Attraction happens at the microscopic level. A trigger. A pull. A release. A flit against a blade. A meteor eating atmosphere. An echo of a body perfectly fitting beside another. When purpose draws from energy’s ennui, time loses itself in something more.
“Life,” Lester sighed to himself. “It’s crazy what a spoonful of madness can do on this merry-go-round.”
“I don’t understand,” Ethan replied. “How am I doing?”
Lester turned away from his magnified lens to answer Ethan. He rolled his chair over to the boy’s gurney, stood, flicked his index finger at the suspended transparent bag, then subjected his patient to an intravenous stimulus. Fundamental forces aside, the interactions of Ethan’s bloodstream needed to be tested.
“What’s in the IV?” Ethan asked.
Lester ignored the question. He sat back down and closed his eyes, imagining the reality within Ethan’s capillaries.
Shot antigens streaked like violet incense between tightening elastic walls of umber lace. Immediately the immune system was on high alert. Sourcing an essential hum to the current’s drum and whine, the defensive front transformed to handle the situation. Leukocyte became demonstrably larger and faster, rearranging their organelles to better-suit the pursuit. Mitochondria swelled with power. Barbed actin filaments anchored together like meshed harpoons, launching and dragging their cytoskeletons through the shallow plasmatic sludge. Their speed so phenomenal that the pathogen invaders almost seemed eager to be enveloped by the latching antibodies—devoured for a greater purpose. The cop-and-robber’s routine acted as a static counter in his pump’s royal rhythm, but once it reached the blood-brain barrier only the antagonizing ligands could infiltrate the membrane to bind with receptors in the striatum.
“What’s in the IV?” Ethan asked again, his voice finding its resolve. Lester opened his eyes.
“A vitamin infused saline solution,” he responded. “And caffeine.”
“I chose it for two reasons. For one, it is a relatively harmless biomarker.”
“Why do I need a biomarker?”
“To test your immune system.”
“Did I pass?”
“For now, you are doing great.”
Lester rolled back to his desk, finding a remote and activating half a dozen monitors, each displaying videos of Ethan’s reflexes being tested. The screens showed Ethan running on a treadmill, a nonbreathing mask over his face, while another showed Ethan responding to barely audible and visible cues with immediate reaction, such as snatching at a paper hoisted in the air catching it before it could even drop a centimeter.
“Your ability to pick up on sensory information through your skeletal muscle system is a hair faster than an average blink—that is, 100-150 milliseconds.”
“Is that good?”
“It’s remarkable, but not unprecedented.” Lester clicked the remote to show another clip of a man dressed like a samurai cutting a bullet in midair. “People have been known to harness his aspect of their physiology, training themselves to reach what is essentially peak levels of performance. You, on the other hand, seem to just have it. At least, when you’re focused.”
Lester showcased a running a loop of Ethan’s failures: his tripping and falling while running, his repeated errors when unengaged, and him on the toilet.
“That’s mean,” Ethan replied. He then pointed at himself in the bathroom. “Why?”
Lester switched the clip to one of Ethan eating several breakfasts at once.
“Your intake of calories is equivalent to that of an Olympic swimmer, upwards of seven thousand calories per day. But while they swim it off, your body does something different. It uses the extra intake to create and sustain corporeal connections at a prodigious rate, thus providing your superlative reaction times.”
“So, you’re saying I’m a superhero,” Ethan said in a hushed voice filled with self-awe.
“No,” Lester said. “I’m saying you eat too much and poop too little. Your increased metabolism, however, has a unique solution to the waste buildup. Your gut provides a rich food source for bacterial extremophiles. This explains how your body’s ecosystem can survive at a prolonged heightened temperature.
“I have a high temperature?”
“Your average body temperature is 99.6, one degree more than normal. For most people this is called a fever, but for you this is standard. You run warm, which prevents most infections while promoting a robust and more effective immune system.
“In addition, the velocity of your physique’s systems creates a unique frequency. You mentioned events where your body was surrounded by insects?”
“Yea,” Ethan said, looking at his toes.
“Your vibrating entropy promotes scent pheromones and a bioelectrical aura unlike any other human. It is a theory, but it would explain your, for lack of a better word, magnetism.”
“Of course,” Ethan yawned, feigning comprehension. “How do know all of this? Are you a doctor?”
“No, I’ve just had time to learn.” Lester offered Ethan a warm mug of brown liquid. “Here, drink this.”
“What is it?”
“Coffee,” Lester replied. Once Ethan began gulping it down, Lester’s face grew quite stern.
“Ethan, we need to discuss the long-term consequences of your condition. The first issue is how and what your extraordinary rate of regeneration will manifest over time.”
Lester clicked at his remote, which changed the displays on two of the monitors. They recorded magnified views of blood samples under electron microscopes.
“The first sample is of a normal human’s blood. The other one is yours. Before I extracted the blood from you and the other subject, I added a chemical compound containing biomarkers. These biomarkers uncover tiny, fluid-filled sacs called exosomes. These exosomes are released by cells that circulate in the blood. Different secretions at different lesion points in the veins can indicate different forms of maladies. For example, GCP1-positive exosomes can detect pancreatic cancer.”
“Do I have pancreatic cancer?”
“No. But your white blood cell count is high.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
Lester paused to find the right words.
“Usually, this means you have allergies, a hyper-sensitivity to usually benign pathogens. As you show no symptoms, it more likely indicates that your immune system is fighting something. Since your body temperature negates most bacterial infections, I think I have an idea what you’re fighting.”
Lester switched the remote to a video clip of cells dividing.
“When cells split to reproduce, telomeres in the nucleus instruct the cell on how to form itself. Countless generations are reproduced over your lifespan, and each time these telomeres fray and decay, losing snips of your genetic code. The instructions get wrinkled, parts go missing, one of the most important instruments goes haywire.
“Healthy cells stop growing once they come in to contact with another cell. It’s the fence that keeps good neighbors, one organ’s cells from infiltrating another’s. But over time this off-button gets switched on. The command that instructs one cell to respect its neighbor breaks. These cells keep growing until it destroys the whole neighborhood. This is cancer.”
“Do I have cancer?”
“We all have cancer,” Lester answered. “A healthy human body produces two cancer cells per minute. White blood cells are responsible for finding and eliminating bacteria, allergens, and cancer cells from your body. A normal immune system will find and kill the cancer cells before they become a problem. You have a heightened immune system. They’re busy attacking something else. Something that might be malignant.”
“But if my immune system is strong—”
“Your body regenerates quickly. Your metabolism confirms as much. But over time your body will produce more cancer cells than your immune system can quell.
“Your case shares similar traits with another. In 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks from Roanoke, Virginia died from cervical cancer. They took a sample of her cells to runs tests, assuming like all other cells that they eventually they would perish. Only they didn’t. Her cells kept growing. They never died. They named these cells after—HeLa cells. These cells are also called immortalized cells, and they are very, very rare. She was the only known human case, and the few that she had eventually took her life.”
Lester paused again.
“Ethan,” he said, meeting the boy at his eyes. “It looks like you have multitudes.”
Lester paused to give Ethan a chance to comprehend. Ethan’s face scrunched with somber realization.
“Am I going to die?” he asked, his question trembling with the tearful pang of melancholy.
“Ethan, we all die; some of us sooner than others,” Lester nodded. His eyes then flashed with hopeful possibility. “But you might be able to live longer than anyone else has ever lived.”
Lester refilled Ethan’s cup of coffee, then walked towards the exit.
Opening the elevator’s copper doors, Lester waited for Ethan to tie his smock around his trunks and scurry in before closing the gate. The machine began its descent.
“We need to make sure your immune system remains activated, that your body keep producing enough white blood cells to keep these cancer cells in check. We need to promote enough of them so that they can keep these HeLa cells working for you instead of against you.”
“How do we do that?” Ethan yawned between sips. His jaunt over to the elevator had shaken the blood in his circulatory system, and he felt increasingly drowsy.
Lester ignored the question and readied himself.
“Did you know that with your increased metabolism, caffeine actually acts as a sleep inducer.”
“What?” Ethan yawned again.
“Your body is essentially running at full-throttle all the time,” Lester continued. “It quickly metabolizes sugars, absorbing and distributing the energy. But a stimulant, something that would block what is naturally occurring, might have an adverse effect once it wore off.”
“Right, right,” Ethan yawned, his body drooping from a sudden exhaustion.
“When caffeine cracks the blood brain barrier, it blocks access points for adenosine, rendering people more alert. Serotonin, the body’s natural sleep inducer, gets at the door by the queue until the caffeine wears off. People call this crashing. Usually this takes forty-five minutes. But for you, it would occur much faster.”
Lester watched Ethan slump against the elevator wall, his eyelids fluttering to keep open.
“What,” Ethan yawned again, “did you do?”
By the time the copper elevator doors clicked open, he was dozing in Lester’s arms, sleep rendering him heavy with slumber.
“What I needed to figure out,” Lester answered. “Your dose.”
Ethan awoke in an anechoic hyperbaric electromagnetic reverberation chamber. His body stood vertically against the monolithic slab of carbon, held in place by the marrow of his bones. The calcium casing of his femurs, humeri, shoulder blades and pelvis had been cracked to their spongy core, impaled by slender metal hypodermic spikes. Their ends were tied to copper wires that twisted up and out towards a generator dynamo hidden in another room above the ceiling. With electrodes for the electroencephalogram wreathed around his head, Ethan looked like a modern-day Saint Sebastian—pinned still by the technology of his time.
His nerves perked awake, and his sensory immured its presence with terrifying sublimity. From ear canal to eustachian tubes, the rush of filtered oxygen roared its way through to the organ of Corti, a flash flood of rumble and boom. Clicking like a chestnut on fire, his cochlear nerve tensed until it rang with no pause, a church bell in a hurricane. Ethan grinded his teeth but the thunderous friction only added to the tumult, torching the muscles of his heart from their invisible seams.
Then, with the push of a button, it stopped.
“I have just hit the dampeners,” Lester’s voice whispered over a hidden speaker.
Ethan took a moment to catch his breath, then yelped with pain as he attempted to shift his weight.
“What did you do to me?” Ethan whimpered.
“I’ve inserted several intraosseous injection needles into several of your larger bones,” Lester’s tinny voice replied. “Any movement should prove excruciating.”
Lester turned on the switch. An electrical current pushed through the needles drilled into Ethan’s essence. Joules glided into his existence, running through his nervous system, paralyzing his senses, knocking him unconscious. Lester flicked the switch off and waited for Ethan to come to.
A minute later, Ethan did. He again tried to move, but the pain of his cracked bones immediately drew wincing tears.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Your immune system faces a complete collapse,” Lester responded. “It needs to be shocked into handling the work load. When stimulated, the marrow of your bones will promote the growth of blood cells, boosting you with what you need.”
Lester checked Ethan’s readings, then frowned, disappointed in the results.
“I need to administer another jolt. Prepare yourself.”
Ethan barely had time to respond before his eyes glazed over beneath the shroud of energy. Silence echoed through cranium and electricity drew two clenched handfuls of what seemed like eternity.
Lester relented. He scanned Ethan’s vitals. Better, but still not enough.
“If I were to put a starving dog between two identical bowls of food, which one would it pick?”
Lester hit the button and turned the switch. Then stopped.
“Let’s see how you do with this oldie. If god exists, then you should be good. If god does not exist, you can be bad. So, does god exist?”
Lester hit him again with the electricity.
Now with the silence.
“Stop, please!” Ethan cried, the tears crashing off his cheeks like a flood of the damned.
Lester would not. His sanity taxed Ethan into passing out again—blind, deaf and dumb under an American ton.
Lester bit his tongue, watching the EEG and biding his time for Ethan to wake.
“Do you like this?” Lester spoke into the microphone once the readings showed Ethan to be alert. “Do you like putting your faith in people?”
“No,” Ethan cried. His heart began thumping against his ribcage, pounding the sound of his bloodwork into his brain. “Is this hell?”
“Of course,” Lester replied. “How else would you get to talk to the devil?”
“You’re not the devil.”
“Ask for something.”
“Show me my father.”
“No. But how about your brother?”
From the control booth Lester released a lever. The bottom of the chamber began to fill with a briny elixir, a cold evergreen concoction that quickly began to lap at Ethan’s ankles.
“Ethan,” Lester said.
Ethan was busy crying.
“Ethan,” Lester asked again. “Who will hold those responsible accountable?”
It stopped. Everything. The sound. The electricity. The water. All that was left was echo of everything as it slowly died.
“How does that make you feel?”
Ethan held silent, afraid of anything and everything he could do.
Again, no response.
“Ethan. Does anything matter?”
Ethan held back, terrified.
“ETHAN,” Lester bellowed. “ANSWER ME.”
“Yes!” Ethan cried back.
Lester smiled, then turned everything back on.
“Do you see what people do?” Lester said. “They punish you for being human.”
Ethan wept as the water reached his torso and then his chin, the energy and the suffering becoming one as he swallowed and drowned in remedy.
Lester watched as the top of the boy’s head disappeared under the surface. He waited half a minute then turned off the machine. The water receded, showing an unconscious Ethan.
Bruna finally broke the silence.
“Is he. Still. Alive?”
She had been sitting in the corner, watching an older consequence torture new innocence.
Lester looked at the vitals with satisfaction.
“Was this. Really. Necessary.”
“You know it was,” Lester snapped, the bile sliding off his tongue, spittle frothing in the corners of his maw. “His generation was raised without care, fed on want and materialism, and taught that the only true sin was being stupid enough to get caught red-handed.
“He needs to know. They watch you while you sleep, mock you while you sob, and cheer as you contemplate killing yourself. These people who pull the strings will dissect him into confetti.
“They are corrupted gods, cowardly sociopaths with no decency, no shame, no scruples or soul. These people are the castaways of their own dreams, casting their panoptic appetites out of insecurity, justifying it with evil tautology.
“Where are we now? Left to scrape by in this escapist nightmare, falling into a black hole jettisoning out the filth of our depravity. I’m sorry, but he needs to know that humanity has proven itself unworthy.”
Bruna stood in defiance.
“But he. Might. Be.”
“Any hunger to stay alive is temporary, especially under the circumstances he faces.”
“All of this. Built outward. Created Ethan. Created you.”
“And look where we are now,” Lester replied. “He needed to be tested.”
“What happened. To good. Knows good.”
“That there is no such thing as good anymore.”
Bruna’s head dropped. She had heard enough. She stood and walked to Lester, her finger tips craftily skimming the control panel.
“You were. A good man.”
“Does that. Make you sad?”
“The past. Tense.”
Lester stared back at Bruna, his eyes black and hostile. His body inflated, gathering menacing air.
“The only solace a good man has is knowing he is a good man. That used to be enough.”
“Is that. Your lesson. To him.”
“He needed to learn. You can’t trust anyone.”
“Is this. For him. Or. For you.”
Lester stared back, but his shoulders were now deflating.
“They value only control,” he said. “He needed to learn what he was up against.”
“He has lost. Everything. Including. You.”
Lester closed his eyes. Bruna continued.
“Now he hates. You.”
Bruna rubbed her hands against Lester’s.
“What if. He needed. To trust.”
Lester opened his eyes. They blinked back a tearful woe.
“One day, he will know it was necessary. A day he will live to learn because of—”
Lester stopped, only now realizing that Ethan was gone.