© Copyright 1999 by Kae Bender
"I'm sorry John couldn't be with us today. In a way, this discovery is really his."
The elation on Laurel's face disappeared. "You're right," she agreed somberly, pushing away the excited emotions. "If he hadn't started us down that xenoprotein track, we'd never have ended up where we are."
Ralph rubbed the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes on the memory of his best friend, the brilliant young scientist John Drucker, cut down in his prime by the terrorist's bullet. Rage still seethed through his body at the thought of John, trussed and wired and tubed to life in the hospital bed across town, a victim in the wrong place at the wrong time. Heaven only knew how much faster their research would have gone or how much farther medical science would be if John had escaped the hail of bullets in Rome that terrible December day. If only he hadn't been in the airport that day, if only he had just sent his paper as originally planned and not attended the symposium, if only he had stayed to the end instead of deciding on the spur of the moment to catch an early flight home, if only, if only...
* * *
John Drucker arose with the dawn and hummed to himself as he shaved, the first rays of sunlight glinting off his razor and showering the room with shards of light. It was a beautiful morning, eventful and important. He didn't know how he'd done it, but he'd come up with the only hypothesis that made any sense. If he was right, the whole direction of cancer research would take off in a new direction. He smiled at his clean shaven reflection and patted his smooth cheeks with bracing after shave, the scent Laurel liked so well. She'd be surprised by his suggestion -- maybe enough so to allow herself to be drawn into his arms and his whole life, not just their time together at the lab. It was a thought that pleased him more than the idea of saving millions of innocent lives from killer carcinogens.
Straightening his tie with a cavalier flick of the hand across his adam's apple, John winked once more at his reflection, tipped an imaginary salute to his own genius and headed out the door with a veritable spring in his step. Life was wonderful and getting better every day.
The lab was only blocks from his apartment, and John set out at a jaunty pace. The morning sun was easing up over the eaves, putting a halo of light around the building, like an aura -- surely a good sign, to John's hopeful mind. He skipped up the steps three at a time and hustled happily down the hall to his cluttered cubbyhole of an office, surprised to find his hand flicking an already lighted switch.
The smell of coffee drew him through the maze of lab tables and storage vaults. "You're here early," he commented crisply to Laurel's back.
"Yes, well, I couldn't sleep." She kept her face away to shield the dark-circled eyes from his perceptive gaze.
His hand went to her shoulder but drew back without making contact. He'd drawn too close the night before and pressed her into a flustered and hurried retreat. He felt a tug of guilt, "I hope it wasn't..."
"No, it wasn't you," she quickly reassured, though in reality she knew it had been, if not the way he thought. "I--I was just startled, that's all. I guess I've been a little touchy lately. I shouldn't let my personal life interfere with work."
John feigned off-hand agreement, "I guess close quarters make us all a little edgy."
She nodded, her lank hair dragging across in front of her face, hiding her drawn features and haggard eyes. "It's good we three all get along so well." She sipped her coffee and smiled obliquely up.
"Yeah," he sighed with tentative agreement, thinking that Ralph had to feel the pressure of the unspoken tug-of-war between the couple.
"Good morning, crew!" They heard Ralph's cheery chuckle and tracked his progress across the floor, "You must have been here early," he smiled, drawing close to the pair huddled over the coffee pot.
"I was," Laurel chirped quickly. "John's only just arrived."
"Hm, good. The coffee'll be passable then. Sorry John, you might be able to mix a beaker full of proteins, but coffee's not your forte!" He grabbed a cup and set off toward his cubby. Laurel turned to go as well.
"Wait!" John called to both. "I've got to tell you! I've had an inspiration!"
They turned with mild interest, knowing John was given to wild fantasies and crazy angles that he liked to announce as a well-thought plan. Though usually John's ideas proved to be just hare-brained speculation, he was the only certifiable genius in their lot, so the three came together expectantly.
"What is it this time? Not another proton-tree?"
"No. Better!" John looked at each in expectant triumph, "Xenoproteins!"
They looked at him with furrowed brows, confusion clearly marked.
"Yes! Xenoproteins! Didn't you read the article in the Journal?"
"The one you boxed and drew arrows around?"
"Yes! I knew it rang a bell. It came together for me last night as I lay alone in bed." He knew the last was editorializing for Laurel's benefit, but he couldn't resist the cue. He looked to see if she'd caught it, and she blushed. "It's the only hypothesis that makes any sense of the results we've been getting. We thought the trigger had to come from outside, but it doesn't! It could just be a naturally forming xenoprotein!"
"To form a toxic link?" Ralph asked skeptically, ready to shelve the idea.
"No. To trigger the reaction between the two peptides!"
"It would never work that way," Ralph scoffed. "You'd have too many dangling ends. Nature doesn't work in incomplete structures."
"Wait!" Laurel's face lit up, erasing the evidence of her fitful, restless night. "It could! Like benzene rings! The tail of one could fit the next. It's possible! Oh, do let's at least take a look!"
John's smile dawned. He hadn't thought that far, but her insight pointed to an astonishing direction. Incredibly beautiful and brilliant, too. He grinned at Ralph and punched his arm in a holdover boyhood gesture, "She's right. We've got a chance of breaking through and making the biggest discovery since DNA."
Ralph shrugged and sighed. It might be possible. "Well, all right. I guess I can design a set up."
"Of course you can!" John enthused, knowing teamwork was what made their work top-notch and innovative. They each contributed to the whole: The insights came from him, the detail was Laurel's department, and Ralph made it all come together in one cohesive experiment that stated first hypotheses and then set out to prove the concept. "You know, we're great together!"
His eyes fell on Laurel, but she kept her eyes away.
The three emersed themselves in phased experiments, Ralph concentrating their first efforts on developing the xenoproteins in a natural environment. In only eighteen months, the three had successfully caused the peptide reaction in a controlled, test tube environment. Though too early to predict experimental success, John's elation led him to fire off a brief paper on their preliminary findings to the International Society of Biochemists in Oncology. The return invitation to speak at the ISOBIO convocation in Rome was tempting, but John planned to decline. It was only a minor forum whose participants weren't likely to have contributions bearing on the Drucker premise. Besides, the time would be better spent in the lab -- both to step up their research and to spend more time with Laurel, who seemed to be mellowing her attitude toward him since their continuing rounds of laboratory successes -- if not yet enough to actually agree to see him outside the lab.
Though they still circled warily, John was convinced the ritual dance was coming to its inevitable end. They'd meet and merge in time even if she still backed off gracefully, just out of reach, each time he offered dinner or an informal tete-a-tete at his apartment. She might consistently decline those obviously intimate attempts, but each time he set up a video viewing or hooked up a three-way conference consultation with research teams in Germany or France, Laurel volunteered to translate for him. He was most encouraged that she on her own accord brought him meticulous translations she'd made of three articles he'd expressed interest in, the last of which she brought by his home the day before John submitted the brief.
"I know you'll want to include this data."
"Uh, thanks, Laurel. Come in?" he asked awkwardly moving aside so she could pass.
"Thanks, no. I left my car running."
"It's safe. Ralph's here," he tricked, knowing Ralph was ready to depart.
"Oh. Well, maybe then a moment. It would be good to point out a couple nuances to both of you. I've got an extra copy."
Ralph watched her enter and caught the high sign from his friend. "Oh, Laurel, nice of you to drop by. John and I were just finishing. I've got to be on my way," he squeezed her shoulder with a smile, causing Laurel to blush becomingly. He noticed but misread her thought. "Take care," and ran as quickly as his racing heart permitted.
Laurel panicked at the thought of being there, alone, with John in his apartment. "I can't stay either."
"Nonsense. You wanted to point out some nuances."
"Yes. Well. The translation takes some explanation. I think I may have got the wrong syntax on page 37. I'm trying to come up with a better way to say in English what von Vogel meant."
"Perhaps you could talk me through it," he breathed with a smile. "I'll fix you coffee."
"Oh, not that!" she tried to laugh. "We know your brew would do me in! Besides, my car is waiting."
"You sound like Cinderella."
She laughed nervously.
"I mean it," John toned solemnly. "You race away each time I'm near. Are you afraid I'll see you as something less -- a servant girl like Cinderella?"
"No. Or yes. The tatters or the servant wouldn't bother me, but not a girl."
"A woman then?" he asked in heady anticipation.
"Oh, John!" she blushed, pushing him away. "I'm your colleague! We have to work together all day through, the three of us."
"So I don't think it would be fair to Ralph to leave him out."
"Three's a crowd."
"Not in this research."
"Oh, come off it, Laurel! Two people can have a romance without the third being hurt."
She shook her head. "I can't."
John eyed her in frustration. The thought of dumping his best friend in order to taste the intimate potential he saw in Laurel hurt but tempted; only the thought of Ralph's unique experiential dedication controlled John's urge to pursue her regardless of the cost. The time wasn't right while the lab work was going so well. They were headed in the right direction and Ralph's design would soon guide them through phase one conclusions, into the phase two reactions. Already they were talking of selecting the specimens. A disruption would set back the work too much.
Besides, Ralph was his best friend, and though John wondered how to ease him out of the day to day work on the project, John would never put Ralph out of work. If only there were a way to divert Ralph and give John free reign on the xeno project with Laurel's sole assistance.
He smiled wanly at her. "I can't force you to have a relationship with me, but I think you're the one who's suffering, not Ralph."
Laurel blanched at the truth of John's words but only shrugged and turned hurriedly to leave. It was too close for comfort here with John, and there was nothing she could do to change the bind.
Over the weeks before the invitation came, John pondered her continuous resistance, irked that she wouldn't see past their work. He forced his emotions out of the study and turned the fact around, letting his scientific mind discover the way to her heart. It wasn't until he added the ISOBIO invitation into the equation, though, that he found the answer. A devious smile dawned when he realized he could use the work to serve his ends: The very success that was keeping them apart would be his way inside! All he had to do was make the trip to Rome and come home garnered in praise and public acclamation, the international recognition his key to her heart. She'd have to see his value and his depth, and when he offered to share his limelight, she'd not resist such heady recognition.
Ralph liked the anonymity of the lab. He'd support them one hundred percent with quiet research while John and Laurel toured the country, talking with the entire research community, bringing further glory to the team. John became convinced the plan would lead to more advances than they could achieve alone -- especially if it would bring Laurel to his side. John smiled. The ISOBIO invitation would be the launching point for his attack. No, for Laurel, he'd better call it the catalyst for the chain reaction. His announcement at the lab next day caused much collegial celebration. It was one thing to be invited, something altogeather different to go and present their findings. Ralph clapped him on the back, "You'll make the headlines if I know you!" John loved debate and rhetoric only slightly less than biochemical theory. Ralph's undergraduate days, too, had been lived in John's theatrical shadow.
"I'll give our all and let the world decide," John immodestly boasted.
"They'll listen up to hear our results," said Laurel. "But even more important for you while you're there, be sure you check out Hans von Vogel. His paper hits on areas tangental to our direction, and something in that article I gave you the other day rings strangely familiar, though I can't put my finger on the source."
"Mmm. He'll be there? I surely will. Your translation gave me pause though I, too, can't quite make the connection. Perhaps you should come with me -- your linguistic abilities far exceed my own."
Ralph turned away from John's charm. He'd heard enough in their four years with Laurel at the lab; what mystified Ralph was that Laurel hadn't yet succumbed. Not that he was sorry she'd resisted so long and so well, but he fully expected her dissuasion to be worn away at some point. Most girls of their acquaintence were felled by John's approach far sooner, and the resistance only made John try harder. Ralph had noticed the escalation of his approach. Where heretofore John's tack was subtle, staged and winning, he was quite transparent now, hoping the glamour and excitement of publicity would find him victory where patience failed.
Watching Ralph slip away, Laurel regretted Ralph's willingness to let John have his way, but she couldn't face the thought of alienating either by showing her preference. It was her fear of jeopardizing the work team they so handily made together that held her tongue these four long years, though the triangle of powers made her hopelessly melancholy. There was so much the three could do...so much, too, they wanted to be...to one another.
Her longing tinged her face and gave John hope. He touched her arm and was startled by her unconscious jump away. "Well, what do you say? Your passport's up to date."
"Ah, no. I've done enough travelling in my time. I'll stay here and await the results of these last phase one experiments. We'll call you with the news."
"An update would be great! Nothing like ground-breaking data fresh from the lab to keep the media interested!"
The showman ever, Laurel sighed; but he kept them in grants and on the leading wave of theory. She smiled, "You'll keep them on the edge of their seats! We're sure to get the recognition for this breakthrough."
"I'll mention your name," he promised, smiling in the hope that her ego might sway her where her heart and head had not.
The last days of preparation for John's trip flew by in busy expectation. Laurel poured over the texts and copied copious notes for John to consider in his speech, but the wordsmithing she left to him. Ralph plodded quietly in the background, keeping flasks and petri dishes monitored, his meticulous notes recorded on their charts and graphs. Both felt a sigh of relief as John bustled off to the airport for the flight to ISOBIO. The respite gave them pause, though each kept silent and attended to their duties.
The day of John's presentation brought him immediate press back in the States. Ralph and Laurel read with pride the reports of their work and glowing praise of John's great genius, knowing the timely update would give greater attention to the rising scientific hero. The last results of the preliminary phase would make the hypothesis look all the better.
Though rather later in the conference than she'd hoped, Laurel placed the fateful call to Rome, waiting patiently through clicks and switches and international connections. She caught John just before the fourth evening's official dinner. "The results are in! I knew you'd want to hear, although there was a curious twist on the expected data." She read him lists he copied quickly on his charts.
He frowned at the figures, but called a cheerful "Thanks! Oh, by the way, I dine tonight with von Vogel. His accent's thick, but I think I can make out his meaning."
"Ah, ask about the betatron decay. I think somehow that's where he loses me," Laurel nodded seriously, as if he could see her through the phone. "His research should help in our next phase. Ralph is ready to begin the prelims for phase two. He set up the charts and starts tomorrow to draw the samples. We're really thrilled it's gone so well."
"Me, too!" John grinned, thinking she was referring to his presentations and the resulting press. "We'll be local heros once all the dust settles."
Laurel sniffed but nodded. "In our own way, I guess. Good luck! We'll meet you at the airport if you like."
"I'd love for you to be there," he said with an emphasis that made her know he meant only her.
"I'll have Ralph check the itinerary. I'm sure we can manage to get away," she said with her own emphasis.
He let it go; Von Vogel waited.
The dinner was pretentious and stiff, as if ISOBIO could prove its serious worth to the scientific community through ostentation. White linen draped the tables and more waiters served than guests attended. It was posh and overblown to John's simpler tastes, but Von Vogel, at his side, seemed pleased at the busy catering and the sumptuous feast.
John tried to draw the discussion around to work, commending von Vogel's meticulous presentation of the afternoon, but von Vogel merely toasted his passage from the spotlight and drank, too, to John's success the day before. The depth of their conversation strayed. The bacchanalian indulgence irked John, who struggled to comprehend von Vogel's wine-thickened English.
Clearing their palates on pineapple ice, von Vogel paused and looked significantly at John. In a strikingly lucid moment, he commented, "The function curve of the betatron decay, that is your question?"
"Yes!" John gasped. "I'm thinking of looking at its effect on our xenoprotein reactions."
"It isn't regular. I doubt it could influence your results," von Vogel dismissed off-handedly. "The progression is steady in the early stages, but after reaching a certain critical level, the decay doubles with increasing speed. More xenoproteins should build the betatron level, if anything. The decay cannot relate."
With sinking heart, John heard the finality of this remark. Not only did von Vogel turn his attention to more frivolous matters, but John had to agree: from the data, there was no way the two effects could mutually impact. He dismissed the matter and joined wholeheartedly in the party. Why not indulge? There was nothing more for him to acquire here.
The connection didn't mesh until his dreaming mind put the two together. Laurel and Ralph teamed up to argue with von Vogel while John stayed apart and watched as from a great distance. Von Vogel said -- more shouted -- "It isn't possible! The xenoproteins cannot possibly trigger a reaction in the face of increasing betatron decay!"
"They must!" Ralph heatedly returned. "Our figures can't be wrong. We've researched every variable."
"Look," Laurel added. "Except for this one glitch which has to be a mere anomaly of the testing procedure the figures all track perfectly."
Her finger pointed to the columns; and from his perspective, John saw the fallacy. The results did track, but not the xenoprotein concentration. Their whole approach was flawed! With their most basic assumption wrong, the series of tests would never work! They might as well throw away their research grants as continue down that road. His throat tightened, fighting to call out the obvious to all the combatants.
He sat up straight in bed, a cold sweat breaking out across his back. It wouldn't work. They'd have to redesign around the betatron effect, or maybe scrap it altogether because it couldn't track under their current plan. John flicked on the light. Just after midnight, they'd probably still be at the lab, but John couldn't imagine explaining enough over the phone to get them to understand. He'd have to map it out and show them.
Scratching his groggy head, John made some hasty notes. So many miles... so little time...so much to do...John fretted, realizing there was nothing more he could accomplish in Rome. He had to get home! and the sooner the better. There was nothing left to learn here and much to correct there. He reached for the phone. "I need a flight tomorrow -- no, today -- to return to the States! I won't be staying till the end of the conference."
The night manager was most accommodating, but there was nothing to be done until flight arrangements could be made. He promised John in reasonably good English that he'd call as soon as the reservations were made. "The earliest possible flight, I promise. I'll work on it immediatamente, sir."
When morning brought an early call about the flight, John packed without a word to any fellow ISOBIO attendees, his Society hosts, or the trailing media. At Rome's international airport, John entered quickly, looking left and right to see which way to go, a gathering sense of anticipation growing in him as he took a few hurried steps. Thinking of tickets to pick up and baggage to check, he reached into his breast pocket for his passport.
The commotion caught him unaware. In his hurried bustle, he never looked up to see where he was going, and if he had, it might not have mattered, for there was no escape. The screams only followed the bullets, and one of the first hit John full across the temple.
Blanking out, he felt another pierce his chest. He couldn't die! They wouldn't know the error of their work. John clung to life, thinking he had to live, a cancer cure in the balance...xenoproteins...not the key...the waste... research...time and money....He had to stop them!...some other direction... together...start again...work out something...new....
Swift carnage littered the terminal with innocent and terrorist alike as the blazing halocaust left death and fear and blood. Worldwide media quickly spread the outrage round the globe, and because of John's recent ISOBIO celebrity, special concern hovered around reports of his condition. He held tenaciously to life though experts said he couldn't possibly survive the bullets' toll. Laurel flew to his side.
Keeping watch in the Roman hospital, she fretted and paced and worried, stroking his brow and speaking to him through the distance of his coma. Six days passed before he stabilized, never regaining consciousness. Reluctantly, Laurel and Ralph agreed to have him transported to the States for continuing rehabilitative care. They refused to accept the term custodial, insisting John would momentarily recover -- after all, he'd lived this long, beyond the doctors' somber predictions.
Back home, at first, both Ralph and Laurel camped at John's bedside every day, watching for the minutest signal symbolizing John's resurrection. They spent hours waiting drearily, together or in shifts, first one and then the other. There was no change -- except to their own hopes.
Their lab work suffered as experiments were put aside. Nothing mattered as much as pulling John through, and together, they held his hand and spoke to him though, caged in his coma, John could not reply. The vigil dragged them down as they daily feared the worst but hoped always for the impossible while, still, nothing changed.
In time, they had to give up the hours they spent trying to reach him, for, though intravenous tubes kept John's body physically alive, there was simply no response to stimuli or tests. Only an insistent brain wave persisted, giving a lie to the meaning of life. Laurel and Ralph reluctantly released the lingering hope.
It was perhaps the harder on Laurel, who had no lasting connection like the childhood bond that held John ever to Ralph's life. Devastated by their team's great loss in terms of cohesive bonds and synergistic interaction, she raged against nature and the gods. "It's so unfair!" she moaned in tears into Ralph's supporting shoulder, "To take a life so full of promise! To deprive humanity of John's great scientific advances when the world is full of so many less deserving mortals! To let them live -- the masses who don't contribute -- or even worse! the terrorists who rob the world of hope and progress! It isn't right! It isn't just to think that evil should stop progress. They can't succeed, Ralph. We can't let them stop us! We must accelerate the research now -- in John's honor! We owe him that."
In fervored frenzy they returned to the lab, more committed than ever to see John's last theory proved true. With anxious eyes and angry determination, they pursued their work, each prodding the other for more. Their mutual involvement grew as day by day they labored with a dedication that transcended their own personal capacity. They drove each other on.
It was a maddening time. The figures refused to bear out the hypothesis. Laurel pushed and prodded Ralph to restudy the design. She read the journals and researched the daily advances of literature, scanning the scientific data banks in tireless effort to find the key. John would have known, she kept asserting; John would have seen the problem sooner. In silence, Ralph agreed.
Ralph's fiftieth iteration was as dismal as the rest. He was ready to quit, but in deference to Laurel and her sturdy commitment to John's inspiration, he kept on. Neither admitted their weariness nor their mounting despair to the other. In secret, each visited with John, hoping their presence would bring a change to John's condition, convinced a miracle recovery was the only thing to save them.
After seventy-one iterations, Ralph voiced his skepticism. "It isn't working. There has to be a flaw."
"Nonsense!" Laurel spat. "We've just not yet reached the right concentrations. Our -- John's theory has not been disproved."
"It should have caused some indication by now if indeed it is ever going to work," Ralph insisted. "We've gone wrong somewhere. We need a new direction."
In tears, Laurel flew at him, "No! Not yet! We can't give up on John! We're all he has!" She lifted her teary eyes to Ralph. "I'm sorry. But I think if we can only succeed, John will somehow come out of his coma. It may sound superstitious, but I have to keep the faith."
Ralph saw the contrition and wondered if she sometimes regretted the days and years in which she had always turned from John. Was her secret hope to bring about the relationship she so long denied? He grieved his speculation but knew her need was more than his. He gave her three months more.
It was during the eighty-seventh iteration that the turning point came. Probably Laurel knew before Ralph, but only two of the revelations came to her. She fed the computer each new bit of data and read the printout in disgust. The same results, or close enough, the figures never matching with their projections, though they were in keeping with all the other results. The thought stopped her short: There was a pattern somewhere in the numbers!
She quickly worked out two new programs and sat back to wait the sort. Ralph dawdled near and paused to read the input over her shoulder as he dropped off a thick envelope with international stamps.
"That's interesting, Laurel. Maybe a different sort will come up with a better match." He gripped her shoulder in a brotherly fashion, surprised by the electricity of the touch. "Here. Von Vogel sent a note about John's interest along with this update on the betatron decay. Do you remember that article you translated?"
Laurel absently nodded and reached for the new thesis, her eyes continually watching the display screen. "I'll give it a look while the mainframe crunches our numbers. I'll have the printout sent to you. If there's any news from this," she hefted the paper, "I'll let you know."
Standing over Ralph later, she commented despondently, "I wonder if John knew this. The numbers seem to indicate that the xenoprotein direction can't work. The correlation should be closer to inverse with the acceleration of the betatron decay. Given that, I'd have to agree with your assertions that we'll never get the results we're seeking. We may as well quit now." It was like throwing in the towel after running nearly to the finish line.
To her surprise Ralph shook his head and laughed, "Well, you'd be wrong. We'd all have been wrong if we'd stopped the series any sooner. Perhaps it took the combination of our blissful ignorance about the betatron effect and your willful insistence that we keep going with John's theory to get us to this point, but look! There's definitely a pattern here."
He rose to show her the new printouts, pointing to the progression along the columns. It was so natural to turn and embrace that it may have been preordained all along. "I think we're onto something here," Laurel breathed into Ralph's ear, and he knew that she was right -- their kiss was far more than mere collegial congratulation.
As was her custom with each finding of their research, Laurel took the final results of the new experiments to John's bedside. In a somber, quiet voice, she told him of their conclusions. "We're calling it the Drucker effect, though the xenoproteins aren't the cause. We theorize, we've hit on a secondary formation we're calling 'xenotoxin blockers'. When those are present, the cancer cells retreat. Without them, your xenoprotein theory would have worked, though not the way you planned. The xenoprotein reaction with the peptides produces toxins, not anti-toxins. Most of the time, though, the toxin blockers are present and keep the body from producing cancers. When they aren't present, the toxic effect can be carcinogenic, depending on the catalytic trigger. Without your theory, we'd never have noticed the connection; so our success is really yours," she reached for Ralph's hand and smiled up into his embrace. "I--we wish you could celebrate this time with us!"
Her free hand touched John's brow and lingered there a moment before squeezing his unresponsive hand in melancholy farewell. As they left John's private room and crossed the ward, the cardiac monitor buzzed its warning to the nurses' station; but the happy couple was oblivious to the chaos of activity left in their wake.
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