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Apoptosis Now

Episode Five of Blinded By Science

Harrison Bae Wein 4 June 2006

www.lablit.com/article/121

Harrison Bae Wein

Editor’s note: This is the fifth episode in a series of nine original stories, each written in a different style, following the career of a scientist called Fluke from graduate school to Nobel Prize. If you are curious about any technical words, you can browse Harrison's glossary.

Sometimes I think I must be going insane. But then I think it's them – it's the rest of them that are insane. On my way to an interview for a professorship at Braggadocio University, I missed my transfer from Chicago. I gave them a call to tell them I'd be late, but they wouldn't hear of it.

"Fluke," Professor Emself, head of the search committee told me, "we'll get you here in time for your interview. Don't you worry about a thing."

So here I am, riding a helicopter for the first time, and I feel sick to my stomach. The blades of the chopper almost drown out my thoughts; the low chop, chop, chop is deafening. I wonder how I can bear to go through all this. The competition in this field is so fierce. The interview process is hostile. And if I do ever get lucky enough to get a job, grants are still going to be hard to come by. An unproven, young new professor trying to establish himself faces a nearly impossible task these days. It almost makes me want to give up hope sometimes.

The chopper banks to the left, the pilot smiles at me and says something. I can't hear him over the din of the blades, but that's probably just as well – I doubt it would comfort me. I try to hold down my lunch and think positively. Yes, I'm in the rat race, but I've been in it for years. I keep on going. I'm used to it by now. Oh, I've seen the other side: the strict hours of the nine-to-five jobs, the overbearing bosses, the stifling bureaucracies. I've seen it all, and though many young scientists are looking for a way out, a way back to the mainstream of society, I know what it's really like out there. I had a friend out there once. I've seen it myself.

I have to get this job.

**********

The job talk goes fine. All my interviews are positive. It looks like they're really interested in me. Then I notice the last entry on my itinerary. "MEETING" is all it says, and a room number. Nothing else – not a topic, not the professors I'll be meeting there. I go to the room. It's in a completely deserted corridor on the ground floor of a massive old building called Darness.

I enter the room and see some of the professors I've met during the day seated around a huge, round oak table. The room has no windows – only a fluorescent light above casting a cold, dim light. Their faces are somber. I think, This is it. They're already going to tell me I don't have the job.

"Fluke," Emself greets me, and leads me to a chair. "Have a seat." He's anxious and fidgety, nothing like the relaxed, lighthearted man I'd seen earlier in the day.

"What's going on?" I ask, sitting down.

"Well, uh...," he stammers.

"We've got a problem, Fluke." This time it's Professor Jones – he's sitting across from me. Jones looks serious, his hair in a tussle, his eyes magnified by thick, round Coke-bottle glasses. "Is it true, the stories we've heard about you?"

"That depends what stories you've heard," I try to say coolly.

"The incident with the VI66 antibody, the events surrounding the GGC."

"I don't recall any involvement with those episodes," I say, "but I assure you that, if I did have an involvement with them, I wouldn't be at liberty to discuss them."

"Ah," Emself cuts in. "Fluke, you expressed an interest when you applied for this job in speaking with Professor Hurtz."

"Yes, I did," I confirm. "He's the king of Apoptosis, and that's what my lab will be studying: cell death. He's written some of the seminal papers in the field."

"We're willing to let you try to talk to him," Jones says soberly.

"Try?"

"Well," Emself explains, "we've had some problems with Professor Hurtz lately."

"Problems? What kind of problems?"

"Professor Hurtz started doing experiments that we all didn't...ah, quite agree with."

"Like what?"

"Well, he discovered a factor that he believed signaled the entire process of Apoptosis – the master gene, if you will." Emself shakes his head.

"So what happened?" I ask anxiously.

"He didn't pursue it like a top scientist at Braggadocio should. It wasn't just us; the NIH recognized it, too, and cut off his funding. We thought that would be the end of it." Emself pauses. He seems nervous, reluctant to continue.

"But...?" I prompt him.

"But it wasn't the end. Hurtz was a clever man – a genius, if I've ever met one. But he cracked. He peered into one of the Truths of the universe, Fluke, and he snapped. It could have happened to anyone in his situation. We all pursue the Truth in our scientific careers. We find, at most, three or four interesting things to keep our labs going. But Hurtz – again and again he made groundbreaking discoveries. This time, he just saw too much. This time..." His voice trails off, and I can see the tears welling in his eyes. Here was a man Emself himself had looked up to, a man he'd admired and tried to emulate his whole life. What had happened to Hurtz? What had he seen that made him snap?

Professor Jones stands abruptly, distracting my attention. His white lab coat is immaculate. He goes over to a tape recorder on the other side of the room and turns to me before touching it. "What you hear in this room is to be kept strictly confidential," he says to me.

"I understand," I stare him down.

Jones nods and continues, "We built some new buildings on campus, as you've seen. We attempted to clear everyone out of Darness, but Hurtz refused to leave. He has a 'gang' of fiercely loyal researchers. He's completely brainwashed them, and they defend him to the last. Eventually, they wouldn't even let us get past to see Hurtz – none of us have seen him for months."

"You mean he hasn't come out?"

Jones shakes his head. "He's got a whole hydroponics setup in there for food. We've even tried to cut off their power, but Hurtz has some alternative source. We figure maybe he's tapped into a main power line. In any case, we can't shut him down."

"So you want me to do it for you? Someone from the outside. Someone he doesn't know."

"Exactly," Emself picks up the explanation, his rotund face pale in the artificial light. "Look, Fluke, you've got the Professorship if you can do this – fully tenured. We give you our word."

"I'll take it," I say without thinking. "But what do you have for me to go on? What do you know?"

"Only this," Jones continues. "His grad students and undergrads roam these hallways. In fact, we need to get out of the building before sundown – the only reason we met here was because we wanted the privacy. Hurtz keeps in touch with his students by walkie-talkie. We intercepted one if his transmissions the other day. Here it is."

Jones starts the tape – his face is as still as ice. There's a lot of static on the tape, but underneath it I can make out a voice – a low, grumbling voice, mumbling and slurring words in a slow New England accent:

"I know...they are looking for me. I live on the edge now, on the precipice. But looking down..." The static drowns out some words, but then I can make them out again: "I had a dream...I walked the edge of a diamond knife – and told the tale when I came back." More static. "In the big histological section called Life, I...am the paraffin. But who will be my diamond knife?" There is an extended pause, then his voice returns with a longing, desperate plea: "Be...my diamond...knife."

Befuddled, I look up at Jones, but his face doesn't so much as twitch. He shuts off the recorder. "That's it," he tells me. "That's all we got."

"So what do you think?" Emself addresses me.

"You're right, sir," I offer solemnly. "He's cracked. He's definitely cracked."

"So you'll do it?"

My face hardens as I think of pedestrian life: the nine to five, the strict hours, the overbearing boss. I need this job.

"I'll do it," I confirm.

"We don't know what kind of research he's doing in there, Fluke," Emself tells me, "but we want you to terminate it." He fixes me with one of the coldest looks I've ever seen. "Terminate it," he repeats, "with extreme prejudice."

**********

They give me two guides, grad students, and I wonder how long they'll last. They both look nervous as we suit up in our lab coats and goggles. We've each got flashlights, rubber tubing, pipetmen, squirt bottles full of ethanol. I don't foresee needing these things, but you never know.

I don't know what I'll say to Hurtz when I find him. I hope that, when I finally face him, the words will just come to me. But I'm not at all sure they will.

I consider what Hurtz could have seen that drove him to such an extreme. What could cause a top scientist to behave like this? What horrifying Truths did Hurtz peer into down in the heart of Darness? I long for answers, but at the same time, I am afraid to face those answers, frightened of what I might find. If Hurtz, at the top of his game, couldn't handle what he saw, what chance do I have?

The sun has already finished setting by the time we begin our journey. The hallways are dark, and we turn on our flashlights. "So what are your stories?" I ask my guides as we set out. "Why are you here with me?"

"I rotated through his lab," answers The Garbage Man. They call him that because he cleans obsessively, to the point of throwing other people's experiments in the garbage. He's a nervous, jittery guy with a high voice, and his face seems to reflect his constant distress in eruptions of painful-looking pimples.

"So what was he like?" I ask about Hurtz.

"Well, he was strange." Garbage Man seems reluctant to elaborate.

"Strange? How?"

"I got this mutant. It was very interesting. At the end of my ten week rotation, it had been pretty well characterized. I would have gone to his lab – I figured it would be a relatively easy thesis: I'd clone the gene, and be off and running. But he wouldn't hear of it."

"Hear of what?" I ask, a chill in my spine stopping me dead in my tracks.

"Hear of me cloning the gene. He said I'd already done the interesting part. 'Anyone can clone a gene,' he told me. 'Let someone else take over and do the boring stuff.'"

"My god," I say as the chill spreads through my blood. "He really has gone mad."

The halls are deserted. We pass the ruins of old labs lingering in the passageways. The beams of our flashlights sweep past the outdated centrifuges, the massive refrigeration units, the dark, old oak desks, the rusted metal shelving – all abandoned like wrecked warships on the river banks of a faraway war.

The labs themselves are shut. I have this ominous feeling as we pass door after door – as if the unseen ghosts of the past are watching me through the keyholes, through the nicks in the wall and the chips in the paint. This was once the center of a vibrant, exciting research community. Only the residues of that time remain now. Impotent and helpless but watching still, wondering at our intrusion.

It's just a junkyard, I keep telling myself, nothing but a memory. Darness has been replaced by a bright new building with clean, homogeneous new labs – equipped with better ventilation and electrical systems. In fact, how these people used to actually work with this outdated stuff, I'll never know.

We've seen no trace of Hurtz's grad students or undergrads, even though we've been walking for almost an hour. Then suddenly we are bombarded from all sides by pipette tips. "Run!" Garbage Man yells, and though I think to reach for my own pipetman, I know I am no match for this barrage. I run, following the two grad students ahead of me. When we are a safe distance away and I turn back to look, I see no one. Just a pile of yellow tips on the ground.

We've been caught off guard. As anxious as I am to reach Hurtz, it's obvious we need some sleep.

We find an open lab to bunk up in – being scientists, this is something all three of us are well used to. As we spread some old bench covering on the abandoned lab benches and lay down for the night, Street Smart, the other guide, tells me his story. They call him that because at the last American Society for Cell Biology meeting, he was the only grad student from their department to shop around and get a hotel that wasn't listed in the conference booklet. The other grad students couldn't believe that he had gotten a hotel room outside a three block radius from the convention center. It was Street Smart's uncanny ability to find his way in a completely new city that earned him his name.

As we lie there in the dark, Street Smart has this to say about Hurtz: "I tell you one thing, Fluke. I grew up in a pretty crazy neighborhood. I've seen some pretty messed up dudes. But this guy Hurtz, I've never seen someone quite so twisted. I tell you, he's got 'em all beat."

I wonder what happened to Hurtz as I lie there, staring at the exposed pipes in the darkness beneath the old ceiling. What drove him to these depths? I hear the creaking of the building. I listen for footsteps, but can hear none.

Why has the search committee sent me to get Hurtz? Why have they chosen me, of all people? Am I just the latest in a line of job applicants to meet their fate in the heart of Darness? Has Hurtz gotten all the rest – brainwashed them and swallowed them into his insane version of reality?

Infiltrate and destroy – that is my mission. But this is Hurtz's realm. The pipette tips were only a warning; Hurtz could have done much worse. I've gotten this far only because Hurtz wanted me to get this far. I realize now that I will get to see him – he wants me to see him. But I don't know if I will be able to complete my mission.

**********

A million hands grab me from my sleep. It is too dark. I cannot see what is happening, but I hear Garbage Man screaming. A sour smell covers my face, and despite my resistance, I am forced into sleep once more.

**********

When I awake, I am sitting up, cross-legged on a hard tile floor. It is white tile, but old and yellowed. The room is dim, but a single sliver of bright sunlight cuts through the air past my face like a blinding, white-hot knife. I can see several lab workers moving back and forth among the outdated equipment. They wear old, stained lab coats and tinted face shields so that I can't make out any of their features.

It takes me a minute to notice that Hurtz is sitting beside me. When I saw Hurtz giving lectures at meetings back in my graduate school days, he was a grand, corpulent man. Now, from what I can make out of the man in the desk chair beside me, he is thin as a twig. His head is still perfectly bald, just as I remember, but I can't see his features. His face is buried in his hands, and the sliver of sunlight cuts sharply across his downturned head.

I choose not to say anything, but to wait for Hurtz to begin. I watch the movements of the people in the lab. They are like ants, working efficiently, saying nothing.

"Smell that?" I suddenly hear Hurtz mumble in his slow New England accent. His voice sounds just like it did on the tape. My head is still light, and I'm not certain I haven't imagined it altogether. I turn toward him. His head is buried, but moving slowly, tortuously within his hands.

"Do you smell that?" he asks again, his voice strained and anguished. His head remains buried in his hands. I do smell it – pungent, garlicky – but I choose not to answer.

"It's DMSO," he mumbles very matter-of-factly. "I just love the smell of DMSO in the morning."

He waits a moment, probably to see what I will say, but gets no response. "One of the greatest solvents in the world," he continues, lifting his head. "I remember when we first started using DMSO. At first you hate the smell, then you get used to it – your nose gets desensitized and you don't even smell it anymore. But if you ever do get to smell it again – after being away from the bench for a while, you can smell it again – there's nothing like it in the world. I love that smell. Do you like that smell, Fluke?" He turns to me, finally, when he asks this, and I am too stunned to answer. I barely recognize him, he has become so gaunt. His skin sags, his eyes droop as if from sadness.

"You pity me, don't you?" Hurtz asks me after studying my expression. "You've come to shut me down, haven't you, Fluke?"

Again, I don't answer.

"You don't have to confirm it. I can see it in your face. Don't you think I've wanted to shut all this down?" he asks, figuratively encompassing the lab in his arms. "Don't you think I've wanted to end it? This has been my life, Fluke. I've put everything into it. And now the science world passes me by."

He buries his head in his hands again. "What kind of world is it out there, Fluke, outside this lab? I fear I don't belong anymore. They drove me further and further away, and I did what I had to do in order to survive. Now they want to end what I've created. They want to take it all away from me. Are you going to end it, Fluke? Are you going to end it for me?"

I just stare at him.

Hurtz lifts his head again. There is an angry glint in his eyes. "Put him in the Cold Room," he calls to his lab workers. In moments, they are upon me. The sour smell greets my nose again, and I black out.

**********

It lasts for days, it seems. I live in a haze. Every centimeter of my body is frozen. I can barely feel my fingers, my toes. I am blacked out and asleep for most of it, I think, dreaming that I am anywhere but the cold, hard metal floor of the cold room. Every so often, I wake to find myself out in the main lab, my hands tied behind me, with Hurtz sitting over me. I say nothing. I can remember none of what he says. I try only to relish the warmth. Once they throw something in my lap. I look down, and it is a pile of fuzzy, moldy media plates. They give off a pungent, sickening odor. I scream and scream and try to knock them off, but that only causes them to open.

I don't know how much longer I can stand this torture.

**********

I am untied. Hurtz is not sitting over me this time, but it has been so long, I am so tired, that I no longer think myself capable of escape. I get up and try to stretch my legs. I can hardly stand, much less walk. I hobble around the lab, holding onto lab benches for support. The workers all ignore me. They don't even acknowledge my existence. They wear those tinted plastic face shields and old lab coats, but underneath I can tell that all of them are thin and haggard from too much work and too little food.

Then I notice a quick-moving worker and get it into my mind that it might be Street Smart. I hobble toward him. He is dipping some slides into buffer. I get closer – it is Street Smart.

"Street Smart," I croak, my voice not used to speech, "what are you doing?"

He turns toward me and lifts his face shield. He is excited, animated. "Fluke, this is the best lab I've ever worked in. Everyone works together. There's such cooperation, it's like this harmonic society I've never thought possible. No one's competing for papers, no one's fighting over experiments. Everyone follows their expertise and works as a team. I've never seen anything like it."

I stare at him, thinking he's been brainwashed, but somehow I think Street Smart's been through too much to succumb to brainwashing.

"Where's Garbage Man?" I ask.

"He ran away screaming as soon as they untied him."

"Did they give you the cold room treatment too?"

"No, that was for you, Fluke. We were put in the darkroom."

"So did he make it?" I ask portentously.

"Don't know," Street Smart says, shrugging, his attention returning back to his slide. It dawns on me that he really is loving the research. I haven't seen this kind of enthusiasm for science since...well, ever. I leave Street Smart with his work and decide to look around.

The equipment is painfully outdated: hand-cranked centrifuges clamped to the edges of the lab benches, old wind-up timers with mechanical bells, real platform balances to weigh things, metal test tube racks rather than plastic. They rewash their glass pipettes instead of using disposables. And I see nothing digital in the entire lab. Worst of all, I see no computers. No Internet connections? How in the world do they survive?!

But Street Smart was right about one thing. It looks like a very well-oiled machine, and the lab workers seem content, if a little malnourished. In general they pay me no heed, being too involved in their work to notice me.

I make my way to the main office and peek in. A big oak desk squats in the center of the room. At the far end is a window – the only one in the lab, as far as I can tell, that is uncovered to let in outside light. It is a cloudy day, though, and I see no direct sunlight. It looks like morning, although it could be dusk – my sense of time has been all but destroyed. Piles of papers and journals cover the floor – I can barely see it though all the mess. Bookcases, file cabinets, chairs – all of the furniture is ancient and timeworn.

Then I see Hurtz. He is lying on his back in a cot just to the right of the door.

I walk quietly into the room.

"Good morning," Hurtz drones. There is no expression on his face; his eyes are still closed.

"Good morning," I answer automatically.

"Take a seat at my desk," he orders, expressionless.

I do as he says.

"What do you think, Fluke?"

"Of what?"

"Of my lab?"

"Very efficient," I answer truthfully. "Everyone seems happy."

"That's because they are." With a struggle, he raises himself to an upright sitting position and faces me.

"Why did you lock me up?" I ask.

Hurtz seems to consider for a while. His face is so weary. "You wouldn't have seen my lab for what it was otherwise. What they told you about me was too fresh in your mind. You had to see my laboratory unbiased. If you had just walked in, after their descriptions of me, you would have concluded I'd gone mad."

"You have," I say.

"Only as mad as I needed to, given the circumstances."

We stare at each other for some time. Hurtz seems to be considering me with pity. Finally, he says, "With the people they sent me before, Fluke, it was easy, but as soon as I heard you were coming, I knew they'd get me this time. Your reputation precedes you. I knew it was the end of the line for me."

Hurtz sighs and bends down to pick up a black marbled composition book from the floor, like they use in kindergarten. He rifles through the pages, finds the one he wants, then starts reading in that slow, mumbled New England accent of his:

It's just a matter of time
before they get their hands on me.
It was just a matter of time
before the princess felt that pea.
One day they'll get me too.
Put yourself in my shoes.
They'll shut down my lab.
It'll really be a drag.

Hurtz reverently closes the book and puts it down. "I've really learned to express my emotions lately, in poetry." He fixes me with his fathomless eyes. "I've checked out your credentials, Fluke. I've read your papers. You know my work, and now I'm sure you're familiar with my methods. You are the one to carry on my life's work."

My heart jumps. Hurtz struggles to stand up, then goes to the doorway and braces himself against the door frame. "All this," he encompasses the room with his free arm, "is yours. I leave it in your capable hands."

My breath escapes me.

"All the workers, Fluke, all the equipment. All yours. For forty-five years, I've dedicated my life to this work – as a grad student, as a postdoc, and then as a professor. I've avoided the world outside for Science. Now I must go and face it." He turns around and beckons me toward him. I get up and walk over to him. Hurtz holds out his hand and we shake.

"Take good care of everything," he urges me. "Keep the spirit of this place alive. It's more than just a cold, heartless laboratory; it has a life of its own." He looks toward the lab's exit, then smiles and says to me, "Good luck, Fluke. Now I'm going to have some fun."

At that, he turns and starts hobbling toward the door. I feel an emptiness as I watch him cross the main lab, a terrific sense of loss. Everyone else feels it too – they all stop their work to stare at the demigod crossing the room.

"Hurtz!" I call to him before he exits. He braces himself on the door frame and looks back at me. Our eyes lock. His face is tired, but beneath the weary expression, I feel his strength. You can do this, Fluke, he says in that look. Don't worry; you can do it.

No words are spoken. Hurtz gives a little wave good-bye. Everyone waves back to him, and suddenly he is gone. As his hunched figure recedes down the hallway, I can see him shaking his head back and forth. I can barely make out the words he murmurs to himself: "The horror, the horror."

I don't know what he means.

Suddenly it hits me like a sack of stones: all this is mine.

**********

The committee approves my appointment without a hitch. I insist on staying in Darness, and they decide to update and renovate the building. In a couple of years, they tell me, it will once again be a vibrant research center. I keep Hurtz's people with me, of course. With my old, set ideas of running a lab, they have a lot to teach me.

As for Hurtz, every so often we get a postcard from him, from some country here or there – I never know where any of them are anyway. Usually, they contain a few lines of poetry. I never understand them, either. But he sounds happy enough.

Who knows what Hurtz is really doing with his time? Who knows why he's doing it? But I do know one thing: I have taken Hurtz's place in the heart of Darness. I am the source from which all hallways flow.

I am the king of Apoptosis now.

Teasers for subsequent episodes of Blinded by Science:

Selected Excerpts From The Notebook of Jane Baxman. Jane is a meticulous new technician in Fluke's lab who has a slightly distorted view of her own worth.

The A-Maize-ing Maize Man: A Tale From The Corny Side. Jack, a sloppy postdoc in Fluke's lab, spills some chemicals on himself that cause corn kernels to sprout all over his body. A nasty human tomato is willing to go to any lengths to discover the secret to Jack's transformation. It's a good thing that two FBI agents specializing in the paranormal are on the scene.

The Coli. A magazine reporter finds the story of a lifetime when he learns that a postdoc in Fluke's lab has invented a prototype teleportation device. But a horrible accident ensues when the postdoc forgets to sterilize the chamber.

Back to the Past. What's Fluke doing drunk and passed out in the back room of a pub? Finally, learn the real secret to Fluke's success.