“Dilettante!” sneered Professor Zee, my Biology 51 professor at
Rutgers and author of
the textbook Biology from A to Zee.
She was angry with me for having deviated from the assignment. Instead of dissecting a frog I had assembled one from pieces scrounged from my classmates. It was more fun that way: sort of like a jigsaw puzzle.
The professor was right about me, of course. I have some talent, if I may say so myself, but I don’t have the temperament for serious science. All the same, I may have altered the course of evolution on this planet – not entirely intentionally, it is true. Only time will tell.
“See me after class, Mr. Bathory,” Zee ordered.
Professor Zee sat behind her desk with her hands folded. I stood. This common office geography is intended to express the authority of the person behind the desk. It works only on those who take authority seriously anyway.
“Not Prof. Professor or Doctor.”
Dr. Zee sighed. “What kind of a name is Bathory?” she asked.
“Do you speak Hungarian?”
“Pity. Since you plainly don’t understand English, I had hoped we could communicate in some other language.”
“See if you can follow this. I’m taking the trouble to speak to you because hidden inside your irresponsible head is a very good mind. You show innovative thinking. Despite your tendency to perform everything but the assigned tasks, you inadvertently have revealed to me a solid grasp of chemistry, biology and physics. When Miss Benson asked you about Heisenberg a few weeks ago, for example, you lost her completely with your sample probability equations. Incidentally, you lost me too. You must know that you belong in more advanced classes, so why are you here?”
“There are prettier girls in this class.”
“I see. Thank you for being honest. Judging by what I have witnessed, however, that won’t be much benefit to you. Young women, pretty or otherwise, are outside your skill set. Perhaps I should tell you that Miss Bensen didn’t care about Heisenberg, Mr. Bathory. She was giving you a chance to show off.”
“Forget her. She doesn’t like you now because you showed off too much and made her feel like an idiot. Getting back to the things you do understand, is your major a science?”
“I haven’t decided. May I be honest again?”
“I plan to get a Bachelor’s degree. I don’t know what kind yet. It doesn’t matter. I don’t really wish to work too hard at it.”
“I can see how that would be a problem for you.”
“Yes, ma’am. I am not attending college as part of a narrow career path. My plan, you see, is to collect my inheritance as soon as possible.”
“Should I warn your parents?”
“No need. They died in an accident years ago. According to the terms of their wills I don’t get full possession of my trust fund until I graduate college or turn 30, whichever comes first. I don’t want to wait until I’m 30. I am impatient for one thing, but also I don’t want to give the fund administrators another decade to rob from me. So, basically I’m just taking whatever classes I enjoy that put me on a swift track for a degree. Any degree. After that I plan a life of cheerful dissolution. Perhaps that sounds lazy.”
“No ‘perhaps’ about it.”
“Nevertheless, it is the truth.”
“I don’t doubt it. So, you have no real interest in science or, for that matter, the humanities.”
“On the contrary, Doc. I have an interest in them all. But I have no wish or need to be a drudge in the service of any of them.”
“Well, that is a shame and a waste. You have potential. But it appears you have no discipline as a scientist or, from what I can see, as a human being. Everything worthwhile in life requires drudgery, Mr. Bathory. Dabbling carelessly in anything is at best useless and at worst dangerous.”
Zee paused for a full minute while staring at the ceiling.
“Our discussion is over, Mr. Bathory,” she said at last.
Professor Zee was right, of course. The world is built on drudgery. Don’t get me wrong. I respect the tenacity of a donkey. All the same, I have no desire to be one.
It happens that I myself am something of a dilettantish experiment, so perhaps that contributes to my way of looking at things.
My father was a brilliant mathematician who made a fortune in the stockmarket by applying formulas originally developed to analyze turbulence data from a Boeing 777 wing. My mother was a geologist with an interest in volcanism. It is fair to say that neither of my parents was socially adept. From all accounts they were barely presentable in public. It is not surprising that by age 40 both were single. Yet, both were egotistical enough to believe their genes were too precious to be discarded, so, when they met at a Mensa convention and compared IQ test results, it was love at first data compilation. They married the very next week and I was output one year after that. They hardly looked at me again. Their true interests lay elsewhere.
One may ask if their eugenics exercise was a success. Well, my IQ test scores are high. On the other hand, I apparently have character shortcomings upon which others often feel obliged to remark. Did I inherit these, too? I don’t have an answer to that one.
When I was 11, my parents planned a trip to
My mom had predicted an eruption there by applying my dad’s turbulence formulas
to information from seismic stations and from satellites. The two flew to Columbia and climbed the
mountain to examine the crater first hand. My mother’s calculations were right
on the money. The mountain exploded while they stood at the top. After that I
lived off an allowance from the estate.
The frog a la Mary Shelley led indirectly to the affect on evolution I mentioned. A few hours after my chat with Professor Zee, I was still thinking about her words and that frog that evening when an online article in National Geographic caught my eye. It described Antarctic fish with a natural anti-freeze solution. These fish can lie trapped in ice for months. When the ice melts, they thaw out and swim away with no apparent harm done. How marvelous. I wondered if it would work on a frog. What about higher animals? I figured the antifreeze would need to be modified significantly to work on anything but fish.
On my own over the next few weeks I attempted to synthesize a substance that would work on mammals. If the antifreeze could be modified to work on humans, true suspended animation would become possible. Surgeons could take their time on tricky operations such as transplants without losing the patients. The old sci-fi fantasy of sleeping though deep space missions would be a real option.
I used the college’s facilities whenever possible. If you look like you belong someplace, few people question your right to be there, and I always looked like I belonged in the labs. After numerous concoctions and even more numerous lab rats, I had a promising antifreeze cocktail. I tried it on four rats named Dean, Sammy, Peter and Frank. I injected each and tossed all four in a freezer for a week.
The results were mixed. Dean was a qualified success. I removed him from the freezer, unthawed him in warm water, and gave him a few jolts from a battery in order to start his heart. He revived. He had a disconcerting tendency to follow his own tail in mindless circles, but he revived. Frank’s heart restarted, but he was otherwise unresponsive. Sammy and Peter refused to cooperate at all after being thawed.
My brew plainly needed adjustments before it was ready for rats, much less humans, but I had confidence I was on the right track. I decided to try the formula on lizards just to be sure. These have, in many ways, a more robust biology. On them, the anti-freeze worked splendidly. Once thawed out, they scurried around as though nothing had happened.
It was at this point that an assistant lab instructor, himself a graduate student, interfered. He demanded to know who authorized me to use the labs. He didn’t accept my “independent project” explanation and said he would report me to administrative officials if he caught me in there again. So, I put my antifreeze project aside. Graduation arrived before I ever returned to it. Diploma in hand, I immediately took full possession of the trust and fired its administrators, whose depredations, it turned out, had amounted to no more than $10,000,000 of the original $22,000,000. I considered the loss acceptable.
So, I’m lazy. I can afford to be. I’m not superrich, mind you. $12,000,000 is not as much money as it used to be. Nevertheless, I have enough for my needs. I live alone in my parents’ old house in suburban NJ. It is not pretentious, but it is comfortable, and it has a cottage behind the main house. The rent from the cottage covers the property taxes. I set up a laboratory in my basement where I like to dabble in my dilettante fashion. A dilettante has one advantage over both the forest viewing generalist and the tree counting specialist: the leisure to pick fruit. One day last year, a particularly ripe apple fell in my lap.
A tenant had moved out of my rental cottage, so I posted it on Craigslist. A fellow named Darren Konelly responded almost at once. We exchanged e mails and set up an appointment. When he showed up at my door, he proved to be a nervous fellow who looked as though he expected a stranger to jump out of nowhere at any moment and shout “Boo!” at him.
“Good afternoon, I’m Andre Bathory,” I said.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bathory.”
“I’m Darren Konelly. No Bewitched jokes, please.”
“Good, because I really can’t think of any. So, Darren. Tell me. Before we look at the cottage, can you afford the rent?”
“Would I tell you if I couldn’t?”
“I try not to prejudge another person’s honesty.”
“Are you joking with me?”
“Has anyone ever told you that you have a flippant air that discourages trust in you?”
“Yes, and that is unfortunate, because I’m actually rather honest.”
“As opposed to being honest without qualification?” Darren asked.
“That condition is as unlikely as it would be socially objectionable. Count your silverware when someone tells you he is honest without qualification. He is a liar on a grand scale.”
“OK, OK. Can we look at the cottage?”
“Sure. Follow me.”
We walked to the back of the property. The four-room cottage is small but it has some charm. There are pine paneled walls, oak plank floors and a fireplace. Spruce trees offer privacy both from the road and from the main house. Darren liked it.
“It’s cute. How far are we from Route 10?” he asked. “I work at Nucleicorp.”
“I know where it is. It’s 15 or 20 minutes away. Are you new there?”
“Yes. I just transferred from the company’s
“So you are a biochemist or some such thing?”
“Yes, some such thing.”
“Does it pay well?”
“Not spectacularly. I wouldn’t be looking to rent instead of buy if it paid spectacularly, would I?”
“Once again, I don’t like to pre-judge. Nucleicorp does genetic engineering, doesn’t it?”
“Among other things, yes, but that brings a false image to mind. We don’t make goats with wings or anything like that. Mostly we work with E. coli bacteria. We tease useful new substances out of them. Or sometimes useful old ones.”
“What do you mean by useful old ones?”
“Do you really want to know or are you just feigning interest out of politeness?” Darren asked.
“I’m genuinely curious. The subject interests me.”
“Are you some anti-GM food activist or something?”
“Not at all. I have no political agenda.”
“Well, OK. The best source of pharmacologically active chemicals is a living cell thanks to interactive evolution. Many researchers collect exotic species of plants and animals and test any new compounds they find. But there is another approach. Every cell has ancestral DNA that no longer is put to use. It is cordoned off by markers which say, in effect, ‘Start reading here and stop reading there.’ But the unread parts are not just gibberish. Many of them were once active in ancestral cells when the folds and markers were in different places. Evolution stuffed these sections into the inactive file so to speak. So, even well known species have a wealth of unexploited data.”
“Right. I use a chemical mix that shuffles the markers. In this way we can recover a lot of paleobiological compounds.”
“Do you shuffle the DNA markers in large plants and animals?”
“Not directly. Instead, we transplant genes from large organisms into E. coli.”
“Then you mess with them to see what happens.”
“We’re more rigorous than you make it sound, but, yes, basically.”
“I see. So, what about the rental?”
“The cottage? Oh. Yes. It’s fine. I’ll take it.”
“See, you’re beginning to trust me already.”
A week after renting the cottage to Darren I was perusing Scientific American on my laptop. One article was about genetically altered cows that produce antibiotics in their milk. Another article was the electrical properties of graphene, which is, in essence, a sheet of carbon.
I pondered the role of fashion in science. There are fads even in chemistry. Immediately after they were discovered late in the 20th century, molecules of carbon called buckminsterfullerenes (colloquially, “buckyballs”) were all the rage. Consisting of 60 or more carbon atoms, they are in the shape of tiny soccer balls. For a while, it seemed everyone was trying to find commercial applications for buckyballs. Then along came the discovery of carbon nanotubes, sometimes called “buckytubes,” which have interesting structural qualities. Suddenly everyone seemed to forget about the balls. Now the tubes in turn were being overtaken by graphene.
A dilettantish idea formed in my mind. I punched numbers into my cell phone.
“Hello, landlord. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the water pressure.”
“Never mind that now. I have a question for you. Those chemicals you use for DNA manipulations. Why don’t you use them directly on large animals and plants?”
Darren paused before answering. “Because they are toxic. A tiny amount delivered directly to a bacterium is one thing, but any useful quantity injected into a bloodstream would be lethal.”
“I figured as much. I would like to propose an experiment. I need your help with it but the pay-off could be substantial. Have you got plans for tonight?”
“Nucleicorp has plans for me. They want me to work overtime. I’m on my way out the door now. I probably won’t be back before midnight. Maybe another day.”
“Tomorrow is Saturday. Do you have plans tomorrow?”
“What do you have in mind?” Darren asked warily.
“Let’s go into
New York for a bite tomorrow evening.”
New York? Why not someplace closer?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’ Trust me, you’ll like the place, and it’s on me. We’ll talk.”
“OK,” he answered without enthusiasm.
“I should have taken
Park Avenue. I think the backup is for the 57th Street
Bridge,” I complained.
“You would know better than I” Darren answered.
We broke through the clot of traffic at long last. I left the car at a parking garage on
East 63rd Street. The hourly
parking rate was four times the minimum wage, which is about average for Manhattan.
The Manhattan Grill on
Avenue is a landmark steak house. It is heavy on
woodwork, heavier on service, and heaviest of all on serving platters. The
restaurant serves chops, seafood, and vegetables, all in heaping portions and
assisted by a solid wine list. The fare is worth the tab, which is
There is nothing like a table piled with food to produce fellowship, so I allowed alcohol and cholesterol to worked further attitude adjustments on Darren before I sidled into the business at hand.
“So, how is the genome business, Darren?”
“Pretty good, but mapping genomes is not exactly what I do.”
“Tell me, is it true that we humans share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees?”
“Yes, but that number is deceptive. We also share a huge chunk of our DNA with turtles and houseplants. There is a lot of information packed into the differences. All eukaryotic organisms have commonalities. I suspect you know more about this than you pretend.”
“What do you know about buckyballs?”
“Buckminsterfullerenes? What have they got to do with anything? Pass the sour cream please.”
I passed the sour cream. “Are the molecules of those chemicals you use to alter the expression of DNA small enough to fit inside buckyballs?”
Darren hesitated before answering, “I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. Possibly. Why?”
“Buckyballs could protect them in the bloodstream of a large animal, couldn’t they?”
Darren looked thoughtful.
“Maybe. But what would that accomplish?”
“Suppose we were to tweak the structure of buckyballs in just the right way…”
“... so that they could protect those molecules in bloodstreams or in sap, and deliver the molecules in the right quantities to target cells where they could unzip.”
“Those are a lot of ‘coulds’.”
“OK, but suppose we did it. If we injected, say, a cow with the stuff, what would we get?”
“A dead cow.”
“Suppose it lived.”
Darren toyed with his spoon in a bowl of creamed spinach before answering.
“Well, we wouldn’t turn it into some extinct species of bison suitable for some
if that’s what you are hoping. Could you pass the sautéed onions, please?” Pleistocene Park
“Yes. More wine?”
“Sure. Look, an adult plant or animal isn’t going to change into anything radically different. All we can do is make it sick.”
“What if the organisms are not adult?”
“Well, now that is a more interesting question. If any survive at all I suppose they might develop abnormally.”
“Joint venture? The investment shouldn’t be all that much and the returns could be huge.”
“I can’t tell if you’re joking.”
“Assume I’m not.”
“Well, to humor you for a moment, this is very long term research you are talking about. The investment actually would be enormous. We don’t know anything about the potential dangers. We need a lab where we safely can isolate biohazards. This could take decades.”
“I think we can do the research much more cheaply and quickly than that, and without elaborate precautions. The risk is minimal. After all, we’re not whipping up anything new; as you explained, we’re just re-expressing things that are old. The planet survived their presence the last time they were active. Maybe we’ll make a hardier strain of some over-domesticated food crop. Maybe our modified plants and animals will make natural antibiotics or antibodies for useful vaccines. Who knows?”
“Don’t forget the problem of getting past the FDA if we did turn up anything useful,” Darren warned.
“Don’t worry about the FDA. We ignore them and produce in
That is what Mexico
is for. If we have a product the buyers will find us.”
“I don’t even know if that whole buckyball idea of yours is at all possible. Did that just pop into your head? You seem to understand the basics but you don’t think in a disciplined way, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“You are not the first to say that. OK, whether we use buckyballs or not isn’t the point. The point is to deliver your DNA modifiers without killing the host. Can we do it with organisms larger than bacteria?”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“I know just a place to help you think. Dessert?”
Darren patted his stomach with both hands.
“You must be kidding.”
“Here comes the selection.”
The waiter rolled a tray to the table full of sugared artery cloggers.
“Well, maybe just one of those.”
As Darren plunged his fork into a
Mount Everest on a plate called Death by Chocolate, I
changed the subject to something more personal, “Tell me about your social
life, Darren. Any girlfriends?”
His answer was no surprise. “No. I wasn’t really a ladies man in school or college, and I don’t have the time or money for a social life right now anyway. I’m just trying to get grounded.”
“I understand. I never was adept at the dating game either – another thing Professor Zee was right about.”
“Someone who was more perceptive than I like to admit. Never mind. Anyway, I found a way to bypass the game. A very old way, and you are all about old ways, aren’t you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“There is a club about a dozen blocks from here.”
“I’m not much of a nightclubber, Andre.”
“It’s not what you think.”
The bill arrived. Darren gasped when he it.
“Close your mouth, Darren. This is mine.”
Actually it belonged to American Express for the remainder of the month.
“Do you mind walking a dozen blocks or so?” I asked.
“No, it’ll do me good after that meal.”
We walked south to the East 40s. I entered the outer doors of an apartment building and buzzed an apartment on the fourth floor. I waved at the security camera. A return buzz unlocked the interior doors. I held one open for Darren and followed him into the foyer. In the elevator, I poked at the “4” button. It rose in an unsteady motion.
“What kind of nightclub is this?” Darren asked. “This is just an apartment building.”
“You really should stop saying that. It just reminds me that I don’t.”
The elevator door slid open. The black and beige hallway carpet was worn but not ragged. The off-white walls were smudged but not filthy. I knocked on the door to 4A. All six apartments on this floor were leased by the same
corporation. A tall woman of about 30 years opened the door. She had light
blonde shoulder length hair and wore a black pullover top.
“Hello, Andre. Who is your friend?” she asked.
“Hi, Vicky. This is Darren.”
Darren nodded. Vicky smiled.
“Well, come on in boys and have a seat. Would you like a drink?” she asked.
“No thanks, Vicky. You know I don’t like to mix my vices.”
“I wasn’t asking you.”
“Oh. Uh, no, but thank you.” Darren stammered.
We headed for an L-shape sofa in a deep and narrow room with windows at the far end. The architect had intended it as a linear living room/dining room combination, but all of it was occupied by chairs and couches. A rather overweight and very pale 50 year old man sat in one chair and watched the Yankees play
on television. Otherwise the furniture was empty.
“Quiet night, Vicky?”
“Yeah, you never can tell with Saturdays. Sometimes we’re jammed and sometimes it’s nothing. Fridays are always crowded. Wednesdays too for some reason.”
“I suppose. Do you want a line-up or are you going to wait for Lana?”
“When will she be available?”
“In a few minutes, I think.”
“Good. I’ll wait. Hold off on the line for Darren until she comes out.”
“Sure. Excuse me one moment.” Vicky walked down a hall and went into a room in the back.
“This is what I think it is?” whispered Darren in my ear.
“What do you think it is?”
“Congratulations. Would you care to wager your winnings on the next question?”
Darren looked uncomfortable, but he didn’t suggest we leave.
Darren studiously avoided eye contact with the other customer. I waved at the fellow, but he was too engrossed in the baseball game to notice.
After a few minutes a buxom dark-skinned woman in a ponytail came in the front door and approached the middle-aged man on the couch. “Thanks for waiting, sweetie. Are you ready?” The man nodded. She led him by the hand out the front door and down the hall to another apartment.
“Uh, Andre, what does this cost?”
“$300 per hour.”
“No. Plus whatever you tip the girl. And Darren?”
“Tip the girl.”
“I can’t afford it, Andre. I don’t have that much cash on me. I never do.”
“Tonight is on me. Just handle the tip.”
“Why are you spending your money on me this way?”
“Let’s say I’m investing in you.”
Lana, a petite red head with a winsome smile, entered the room. She wore a red and white checkered dress that matched the tablecloth to my picnic table at home. It gave her a wholesome look.
“Hi Andre!” she exclaimed cheerily. “I told you to call first so I can be ready for you!” she admonished without rancor.
“I was playing it by ear tonight.”
“Totally wrong organ.”
“This is my friend Darren.”
“This is his first time here, Lana. Could you help make it special for him?”
“You want me to make tonight special for him?”
“No, no. I mean, whom do you recommend for him?”
“There are seven girls here tonight. Don’t you want to let him choose for himself?”
Darren’s mouth opened wide at my presumption.
Lana laughed. “OK. Paula is in back. Men like her.”
They liked her for good reason. I knew Paula. She was a stunning longhaired brunette with spectacular upper body attributes.
“Vicky!” Lana called. “Send Paula out please!”
Paula emerged from the back room. She wore a deep blue low-cut cocktail dress which she overflowed. The dress matched her eyes. Her heels brought her up to six feet. Straight near-black hair hung around her waist. Darren’s mouth opened again.
“Paula,” said Lana, “this is Darren. He’s a first-timer.”
Paula nodded at Lana and smiled acknowledgment at me. She sat down next to Darren, made eye-contact, and asked him quietly, “So Darren, what do you do?”
“Well, uh… I work for…a company in
Darren failed to expand on that, so, after a few moments, Paula rubbed his knee.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
Darren seemed not to understand the question.
“Say yes,” I prompted.
I reached over and handed Paula an envelope with $300. She looked at me curiously, but gave her shoulders a barely visible shrug. She took Darren’s hand and led him out the front door. Darren looked as though he were going to the guillotine but he put up no resistance.
“So what is your game, Andre?” Lana asked me with a smile.
“Come on. I know you. You are that generous only when you want something. What do you want from Darren?”
“His skills. I want him to have an addiction so that he needs my money enough to work for me. He isn’t a druggie or alkie. It had to be something else.”
“I figured it was something like that. You think Paula will be an addiction?”
“I’m pretty sure of it. There isn’t anyone else in his life.”
“You are incorrigible, Andre.”
“That wasn’t a compliment.” Lana smiled again. “It’s OK. You have your quirks, but I like you Andre. I always did. You’re my favorite customer.”
“Really? What makes me so lovable?”
“I said nothing about love. I like that you don’t have the attitude.”
“Most guys who come in here have a real attitude. It is hard to explain. But you don’t have it.”
I chose not to mention that it wasn’t possible for me to treat her differently from non-professional girlfriends because, like Darren, I didn’t have any of those.
“So, have you got another envelope in there?”
Darren was quiet on the walk back to the parking garage. He was quiet in the car until we were ten miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel. At last he said, “We don’t need to custom design protective buckyballs if we don’t use the circulatory systems of plants and animals. I can introduce modifiers directly into seeds and single cell embryos.”
“Yes, of course.” It was such an obvious solution that I had missed it. “That is the easy way, isn’t it? Then we just watch them grow. Tell me what you need and I’ll set you up my in-house lab.”
“I can do this better at work. Nothing about it will look unusual to my bosses.”
Darren was developing a sense of larceny. This encouraged me.
“Too dangerous. Nucleicorp will claim ownership to anything we make, and the courts will back them. We set it up my lab, I’ll suspend your rent, and I’ll give you an extra stipend that will allow you to see Paula every week.”
Darren stared at me a while. Then he said, “I’ll give you a list of equipment and supplies to buy. It won’t be cheap.”
A month passed. My money market account shrank as my lab grew crowded with devices, not all of which I could identify. I gave Darren some breathing space, and I agreed not to enter the lab without him. Another month passed. Then a few more. I began to grow concerned. One day I called Darren at work.
“Darren. How is the garden growing?”
“Not great. Look I can’t talk about this now. I’ll get back to you.”
Two days later Darren called me.
“I’ve been putting off talking to you, Andre. I’ve been working on this day and night, but we are at a dead end. The animal embryos won’t grow properly after I treat them. They divide a few times and die. The seeds are the same. They begin to germinate and then die. It’s no good.”
“Well that is disappointing.”
Darren, of course, was contemplating an end to his visits to Paula. I considered the matter.
“The changes to the DNA are too extensive,” I hypothesized. “It messes up the seeds and embryos too much. What about our original idea? Treat juveniles with gene modifiers wrapped in buckyballs. Maybe if the organism is far enough along it can tolerate some tinkering with its genes better.”
“Way ahead of you. But forget about those damn carbon balls, will you? A form of E. coli works better as a delivery method.”
“Fine. Whatever works.”
“Not so fine. ‘Works better’ doesn’t mean that it works. Remember that the chemicals are toxic. When carrying useful quantities, he bacteria aren’t surviving long enough to deliver the molecules where they need to go. My colleagues here think I’m deliberately developing a new anti-biotic. It sure looks like it. All my Petri dishes are full of dead bacteria.”
I chose not to comment on Darren’s violation of our agreement not to pursue this research at work, and simply said, “Let me think about that one.”
“Be my guest.”
As soon as I hung up the phone I thought about my experiments at college. In one of my laboratory refrigerators remained after all these years a bottle of the rat anti-freeze I had made years ago. I hoped it hadn’t degraded.
In light of Darren’s violation of our pact, I had no compunction about entering the home lab alone, not that I would have had any in any case. Darren was more organized than I ever have been, so I had no difficulty finding a well-labeled beaker full of the strain of E. coli he had mentioned. I poured some into a second container, mixed in my anti-freeze, and put the batch in my upstairs refrigerator between the pastrami and the leftover potatoes.
Most of the bacteria died, as I expected, but some survived. After repeating the process and culling survivors over and over, I had E. coli that not only thrived in my antifreeze but required it. More importantly, the anti-freeze slowed the cellular metabolism of the bacteria in a way that I hoped would make them live longer when loaded with Darren’s DNA modifiers.
I walked over to Darren’s cottage before he left for work in the morning. He opened his door unshaven and half-dressed. I handed him a box with Petri dishes and a vial of my antifreeze.
“Here, try these.”
“What are they?”
“Just try them. You’ll need to keep the E. coli supplied with a few drops from the vial. It’s an essential nutrient for them. I wrote a note about it.”
That very evening he called me.
“Andre! What did you do to the E. coli? How did you make the stuff in the vial”
“With a little of this and a little of that. Did it help?”
“Yes! The bacteria survive long enough now. I’m trying out the bacteria on the juveniles of advanced animals.”
“That is good news. What animals?”
“Rotifers? Those microscopic things? You call those ‘advanced’?”
“They aren’t really microscopic. You just about can see them with the naked eye.”
“Maybe you can, but I can’t. Why not lab mice?”
“Oh, we’re not ready for those yet.”
“Darren, have rotifers changed much in the past few hundred million years?”
“Then perhaps they are not the best subjects for uncovering archaic biochemistry. They are archaic biochemistry.”
“I explained the reasons for moving cautiously when we first started this. We shouldn’t let this strain of E. coli get into the general food chain until we know it’s safe.”
“I don’t think it’s a big risk. The bacteria can’t survive without that organic antifreeze in the vial, and they won’t find it in nature, so they’ll just die outside the lab.
“Maybe. OK, I’ll move up to tadpoles tomorrow.”
“I’ll think we should keep the experiments out of Nucleicorp at this stage, don’t you?
“Perhaps you’re right. I feel like celebrating. Want to go you-know-where?”
I parked my car on 50th we walked the couple blocks to “you-know-where.” There was a new jauntiness to Darren’s step.
Babs was the night manager that evening. She opened the door for us and waved us to the sofa.
“Are you going to let the girls know we’re here?” I asked her.
“They know,” she answered.
Paula entered the room and stood in front of Darren. She took his hand and wordlessly led him out the front door to one of the apartments.
Lana appeared soon afterward.
“Stand up and turn around,” she ordered.
I complied. She clamped her arms around my neck and pulled herself up piggyback.
“Out the door and down the hall to your left,” she said.
I went where directed and opened the door to the empty studio apartment. Closing the door behind us with a foot, I hurried across the room and let Lana tumble over my head onto the bed.
Our session was as pleasant as usual.
“Lana?” I spoke up afterward.
“Would you like to have dinner with me?”
“We’re not allowed to date customers.”
“Does that mean no?”
“No. That means don’t tell anyone about it.”
“I’m pretty busy for the next couple weeks. Some of the girls are away. I have to cover them.”
“When are you free?”
“I mean when are you available?”
“How about two weeks from next Friday?” she suggested.
“Date. Where shall I pick you up?”
“I’ll meet you someplace.”
Grill on 1st?” Manhattan
“Fine. Eight o’clock. How about bringing Darren? Paula actually likes him,” she said.
“Really? Well, OK, if Darren is agreeable.”
“He will be.”
Darren was slow and methodical in his methods, so I decided to accelerate matters by conducting some experiments of my own. I bought lab mice, pilfered some of his DNA modifiers from the basement lab, set up a secondary rudimentary lab in my kitchen, and injected juvenile mice with laced E. coli.
The next day, I discovered that my cat, Boss, had gotten into one of the cages and eaten two of the mice.
The results on the surviving mice at the end of two weeks were encouraging. A few became notably aggressive. Two lost so much fur that they looked like little opossums. The rest looked and acted fairly normally.
My cat was acting strangely by this time. He seemed healthy enough but had a wild look to his eyes that hadn’t been there before. One night he somehow managed to kill a goose and pull it through the cat door.
I chose not to reveal my experiments to Darren yet.
On the night of our double date, Paula, Lana, Darren and I shared a table at the Manhattan Grill. Darren, in between mouthfuls of pork, talked at length about abnormalities in the rotifers and tadpoles which he found exciting. Paula worked her way through an enormous lobster. Lana had a notable fraction of a cow on her plate. I was the lightest eater with lamb chops larger than my hands. A Himalayan range of fried zucchini, creamed spinach, onions and potatoes occupied the remainder of the table.
“How can you stay so thin with your appetite?” I asked Lana.
“The Bernanke diet.”
“I eat only when someone else pays.”
“Good diet,” observed Paula. She had acquired an increasingly distinct frown throughout Darren’s ramblings.
“Now let me get this straight,” she said. “You and Andre here are trying to make money with Roto-what?”
“Rotifers,” she intoned.
“Tadpoles! You two are the worst excuses for criminal masterminds I ever met!”
“Well, ‘criminal’ is a harsh and, I hope, inaccurate description.”
“You don’t think your employer would object to you working for Andre?”
“They might, if they knew, I’ll concede, but that is civil, not criminal.”
Paula gave Darren a surprisingly hard whack to the side of his head.
“If you want to make money with potions and powders and don’t mind not playing by the rules, there are far simpler ways for a competent chemist. What does the word Ecstasy mean to you?”
Paula put a hand to her forehead. “Let’s try again. How about methamphetamine?”
“Only if you get caught. Come here, genius!”
Paula grabbed Darren by the arm, pulled him up from the table, and led him out of the room. A moment later through the window I saw them on the sidewalk as Paula hailed a taxi.
Lana and I looked at each other. She shrugged, smiled, and scooped potatoes into her plate.
More for us.”
I suspected my partnership with Darren was over. I stuffed myself morosely.
After eating as much as I could manage, I sat back and unconsciously licked my left thumb. Lana playfully grabbed my right hand and licked the other one. It was then that I wondered how thoroughly I had washed my hands after working with the E. coli a few hours earlier.
Darren moved out of my rental house soon after and told me to keep the security deposit.
I learned through Lana a few months later that Darren had quit Nucleicorp. Paula also had quit her job, though Lana still talked to her on the phone. Lana said Darren and Paula bought a condo in
Manhattan. For whatever reason, they have no
shortage of cash.
In my basement lab, Darren kindly had left of list of recommended procedures in case I wanted to pursue our project on my own. However, as Professor Zee pointed out, I am a dilettante. Despite the interesting results I already had produced, without a collaborator to do the donkeywork, I wouldn’t produce anything valuable or publishable. I terminated the project. I don’t have compunctions about using experimental animals and I am an untroubled carnivore; nonetheless, I prefer not to kill animals without any cause. So, I released the mice into the back yard. I dumped the tadpoles into the small stream bordering my property. I disposed of the E. coli by spilling them onto the grass. I figured it was safe to do so. I figured without a supply of antifreeze the bacteria would die and without a supply of DNA modifiers they couldn’t infect other plants and animals.
It turns out I was wrong about that. About six months after these events. My cat Boss charged through the cat door into the house and hid behind the couch. I heard a growl outside. I looked through the glass in the door and saw a cat that was too large to fit in the cat door. Some people say there are still are a handful of wildcats in
New Jersey, and I
guessed that this was what it was. It saw me and sauntered away. I can’t swear
to it, but it sure looked to me as though the back legs were slightly shorter
than the front; I thought I saw saber-like teeth overlapping the lower jaw.
Out of curiosity, I decided to sample the grass where I had dumped the E. coli months earlier, just in case there was some connection. To my surprise, the bacteria were still present. They somehow had evolved to synthesize my antifreeze and Darren’s modifiers out of substances in the natural environment.
How many changes will the bacteria effect on local fauna and flora? I’m hoping not many. Most changes are likely to be unhealthy and therefore self-limiting. We’ll have to wait and see. Will the effects spread beyond the immediate locale? We’ll have to wait and see about that, too.
Neither Lana nor I have been adversely affected by our accidental exposure to the E. coli. True, she has developed a wild look to her eyes that reminds me of my cat and she seems somehow more feral. I rather like it. I have noticed no change in me other than something that I’m sure is just psychological. Every now and then I have an overwhelming urge to climb a tree.