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Life Lesson

Gary Mitchell lives in Rochester NY with the love of his life and a house curiously smaller than the space taken up by the furniture inside of it. His fiction has been published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, several regional anthologies, and an e-anthology available on Amazon entitled The Muse's Hand. The only thing he wants out of life is three wishes. Not the kind that backfire on him.

"Hunter-gatherers?" said Maria Dillard, her fingers raking long blonde hair out of her eyes. She quickly returned her hand to the tablet she had set up on the table in front of her, stabbing at the flexible keyboard laid out beneath the screen.
"An analogy only, but it's appropriate," he said. "The scavenger cells are programmed with that behavioral model in mind. They transit the circulatory system hunting for cancerous cells, and when they find them, they devour them, using the targeted cells as fuel."
Maria considered the image that Dr. Quinton Reed, CEO of NanoGenics, had evoked. Her minor in anthropology conjured up an appropriate context--Native Americans hunting mammoths to extinction, Europeans slaughtering the last of the aurochs. A half-dozen other examples came to mind.
"What happens when the cancer is destroyed, when there is no more 'game' for your hunter-gatherers to prey upon?" she said.
She watched him steeple his long, thin fingers in front of his face. Everything about him was mirrored in his hands--in another phylum he might have been a stick insect. Hardly handsome, and the heavy odor of cigarette smoke made him repellent. Plus he had a reputation for not liking journalists.
"The same thing that happens to any organic construct that runs out of fuel. It ceases functioning, Miss Dillard."
"You mean they starve to death," she said.
"Starve?" A frown pushed his lips into a narrow arc. "Does a machine starve? That's a very charged word, and suggests certain moral judgments. The animal rights activists would have a field day with it. Hardly the position I'd expect Science Online to embrace. We're talking about the greatest advance in the history of medicine since the discovery of germs."
"I'm no animal rights activist, Doctor. I was merely following your analogy to its logical end. After all, your scavengers are organic, they replicate, have more processing power than this tablet I'm typing on, and communicate with each other. Those are quotes from the press release you've prepared and distributed. That certainly sounds to me like they're alive."
"And if those are the measures of life, Miss Dillard, then the Toyota factory in Huntsville is alive as well."
Maria allowed herself a small smile. "You needn't worry. Even if I wrote it, my editor wouldn't post it. This is too much of a coup for us to risk cutting off our access to the source. We want to be there with you from the beginning. In fact, I was chosen for this assignment specifically because I recently lost my mother to cancer. My boss thought that would make me inherently sympathetic to a story about a miracle cure."
An awkward silence settled into the room. Dr. Reed seemed genuinely touched by her comment. "With your assistance, perhaps we can ensure that such needless deaths never happen again."
She clamped down on the sudden surge of empathy she felt for the man. A science reporter couldn't afford to let feelings get in the way of the story. Maria decided to press him a little. "Since we're discussing the reasons for your sudden openness, perhaps you can tell me why the change of heart? You've got a reputation for hostility towards the press. Why are you suddenly so cooperative?"
Reed sat back in his chair and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "People change, Miss Dillard. They change or they die. Another behavior you should add to your checklist of life. To get to my goal, it's appropriate that I now cooperate."
"And thus I can't help but wonder about your motives, Doctor. My editor says you're about to become one of the richest men on Earth. That's a much more believable goal. Is there such a thing as too much money?"
"Heavens, I hope not." He appeared to be watching her closely, and she saw hesitation creep into his eyes. "That was a jest. My financial needs are modest enough. When the time is right, I'll demonstrate that in a way that will astound many people. But let's leave that for a later story, shall we?"
"As long as it's a Science Online story. What about clinical trials and the FDA? You've done everything in a cloak and dagger manner. What actually has been demonstrated in the way of effectiveness?"
"Well, there's me."
"You, Dr. Reed?" Maria's fingers ceased their frenzied dance, like a spider frozen by the telltale thrum of its web.
"Old-fashioned trials, Miss Dillard. I'm my first patient. There's nothing like lung cancer to focus your sense of creativity and push you into rapid development strategies. I am the best advertisement for my own product."
"Does that mean you've cured yourself?"
"Practically." When she didn't comment, he continued: "Let me show you the data."
He used a handheld control to project a slide on one wall of the conference room where they were sitting. He highlighted a declining curve.
"This is the cancer cell count in my body. Primarily my lungs, but also a secondary site in my brain. We have developed some very sensitive technologies that measure this kind of data. Some of it's onboard my hunter-gatherers. The data was captured over a four-week period, beginning with the introduction of the scavenger cells."
"And the second curve?" asked Maria.
"That's the hunter-gatherers--we call them HGs. You can see they start off at a reduced level, then increase over time as they replicate new HGs and eliminate cancer cells."
"I notice that the cancer curve is flattening out and the HG numbers are declining. Does that mean that a one-hundred-percent cure can't be achieved?"
"This was expected. In the face of a declining food supply, the HGs have stopped replicating and are failing for all the reasons you'd envision--both fuel and wear related. When the cancer population vis--vis the HG population is once more unbalanced, the HGs will start replicating again. The ultimate curve will have a declining stair-step shape, but it will reach zero. This week's data weren't available yet, but when they are, they will show the drop I just described."
"You're pretty confident for a man using a sample size of one," said Maria.
"Actually, it's four. I was the earliest and first. The others began two weeks after I started. The data was so promising, we decided to accelerate the trials. For some people it was a matter of life or death."
"You're surprised we've been able to maintain secrecy? Every person on this team is committed. It's not simply a matter of money. The incentive is more powerful than that. Each one of us either has cancer or has a loved one who does. Secrecy was required if we were going to save ourselves. Until now."
"You all have skin in the game."
"Yes. Skin."
"Aren't you worried that the FDA is going to step in and shut all this down? From what you've just told me, you've broken every law in the book."
"That's why you're here, Miss Dillard. To hold the FDA at bay. We can't afford to let this get swallowed-up by the bureaucracy with its endless trials and studies, and certainly punishing the very pioneers who created this breakthrough makes no sense at all. This technology works, and it works now. I'll go offshore with it if I have to. We have a second lab ready in a place I'm not prepared to name. You need to help us rally public opinion. The people need to understand what is at stake and to demand its immediate availability."
"Thus cutting the legs out from under your competition who won't have years to catch up while the FDA dithers. And saving your own legal hide in the process."
A pained look crossed the doctor's face. "Spoken like a true cynic. Or should I say true journalist? On the other hand, it could be for exactly the reasons I have explained. Necessity... saving lives."
"I guess we'll have to let time prove which one of us is right," said Maria.
There was a quick rap at the door which opened wide enough for a head to intrude.
"Dr. Reed, I have last week's data. You asked for it as soon as the analysis was complete."
Reed gestured with his hand. "Come in, Bob. I want you to meet someone. This is Maria Dillard, a journalist. Miss Dillard, this is Bob Blumengartner. He's our head of analysis, among a dozen other roles here."
Maria did her best to cover up her surprise. "Dr. Blumengartner? The Nobel Prize winner in--"
Blumengartner cut her off. "It's the data, Dr. Reed. You need to see this. But I'm not sure if--" he nodded in Maria's direction.
"I've just been talking data with Miss Dillard. I'm not worried if she sees it. In fact I'd be glad for her to be present when you unwrap it for us."
Blumengartner looked skeptical, but inserted a thumb drive into Reed's laptop. In seconds the curves displayed on the wall were replaced with the new data.
Just as Dr. Reed had promised, the new data moved in a dramatic direction. The wrong direction. And it wasn't a stair step, it was an elbow, cancer cells surging upwards at what looked to be nearly a right angle. The hunter-gather population chased after it on its own rocket-like trajectory.
"This has to be wrong," said Reed, his face draining of color.
"It's not. I checked the data three times."
"But what could have happened?" asked Reed, a tremor in his voice.
"I think I can answer that," said Maria. "I'm afraid your hunter-gatherers have discovered agriculture."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Author Comments

When I write a story, I almost always know how it starts and how it ends. It's the middle that comes as a surprise. Life Lesson was true to this model and in fact depends on the language introduced in the first sentence to power the entire story arc. That's a tighter binding than usual for me, but I have noticed this phenomena is more pronounced the shorter the story I write. I recently created a hundred-word piece and it is only the beginning and the end, with the middle left out. All my writing is critiqued by a circle of local authors. That process, more than anything else, has taught me how to write. It also teaches humility.

- Gary A. Mitchell
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