An afternoon at the driving range

The sleek mag-lev car glided silently to a stop at the driveway to a massive mansion.  Three stories tall with sprawling colonnaded wings, the gleaming white building dominated the carefully manicured grounds it was so artfully nestled in.  As the pneumatic door hissed open a liveried footman approaced.  God damn, this place reeks of wealth.

“Dr. Trant invites you to join him on the driving range Lieutenant Hauk,” the footman said, his eyes politely avoiding the obvious bandage wrapped around Nathan’s eye.  “If you would be so kind as to follow me…”

Nathan trailed a couple steps behind the man as they walked through the grounds.  He craned his neck this way and that, attempting to take in all of the sights.  The most central of the columns flanking the entrance to the mansion were delicate double helices.  The entablature above depicted Man’s evolutionary ascent all the way from microbe to homo sapien.  Nathan thought the features of the final figure in the ascending line resembled the pictures of Dr. Trant he had seen in the tabloids.  Even the greenery bore evidence that it belonged to the CEO of Transgene.  Hedges were trimmed in the shape of different virus coats, and various statues of early Transgene experiments dotted the grounds.  As they passed a snarling marble hippogriff, Nathan’s hand unconsciously felt the bandage over his eye.

Eventually they made it to the driving range where Dr. Trant was sitting quietly, his tablet scrolling through the morning news.  The footman made an elocutionary cough and announced “Lieutenant Hauk, sir.”  Dr. Trant set the tablet on the table beside him and stood to face Nathan.  His warm tan smile seemed to slip easily across his face as he reached out to grip Nathan’s proffered hand.

“Nathan.  I’ve heard so much about you.  All good of course.”  He glanced at the bandage covering half of Nathan’s face.  “I heard about that too.  Nasty business.  How is the recovery?”

Nathan was taken aback.  This fatherly figure with his steely-brown hair and easy-going manner hardly seemed to be one of the most powerful and influential people on the planet.  “They say the new eye should grow within the month and I’ll have full vision again in two.  Thank you, by the way, for paying for the procedures.”

“It was the least I could do.  You were protecting my facility after all.  I would be remiss not to help you when you were injured helping me.”  Looking into Trant’s green eyes, Nathan believed that the man actually meant what he said.

They stood silently for a second, simply regarding one another, then Trant gestured towards the range, “you any good?”

Nathan cringed.  “As a kid I broke my brother’s window trying to golf.  Twice.  I don’t think the sport is for me.”

Trant laughed, then leaned in as if to reveal a great secret “you know, I don’t much like the sport myself, but it’s the only way to get board members to talk to you out of the office.”  He leaned back, turned towards the open green before them and gestured expansively. “But it sure is fun to smack a ball as hard as you can on a beautiful day like today.  It doesn’t even matter where it goes!”

It was indeed a beautiful day, with clouds painting puffy streaks across the azure horizon.  “Come, let us enjoy the ancient manly tradition of hitting things very hard.”

Trant handed Nathan a club and they both stepped up to the green.

Thwack. “So Nathan, you’re probably wondering why I asked you here.”

“I figured it was for my charming company.”  Thwack.

Trant laughed.  “Well yes, but I also wanted to ask you about the incident.”  He dropped another ball onto the green. “I’ve been hearing some rather peculiar reports from that night.”  Thwack.

Nathan watched Trant’s ball sail into the distance and thought about how to articulate what happened that wild night.  “It was a very peculiar evening,” he carefully replied, setting a ball down. Thunk. “Dammit.”  The ball dribbled several yards then stopped petulantly.

“Take a deep breath before you hit, it helps you focus.”

“Just like at the shooting range.”

“Exactly! Did you do any shooting that night?”  Trant asked. Thwack.

                What is he getting at?

“The weapons were malfunctioning sir.  The Epistles used an EMP and we weren’t equipped with ballistic weapons due to the restrictions Trangene placed on us for operating in the facility.”  Nathan took a deep breath. Thwack.  He grinned as the ball sailed cleanly away.

“Nice one!  Yes, of course you understand the reasoning behind those restrictions what with the methane chambers feeding our precious bacteria.  But you still managed to incapacitate one of their members, yes?  How did you accomplish that without any guns?”  Trant stopped and turned to look at Nathan, his eyes inquisitive.

“I’m sure you could read my report sir, it’s all there.”  Nathan replied, still unsure as to why this powerful man had him here just smacking golf balls.

“But I want to hear it from you.  Please, humor an old man.”

Nathan scoffed, “Old man, you don’t look a day over 40, that’s hardly old.”

Trant smiled, but his eyes didn’t.  They seemed to fade into the past for an instant, as he said “you’d be surprised…”  His eyes returned and he smiled again, fully in the now.  “Please, regale me.”

“Well,” said Nathan, placing another ball at his feet. “I still had the venom sacs from the snake-stim I took for a training session.”  Nathan shrugged.  Thwack.  “I tackled the perp and injected her with the venom.  She was paralyzed in under thirty seconds.  Worked like a charm.”

“Ah, alpha-bungarotoxin from the elapid snake.  Quite effective at blocking acetylcholine receptors at the neuromuscular junction.  The DOD was happy to issue a grant weaponizing that one.”  Trant idly dropped a ball at his feet. “This perp.  What did she look like?”

“She was beautiful.”  Nathan said, recalling her elfin features, stark in the glow of the fluorescent globes. Trant lifted his club for the swing and Nathan said, “she had this interesting scar on her forehead, a line with two perpindicular lines going through it.”

Thunk.  Trant’s ball dribbled several inches.  “Interesting.”

Nathan looked at him as he reset the ball.  “Why do you ask?”

Trant shrugged.  “The Epistles are a growing yet ever-elusive group.  They want to bring down Transgene and I have a strong desire for that not to happen.  I would like to know more about them.”

Nathan nodded, but it seemed like Trant wasn’t telling the whole truth.  “Doctor…” he began.

“Please, call me Isaac.  Anyone who has lost an eye for me should call me by my first name.   Are you thirsty?  How about a nice cold beer.  Nothing like a cold one after the driving range on a sunny day, eh?”  Nathan smiled and nodded, but thought to himself  There is more to this man than meets the eye.

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Meet Terrence Walters

“Walk with me Nathan,” Terrence said, throwing an arm around the soldier’s broad shoulders.  “Let me tell you a story.  It’s a conversation between an old and a young man.” They turned to walk down the corridor, the pulsing light of the fluorescent bacteria globes casting undulating shadows beneath Terrence’s cheekbones.

Terrence began speaking in his sonorous voice, “The Old Man says, ‘Young One, take heed to my wisdom.  Listen to your mirror.  Do you understand it?  The stirrings of your soul, can you decipher their whispers Young One?”  The Young Man ponders on this and replies “no Old One, I cannot honestly say I understand my impetus.”   Terrence’s voice took on the timbre of a story oft-repeated.

“Young One, your experiences are lessons on the character of your inner selves.  You are not you.  There is the higher self, the one that observes and characterizes, the one that plans and obfuscates.  Then there is the lower self, the one that acts and reacts, the one that loves and fears.  You are the higher self, and life is about learning who the lower self really is.  Do you understand this?”  At this Terrence paused in the story-telling cadence to look at Nathan, who nodded hesitantly.

“Well most people would agree with you and the Old Man, Nathan.  But the Young Man said ‘I do not dispute your wisdom and observations Old One.  But are we not constantly changing?  I am not me from ten years ago, and both inner selves have grown and changed.  Thus what I know about myself is not what I know of my present self, but of my past selves.  One can never truly characterize the present, as it must be lived without review.  The day that I am not surprised by my inner self is the day that I have stopped living and started dying.”

Terrence stopped walking.  Nathan turned to look at him.  Bioterrorist, immortal, philosopher – in this light, with weighty words ringing with thought and truth, Nathan almost forgot that his mission was to destroy this man.  Terrence gripped Nathan’s shoulders and looked him full in the eye, “we are in a state of flux.  You can shed your past self like a snake shedding a skin if you so choose to.” Does he know of my subterfuge? “Nathan, you must always reevaluate.  Stagnation is the death of creativity, life, humanity.  The only way is forward, you see that, don’t you?”

“I-I’m not sure.  I must think on what you’ve said.”

“I cannot ask more of you.”  Terrence searched Nathan’s eyes for one last full second, nodded, and then turned sharply.  Nathan watched the figure recede down the length of the corridor, his body limned in the pulsing blue light.  I must end this. 

Meet Nathan Hauk

“Nathan, accept it. You’ll never be what I want as long as you are who you are.”  Her sigh was almost sympathetic as she turned and walked into the rainy Detroit night.  The Spring drizzle felt cold.  Erica…

 

“Lieutenant Hauk!”  The instructor’s sharp voice cut through Nathan’s memories.

“Yes sir!” Nathan instinctively replied.  Why was I thinking of her now? It’s been five years.

“I asked you a question Lieutenant.  Which evo-stim package should you take in preparation for a night mission?”

Nathan chided himself for not paying attention and brought his thoughts to the present.  “The Feline-stim, sir!”

“And why the Feline-stim as opposed to the Owl-stim?” The instructor grilled, obviously pressing Nathan because of his inattentiveness.  Nathan mentally cursed the pompous peacock responsible for educating the SABRE recruits about operational evo-stim usage.  How much of a help could these things be anyway?

“Sir! The Owl-stim is designed for night reconnaissance specifically and not for general night ops.”

“Very good, Lieutenant.  I’m glad you have at least reviewed the materials.”  The instructor turned, addressing the group as a whole, “The Owl-stim allows for near-telescopic night-vision and increased cochlear efficiency whereas the Feline-stim grants the user ocular focal ranges at near-human norms but requires significantly less photonic input.  Not to mention the whiskers…”

Nathan followed the lecture dutifully, but part of his mind was still pondering that night half a decade and almost a lifetime ago.  As he jotted notes about this receptor being advantageous for that perception, he wondered where she was.  If she thought of him.  He shook his head to clear his mind of her and determinedly brought all of his attention to the instructor’s lecture.  After all, he would be using these highly classified evo-stims in training soon.

__

 

“Remember, your body is going to be building new tissue. This takes energy, even with all of the nutrients packed into each stim.”  Nathan warily accepted the Snake-stim from Instructor Haldek as he continued explaining the process to the recruits.  “You’ll need to eat lots of protein at the mess tonight, gentlemen, and I would suggest hitting the bunk early.  You’re going to need your rest.”  At that last comment the burly old instructor chuckled to himself.

It was well known that your first major evo-stim is hard on both body and mind.  This wasn’t some dopamine insta-stim lasting for only 10 blissful minutes.  SABREs are expected to undergo massive phenotypic changes for weeks, even months at a time, in order to be able to counteract the growing Epistle threat.  At least the changes weren’t permanent.

“Doc Holloway will personally clear all of you before tomorrow morning’s exercise, but I expect all of you to be appropriately kitted out and on time!”  You could hear the steel in Haldek’s voice.  “You are here to become a SABRE.  Special Anti-Bioterrorist Rectification ELITES!”  Haldek practically shouted the last word, bringing everyone’s attention to him.  “This is the crucible gentlemen, and tomorrow we determine your mettle.  Stim up!”

At the command all 20 recruits lifted their evo-stims to their inner arms and depressed the injection button.  Nathan felt the sizable needle puncture his skin but the area was immediately numb from local anesthetic.  It felt anticlimactic, really.

___

 

After dinner Jake Tully, who had already earned the nickname Genie for his breadth of genetic knowledge, walked with Nathan and asked him “so which evo-stim did you get?”

“Snake-stim.” Nathan replied disgustedly, unconsciously rubbing at the already healing puncture wound.

“Dude, that’s an awesome stim.  You’ll be able to smell with your tongue! How cool is that?”

“Yeah, but it also means I’m going to have to figure out how to use my stingers.”

Genie nodded understandingly.  The Snake-stim causes venom sacs to develop on the inside of the user’s wrist, with wasp stingers protruding as the delivery method.  Unfortunately the biotech geniuses at Transgene hadn’t quite figured out how to get the stingers to release properly. Having whole skin sections ripped off with all five stingers embedded in a target is not uncommon.

“What about you?” Nathan asked.

“Canine-stim with a bat booster.”

“Scouting duty?”

“How’d you guess?” Genie grinned.  He was already a lithe and quick soldier, ideal for scouting, and with the evo-stims he’d be able to smell and hear with superhuman ability.

“Does that mean you can do echolocation?” Nathan asked.

Genie snorted.  “You should pay more attention to our lectures Nathan.  Echolocation requires a brain that can interpret the soundwaves into a three-dimensional map.”  He tapped his head.  “This sucker isn’t equipped for that.”

“But my brain isn’t equipped to interpret smells from my tongue.” Nathan countered.

“You kind of already do,” said Nathan. “Your gustation receptors augment your olfactory receptors to provide the milieu of perception when you eat.”

“English please Genie, I already get too much of this in lecture.”

Genie sighed. “You know how when you have a cold everything tastes the same?  That’s because so much of your perception of taste comes from your sense of smell.  There’s a whole bunch of cross-talk between your taste and smell neurons.  The bioengineers just… encouraged that with your Snake-stim.”

“They’re rewiring my brain?”  Nathan asked, wondering what exactly he had just consented to.

“Yes and no.  Like any evo-stim, the effects are only temporary.”

“If you say so…” Nathan said doubtfully.

Their conversation had led them all the way to the barracks.

“Don’t worry,” Genie said as he powered up the holo-screen at the foot of his bunk. “Worrying takes energy.  You’ll need that for tomorrow.”  He winked and flipped on a treatise concerning electric organ generation.

Nathan left Genie to his odd reading material and prepared for bed, an unsettling itching sensation already forming at his wrists.  As he brushed his teeth, Nathan became aware of flavors he had never before noticed in his toothpaste.  He looked at his brush askance.  Nathan had been using the same toothpaste for fifteen years.  He shrugged and finished his evening routine.  Climbing into bed, Nathan felt as if he could taste the anticipation in the air as the rest of the recruits laid themselves to sleep.

___

A Foray into Fiction: what if you could share DNA with anything? …temporarily

I’ve been toying with an idea for a science fiction novel or novella centered around the concepts featured below.  Set approximately 100 years in the future, imagine a world in which you can cosmetically express fluorescent proteins in patterns on your skin, or develop the smell sensitivity of a dog- but only temporarily!

 

Omnipedia Entry: Evo-stim (noun) – A colloquial truncation of “evolution stimulators,” evo-stims are injectible genetic constructs of transgenic proteins which may have a half-life varying between five minutes and 1 year (as determined by the London Transgenetics Accords).  They can confer upon the user the phenotypes of the gene donor based on the code encased in the virus construct.  Overexpression of norepinephrine receptors, endocannaboids, serotonin receptors, and dopamine receptors are the most common recreational usages of evo-stims, though military applications, such as the expression of canine olfactory receptors, are reported to be in development.  Public acceptance of evo-stims began in the late 2090s when the cosmetic use of fluorescent protein (flo-pro™) evo-stims became a national trend in the US. Clinical investigations on possible side-effects of evo-stims are underway, though claims of repeated use leading to cancer appear to be largely unsubstantiated according to leading Transgene © officials.  (last updated: 06/02/2114)

 

Omnipedia Entry: Epistles, The (group) – An infamous bioterrorist group, The Epistles are known for openly flouting the London Transgenetics Accords.  The etiology of the group’s name is rumored to be a result of members’ flexible epigenetic background as well as their near fanatic devotion to their mysterious leader Z. The Epistles are purported to be immortal due to a highly-illegal non-degrading telomerase evo-stim, but Transgene © officials claim such a construct is not only impossible to synthesize but would also prove highly oncogenic. (last updated: 04/20/2112)

 

Omnipedia Entry: Transgene © (corporation) – Founded in the early 2020’s, Transgene rapidly grew to become a leading competitor in cutting-edge biotechnology.  With the 2050 patent on evo-stims, Transgene became the predominant market force in global biotech development.  The company suffered severe setbacks during the Immuno-stimTM African trials when a leaked report exposed non-approved trials of evo-stims being performed on patients without knowledge or consent (CITATION NEEDED).  However, following a structural overhaul of the company as well as the successful mediation of the London Transgenetic Accords, Transgene reestablished its credibility among the populace.  With the advent of Insta-stimsTM, Transgene has become a household name across the globe. (last updated: 12/01/2113)

 

Omnipedia Entry: London Transgenetics Accords (international law) – A series of laws dedicated to regulating the rise of novel transgenetic biotechnology with a special emphasis on human applications.  Held in London one decade after the 2045 Amygdala Attack (known to residents as the Night of Terrors), the Accords placed a ban on the development of permanent human genetic alteration.  The Accords also established guidelines, based on the input from prominent Transgene © delegates, delineating the protocols and oversight to be practiced in the development of modern transgenetic biotechnology.  Compliance to these guidelines is strictly enforced by a special subdivision of NATO, as any deviation from these regulations signifies a global threat.  (last updated: 02/25/2113)

Caffeine

I want to take some time to talk about one of my favorite drugs: caffeine!  Why? Because I just drank an unnecessarily large quantity of it!

What does the magic energy chemical of awesomeness do when it enters the body?  Well, knowing that you need that pick-me-up right away, caffeine chose to be both water and lipid soluble.  This means that it comes busting into your blood stream like the Kool-Aid man on amphetamines.

But like every good superhero, caffeine needs a supervillain: adenosine.  If this chemical sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because it is a necessary part of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – a common energy source for cells.  However, when adenosine is without the normal phosphate entourage, it exerts effects on the nervous system via adenosine receptors located throughout the body.  What effects you might ask?  Well caffeine blocks adenosine receptors so the logical conclusion is… drowsiness!  I’m glad you’re keeping up.

So! We have adenosine, the diabolical agent of heavy eyelids and late-night study sessions, and we have caffeine, the caped crusader battling valiantly for the last vestiges of a possible decent grade for that one class you should have paid more attention in.  Their battleground: the adenosine receptor.  Since I’m feeling the college metaphors, imagine the receptor as a classroom and your brain chemistry as the student.  It’s 8 in the morning and Professor Adenosine shuffles in.  He tries to set up his PowerPoint but cannot understand technology beyond the 1950s and you have to help him get it going.  He finally lowers the lights and begins his lecture in a dry, monotonous voice.  You can’t remember exactly when you fell asleep, but suddenly Professor Caffeine bursts into the classroom!  You sit bolt-upright as he begins chattering excitedly about gummy bears and potassium chlorate.  He reaches into his voluminous lab coat and pulls out a FIVE POUND GUMMY BEAR.  Wearing appropriate safety gear, he places it in a trash-can sized test tube with potassium chlorate AND OH MY GOD THAT SUCKER IS EXPLODING.  There is some serious gummy bear face-melting awesomeness going on right now.  There is no way that you even remember Professor Adenosine is in the classroom (the receptor, remember?).  That’s basically how caffeine works.

 

Now drink some coffee and do your real person work.

(if you actually want to see a 5 lb gummy bear melt, check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyaFVhC5VPk)

Electric Eels

The electric eel is a crude creature. It is blessed with this astounding capacity to wield voltage and what does it do? Tases its prey. Boooooring. Any Neanderthal can use a club.

The Ghost Knifefish, on the other hand, besides having an infinitely more badass name, also uses the electric organ in a much more refined manner. if you were to attach an electrode to a speaker and listen to a South American lake populated by these knifefish, what you would hear would not be dissimilar to an aluminum rooftop singing the tune of a spring deluge. Staccato discharges changing in mesmerizing rate and intensity.

You’ve heard of echolocation? Try ELECTROLOCATION!
In fact, these guys had electronic communication down well before AOL.

You see, they experience the world through voltage and current and even give themselves names in high frequency waveforms.

And if you didn’t think that was cool enough, listen to this: if they encounter a fish with a similar frequency discharge, a similar “name,” it messes with their electrolocation. To counteract this, both fish will adjust their frequency to make them more dissimilar through a process known as “jamming avoidance response.” THEY CHANGE THEIR NAMES TO POLITELY PASS EACH OTHER.

Chaperones

In translation – when a protein is built from amino acid blocks – most proteins emerge well dressed, with neatly folded beta sheets and gleaming alpha helices. These proteins march proudly and purposefully into the cell. From their first moment of being, they single-mindedly pursue their function.

There are some proteins though, which require extra help. Unaided, they would emerge from the translation process with floppy polypeptide limbs and embarrassing dipole moments. This of course will not do, so what are known as chaperone proteins help these disorganized youngsters get ready.

“No honey, THAT tyrosine goes there and THAT alanine goes there. And my goodness, you don’t really expect to regulate metabolism if you don’t even have a disulfide bond to hold your beta sheets up!”

With the help of these chaperones, the bewildered newly-formed proteins are spiffed up shiny and set loose upon the cell with strident purpose.

Now, sometimes, very rarely … there is a mutation in a chaperone. She stumbles to the ribosome late for work, yells at the rigid actin filament she arrived from for “swaying too much,” then drunkenly begins to prepare youthful proteins for their role in the cell.

“Loosen up those hydrogen bonds, do you really think you’ll get any kinase activity if you’re that uptight? Oooh, and the ladies LOVE a charged residue… Hmm, what else… Screw it, you’re good.”

We scientists theorize that this is how some tumors and politicians come to be.

Let’s Talk Glia

Blue: Nuclei Red: Glial Cells Green: Nerve Ending

Blue: Nuclei
Red: Glial Cells
Green: Nerve Ending

If you are reading this, congratulations! You have a brain!  Now, when you think of your brain and the nervous system, you probably only think of neurons as the one’s doing the work.  What you may not know is that glial cells, another cell type associated with the nervous system, are quite important.

Traditionally, glial cells were thought only to be support cells, hence their moniker “glial,” which means “glue.”  While they do perform mundane functions such as extracellular pH moderation, structural support, and nutrient deposition, glial cells have also been not only to change the signal from neuron to neuron, but also to communicate within their own network.

This profound change to our understanding of these cells has led to a rapid growth in the field of glial cell signalling.  While the details of exactly how glial cells change the voltages of the neuronal membranes are a bit too esoteric for this moderate post, feel free to ask me.  Suffice it say that even in my own modest research into glial biology at the lizard neuromuscular junction, we found that glial cells were important in modifying neuronal signalling in response to extracellular signalling events.  That is to say, glial cells talk to the neuron and get it to alter the message it sends.

If I can find this occurring in the relatively isolated neuronal network of a neuromuscular junction (in which only a few glial cells are present) imagine their importance in the brain!  There could be a whole  “glial signalling network” adding another layer to the already massively complex signalling network which we call the human mind.  What if these cells could help us understand the “hard problem,” or how consciousness arises?  In any event, I hope that when considering your brain and the nervous system, you now understand that neurons, while critical, are not the only players in the game of neurotransmission.