Monday, August 21, 2017

New Frontier

I was personally acquainted with the architect behind LV37.  Dr. Richard Mann was my childhood friend long before he was Mad Mann, the Zombie King. His parents, like mine, belonged to the middle class, and they were, if not rich, prosperous enough for stable comfort.  His father’s business was the buying and selling of construction materials, wholesale and retail.  He received large shipments of valuable lumber from nearby states, and excellent cheeses which his wife sold in a shop downtown. 
In many ways we both grew up in an old fashioned and conservative atmosphere.
“Conservative in some aspects, liberal in others.” Richard would tell a reporter from TIME magazine after his initial discoveries led to a Nobel prize and a coveted position at Stanford. In the same article he described his work with synthetic cells as, “a starting point from which we may plunge into a whole other abyss. I mean know thyself, find the limits stuff. The very essence of life.”
It was at Stanford that he began his experiments with LV37. The synthetic was designed to function like smart blood, blood that could adapt, blood that was not quite the same as human blood, super blood, impervious to disease, capable of slowly mutating human physiology so that it could run solely on a synthetic food source. But of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. Most people forget why.
A girl. Why else? But in Richard’s case it was a sister and not a sweetheart that launched his quest. I was looking away when a little girl in a yellow shirt decided to look at me, and by the time I thought to look back she was gone. Victoria Mann was 8 years old when she finally died of leukemia in the children’s wing of St. Mary’s Hospital. I was still a little boy at 10 years old. My mother holding me, I let myself cry because it was what she expected. Richards eyes remained dry. He never chose to be expected.
Initially conceived of as a cure for Aids, LV37 was radically different from any other treatment, experimental or otherwise. Dr. Mann saw applications for it with certain cancer patients so his second group of subjects included Aids patients as well as patients suffering with Multiple Myeloma and Lymphoma. Understand, these were all people on their death beds, people for whom the conventional treatments had failed, or even worsened their condition.  They were referred to him by their Doctors as a last possible hope. 
In the end, is it really so bad to die? People have been doing it for ages. There are far worse things than death. We all know this now. Not so in the spring and summer of 2039. The first group of test subjects simply died. That was the most merciful side effect of LV37. An hour after the transfusions were complete they slipped into commas and from there the bodies systems shut down one by one until the heart finally stopped pumping the synthetic.
The record survival rate for test subjects was 4 days when Mann’s team began treatment with their seventh test group. Feeding subjects a uniquely formulated nutritional paste helped provide the nutrients necessary for sustaining the initial phase of transformation. This was their great break through. The sludge, as they affectionately called it, was necessary.
Early test subjects had perished because the synthetic increased metabolism in the extreme. They essentially starved to death. The increased metabolism was the result of certain elements within the synthetic seeking to meet particular nutritional needs that the human body could not meet. In theory, if they could propel their patients through this phase with the sludge, the body would eventually adapt to the extent that it would be capable of synthesizing nutrients on its own.
8 year old Gita Naghali was a member of that seventh group. I imagine Richard looked at her tiny shriveled form and saw Victoria fighting for life. The Naghalis had begged to be referred to Dr. Mann. They sought him out despite their physician’s bleak opinion of him. They’d read that article in TIME three years ago and thought it was still possible that he was a genius.
There are those who will say that Richard Mann was really reaching far beyond a cure for certain diseases of the blood. They claim he was always grasping at immortality like a crazed Viktor Frankenstein. Maybe. Lines can become very blurry. I remember I saw Richard at my mother’s funeral before his LV37 trials began.
“What’s the point, Charlie, in curing Lymphoma? Lymphoma patients will die one day anyway, if not from Lymphoma, then from something else. What is it that we really want to cure?”
At some point, perhaps he lost track of the ideals that put him in the field of medicine. The Hippocratic Oath might have tumbled by the wayside as his obsession took sway. This was the new frontier, the cutting edge of gene replacement, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. LV37 was going to revolutionize the human race.  These were the thoughts he must have been thinking as he watched his technician insert the IV into Gita Naghali’s tiny vein. Maybe when he looked at her he already saw a corpse and believed there was nothing left to lose.
I never heard from Richard again after my mother’s funeral. I can only imagine what it was like based on the reports they fed us in the data stream. Remembering his dry eyes when Victoria died, I picture him as unmoved when on the sixth day of her treatment, little Gita suddenly grabs Dr. Helen Andrews by the ears and eats her face off. I picture him sitting behind the observation glass, watching calmly as other technicians spring into action, only to be intercepted by the other 5 ravenous adult patients in the ward. Possibly he saw Gita escape through an air duct. She was so little according to the pictures they showed us. It’s the only way it could have gotten out, because at some point Richard sealed the ward and called for security.
There are the conspiracy theories though, that none of those test subjects escaped, that Mad Mann himself spread it by walking through the children’s ward and hanging a nice bag of LV37 on the IV poles next to their beds as they slept. It shames me to say, I find this easier to believe than the idea that Gita walked to the nearest playground and bit another child, who bit another and so on. None of us knows exactly how it got out. I don’t have to tell you that the first wave of infected individuals were children, that the entire student body of Ingrid B. Lacy Elementary School ate all of the staff and most of each other before swarming the streets. It’s common knowledge.
I was the boy that played beside Mad Mann in a dark garden full of mountains of sand and intricate structures of loose bricks when he was just a child. His sister loved us both but we didn’t love her until it was too late. When she was well we never let her play with us in the garden, or come with us to gaze up at newsstands full of magazines and newspapers, searching for a little superman comic, or a little book of horrors, or a large photobook with women in tight bikinis. We left her alone to play with dolls in a quiet room until she vanished all together.

Looking through half boarded windows at the slow-moving tanks that light up the night in faded yellow, I think of that first wave of the LV37 breakout as a children’s crusade, as Vicky’s revenge on the boys who wanted to bury toy soldiers in the sand without her.  I am touching the glass to leave curved fingerprints that I will only be able to examine much later, when the sun comes back up and the tanks are gone, if I’m still alive. I pray, that if I am not alive, then I am dead, good old fashioned dead. New frontier be damned.

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