During the opening ceremony of our first Sack Farm in Raleigh, I was asked a very simple question by a student journalist from the North Carolina State University's newspaper, Technician.
"Is it alive?"
I couldn't hide my shock, so I covered it with a smile. Unfortunately, the reporter assumed I mocked her for asking a silly question. I attempted to put her at ease.
"You know, no one has asked me that one, and frankly, I'm surprised. While it might seem like a simple question, it's far from easy to answer."
She seemed to relax, so I continued.
"Technically, the tissue is alive, and growing. However, a Sack cannot survive without the nutrients we provide it on a continual basis. In this regard, can we say that something that cannot survive on its own, that has no way to communicate, that doesn't even have a brain—can we say that such a thing is truly alive?"
"I'm not sure."
"Me either." We both laughed, mildly.
I wish more people would ask questions in this manner—spontaneous, simple, honest—a real inquiry rather than a trap. Those of you who face public questions with some frequency will understand my point. How often is the question merely a preface to an opinion? For me, when I am asked an agenda-free query, I feel somewhat disoriented and giddy.
The next journalist I spoke to, from The New York Times, didn't hesitate to reveal his subjectivity.
"Dr. Fleischmann, care to comment on your connection to big tobacco?"
"Sure," I responded. "They generously paid for everything, and we will all benefit from their belief in the project. Like many of us, the Livingston family has also experienced loss from disease, and they would like to invest their money in a cure for us all."
The reporter's eyes devoured the sound bite. I turned back to the curious student.
"Make sure you print the entire quote, okay?" I directed my question to the young lady and winked at her.
"I will," she answered.
The Times reporter nodded his head. Any sound bite he tried to extract would also have to include the entire sentence, or he'd risk looking unprofessional.
I answered many more questions, and as the press conference drew to a close, I began to feel my mind leaving my body. The visions could no longer take me without my consent, and just as often as I succumbed to them in my youth, I now spent the same amount of time batting them away. I felt one creeping in as the reporters scribbled in their notepads, and with just a brief pause, I pushed it from my thoughts.
"Excuse me, I haven't been asked this many tough questions since I gave my orals."
The crowd laughed, giving me the space I needed to see what was coming and shoo it away. In the corner of my vision, I could see a Sack inflating rapidly, all manner of bulges pushing out from every inch of the creature's thick skin. A face pushed out from inside the skin, like a baby's foot in a pregnant belly. It burst out through a sudden tear, spilling guts from the new wound. Even with all of the gore covering it, I could tell that the face was Jeff's, looking at me, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. I closed my eyes and willed it away, and the scene vanished. When I reopened my eyes, the crowd sat in front of me, all hands raised.
"Yes," I said, pointing to a man from CNN.
The Sack went through many phases before going into production in Raleigh. We spent two years just developing the skin for it, trying initially to create a growing environment in something like an aquarium. A small, clear, nylon case of blood, tissue and nerves , all grown with my protein and stem cells obtained from amniotic fluid, and continuously fed nutrient and oxygen enriched blood, the first Sack, then called the Box, would have been good enough for many.
It was Peter who suggested we think preemptively, and come up with a solution that would serve as a living insurance policy rather than providing a reactionary solution. Medicine rarely moved in such a direction, preferring to provide relief for symptoms and emergency procedures. Peter's idea leaned more towards preventative medicine, but on a scale none had ever seen.
He picked up an aquarium at a pet store and brought it in, suggesting that we do our dirty work in it, that we create a unique environment for just one individual.
"We seed everything in here, and it's ready to grow when we need it," he suggested. The plan was always to create miniature versions of organs that can be grown in a human patient when the need arose. Peter's aquarium would simply allow a complete set of organs to be ready to go at any time.
"It'll be the fast food of medicine!" I exclaimed, running my hands over the aquarium's lid.
Peter's plan was genius, and I didn't need a vision to tell me so. Back when I worked on cars, I hit a point where visions no longer guided, no longer moved me around like a puppet. Whatever knowledge I gained from them took hold within me, allowed me to isolate problems on my own. The same had become true with regenerative research. I had trusted my vision, worked extremely hard on developing a cure for Jeff and now I operated independently from them both. Simply put, I was leading as much as I was following.
I never asked him where he found his inspiration for the box, since I surely did not want the inquiry reciprocated. Now, as I lay these words down, I no longer feel any need to hide. Perhaps this is the right time to raise the question.
Peter, how did you think of it? Did it come to you in a sudden burst of light, or did you make a long list of possible solutions? Do you have visions, too? Perhaps you were you merely acting on them when you opened the first interspecies facility in China? Did you see beforehand that you would be responsible for the death of my wife?
You never asked me where my ideas came from, so maybe I'm on to something, eh? I suppose we shall have to wait for your book. Better be quick about it, if you want me to read it!
Together, Peter and I had also fashioned a hybrid cell that created an area of stasis in and around the transplantation. It literally hugged the seams, encapsulating the damaged area in a stable environment. The little bugger was based on cancer cells I had lifted from Jeff's body that we managed to "re-program" to grow just enough to provide a protective barrier for the healing tissue. They would then deploy my protein directly to the tissue, which helped the organ grow quickly to its mature size and increased the recovery time exponentially.
As long as the cells received the benefits of high concentrations of ascorbate, it was possible to transplant an organ with relative ease. The cells were programmed to host a specific connection, so nerves joined with nerves, arteries join with arteries. They were like microscopic gods in the tissue, building and growing in the most basic form. Peter worked out a method to slowly destroy the beneficial cancer during recovery by reducing the amount of ascorbate, while I recorded methods for cloning different organs.
Between Peter and I, the communications were atypical compared to what I'd experienced with other researchers and doctors. Formality gave way to personality, and like two brothers who might go into a joint venture, we spent as much time reviewing our procedures as we did imagining the changes our work would make in the world.
"What about lungs?" he asked one day, watching me take measurements of a spleen growing in the Box.
"What about them?"
"They'll be popular," he said and faked a rough cough. He pounded his chest a few times and uttered an apology.
"You and I could both use a new set, no doubt," I returned with a smile. "But we'll need a bigger box."
"Definitely a bigger box, maybe with a camel or a cowboy etched on the top." He stared at me, waiting for my reaction. Thinking he was joking, I raised my eyebrows, nodded and continued my work.
I never suspected Peter of any lust for money or power. Even though he wielded massive sums of both, I still find it difficult to believe that his motives were anything but byproducts of his own curiosity, necessary accoutrements to his defining need to "see what would happen if...."
"We could grow a layer of skin on top," he once proposed, offhandedly, while recording some notes for a paper he was authoring. He knew how sensitive I was about my own skin, and I think he wanted to bring me closer to his goals, where we solved all humanity's woes with a slash of the scalpel. My approach was always less cosmetic in focus. I still had traces of my initial vision to save Jeff rummaging around in my mind, making it difficult to see past my objective of simply saving people from disease.
Moments after his remark about a bigger box, I lifted my head up from my work. His idea prompted me to see the Box covered in skin, a growing, living self-contained creation.
"The skin is the Box!"
Peter looked up from his notes, a waft of tension steaming off of his head. It had taken us four years to get our Box prototype to provide consistent results within expectations!
"Cover it with skin? It would be harder to monitor the growth."
"Certainly, but not impossible." I answered. "We could clone as many organs as needed, all simultaneously. The skin would just expand to whatever size we need. We could grow four sets of lungs for you! Hell, you could have a complete set of organs, nerves, tissue and bones available at any time. You could have another body on reserve."
"Charlie, we'd need to rethink the whole project without the Box, not to mention the escalated degree of controversy such a thing would bring with it. What you're talking about is just a headless sack of flesh."
Peter's way was still one of curiosity, rather than dismissal, and although he advocated a conservative approach, he spoke with a tone of openness. Even on our last meeting, over ten years ago in China, the older, morally bankrupt Peter maintained this rare skill.
How do you do it, Peter? I collected so many characteristics from you, but this one always eluded me. Was it all feigned? Were you always in control, piloting a careful manipulation of those around you?
I snapped my fingers and held up a fist.
"It is a sack! That's exactly what it is! And we are going to rethink the project because this Sack is the right way to go."
Peter removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. I could see the smile under his hand. Back then, not only would Peter never condescend to me, he would never ultimately vote against me, either. Perhaps he knew I was right, or he was afraid I might move on without him. Since assembling our research team of me, Peter, and two dozen others, he still guided me on the social and political nature of our work, but I held creative control. I never fought for it, never asserted myself. Based on my name alone, everyone simply deferred to me for direction, although I was the youngest and least experienced on the team.
"A sack." Peter repeated.
"The Sack." I corrected. "Every city can have its own Sack-growing facility, ready to make anything anyone should need."
We ditched the limiting box model and began again with skin as the ultimate container. As I mentioned, it took two years to make this transition, to make a Sack prototype that grew anything usable. Working with tissue inside of tissue was messy, onerous and often times frustrating. Peter never questioned my decision, though, and treated every obstacle as a new test of our skill, creativity and resolve. As you well know, we did succeed.
Just after we announced the coming of The Sack to the world, I unveiled our prototype to a select group of doctors, researchers and journalists at a large surgical classroom Steve Livingston built for just this moment.
I spoke to the audience from a podium set off from the surgery table, where Peter and several members of our team prepped themselves. The Sack lay under a sheet, many tubes extending from it to the monitoring equipment.
"What you are about to see is not a miracle, but it is revolutionary. No longer will we treat the symptoms of an illness, no longer will we haphazardly prescribe drugs and experimental procedures. No longer will we wonder if a suitable donor is available. No longer will we fight in the dark, with a small bag of tricks that may or may not work."
Behind me, as I spoke, images flashed across a screen of active people, sick people, doctors giving bad news, doctors giving good news. Dick tapped the Livingston company marketing department to put the slides together. To me, it made the entire demonstration something of a public relations circus. However, at the time, I still believed more in the altruistic goals, rather than the monetary ones.
"In just a moment, Dr. Parsons, transplant pioneer in and co-team leader on this project, will reveal the medical breakthrough that will transform the work of every researcher and doctor in this room. You came in here curious, perhaps a bit skeptical. You will leave wondering one of two things. How can I be a part of this, or will I still have a job?"
The crowd murmured with laughter, some mocking in origin, others not.
"We are ready, Dr. Fleischman," came the announcement from Peter. He winked at me. I could tell he was smiling under the mask. I smiled in return.
"Okay, distinguished guests," I said, holding up a hand to the audience. "On behalf of the entire team here at Livingwell Labs, we are very, very pleased to present to you, and the world, our project. We called it the Sack."
Peter gently removed the sheet from the table. The audience leaned forward and gasped.
About the size of human torso, the Sack was not at all pleasing to the eye. Lumpy, misshapen, and tethered by a half dozen tubes, it looked like a melted marionette. I heard someone from the seats above me utter, "Jesus, what is that?"
"The Sack is you. It contains your DNA, your blood, your tissue, all in miniature, all ready for you should you need anything. Peter, would you kindly begin the extraction?"
"Certainly, Charlie," he responded, with the same level of formality.
"Inside of the Sack, you will find all the major organs, tissue and bones of a human, all very small, held in stasis by the proteins we put in the Sack's blood. It's the equivalent to having a two year old version of your body on hold. When an organ is required from the Sack, we stimulate it, and within three days, we have tissue that is mature enough for transplantation."
Peter made an incision into the sack.
"Three days ago, we began stimulating an organ in this Sack. Now, Dr. Parsons will remove it."
There are videos available of Peter operating in his prime. I highly recommend watching them, if you are interested in surgical procedures. His hands moved like those of a pianist, and his body would lean forward but remain motionless, as if he were able to lock everything except his arms. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
"We invite you all to the surgery floor for a closer inspection of the Sack after Dr. Parsons completes the extraction."
"We're ready, Dr. Fleischman."
"Please proceed." I replied, and the lights in the audience and around me went dark. A spotlight remained over Peter as he lifted a lung out of the sack.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Parsons holds in his hands a healthy lung, grown and born from our laboratory."
Peter held the lung up, several tubes still connected to it. The impression of the sight on the audience was palpable. Doctors whispered to each other, and journalists madly scribbled in their notebooks.
The lights in the surgical theater slowly brightened the room. Peter lowered the lung and spoke.
"What Dr. Fleischman did not tell you is that this Sack was created from cells he collected years ago. The patient was his friend, Jeff Simon, who lost his battle with lung cancer after several years of painful treatments, including the removal of his left lung. A short time after his death, Dr. Fleischman published his seminal paper detailing the protein we used to facilitate cellular growth. This, folks, is Jeff Simon's left lung."
He held the lung up again, and the audience rose and gave me a standing ovation. I nodded, closed my eyes, and tried to shut out the noise.