One Week Later
This time I was the one who needed the solace of the quiet balcony overlooking the ocean. I was tired, both physically and emotionally. The first 48 hours after the gene therapy were dicey. John's condition had deteriorated twice, necessitating a repeat infusion of stem cells. Unfortunately, the second time he had an allergic reaction to them. We had to intubate again when he went into anaphylaxis, and had to shock him once when his heart stopped. It was definitely not a fun time, but things went a little more smoothly after that.
The frantic pace left little time for self-reflection, so this was the first time I was able to really think about my decision. I was pretty sure I was doing the right thing, but that didn't mean I hadn't rid myself of all the lingering doubts.
Hence the balcony.
The sun had almost completely set and the stars were appearing. One of them was somewhat larger than the rest and was slowly moving. It was on this particular light in the sky that I was concentrating, symbolizing as it did the important realization I'd had: I didn't want to leave.
"Shouldn't you be on board?" a voice behind me asked as I stared up at the Daedalus orbiting the planet. "She'll be leaving in a few hours."
I made a noncommittal noise as Carson joined me at the rail. It was a beautiful evening, and I was enjoying the slight breeze that was ruffling my hair. At this rate, it would quickly become as untidy as John's. Now that his transformation was reversing, he was starting to care about such things again. (He was also starting to gripe about being confined in the infirmary. I overheard him discussing potential "escape scenarios" with Rodney, but I pretended not to notice.)
"I never really got a chance to thank you for your help," he said abruptly.
"You're welcome," I told him, meaning it. "How is the reversion progressing?"
"He's pretty much regained all fine motor control, so he's less frustrated. Unfortunately, since he's using it to play prison songs on his guitar, I'm becoming more frustrated."
I grinned. "How did he manage to get the guitar?"
"Rodney!" Carson growled. "Anyway, the skin changes are about halfway reversed, but I think his eyes will be the last to normalize." He shook his head in wonderment. "This goes against most of the principles of molecular biology we learned in med school."
"I also wouldn't have thought we could see such extensive and rapid change with just one virus. If you had told me this back on Earth, I would have said you were delusional." I laughed suddenly. "But then again, I probably would have said the same thing if you told me that a single gene would make it possible for a cocky young flyboy to sit his butt in a chair and put on a lightshow."
"Or for someone else to sit in the chair and nearly blow said flyboy out of the sky," Carson said ruefully.
I sighed. "It seems like a lot of the normal rules don't apply out here."
"But a lot do, son."
Surprised, I looked over at him.
He, in turn, was staring into the distance. "Particularly the one about rushing in where angels fear to tread." He paused, then continued, "Even after we came back with the cells, all I could think about was what could go wrong. We might not have been able to splice John's DNA into the bug genome inside the cells. His immune system could have fought off the cells. And then this occurred to me in the middle of the night. The DNA we administered could have inserted itself in the same place as the original retrovirus, disrupting the sequence. If it were badly mutated, it could theoretically turn airborne. How's that for something to keep you from sleeping?"
For a sickening minute, I let myself imagine a retrovirus plague. It would spread like wildfire. The entire expedition crew would be dying within days, and the virus could spread to other worlds if an infected person got through the gate. I shuddered and quickly shut down that line of thought.
Carson wasn't finished, so I let him continue to get things off his chest. "I'm not sure what to do with the research now. The Wraith aren't going away, and we don't know how long it will take for us to deplete our ZedPM. We need a definitive way of dealing with their threat, and this could be it."
"But you saw what it did to John! That could easily happen again if someone in the lab got careless."
"Did you save any of the stem cells, just in case?"
Carson looked me in the eye. "There were none left. If John had needed any more, we would have been screwed." He then looked down at the ground and continued in a much lower voice. "And of course, there are the ethical issues, some of which I admit I had not considered fully."
"Which ones in particular?" I asked. We had been confronted with so many moral questions over the past few weeks that I wasn't sure where he was going to start.
He didn't answer right away and I could tell that he was carefully considering his words. Finally, after a brief pause, his gaze returned to stare directly at me.
"I was wrong to think that I could blindly tinker with another species' genetic makeup without consequences. It was the height of arrogance, never mind potential genocide if things went wrong."
I laughed humorlessly. "That's ironic. While you were working on the stem cell therapy, I was beginning to think I had been overly self-righteous. We were desperately trying to save John with an untested genetic therapy. Who am I to turn around and deny the benefits of similar treatment to someone else? From what you said, Ellia was heading towards a confrontation with the villagers that she would not have survived."
"Aye, that she was."
"So she took a horrible chance, betting everything on your virus working. But how different is that from some of the clinical trials of chemotherapy?"
"She was just a child, and acting under perceived duress! Steve, there's no way that could have been an informed decision!"
"I know, and it bothers me, too," I told Carson frankly. "That's why I ultimately still think you were wrong to even bring the virus with you in the first place. But..." I had to stop and swallow hard. "But I shouldn't have compared it to the situation with the Hoffans." I knew that my angry words had caused Carson a lot of pain. He didn't say anything now, but I knew he was thinking about Perna, the lovely scientist he'd developed a relationship with.
Carson suddenly pushed away from the balcony. "I think," he said slowly, "I'd like a drink right now. I have a bottle of old scotch locked away; would you like to share it?"
Yes, I definitely would.
I'd never been inside Carson's quarters, so I was curious about them. I'm not sure what I expected a Scotsman's quarters to look like, but they were actually rather generic. The only cultural concession was a large wall hanging displaying a colorful pattern of reds and blues. He caught me looking at it. "My clan tartan," he said as he poured the drinks.
We sat on comfortable chairs that looked like they were made from old leather. I wondered where he'd found them, since they didn't bear much resemblance to the other furnishings we'd found abandoned here. But I quickly forgot about that when he handed me a glass. The scotch smelled wonderful.
"To Perna," Carson said. I echoed him and took a sip. It really was quite good.
I grinned as a sudden irrelevant thought popped into my head. "Poor Caldwell," I remarked. "He probably thought that getting John's job was a done deal."
Carson chuckled. "I heard about your little discussion with him. The nurses are already calling it 'the battle of the Steves'."
"Ha! That's good." We fell into a companionable silence. The stiffness and awkwardness of several days ago had disappeared somewhere along the way.
"I think I'm beginning to understand a little of what Rodney went through after the Arcturus project fiasco. John almost died because I had to show those people how brilliant I was. The all-knowing healer, rushing in to save the day," Carson said somewhat bitterly.
"Well, it was close," I admitted, "but in the end you did."
"Aye, after creating the problem in the first place! I almost killed a good friend, and I'm having a hard time getting past that."
A few days ago, I probably would have agreed with him. I said as much. "I think I started to change my mind, though, when you walked into that cave despite the danger." If Carson was being brutally honest with himself, I could do no less. "I stopped doubting your intentions. It's hard to be sanctimonious when some else is willing to sacrifice himself like that."
Heightmeyer would no doubt have had a field day with my dream, but I think this was what my subconscious was trying to tell me. Unlike the physicians complicit in the atrocities of the Holocaust, Carson had shown his willingness to do everything in his power to right a tragic error, up to and including giving his own life. I think my real father would have expressed sentiments similar to those of my dream-father. I therefore owed it to him to get past my own misgivings, and I was definitely heading in the right direction.
As if reading my mind, Carson smiled. "You do realize that you're arguing my position and I'm arguing yours."
"Yeah, I did notice that. Interesting, isn't it?"
"Yeah." He took a sip of his drink. "So what are you going to do now?"
The million dollar question. I really didn't want to leave. I loved being here, from the almost-daily wonder of discovering new things about the city to the routine bickering of John and Rodney. So why was I still hesitating?
Carson saw that I wasn't ready to answer yet. "Tell me, why did you become a doctor instead of a rabbi like your father?"
Another good question. It was more than just my relatively rigid worldview. "I think, in the end, my faith just wasn't strong enough. When push came to shove, I wanted to be able to heal people, not just leave it up to God. Surgery's good for that. Instant gratification, you know? Set a broken bone, remove an appendix, and the patient gets better." I paused. "In case you hadn't noticed, I tend to see things in black and white. Surgery's also good for that."
He nodded. "Personally, I went into medicine because I loved solving puzzles. I really wanted to figure out how the human body worked, and how to make it work better. Research has always been my first love. It's an incredible privilege to be trusted to take care of the sick, but until I came here I was happier in the lab."
Carson shrugged. "Since coming to Atlantis, I've seen what happens when you put science on a pedestal. First the Hoffans, then Rodney and his weapon of mass destruction, and now this."
"And I've seen what happens when moral dilemmas become too abstract. I think we both lost sight of the people affected by what we do." I sighed. "You asked what to do with the research, whether to continue it. I still can't tell you that, but we at least need to be aware of our own motives and biases."
He looked at me for a long minute, then smiled. "It looks like you've decided to stay, then." I nodded, and after a minute, held out my hand. He took it and gripped it hard.
"We'll watch each other's back," Carson said. "I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have as a moral compass."
Things were almost back to normal when I showed up for my next duty shift. John was still slightly blue, but he grinned when he saw me. He was talking to the young security guard who had been so concerned about intruding on his privacy. Obviously John had remembered the man, and he was doing his best to put him at ease. I marveled at how many lives he managed to touch.
"Hey, doc!" John yelled. "Carson's keeping me locked up in here. Don't I even get one phone call?"
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Carson glaring. Yeah, I'd say things were definitely returning to normal. "Nope. We can't cover the long distance charges." The kid snickered at that, and John smirked at me. I walked away to catch up on some of my chart dictations, and behind me I suddenly heard the most incredible noise.
"I'm stuuuuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin' on..."