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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Cyb Fi
Goodness Militant
by Steven Bratman
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"You want to inject him with Ariadne? Put more virus inside him on purpose?"
     Dr. Wallbrook reached out to pat Terry's bald head as the little boy's careening circle brought him within reach.
     "Remember Sarah?" Wallbrook said. "That little redhead who took Terry's place when he moved to the ICU? This morning, about two am, we gave her an extract of his plasma. She's fine now."
     "Fine?" It didn't register. All I wanted to do was listen to Terry's scooter as he banged it up the stairs on the other side of the living room and smashed it into the hallway wall. When your son almost dies, you don't feel like complaining when he raises some hell again.
     "Sarah was ready to die, Mr. Kazleman," Wallbrook said. "No immune system left. Two or three hours at the most. But now she's fine."
     Terry flew around the corner and brought himself to a halt by grabbing my legs. "Sarah's fine?" he said, in his thin little voice. "You gave her my blood and she's fine?"
     "You can see her today if you want," Wallbrook said.
     He kicked off again and scraped the side of the refrigerator on his way back to the living room.
     My chair squeaked as I pulled it closer to the table. "I don't understand. What's Sarah have to do with giving him more virus?"
     Wallbrook made his voice painfully soothing. "Mr. Kazleman, your boy is the first person who ever survived advanced Ariadne. We need to know how he did it, and injecting him with more Ariadne is the best way to find out."
     "You think it's safe?"
     He nodded, looking me straight in the eye.
     "I don't know. We need to go back to Colorado, get our lives going again. How long will this take?"
     "Not long," he said. This time, his eyes slid away to the table.
     It was a red flag. As soon as Wallbrook waved it, I should have grabbed Terry and run to Idaho. We could have made a nice life in some gray old barn, sandwiched between the white supremacists and the organic farmers. Instead I let him talk to me about it, and soon compliantly agreed to do what he asked.
     Why? Because he'd saved my son's life? Because I'm a patriotic citizen of the world, and couldn't help responding to the call? I hope it's one of those reasons. But I'm afraid I just let Terry convince me. If so, I'm culpable of letting a six-year-old make a decision he couldn't possibly understand.
     Everyone was impressed with the brave way he took the shot. Remember that photo? "I'm going to save those kids," he's saying as the nurse preps his arm. "It's easy for me. My body will blast those viruses dead!"
     Terry had a flushed and delirious night after the injection, but by morning he was perfectly well again.
     Like almost everyone else, Terry had caught the virus before we even knew it existed. They say some disgruntled tech at the Centers for Disease Control crossed influenza and the HIV virus, but no one's proved it. Still, Ariadne was like a cross between HIV and influenza. It spread by coughing and sneezing and worked like HIV. The net effect was something like bubonic plague with a delayed action timer. Some commentator got it about right: our disaster was future perfect. You could say the human species was about to have died.
     Anti-HIV drugs worked for a while, but sooner or later the virus broke through, its spidery lesions (Ariadne's web) crawling over livers and kidneys and skin. I was one of the two percent who were naturally immune. My son wasn't. When his medications started to fail, Terry went downhill in a hurry. Two weeks from perfect health to hospitalization; two weeks from a general ward to intensive care, and two weeks after that, he was about to die.
     I'd come back from a grim hospital cafeteria lunch, trying to get up my courage to call funeral homes, when I stepped obliviously into the crowd at the ICU door. They were cheering, or so people say, but I didn't hear a thing. I could only see Terry. He was lying in a gurney instead of his bed, and when he saw me coming, he sat up between the shining steel rails. I don't know which surprised me more: that he sat up, or that he recognized me. The characteristic Ariadne rash had faded from red to pink, and the "I" was back behind his eyes. It was like his birth all over again.
     Of course, after the injection we never did go home. The hospital bought us a place in the neighborhood. Our job was to tide the world over till they figured out how to synthesize Terry's anti-Ariadne factor.
     His medical team consisted of three physicians, Wallbrook at the head (of course), six nurses, eight laboratory technicians, a dietician, two cooks and a personal trainer who supervised Terry's exercise routine. In order to minimize needle sticks, we installed a permanent catheter in his neck that went straight to his heart. Medical centers worldwide sent their orders to us and managed the local distribution. We charged just enough to cover our costs -- Microsoft, Wal-Mart and McDonalds picked up the tab for needy countries.
     Terry's factor didn't cure Ariadne; it only held it in check. By age eight, his body was keeping over 100 million people alive. By age ten, the figure was 500 million. He was Man of the Year on Time three years running, and then Time decided to put a little picture on every cover.
     When eight years passed and scientists still couldn't synthesize the factor, the world began to call Terry its Savior.
     The world celebrated its Savior by building shrines. You saw them everywhere by the side of the road, little pictures of Terry with bottles of cherry juice to represent blood. Once one of the worshippers keeping vigil broke in through the guards and tried to touch him, hoping to be cured of cancer or genital warts or something. Security came in seconds later, but Terry didn't need help. He was the Savior of the world. He let the woman touch the hem of his bedcovers, and then asked her to carry his blessing to the crowd. She walked out in besotted exaltation.
     It was a glory to be part of it.
     But at about the time that 30-foot Terry statues started rising like juvenile Lenins throughout the green parks of the world, I came back to myself and saw what had happened to my son.
     He used to be a child. Now he was a living factory.
     He didn't have any friends and he never played. All he did was talk and think about the people who depended on him. He piled the grateful letters around his room, in sacks, chests, drawers and filing cabinets. He stuffed them in pillowcases and slept on them, lined quilts, comforters and sleeping bags with the envelopes and made them into wrist and ankle exercise weights.
     I called in a therapist, but he just got starry-eyed and said Terry was a saint. So I called in an expert on saintliness. I got the Dalai Lama in person - Terry could attract top talent.
     "I'm worried sick about my son," I told him. "I used to be a student of Buddhism myself, your Holiness, and I think I remember reading that you're supposed to lead a full life before you renounce everything. But Terry never did. How could he?"
     Tenzin Gyatso's face crinkled in a smile that swept away all my fear. I looked at the intelligent and compassionate eyes behind the John Lennon wire frames, and knew he'd come up with a wise solution.
     He closeted himself with Terry for about an hour. When the door opened, I jumped up from the couch and hurried up to meet him halfway.
     "What should we do?" I asked. "How do we save him?"
     The Dalai Lama chuckled. He waved me back to the couch and sat down at the opposite end, his red robes looking like dried blood on the black leather.
     "We don't have to do anything, Mr. Kazleman. Terry doesn't need to be saved. Your son has achieved the bodhisattva's relationship to life, taking his pleasure purely in the pleasure of others. We Buddhists call this right relationship egoless relationship."
     "I know," I said, feeling a flash of pride before the fear came back. "But shouldn't he have some kind of life? Isn't this bad for him? Terry's a teenager. He's about to start rebelling. With all the resentment he must have stored up . . ."
      "Your son does not store up resentment," the Dalai Lama said. "His mind is healthier than yours or mine. It's true he's missing the normal pleasures of youth-play, romance, accomplishment. But he's a holy being. A Buddha. After completing the purification of this lifetime, who knows what he'll achieve in the next? As to the temptations of the teenage period, I'd be glad to help guide him through it."
     Tenzin Gyatso spoke as the soul of the world might speak, assured, commanding, impossible to resist. But I didn't like what he said, so I went for a second opinion. Unfortunately, the Pope, the Chief Sufi Sheik of Konya, the Guru of Poona and even the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem all said the same thing. I didn't ask if they depended on the factor. Odds are they did.
     The most I could figure to do was whisper things in Terry's ear, and even that was hard. A wind seemed to blow my words away, the breath of six billion people, conjoined, apparently, with the wind of the Divine Spirit.
     I didn't like the Divine Spirit much in those days. Back at the beginning, my mother attributed Terry's recovery to God. "I knew God never meant to take someone so young," she'd said. "I prayed, and He listened to my prayers."
     Criminal blasphemy! Why Terry and not the others?
     I imagined some senator grilling Yahweh at a congressional hearing. "And so, Mr. Deity, why did you accept her petition and no other? Contributions to your campaign? Some secret you didn't want spread about? A sexual fetish for post-menopausal mortals?"
     But it wasn't exactly for Terry's benefit He'd singled my son out. I hated Him for it.
     At the peak, five billion people depended on Terry. The more lives he kept healthy, the more beautiful he looked. At least, that's what the Life Magazine photographer said. I thought he looked awful, but what did my opinion matter? I was only related to him on the human side.
     Terry didn't exercise anymore. He said it was better than any exercise just to sit still and feel everyone needing him. His lay in bed with his bloated body and black-and-blue skin, keeping the world alive. Huge red veins pulsated just under the surface, his cheeks hung like old rags, his hair was yellow, his joints looked like oak galls and he smelled like an abcess soaking in antiseptic. Beautiful?
     Well, maybe there was a glow around him. Maybe he did look like a Fra Angelico saint. Maybe you did pick up something when you walked into his room, something that took away your worries and undercut your fears. And if you tried to talk about anything other than the Great Work He Was Doing, your voice faded out and it didn't seem important.
     My Terry was sixteen years old.
     In hindsight, there were a few signs I should have taken for warnings. Once he asked a technician to "please go away and leave me alone." Another time I thought I caught a fleeting frown on his perfect face. But if I noticed these aberrant events at all, I must have attributed them to the physical discomforts of his great burden. Despite my own certainty that something was wrong, I was as much taken by surprise as anyone.
     It was an overcast day that afternoon in the spring of his twentieth year when Terry took a walk in the garden and didn't come back. Someone must have given him a lift, though which of the people they lynched for doing it was actually responsible, I don't know.
     We heard chaotic reports. Terry with supermodels cavorting on superyachts, selling his serum to the yacht-owners for a million dollars a dose. Terry kidnapped by the Calli Cartel, hoping to make more money with his body than they'd ever made from drugs. Terry in disguise in Paris, washing dishes, giving his serum free to artists and musicians.
     I should have felt proud. I was the one who'd whispered in his ear, "Terry, you don't have to be a saint." I was the one who'd overcome Beneficence Militant and Triumphant and said, "It's OK to want something for yourself."
     Yet, I didn't like it the way I thought I would. Getting your life back is one thing -- letting millions die is something else.
     To be precise, 171 million people died during Terry's walkabout. The serum was available only on a black market, and for enormous sums. You had to be a millionaire, at least, if you were running short and wanted to live.
     I think he would have set up a full laboratory on his own pretty soon, somewhere of his choosing, someplace he liked. He wouldn't have wanted people to die once he thought about it.
     But the CIA didn't give Terry time to find his way. They found him, seized him, and transported him somewhere he couldn't easily escape. Civil liberties organizations gave their full complicity. When the world's at stake, personal needs are unconscionable. In any case, a lapsed savior deserves no mercy.
     Terry lay in bed, his body once more disgorging its full flow of serum. The skin was dripping down his face again.
     I read to him a lot in those days. I was reading Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow when we heard a clanking in the metal walkway outside. I put down the book and looked at the door.
     Tenzin Gyatso put his head through, smiling mischievously. He walked fully inside, confiding with his pose and face that he had forgiven everything.
     "I think I made a mistake, your Holiness," Terry said.
     The Dalai Lama walked up to Terry's bedside, his robes swishing. "Hush, my boy. All life is a mistake. A single, right-hearted mistake."
     Terry sat up, gave Tenzin Gyatso his most earnest look. "No, not that kind, your Holiness. A more practical one."
     "What mistake was that, my Terry?"
     "I should have charged on a sliding scale!" Terry thought it was so funny the tears poured down. "If I'd charged on a sliding scale, I'd still be out there."
     "Hush, hush," the Dalai Lama said, affectionately crinkling his nose and massaging his arm. "It's natural to rebel, to try your freedom. It's good. But now you're back at work, saving all the beings in the world."
     "I'm not back at work, Dolly. I'm in prison. I'm a cow getting milked."
     "There's no prison that can touch you, Terry. Do you know how you could get free of this one?"
     "Call my friends with the guns and helicopters?"
     The Buddha-faced man stroked Terry's cheek. "Calm yourself. Remember bodhicitta. If you put your will behind it again, if you make it a voluntary act of your heart, you can never be a prisoner."
     My son looked at me and I gave him the nod he wanted.
     "But I don't want to be a saint," he said, repeatedly checking my face for approval. "Saintliness is sickening."
     "Terry," the Dalai Lama said, "remember what we talked about before? The flow of bodhicitta, of compassion? That's the highest joy in the world. Don't lose it. Don't forget."
     "Piss on bodhicitta."
     When we were alone together later he asked, "Do you think the mind controls the body?"
     "That's what I've heard."
     "I hope so, because I'm visualizing my anti-Ariadne factor shriveling up," he said. "And I'm wishing hate into all the vials that go out. The couriers are delivering vials of hate."
     He put his hand over a vial and chanted something that sounded like, "I pour the fire of my bile in the crud of your blood." It wasn't the best poetry, but the sincere delivery amplified the effect.
     It felt a lot like watching someone dump cyanide into the food at a city's only breadline. I was repelled by the performance, but when he looked to me plaintively for approval, I had to give it him. He was my son.
     Fortunately, Terry's attempts at mind control failed. His body continued to pump out lifesaving anti-Ariadne factor in quantities sufficient for the billions who needed it.
     When he recognized he wasn't going to succeed through mental concentration, Terry resorted to futile acts of sabotage. He ripped out his IVs, clawed at his guards and urinated into the serum whenever he had a chance.
     I understood, but at the same time I didn't like it. That's always been the thing with me. Always ambivalent. Always seeing two or three sides. I once wrote an article in a magazine and afterwards sent in a rebuttal. The only thing I'd ever been unequivocal about was Terry, and now I just didn't know.
     They eventually found a way to synthesize the factor, of course. I was amazed it took so long, but apparently the factor has several large non-protein units, so they couldn't just insert a single gene in the bacteria. It took twelve, and some kind of cytoplasmic alteration to control transcription.
     Anyway, once they solved the synthesis problem, it still took a while to ratchet up production. Terry's body worked alongside the genetically modified E. coli for about six months. As the amount they needed from him decreased, he started to look healthier. When they didn't need his serum at all, they booted us out. OK, there was a ceremony before they booted us out.
     What's the follow-up to saving the world?
     "What do you want to do now?" I asked, as we walked along Monument Creek in Colorado Springs. He was wearing dark sunglasses and a brown curly wig.
      "I've given it a lot of thought, Dad. I've analyzed it closely."
     He didn't say anything.
     I jovially punched him on the shoulder. "Well, what are you going to do?"
     "Technically speaking, Dad, and this is my considered opinion according to the highest Jungian and Buddhist principles, in order to obey the intuitions of the soul and the commandments of the body I must put into practice a kind of - in short, I'm going to screw around."
     He tried to grin, but only managed a quivering half-smile.
     I touched his shoulder, gently this time. "You want to stay with me for a little while?"
     He nodded.
     I had to say something. I had to say the right thing. So I said something corny. "Sometimes it takes more bravery to be a person than a saint."
     He liked that. His smile grew stronger and his walk grew a bounce. He looked around like a man out of prison, like a man on a new job, checking out the possibilities. I looked at the raw courage chunking up under his cheekbones and wanted to dance.
     Yet at the same instant, the glow and the radiance snuffed the rest of the way out. The hidden choir of angels shut their mouths. No bodhicitta. No infinite compassion. No more holy men or grateful sufferers to confer meaning and exaltation. The Wind of the Spirit had totally gone out of our lives, and though I now had my boy back, just then I realized how much we'd lost.

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