“Come in,” called the professor. He filed away the last candidate’s paperwork and yawned, taking a sip of coffee. Only 537 left to go.
A tall young man in a navy suit entered, confidence radiating from his wide, beaming smile. He looked like a 90s boyband member strolling onto a concert stage, his shiny brown hair dabbed with pomade and swept neatly to one side. The echoes of his footsteps circulated around the room as he approached the spotlight at its center.
“Take a seat,” the professor gestured at the couch opposite.
The young man nodded and sat where he was directed. From his relaxed and unburdened expression, there was evidently little on his mind. An interview that would decide the course of his future also seemed to be on his back burner. He leaned back and crossed his long legs into a figure four, as if he was about to Netflix and chill with some popcorn on a Saturday night.
“Yessir.” There wasn't just an absence of anxiety in his voice. There was no detectable trace of any attempt to mask it. “And you must be professor Harvey Pearce?”
“Yes, yes I am. Very pleased to meet you.” He chuckled heartily. There were always a few keen candidates every year who could recognise their interviewers by face.
“Now Skeet, why do you want to study at our medical school?”
“I was always interested in the human body. I collected textbooks and made anatomy models as a child, and as I grew older, I became inspired by the works of the great medical and scientific practitioners I studied. Watson and Crick’s work on the structure of DNA, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Barnard’s account on the first ever cardiac transplant."
“Of course, these are just the classics. I’d read all their works by the age of ten.”
“Impressive," Pearce nodded. "What do you read now?”
“At the moment, I’m doing research into a wide range of areas. For example, computational chemistry for drug development and potential treatments for cranial neuropathy. I’ve also read your most recent research paper on the immunological privilege of the brain. Some very fascinating ideas you present in that. I must say, I’ve become quite a fan. Where better to continue my studies than here in this university, an educational institution of such merit, and the most prestigious place to study medicine in the world?”
His green eyes flashed with a wild passion. Pearce looked down at Skeet Johnson’s paperwork, and blinked a few times – he had full scores on all his admissions exams. One hundred percent, every single mark. For one of the most difficult admissions exams known to mankind, it was a unique score out of thousands of candidates not only in the current year, but perhaps a previous decade. Admission here was the most competitive in the world, but this kid was positively beyond it.
The realisation that he was sitting before a truly extraordinary mind, a man that would likely be the catalyst of revolutionary leaps in the medical field, began to sink in as Pearce shook his head and suppressed his astonishment.
“Drug development, huh,” Pearce raised his eyebrows. “What is Paclitaxel used to treat?”
“Most commonly ovarian and breast cancer.” His reply came without hesitation.
“How would you treat spontaneous pneumothorax?”
“Puncture a hole in the thorax to decrease the air pressure inside, then do CPR.”
“Suggest a suitable organic chemical lead to synthesise Indynaprost.”
“Describe how you would perform a prefrontal lobotomy.”
The professor chuckled. Such questions most postgraduate students would've struggled with, but for Skeet, it was a mere quickfire pop quiz. What had the medical profession done to deserve this rare prodigy? Pearce leaned forward and flashed a daring smile. It was time to take this to a new level.
“For this question, I want you to put yourselves in the shoes of a neurosurgeon."
"Alright." The young man nodded, listening intently.
"Could you suggest some ways you would heal nerve endings that had been damaged in an operation? Scarred, perhaps?”
The kid paused for a moment, then started to laugh.
“That’s your job to find out, professor! I wouldn’t want to spoil the mystery for you."
“You've read my papers, haven’t you boy? You know about my research!” The professor's eyes were wide in awe.
“How could I resist? You’re one of the best neuroscientists in the world. I’ve read all the papers authored by the professors here, every single one. Groundbreaking stuff." A thought suddenly surfaced in his mind. "By the way professor, I read in one of your abstracts that you were conducting a secret experimental procedure of sorts. I thought that sounded incredibly exciting and mysterious – is it still being conducted?”
“That was... a very old abstract. But yes, I do remember the mystery-shrouded secret project of my heyday. Everyone was talking about it back then, trying to guess what the hell we were doing. They've all forgotten about it now, thought it was all a weird publicity stunt. To tell you the truth, it was abandoned.”
“Oh,” the boy looked disappointed. “Why? Ethical objections?”
Pearce smiled, beginning to wonder whose interview this really was.
“Alright, I'll tell you a story, boy. Many years ago, my fellow researcher Jeremy Mansfield and I were working on a hugely ambitious project. Project Sub, as it was known to the public at the time."
"We were two flamboyant young academics with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. And we worked all night and day, each at the pace of a ten man team. I dare say we were on the edge of a revolutionary breakthrough that would change the future of neurosurgery."
The professor ran his fingers through his wavy grey hair, temporarily lost in the memories of his youth.
"Then, Jeremy was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. There was no doubt it was terminal, but he remained dedicated to our ambition, and continued the research in his lab in Florence, Italy, even as he was bound to his deathbed - he truly believed we could finish Project Sub. He wanted it to be his lasting legacy, and he knew that if we succeeded, it would be the greatest advance of the century."
"He was in hospital in Italy when he called me, ecstatic, and said he'd finally made a breakthrough. He sounded keen to come back and finish Project Sub together, and that with the final puzzle piece in place, it would undoubtedly be a success."
"But his tone didn't sound quite right to me. I don't know why, but I had a feeling I wasn't getting the full picture. When you've known someone for decades, you get these odd hunches. He used words he didn't normally use. The pauses in his speech were a little off the usual timing, perhaps."
"Sure enough, something was wrong. The next day, Jeremy went missing. They never found a body. Records showed he never even boarded his flight, and nobody's seen him since. With him gone there was no way I could continue on my own.”
He paused again and sighed. "And just like that, after nature had reportedly revealed her secrets to him, he was gone. They looked for a long time, but they found no traces of his whereabouts, nothing. When I'm alone these days, I still wonder what really happened to him. I hope he went peacefully. There are so many things I never had the chance to tell him.”
“Wow, that’s an incredible story. I’m sorry it had to end like that.” The boy shook his head in sympathy. They both sat in silent thought for a while. "Do you think he wanted his secret to go out with him?"
"Perhaps. If that's the case, then I can't help but feel a little betrayed."
"Don't look at it like that, professor. I'm sure he had his own reasons for taking whatever path he chose in the end. Maybe there was something more important to him than scientific ambition, like people he cared about, or places he wanted to see. I guess we'll never know, so dwelling over it is futile at this point."
The boy shrugged, making an effort at comforting the dejected old man.
“Professor, this 'breakthrough' - was it related to your work on nerve damage repair? Something to do with the subject of your own research paper?”
“Oh yes. It has everything to do with my research. That breakthrough would've been the missing puzzle piece to all the unanswered questions currently outstanding in my paper. The issue of healing scarred nerve tissue, joining nerve endings - that was the key to success in our experiment, our final obstacle. I'd proposed ideas, he'd proposed some too, and we tested them on tissue samples but they all failed. Damage took too long to heal, infections developed, other problems arose. He spotted the flaw in each one before the test even began, so he was doubtful any of them would work. We tried them anyway, and he was right every time. But that night when I received his call, he sounded different."
"What did he tell you?" The young man's eyes shined with curiosity.
"He told me that he had developed a method and run some preliminary tests - and for the first time since we started, the tests had worked. Severed nerves had been joined in a mouse as cleanly as if it had been born with them. He said it was remarkable - after the procedure the tiny little critter regained normal brain and motor function in an instant. There was not a hint of doubt in his voice that it was a success. I was ecstatic at the time - I had no doubt in his claims at all. I trusted his judgement and abilities more than my own. He was a very smart man, a legendary prodigy of the age I suppose.”
“So were you, professor. Don’t downplay your own work, it’s some of the best I’ve ever seen.”
“Thank you,” smiled Pearce. His smile faded, as he shook his head, the memories returning. "He also said... he promised even if I didn't know it, we would meet again. Last words he ever spoke to me. I asked him what he meant - he was due on the next flight back, of course we would meet again! But he hung up. It's unfortunate I only realise now he probably meant in death."
“That is unfortunate. It seems like you were very close. It must have been difficult to lose a friend like that." The boy sighed. The old man's resolution didn't seem to satisfy him. "Would have anything to say to him if you really did meet him again?”
Pearce glanced up at the clock in thought for a moment.
“Obviously, I’d ask him where he went,” he laughed, “I’d want to know what he found out in Italy. Maybe how he discovered it. Perhaps also… whether he ever thought I was a burden on him.”
The boy shook his head. “Don’t say that, professor. I've seen your work, and I've got no doubt your contributions to Project Sub were just as invaluable as his. I'm sure there wasn't a second it ever crossed his mind.”
“Well, who knows. Those times have passed. I’m pretty happy in full-time teaching now instead of chasing new discoveries like all you young’uns. Too much for an old geezer like me.”
“Never too old to dream.” The boy’s youthfully innocent smile comforted him. He saw his former self in those eyes, and it brought back memories of happier times.
“Aren’t you interested in what our mystery project was about?”
“Of course! I'm dying with curiosity. But I know you're never going to tell anyone, at least, not someone like me." The boy smirked.
"How are you so sure? You didn't even ask! Historical exceptions have been made for kids like you."
"You said it yourself in your third review of neuroscience - details and findings of the project under development will not be revealed to the public until conclusive evidence of its success is obtained. I'd like to believe you're a man of your word, professor."
"You remember every word you read, sly little bastard." The professor flashed him a grin. "Incredible. But I'm glad you know where to draw the line."
"That's a line I won't cross for the greater good. From the details you’ve given me, it's obvious your experimentation was rather ethically questionable. It's dangerous to plant seeds like that in a young, unpredictable mind.”
"Your self-awareness amuses me to no end."
They laughed, two men of science on the same wavelength.
“You’re a rare one. I’ve seen a few gems like you in my career, but I reckon you trump them all. Remember, persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. Don't get too cocky and you’ll achieve great things.” The professor patted him on the shoulder.
They stood up and shook hands, a fluid and instinctive motion for both parties.
“You’ve never been to Italy, have you, professor?” Pearce raised his eyebrows.
“I haven’t. Why do you ask?”
“You should go. The pizza’s delicious.” The boy laughed as he put on his coat.
Pearce nodded in courtesy, but as soon as he heard those words, a very strange and familiar sensation came over him. He brushed it aside and snapped back into focus for the dismissal.
“Well, it was a very nice to meet you today. I’ll expect to see you soon, Skeet.”
Skeet flashed an accomplished grin.
“Always a pleasure seeing you again, professor.”
The young man strolled out of the interview room and down the university hallway, long black overcoat flying behind him as the next interviewee entered nervously. He pulled out a cigarette from his coat pocket and reached for his lighter.
Narration by NaturesTemper
Written by Fairly7Local