Chapter 1 - Nine Years Later
“We’re here,” Liam announced, their mother in tow.
Conor, focused on a bank of computer screens at his desk, immediately turned and jumped to his feet. He embraced his mother and shook hands with his brother.
“And early too! Do you want some coffee? Anything?”
“Absolutely,” Liam replied. “Your security wouldn’t let us bring up any liquids. We gave ourselves plenty of time to work through the layers down there, but they were quick about it. Thanks for alerting everyone.”
Conor pushed between them, heading for the kitchen. He called back, “A good thing I did, or you wouldn’t have gotten past the first desk. By the way, how’s Darcy?”
Liam looked back at him, smiling. “Still married to me, still happy, she claims, so she’s crazy.”
Moments later saw them all with fresh coffee, gathered around Conor’s desk.
Laurie spoke up. “What’s so important, son?”
Conor grinned. He was positively radiating energy. Laurie was reminded of his first high school date, going with a girl to what was also his first concert, animated, excited, happy.
“It’s been a long road, Mom. I told Dad that I would kick that disease’s ass.”
“Language, Conor –”
“And I think I’m about to. I haven’t even told my team about the newest results. They just came in. Take a look.”
He sat and swung to look at the computer screens again, keyboarding and mousing. Graphic, high-resolution, transparent displays shone forth. Liam, from his one semester of psychology that he had vowed to make his last, recognized an axon, a brain cell. He’d had to diagram and explain it during the first week of class. But that learning experience in Psych 101 had not stuck, and he struggled with what he was seeing.
“Yup,” Conor replied, grinning. He brought up another image.
“Same thing, just more primitive?”
Conor turned his grin to his brother and mother. “More advanced,” he replied. “More progressed.”
Laurie shook her head. “I don’t understand. Where’s the cure you’ve been working on? Is it some kind of drug that advances the brain?”
“No, no, no,” Conor replied. He began bringing up the images, two at a time. Each image had the same general look, but the ones on the left were more detailed, rougher-looking. The ones on that right were smoother, more uniform.
As Conor flashed through the pairs of images, he started narrating. “That’s an axon, that Liam so cleverly identified as a brain cell. We’re lumping the brain cell types together by calling them MANGOS: microglials, axons, neurons, glials, oligodendrocytes, and starocytes.” He turned back to them. “MANGOS on the left, subject to disease and decay. MANGOS on the right, doing the same exact functions, but synthetic. Fully functional and disease-free.”
Awareness dawned with his mother and brother but to different effects with each.
Laurie spoke first, her voice wallowing in confusion. “Artificial brain cells? How does this cure anything? I’m sorry, son. I don’t understand.”
Liam said softly, “You’re looking to replace brain cells, as they become diseased, with literal prosthetic replacements.”
Conor nodded. “Bingo, big brother. Disease can’t affect this any more than an artificial arm can get arthritis.”
“Wow,” Liam replied. “I had no idea this was even possible.”
“Until now, it hasn’t been. That’s science and hard work for you. Making the impossible possible.”
Liam murmured, “And a secure building of a big company with a big budget.”
“Yup, that helps.”
“So what now?” their mother asked. “You start growing artificial brain cells for people? How can that work with all the memories and emotions of people?”
Conor’s voice grew more serious. “Yes. There have been challenges. But I’ve got a great team, and so far, we’ve gotten through to solutions.”
He clicked in the middle of one of the diagrams on the right. A window appeared with a listing of items that ran down the side. He clicked one, titled “fluidic pressures,” and a screen appeared with yet more choices. He clicked one of the subcategories, “variability,” and a window of solid code appeared, overlaying the others, a long scroll bar to the side.
Conor turned back and grinned again. “That’s just drilling down one discrete aspect. And there are thousands to each cell. Lots of work on this.”
Liam was lost in wonder, trying to comprehend. “Years, right? Wasn’t this the theme of your doctoral thesis?”
“Yup. And that thesis was why Hobart Cromwell hired me out of college and made me a team leader a couple years after that.”
“Boy wonder,” came the proud response from his mother through her loving smile.
Conor laughed. “I guess I keep fooling them.”
Liam’s mind was on the corporate processes. “How big of a team does something like this take?”
“You won’t believe this, Bro. Six. I give the general directions and help with the idea creation.
“Tom is our engineer on cell construction.
“Jerry – yeah, yeah, I know, Tom and Jerry – is our IT guy. He does a lot of the coding that you see.
“Dr. Sheffield, Herman, is a neurosurgeon. He’s been on part-time consultation with us, but that’s about to ramp up, and he’s ready for it. He’s done a lot of robotic surgery and microsurgery, and he’ll be the one actually installing these things.
“Ceely is a nurse by training and microbiologist in practice. She’s invaluable on cellular processes and structures.” Conor’s gaze turned to his mother. “You’d like Ceely, Mom. She’s super bright, kinda pretty, and just nice. I’m betting that visual appeal didn’t hurt in the hiring process, and of course no one would admit to that. But we lucked out because she’s as sharp as they come. You’d be asking me why I’m not going out with her.”
Laurie arched an eyebrow. “And indeed, why not? She has good taste in men?”
The boys laughed, Conor more loudly than Liam. “Well, there is that possibility. But no, it’s the workplace. Maybe someday, Mom. Someday.”
Liam broke in. “That’s five.”
“Oh, yeah. And Felix. Felix is a neurobiological scientist with great input, but corporate has him assigned for their liaison. I guess he’s run projects before, and we’re supposed to be complimented that we got him. He says his job for the company is to watch us like a hawk. But then he says his job for us is to keep the company convinced of our worth so we get funded.”
“Judging by what you’re doing, that’s not a tough sell.”
“Nope. He’s very happy with us, no doubt. Which then keeps us in the money pipeline to keep the team on task. Oh, there are other support people in the company who help, of course. But it’s the six of us who do the heavy lifting.”
Liam nodded. “Impressive. So how does this all get to the public? Don’t you need clinical trials and stuff like that?”
Conor’s radiant happiness dimmed a few degrees. “Yeah. If Felix is happy with these results, and he has to be, we’ll start installing these in mice brains and carefully looking at the gross reactions and mental performance. If that all goes well, and there’s no guarantee there, we’re looking at getting approval for clinical trials. Lather, rinse, repeat.”
He vented a heavy, somewhat bitter sigh. “We’re still years away from making this available. It’s frustrating. We’ve got the probable cure for things like Alzheimer’s and brain cancer, all kinds of neurodystrophic diseases, including what killed Dad, and it just takes so long, and I can’t help but think of the people who will die in the meantime who shouldn’t have to.” He wiped one of his eyes with an angry swipe and looked away momentarily.
His brother tried to be soothing. “All you can do is keep at it. You’re doing historical work here. There were probably people who died of anthrax and rabies while Pasteur was doing his vaccine tests, but look at the millions who were saved since then. And who knows. Maybe you’ll have a breakthrough, either here or in the process, that jump-starts it. Don’t get discouraged, little brother.”
Laurie added, “No, don’t.” She bent down and kissed the top of his head. “Your father would be so proud.”
Conor nodded and looked back up at his family. “I know, I know. I get frustrated sometimes, but I’m keeping my eye on the prize. And you’re right. Who knows what might happen, even tomorrow.” He cast a renewed smile his mother’s way. “An act of God, maybe.”
His mother smiled back. “Maybe, son. You never know.”