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Stalemate

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8:35 pm. I have five more minutes left in my conversation with Cora.

It is the part of the night that I hate the most.

"Mommy," she says, her voice tinny through the computer screen. "When are you coming home?"

She has asked this question almost a hundred times now, but each time the answer gets harder. "Soon," I tell her. "I'll be home soon. By fall."

Children her age shouldn't have to deal with death, but they deal with it better if they know about it in advance. I've spent enough time on PubMed to know I should break the news to her slowly, that she will be better prepared for the inevitable end if I do, but I can't bring myself to speak the words.

"Can I go back to school next fall?" she asks. Her kindergarten closed over winter break. It has yet to reopen.

A child of Cora's age should socialize with her peers as part of her cognitive and emotional development. Continued isolation could result in developmental delays. But exposure to others -

"Yes," I tell her. "You can. And you can play with Sally again."

She nods, still pouting.

David takes that opportunity to appear on the screen. "Cora, honey, it's time to say goodnight and go to bed."

She steps away, and for a moment it's just the two of us. "Don't worry," he says, with genuine sympathy. "I'll take care of her, I promise. You need to take care of yourself."

He sounds more concerned than I had expected. We have reached a sort of truce over the past few months. Perhaps he believes the story about us being heroes. Or perhaps he understands, as I do, that he has finally won.

I smile shakily and blink back tears as I disconnect. The tears are new. It's a bad sign.

I rush through the rest of the late night paperwork, uploading regulatory files to a server that once was less overloaded after hours, then brush my teeth and lie down on the cot in my office. I pull out my phone and set a timer. Ten minutes.

I thumb through pictures of Cora. When the alarm goes off, I turn off my phone and lie in the eerily glow of the emergency lights, refusing to think about my daughter.

***

"Can I sit down?"

I look up from my breakfast to see Jess at my elbow, holding a plate of powdered scrambled eggs and Wonderbread toast. She's not wearing a mask. It's the closest I've seen her in months. I nod and move aside, letting her sit at the empty chair.

Across from us, Tom is still talking about the World Series. He's too far gone to care that Sara, beside him, is scrolling through her cell phone, studying the latest preprints.

"I was folding clothes last night," Jess says. "I turned on an episode of Star Trek, just to watch in the background. And I couldn't stop."

"There's nothing wrong with liking a show," I say carefully. Knowing every plot point in "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" doesn't mean Cora has Plaguet's, our doctor had explained to me at the start of this. It makes her normal.

"It's more than that," she says. It's the truth, of course. "And I-" She looks up, finally acknowledging Tom's existence. "I didn't even know he liked baseball."

"I've always liked baseball," Tom says smoothly. "Ever since I first watched a game with my father. That was when-"

"How long has he been like this?" Jess whispers.

"He was showing symptoms before we locked down," I say, and her face tightens like Cora when - like a clinical trial patient told the drug had no effect.

"Tom," Sara says. She's taken the last bite of her sandwich and stands to clear her tray, leaving crumbs all around her table. "We need those assays. If we don't have them, they'll have to cancel all sports games this year."

His eyes widen, a sudden shock of clarity. "I'll get on them," he says. He rises, his tray forgotten.

"Is there an episode where someone discovers a cure for something?" I ask Jess.

"Of course," Jess says. Her face brightens feverishly. "In Next Generation, when-"

"Good," I say. "Think of that episode. Tell yourself about it. Tell yourself that you're Doctor McCoy or something."

"Is that how you deal with it?"

"It's how I function," I say.

"What do you think about?" she asks.

"I don't," I say. I make a point of wiping my table before I rise with my plate. The slices I set up this morning will have another thirty minutes before they're done. If I hurry, I'll have five minutes to look at pictures of Cora before I have to set up the next batch.

***

The cruelest part of Plaguet's atrophy is that it begins with love.

The anhedonia, the lethargy, the drooling and self-neglect come later. What it begins with is a rush of joy.

The subject is unpredictable. Tom had always enjoyed baseball, but Sara - like the rest of us - had never heard of Plaguet's atrophy until last year.

It doesn't even need to be something you think is good.

When the Disney sequels to Star Wars came out, Alan said he was above them. "It's just nostalgia bait," he said in 2015, when the conversation inevitably turned to The Force Awakens. "I mean, why does the Falcon show up? Why do they do anything?"

When Rise of Skywalker was released, Alan had declared victory. "You see?" he'd declared at lunch. "It was meaningless all along."

And then, six months before lockdown, things began to change. A TIE fighter model appeared on his desk The next week, he'd changed his ring tone to the purr of a lightsaber.

Now, instead of metabolic pathway posters and patent filings, his walls are covered with Rise of Skywalker posters. Back when he still held normal conversations, Tom mentioned how bad the movie was. Alan just shrunk away.

"I like it, okay? Just leave me alone."

He was one of our top biochemists once. He'd stopped doing lab work for nearly a month before John Boyega - who, like everyone else, at least wants to pretend we are heroes - sent him a birthday greeting. Now, he's little more than a technician, capable of skilled labor but otherwise unable to think of anything other than Star Wars.

He doesn't argue anymore. He just walks away and queues up another clip on Youtube.

Whether it's a song on the radio or a newborn baby placed in your arms, love is almost impossible to resist.

And ultimately, none of us do.

***

I should process paperwork when I sit for lunch. If this works, regulatory approval is all but guaranteed, but documentation is critical for scale-up.

Instead, I pull out my phone.

David has sent me more pictures of Cora. They're making cookies today, and Cora has painted each of them with swirls of color. Her fingers and lips in the last picture are blue with food coloring.

Cookies. Oral transmission.

If we find a vaccine, Cora will be able to bring cookies to her classmates.

If this works, the manufacturing plants will need to know exactly what I've done, so they can validate our results when they manufacture the dose that will inoculate Cora.

I shut off my phone and turn back to my paperwork.

***

"I've been thinking," Jess says, a week later. She fingers the paper napkin beside her plate, a tic that will grow with time. I squeeze my fingers into a fist and hold them in my lap. "Maybe this isn't the end. In Discovery, Saru thought that vahar'ai would kill him. But-"

"This causes a 90% loss of white matter," I say. "Patients stop eating by the end unless someone takes care of them. They lose track of everything."

"But we don't die," Jess says.

"They don't," I agree. "But they lose track of everything else. There's a reason they feed us. Because they would die unless someone cared for them."

"But we don't die," Jess repeats.

"Susan Eckman forgot she had a daughter," I say. "That's worse than dying."

Jess turns back to her food. I unclench my fist and reach for my sandwich, making a point of wiping the crumbs away after each bite.

***

It's the middle of the afternoon the next day when I notice it.

David usually sends me pictures at noon, but the network is spotty in my part of the department. There's an unusually long queue of samples today, and, at the instrument in the basement, running brain slices, all I can think about is when I will get the chance to go to the courtyard and stand in the pouring rain long enough to download the newest set of images.

That's why I miss it, the first time around. It's only when I reanalyze the data, sitting at my laptop in my office, that I notice what's wrong.

"Steve," I shout down the hallway. "You sent me the wrong samples. There shouldn't have been a control group in this batch."

Steve shouts something in reply, but as he does, my phone buzzes in my pocket. Another set of pictures. I'll need to manufacture an excuse to go into the courtyard again.

"I'm sorry?"

"No," Steve says. He's closer now, and I have to fight the urge to reach for my phone. His voice is muffled through his N95. "I just rechecked the cages. I sent you the right rats."

"But-" Five minutes, I promise myself. I'll finish this conversation, and then I can go outside.

"Why?" Steve asked. He arrives in my doorway. "What did you see?"

Clarity hits, if only for a moment.

"It worked."

***

It's not that easy, of course.

Apparently I'm unreliable now, so two different sets of managers have to see my results before they send them upwards. I spend nearly six hours on conference calls that night, the last with a group in isolation in Beijing.

My manager - isolated at home - notices the tears in my eyes and gives me five minutes to call Cora. It's just long enough to say hello.

"Mommy," she asks. "When are you coming home?"

"Soon," I tell her. It's a lie, but the next part isn't. "And if what I found works, you might be able to go back to school in the fall."

"Will you be there?"

At that point, I do begin to cry before David hurriedly pulls her from the camera and wishes me good night.

***

It's three weeks later before we can declare victory.

The vaccine works. It won't stop the atrophy in those of us who already have it, but the rest of the world has a chance now. There's a ceremony in the lobby, all of us standing awkwardly in N95 masks, waving stupidly at a camera.

Alan has well wishes from John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. And Tom has a video from most of the Chicago Cubs.

David sends me pictures of Cora.

"Are you ready?" Jess asks me that evening. They've organized a celebration of sorts in the cafeteria. There will be cake, at least, even if most of us are too far gone to appreciate it.

I nod. My work is done. I force a smile before I pull out my cell phone. "There's someone I want you to meet."

Jess smiles patiently as I show her pictures, and in exchange I tolerate a full three episodes of Lower Decks before I can go to bed.

Lying on my cot in the emergency lights, I open my cell phone and pull up my pictures. This time, I don't set a timer. I don't need to control myself. Not anymore.

Cora, in my arms in the hospital. Cora, running through the grass. Cora, laughing at a joke offscreen. Cora, playing with her dolls. Cora, climbing a tree.

As I doze off, I am still thinking of her. Not as she was in the past, but as she will be.

Cora, returning to grade school. Cora, graduating from college. Cora on her wedding day. Cora, holding her first child.

Cora, I am still thinking as I fall asleep. Cora. Cora. Cora.