Dr. Garcia is a renegade scientist who is secretly developing personalized cancer cures.
Tiger Tiger Burning Bright
Winter, New York, New York: The cancer was back, she had six months to live. In her 24th story flat, overlooking Central Park, Neena stared at pristine snow draping the trees. Under them, pedestrians crawled like insects. With the melting temperature, they pulled up hoods to shield themselves from branches dropping dirty slush.
Looking down from palatial windows, she desperately scrolled her computer's files, searching for the saved link to a Chinese cancer center, with an experimental cure for terminal patients. Under her account name, 'Mary', she clicked on another tab. A Sun filled the screen, its yellow halo spread around a brilliant white center which said:
Our Server is down
Please check back later
You may leave a message: type your message here
Spring, Pandolf, California: Every Saturday night, at the internationally acclaimed Pandolf Medical Center near the California coast, Dr. Manny Garcia huddled in the Drukker, the new multimillion-dollar supercomputer in the Nepksi lab. He watched the multidimensional video monitor, painstakingly checked across hundreds of variables and occasionally tapped the screen. Tap. A thin plastic bar ejected, near his knee. Tap again, and another bar ejected. Tap. Tap. Tap. Five plastic bars. Tap. "Do you wish to run this file?" Tap, yes. "Your data will no longer be retrievable. Do you still wish to run this file?" Tap, yes.
Pages of code scrolled on the screen, 2-D, black and white, then the bright yellow Drukker Inc. sun shined again. Done. Two hundred and fifty six dimensions and that was just today. Tonight, in a cocoon of silence, Garcia quickly scrawled names on the five discs in black permanent marker: Mary, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, then slipped them into a case, which he dropped into his backpack outside the enclosure. His breathing was deep and his heart pounded. Next to the console, a frayed yellow spiral notebook swung like a hung man from a nail in the wall. In this ledger, in illegible handwriting which frequently caused feuds, the scientists scribbled in their reserved times for the Drukker.
There were only about twenty Drukkers in the world, designed in Berkeley, manufactured in China, with technical support from Bangalore, India. The Nepski team had recently purchased one, in collaboration with other labs at Pandolf Medical Center. Frequent squabbles broke out over the research computer's use, and at least once, another scientist had "accidentally" terminated Dr. Garcia's experiment mid-point to start his own.
So Dr. Garcia had taken to spending long periods of time sitting defensively in the Drukker with his computer, cell phone, and papers. He comforted himself by patting the Glock pistol, warm in its holster against his skin, whenever another scientist interrupted his work. He only left for a quick meal from the vending machine, or a packet of oatmeal dissolved in the hot water from the coffee pot with a dash of dry milk, from the stash he also used in scientific experiments. No food was allowed in the Drukker.
If he left for restroom breaks, he threw his backpack, coat, papers and anything else handy onto the imitation leather seat. The material was called pleather, to please the vegetarians like him, and the animal rights activists, in the research community. In this way, he hoped to slow down anyone else trying to take his place. Then he was quick again to return.
The Drukker was the latest model of a medical research computer. It performed biochemical, genetic, 3-D, 4-D and higher dimensional testing on human tissue. A scientist could take Drukker trays, load his experiment specimens, and sit at the control board to guide the analysis he wished the machine to perform.
For Dr. Garcia, it was the thrill equivalent of a spaceship ride. Data spewed into the multidimensional monitor, and fast clicks, plucks and swipes on the digital keyboard, the video monitor, or Fastscreen for teamwork, shot thrilling curves over mountains of data and their changes, over arrays of dimensions. Then the "TEST" red tab would glow its reward, like a video game. A series of thrilling theories would display, teasing him to pursue them through glorious woods of numbers and patterns, minutes and years, disease and disaster, as endless as the dust in the universe.
In current space-time, he heard the door open, and the soft footsteps of Shelly Narayan. He was relieved that the five data drives were safely in his backpack. She was an Obstetrics and Gynecology resident doctor, training at Pandolf Hospital. Shelly worked diligently as a lab research assistant, to boost her applications to advanced surgery specialty training programs.
Dr. Garcia pictured Shelly would be in the lab for the next hour, doing the mindless work of pipetting. With an eyedropper like instrument, she dispensed hundreds of drops of human placenta extract into endless little plastic wells in a solid plate. This would soon slide into a refrigerated Drukker pod. Dr. Garcia thought a robot could easily replace Shelly but then he thought Shelly's free labor was a cog in the big machine which was Pandolf Medical Center. He politely greeted her, and then his eyes returned again to the patterns on the Drukker video monitor, as intent as any sports fan watching a close game.
Sure enough, within fifteen minutes, a bored Shelly put down her goggles and pipette, and walked over, hungry for some conversation. Dr. Garcia smiled to himself. He thought Shelly was not a true scientist, because she liked to be around people too much. He decided it was a shame that the system required people like her to provide mindless labor in a laboratory; she would be a terrific doctor, however. He admired her people skills.
"Well, what are you doing?" Shelly asked.
"Just checking patterns on the Drukker...powerful machine. When the company rep was here, he said they already had orders around the world for another eight. Of course, they keep updating the technology. The rep will be back again next week to do another update. I wanted to get in here before then, when all the labs will be doing data backup. Have you organized the backup data drives?"
"Of course, come take a look. Sorry I am late today. I was working on the cancer fundraiser today," Shelly replied. Mischievously, she looked askance at him for a reaction.
"What fundraiser today?" he asked sharply.
"Oh, Dr. Garcia, how could you not know? The Quest for the Cure, you couldn't have missed it. It was with the National Cancer Mission, you know, with the green armbands and all. There was so much spirit there, so many volunteers, it was just amazing!" Shelly exclaimed. "I mean there have been posters and ads and announcements for weeks! Oh, Dr. Garcia, how could you have missed them?"
Dr. Garcia recalled today's lab meeting when he had stared absent mindedly out the window as he waited for everyone. He saw an army of people running a 5K run outside, television cameras, throngs clogging the sidewalks, and large posters advertising Pandolf Regional Cancer Center, as approved by the National Cancer Institute.
He wondered at the successful fundraising. Pandolf Medical Center flooded social media, distributed colorful brochures, invitations were sent for a private gala and everywhere, there were appealing posters with volunteers, nurses, doctors, scientists, and smiling cancer patients. Green everywhere! He remembered the crowds of runners even wore Pandolf Regional Cancer Center dog tags!
Dr. Garcia snorted.
"Dr. Garcia!" Shelly rebuked him.
"Oh, Shelly, you know I think they take advantage of the naivetof the general public. But they still take care of themselves, the scientists, the doctors, and the businessmen, don't even pay taxes because they are so called non-profits. Yes, that is the grand medical-academic-government industrial complex. Have you seen what they fund?"
"Not really," Shelly responded, smiling inside as her mind drifted elsewhere, as it often wandered when Dr. Garcia began what she considered one of his radical rants. Of course, she knew she had triggered this one and scolded herself for enjoying his response. A comical picture of Dr. Garcia in a 1960s tie-dye T-shirt and a headband came to her mind. She braced herself.
But he was getting excited. "They fund each other, their buddies, their friends, obscure research ideas which will never help anyone, intellectual exercises with no relevance to anybody, like discovering a new star in the Universe. Yes, that money goes to them and their partners in the robbery they do to their supporters." He waved his arms about as he became more excited, then deeply inhaled to calm himself, grimaced and came back to her with a question.
"Shelly, do you really think that if a cure for cancer came along, these folk would be any better than the Romans with Jesus Christ, or the Catholic Church, which almost burned Galileo at the stake? Shelly, if someone found a cure to cancer, what would happen to all their glorious careers, all that money, all these buildings, these temples with their porphyry marble and fountains? Why would they cure the cancer patient, the one who lays their golden eggs?" He swept his arm derisively around him at the Pandolf medical complex.
He paused the computer screen, slowly got up out of the Drukker, did a yoga stretch, up with the arms, gracefully arching his back like a cat, and looked behind him to make sure no colleague stood in black shadows ready to jump into "his" machine. Quickly, he walked over to the adjacent cabinet and removed a large plastic yellow box with the Drukker Sun logo.
"P1456, P1457, Q2954, Q2955...," he counted carefully and methodically. Finally, he finished and smiled at her. "Good job, Shelly," he said.
"Well, I better get going to the airport to get my son, George," Dr. Garcia added. "I have to get used to the sound of George. What is wrong with his legal name, Jorge?" George was Dr. Garcia's fifteen year old son who was arriving from Chicago, where he had been staying with his aunt and uncle. Shelly knew that Dr. Garcia was a widower, and till recently, George had been living with Dr. Garcia's mother, in Argentina. But since Dr. Garcia never spoke about his wife, Shelly knew nothing more.
"Well, maybe the name George makes him feel more at home," Shelly mused. "My father would sometimes reminisce about India, where he was born. Papa did not come to the United States till he was a young man. Of course, he met Mom here. When I was growing up, he worked long hours as a country doctor. So it was a treat, it still is a treat, when he tells us stories about his childhood. Like when we sit around the dinner table. I remember once he explained that the word for the color blue, in English, resonates sad and jazzy. But in Hindi, his native language, the same word meant the bright blue of a peacock feather, or a pretty woman's sari."
So she went on, encouraged by the smile on Dr. Garcia's face. Actually, he was happy because her chattiness reminded him of his dead wife. Pia's face drifted before him, the memory of her warm smile waking forgotten feelings which bought him joy he rarely felt anymore. He too took a walk in his past.
Distantly he heard Shelly go on, "or my dad may talk about the color pink. In American English, he says it is hot pink, cotton candy, or Marilyn Monroe's lipstick. But in Hindi, it is the color of desserts one shares with the family, or the color of festive powder one tosses at friends in Holi, an Indian spring celebration. I think he missed his home in India a lot, especially living in rural Texas. We go back for visits sometimes and he is always so happy, at home, during those times."
Dr. Garcia finally returned to the present and told her, "you will like George; he is not a misogynist like me. Well, goodbye, let me not keep you from your pipette." He clicked some buttons on the Drukker console, exited his program, saved his data, shut down the computer and feeling sad as he did every time he had to leave his machine, he packed to leave for the night.
Shelly watched him walk out through shadowed glass doors into the lonely corridor and disappear. His back hunched protectively against the darkness, the stained gray backpack slung over his left shoulder.
"God, what an old geek," she sighed. It didn't help he didn't smell good sometimes either, or occasionally had morning crust still stuck in his eyes, behind his crooked glasses. She remembered a time she had surprised him a few days ago, when she returned to the lab to retrieve papers she needed for a presentation the next day. She saw just his legs because most of him was under the Drukker machine, with a flashlight, cables and toolbox next to him. There was even a large bolt cutter on the floor. Hearing her, he quickly emerged, surprised and dusty, knocking his glasses on the floor.
"Just checking some pattern theory on the Drukker," he said and coughed. "And clearing the dust, not good for the machines."
She looked puzzled so he explained. "Now here I will show you." He picked up his glasses, wiped them off with his shirt and tried to realign them; then placed them back on his nose. He opened a case labeled with a bright orange sun, the trade logo for the Drukker Corporation and showed her a round, faceted piece of glass.
"So I got this from the rep, to check accuracy and just finished fine-tuning things a bit." He put the glass on a plate of flat black metal and played the Drukker emblazoned flashlight device over it. Facets of light glowed on the black metal underneath.
"So next the cable feeds the data in!" he said. "Then the printer gives me a report." The printer obligingly spit out a piece of paper at that very moment. He glanced at it and showed Shelly a Drukker sun with many different colors in its halo.
Shelly was unimpressed but then wondered; she thought she had seen that pattern before. She suppressed her frown. She had journeyed through the discipline of medical school and residency for a long time and knew to look suitably enthused, when addressed by someone senior to her in its rigid hierarchy of power; even if all she really thought was "what a strange man!"
Shelly had planned her life and her medical career, which were one and the same for her; for successes she thought Dr. Garcia could never even dream of. After her successful entry into a competitive surgery fellowship, after her OB/GYN residency, she would be thirty years old. By the time she was in her mid thirties she planned to be climbing the rungs of a top ranking research institution to establish herself as a top doctor in her specialty. "I will be curing ovarian cancer," she thought with exhilaration. This was followed by the more sobering thought: "And then I can also finally dig myself out of debt."
Shelley felt guilty for her aging parents and hoped her younger sister would give them the grandchildren they wanted. She had neither the time or interest in having a family some day. Dr. Garcia and his eccentric ideas also held no interest for her besides some amusement and she admitted to herself, some warm affection she had begun to nurture for him. To her, he was just another failure in the glorious world of academic medicine. But she, on the other hand, planned to be one of its stars.
Shelly's view of Dr. Garcia was generally shared by their lab team, starting with the National Institutes of Health powerful lead scientist, Dr. Samuel Nepski. Dr. Nepski was Shelly and Dr. Garcia's boss, with a freshly minted two million dollar grant, as well as several smaller ones, and public and private grant money he shared with other scientists. He was renowned as a brilliant doctor with dozens of publications in journals for his specialty.
Dr. Nepski's career was in Maternal Fetal Medicine, or the field of high risk pregnancies. But Dr. Garcia had confided in Shelley his dark personal opinion of his boss as a star salesman at Pandolf Medical Center: "tall and handsome, yes, but with just the right amount of morning shadow, gruffness and his longish curly brown hair, to fit people's picture of their teddy bear doctor, to find cures for all their ills."
On television, Shelly watched Dr. Nepski, a sharp dresser in suit and tie, blink modestly into the camera, as he translated complex science into language the public could understand. His father, Dr. Paul Nepski, was also a famous doctor who had done groundbreaking research into toxemia of pregnancy, thirty years ago.
Toxemia of pregnancy, his son would inform his audience, is now called eclampsia. It a dangerous condition, which can affect some pregnant women at the end of their pregnancies, and result in serious injury, even death, to mother, baby or both. Videos of swollen women, masked doctors, blinking equipment and endless tubes played behind him, happily ending in a Madonna and child picture, a joyful mother and her cherubic breastfed baby.
Early detection of toxemia is difficult, Nepksi would earnestly inform his rapt audiences, and treatment options are limited. As Paul Nepski's brilliant industrious son, interested in continuing his father's work, the junior Dr. Nepski readily found friends, mentors and opportunities from the days of medical school, to competitive and scarce government medical research funding.
At lab meetings, Dr. Nepksi sat at the head of the table, slim and long, impressive in his knowledge base and aggressive with his incisive questions. At scientific meetings, he generally was a lead speaker, or organizer. Despite his relatively young age of forty, he chaired a medical certification board, which determined licensure of medical sub-specialists, who handled pregnancy complications.
Dr. Nepski frequently led federal scientific grant committees and powerful government review committees for approval of products and medications for pregnant women. He was a hard-working man, considered deserving of success by his peers, well known in the medical field of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the care of pregnant women.
But Dr. Garcia grumbled to Shelly that men like Dr. Nepksi were too powerful, that they could blackball and permanently derail the career of someone who crossed them, or competed with them. He added he could show her the corpses, the futures of many promising young doctors and scientists, to prove it. She politely listened, as she always did to his opinions, but her mind was elsewhere on an exciting new surgical technique she had just watched.
One evening earlier that week, a blurred orange sun hovered over the tall buildings of Pandolf Medical Center. Shelly and Dr. Garcia left after a late experiment. Since their Pandolf subsidized apartments were close to each other, they walked together down the cement sidewalk. As they often did these late nights, they detoured at Palatine Hill, an Italian restaurant run by Pandolf Medical Center.
The eatery was in a small brick building which overlooked an expanse of slope, a broad lawn which descended to the central lake of the Medical Center. At night, the water became silver and reflected the lights of the medical campus and its 24/7 nonstop activity.
Dr. Garcia ordered his usual glass of Chianti and they both ate dinner on the sheltered wooden deck, enjoying its view of darkening green valley and glittering water. An ambulance whined and threaded its flashing way toward the hospital campus on the distant highway. A small candle on their table flickered in its globe.
Dr. Garcia gazed into his wine, its red reflecting onto his glasses and he seemed far away. Shelly looked at the scratches in the lenses. Her surgically trained eyes noted that at the lower crescent of the thick lenses the fine cracks formed an intricate familiar pattern. But he caught her glance and removed his glasses. Returning to the present, he wiped his eyes and smiled at her. She smiled back, wondering at the curious trick of her eyes, perhaps from watching too many microsurgery video clips.
Manny Garcia trusted Shelly. She was quiet, professional and did not make waves. Training to be a surgeon, he thought she had the enormous self-discipline and attention to detail which that path required. She had stamina and ran marathons. Working with delicate lab equipment beside him, her long fingers were quick, with manual dexterity he knew good surgeons possessed. He wondered he had never actually heard her express an opinion on anything. And so he often spoke his mind instead, like today, first looking around the restaurant to see who else was there. He recognized no one and relaxed.
"So you asked me if I knew about this fundraiser?" he began. "So every week, at these Nepski lab team meetings, we are the lab rats, the PhD post-docs working at these labs and we sit submissively around his table. I was bored and looking out the window and yes, I did see a bunch of people, runners, crowds and lots and lots of green." He nodded his head and made a face.
"Sorry you were bored," Shelly responded sympathetically.
He sighed. "Yes, we are smart, scientists from Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America. But some of us carry visas which can be quickly yanked from us and see no futures in our own countries. Or we depend on our masters for future jobs"
He looked down at the table. "So we toil for tiny salaries at labs all over this United States, just supposed to be grateful to be here...really grateful in my situation for the best technology and resources, like the Drukker medical computer. And so, for Dr. Nepksi, I slave away on his stale second generation ideas."
"You know I still call the pregnancy condition we work on by its old name, toxemia. But you need to pass all your medical exams. So you on the other hand, Shelley, you need to know the current fashionable scientific term which is eclampsia." He waved both his hands dismissively and rolled his eyes.
"Yes, Shelly, memorize the new medical definitions, updated regularly courtesy of your latest government NIH meetings, like last November, chaired by a colleague of Dr. Nepski. Because you, the new generation of medical students and residents and also the old generation of practicing doctors, you are all required to rote memorize all their proclamations, because it will be on all your eight hour tests."
"So they keep you on your toes, not letting you stop long enough to wonder or question anything, just another generation of robots who will forget to think for themselves. So scrape your proletarian knees to the latest official government announcements by the royalty of your medical specialty without ever questioning the reasons for these changes."
"Oh, wait, they gave you the official reasons, the conveniently numbered ten point official bulletin they published in January in The Crimson Journal. Shelly, better memorize all those reasons too! Or you can't pass the four hour annual test they wrote in order for you to be permitted to keep training or to practice your profession. And then..!" Here he gestured by wiping off his hands and laughed derisively. "And then, if you fail, then Shelly you will know punishment. How deep are all of you in debt on average? Rebellion does not pay."
You are being enslaved into the beast!" he added dramatically.
She smiled at him and raised her glass. "OK, Dr. Garcia, lets have a toast to the zombies." She notice how the wine made Dr. Garcia more vocal.
Dr. Garcia paused and grumbled to Shelly that Dr.Nepsky's ideas were not new, but "recycled, courtesy of the almighty dollar. If there are no breakthroughs, no new cures, please don't complain, as long as government, corporate and non-profit funding keeps coming to the brilliant Dr. Nepski and his pals and this Mafia they run."
But silently Dr. Garcia acknowledged to himself he was also critical of the public. He thought they were nae and desperate, uncritical of scientists, doctors, the American Cancer Society, the National Institute of Health and organized medicine, pharmaceuticals, corporations, insurance companies and the government.
And then, he saw the media, selling advertising with grandiose claims of breakthrough discoveries. Ah, a new definitive test for ovarian cancer, just coming down the pipeline, waiting for FDA approval! Or a new cure for breast cancer, to end all cures...just you wait! On his notepad, at Nepski lab meetings, an angry Dr. Garcia often doodled - sometimes just profanity, illegibly embedded in Drukker patterns he was working on, to express his discontent.
Thanking Shelly for being such a good listener, Dr. Garcia paid for dinner, like he always did. She smiled and expressed her gratitude for "taking care of a poor doctor in training". He enjoyed Shelly's company and they shared common ground on matters of diet and other tastes. They were both vegetarian and loved to talk about food choices and old movies.
Dr. Garcia thought Shelly was the only person he had spent time with recently whom he actually liked. He realized as he grew older, he was becoming misanthropic. So Shelly was especially a pleasure to be around. At one time, Dr. Garcia mused he would have preferred to use his Glock pistol on humans before he used it on any animal; thus he stopped eating meat.
He knew better than to share some of his uglier thoughts with Shelly but appreciated she was patient to hear him out on what he considered (she may have disagreed) more normal matters of science. In turn, he encouraged her to talk about the new surgical techniques and technology she was learning.
It astonished Dr. Garcia when she spoke of robots which performed surgery while the surgeon was at the remote finger controls and video monitor. Shelly appreciated that despite his occasional rants, he usually let her do most of the talking and appeared to enjoy hearing about everything she was learning and doing in her medical training.
The Italian head waiter also liked Dr. Garcia, his Old World manners and continental culture and grace, so when he was working at the restaurant, he always personally visited with Dr. Garcia. They talked about wine, Tuscany, Rome and other common loves. Shelly marveled at their knowledge and stories of these places she had not visited; also that the tuxedoed fashionable head waiter did not mind Dr. Garcia's scruffiness.
It was getting late into the night when they left Palatine Hill and the little lights which framed the doorway and windows of the restaurant were now bright. They walked out into chilling spring breeze, with lavender fragrance from the edging foliage, and parted ways at the end of the sidewalk, toward their own homes.
The lake shimmered at the bottom of the smooth valley beneath them and reflected the stars coming up. It was a clear sky and the lines on the white moon drew Shelly a little smile on the horizon which marked the end of her perfect day. She thought maybe Dr. Garcia was sometimes not so bad.