Scene 1 – 10 Years Ago
Interior Hospital Room, Early Afternoon
“I’m sorry, Mr. Page, but the results are positive. Your daughter has cancer.”
I glared up at the doctor from the bed where I lay. “I’m right here, you know,” I said, icily.
Dad spared me a quick glance and squeezed my hand gently, trying to get me to calm down. “Is it serious, doctor?”
“All cancer is serious,” she told him. “But I think that her prognosis looks good. It will be a simply surgery, then we’ll move to chemo. It will take time, but Penny is young. She has time.”
“Stop ignoring me, bitch,” I growled. “I’m 15, not 5!”
The doctor finally looked at me, giving me a kind, patient smile. “You’re going to be fine, honey,” she lied. “They make really excellent wigs these days.” Then she turned right back to my dad, and said, “I’m afraid I have to get to another patient, but don’t hesitate to call if you need more information. Here’s my card.” She handed it to him, then flounced out.
I snorted. “‘You’re going to be fine,’” I mocked. “I have cancer! I’m not going to be fine!”
Dad stroked the hand that he still held. “Penny, please… try to be optimistic?”
Scene 2 – 8 Years Ago
Interior Hospital Room, Late Morning
“Penny? Mr. Page?” the doctor – my third in two years – said as he stepped into the room. “I’m afraid I have bad news.”
“What is it?” I asked, pulling myself upright with a slight wince of pain.
He glanced down at a chart in his hand as though to confirm what he was reading, then said, “I know it sounds crazy, but your cancer appears to have a metagene which has activated in response to your chemotherapy treatments.”
I blinked, then looked up at dad. “Wait, I thought I didn’t have any metagenes?”
“You don’t,” he confirmed. “I had you tested shortly after you were born, then again after the cancer developed. I had this mad hope that you might develop powers that would save you…”
“So how could my cancer have a metagene?” I asked the doctor. “It’s my DNA, right? Just a little messed up?”
“There are two possibilities,” he told me. “Either random mutation created its metagene – it’s incredibly unlikely, yes, but it must have happened in the past with every other metagene – or you do have the same metagene, and it’s simply not one that has been documented yet. Honestly, it’s fascinating either way – there are cases of both flora and fauna with metagenes, but as far as I know this is the first time that a cancer has ever activated a metagene.” He produced a piece of paper and offered it to me. “In fact, I’d love to write a case study on it, if you’ll consent.”
Dad squeezed my fingers – he would support whatever I chose. “No,” I said after a moment. “And in fact, I think I’d like a new doctor, too.”
His face fell, but he nodded in acceptance. “I’ll let Doctor Dorian know.”
Scene 3 – 8 Years Ago
Interior Hospital Room, Evening
When I was a kid, I suppose my dad thought I would outlive him. No parent expects to outlive their child, after all.
When I was a slightly older kid, I was diagnosed with a vicious kind of cancer that was going to tear through my body if not stopped, and I was certain that I would die.
Fortunately, I responded well to chemotherapy and the tumors began to recede. Once again, outliving my father was a possibility.
Three weeks ago, I was told that my cancer had superpowers, and I was certain that death was imminent. I suppose I took it out on the doctor – but who can blame me for reacting badly? My father was going to have to watch me waste away, and come to terms with outliving me, again.
Two days ago, it turned out that we were wrong again.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Page,” the nurse told me sympathetically. “Doctor Dorian is doing everything he can to keep your care covered, but your father’s insurance company isn’t willing to keep paying for it without… well. You may have to look at research options. I know you didn’t want to, but… well, here’s an offer that’s come already.”
Along with a note signed by a half the staff of the hospital and a bundle of flowers, she left behind a tablet computer that was already open to a pdf of some company’s offer to treat me in return for being allowed to conduct research on my supertumor. I read it, struggling to understand the legal jargon without Dad’s help.
As far as I could tell, it seemed to be saying that the Ambrosia Company – which according to Google specialized in metagene research – would provide ‘all necessary care’, including schooling, housing, food, and whatever medical treatment their doctors deemed necessary. In return, I agreed to allow them to test portions of the cancer which had been removed. The most concerning part of it was that it granted power of attorney over me to the company, as I was a minor – that, I assumed, would expire when I turned 18 in a few months.
Assuming I lived that long, I thought to myself.
The contract had a number attached to it, which was noted to be that of the specialist who would be caring for me, a Dr. Kaufman. I tapped it, and the tablet switched over to a video call app. I straightened up a little as it rang, wincing.
Dr. Kaufman, as it turned out, was a slim woman of average height, with long brown hair in a loose ponytail, bright blue eyes, and rather sharp, aristocratic features. “Hello,” she said with a slightly crooked smile. “Well, you’re not Susan or Miles, so I suppose you must be Penelope. Or do you prefer Penny?”
“Penny is fine,” I said with a shrug. “You’d be the doctor who’d be treating me, then?”
She somehow managed to bow, despite sitting. “Doctor Laura Kaufman, at your service, and yes, I’ll be the one treating you. She tilted whatever device she was using for the call so I could see a tall redheaded man sitting in the background of the office space she seemed to be in, facing away from the camera. Like Kaufman, he was wearing a lab coat. He apparently didn’t take as good care of it though, as hers was pristine while his had reddish stains. “Dr. Hartland back there will be doing the actual research while I stick to treatment.”
“Is he more of a researcher where you’re a caregiver, then?”
Kaufman shrugged. “We have different specialties, mostly. He’s probably one of the world’s top experts on metagenes, and he’s eager to examine the one your tumor has developed – any newly discovered metagene is interesting to him. My specialty as a researcher was neurology and the structure of the brain, and I usually take when we’re doing research on large-scale biology, where he leads on microbiology.”
“How are you on treatment?” I demanded. “Research is whatever, but I’m a real person, and I don’t want to be treated as a science dummy.”
“…a science dummy?”
“Like a crash test dummy, but for science.”
Kaufman seemed to be struggling to hold back a smile. “Penny, crash test dummies are for science.”
I shrugged. “You get the point.”
She was still smiling as she said, “Well, I may have been primarily a researcher before Ambrosia got their hands on me, but my horizons have definitely expanded in the seven years that I’ve been here. I have a lot of experience treating patients, for various reasons. And…” She glanced over her shoulder at Hartland, but he was clearly engrossed in whatever he was doing. She dug through a purse and after a moment produced a picture of an adorable kid, maybe six or seven years old, which she held up to the camera. “I’m a mother, if that makes any difference. I’m not some heartless monster only interested in science. That’s Hart’s job,” she joked with that same crooked smile, pointing a thumb over her shoulder at Hartland.
Scene 4 – 6 Years Ago
Ambrosia Co. Laboratory, Morning
“Miles?” I asked, confused. “Where’s Laura?” Normally she was the one to check up on me every morning, but today it was Miles Mercer, a twenty-something guy who I knew was friends with Laura despite the age gap – she was old enough to be my mother, if perhaps not his. I had never been clear on what exactly he did for Ambrosia, but whatever it was he was one of the higher-ups, and the two of us had never really interacted.
“She-” he started, then paused, looking guilty. He ran a hand through his hair, seeming nervous, and muttered something under his breath in Japanese, then rallied. “She’s not available right now, I’m afraid.”
“What happened?” I straightened up in my bed, without pain for once. Laura did good work. “Is she alright?”
He sat in the chair she usually used beside my bed. “Listen, kid-”
“Penny. And I’m not a kid.”
“Penny, then. Ambrosia is a pretty big deal, these days. There are a lot of competitors out there, and Laura is… pretty important to Ambrosia’s success. A lot of our earlier breakthroughs were her, and…” He trailed off.
“Are you saying she’s been assassinated?” I cried, horrified.
Miles winced. “No no, not that,” he assured me. “She was just kidnapped, that’s all. Yeah, kidnapped. That’s it,” he said again, sounding unsure. “She’s back already anyway, this new hero called Canaveral went and got her for us.”
“…so why is she not visiting?”
“She was injured in the, uh. The kidnapper hurt her. But she’s fine!” he promised. “She’ll be back on her regular schedule soon. She just needs a little recuperation time. She’ll be fine.”
“She’d better be,” I warned him.
Scene 5 – 5 Years Ago
Interior Surgery Theater, Evening
I’ve fucked up a lot, in my life.
I had a husband and a child that I loved more than anything in the world. But they’re lost to me now, probably forever. I haven’t seen them in ten years and it seems increasingly unlikely that I’ll ever see either of them again.
I’ve spent those ten years working for a company that literally kidnapped me, and which still holds me captive. I’ve tried to escape – once I even made it far enough that one of Ambrosia’s pet heroes had to come grab me – but still, I’m here in this fucking building, and I have no choice but to work for Susan fucking Thornhill.
One of the few good things in my life has been the presence of Penelope Page. She was clever and quick and funny, and I consistently found her a bright spot in my otherwise dreary days. She did her best not to let the cancer that seemed impossible to excise from her get her down, and I, inspired by her, did my best to do the same with my own life. I did my best by her, treated her in many ways like she had been my own child.
And now she was soon to be lost to me, perhaps forever.
The metacancer that Hart had studied had, it turned out, developed a power that allowed it to take control of nearby organic cells. It allowed it to spread incomprehensibly quickly, and meant that Penny required daily treatment. It meant that even when we thought we had removed all the cancerous cells, others would transform themself into new tumors.
His research had yielded results, to be sure – Hart had developed a treatment based on those cells and their transformation which brought skin cells under the conscious command of the person in question, allowing for a low level of shapeshifting – instantly tanning or lightening your skin, fixing scars and other blemishes – and he had high hopes of extending this transformative treatment to other organs as well.
The problem was that he had allowed the cancer to spread to far more of Penny’s body that I could condone, seeking to extend the transformative treatment by observing the metacancer’s effects on other parts of the body.
And now she was dying.
Penny was only 20 years old, she was too young to have to face this. She was facing it bravely, to be sure – she had been brave since she was 15 – but she shouldn’t have to. Not when we should be able to fix it.
Years ago, when I was first brought to Ambrosia, Hartland and I had been working off of my previous attempts to replicate cosmic power activators. Our result, if Thornhill had allowed us to publish it, would have lent credence to the theory that cosmic powers were simply unidentified metagenes that had been activated by the technology in question. We had created the PA5, which used psychic waves to force the brain to activate any and all metagenes a person possessed.
It was risky, of course – if a person had multiple metagenes, as many people did, the result of all of them activating simultaneously could be incredibly dangerous. But if we activated the metagene that Penny was believed to have, perhaps she could take control of the cancer’s cells instead of the other way around.
It was a long shot – metagenes rarely activated in the same way twice, even among people who had the exact same gene and the same activation scenario. Twin studies had shown that for decades, and I had seen in confirmed by Hartland’s genetic therapy experiments, copying people’s metagenes to others for profit.
But it was the only chance Penny had, at this point. I had to try.