“Fixing people is nothing to sneeze at, of course. But fixing the world? Now that’s a job.” That’s what young surgeon Karina Vega thought before learning that her dreams may not be as far-fetched as she had imagined. Because Karina carries a gene that, once treated, allows her to heal in ways she had never thought possible. But healing is just the beginning of a journey that will force Karina to face her demons, and will test her faith in science, love, and mankind.
As Karina and her allies take on powerful enemies in Africa, India, and China, and she learns the truth about herself, the men she loves, and the organization she has joined, she is faced with impossible decisions, heartbreak, and the ultimate sacrifice: her life in exchange for humanity’s future. But is humanity ready to Seize The Earth?
“Healers” is an exciting, suspenseful, and thought-provoking thriller that combines medical and political science with mythology and romance, to deliver a captivating story that will challenge you to look beyond the obvious, will keep you guessing, and will leave you wanting more.
I stare into the abyss and let its siren call invade my mind like a cloud of sweet smoke. The river is far; so far that it looks like a silver thread painted on a massive canvas. The setting sun crowns the mountaintops, rendering the snowy peaks even more mysterious through the foggy clouds of my breath. But I can’t feel the cold. All I feel is the thrill of the jump I’m about to take. The voices behind me sound like ghosts, their words mixed together in a faraway concert. Perched on the edge of the mountain, all I hear is the voice in my head.
Jump, it says. Jump.
The cry of the eagle circling above me is my signal. I jump. My heart is a loud drum and bliss spreads through my veins with every beat. I extend my arms, and the wind carries me on its wings. Like the eagle keeping watch over me, I fly in circles, suspended in heaven. And then I cheer and the echo of my joy bounces against the rocks, returning to me as a timeless song. The song of freedom. Nothing else like it on earth.
My scrub nurse’s voice shakes me back to reality and I squeeze the needle, which pricks my left index finger through the pierced glove. I barely contain a gasp, and I squeeze my lips tightly for fear the sound of my weakness will leave them. Like a child who just made a terrible blunder, I scan the room above my mask for witnesses to my daydreaming. Only Agatha paid enough attention to catch it, and she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to, because the look she gives me says it all. This isn’t the first time she’s caught me wandering. It’s been happening more and more lately, and it’s one of the few things in my life I can’t seem to control anymore. My heart keeps wanting to get out of here, go back to the mountains, live free.
“Glove change,” I demand, as I turn around and lift my arms.
“Did you want to—”
“No. This is fine,” I say, much too sharply, and turn back to my patient. Agatha doesn’t deserve that tone. I feel her eyes drilling a hole in the back of my neck, and my face turns beet red behind my mask; the heat suffocates me; my hands go clammy inside the gloves. I smell blood, and when I see my patient’s new heart beating rhythmically, I freeze. Who am I to be holding this man’s life in my hands? And how dare I be so careless?
“Sam, what do you say you close him up?” I ask my intern. It’s time I let this young man spread his wings.
“Umm… Me, Doctor Vega? Are you sure?”
The room turns dead silent, and all eyes are on me. I find their fear both disappointing and emboldening, and the thought brings a smile to my lips. A sign that I’m still me.
“Of course I’m sure, Sam. Isn’t this what I’ve been training you for?” I ask and look him straight in the eye. “I trust you, you can do it.” I take a step back from the table. The rest of the surgery team moves with me, as if stepping away from a grenade.
“Go on, he’s all yours,” I say in the most encouraging tone I can muster. I watch him take over, and as soon as I’m sure his hands aren’t shaking, I head to the door, leaving behind murmurs of concern.
Back in the safety of the prep room, I yank off my gown and gloves, and throw them in the cremation bin.Goddamn it. I’m clenching my teeth so hard that my jaw hurts, and yet I can’t bring myself to relax.
I wash my hands slowly, methodically, and then I lift them up to my face, looking for the red puncture mark on my finger. A few seconds later, it reveals itself, barely perceptible, but when I squeeze, the drop of blood grows bigger, until a small trickle starts sliding down my finger.
I hear the OR door open, and I shove my hands back under the running water, pretending everything’s just peachy.
“Are you ok, Karina?” Agatha asks. I keep my eyes down, not ready to face her yet.
“Oh yeah, I’m fine,” I answer. I gather the strength to force a reassuring smile.
“Can I get you—”
“I’m fine, really” I repeat. “Let’s just forget it happened, ok?”
“Ok. But you’re going to the lab now, right?” she asks, kindly, like a mother would. She’s almost twice my age, and has been with me since I came to Mass General, so that tone comes easily now.
“I’m going,” I answer, trying to match her tone. “Thank you,” I add, then I wipe my hands off with a disposable towel, and I walk out. I need to go get my blood tested.
My slip-up troubles me and I can’t really explain it. This isn’t the first time I caught myself daydreaming in the operating room. In fact, I’ve lost count of how many times my mind has wandered in the past few weeks. It bothered me before, but I always thought I was in control. I always thought my daydreams wouldn’t interfere with the quality of my work. But now everything’s changed. This is the first time I’ve cut myself during a surgery. Some would say it’s a minor mistake that every surgeon is bound to make at some point in her career. If I weren’t that surgeon, I would probably agree.
But the truth is I’m not worried about the cut itself. I’m worried because I know this to be true: major disasters that take down the best warriors almost always begin as minor mistakes. I just hope this isn’t one of them.
It’s been a week since my OR slip-up—the blood tests came back clean—and I’m getting closer to figuring out, or admitting, really, what’s “wrong” with me. This constant yearning for something I can’t really put my finger on; the daredevil escapades I lose myself in more and more frequently; the odd desire to be anywhere else but here. Odd, because I love what I do, and I love this hospital. I always have, I always will. Fixing people is a dream job. But lately, I’ve come to realize that there’s a price to pay for my job. I can fix people, but I can’t fix the world. My impact is not as earth-shattering as I dreamt it would be. Fixing people is nothing to sneeze at, of course. But fixing the world? Now that’s a job.
Nobody knows this, of course. I even try to hide it from myself most of the time, because I know it’s a stupid feeling, if feelings can be stupid. I have a team to worry about here, people who depend on me. I have a loving family back in Mendoza who is so proud of who I am. Not to mention my patients, who deserve nothing but the best of me. That’s a high-class problem, my friend, is what Chief Brown would say if he knew what I was thinking. And he would be right. It really is a high-class problem when you’re already at the top of your game, and you still feel that the only way is up.
“Here comes super-womaaaaan,” I hear a voice all the way at the nurses’ station as I exit OR 4. Of course, Derek, the nurse who always stares at my derriere, is still under the impression that I can’t hear him. He must not hear himself very well, and I imagine it has to do with that cocktail of drugs he used to enjoy until not so long ago, and the techno rave parties he attends much too often.
I’m always amazed at the useless things I know about those around me. I seem to be a magnet for people who want to get things off their chests and vent. Maybe because I’m an observer by nature. I prefer to be quiet, and I think most people see that as an invitation to share. I don’t mind it though—if that’s what makes them feel good, then share away.
“Ooh, Derek, looking sharp today,” I say in a sultry voice and I wink. He can’t hold my gaze more than a couple of seconds. He mumbles a “thanks” and walks away, while the rest of the nurses burst into laughter.
“All talk, no action, am I right ladies?” I say as I transfer the records of my last surgery from my LifePad to the main database. They all laugh in agreement. “I pushed the patient records up, Maria,” I let the supervising nurse know as I collapse my flexiscreen and put it in my back pocket.
“You must be falling asleep on your feet,” she says.
“I think I’m starting to. I’ve been up for thirty-two hours, it’s time for a nap,” I say, and I wave them goodbye as I walk to the elevators. They like me, the nurses. They take care of me. And when you’re a surgeon, that care makes the difference between success and failure.
My condo is only ten minutes away, but I rarely make it there these days. Instead, I default to taking the elevator to the hospital’s forty-second floor, where I usually end up after a particularly tough night. I’ve created a small sanctuary in the studio the hospital board bestowed upon me. They claim to have built the residential floors so that it would “easier” for us doctors to do our jobs. We all know the studios make it easier for them to keep us longer in the hospital, if longer is even possible. It was a brilliant move on their part, because this studio is a sweet trap for someone like me: young, single, uncommitted. I practically live in the place. But truth be told, the isolation doesn’t bother me that much. I just pretend the elevator is a muscle car and I’m on a high-speed highway every time I descend back into reality.
I wave my TruID in front of the door sensor and I let myself in. I no longer hesitate before I use it, the way I used to in the beginning. Keys are pretty much gone in my world; I got rid of them rapidly after getting the TruID implant. The only indication that I have it is a barely perceptible scar, a dot really, on my left wrist, right on top of it.
My surgery clogs are the first to go, right by the door. Life is too short to be wearing shoes all the time, so I only wear them when I have to. The bamboo floor is smooth and just the right amount of cool under my feet. I strip out of my scrubs in two moves, and throw them by the bathroom door. The breeze coming from the air filters feels good against my bare skin.
I pick up a bottle of water from the bar, then I go and prop myself in front of the curved glass wall that covers the city-facing side of my studio, and gaze at the city of Boston. My morning ritual after a night shift. A few moments of silence, taking in the world, and telling the Universe I’m grateful for what I have, despite always wanting more, or different.
After my pseudo-meditation time, I go straight to the bathroom and jump into the rainforest shower that washes away all the gunk—both physical and mental. After I dry myself off, I put on a pair of panties and one of the two dozen long black cotton t-shirts I always have on hand, and I grab a towel for my hair. Taking a shower after a long shift is one of life’s pleasures that cannot be fairly put into words. With the weight of the night off my shoulders, I’m ready for bed.
“Hello cuties.” The three miniature white marble elephants that guard the door to my bathroom don’t answer, but I still like talking to them as if they were alive. They were a present from a grateful patient’s family in my first year as an attending. I like to call them “the guardians of light,” because even when it’s dark inside, their white marble still glows.
Before I reach the couch, I bump my knee on the low table that sits in front of it. I keep doing that. It hurts like hell, and I’m happy I don’t have anyone around for whom I would need to keep a brave face on. When I’m alone, I can say and do whatever I want. Including swearing and crying. One of the many reasons I enjoy my solitude so much.
“Ambient, bed up,” I order my AmbientAssist, which promptly retracts the couch and opens up a bed that lures me with its fresh white linens. “Ahhh, I love you bed.”
I gaze at the VirtuWall that covers the space to the right of the entrance, a floor-to-ceiling window to the world that today is looking onto a snowy peak in the Andes. The very same one you can see from my family’s home in Mendoza. The three-dimensional rendering is so crisp, so real, that it looks like my studio is built on the edge of a mountain. I get lost in it for a few moments, and before I doze off, I ask for a couple of more things. “Ambient, dim walls to zero. Starry night. Peony dew.” My studio turns completely dark, the VirtuWall dims away, and the ceiling is now covered in a starry sky. The perfect, subtle scent of white peonies fills the air. I crawl under the thick blanket, ready to enter the land of dreams.
But I’m halted right at the border by a chime from the VirtuWall. I hope I’m dreaming. Because if I’m not, whoever has decided to wake me up right now will come to regret it. I keep my eyes closed, and I’m almost ready to breathe a sigh of relief when another chime fills the air. I pry my eyes open, and I peek at the visit notice.
“Only two hours. Is that too much to ask for, two hours?” But such is the life of a surgeon, and I am the one who chose it. So I have to get with the program.
The profile projected on the wall is that of a man I don’t remember meeting before. He’s not a nurse, or a doctor; I can tell from his expensive suit and tie. I sit up, and I watch the video feed of him standing outside my door, looking a little too dashing for my comfort.
“Nicolas Aragon. Lyra Center, Falmouth, Mass,” I read. “How did this joker get access to the residential floor?” I rub my eyes to will the sleep away. “Ambient, walls to seven” I command, maintaining the light in the room at crepuscule because I can’t bear full daylight right now. As I walk to the door, I see myself approaching it in the mirror that covers it. I’m technically naked, considering that I’m only wearing a t-shirt and I have no makeup on. My first thought is, “so what?” Then my wits return to me and I realize that the only one who would feel uncomfortable would be me, not him. So I grab a pair of green scrub pants from the bathroom, and I stumble to the door as I put them on, one leg at a time. I brush my fingers through my hair, which is almost dry, and I pinch my cheeks so that I don’t look like I haven’t seen the sun since I was born. The dark circles under my eyes are not attractive, but there’s no miracle cure for that right now.
I glance at the VirtuWall one last time, and I decide that at the very least, Mr. Aragon is easy on the eyes. And that deserves a smile.
I wave the door open. He’s more than easy on the eyes—he’s a downright Adonis. I feel my cheeks blush, but I keep my game face on.
“Hello,” I say, questioning his presence with my eyes.
“Doctor Karina Vega?” he asks.
I lift my left wrist and swipe it by the door sensor, which brings up my name on the validation screen that’s mounted right outside the door.
“According to this, that would be me.”
He smiles at my dramatic gesture.
“My name is Nicolas Aragon. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he says and extends his hand.
“I’ll be pleased when I know who you are, Mr. Aragon, and how you made it on this floor,” I say, but I shake his hand nonetheless. His handshake is strong, and he looks me in the eye without hesitation. I always come off a little too strong when my mind makes my knees weak, but he seems to be taking it ok.
“I received permission from Doctor Brown to come up and see you. I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you, but once you hear why, you’ll hopefully consider it as important a reason as I do,” he says.
“Forgive my manners; I’ve had a challenging night.” I relax into a smile more befitting of meeting a complete stranger. Is that what I taught you, querida? I hear my mother in the depths of my mind, admonishing me for displaying anti-social behavior. Wouldn’t be the first time. Or the last. It keeps the weak ones at bay, mom, I always tell her.
“Please come in.” I step aside to allow him to enter. “So, what’s Lyra Center? Pharma? Medical equipment?” I ask, eager to get to the point of his visit so I can go back to sleep.
“We’re a medical science organization,” he says as he walks into the room. He leaves behind a subtle scent of musk, ocean, and wood; the scent of a man I’ve missed having around.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you were sleeping. Terrible timing on my part,” he says as soon as he sees the unmade bed, and smiles apologetically.
I should have changed it back. “Don’t worry about it, I hadn’t settled into it. But we’ll have to keep it short because I really am very tired. Ambient, couch up,” I order and the bed turns back into a couch. “Please have a seat.” I point to one of the chairs opposite the couch and I sit on the other. I’ve never sat properly in a chair, much to my mother’s chagrin, who doesn’t like to see me sit with my leg bent under me, as I’m doing right now. “So, Lyra Center…”
“We specialize in genetic research. We have a dense history, which I’d be happy to go over, but I don’t want to waste your time with unnecessary details. We have recently made a genetic discovery that holds a lot of promise, which is what I’m here to talk to you about.” His voice is just the right amount of manly, and my ears pick up the subtle tone of someone who speaks Spanish frequently. It’s really hard not to like him.
“Let me guess. You want me to help you find people to experiment on,” I say with a sigh. Not the first time I heard this spiel. Nor the first time I will say no.
“Not exactly,” he says smiling. “For this one we only need you.”
“I’m not a geneticist. You’re on the wrong side of the floor for that; Doctor Kaminski’s office is a few doors down.” I try hard not to roll my eyes. Did he really wake me up for this?
“We’re not looking for a geneticist. We’re looking for carriers of the gene. You happen to be one of them.”
I thought I heard him say I was a carrier of the gene. Which can’t be right. I’m not a carrier. I’m the doctor that takes care of everyone else who carries some sort of a mutated gene that puts their organs in danger.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” I ask, and focus on his words, instead of on his lips.
“You’re a carrier of the new gene we discovered,” he says and now I know I heard it right. I had expected this conversation to be a waste of time, as these conversations usually are, but now I find myself very much present and interested in what he has to say.
“And how would you know that?” I ask as I try to read his mind.
“A few days ago you had a blood test—”
I interrupt him because I know how this story ends. “And the results were sent to the global blood analysis database,” I say with a sigh. Small mistake, big disaster; here we go. My heart drops to my stomach and I’m nauseous.
“Right. The Center has been monitoring all hospital-generated blood test results sent to G-BAD. We have governmental permission to monitor it for the genes we’re working on and have installed a program to automatically probe for them when blood tests are performed. When a gene is identified during the analysis, the system generates an alert directly to us.” He explains it as if rummaging through people’s personal data is the most banal thing in the world.
“Every time I’m reminded of it, it sounds as creepy as the first time. The “bad” in their name sure is ironic,” I say. I don’t get angry anymore over this stuff. It’s the world we live in. I stand up and walk to the bar, trying to make myself busy, because I know I’m not ready to hear what he’s about to tell me.
“Would you like some water?” I ask.
“Sure, some water would be great, thank you.”
“So, what’s this gene all about? Is it bad? Am I horribly sick? Should I be afraid now?” I ask and I place a water bottle in front of him. His face doesn’t betray bad news, so I hope the worst-case scenario isn’t about to unfold itself.
“No, nothing of the sort. Plus you don’t strike me as the kind of person who gets scared easily.” He flashes his pearly whites, and waits for me to sit back down. Then he leans forward as if he’s about to share a big secret.
“Before I continue though, I just want to make sure I can count on your confidentiality. The work we’re doing is still sensitive, and we obviously don’t want any of our secrets out there. You know what it’s like,” he says.
Secrets? Sure, I know what it’s like to have them. And to keep them.
“I won’t tell. Swear on my cat’s life,” I say as I place my right hand over my heart in an exaggerated gesture.
He laughs. “You don’t have a cat.”
I smile and shrug. It’s not like I was holding out the hope that he didn’t know everything about me already.
“You got me. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t feel safe. But since you’re the one who came knocking on my door, you’re hardly in a position to make the rules now, are you?” I can bullshit with the best of them. And in reality, I have learned how to not invest myself in any one situation, or person, or emotion. Not anymore. I’m itching to hear more, but I’m prepared to walk away. You won’t get any commitments from me without earning them.
“That’s fair,” he acknowledges, which gains him another point of respect in my book. “The gene is called QUIK-30. It was sequenced during the Genome Project, but not tied into a function. Recently, our scientists discovered that a mineral found in the fruit of Sorbus Aucuparia, popularly known as the rowan tree, activates the gene. Once activated, it generates a previously unknown protein cluster that feeds into the visual cortex giving its carrier enhanced cognitive abilities.”
He pauses to check if I’m still with him. I am, but my left hand is now pressing on my lips, preventing any words from being unleashed. I just nod for him to continue.
“Our scientists developed a concentrated form of the mineral called SorX. We don’t have enough historical data to understand if any long-term changes occur in the body chemistry of a carrier treated with SorX, but we’ve had no indication so far of any negative effects. Only upsides. Carriers can perform certain activities at an enhanced pace, usually ones that rely heavily on visualization.”
“Like what?” I ask and raise an eyebrow. By now I’m almost certain that this is a big elaborate joke that someone is playing on me.
“Like this,” he says, and places his bottle of water on the coffee table, but continues to touch it lightly while watching it. Slowly, the water starts freezing, and in a few seconds it’s a block of ice.