Joanne K. Morse
You had to be an expert to even know what to watch. After the dot had crossed the correct number of connection points along the "ladder", he released his thumb and all movement stopped. Once the dot had stopped its slow ascent. It was lost among the hundreds of other dots filling the screen. Some dots represented DNA components, while others were markers for elements that effected the DNA in some way. Compounds that spliced or joined segments, or 'zipped' and 'unzipped' DNA strands.
To a novice the screen looked like one giant connect-a-dot game. Even using color codes didn't help. At least not at this gross level. Once Jackson got his marker dot to where he wanted it, he would zoom in and narrow down the field. But it would take at least three zoom ins before you or I could figure out what was going on.
He smiled as he once again watched his little dot move to the left with just a slight touch on the pressure pad. His remote was very accurate and he was pleased with himself. This new technology would knock their socks off. He knew he was on the verge of a great discovery.
There was a knock at the door and Jackson hit the off button quickly. He hid the remote under his jacket as he made his way around the lab benches toward the door. He heard a more incessant knock.
"I'm coming. Hold your horses, for Petes sake." He continued to grumble as he moved the cabinet away from the door and unbolted the dead bolt and turned the three locks. He peeked through the opening before swinging the door wide. Jim Peterson was standing in the hall.
"What the hell have you got in there, for heaven's sake. You'd think you had some great treasure hidden in your lab, the way you keep it locked."
Jackson just laughed. "I like my privacy, that's all. No treasure to be found here."
Jim looked around. He didn't see anything worth hiding, but then he didn't understand the genetic field that well either. Perhaps there was some great secret hidden in Jackson's little world.
Well if there was a secret here Jim couldn't see it. There were a couple of computers, a fax machine, a printer, and a small copier-scanner. The lab bench was clean and neat, not the typical slovenly mess that existed in most labs—Jim's included.
Jackson was already moving back into his favorite corner. "Coffee or coke?"
Jim thought about that for a minute. He was actually in a hurry tonight. Pam would be waiting for him—it was their night to eat out and his sister was coming to baby-sit. Still, he didn't want to insult Jackson by not accepting the invite.
"Well I really only stopped by to see if you were still alive. Pam asked how you were doing and I realized I hadn't seen you all week. I thought maybe I could persuade you to join us for dinner tonight." The concerned side asked the question but his practical side hoped Jackson wouldn't agree.
"So...coffee or coke?"
"Coke." Jim figured he could drink that faster without seeming to rush. He'd have to nurse hot coffee.
Jim walked over to the window while Jackson poured them each a drink. He watched Jackson's reflection in the darkened window, but nothing mysterious happened. Jackson didn't make any strange moves or give any furtive glances while Jim's back was turned.
Of course he might be aware of his own reflection in the window. After all, Jackson was no fool. Jim almost laughed out loud at his own musings. He must have been affected by all the crazy talk about "Jackson's secret" after all.
Just then Jackson walked up to Jim and handed him a glass. "You looked amused or bemused about something. Care to share the joke with me?"
Jim laughed and was about to say it was nothing, but changed his mind.
"I was amused at my own gullibility. You know rumors are flying that you've got some great secret project going on behind these locked doors. For a minute there I was almost believing it."
Jackson joined the laughter. "Rumors about my work fly around every month or so. Ever since I started locking my lab during the day people have assumed I was working on some really hot project. Believe it or not, I've actually been offered more money too."
"Nope. Ed Haslet came by the lab about six months ago and tried to pry into my work. I told him I couldn't discuss it until I had reached a certain point. And I said once I reached that point there would be big news. He immediately asked how my funds were holding out and I told him it would be close but I thought I'd make it.
The next day I received a letter from the head of research, stating that due to some unexplained changes they had extra money.
So I've kept up the mysterious illusion by adding more locks to my door."
Jim's mouth was open and that made Jackson laugh again. Money for research was always tight but when one of the medical center's bigger fish had lost a major prize, due to lack of funding to keep his work going, the center had become more anxious and loosened the purse strings for anything that smelled like fame and fortune.
Jackson had played his little game to that audience and he'd cashed in on it without ever having told a lie or fabricating data. He'd been mysterious and a bit dramatic and that's all it had taken to glean some research money out of thin air.
Jim finished his coke and headed out the door. But he gave it one more try, to ease his conscience. "Are you sure you don't want to come home with me?"
Jackson's mind was already working on his next hurdle. He shook his head absently as he closed the door practically in Jim's face. Jim just laughed, good-naturdly. He was used to Jackson's dramatics and his ability to become lost instantaneously in his own musings.
Jim had seen that blank look in Jackson's eyes before. Oh well no use pondering on his mysterious actions. Jim was sure that he, along with everyone else, would know whatever Jackson was working on once he'd reached some conclusion.
Jackson had forgotten Jim as soon as the door was closed. His mind was grinding away on some problem or other and he was too preoccupied with the intricacies of his research to worry about rumors or friends.
Jackson twirled all the locks and shot the bolts home before uncovering his computer. He turned it on and waited impatiently as it booted up. He'd been thinking about the program he'd written and realized he'd made a mistake of omission in one of the vector points.
The growth of a fetus was actually a four dimensional event and in his program he'd left out the T formulae for time. He'd also decided that he should add an algorithm for mutation rate. After all, one of the issues he was trying to learn to control was spontaneous gene mutation.
Over the last one hundred years the rate of mutation had increased ten-fold. Jackson, shook his head. People were crazy. They didn’t care what happened in the future as long as they had their conveniences now. All those toxic chemicals that had been polluting the air, soil, water, and food for centuries, had finally caught up with the human race, in a big way.
Most people just weren’t aware of the problems facing the medical and scientific community. And no one wanted to waste money on research, especially if it were for some disease that appeared to target a minority group, or a an overcrowded, underdeveloped country. Let them die of some fatal illness. The planet was overcrowded anyway, and besides, they’d brought it on themselves, was the attitude of the day.
Of course Jackson thought of himself as above the petty nonsense of mere mortals. He was on the threshold of greatness. He would save the world from itself. He...well he just didn’t see his own avarice in what he did. He’d convinced himself that he was a “do-gooder” out to save mankind.
It may have started out that way but somewhere along the way Jackson had lost the noble stand and now he was just hooked by the concept of creating virtual clones. He was addicted to computers and cloning as much as anyone else was addicted to drugs. He’d have sold his soul for the final piece to the cloning puzzle.
In fact he may have done just that, for here he was about to take the most significant step in the world of...I guess one would have to say both computer and medical science. He was about to create the first, living, thinking, mating, and procreating, clone on a computer!
He worked until three o'clock in the morning. Then his eyes began to see double and he knew it was time to quit. He would go home and get some sleep. At least he'd managed to correct the formula so that it incorporated the time factor and the algorithm for blocking the spontaneous mutation rates.
But before he left the lab he would have to set up a final test to be sure his program worked as expected. He set the DNA selector to develop a primary fetus to the sixteen cell division or Blastoma stage. It would take about six hours by the time the computer had sorted through all the DNA libraries and pulled the required genes together to start the process. Jackson gave the computer basic instructions as to the organism he desired. His fist experiment would be of a mouse blastoma. If it worked he'd move up to the rat and so on.
Satisfied that his program was working appropriately, he finally headed home. Jackson was asleep as soon as his head touched the bed. He slept deeply and remembered no dreams when he awoke about five hours later. He suddenly sat up—wide awake. He was one of those people who needed little sleep and who could be fully awake instantly.
His excitement returned and he hurriedly made his morning ablutions and set off for the lab. He only lived two and a half blocks from his laboratory, and the locals were used to seeing him, at odd hours, running the short distance between the two buildings as if he was always late for some meeting. He was known as the absent minded jack rabbit by his neighbors, which wouldn't have bothered him at all.
His hands shook as he tried to open the locks. He couldn't wait to see what his program had created. He re-locked his door before going to the computer and putting in the password that would end the screen saver program. There on the screen was the virtual pitri dish. His heart was pounding so hard he could hear it in his ears and feel it in his chest. Would this embryo be real or just a bunch of gibberish?
He began by testing for compounds known to exist only at this stage of development. The two compounds were present. Next he tested for specific phosphorylation pathways that should be appearing at this juncture in the growth process. They too were present. He was so thrilled he found it hard to type but he pushed himself to calm down and move on.
He would now unravel the cellular matrix and pull out the DNA, which he would match to the DNA library taken from live mice. He had six different libraries and he had no way of knowing at this point which library the computer had chosen. But after trying the second library he found a perfect match.
The blastoma turned out to be a viable beginning to the development of a fetus. Now Jackson set the computer to create a new fetus, but this time he programmed for a fully developed mouse. This process would be accelerated in the computer so that a virtual mouse should appear in approximately twenty-four hours. He debated whether he should program for two mice for interaction but decided that it was too early in his experimental sequence. One thing at a time.
During the next twenty-four hours Jackson worked on sequencing his program in a step wise fashion. He wanted to create modules that could be plugged in so that the program could be run from any point and sections could be combined in different order. He wanted the system to be flexible.
This program should allow the scientific community to input mutated DNA and test what changes were needed to correct the problems resulting from the mutation. His dream was to be able to diagnose and correct disease states by hooking an ill person to the computer and letting the computer determine what was needed. Jackson was so hyped at the possibilities that his fingers flew over the keys. He couldn't contain himself. The possibilities were endless and the benefit to mankind was staggering. He would win the coveted Nobel Prize for this work.
His computer alarm caused him to jump. He couldn't believe that he had been sitting at his second computer for twenty-four hours. His hands were sweating and he wiped them on his pants as he made his way around the lab to see his first virtual creation.
His mouth dropped as he approached the screen. There was the little mouse, all pink and blind. As he watched the accelerated growth, the squirming body began to turn black with hair. The eyes opened and the mouse began to explore it's universe. The universe was a virtual Skinner box.
The mouse soon discovered a lever and began to push it for virtual food. It was magnificent and Jackson was so enthralled he never heard the knock at the door, and he chose to ignore the phone. He didn't leave his lab for three days and people began to worry. What was going on in that mysterious lab? On the fourth day security came prepared to break in, but they were spared the trouble when Jackson suddenly appeared at his door.
He was completely surprised at all the commotion going on in the hall outside his lab. He spied Jim in the crowd that had surged forward when he'd opened the door. "Jim, what's going on?"
"Sorry Jackson, but everyone was worried because you didn't answer the door or the phone. We thought you might have run into some kind of trouble."
Jackson looked around and was amazed to see the concern on people's faces. "I'm fine, as you can see. I never heard anyone knocking and I was too busy to answer the phone. I was caught up in a computer program." He stopped talking. He hoped his explanation would satisfy the curiosity and everyone would leave him alone.
Gradually the crowd dissipated but before Jim left he reminded Jackson he had an open invitation for dinner. Jackson thanked him and said he'd take him up on the invite soon. He stepped back into his lab to be sure the people had all left the area. When he peeked out fifteen minutes later the hallway was empty.
Finally he was free to go home. He needed to rest so he'd turned off the computers. He would rest tonight and then tomorrow he would start the next step. Tomorrow he would create an interactive mouse, but this time he would clone a living mouse and see how closely the cloned version would match it, physically and mentally.
Jackson arrived at the school before anyone else was even out of bed. He hadn't bothered to look at a clock since time had no meaning in his narrowed view of life. He was happy with his life as long as he was left alone to do his research.
He turned on his computer and looked for his mouse. He wanted to see how fast the animal would evolve to old age and finally death. He thought that his program would be able to prevent death by incorporating a reversal of the cellular apoptosis that ultimately led to the death of cells and eventually the whole animal. But when he couldn't find the mouse he assumed it had already succumbed to death.
This turn of events was depressing but not insurmountable. He would have to work on the program. Perhaps he'd have to wait for the interactive step. He repeated the mouse development, using the new vector for slowing the accelerated death. He increased the first phase and by midnight his new mouse was born. He decided to go home since he couldn't do anything else until his new clone had time to develop. He left the computer on since he was only going out for a few hours.
He was at the lab again by four o'clock and he was pleased to see his mouse was fine. He closed the file and turned to his next experiment but this time he connected his live mouse and it's cage to the computer and instructed the computer to clone both the mouse and it's habitat.
When the virtual mouse had been created it was identical to the live one and it mimicked every move and whisker twitch the live mouse made. Jackson put food into the cage and the live mouse nibbled hungrily. The computer replicated the pellets and the cloned mouse nibbled it's cloned food in sinc with his live counterpart. When the live mouse stopped eating the clone stopped.
Jackson was too excited to sit still so he paced in front of the computer for hours as he watched the dual action. Even he was amazed at what he'd accomplished. But until he was ready to tell the world, he would have to be careful to leave the lab at least once a day to show that he was okay. He set an alarm on his computer to remind him to make his presence known...he didn't want anyone breaking down the door to find out if he was still alive.
When the alarm went off Jackson pulled himself away. He turned the computers off and left the lab. This time he actually went to dinner at Jim's house. He knew he had to make a showing to silence the troublemakers. And he didn't want anyone to start snooping. The dinner was hard for he wanted to share his findings with someone and Jim, his only real friend, was the logical person. But he couldn't quite bring himself to speak about his secret project. Not yet.
"Well Jackson, what is it that keeps you so busy that you hardly ever leave the lab?"
"Nothing really. I thought I had found the answer to the DNA mutation problem, but I was wrong. I have managed to change the algorithm but the change isn't significant. I'll start again tomorrow. I'm sure I'm close. But remember Jim not a word of this to anyone. I'll tell the world when I'm ready."
Jim nodded his agreement. He was just happy to see Jackson acting halfway normal. In fact it had been Jackson who'd suggested he come by—a sort of rain check on Jim's earlier invitation. Now here he sat chatting like any sane person. Jim just shook his head in wonderment.
The next day Jackson returned to his lab early. He was very upset when he couldn't find his live mouse or the cage. How could anyone have gotten in? And why would anyone steal a mouse and cage and not touch the computers? He searched under the benches, just in case it had toppled off the bench, but it was no where to be found.
He turned on the computer and started the program. Sure enough the virtual mouse was also missing. He decided to open the deaccelarated rate file he'd saved of the second mouse and was disturbed when it too had disappeared. Well, this was going to drive him crazy. He'd have to go over the program again and try to figure out how to slow down the aging process even more—once the virtual creature was fully developed. He was sure that his mistake was to allow a similar rate of growth throughout the developmental course.
After two days of reworking the program Jackson was ready to try another live test. This time the mouse seemed to stop "aging" as a young adult and Jackson was ecstatic. He turned the computer off and went home for dinner. He'd go back later and see if the aging was still at a stand still. He kept thinking about his next step. He'd decided he couldn't take the time to do a rat.
He wanted to be the next test.
He wanted to clone himself and test the full potential of his program. He knew he was pushing it but he was beyond logical reasoning. He kept looking at himself in the mirror and thinking about how much fun it would be to see himself moving on the computer screen as a virtual clone. He gulped down a bowl of cereal and rushed back to the lab.
When he reached his lab he was disappointed. The virtual mouse was gone. He was truly puzzled now. He sat and thought about what the problem might be. He went over every aspect of his program and his actions, but nothing made sense of the disappearance. When he sat down at his other computer and turned on the electricity, it hit him. The electricity!
Every time he'd lost the clone he'd turned off the electric current to the computer. What if the "liveness" of the clones needed the current? They could be like those batteries that needed to be connected to the wall current in order to keep their charge from leaking away. Well, the only way to test it would be to create another clone and leave the computer on for a number of days to see what happened.
The clone survived for six days. Then Jackson turned off the computer and waited for five minutes before turning it back on. The clone was still there. He turned the computer off again and waited six hours before turning it back on. Sure enough the clone was gone. Such a simple problem to cause so much aggravation. Now that he knew about the electric current he would never turn off the computer. But that wouldn’t be enough to protect his system. Surges, brown outs, and breakdowns were an inevitable part of the electrical system of the university.
He went out and bought an expensive surge protector with an automatic reset feature. Then he called the administrator and hinted that he was about to make a big breakthrough but that he needed to have his computer connected to a back-up power source. He tried to impart the urgency of the problem but it took all his persuasive powers to convince the woman that this detail could stand between fame and failure. He was thrilled when she’d finally given in. That should protect his project. And he’d still managed to keep his experiment a secret.
The back-up system was in place within three days. Now he was ready to take the next step. He brought in a cage with two mice and set the computer to work. He 'd already implanted the electrodes into a series of mice for these experiments. He'd had that much confidence in his initial findings. Now he would leave everything on and go home to sleep. By the next morning he would be able to see how the interactive part of his program worked. He slept well that night and the next morning he eagerly set off for his lab.
As soon as he'd let himself in and re-locked his door he ran to look at the computer. The two virtual mice were mating, as were the real mice. It was an amazing sight. But even more amazing was the change in the female mouse. She began to make a nest, pulling virtual straw into a pile in one corner of the cage. She grew fatter and then it began—she gave birth to eight virtual pups!
Jackson was jumping with glee. This was beyond his wildest expectations. He couldn't believe it, even seeing it with his own eyes. The live mice were busy making a nest too but they wouldn't have their pups for a few weeks. He would have to work on the program to decelerate the process to match the real world. Although, for research to have an accelerated growth process would speed up the time lines for experiments. Perhaps he'd make the changes in a second module so that the scientist could choose the module they wanted to use based on the speed needed or wanted. He worked on this idea for the rest of the day and well into the night.
He decided it was time to shut off the computer. He wanted to have information from at least two dozen experiments before he told the world what he'd accomplished. His second computer was busy videotaping all action taking place in the virtual world. These tapes would show the world what had happened with each experiment. This computer also housed his notes and findings. It was put to work analyzing the results from each of his experiments and it was designed to give him suggestions as to the next step he should be taking. According to this computer he was ahead of himself and should back up to re-run his first experiment a couple of times before moving on. Jackson didn't agree. He could always go back and re-run experiments to fill in the needed numbers. But for now he wanted to move ahead.
He would run one more experiment tomorrow. He'd been puttering around for about an hour since he'd shut off his computer. Now he was finally ready to leave the lab and he shut off the light as he left. He didn't notice that the live mice had begun to fade. He didn't recognize that the connection between the computer, the electric current, and the live mice had become essential. Something about the DNA connection to the cloning process demanded the constant current. He would not believe it even if he had recognized it... for it made no sense and it didn't lend itself to an intuitive understanding either.
Jackson stayed up working on the angle he would use to test the system for human DNA. He'd placed a human library into the program, a long time ago, so that should present no problem. His computers were already connected to the new back up electrical system, so there was no reason he couldn't move forward. Tomorrow would be the ultimate test. If he could create a clone of himself then he could do anything and the Nobel Prize would be a sure thing. Sleep eluded him most of the night and when he did sleep dreams and nightmares filled his mind.
The next morning Jackson took a look around his small apartment as if for the last time. He had the feeling that he should be doing something special to celebrate this day. This was going to be the greatest day of his life. Even winning the Nobel Prize would not be as exciting as this. "Perhaps tomorrow." He said to no one in particular.
For some reason he walked slowly this morning. His anticipation was so great that he had to keep himself in control. When he reached the lab he noticed his hands were calm—almost too calm. It was as if he was outside of himself looking at what he was doing. Jackson methodically locked his door, hung up his coat, turned on the computers, and made some coffee. He finally made his way to the cloning computer and sat.
He held his hand above the keyboard for a few minutes in hesitation and his heart beat rapidly in anticipation of this—his finest hour. His first attempt took twenty hours but there he was—the virtual Jackson. The computer had a complete library of Jackson's DNA to draw from in building the clone. Once he was satisfied that the clone was "healthy" he decided it was time to turn the computer off. He was ready to hook himself up to the computer to try the interactive version.
He had never noticed that the mice cage was gone again. Or perhaps he just ignored it because he knew he couldn't explain it. If he acknowledged the missing live mice he would have had to wait for this next step until he could explain what had happened. But Jackson was not able to wait. He’d psyched himself to the extent that he couldn’t function until he had completed this next experiment. There would be time later to figure out the small anomalies.
He sat in a chair that he'd hooked electronically to the computer. Then he placed the electrodes into his skin of his forearm, scalp, and chest. He turned the computer on again. He entered the data needed into his program and hit the start button. In the background was the simulated lab and soon he was watching himself being created from his own DNA.
He couldn't speak. It was an amazing sight—the speeded up version of a developing fetus and then the child. His heart was hammering in his chest and he felt lightheaded. This was truly a miracle. He would be recognized for his brilliance and now he couldn't wait to tell Jim. He couldn't wait to tell the world.
There was a sudden explosion loud enough to get Jackson's attention for a moment. "I wonder what that was?" He asked his image. "I...."
"Jim, you have to let us break the door down. It's been over a week since anyone has seen him."
"Yes, but look how upset he was the last time. Jackson's probably just caught up in his latest project. Surely someone has seen him leave the lab this week."
"No one has seen him all week and his landlord said that he hasn't heard him walking around his apartment this week either."
"Let's give him another day."
"OK, but tomorrow, if he hasn't come out we go in."
Jim nodded and once again tried to get Jackson to open the door but to no avail. He shook his head as he walked away.
The next day they broke the door down and were surprised to find an empty lab. Where could he have gone? Jim looked at the computers and was surprised to find that they both had been burned out. Must have been the explosion that caused the problem.
Jackson would be mad as hell when he came back from...wherever he was....
Dr. Joanne K. Morse is a late bloomer, starting as a freshman in college at age thirty-eight, getting her Ph.D. at age forty-seven and starting her first job out of college at age fifty. Naturally, Joanne started her writing career at fifty-two. She currently has three light romance novels, In Gods Eyes, Love in the Pyramid and Vacation of a Lifetime published by Rubenesque Romances under the pseudonym of Abigail Sommers.
Joanne also has had several short stories published in romance, generational, and sci-fi publications. The short story "Stuck," a light romance, appeared in Extra Woman magazine and in the Daily News web site of Long Island, NY. Joanne’s generational story, "Gran," won first prize in a short story contest.
As a scientist, Dr. Morse also publishes research articles in peer-reviewed journals as well as presenting research information at various meetings. Joanne has a non-fiction column "On The Lighter Side of Science" that appears in the journal: Clinical Research and Regulatory Affairs. This column uses humor and analogies to discuss various aspects of science.
In addition, Dr. Morse does digital volunteering for a Christian Organization in Ghana. Two of her children’s short stories are located on the web at www.netaid.org (look at the results page).
Dr. Morse lives in Hampton Virginia with her dog Lucky, and her two ferrets, Bandit and Bullwinkle.
Published by permission of the author.