Garcia dictated into his phone.
“Saburia is fiery hot,” Campbell replied. “Nothing to do but work, you would like that. Buying the Drukker computer shows Soria is investing in your Terminator T-cells.”
“Wish I could go now, away from little minds who rule my life here,” Garcia said.
“Can’t, your son is coming soon. Jorge.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“We video-chat all the time.”
“I mean in person?”
“Two weeks ago in Chicago when I saw Michael.”
A husky Polish-American businessman in his mid-40s, sometimes sober, often not, Michael Kochanski had connected Garcia to Soria Clinics.
On a recent video-call, Kochanski had nodded with approval. In accented English, he said, “I like the idea of cancer as a disease to live with, not fatal, so patients become regular customers. That is more glamorous than selling disposable razor blades.”
Garcia had frowned.
Kochanski explained, “It’s a joke, Manny. You know the business principle, I lose money when I sell you the razor holder, but make it back every time you buy more blades from me.”
“I know, Michael. But it isn’t that simple. A lot of work goes into proving scientific theories. And most of the time, they have no merit.”
“Time runs out for everyone,” Kochanski retorted. “Those dying patients have nothing to lose except for worthless relatives waiting for them to go so they can inherit money. Soria Clinics makes sure patients understand that treatments may not be successful.”
“Thank you for connecting me with Soria, Michael. Or my research ideas wouldn’t be going anywhere.”
“Oh, don’t thank me too much,” Kochanski said. “Soria is paying me well for consulting, and your work for Soria so far is free. But I do think corporations are the future of science.”
“I meant,” Garcia said, “that being just a postdoc at Pandolf means I only work on other people’s ideas. But I have to support myself and my son and keep slaving away on this plantation.
“What I really want to do is to help people like Mary whom conventional medicine would rather sacrifice than push limits.
“But Michael, I’m worried. I’m doing this research on the side using Pandolf’s equipment and resources — without their knowledge.”
“Why should Pandolf care, Manny?” Kochanski said. “The computer is not used for anything else when you’re on it, you’re not hurting anyone or getting paid.”
“If they find out,” Garcia responded, “ there may be trouble. But then I have no loyalty to Pandolf or any respect for their authority. I’ll have to figure out other options.”
Garica liked people less and less as he grew older. But he had one friend here whom he would miss if he had to leave Pandolf: Dr. Shelly Narayan. About thirty years old, she worked with him under their boss, Dr. Samuel Nepski, on a project to strengthen her applications for advanced surgery fellowships, part of the army of resident doctors in Pandolf who floated through its labs.
Living in her miniature world, like a mouse in a storybook, Shelly appeared to be a happy young woman who spent long hours in the lab pipetting placental extract into endless wells of patterned plates. They would slide into the Drukker for analysis. Back at Drukker headquarters — fondly called the Dock — they had robots to do that type of repetitive work.
Following his return from Chicago two weeks ago, he had suggested to Shelly his idea for a new experiment for her, his parting gift if Pandolf discovered his secret project and he was fired, arrested or even deported.
“Dr. Nepski was very excited about me discussing this with you!” he had told her.
Matching his long stride to Shelly’s shorter steps, they had walked together down the cement sidewalk to Palatine Hill, Pandolf’s Italian restaurant.
Within a brick building, it overlooked an expanse of sloping lawn down to the central lake of the Medical Center. On the plaster walls, there was a painting of low Roman hills, the buildings half-ruined and half vegetated, reflecting a dawn sky, flushed red and streaked with gold.
“Palatine Hill in Rome actually looks a bit like this,” he had told Shelly as a waiter led them to the side patio past another panorama of ancient gods and battles. “Just more dilapidated.”
At night, the silver lake mirrored the lights and traffic on the medical campus. On the covered wooden deck outside, he had sipped Chianti and explained his idea for her project while enjoying the view of the darkening valley and glittering water.
On a piece of paper, Shelly had jotted notes. The small candle burned bright in its glass globe, flame flickering, lighting her writing. An ambulance whined and threaded its flashing way into the hospital campus from the distant highway.
The dinner conversation had led to Shelly describing using robots to operate on patients. “The surgeon is at the controls with a video monitor — we can even do surgery remotely.”
“I just got an email from Drukker about their pipetting robot,” Garcia said. “But Dr. Nepski wants to see preliminary results from your new experiment before purchasing it.”
Finally, Shelly and Garcia had shared a dessert, a tiramisu, which arrived in a generous American portion with two tiny silver forks. When Garcia’s wife was alive, they used to share dessert. “Like a kiss,” she used to say.
The Italian head waiter had stopped by to visit. They discussed the old Old World — before the pandemic and across oceans of water, time and distance — anecdotes about opera, wine, and travels to remote towns back in the day when people travelled more for leisure.
Garcia turned to the fresco. “I wonder if they also had a god of olive oil?” he joked.
After the waiter left, Shelly commented, “I’ve never been to Europe. It’s fascinating to listen to both of you,” and expressed surprise that the stylish Italian, with his “cute” accent and tuxedo, did not mind their “casual dress.”
“Of course, you must mean me because you always look great.” Garcia said, deciding to shave more regularly.
They had said their goodbyes amid the lavender fragrance of jumbles of bouquets besides the restaurant’s main doors before walking out into a chilly breeze and night sky on the valley edge overlooking the shimmering lake.
When was that dinner with her, yesterday or Wednesday? What is today? Time: its inexorable order in clocks, calendars and schedules beeped an alarm that he had programmed into the Drukker. It was Saturday night and time to scramble that last record in the printer.
Mary was the first — and his only — patient so far. Her treatment files must arrive in Saburia on time for her. Once her blood counts improved, the doctors in New York City would release her to travel.
But the task to destroy the data from his secret research was detailed. After grabbing his toolbox, he laid back down on the floor and slid under the Drukker printer on a rolling platform. Engrossed in delicate electronics, he heard the laboratory door open and close. Sweat smeared his face as he shot himself back out from under the machine. Who would be entering the lab now?