CHAPTER ONE: ESCAPE FROM THE LAB
With a merry whoop, Dr. Manny Garcia broke the silence.
Alone in his lab on a Saturday evening, he hummed G, C, A, and T, the nucleic acids of DNA, stringing them into long chains of letters, breaking with “A.”
“A” was in memory of his wife, Pia. In her 30s, she had passed from cancer in Argentina, their homeland. Outside the window, he saw lights, nearby hospital buildings, and heard faint music from distant homes. Pia would have been forty this month and what a party he would have given her, fireworks, colored balloons, and kisses.
The computer console before him flashed a spectrum of lights. Sounds spoke a language only a trained operator understood. His hands returned to the arcade style keyboard. 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 the letter. Blue ink strokes, ripples from faraway amid black redacted lines, the note read:
March 15, 2025
“Hello, I am one of the patients in your cancer trial and a grandma who would like to have more time with my grandkids.
My ticket arrived for Athens and then to go to a medical center in Africa.
Thank you so much for your help! What can be more precious than hope?
He hovered his phone to take a photo but then shredded the paper. His only record of this landmark moment — the first volunteer for the project— would be a memory.
Cheer curdled into fear. The home camera showed that someone had been inside his apartment while he was away. Why?
Maybe it was just the apartment handyman.
Then there was his phone call to his 15-year-old son, Jorge. living with his sister and brother-in-law in Chicago, disconnecting, then rapid clicks before reconnecting. Could someone be listening in?
Could his employer be spying on him?
He and Jorge were talking in Spanish.
“Dad, why do people not trust science?” his son had asked him. “This kid at school said that.”
He took a deep breath and pulled his hair away from his forehead. His work world was crushing bureaucracy, bosses who only saw him as a tool, disappointment with himself and self-doubt about breaking the rules.
Why would the public trust science, he did not tell Jorge, when inside the system, his own father had lost faith.
Strictly speaking, Pandolf Medical Center had not authorized him to work on this side project. His contract with Pandolf specified that anything “an employee created with company time or resources was (their) intellectual property.”
Still, what was the harm, he told himself? During these off-times like tonight, no one else was on the Drukker computer, and he was making tremendous progress using its latest artificial intelligence to run biological programs.
Soria, an international clinic chain, had sent him terminally ill patient records, de-identified for privacy. For them, he was tallying treatment recommendations.
Soria had not asked his employer for permission to use their equipment, and he had not pointed out that breach of protocol either.
It was time.
Tap. A thin glass bar, the first disc ejected near his knee. Tap again. Another bar. 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.
Garcia hit the <Enter> 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.
He scrawled in thick black marker on the five glass bars.
Picturing the letter-writer as a frail old woman, he labeled “MARY” first.
There were four other files, terminal cancer patients who were wealthy enough to pay but had not yet signed up for the trial. On their discs, he wrote: “MARK,” “MATTHEW,” “LUKE,” and “JOHN.”.
As for Soria’s choice of Biblical names, he figured that 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, from blood and biopsy results to imaging, he sleuthed 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: precision medicine for the terminally ill patient to have remission, even cure, and then die one day of something besides cancer.
Heart pounding, breathing shallow, he slipped the five glass bars into a case he dropped into his backpack.
I’m a scientist, not a thief, he told himself. But I have never bent the knee to anyone else’s moral code, am an unbeliever in this church of American academic medicine and I will pay the worldly price. To seize my chance to pursue my ideas for research, after working all my life for other (dull) people on their projects, it is 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. Their illegible writing often caused feuds about schedules, but no one wanted to use the machine in the graveyard hours he worked in. He scribbled his name into blank spaces for next week’s schedule.
His Soria phone showed a new notification from David Campbell. Campbell was also a scientist. He was going to transport the data storage discs to the African desert state of Saburia, where Soria had built a new clinic.
Garcia texted Campbell back that he would place the drives in a hiding place in the Pandolf hospital complex and leave him a hand-drawn paper map with directions to find them.
“Look forward to going to Africa myself one day,” Garcia dictated into his phone.
“Saburia is fiery hot,” replied Campbell. “Nothing to do but work, you would like that. Buying the Drukker shows Soria is investing in your Terminator T-cells.”
“Wish I could go now, away from little minds who rule my life here.”
“Can’t, your son is coming soon. What about Jorge?”
“He wants to be called George now, I don’t understand.”
“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.”
Michael Kochanski was a husky Polish-American businessman in his mid-40s, who had connected Garcia to Soria Clinics.
On a recent video-call, in accented English, Kochanski 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.”
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,” retorted Kochanski. “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, Michael, for connecting me with Soria. Or my research ideas wouldn’t be going anywhere.”
“Oh, don’t thank me too much,” said Kochanski. “Soria pays me well for consulting, and your work so far is free for them. 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 must 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 sacrifices instead of pushing its limits.
“But Michael, I’m worried,” he continued. “I’m doing this research on the side using Pandolf’s equipment without telling them.”
“Why would Pandolf care, Manny?” asked Kochanski. “The computer is not being used for anything else when you’re on it. You’re not hurting anyone or getting paid.”
“If they find out,” said Garcia, “there may be trouble. But then I have no loyalty to Pandolf or any respect for their authority. I’ll figure it out.”
Garica thought about how he liked people less and less as he grew older. But he had one friend here whom he would miss if he had to leave: Dr. Shelly Narayan. About thirty years old, she worked with him under their boss, Dr. Nepski, on a project to strengthen her applications for advanced surgery fellowships. She was 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 hours in the lab pipetting placental extract into endless wells of patterned plates. They would slide into the machine for analysis. Back at Drukker headquarters, the Dock, they had robots to do that type of repetitive work.
After his return from Chicago two weeks ago, he suggested to Shelly his idea for a new experiment for her.
“Dr. Nepski was so excited about me discussing this with you!” he said.
He matched his long stride to Shelly’s shorter steps. They walked on the cement sidewalk to Palatine Hill, Pandolf’s Italian restaurant.
Palatine Hill overlooked an expanse of sloping lawn down to the central lake of the Medical Center. Plaster walls displayed 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 told Shelly as a waiter led them outside past another panorama of ancient gods and battles, framed by exposed brick. “Just more dilapidated.”
At night, the silver lake mirrored the lights and traffic of the medical campus, glittering within the darkening valley. On the wooden patio, he sipped Chianti and explained his idea for her project.
On a slip of paper, Shelly jotted notes. The candle flickered in its glass globe, lighting her writing. A distant ambulance whined and threaded its flashing way into the hospital campus from the highway.
Shelly described robots that operated on patients. “The surgeon is at the controls with a video monitor for long-distance surgery.”
“That is amazing,” he said, “On another note, Shelly, I just got an email from Drukker about their pipetting robot. But Dr. Nepski says he wants to see preliminary results from your new experiment before he budgets it.”
Finally, Shelly and Garcia shared a tiramisu, which arrived in a generous American portion with two forks. When Garcia’s wife was alive, they used to share dessert.
“Like a kiss,” she used to say.
After one bite, his eyes grew wet, and his throat tightened.
The Italian head waiter stopped by to visit.
“Do you not like it? Our tiramisu is a favorite.”
Garcia forced himself to keep eating it.
They discussed the 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.
Garcia gestured to the fresco. “I wonder if they also had a god of olive oil?” he joked.
After the Italian left, Shelly commented, “I’ve never been to Europe. It’s fascinating to listen to both of you.” She 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,” he said.
They parted amid the lavender scent of jumbles of flowers in the restaurant’s lobby. He walked out into chilly breezes and night sky on the valley edge.
When was that dinner with her, yesterday or Wednesday? What is today? Time: its inexorable order in clocks, calendars, and schedules beeped an alarm on his watch. It was Saturday night and time to scramble that last record in the printer.
Mary was his first and his only patient so far. Her treatment files must arrive in Saburia on time.
But his task to destroy the data was detailed. After grabbing his toolbox, he laid back down on the floor and slid under the Drukker printer. Engrossed in delicate electronics, he heard the laboratory door open and close. Sweat beaded his face. Who would be entering the lab now?