The alarm wailed. Flashing white lights accompanied the near-deafening sound. Dr. Phillip Shirley shuffled through the papers sprawled on the tabletop. He scanned the data, piece by piece, over and over again, searching for the answer to his mistake. None of his research implied things would go so wrong. He was supposed to reimagine modern medicine. Instead of changing the world, he ruined everything.
“Phil.” Phillip’s wife, Brenda, placed her hand on his shoulder. “It’s time to go.” Her words were calm and close to Phillip’s ear.
Phillip froze, clutching a sheet of paper to where the words formed an unreadable mass, frustration leaking from him by the sight of his trembling hands. He wasn’t angry with his wife. He was angry with himself. He couldn’t leave–not yet. Leaving meant quitting. Quitting meant finality. Phillip staked his entire career on nothing ever being final. Mistakes were never anything but hiccups—errors that slipped past eyes after eyes. He was a reputable Parasitologist. He had gone through so much to reach this point in his life. This was surely an error he could locate and fix. He just needed time. But time had never been a friend, and when Brenda spoke up, her nerves seemingly unperturbed by the chaos ensuing around them, Phillip felt the weight he’d been so desperately avoiding start to crush him. Everything became real. His mistakes couldn’t be fixed.
Why didn’t he predict the mutation? How could he be so stupid? It was elementary. It was careless. And it would cost many people their lives.
Brenda squeezed Phillip’s shoulder. “Let’s go,” she said. Phillip’s body relaxed at her touch. It always did; it always would.
When the alarm sounded, Phillip had checked his phone to see where it was triggered. The facility’s security application read HISTOLOGY: ROOM 240–second floor, opposite side of the building–though the reason for the trigger was unknown. The security application wasn’t designed to relay why; its only purpose was to tell you where.
Phillip figured it was tied to the riots and protests going on across the state ever since his experiment took a turn no one—especially him—expected. A mix of peaceful and not-so-peaceful protesters crowded the front entrance of the facility every morning, cursing at Phillip and his colleagues, even though his colleagues had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t like rioters hadn’t tried breaking in before. This was the fourth time within a month the alarm had gone off, the first three from attempts at unauthorized entry.
After staring at the papers in front of him, all with figures, notes, data tables, and charts, Phillip glanced at the picture sitting at the corner of his desk. It was him, his wife, and his daughter, Jackie. It was a simple image–the three of them standing outside the facility, smiling faces, Phillip’s arm around Brenda, his hand on Jackie’s shoulder–but it was them, and it was real. They were a happy, loving family. Phillip did it all for his family.
Jackie was diagnosed with leukemia when she was seven years old. She got weaker and sicker, and all the chemotherapy did was empty their bank account. By the time she was eleven, Jackie had relapsed twice. Phillip had dedicated his work to finding an alternative treatment after the first relapse, when Jackie was nine; the second relapse only reconfirmed Phillip’s doubt in the worldwide-accepted process.
Over six years of research and ParaSymbio was created. The biologically engineered protozoan parasites would target abnormal white blood cells and engulf them, while simultaneously strengthening the normal ones. It was FDA-approved and onto Phase IV where several hundred patients, including Jackie, would be injected with the parasites.
Phillip glanced between Brenda and Jackie in the photo. Jackie looked so much like her mother, from the slightly turned-up nose to the twinkle in her eyes, and when the chemotherapy hadn’t taken her hair, it was the same shade of brown. She got her freckles and fair skin from Phillip, though when Brenda was pregnant, he hoped the baby would share his soft red hair. Once Jackie was born, that no longer mattered. One look and Phillip was in love. He vowed to be the best father he could be. The picture was taken a week after Jackie’s first injection. Sixteen years old and she could finally have the childhood she deserved.
All of that work disappeared over the span of a mutation. It was all for nothing…
Phillip closed his eyes, trying to hold onto the image of his beloved daughter. It wasn’t for nothing; it was all for her. She was healthy. She was happy. He stopped what would’ve killed her; although, Phillip couldn’t help but wonder: What if it had been her instead of Bobby?
Bobby Welding–ten years old, bed-ridden, diagnosed with fatal leukemia several months prior–was one of the several hundred patients injected during Phase IV. Having reminded Phillip of his daughter’s struggle, he injected Bobby personally. Phillip looked Bobby in the eyes and told him–promised him: “Everything will be okay now.”
It would never be okay again.
By the second week, Bobby could walk, albeit with frequent breaks as his muscles regained their strength. Bobby was unrecognizable by week four: the biggest, happiest grin, trying out for the soccer team, hardly ever becoming tired. It was an amazing sight.
It wasn’t until week seven that everything fell apart. Bobby became catatonic. He was rushed to the hospital where, upon examination, it was found that Bobby’s parasites had mutated during their replication phase. Eight hours later, still hooked up to wires connected to machines monitoring his vitals, Bobby woke up–but it wasn’t Bobby anymore.
The mutated organisms fused with the original organisms to form what scientists referred to as “Autocrat Parasites”. Bobby’s once friendly symbionts–the very things that made it so Bobby could, at last, enjoy his childhood–seized his Central Nervous System, turning him into nothing more than a shell of his former self–a means of spreading the parasites. That night, what used to be little Bobby Welding attacked his parents and a nurse before other nurses could restrain him.
ParaSymbio shut down. Corporations worked on ways to rid people’s bodies of the very thing Phillip spent years creating. What if it had been Jackie instead of Bobby?
Phillip shook the thought away, his mind desperately clinging to the image of his daughter, happy and healthy, rather than the “what if” image of her attacking others, having to be sedated–to be locked up for everyone else’s safety, like Bobby.
When he was sure Jackie’s image wouldn’t fade, Phillip nodded. Brenda was right: It was time to go. They should’ve evacuated the building already, but Phillip refused to leave his research. He spent so much of his career researching and creating these organisms. Maybe there was no way he could fix his mistake, but he couldn’t leave his work behind, even if it seemed like it had no place in the world anymore.
Phillip turned to face his wife and the first judge of his crimes. Her age shone with subtle creases at the corners of her eyes and shallow wrinkles at the middle of her forehead. Telling from the tank top under her jacket and the dirt marks on her khakis, her team must’ve been working in the field. Her hair probably started as a neat bun en route to her assignment; loose strands now dangled in her face. It wouldn’t be the work of a Geologist if it wasn’t a little messy; however, despite the dry sweat, the newly formed sunburn, and the dirt on her face, she was beautiful.
Phillip expected disappointment, even contempt. When he was met with soft, understanding eyes and a gentle smile, he remembered what his guilt tried so hard to cloud: Brenda would never offer the cruel judgement he thought he deserved. She knew he didn’t do it on purpose. His research suggested a symbiotic relationship where the host would house the parasites, and in return, the parasites would do what they were engineered to do—suppress the cancer. Dr. Phillip Shirley only ever wanted to help people. He only ever wanted to heal his daughter. Brenda knew that. How could he ever think she’d judge him?
“You’re my rock, Brenda,” Phillip said.
Brenda smiled, a contrast to Phillip’s frown. “And you’re mine,” she replied. She took his free hand and led them out of the lab, down the hall, Phillip still holding a mess of papers to his chest. Phillip’s lab was on the third floor. Following proper protocol during an evacuation, elevators were off-limits, leaving stairwells as the only routes to the ground floor. Once outside, Phillip would face protesters who mercilessly blamed him for the chaos erupting throughout the state of California. They’d throw garbage, curse his name, and chant for his resignation, even his death. When Phillip first started this experiment, he never imagined it would end like this.
To read parts 2-7 now: https://neoread.neovel.io/book/6731/EN/symbiosis-the-beginning